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review 2017-02-01 11:00
Saint Augustine and His Abandoned Concubine: Vita Brevis by Jostein Gaarder
Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder
Das Leben ist kurz = Vita brevis - Jostein Gaarder

During much of European history men shaped the world of things and thought as they believed right and passed over women in silence, if they didn’t hold them in contempt. Highly revered Fathers of the Christian Church like Saint Augustine of Hippo Regius further institutionalised this contempt of women… and of earthly pleasures altogether as shows his autobiography titled Confessiones. In this theological key text he admits that before his conversion to Christianity in 385 he was a man who tasted life to the full. For over ten years he lived with a concubine (probably law forbade a formal marriage) and had a son with her, but in retrospect he regrets this sinful and immoral relationship because it kept him from true love of God. In Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine (also translated into English as The Same Flower) the Norwegian writer, philosopher and theologian Jostein Gaarder gave this abandoned woman a voice.

 

In 1995 in a second-hand bookshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jostein Gaarder comes across an old manuscript in a red box titled Codex Floriae. Its first sentence shows that it’s the letter of a certain Floria Aemilia to Augustinus Aurelius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius in Northern Africa (today: Algeria) who was later to become Saint Augustine. When he translates another sentence, it occurs to him that Floria Aemilia might be the saint’s long-time concubine whom he mentioned in his Confessiones without ever revealing her name. Of course, the author doesn’t know if the seventeenth-century copy is of an authentic letter, but it intrigues him that it might be and he buys it. Back home he makes a copy of the entire letter and sends the original to the Vatican Library for inspection. The Codex Floriae gets lost and the author decides to translate the Latin text from his copy and to publish it as Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine. So far in brief what Jostein Gaarder says in his introduction about the actual letter of Floria Aemilia that makes up the major part of the book.

 

As it soon turns out, the author was right to assume that Floria Aemilia is the concubine of Saint Augustine. The exceptionally intelligent and self-assured woman from Carthage read the Confessiones of her former lover and obviously felt the urgent need to comment on them, notably on the passages dealing with their life together in Northern Africa, Rome and eventually Milan and with the emotional bonds between them that he tries to reduce to sexual desire. But she doesn’t only give her point of view of events (sometimes drifting into bitterness or mockery seeing how religious frenzy distorted his memories and opinions). Thanks to thorough studies of philosophy, theology as well as rhetoric during the years since Augustine sent her back to Carthage, she is able to challenge his notions of (original) sin and morality with great dialectical skill. Above all, she can’t agree with his attitude towards women who are for him the seducers leading men astray from the way to God and Eternal Life. Augustine postulates that all pleasures on Earth are sinful and should be avoided in preparation of life after death, while Floria Aemilia is convinced that pleasures are God-given and that denying them means to deny God’s creation. She supports her arguments with many quotations from classical Greek and Roman sources that Jostein Gaarder points out and explains in footnotes if necessary for understanding.

 

All things considered, Vita Brevis. A Letter to Saint Augustine isn’t so much a book about Floria Aemilia than it’s about Saint Augustine, his biographical background and above all his philosophy that helped to marginalise women not only in the Christian Church, but in Christian society altogether for more than one and a half millennium. Alone for the critical examination of the Confessiones from a female point of view, it’s a worthwhile read. In addition, it’s well written and easy to follow despite the complex philosophical argument.

 

Many have wondered, if the Codex Floriae really exists or if the “feminist manifesto” of Floria Aemilia is an invention of Jostein Gaarder. As it seems, the author always refused to clearly answer the question. I think that the book is a gorgeous work of fiction.

 

Vita Brevis: A Letter to St Augustine - Jostein Gaarder 

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review 2017-01-04 14:10
The Moonlit Garden
The Moonlit Garden - Alison Layland,Corina Bomann

I listened to this one, narrated by  Justine Eyre. It was about 12 hours long, but it passed by quickly with this fun read. It's not particularly deep or magical and it doesn't call life as we know it into question.

It's a nice read/listen, light and intriguing for anyone in the mood for a little escape from the disappointments that have been abounding.

Funny enough, the only problems with the book are also reasons why I liked it. Lily Kaiser's journey is a little too convenient throughout the book but that can be just perfect sometimes. It can be exactly what I need to read or listen in order to balance out the pressure of the world.

So, yes, the book is a little too neat. The story a little too beautiful and coincidental and works a little too well, but I didn't mind it at all. Mostly because it was also written incredibly well. It moves between times, giving insight into Rose Gallway's life that Lily doesn't readily have and let's the reader piece some of it together on our own. I do enjoy that. And then the author lays it all out and it's just perfect. A little too perfect, like in one of those rom-coms that we watch to feel good but that we all know aren't the way the world works.

I really loved that about it. It's going to be one of my comfort books, to peruse when I'm down, maybe listen to when I wanna revel in new beginnings, like the mood I re-watch Stardust in. If you've read a few too many mysteries lately, or too many books that ripped your heart out (like I have recently), than this is the perfect book to recover with. It's comforting and sweet and romantic and doesn't take itself too seriously. But it's not the book for that serious deep read. Don't expect it to be.

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review 2016-12-29 03:14
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
The Murder of Halland - Pia Juul,Martin Aitken

Huh. This is a weird novella, from the perspective of a woman whose longtime partner is murdered. I hesitate to call it a mystery novel, since the mystery isn't really solved. The writing is fine and there's some decent characterization here, but in the end neither the events nor the characters nor their relationships made a lot of sense to me, and I wasn't quite sure why it ended where it did. I suppose that's a bit like life. This book didn't do much for me, but it's short enough to read in a sitting if you're interested.

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review 2016-10-06 11:00
The Decomposition of a Musical Brain: Ravel by Jean Echenoz
Ravel - Jean Echenoz,Linda Coverdale
Ravel - Jean Echenoz
Ravel - Jean Echenoz

There are melodies so unique that it’s enough to hear their first notes to know what is coming. Without doubt the Boléro by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is such a memorable piece of music. Although it’s a classical orchestra tune and not actually new – it premiered as a ballet in November 1928 –, virtually everybody knows it at least partly; most people will even remember the name of its French composer notwithstanding that they may never have heard any other work of his. After all, Ravel was celebrated already during his lifetime and his fame hasn’t faded since his tragic death following the desperate attempt to stop or even reverse his mental decline with brain surgery. But what kind of a man was Maurice Ravel apart from his compositions? In his short critically acclaimed biographical novel Ravel, which first appeared early in 2006, the French author Jean Echenoz evokes the last decade in the life of the musical genius starting with his 1928 grand tour of America.

 

Actually, Jean Echenoz set his unusual as well as comical opening scene of Ravel in the world-famous composer’s house in Montfort-l’Amaury that inspired him to write this almost completely fact-based biography in the first place. More precisely he shows the celebrated star in his bathtub on the morning of his departure for the USA on one of the last days of 1927 musing whether he should venture out of the warm water. It quickly becomes clear that Ravel is a bachelor who attaches such great importance to his appearance that it’s almost an obsession… and that it’s difficult for him to ever get ready on time. Moreover, his behaviour marks him as eccentric and inconsiderate. On this particular morning, for instance, he leaves his friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange waiting for him outside in her cold car for almost an hour and it doesn’t once occur to him that he could invite her in to warm up. When he finally emerges from the house, he is neat like a pin, the spit image of a – rather short and slightly old-fashioned – dandy in his early fifties on his way to the racecourse. Hélène takes him to Paris to make sure that the always-confused musical genius catches the special train to Le Havre where the steamer SS France is waiting to take him along with about two thousand others to New York. He is tired and grumpy because as so often insomnia has plagued him during the night, but he hopes that the six-week passage will be as good as a holiday for his strained nerves. Unfortunately, people recognise him, ask him for autographs or to play something. And insomnia doesn’t spare him, either. In New York begins an exhausting four-month concert tour crisscross America that Jean Echenoz skilfully traces without deviating unnecessarily from known facts. By the middle of the novel it’s late in April 1928 and the composer returns to France and his life continues as ever. He travels, attends concerts and mundane parties, smokes without end, but most importantly he writes the Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major. All the while, Ravel struggles with insomnia, boredom and indolence as the author shows at length and with the sly wit characteristic of him. After a car accident in October 1937, however, the humorous tone of the novel changes from major to minor key. Although the composer isn’t very seriously hurt, it’s from this moment that his mind increasingly fails him until he no longer knows how to write or to read and he not even recognises his own music. Doctors recommend a craniotomy as last treatment option. Ten days later the musical genius is gone.

 

Having read only a German edition of Ravel, it would be preposterous of me to comment on Jean Echenoz’s language and style although I think that unusually much of the original wit shines through in the translation by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel at my hand. Certainly, it’s a succeeded biography that makes skilful use of dry facts from the composer’s life setting them against the backdrop of his time to show the unique character of Maurice Ravel as his contemporaries have known and loved him. Moreover, the gifted narrator doesn’t depend on dialogue or extensive stream-of-consciousness to make the celebrated star appear as a human being with odd edges like everybody else instead of some kind of unearthly genius. It’s definitely a worthwhile read – not just for lovers of classical music.

 

 

Ravel - Jean Echenoz,Linda Coverdale 

Ravel - Jean Echenoz  

Ravel - Jean Echenoz  

 

 

If you’d like to read a work of fiction from the pen of Jean Echenoz, I recommend his 1999 novel Je m’en vais available under the English title I’m Off, but also brought out as I’m Gone. Click here to read my review on Edith’s Miscellany.

 

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url 2016-09-20 14:56
Top Ten Tuesday: Books I'm glad I listened to
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath,Maggie Gyllenhaal,HarperAudio
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness: A Novel - Shin Kyung-sook,Jung Ha-Yun
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People - Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman,Elaine Hedges
Euphoria: A Novel - Inc. Blackstone Audio, Inc.,Lily King,Xe Sands,Simon Vance
Etiquette & Espionage - Gail Carriger
Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter - Carmen Aguirre
Rising Strong - Deutschland Random House Audio,Brené Brown,Brené Brown
Girl in Translation - Jean Kwok,Grayce Wey,Penguin Audio
Dangerous Women - George R. R. Martin,Gardner Dozois,Scott Brick,Jonathan Frakes,Janis Ian,Stana Katic,Lee Meriwether,Emily Rankin,Harriet Walter,Jake Weber,Random House Audio

These are the top ten books I'm glad I listened to! I'm sure they would have nice to read too, but the narrators all these all added a little something to them. 

 

Check out the rest of the Broke and Bookish's TTT Audio Freebie!

 

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