The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

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The Princess Bride

Even though I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, it wasn’t until last week that I picked up The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I needed something purely escapist (because I live in America and am a frustrated liberal and I read the news) to read and I couldn’t think of anything better than this book. Fortunately, the magic of The Princess Bride still works even if you already know the story back to front.

To summarize for those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, The Princess Bride is Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world (once she learned to use soap). After her true love dies, she agrees to marry the prince of Florin—but he wants to use her to start a war with the country over the water. A few months before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by hired criminals, then re-kidnapped by a mysterious man in black. The man in black is Buttercup’s true love, returned from the sea, and the rest of the book is them trying to escape from the evil prince. Parts of the book reminded me strongly of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda because it never gets too deep. There’s just enough plausibility to keep the plot afloat and offer plenty of opportunities for fighting and derring-do.

Because I’ve seen the movie so many times, I had the actors’ voices in my head as I read the familiar dialogue. (This isn’t a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, and Andre the Giant were the perfect people to play their characters.) Most of The Princess Bride (the book) made it into the movie; some bits of dialogue were taken verbatim. What the book provided was a bit more background about Florin and some of the characters, as well as a lot more of the frame narrative. I read the thirtieth anniversary edition, which has an extended introduction and a chapter of a planned-but-abandoned sequel. In it, Goldman (as a character) talks about the making of the book and the movie (which is biographical, as far as I can tell), but also about the origins of The Princess Bride as written by S. Morgenstern, a Florinese author, and how Goldman came to “translate” and “abridge” it. I think some readers will find Goldman (the character) a little tedious and whiny, but I kind of enjoyed his metafictional playing around.

I highly recommend this book for readers who need to disappear into a story for a few hours.

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

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The Lost Book of the Grail

Lovett continues his theme of literary mysteries in The Lost Book of the Grail. Previous books have dealt with lost Shakespeare and Jane Austen. This time, Lovett explores new metafictional heights in the most literary grail quest I’ve ever encountered. The Lost Book of the Grail tells the story of Arthur Prescott’s meticulous progress through the library of Barchester Cathedral’s library to find any clues that would prove his grandfather correct: that the holy grail is somewhere in Barchester. Along the way, he has help from a talkative American digitizer and his fellow bibliophiles.

The Lost Book of the Grail opens with a surprising bit of action. One night in 1941, German bombers—lost on the way to London—dropped bombs on Barchester Cathedral. (Fellow readers might recognize the name Barchester from Anthony Trollope‘s Barsetshire novels.) A young choir boy is pressed into service to help rescue books from the cathedral library before they’re destroyed. After rescuing the books, he spots a mysterious man stealing one of them. We then jump ahead to 2016, where Arthur Prescott is working on a guidebook to the cathedral. At least, that’s what he’s supposed to be working on. In reality he’s seeking any information about St. Ewolda, the local Saxon saint, and trying to find more evidence that the holy grail might have made it to Barchester in the early middle ages. His grandfather earnestly believed that the grail had somehow come to their out of the way county before disappearing from the historical record.

This introduction might make the book sound like another The Da Vinci Code, but it’s a lot slower and a lot funnier than Dan Brown’s novel. Arthur is the consummate luddite. He loathes the modern era and prefers to spend this time in the cathedral library, reading medieval Latin. He, at first, considers the presence of Bethany an intrusion of the worst kind. She’s there to digitize the manuscripts and books in the library at the behest of an American billionaire. She’s very talkative and loves taking tangents—but she can also argue Arthur to a standstill, which he enjoys in spite of himself. Just reading their dialog is delightful.

While Arthur and Bethany work their way through the historical clues, we get brief scenes from previous centuries that let us know that we’re on the right track. Centuries ago, a monk from Glastonbury asked the monks at St. Ewolda’s to hide a treasure. Since that time, one guardian has kept the secret safe from vikings, Henry VIII’s monastery breakers, and Roundheads. Now the big danger is lack of funds for restoring a cathedral that’s starting to fall apart. The race to find something to save the cathedral before the library is sold off provides a bit of tension among all the page turning.

If you’re the sort of person who gets excited about research, The Lost Book of the Grail will be absolute catnip. If you’re the sort of person who loves characters who bicker before and after they realize they love each other, you’ll have a good time with this book. If you’re a little squeamish about religion, well, this book will still be pretty enjoyable.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss and NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood

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Hag-Seed

One of the joys of reading the Hogarth Shakespeare series is seeing how different authors respond to the original plays. Some retell the stories in a modern context (The Gap of Time and Vinegar Girl) or respond to the problems of the play (Shylock is My Name). In Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood takes on The Tempest and achieves a remarkably multi-layered approach to a play that is, to put it mildly, a little batshit. In this version of the tale, a theater director whose life mirrors Prospero’s decides to use a staging of the play inside a prison to get revenge on the people who displaced him. Of course, this bare summary does no justice to Atwood’s writerly skill.

After a brief glimpse the climactic staging of The Tempest, we see how our protagonist was abruptly kicked out of his job as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. Felix Phillips, at that point, had just lost his daughter to meningitis (three years after he lost his wife in childbirth) and his planned production of The Tempest was going off the rails. Felix’s Shakespeare productions were always over the top, but there are worries that this one will be beyond demented. While he was putting all this energy into the play, his assistant Tony is plotting to replace him. Tony completely blindsides Felix when he gives the director the news that he’s out of the festival and that his production is canceled.

Felix heads off into rural Canada to lick his wounds and plot desultory revenge. Over time, realizing that he’s doing nothing by turning himself into an eccentric hermit, he wrangles a job as a theater director for Fletcher Correctional Institute. Considering that he is teaching Shakespeare to inmates, Felix is shockingly successful. He is so successful in fact that Tony, now a government minister, and his cronies make plans to see the latest production. It’s the opportunity Felix has been waiting for.

It was tempting to try and map The Tempest onto Hag-Seed. One can, but there are enough differences to give this version an important degree of originality. And, though we know that Felix is going to use the prisoner’s production to somehow get revenge, the details are hidden from us and we don’t know if he’ll succeed or not. There’s also the added complication that Felix may not be entirely compos mentis after his years in his remote cabin, ruminating on his revenge.

Until the narrative brought us up to the climax, I was strongly reminded of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows. Both the show and Hag-Seed contain an unpredictable artistic director with a deep love of Shakespeare and scenes in which that director strives to help the actors make sense of the bewildering words and motivations of Shakespeare’s characters. Hag-Seed, however, is not a comedy. It has a darkness that I didn’t pick up on when reading The Tempest as an undergraduate. The scenes in which Felix helps the inmates understand The Tempest helped illuminate that play brilliantly and revealed the irony between Felix’s quest for revenge through a play about a man seeking revenge only to forgive his former enemies.

Along with Vinegar Girl, I think Hag-Seed is one of my favorites from the Hogarth series so far. I’m very excited to see how the other authors tackle their chosen targets.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 October 2016.

The Bookman, by Lavie Tidhar

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The Bookman

Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman introduces us to a bold alternate world flavored by Western literature. I lost count of all the literary references in this tale about an orphan (called Orphan, for clarity) who suddenly becomes very interesting to the government and several revolutionary groups. On top of the literary references, there are giant, sentient lizards; automatons; pirated; and aliens. This book has everything.

Orphan has a good life at the beginning of The Bookman. He has a job and the woman he loves, Lucy, has just agreed to marry him. But then Lucy is killed at a celebration for the new Mars probe and Orphan is tempted into skullduggery by a promise from the mysterious Bookman to resurrect her. From then on, Orphan never has a chance to rest as he is variously chased, shanghaied, and trying to escape from whatever shenanigans he lands in.

Orphan knows he is a pawn in the middle of everyone’s games. (Even if he couldn’t work this out for himself, one of the characters literally tells Orphan that he is a pawn.) Our erstwhile protagonist is really more a vehicle that takes us into the weird, alternate history of this world. We follow Orphan as he travels from revolutionary-infested London to Paris to the Caribbean as various players move him around the imaginary chess board.

To summarize the plot further is futile; so much happens in The Bookman! Besides the real fun of reading this book is seeing what Tidhar does when he plays around with fiction. I got a kick out of Scotland Yard Detective Irene Adler and Prime Minister James Moriarty. There are more books in the series and I am very tempted to track them down, just to see what Tidhar comes up with next.

Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier

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Mr. Eternity

Being a literature major and librarian has given me a more-than-healthy skepticism about what I read and hear. It also means that I read a lot, from nearly every time period and as many places on earth as I can find good books for. Both of these circumstances stood me in good stead as I read Aaron Thier’s Mr. EternityThis novel is one of the most demented accounts of American history and climate fiction that I’ve ever read. At the heart of this story is Daniel Defoe (not that one), a man who claims to have lived for 1,000 years, accompanied a Spanish expedition to El Dorado, survived 29 shipwrecks, stolen and lost countless fortunes, poisoned people back to health, and more.

Daniel—known variously as old Dan, Daniel de Fo, or the ancient mariner—does not tell his story to us directly. Instead, we learn about him via a slave turned prostitute turned translator who lived in a city she claims as El Dorado in 1560, a biracial “bookkeeper” in 1750, a documentary maker in 2016, a hapless sailor in 2200, and the daughter of a president in 2500. The narrators try to make sense of Daniel’s tales through what they know of history. A few, the slave, the sailor, and the president’s daughter, roll with Daniel’s preposterous stories. The bookkeeper recognizes Daniel as a fellow con artist and the documentary maker and his partner just think he’s a crazy old man.

Daniel’s stories are packed with historical figures and half-remembered details. I knew just enough to know how much of it was wrong. But I could also see where Daniel arrived at his version of events. Facts are just a little bit off or mispronounced or incomplete. Daniel’s tales are thrown even further off-kilter when he adds medical or biological trivia. He includes things like the headless man mentioned in Herodotus or lambs that grow from flowers. Before long, I recognized Daniel’s ramblings as a blend of everything he’d done, everything he’d read, and everything he claimed to have done. The president’s daughter, Yasmine, is perhaps the most forgiving of Daniel’s version of events:

I also understood that an equivalent logic extended to his accounts of history. I had the revelation that history was only the rabblehouse of facts and details from which human beings confabulated a sentimental truth. At the best-case scenario, at its truest and most illustrative, history was an effort of imagination, mostly fictive, mostly allegorical, like a story of unrecanted love. (n.p.*)

When Yasmine said this, at almost the halfway point of the book, I stopped fighting with Daniel. I stopped trying to remember what really happened and just went with it, even though I think Daniel is the most frustrating immortal I’ve ever encountered in fiction. His memory is shite.

Summarizing this book is almost impossible because so much happens and doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. There are similarities between the five narrators’ plot arcs. They all include quests into inhospitable hot, humid places. Most include searching for treasure. All feature disillusionment with governments and institutions. Many of the narrators know secondary characters who go mad to a certain extent from heat, isolation, and/or drugs. Everything is always a bit hazy.

Mr. Eternity is a book to float through. Imposing order will only lead to frustration and, possibly, insanity. Readers who don’t enjoy being lied to and working out what the lies conceal should stay away. Readers who love a puzzle may enjoy the many enigmas littered throughout this story. Just be prepared for an Imperial load of weirdness.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 August 2016.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend this book to readers who are too sure of their own opinions.


* Quote is from the publisher’s advanced reader copy. It was not paginated.

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

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Vinegar Girl

The Taming of the Shrew used to be one of my favorite plays by Shakespeare. I loved watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spar in the 1967 film version; I would watch it over and over, memorizing the best insults. Then I got older and I realized what was really happening at the end of the play. I haven’t been able to enjoy the original since, though I did enjoy the retelling in 10 Things I Hate About You*. I can now add Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl to versions that I enjoy.

Like The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the Shrew is problematic these days. Its portrayal of women doesn’t work in a feminist era. Katharina’s speech at the end of the play, in which she castigates her sister and another woman for ignoring their husbands’ wishes and lists all the things that men do for their wives, sets my teeth on edge because of the words she employs to describe a husband’s role and expectations:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt. (Act V, Scene II)

And also, like The Merchant of VeniceThe Taming of the Shrew requires significant rewriting to make amends for antiquated prejudices and values. This is what Tyler delivers in Vinegar Girl without sacrificing the essentials of the original plot and characters.

In this retelling, Kate Battista lives at home with her father, Louis, and younger sister, Bunny. She’s a college dropout (she told her botany professor that his explanation of photosynthesis was half-assed) and now works as an assistant at a private elementary school and daycare. She also takes care of her father and sister, as her mother passed away years ago. Kate is not quite the fury that the original Katharina was. This Kate simply lacks tact, not seeing the point of sugar-coating her words.

The first hint that someone is planning marriage for her comes when Louis Battista cons Kate into bringing his forgotten lunch to his lab, where he is studying autoimmune disorders with his lone assistant, Pyotr. Louis ineptly hints that Kate might be a good wife to that assistant. Kate is bewildered at the hinting, though we know what’s really going on when Louis mentions that Pyotr’s visa will expire in a few months. It takes a few days for Kate to figure out her father’s wild plan because she’s just not good at picking up on social cues.

Vinegar Girl is a brief book and the plot whirls along as Kate deals with her father’s blundering machinations and the fact that Pyotr actually seems attracted to her. There are frequent nods to plot points from the play that I enjoyed when I recognized them. That said, I was reserving judgment on this book until I figured out how Tyler was going to deal with Katharina’s speech at the “taming of the shrew.” Would Tyler overturn the original ending? Would she turn this into a romance? To say more would ruin the ending, but I can say that Vinegar Girl is my favorite of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I’ve read so far, after The Gap of Time and Shylock is My Name.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 June 2016.


* But not Kiss Me, Kate, because musicals are unnatural.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair
The Eyre Affair

I have been recommending Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair ever since I first read it in 2004. Nothing compares to its anarchic take on literature and the jokes still have me chortling. Every time I read it, I catch more references. (This time I finally understood the Vorpal’s Special gag at the Cheshire Cat bar.) But when I mention those gags and the fact that The Eyre Affair takes place partially inside Jane Eyre, some readers demur and say they don’t know enough to understand. This is a mistake. Five minutes with Wikipedia and anyone will know enough to understand the plot. I also know from personal experience that this book and the rest of the series have inspired me to dive into classic literature so that I get the rest of the references. Oddly enough, this hilarious book and the rest of the Thursday Next series are great entry points into nineteenth century literature, Shakespeare, and the glories of literary imagination. Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, it’s only because I love these books so very much.

Thursday Next is working as a LiteraTec (a cop who specializes in literary crimes) in an alternate version of the 1980s. The Crimean War is still going on. Her father is a rogue time traveler. And her uncle, unbeknownst to Thursday, has just invented a device that allows people to travel into works of literature. This discovery is not unknown to the Goliath Corporation, the monolithic company the rules England, or Acheron Hades, a criminal mastermind who plans to steal great works of literature and shock the world.

After the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen by Hades, Thursday is put on the case. She is one of the few people who’s actually seen the man. The first encounter is disasterous and Thursday heads home to Swindon for a new job to lay low for a while. Her past follows her, however, and it isn’t long before Hades kidnaps and kills a character from Chuzzlewit. Things go from bad to worse with Hades steals the original copy of Jane Eyre and kidnaps the protagonist. It’s up to Thursday to rescue her.

This summary omits a lot. The plot is not the main attraction in a Thursday Next novel. The best parts of the book are scenes like the audience playing along with a production of Richard III like audiences do in our world for The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Thursday’s father showing up to quiz her about history and wonder if French revisionists are trying to win Waterloo and Trafalgar; or when surrealists respond to rioters with giant, floppy watches. When I read for plot, I tend to race. If you race through The Eyre Affair you’ll miss the best stuff.

I highly recommend The Eyre Affair and its sequels to all readers.

Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine

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Woman with a Blue Pencil

One won’t get hard into Gordon McAlpine’s Woman with a Blue Pencil before it becomes clear that this book is not like any other murder mystery. We’ve just gotten to know Samuel Sumida and his quest to find his wife’s killer when the lights fade to black and we’re presented with a letter from a publisher’s editor to the author of Sam’s story. It turns out that just after 7 December 1941 isn’t the best time to publish a novel about a Japanese protagonist and a White antagonist. The editor, Maxine, tells Takumi that it just won’t sell. But she has some suggestions.

We never hear from Takumi directly. We only get his perspective when Maxine refers directly to his dilemmas in her letters. While Sam’s story continues, we also get to see Takumi’s more commercial effort about Korean American detective, Jimmy Park. Maxine’s letters push the Park narrative in new directions that made me roll my eyes. Park is über-patriotic and highly talented. Taking a cue from the current anti-Japanese mood, Maxine drives Takumi to write a jingoistic tale of a Japanese spy ring. Yet, the story doesn’t have the same soul that Sam’s story had. It’s clear that Takumi’s heart isn’t in it.

Woman with a Blue Pencil gives readers several narratives to puzzle out. We have to figure out what happened to Sam’s wife, if there really are Japanese spies, how Maxine is going to get Takumi’s second novel published, and what will happen to Takumi—especially when we learn that Takumi has been interned at Manzanar. I loved every page of it.

The other week, someone asked me what I liked to read. I only had a few second to come up with an answer. So I said metafiction. It’s true. I love stories that play around with the idea of story. I love stories that play with genre. Story fascinates me, especially when I get to see early versions before everything has been polished up. Weirdly, Sam and Jimmy’s stories seemed more alive while they were being created. They could go anywhere Takumi let them. It was, as Stephen King once said, “uniquely portable magic.”

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 November 2015.

The Solitary House, by Lynn Shepherd

The Solitary House
The Solitary House

Authors have to pick a character or a plot (or a few) to focus on in order to tell us a story. But when I read a vast, sprawling story, sometimes I wonder what’s happening in the margins. Not every character can be a lead character, after all. There’s just not enough room (unless you’re Tolstoy or Dickens) to devote to telling all the stories. In a good sprawling story, an author will give their readers the sense that those peripheral characters are busily living their lives when no one is paying attention to them. What Lynn Shepherd has done with the Charles Maddox series is to redirect the spotlight over to those other characters. In The Solitary House, Shepherd tells us a story that might have happened in the margins of Bleak House and The Woman in White. I was a bit annoyed to discover that I had started the Maddox series with the second book, but I ended up enjoying myself so much that the annoyance quickly passed. Shepherd completely transported me with The Solitary House—so much so that I went to Amazon to buy the other three volumes in the series as soon as I finished it.

Charles Maddox used to be a police detective. Now that he’s independent it seems that his career might end before it begins. Maddox was trained by his namesake, an uncle now in decline. When we meet him (if, like me, you started with the second book in the series) in a small flat, living with a feline that is fond of sleeping and shedding on his clothing. He only has one case: to find the missing granddaughter of a Mr. Chadwick. When Chadwick learned that his daughter was pregnant, he turned her out of the house. She gave birth in a workhouse and both mother and child disappeared without a trace. Consequently, Maddox hasn’t been able to make much headway. He is following his only lead when he’s summoned to the offices of one Edward Tulkinghorn—the sinister lawyer of Bleak House—to find out who is sending one of his clients (not Lady Dedlock) threatening letters. For all his resources, Tulkinghorn cannot locate the man.

With a little help from his uncle, Maddox finds the author of the letters. Part of what got Maddox in trouble in his first career was an inability to leave questions unanswered, even when it would be politic to leave them that way. Tulkinghorn doesn’t want to know why the letter writer was threatening his client; he just wants to know who it is so that the man can be stopped. When the letter writer is murdered and his lodgings are torched*, Maddox can’t help but find out why it was so important for the man to be silenced.

Before long, Maddox is uncovering evidence of a story far more sinister than anything Dickens or even Wilkie Collins cooked up. The dialog and setting of The Solitary House are absolutely pitch perfect. I was in awe of the way Shepherd drew in both of her source novels to create something entirely fresh and new. The Solitary House doesn’t replace either Bleak House or The Woman in White. Rather, it’s like hearing what else characters from those stories might have been up to when they weren’t on-stage in their original novels.

I would recommend that any reader who hasn’t read Bleak House or The Woman in White at least skim the plot summaries in Wikipedia before reading The Solitary House. Without a little background knowledge, some of the things that happen will seem inexplicable—Tulkinghorn’s fate in particular. I haven’t read Bleak House, but I did watch the most recent BBC adaptation of it and I’ve listened to a dramatization of The Woman in White. Shepherd does change a few character names, but they’re still similar enough to the original character names to bring up the right associations if names like Tulkinghorn, Dedlock, and Sir Percival Glyde weren’t big enough hints.

How have I not heard of Lynn Shepherd before this? I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to find a book as good as The Fifth Season to read for a while, because I’m not that lucky, but The Solitary House was so good that I think I have a new favorite author**.

 

* Shepherd uses this development to explain one of the odder episodes from Bleak House. I had to grin.

** Not absolute favorite, obviously. I can’t pick just one. Shepherd just has a place on an increasingly long list.

Beatrice and Virgil, by Yann Martel

Earlier this spring, I read a short article by Cynthia Ozick about the duties and responsibilities of Holocaust literature. Her primary argument was that fiction was not the right medium for talking about the Holocaust—other subjects, sure, but not the Holocaust. Ozick concludes with damning statements against Holocaust fiction:

In the name of the autonomous rights of fiction, in the name of the sublime rights of the imagination, anomaly sweeps away memory; anomaly displaces history. In the beginning was not the word, but the camera—and at that time, in that place, the camera did not mislead. It saw what was there to see. The word came later, and in some instances it came not to illumine but to corrupt. (n.p.*)

Ozick’s article came back to me in full force as I read Yann Martel’s unusual novel, Beatrice and Virgil. The novel begins with Henry, a writer, explaining his follow up to a successful debut. This second work is a flip book. One half is narrative fiction. The other half is an essay. The whole is meant to promote an opening in Holocaust fiction. Henry complains that the genre is flooded by historical fiction. There are other ways to tell the stories of the Holocaust. His grand experiment is shot down by his editor and his editor’s allies. Not only will the format not work, but the text doesn’t work. Henry’s critics aren’t as harsh as Ozick might have been, but they essentially kill Henry’s creative spirit. 
Beatrice and Virgil
After abandoning fiction, Henry and his wife emigrate from Canada to an unnamed European country. While his wife finds work, Henry drifts through various creative pursuits. He takes up music and acting in a local troupe. He does not write. He doesn’t even attempt to write, except to answer the fan letters forwarded by his publishers. One brief letter asking for help, accompanied by a strangely annotated copy of a story by Flaubert and a portion of a play manuscript, proves impossible for Henry to ignore or brush off like the rest of his fan mail. This letter brings Henry to another Henry, a dour, close-mouthed taxidermist. 
Henry the taxidermist is writing a play about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil. And he’s stuck. He need’s Henry the writer’s help to finish it. Henry the writer reluctantly agrees to help.
Beatrice and Virgil is a curious text to read. There are long passages in it from other works, like Henry the taxidermist’s “Beatrice and Virgil” and the Flaubert story. As Henry the writer helps the taxidermists, he begins to commit the cardinal sin of English majors: psychoanalyzing the author through the medium of the author’s writing. English majors are taught that, while there might be useful outside context, a text stands alone. The author is not the narrator. And yet, Henry the writer keeps probing the taxidermist about elements in the play that clearly reference the Holocaust. 
Henry the taxidermist, for most of Beatrice and Virgil, stubbornly insists that his play is about animals and the terrible crimes humans have committed against other species. At one point, Henry the taxidermist tells the writer in an essay about taxidermy that:

What I am actually doing [as a taxidermist] is extracting and refining memory from death. In that, I am no different from a historian, who parses through the material evidence of the past in an attempt to reconstruct it and then understand it. (96-97**)

Then, on the next page, the taxidermist claims, curiously, “That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness” (98). What an incongruous reason for a taxidermist to give for his profession! I don’t blame Henry the writer for pointing out the parallels to the Holocaust in the play and questioning the taxidermist about them. It’s clear from the way the taxidermist behaves that he’s trying to work out a past trauma. He can’t talk about it directly, so the taxidermist came up with his Beckett-like allegorical play. 
As I read Beatrice and Virgil, it became clear to me that I was being led to a number of thematic echoes and parallels in the text. There are two Henrys, both trying to tell stories about the Holocaust via non-traditional means. The metaphors in the play are too numerous to count. Fiction and nonfiction intertwine all over the place, like Henry the writer’s failed double book. Throughout it all, character dialog returns to the inability of language to communicate exactly what happened.
This is not a pleasant book to read. Animals, as metaphors for Holocaust victims, are brutally tortured. The coda, “Games for Gustav,” is a series of dark games that represent various experiences of the Holocaust. I wavered between crying and swearing as I read them. This is not a book to disappear into, either. It’s a book that requires rigorous thought. Readers have to be on their mental toes to catch all the parallels Martel puts into the book, the themes, the metaphors, and all the other rhetorical devices. The sheer density of the text ends up whacking readers over the head with the notion that it doesn’t matter how literally true a story is as long as it contains a particle of Truth. By the end, I saw Beatrice and Virgil as an argument wearing the clothing of a novel. 


Requested by AM.

__________
* Ozick, Cynthia. “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination.” Commentary Magazine. March 1, 1999. Web. April 28, 2015. 
** Quotes from the novel come from the 2010 hardcover by Spiegel and Grau.