Thursday, March 23, 2006

Things Are Not Always What They Seem

My roommate lent me a book by Jodi Picoult a few days ago. She's a big fan of
Jodi Picoult, and since I trust my roommate's taste, I was eager to plunge head first into the novel she lent me - Picture Perfect. From what I've heard and read, many of Picoult's books deal with main characters who, while easy to become emotionally involved with, have flaws that not only make their personalities stronger, but make their stories all the more excellent. Picture Perfect is no different.

When Hollywood's golden boy Alex Rivers marries
UCLA anthropologist Cassie Barrett, their relationship appears to be, well, picture perfect. They meet on a movie set in Tanzania, where Cassie is hired to be Alex's technical advisor on the field of Los Angeles. Correction: She is living in one of Alex's several homes. She becomes a part of a lifestyle she never imagined entering before, and she begins to believe that, perhaps, everything is perfect in her life after all. However, when dark secrets are revealed, and the newly-wed aura fades away, Cassie realizes her marriage and Alex may not be what they seem.

Both Cassie and Alex are troubled souls, which is what makes Picture Perfect all the more intriguing. They each have their secrets, and they each had difficult childhoods, by which they can either learn and grow or be destroyed. What's more, this novel deals with the slightly taboo subject of
domestic violence and abuse. While I am certainly vehemently against domestic abuse, and I would kick the ass of any man who tried to hit me (Excuse my blunt language, but it only seemed appropriate.), Picture Perfect sheds a different light on the subject, helping you better understand the nature and chemistry of a couple involved in such a violent situation. However, the scenes of domestic abuse chilled me to the bone and remained with me for hours after I had finished reading. In fact, this entire story stays with you long after you have finished the book. I completed Picture Perfect several days ago, but I am still reminded by the characters and their stories every now and then.

Picoult is a strong writer, and her character development is perhaps her best talent. While Picture Perfect is the first book of hers I have read, it most certainly will not be the last.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

ee cummings installation two

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which I cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

ee cummings

Courted by a Courtesan

After reading The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, I was so delighted with her writing and story-weaving expertise that I decided to read her latest book, In the Company of the Courtesan, immediately thereafter. Once again, I was thrilled. It's not that In the Company of the Courtesan is better than The Birth of Venus; they are equally strong in both plot and character development. However, there is something particularly enchanting about Dunant's most recent work.

As the title suggests, In the Company of the Courtesan is about, well, being in the company of a courtesan. Fiammetta Bianchini is the lovely heroine, her beauty and excellent reputation as a courtesan spreading her fame across both Rome and Venice. However, the book is narrated by the courtesan's partner/confidant/best friend/pimp, a brilliant, witty and loving dwarf named Bucino. Bucino is an absolutely fabulous character, for lack of better adjectives, and Dunant's choice of using him is the narrator is perfect. I don't think this book would have been quite so excellent had the story not been told from his perspective.

Anyway, to get on with the actual plot line... (I'm rambling yet again. Surprise, surprise. I don't think that it helps that I'm listening to Joni Mitchell while writing this. Odd choice for a Renaissance novel, I know, but, hey, it's a dreary, rainy night and Joni just seemed appropriate.)

So, as I was saying, In the Company of the Courtesan begins by showing Fiammetta and Bucino's successful and comfortable life in Rome. She is Rome's most famous and adored courtesan, and Bucino is also known for his shrewd business sense and comic relief. However, their cushy situation soon takes a turn for the worst with the sack of Rome by Charlemagne's troops. The French, Spanish and ravenous Lutheran Germans (those pesky Germans!) wreak havoc on the city of Rome, destroying both its beauty, its people and its spirit. While Fiammetta and Bucino are spared, they do not escape from the ruins of the once great city unscathed. Fiammetta's head is brutally shaved (with knives and carving scissors) by two hideous witches of German soldiers' wives (You want to beat the snot after them when you read about how they treat poor, beautiful, loveable Fiammetta.), and she and Bucino travel for miles and miles, without shelter or food, to reach their final destination: Venice. Fiammetta's home town, Venice will hopefully save her and Bucino from desolation and ruin.

Thus, the two find themselves in Venice, struggling to "set up shop" and return to their once almost noble status in society. However, their route is not always smooth sailing, and there are many twists and turns along their climb to the top of the Venetian social ladder. With the help of a healer known as La Draga, Fiammetta's hair, and beauty, return with a brighter glow than before, and while she and Bucino manage to build up their business to its former glory, there are still people and events that effect their lives in ways they could have never guessed.

With intriguing characters and intricate story lines, In the Company of the Courtesan is a splendid book. Despite its unconventional leading players and plot, Dunant's latest addition to the literary world is still heart wrenching and bitter sweet. I simply adored it, and I hope you will as well.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cara Italia

I know, I know... It's been WAY too long since my last post, but sometimes life distracts you. However, I did manage to read a FABULOUS book over the past week (Thanks to my mom, who sent it to me in a care package.), and I am delighted to be able to share it with you now. What do they always say... better late than never?

Anyway, I was walking to the bus in downtown Chicago yesterday, near the Clark and Division El stop, heading towards my dentist appointment, when an overwhelming feeling of grime hit me. The entire city felt grimy: the weather was grimy, the air was grimy, the streets were thoroughly grimy and the people were even grimy. I felt instantly dirty the minute I ascended from the El station. (Not that I hadn't felt dirty on the El as well, but I usually feel an immense sense of relief once outside. Yesterday I didn't.) I had spent the weekend at my roommate's parents' homes in Woodstock, Ill., so the contrast between the fresh country air there and the dull city air here was stark. However, the entire mood reminded me instantly of the book I had just finished reading, one that had transported me to late 15th century Florence, where the streets are also grimy.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is a novel, but it beautifully combines the history of Florence during the Renaissance with the story of young and vibrant Alessandra Cecchi's life. (Yes, I did automatically feel connected to this heroine because, well, we do share the same name.) Alessandra is coming of age during a conflicting time in Italy's history: art is flourishing, yet the Roman Catholic church is desperately trying to fight what it considers to be an increase in sin and debauchery. True, Florence is full of a seedy dark underbelly, in which murder, sodomy (a word that appears frequently in this book) and prostitution reign. Alessandra, while an extremely pious girl, is inherently drawn towards the art world, her fingers itching to paint despite the fact that it is forbidden for ladies to pursue a career in the arts.

However, with the help of her bold yet loving African attendant and best friend, Alessandra is able to draw in secret. When a young and mysterious artist is hired by her father to paint the family chapel, Alessandra feels a window of opportunity may be opening for her, yet her entire world is thrown apart with the French invasion of Florence. She chooses the fate of marriage over confinement to a convent, and she finds married to a man who, while kind, has a secret darker than she can ever imagine. While the fight between the corrupt members of the church and the Medici supporters wages in the streets, Alessandra fights her own battle within... And she cannot seem to forget the cat eyes of the painter, staring into her soul like no other has before.

The Birth of Venus is full of history, intrigue, mystery, art and, of course, a little romance. However, the main focus of this novel is the role women played in Renaissance art and what impact they could have had had they been able to pursue their passions openly. Alessandra is a wonderful narrarator and heroine, and her character is one that will surely stick with me for some time to come, as will this story.