Review of Zorro by Isabel Allende

I have loved Zorro since I was four years old (so, eh, for 60 years). I have enjoyed his many incarnations, from the original 1919 Johnston McCulley story, through many many film, TV, and comics incarnations, and straight up to this unlikely literary, somewhat magical realist, and (dare I say?) feminist novel.

Source: http://www.sffaudio.com/libivox-the-curse-of-capistrano-by-johnston-mcculley/

The writing is impeccable. Allende IS a grand master, and her Spanish prose is beautifully rendered into English by translator Margaret Sayers Peden. I did not mind at all the long paragraphs and focus on narrative rather than action scenes (which many readers seem to have disliked). Although, I must admit at times this style made for a slower reading experience.

The story comes up with many surprises, including Diego’s half-Native American family tree, his early shamanistic experiences, on to his adventures crossing to Spain, and the political intrigue there involving Gypsies, a secret society, and his involvement with an unfortunate noble family.

The narrative persona is especially intriguing. And, without giving away any spoilers, I can say that it wraps up the whole novel beautifully, even while the character of Zorro himself remains ultimately mysterious (as he always should!)

A quirky but worthy addition to the Zorro canon.

Cover of Allende’s novel. Source: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24796.Zorro

 

 

Remembering My Brother Robert

I learned that yesterday was Siblings Day and that made me think of Robert. Robert was my younger brother, third child and second boy among four siblings. We grew up in suburban New Jersey, in the orbit of New York City, in the 1960s. When we were kids we played board games together, drank too much soda, and stayed up way too late in the Summer watching old movies on a black and white TV.

All four of us kids were smart in school, but Robert was scary intelligent. He was top of his class for four years in High School, then went on to Notre Dame University. Later he got a Masters in English from Columbia.

During and after college, he spent a lot of time in Europe, especially Germany. A High School friend of mine, who was in the military, ran into Robert in a Beer Garden in Bavaria. What are the odds? Years later, Robert visited me in Atlanta and gave me a fragment of painted concrete that he said “might have been” part of the Berlin Wall. I still have it.

Robert settled in New York City, and while attending Columbia got an internship at the Village Voice. He started writing theater reviews and before long the Voice was running them. Later, he founded a newsletter on the AIDS epidemic, and in 1989 was named the Voice’s editor in charge of AIDS coverage.

I knew Robert was HIV positive, and in the autumn of 1993, he called me long distance and told me he had contracted a related condition that proved terminal “in most cases.” I asked if there was anything I could do, and he asked me to be an executor of his will, to make sure his partner was able to keep their apartment. I flew up to New York to visit him and deal with the legal stuff.

The day I was to leave, we talked about his condition and the chances of survival. He said, “You know, I might get better. But think of how embarrassing it will be after causing all this excitement.”

On my way out the door I hugged him and said, “Get better. Risk the embarrassment.”

He laughed.

Five months later he died, at the age of 37.

I know he was only one of many, many wonderful people who died too early because of AIDs. He documented the epidemic in his writings and helped shape public awareness and policy. The saddest part for me is how his life was cut off, unfinished, and thinking about what other contributions he might have made.

St. Paddy’s Day Dialogue at the Bank

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

I was at the bank today, where I met a young man teller whose name seemed to indicate a Middle Eastern heritage.

Himself: I like your green shirt:  St. Paddy’s Day.

Me: Yup.

Himself: What is St. Paddy’s Day anyway?

Other teller: It’s the Saint’s day. St. Patrick.

Himself:  Oh…Why does everyone drink on a saint’s day?

Me: Well, he’s the patron saint of Ireland. And when the Irish immigrants came over to America — which many, many did in the late 1800s because they were starving  — they wanted to celebrate their saint’s day, and they did it with lots of drinking.

Himself: Oh. I see. Thank you for the history.

Me: I am here to educate the younger generation.

Himself: And we appreciate it.

Me: Well, some do, some don’t. But it’s all good.

******
Meantime, here is a picture of me posted by my Irish friend Kate. I don’t think it quite does me justice.

Fun and Games with Shakespeare

Or What You Will

My wife and I are Shakespeare enthusiasts in the extreme. So we were delighted to discover the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival. Last Friday evening, a couple of blocks from the waterfront, in a courtyard between two Victorian houses, under an enormous oak tree, we watched a wonderful performance of Twelfth Night, one of our favorite plays.

We’ve seen it a number of times before, and talked about some of the puns and hidden meanings. On the long drive home over the Sunshine Skyway, we had another of those conversations.

souce: https://www.emaze.com/@ATOIZTFR/The-Sunshine-Skyway-Bridge

One thing we find interesting is the similar names of several of the characters—Malvolio, Olivia, and Viola. All share the same letters.

According to the website BehindtheName.com, the name Malvolio was invented by Shakespeare and means “ill will” in Italian. From the same site, we learn that “Olivia” was also first used in Twelfth Night, and is probably derived from the name of the olive tree. “Viola” meanwhile, is Latin for violet.

Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’) exhibited 1840 Daniel Maclise 1806-1870 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00423

So if we think of all characters as being projections of the author, and recall that Shakespeare went by the name “Will,” we have Malvolio, or the bad Will. We also have Olivia, the Will who is like the olive, because she is bitter and melancholy. And Viola, the Will who is bright and clever.

Okay, those last two might be a bit of a stretch.

But then again, Shakespeare subtitled the play “What You Will”

Hmmm.

One line that’s always been a bit of a mystery is in Act 2, Scene 5. Malvolio is reading a letter left for him to find by the servant Mary and meant for him to mistake as coming from the Countess Olivia. The letter does not name him, but hints at his name by spelling out M O A I. Malvolio puzzles over whether this is meant to be him, and then reads:

“If this fall into thy hand, revolve…” and there follows the famous quote that “Some are born great, etc.”

But “revolve”? This is sometimes played on stage for comic effect by Malvolio twirling around. That’s good.

According to the Annotated Twelfth Night the word revolve means “think things over.” Also good.

But my brilliant wife discovered that if you revolve the page (turn it upside down) and look at the letters MOAI…

you get something that looks very much like “I VOW”…

…Which also fits the meaning of the text.

Hmmmm.

Sonnet for Aphrodite

In celebration of Valentine’s Day…

Aphrodite
Conceived in wind and foam and born in Spring,
O lovely, tempting Goddess of the wave,
What cunning pleasures, what sweet pains you bring,
How perfectly you crush the dreams you gave.
Since long ago you touched the shore in Cyprus,
Trailing salt and flame from the hissing sea,
Mortals have chased you, desperate for bliss,
Enslaved each other while longing to be free.
Leaving all, like broken shells in sand,
You pass mildly on, blithely out of reach;
Not passion but compassion you demand,
Our hearts divine and perfect Love to teach–
That Love that changes death to life again,
Makes atoms dance and galaxies to spin.

Detail from The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

 

 

Sunken Gardens and Sand Paintings

This week, my wife and I visited the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

According to the brochure, the gardens date back to 1903, when George Turner, “a plumber and avid gardener,” purchased and drained a shallow lake, which had filled an ancient sinkhole.  They’re called sunken, because the whole place is 10 to 15 feet below street-level. What a great use for a sinkhole, I must say.

Flamingos at the Sunken Gardens

The gardens are full of streams, ponds, and waterfalls. Along with the Flamingos you can see turtles, parrots, cockatoos and fish. But the real attractions are the trees and tropical plants from all over the world.

This limestone slab was found at the bottom when they drained the lake.

The plaque claims that anyone who sits on the stone is gifted with tranquility, inner harmony, and the talent to make things grow. All new employees of Sunken Garden sit on the stone as part of their orientation. Now that is out-of-the-box talent development, folks.

Naturally, my wife and I took the opportunity to sit on the stone. What happened later might just be a coincidence.

After touring the gardens, we had lunch in downtown St. Petersburg. Walking back to our car, we passed a craft gallery. Inside, four Tibetan Monks were creating a sand painting.

Tibetan Sand Painting (through the window).

We went inside to get a better look. The painting featured a white dove at the center.

The whole experience was one of deep tranquility and inner harmony.

But like I said, it might just be a coincidence.

Old Florida: The Grounds of the Ringling Museum

One of my favorite “Old Florida” spots is the Ringling Museum of Art complex in Sarasota. You can read about how this wonderful place came to be on their official website.

On a nice Saturday in January, I had the chance to tour the gardens…

This pond and statue are near the gate house.

 

A Rainbow Eucalyptus tree showing off its beautiful colored bark.

This is a Bo Tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Well, not this particular one:

This Banyan grove overlooks Sarasota Bay.

The Gardens are not without their dangers. The Banyan trees, for example, have been known to eat the statues.

…and the Bunya Bunya trees can drop 20 pound “pine cones” on your head.

There are even naked zombie statues lurking in the foliage.

But for the most part, the denizens of the garden are friendly.

…And Mabel Ringling’s Rose Garden is lovely beyond belief:

The Ringlings are buried at the edge of the property. Here, a butterfly is paying her respects.

This lion and sphinx apparently had an argument. I think they are stuck with each other, so hopefully they will make it up.

The courtyard of the art museum. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s David  is used on the logo of Sarasota County.

Herne at Yule

Now it is Yule Time. The Solstice is just past, the light starting to grow again, and Herne the Hunter is stirring in the depths of the forest.

Herne is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as a local ghost who haunts Windsor Wood. But Margaret Murray, in her 1931 book God of the Witches, posits that Herne is a manifestation of a much older being, Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. (For more on this, see here).

Source///http://www.houseofwinterspells.com/1675/attributes-of-the-horned-god-during-the-dark-night-of-the-soul/

Herne/Cernunnos is the God of Nature, Lord of the Forest and of wild creatures. Because it is Nature that feeds us, he is the provider of food and therefore of life. I think of him as the embodiment of Desire with a capital D—the fire in the belly that drives us all to live.

Herne
The spirit worlds are deep and high,
In firelight and smoky air,
In sparkling stream and cave and sky,
And Herne is there.

The forest seethes in emerald light,
In tusk of boar and snout of deer;
A shaman dances in the night,
And Herne is near.

And cities race on wheels and fumes,
Computer screens where data burns,
Workers scurry through the rooms:
So many Hernes.

The human world leafs from the Tree
Because we hunters chase and yearn;
Our hunger makes the world to be,
And so lives Herne.

Happy Yule to you all, and good hunting!

Discovered Gems – Three Fantasy Novels Deserving Your Attention

As one who commits fantasy fiction, I read a lot. Not only fantasy, but science fiction, mystery, classics, magical realism, thrillers, you name it. Not to mention lots of nonfiction for research.

When I’m working on a story, I prefer to stay away from that particular genre in my reading. So I haven’t read too much fantasy in the last couple of years.

That said, here are my reviews of three books I did read that I think are really great and deserve more attention.

The Healer’s Choice by Kathryn Hinds

The Healer's Choice by Kathryn Hinds

Epic fantasy: a first novel by an author with lots of expertise in history and medieval scholarship.

My review: The characters are varied and true-to-life, and every one is rooted in the imagined cultures in which they live. The world-building is complex and beautifully wrought, from the smallest details of daily living to the intricacies of war, medicine, philosophy, religion, and magic. The story is multi-faceted, with twists and surprises that are alternately exhilarating and heart-breaking.

The author manages multiple viewpoint characters and story lines with a deft touch, keeping the reader intrigued. She even throws in some lovely poetry that feels authentic to the people and times she writes about. Magical!

More, Ms. Hinds! More!

The Dragon Scale Lute by JC Kang

Note: this title has recently been rebranded as Songs of Insurrection: A Legends of Tivara Story (The Dragon Songs Saga Book 1)

My review: Excellent epic fantasy set in a world inspired by pre-industrial Asia.

Beautiful, detailed world-building, sympathetic and interesting characters, well-defined magic, and very skillful writing. To be honest, most indie-published fantasy novels I’ve read have not been up to what I’d consider professional standards. This one is certainly an exception.

First in a series.

School of the Ages: The Ghost in the Crystal
by Matt Posner

A YA urban fantasy and the first of a series.

My review: Like other reviewers, I read the blurb and thought, “Oh, like a New York City version of Harry Potter. I’ll bite.” In many ways the comparison is valid:

  • a secret magic school in the midst of the real world
  • intriguing, quirky, multi-ethnic, convincing teenage characters,
  • a varied set of adults, magical and non-magical, with interesting perspectives and sometimes murky motives.
  • a many-layered plot that keeps cooking with twists and surprises.

What I find unique here is the quality of the magic. Harry Potter magic is fun, a combination of pure invention and recycled pop culture tropes. School of Ages magic is serious—rooted in mystical traditions (primarily Hebrew) and concocted with plenty of mental horsepower. At times I wasn’t sure if I was reading YA fantasy or being taught occult metaphysics:

“They say time is a like a river, always flowing forward, ever changing. Not true. Time is a wind. It goes in all directions, this way and that, moves many things, leaves others in place.”

“The good of magic,” Dr. Archer said, “is not principally in doing, but in knowing what ought to be done.”

Yikes! If, like me, you favor serious magic in your fiction, it doesn’t get any better that this.