Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Time To Dance A Time To Die-John Waller

A Time To Dance A Time To Die is the story of a dancing plague, and other instances of a similar contagious madness that gripped the vulnerable, anxious, exploited and malnourished peasants of medieval Europe. Here is the blurb:

July, 1518. A terrifying and mysterious plague strikes the medieval city of Strasbourg. Men and women dance wildly, day after day, in the punishing summer heat. Heir feet blister and bleed; their limbs ache with fatigue, but they cannot stop.
By the time the epidemic subsides, heat and exhaustion have claimed an untold number of lives.
What could have caused Strasbourgs bizarre ‘dancing plague’? A Time To Dance A Time To Die, historian John Waller’s gripping accout of this seemingly fantastical event, brings vividly to life the sights, sounds, aromas, diseases and hardships, the fervent supernaturalism and the desperate hedonism of the late medieval word.

The book focuses mainly on this one account in Strasbourg, as it’s relatively well documented. Frau Troffea starts to dance and soon starts a dancing epidemic. People wear their feet down to sinew and still keep dancing. Waller explores the numerous circumstances around this event; The tyranny of the church, the misogyny of society (fueled by religious attitudes towards women) and the malnutrition that was especially bad that year following three poor harvests. These meant that Frau Troffea was entrenched in misery and anxiety that had no socially acceptable outlet. As a poor peasant woman she very much had the worst of it. Accused at first of being a shrew doing it only to annoy her husband she soon dispelled that idea by dancing for days on end with little rest or show of exhaustion.

Waller lays out a detailed but manageable portrait of what life was like and why the extreme hardships and religious beliefs could provoke such a strange act. Psychological suggestibility in the ignorant, uneducated and highly religious is the theme and is explained in detail. Heartbreaking accounts of the cruelty of the church and the desperation of the people affected by these hardships mean that the reader soon comes to understand the mental state of these people and why they were so easily caught up in such a spectacle.

For me the last few chapters were the most fascinating. Having been armed with the context provided by Waller’s initial description of medieval outbreaks of the craze it is easy to see parallels with modern pentecostalist churches and their speaking in tongues and the ‘hysteria’ hysterics of the Victorian era. He also draws comparisons to shell shocked soldiers who were also malnourished, scared (although not of a vengeful god) and under extreme stress.

Here are what some of those cover-reviews say:

“A book to make you grateful for the historical increase in human sanity.” New Scientist

It is that. I mean these people were scared and vulnerable at the best of times and they’re being deliberately preyed on by a corrupt clergy and they take it more or less because the clergy is pretty much the authority. The abuse of power made me feel faintly sick and I’m now very pleased that, certainly in our society, people don’t believe this crap anymore. Certainly not to the extent that they’re unwilling to question immoral practice.

“A convincing hypothesis...Waller’s book should interest both historians and scientists, while the general reader will enjoy his colourful depictions of medieval life.” BBC Focus

It definitely is convincing. I mean it’s a coherent argument that makes sense in the context he provides. There are other elements that aren’t quite solid in terms of the links between them and the main event but they still add to the picture Waller attempts to paint. Like I said earlier the context is solid which makes his hypothesis much clearer than if he’d just laid it out flat. There’s a lot of context but reading through it is certainly worth it.

“Extraordinary...You only have to read the first few pages to be drawn into the fascinating story.” Evan Davis, BBC Radio 4 Today programme

I didn’t even have to read the first few pages. The blurb on the back had me at the get go. It’s just such an odd and tangible example of the stranger elements of the human mind and the lengths people will go to when they eventually snap under pressure. It’s also just weird, and reading about freaky things is always fun, scientist/historian or not. It’s also a really sharp reminder of just how good we have it nowadays. I mean really, we’re in the lap of luxury here.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this. I lapped it up over about 4 sessions in about 3 days. It’s a pretty easy read despite being detailed and informative. It doesn’t skip anything but doesn’t bore you with relentless dates and other stuff that makes history hard. It’s just a fascinating and very human look at a subject that could have been cold and clinical in other hands.

I give it 4 Mell-Heads.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian has sat and looked impressive and imposing on my bookshelf for a really long time. A friend of my mum’s is as much of a book fiend as I am and so when she had a clear out about 18 months ago she let me descend on her “to go” pile and take whatever I liked. The Historian was one of my finds and one that most interested me because I love books and I love history so anything about both of those things has to be fascinating, yes? I was even willing to give it a go despite that fact that generally Vampires annoy me. You’re young and beautiful and immortal. What the fuck is your problem? I am of course referring to the Anne Rice brand of Vampire who does nothing but pout and moan and toss violent manes of hair around enough to give Loreal adverts reason to fret. Thankfully The Historian contains no such creatures.
Via Tumblr
I know, right?

This is the blurb:
“Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds and ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor.’ Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of-a labyrinth where the secrets of her fathers past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.’

Dracula is that evil, btw. That isn’t spoilery as it’s evident in the first few chapters and even in the reviews on the covers. This is a Dracula update, and make no mistake. Here are my thoughts on the book:

In the beginning the exposition is really clumsy. I mean it’s all important stuff but I can’t help thinking that there had to be a more elegant way of putting it than “Oh and this was the person to whom these events happened which actually have nothing to do with what we’re talking about right now.” It clanged.

The other thing that bothered me really early on and consistently throughout the book was the lack of distinct voice for each of the people telling the story. It’s told by 3 people: The Narrator, her Father and her father’s friend and University advisor Professor Rossi. There are smaller sections told by other characters but you’d never know if it wasnt specifically stated because they all speak with the exact same narrative voice. There is very little distinction between their styles. This not only makes bland reading, but gets confusing, particularly when it switches narrator mid-chapter. Quite often the narrator will begin a chapter with details of her father's letters and then begin her father’s narrative. This is marked only by her saying “my father said”. If you miss that you have to go back a few pages later when you’re really confused as to what’s going on. It gets frustrating after a while. Really, you should be able to tell that somebody else is narrating just by their voice. Not so with The Historian.

Any kind of attempted difference in voice is reserved mostly for non-native speakers of English and uses annoying and overused collocations like “how you say?” and “how do you say?” That is the only distinction between the characters. Having met a fair few ESOL students at different levels and from all over the world, I can tell you not-so-very-exclusively that I’ve never heard them say that. They ask about words sure, but never “how you say?” before immediately using the right word. The Historian isn’t the only culprit of this annoying habit but it bothered me enough to mention it here. The only character with anything close to his own voice was an unpleasant Bulgarian communist official called Ranov. There are Americans, English, Scots, Bulgarians, Turks, Hungarians, Romanians, Peasants, Noblemen,Monks, Scholars, Dons, Professors, Oxbridge Students and they All. Sound. The. Same.

Another thing that bugged me massively was the large instances of COINKYDINKS! All stories rely on deus ex machina to some degree and conincidences generally do strike me as odd but usually I let them go. Sometimes things do just happen, right? However, there is an enormous coincidence about a third of the way into the book that is never explained and that is even acknowledged by the characters as being a huge coincidence. That’s what bothered me most I think. Not that the thing happened but that they acknowledged it but never actually got an explanation. (I made this note as it happened and it was never explained at any point in the book.)

The bulk of the story follows the (frustratingly unnamed) narrator’s Father and Mother as they seek answers to the many mysteries surrounding the Dracula myth and those obsessed with it. Often it’s compelling as you will them to uncover some secret or partial revelation. However it really really starts to drag by about two thirds of the way in. The book is split into 3 parts. The latter half of the second and the first half of the third are tedious beyond measure. There are ways that it could have been summarised or glossed over, other crucial elements certainly were. The Mother and Father are traveling extensively in the East Bloc having come from America. Their visas are all obtained by a “powerful Aunt” but their difficulties are never so profound as to stop them getting where they need to be. I’m not an expert on that period in history but something about their relative ease of travel just didn’t ring true. The reader is not so fortunate as to be spared the tedious elements of their long and detailed search. A lot of it seemed to be an attempt to crow-bar in as much of the research the author had evidently done as possible. To her infinite credit the details are extensively researched, but just a little tedious when provided in the enormous quantities that they are.

The last 70 pages or so are really excellent though. They bring everything together and manage to be bittersweet and immensely satisfying all at once. It’s also pretty harrowing stuff. The beginning has a hint of this but the reader and the narrator are not as deeply entrenched in the knowledge and dangerous secrets, so it isn’t as intensely dangerous nor as scary for the reader. The awful discoveries and immediate dangerous possibilities faced by all of the characters seem completely real in the last pages. The very end of the narrators discourse does what the author didn’t seem to be able to do for huge parts of the story and summarises everything beautifully and in a satisfying way. I know the ultimate fate of everybody that matters and there’s still a mystery to keep you pondering as you close the final page.

Here’s what some of those cover reviews say:

“Told with a compelling intensity which will keep the reader hooked until the last Undead tomb door swings shut.” Sunday Telegraph

Uhm, I’m with ya on the first half of the book and the last 70 pages but Sweet Perspiring Christ that second half really drags. I disagree with you for a large chunk of the novel, Sunday Telegraph.

“Filled with fascinating details of archaic vampire lore, the splendors of the Ottoman Empire and the beauty of the Romanian countryside.” T L S

Can’t argue with that. Although my earlier thought that too much detail was crowbarred in still stands. Perhaps understandably. If I’d spent 10 years writing and researching something I’d want the fruits of my labour to show as much of my hard work as possible. It does make tiring times for the reader, though.

“Elegantly written and genuinely scary, The Historian is a gripping work of literary fantasy.” Image

Sometimes it’s a little clumsy in terms of exposition and plot holes, but on the whole it is really gorgeously written (and monotonous in style, but at least it’s a nice style). However, at times, particularly towards the end, it is indeed genuinely frightening.

There are pages and pages of these things. I disagree with many of them on a lot points, but it was a good read for the most part. I tend to dislike things that drag. I have a tendency to read things in huge chunks and prefer a sharp pace though, so long slow unwindings are generally not for me. I genuinely think that a lot of the second half could have been pruned down without the book losing any of its punch or realism, though.

I give this 2.5 Mell-Heads. As beautifully researched as it is and as satisfying as the end was, there’s too much that irked me for me to give it more than that. It was a good read, just not great.