Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is being flogged at Borders and Barnes & Noble as a must-read novel. I'm about to plunge into Gulliver's Travels for Knit the Classics, but I wanted a palate-cleanser, so to speak, so I brought the book home from the library and settled in with a cup of tea.

The strange thing, since the book is based on twinnage, is that my reading experience was Janus-like. My middle name is Jan. Maybe Jan is the mediator between the happy-to-have-read-this Janusface and the oh-come-on! Janusface?

The book utterly, totally engrossed me as I was reading. The book also utterly, totally annoyed me. Can this woman write, or not? Is she leaving clues that make McGuffins look like Tinkertoys, or not? Am I reading on because I like the way the publisher made the flyleaves look like those in old-fashioned books, or not?

Margaret Lea is a young woman whose life balances between two obsessions: her father's antiquarian bookstore, and lonely grief for her twin sister, who died in infancy, and whose existence she discovered by accident. Victoria Winter is an old woman, a writer of popular books (Gothic mysteries?), who summons Margaret to be her biographer. Winter has spent most of her adult life creating the stories for her books, and creating false biographies for herself, but she wants to tell the truth before she dies of a mysterious, painful, wasting disease.

Victoria Winter is depicted as a wasted, painted crone with hair dyed to the copper color of her youth, wearing massive jewelry, and telling an enthralled Margaret a spellbinding narrative. (I thought of Isak Dinesen.) Jane Eyre figures in the plot. Rebecca comes to mind. Of course, Dark Shadows, whose young Victoria Winters began that Gothic series. Victoria and her twin sister, presumably dead from the massive fire that destroyed their childhood home, were wild, cunning, even evil children who may or may not have caused mysterious deaths and mayhem around them. Links amongst other characters abound - or do they? A gardener, a missing nanny, a woman who may or may not be a Mrs. Danvers-type, a fey man who haunts the burnt-out shell of the house in-between catering local galas, and ghosts, many ghosts - the plot is absolutely stuffed with recognizable characters and plots.

A key, I think, is whether they are cliches or inventions. Can one twin take the place of another? Can she control the other, even from beyond the grave? Can one book have this many twists and still remain respectable? I confess: I don't read Gothic romances, so I might be defaming an entire genre with my doubts...

I confess: I enjoyed a few details. The cat, Shadow, for example, who attaches himself to Margaret and even shows her the way to a few important clues. (I've always wanted a familiar.) A woman who knits socks, and who knits them with two heels when things are about to go wrong in her life. Margaret's cocoa Jones, and fetish for perfectly-sharpened pencils.

The ending did surprise me, as did at least one or two of the plot twists. Margaret, with her largely-unfulfilled desire for provable details and her obsessive longing for her dead sister, may not be the ideal narrator, but I trusted her to be honest about what she observed and what she doubted. I read the book in a few hours, and I never was tempted to put it down in favor of another book. I just can't really recommend it. Or, at least, Jan can't...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Kerouac on tea:

from Dharma Bums:

Now you understand the oriental passion for tea," said Japhy. "Remember that book I told you about the first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, and the fifth is ecstasy."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers

Cassatt_woman_readingMary Cassatt is one of my guiding angels. Her paintings of women writing letters, drinking tea, reading, and doing needlework illuminate a life I often imagine for myself - a life surrounded by quiet beauty and the leisure to appreciate it.

Harriet Scott Chessman, the author of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers, has gone beyond the escapist dream by bringing the reader into the life of Lydia Cassatt, the frail older sister who posed for many of Mary Cassatt's best-known paintings. "I have thought, imagined, and dreamt my way into her world," says the author. The narrative wanders as Lydia poses, musing as she holds up a teacup for hours or reads a newspaper. Lydia remembers the young man she once loved, the images she saw through her dead brother's telescope, the great artists she has known (Degas, Pissarro, Renoir), and her mother's sense of betrayal when Mary sells portraits of family members.

"Who is going to care about such pictures as much as Mary's own family?" asks Mother Cassatt. Lydia understands the core of Mary's art - how she works for hours to capture the image, gesture, and illumination of one moment, how beloved and iconic these paintings will become.

Lydia does not always understand what Mary sees, and especially not what Mary see is her, but she cherishes the gift that her sister has given her by using her image as the public face of Mary's genius.

Mary Cassatt creates the five paintings that comprise the narrative after Lydia is diagnosed with Bright's disease, inevitably fatal in the nineteenth century. Lydia's disease, her helplessness and agony, often delays the progression of the paintings. It does not affect the bond between Lydia and her sister, whose love and care seem to bathe Lydia's suffering in the rosy, caressing light in the portraits. Even Degas, whose brusque and sarcastic manner often upsets Mary, seems to become a more caring, softer presence as Lydia's life ebbs.

Chessman portrays the details of Lydia's disease and decline in prose quite blunt. One does not have to imagine the pain or embarassment of these symptoms; the prose leaves little room for imagination. However, Lydia is neither diminished by her disease nor severed from her essence. She retains the ability to observe, analyze, and understand her sister's vision and her own joy to have been a part of Mary's art.

At the end of her life, Lydia's deepest imaginings buoy her: "To live in that world you made... that creamy world of no difficulty, no blood... a life like a shell curling in on itself, glistening and clean on the sand, rolled in salt water, rolled and rolled, spent and spending." This book allows the reader to bask in both worlds - the world illumined by the magic captor of light, and the world in which we observe the mundane details behind the illusion.

Chessman has written a seamless and welcome glimpse of these worlds. Don't miss it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

When in doubt, do a meme

I got this one from Booking Through Thursday --

  1. What is most battered book in your collection? The one with loose pages, tattered corners, and page edges so soft that there's not even a risk of paper cuts anymore? Franny and Zooey - Franny, c'est moi, in so many ways, and for so long.

  2. Why is this book so tattered? Is it that you love it so much that you've read it a zillion times? Is it a reference book you've used every day for the last seven years? Something your new puppy teethed on when you weren't looking? Even today, a zillion years after I first read it, I pick it up, lose myself in the Glass family, and remind myself that everyone is the Fat Lady.