The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

tmpFrom now on, The Marlowe Papers will be what I think of when someone mentions “a challenging read”. This is a novel written in iambic pentametre written just a couple of years ago, as opposed to four hundred years ago when its protagonist, Kit Marlowe, lived. Reading it was intense, but also just thinking of the effort it must have taken to write was quite overwhelming.

The story is another revisit of the idea that Marlowe didn’t really die in a brawl, but he went into hiding and kept writing under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare. While I’m not a big fan of theories that say that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else, I was fascinated by the complex, clever work that Ros Barber did.

It takes a while to get used to the writing for an eye that’s not used to the poetic structure, but after the initial trauma it becomes easier (not easy, but not impossibly hard either) to skip from line to line and follow the story while appreciating the form. Not that understanding everything is an easy task: every event on Marlowe’s timeline, every connection is justified by documents and evidence she collected while writing her PhD thesis, which this book is a part of.

While I had a recollection of who most of the noblemen and the most famous poets were, I was clueless about the rest of the characters (but also many events). The trick that made it easier for me to go through the book was to read Barber’s notes first, and then follow up with the chapter. It can be annoying to flip back and forth, but having an idea of who the people that get mentioned makes it so much easier to get into the story and focus on fighting with the pentametre rather than with the content. The rule to follow here is “choose your enemies”.

Being an expert in the field would have certainly helped, but I’m happy I wasn’t: having no idea if any of Barber’s connections were a bit of a stretch allowed me to be completely captured by her elaborate novel in verse. I loved every moment of my struggle with the pentametre, every flip of the pages to read an explanation. The Marlowe Papers could make as little historical sense as movie Anonymous does (although I doubt it) but I don’t know it and I don’t want to know.

After reading The Marlowe Papers I was completely enamoured of a figure that I had never really liked or cared for before. He told me his story in first person and, for once, I chose to believe this version of the facts until the end of the book.

These are obviously conjectures about Marlowe’s life — but do we care? Just building the plot of this book seems a serious academic adventure. The iambic pentametre is not perfect and Barber took some liberties with the language — again, do we care? The overall result is just so intriguing and surprising that the historical accuracy and formal imprecisions (which might be relevant for a PhD committee, but not as much for ordinary readers) can be overlooked.

Found via: For once, just browsing in the bookshop (Waterstones in Hampstead).
Suggested to: Patient, Elizabethan-era-loving readers.
Y/N? Y

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

bernadetteI don’t usually let ads convince me but, alas, this is the case with Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. Seeing the poster every single day in Baker Street Station slowly persuaded me that I had to read it. Thank you, advertisers. This is my suggested (end of) summer read. My suggested read for all year, even.

No synopsis can explain to how great Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is. Bernadette Fox has disappeared during a trip to Antarctica. Said trip was planned by a virtual assistant living in India. Her daughter Bee, a ridiculously bright fifteen-year-old, has to go back to the beginning of her mum’s troubles to figure out where the hell she’s gone.

The book is a collection of emails, letters and other bits of documentation that Bee has put together; the story comes together slowly, with pieces of the puzzle being added in at different times, and sometimes coming from seemingly random characters.

They describe Bernadette’s feud with her neighbors and the parents at Bee’s school, in full Desperate Housewives style, with exterminators and family friends taking part in the drama. In the meantime her husband Elgie’s career at Microsoft is on the edge because of the crisis and Bee is struggling to keep things as normal as possible while her family goes bonkers. But this is not all: Bernadette seems to have had a bright past that slowly turned into an axiety-filled, misanthropic present, which is now coming back to haunt her.

This is an exceptionally quirky novel, with constant changes of direction that turn the plot upside-down. I found myself both laughing out loud and gasping in shock at the twists in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?. I’ve seen it being described as a comedy, but it’s so much more than that. The narration is just irresistibly funny, the caustic descriptions of life in hipster Seattle being the highlight, but there are so many darker layers. Bernadette’s frustration with her boring and unsatisfactory life, together with her regrets for abandoning her career, are deadly serious but as brilliantly written and impactful as the comedy surrounding them. I never thought that a book sold to me as satyrical could affect me so deeply.

As I read this, I kept thinking that it was the most absurd piece of fiction I had read in a while, but in reality it’s disconcerting how the story could easily be something that really happened despite being so over the top. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is hilarious, multifaceted and just brilliant. I want more.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

the divinersI read this because I had it lying around, so I didn’t have many expectations to begin with; the many great things about The Diviners hit me like a giant wave of awesomeness and gin. While as of late the combination of YA and supernatural has not given the best results, The Diviners has a completely different twist on the genre: this is a thriller with a sprinkle of supernatural. No romance, no bullshit. Plenty of weird cults and weirder murders.

Set in the 1920s New York, the story starts as party girl Evie O’Neill is shipped off to stay with her uncle Will in Manhattan, after causing too much trouble in her Ohio home town. Her misdemeanor was revealing that a guy in her social circle had knocked up and abandoned a poor girl; this was only made worse by the fact that she unmasked him by simply holding a ring of his.

Between assisting her uncle at the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult, and hanging out in speakeasies with her new friends, Evie crosses paths with many curious individuals. She is definitely the protagonist, but the story is told by several voices: there is Mabel, daughter of renowned political activists; Theta, a trendy dancer who lives with her “brother” Henry; Memphis, a nice guy from the poorer side of town; Sam, a thief/smuggler/person you should avoid, despite his many charms; Jericho, uncle Will’s mysterious assistant. No character in The Diviners is bland: each of them has lots to say, a well-built background and, most of all, secrets. As the title says, several of them also have dreams, visions and premonitions.

The novel doesn’t quite pan out as one could expect: the fact that these teenagers have powers isn’t quite the centre of the narration, which makes the first half of the story a long, long wait for something that just doesn’t happen. It takes quite a while to give up on the idea the title gives – that the book is about diviners – but the wait is absolutely worth it. The main focus is solely on finding and bringing to justice the Pentacle Killer, who has been terrorizing in the city. Evie gets to follow the investigation closely when her uncle, an expert in the occult, is called by the police to consult on the case. It seems like 1800s serial killer Naughty John has come back from the dead – but is it a copycat, or is it really a ghost?

Very different characters allow to cover many different facets of the 20s; prohibition is a major player in the plot and so are WWI, eugenics and the immigrants swarming to the US at the beginning of the century. The Diviners has not been written lazily: the accuracy goes from big historical facts to language and costume. It doesn’t spare philosophy and religion: Jericho reads Nietzsche and quotes him all the time, while Memphis drifts apart from his extremely religious aunt. “Why should I pray to God? What has he done for me or my family?”, he asks himself.

The devious killer seems to have religious motifs behind his horrendous crimes; the protagonists have to uncover the secrets behind a strange Brethren and its beliefs, but they also have to wonder whether ghosts and demons really exist, if their powers are real, what evil is really about. This might be considered a very long build-up for the characters to really reach their full potential in the following books of the series. If the “diviners” plot takes off in the next instalment the style of the novels will change drastically, which might not be a good thing considering how good and unusual this one was.

2012, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Goodreads.
Found via: I had heard of Libba Bray before and the book looked cool.
Suggested to: Don’t go there if you’re a noir/thriller buff. Otherwise, please pick up this book.
Y/N? Y

No Rest For The Readers: Book Shopping at Oxfam Hampstead

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As we walked into Oxfam Books in Hampstead, we could hear the echo of our bookshelves’ cries: “No, have pity on us, no more!”. We didn’t listen, or I wouldn’t have been taking pictures of my new books in the garden. With a budget of £20 to grab as much as we could and satisfy very different tastes in reading, my boyfriend had quite the adventure inside Oxfam. Despite it being a tiny shop, it has a fantastic selection, with lots of popular books as well as quirky bits, all in good to perfect condition. Here is a breakdown of what we got.

STUFF THAT HAS BEEN ON MY READING LIST FOREVER

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

These two books have been mentioned to me so many times that I probably had dreams about them. These are the obvious choices, the first two volumes I picked up. I’ve already finished A Visit From The Goon Squad and – spoilers – it’s fantastic.

STUFF THAT HAS BEEN ON SAM’S READING LIST FOREVER

World Without End by Ken Follett
Under The Dome by Stephen King

I’ll admit it: I forced my boyfriend to read Pillars Of The Earth earlier this year, so I was happy to see he spontaneously picked up the sequel, which is one of my favourite summer reads ever. Under The Dome was at £5 instead of £35, so he just had to get it – especially because it’s one of the few Stephen King books he hasn’t read, while I’m still struggling with The Dark Tower.

THE RANDOMS

The Pope’s Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

We don’t quite know how to justify these ones. They looked interesting/funny, so we just went for it despite having no idea of what they were all about. Turns out the Portuguese tried to give the Pope a live rhinoceros as a present. For real.

DAMN YOU, WATERSTONES!

The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber

We thought we’d escaped it, but no – as always, one does not simply walk into Waterstone’s. Our only full-price buy of the day has to do with my strange passion for the Shakespeare authorship question and its numerous variations. This is a novel in verse. Yay challenging reads!

Storia Di Un Corpo di Daniel Pennac

storiadiuncorpo“Journal d’un corps

Il titolo originale Journal d’un corps ci viene in aiuto. Questo è letteralmente il diario di un corpo: le malattie e le magagne, le sensazioni piacevoli, il crescere ma anche l’invecchiare. Nei quaderni donati alla figlia Lison, il protagonista ha tenuto resoconti dettagliati di quello che è successo al suo corpo, dall’infanzia alla vecchiaia.

Il diario del mio corpo durante la lettura citava sbadigli, nasi storti, e cuore pesante perchè sto passando dall’essere una lettrice ossessiva di Pennac a fare fatica ad arrivare alla fine di un libro.

Pennac ha avuto un’idea ambiziosa e l’ha svolta bene. Mentre certi diari fittizi entrano un po’ troppo nel dettaglio, questo dà per scontate molte cose, come una persona qualsiasi farebbe nel proprio diario personale.

Quello che viene dimostrato in Storia di un Corpo è che spirito e fisico non si possono davvero separare. Poiché questo è il diario di un corpo, le persone dovrebbero entrare in scena solo marginalmente, ma ne diventano invece l’aspetto più affascinante: compagne, amici, figli prendono vita in pagine che dovrebbero quasi ignorarli. Sono personaggi resi ancora più vivi e ricchi dal fatto di essere visti tramite gli occhi di qualcun’altro, che proietta su di loro i propri sentimenti e pensieri.

Il passare del tempo viene raccontato in maniera intima, tramite le piccole cose; malattie che nel momento in cui accadono sembrano enormi, insuperabili, vengono ricordate quasi con tenerezza in passaggi successivi del diario. Lo stile ed il tono delle pagine cambia con l’invecchiare del protagonista, contribuendo a dare davvero l’idea di essere un diario.

Un diario però descrive anche i momenti noiosi; mentre le caratteristiche positive di questo libro sono molte, rimane una lettura non proprio accattivante. Più si procede con il libro, più è difficile appassionarsi agli eventi che vengono raccontati. La continua ricerca del protagonista di concentrarsi sul proprio corpo più che sulla sua anima non solo è riuscita solo a fasi alterne, ma è a tratti davvero soporifera. A posteriori, Storia Di Un Corpo non è affatto male, ma durante la lettura era davvero difficile trovare la motivazione per girare la pagina.

2012, Gallimard / 2012, Feltrinelli. Goodreads.
English-speaking note: Turns out that Pennac is very rarely traslated into English, so if you don’t speak French/Italian, you’re can’t do much about this.
Trovato: Al supermercato mentre ero in vacanza in Italia. Glamorous.
Y/N? Y, tutto sommato.