Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book review: Death at Hull House by Frances McNamara

It's November in downtown Chicago. The local political machine is in full swing; corrupt elected officials sit in the pockets of powerful businessmen. Following a major economic recession, unemployment runs rampant. Immigrants in the workforce, fearful of losing the positions they have, struggle with illiteracy, constant poverty, and appalling living conditions. Then a deadly epidemic sweeps through the city, overwhelming health care workers and hitting young people especially hard.

Some things, it seems, never change.

The year is 1893. Miss Emily Cabot, a native Bostonian, has been kicked out of her sociology graduate program at the University of Chicago -- not for academic reasons, but because of a social disgrace. The Dean of Women gives Emily a chance to redeem herself by securing a position for her at Hull House, the settlement founded by Jane Addams in the heart of the city's West Side. Devastated by the loss of her fellowship, Emily is grateful for the opportunity, though she's skeptical about Hull House's practical, hands-on approach to solving the immigrant community's problems.

As Emily quickly gets absorbed into the day-to-day tasks of the settlement, her eyes are opened to a different world. Along with Florence Kelley, Chief Inspector of Factories for the state, she visits manufacturing establishments to ensure they're following a new law that limits female workers to eight-hour days. They meet resistance from all avenues, including from the workers themselves. Then, on Christmas morning, while nearly everyone is at church, a man representing the interests of a sweatshop owner is found bludgeoned to death in the Hull House parlor. Because Mr. Hanrahan had connections to their late father, Emily's brother Alden thinks he was killed to prevent him from revealing his knowledge about Judge Cabot's own murder back in Boston.

Emily and Alden pursue separate investigations, as do the local police, and their differing conclusions complicate matters and draw innocent bystanders into the fray. The Hull House residents, while widely respected in Chicago society, risk losing their good reputation if one of their own is accused of murder. Meanwhile, attendance at their classes and clubs for European immigrants has dwindled due to the smallpox epidemic. Emily finds herself assisting in situations she never learned about in school, like convincing nervous mothers about the safety of vaccinations and laying out disease-ridden bodies for burial.

This fast-paced, enjoyable historical mystery does an excellent job plunging readers into the hubbub of activities at Hull House and the chaos resulting from the spread of smallpox. There's a lot going on at once, but the many plot threads are laid out cleanly. The dialogue is slightly formal, and the secondary characters from Alden to Emily's doctor friend to Jane Addams herself are generally well-rendered. Although Emily's personality comes through strongly on page one, her friends and associates often outshine her; it would have been nice to get to know her a little better. There are some copyediting errors, but they become less noticeable as the story continues.

This is second in a series (after Death at the Fair), and with many references to earlier events, the books may be best read in order. Not all the subplots end happily, which reflects the reality of this place and time. Readers should come away from Death at Hull House with newfound respect for the women social reformers of the late 19th century, and the difficulties they faced creating a bridge between the two halves of Chicago society.

Death at Hull House is published on December 1st by Allium Press of Chicago at $14.99 (pb, 261pp, 978-0-9840676-0-2).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book review: Murder on the Cliffs, by Joanna Challis

When I was a teenager, Gothic novels formed a good part of my pleasure reading. They were the perfect escape, and I devoured them by the boxful. In a typical storyline, an attractive but naive young woman encounters danger and romance when she takes a position at a crumbling old castle or haunted mansion in the English countryside. She fights her attraction to the titled master of the house, a guarded, solitary man whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. I can picture the covers easily: the heroine fleeing in her flimsy nightgown at midnight, her long hair whipping in the wind, a lone candle flickering in the dark mansion behind her...

Although the genre has declined in popularity since, regrettably so, I'm still very fond of Gothics. So when I got word about Joanna Challis's new historical mystery, I knew I had to read it. What longtime fan could resist this cover?

Murder on the Cliffs pays tribute to the genre and one of its modern masters, Daphne du Maurier. At the same time, it puts a twist on many familiar tropes. For example, Challis's resourceful heroine is more than a match, socially and intellectually, for the Hartleys of Padthaway, so she arrives on the scene in a position of power. As the daughter of famed British actor Sir Gerald du Maurier, her name, unlike that of Rebecca's narrator, is not only known but renowned. Because she is who she is, we know she'll survive and thrive. Not everyone is so fortunate, though. It's beautiful Victoria Bastion, former kitchen maid at Padthaway and its master's would-be bride, who is found dead. How did she die, and who killed her?

Twenty-one-year-old Daphne, a devotee of all things historical, comes to remote Cornwall in 1928 seeking adventure and escape from the marriage market. She looks forward to spending her days researching records from Charlemagne's time at a nearby abbey. On one stormy and windswept night, she discovers the body of a beautiful young woman, clad in a nightgown, lying in a deserted cove, and a teenage girl in hysterics beside her. The girl introduces herself as Lianne and tells Daphne that the dead woman was her brother's fiancee.

Lianne brings Daphne back to her home, an grand Elizabethan-era mansion, to break the news to her family. Here Daphne's real adventure begins. Lianne's mother, Lady Hartley, was less than thrilled at seeing her son, Lord David, marry a social inferior with a racy reputation. But even though she had clear motive for wanting Victoria gone, the investigation proceeds slowly. Sir Edward, the local magistrate, seems to buy into the notion of "aristocratic privilege" and delivers a verdict of accidental death. Evidence turns up implying otherwise.

The Hartley household is as eccentric as any Gothic fan could hope for, and secrets from the past hang over all of Padthaway's residents. The mansion comes complete with a grim, overprotective housekeeper, and Lord David's brooding nature, enhanced by his recent bereavement, appeals to Daphne's romantic side. Daphne's privileged background and friendship with Lianne help her get closer to the Hartleys and discover the secrets they're hiding. She also finds inspiration for the novel she hopes to write ...

After the dramatic opening scene, Murder on the Cliffs settles in as a quietly atmospheric mystery that builds in intensity again toward the end. Several obvious questions remain unaddressed for a good long while, but eventually the answers come fast and furious. Upper-class Daphne's haplessness at housework is amusing, and her relationships with other village residents draw out other aspects of her personality. She has a close, teasing relationship with her father, which is glimpsed through correspondence, and relates well to people from all walks of life. The slowly changing social fabric in a small Cornish village in the post-WWI years is especially well presented.

Readers will have different tolerance levels for historical characters as sleuths, since these novels require extra suspension of disbelief. The real Daphne was enchanted by the region's rich heritage and wild, romantic atmosphere, and her fictional counterpart feels similarly. The openness of her fictional voice takes away somewhat from her undoubtedly complex, enigmatic personality. I wondered whether a third-person viewpoint might have conveyed this better, and there were times I wished the protagonist wasn't meant to be a historical figure. The youthful freshness of her narration is appealing, though, and the prose style clear and direct. Perhaps other facets of her character will come through in later books.

Whether or not you buy the idea of Du Maurier as detective, this is good escapist fare with an excellent sense of place and history -- and with plot elements that both adhere to and defy the conventions of the traditional Gothic.

Murder on the Cliffs was published this November by Minotaur at $24.99, hb, 291pp, 978-0-312-36714-5.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A is for Alchemist

This is my first entry in Historical Tapestry's "The Alphabet in Historical Fiction" challenge. Over the next year, I'll be traveling through the alphabet, looking at 26 historical novels that fit the letter of the week. I plan to focus on backlist titles that are worth a second look.

I remember when Eileen Kernaghan's The Alchemist's Daughter arrived in the mail. I hadn't intended to keep it to review myself, but I'd grabbed the package from the mailbox on my way out the door and, having nothing else of value to read in a doctor's waiting room, opened it up to the first page. Of course, I quickly got caught up in the story. The author's Bronze Age high fantasy series, the Grey Isles trilogy, had been favorites of mine in high school, so this shouldn't have come as a surprise.

In any case, here's my review (first published in the Historical Novels Review in Feb '05).

Sidonie Quince, a teenager in 1587 England, lives with her father, alchemist Simon Quince, in Charing Cross. She has inherited from her late mother the ability to scry into the future, but considers her gifts a curse, for she foresees only disaster for her country. When Sidonie’s father receives an invitation from Lord Burleigh to attend upon Her Majesty at Hampton Court, Sidonie accompanies him, and dares to tell Queen Elizabeth the truth about the forthcoming Armada. But to prepare for war, England needs money, and Simon’s foolish promise to turn base metal into gold leads only to trouble.

While he travels to London for supplies, Sidonie and her friendly neighbor, apothecary’s son Kit Aubrey, head to Glastonbury Abbey to find a mysterious red powder that may be their only hope. Their adventure leads them into the company of Dr. Dee, Lady Mary Herbert, William Shakespeare, and other Elizabethan notables – plus more danger than they ever expected.

I was enchanted by this lighthearted historical fantasy. The scenes describing Simon Quince’s failed experiments (which give off foul odors that cause his servants to flee) are hilarious, and the author’s precise language and brilliant depictions of the Elizabethan world are a pleasure to experience. Young adults will delight in the romance and magical setting, and adults will appreciate this wonderfully written novel as well.

The Alchemist's Daughter was published by Thistledown Press in 2004 in trade paperback ($13.95/C$15.95, 187pp, 189345797). For more details, see the author's website.

The evolution of enthusiasm

I've mentioned DeVa Gantt's Colette trilogy on occasion here, mostly in the visual previews. I reviewed all three books for the Historical Novels Review and thought I'd post about them all now that the final review is out in HNR's November issue. Forever Waiting, volume three, is officially released next Tuesday.

My fondness for family sagas isn't a secret, so as soon as I heard about these books, I asked my fellow reviews editor Ellen to request copies for me. As you'll see, I wasn't completely sold on book one, but by the midpoint of book two, I found myself wrapped up in the story, and book three was my favorite of them all. Misfit has also reviewed the first two, and our opinions turned out very similar.

If you're into sagas at all, I recommend seeking out this trilogy, as it's completely addictive.

DeVa Gantt, Harper, 2008, $13.95/C$14.95, pb, 373pp, 9780061578236

In 1833 Richmond, Virginia, fifteen-year-old Charmaine Ryan leaves poverty behind when she takes a job as companion to wealthy Loretta Harrington. The daughter of an alcoholic wife-beater, Charmaine naturally distrusts most men yet remains open to whatever opportunities life might offer her. Three years later, Mrs. Harrington helps her obtain a position as governess on Charmantes, the Duvoisin family’s private Caribbean island estate. Charmaine quickly befriends Colette Duvoisin, the youthful mother of her three charges, but all is not well in her adopted island home. As she gets drawn into the Duvoisins’ circle, Charmaine puzzles over the reasons behind their obvious discontent. Why are relations uneasy between Colette and Frederic, her elderly shipping magnate husband, and what caused his estrangement from his eldest son, John? Is there an unnatural reason for Colette’s constant ill health? And will Charmaine act on her attraction to Paul, Frederic’s dashing bastard son?

The novel, co-authored by two sisters writing under a pseudonym and previously self-published, lacks a certain polish. There are many abrupt viewpoint shifts (do we need to hear every minor character’s thoughts?), and the prose veers from clunky to elegant and back again. Perhaps the lush, informal island setting can excuse the lack of attention paid to some social niceties, but one would expect sharper divisions between the classes, and Charmaine’s position as governess doesn’t involve much academic instruction. Yet despite its flaws, the saga never failed to keep my attention. It has an epic, page-turning quality many other novels only aspire to. I found myself transported to the authors’ fascinating fictional creation of Charmantes, caught up in the drama of the characters’ lives and eager to continue the Duvoisins’ story in the next volume of the Colette trilogy. Put this one in the “guilty pleasure” category.

DeVa Gantt, Avon A, 2009, $13.99/C$16.99, pb, 363pp, 9780061578250

The sisters who co-write as DeVa Gantt have hit their stride with the middle volume of their Colette trilogy (originally self-published as one volume). With its narrower scope, engrossing storyline, and fewer competing viewpoints, Decision and Destiny is much stronger of a novel than A Silent Ocean Away, although it can’t stand on its own. It opens in August 1837 on Charmantes, the West Indies island owned and developed by the Duvoisins, a family involved in international shipping and the export of local crops. Charmaine Ryan, governess to three-year-old Pierre and nine-year-old twins Yvette and Jeannette, has become a substitute mother figure since the death of their beautiful young mother, Colette. Although Charmaine is ostensibly the protagonist, the plot centers on John, the long-estranged Duvoisin heir, a man whose cynical, sarcastic exterior masks an anguish-filled past. Though strongly attracted to his charming half-brother, Paul, Charmaine grows intrigued by the enigmatic John, for he clearly adores her young charges. While slowly revealing facets of their personalities, the action steadily builds toward a denouement in which secrets hidden for decades are finally laid bare.

Decision and Destiny is chock full of all the elements saga fans expect: drama, romance, blackmail, family rivalries, a past that hangs over the present, and strong bonds of affection, too. The Gantts have taken special care in developing their younger characters, and it shows. The three Duvoisin children exhibit realistic traits and engage in antics that are delightfully humorous without being precious. While the tropical island setting feels authentic and tangible, the dialogue is sometimes too modern, and the historical backdrop lightly sketched, though this last was a wise decision. It keeps the focus where it belongs, on the Duvoisins themselves. I can’t wait to read the final installment, out in November.

DeVa Gantt, Avon A, 2009, $13.99, pb, 434pp, 9780061578267

The Duvoisin family saga that began with A Silent Ocean Away and Decision and Destiny wraps up with this final volume. It takes place in the late 1830s in Virginia and on the lush West Indies island of Charmantes, the longtime residence of the wealthy Duvoisin family. Charmaine Ryan, the family’s governess, finally makes her choice between the two Duvoisin brothers: Paul, the dashing illegitimate son, who makes his marital intentions clear at last; and John, the complex man with whom she has, to her surprise, fallen in love. In the last book, John had left Charmantes in the wake of a devastating tragedy, but circumstances call him back again – to face his father, patriarch Frederic Duvoisin, and determine whether the deep wounds between them can ever be repaired. Forever Waiting is ultimately a novel about maturity, forgiveness, and coming to terms with the past, but before the dust settles, there’s still much more of the Duvoisins’ painful history yet to be revealed.

The novels must be read in order, and although the first one started out rough, I quickly became sold on this trilogy. It’s full of likeable, flawed characters I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with; John’s gradual transformation from embittered, cynical family pariah to honorable hero was especially well portrayed. While the ongoing drama remains at the forefront, the story takes place against a well-rendered backdrop of the 19th-century shipping industry and the burgeoning abolitionist movement along America’s eastern seaboard. The plot twists and turns in unpredictable ways, and the conclusion is as satisfying as anyone could wish. DeVa Gantt is the joint pseudonym for co-author sisters Deb and Valerie, and some have called their style old-fashioned, but if their work marks a return to solid, engrossing storytelling, then I’m all for it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday night link roundup

I'm pretty tired following a 2-hour meeting this afternoon, followed by an extended session on the NordicTrack at home (gotta work off all the German food I ate on vacation), but I wanted to get a blog post written tonight. For those who follow me on Twitter, you may have seen some of these already.

Reviews of Editors' Choice titles for the Historical Novels Review's Nov 2009 issue are up. For a nice change, I've read four of them already: Rebels and Traitors (which I lugged to Europe and back), A Separate Country, Flint, and The Little Stranger.

The November reviews for Historical Novels Review Online are also up, as of tonight, and the forthcoming books page for 2010 is updated -- with thanks to Sarah C, who keeps track of UK publications. They're online through next August.

Edward Rutherfurd defies the political correctness police in writing his New York: The Novel.

Another British historian jumps on the historical fiction bandwagon: Hallie Rubenhold's trilogy about "an 18th century heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot: courtesan, adventuress, spy and erstwhile murderess" has sold to Transworld, for publication beginning in 2011.

The different approaches to historical fiction taken by a Booker winner and a Governor General's nominee, from Maclean's. However: "Someone who made her name in historical fiction wouldn’t stand a chance, however good her work, of a Booker nomination." What about Sarah Waters, shortlisted for Little Stranger? All of her novels fit both categories.

An interview with Annabel Lyon, author of The Golden Mean, the novel about Aristotle which was triple nominated for literary awards in Canada. And which got snapped up by Knopf (US) and Atlantic (UK) shortly thereafter.

Historical Tapestry is hosting its first challenge: the alphabet in historical fiction. As they write: Each fortnight you write a blog post about an historical fiction book of your choice (it might even be something you already read before), but it must be related to the letter of the week. Jump over to their site for the complete rules.

This is a great idea and theme; I'm going to participate in this, time permitting. I expect most if not all the books I'll be talking about are backlist titles. I also wonder what will happen when we get to the letter X. Will we all be blogging about Xavier Herbert's Capricornia, or Edison Marshall's Caravan to Xanadu? How about something set during the reign of King Xerxes? I guess we have 48 weeks to figure this one out.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to find Historical Fiction II reviewed on the Booklist book club blog last Friday; it's especially nice when a reviewer understands the approach I decided to take.

Now back to reading Wolf Hall. I'm halfway done.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Judging a book by its title

This past July, I wrote up a review of the historical novel at left. Although 2009 isn't anywhere near over, it seems safe to say that it'll easily make my top 5 list for the year, if not the top spot altogether. (I don't want to make any pronouncements, as I haven't started Wolf Hall yet, and I've heard... maybe a few rumors that it's supposed to be good.)

And so I was extremely pleased to learn that it will be published in the US next year. Jude Morgan is a novelist who, I feel, has never received the wide acclaim he justly deserves, although this will be far from his first book to be published stateside. If I'm to believe Amazon as well as Baker & Taylor, it will be released as a trade paperback on April 27, 2010.

However, there'll be a change of title. Instead of the poetic and thematically appropriate The Taste of Sorrow, the US release is currently going by Charlotte and Emily. No cover art available so far.

This puts two of the main characters' names up front. Famous names sell books, and readers can easily guess who they are. Maybe the original title was too vague? Too much of a downer? (Does anyone expect a novel about the Brontës to be a pleasant walk in the park?) I'm all for increasing the potential sales of a novel of this caliber, but the new title is bland, it's overly generic, and it misrepresents the content to some degree. There are three viewpoint characters in the novel, and the revised title omits one of them.

At the All About Romance blog in June, Lynn Spencer talked about this phenomenon in the context of romance novels -- how imaginative titles are being tossed out in favor of generic ones when the books are reprinted. Her post, along with the comment trail that followed, is worth reading. Another example: Susan Wiggs's historical romance Vows Made in Wine has been re-released as The Maiden's Hand. One reader made a comment that stuck with me: "I think that they’re really sucking the poetry out of book titling with this generic, keyword-driven approach."

This may very well be a smart marketing tactic, but I can't help feeling a little sorrow for the poetry lost... as well as for poor neglected Anne.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Strolling through Salzburg

It's a warm and lazy Sunday afternoon here in Illinois, so after spending the morning reading Elissa Elliott's Eve: A Novel of the First Woman (for coverage in NoveList; I'll do my writeup tomorrow), I thought I'd get back to posting my travelogue. Here I am, above, sitting in the outdoor café at Fortress Hohensalzburg, overlooking the city of Salzburg with the Tyrolean Alps as a backdrop, on October 22nd. We hadn't made any plans to visit here, but with the help of the local tourist office and a little random luck, we managed to see a number of sites of great visual and historical interest.

For example, after walking a block from our hotel in the old city and passing through the Mozartplatz Square, we came upon the Salzburger Dom, a magnificent cathedral and a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Interior view at left. There was a sign out front advertising a special event at the Dom that very evening, Licht Nacht (light night), so we took a stroll over after dinner to see what it was all about.

If you've never heard choral music sung in a cathedral as grand as this, it's quite an experience. The interior was lit up with colored lights that changed and faded in and out in accompaniment with the singers and organist. The cathedral pews were filled with a combination of locals and tourists (mostly the former); we had to stand in the back until seats opened up along the side. Mark took a video with his digital camera that came out surprisingly well. (Adobe Flash required to view.)

The gates at the entrance to the Dom provide more information about its history. You may need to enlarge the photo to see them clearly, but atop them are three dates which memorialize the three separate consecrations of the Dom: 774, 1628, and 1959. The original structure, consecrated to St. Virgil and St. Rupert in 774 AD, was destroyed by fire in the 12th century and rebuilt. Another fire ravaged the cathedral at the end of the 16th century, and it was reconstructed during the Thirty Years' War. The most recent consecration took place in 1959, after the cathedral dome was destroyed by Allied bombers during WWII and rebuilt yet again. (Most of the rest of the structure remained intact.)

Earlier that day, we had crossed a bridge over the Salzach River and wandered around more of the city's narrow streets. Lots of shops. Just to the side of St. Sebastian's Church (Sebastianskirche), another Baroque structure, is a cemetery with some very famous residents. It was only by chance that we stopped to walk around there, but I recognized several names right away. A few yards from the entrance, you'll find the plot for Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, as well as that for Constanze (Constantia), widow of Mozart, who settled in Salzburg with her second husband, Georg Nissen. Historical fiction readers may recognize her as a lead character from both Stephanie Cowell's Marrying Mozart and Juliet Waldron's Mozart's Wife. (I had to get historical novels in here somewhere!)

This last photo is the sight we saw while walking back toward the city center from the other side of the Salzach: the Dom towers behind the buildings at right, while the 11th-century fortress, at the very top, overlooks everything.

Note: there's something wrong with this post in IE; the date stamp and comment link are missing in the main blog view. I have no idea why. If it doesn't appear, you should be able to get there through this page instead.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Book review: Sunflowers, by Sheramy Bundrick

In her debut novel, Sheramy Bundrick casts a sympathetic light on troubled painter Vincent van Gogh, imagining a romantic relationship between him and Rachel, the young prostitute from Arles mentioned in one of the more dramatic and tragic episodes of his life.

When they first meet in a public garden on the fringes of the city in summer 1888, both are seeking a place of refuge and repose. They find it in one another. Vincent has just moved from Paris to Arles to take artistic inspiration from the local people and beautiful scenery and to establish an artists’ colony in southern France. In escaping to the countryside, Rachel wants to forget, temporarily, her unfortunate life as a fille de maison on the Rue du Bout d’Arles. Both have painful romantic pasts and are short of funds: Vincent depends on the largesse of his art dealer brother, Theo, for his subsistence, while Rachel, forced out of her home after an indiscretion, means to earn enough francs to get her name removed from the city’s register of prostitutes.

Although Vincent starts out as her client, he always treats her with respect, bringing her flowers and ensuring she enjoys their time together as much as he does. Their growing romance becomes a source of comfort to them both, and in willingly cooking and cleaning the yellow house where he lives, Rachel adds a touch of domesticity and normality to their lives. In his exuberant paintings of sunflowers, she catches a glimpse of his passionate soul. Although she is threatened by Vincent’s reluctance to mention her to his family, Rachel remains devoted to her lover. Their love remains constant, despite the censure of her house’s proprietress and the crises of madness he experiences – which become ever more frequent and severe.

Bundrick presents Vincent van Gogh as a gentle man possessed of enormous artistic creativity yet tormented by inner demons, a victim of a medical condition – possibly manic depression – that no one, neither Rachel nor himself, is able to fight. With its imagery of the ruins of Roman Gaul and the dingy cafés lining the city’s streets in the late 19th century, Sunflowers has a strong sense of place and time and serves as an enticement to visit southern France. Like the paintings themselves, the narrative is suffused with brilliant swirls of color, as seen in the warm gold of the wheat fields and the deep blue of the sky over Arles. Vincent himself, with his red hair and beard and famed yellow straw hat, becomes part of the overall portrait. The plot moves in accord with the rhythms of Provençal life, from the unrushed time of the wheat harvest to the mistrals that blow fiercely through the city. It’s a richly satisfying reading experience.

A sidenote: I took Sunflowers with me on my recent European vacation, and it kept me happily occupied on a long overnight flight. I began writing up my review on our first night in Munich. To my surprise, I saw a note on the back of the book that the cover painting could be found in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek, which specializes in 18th and 19th-century European art. And so we made plans to visit the museum (and painting) in person the following day.

Sunflowers was published this October by Avon A at $14.99 (401pp, pb, 978-0-06-176527-8).

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Guest post from Sheramy Bundrick: Van Gogh, Reader of Novels

Sheramy Bundrick, author of Sunflowers (Avon A, October) and proprietor of the blog Van Gogh's Chair, is stopping by today as part of her blog tour. I'll be posting a review of her debut historical novel tomorrow. Visit her website at Welcome, Sheramy!

Van Gogh, Reader of Novels
By Sheramy Bundrick

Most people know Vincent van Gogh as a prolific artist — over eight hundred paintings in ten years’ time — and perhaps as a prolific letter writer. But he was an equally prolific reader, with an “irresistible passion for books” (as he put it) and a particular love for novels. Vincent read Dutch, French, and English fluently, and the authors’ names sprinkled through his correspondence form a who’s-who of nineteenth-century literature. In the letters, he offers recommendations and critique of books to his brother Theo, his sister Wilhelmina, and other family members and friends. We learn which books he thought consoling (Dickens’ Christmas stories and Shakespeare’s plays were a comfort in the asylum) and which inspiring (John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). He praises French Naturalists like Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert for their views on modern life; Dickens, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe for their sense of social reform. He even read Jane Eyre and Shirley, novels of Charlotte Brontë then known under her pseudonym, Currer Bell.

For van Gogh, novels represented modernity. In many of his portraits and still-life paintings, he tucked a yellow-covered paperback novel or two to serve as symbols of contemporary thought. In Still Life with Bible and French Novel (1885), a well-worn copy of Zola’s La Joie de vivre sounds a note of rebellion against the massive Bible that had belonged to Vincent’s recently deceased father. The lovely Still Life with Almond Branch and Book (1888), a birthday gift for his sister Wilhelmina, sets a plump paperback against a flowering almond branch, both likely intended as emblems of new life and modern thinking. Van Gogh always wanted to paint a bookshop lit up at night, but never managed it; the closest he came was the pictured oil sketch, La Liseuse des romans (The Novel Reader) of autumn 1888, showing a very modern girl reading a very modern novel before a bookseller’s shelves.

It is worth highlighting Vincent’s attitude towards women and books. Not only did he admire (and condone) female authors like Stowe and Eliot, he also felt ladies should read whatever they pleased, a way of thinking not shared by most men of the day. Even his brother Theo preferred to shelter their sisters from controversial Naturalist novels — “forbidden fruit,” Theo called such books — while Vincent eagerly suggested Wilhelmina read this or that to expand her horizons. To “satisfy the need we all feel of being told the truth,” as he said. For van Gogh, novels as much as any other books could reveal truth, teach us things about ourselves and the world in which we live through the guise of a fictional story.

Sometimes I wonder how van Gogh would feel to be the subject of novels himself nowadays: Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, Adam Braver’s Crows Over the Wheatfield, Alyson Richman’s The Last Van Gogh, my own Sunflowers, to name a few. Would he be embarrassed at the attention? Secretly pleased? For my own part, I tried to write a book I thought he would like, with the sort of heroine he might admire. And I hope he’d be satisfied.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Books I can't read

Oder, so viele Bücher, die ich nicht lesen kann.

This is the scene that greeted me upon entrance to a typical German bookstore. Historical novels everywhere. Some had separate sections labeled "Historiche Romane" (and when's the last time you saw that in an English-language store?) while others had piles and piles of them front and center. This photo comes from a mall store in Nürnberg's old city.

I had always heard that historical fiction was alive and well in Germany, and I now have firsthand proof of it. My two years of college German from 20 years ago were nowhere near sufficient for me to read any of them cover to cover, but I got the gist of the setting and characters from the titles and back cover blurbs.

There was a good selection of novels translated from English and other European languages. Can you spot Judith Merkle Riley's The Water-Devil, Jane Harris's The Observations, and C.J. Sansom's Revelation in the pile, not to mention several by Bernard Cornwell? The majority were, of course, written in German. Next to none will ever be translated into English, and they cover many subjects and settings that simply aren't covered in English-language fiction. There is no market here, apparently, which is very frustrating. So if you want to read a novel set in medieval Würzburg or 17th-century Bavaria, you'd better know how to read German or you're out of luck. And believe me, I'm tempted.

You'll gather that the headless woman trend is doing just as well there as it is here, and most of the novels do seem to have female protagonists; however, in my admittedly limited sampling, the emphasis on royalty isn't nearly as strong.

I know this blog has some German-speaking readers, and I'd love to hear their opinions! I can think of several historical novels written in English that appeared in German long before they were published in the US or UK (or elsewhere)... such as the Riley novel above and Donna Gillespie's Lady of the Light, sequel to The Light Bearer.

So, book shopping wasn't a major component of this trip, unlike my last visit to the UK (when I brought home a suitcase full). But I did do a lot of browsing.

What was I saying about some English-language content appearing first in German translation? Pope Joan, the film based on Donna Woolfolk Cross's bestselling novel of the same title, premiered October 22nd in Germany. You couldn't walk down the streets of of any major city without running into posters. The one at left comes from the Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof (main train station). The novel Die Päpstin was prominently displayed in every bookshop window we saw -- and in multiple sizes and covers.

I knew that the movie had been filmed in English, but the film that was being shown appeared to be in German, so we asked the desk clerk at our Nürnberg hotel and he confirmed it. After some googling around, I discovered that rather than subtitle Hollywood films for German-speaking audiences, the producers dub them into German using voice actors. There's a large foreign film cinema in Nürnberg called the Roxy, and the clerk advised checking there, but they weren't showing it in English -- because the English-language version, the original, hadn't been released yet (edited to say: or so I'd thought -- see comments for an update from a German reader). We could have gone to see the German version but decided to wait until it's available in the States. I hope it will be soon.