Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Love Artist by Jane Alison...Review

The Love Artist

By Jane Alison

Copyright 2001

Two offenses ruined me: a poem and an error.  –Ovid, Tristia 2.207
I gave you your life.
Now you’re wondering – will I take it, too? – Ovid, Medea, surviving fragment

There are so many things that I have been able to sink my teeth into about Jane Alison’s book The Love Artist. It is a very different kind of book and narrative than I have ever read, and the two main characters are unique. It was a challenging adventure, I didn’t know a lot about this period in history, about the poet or his poetry in which the story centers, or about Greek or Roman mythology. The author is a studied person, I watched a lecture she gave about the book and her depth of knowledge and thought on the subject shined through everything she had to say. She holds degrees from Princeton and Stanford in classic literature, I felt this was apparent in her writing. These were all good aspects of the story for me. I love learning from the books I read, I studied over the pages, looked up things I didn’t understand or wanted to know more about, and delved into the depth of the text as well as soaked up the uncommon characteristics of the characters. Especially Xenia, she was unique in physical and internal traits. The book was only 240 pages long, but it felt much longer. It is not a light read that you take to the beach, it is one that is better studied and thought over.

“It was Ovid, what Ovid did. He could transform matter into words that float in air and are held on the breath, that are etched into wax, drawn onto papyrus again and again so that they could then slip through the eyes or the ears of others and be absorbed and believed, enrapturing, and go on and on that way, never diminishing in strength, not after centuries, millennia. Words that form an ephemeral world, hovering between page and dreaming eyes, eternal.
She felt as if she were dissolving, sea foam.

For what Ovid made, she finally saw: what he made was the quinta essential."
                 -Jane Alison, The Love Artist

                The Prologue opens with Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and chapter one begins with a year prior to that exile. Ovid takes a vacation to the Black Sea, comes across Xenia swimming in a pond in the woods, and is immediately enamored with her. Xenia was found in a basket by the sea as an infant and was trained as a Pharmaka – person who deals in medicines, a Magus – person who deals in magic, and an Alchemist – person who practices a concern principally with discovering methods for transmuting base metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.

Ovid is drawn to her for these reasons, and she to him because of his reputation as a famed poet. They end up traveling back to Rome together, where it is dangerous and illegal for her to practice her arts, and living together at Ovid’s house. He begins to write his masterpiece Medea, which is really what this story centers on. It was supposed to be his best work, but only two lines survive from it, the reason in actuality is a mystery, Alison imagines what could have been the reason in this tale. Ovid ends up with Julia as his patroness, the granddaughter of Augustus whom hates her life as part of the imperial family, this makes Xenia suspicious and jealous. Xenia wants Ovid to write about her, she wants to live on in his words, Ovid wants Xenia to tell him if his words will live on after his death, this is his deepest concern and he believes she can tell him. It is a struggle between them, she wants to know what he writes, he wants to know his future, neither will tell the other and their relationship becomes more and more strained because of it. Xenia becomes pregnant, but with the rift and suspicions already forming between them it just makes matters worse. The end was a surprise to me, I will leave it that way for anyone that might want to read it.

                I appreciated that Alison kept Xenia believable. Although Xenia was what some considered a “witch”, I never felt like she did anything that couldn’t be possible, at least that she couldn’t have felt were possible at the time. She didn’t make things grow or move, or change one thing into another, or bring about someone’s demise through her powers of thought. The things she was able to do, or thought she was able to do were much more subtle. She thought she could heal people with her herbs and techniques, this was long before modern medicine and herbs and techniques were all they had. She had “visions” or dreams, or feelings about things she thought people were, or what their future was going to be, but it was never truly substantiated that the things she saw came true, so maybe she could maybe she couldn’t. She could sense things that had happened, or were going to happen, but never in a grandiose way, in a way we would call intuition in today’s time. She loved plants and mixing substances, but so do a lot of people so it all made sense, stayed grounded in believability.

                I also enjoyed the details of the surroundings in the story. The mosaic tiles that were described on the floors of the houses in intricate shapes, patterns, and scenes. The pictures painted on the walls. The mermaid doorknob that Xenia had at the Black Sea and took with her to Rome. The way the pebbles crunched on the beaches of the Black Sea, or the salty air around its shores. The clothes and accessories the people wore, the way they styled their hair, and the long hours spent hanging around in the baths or draped on couches at parties in Rome. Her descriptions brought the time period and setting to life.

                I absolutely loved learning about Ovid, while Xenia is fictional Ovid is not. I have ordered two translations of his Metamorphoses and cannot wait to adventure through them. Any book that brings me as much knowledge and interest in a subject that I otherwise would have known nothing about or even realized I would be interested in is a favorite for me. Alison is obviously a very intelligent, skilled, thoughtful writer/person, I admire that in her.

                I would recommend this for anyone who would also enjoy all of the things I have mentioned above, and has a taste for historical fiction. With all of that being said I will also say that if you don’t know much about mythology, Ovid, and even a little Roman times geography, and don’t care to look up words or subjects you are unfamiliar with, if you just want a light read and fun story you probably won’t like this. I can see how a reader that just likes to be told a story would be lost and not care much about digging deeper. She does assume the reader knows more about the subject than I think your average person does. If you do like to study your literature though, I think you will find it worthwhile, treasure of a read.



P.S. Did I seriously forget to mention this cover?! I LOVE this cover. The fierce look on the woman’s face is palpable. If I had known nothing about this book and only caught a glimpse of the cover I would have wanted to read it. Kudos to Susan Mitchell the Cover Designer, and Sanjay Kothari the photographer. I couldn’t find the models name but she did a great job embodying Xenia.  Happy Reading!


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Fever by Mary Beth Keane...Review


A Novel of Typhoid Mary

By Mary Beth Keane

Copyright 2013 

This historical fiction novel by Mary Beth Keane brought forth many thoughts about truth and the many facets of perspective, what is just and unjust, and responsibility when faced with a devastating decision: personal liberty or public health? It was well written and plotted, interesting throughout, and informative. The author did a great job of presenting the story without inserting her personal opinion. She gave both view points of the situation, all the facts she researched about the case, and left it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

                “It would be laughable, really, if it weren’t already criminal for them to have locked her up, one woman, a cook, when every corner of America hid a pestilence just waiting to be stirred up, set free.”

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant working as a cook to affluent families in New York in 1907 when she was told that she was an “asymptomatic carrier” of Typhoid Fever. She was taken like a criminal by the Department of Public Health from a house she was working in, subjected to many tests, and told she needed to have her gallbladder removed because she was getting people sick, some dying, from Typhoid Fever; despite the fact that she was perfectly healthy and had never had the illness that she knew of. She fought them, hard, refused the surgery, and was quarantined in what amounted to a shed on North Brother Island in New York. She wasn’t given much information, treated with disdain by many, and was refused even visitors. They later admitted the gallbladder surgery would have been worthless, but still they held her. After two and half years they finally released her, but made her sign papers that she would never cook again. This was the way that she earned her living, and as a single woman with no other skills this was hard on her. She didn’t believe she was a carrier, she was perfectly healthy. Eventually she started cooking again secretly, she was caught and put back on North Brother for the remainder of her life. She lived in seclusion for a total of 26 years.

                While this was not a grimoire, I liked this book. I liked the straight forward writing, and I am always glad when a book makes me question my opinion on something I may have felt sure about before reading. My first reaction would be: Yes! Quarantine her, I don't want to get ill, nor do any of my family, friends, or innocent strangers.
                Then I read Mary's story. I see both sides. I still don't want someone walking about giving innocent people a deadly illness, whether they are healthy or not, it seems unfair to risk people's lives to keep your own comfortable. Yet, how should a person in this predicament be treated? Where should they be quarantined to? How much of their innocent life should be sacrificed to keep others safe? Who can you believe when all different information is being slung about? Science isn't always 100%, although most scientists will have you believe it is (they would have removed one of her internal organs, in the name of science being infallible, in a time when surgery was extremely risky, even though later they admitted that would have accomplished nothing). 
                 The media has a way of slanting stories so that they can help a situation, or hurt it, depending on the writers prejudices. Sympathy and empathy, or anger and fear are all left to the whims of the people controlling the press. So how do you find your own perspective, shape your own thoughts, really know how to feel about something, if you aren't allowed to see a situation without tainted information. Like the quote I added suggests, how do you treat a perfectly innocent person like a criminal for something completely out of their control when there was at that time, and even still is today, an illness or disease lurking around any corner you turn. Do I want a deadly disease carrier walking around and cooking my meals? Certainly not. Yet, if I am the healthy person that is the carrier do I want to live my life in a shed on a little island? Again, certainly not.
               Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, I love feeling like I learned something, and gained a new insight when I am done. I would recommend this for anyone who likes a quick informative read, human interest, true stories, and enjoys historical fiction.



Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Series of thoughts on The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe 5

 'Is all the council that we two have shared,
                          the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us----Oh! and is all forgot?

And will you rend our ancient love asunder?'
Lines from Midsummer Night's Dream in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe

Finis!! It is with a happy heart, returned back to La Valle in the French countryside, that I get to write those words.
     When I continued on my journey after leaving you last Emily was rescued from Udolpho by a new character, a Monsieur Du Pont (whom we later find out was the mysterious voice), along with her servant and her servants boyfriend. They made it back to Rousillon, and the convent that Emily had been at when her father died. She met new friends at the castle, Chateau Le Blanc, she had formerly thought haunted while there with her father, visited her father's resting place, and wrote to Valancourt. Valancourt showed up to meet Emily, but one of her new friends told her he had been involved in shady activities while she had been imprisoned in Udolpho. Valancourt confirmed these accusations without hearing all of them. Emily was so distraught to lose respect for him, she refused to continue their relationship. She was so very upset, I felt more sorrow for her over this occasion than I had about everything that had happened at Udolpho. Valancourt was beside himself, he could think of nothing but Emily.
     Montoni ended up being captured, sent to prison, and died. Therefore Emily was returned her property and ended up a wealthy maiden. There were many strange and haunting occurrences, sad days lamenting Valancourt, and misunderstandings ironed out. In the very end one of those misunderstandings was Valancourts character that she thought had been so tarnished, wasn't nearly as bad as she had thought, and she realized he was still the same benevolent, attentive, and kind man of good character she had formerly believed him to be. So, they married and lived happily ever after at La Valle!

     I enjoyed this book immensely. It is going on my list/bookshelf as a grimoire. It was not without problems, there were quite a few pages, especially in the latter half, that could have been left out. It was very dramatic at times, to the point of silliness even, rather long winded, and lost focus on more than one occasion, BUT still magical. After spending five weeks with Emily she felt like my sister, I was entirely invested in the outcome of her life.
     I have marked passages all through the book, and will refer to it often as a source of exquisite writing abilities, and inspiration. Also, it is with affectionate happiness that I am able to contemplate, as well as appreciate, that I too read, enjoyed, and thought over the very same words that Jane Austen in her life time read, enjoyed, meditated on, and was inspired by. I like to think that we may have sat, or lain in much the same way as we soaked in the story of Emily St. Aubert.
     The last paragraph imparts, 'And, if the weak hand, that has recorded this tale, has, by its scenes, beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or, by its moral, taught him to sustain it--the effort, however humble, has not been vain, nor is the writer unrewarded.' I dare say, you have been doing that and much more with this story for many years dear author, many, many years.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Series of thoughts on The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe 4

"Such are those thick and gloomy shadows damp,
Oft seen in charnel-vaults and sepulchres,
Lingering, and sitting, by a new-made grave."
Milton, lines in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe

This weeks reading still has me in the Appenines of Italy, a prisoner inside the walls of Udolpho. Count Morano survived the duel with Montoni and was taken away to a cabin some where in the woods, Emily knows nothing more about him. Large amounts of strange men start to arrive at the castle, Emily can see them from her window sometimes, their appearance makes her think they may be banditti. Fighting starts happening within the castle, many men are injured. Monsignor Montoni is furious that his wife, Emily's aunt, won't sign over her property in France to him. At dinner one night someone, we don't know who, tries to poison him. He thinks it is his wife and has his men take her away and shut her up somewhere in the castle. Emily can't find her. About this same time a spooky voice starts being heard at random times. Sometimes groaning, sometimes repeating things M. Montoni says. It frightens Emily and infuriates Montoni. One of the guards tells Emily he will sneak her to her aunt one night, she follows him and really it is a trick for someone trying to kidnap her. Montoni stops them as they are trying to force her on a horse outside the castle. Emily nor Montoni know who it was.
      Montoni finally allows Emily to see her aunt, she is very ill and dying. She tells Emily where she has hid the papers to her property and tells Emily the property will fall to her when she dies and not to sign them to Montoni. Her aunt dies and Emily is heartbroken. Then a large band of Italian soldiers starts toward the castle to lay siege upon the inhabitants. Montoni and his men have been out plundering towns and mansions, the Italian soldiers are coming to get rid of them. Montoni sends Emily off with two of his men to stay in a cottage in Tuscany. Two weeks later he sends for her to come back, Montoni won the siege and the soldiers had to retreat. When she gets back two of Montoni's men try to get at Emily in the night, sneaking through the passages and trying to get in her chamber. She tells Montoni she needs protection and she wants to go home to France, he refuses either unless she signs over her property, out of fear she finally does. He refuses to let her leave until he has secured the property for himself. Emily thinks Valancourt may be in the castle somewhere, she keeps hearing music at night that is music he used to play for her.
      These pages have brought quite a bit of psychological instability to Emily, and therefore to the reader. Sometimes Emily is convinced she has seen a ghost, but the next minute she isn't sure. She hear's music but knows not from where or from whom. She is unsure who to trust, what decisions to make, uncertain about her safety, and the motives of Montoni are always questionable. At times some of the happenings are comical, I find myself smiling, which is nice to break up some of the bleak happenings within the gloomy castle.
      I am still enjoying the story very much, Radcliffe's writing makes everything spring to life in front of me. When Emily is sneaking through the dark and creepy castle, scared and unsure what to do and what will be around the next corner I am right there with her. I can see the moonlight streaming through the casements on pillars that throw long shadows and make her see things in corners that she is unsure are truly there. I can hear the light swish of her footsteps as she hurries to get away from an unseen but vividly heard pursuer, and I shrink back at the sight of blood on the stairs or certain danger after trusting the wrong character. I am left with about 200 pages and can't wait to see how it all wraps up!
      It is now time to once again bid you adieu comrades as I head back to Udolpho, I must find out if Emily is able to escape her oppresor!!
Happy Reading!