The Forty Rules of Love

“Although I was eager to listen to the sermon and dying to meet Rumi, I wanted to spend some time in the city first and learn…” (The Forty Rules of Love by Shafak)

A 3rd-person narrative encapsulates a book-within-a-book, told in 1st person from multiple characters’ perspectives. Point of view characters range from a modern housewife to historical figures living in 13th century Turkey.

The above description of Forty Rules of Love alone is enough to make a careful reader suspicious. After all, how many writers have the capacity to properly enter the minds of so many different people? A handful a generation? Whether you pay attention to the dizzying narrative layers or not, it only takes a few chapters to see that all of the perspectives – famous 13th century scholars to nameless 13th century lepers – sound like contemporary housewives. Mystics young and old use modern colloquialisms like ‘dying to’, ‘cry my heart out’ and ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’. Not only do all the characters, regardless of their time period, sound alike, but they also think alike. All take stock of their lives in the same way, look towards the future in the same way, vow to be better people in the same way.

I have an image in my mind about how this book could have been: every character having their own voice and manner of thinking – a book where enlightened poets and religious heretics didn’t have such a modern sense of quantifying themselves, their lives, and everyone around them. A book where Rumi’s words and Shams’ rules were allowed to play out through characterization instead of listed and enumerated. That’s the book I want to read.

That being said, I can easily see how this book could be an inspiration to many people. If you aren’t looking for literature, if you’re looking for a straightforward way to learn more about Sufism, then this could still be an excellent read for you. Shafak’s even pacing and foreshadowing move the reader effortlessly through the chapters, and it may even inspire you to go back and read the original materials for further information.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 350
Ending: as foreshadowed
Incidental Learning: Sufism, 13th century Turkey, Rumi, Shams
Further Reading: The Essential Rumi

The 42nd Parallel

“She hated these treacherous days when winter felt like Spring. They made the lines come out on her face, made everything seem to crumble about her, there seemed to be no firm footing any more.” (The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos)

“Newsreel XI: I’m going to Maxim’s/ Where fun and frolic beams/ With all the girls I’ll chatter/I’ll laugh and kiss and flatter.” (The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos)

42nd-parallel CoverPassos writes a broad, wide-ranging book that attempts to capture America between 1910-1930. He chronicles the childhoods and fortunes of at least five different people with diverse  economic backgrounds and political aspirations (though all the same race). He treats those characters who never get out of the working class gently and sympathetically while at the same time reveling in the downfall and dehumanization of those who find success. The broadly sketched stories are divided by excerpts of pop culture songs and brief biographies, which are written in an experimental, stream-of-consciousness style that gives more consideration to tone and feeling than grammar or sense.

I’ve read books that intersperse excerpts and interludes between the meat of the story to great effect, like 2312 or The Grapes of Wrath, but here the excerpts’ styles disrupt the story arch without adding a larger context or focusing the work. The 42nd Parallel‘s interludes require that the reader already knew enough about American history to deduce what a scrap of newspaper means from only a few words, or that we feel comfortable switching between smooth narrative prose and choppy almost-poetry. Though technically a novel, I would feel more comfortable recommending this work to history buffs or scholars rather than lovers of of story or prose.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 448

Ending: Doesn’t really end, the U.S.A. Trilogy should probably be treated as one book with random breaking points

Further Reading: This turned out to be not quite my type of book, but if you liked it, you could go in a lot of directions with Pure American History.

I, Claudius

“I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.”  (I, Claudius by Robert Graves)

I, Claudius CoverI hardly know how Robert Graves managed to make an accurate portrayal of ancient Rome so interesting. The only literary trick he uses is a thin first-person perspective, and even so most of the book is spent itemizing family titles, lineages, and marriages. Yet, the book never ceases for a moment to be fascinating. The reason must be that ancient Rome was run like a modern soap opera: with so many executions, lies, and affairs that even the most sophisticated person cannot fail to be entertained by them. In both its phrasing and dry wit, I, Claudius is very early-century British, which may (or may not) be historically accurate but is always charming.

The young, scholarly Claudius speculates with two famous historians on the purpose of writing history, theorizing that historical works can either emphasize rhetoric or accuracy, and so inspire men either towards Virtue or Truth.  Robert Graves pioneered a third, more modern, path by melding accurate historical facts with with fictional interpretations of character and motive. Instead of inspiring us towards the ancient values of truth or virtue, Graves inspires the modern person towards googling, fact-checking, and a fascination with the division between fact and fiction. You will find yourself wondering: was Caligula really that mad? Was Tiberius so dissolute, or Germanicus so noble? You will try to google Caligula’s purported ascension to godhood and realize that the internet doesn’t provide the breadth and depth of resources that you would need to answer such a question. In short, you will be interested.

Recommended Action: Buy  BorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 468 (Audiobook: Outstanding. The 1994 version by Frederick Davidson is phenomenal. He brings out the essential British humor of the text winningly)

Ending: A bit of a cliffhanger.

Further Reading: If you liked this, you’ll definitely want to go on to Claudius, the God to see what happens to our dear stammering, republic-loving friend.

Wolf Hall

“Suppose within every book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.” (Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel)

Wolf Hall CoverWhy do authors write historical fiction in period dialect? I had never asked myself that question before reading Wolf Hall, thinking the answer to be self-evident. But now, after reading Mantel’s lucid, modern prose as applied to the mind of Thomas Cromwell in 1520’s, I can’t imagine enjoying period dialect with the same relish again. An attempt at it seems phony now, a denial of the essential nature of historical fiction: that it is written from a modern perspective, for modern readers.

Another side effect of period language is that it has the tendency to make historical characters seem daft or simple since their thoughts aren’t expressed with the same variety of language we use now (or that they could use then). Mantel overcame this problem by writing Cromwell’s character in stream-of-consciousness, laying out his thoughts and motivations as well as any piece of recent literature could. As a result, he comes of as a multi-dimensional, complicated character instead of being reduced to a simple thug by a constrained dialect. The more I think about why Mantel might have wanted to break the historical fiction language taboo, the more advantages I come up with: it is a wonder no one attempted it sooner.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 604 pgs

Ending: Not a cliffhanger, but definitely not tidy  

Further Reading: Follow this up immediately with Mantel’s recently published Bring Up the Bodies, also the recipient of the Booker prize.

Maisie Dobbs

“Truth walks toward us on the paths of our questions…as soon as you think you have the answer, you have closed the path and may miss vital new information. Wait awhile in the stillness, and do not rush to conclusions, no matter how uncomfortable the unknowing.” (Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear)

Maisie Dobbs CoverMaisie Dobbs is not your average mystery. Winspear spends much more time exploring the nature of Masie’s character, upbringing, and fascinating education than she does on anything as banal as murder. The book feels like more of a psychological exploration or war memoir or even a tragic love story than its ostensible genre. Instead of being fast-paced and triumphant, as most mysteries are, Maisie’s story is slow and sad, and riddled with flashbacks and pensive silences.

Reflecting on the diverse appeal of Maisie makes me wonder if letting her languish on the mystery genre shelves isn’t an insult. The only people who would look for her there would be traditional mystery lovers, who may think the book too slow, while fans of literature and historical fiction might never get to that far-off shelf. Labeling a book as a traditional genre such as ‘mystery’ ‘romance’ or ‘sci-fi’ doesn’t fit the way people write or read today. Most new books, unless they are traditionally formulaic, mash elements of several genres (much to the benefit of the reader). So why do libraries and bookstores still divide by genre? There are probably a few practical answers to that question, but I am personally waiting for the day when we can mash all the books together and people can find their favored genres (if they still have them) by augmented reality or some other cool computer tech, while the rest of us can browse, happily unhampered by someone else’s label of our next book.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow TBRAvoid

Length: 249 pgs.

Audiobook Quality: excellent

Ending: Sad but cathartic

Further Reading: I read about this on a list of recommended read-alikes to Downton Abbey, which also included Below Stairs by Powell and other post-WWI titles.  

The Winthrop Woman

“A woman with opinions had better develop a thick skin and a loud voice.” (The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton)

Cover of The Winthrop WomanI’ve been told that historical novels are divided into two camps: true history made accessible through fiction, and an adventure/love story set in a historical backdrop. The Winthrop Woman is a masterpiece of the former. Incredibly well researched, Anya Seton brings to life the contradictory, strong character of Elizabeth Winthrop who survived in early 17th century America. Though her life does not necessarily influence the course of history, Setton chose her subject well: the unsettling Elizabeth lives through a witch hunt, a puritanical government, three husbands and a scandalous love affair. The reader will not suffer for lack of true drama, and will learn so much more about America’s infancy than a history class could ever teach.

Before this book, I had met few historical novels that I enjoyed, but The Winthrop Woman has converted me. Now, I can’t get enough of them. There is an excitement that comes from wondering exactly how much of a book is true that one can’t get from a purely fictionalized work. TheWinthrop Woman also had me turning to the internet every few pages to fact-check, as it piqued my curiosity about the time in a way dry lectures never did. As a recent convert, I’d love to hear from all of you long-time historical fiction lovers out there. Where should I go from here? What are the main authors of the genre?

 Recommended Action: Buy BorrowTBRAvoid

Length: 608

Ending: slightly vague, but satisfying

Further Reading: As I said in the post, I don’t know much about historical fiction, but I would guess that Phillipa Gregory would be a good place to go from here, as she says in the introduction that Seton was a huge inspiration for her.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

“They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say that they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble upon a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.” (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke)

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Cover by Susanna Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the ‘keystone’ work for this past year’s blog – it is the culmination of everything I look for in a book and my taste in all other books points towards this one. I mean to say that if you like Strange & Norrell, I think you will like the whimsicality of the children’s books, the emotional distance of the ‘classics’, and the tasty details of the nonfiction that I also prize. Strange & Norrell has all of these sought-after characteristics brought together into one fantastic and original piece of writing. With Strange & Norrell I feel that I finally have a book to hold out and say: this is my taste in books; it has everything I want. Therefore, if you’ve read it and somehow think that its only OK or not dramatic enough for you, it would probably be best to quietly click on a link and follow another book blog.

What most tickles my fancy about Strange and Norrell is Susanna Clarke’s unbelievably creative use of magic. Even though I’ll be the last to say that fantasy as a genre is dull or washed out, sometimes the repetitive use of magic to transport one’s self or move water (but never to bring someone back to life) does get a bit tiresome. I don’t want to give away some of the more delightful parts, but I’ll bet that you haven’t ever read of magic being used to distill madness before, or of rain being harnessed into the shape of three-deck ships? I thought not.

Beverage: I discovered a trick for brewing tea the other day that I have never read before in any tea book. I found that if you do not stir the leaves before pouring out the tea, it never takes on that pleasantly bitter taste that so many tea drinkers require. If, however, you stir the tea leaves, the flavor will come out so much stronger. With this book, a black tea well stirred should do the trick.

Reminds me of… all the other books I have loved. I truly do think that if you like Strange & Norrell, you will find ample sources of further entertainment from most of the books favorably reviewed in this blog.