Thursday, October 23, 2008

Cannonball Read #7: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Travelling is tricky for me, because I need to strike the balance between bringing enough reading material to keep me entertained and choosing reading material that doesn't require a pallet jack to transport. Sometimes this means bringing eight small books, and sometimes it means bringing one or two industrial strength books. Luckily, this often means I snap and buy ponderous tomes that I spend whole minutes staring at in bookstores while arguing with myself about whether or not I'll actually read the whole book and if that means I am willing to accept carpal tunnel syndrome as a result. I bought the giant and wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, by Susannah Clarke in Rome when confronted with a dearth of books and an eight hour flight. When I was out in Washington for the Columbus Day weekend to visit my friend C and her family, I ripped through several books, then, because we're both readers, had The Historian pressed on me for the return trip (I still had some Nabokov and an Arkady Renko book to go through, but there's something about Russian writing that just does not jive with red-eye flights).

Oh mylanta, what a kickass book.

Part of what I liked about Strange & Norell was the intricate half-myth, half-historical world that it took place in, and there's a similarity there to The Historian. Kostova has produced an obseesively researched book, and skillfully weaves together history and the myth of Dracula, as well as a sweet look at a family thriving in spite of near-perpetual crisis. And by crisis, I mean "being chased by a centuries-old individual we all know and love as Dracula."

Let's be real about this: I love this in large part because I am an academic. This is an adventure driven by intelligence, one of those stories about defeating evil with sheer brainpower. The story goes as follows, with extremely minor spoilers. One night in a library, a grad student finds a book that's wholly blank except for a distinctive woodcut of a dragon and the word "Drakulya." He shows his advisor the weird little thing, and the advisor reacts dramatically...he, too, once found one of these books. The advisor presses the research he himself did on the provenance of his book, and less than an hour later, the advisor has disappeared. Driven now not only by the mystery of the book but also by the disappearance of his cherished advisor, the grad student begins research in true earnest. Along the way to Dracula, he eventually teams up with his advisor's bastard daughter, who is also an academic, and several other people, and his close circle of cohorts is constantly beseiged and threatened by the forces of darkness that unfortunately he is pursuing. Oops. The pursuit of Dracula takes them through Bulgaria, Romania, Istanbul, France and many other locations, and throughout this travel, they constantly run into dead ends and coded language.

That's about all I can tell you without getting too much into detail...the book has a wonderful way of continually folding over and weaving through itself, and I want you to go out and buy this book, so do yourself - and me - a favor and hie thee to thy nearest independent bookstore. The whole story is related by the grad student's daughter, who has in turn discovered her father's notes and notebooks, and winds up waist-deep in the journey.

Celia mentioned to me that the scariest parts of the book were the true ones, and I heartily concur. As I mentioned before, this book draws heavily on history, and Vlad the Impaler was a seriously horrifying individual. When we were in Volterra, Italy, Mom, Dad, Sarah and I went to a torture museum to pass some time...we thought this was a Special Volterra Thing, judging from the advertising we saw on the drive in, but then for the rest of the trip, we kept seeing torture museums everywhere. I wasn't aware of this being a big thing in Italy, but I assume that Franco had something to do with it. In any case, I often think about the moral value of being able to kill people from way far off, without having to look them in the eye, etc., etc., and it always seems so horrifically dispassionate to me, like it completely reduces casualties to numbers. That being said, some of the shit people have come up with to torture other people through history...Jesus. Great example, actually...when you're crucified, you suffocate. Did you know this? I did not. And now I can't un-know it. Same for any number of the things in that torture museum...I came out of there clenching parts of my body I didn't know I COULD clench. Same for some of Dracula's chosen methods...flaying alive, impaling, etc. I don't know if people just used to be way more fucked up or what, but good God, this shit is traumatic. There's not all that much in the way of super-gory detail, but some of these things are mentioned, and that's what made me need to read it with the lights on, just like Celia said she had.

642 pages

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