Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Why am I such a contrarian when it comes to books?  If a book is wildly popular, I tend to turn away from it.  I suppose it's a symptom of intellectual snobbery, revealing a suspicion that anything which earns the adulation of the masses must appeal to the lowest common denominator.  Ugh.  I really can be insufferable at times.  I decided to see what all the Stieg Larsson furor was about.

I'm a little groggy this morning, because I stayed up until 1:30AM in order to finish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Is it fine literature?  Well, let's see if people are still reading it 100 years from now with the same avidity.  Will I re-read it a decade hence and have a wholly different experience?  I'll get back to you in 2021.  Lisbeth Salander is undeniably a captivating character, and I can see why readers (including me) will reach for the next book in the trilogy:  We want more of her.  

As I think about it, I have nothing against a book with high entertainment value.  I give Larsson all due credit for keeping me riveted way past my bed-time.  What I also want from a book is to learn something new.  It doesn't need to be a life-altering revelation.  It could simply be increased knowledge of wombats, a new view of Argentina, or a glimpse at some facet of myself which had been hidden from my awareness.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (both the novel and its title character) revealed to me my own ludicrous stereotypes of Sweden.  

I've lived and traveled in developing countries long enough to have heard the same story everywhere I've been:  "If I could only get to [fill in name of developed country here], I could get enough money, and then everything would be fine."   I heard a radio story recently in which refugees who had recently landed in the US were still struggling to accept that America -- the paradise of which they'd dreamed and to which they had finally come -- has homeless people.  Even after a social worker took them to see soup kitchens and homeless shelters, they were incredulous.  As I read this book, I realised that I, who grew up in the US, harboured at some level the same rosy delusions about Sweden.  Everyone is blond and athletic.  They all drive Saabs and Volvos, and who hasn't admired their cosy homes in the Ikea catalogues?  Life is orderly, smoked fish is plentiful, and the educational system and dentistry are flawless.  The suicide thing?  It's probably only the people who spend the whole winter on that Ikea sofa watching Ingmar Bergman films.  

Some of the statistics that Larsson printed at the beginning of each section woke me up like slaps. For example:
  • Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.
  • Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police.  

Yes, there are corrupt corporate tycoons and sexual predators slithering around, even in [Sw]eden.  Stieg Larsson died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004.  Many say his life was otherwise imperiled by the ultra-right-wing Swedish Nazi groups he'd been writing about for years.  Of course at some level I always knew that the grass is not always greener in Sweden, but that knowledge got buried under the avalanche of travel postcards in my brain.  Stieg Larsson cleared the haze for a while and made me say to myself what I say to all those who tell me their wish to live somewhere other than where they are:  No place is perfect.

And now I'm off to Portugal -- a country about which I've formed few images or preconceptions -- to read a work by Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), a writer about whom I know nothing.  Don't you love books?  It's like boarding a flight to Lisbon with nothing but a passport in my pocket.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Lucrezia Borgia, by Sarah Bradford

I reached for this biography in part to address my paltry knowledge of Renaissance Italy and in part because it received glowing reviews.

My admittedly limited impression of the Borgia clan was that of  scheming, murderous, and over-sexed Italians.  The sort of villains you love to see in plays and films but not necessarily in the villa next-door.  As applied to Roderigo (who became Pope Alexander VI) and his illegitimate son, Cesare (who was the model for Machiavelli's Prince), this stereotype is dead on.  Lucrezia (1480-1519) -- Cesare's sister -- is quite another story.  A virtuous Borgia??  It seems she was, more or less.

This is not historical fiction. Sarah Bradford gleaned all her details from original documents; her bibliography consumes only slightly fewer pages than her text.  (I hate to admit this, but it would have been a more entertaining read if she'd tarted it up a bit with some sordid inventions.)  As the daughter of a Pope and the wife of  Alfonso d'Este, Duke of Ferrara (her 3rd marriage), Lucrezia led an exceptionally well-documented life for a woman of the time.  Her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, also gained renown as a patron of the arts, but they were exceptional.  Most women were beneath notice.

Roderigo and Cesare inspired hatred and fear in many, so I was startled at the number of chroniclers who sang Lucrezia's praises throughout her life.  Her father and brother pointedly used her as a political pawn, arranging three marriages, disposing of husbands #1 by annulment and #2 by murder when their usefulness had reached its end.  Lucrezia, however, appears to have played no role in these shenanigans apart from dutiful daughter, sister and wife.  The Pope exerted great force to arrange her 3rd marriage to a son of the Este clan in Ferrara, yet her reluctant father-in-law and husband both grew to love and admire her deeply.  When Alfonso, her husband, was fighting wars with anyone and everyone to maintain his grasp on Ferrara, he left Lucrezia in charge -- communicating with ambassadors and envoys, dispatching troops here or there, selling her jewels to finance his cavalry.  After the deaths of her father, Pope Alexander, and her feared brother, Cesare, her position at the Ferrara court might have been very tenuous had she not won the respect of the Este and, in fact, the people of Ferrara, who appeared to revere her.

Bradford's source material was primarily letters written to, by, or about Lucrezia.  Her sister-in-law, Isabella d'Este, always regarded Lucrezia with a certain amount of disdain and envy.  Isabella's spies fed her great detail about Lucrezia's every move, writing in almost unbelievable detail about her attire:  The design of her gowns and caps, the fabrics, the jewels, the shoes...  Her wardrobe was surely one of the most documented aspects of her life, and the descriptions lend a lot of color and richness to her story -- 15th-century bling, I suppose.

Isabella d'Este, as it turned out, had reason to be suspicious of her lovely sister-in-law.  Isabella's husband, Francesco Gonzaga, conducted an illicit love affair with Lucrezia for years.  In the end, this may have proved a blessing for Lucrezia's husband.  Italy at this period was a snakes' nest of shifting alliances, but Gonzaga stolidly refused to take up arms against Ferrara for love of Lucrezia.   This affair appears to be the extent of Lucrezia's duplicity; she never came close to the treachery of her brother and father.  Bradford sums it up well:
Lucrezia's dealings with men were as deft as the neat steps with which she executed the complicated choreography of the torch dance. She managed to keep the affection and respect of her husband while retaining the lifelong love of Gonzaga under the most difficult and dangerous circumstances, seemingly occupying a special place in the hearts of two men who were generally not known for their respect for women.  

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Bookface, as you may have deduced, dear readers, is not a gadget freak.  I don't own a single iThing.  I'm very fond of my Fujitsu laptop and my Creative Labs MP3 player only because they're tools that do jobs I want done.

I looked at various e-book readers for over a year and thought very hard about whether or not I would use one.  I could see a number of advantages:  as with my MP3 player, I can carry a whole library of books in just a few ounces.  Electronic books may save some trees.  I like the fact that I can adjust the font and font size, and most of them have on-line dictionaries.  Physical books are quite expensive here in Malaysia.  I've found some excellent used book sellers overseas, but the shipping costs bring the prices up.  On the flip side, I love print books, especially second-hand ones and hard-covers.  There's no way an electronic gadget can ever smell like an old book.  (Is there?  Ahem!  Calling all you engineering geeks!  Here's a challenge for you.)

After numerous conversations with gadget nuts, I had to conclude that the Amazon Kindle was the best e-book reader for the money.  High resolution, no glare, good features, and at less than half the price of the least expensive Chinese brand I can buy here.  The catch:  Amazon refuses to sell its Kindles (or e-books, or used print books, or audio books, or music, or...) to Malaysia.  I loathe that company.  The hardest part of the decision to obtain an e-book reader was overcoming my aversion to doing business with Amazon.  When a friend told me, however, that her brother would be traveling from Cleveland, Ohio to KL, I choked back the venom and got out the credit card.  Amazon shipped the Kindle to his house as a gift, and he gave me the gift of transporting it to Malaysia.

My verdict:  YES!  I love it.  It fits easily into my handbag.  The not-so-stylish nylon zippered cover that I selected protects it from cat fur, falls from the table, detritus inside my bag, and moisture on the days when I forget my umbrella.  No reading glasses at hand?  Increase the font size.  The built-in Oxford English dictionary (including etymologies, praise be!) is a boon, and highlighting and annotating are easy.  At the moment, I have about six books loaded on it (and space for a few thousand more), so I can always find something to fit my mood.

Generous friends have shared CDs containing libraries of several hundred titles, and I have found many others on my own.  What American publishers and resellers do not appear to consider is that by refusing to sell their wares to Malaysia, they are not discouraging piracy.  They are fuelling it.  I've gone on this rant many times before, so I'll cut it short here. Let's just say this:  I don't know any Malaysians who download bootleg books because they are either unable or unwilling to pay for them.

I can also say this:  of the people that I know here who have gotten Kindles one way or another, all agree that they are reading far more than they ever had before.  If I were a publisher, I wouldn't see that as a menace.  I'd see it as a market.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Look Back, by Karin Fossum

I heard a BBC radio interview with Karin Fossum a couple of years ago and have been meaning to read some of her books ever since.  Scandinavia seems to be producing crime noir novelists faster than it cranks out vodka. Everyone in the world but me seems to have read Stieg Larsson's trilogy, and Henning Mankell -- a fellow Swede -- is equally renowned. Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland usually comes up in any discussion of Nordic crime fiction, and the London Times voted Norwegian Karin Fossum one of the top 50 crime writers of all time.

I don't read much crime fiction.  There's no good reason for that -- it just doesn't seem to be my genre of choice. In the radio interview, though, Fossum caught my attention when she said that her murderers are never monsters or freaks.  They're ordinary people who find themselves in exceptional circumstances.  They are your accountant, or the fellow who delivers the groceries.  This seemed realistic to me.  Of course Hannibal Lecter makes for great fiction, but really -- how many cannibalistic psychiatrists are out there?  

Fossum's detective is Inspector Konrad Sejer:  very tall, white-haired, widowed, pensive, unsmiling and glum, he lives alone with Kollberg, his enormous Leonberger dog.  Kollberg makes unfortunately few appearances in the story, and he also sounds like a depressive, but it's Norway after all.  

My friend Charlene squealed when I mentioned that I grew up in Maine, which she knows as Stephen King territory.  She asked if it's a scary place to live.  After a moment, I said yes -- it's full of old villages with lots of eccentric, reclusive, alcoholic and/or destitute people.  Stephen King characters, in other words.  In the same way, small towns tucked in among the Norwegian fjords seem like the perfect breeding ground for mundane murderers.  Everyone knows everyone, for better and worse.  Let's face it:  small towns can seem quaint one moment and sinister the next.  Karin Fossum tip-toes back and forth across that line like a ballerina.

Small towns in the northern latitudes, however, have a distinctive gloom.  Depression just develops more nuance and depth with every degree northward.  How many words does Norwegian have for 'bleak'?  Probably as many as the Inuits have for snow.  Here, Inspector Sejer interviews Halvor, a moping young man even more glum since the murder of his girlfriend, Annie.  Sejer asks,

"Did she seem unhappy about anything?"
"Not exactly unhappy. More... I don't know. Maybe more sad."
"Is that something different?  Being sad?"
"Yes," he said looking up. "When someone is unhappy, he still hopes for something better. But when he gives up, sadness takes over."

I doubt that's a distinction that a Thai or a Jamaican would draw.  In the small Norwegian village, no one looks like an especially promising suspect, and thus everyone starts to look equally suspect.  Sejer starts to look a lot like his dog:  plodding and quiet but with good instincts.  He gets his man, but Fossum won't let us readers sigh with relief as we toss the book down.  She throws a wrench into the works on the last page or two that will leave a queasy knot in every stomach.  But then, it could be just another normal day in the village of Lundeby...  It's no mean trick for an author, sustaining the suspense while keeping everything so firmly rooted in the ordinary. 

I'm in no position to rate or rank this book as it compares to others of its kind, having read so pitifully few murder mysteries, but I will say this:  Inspector Sejer and Kollberg have won me over in their unassuming ways, and I'll very gladly take another trip into Karin Fossum's imagination.  The armchair travel to Norway doesn't hurt, either. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

I needed a laugh.  After Krakauer's murderous Mormons and Selby's junkies, I was ready for a change of tune.

David Sedaris is dependably hilarious.  His writing is funny enough, but hearing him reading his own work in the past, I've embarrassed myself with public laughing attacks.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is his 21st-century version of Aesop's fables.  The title characters are in love, but alas, the chipmunk's meddlesome family members convince her that he is just too damned strange in a bushy-tailed kind of way.  I love the new-age, health-conscious white rat, and the compassionate mouse who "rescues" a baby snake to keep as her pet, and the cat who attends AA meetings to pass the time in prison.

Unlike some of Sedaris' earlier books which were pure comedy (his story of working at Macy's Department Store as a holiday elf named Crumpet comes to mind), these stories have a dark edge.  It's not always comfortable to see the worst aspects of human nature pasted onto animals.  And cute illustrations notwithstanding, this is not a children's book. It is "A Wicked Bestiary" after all.

On one of their dates, the title squirrel remarks that he likes jazz.

"I didn't know that," the chipmunk said. "My goodness, jazz!" She had no idea what jazz was but worried that asking would make her sound stupid. "What kind, exactly?" she asked, hoping his answer might narrow things down a bit.
"Well, all kinds, really," he told her. "Especially the earlier stuff."
"Me too," she said, and when he asked her why, she told him that the later stuff was just too late for her tastes...
The chipmunk lay awake that night, imagining the unpleasantness that was bound to take place the following morning. What if jazz was squirrel slang for something terrible, like anal intercourse? "Oh, I like it too," she'd said -- and so eagerly! Then again, it could just be mildly terrible, something along the lines of Communism or fortune-telling, subjects that were talked about but hardly ever practiced.   

As I read the book in print, I could often hear David Sedaris' voice in my head, but really -- the audio version of the book, with Sedaris among the readers, is the way to go.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

When a group of fundamentalist Mormons murdered a young woman and her toddler in 1984, claiming to have received the instruction to do so in a revelation from God, Krakauer decided to investigate, and this book is the result.

While he cannot escape discussion of the mainstream Mormon religion, his focus is on the fundamentalist fringe, and not surprisingly, they begin to sound like fundamentalists of every other religion: in Colorado City under Rulon Jeffs [leader of one fundamentalist sect] bears more than a passing resemblance to life in Kabul under the Taliban. Uncle Rulon's voice carries the weight of law... His sermons frequently stress the need for total submission. 'I want to tell you that the greatest freedom you can enjoy is in obedience,' he has preached. 'Perfect obedience produces perfect faith.'

What happens when a man claims to speak with the voice of God as it has come to him?  In other words, when he has declared himself a prophet?  Direct prophecy has been a key component of Mormonism from the start, beginning with the founder, Joseph Smith.  He quickly ran into trouble, however, when his followers started receiving prophecies that conflicted with his own.  He acted quickly, saying

that God had belatedly given him another revelation: 'No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jr.'  But the genie was already out of the bottle. The simple fact was, God's words were always going to carry more weight than Joseph's, and there wasn't much the prophet could do about it. This goes a long way toward explaining why, since 1830, some 200 schismatic Mormon sects have splintered off...

The God of Mormon revelations is very detail-oriented, naming names (as above) and concerning Himself with minute details, as whether or not the Lafferty brothers should kill their sister-in-law and her baby with a gun or a knife.  (He specified the knife.)  Krakauer generally handles the religion respectfully, but a non-Mormon reader is likely to go through much of this book with eyebrows raised, even suppressing the occasional chuckle.  God actually gave the Ron Lafferty a specific hit-list of four names.  After the men had killed the woman and child, they proceeded toward the home of the President of the mainstream LDS church for their next assignment.  The driver, however, missed the turn.  When Ron Lafferty pointed this out to him, he wearily replied, "If the Lord wanted you to kill someone else today, you'd already be there."  (God hadn't yet invented the GPS.)

Krakauer spends a fair amount of time discussing polygamy, a key tenet in the fundamentalist Mormon belief system, and one which critics claim is nothing more than religiously sanctioned pedophilia and adultery.  The nearly incessant strife between the US Government and the Mormons also gets a few chapters.  The Mormons have historically held themselves above and outside secular laws, answering only to God's law as their leaders deliver it.  Interestingly, because polygamy is illegal, only the first wife's union is recognized.  Krakauer points out that, being single mothers in the eye of the courts, women in Mormon 'plural marriages' are eligible for financial assistance.  The fundamentalist community of Rulon Jeffs alone -- one sect of many -- received more than $6 million a year in public funds.  Although they refuse to abide by  the laws or to pay taxes, they have no qualms about collecting welfare checks.

For me, the most thought-provoking section of the book focused on the testimony of several psychiatrists during the Lafferty brothers' trials.  Were they insane?  They claimed to have received direct instruction from God to kill, yet they showed no other signs of psychosis.  There is the risk of setting a precedent that believing in something irrational (as most religions are) is insane, but one psychiatrist insisted, "A false belief isn't necessarily a basis of mental illness."  Speaking of Ron Lafferty, the doctor continued, "He says, 'It just gives me a sense of peace, and I know it's true,' and it becomes a part of his own unique article of faith.  This is not a product of a schizophrenic, broken brain."  In other words, a zealot is not necessarily mentally ill.  From the testimony:

"This is a man who enjoys a good joke." Gardner [psychiatrist] recalled that Ron laughed a lot, and "laughter is always something that is a shared experience... One thing I can tell you in working with hundreds of schizophrenics over my lifetime, is schizophrenics don't have shared humor with people around them. Most of the time they are quite humorless. Once in a while, they'll have their own idiosyncratic humor, laughing with themselves at things that have nothing to do with their environment... the difference is this:  These people [the defendants] shared the same reality, doing the same thing; praying together, reading together, talking together, weighing whether these really came from God or not, whether they were genuine. You do not find schizophrenics sitting in a group together talking about shared experiences."

When compared to the Islamic fundamentalists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, Dan Lafferty said this:

"I have to admit, the terrorists were following their prophet...  They were willing to do essentially what I did. I see the parallel. But the difference between those guys and me is, they were following a false prophet, and I'm not."

This absolute certitude of righteousness is more terrifying to me than the delusions of a schizophrenic killer.   A man who had left one of the fundamentalist Mormon sects because he could no longer accept the requirement of blind, unthinking obedience pointed out how comforting it is to take refuge in such an all-encompassing religion:

"It provides all the answers. It makes life simple. Nothing makes you feel better than doing what the prophet commands you to do... all the responsibility for your actions is now totally in his hands... And that's a real big part of what holds this religion together:  it's not having to make those critical decisions that many of us have to make, and be responsible for your decisions."
The secular courts, however, did hold the Lafferty brothers responsible for their actions, sentencing Ron to death, Dan to life imprisonment.  Both are stolidly unrepentant, insisting that they acted upon the Instructions of the Lord.

Monday, February 7, 2011

It all starts with bad literature...

Requiem for a Dream, by Hubert Selby

Devastate (verb): 1.  to lay waste; render desolate  2.  to overwhelm.

I saw the film, Requiem for a Dream, with my friend Laura B. not long before I left the US, and it certainly rendered me desolate and overwhelmed me.  This is the first time I have ever held a book and its film adaptation in equal esteem:  both left me lying in a fetal position (alongside all 4 main characters) at the end.

Why do we seek out such devastating stories?  In my case, Selby gave me a vicarious ticket to life as an addict.  His stream-of-consciousness prose and Darren Aronofsky's erratic, whirling cinematography both made me queasy from disorientation, need, withdrawal and fear.

This story is predictable in a few ways:  Each of the 4 characters denies any addiction, and all 4 plummet throughout the book to a catastrophic end.  Selby glides back and forth between them, often in mid-paragraph.  He uses minimal punctuation and no quotation marks, giving the text a run-on feeling, and the reader often has to pause to figure out who said what.  His ear for Bronx dialogue, though, is dead-on, and I can hear Tyrone C. Love's jive talk and Sara Goldfarb's Yiddish-spattered prattle as if they were in the room with me.

Sara Goldfarb lives alone in an apartment with her television, oblivious to the fact that her beloved son, Harry, and his girlfriend Marion and their pal Tyrone are all heroin users.  One day, someone phones Sara and suggests that she might be a contestant on a TV game show, and her delusional trip begins.  She giddily decides that she will wear the red dress that she wore to Harry's bar mitzvah, and the gold shoes, too.  Problem:  the dress no longer fits.  In one of the book's few comic scenes, she goes to the library in search of a diet book.  A thin one, please, because who could believe anything in a fat diet book? Not surprisingly, she doesn't last long on the prescription of grapefruit and boiled eggs, so she finds a doctor willing to prescribe some nice pills for her.

Meanwhile, Harry, Tyrone and Marion are hatching a scheme to get rich selling high-grade heroin.  It should work brilliantly, as they assure themselves that they won't inject all the profits, getting all strung out like those other junkies.  And for a while, it does seem to be lucrative.  Harry buys his mother a new TV as a gift (largely to assuage his guilt for having pawned hers so many times to buy drugs.)  When he visits Sara, he notes her non-stop activity, listens to her excitement about the red dress and the TV game show, and slowly recognises that sound:

Sara was squealing again... and she sat back down and grinned at her son as she clenched her jaw and ground her teeth, her happiness vibrating from her entire being... Harry heard her words but his mind was completely preoccupied  with the question of identifying something. Then it slowly started to come to him... yeah, thats what it was he was trying to identify, that sound. What in the hell could it be???? Your father and I used to talk so long about you and how he wanted you to be happy -- Thats it! Thats what the noise is. He stared at his mother at first bewildered not knowing what it meant and then it all started to fit in and a lot of pieces suddenly fell into place and Harry could feel his face folding into an expression of surprise, disbelief and confusion. The noise he heard was the grinding of teeth. He knew he wasn't grinding, he was on stuff, not speed, so it had to be his mother. For many long moments his head fought against the truth ...  Hey ma, you droppin uppers?  What? You on uppers? his voice starting to rise involuntarily. Youre on diet pills, aint ya? Ya dropping dexies.  Sara was completely bewildered and befuddled.  

Sara fails to see why Harry is so upset.  She's seeing a specialist after all, and the red dress nearly fits, and everyone is going to love her when she appears on the game show.

Does he give ya pills? Of course he gives me pills. He's a doctor.  Doctors give pills. I mean what kind of pills? What kind? A purple one, red one, orange and green... they're round and flat... Harry, I'm Sara Goldfarb, not Doctor Einstein. How should I know whats in them? He gives me the pills and I take them and I lose weight so whats to know?  ... He's a nice doctor. He even has grandchildren.
After a while, Sara's loneliness is broken -- and not pleasantly -- by characters who refuse to stay inside her television and by her refrigerator, which develops a menacing attitude.  The nice doctor doesn't find these things too worrisome, he just prescribes Valium, and there's one more bottle of pills covered by Sara's Medicare.  There is no Medicare-paid prescription programme for heroin, however, so the three younger addicts must negotiate their fixes on the streets.  Their desperation increases as their dreams of success evaporate.

Which brings us back to the title.  In his introduction to the novel, Selby talks about the American Dream and the insatiable hunger and acquisitiveness that fuel it:
Obviously, I believe that to pursue the American Dream is not only futile but self-destructive because ultimately it destroys everything and everyone involved with it...  Why?  The reason is simple: because Life is giving, not getting.  
 In a brief foreword, Darren Aronofsky, who co-wrote the screenplay of the novel with Selby, wrote:
Like a hangman's noose, the words scorch your neck with rope burn and drag you into the sub-sub-basement we humans build beneath hell.  Why do we do it? Because we choose to live the dream instead of choosing to live the life.  You won't ever forget this read.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

I am usually reading three or more books on any day:  an audio book, a print book, and another print book that I am recording for MAB.  When I travel, I always bring a "stack" of books on what I facetiously call my bookPod (a Creative Labs MP3 player that's the size of a matchbox and a fraction of the cost of its iCousins).  I also bring a print book or two for times and places when the audio just doesn't work.

No matter the format, I think most avid readers have more than one book going at a time, and no doubt we're all entertained when coincidental connections between them crop up like little gremlins.  

Before I left for Bali, I loaded Diane Setterfield's novel, The Thirteenth Tale, onto the bookPod.  I remembered only that other audio readers had given it rave reviews on  Whatever.  Sounds fine.  And if I don't like it, I'll load a few other books as back-up.  

The Thirteenth Tale is a book-lovers' book. There are two narrators:  Margaret Lea, who, with her father, runs an antiquarian book shop in London, and Vida Winter, the reclusive and secretive English novelist who summons Margaret to write her biography.  (Two narrators distinguish the characters in the audio reader's mind, and both, as it happens, are superb.)  Vida Winter is a teller of tales and is notorious for concocting delicious fictional accounts of her own life. "Every child mythologises its own birth," she insists.  Margaret, however, is uninterested in writing a fictional biography and demands the truth.  "A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth..."  insists her subject.

It's a classically English tale that rolls out, with manor houses, mad relatives, ghosts (living and dead) in the attics, gardeners, house-keepers, governesses, and, of course, glorious libraries.  Margaret is not without her own skeletons in the closet, and whilst staying at Miss Winter's home on the moors, she falls ill.  The village doctor appears and asks some highly unconventional diagnostic questions.  Does Margaret read a lot of Victorian and gothic fiction?  Mmmhmmm.  She's read Jane Eyre, of course, and Wuthering Heights?   And re-read them multiple times, with liberal doses of Henry James in the interim?  The sage doctor diagnoses her as a very high-strung, overly empathetic and romantic personality type.  "Oh, and you're not eating enough."  He prescribes Arthur Conan Doyle, handing her the Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, to be taken thrice daily with hearty meals.  

Diane Setterfield is clearly a repeat-reader of the Brontes, but I believe she balanced her gothic diet with Sherlock, because The Thirteenth Tale is a very fine mystery story, and Margaret proves to be a determined sleuth.  I loved reading Jane Eyre at the same time as I read this homage to it.  Let's hear it for plucky English women!  And their books, of course.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Bookface is red-faced to admit this, but I just read this novel for the first time.  Oh, what the hell...  Let's go for full disclosure:  I've never read any of Charlotte Bronte's books, nor those of any other Bronte.  I read whatever Jane Austen my school-teachers assigned and none more, and I've picked up a Henry James novel from time to time with a niggling sense of obligation -- and set each of them back down again.  I listened to an outstanding recording of A Tale of Two Cities a while ago; BBC actor Martin Jarvis brought all of the characters to vivid life and piqued my appetite for more Dickens.  That was only the 2nd of his novels that I'd read.  A dog waiting to be shot couldn't hang its head much lower.

In my own lame defense, I'm not a complete English Lit philistine, just very limited in scope.  I've read almost all of Hardy's novels.  I even liked them.

I took Jane Eyre on a week-long trip to Bali.  She was a bit out of place there, but then again, the tropics brought to mind Mr. Rochester's ill-fated first marriage in Jamaica.  I think there are quite a few contemporary Mr. Rochesters roaming the streets of Kuta and Ubud with their Balinese Berthas.  Let's hope they all come to their senses before their relationships end in madness and fire and attic imprisonments.

The sorry truth of why I brought this particular book to Bali was its weight:  it was a small Bantam paperback edition I'd bought at a warehouse sale in Kuala Lumpur.  It has a splendid introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, and it added only an ounce or two to my handbag.  When I bought it, I was thinking I was decades overdue to read it, and when I finished it, I wondered why I had waited those decades to meet its protagonist.  Jane first appeared in the world in 1847, but so many of her character traits ring perfectly true in 2011.  Yes, her manners and behaviours are Victorian, but her self-reliance, independence of thought, stolidity and passion transcend her own era.  I like Jane enormously, and I respect her. She's one of those fictional characters I would most certainly invite for a dinner party.

I belonged to a book group a few years back, and we read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  I admired the dense prose and profound plot -- especially considering Shelley's youth when she wrote it -- but fluidly pleasurable reading it was not. As I re-read the introduction to Jane Eyre, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates had also contrasted the two writers' styles:  "Compare the slow, clotted, indefatigably rhetorical prose of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, of 1818..."   Bronte's prose, while elegant, requires less mental bush-whacking than Shelley's.

Although I met Jane Eyre for the first time when reading her story, I had actually met Mr. Rochester before.  He made an appearance in The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys.  I first read this novel after traveling to Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic), a Caribbean island.  Ms. Rhys was born in Dominica, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a creole mother.  The Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Bertha, Mr. Rochester's creole Jamaican wife, and I'm afraid Mr. Rochester does not come off very well from that angle.  It's a dark commentary on English colonialism and culture clash.  Did he drag her back to England and lock her into an attic because she was mad, or did dragging her from her tropical home to frosty, fusty England drive her mad?  It's an evocative story, and I need to re-read it soon.