Review: The Gargoyle

Written by Andrew Davidson
Published by Doubleday, 2008, 468 pages
This review refers to an advance reading copy of the book

Just a short note about The Gargoyle. There’s not a great deal to say about the book that hasn’t already been said, and said again. Unless you’ve been buried in a coal mine for the last few months, or out mapping the migration of the yellow-headed parrot through Ecuador, by now you’ve heard all about Andrew Davidson’s best-selling debut novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of a nameless (unless I’m mistaken?) porn film maker who is badly burned in an auto accident. This happens in the first chapter, and the next hundred or so pages are mainly filled with pretty gruesome details about his hospital treatment and recovery. If Davidson were a less talented writer, most readers would probably give up somewhere around page 7 when the doctors are performing their first “escharotomy” – slicing through the main character’s charred skin with scalpels to give the swollen tissue room to expand.

But if you hang on, you get to the best part of the story. One day, a beautiful and mysterious sculptress of gargoyles appears suddenly at the burn victim’s bedside and begins to tell him tales of their lives as lovers in an earlier incarnation, hundreds of years ago. She insists her stories are true; and over the next months, she takes him into her home, nursing him back to health, and giving him more and more details about their former lives together. She tells him stories of other lovers, too. And reads Dante to him. And cooks him elaborate feasts. And takes him for midnight swims at the beach. All the while, madly sculpting more and more of her “grotesques” – until eventually their situations are reversed and our hero has to begin looking after his caretaker.

This is a first novel and, of course, it shows. It’s not fine literature, but it’s a darn good read. I took it to the beach this summer, and it kept me up late every night. The characters are engaging, and there’s quite a lot of humor for a book about such an appalling situation. It’s a really good love story – no, it’s several really good love stories. And it even has a bit of a literary mystery thrown in at the end. It’ll make a terrific movie – I wonder if Johnny Depp has read it.

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Review: Love and the Incredibly Old Man

Written by Lee Siegel
Published by University of Chicago Press, 2008, 227 pages

Lee Siegel’s Love and the Incredibly Old Man is a novel about a professor and novelist named Lee Siegel who agrees to ghost write the memoirs of a man claiming to be Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who explored Florida and, legend has it, went in search of the Fountain of Youth. According to Mr. de León’s story, he actually found the life-sustaining fountain and is now over five hundred years old. But the fountain, alas, has run dry; and now the ancient explorer is facing his fast-approaching end of days. He wants his story told, and he thinks Mr. Siegel is just the man to do it. And after he offers the writer a massive amount of money for the job, Mr. Siegel thinks Mr. Siegel is just the man to do it, too.

Mr. de León has had five wives over the centuries and loved countless other women (in fact, at times it seems he’s made love to just about every woman he ever met, including the Queen of Spain). He’s been an actor and masqueraded as a priest. He’s taken on many different identities over the centuries, to avoid having his secret found out. And he claims to have discovered cigars, rum, and popcorn.

The story unfolds mainly through daily interviews between Siegel and de León, alternating with the writer’s night-time attempts to pull together some kind of a manuscript that will pass muster with his employer. Juan Ponce has definite ideas about what he wants the book to be. It’s to be about love in all its forms (“Love and time, love and age, love and death. Love true and false, glorious and foolish, tragic and comic.”) and it must tell his unbelievable story in a way that will make people believe it.

Well, by the end of Love and the Incredibly Old Man, I think Mr. Siegel and Mr. Siegel have both done their jobs pretty well. It’s a tall tale, but one you’d really like to believe.

To be honest, I never would have chosen this book on my own. I received it through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, and (even though it was one of the titles I requested) at first glance I really thought maybe the famous LT algorithm had experienced a major glitch this time. But I guess they knew what they were doing after all, because in the end I found myself really enjoying the book. Sometimes it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and treat yourself to something new and unfamiliar.

Still, it’s probably not a book for everyone – a lot of it is very bawdy and mildly pornographic. Not a lot happens – it’s mostly description, not action. And the first third of the book, with de León telling Siegel over and over how he wants the book written, I found really tedious after a while. But overall, it’s an imaginative, erotic, and very funny piece of metafiction.

Review: The Aviary Gate

Written by Katie Hickman
Published by Bloomsbury, 2008, 341 pages

We come here as slaves, all of us: slaves of the Sultan. We give up everything, even our names. It is a strange fact – don’t you think? – that not one of us was born Ottoman, or even a Muslim. Not one of us. There is nothing to unite us except the fact that we have the honour to be the Sultan’s women. And do not forget this, . . . : there is no higher honour.” [p. 55]

 

I so very much did not want to like this book. Yes, I did request an advance reading copy from Bloomsbury. But I was guilty of doing something I hardly ever do – asking for a book I knew absolutely nothing about. I almost always do quite a lot of research on an author or any given book before I buy it or request a reading copy. Not this time, though. And from the reclining odalisque with the come-hither stare on the cover, to the jacket flap description of “a rare glimpse into the forbidden confines of the Sultan’s harem,” the whole package just screamed “bodice-ripper” and “not my kind of story.”

But guess what. You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Well, it’s been proven true once again. Even though, the whole time I was reading The Aviary Gate, I kept telling myself I should not enjoy it – I did.

Can a Barbara Cartland marathon be far behind?

No, seriously, although it certainly has elements of the romance novel, The Aviary Gate is nothing like a Harlequin. It’s a thoroughly engrossing historical tale of murder and intrigue in the Sultan’s harem in 16th Century Constantinople, juxtaposed with the story of a present-day academic whose research brings the episode to light.

Based partly on fact, Hickman’s novel shifts back and forth between the story of Celia Lamprey, a sea captain’s daughter lost in a late-16th Century shipwreck and sold into slavery at the Sultan’s court, and that of Elizabeth Staveley, the Oxford researcher who becomes obsessed with finding out what actually happened to the young woman. Did she escape the Sultan’s harem and return to England? Was she rescued by diplomat Paul Pindar, the man she was engaged to at the time of the shipwreck? Did she live out her life as a Sultan’s concubine? Or was she somehow involved in the poisoning of the Sultan’s chief black eunuch and possibly imprisoned or even executed?

Well, I’m not going to give away the ending – I’ll just say it wasn’t really what I expected. But then the entire book was a pleasant surprise. And some of it was just, well, surprising. Like the descriptions of a 16th Century version of a bikini-wax session, and the mechanics of producing eunuchs to guard the Sultan’s harem (actually, I could have done without that last episode altogether).

The book does have its flaws. Some of the dialogue sounds a little too modern to be thoroughly believable Elizabethan speech: One of the characters agrees with another by remarking “I’ll say!” and another expresses his doubt about the success of a plan by arguing that “we’ll be dead meat.” And the current-day story frequently seems rather lackluster in comparison with the thrills and escapades of the Sultan’s palace. Perhaps the fact that Hickman’s earlier work was mostly nonfiction might have something to do with that.

One of the interesting things the novel points out is just how much power women could attain in the ancient harem system. There were, of course, the “powers behind the throne” – the Sultan’s mother, and chief wives and concubines. But for the other most-favored slaves, there was also the possibility of a marriage outside the court, to a rich and powerful nobleman or merchant. These women were highly sought after because of their ties to the royal circle.

The Aviary Gate is a fascinating combination of academic mystery, historical adventure, and thrilling love story. I can heartily recommend it as a romance novel for people who hate romance novels.

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Published by The Dial Press, 2008, 274 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the novel

When I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program, I had a few misgivings about starting it. For one thing, it has such a cutesy title. And it’s an epistolary novel which made me dubious right away. Novels written in the form of letters are some of the hardest to pull off successfully – I know because I’ve tried it myself, with absolutely ghastly results.

But I needn’t have worried. This is a wonderful little book. Some other reviewers have called it “perfect.” I’m not sure I’d go that far – but if it’s not perfect, it’s a very near miss.

With just a few exceptions, the letters that tell the story are written by or to Miss Juliet Ashton, a young writer living in London, right after World War II. It’s 1946 and England is struggling with the dreadful aftermath of the war – rationing is still in effect and the horror of the war is still fresh in everyone’s memories.

Juliet is floundering a bit, looking for a subject for her next book and not having much luck. And then one day she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a farmer living on the Channel Island of Guernsey. He has acquired a book that once belonged to Juliet – her name and address were written inside the front cover. The book is the Selected Essays of Elia, by Charles Lamb, and Mr. Adams has fallen in love with the book and its author. He asks Juliet if she could send him the name and address of a bookstore in London where he can order more of Lamb’s books by mail. He also makes brief mention of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which he says came into being because of a roast pig the Islanders were trying to keep secret from the German soldiers who occupied the island during the war.

Her curiosity piqued, Juliet writes back to Dawsey Adams and their correspondence begins. Gradually, other members of the Island literary group join in and Juliet gets to know them all through their tales of the books and authors they’ve discovered. She learns about their daily lives in Guernsey, and also hears about the hardships and trauma they experienced during the war which brought the German army to their island. Juliet and the Islanders become more and more caught up in each other’s lives, until they eventually invite her to visit them, and she quickly accepts the invitation. And her visit has a powerful, life-changing effect on both Juliet and her new friends.

This is one of those rare books that will have you laughing and crying at the same time. It’s witty and warm and moving, with a few surprise twists thrown in along the way – a love story, and a celebration of literature and books and the people who read and write them. And it even has a description of the Potato Peel Pie of the title!

Oh, and Oscar Wilde makes an appearance, as well.

Review: My Fantoms

Written by Théophile Gautier
Translated by Richard Holmes
Published by New York Review Books, 2008, 194 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the book

In these seven examples of the short Gothic work by 19th Century French writer Théophile Gautier, tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life, and young men are seduced and ruined by other-worldly visitors – labeled “fantoms” by translator Richard Holmes.

In “The Adolescent,” a young man has nightly encounters with a beautiful goddess woven into a tapestry in his uncle’s summer-house. In “The Priest,” an aging cleric looks back on his youthful infatuation with a lovely but just slightly undead courtesan who used his blood to keep herself young and beautiful. “The Painter” is the tale of an artist who may have been possessed by a demon, or possibly just “driven mad by cause or causes unknown.” The narrator of “The Opium Smoker” describes his erotic hallucination involving a dead opera singer. The young performer in “The Actor” learns that no one can portray the Devil like the Devil himself. And in “The Tourist,” a visitor to the ruins in Pompeii becomes obsessed with a “lump of molten lava” which has solidified around one of the victims of Vesuvius, and left a perfect impression of her body.

The last piece in the book, “The Poet,” is actually a character sketch of Gautier’s friend, Gérard de Nerval, who committed suicide in 1855 by hanging himself from a window grating. It was through Nerval that Gautier met Victor Hugo. And it was Hugo who inspired the young Gautier to abandon his aspirations to be a painter, and take up writing instead.

The stories, especially “The Adolescent,” have a very Edgar Allan Poe feel about them, but are much more overtly erotic than Poe’s work. As Holmes says in his Introduction, Gautier’s fantomsare all seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand year-old muses. What they have in common is that all of them come back from the dead, seeking human lovers.”

Gautier’s work also has a witty and, at times, almost whimsical quality that you would not expect to find in Poe’s tales. This doesn’t mean the stories aren’t creepy – they most definitely are that. Holmes says that “catching the exact pitch and tone of Gautier’s stories, with their high decorative finish, and their various deflections of wit and lubricity, was not easy.” But he seems to have done a laudable job.

Holmes also provides quite a lot of background information on Gautier and his times, and the history of his own involvement with Gautier’s works. I would definitely recommend reading all of this (especially his Postscript) before undertaking the stories themselves.

Review: The Lace Reader

Written by Brunonia Barry
Published by William Morrow

This review refers to an advance edition of the book.

“My name is Towner Whitney. No, that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.”

These opening lines from Brunonia Barry’s debut novel, The Lace Reader, perfectly set the tone for the rest of the work. Nothing in the book is what it seems at first view – events and people constantly shift and turn and realign themselves, as the reader is drawn ever more deeply into the world of Towner Whitney.

The Lace Reader is an ingeniously plotted tale, nearly impossible to review without giving away too many details. Which would be a horrible thing to do because this a terrific read. The story twists and changes on almost every page. The ending is a stunning roller coaster ride that made me want to turn back to the beginning and read the whole thing over again. And the characters are so life-like and well-drawn, by the end of the book I was almost beginning (somewhat disturbingly) to compare them with members of my own family.

The book’s central character, Towner Whitney, is an emotionally damaged young woman in her thirties who is living in California – a self-exile from her home in Salem, Massachusetts, and her eccentric, troubled family. She’s recovering from recent surgery when she’s called home to Salem after the family matriarch, her beloved 85-year-old Great Aunt Eva, is reported missing. Towner returns home reluctantly, having left under traumatic circumstances fifteen years earlier. The search for Eva brings Towner back to Salem physically and also stirs up memories of past events and relationships – memories she’s been holding at bay for many years.

The women in Towner Whitney’s family have a unique gift – they’re able to “read lace.” Specifically Ipswich lace, the lace made by the women of Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the 1700s. And Towner’s Great Aunt Eva, who runs a ladies’ tearoom and holds etiquette classes for the “wealthy children of Boston’s North Shore,” is the most famous of the lace readers – she can “read” a person’s past, present and future “just by holding the lace in front of you and squinting her eyes.”

Towner’s mother May Whitney is also able to read lace, although over the years she has come to believe “that knowing what is in people’s minds or their futures is not always in anyone’s best interest.” On her small island retreat, a few miles beyond Salem’s harbor, May runs a shelter for abused women and children, and teaches the women to make lace. The relationship between mother and daughter has always been troubled, and May’s refusal to leave her island home makes Towner’s return to Salem necessary and even more troublesome.

As backdrop to the main story, Barry provides us with quite a lot of “atmosphere” material concerning the town of Salem and its history – known primarily for the infamous witch trials. But Salem was also an early center of this country’s shipping trade, and therefore a very prosperous place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With Towner’s return, we get glimpses of the present city as well as flashbacks to Salem in the 1970s. And, of course, the Salem witches are a presence throughout the book – not just the unfortunate victims of the witch hunts of old, but modern “witches,” as well: the followers of the Wiccan religion.

Over and over again, I was impressed with Barry’s sure hand with detail. For instance, I loved the description of Eva’s labels for the tomatoes and eggplants in her garden – “TOM and EGG respectively, as if they were little people.” Or the way Detective Rafferty runs his cup under hot water before pouring in the coffee. And the book includes one of the best descriptions of the onset of a migraine that I’ve ever found in a novel.

In reading The Lace Reader, I did something I hardly ever do – that is, take a chance on a book I knew almost nothing about. Generally, I do quite a lot of research and review-reading before adding a book to my want-to-read list. In this case, I’m very glad I broke my pattern. The book is an exploration of many themes, including love and abandonment, truth and illusion; itself as intricate as a piece of lace – part psychological drama, part police procedural, part family saga. All very adroitly and skillfully handled by a terrific new author. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have a feeling Brunonia Barry isn’t going to be an unknown novelist for very long. I’m already eagerly awaiting her next book!

Just one last thought. I usually try to restrict this sort of thing to mental exercise. But I have to say it. This book would make a wonderful movie – it would provide some really terrific roles for “mature” actresses. I’d love to see Marian Seldes as Eva. But if Meryl Streep or Anjelica Huston or Blythe Danner doesn’t buy up the film rights immediately, they’re missing a bet!

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I received this book as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I believe it’s scheduled for general release in July 2008.