Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

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Day 1261: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Cover for The Last Painting of Sara de VosBest of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.

Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.

In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”

In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.

Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1051: The Bookman’s Tale

Cover for The Bookman's TaleIt was difficult for me to decide how much I liked The Bookman’s Tale. Parts of it were very interesting and just up my alley, while other parts of it struck me as unnecessary.

Peter Byerly is a young seller of antiquarian books. His beloved wife Amanda died unexpectedly, and since then, he has been taken over by grief. He has moved from the States to the cottage in the Cottswolds that they bought just before she died, because their previous home held too many memories.

Peter finally becomes interested in something when he finds a watercolor of a woman who looks like Amanda in a book in an antiquarian book shop. In trying to track down more information about the artist and his subject, he gets onto the track of a document that could be the holy grail for antiquarians—something that proves Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This document is in the form of the Pandosto, a play written by Robert Greene that formed the basis for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This play seems to have Shakespeare’s annotations in it. Later, there is a murder.

Periodically, we go back in time to trace the course of this document. We know there was a real Pandosto, because we see that a man lends it to Shakespeare with some trick in mind.

We also periodically look back to Peter and Amanda’s romance. Peter trains as a book restorer, so we learn something about this field, which I found fascinating. However, although I was interested in Peter and Amanda’s relationship at first, after a while I started to wonder why we were getting so much detail about it, since it didn’t have that much to do with the rest of the book.

So, a mixed review on this one. It has a good mystery about two feuding families and a lot of interesting detail about books, but the romantic storyline slows it down after a while.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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Day 994: The Lovers of Yvonne

Cover for Lovers of YvonneThe Sieur Gaston de Luynes is a soldier of fortune whose fortunes haven’t worked out so well at the beginning of The Lovers of Yvonne. Almost destitute, he was lucky enough to be hired by Cardinal Mazarin to teach his nephew Andrea de Mancini arms. But in the first chapter of the novel, the Cardinal fires Luynes after Andrea becomes drunk, blaming Luynes for his nephew’s behavior.

More dangerously, Andrea, who is a very young man, has been challenged to a duel. The Cardinal orders Luynes to make sure the duel doesn’t occur. The only way Luynes can see to honorably do that is to injure the other combatant, Eugène de Canaples, first. So, he duly insults Canaples and then handily beats him in a duel, making sure to wound him.

However, this fight attracts a mob, which chases Luynes with the object of hurting him. He is only able to escape by jumping into the carriage of a woman passing by. He falls madly in love with this woman, who unfortunately is Yvonne Canaples, the sister of his victim.

If this weren’t bad enough, the Cardinal informs him that he has arranged a marriage between Yvonne and Andrea. He tells him he will see him hanged if he finds him anywhere near Choisy, where the de Canaples live. But Luynes likes Andrea, so when invited to go along with him, he does. It’s a good thing, too, because several other suitors are on the way there, most notably the Marquis de St. Auban.

This novel is Sabatini’s first, and it is full of intrigue, sword fights, and kidnappings. Sabatini had only lived in England ten years before writing it, but the English is impeccable, his sixth language. Although Sabatini was himself disappointed in this novel, it is entertaining.

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Merivel: A Man of His Time

Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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Day 861: The Witches: Salem, 1692

Cover for The WitchesIn The Witches, Pulitzer-winning nonfiction writer Stacy Schiff takes another look at 1692 Salem and its witch hunt. She explores the climate of New England at the time, particularly its paranoia and excessive religiosity, and why it was open to such an over-reaction. The book also explores the ramifications for the region for years to come.

Schiff quickly points out that much of what is “known” about the witch trials is apocryphal. There was no black slave, for example, but an Indian servant. Schiff reconstructs the events from what she can find, many of the official documents having been destroyed at later times, and the accounts, even of the official note takers, varying considerably from one another and interjecting opinion and descriptive wording that should not have been permitted.

The incident began with one household, where some of the children were subject to screams and contortions. This household was that of Samuel Parris, the minister of Salem Village. The girls were a niece, daughters, and a servant, all teens or pre-teens. Schiff is fairly charitable in ascribing the state of these children to a condition that was later diagnosed as hysteria (a condition itself fraught with controversy), which generally affected young women leading restricted lives with little hope of change. Later, we hear of another householder who handled a similar condition severely and eliminated it. But Parris soon established it as witchcraft, and an even larger group of girls and other people who became afraid of being accused themselves were on their way to a lot of attention. As one of them put it (whose remark was ignored), “We must have some sport.”

They had their sport all right. By the end, 19 people and 2 dogs were hanged for witchcraft. Some of the girls would have gone on from there, but the colony finally declared there would be no more prosecutions and the behavior eventually stopped.

This is a fascinating book that explores such topics as permissible evidence, assumption of guilt, the treatment of people who protested their innocence versus that of those who admitted guilt, and the behavior of certain of the principal leaders of society. It finds parallels to other events much more recently in our past.

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