Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Devil in the White City

Title: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003
Genre: Historical non-fiction
Rating: 1

If you could define a masterpiece, this might be a good example.
The Devil in the White City, a national bestseller, is a stunning portrait of dark and light America in the 19th century, a picture of realism and idealism. Very often, we tell our children the best stories of America and focus on the beautiful and cheerful and positive and neglect the shameful and petty. These disillusions are not dispelled as we grow up, and we remain blithely unaware of the dark past that many of our most beautiful places have. In order to interpret our future, we have to know our past, and The Devil in the White City is an enlightening piece of our own history.
Larson tell the story of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition- The World's Fair- in enrapturing, grisly detail. Beginning with the designation of the location and Chicago's determination to have it, he outlines the political winds of the time period and the reasons for why it was in the Midwest instead of the obvious choice, New York City. Larson focuses on the main architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, who is a household name in Chicago even today, and follows his struggles, frustrations, and ultimate triumph in the legendary World's Fair.
However, Larson also tracks a nightmare in a parallel story. The tale of H.H. Holmes, a psychopathic murderer lost to history, is interspersed with the larger tale of the Exposition. In grisly, meticulously researched detail, Larson follows the quiet threads of the man who murdered at least nine people and possibly more than fifty over the course of five years. Larson paints a dark human picture, leading readers down a dark path of either madness or sick, disturbed thought.
You thought you knew history. But Larson takes his readers through their own history, rediscovering details that they thought they had forgotten and clearing away foggy parts of that time period as he goes. I don't want to spoil too much of the story, but did you know that Aunt Jemima's pancakes had their start at the Fair?
Perhaps the most astonishing part of this book is the historical accuracy. Most of us slog through history textbooks in high school and college and then never read another one until our kids ask us for help with homework, but The Devil in the White City reads like an enrapturing novel. With the skill of a historian and journalist, Larson retrieves hundreds upon hundreds of quotes from the annals of history, filling them in like dialogue. His sardonic sense of humor and irony also keep the novel funny, despite the dark overtones.
So even if you didn't think you knew history, this book is worth the week it takes to read. It's not long, and you'll rip through it. It's a little older now, so I got my copy at a consignment store for $2.00, but you can get your copy at Barnes and Noble for $16.95 or on eBooks for $9.99. And trust me, it's worth buying, because you'll read it two or three times. Then tell your friends to read it. Then recommend it to your coworkers. And so on.
Anyway, it also makes a great Christmas present. Merry Christmas, everybody!

The Journeyer

 Title: The Journeyer
Author: Gary Jennings
Year: 1984
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3

Gary Jennings is royalty in the genre of historical fiction. Aztec, Aztec Autumn, and Aztec Blood are all fantastic original pieces of historical fiction, enthralling readers in a world that now no longer exists. The Journeyer, published 4 years after Aztec, takes us back into 13th century Europe, and fulfills its name. As always, Jennings' descriptions of people, places, and events are stunning and enthralling, sometimes more attractive to the darker parts of ourselves than we care to admit.
We follow a young Marco Polo from La Serenissima, Venice, as he grows into a man and travels with his legendary father, Niccolo, and uncle, Mafio. Along the way, in classic Jennings fashion, we watch Marco become an adult through the somewhat destruction rites of passage (sex and violence) and experience the laws of pre-Renaissance Venice for ourselves as Marco is outlawed from his birth city until another Doge is crowned and he can return.
Jennings takes us from Venice to Constantinople, Baghdad to Cathay, and back again. Medieval Europe is grimy and violent, and the colorful descriptions of death will stay in my mind for a long time after the last page. Marco Polo's sometimes exaggerated adventures seem to fit in very realistically into Jennings' well-told tale.
However, if you've read Aztec, there's really nothing new here. In fact, I don't find Marco as charming character as Mixtli. I personally have always had a penchant for lost cultures, so Aztec had me from the beginning, but I feel like The Journeyer had so much potential that went unfulfilled. There are parts of it that drag, especially after the Yun-nan bit, and some parts are purely unnecessary (like Jennings' multiple descriptions of homosexual relations- one would be fine).
Don't get me wrong, it was still a fantastically written book; most of today's writers can only dream about achieving what Gary Jennings has. Superbly researched and well written, I liked The Journeyer for what it is- a wild adventure that doesn't fall into the traditional knights-in-shining-armor category of classic medieval literature. It's a step into another time and place that is not often explored- medieval China, the Middle East, and India. So often, in historical fiction from this time period, these regions are either cursory or completely ignored- Jennings explores them thoroughly and explicitly incorporates racial prejudices and wars of the time period.
Altogether, The Journeyer is yet another Jennings success. Nostril is actually my personal favorite character (and now you have to read it just to figure out the reason for his name). Don't go out and buy this book if you can avoid it, because it runs about $30.00 in hardback, but it's only $9.99 on the Kindle. It'll be at your library, and you'll want to renew it a few times, because it's a good long read.
By the way, merry Christmas! Buy a book for someone you love, because buying chocolate only lasts a week at the best and power tools only get you so far. :)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hornet Flight

Title: Hornet Flight
Author: Ken Follett
Year: 2002
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2

Ken Follett has done it again.
Whether you're an avid Starz fan or a voracious historical fiction reader like me, you know the compelling story of Pillars of the Earth, and many readers now know Fall of Giants. Ken Follett has proved himself a master of the genre, inventing compelling characters and throwing them into the heart of some of history's greatest moments. Hornet Flight is no exception.
The story of a young Danish boy, Harald Olufsen, intertwines with the pulse-pounding stories of the great spies of war-torn Europe. As in all of Follett's novels, you can never quite tell what twists and turns the story will take, and it leads to delightful, horrifying, compelling moments in the years that shocked the world.
Flight depicts the British/German spy game and how it really affected the fighting. In the prologue of the book, the final gambit is revealed: if the British don't find out how the Germans are detecting their planes, they'll lose the war. So from the earliest moments of the book, we are introduced to those in power, and in the next chapter, we meet those under the regime. The small country of Denmark is rarely ever talked about in history books, let alone in exciting novels; so the idea of reading about the people during that time period had me from the beginning.
Harald is a compellingly ordinary character, which is somehow attractive. He seems so traditional- the son of a preacher, a schoolboy, and a little rebellious- but after the points in the plot develop, he becomes so real that I can almost picture his blonde head walking through the crowds on the street. Plus, his peat-burning motorbike is so stinkin' cool, it's not fair.
I've always admired Follett's ability to create villains; Peter Flemming is no exception. He is incredibly complex; almost a modern Javert- a man obsessed with justice because of the lack of justice in his own life. His wife was permanently mentally damaged due to an automobile accident, and there is no recovery. As an officer of the law, we see him fall throughout the book, and justice finally prevails, but  I can't share too many of the details without spoiling the book entirely.
Arne and Hermia are my favorite, in short. :) Hermia is an absolutely fascinating character as well, with her passions unrestrained, but we cannot tell where her most powerful passion lies. It's an interesting character study.
Follett's character development is absolutely impeccable. Even in a far-removed era like Pillars, he makes Philip real enough to touch; but in a time much closer to our own, he makes every detail of his people real enough to draw breath. Fantastically researched, infallibly written, and compelling, Flight is a gritty, bittersweet tribute to the gains and losses that we all suffer in times of trial.
I managed to get away with Hornet Flight for five dollars from Barnes and Noble's sale rack, and because the books is almost ten years old now, you'll probably be able to find it for cheap on Amazon or eBooks. Either way, it's absolutely worth a read if you can get your hands on it. If not, get it from the library, but it's definitely worth a read. Don't pass it up, if you can.
That's all for me, for a bit. I have some catching up to do. Read on, my pageturners.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Title: Aztec
Author: Gary Jennings
Year: 1980
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3

Okay... here we go. Prepare for a deluge.
Aztec is a wide-spanning, incredibly detailed, indefatigably researched piece of historical literature, regarded as one of the most accurate in current existence. Gary Jennings is a master story teller- in Tlilectec Mixtli, he has created an incredibly human character who relates his life in stunning detail. And throughout his "abnormally long years", we come to know Mixtli intimately and, to borrow from Cummings, "laugh his joys and cry his griefs".
Aztec opens with a letter addressed from Bishop Zumarraga of Mexico to Emperor Don Carlos I of Spain, placing the book's year at 1529. The priests of Mexico City (inside the desecrated House of Song of ancient Tenochtitlan) press an old Mixtli to tell them completely the story of his life, which he happily does. After all, he is a "word knower"- a scribe.
Mixtli begins the story of his life at birth, and from that moment on, he leaves out nary a detail, and granted the native peoples' penchant for loose sex, it becomes awkward in many places. However, Jennings's research on the original Nahuatl tongue is impeccable- most of the terms that Mixtli uses for cultural objects are first listed in Nahuatl and then in English. Reading the language became a little wearying after awhile- I couldn't take in too much of this book in one sitting.
However, the story arcs are beautiful. Mixtli's voice is amusing and amazingly contemporary, making fun of many aspects of Mexica culture, other native peoples, and the Spanish priests' hypocritical behaviors. He often states that he was "heathen" before, but under the false words, I could detect a pride in his original faith in Tonatiu, the sun god. He is a little ashamed of many of his people's violent traditions, such as the Flowery Wars (wars fought purely for the purpose of obtaining sacrifices for the gods) or the sacrificial rites of Xipe Totec.
However, we also feel Mixtli's pain at losing those he loves. I wept with joy when he married Zyanya, Always, and had their daughter. I also shed tears when he lost her in the floods of Ahuitzotl. I was appropriately shocked in the court of Jadestone Doll (which I won't detail here). And when I found out the fate of Tzitzitlini, I wept harder than before.
Altogether, this book is a little too long. Don't get me wrong- it's beautifully written, and covers an incredible expanse of time, from the old Motecuzoma's rule until the fall of Tenochtitlan, in breathtaking detail. Everything, from the farthest south of the Mexica's rule to the history of Texcoco, is told from beginning to end. And although the information is told incredibly and there is so much of it, I began to lose interest about when the floods ended.
Also, the detailed amount of sex in this book is rather R-rated. For most indigenous cultures, sex is a common topic, but Mixtli is promiscuous, to say the least, throughout his bachelorhood; there are many sex scenes, and Jennings describes almost all of them from beginning to end. From his incestuous relationship with Tzitzilini to his loving marriage with Zyanya, Mixtli certainly sowed his wild oats. Now, I don't personally have a problem with sex in books- as it's a necessary part of the story- the number of scenes was just unnecessary (especially the one with Cozcatl). That's just a personal preference, though.
There are a number of books in the Aztec series, and although I haven't read all of them, this is a great one. Unfortunately, Mr. Jennings passed away in 1999, so there won't be any more, but this is an enduring work that he will be remembered for. I enjoyed it immensely.
I picked up my copy from the local library, but I had to renew it to finish it. I think it costs around $20.00 at B&N, but it's probably cheaper at your local Bookman's or Hastings. So, grab it from the library if you can. It's a good, lengthy read.
That's all for me today. Keep reading, my dear pageturners.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Terror

Title: The Terror
Author: Dan Simmons
Year: 2007
Genre: Historical fiction/thriller
Rating: 1

What a gripping, compelling piece of literature. Dan Simmons is a masterful word-weaver, and he shines his brightest in the pages of The Terror.
The Terror is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books- which is saying something for me. This is my second time through it, and I enjoyed it just as much if not more, re-reading every line with the full backdrop of the story in mind. It is a little complicated, so knowing the general outlines before going back for the details really helped in filling in the images and indeterminacies in my mind.
Terror follows the factual Lost Franklin Expedition to discover the Northwest Passage in 1845, which was lost and never recovered. Simmons creates incredibly colorful and human characters from the true historical faces of the sailors and officers. Told in alternating viewpoints as the chapters change, we hear from mostly Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, Captain of HMS Terror, Dr. Goodsir, the surgeon's assistant aboard Erebus, Sir John Franklin himself, and John Irving, a young third lieutenant on Terror (Irving is my personal favorite). Although the first chapter occurs in 1847, the rest of the story is told in a series of flashbacks in different viewpoints. In Simmons' traditional style of not holding back a single detail, we cringe at the terrible conditions of the icy north, the death of many of the various officers and seamen, and the terrible creature that holds all of the men in bondage in the terrible wasteland of white. The story moves forward, and it seems as though there is no misfortune which does not befall the two ships. And then, as if in a dream, we see the end coming.
Simmons is a master of foreshadowing. In only the second chapter, he begins foreshadowing the conditions which would eventually befall Franklin's men in the extremes of their fight to survive. Through their trials and hardships, we see the darkest in them come out- the darkness of taking the weak way out to survive, surrendering their humanity to retain their vitality. It's heartbreaking to watch men that we became close to give up hope and either die of debilitating scurvy, poison, or give up their humanity and take the weak way out.
Despite the change of perspective, time, and location between chapters, I found that the telling was masterful and beautiful. Often when writers attempt that kind of T.S. Eliot-like shifting, I find it jarring, but not here. The changes play out like a movie's shifting in camera angle rather than a change in scenery. Crozier becomes as close to me as someone I know personally, someone who has taken a much darker angle on life. He is incredibly human and touching, his flashbacks memorable and vivid.
Simmons also does something rather unique- he blends Esquimaux (I'm going to stay with the traditional French spelling) mythology and language with the history of exploration of northern Canada and the search for the Northwest Passage, even pulling some of their monsters and gods into the physical fabric of the story. As I progressed through the later part of the story, I found myself almost learning the ancient Esquimaux language, the words resonating as I read the story and echoing through my head as familiar terms, almost as easy as their English meanings.
One of the best parts of the book is that it is so easy to follow. The plot itself, while convoluted and twisting, is understandable for two main reasons: Simmons' excellent word choice and arrangements, and the fact that he restates information often. The first is a necessary quality of any good writers; the second is, while sometimes droll and redundant, amazingly helpful in The Terror. Simmons restates the names of the men and their positions often enough to make them seem human and to help the reader easily remember who they are. He also restates what happens to the men later in the book as Crozier is taking a death count in his head- writing name, occupation, age, and cause of death, even if we knew the character fairly well.
Altogether, this a heartbreaking and enthralling piece of literature. Read it as soon as possible. I do have to warn you that some of the scenes depicting the violence done by the Thing on the Ice is not for the fainthearted or squeamish (Simmons excludes no details- I cried in several circumstances where my favored characters died), you should be able to handle it as 'showing, not telling'. The hardback copies (which I recommend you get- it's a beautiful printing) run on the expensive side- $26.00 from the Hatchette Book Group USA- and the eBook is a little pricier at $15. It is a nearly 900 page book- that tends to happen. I was really fortunate and picked this one up in a used pile for $5.00 (:D). But if your library has it, that's pretty good. I will warn you that you may be borrowing it again, though.
That's all for today. Happy reading, my pageturners!
"Winter follows summer.
Two halves.
Light and darkness complete one another.
Life and death complete one another.
You and I complete one another.
Outside, the Tuunbaq walks in night.
Where we touch,
there is light.

Everything is in balance."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Someone Knows My Name

Title: Someone Knows My Name
Author: Lawrence Hill
Year: 2007
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 1

Oh, 2007. What a good year for the literary world.
Told in stunning and heartbreaking detail, Someone Knows My Name is a beautiful story of a young African woman ripped from her homeland and forced into slavery. Although this topic is a common enough one, Lawrence Hill takes a different angle: Aminata, or Meena, is a Black Loyalist. Hill portrays a beautiful story in an impeccably written format, giving us a treasure to enjoy no matter how many times we read it.
The story begins in the tiny African village of Bayo, where Aminata lived with her parents happily. She is the daughter of two different tribes, and because her parents learned different languages, Aminata is able to speak both Fula and Bamanankan. She often accompanies her mother to different villages in her profession of midwifery, and on one such occasion, tragedy struck. Aminata is kidnapped and taken to the coast in a long, horror-filled march.
She boards a boat for the terrible crossing to America, the description of which is covered in mud, darkness, blood, and despair. During this time, we see Aminata's gentle innocence slowly disappear, and she speaks with a clear, mature voice throughout the entire book. Aminata is greatly wronged throughout the story; her first child is stolen and sold after only a few months of nursing, and her husband is perpetually lost to her, always working on a different plantation. Her second child is stolen by a white couple and is lost to her. She is beaten, nearly raped, and always being abused. But she keeps her mind and her intelligence.
The story follows Aminata from Bayo to Canada, her story always resonating in beautiful descriptions. Her character changes throughout the book, but as her father says in the beginning of the book, "Strength stays forever." The strength that her parents passed to her remains, and even if she weeps in despair, she always stands back up. She is a heroine truly worth knowing. Even when she escapes to the north, she knows that she is not safe, and must always fight for her freedom. And we weep in grief or cheer in triumph as her story unfolds.
The boo runs a little lengthy at 470 pages, but the entire story relates a true world. With many books, there are too many emotional descriptions and not enough about the setting, but Someone Knows My Name does not fall into that category. The world of the Americas in the 18th century becomes clear and real to us, and we see enough of it to feel as if we are actually there alongside Aminata. Hill creates a beautiful cast of characters, from Chekura's determined nature to Georgia's mothering knowledge to Solomon Lindo's mercurial disposition. They feel real, as if one can really reach out and touch them.
All the while, I longed for Aminata to return to Bayo and her innocent childhood, just as she did. However, my mind tracked with hers; when she discovered that even by returning to her homeland, she could never regain the world with her parents she had known, I felt a dull aching in my heart. A longing unfulfilled. For when we want something, we want it the way we picture it, not the way it will actually be.
Because it's the winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Someone Knows My Name should be available in most places. It is on eBooks, and I don't know how much it costs on the Kindle, but on the nook, it's very affordable. In paper copy, which is what I am fortunate enough to possess (:D), it is about $15.00, but I got it for $10.00 because it was on sale. But you should get your hands on this book as soon as you can; it's really amazing to read and experience.
That's it for today, ladies and gentlemen. Happy reading, my pageturners!
So geographers, in Afric-maps,
With savage-pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
--Jonathan Swift

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Water for Elephants

Title: Water for Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Year: 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2

A five-list bestseller, Water for Elephants has been on the lips of many readers around the world for about five years now. Previously almost unknown, Sara Gruen is now one of the world's top authors, propelled to the front of her field with her gritty, tasteful research in her compelling piece about the traveling circuses of the 30's. From beginning to end, her perspective through the eyes of her characters shows us a world behind the brightly colored circus tops that we all thought we knew.
Beginning in 1931 at Cornell University, we follow Jacob Jankowski, a young veterinarian who loses his parents to a brutal automobile accident. He wanders off along the train tracks and manages to hop aboard what he abruptly discovers as the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth- a train circus. Through Jacob's eyes, we find the dark world behind the canvas and the animals, showing us the gruesome and heaving underworkings of circus, from the unscrupulous Uncle Al to the aggravating August to the entertaining Kinko. Jacob becomes deeply involved in the circus as its veterinarian, and eventually the collapse of the circus itself.
The story of the Benzini Brothers is interspersed with a frame story, which involves the ninety (or ninety-three) year old Jacob in his nursing home, waiting for his family to take him to the circus that is in town and having all kinds of amusing interactions with the nurses and other ancient inmates. However, I found myself hurrying through those sections to get back to the real story, where Jacob eventually meets Rosie. Who's Rosie? Well, look at the title of the book and surmise.
Water for Elephants not only engrosses us in a world that we are all fascinated with, it engrosses us into its characters. At the beginning of the book, Jacob spends paragraphs whining about how he is probably "the oldest male virgin on the face of the earth." However, as the story progresses, we start to see him grow up before our very eyes, changing into the mature man that we all want him to be. Not to mention the other characters- Uncle Al's fascination with freaks, August's strange mood swings, Marlena's personality quirks, and Kinko's guarded personality. Every single one of them not only becomes present and active, but very, very human.
There are some sections of the book that I wouldn't hesitate to term as awkward, if not outright uncomfortable. Water for Elephants is definitely not a book for children under fifteen, especially boys- it requires a certain level of maturity to read. However, I concur with Gruen's descriptions of what occurs; it helps to develop Jacob's character into maturity, if a little awkwardly. There are a few scenes that made me squirm, just because I am a visual reader, and any descriptive words immediately leap into my mind as images. Let's not talk about Barbara, though.
There is a movie coming out soon that should be fairly PG-13, though, so if a fifteen year old wants to know the story, that should be pretty clean (I'm pretty disappointed about who they picked for Marlena, though. I like Reese Witherspoon, but she doesn't fit the description at all), and I am actually looking forward to seeing Robert Pattinson actually act. It comes out on April 22, 2011.
Water for Elephants, as I mentioned before, is a really, really popular book, so almost any book store should have it. If not, it should be available online for fairly cheap. I'm actually going to call paperback on this one; the paperback copies are surprisingly durable. They're actually running for around $14.00, too, so that's just a bonus.
Anyway, that's it for me today. Happy reading, my dear pageturners!

Friday, January 28, 2011


Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americans Before Columbus
Author: Charles C. Mann
Year: 2005
Genre: Non-fiction: History
Rating: 2

I don't really make a habit of reading non-fiction, but this is one book that I had been meaning to read for about two years. It was worth it, even though sometimes reading non-fictional facts was like chewing dry bark. 1491 is excellently researched, compiled, and written, the topics all referring back to the main heading and overall idea of the book. Charles C. Mann tells a beautiful, tragic story through the facts of the history of many societies lost.
1491 has a somewhat interesting format. It starts in the present with Mann flying over the Beni, an immensely historical savanna in Bolivia. He comments on the mounds, then moves gracefully into the book itself (that was only the introduction). He first talks about the Native Americans with which we are most familiar- the Wampanoag, Tisquanto's people- and follows their history up until the time of the Pilgrims. Here, the story is engaging and fascinating as Mann weaves together creative non-fiction with the real and true facts of Tisquanto's life. He then moves to talk about the devastating and horrifying effects of disease on the Native American population. Smallpox is a terrifying thing indeed- a weapon that thinking Europeans could never have matched.
Mann shifts from the colonial New England to the great fall of the Inka (I choose to spell it like that because Mann spells it like that, the original spelling), or Tawantisuyu- the land of the Four Quarters, in Peru. He details the Inkan empire extensively, following the stories of kings and their people, of cities and their conquest. They too fell to disease and Pizarro, but they were torn by civil war long before that. But I shan't spoil the entire book for you- these are only the first two chapters.
Mann is a masterful writer, but even he cannot dislodge my inherent dislike for non-fiction. I lost interest in the book somewhere in the chapter called "Pleistocene Wars"- it was not that the facts were not interesting, only that they became a little tedious. He goes on and on for pages about the "Low Counters" and the "High Counters", which makes the book drag heavily in the middle, glutted with too much information. I think he could have gutted the middle section a little bit more, but it picks up again toward the end when he synthesizes the real story of the history with our perception of it.
I really enjoyed 1491. It took me a while to get through, but it was completely worth it, and made me realize my ancestors' mistakes indeed. The Native Americans made their mistakes, but the Europeans' were far more grave and long-reaching. True, the circumstances of the invasion of the Americas is unlikely to be repeated (Mann recounts the Indians' genetic makeup as "virgin soil" for European diseases, uniquely vulnerable), but we can still learn from their mistakes.
I have this one in paperback, and it's pretty affordable at $16.00. I couldn't find it on eBooks, but because I have in paper copy, I didn't look very hard, so I think it likely that it could be found there. I didn't buy this one from Barnes and Noble, either; I got it from a teeny little bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, so it is likely available in your local Borders' or Bookman's.
Anyway, that's it for today. Happy reading, my dear pageturners!

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Title: Madman
Author: Tracy Groot
Year: 2006
Genre: Christian Historical Fiction
Rating: 2

Now, before you run because of the word "Christian", I must encourage you to stop and take this all in stride. Madman is singularly better than most Christian Fiction (although not as good as The Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers) and tells the story of the demoniac of the Decapolis, telling the traditional Biblical text in the form of a gripping thriller.
Madman is well-researched, interestingly told, and gripping in the best literary sense. The writing style is a little choppy sometimes- Groot has an affinity for sentence fragments- but it adds to the thrill and emotion of the story. The plotlines behind the actual story are really fascinating, and it is enthralling to piece together each character's back story and relation to the other characters. Little pieces of evidence are revealed all along the way, and only at the last do you understand fully.
Following the story of a Greek servant named Tallis investigating the disappearance of an Academy of Socrates in the Greco-Roman city of Hippos, Madman begins in the tiny Palestinian village of el-Kursi, the location of the feared madman. Tallis finds that the academy is not only defunct, it disappeared nearly three years before, along with all the teachers that had been personally appointed by his beloved master in Athens, Callimachus. The plot thickens: not only is the school gone, no one in Hippos is willing to admit that it ever existed. Through a slave that he pays dearly, he finds out what happened to four of the teachers: one was murdered in a grisly fashion, another committed suicide, another is a priestess in the temple of the god Dionysus (Bacchus), and the fourth is the legendary madman of Kursi.
As the story progresses, you discover Tallis' terror and fury toward the cult of Dionysus, and through his memories, discovering the deep darkness behind the happy mask of the god of wine and debauchery. Instead of ignoring the Greco-Roman culture like so many Christian novels, Groot uses all of the Greek names for the cities of the Decapolis- Scythopolis for Beth Shean, Hippos for Annaba, Kursi for Golan Heights (although the village is still called Kursi). She uses Dionysus instead of Bacchus, his more Romanized name, as well. Staying with the view of her characters, Rome is barely ever viewed as the center of the intellectual world- Athens still holds that title, at least in Tallis' and Polonus' minds. She also acknowledges the difficulties between the Parthians and the Romans of the time, often mentioning the band of Shamash Eriba as a difficulty to travelers in the area.
Most of the book is purely fiction, a story about Tallis and his fear of madness and the Maenads (nurses of Dionysus). At the end, the story in the Biblical canon is told in breathtaking fashion, inside the mind and soul of the madman. I have never heard a story told so personally, terrifyingly, or touching as that.
Madman is honestly one of my favorite books. I fell a little bit in love with Tallis, picturing his cheerful face with the gap in his teeth, smiling and telling jokes between the disasters of the book. Getting to know his heart and mind is honestly one of the best parts of the book. It drags a little in the middle of the book, while Tallis is waiting for his Forum for Truth to meet, but it picks up speed from there until the end. Several of the characters are really hard to understand- Polonus, Bek, and Samir especially- but that tracks with the story fairly well in the end. Though not nearly as touching and tear-inducing as Beauty, I've read this book plenty of times. Groot's use of the culture of the time, the languages, the attitude toward philosophy, and the overcoming of madness are truly enthralling, and rare amongst Christian writers.
"Quandocumque impellunt, repelle- when they push, you push back. They can't take anything that you don't surrender." --Tallis

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Till We Have Faces

Title: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
Author: C.S. Lewis
Year: 1956
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 1

"How can we see face to face till we have faces?" --Orual

Without a doubt, Till We Have Faces leaves Narnia with all its bright colors and beautiful words in the dust. C.S. Lewis's deeply humane masterpiece, woven in to the fabric of the Greek legend of Cupid and Psyche, is dark and beautiful, its words twined as deep in our hearts as our very life blood. Wisdom, knowledge, pain and hardship are all as poignant here as in any book, but somehow far more personal.
The story begins with Queen Orual looking back on her life, but she does not waste much time on trivialities: she begins almost immediately, telling the story of how she and her sister, Redival, were the princesses of Glome, an heirless and now-queenless kingdom. Orual's deeply pragmatic voice pushes deep into the reader's mind, making Glome a place truly seen though her eyes, hopes, fears, and prejudices. The story follows how Istra, Psyche, becomes like a daughter to Orual, is sacrificed to the god on Grey Mountain, and finds life there. But I shan't spoil it for you.
Orual, with her often childlike perceptions of everything that happens in the story, reminds me of myself sometimes, which makes her deeply relatable (especially in her casual acknowledgement of her ugliness and perpetual virginity). The Fox, an endearing, fatherlike character, is introduced in the first chapter as a  redheaded Greek slave, long taken from his family and thrown into slavery. However, he is cheerful, and he tells Orual "no man is a stranger if he remembers that the whole world is one city". He is wise, but still beautifully human and faulted, even in the somewhat confusing but fantastic ending scene.
C.S. Lewis' crowning achievement in this book, I believe, is getting me, as the reader, to know the characters as if they are standing next to me. Bardia is a very typical man, and I felt as if I have known him my whole life. Trunia is amusing, but still real in his humor and fears. Orual, however, is the truest- I know her the best; she has become an archetype for mistakes to avoid in my life, but also a heroine to me. And Psyche, of course; Psyche, in her Helen-beauty and wisdom, is the girl you have always loved, been jealous of, and wanted to know so well.
The best rivalry I have read in many books is that between Orual and Ungit. It is a deeply complex relationship, laced with fear and hate, until Orual realizes what she is; hearing the stories from the Fox, she knows to fear Ungit. But she does not know her full capacity until the dazed days of the end, in the second half of the book. The story completes itself so well in that regard that I cry every time in the last chapter.
Till We Have Faces is a fantastic piece of literature, and I commit myself to reading it at least twice a year- it never takes me more than a few sittings. The paperback copies are wonderfully cheap, but the eBook copies run a little pricey at $10.00. But if you have not read this underrated classic, get your hands on it as soon as possible.
"Did I not tell you, Maia, that one day we would meet in my house and no cloud would be between us?" --Psyche

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Title: Beauty
Author: Robin McKinley
Year: 1978
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 1

Beauty is one my personal favourites. It is one of the brightest, most intelligent, and enchanting works of fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I've read it so many times that I've been through two paperback copies.
Beauty is a retelling of the classic French fairy tale La Belle et la Bete, written in Robin McKinley's visionary style from the perspective of the main character, Beauty. Beauty, despite her name, is described as incredibly plain in comparison to her beautiful sisters Grace and Hope. The story tracks the collapse of their family's fortunes in the city and their subsequent retirement to the country, where the events that lead up to Beauty's moving into the castle unfold.
Beauty is an entertaining, endearing character, her ever-intellectual voice becoming the background and colour for the mysterious world of the enchanted castle of the Beast. Beauty is meticulously told- and in other books, this can be an irritating trait; but here, it's gripping and, to borrow the book's vernacular, enchanting. McKinley blends just enough of the fantastic with reality to make the tale seem like something you heard as child, a beautiful fairy tale about the girl who went to save her family and tame the Beast.
From beginning to end, Beauty tells details in just enough colour and description to make you read through the next sentence to find out more about the world that she is living in. There are a few places that, as a fourteen year-old, I didn't understand her references (she refers to the Beast as The Minotaur, Yggdrasil, and Cerberus in some places; in another, she references King Cophetua), but that takes you inside her head all the more. Beauty is the intelligent, humble heroine that all of us want to meet someday in an an enchanted castle in the wood.
Unfortunately, Beauty is not available on eBooks yet (I am writing a strongly-worded letter), but you can find it in Barnes and Noble, Hastings, Border's, or Bookman's if you look in the fiction section. And I recommend that you do so today or tomorrow- this book is completely and totally worth the read, and it won't take you long, either. I once finished it, sighed, turned back to the first page, read it again, and completely enjoyed every word. Robin McKinley's beautiful piece is very much worth the time and few dollars you have to spend on the paperback copy.