Friday, August 26, 2011

Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue

Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins
Emma Donoghue
Joanna Cotler Books/HarperCollins, 1997
ISBN: 0-06-440772-1
Source: Library (inter-library loan from Grande Prairie Public Library)

Kissing the Witch is the third book that I've read by Donoghue in the last 12 months. In January I read Slammerkin and last September I read Room. I loved all three.

I read Kissing the Witch for a book group. I'd known about the book from checking out Donoghue's oeuvre, but fairy tales aren't my cup of tea so I hadn't been tempted to read it. Even as a kid I didn't get into them all that much. As an adult one of my aunts bought me a book of fairy tales re-told with a feminist edge. They were funny, at the time, but unmemorable.

Emma Donoghue's tales, on the other hand, will stick with me for a while. She doesn't just re-tell or re-package these fairy tales and characters, she completely re-visions them. She shows the back-story to how some of the classic characters got to be where they are and how they are (evil stepmother, reclusive witch, Rapunzel, etc) and has produced an empowering, yet not overwhelming group of 13 interconnected tales that are entertaining and at times funny, but also serious and instructive. And they're so beautifully & tightly written that I've already re-read some of them for the sheer enjoyment of seeing how Donoghue casts her spell as a writer. I'm putting this one on my wish list.

One of my favorites is "The Tale of The Voice." Its a cautionary tale of being careful about what you ask for, the dangers of obsession, and the consequences of not valuing oneself. The beauty of this tale is that the woman who throws herself over for a man she's after is not a young, inexperienced girl, but a grown women who'd "already ripped out my first gray hair" (185). She gets the man she thinks she's in love with, but like so many women in real life, she looses her voice.

The Grande Prairie Library shelves Kissing the Witch in the young adult section, but this is a book for women and men of all ages. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy fairy tales and fantasy, short stories, and uplifting but not simplistic tales. Its a quick, highly satisfying read.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

Title: The Hangman's Daughter
(Die Henkerstochter)
Translated from German by: Lee Chadeayne
Edition I read: AmazonCrossing, 2010 (ISBN 978-1-935597-06-6)
Source: bought it
Now also available from Mariner Books.

I noticed ads for this book on various book related websites recently and added it to my TBR list. A Mariner Books edition was just released on August 2, 2011, hence the ads, but several weeks ago I stumbled across a 2010 Amazon Crossing edition at a local used bookstore, The Frugal Muse. I'm interested in reading German mysteries and contemporary fiction that have been translated into English and with the hype that this book was receiving I jumped on it.

The story is primarily about Jakob Kuisl, an executioner in 17th century Germany (Schongau, Bavaria), who must torture and possibly execute Martha Stechlin, the local midwife, for witchcraft unless he can prove her innocence. Many of the local burghers think she murdered a child. She delivered the children of many of these people, but the year is 1659 and most people are quick to yell witch or devil when anything happens out of the ordinary. While Martha's in prison, more children die, the local warehouse is burned, and the construction site of the new home for lepers is sabotaged. The mob wants the witch to burn and the town leaders want a quick resolution for financial reasons. It's an age when a common belief is that "torture will lead us to the truth" (168).  Let's hope that believe doesn't make more of a return than it already has in recent years.

German cover
Jakob's daughter, Magdalena, for whom the novel is named, isn't a major character in the story in terms of time spent on the page, but she does play an important role here and there. However, I think it was misleading to title this book The Hangman's Daughter, but apparently having the word "girl" (or something close to it) in the title of a book is hot these days due to the popularity of the Millennium Trilogy. In case you're wondering, it does carry the same title in German (Die Henkerstochter). Magdalena is in love with the local physician's son, Simon Fronwieser, who is an apprentice physician to his father, but he's more temperamentally and intellectually compatible with Jakob than with his own father. As a hangman's daughter and a physician's son, their love is verboten, but Simon becomes Jakob's side-kick.

And then there's the devil, the creepy bad guy, and his lackeys as well as a group of plucky orphans of which only two are left, two tough little girls.

It sounded like a good book to me, but I'm sorry to say that it just didn't grip me like the ads suggested it would. I can't tell if this is due to the translation of the book or the story itself. There are three primary issues I had with the book: pacing, atmosphere, and character.

The pacing of the novel is not fast, but that doesn't matter much to me if the story is good. However, this book dragged in parts. The edition that I read is 431 pages long. I hate it when reviewers say a hundred or so pages could have been cut from a book (really, which 100 pages, smarty pants?), but I had that feeling with this book, particularly toward the end, during the last 130 pages or so.

Also, I expect historical mysteries to be a bit more atmospheric. The Hangman's Daughter mentions the narrow streets filled with mud and the slop from chamber pots, but I never got the sense of people actually living and breathing in these streets. There were stereotypical scenes of someone falling in muck, getting his nice leather boots dirty, but not what it would be like to live in the town day after day. The cultural expectations that bind people to their roles and out of which there is virtually no hope of escaping is presented more as fact than as feeling. Even Magdalena and Simon's forbidden love isn't presented in an emotional way. Again, there are the stereotypical scenes where the reader is told that people are talking about their scandalous love and the girl's father even finds them in the barn, complete with hay in Magdalena's hair.

And this leads me to the issue of the characters. In the beginning there were glimmers of well-rounded characters to come, complex characters (young Jakob watched his father botch an execution and vowed never to become an executioner...then 35 years later there he is, after serving as a solider in the Thirty Years' War he became an executioner after all, but not for the reasons you'd think). Magdalena is presented as a young woman with some spark, someone who knows her herbs, but then she fades away only to pop up again to move the plot along. And that's how the characters ended up feeling to me--like plot devices.

So who would want to read this novel after reading my criticism?  Let me point out that I DID finish this novel, which says a lot, since it seems like this year I've stopped reading more novels than in all the years of my life combined. So, I liked it enough to keep reading, there seemed to be so much potential, and I wanted to see where Potzsch would take things. Much of what I said above could, perhaps, be attributed to the translation. I'd love to hear from other readers about this book, especially if you read it in German.

Book Two!
There is a sequel. Die Henkerstochter und der schwarze Mönch, The Hangman's Daughter and the Black Monk, but it's only available in German at this time. 

Oliver Potzsch is a direct descendent of the Kuisl dynasty of executioners from Bavaria, so he has a unique perspective on things. I think Potzsch has great talent and I look forward to reading his next book. I'd recommend The Hangman's Daughter to avid mystery readers, particularly those who enjoy historical mysteries, but its probably not going to float your boat if you don't regularly read mysteries or historical fiction. Also take not that there is some gross, violent content, but nothing that is prolonged.

Overall, this story is fresh and the characters have great potential to become more fleshed out in future novels, but the, ahem, execution just wasn't there for me. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Library: Hines VA Hospital, IL

Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans Hospital
Medical Library
5000 South 5th Avenue
Hines, IL 60141

While making my way through the sprawling buildings and halls of Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital on Friday, I discovered that they have a library. I had about five hours to kill between appointments and figured I’d find a place to hang out and read…who knew it would be in an actual library? Home is close enough, but why drive back and forth when I can sit somewhere and read just as easily as at home?

The library isn't included in current maps of the hospital complex and that may be because its not a general use public library; it is medical library mainly used by doctors, employees, and the occasional veteran. One of the librarians I talked with said that they're in the process of considering a new location for the library or perhaps a remodel. I heard someone else telling two visitors that an area of the library may be the location of a new lounge that will serve Starbucks coffee. There's a coffee shop in the main hospital that already serves Starbucks. The VA is on the ball: no more reliance on nasty coffee vending machines.

Hines VA hospital first opened in 1921. They are currently in the midst of another beautification and modernization project. I haven't been inside Hines for decades and things have definitely changed for the better. The new women's clinic which opened there last year is rather swank. I am assuming that the upcoming library move or remodel is part of the larger Hines upgrade.

View from the entrance.

The library currently resides in the north end of building 1, the longest building on the Hines campus. Overall, the library has a late 1960s, early 1970s vibe to it. The librarian told me that they occasionally have to glue down the faux wood grain laminate.

Library map.
View of the study area.

 Reference desk and computers for patron use (internet connected).
The library houses primarily medical journals and books as well as a couple dozen or so military reference books. What caught my eye are the shelves of give-away mass market paperback books: lots of mysteries, some military action, with a few classics mixed in. I picked two: Bury MyHeart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown and The Summer Before The Dark by Doris Lessing. If you should find yourself at the Hines library and want to take a book, check with the librarian: people have often walked off with books they thought were free that weren't.

It’s funny how books pop up when you need them. I’ve long thought about reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Before leaving the house on Friday morning I scrolled through The Independent’s list of The Ten Best History Books and Bury My Heart was on that list. I thought to myself that I really should get around to reading it and then, just a couple hours later, I stumble across a free copy. If the Gods and Goddesses wanted to send me a clearer message that it was time for me to read this book, I can’t imagine what it would be. (Note to the Gods and Goddess: that is not a challenge!)

Anyway, as I sat in the library and did some reading and paperwork, the steady hum of the industrial strength air conditioners helped to drown out the people whispering (one in English and one in Polish) on their cell phones, which are not supposed to be used in the library, and the voices from the conference room where some folks in a meeting decided it was okay for all of us to hear what they were discussing. Still, this is one of the quieter small libraries that I’ve been in recently. I can't recall when the last time was that I heard a librarian actually make the "Shh!" sound.

There’s no wifi at the Hines library, which may make it the best library in the area for me and others with short attention spans do some serious writing when using a laptop. I’m still trying to break myself of the delusion that I can “quickly just check my email.”

There are educational displays throughout the library that focus on health or military history. I'll leave you with a series of pictures of a display that I particularly enjoyed about women's military service throughout American history. You should be able to click on the image to see a larger, readable version.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Back in the Saddle

It's obvious that I haven't posted for several weeks. Starting a new work schedule threw me a bit off-kilter and then Borders announcing its liquidation knocked the wind out of my sails. As a long-time Borders employee (11 years), I certainly knew the company was in financial trouble. We were all hoping a knight in shining armor would rescue us, but, alas, it was not to be. I may write more about my Borders experience in the future, but for now I just wanted to drop you all a note to say that as of this week I'll be back to my regular, at least once-a-week posting schedule.

In the mean time, if you're on Facebook check out the new I Love Reading page which was created as an antidote to I Hate Reading (which is an aggregate "page").
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