Posts Tagged ‘Literary’

the-witch-of-portbello

What happened to Athena? 

About :

Athena was a lot of things, but nobody’s labels seemed to stick. Everyone who knew her had an opinion…but did any of them really know her? Told in “transcripts” taped by Athena’s “biographer,” The Witch of Portobello is an unusual mystery tale. Not only does the reader discover Athena, Athena discovers herself—through the eyes of others. The Witch of Portobello is adult fiction by Brazillian author Paulo Coelho and published in 2006. Coelho also wrote The Alchemist.

Thoughts :

What happened to Athena? This question drove my interest in The Witch of Portobello. Early on in the transcripts, we learn from several of the narrators that Athena was murdered. But how? And by whom? Details, details!

This is the second Paulo Coelho novel I’ve listened to, and I enjoyed it as much as the first (The Alchemist). When I realized this was an epistolary novel told through the alternating “transcripts,” I worried that I might confuse the narrators over audio; but it worked out just fine, although I occasionally had to rewind to figure out who was speaking.

We hear the story of Athena’s journey through the eyes of her parents, her teacher, a besotted journalist and his ex-girlfriend…and they all share really strong opinions about her! Conflicting opinions! It was so entertaining to go from the love-struck journalist to his poisonously jealous girlfriend, etc. Athena evoked strong reactions wherever she went.

The central question of the novel relates, of course, to self-discovery. (If you’ve read anything by Paulo Coelho, you probably know how important this theme in his fiction.) Here’s the pitch:

How do we find the courage to always be true to ourselves—even if we are unsure of whom we are?

While Athena discovers her own identity, we hear a lot about the New Age beliefs she comes to devote herself to—seriously, a lot. And they’re weird. As a foster-child adopted from a Transylvanian gypsy woman, and as a young mother, divorced and cast from the Catholic church, Athena struggles to recover from loads of internal wounds. She searches for her identity in a goddess who may or may not speak through her (depending on who is narrating at the time) and trances and dances and other, er, strange places. I admit that sitting in on these meetings is a little awkward, but the rotating narrators make it more fun than preachy. I love when authors use a multitude of narrative perspectives to share different versions of the same story, ultimately leaving the interpretation up to the reader.

And anyway, the central mystery—“What happened to Athena?”—has such a strong pull that I would have listened through ten more of her bewildering New Age sermons just to find out.

And then that surprise ending! Good stuff.

Overall :

A short, refreshing contemporary mystery by the bestselling author of The Alchemist.

Recommended To :

If you don’t mind wading through the weird stuff, I think you’ll be hooked by this posthumous tale of Athena’s self-discovery. Some have complained that it’s too preachy—most of Coelho’s books could probably find warm spots on those lists of “most controversial books”—although I didn’t mind at all. It’s a relatively short book and, I think, really brilliant.

****4/5 STARS

thebearandthenightingale

‘All of my life,’ she said, ‘I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender myself to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow that live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

Vasilisa Petrovna has “the sight.” All around her she sees creatures from Pre-Christian folklore, known as “chyerty” by the villagers and “demons” by the Catholic. But in medieval Catholic “Rus,” having the sight is a dangerous; so she hides her gift and seeks her own way in the world.

Her way does not include marriage. Every other girl may marry or go to a nunnery, but Vasya refuses, preferring to talk with her creature friends and ride horses in the wild woods around her village.

Everything changes when her father remarries to a Catholic stepmother. Vasys’s idyllic—if never easy—life in the woods shifts from difficult to miserable. The oppressive atmosphere over the village bodes ill for Vasya and her chyerty friends. She has no idea that the Winter king watches her, just as his brother, the devourer, watches. But she slowly begins to realize that her village may depend on the very gifts it scorns. The Bear and the Nightingale is Historical Fantasy/Russian Fairytale written by Katherine Arden and published January 10th 2017 by Del Rey.

Thoughts :

I actually requested The Bear and the Nightingale thinking it was adult fiction, but I quickly realized it could easily be considered crossover, with the way the whole narrative revolves around the young heroine. So it was with pleasure that I read about the two girls who see the “demons” and soon become family by marriage. I thought, “Oh, how good Anna will be for Vasya! They can talk about their visions. They can be friends; they’re not so far apart, and Vasya desperately needs a friend.”

Clearly I didn’t read the book description very thoroughly before starting the book! I don’t want to spoil anything, but let’s just say nothing turned out like I hoped. Anna’s marriage into the family begins all the troubles for Vasya and her village. Why?

Because Anna is a fearful, superstitious Catholic. She assumes the harmless house creatures to be demons; and from then on out, the whole village slides into the clutches of the enemy: the one-eyed man, brother of the Winter King. He is,

Appetite…Madness. Terror. He wants to eat the world.”

He gains more and more power, thanks to the fear-mongering, misguided Catholics, whose belief system is entirely based on a misunderstanding of the reality of Pre-Christian Russian folklore. God, Satan and demons? They’re all just misunderstandings. So they misinterpret the the harmless domovoi as demons and the one-eyed man as both God and the devil, at different times, and they lead the village into danger.

‘You are the devil!’ whispered Konstantin, clenching his hands.

All the shadows laughed. ‘As you like. But what difference is there between me and the one you call God? I too revel in deeds done in my name. I can give you glory, if you will do my bidding.’”

Thankfully for the villagers, Vasya understands that fear feeds the one-eyed man and that the domovoi help protect the households against him. She heroically and sacrificially turns the other cheek as everyone gathers against “the witch,” saves the bumbling priests again and again (as they, of course, fall head over heels in love with her), and finally rides out to save the day.

I don’t want to make light of all the things I truly enjoyed about The Bear and the Nightingale, because the story reads beautifully, despite its problems. I loved Vasya, as a truly strong female protagonist, and I sympathized with her plight of making the village see reason. But we spend a lot of time in the head of a Catholic priest who is led astray by powers he misunderstands, to the folly of the entire village. We also spend a lot of time pitying Vasya’s situation as a woman, as she is forced to choose between either the marriage bed or the nunnery. Arden did Vasya a disservice by turning everyone against her, to the point that it felt overdone and melodramatic. When Vasya misses a certain funeral because she’s out slaying the village upyr, this is the response she gets:

Witch-woman. Like her mother.

[Highlight to view SPOILER: Dunya ] loved you like her daughter, Vasya,’ [her father] said, later. ‘Of all the days to play truant.’”

C’mon. She just spent 24 hours nursing this dying woman into her grave. This is just obnoxiously melodramatic, and it happens again and again throughout the book.

I dreaded posting this review, knowing that my opinions would be different from most of my friends; but I just have to say that good Fantasy authors know how to respect the mythology and beliefs they interact with. Jim Butcher and Max Gladstone come to mind- they don’t pick and choose winning and losing faiths, among the devout of their fantasy. There are good guys on every team. Katherine Arden didn’t get the memo on this. Her handling of medieval faith, while sensitive in the way of characterization, is drastically biased in many other ways. I’ll leave it at that.

With less emphasis on the human and religious drama and more on the fairy tale elements—which are, I suspect, why most of us pick up this book—I would have loved The Bear and the Nightingale enough to give it five stars.

This is obviously just my opinion, but I think this could have easily been children’s fiction to rival Elizabeth Enright’s. Which is…amazing! I loved reading about Vasya’s life in the woods and the fairy tale aspects from Russian folklore. Here, she’s breaking in a young horse, after a period of convalescence:

Vasya eyed the stallion’s tall bare back. She tried her limbs, and found them weak as water. The horse stood proudly and expectantly, a horse out of a fairy tale.

‘I think,’ said Vasya, ‘that I am going to need a stump.’

The pricked ears flattened. A stump.

‘A stump,’ said Vasya firmly. She made her way to a convenient one, where a tree had cracked and fallen away. The horse poked along behind. He seemed to be reconsidering his choice of rider.”

This is what people loved about The Bear and the Nightingale! The writing and atmosphere are truly, breathtakingly lovely, and the characters, though dark and often tiresome, are clearly imagined with care and love. But the books’s flaws are big enough that they did largely ruin the book for me.

Overall :

Gorgeously wrought fairy tale with a few major flaws. They won’t be fatal flaws for everyone, although they are for me.

Characters: 3/5 Stars
Worldbuilding: 3/5 Stars
Plot: 2.5/5 Stars
Writing: 5/5 Stars

***3/5 Stars

Recommended To :

A lot of readers enjoyed this story based on the historical detail, the strong characterizations and the perfect atmosphere. And no wonder! I suspect most readers won’t feel the way I do about it, so I say go ahead and try it. You’ll probably like it a lot better than I did. (Which is to say 3+ stars at least!)

Thanks so much to Katherine Arden, Del Rey and Netgalley for my review copy of The Bear and the Nightingale.

DazzleofDay

About: A new generation of pioneers seeks sanctuary from our dying earth in a mission to a new planet. Only the patient, whole-minded Quakers have worked out the challenges to turn these theoretical missions into a reality. This literary hard sci-fi follows the takeoff, the problems encountered during the mission and the effects of those challenges on the very human community that rises to meet them. Published 1998, Adult Sci-fi. Awards: 1998 Oregon Book Award Nominee for Fiction (Finalist). A NYTimes Notable Book.

The Short of It: This book will appeal to a certain kind of reader, certainly, because of its carefully crafted tech details, people and atmosphere. I care about two of the three (people and atmosphere), so I liked it. The complaint I hear most often (and agree with) is that the plot moves very slowly.

What I Loved: (1) The setting and descriptions work with other elements to create pitch-perfect tone in this novel of “the new frontier.” It’s beautiful and bleak, a real gem. (2) Molly Gloss slows down each moment so you can understand the psychology of each moment, sensation and act of humanity—grief, adultery, lust, fear, etc.—and you grow to care for these flawed people because you see yourself in them. (3) I also loved the cultural vision and authentic feeling of the Quaker meetings, both the personal and collective experiences of them. They feel very genuine, neither sentimental nor unfeeling. Having attended small religious meetings all my life, I was tickled to recognize the characters in the Quaker meetings: the elder, the blah-blah-er, the gossip, the elderly, etc.

What I Didn’t Love: (1) A few things didn’t ring quite true—such as when a God-fearing person refers to humans as animals. Maybe futuristic Quakers will accept a completely naturalistic explanation of life, in which humans are considered animals; but I doubt that this will ever be a majority opinion among spiritual communities (although I have very little familiarity with Quaker theology). I think the reverence for our humanity, the thing that separates us from animals, is too great for that sort of casual comment. It sounds like agnosticism trying to mask itself as theology.

But those moments are comparatively rare. Gloss got the important thing right, namely that for all the truthful, searing human folly present in every character, there is also a certain peace about the community that rings just as true.

(2) The plot is a bit of a snore, although the tension in the writing still kept me reading. The structure and purpose of the book were better formed than they are in your typical character or plot driven novels. This novel was more “idea-driven,” or, as Orson Scott Card might have put it in his Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, “milieu-driven.” The wandering plot feels designed to mirror the wandering quality of a Quaker’s movements in the spiritual realm—waiting for the spirit to speak through them to the community at large. Waiting. Listening. Then, perhaps, speaking.

Other Comments: There is some very technical jargon about the ship and the theories of survival. I don’t really understand or care about those, but I thought I’d mention them in case they matter to someone else.

Recommendation: For adults who love thoughtful, literary sci-fi and for readers wanting an intro to hard-sci-fi (because the book is rather short).

***3 stars for character, atmosphere and cohesive vision.

Favorite Quote: “When people are feeling the weight of their own lives, they want to see the life other animals are given, and there is something mysterious and revealing about the discarded machinery of birds’ lives. In abandoned flakes of eggshell, emptied seed cases, the hollow stems of cottongrass, in the delicate attenuated backbones of fish and the teeth of desiccated crustaceans, you can sometimes glimpse the bare and intricate structures of God” (239).