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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 12, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


13th Tale, Political Mags, $100 Baby, Blue Chip

If you only read one or two books a year -- a Grisham, say, or a Mary Higgins Clark -- then The Thirteenth Tale is not for you.

This is a book for people who are in love with books. People who have skipped lunch so they could buy books. People who, when they move, leave their furniture behind but can't part with their books. People who pick up a tattered copy of an Austen or a Heinlein or a Christie or a Twain or a Goldman or a Brontë -- it doesn't matter the genre -- a book that has been much read and much loved, and open it anywhere and start to read and they feel as if they have just reconnected with an old friend.

Diane Setterfield's first novel -- her first! -- is narrated by Margaret Lea, a young woman who works in her father's bookshop, which contains her dearest friends: Her father and the books. But hers has not been as sheltered a life as one might think. She was still young when she discovered that she was not an only child, as she had thought. She was born a conjoined twin, and when they were separated, her sister died.

This tragedy explained things. It explained the half-moon-shaped scar on her side. It told her why her birthday was always celebrated in whispers between Margaret and her father, while her mother hid away with a headache -- her mother had never been able to get over her grief over the child who died, and so remains estranged and aloof from the daughter that lived.

It also explained why Margaret had always felt that she was not alone, that a twin waited just on the other side of every mirror, a girl exactly like herself, but always silent.

Margaret has taken, in recent years, to researching and writing slim biographies of little-known and nearly-forgotten writers. It is an obscure and unprofitable task, for few know of these writers and fewer care enough to read about them. But for Margaret, it is something of a rescue, a kindness to people who gave their lives to creating books and deserve to be celebrated, even if only by a small group of readers.

But it is because of this avocation that Margaret is summoned to the home of Vida Winter, the towering literary figure of the day. Winter is the kind of writer -- rare, too rare these days -- who at once thrills those with literary sophistication and those without it. Her stories are magical and vibrant, and when Margaret first read her books, she was nearly consumed by them, for Winter seemed to be able to tell her the secret dreams of her own heart. Her books were full, it would seem, of truth.

Yet mystery surrounds Vida Winter. First, there is the matter of her first book, a collection of unforgettable stories, entitled Thirteen Tales. The problem is that the book contains only twelve stories. Was the title meant to be an enigma, or is there a thirteenth tale?

The other mystery is Vida Winter's own life. Everyone who interviews her gets a different life story, each more extravagant than the last. It is clear that Winter is determined to divulge nothing about herself, responding to all inquiries with more fictions.

Until now. Margaret arrives to find that Vida Winter is terminally ill and wants, at last, to tell the truth. Her life story. And she wants Margaret Lea to be her biographer. But Margaret is skeptical. She does not want to be merely the latest in a long line of writers who were lied to by Vida Winter. She is determined to find out the true truth, as it were -- the stories behind the stories Vida Winter tells her every day, and which she transcribes every night.

This might sound like a tedious sort of story -- a boring person who listens to another boring person tell a boring story, page after page.

Instead, it is one of the most achingly sweet and terrible stories I have ever read, rich with unforgettable characters that can only be compared to those created by Mervyn Peake in his Gormenghast books -- or Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen. Or -- and this is clearly the touchstone of Setterfield's book -- Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

For this story is thick with character and event. Twins born of possible incest, who speak only to each other in an inscrutable twin-language and do terrible things without a hint of conscience. A governess who takes the household in hand, for good or ill; a doctor who is enlisted in a dangerous experiment; a gentle giant who haunts the ruins of a burnt-out mansion; an old housekeeper who, in her dotage, doesn't notice the filth that surrounds her; the old gardener who becomes, in the absence of any other, the father to the very girls who destroyed the topiary garden that was his reason for living; the gentle farmboy who offers a lonely girl the only love of her life.

The book is not one you can skim or skip your way through. Setterfield's style of writing is spare but reflective. She never tries to overawe you with her language, but her powers of observation are keen, and whether she is unveiling a landscape or a character's thoughts, we feel as though we are in the presence of someone who has seen Beauty and Truth and is eager to share it with us -- but all in good time.

I never thought I would say this about any contemporary writer, but Setterfield has created a book worthy of her literary forebears: A book to be set beside Austen's and the Brontës', or -- more recently -- Thomas Hardy's or William Faulkner's. She knows how to play the games of gothic romance, and those of contemporary literature as well -- we play with unreliable narrators (for various reasons) and veiled love stories, long-lost relatives and ancient scandals, ghosts and evil twins and family insanity and suicide and all the other stuff of melodrama.

Yet we receive it all through a luminous prose that inspires us with trust: All things will be revealed and explained, and in the end we will find that the story is painful, yes -- even tragic -- but also beautiful and true and joyful and fine.

I listened to the audio version of the book, with two fine readers, one for the voice of Margaret Lea, the other of Vida Winter. They preserve the Englishness of the language without being overwrought or exaggerated. But I also bought the book in hardcover and have read long passages of it to myself, and it works its magic either way.

Beware, though, of listening to it as you drive. You'll be so caught up in the world that you'll miss freeway exits (I did) and sit in your driveway to allow a chapter to end (I did) and make people wait outside your parked car as you listen to the last few moments because you can't bear to interrupt a glorious passage (I'm so sorry, Emily!).

If you know someone for whom books are a passion, give him or her The Thirteenth Tale as a gift this Christmas, either as a hardcover or a book on CD. It will be the best gift they receive. It will stay with them, as it stays with me, as something to be treasured.

And if you only read books now and then, maybe you want to give this one a try. Perhaps the only reason you haven't become a true devotee of reading is that you were waiting for this novel to open up the floodgates.

*

How do you know what's true, when the only sources we have for news are biased?

It's so easy to be frustrated when you see, for instance, the pre-election front-page above-the-fold placement of the story about the almost meaningless CIA report on Iraq and the recruitment of new terrorists, which proved nothing, but served to embarrass President Bush; while after the election, the jubilation of our enemies at the victory of the Democratic Party was placed on page three, which is the equivalent of making a news story stand in the corner until it can learn to behave.

How can you learn to see behind the news? Maybe spend your life reading the history of every era and nation and movement, as well as in-depth biographies of the people whose decisions shaped the world in every age. It takes time and knowledge to build perspective, to get a sense of which stories in today's news are likely to be nonsense and which might actually have some connection with reality. (Not that any amount of study can make you an infallible judge!)

But it's a little late for most of us to start on a program like that. So what we do is rely on those who have lived their lives that way. By reading the right magazines and journals, the ones that provide reliable, in-depth information, we can become far more informed about current events than the talking heads on the television.

Commentary, Atlantic Monthly, The Wilson Quarterly, and The New Yorker are periodicals that I have come to trust. Commentary is Jewish and conservative -- the home of the "neo-cons" that Democrats love to despise. The New Yorker is the drum major of the Left; its editorial pages are almost insanely anti-Bush. But both magazines transcend ideological bias when it comes to simple matters like fact-checking, and I have read important and truthful stories in the pages of both.

The nice thing about Commentary is that its letters section is better than the editorial pages of most magazines -- they give full voice to critics of their articles.

Wilson Quarterly and Atlantic are less ideological, though one might say Wilson leans a little right and Atlantic a bit more left; what matters is that both are willing to go wherever the story leads, even if it outrages people of one stripe or another. They give their writers the number of pages it takes to go far deeper than any television or newspaper writer is ever permitted to go.

There are other magazines that help round things out for me. I have long enjoyed The American Enterprise, though it is a bit triumphalist and doctrinaire for me -- there is no part of the conservative package that it doesn't embrace in every article, sometimes to the detriment of reliability. However, American Enterprise is downright dispassionate compared to Harper's, a flamingly liberal magazine that foams hatred of Bush out of every page -- but it's also funny and well-written and keeps me abreast of the more intelligent and stylish madnesses of the Left.

To this pantheon of periodicals I must add Claremont Review of Books: A Journal of Political Thought and Statesmanship. I've never seen it on a newsstand, but twice someone has kindly sent me a copy, and both times I found it to fall somewhere between Commentary and The American Enterprise. It is more doctrinaire in its conservatism than Commentary, but not so capitalism-happy as The American Enterprise, and from what I've seen it offers smart, insightful views of the world.

The Claremont Review of Books can be found at http://www.claremont.org. You can get a good sampling of the articles there, and if you click on Claremont Review of Books wherever it appears on the home page, it will take you to a page that offers to let you subscribe. It's only $14.95 a year for a folio-sized journal on newsprint. It's messy and awkward and well worth the bother.

*

Robert B. Parker's new Spenser novel, Hundred-Dollar Baby, is as brisk and clever as ever, but the story it tells is achingly sad. You can save people from external dangers -- sometimes, anyway -- but you can't save them from their own hungers and fears, if they refuse to learn or change. This novel doesn't quite take on the stature of tragedy, but you get a taste of the sorrow of a life badly lived, along with the nobility of other lives that are better spent. This is what novels are for: To tell the truth about ordinary people. It's also what romances are for: To show us heroes and help us believe they just might exist in the real world.

*

I was delighted to discover that Swoozie's in the new section of Friendly Center is now carrying far more bottles of their crisp, tiny chocolate chip cookies. This suggests that people are buying a lot of them. Keep it up, folks! If they're making money selling these cookies, they'll always carry them, which means I can always buy them.

But speaking of cookies -- a month or so ago I reviewed the cookies from Cheryl & Co., which are delicious and almost too rich to eat. I also mentioned that I had rediscovered Blue Chip Cookies online at http://www.bluechipcookies.com.

Well, I have generously made the great personal sacrifice and ordered a couple of batches of their chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles and I have to say, these are the greatest store-bought chocolate chip cookies in the world.

Even better than the very good prepacked refrigerated cookie dough from Nestle, though of course the Blue Chip cookies don't emerge fresh-baked from your oven. You have to decide what is most important to you!

The Blue Chip cookies really do taste as though somebody baked them, wrapped them up still warm, and shipped them off to you. Fresh. I must tell you that my wife finds them a little too sweet for her (and they are indeed sweeter than the little cookyettes from Swoozies) -- but she absolutely loves the Blue Chip snickerdoodles, as does my chocolate-hating twelve-year-old.

So when I order my packages from Blue Chip (the "my way" assortment), I always make them half chocolate-chip and half snickerdoodles. That means I get all the chocolate chip cookies and a third of the snickerdoodles. I am a happy, happy man.

Expensive? Oh, yes. But you have to set your priorities, folks. Do I get my kid the new Nintendo Wii, or myself another few boxes of Blue Chip cookies? Oh, this isn't even hard. The Wii probably won't be out in time for Christmas anyway.


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