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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (3/100)

FYI, I’m blogging my way through what I hope to be 100 books read in 2020.

I really enjoyed listening to The Night Circus on audiobook so when Erin Morgenstern’s new novel The Starless Sea came out I figured why not go with the same format. My reward?An enchanting, mythical, romantic and adventure filled story about stories. Rich with characters, world building, and storytelling of the highest order.

Publishers Description:

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues—a bee, a key, and a sword—that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library hidden far below the surface of the earth. What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians—it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also of those who are intent on its destruction. Together with Mirabel, a fierce, pink-haired protector of the place, and Dorian, a handsome, barefoot man with shifting alliances, Zachary travels the twisting tunnels, darkened stairwells, crowded ballrooms, and sweetly soaked shores of this magical world, discovering his purpose—in both the mysterious book and in his own life.

As noted, I started with audiobook, which I listened to in the car, but I had to read it when I wasn’t driving because I was so enthralled with the writing, story and characters. Having read some of the reviews, I will admit I am open to the idea that the audio version is the more engaging one.

After all, it is a story about stories. And what better way to get sucked into a story is to have it told to you complete with characters, voices, and all that modern audiobooks provide? Now, granted not all audiobooks pull you in and hold your attention but great storytelling with audio production values can really work.

Once I was sucked into the story, I quickly found myself reading the Kindle version when I wasn’t in the car. But I listened to the vast majority of the book.

Here is what I wrote about The Night Circus:

Morgenstern builds her world slowly and at first you might be tempted to ask “Where is all this going and what does it mean?” But the details are worth reading even as the world begins to come together.  And even as you know in some important ways what will happen you are carried along increasingly pulled into how it will happen and what the ramifications will be for these future events.  And just as you begin to get a sense of understanding all of the intertwining threads Morgenstern begins to pull at these threads and reveal more in the unraveling.

And there is a sense that the details are more important than the larger picture. If you are looking for intellectual or philosophical depth or coherence I am not sure you will find it. Instead, it works best if you can lose yourself in the details.

I think that is equally true for The Starless Sea.

Unwitting Wisdom : An Anthology of Aesop's Fables by Helen Ward

Want to know how much of a book addict I am? I found a copy of Unwitting Wisdom : An Anthology of Aesop’s Fables by Helen Ward at Half Price Books for a dollar and even though I already have a copy I bought it anyway  It is simply too gorgeous of a book to pass up for a dollar. I will give it to someone as a gift.

Finding the book today inspired me to share it with you.  If you haven’t seen this beautiful work of art and literature I encourage you to seek it out.

For over 2,500 years the simple stories and wry humor of Aesop’s fables have entertained children and adults alike. Their lessons have seeped into the very fabric of our language, as evidenced by expressions such as “sour grapes” and “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Through the centuries many artists have risen to the challenge of interpreting their favorite tales. In this magnificent edition, award-winning illustrator Helen Ward has chosen a dozen of her favorite fables, painstakingly creating with words and breathtaking watercolors a dazzling new collection destined to become a classic.

I loved this book from the moment I saw it in the book store. And I remember reading it to my daughter when she was a baby.  It is a wonderful combination of illustrations and storytelling. The blurb above really doesn’t exaggerate about “creating with words and breathtaking watercolors a dazzling new collection destined to become a classic.”

This is a great book for story time, for just leafing through and enjoying the gorgeous illustrations or for reading on a quiet afternoon to appreciate the timeless stories.

For a taste of the illustrations see below.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang

One of the ways I attempt to prevent my book addiction from bankrupting me is by picking up books at library sales and clearance sections.  You get the job of buying a book with a lot lower cost.

One such pick-up was The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang.  Seemed like a good fit for me: short novella set in exotic location with a philosophical/religious bent.

Here is the blurb:

Cover of "The Merchant and the Alchemist'...

Cover of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

In medieval Baghdad, a penniless man is brought before the most powerful man in the world, the caliph himself, to tell his story. It begins with a walk in the bazaar, but soon grows into a tale unlike any other told in the caliph’s empire. It’s a story that includes not just buried treasure and a band of thieves, but also men haunted by their past and others trapped by their future; it includes not just a beloved wife and a veiled seductress, but also long journeys taken by caravan and even longer ones taken with a single step. Above all, it’s a story about recognizing the will of Allah and accepting it, no matter what form it takes.

And it turned out to be  an elegant and engaging story which brings either a sense of fatalism or deep faith in Allah depending on your perspective. I like the way PW describes it “Half lyrical Arabian Nights legend and half old school cautionary SF [science fiction] tale.” A graceful and lyrical read.

It has that wonderful sense of being a story passed down in the oral tradition; the kind of story you might hear told by a family patriarch late at night.  You have to admire Chiang for the graceful mixing of traditional forms and elements with a sci-fi hook.  And obviously, you don’t have to be Muslim to appreciate the mediation on fate.  Whether you finding it comforting or fatalistic is itself an interesting insight into your perspective and mindset.  Certainly worth the short period of time it takes to read this slim volume.

I would mark this a another gem in a long list of list of library sale finds.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang

One of the ways I attempt to prevent my book addiction from bankrupting me is by picking up books at library sales and clearance sections.  You get the job of buying a book with a lot lower cost.

One such pick-up was The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang.  Seemed like a good fit for me: short novella set in exotic location with a philosophical/religious bent.

Here is the blurb:

Cover of "The Merchant and the Alchemist'...

Cover of The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate

In medieval Baghdad, a penniless man is brought before the most powerful man in the world, the caliph himself, to tell his story. It begins with a walk in the bazaar, but soon grows into a tale unlike any other told in the caliph’s empire. It’s a story that includes not just buried treasure and a band of thieves, but also men haunted by their past and others trapped by their future; it includes not just a beloved wife and a veiled seductress, but also long journeys taken by caravan and even longer ones taken with a single step. Above all, it’s a story about recognizing the will of Allah and accepting it, no matter what form it takes.

And it turned out to be  an elegant and engaging story which brings either a sense of fatalism or deep faith in Allah depending on your perspective. I like the way PW describes it “Half lyrical Arabian Nights legend and half old school cautionary SF [science fiction] tale.” A graceful and lyrical read.

It has that wonderful sense of being a story passed down in the oral tradition; the kind of story you might hear told by a family patriarch late at night.  You have to admire Chiang for the graceful mixing of traditional forms and elements with a sci-fi hook.  And obviously, you don’t have to be Muslim to appreciate the mediation on fate.  Whether you finding it comforting or fatalistic is itself an interesting insight into your perspective and mindset.  Certainly worth the short period of time it takes to read this slim volume.

I would mark this a another gem in a long list of list of library sale finds.

Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto by Gianni Rodari, Antony Shugaar (Translator)

I first heard about Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto from Shelf Awareness and decided to pick it up on Kindle.  I was unaware of the book’s history – this is the first English translation of what has been labeled  “one of Italy’s most beloved fables” – but something about it intrigued me (lighthearted, fables, young adult, etc.).  It turned out to be an easy read and rather witty in places but somewhat inexplicable as well – but fables often have this quality I suppose.  The line drawings add to the silly and almost absurd feel.

A modern fable for children and adults: a story of one man’s quest for eternal life and how finds it in the most extraordinary of ways—in the grand tradition of Saint-Exúpery’s The Little Prince

When we first meet 93-year-old millionaire Baron Lamberto, he has been diagnosed with 24 life-threatening ailments—one for each of the 24 banks he owns! But when he takes the advice of an Egyptian mystic and hires servants to chant his name over and over again, he seems to not only get better, but younger.

Except then a terrorist group lays siege to his island villa, his team of bank managers has to be bussed in to help with the ransom negotiations, and a media spectacle breaks out . . .

A hilarious and strangely moving tale that seems ripped from the headlines—although actually written during the time the Red Brigades were terrorizing Italy—Gianni Rodari’s Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto has become one of Italy’s most beloved fables. Never before translated into English, it’s a reminder, as Rodari writes, that “there are things that only happen in fairytales.”

What makes the story interesting is adroit blending of the all too believable with the incredible – the fabulism and humor blended with the more serious aspects like media spectacles  and the threat of terrorism. The characters interact in humorous but totally believable and understandable ways. We recognize the stock type characters (dedicated butler, lazy but greedy nephew, board of directors and their secretaries, and the townspeople) and enjoy the humor of Lord Lamberto’s new-found youth.

When the band of Lamberto’s take over the island and issue their demands the story takes a turn toward the even more incredible but at the same time very serious.

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