Welcome to my corner of the internet! I write primarily about the books I read, as well as other topics that interest me and the occasional life update. I am currently teaching myself Python, and enjoy various textile arts.
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Azazel by Boris Akunin
I've been procrastinating writing a review for Azazel, and I don't think there ever is a "good" reason to procrastinate writing but I did feel like I needed to collect my thoughts a little more on the topic, let my excitement subside into a more manageable set of impressions that I can then try to record without getting too entangled in digressions.
So. Azazelem>, localized for anglophone audiences as The Winter Queenem>. It's an absolutely terrific debut for the Erast Fandorin books, one that I was not entirely expecting after having read the second installment, The Turkish Gambitem>. The second book had introduced me to a somewhat reclusive, dour young detective. I found him interesting and charmingly uncharismatic: while some previous calamity had been hinted at as an explanation for his odd behaviours, Fandorin is not pitiful enough to qualify as a brooding, wounded prince type.
The Fandorin I met in Azazelm>e is a completely different story. Fresh-faced, delightfully naiive, boyish and romantic: Erast at 20 is simply heart-melting. As we read about his very first case as a detective, the story not only details the uncovering of a global conspiracy, but also builds tension brilliantly. Following Erast around as he fumbles through the investigation is much like letting your little brother drive you around while failing to pay attention to the GPS navigation instructions. Plenty of missed turns and close calls, but it's hard to stay mad when he's trying so, so hard.
The biggest mounting feeling is, really, concern for him. Without giving the plot away, Erast is forced to leave many things behind as he untangles the mysteries of Azazel. He does not escape unscathed, and one cannot help but mourn for the innocence lost, for the earnestness and purity of heart that guided him through so many perils and now is left behind.
I am eager to read more of his adventures. I want to find out if he ever recovers, if he ever manages to truly start living again with the same enthusiasm he had when he first started out. I want to know if his heart survives, if he ever leaves what I now recognize as the fog that envelops him in The Turkish Gambit. I want him to win, somehow. I want him to survive.
Thaïs by Anatole France
Reading Thais by Anatole France felt, most of all, like an ordeal. In that sense I would say that Mr. France is a talented author: I felt completely absorbed in this legend of fragrant sands, demons and saints. As I reached the climax of the story while sipping a cappucino and eating small bits of key lime pie, I could swear I was surrounded by dry winds, observed closely by the unblinking sun. As it turns out I was being observed by a large statue of Dyonisus (wearing rainbow sunglasses. It's June in the United States, and the locals are really into their seasonal holidays), and the winds were merely wafts of the South Carolinian humidity penetrating into the air conditioned sanctum of the cafe.
But, as far as I was concerned, we were all in the desert. We were all plagued by demons, and we were all sharing the terrors experienced by our poor protagonist, Paphnuce. While, I'm sure, this impression would not be shared by an atheist reader, this book was a marvellous example of horror writing. I found myself viscerally disgusted as I read, as I noticed the seeds of later suffering being planted in the small excesses of pride exhibited by the "saint".
I'm reluctant to speak of Thais, the maiden after whom the story is named: after all, her transformation and salvation is not the focus of the story. While the story is based on the very real St. Thais of Roman Alexandria, France chooses to rewrite the original legend of her conversion and penance into a story where she no longer is a character of real consequence. Despite her repentance, despite her cloistered life, Thais is frozen into a symbol of the demonic. Regardless of her piety, her image is the only real agent in the world painted by Mr. France. It is not her, but her image that tortures and eventually subdues Paphnuce. No matter how much she may repent, her beauty is a form of evil, because it is a source of temptation for Paphnuce.
I do not find, to be entirely honest, this adaptation to be particularly respectful to the saints that it depicts.
I'm not entirely sure of what France was attempting to accomplish, if this story is meant to serve as a critique of the Church. France is described as a skeptic, a true exponent of the French intellectual ideal for the 1800s on his wikipedia page, and this does not surprise me one bit. The tone of the work is ironic, the sarcasm and disdain for asceticism apparent in the first descriptions of the christian ascetics on the banks of the Nile in the first chapter.
And yet, France reserves a great deal of enthusiasm and respect for similar ascetic practices reported from the East in a later chapter.
It seems apparent to me that France is not a skeptic of asceticism, but of the Catholic Church. Hardly a groundbreaking opinion, coming from a 19th century frenchman. And that's what I find so fascinating about this book: in the process of writing, perhaps with some degree of glee, about the downfall of a christian, France manages to write a very convincing tragedy. It really boils down to the readers judgment cast upon Paphnuce: do we pity him? Do we despise him for his pride, for his presumptiousness?
I, for one, cannot but pity. Poor Paphnuce. He doesn't know that he never stood a chance, that his story is in the hands of a God crueller than the one he tried so hard to worship.
The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin
Time to make a confession, my friends. Ever since I was a little kid and first got my hands on the first 5 Harry Potter books, I've had a hard time reading books in order. At the time, with the Harry Potter books, I went for the third book in the series first. It was longer, and the hyppogrif on the cover seemed cool. I like to think that my judgment of that book by the cover paid off: even after I went back and read the whole series (in order, this time), I always considered Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to be the best one.
All this to say that, well, old habits die hard, and when confronted with a somewhat lengthy series of detective novels as reccommended to me by my handler, I took some liberties with the reading order. Hence, The Turkish Gambit, book 2 of the Erast Fandorin series.
It was the perfect book to break into while in COVID-19 recovery: not terribly long, easy to read, and massively entertaining. The narrator, Varvara, is, for lack of a better word, a rather silly young woman. Using a young woman to introduce the rest of the cast works out really well: Varvara is self conscious and silly and, honestly, a really good accounting to what it would feel like to be 22 and suddenly set adrift in the man's world of a war front. She makes an entertaining witness to the events of the story and to Fandorin's grand reveal at the end of the adventure.
It has crossed my mind that her being a woman is precisely why she makes such a great witness-- after all, she's not directly involved in the war efforts like the rest of the cast. Because she plays a supporting role in the war effort as an assistant nurse, she makes for a great straight-man amongst the throng of war journalists and soldiers, and she provides for a hilarious filter through which we observe the hero of the series, Fandorin.
I don't want to dwell on our hero, but I did find him funny. I'm not sure if Akunin was intentionally making descriptions of his hero amusing, but more than a couple of times I have burst out laughing at reading about his living arrangements. Workout equipment and bottles of wine and cold platters of pilaf. That's right: Fandorin is a sigma male. But all sigma jokes aside, Fandorin makes for a pretty memorable fictional detective. He's not too cool or too charismatic in the eyes of Varya. On the contrary, he's vaguely offputting, and she only comes to appreciate his dependability with time. He's a bit of a weirdo; and that's, what I suspect, exactly what makes him so likeable and memorable as a literary hero.
Pietra Lunare by Tommaso Landolfi
La Pietra Lunare by Landolfi had been on my to-read list on Goodreads for a few years now, and I wish I could remember on what occasion I had first stumbled upon this book. I didn't know, back then, that it was about were-goat girls in the italian countryside. I had simply been pulled in by the pretty title: La Pietra Lunare. The moonstone, as one would translate it in English. I would translate it as lunar-stone, to help carry the same disembodied connotation of the original title. After all, moonstones are pretty little rocks that children can buy at rock shops. A lunar stone, on the other hand, carries something mythic about it. It's a stone, but maybe it's a mirror, too. Or a radio receiver, transmitting mysterious messages from the stony-faced Madonnas that people the pages of this beautiful little gothic story. Either way, it carries within its smooth surfaces memories of people long gone.
I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but this book manages to fulfill the tropes of gothic literature without ever feeling imprisoned by those paradigms. The story certainly relies on the the uncanny to deliver the source of horror, the precipice over which we must follow our charmingly scholastic protagonist. Unlike his romantic-gothic predecessors, Giancarlo is distinctly unimpressive, despite his university education. He's out of his element in the grotesque landscape of the small town. His own status as an emigre returned to bestow a visit upon his provincial relatives helps dilute the horror of his new caprine girlfriend-- it is not necessarily her, the animal-woman, who is the odd one out here. No, she might be bestial, but she certainly belongs in the glowing silver hills under the moonlight. He's the one out of his element after all, his masculinity questioned and then summarily subdued in his nightmarish White Night, set adrift amongst brigands and ancestors who all easily outmatch his vitality, virility, and courage. For all his univeristy education, Giancarlo is a bit of a loser. But it's precisely his helplessness that carries the book, that allows Guru's furry lap to grow into a place of reassurance and comfort and overwhelming alienness, all at once.
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