It seems as though I’ve read more books about people who love books in the last year than ever before. It all started with The Yellow-Lighted Book Shop, segued into John Dunning’s The Bookman series, stopped off in fantasy land with Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, and most recently took a turn on the bestseller list with The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.
The Thirteenth Tale is the famously omitted story from author Vida Winter’s collection of short stories. Margaret Lea, book lover and amateur biographer, is invited to hear the true life story of England’s most popular author. When Margaret arrives at Winter’s home, she finds a dying woman with one foot firmly in the past. As Vida’s story unfolds, Margaret finds herself drawn into the darkly strange world of the the Angelfield twins. She is unsure of how much is true and how much is flotsam from Vida’s compost pile of story fragments. As Vida tells her story, so does Margaret, who harbors her own untold story.
Setterfields characters are magnificent. The otherwordly existence of the Angelfield family is at once repulsive and fascinating. There are many strands to this story that wave all over the place throughout, but which are all caught up in a neat knot at the end. I was engrossed in this story from the start and — gasp of surprise — didn’t even peek at the end. Good thing too, because I sure didn’t see the truth in Vida’s story until the very end. All in all, this was one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in awhile.
I don’t normally appreciate stories that flip back and forth between two or more time periods or sub plots. I find them distracting and annoying because the transitions are usually abrupt and jarring. Until now, the only book I’ve read that does the transition between present and past skillyfully is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg; Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is the second.
Gruen tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a ninety — or is ninety-three? — year old former circus vet whose life takes an exciting turn when a circus sets up shop across the street from his nursing home. The present-day circus sparks memories of Jacob’s own experiences with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, which plunged him right in the middle of love, hate, despair, and wild animals.
Most of the story is told in flashbacks to the summer of 1931, and begins when Jacob’s parents are killed a few days before he’s scheduled to sit his final exams at Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. Senseless with grief, he hops a train that just happens to be a cab of the Benzini Brothers. When Uncle Al the circus boss discovers Jacob is a Cornell educated vet, he pulls Jacob into the Benzini family and sets him to work caring for the animals in the circus menagerie. Along the way, Jacob falls in love — with Marlena the horse trainer as well as with the animals he cares for — especially Rosie, a bull elephant who only understands Polish.
Back in the present, the older Jacob struggles with the limitations age has inflicted on him, all the while waiting for his family to come take him to the circus. When it becomes clear that his family has forgotten him, Jacob picks up his walker and gets himself across the street to the show. There he meets the boss, who is fascinated to discover Jacob was in the thick of one of biggest circus disasters of all time. During the course of their conversation, Jacob, ever the con-man, convinces the circus boss to take him along for the rest of the season, effectively running away with the circus for a second time.
Gruen has done her homework and includes wonderful details of circus life in the 1930s, including real life stories like the elephant that was responsible for drinking all the lemonade made for the concession stands, and the paralysis — jake leg– suffered by the hard-drinking circus men and associated with drinking Jamaica Ginger Extract while real liquor was outlawed under Prohibition. The story moves quickly and contains enough action to keep the reader satisfied. Highly recommended.
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in the 1960s and 70s was an experience steeped in church-every-Sunday, frilly white communion dresses, tiny silver crucifixes on delicate little chains, nuns enveloped in billowing habits, and don’t-you-dare-lean-your-behind-on-the-pew-when-you’re-kneeling instructions from Mom & Dad. I can tell you with much certainty that the Catholic Catechism I used in Sr. Paul Regina’s religion class sure didn’t have anything in it about the Gnostic Gospels.
As I’ve aged, I, like many of my contemporaries, have lost a little faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church. It’s not so much a loss of faith but a real questioning of the things I was taught so many years ago. So I naturally gravitate to books that deal with themes that question the same things I question. In this case, that questioning involves the authority of the four gospels of the New Testament, and the place in history and faith of the Gnostic Gospels, or New Testament apocrypha.
Resurrection is a fictionalized account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in post World War II Egypt. Gemma Bastian, our intrepid heroine, is a war-damaged nurse who lived through the Blitz in London which killed her mother and destroyed her home. Shortly after the war ends, her father, a Biblical archaeologist, is found in his Cairo office, dead of an apparent heart attack. Shortly after being informed of his death, Gemma receives a mysterious letter from him that sends her to Cairo on a mission. As she discovers more about her father’s work, it becomes clear that he had discovered something that would rewrite the history of Christianity. The story follows Gemma as she slowly pieces together the last days of her father’s life and culminates in her possession of the Nag Hammadi gospels.
This reminded me very much of early Elizabeth Peters fiction, which owes a lot to the gothic romances so popular in the 1960s and 70s, and which evolved into the inimitable Amelia Peabody series. The three primary characters — Gemma, Michael and Anthony (the two brothers who vie for her attention) are colorful and well drawn, but the real action in the story involves the discovery of the gospels, what they contain, and what happens to them. Malarkey’s story whet my appetite enough that I’m currently reading the scholarly works on the Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. I realize that my father, who spent the first part of his young adulthood in the seminary, is probably spinning in his grave, but I have to say that what I’m reading is making me re-connect with the basis of my Christian belief. And that’s not a bad thing.