Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reveiw: "The Palace", by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Chelsea Quinn writes, among other things, vampire novels. But these are vampire novels with a twist: her vampire, the Count Saint Germain, is the good guy. So, if you like your vampires menacing, cruel, and villainous, you probably want to give The Palace (St. Martin's Press, 1978; 376 pages) a miss. But, if you like good writing, a great story, well-researched historical backgrounds, and vampires that don't sparkle, you'll likely enjoy Yarbro's series of vampire novels, most of which feature the Count.

The Palace is the second in the series, which has grown to a number of volumes since she wrote the first installment, Hotel Transylvania, which is also very good. But The Palace, which is the second book in the series, is my favorite, and the one I've gone back to read most often since I discovered these novels quite by accident. I was at the library, and just cruising the fiction stacks and pulled it off the shelf and read that it is set in Renaissance Florence. I'm a huge Michelangelo geek, so that was enough to get me to check the book out of the library and give it a chance; the fact that it was a vampire story was of secondary importance to me.

The story begins as Saint Germain, who is a friend to Lorenzo de'Medici, the unofficial ruler of Florence, is building a palace in Florence. But Lorenzo the Magnificent's health is failing, and Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk whose fire and brimstone preaching comes with a heavy dose of guilt and prophecy, is starting to hold sway over more and more of Florence's population. Savonarola has predicted both that Lorenzo will die, and when, and that the French will come and try to rule the city. When both predictions come true, Savonarola is on his way to several years as the de facto dictator of the city.

This development makes it more and more difficult for Saint Germain to live in Florence, because along with more and more rigorous religious laws, foreigners are less and less tolerated. Finally, after the sister of Sandro di Filipepi, known to the art world as Botticelli, with whom Saint Germain has had an ongoing liaison, confesses her sins in a way that implicates the Count in her debaucheries, Saint Germain must flee the city. He returns, posing as his own nephew, to rescue his student, Demetrice, who has come to live with Saint German after the death of Lorenzo and because of her ties to him has been accused of heresy.

It is worth reading The Palace for the wonderful writing and exciting story alone. But besides good storytelling and history that is impeccably researched and woven into the story without the huge passages of info-dumping that so many historical novels suffer from, Yarbro has inserted into the story a major subtext regarding the dangers of excessive and fanatic religious devotion. She explores, without sacrificing story or storytelling, the dangers that can come when religious fervor overtakes good sense and mixes with politics.

Savonarola is presented as a sort of a Renaissance version of a televangelist, preaching doom and gloom and prophesying the end of the world, or at least the end of Florence. He insists that any pleasure is vanity and offensive in the sight of God. He urges detailed confessions of sins, especially those of a sexual nature. He demands that the citizens of the city destroy anything that isn't strictly utilitarian, that they wear drab plain clothes, and that they attend church and strictly observe all feast days. If you are not familiar with the career of Savonarola, as I was not when I first read The Palace, Yarbro's portrayal of him threatens to read like an anachronistic parody. It is not.

Long after my first reading of The Palace, I wrote a paper and did a class presentation on the career of Savonarola. As part of my research for that project, I read translations of some of the sermons Savonarola gave in Florence during the period in which the novel takes place, and the words that Yarbro puts in his mouth sound very much like the records of his sermons read. There is no exaggeration there, as far as I can see; he really was that fanatic, that judgmental, that full of fervor.

It is a mark of Yarbro's skill as a researcher and a writer that she has managed to insert this subtext, this social criticism, into The Palace without making it read like an historical treatise or a propaganda piece on the dangers of fanaticism of any sort. It is all integral to the story.

I will warn you of one thing. If you do read The Palace, there is a strong possibility that you will find yourself looking for other books in the series. I've not liked all of Yarbor's Saint Germain books as much as I like The Palace, but I've not regretted the time I've spent reading any of them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: "Weird California"

A couple of months ago, I read a book called Weird Hollywood and enjoyed it a lot. I picked it up at the library because I like reading about Southern California, since I was born there and because I like reading about, the, well, I suppose unusual is a good enough word for it.

I was also drawn to it because I remembered seeking another book, Weird California (Sterling Publishing Co., 2006), by Greg Bishop, Joe Oesterle, and Mike Marinacci, in a bookstore a few years ago. The covers were very similar, and I figured both were part of the same series. In paging through Weird California back then, I saw that a site just down the street from where my grandmother lived when I was growing up was in the book. So, after reading and enjoying Weird Hollywood, I decided to track Weird California down and read it as well.

I ended up having to request the book from the library because none of my local branches carried it. But, it finally came, and it ended up being my Labor Day weekend reading. It was perfect for that, nothing too deep, not much that was very serious, and entertaining throughout.

Of course, the first thing I did when I got my hands on the book was to look through it to see if I had remembered correctly about the Bottle Village down the street from my grandmother's house was really part of the book, and it was. That brought back memories of watching the woman who built the place, Mrs. Prisbrey, now known as Grandma Prisbrey, going back and forth to the dump in town to gather building materials for her work. To be honest, I think she was regarded as an eccentric back then by the people in the neighborhood, but that was a more live-and-let-live time in the United States. If she were building today what is considered folk art and has been featured in books and exhibits worldwide, there would have probably been people after her to tear it down because it was an "eyesore". And, in fact, there were once plans to tear the place down, and the Northridge earthquake in the early 1990s did a fair job of wrecking the place. But, it is now on the California and National Registers of Historic places and a preservation group owns the property and is making an effort to restore Bottle Village to its former glory.

But I digress. There is all sorts of weirdness in Weird California, from the expected hauntings, monsters, and UFO stories here. There are cults and murders and oddities of various kinds. There is a roll-call of cemeteries for people, for pets...and one for airplanes, in Mojave.

There are also other places I know besides the Bottle Village. There is Maze Stone, near Hemet, which as far as anyone knows is an example of Native American petroglyphs. There is Zzyzx, a defunct health spa out in the high desert near Baker. While I've never been there, the sign for Zyzzx Road, which leads to the site, was always a landmark we watched for on Interstate 15 during family trips to Las Vegas. There is a long section on Mount Shasta, which is reportedly the site of many odd occurrences, including UFO sightings and sightings (and mysterious disappearances) of supposed survivors of the lost continent of Lemura and of a race of Lizard People. Which all sounds very woo-woo'y. On the other hand, a couple of years ago I drove by Shasta on a trip to Oregon, and I have to say that the area gave me an uneasy feeling and I was glad to get past the area. Same for the supposed curse of Pacheco Pass. I've never seen or experienced anything odd the times I've traveled that road. On the other hand, it can be eerie and unsettling to drive through there at night.

Aside from the usual logical reasons for taking the stories in Weird California with a grain (or a full shaker) of salt is that there is one story there from a town I lived in for 28 years, a story of a ghost that haunts a stretch of road looking for her children after they were all killed in a car wreck in the area. The implication is that everyone in town knows the story and is spooked by the area. Except that, as long as I lived there, I never heard a word about it. Additionally, I drove past the road near where the haunting is supposed to take place on a regular basis for a couple of years on my way to school in Reedley, the next town over, and I never saw, heard, or felt anything strange. On the other hand, it seemed like some of the smaller roads down there in the river bottom seemed to have a habit of disappearing. I'd find an interesting stretch of road on drives in the area, and then not be able to find them again when I went back to look for them. So, you know, who knows.

It isn't actually required to believe in any of the odd things presented in Weird California in order to enjoy the book. Really. It's a fun journey through some of the out-of-the-way parts of the state, and a reminder of some of the weirdnesses that have become legendary parts of California culture.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Review: "Treasure Box" by Orson Scott Card

Treausre Box (HarperPaperbacks, 1996; 372 pages), by Orson Scott Card, tells the story of Quentin Fears (pronounced, it is pointed out more than once, as "fierce"), a software millionaire and recluse who turned his back on most of humanity after his sister was killed in an accident when he was a teenager. He has reached his thirties without ever having had a real relationship. Then he meets Madeleine, who appears to be the perfect woman. She is smart, beautiful and is as reclusive as he is.

It only takes a short time for them to marry, and then Madeline finally takes Quentin to meet the family that she has so far carefully kept him from meeting. They are an odd family, eccentric to the point of strangeness, living in a remote old house along the Hudson river. Madeleine has warned Quentin that she is "not herself" when she visits there, and it doesn't take him long to discover exactly how accurate that characterization is, and Quentin soon finds himself fighting to keep an ancient evil from being unleashed on the world.

Treasure Box isn't a bad book. But as I read there were things that bothered me about it, things that I couldn't quite put my finger on at first, and I was over halfway through the book before I realized what wasn't sitting right with me. What was wrong is that Card falls back on the old stereotype of women as manipulating their innocent, noble male victims. It doesn't just appear in the relationship between Quentin and Madeleine, but is hinted at in the relationship between Quentin's parents and stated more boldly in the relationship between Quentin's attorney and his wife, who is portrayed as cheating on the attorney while insisting that he is the one who is cheating.

I probably wouldn't have finished the book if it had become clear earlier exactly what Card was using the story to say about male-female relationships, but I kept reading in hopes that the subtext wasn't really what I was interpreting it to be. Yet, there it was, right up until the end of the story, with the added jab that the women who were manipulating Quentin were witches but the woman who he finds himself attracted to at the end of the story is not.

I don't know if Card did this consciously, or if such attitudes are so ingrained in him that he wasn't aware that he was dividing his female characters in the traditional bitch-whore/virgin dichotomy, with the whore presenting as virginal, literally in this case, in order to manipulate him before he saw through the deception. He is a man who holds very conservative values regarding family, and portrays his "good" characters as living out those values.

Despite the ideology lurking in the story, Treasure Box is a well-told tale, although I prefer a little more ambiguity in characters, and not the kind that was used here, where any contradictions in the characters' behavior was explained by their being "enthralled" by the witches rather than by the fact that few people are consistent in their behavior all the time.