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“The Book of Life” by Deborah Harkness

BookOfLife

I’ve waited two years for this book to come out. It is the third and final book in the All Souls Trilogy. I loved the first two books: A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. I must confess, though, that this one was a little disappointing in comparison. Not that it was bad; it was just not as good.

I have two main criticisms regarding this book. The first is that it felt drawn out. I kept waiting for something to happen. I found myself reading faster and faster just to reach the interesting parts. After about 300 pages, I was reading faster because I just wanted to finish already. I felt that this could have been incorporated into Shadow of Night by adding a mere 100 pages, but because publishers want trilogies now and it seems that every other book that comes out is part of a series. I suspect Ms. Harkness had to comply with her publisher’s demands and deliver the requisite pages. The second thing I found disappointing about this book is that it felt more like it belonged in the Twilight saga. It seemed to have less of the scholasticism, the history, and the rich description of cities that I found so engaging in the first two books. Instead, I suffered through pages of vampire/witch romance, which is really not that interesting for me. When the story finally moved to Venice, I was yearning for more description of the city and the architecture. I didn’t get it.

In spite of my disappointments, the book is still good, just not as good as her previous ones. There were parts of the book that were brilliant and I have nothing but admiration for Harkness as a writer. As such, I definitely want to point out some strong points in this book.

There is a great section that discusses dark magic. The term generally conjures images of evil and nefarious activity. But as the characters in the book explain, it is just representative of knowledge that is hidden and may be dangerous if mishandled.

“Dark doesn’t have to mean evil,” Sarah said. “Is the new moon evil?”

I shook my head. “The dark of the moon is a time for new beginnings.”

“Owls? Spiders? Bats? Dragons?” Sarah was using her teacher voice.

“No,” I admitted.

“No. They are not. Humans made up those stories about the moon and nocturnal creatures because they represent the unknown. It’s no coincidence that they also symbolize wisdom. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge. That’s why we’re so careful when we teach someone dark magic.” Sarah took my hand. “Black is the color of the goddess as crone, plus the color of concealment, bad omens, and death.”

(p. 140)

At one point in the book, Diana is discussing alchemical texts with a library assistant. As she points out, the difficulty in deciphering an alchemical text is that the writers blend the physical with the symbolic, making it near impossible to figure out what is literal and what is symbol.

“The Voynich manuscript’s illuminations of strange flora would certainly intrigue a botanist—not to mention the illumination of a tree from Ashmole 782. But why would an alchemist be interested in them?” Lucy asked.

“Because some of the Voynich’s illustrations resemble alchemical apparatus. The ingredients and processes needed to make the philosopher’s stone were jealously guarded secrets, and alchemists often hid them in symbols: plants, animals, even people.” The Book of Life contained the same potent blend of the real and the symbolic.

(p. 223)

Since Harkness is a professor at the University of Southern California, her best writing, in my opinion, is when she is depicting the analysis of documents. I can sense the academic thrill of closely examining a one-of-a-kind document.

Hubbard turned the page so that it faced me, but I already knew what I would see there: two alchemical dragons locked together, the blood from their wounds falling into a basin from which naked, pale figures rose. It depicted a stage in the alchemical process after the chemical marriage of the moon queen and the sun king: conceptio, when a new and powerful substance sprang forth from the union of opposites—male and female, light and dark, sun and moon.

(pp 252 – 253)

If I had to rate this book on a ten scale, I’d give it a seven. I think a lot of my disappointment was the result of the fact that my expectations were high. I cannot stress enough how much I loved the first two books, which was why I expected more from this one. I am also getting tired of the trilogy trend. Personally, I am feeling like I no longer want to read anything that is part of a trilogy. When I reach the end of a book, I want some closure. I don’t want to have to wait two or three years for the next installment, then struggle to remember the nuances of the characters and storyline. In fact, if I do decide to read a trilogy again, I will wait until all three books are out so I can read them one after the other.

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 1

Ulysses_S

The first three episodes focus on Stephen Dedalus, who is the protagonist in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This correlates with the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey in which Telemachus is the focus. Stephen is a young, aspiring poet who is in mourning over the death of his mother. He is generally considered to be James Joyce’s alter ego.

The first thing to note about this episode is the giant S at the beginning. As with anything symbolic, there can be any number of interpretations, all of which can be equally valid. For example, it could simply imply that Stephen is the focus of the first episode. Possibly, it is an allusion to alliteration that will appear throughout the text, the ess sound being predominant in the name Ulysses. One could argue that it represents the (s)ymbolism found in (s)tories. I personally have my own theory, but I am not going to share it just yet. I will do so at the end of this blog series, since I feel it is part of one of the larger themes in the book. (Note: This was the topic of my college thesis on Ulysses, which I will try to locate in the attic before we finish the book.)

Early in the episode, Stephen says, “I’m not a hero, however.” (p. 4) I see a double entendre here. On one level, Joyce is making it clear that Stephen is not the hero of the book; hence he is not representative of Odysseus. But I think this is also a reference to Joyce’s then unpublished manuscript of Stephen Hero. This was an early version of a manuscript that would later become Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As the story goes, it was rejected by the publisher and Joyce ended up throwing into the fire. It was secretly retrieved and published posthumously.

Similarities are established between Stephen and Hamlet. Buck Mulligan accuses Stephen of brooding, in the same way that Claudius chides Hamlet.

—Don’t mope over it all day, he said. I’m inconsequent. Give up the moody brooding.

(p. 9)

Stephen is then described as being haunted by his mother’s ghost, similar to Hamlet being visited by the ghost of his father.

In a dream, silently, she had come to him, her wasted body within its loose graveclothes giving off the odour of wax and rosewood, her breath bent over him with mute secret words, a faint odour of wetted ashes.

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul. On me alone. The ghostcandle to light her agony. Ghostly light on the tortured face. Her hoarse loud breath rattling in horror, while all prayed on their knees. Her eyes on me to strike me down.

(p. 10)

Earlier in the post, I had mentioned alliteration. This is a literary tool that Joyce uses well and there is a great example in this episode where he uses words beginning with the letter “W” to evoke the sensation of waves and water.

Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by lightshod hurrying feet. White breast from the dim sea. The twining stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstraings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

(p. 9)

Martello tower, the setting for this episode, figures prominently. It is likened to Elsinore, which supports the connection between Stephen and Hamlet.

—I mean to say, Haines explained to Stephen as they followed, this tower and these cliffs here remind me somehow of Elsinore. That beetles o’er his base into the sea, isn’t it?

(p. 18)

I also see a couple other connections with the tower image. First, I suspect it is meant to serve as a reference to William Butler Yeats, whose poem “Who Goes With Fergus” is quoted by Mulligan. (p. 9) While Yeats’ “The Tower” wasn’t published until 1928, after Ulysses, Yeats was residing at Thoor Ballylee (the tower that would become the symbol in Yeats’ poem later on) at the time that Joyce was working on his book. Secondly, I see a connection to the Tower card in the tarot deck. The Tower, for those who know tarot, is about the worst card you can get. It foretells a catastrophic, unexpected event. This seems to be in keeping with Odysseus’ ill-fated journey home, where he faces one unexpected disaster and danger after another. The cards are stacked against him, so to speak.

The very end of this episode really solidifies the connection between Joyce’s novel and The Odyssey, while at the same time reinforcing the connection between Stephen and Hamlet. There is imagery of not being able to return home, of being out at sea. Also, there is an emphasis on the archetype of the usurper, which can be interpreted as both Penelope’s suitors and Claudius, who usurped Hamlet’s throne.

The priest’s grey nimbus in a niche where he dressed discreetly. I will not sleep here tonight. Home also I cannot go.

A voice, sweettoned and sustained, called to him from the sea. Turning the curve he waved his hand. It called again. A sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round.

(p. 23)

This is extremely dense text, and I could certainly write much longer, picking apart the minutia. But that’s not my goal. I want to hit on some of the big themes and the symbolism that resonates with me personally. That said, if there is anything you want to add, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Next week I will cover Episode 2 which ends on page 36. The last line of that episode is: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.”

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Dedalus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telemachus

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/characters.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoor_Ballylee

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