Monthly Archives: July 2015

Review: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press.  This was originally written and published in French and this English translation is by John Cullen

My Review:
Exchange of PrincessesIn 1721, the regent of France, Philip D’Orleans, decides that the best alliance that the eleven-year-old King Louis XV can make with Spain is through marriage.  The regent proposes that Louis XV marry the princess of Spain, who is only four-years-old at the time of their betrothal.  The regent will also give his own daughter, Louise Elizabeth, a moody 11- year-old girl, to the Prince of Spain, also just a boy of 12,  as a show of good faith.  If you are already confused about names and ages then please don’t let that discourage from reading the book; I was confused in the beginning as well but the author does a good job of repeating the names and making the characters clear and distinct.  In 1722, both princesses set out on a long and arduous trek on the unpaved and rough roads between France and Spain.  The princesses are exchanged on the middle of the journey and each one proceeds to her new home and position.

My favorite part of the book is reading about the four-year-old Spanish princess;  like any little girl she loves her dolls, playing games, and being lavished with attention.  She is talkative and precocious and all of France and the French court becomes smitten with this charming little girl.  The author describes the very adult tasks that she must endure such as receiving ambassadors from foreign countries and attending balls in her honor.  At one such ceremony the little infanta is described as sucking on her thumb and clutching her favorite doll while a group of academics from the University of Paris pay their respects to her.  The only one who is not taken in by the charms of the princess is her own husband, King Louis XV.

Things do not go quite as smoothly as Philip D’Orleans had expected as far as these arranged marriages are concerned.  But, what did the regent expect when he decided to base political alliances on the lives of children?  Even though the little princess, Marianna Victoria, is a delightful four-year-old, her future husband, the king, is a jealous and petty eleven-year-old boy who is very upset that his nanny is now taking care of his future bride.  As he grows up he has no interest, whatsoever in spending any time with her or getting to know her.  The infanta, on the other hand, worships the king and is so thrilled whenever he is around her.

Meanwhile, in Spain the roles are reversed as Louise Elizabeth, the future Queen of Spain, wants nothing to do with her husband Don Luis.  The future King of Spain is so thrilled to have a pretty wife and he wants nothing more than to consummate their marriage.  But Louise Elizabeth does everything she can to keep the Prince away from her.  I don’t want to give too much away, but nothing works out in the end as the regent had intended.

The Exchange of Princesses actually reads more like a non-fiction history book than an historical fiction.  The author uses real letters from the characters involved as well as newspaper articles from the time period.  There are great details about ceremonies, details of palaces and descriptions of costumes.  If you are looking for a fast-paced, exciting historical fiction novel then this is not the book to read.  However, if you want to learn something about the political situation between France and Spain during the 18th century and the players involved then this well-researched novel is the perfect choice.

 

About The Author:
Chantal Thomas (born 1945 in Lyon) is a French writer and historian. Her 2002 book, Farewell, My Queen, won the Prix Femina and was adapted into a 2012 film starring Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux.

Thomas was born in Lyon in 1945, and was raised in Arcachon, Bordeaux, and Paris. Her life has included teaching jobs at American and French universities (such as Yale and Princeton) as well as a publishing career. She has published nineteen works, including essays on the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and Marie Antoinette.

In 2002, Thomas published Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen). The novel gave a fictional account of the final days of Marie Antoinette in power through the perspective of one of her servants. It won the Prix Femina in 2002, and was later adapted into the 2012 film Farewell, My Queen. The film stars Diane Kruger as the titular queen and Léa Seydoux as her servant Sidonie Laborde. Thomas co-wrote the screenplay,and it opened the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. Helen Falconer of The Guardian called the work “a well written slice of history” with “evocative, observant prose,” but criticized it for creating a narrator who “merely provides us with a pair of eyes to see through rather than capturing our interest in her own right.” While disagreeing in its classification as a novel, Falconer did however add that Farewell, My Queen “generates in the reader a real sense of being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the affairs of the great and the not so good.”

Thomas is currently the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

 

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Filed under France, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Spain

Review: Two Novellas from Flaubert and Dostoevsky

I recently stumbled across a sale that Melville House Publishers was having on their novella series.  They have released 56 novellas from famous authors across the world.  I chose two titles, A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert and The Eternal Husband by Fodor Dostoevsky to review here.  Please check out all of the great titles in their selection.  You can even buy a subscription to the novella series and have novellas show up on your doorstep every month: http://www.mhpbooks.com/series/the-art-of-the-novella/

A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert:
A simple heartThis novella introduces us to a simple servant woman who is cast out of her own home as an orphan at an early age and searches for intimacy and love for the rest of her life.  Felicite falls in love with a young man who ends up rejecting her so that he can marry a rich, old widow and avoid conscription.  After this disappointing heartache, Felicite never finds another man that she can trust her heart to.  When she comes into the service of Madame Aubain, a young widow with two small children, she is the most faithful and loyal servant anyone could ask for.  Felicite bestows love on the two children who eventually leave home for school and meet a sorrowful end due to illness.  Felicite is also given a parrot which she lavishes with love and attention.  But, like everyone else in her life that she has loved, he dies and leaves her.  This is not a tale with a happy ending but gives us a realistic view of life, love and loss.

 

The Eternal Husband by Fodor Dostoevsky:
The eternal husbandThe story opens with Velchaninov living in St. Petersburg in an apartment flat by himself trying to iron out the details of a lawsuit.  He has become increasingly depressed and melancholy and has eventually cut himself off from all of his friends and acquaintances.  One day an old friend, whom he has not seen for nine years, shows up on Velchaninov’s doorstep.  He is stunned to see his friend after so many years and further shocked when Trusotsky announces that his wife has died of consumption.  Velchaninov had an affair with Trusotsky’s wife and that is the main reason he hadn’t visited the couple for nine years.  When Trusotsky’s wife broke the affair off, Velchaninov vowed never to see either of the again.

Velchaninov describes Trusotsky as “an eternal husband,” which to him means a man that is subservient to a domineering wife.  Nowadays we might call Trusotsky “henpecked” or “whipped.”  Trusotsky descends into a depression that is fueled by excessive drinking; he turns out to be a man who cannot live without a wife, who cannot operate in the world without the confines of a marriage.  In typical Dostoevsky fashion, we get a glimpse into the male psyche and an interesting and ironic storyline.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story as much as his longer works.

According to the Melville House website, novellas are oftentimes ignored by academics and publishers.  I would love to hear about other readers’ favorite choices as far as this overlooked style of writing.  Do you like novellas and, if so, what are some of your favorites?

 

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Filed under Classics, France, Literature in Translation, Novella, Russian Literature

Review: Boswell’s Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky

My Review:

Boswell's EnlightenmentThe 10th Laird of Auchinleck is best known for his comprehensive biography of Samuel Johnson; but James Boswell was an important and interesting figure in his own right.  This book is essentially an account of how Boswell becomes The Boswell we are more familiar with–the writer, the biographer, the lawyer.  This book reveals to us a Boswell who thought deeply about religion, the afterlife and the immortality of the soul and who sought out the greatest thinkers of his days and questioned them relentlessly about these topics.  Zaretsky’s brief biography is an account of Boswell’s Grand Tour of Europe from 1763-1765 as he interviews great men in an attempt to probe the depths of his own soul.

Zaretsky first describes Boswell’s Calvinist roots which laid the foundation for his struggle with religion, worship and the immortality of the soul.  Boswell was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland where his parents were very traditional followers of this Christian sect which believed in a harsh and vengeful God.  The long Sundays spent in devotion to such an ever-watchful deity had a lasting influence on Boswell’s psyche.  When he graduates from university and his father expects him to study law, Boswell wants first to travel around Europe and have conversations with the world’s leading Enlightenment thinkers.  Boswell actively pursues and interrogates the likes of Johnson, Rosseau, Voltaire, Wilke and Paoli.

There are some interesting themes that Zaretsky notes about Boswell’s life during this period, the most important of which is his constant battle with melancholy.  When Boswell meets Johnson in London, the two men bond over their respective bouts of depression.  Boswell is constantly plagued by a type of pensive sadness concerning his life and the course which it ought to take.  During these low periods he indulges in two forms of “medication”: drinking and sex.  The self-medication and depression become a cyclical pattern because the more depressed he feels the more he drinks and has sex; after a night of extreme debauchery Boswell has feelings of dread and guilt which further launch him into a depression.  Zaretsky points out that even much later in life, when he is settled down with a wonderful wife and five children he continues to wrestle with these demons.

The most entertaining encounters that Boswell has during his travels are with Rosseau and Voltaire.  At this point, both writers are carrying out reclusive lives as feeble, crusty old men when Boswell overtakes them.  And overtakes them he does as he shows up on both men’s doorsteps and insinuates himself into their homes.  He questions both men about religion, life, and most importantly the immortality of the soul.  Zaretsky provides us with a general overview of Rosseau’s and Voltaire’s important ideas and how these ideas have an impact on young Boswell.  Rosseau is a bit more affable with Boswell and is entertained by Boswell’s gregarious and affable personality.  But neither philosopher is able to give Boswell satisfactory answers about the role of God in this life or what will happen to his soul in the next.

Boswell then moves on to Italy and eventually Corsica where he meets two very different types of men. John Wilkes, the libertine politician, is a free-spirited thinker who embraces life for all it is worth; he, too, loves to drink and whore around but he is unapologetic about his behavior.  Wilkes dismisses Boswell’s questions about religion and mortality and tells Boswell to stop being so serious and to embrace life.  While Boswell is with Wilkes he lets loose with wild abandon as his days and nights are taken up with talking to his friend, drinking and sexual promiscuity.

Sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always well-written, Boswell’s Enlightenment has given me a much greater appreciation for Johnson’s biographer. Boswell is plagued with self-doubt and depression yet through all of his low points he continues to contemplate the importance of this life and his possible annihilation in the next.  This book covers only a brief span in Boswell’s life, but I enjoyed it so much that I purchased a copy of Boswell’s diaries so I can learn more about this fascinating, Scottish laird.

About The Author:

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French History at the University of Houston.

 

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Filed under History, Nonfiction

Review: Life Embitters by Joseph Pla

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Archipelago Books through NetGalley.  This is my second contribution to Spanish Literature month host by Richard at http://caravanaderecuerdos.blogspot.com/ and Stu at https://winstonsdad.wordpress.com/.

My Review:
Life EmbittersThis is an interesting book to categorize as far as literary genre is concerned. At first glance these narratives are really a set of short stories and each have their own plot and can be read individually.  However, they also remind me of the popularity nowadays of fictional autobiography: the works of Karl Ove Knausgard, Elena Ferrante and George Gospodinov all come to mind.  Pla relates to us different experiences in his life with some creative embellishments or inventions of conversations for which he was not present.  Pla takes us across Europe, from his native home in Barcelona to Paris to Rome he describes interesting characters and beautiful settings.

The 600 pages of this book take quite a while to get through and such a long book makes it difficult to write a focused review.  But I want to highlight a few patterns and themes that I noticed are weaved throughout the stories.  What struck me most about Pla’s narrative is that one is never really sure where he is going next with his tales.  We follow him on this meandering path of sentences and all of a sudden a new character is introduced, or a character dies, or a story abruptly ends.

Pla is never a permanent resident at any one place for a long time; as a result of his extensive travels, one of Pla’s favorite settings is the boarding house, many of which he resides at in various cities.  His story entitled, “A Death in Barcelona ” is a great example of the unexpected twists that appear in the narrative and is also set in one such boarding house in Barcelona.  The male boarders fight and bicker with each other and there seems to be a division along the lines of those who pay and those who live off of the others for free.  They all seem to be secretly in love with the mistress of the boarding house, Sra Paradis.  The story takes an unexpected turn when one day, a Swiss boarder living in the house dies and the story revolves around arrangements for the funeral of the Swiss man.  All of the boarders dress up and attend the funeral and on the way back a fight breaks out among the boarders.  Their petty complaints and annoying habits bubble to the surface as the funeral procession is winding its way home.  The story ends when two of the residents decide to leave but have no real prospects of where to go next.

Another patten of  Pla’s is that he likes to tell stories about his friends.  We are introduced to many friends and acquaintances who have interesting life experiences.  One of my favorite of his “friend” stories is about a fellow Catalan named Mascarell who, at age thirty-four, is engaged to a woman fourteen years his junior.  He is embarrassed and depressed when she breaks off their engagement.  Pla goes through a long and interesting story about why the young woman broke off with Mascarell.  Apparently the young woman’s father all of a sudden decides that he does not approve of his daughter marrying an old bachelor.  What really pushes her father over the edge is when she adopts a kitten and names it after her fiancé; the father is horrified that she does such an impulsive thing and demands that she break off the engagement.

At this point Mascarell disappears to Paris where he will not run into anyone he knows.  He meets a woman named Fanny that he is attracted to and with whom he has many interesting conversations.  But Mascarell’s old melancholy keeps creeping up on him and one day at dinner she calls him an “un homme fatal.”  This upsets Mascarell greatly and, in typical Pla fashion, the story takes an unexpected turn when Mascarell consults his Neopolitan barber, Sr. Giacomo, about Fanny’s comments.  The narrative at this point includes a long description of the barber, his clientele, and his relationship with Mascarell.  The barber is finally direct with Mascarell and tells him that being an ” un homme fatal” means that one is a “moron.”  Mascarell is so upset by the barber’s answer that he immediately decides to leave Paris and with Mascarell’s departure from this city the story ends.  We are left wondering what happened to Mascarell and if he was ever able to get over being a “homme fatal.”

I am so glad to have come across Pla’s stories in time for Spanish Literature month.  I highly recommend giving these stories a try–the book can be read all at once or the stories can be read individually over an extended period of time.

About The Author:
Joseph PlaJosep Pla i Casadevall (known as José Pla in Spanish) (March 8, 1897, Palafrugell, Girona – April 23, 1981, Llofriu, Girona) was a Catalan journalist and a popular author. As a journalist he worked in France, Italy, England, Germany and Russia, from where he wrote political and cultural chronicles in Catalan.

The most important characteristics of the “planian” style are simplicity, irony, and clarity. His works show a subjective and colloquial view, “anti-literary”, in which he stresses, nevertheless, an enormous stylistic effort by calling things by their names and “coming up with the precise adjective”, one of his most persistent literary obsessions.

Pla lived completely dedicated to writing. The extent of his Obres Completes – Complete Works (46 volumes and nearly 40,000 pages), which is a collection of all his journals, reports, articles, essays, biographies and both long and short novels.

His liberal-conservative thought, skeptic and uncompromising, filled with irony and common sense, keeps sounding contemporary, completely current, even though it seems to contradict the current cultural establishment same as it did with its completely opposed antecessor. His books remain in print and both Spanish and Catalan critics have unanimously recognized him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature

Review: Newport by Jill Morrow

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, William Morrow.

My Review:
Newport-428x648-198x300What drew me to this book was the time period in which it is set, between the Great Wars in the Roaring Twenties when Prohibition is firmly entrenched and wealthy families vacation at their summer “cottages” in Newport.  Most of the drama takes place at the Chapman family’s sprawling estate in Newport and at the very core of this drama is a contested will.  Bennett Chapman is in his eighties but he is about to remarry a woman forty years his junior and change his will to make her the primary heir of his textile fortune.

Bennett’s two children, Nick and Chloe, stand to be mostly cut out of their father’s will if he manages to draft a new one.  Nick and Chloe think that their father is completely out of his mind and try to convince Bennett’s lawyers, Adrian and Jim, that Bennett is not mentally capable of making such a decision.  Nick and Chloe’s main evidence for their father’s mental instability is the fact that he has been having séances in which his first wife, dead for over thirty years, is the one who is telling him to remarry and change his will.  Are these séances a farce and an attempt to cheat Bennett out of his inheritance or are they legitimate messages from his wife from beyond?

The plot twist at the end was interesting and the descriptions of Newport in the twenties are the strongest aspects of this book.  The part of the story I had trouble with are the séances and the talking to dead people beyond the grave.  The author used this supernatural aspect to advance the plot which made the whole thing seem silly to me.  But that is just my particular preference for stories that do not involve the supernatural.  The historical setting, the bad behavior of spoiled, rich families and the contested will, in my opinion, could have all stood on their own to make an interesting story without inserting the ghost of a dead wife.

I would love to hear other reader’s opinion about this if you have read the book.  Are there certain additions or twists added to a novel that either distract you or cause you to give it a lower rating?

About The Author:
Jill-Morrow-200x300Jill Morrow has enjoyed a wide spectrum of careers, from practicing law to singing with local bands. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Towson University and a JD from the University of Baltimore School of Law. She lives in Baltimore.

6 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction