Category Archives: reviews

Reading the Medieval Camino

Fromista

Fromista

I thought a word about the sources in English that I used for my historical novel, PILGRIMAGE might be interesting both for readers, and also for modern pilgrims who have tackled (or dream of tackling) the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. One of the wonders of the Camino Frances is not only that it is such an old track, but that there has been so much written about it over the centuries. I think knowing something of the history that created the road only enhances the journey. And it is not a history primarily of dates and politics, but one of art and architecture and real people with hopes and dreams and fears tracking off into the unknown (to them) world. My own heroine takes a roundabout route before joining the road through France via Arles and Toulouse. She takes the Camino Aragones before joining — after a few plot-required detours — the Camino Frances.

The first source pilgrims who are interested in the history and origins of the route usually encounter is the engaging and wonderful twelfth-century Pilgrim’s Guide to Compostela. I link to the Italica Press translation by William Melczer, which is also available in a Kindle edition, for those pilgrims who would like to carry it en route. I would not suggest you replace your modern guidebook with it, however. Let’s just say that Aimery Picaud was a little optimistic when he described the length of each stage…

The Miracles of St. James accompanies the Pilgrim’s Guide in manuscripts, and is now available in its own translation. The gem of this book is its translation of the medieval sermon “Veneranda dies.” If you want an idea of how they thought of the Camino in the twelfth-century, and the origin of traditions (and complaints) that are still relevant today, this is the place to look. Exerienced pilgrims will discover many differences, of course, but I think you will be surprised to see how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

If your primary interest in the Camino is its art and architecture, and if you want to know more about what you might see along all the main roads in France and Spain, you might like Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela: A Gazeteer by Paula Gerson and Annie Shaver-Crandell. I found it an invaluable resource for imagining my heroine’s journey.

A resources designed more for the modern pilgrim, because it describes what you will see stage by stage, is David Gitlitz and Mary-Jane Davidson’s The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook. It doesn’t provide trail directions or the addresses of albergues but it is an excellent source for explaining what it is you will actually see on the road and what it all means. I returned to it over and over again while writing.

If you would like to know more about the history of medieval Spain during the time when the pilgrimage road to Compostela was becoming popular across Europe, you could take a look at Bernard Reilly’s The Contest of Christian and Muslim Spain: 1031 – 1157. And last but not least, if you prefer some pictures while you are reading, and want to delve deeper into relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews in the peninsula, check out The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture.

Happy reading and happy walking!

Beach Reads

So this happened, over on Bustle in a nice column written by Tori Telfer:

11 MOVING BEACH READS THAT’LL HAVE YOU WEEPING INTO YOUR PINA COLADA

Check out #10. I’ll give you a hint: PILGRIMAGE!

I was pretty thrilled, as was just about everyone else I know (because I sure didn’t keep the news to myself) except for a couple of men who seemed to feel that somehow my novel had been sullied by being called a beach read. Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Beach reads are important. Beach reads are special. Beach reads are the books you can take time with, the ones you don’ have to read in fifteen minute snatches on the metro, or as long as you can prop your eyes open before crashing at night. Beach reads are planned, chosen, anticipated, savoured. They are ones you can allow yourself to fall into and be swallowed up by knowing that nothing more pressing will pull you away from them.

What makes a perfect beach read? For me, it has to be long. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy long. Really long. You don’t want to finish it too soon. They have to have paper covers, because hardbacks make red dents in your chest when you read them lying down on a deck chair. They have to transport me somewhere I’ve never been before — or return me to an old, long-loved place. I often re-read old children’s books when I am home for the summer. If they take me somewhere new, it can be a beautiful magical place, or a hard, difficult place.

Okay, now where’s my piña colada?

Review: PILGRIMAGE

Julianne Douglas has written a wonderful review of PILGRIMAGE on her blog, “Writing the Renaissance.” I say “wonderful” not only because it is positive, but even more because I think she really captures in her review what this novel is about and what I was trying to do. I can fairly say that if this review appeals to you, you will probably like the novel. You can check it out here:

Review of PILGRIMAGE

And do keep Julianne’s blog bookmarked. It is a great place to catch up on the latest historical fiction. Julianne performs a real service to the HF reading community with her thoughtful reviews and interviews. I have been turned on to a lot of great novels I would not have known about otherwise on its pages. But more than that, it is a place for Julianne to explore her own writing interests in Renaissance France. Recent posts have been on John D. Rockefeller (yes, UChicago people, that Rockefeller) and the excavations at Fontainebleau; the illuminations in Claude de France’s prayer book; and a gorgeous nineteenth-century stained glass image of Renaissance poet, Louise Labé.

And check Julianne’s blog again tomorrow, when she will be interviewing me about the novel

Kim Silveira Wolterbeck, A Place of Light

KSWcoverAPlaceofLightRobert of Arbrissel is one of the most fascinating characters from the Middle Ages. A truly counter-cultural figure, he was a monk and a hermit who preached poverty and renunciation of the world, and surrounded himself with the rejected and outcast of medieval society: lepers, the poor, and women, including prostitutes.

A Place of Light builds off one of the most compelling stories told about him by his contemporary, Baldric of Dol. According to Baldric, one day Robert walked into a brothel in Rouen, and preached about sin to the women inside. They, swayed by his words and moved by his vision for their future, followed him into the wilderness on his path to found a new community where they could live in peace and safety. In her novel about Robert and how he founded the medieval abbey of Fontevrauld (known best of all now as the site of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s vivid tomb) with these women, Wolterbeck asks who they might have been, what their stories were, and why they followed Robert. It is a richly imagined and gripping portrait that treats religious ideals and idealism alongside vanity, pride, envy, greed, and lust with authenticity and nuance. If you are tired of historical novels that promise “meticulous research,” then deliver cardboard characters out of step with their age (medievalist friends, I have you especially in mind), you will love this book as I did. Wolterbeck never takes the easy or obvious route with any of her main characters (who include, in addition to Robert the monk, Madeleine, the wary prostitute; Philippa, the mis-married duchess of Aquitaine; and Girard, the failed Benedictine). The unsympathetic characters have virtue and potential; the characters we love the most have flaws and hidden damage. Indeed, if there is a theme to this book, it is the relationship between damage and redemption. Its message is one the medieval audiences of Robert’s sermons would have understood: we all are sinners; we all can be saved.

I was especially excited/nervous/anxious to read this book, because it is the first published offering from Cuidono Press, the press that will be publishing my own novel, Pilgrimage and in the interest of full disclosure, the novel was a gift to me from its editor. But if you have been reading my reviews over the years, you know that I do no reviews by request, and that I only review books that I love. This is especially important to me for books about the Middle Ages. I am proud my book will be standing beside this one.

A Reading Meme

Can I create a meme? Let’s see. As you can see from my last post but one, there has been talk all over the internet about buying books as presents this Christmas. But what books to buy? I thought it would be fun to list ten books I read this year and describe why I liked them to give other people inspiration about things they may not have read. The only thing is, I realized that I have already written about many of the new books I loved this year. I picked ten books I hadn’t written too much about, just to make it interesting, but some of my favourites have already been reviewed. So check out the archives too for ideas.

And I tag — EVERYONE! List ten of your favourite new books in your blog or in the comments (or however many you can come up with). They don’t have to be new this year, just new to you this year. Here are mine:

Anthony Powell, Dance to the Music of Time. This is a link to the first of four volumes in this monumental series. I can’t beieve I had never read this before. Perfect for people who like novels about decayed upper classes in England between the wars.

Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus I liked this almost as much as In the Company of the Courtesan. About painters in Renaissance Florence in the time of Savonarola, if you like juicy but realistic historical fiction, this is for you.

Rebecca Stott, Ghostwalk. Nicely spooky, this blends animal rights activism with Isaac Newton and makes perfect sense.

Charles de Lint, Memory and Dream. Have I ever put up a list of books that didn’t have a de Lint book on it? This is another novel about an artist that threads together past and present perfectly.

Guy Gavriel Kay, Ysabel. Photography, magic, myth, Gauls and Romans, this is perfect or fantasy-loving adolescent. Or a fantasy-loving adult.

Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy’s Daughter. I love all her books, but I am especially partial to novels about angsty Anglicans and this is a perfect example of that genre.

Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. A novel about growing up Muslim in Indiana, beautifully written and rich with the textures and varieties of religious life.

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees. One of the good things about this book for the would-be writer is that it is wonderful, like all of hers, but it was her first published novel and you can see how she improved in her later work. It is encouraging.

Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire. This is romance novel set in Japan, Hong Kong, and New Zealand in the aftermath of World War II. No, not a love story, a real romance novel. See for yourself. Who says literary fiction and romance are incompatible? Not me.

Steven Brust, Brokedown Palace. A fairy tale with all the requisite elements set in a magical, strange not-quite-but-almost-Hungary.

Okay, that’s ten. Now it’s your turn. Spread, little meme, and prosper, and may the authors you introduce prosper likewise!

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

It’s a light, empty, fun movie, worth it if you are looking for mindless summer fun. I also found it hilarious in ways I don’t believe the director planned. I think poor Mr. Allen learned everything he knows about Spain from the foyer of a luxury hotel and the back seat of a taxicab. And what Woody seems to have learned is that Barcelona is a lot like Los Angeles! People own handguns and drive around in massive silver SUVs and live in mansions, with pools, and invite people over to their fabulous modern kitchens with stainless steel appliances. Like, L.A., there are a lot of Spanish speakers around but it’s okay because they all speak English too. God forbid that in Catalunya they should speak, you know, Catalan. So it’s not surprising that when our heroines finally leave Barcelona (mild spoiler alert), they have experienced none of the personal epiphanies that are usually associated with the broadening effects of foreign travel. They never really left home.

Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

I finished this last night. I tried not to, I really did, because I knew that once I had turned the last page, I’d never experience the joy of reading this wonderful story for the first time ever again. But I couldn’t help myself, I had to keep reading, faster and faster…I had to know… And what a satisfying ending.

It’s a Gothic novel about twins, and it also shares many of the same attributes as Zafon’s wonderful Shadow of the Wind: books, fire, and hidden identities. If you liked that, you’ll love this one, but it is also very much more of a “women’s novel,” written for anyone who ever loved Wuthering Heights, or The Lady in White, or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or Middlemarch, or Jane Eyre. Above all Jane Eyre, especially if, like me, you lost interest in that book the first time you read it after the part when Jane’s first friend dies, and she returns from school.

So what are you waiting for? Go! Go! Times a-wasting. Start reading!

That means you especially, Mum.

Yaz

We all have bands that were the soundtrack for our lives at different points.  Yaz, or Yazoo as they were known in the UK (being Canadian I heard both and so am still thoroughly mixed up, as in so many things), was mine for those crucial end-of-high-school-beginning-of-college years.  Their career as a band was so short lived — two or three years? only two albums — that their original fans, those, who like me, listened to their songs over and over in dorm rooms and scruffy apartments, represent not a whole generation but a sliver of a demographic.

Yet passionate we are, and the whole Chicago branch of that demographic was present at the Chicago Theatre last night for a wonderful reunion concert of their distinctive bluesy electro-pop.  I’d like to say “long-awaited” reunion concert but really, who knew?  It was the best sort of surprise, one that you don’t even know you want until it happens.

I’d say more, but I’m tempted to revert to sullen teenager mode and just say either you get it about Yaz or you don’t.  I was asked last night when I first learned about them and the answer is that I heard about them the way all new music gets transmitted, from the older sister of a friend.  She loaned me a mixed tape, which I dubbed and still have.  It was my first introduction to music beyond Top 40 and AOR (bonus points if you remember what AOR stood for).  For the record, below the fold, the contents of “Lucy’s Tape,” named after her, not me: Continue reading

Beyond the Great Wall

As if I didn’t have enough lovely fiction to read, my favourite cookbook writing duo, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have come up with a new one, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China (Artisan, 2008), which i simply had to buy. When I say I am a fan, I’m not kidding. The Seductions of Rice was the first book of theirs I received, followed by Flatbreads and Flavors and Hot Sour Salty Sweet, abut the cuisines of South Asia. Then last spring, I was searching for meaning in the cookbook aisle and I thought to myself, how wonderful it would be if they wrote a book for India like the one they had done for South Asia. I looked up and, lo, there was Mangoes & Curry Leaves.
Why do I like their books so much? Two reasons. First, they’re political.  Their attitude towards food and eating is one of both delight and responsibility in a world of scarcity.  Their way of eating urges the western world away from making costly (in so many ways) meat the centre of our diet and towards thinking of meat as a delicious accent to a diet based in vegetables and staples like bread and rice.  In addition to being guardians of resources, and no more so than in this most recent book, they are guardians of cultures.  They are photographers and essayists as well as fine cooks and their stories and pictures document and defend little known cultures and peoples.

The second reason I love their books is that the food is delicious.  The receipts typically have modest lists of ingredients and they always work.  I admit that my pantry may be better stocked with unusual ingredients than most, but almost everything in their latest book can be made with things you’d find at an ordinary grocery store.  It isn’t “restaurant” ethnic food; it tastes more like home cooking, and it is often based directly on dishes they have eaten on their travels, with ordinary people.  The classics make way for unusual and unique receipts and their books will not duplicate anything else you have in your collection.

But why take my word for it?  I thought I’d make one of their receipts and present it here for you.  So, below the fold: Savory Boiled Dumplings! Continue reading