PORTRAIT IN SEPIA by Isabel Allende

Portrait in Sepia is actually the middle volume of a trilogy, between Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits.   I read House of the Spirits long before I started this blog, so it is not among my musings here, and have not read Daughter of Fortune.  But never fear, this is a stand alone novel, you don’t need the first volume at all.

It is the story of a young woman, daughter of a beautiful young girl who dies in childbirth, granddaughter of a Chilean woman and a Chinese man, very unusual in the later part of the 19th century in San Francisco, and of the neer-do-well son of a very wealthy Chilean couple, also living in San Francisco.  The son refuses to acknowledge his paternity, and a male cousin formally adopts her so she will have a name, and still belong to the Del Valle family.

There is a great deal about grandmother Paulina Del Valle, an obese but astute woman who has such a head for business that the family’s money soon becomes the family’s great wealth, and they have a huge mansion in S.F. where she dominates the social scene.

The little girl, Aurora (Lai Ming) is brought up by her Chilean grandmother and Chinese grandfather until age five, when the grandfather is murdered by the tangs, the wife wants to take his body back to Hong Kong for burial, so the grandmother turns the child over to the wealth grandmother.  At some point, they return to Chile, to Santiago, a back water compared to San Francisco, but is the biggest most progressive city in Chile.  There, Paulina sets up shop again as the big cheese, the granddaughter Aurora falls in love with a handsome son of a ranching family several days travel from Santiago, where they have vast landholdings that had been in the family for centuries.  The marriage fails, because the husband has been in love for years with the wife of his brother.  The granddaughters perfects her craft of photography, and when she learns her grandmother Paulina is close to death, travels to Santiago and never returns to her husband.

The story covers the Chilean civil war, a couple of them, actually, and runs from 1862 to 1910, and is told in the form of a memoir by Aurora. The title refers to her feeling that although family members and events from early in her life are clearly outlined in the black and white photos, and the later ones in the color she begins to use in her film, a lot of her family history is not clear, and appears more as a portrait in sepia.

A fine story, as are all Allende’s books.

Oh, did I mention the translator?  It is Magda Bogin.  Allende writes in Spanish, being a native born Chilean.

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THE MURMUR OF BEES by Sofía Segovia

I have been reading a number of translated works, lately, to the benefit of my horizons, expansion-wise.  Sofía Segovia is a Mexican writer, with several other acclaimed words, but I believe this is the first in translation.  The translator is Simon Bruni, and as in all great translations, if you haven’t a clue it is a translation, then it is a good one.  A good translation doesn’t just exchange original language word for an English word, sometimes it must actually rephrase something so that it has the same connotation and feel in English as it does in the original language.

In The Murmur of Bees, as I seem to find in most Latin American writing, there is that ever-present soupçon of fantasy, or magical realism, that small touch of the surreal that distinguishes the Latin American soul from the prosaic core of the American canon.

Written in 2010, the time setting spans the turn of the twentieth century through the remainder of that century, in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, whose capital is Monterrey.  At this time, Monterrey is very small, and the state rural and remote.

An elderly nanny sits rocking, day after day for decades, in the shade of a shed on the grounds of the Morales family ranch, when she suddenly disappears, to be found the next morning sitting in the shade of a bridge, kilometers from the ranch, holding two bundles wrapped in her aprons.  One was a beehive and its residents, and the other was a day-old infant covered in bees.

And thus begins the story of Simonopío, born with a badly disfiguring cleft lip and palate, who was taken in by the Morales family.  Reviled and mocked by most because of his deformity, but loved unconditionally by his foster family, he proves to be a strange child, devoted to his bees and his Nana Reja.  He has an inborn ability to sense things afar, to sense danger, and even, to know a little about the future.  It would seem his ever-present bees tell him things, things they have learned in their travels and on the wind.

When late-life Francisco Morales Jr. is born after his two older sisters have grown and married and started their own families, his middle-aged mother finds him so different from his sedate sisters, this boisterous boy.  Simonopío has completely taken him under his wing, from before he was even born, and is his companion and protector.

What makes this such a wonderful story is the background of Mexico during those years, years of the internal civil war, years when the Catholic Church was banned, the churches closed or burned, the priests in hiding. holding secret services and secret schools.  It was the years that the plague, brought back to the U.S. by returning WWI soldiers made it way southward, no respecter of borders, and took its terrible toll on the citizens of the small town that was the center for life in the area of these ranches, where no one escaped losing family members.  Franciso Sr.  seeing what was happening, gathered up his family and his workers and took everyone to a far distant ranch he owned, where everyone crowded together in isolation to wait out the disease.

It was a time when land reform was beginning to come to the fore, when the government was seizing lands from the big landowners to distribute among the non-land owning, and Franciso Sr.  was hard put to hangon to his extensive holdings.  The bees led
Simonopío year after year, farther and farther from the area, where he discovered growing healthy, productive orange trees, planted long ago by someone.   He brought back the oranges to his foster father, trying to make him understand that this was the future.  The laws at this time were that the government would seize without notice any non-working land, so farmers and rangers were struggling to keep all their fields active, although they needed to lie fallow from time to time to recover.  But Franciso could see that by planting orchards, instead of grains, etc, the fields would always be in use, and in three years or so, newly planted trees would start producing fruit.  So he converted almost all of his extensive holdings to orchards, where they prospered.

Most workers on these ranches at this time worked for small wages, but were given a small house and a parcel of land of their own to work on a sharecrop basis, and eventually could pay it off and own it outright.  The bulk of the story revolves around one disgruntled man from the southern part of the country, who wanted it all now, then lost his wife and all but two of his children to the plague, and lived for revenge on Franciso, Sr.,  his son, and the foster boy, whom he considered the devil incarnate because of his deformity, and whom he was convinced had come to destroy them all.

It is told primarily in first person by Francisco, Jr. as an old man,  with a few disconcerting changing narration voices to third person, and to first person of other characters, but all it all, it was a compelling page turner, just wonderful in its execution and pacing.

This is her only translated work, I believe, and I loved it.

To the lower left of the green colored state of Nuevo Leon you will see the outline of the state of Zacataces, which is where I live.

 

 

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker

Now this was certainly a fun read, combining the golem myth with the jinni (or geni) myth in what turns out to be Love, Actually.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free.

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale. “

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

There are lots of fascinating and lovable human characters populating the tale, and although this is fantasy/fable/magical realism/sorta historical fiction, it is also a ripping tale, as our British counterparts might say, and is a page turner of the first water.  Loved it.  LOVED it.

Some definitions for you.

‘of the first water’.  Ever wondered where that expression came from?  Wonder no more.  Of course you already know it means of the finest quality, as in That was a play of the first water . This idiom refers to a grading system for diamonds for their color or luster (compared to the shininess of water). The system is no longer used but the term, used figuratively since the early 1800s, has survived it.

Golem – In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (usually clay or mud). The word was used to mean an amorphous, unformed material in Psalms and medieval writing.  The most famous golem narrative involves Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. There are many tales differing on how the golem was brought to life and afterward controlled. According to Moment Magazine, “the golem is a highly mutable metaphor with seemingly limitless symbolism. It can be victim or villain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or sometimes both. Over the centuries it has been used to connote war, community, isolation, hope and despair.”

Jinni – as in I Dreamed Of  —  Jinni, plural jinn, also called genie, Arabic jinnī, in Arabic mythology, a supernatural spirit below the level of angels and devils. Ghūl (treacherous spirits of changing shape), ʿifrīt (diabolic, evil spirits), and siʿlā (treacherous spirits of invariable form) constitute classes of jinn. Jinn are beings of flame or air who are capable of assuming human or animal form and are said to dwell in all conceivable inanimate objects—stones, trees, ruins—underneath the earth, in the air, and in fire. They possess the bodily needs of human beings and can even be killed, but they are free from all physical restraints. Jinn delight in punishing humans for any harm done them, intentionally or unintentionally, and are said to be responsible for many diseases and all kinds of accidents; however, those human beings knowing the proper magical procedure can exploit the jinn to their advantage.

Belief in jinn was common in early Arabia, where they were thought to inspire poets and soothsayers. Even Muhammad originally feared that his revelations might be the work of jinn. Their existence was further acknowledged in official Islam, which indicated that they, like human beings, would have to face eventual salvation or damnation.

Now, go forth and amaze your friends and enemies with your erudition.

What makes this story so fun is that it is highly unusual to have a golem and a jinni in the same tale becauze they come from different cultures and myths.

Apparently there is a sequel.  See ya later  – I am off to locate a copy.

PURE by Andrew Miller

pure1111_1925194fA truly engaging and delightful work of historical fiction.  I didn’t read historical fiction in the past because I somehow had the idea that it was all Regency romances, but I am learning that anything set in an older time is historical fiction, so …. horizons widened.

This story is set in Paris a little before the Revolution.  A young engineer has been sent to some functionary whose offices are in the Versailles Palace.  He is given the job of excavating and demolishing an ancient cemetery in the heart of Paris, Cemetery of Les Innocents, and its resident church.  The cemetery was apparently used during the plague for enormous mass graves of the plague victims, but over the centuries, its contents have started to leak into nearby houses and basements, and the air smells truly foul.  It is so bad that the residents of the area can be identified by their breath, which smells of the carnal house.

Our engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is made to understand he does not really have a choice to accept the job, nor can he resign.  He is told he is not high enough up on the food chain to have the privilege of resigning, so he sets himself to getting the job done.  He goes to a friend working in a mine several days journey away, and arranges for 30 men to come for the job.  Although the job is gruesome, the men are happy to change careers, since the pay is better, the hours are better, they get fed and given a drink allotment.

An old caretaker and his young granddaughter live on the grounds, as well as an ancient definitely batty priest, who appears and disappears.  There have been no masses held in the decaying church for decades, and when Jean goes to examine the state of the building, he meets a fellow, dandily dressed, who is the organist for the church.  He still gets paid his stipend, although there is no one to play for, and no one to work the bellows, so his playing is only the clicking of the keys. A couple of times a month, he pays some local lounge-abouts to work the bellows so he can hear the music he is playing.  He and Jean become friends, and he becomes central to the story.

Those in charge of the operation have arranged for Jean to board in a nearby house, owned by an odd couple with a twenty-something year old unmarried daughter.  The house has the smell of the cemetery, and the food has a strange taste.

The workers arrive, they set up camps in the cemetery and start digging, piling up bones into huge mountains, waiting for the go -ahead to transport them to a catacombs in the city which will be used as a sacred resting place.

Jean becomes obsessed with a prostitute he has seen who was selecting books at the booksellers.  He was astounded that not only could she read, but that she read books.   He continues to think about her and look for her, eventually meets with her and in a strange state of mind, invites her to move in with him.  He sets up housekeeping with her in his boarding house.

The story progresses until a wonderful denouement, (See what I did there?   Used a French word for finale or climax. I impress even me.)  where  life, death and all the in betweens come together in one conflagration.  (Yeah, and that conflagration word was a hint, but I had to point it out because you wouldn’t know how clever I was unless you had read the book.)

The whole thing is a meditation on death, life, and the eternal verities.  Here are some great quotes for you.

A gloom and doom priest preaches from Isaiah:  Beware the Lord will empty the earth and turn it upside down and scatter its inhabitants.  The earth dries up and withers, the whole world withers and grows sick, the earth’s high places sicken, and the earth itself is desecrated by the feet of those who live in it.

Damn!  Isaiah had it going on, didn’t he?  Sounds like our near future, what with climate change and all.   OK, let’s move on to some other topic:

The poverty of the villages is almost picturesque from the windows of a coach that is not stopping.  How much has changed in two hundred years?  Did the people not live much like this in the days of Henri IV?  They may have lived better, with fewer of them and the land less tired and the lords, with their just glimpsable chateaux, less numerous.

Arrrrggg!   Now doesn’t that sound like today, too.  The average folk living less and less well as the billionaire class increases, living off the money of the average folk.   Whew.  Well, let’s try something about the future:

One does not resent the future.  Nor its agents.

However, one can very well be afraid of it.  Moving on to families:

The visit, like all visits home for a long time now, has been an obscure failure.  When is it we cease to be able to go back, truly go back?  What secret door is it that closes?

And a last musing on violence:

Violence is respected;  he has learnt that much about the world.  It may even be one of those virtues the young man on the chair was preaching about.  Gentlemen with blood up to their shoe buckles, bowing and making to each other un beau geste.  Virtuous violence.  The virtuous necessity of it.  Violence as a duty.  It is, very likely, the coming thing.

Indeed.

Beautifully written,  great story, wonderful characters.  Do read it.

The author, in an interview talking about his choice of subject matter, said, “After the age of fortysomething, death is a taste in your mouth, and never goes away again.”   He may be right on that score.   He got the idea for the story ten years before actually writing the book after reading a book about Les Innocents cemetery by French medievalist and historian, Philippe Ariès.

 

 

 

 

THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE by Katherine Howe

physick-bookOK, remember The House of Velvet and Glass, by the same author?  Of course you do, your memory is not THAT full of holes.  I discussed it here.   In that historical novel, the story revolved around the Titanic.  And spiritualism.  And opium.  And visions produced by opium.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a wonderful historical novel about witches, and Salem and New England and how the church can be pretty darn nasty when it comes to not thinking and behaving in the exact manner it prescribes.

Again, we have a story set in two periods of time, the 1700s in New England, and modern day in the Salem, Mass. area.

A young doctoral student, Connie,   is working under the advisorship of a well known historian, and is told by him that the best thing is to find some original source material never seen before, because the whole witch thing has been pretty much picked over, doctoral thesis-wise, many years ago.  Her mother is a bit, shall we say, eccentric, and now lives in Arizona giving aura readings.  Her grandmother died many many years ago, leaving her small house in a secluded section outside of Salem, and her mother asks her to spend the summer cleaning it out and putting it on the market to sell.

Connie finds a key in an old bible, and in it, a scrap of paper with the words Deliverance Dane, and thus starts her search for what would turn out to be a book not only of recipes, but of spells.  The story pops back and forth between events that Deliverance Dane is involved in, (she is a healer), the church board, poisonings, accusations,  her daughter, and her daughter’s daughter.  The advisor is becoming quite interested in this possible original source, and is pressuring Connie to find the old manuscript.  The advisor is beginning to behave in a strange and erratic manner, and she finds him stalking her on several occasions.

We follow Connie in an interesting quest through the handling of old manuscripts and how they end up where they do.  We are not stalking Connie, however.  We are hoping for some modern day witchcraft.  And as in Howe’s other book, we are not disappointed with the bit of paranormal that creeps into the tale, because really, don’t you always wish you could cast a spell or two when the need arises?   But no burnings.  We don’t want any burnings.  Or hangings.   Geez, sure was dangerous to be a healer in those olden days.

Great great book.  I really loved it, and as was Howe’s other book, it, too, was meticulously researched, the history of the time brought to life.  Just excellent.

 

THE HOUSE OF VELVET AND GLASS by Katherine Howe

house-of-velvet-and-glassAn absolutely wonderful historical novel set in two periods and places.  One period, late 1868 in Shanghai, and the other mid teens, 1900s in Boston, Mass.

It is about the sinking of the Titanic, spiritualism as practiced in that day, pre-war Boston, and a smidge of paranormalism.  Is that a word?  Well, it is now, because I said so.

Sibyl Allston, a young woman in her twenties, lives with her widowed father and younger brother.  Her mother and younger sister died in 1912 while traveling aboard the Titantic on its maiden voyage.

Sibyl’s mother had been a devotee of spiritualism, attending seances at the private quarters of Mrs. Dee, a celebrated medium, taking Sibyl with her on many occasions.  After the deaths of the two women, Sibyl continue attending, hoping to contact her dead family members.  She is given a small globe, almost a toy, as a scrying glass.

The story goes back and forth between her father’s experience as a young man in Shanghai as a sailor, before he made his fortune in shipping, and events in Boston after the sinking of the Titanic and before World War I started, and events on board the ship as the mother was active in getting her younger daughter married off, since those efforts failed with the unmarried Sibyl.

Sibyl’s brother is kicked out of his university for unbecoming conduct with a young woman of uncertain background, and is found badly beaten one night in the lodging of the girlfriend.  The Allston family takes the young girl under their wing, and the girl takes Sibyl to an opium den, where Sibyl tries it and experiences amazing visions while looking at the scrying glass.    She thinks she sees the ship and the events leading up to its sinking.

Back in Shanghai, her father had the same experience when a fellow sailor took him to an opium den, of seeing the future of a couple of his shipmates.

So it is all about having the ‘sight’,  and what Sibyl continues to see in her glass,  opiate addiction, which was even in those days very common, as the stuff was found in cough medicines, sleeping pills,  tooth drops for babies.  At the time of the setting of the story, the government had begun to set up regulations concerning its use.

There is an unresolved romantic interest with the son of her father’s business partner,  and a medium who claims, in spite of the flagrant bells and whistles of the seances she produces, that she really does have the ‘sight’, but that her customers expect a more flamboyant experience, and so she provides that for them.

Great story, loved it!   Just could not put it down!

Here are some interesting facts for you:

Titanic’s loss was shocking because it revealed the real ramifications of a wealth disparity that is staggering even by today’s standards.  The fact is, as first-class women passengers, Eulah [the sister] and Helen [the mother] Allston would almost certainly have made it into a lifeboat in real life.  Only four first-class women passengers did not.  By comparison, the mortality rate for all third-class passengers, including children, was nearly 75 percent.  A first-class parlor suite ticket in 1912 cost $4,350, which some estimate to be the equivalent of over $90,000 in modern dollars — more akin to purchasing a ticket to outer space on Virgin Galactic.  …. the clear relationship between wealth and the odds of survival.

And about the drugs

This period saw technocratic problem-solving at the government level, such as the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, which brought opiates and cocaine under federal regulation for the first time, culminating in the better-known Volstead Act of 1919, which ushered in Prohibition.

titanic

Katherine Howe is the author of the best seller The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,  which I started reading a while ago and was having trouble getting into it, so I set it aside.  I can see now that I will have to go back and give it another shot, because that title alone just screams READ ME!

 

 

STONEHENGE by Bernard Cornwell

stonehengeBernard Cornwell writes a lot of historical fiction.  I have read most of his Saxon Chronicles series, which I really enjoyed.  If you want to see what I had to say about those books, just type his name in the search box on this blog and you will get a list of his books which I read.

One of the things I like about his books is that at the end, he gives a brief historical perspective and explanation of the historical period in which the novel is set.

This novel is about….. Stonehenge.  It is set in 2000 BC, at the start of the bronze age.  It follows one young man and his family.  We meet him when he is six years old, and he and his brother come upon an injured outlyer, a person from a tribe far away whom their tribe considers enemies.  The man crawls into the ruins of some old temple, and the older brother, a mean SOB, kills him in cold blood.  Among his belongings, they find a huge cache of gold, stolen from his home tribe.

The boys’ father is head of their tribe, and takes the gold to a neighboring tribe with whom they have only a very tenuous peace, offers them the gold in exchange for a solid peace pact, which is accepted.

The story goes on to follow the boy Saban as he grows into an adult, which is pretty dicey, because the older brother tries first to kill Saban because Saban saw him steal the gold,  and then after they come of age, manages to sell Saban into slavery.  You know, the normal sibling rivalry stuff.

And we also have another brother, born club footed, who instead of being sacrificed to the gods as was the usual custom, (nice multitasking there, getting rid of the people who cannot contribute to the society and would only be a drain on it, and having a live sacrifice for the gods at the same time.  Nice use of resources.)  is simply turned out of the village to survive on his own, because his father was the chief.  But he is clever, survives, and also sees the older brother stealing the gold treasure.   He goes to the sorceress of the neighboring village and she teaches him the arts, and also pretty much fixes his club foot.  Orthopedic surgery was a bit more primitive in those days, and she fixed it by slamming a mallet on it.  Ouch.  You know, the old ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ technique of bone surgery.  Yeah.  Well.   He goes on to become a scary and competent dark sorcerer and he wants to build a new temple to the sun god, claiming that it will bring peace to the land, there will be no more war, no more hunger, yada yada.  Sounds like every politician you ever heard, right?

So while Saban is living with the outlyers far from his native village, having been released from bondage, his sorcerer brother comes to him for help in building the temple.  That’s when all the quarrying operations begin, and there is a lot of speculation by our author as to how this operation was conducted.  Very interesting, and could well be just how it was managed.

The basis of the story is the building of what we now call Stonehenge, overlayered with a lot of saving of people from being burned to death in sacrifices, or having their heads lopped off in sacrifices, and descriptions of battles,  and the rest of daily life among the unwashed.  And I say unwshed because I found it interesting that the author portrays these folks who lived like 4,000 years ago, as having farming skills, as knowing how babies were created, because there was a lot of lineage stuff going on, as having certain healing arts, but they never washed, because there is frequent mention of how dirty everyone was.  Also, hardly anyone ever died in childbirth, and hardly any babies died with the frequency they seemed to in say, the medieval period.  Every character of note who got pregnant had an uneventful pregnancy, had the baby, both mother and baby doing fine, thanks, and no mention of women having 15 pregnancies with only say 3 surviving children, or how many women died in childbirth.  Oh well.  Written by a man from a man’s point of view, which was the raping and sexing and battles point of view.

Be all that as it may, I really enjoyed the book, both the story and the incidental details.  He is an excellent writer, does a boatload of research for his fictions, so it all has an uncanny feel of reality about it.