Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Tag

More buying than reading, really

Lately, I’ve been buying more books than I’ve actually been reading. I have finished a couple of books that were required for work. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. I’m now on to The Lace Reader for book club and it’s shite.

I’ve purchased, however, a number of books. They include: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, Howards End by E.M. Forster, Columbine by Dave Cullen, Granta: Work, and First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek. And I haven’t finished any of them. I have only started Columbine and have almost finished the Granta: Work magazine.

I could talk about Cutting for Stone though. It was pretty good. Actually it was quite epic, a bildungsroman. It has, at its center, Marion and Shiva Stone, who are the twin children of a doctor and a nun. Both of their parents worked at the Mission hospital  (called Missing, because of the difficulty in pronouncing Mission) in Ethiopia, but do not figure into their lives. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh raise them in the hospital and they both wish to become doctors. Marion goes to America and gets his degree and Shiva stays and becomes a gynecologist in Ethiopia and pioneers a cure for a fatal vaginal disease. This is just one of the threads of this wonderfully told story.

Marion, during his childhood and adolescence, falls in love with Genet, the illegitimate daughter of a lower class Ethiopian woman and an unknown man. He wishes to wait for his marriage to her before having sex. She does not share his feelings. She betrays him and things are never the same.

Marion and Shiva also share an ineffable connection. They were connected at the head at birth, before their father attempted to sever their connection, not caring if they died in the process. Later, Hema comes to their rescue as infants and they are delivered safely. Verghese explores this connection mainly from Marion’s point-of-view and with his authority, we are to assume that Shiva is/thinks/acts exactly as Marion describes him.

There is also a historical element to the story. It is set in Ethiopia in the 1950’s when there were many military coups attempting to overthrow the government and rule for the people. The problem with that is that the “people” are varied and diverse, and many of them died during this coup. The terror and violence come to Missing Hospital in the form of Genet, who has taken up with a revolutionary group and hijacked a plane. Under torture, accomplices of Genet implicate Marion and he must leave the country.

All the threads are wrapped up, though not in particularly satisfying ways. Verghese seems a little rushed at the end. Where he took pages and pages to describe moments in the beginning of the book, he skips over years in paragraphs. I suppose his page count was getting a little high. Still, it is a wonderfully written book with a story that you don’t often hear, a perspective you don’t often see. His writing is deliberate, focused, slow, and expansive.  I really enjoyed it overall.

Since I have been so neglectful, I shall also tell you about Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. I had the pleasure of meeting this wonderful woman last week, her enthusiasm about Renaissance history took over the room. She talked for over an hour, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

Sacred Hearts takes place in a convent in Renaissance Italy before the Counter Reformation and the edicts passed by the Council of Trent, but only just before. Those in power are starting to feel the shift and are doing all they can to keep the convent from sticking out. What makes that difficult for this particular convent is the arrival of Serafina, a rebellious young girl who was put into the convent against her will and who will stop at nothing to escape. She is put into the care of Zuana, the dispensary mistress, with the hopes that she will be distracted by learning something that will benefit the rest of the convent. Serafina is young and does not appreciate it and begins to plot her escape…with the help of her musician lover outside the walls. I will not tell you what happens, but I will switch over and tell you more about what’s happening around Serafina.

There is a very interesting part about a nonagenarian nun, Magdalena, who, in her younger days, was declared a living saint. She had stigmata and confessed to having visions of Christ.  The problem with this was that Magdalena was a common woman and could be viewed as having a personal relationship with god that did not require the church. At this time, the church had influence in all affairs, within and without the church. Everyone needed guidance on the way to god, if this woman was having ecstasies without the church, she could be dangerous and declared a heretic. Magdalena was then confined to a cell to wait out her years. Everything is relatively quiet until Serafina arrives.

Through many plot twists, Serafina becomes the project of the novice mistress Umiliana, who pushes Serafina’s fasting past a healthy point and believes that Serafina will become another Magdalena and solidify Umiliana as a powerful member of the convent and perhaps oust Madonna Chiara (the current abbess). But Chiara is too smart for this, and with the help of Zuana, their comeback takes Umiliana down.

I enjoyed this novel because it had the intrigue and suspense of a good mystery, with a lot of history and strong female characters. I never thought of the fact that women within a convent had more opportunity to educate themselves and learn a trade that women outside, who were confined to being wives and mothers.

There you go, two very different books and I enjoyed both of them.