The Heavens, by Sandra Newman

A while back—I’m not sure when exactly—a student asked me why Shakespeare was such a big deal. The student said they didn’t really care for the plays; they wanted to know why their English professors made such a fuss. I told this student that part of the reason is that professors and critics decided that Shakespeare was the epitome of literary greatness in English. (There followed a small tangent/rant about how limited the canon is.) Before anyone strips me of my English major credentials, I followed up by explaining why I love Shakespeare. He expressed such a range of human emotion in the most stirring, humorous, loveliest words. I love Shakespeare because he makes me shout, laugh, and cry. I bring all this up because, at the beginning of The Heavens, by Sandra Newman, Shakespeare doesn’t exist for the main characters.

One of the main characters, Kate, seems to drift through life. She doesn’t have a job or career. She crashes with friends, for the most part. Her relationships with others are remarkably drama-free. Her friction-less existence seems to spring from the fact that this world isn’t quite as real to her as the glimpses of another world that Kate sees in her dreams. In those dreams, Kate sees a country called Albion, ruled by a queen, where Kate is the mistress of a noble. The dreams get longer as time goes on and, eventually, Kate realizes that she is dreaming herself into the life of the sixteenth-century poet, Emilia Lanier—a woman scholars speculate might be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Kate’s plotline is so imaginative that it makes the arc of the other protagonist, Kate’s boyfriend Ben, fade into insignificance for the first part of the book. Sadly, Ben transforms from lover to villain as Kate starts to get lost in her dreams of Elizabethan England.

Kate’s problem with her dreams is not so much that she’s having them, it’s that things are always a little different each time she wakes up in her modern life. The changes might be that the curtains change to blinds. Or the changes might be that the president has another name or that the United States fought other wars or that we haven’t figured out how to leave fossil fuels behind. Kate’s world before she started dreaming seemed a lot like the future the liberals want. It slowly morphs into this world.

By the end of The Heavens, I was left with the question of whether or not the evils of our current world (violence, pollution, anti-science thought, poverty, etc.) are the price we pay for having Shakespeare’s work. As much as I love Shakespeare’s words, I would give them up for a world where no one was hungry or had to worry about being shot at kindergarten or where the clock is urgently ticking towards an unlivable, barren planet. I really enjoyed the brief descriptions of Kate’s original world; I very much wanted Kate to figure out how to reverse the changes she made. The Heavens ended up being a very depressing book for me because Kate can’t seem to stop the changes that her minor interferences appear to have caused.

The Heavens is an interesting thought experiment but, ultimately, it was too demoralizing for me.

The Taste of Empire, by Lizzie Collingham

It’s not unusual for me to have mixed emotions while reading a book. Some books have made me feel happy and sad, others wary and mirthful. But I can’t recall a book that made me feel outraged and hungry. That is what I felt most of the time as I read Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Each chapter of this book begins with a meal set in a variety of places in England or their former colonies, each illustrating how exotic ingredients became British staples or how culture was shaped by the trading empire, before zoomed out to the larger economic movements and consequences of those movements. I would have loved to have tea or try curried iguana with the people mentioned in the book, but then I would grow more and more angry as I read about how the rapacious and racist actions of British colonizers wrecked havoc on traditional foodways and culture.

Collingham takes us back to the Tudor era at the beginning of Taste of Empire, when the English began to branch out to find fish to feed their navy. She takes us aboard the Mary Rose, a ship that sunk early in a battle due to a freak of weather. The artifacts found on the wreck have given us an in-depth look at so much about Tudor life, but Collingham obviously focuses on the food. The sailors ate hardtack, salt fish, and peas, mostly. They were probably not happy about it. (Dissatisfaction with military rations is a running theme.) The last meal of the Mary Rose sailors becomes a springboard to a discussion of how early English fishermen stopped sailing to shoals off Iceland and moved to the shoals off of Newfoundland—with plenty of details of how cod were preserved in massive amounts of salt so that they would be edible when they arrived back in England. In subsequent chapters, Collingham teaches us about the origins of the triangle trade and the incredible growth of Caribbean sugar, the British and American slave trade, the theft of land from indigenous people, how the British East India Company traded opium for Chinese tea, the development of a variety of food preservation techniques, the British racist obsession with “civilizing” indigenous people, and much more.

A large part of The Taste of Empire examines how cash crop agriculture repeatedly leads to cultural destruction and malnutrition. In the American colonies, it was tobacco. In the Caribbean, it was sugar. In India, it was opium. These crops were so valuable that farmers around the Empire’s colonies stopped growing food because they could make more money with the cash crops. Because these farmers weren’t growing food, they grew dependent on British food imports from Canada, Australia, and other places. If that trade were ever interrupted or prices inflated, famine could break out–as it did repeatedly in India. Collingham includes a deliberately upsetting image of victims of the 1876-1878 Madras Famine to show us the very real consequences of British trade. During the Great Famine in Ireland and the Bengal Famine of 1943, food was exported to England at the cost of exacerbating local hunger. In addition to deliberately encouraging cash crop agriculture, British colonizers also pushed people in their African and Indian colonies to grow corn (maize) instead of their traditional millet, sorghum, and other grains. While they told local that corn was more useful and civilized, they didn’t know to pass on cooking methods that would actually make corn nutritious. Without extra processing, critical vitamins in corn couldn’t be absorbed by the human body. Consequently, people grew tons of corn and became malnourished as they ate it.

A 106-year old fruitcake made by Huntley & Palmers, found in Antarctic ruins. (Image via NPR)

I have a few problems with The Taste of Empire. Collingham deliberately uses colonial terms for places in India and Africa without parenthetical notes with the modern names. I realize that Collingham is trying to recreate the colonial world, but it bothered me that the indigenous names are erased. Reading about the famines in Bengal might have been a little more bearable if those names had been there to remind me that India would become independent after World War II. The other thing that bothered me is that, because she wanted to cover so much territory (temporal and physical), a lot of things are oversimplified or omitted. In her brief discussion of the Irish Great Famine, Collingham doesn’t mention that English colonizers still exported grain and livestock to England while the Irish were left with their rotting potatoes to eat. She repeats the idea that local Irish “over relied” on potatoes without reminding us that this over reliance came from the fact that there was nothing else for them to eat. Also, in trying to be fair to British colonizers, there are several sections (especially the chapter that discusses the opium-tea trade) in The Taste of Empire where I wish Collingham had been more judgmental of the British. Collingham criticizes but not as much as I would have wished, but I suspect this was because I was furious at what I was reading.

In spite of its problems, I was fascinated throughout The Taste of Empire. About a third of the actual length of the book consists of notes and references and I deeply approve of the amount of research Collingham did for this book. I loved the scenes of meals around the world, event when they were included to show just how stubborn British colonizers were in recreating good English meals wherever they were. She even includes recipes for some of the dishes mentioned. Every chapter was eye opening and, unlike some nonfiction books I could mention with hyperbolic subtitles, Collingham absolutely proves her thesis that the British drive for food (and cash crops) definitely helped create the world we live in now.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee

When I was a library school student, I recall learning about faceted classification and the complexities of organizing large amounts of information. The more information in the pile, the harder is to organize them in a way that makes it easier for others to find information. For example, if you have a group of novels, do you organize them by subject, mood, alphabetically, chronologically, by size? We learned about librarians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who tackled these problems and gave us the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System. But, as I read Edward Wilson-Lee’s deeply erudite book The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, I learned that none other than the son of Christopher Columbus wrestled with these very questions in his quest to create a universal library in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Hernando Colón (better known in English, if not in Wilson-Lee’s book, as Ferdinand Columbus) was the illegitimate younger son of Columbus and, among other achievements, is the author of a lost biography of his father that did a lot to shape his father’s image and legacy for centuries—at least until historians and indigenous advocates reminded us of the terrible, genocidal toll* of Columbus’ actions. The beginning and the end of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books focus on Colón’s efforts to build his father’s reputation as a hero of exploration and secure the riches and titles that were promised to himself and his older, legitimate brother as a result of Columbus’ discoveries. Though Colón helped his father with the bizarre Book of Prophecies—a collection of quotations from religious and literary works that somehow proved Columbus’ divine destiny but mostly reveals Columbus’ loosening grasp on reality—he later worked to create a rigorously documented biography.

Undated portrait of Hernando Colón (Image via Wikicommons)

This may sound dry and only possessing a niche appeal for librarians, especially cataloguers. But I found it fascinating as a history of ideas. During Colón’s time, book collectors and researchers are highly selective. They tended to only collect works of theology in Latin and Greek, possibly Hebrew. Others might collect books about medicine or the natural sciences but, again, usually only books deemed canonical and orthodox. These libraries were easy to organize. Colón’s library, however, was a blizzard of paper. Because he couldn’t classify it using traditional schemas, Colón had to think of something new. Edward-Lee describes Colón’s thought process in detail as the collector wrestled with issues that we librarians are only just now starting to solve using algorithm-based search engines. Colón’s big problem was how to find a piece of information when the reader is not sure where it is or even if it exists—a question that is very familiar to librarians.

The middle part of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books was the most interesting to me. It deals with Colón’s efforts to build a massive library that would contain as much printed matter as possible and then organize it into a system that would allow researchers to find any useful piece of information in that library. By the end of his life, Colón had acquired more than fifteen thousand books, printed images, and pamphlets. Because there were more books than anyone could remember, Colón himself and his assistants worked on summarizes and a classification system that strongly reminded me of the efforts to create a faceted classification system that I had read about in library school. Colón, we learn, was an iconoclast because he wanted to collect everything he could get his hands on. He didn’t want just the books prescribed by the great collectors and thinkers of his time. He didn’t want just want the big booksellers included. He really did want everything, especially texts printed by smaller publishers.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—named for a shipment of over 1,000 printed texts bought by Colón that was lost at sea—is great tour of the intellectual world of the late 1400s and early 1500s. Edward-Lee makes a few odd choices, such as constantly calling Colón Hernando instead of Ferdinand Columbus, and once calls Christopher Columbus the first European to lay eyes on the Americas**. But aside from these quibbles, I learned a great deal from this book and have so much food for thought that I know I am already going to recommend this to my cataloguing friends.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.


*New research has shown that so many indigenous people died as a result of European contact that it changed the climate.
**Vikings got to Canada centuries before Columbus hit the West Indies.

How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England, by Ruth Goodman

38212150I strongly suspect that How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts, by Ruth Goodman, was born from all of the research Goodman did that didn’t make it in to her previous book, How to Be a Tudor. Goodman packs this book full of advice from etiquette books, seasoned with cases of bad behavior that ended up going to court. I wish there had been more of the court cases because I found them fascinating and because they’re much better indicators of what people were actually doing instead of what they are told they ought to do.

How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England contains chapters on swearing, mockery, table manners, dress, bodily functions, drinking and more. In each chapter, Goodman breaks elements of (bad) behavior down into specific no-nos. For example, the chapter on mockery contains all sorts of advice about how different people stood or walked, immediately followed by tales of how people would parody the way a soldier strutted or a minister “halted.” In the chapter on violence, Goodman quotes an etiquette manual for young men and boys that tells them to be many but to avoid murdering people. Then Goodman recounts a series of stories of violence that would be farcical except for all the manslaughter.

The best parts of this book, for me, were the small slices of life provided by the court cases. Goodman gives us the names of these briefly infamous Elizabethans (and Jacobeans, since this book also covers the early Stuart era), their shenanigans, and the insults that caused them. Etiquette manuals are interesting in their own right. They’re full of complicated instructions for how to do just about anything, from dressing to blowing one’s nose in the morning to how to bow to anyone on the social spectrum. But the court cases appeal to my overdeveloped sense of schadenfreude by showing us how it all fell apart in real life. No one can be on their best behavior all the time, after all.

Goodman’s angle in showing us Elizabethan manners in terms of actively pissing people off perfectly serves its purpose of showing readers just how complex it all was. I was a bit lost at times as she described the various styles of bowing or the correct way to stand because I wasn’t sure which joints we were supposed to bend. But by looking at good behavior through bad behavior, I got a very clear sense of how Elizabethan society might function day-to-day. I also learned that I would be spotted as a time traveler in an instant because I would probably slip up and tell someone to sneeze into their elbow if they didn’t have a handkerchief (considered disgusting) while being appalled by people spitting all over the place (this grosses a lot of Americans out). Readers of social histories will enjoy this a lot, I think.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler

887333In The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler takes us back to 1506, the year of a bloody massacre of Jews in the Portuguese capitol, and gives us a brutal murder and conspiracy among the forcibly converted “New Christians” of the city. Berekiah Zarco and his uncle, Abraham, are defiantly Jewish Kabbalists at a time when it was extremely dangerous to be so. Still, they keep up appearances as Christians while Abraham smuggles religious and philosophical texts out of the country to safer places. But then forces conspire to destroy their way of life.

Berekiah is a passionate man. He loves his family. He revels in the spiritual knowledge and strength he has as his Kabbalist uncle’s apprentice. He also feels constantly simmering fury at the Old Christians who have forced the Jews underground. But then, on April 19, 1506, a massacre erupts as Old Christians violently attack Jews and converts, blaming them for the ongoing drought and an outbreak of plague. Berekiah had been sent out of the city on an errand only to return to a scene straight out of hell. Jews are in hiding while Christians roam the streets looking for victims. When he does reach home, he finds his uncle murdered in their cellar with an unknown woman. Another murder among all the other murders isn’t strange, sadly, but there is other evidence that Abraham and the woman were not random victims.

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Undated German woodcut of the Lisbon massacre (Image via Wikicommons)

Berekiah doesn’t wait for the violence to die down before he leaps into action. He hunts down clues while also trying to find the missing members of his family, who scattered when the mob roared through. The clues point Berekiah to one of the men in Abraham’s “threshing group,” a group of Kabbalist seekers in the secret Jewish community. The more Berekiah dies, the more he realizes that he didn’t know much about Abraham’s smuggling or what secrets the man held.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon recreates the city and the lives of the Jews and converts who tried to make a home there. I will admit that I was skeptical of Berekiah and his friend, Farid’s, forensic abilities and a few anachronisms. This and a few odd details about Berekiah’s sexuality where the only problems I had with the book. But these are minor quibbles against the vibrancy of the book’s setting and the Gordian tangles of the plot. I was hooked right from the beginning, when Berekiah’s autobiography is found in a hidden trove of documents in an ancient house in Istanbul. Zimler poured historical research into the story without bogging down the full tilt plot. This book will be a great read for historical fiction buffs (so long as they have a strong stomach).

The Butcher’s Daughter, by Victoria Glendinning

36361421Victoria Glendinning’s The Butcher’s Daughter explores a theme I hadn’t considered before—or even really addressed—in historical discussions of Henry VIII’s dissolution of abbeys and monasteries after he threw off the Catholic Church and established the church of England. I realize this sounds dry, but exploring what happened to women and men who suddenly had no place to stay or way to make a living after the dissolution turned out to be rich territory for historical fiction.

At least, it might have been if Glendinning hadn’t used her narrator purely as a pair of eyes with almost no opinions of her own. My reaction to Never Anyone but You was not a fluke, apparently; this type of narrator just doesn’t work for me.

Agnes Peppin, the titular daughter of a butcher, is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey in Dorset after she gives birth to an illegitimate son. Marrying the father is not an option, so it’s a nunnery for Agnes. There aren’t a lot of options for women even if they don’t run afoul of the social mores of the time. If you’re not a wife, you have to become a nun. (Spinsterhood doesn’t seem to be an available option either.) Agnes doesn’t have a religious calling, but she does seem to appreciate being useful without being a drudge. Early in the novel, Agnes references the Biblical story of Martha and Mary. When Christ visits, Mary listens to him speak while Martha does the cooking and serving. Martha’s complains are met with scolding that listening to men talk about religion is more important than getting things done. Agnes is on Martha’s side. Life at Shaftesbury agrees with her for the most part, though she wishes that she might be free to explore the wider world.

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Angel sculpture, Shaftesbury Abbey ruins. (Image via Wikicommons)

Agnes is offered a position as the Abbess’ secretary shortly after she arrives at Shaftesbury, thanks to her ability to read and write. As a secretary, she is privy to all sorts of discussions that a mere novice would never get to hear. She shows us the Abbess’ struggle to preserve as much of the Abbey’s riches and land as possible so that the women of the abbey can have somewhere to stay. Many of them are old. Most have no where to go or family to take them in. A few are so devoted to their faith that they wouldn’t be able to function in the outside world even if they did have a place to go to. After Shaftesbury is dissolved, Agnes heads out into the world and makes a meager living with one of the odder inhabitants (one who ends up threatening her life more than once).

I worried for Agnes and her fellow former nuns and novices. It’s a hard world now for a single woman. Life was exponentially harder for one in the sixteenth century. And yet, even though this is rich emotional ground for a writer, Agnes only gives us glimpses of the struggles of the other women. Her own struggles are glossed over with little reflection. I was intrigued, but disappointed by how this book fails to fully explore the issue. It’s entirely possible that I just don’t like this kind of narrator and it’s coloring my review. Other readers may enjoy this book for its unique setting and themes. I’m going to wait for something with a little more soul.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be release 19 June 2018.

Gateway to the Moon, by Mary Morris

35791945There are many factors that contribute to the creation of a person. Three of them are highlighted in Mary Morris’ expansive family saga, Gateway to the Moon. First, there is our family history, portrayed here by the harrowing tale of the Cordero de Torres family from 1492 to the 1600s. Next, there is what happens to someone during their life, seen in the struggles of Elena Torres to make peace with the night a group of teenage boys attacked and raped her. Lastly, there is one’s own internal fire, which can propel a person like Miguel Torres out of his poor circumstances, past his mistakes, to a distinguished career as an astrobiologist. This novel moves slowly, but offers plenty of food for thought.

Miguel Torres comes from a long line of Jews, though he does not know it. Four hundred years before he was born, the Cordero and Torres family were forced to convert by royal decree (and brutally, sometimes fatally, enforced by the Inquisition). Even though his ancestors were persecuted, hints of Judaism survived. Miguel’s mother lights candles and says a blessing before dinner Friday night. No one in his New Mexico town of Entrada de la Luna eats pork or mixes dairy with meat. If you ask any of them, they’ll say they’re Catholic or not that religious. Not a lot of this matters particularly to Miguel, who is much more interested in what’s going on among the stars and on other planets until he gets a job with the newly arrived Rothsteins as a babysitter.

While we watch Miguel struggle with his attraction to Rachel Rothstein and wonder about the universe, we also get chapters narrated from the perspective of his putative aunt Elena. After her attack, Elena left home on a dance scholarship. I would say that she left and never looked back except she is constantly looking back. She travels the world trying to get as far away from who she was as she can, but she can’t forget—especially after she eats a dish of lamb tagine with chickpeas and apricots in Morocco that is almost exactly like the one her grandmother used to make back in Entrada.

To me the most interest sections were the chapters set in the 1490s, 1500s, and 1600s. These chapters follow fathers, mothers, sons, and wives as the Corderos and Torreses travel or emigrate permanently to the New World. These families converted to Catholicism under pain of death. Though they appear in public to practice Catholicism, they keep their Jewish faith and customs alive in secret. They keep these things alive so long that their descendants forget why they do them and accept these things as tradition. On the one hand, it’s sad that custom and ritual lose their meaning entirely. What is tradition without meaning, after all? Not only that, but members of the family paid high prices in money and lives to preserve the meaning of those traditions. But on the other hand, it means there is a little piece of secret Judaism being passed on in New Mexico of all places.

Gateway to the Moon has a leisurely pace, giving readers plenty of time to think about what they’re reading and why we get so many perspectives. This book offers us many opportunities to meditate on identity, purpose, faith, forgiveness, and many other topics, with just enough plot to keep our brains from melting under the strain of thinking about high concepts for extended periods of time. In sum, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would.

I received a free copy of the book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

A Castle in Romagna, by Igor Štiks

36643798There are some stories we tell over and over because people always think that, this time, it will go differently. A Castle in Romagna, by Igor Štiks (translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović and Russell Scott Valentino), features two such tales. In the present, a friar at Mardi Castle tells a Bosnian tourist the story of Enzo Strecci and his own story of grand-passion-gone-wrong in post-war Yugoslavia.

The unnamed Bosnia tourist has come to Mardi Castle because he is a fan of the work of a sixteenth century Italian poet, Enzo Strecci, who was executed for falling in love with the wrong woman. After an awkward encounter with a friar who leads tours, the tourist is promised a more detailed story about Strecci. The friar then adds his own, eerily similar story of love and exile.

It’s impossible not to see the parallels between the two. I think the only reason the friar lived to tell his stories is a matter of luck and the fact that he happened to know one decent person in his village. The similarities and the spare way Štiks writes make the narratives almost like fairy tales, archetypes that keep inescapably popping up. The sense of inevitability in both tales made me want to shout into the book at the friar and Enzo to warn them that they’re being idiots.

A Castle in Romagna dials up every emotion to eleven. If you are not a fan of grand passions, this is not the book for you. If you do like watching characters falling in love with the wrong people and throwing all caution to the wind, pick this one up. Based on my post last week and my tone in this post, you can probably tell which camp I’m in. This isn’t the fault of A Castle in Romagna. This is a very well written book. I’m just too pragmatic personally for grand passions.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Witch’s Trinity, by Erika Mailman

The winter of 1507 followed two years of famine for the people of Tierkinddorf. They’re down to eating snow for dinner when a friar from the nearest city appears to help rid the town of the witches that must be causing the famine. The Witch’s Trinity, by Ericka Mailman, plays out over a few tense winter weeks as accusations of witchcraft spread and hunger deepens. As if the general mood of The Witch’s Trinity wasn’t paranoid enough, our protagonist is an elderly woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s (or possibly dementia). Güde forgets things easily and sometimes sees things that didn’t actually happen. In spite of this, her age and her relative isolation from the rest of Tierkinddorf’s inhabitants allows her to see more clearly than people who are hungry, terrified, and angry.

The first woman to be accused is, like many women who were accused of witchcraft during historical witch trials, was old, lived alone, and knew how to use plants to heal. Because she has no protectors, it’s easy for the villagers to give Künne over to the nameless Dominican friar to practice what he’s learned from the Malleus Maleficarum. Of course nothing changes after Künne is killed. But Irmeltrud, Güde’s daughter-in-law sees how easy it is to have a witch trial do the dirty work of getting Güde out of her house. When Güde’s son leaves on a hunting trip with most of the village’s men, Irmeltrud quickly accuses Güde of witchcraft. Unfortunately, Irmeltrud wasn’t the only person to figure out that an accusation and a quick execution might be a good way to get what the accuser wants. An anonymous denunciation lans Irmeltrud in the witch’s tower along with Güde.

Though The Witch’s Trinity is short and occasionally bewildering with Güde’s confusion, it explores the historical injustice of witch trials. (Mailman notes in her afterword that she’s a descendent of a woman who was accused several times during the Salem Witch Trials.) It seems that all it takes for neighbors to turn on each other and do terrible things is for hardship to dissolve the bonds that hold people together. It’s easy to be generous when food is plenty and times are good. When times get tough, people look out for themselves—and try to find someone to blame.

Mr. Eternity, by Aaron Thier

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.