Sunday, June 24, 2012

Enchantments, Caleb's Crossing and Vox

Epilogue--The Future of Print is a beautiful
documentary short about the world of print and a moving tribute to
books, booksellers and book makers. The student project was "built upon
interviews with individuals who are active in the Toronto print
community and questions whether or not they expect to see the
disappearance of the physical book within our lifetime.

 The three books I've just finished are Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison, Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, and Vox by Nicholas Baker.

I've read three other books by Geraldine Brooks, starting with the stunning Year of Wonders about the bubonic plague in England, followed by March, and People of the Book. Brooks is nothing if not thorough in her historical research, and such meticulous historical details always gives her fiction a feeling of being real and true. Caleb's Crossing is the fictionalized account of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in the 17th century. Though the book is ostensibly about Caleb, a Wopanaak native living on what would eventually become Martha's Vineyard, the story is told from the perspective of Bethia, the local ministers daughter and bright renegade who basically steals her education by listening in on other's lessons. She manages to confound or work around a number of strictures to Puritan society, especially where women are considered chattel to be married off to whomever their fathers or brothers choose for them. I found Bethia's story fascinating, and Brook's shining prose, though journalistic in tone, manages to make the plot move faster than a greased piglet at the county fair.  I highly recommend this book to those who find US history fascinating, and to those who are interested in the history of Native Americans in this land. A definite A.

I must first point out that I do not, generally read erotica or porn, because it tends to be poorly written and laughably absurd, but I'd read that Vox, by Nicholas Baker, was intelligently written, witty and fun, so I decided to give it a shot. I was, in fact, surprised by how much I liked this book, which is hilariously witty, full of fun and sexy as heck. This slender volume is basically a conversation between two unnamed people on a sex chat line that goes on for hours. The woman and the man are both smart enough to not fall into any stupid cliches, (I have always hated it when romance novels call body parts by euphemisms like "throbbing manliness" for penis--just call it what it is, for heavens sake!) but instead carry on a very candid conversation where they confess their fantasies and their needs to one another, and in the process reveal their vulnerabilities to one another. There's a backwash of tenderness in the way they seem to care for one another over the course of the conversation, and when they finally are finished with the conversation, the reader is left breathlessly wondering what the fallout will be in each of their lives. Will the guy call the woman on her land line now that he actually has her real number? Will they ever meet in person? Will they start a relationship? The cagey Mr Baker leaves the reader yearning for more. I'd recommend this book to those adults who enjoy the erotic power of words, and it, too, deserves an A.

Enchantments is the story of Masha, one of two daughters born to Grigory Rasputin, the mad monk of St Petersburg Russia. The story takes place in the final days of Tzar Nicholas and Alexandra, around 1917, right after Rasputin was murdered and his daughters taken to the Imperial Palace for their 'safety's sake' to live with the Romanovs. Alexandra had hopes that her savior Rasputin's daughter would be able to help her hemophiliac son  as her father had done for so many years.  Unfortunately, Masha's only talents are with bareback horseback trick riding and storytelling, so readers are treated to a 1001 Nights style of stories that she tells to the heir to the throne, Aloysha, while he recovers from injuries inflicted on himself by playing at such things as riding a tea tray down the stairs and running into a banister with his leg.
Fortunately, Masha is unsparing in her tales of what her famous father was really like (more of a divinely-touched smelly homeless peasant whose healing abilities were fueled by his rampant sexual addiction), what Alexandra and Nicholas' courtship was like, the rise of the Bolsheviks, the cruelty of the red army, who eventually executed the royal family, cut their bodies up and threw them down a mine shaft, and the enormous contrast of the wealthy lifestyles of the few with the famine and poverty of the many Russians trying to survive. Though her prose is elegant, Harrison tended to float off into lengthy descriptions of the countryside, or the towns, or snow that seemed to be almost like drug-induced fever-dreams. Though they were rich with imagery, they slowed the plot to a crawl at times, and I ended up skimming parts of the book that I felt read like gilding the lily. Once the plot moves toward the final two chapters, it's moving at a clip, and yet I was disappointed with the ending, because we don't find out what happened to our intrepid protagonist. Still, I would recommend this book to all those who enjoy Russian history and Royal history, or any historical fiction that is based in fact. I'd give the book a B+.

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