Friday, September 30, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

A thousand graces diffusing
He passed through the groves in haste,
And merely regarding them
As He passed
He clothed them with His beauty.

St. John of the Cross (1542-91)
Spanish mystic and saint

The Spiritual Canticle (1577), Stanza V
Translated by David Lewis

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hours of Fun for A Dollar Apiece

Considering that I own shelves of novels I have not yet had time to read, I exhibited great restraint Saturday at our town's library book sale. I bought only four hardbacks, but they are all books that I very much want to read.

THE PASSION OF ARTEMISIA by Susan Vreeland. This book, about a seventeenth-century female painter, has long been on my virtual to-be-read pile, but after hearing Ms. Vreeland speak at this June's Historical Novel Society Conference, it moved to the top. I was so impressed by her impassioned arguments on the role fiction plays in fostering compassion and human connection that I am very eager to read her work and experience her creative vision for myself.

BAUDOLINO by Umberto Eco. My college-age son had to read THE NAME OF THE ROSE for class this past summer, reminding me how much I enjoyed that novel when I read it years ago. Although I once attempted (and failed) to make it through FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM, I thought I'd try Eco again with this novel.

MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk (winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature). This curious novel is set in sixteenth-century Istanbul and deals with the murder of a court miniaturist selected by the Sultan to illustrate a great book in the European style--a dangerous proposition, given that figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam. Mixing romance with mystery, fantasy and philosophical discussion and narrated from multiple viewpoints ranging from that of a corpse to the color black, this novel promises to be a challenging and satisfying read.

HUNGER'S BRIDES by Paul Anderson. I was tempted to check this book out from the library once, but its size daunted me--at 1358 pages, it weighs 4 1/2 pounds and is 2 1/2 inches thick! It explores the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican nun who wrote plays, poetry and theological arguments before signing a vow of silence in her own blood at the age of forty. Anderson frames the historical portions of the book within a contemporary academic mystery plot. I'm curious to see whether this book, which breaks every taboo for a first novel, lives up to the hype.

I think I did pretty well for a grand sum of $4! Now if I could only purchase the hours to read them... Readers? Have you read any of these books, and if so, what did you think?

Saturday, September 24, 2011


SO EXCITED! Just learned that the movie I've been dying to see, THE PRINCESSE OF MONTPENSIER, is being released on DVD here in the US on October 11. It is available for pre-order at online vendors. Glad I still have some birthday money left... Look for a review by mid-October!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: THE FRENCHWOMAN by Jeanne Mackin

Given historical fiction's recent explosion in popularity, it's hard to keep up with all the new titles publishers turn out each month. However, there are many older novels well worth reading. I'm always thrilled to come across an older book that escaped my attention when it first came out yet has the substance and sparkle to compete with newer titles.

One such book is THE FRENCHWOMAN by Jeanne Mackin. Published by St. Martin's Press in 1989, this novel tells the story of Julienne, a poor seamstress who uses her wits, skills and determination to become one of Marie Antoinette's favorite dressmakers. Foreseeing her own arrest, the Queen entrusts Julienne with a jewel meant to ensure the future of the young Dauphin. Pursued by agents of the various factions seeking to keep the Dauphin from regaining the throne, Julienne flees the blood-soaked streets of Revolutionary Paris for the wilderness of Pennsylvania, where French exiles are building a haven for the queen they hope to save. But until Julienne frees herself of the burden of the secret and surrenders the lost world the flawed diamond represents, love and security continue to elude her.

My reading of Catherine Delors' MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION and, more recently, Michelle Moran's MADAME TUSSAUD whetted my appetite for historical fiction set during the French Revolution, and THE FRENCHWOMAN did not disappoint. A parallel with Moran's book made Mackin's all the more interesting: whereas Marie Tussaud collaborates with the famous dressmaker Rose Bertin in clothing her wax figures, Julienne actually works as a seamstress in Bertin's shop. It was interesting to experience Bertin's establishment from both an exterior and interior perspective, as well as compare how the two authors depict the commanding figure of Rose Bertin, the creator of many of Marie Antoinette's most famous gowns. Other characters, such as the Duc d'Orléans (Philippe-Égalité) and Robespierre, figure in both books and invite interesting comparisons on how authors interpret and recreate characters from the historical record.

The fact that Julienne, the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute, transforms herself into a successful business woman who frequents the Queen's chambers at Versailles, gives the author ample opportunity to explore and depict many levels of Parisian society. Mackin's descriptions of each are detailed and convincing. Especially intriguing is the final section of the book, which takes place on the Pennsylvania frontier. I discovered this novel while searching for information on historical Azilum, an actual French settlement built expressly to house the Queen and her children, whom royalists hoped to smuggle out of France, and was pleased with what I found. Mackin does an excellent job of depicting the French aristocrats' determined if somewhat ludicrous attempts to preserve and sustain the glamour and refinements of their previous existence in the rude, snowbound cabins of Pennsylvania, where wolves howled outside the very doors. The author handles the exiles' psychological motivation--their intense devotion to the monarchy and sincere hope of sheltering the Queen and her children, as well as their reluctance to abandon the past--with respect and a sensitivity that makes it thoroughly believable to a twenty-first century reader.

Narrated by Julienne in the first person, THE FRENCHWOMAN presents a good balance of historical detail and psychological density. Chief among Julienne's difficulties are her ability to trust and her incapacity to forge a healthy love relationship when she has so many things to hide. Although at times the jewel as a plot device seems a trifle forced, on a thematic level it adds great richness to the story. Symbolic of many things--a damaged monarchy; adherence to an outmoded way of life; shameful origins and closely-guarded secrets; unattainable dreams--the jewel is the weight that centers the book and draws together the rays of Julienne's past, a past she must cast off if she hopes to revel in the bright, clear light of the future.

I borrowed this book though interlibrary loan, although it appears available for purchase through used book outlets. This is one book that definitely deserves to be reissued. Jeanne Mackin has written other historical novels and currently writes Louisa May Alcott mysteries under the name Anna Maclean. You can learn more about Ms. Mackin and her work at her website.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Qui craint de souffrir, il souffre déjà de ce qu'il craint."

He who fears suffering already suffers
from what he fears.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French humanist
Essais III, 13

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Link to Interview with Sophie Perinot

Great interview from writing friend Sophie Perinot, whose debut historical novel THE SISTER QUEENS, about two thirteenth-century Provençal sisters who become the queens of France and England, will be published by New American Library in Spring 2012. This is one book I can't wait to read!