Friday, August 24, 2012

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Shocking would be the single word to describe this book. You're reading along, getting most of the way through, and then BLAM! and the book wraps up. Obviously, I can't give away the shocking moment, but I'm warning you it's there. I was caught totally by surprise.

This is a complex story heavily linked to the Holocaust allegorically so while spared the Nazis and war stories, a no less disturbing story plays out for Beatrice (the donkey) and Virgil (the Howler Monkey). They've been isolated from society living on the brink of starvation in fear.

The story of Beatrice and Virgil is actually a play written by a creepy taxidermist who features pretty centrally in the book. Beatrice and Virgil sit, stuffed, near the taxidermist's desk. We meet the taxidermist as a fan of Henry's work (another layer of character). Henry is a writer and actually our main character although I found him much less interesting than the taxidermist, Beatrice, or Virgil. Henry is asked to help finish the play and gets sucked in because he's unable to create anything on his own at this point in his writing career. Doing everything he can to avoid his writer's block and the disappointment from his last writing endeavour, Henry spends way too much time working with the taxidermist who he knows nothing about. It's this relationship that leads to our shocking moment.

I wasn't sure about this book through most of the story. I felt like I caught on to things quicker (to a point) than Henry even though Martel does a great job of keeping his cards close to his chest until the very end. This is also a harsh novel. The writing feels rough and scratchy enough to make you squirm which doesn't make for a relaxing read. The best part of this book though is how much I want to talk to someone else about it. I want to find someone who has read the book and see what they think, talk through the scenes that disturbed me the most. I haven't read a book in a while that made me feel like this.

It's hard to recommend Beatrice and Virgil. It's not as if liking Life of Pi will mean you'll like this, but it's definitely a book to be appreciated for what Martel was able to create. He is an extremely talented writer and tells such intricate and complex stories always leaving the reader with a lot to think about.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

There is too much book in this book. The payoff isn't worth the 900+ pages it takes to get to the end of the story, which isn't actually an ending but rather one of MANY flashbacks. In fact there are so many flashbacks within flashbacks in this book I found myself frequently getting confused as to who was narrating.

The gist of the story is the quest for Dracula. Does he still exist? Is he a vampire? Where does he hide to have gone undetected for so many hundreds of years? A mysterious book, containing nothing but an image of a dragon is the only link to the possibility that Dracula is real. The book, filled with nothing but blank pages and this dragon image keeps finding its way into the hands of academics studying Vlad the Impaler. These mysterious books prompt deeper research into the life and death of Vlad with things getting increasingly dangerous the closer one gets to discovering the truth.

It's actually an interesting adventure story of Indiana Jones-esque proportions and would have been a fantastic read if it had followed the story in a more chronological order. Instead we are taken all over the place through flashbacking. Follow this if you can: the story starts in present time with a historian being charged with retelling a story from her youth. She flashes back to her childhood to get the story going where we then flash back to her father's time in graduate schools. From there, we have an additional, brief flashback to the youth of the father's dissertation advisor. So, most of the story bounces between our historian's childhood and her father's past. It's a jumbled mess clouding the exciting adventure of an academic leaving his books behind to go on a real search for truth.

I'd have to give away more plot than I want to and truly spoil the book to talk about a few other elements in the story that bothered me. Suffice it to say, I don't think Kostova flushed out her characters very well. I feel like she got too caught up in the chase to really think through the ultimate end for everyone. I also think she put plot points into her book that were totally undervalued in what they could have added to the story.

So, over all this book just falls short, but it was nice to read a Dracula story firmly rooted in academia, moving through real places in Europe full of dusty manuscripts and dank, medieval crypts.