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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This creepy, compelling gothic novel was the perfect read for October nights.  Margaret Lea, a bibliophile and sometime biographer, is summoned to the home of a reclusive writer who is finally ready to reveal the truth about her background -- incest, insanity, and murder set in a decaying ancestral home (the plot owes much to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and even The Fall of the House of Usher).

Margaret's narration is at first overwritten and mannered, something I find in gothic novels no matter when they are written; I think in most cases a baroque plot is better served with plainer language. As the book progresses, however, and Margaret gets caught up in Vida Winter's story, her style settles down.  Vida's sections, on the other hand, are a treat. There is a real satisfaction in seeing this character who has written so many stories and told so many lies struggle to finally tell the truth, and to it coherently.  In particular, the way she shifts from third person to first person plural to first person singular is crucial to understanding who she truly is (literally and metaphorically).

The novel is stripped of any extraneous material; there are no references to friends or outsiders, the world at large is barely mentioned, and descriptions of surroundings are kept to a minimum.  This not only emphasizes the claustrophobia of the stories themselves -- Margaret's and Vida's -- it adds a sense of eerie timelessness to the narrative.  Read this with a mug of cocoa and a blanket wrapped around yourself.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 40

A pumpkin in bullion knots. Surely if I stitch enough leaves and pumpkins, the weather will cool down.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Hoffman's novel is a fictional account of the life of Pissarro's mother, particularly her controversial marriage to her deceased husband's nephew.  I was skeptical of the book and only picked it up because it's September's pick in the Inspired by Literature club, but I'm so glad I did.  Hoffman's storytelling is beautiful and evocative, and rich in cultural detail. It even incorporates a little of the magic realism that she is known for.

Although the perspective changes occasionally, most of the book is told from Rachel Pissarro's point of view. Rachel is a force of nature, enough to rival the storms that hit the island and nearly ruin the family business. She is smart, willful, and passionate, alternately willing to make sacrifices for her family and willing to defy laws, conventions, and neighbors to get what she wants. She is also a bundle of contradictions; some of those contradictions deepen her already complex character, but others are inexplicable. It's as if in some scenes -- just a few -- Hoffman wasn't quite sure who Rachel was. Nonetheless, she is a memorable character, and her sections of the book overwhelm those portions told by her first husband and her son.

Most of the story takes place on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, and Hoffman's description of life there reminded me strongly of Puerto Rico, where I was born.  In particular I was taken with the repeated motif of the flamboyant trees (flamboyán, as we called them) with their brilliant red flowers.  My grandmother (a Spanish and French woman herself, although Catholic, not Jewish) was a painter, and one of my treasured possessions is the painting she did of a Flamboyán tree on a street in San Juan:

So that was my inspiration. I embroidered my own flamboyán, and placed it in a brass frame.  I added some glass pearls for luck (like the heirloom necklace in the novel, that can bring or take away luck).

My enchanted island is suffering terribly as a result of hurricane Maria.  If you are able and inclined to do so, please consider giving to help the people.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

1 Year of Stitches: Week 39

I stitched some autumn leaves, in the hope that they would bring cooler weather.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

In Spark's classic novel, a mysterious voice calls several elderly people to tell them "Remember, you must die."  The source of the calls -- mundane or supernatural -- is never explained, but that's not the point.  Instead, the novel is a meditation on aging, death, and the way the various characters come to terms with their lives.

The results aren't exactly admirable, but they are funny, satirical, pathetic, and moving.  Human frailty is on display here as the characters mull over their lives, make excuses for themselves, and criticize their peers while coping with the physical and mental costs of aging. Above all, the concern is to have a "good death," whatever that means to the individual -- in the comfort of one's home, in a hospital with round-the-clock care, with a lot of money, surrounded by loved ones, mourned by the public at large. 

But the concerns often become petty. One character is constantly revising her will to reward or punish people; another schemes and blackmails to get inheritances.  One character catalogs the infirmities of everyone around him for the sake of "research" that's really busywork; another does it to reassure himself that he is "winning" at aging.  Towards the end of the book one woman, astuter than the others, makes the observation that "[a] good death ... doesn't reside in the dignity of bearing but in the disposition of the soul."  This is a point that is often ignored when we discuss end-of-life issues because we are so focused on getting rid of suffering and in "dying with dignity." But some suffering cannot be avoided no matter how hard we try.  And dignity doesn't lie in how able-bodied or sound-of-mind we are, but in our character.

For the most part, the characters in Spark's novel don't quite grasp that. That doesn't make them contemptible, though, just human.  Just like the rest of us.