Archive Book Nook News: Vol I, Issue 3, August 1997

Chasing Cezanne and Anything Considered by Peter Mayle
You’ll notice I find one author and read him or her to death…
OK, I think I’ve figured out Peter Mayle’s style:  Start with England or America.  Add one out-of-luck or down-at-heart bachelor with a heart of gold and cosmopolitan tastes.  Add a believable reason to go to the south of France, throw in a girl and some lunch and some sort of scam.  Let the adventure begin.
Both Cezanne and Anything follow this pattern (in Cezanne the scam involves a stolen painting; in Anything Considered it’s the truffle industry at stake), but Mayle writes so wonderfully, so wittily, so deliciously, who cares?  The adventure and situations are believable, but you know it will turn out right in the end, in time for the next meal.  I find reading one of his books as gratifying as taking a day off from work.
Army of Angels by Pamela Mercantel
A novel of Joan of Arc.  What Mercantel tries to do is not write of Joan of Arc, the saint, but of Jehanne the Maid, the girl.  Who was the person, the human being behind the legend?  Who or what were the voices she claimed to have heard all her life, the voices that encouraged, drove, and helped her win France from the English?  Who were her family?  Her friends?  And why, why, in the end, was she forsaken and betrayed to the enemy?
For me, Mercantel succeeds, and it’s a beautiful, incredible story.  I love historical fiction, but I had trouble staying with this one…because I knew what was going to happen in the end.
Patchwork by Karen Osborn
This was pure hidden treasure…it fell off the bookshelf when I was reaching for something else.
In a saga spanning three decades, two sisters and the daughter of a third recount life in a rural South Carolina mill town.  Sounds simple, but it’s a beautiful, moving, complex drama of women, sisters, daughters, mothers and grandmothers.  It’s about circumstances and choices, set against the grueling work conditions of the cotton mills.  There is Rose, the eldest, the wise and steady one, married with children and managing to plod along, keep her life going, keep the family ties from unraveling, and keep her faith in God.  There’s fly-by-night Lily, married to the mill-boss but unable to keep her hands off her first husband Charlie.  Julie, the youngest, who marries above her station to the town banker and is then institutionalized for attempting to murder her baby.  And Sylvia, Julie’s daughter, taken in by Rose and smitten by Rose’s son Benjy, unaware he is her own cousin.
The title is perfect; Osborn has pieced a quilt of female voices, each unique and compelling.  It’s not a dramatic story, but I couldn’t put it down.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
This book weaves difficult themes–justice, racism, the weight of memory–into a seamless, sensitive narrative.  Set in a small town on an island in Puget Sound in 1954, the story revolves around the trial of a Japanese-American accused of murdering a white fisherman he had known all his life.
This is a very dramatic story.  Not only for the resolution of the murder case, but for the  flashbacks to the forceful interning of the Japanese residents during World War II; for the tender coming-of-age love affair between a white boy, now the editor of the local paper, and a Japanese girl, now the wife of the accused man; and for the shifting trust and enmity between the two communities.  But the drama is quiet, gentle, meditative, like the warm rains that fall in Seattle.  It has lyrical, beautiful language, and powerful, almost cinematic imagery…I know I’ll be looking for the movie in a few years!
Renaissance Moon by Linda Nevins
Tale of a beautiful scholar whom the cold moon goddess Artemis drives mad.
Selene is the daughter of Professor Sterling Alva Catcher, a Greek scholar at Cambridge who holds moonlit rites to Artemis and tells his students that the pagan Moon Goddess is the true goddess of mankind.  Selene knows that as a baby she was offered to the goddess, and she grows up hoping to be an initiate as loyal as her late father. At first she has an active sex life, but then takes a vow of chastity; her hatred of men eventually grows into a mania, poisoning her life.
When the legends that have shaped her view of the world erupt and spill over into her personal life, Selene, who has an obsession for Italian Renaissance paintings, becomes a bloodthirsty pagan whose newfound attitude colors her interpretation of Christian art.  She publishes some impressive works on Annunciation paintings of the Italian Renaissance, coming to believe that the Virgin Mary is an incarnation of the Moon Goddess
I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.  It only gave the slightest taste of the myths of Selene-Artemis-Hecate, known as the triple Moon Goddess of the Greeks, which is the part I was expecting more of and looking forward to.  Also it keep me from truly understanding what motivated Selene.  After a while, I found the whole thing a little dark and disturbing.  I’m interested in goddess religion and mythology, but this was a little too cultish for me.
Linda Nevins also wrote Commonwealth Avenue.          
After years of being a film production assistant, Zoe Hillyard’s big break comes with the assignment to work on a movie set in 1890s Boston. Returning with reluctance to the city of her childhood, Zoe is confronted by the secrets and familial rivalries of the Hillyard mansion on Commonwealth Avenue.  The book moves between the events of present-day Boston, and excerpts from Zoe’s grandmother’s diary.  The attention to detail which bogged down Renaissance Moon, works beautifully here as Zoe uses the Commonwealth Avenue mansion to design her movie, The Gilded Age.
Serenissima by Erica Jong
(This, I believe, is the original title, and was later released as Shylock’s Daughter)
Jessic Pruitt is a popular Hollywood actress who has come to Venice to be a judge in the Venice film festival.  She begins receiving roses and sonnets from an unknown admirer who beckons her to leave the narcissistic present and enter an enchanted past.
Jessica goes deeper and deeper into Shakespeare (with heavy allusions to the Bard’s Merchant of Venice) and the history of the city which the Venetians call “la Serenissima”.  While exploring the Jewish ghetto of Venice, Jessica suddenly finds herself transformed into a Venetian Jewess of the sixteenth century.  And who does she meet but Will Shakespeare himself, come to Italy to escape the plague in England.  Jessica experiences the great sensual love she has always been seeking, a love that history decrees cannot last, except in the timeless world of poetry.
Interestingly, when I took this out of the library, there was a piece of paper taped on the inside jacket titled “readers comments”.  Here’s what our anonymous guest critics had to say:  “Great fun!”  “Enjoyed every minute”  “Unfortunately, rather boring”  “Waste of time.  Read ¼ and returned book.”  “Extravagant and too fevered, but wonderful, too.”
Well, I wasn’t too fazed by the mixed review because I know Jong is not for everybody, but she’s always been high on my list of favorites and the story sounded interesting (appealing to my interest in Italy, etc.), so I took it out.
Good Grief!  What a disappointment!  I mean, it wasn’t pathologically boring, but it wasn’t the Jong I know and love.  Usually I can’t put her work down; I had to press to keep going with this one.  I think she got a little over her head.  She’s so earthy in her writing, that once she delved into the Elizabethan speech of the 16th century, it sounded ridiculous and cliché.
If you want vintage Jong, stick with Any Woman’s Blues or Parachutes and Kisses.
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