The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale

I knew how it was for him.  It was easier now that I was grown up than when I was a child.  How much harder birthdays had been in the house. Presents hidden overnight in the shed, not from me, but from my mother, who could not bear the sight of them.  The inevitable headache was her jealously guarded rite of remembrance, one that made it impossible to invite other children to the house, impossible, too, to leave her for the treat of a visit to the zoo or the park.  My birthday toys were always quiet ones. Cakes were never homemade, and the leftovers had to be divested of their candles and icing before they could be put in the tin for the next day.

Happy birthday? Father whispered the words, Happy Birthday, hilariously, right in my ear.  We played silent card games where the winner pulled gleeful faces and the loser grimaced and slumped, and nothing, not a peep, not a splutter, could be heard in the room above our heads.  In between games, up and down he went, my poor father, between the silent pain of the bedroom and the secret birthday downstairs, changing his face from jollity to sympathy, from sympathy back to jollity, in the stairwell.

Unhappy birthday.  From the day I was born, grief was always present.  It settled like dust upon the household. It covered everyone and everything; it invaded us with every breath we took.  It shrouded us in our own separate miseries.

Why couldn’t she love me?  Why did my life mean less to her than my sister’s death?

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield, is the story of Margaret Lea and Vida Winter.  Margaret is a surviving twin – her identical twin died soon after birth.  She feels as though in losing her sister, she has lost her other half.  In another household, she might have recovered from the loss of her ‘other self’.  But because her mother is unable to let go of the pain of losing her daughter enough to get to know, love, and appreciate the daughter left behind, the surviving twin grows into a woman feeling that she is incomplete.

Vida Winter is a reclusive author, best known for her much beloved collection of twelve stories, and has spent the last 60s years telling lie after lie to those who want to know more about her.  She hides her truth, guards it jealously, and will not allow anyone to get close to the real her.  That is, until she decides to have Margaret write her biography as she lies on her deathbed.  To Margaret, she is honest, though unwilling to answer questions, or to tell the story in any other way than just how she sees fit.  And what a story, full of Gothic mysteries ala’ Jane Eyre.  This Thirteenth Tale tells the story of a mansion, a ghost, a nanny, identical twins ignored by their bizarre mother and uncle, a housekeeper and a gardener, and various sundry characters.  Margaret finds herself being pulled deeper into the story, even as she tries to solve the puzzles she finds along the way.

At about 3/4 of the way through, I thought I had this book all figured out, and all that was left was for the author to wrap it up.  I was wrong, she had a few genuine surprises left for me, which I liked.  I picked this book up as part of the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats reading challenge, and after a bit of a slow start, I found it hard to put down.  A very good read, that I would highly recommend.

Purple Hibiscus

Kambili is a 15 year old girl, growing up in Nigeria with her older brother, Jaja, and their parents, Eugene and Beatrice. Eugene is a very wealthy, influential man, one of the few who dares to stand up and tell the truth about the local government by means of the newspaper he owns. Theirs is a charmed life, with Eugene donating richly to the poorer neighbors, to the church, and to the many charities he supports. They live in a compound surrounded by high walls, and they have servants to cook and clean and drive for them. They have cable television and luxurious cars, plenty of meat to eat, and the respect of the community. Kambili and her brother are consistently first in their class, and are well regarded by their teachers.

Of course, when you scratch the surface, things are not as wonderful as they seem. The family lives in fear of Eugene, who is known to fly into rages, and dishes out extreme punishments for any infraction against his strict schedules and his unattainable standards. He is a religious fanatic, and fears that his family might become possessed by demons if they do not keep their minds and bodies clean, work hard and worship along with him, and follow his ever directive with no questions asked.

Eugene’s sister, Ifeoma, convinces Eugene to let Kambili and Jaja come and visit her family for a few days, a visit which opens their eyes to the world around them. Ifeoma is a widowed University Professor in a time of turmoil, when the Universities did not have the money to pay the salaries of their staff. She and her children live a very meager existence, constantly trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Ifeoma’s daughter, Amaka, is very jealous of the luxuries that her cousins enjoy, while they marvel at her easy relationship with her mother, and begin to unclench their muscles and thrive in this house, which is full of laughter and genuine respect. Kambili, in the mean time, falls in love with Ifeoma’s friend, a young priest named Father Amadi.

As the two households become closer, Nigeria falls under a military junta, and events begin to spiral out of control.

Purple Hibiscus is beautifully written, with glimpses of fanaticism, the effects of colonialism and missionary dominance, and a culture fiercely subdued but not completely mastered. The narrative was a bit more straightforward than Adichie‘s other wonderful novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, and I would happily recommend either of them. She is obviously a gifted writer, and I look forward to her next book.

The Westing Game

I first heard of The Westing Game, I think, in a comment left by my old bloggy friend, Wendy.  (She’s not old, just quit blogging, so she’s not a current bloggy friend, right?  I miss her writing, actually.)

Based on her loving the book as a kid, I bought it for Maya and put it on her bookshelf. It has thus far failed to capture her interest, so it’s just been sitting there, waiting.   When I signed up for the Herding Cats reading challenge, I saw this book on the list, and thought it was a good chance to read it.

The Westing Game is the story surrounding the death of Sam Westing, an eccentric millionaire who leaves behind clues to his murder.  He suspected that he might be murdered, and thus put together a puzzle for 16 people to solve, most of whom live in an apartment building next to his house.  Almost all of them have some connection to Westing in their lifetime.  The person who solves his murder, the story goes, will inherit the millions.

The main character is Turtle Wexler, a middle school student with a long braid and a penchant for kicking people (hard) in the shins.  She’s the most likable character, and the one you’re rooting for all along.  The other characters are (mainly) the other participants in the mystery.

I enjoyed getting to know the many characters, their complexities, and their motivations.  But honestly, I didn’t feel truly drawn to any of them, and didn’t care much how the story ended.  It was a satisfying mystery (I’m not much of a mystery fan, though), and well told, just not great.  Would I recommend the book? Sure, in a half-hearted way.  But not with the same enthusiasm I would have in recommending The Book Thief, A Little Princess, or Number the Stars.  All much better, in my opinion.

Herding Cats Challenge

I read about the Herding Cats reading challenge over at Dewey’s blog, The Hidden Side of a Leaf, and I had to join up, because not only do I love to read, I also used to work for EDS, when the ad above aired. So I thought, yeah, I’m on board. Here are the rules.

1. List 10 books you have read and love. LOVE. OK, at least really really like.

2. Pick 3 books you haven’t read before from the ‘favorite books lists’ of other challenge participants. Don’t worry, they’ve put together a wonderful master list, making it much easier than going through list after list after list.

3. Read those 3 books, and review them on your blog. The time frame is May – November, 2008.

4. Of course, link to the main challenge blog.

Here, then, are 10 books I have read and LOVED. I’m going to go all out and not include Gone With The Wind or the Little House books, because I’ve mentioned them so many dang times before on this blog.

  1. The Tale of One Bad Rat, by Bryan Talbot. I read this for my Graphic Novels challenge, and it amazed me. I had no idea that the graphic novel genre could reach into emotions and characters with such depth and skill. Highly recommended.
  2. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. I read this book recently as well, and loved it. It’s a different book than any other WWII book I had read, and it made me think of things a bit differently than I had before.
  3. The Mists of Avalon, by Marian Zimmer Bradley. I read this book in High School maybe, and gosh, what a book. I have to re-read it every few years, but it’s so huge that I’ll confess, I don’t always read it cover to cover every time. Sometimes I just go to my favorite parts. There are many. If you’ve not heard of it, it’s a telling of the Arthurian legend from the points of view of the women involved. I’ve tried some of the sequels and prequels, and wasn’t able to get into them.
  4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. I read this book in college, after seeing the movie. I liked the film, but I liked the book a lot more. It’s an amazing tale, amazingly told. I kind of feel like everyone should read this book at least once, though I know that’s a mighty pretentious thing to say, and I couldn’t even explain why. Just because.
  5. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I can’t believe Ms. McCullers wrote this book at the age of 21. It is the story of four characters, all through the eyes of a fifth. The characters are bitterly lonely, and are coping with that loneliness in whatever ways they can find. Drink, sex, violence. My favorite character was the hard-edged girl, Mick, whose search for beauty is disarming, and hopefully, unfailing.
  6. The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver. I loved this book so much, I wrote Ms. Kingsolver a fan letter. I had never done that before, and have never done so since, but this book, and its follow up, Pigs in Heaven, moved me in a very profound way. Didn’t hurt that I had a child about the same age as Turtle at the time. I also loved Animal Dreams, though some of her recent books have come across to me as too preachy, and I couldn’t get into them, even though I agreed with the message she was preaching.
  7. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. This was a devastating, heartbreaking read. But worth every devastating, heartbreaking minute.
  8. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. It took me awhile to get into this book. The first chapter wasn’t my cup of tea, but each subsequent chapter became more and more my cup-ish. Loved it.
  9. The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. The story of Dinah, one of the daughters of Jacob, from the Old Testament. I loved this telling of the story, fleshed out from just a few phrases in the actual text. Very well told, one of those books that I liked so much, I gave it to several people as a gift. I suspect it would mean more if I had read the Bible, and knew the background. I did go look at those few phrases in my Bible, but I think to a scholar, they would get even more. But without that, I still got a lot from this book.
  10. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. I read this book as a child, and wow, did I love it. Creepy and crawly and full of good friends, good scares, betrayal and redemption. LOVED it. HATED the movie version. HATED IT.

Next, here are the three books I am going to read for this challenge.

  1. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I chose this book because one of my favorite bloggers, Wendy, suggested it long ago, and said how much she loved it when she read it. I then bought the book for Maya, but she hasn’t read it yet. So I’ll give it a shot. Thanks, Wendy, though you’ll probably never know since you gave up blogging last year. Sigh. This book came from Owlmoose’s list.
  2. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Adichie. I’m already reading this book for my Man Booker Challenge. I try not to read the same books for too many challenges, because even though that’s not cheating, it kind of feels like cheating to me. I want the challenges to challenge me to read books I might not have otherwise picked up. But I’m making an exception here, because I really want to read this book. I read Half of a Yellow Sun last year, and LOVED it. This book came from Dewey’s list.
  3. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I’ve not heard of this book, and I suspect that by picking it, I’m more closely following the spirit of the challenge, because I’m learning about a book from those who recommend it highly. This one had four people suggesting it, which was part of how I selected it. Look for one that lots of people liked. 😉 I grabbed it from Amateur de Livre’s list.