Icy Stockholm Octavo a Great Read in any Weather

The Stockholm Octavo. Karen Engelmann. 2012: Ecco. ISBN: 9780061995347.

* * * *

It may be summertime, but Karen Engelmann’s wintry The Stockholm Octavo makes for a delicious page-turning beach read.

The year is 1789 and if that date sounds familiar, it’s year one of the French Revolution. King Louis XVI has just been deposed, an event that has all of Europe talking–even in faraway Stockholm, where Engelmann’s tale is set. It’s quite the topic of conversation in Sofia Sparrow’s gambling parlor if, for no other reason, Sweden is also riven between monarchists and erstwhile republicans. Mrs. Sparrow is a staunch defender of tradition and monarchy; she’s also an odd bird–a mysterious woman of faded elegance whose establishment falls into the tolerated-but-not-quite-legal category. She also reads Tarot cards and counts Sweden’s King Gustav III among her confidants.

As even the most casual student of history knows, the French Revolution was not confined to France. Before the dust settled, all of Europe was at war. In some places, aristocrats were strengthened; in others, they tumbled from power and grace. Most nobles understood that, in one way or another, their fates lay in the restoration of Louis to power. Plots were hatched in every palace in Europe, including Stockholm.

But this isn’t a novel about politics per se; it’s really a power struggle between Sparrow and a pretentious woman nicknamed The Uzanne, who wants Gustav off the throne and his brother (her lover) in power and not because she finds him a dynamic bedmate. The Uzanne is the fashionable woman we presume Sparrow once was; she’s rich, attractive, and the very soul of womanly arts. In those days, this involved how to use fans to one’s social advantage. The Uzanne not only knows how to encode messages in how she holds her fan; she also possesses Sweden’s largest and most valuable collection of them, including a favorite she loses to Sparrow at the card table. Every fashionable young woman in Stockholm wants to learn the art of the fan from the Uzanne, but are they her pupils or are they accomplices in something more sinister?

The monkey in the middle is Emil Larsson, a carefree playboy and ambitious low-level government bureaucrat (sekretaire) whom Sparrow takes under her tutelage. She lays out an octavo, an eight-card Tarot configuration, which is allegedly Emil’s key to fortune and happiness. All he has to do is figure out who plays the various roles foreseen in the cards (Companion, Trickster, Teacher, etc.). Larsson soon learns that his octavo and Sparrow’s are intertwined and that his personal path is strewn with danger and intrigue involving, among others, false loves, a female apothecary, and a family of fan makers. What is in play? Black magic, or something earthly but more evil?

The Stockholm Octavo is, at base, a complex mystery. It is exceedingly well written, pays meticulous attention to detail, and unveils a cast of unforgettable characters (both major and minor). You’ll want to learn more about late 18th century Sweden, and I’ll guarantee you’ll never again think of Tarot cards or fans the same way.--Rob Weir


Oana Cataline Chitu: Romania's New Edith Piaf

CD-Arts 3913
* * * *

Maria Tănase (1913-63) was sometimes called the “Edith Piaf of Romania.” Like Piaf, she was a diva in the best sense, a singer that mined her nations various influences–gypsy, jazz, cabaret, tango, folk melodies…. Although the soulless apparatchiks labeled her decadent and tried to silence her, Romanians flocked to her funeral in 1963 and mourned her passing. All of this is to say that mortals don’t meddle with her repertoire. Enter the heavenly voice of Oana Cătălina Chiţu, Romanian-born and now a resident of Berlin. Chiţu wends her way through a dozen Tănase favorites by both evoking her idol and by hitting the refresh button. She masters silly songs such as “Train, Little Train,” wrenches emotion from soulful lamentations such as “Oh World, Oh World,” is giddy with café-style love in “If I Hadn’t Met You,” and fans the flames of torchy selections such as “I’ve Put Sweet Basil in My Hair.” Then there are the songs on which Chiţu puts her own stamp. “Pe Vale” has a honky tonk feel that’s more Patsy Cline than Maria Tănase,  “You Have No Idea” is a sexy tango reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich, and “He Who Loves and Runs Away” establishes an experimental and discordant base from which to launch Chiţu’s cover of Tănase’s done-her-wrong song

This is a brilliant album for which much of the credit should go to the amazing musicians assembled. Special shout outs go to violinist Slavici Anton, saxophonist Vladimir Karparov, and accordionist Dejean Jovanovic. But above all, there is Chiţu. She is the equal to any jazz diva on the planet and has considerably more spunk than most of them. This is a tribute album, but it’s also primal, exuberant, and original. --Rob Weir

Here's a YouTube sample of Chitu's singing. 


Sexism and Religion: A (Conceptual) Illusion with No Future?

Alas, this bumper sticker is all too apt.

In 1927, Sigmund Freud penned his classic take-down of religion, The Future on an Illusion. Freud was an avowed atheist and he saw all faith as a form of infantilization, with God playing the role of a collective father in a society that refused to grow up. Much as a single child must symbolically slay his parents to develop his independent identity, so too must society cast off suspicion, dogma, and myth to take charge of its destiny. (To be fair, Freud did see some usefulness in religion, though he thought all faith was bunk.)

I lack Freud’s certainty over such matters, but he may be correct in ways he never anticipated insofar as organized religion goes. Several recent incidents–all related to the enduring sexism of religion–suggest that the women of the world may unite and abandon churches, mosques, and synagogues. If this happens, the center will not hold. The historical record has been very clear: although men have, for centuries, dominated the ranks of theology and leadership, women have made up congregations in much higher numbers than men. It has been their lay work that has sustained religious institutions, both ideologically in the sense of proselytizing family members, and financially in the sense of raising money to support religious infrastructure. Take women out of the equation and you will see a generation of priests, mullahs, and rabbis preaching to empty buildings.

If you want to see an institution that’s woefully mired in the past, take a trip to the Vatican. It’s impressive and contains priceless art, but it has all the future promise of a mausoleum, which is what it essentially is. (The new pope, Francis I, refuses to live in an opulent apartment and has opted for voluntary simplicity in his quarters. Good for him, but is it enough?) Can’t afford a trip to Rome? Take a look in your own town at the former monuments to male vanity being desacralized and put on the market for lack of congregations. The same thing is happening with many Protestant churches. Why? One reason might be that the male leadership of these places spends more time with rightwing politics and anti-abortion movements than with pastoral care.

The recent assaults on women’s right to choose in states such as Indiana and Texas are testament to the refusal of men to respect women’s minds, bodies, equality, or rights. And excuse me if I think that the Catholic Church, which is yet to take full responsibility for decades of child molestation, simply lacks the moral authority to lecture anyone on the sanctity of life. Many male Protestant leaders are even worse; they think communion wafers ought to have G.O.P. elephants embossed on them. All of them wonder why so many women have been leaving the church. And they are–at the rate of about 50,000 per year in England and even higher numbers in the United States. Women also vote for the Democrats in much higher numbers in America. Think that might be because a lot of them figure that supporting organized religion or the Republican Party is akin to having unprotected sex with partners they despise?

Judaism has also struggled with sexism, as recent assaults on women attempting to pray at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall attests. I’ll give Judaism credit for studying the problem to a far greater degree than Christians, but Orthodox Judaism is still pretty bleak for women. A new generation of female rabbis, mostly among Reform and (often inaptly named) Conservative Jews has taken up the task of putting a more female-friendly reading on the Torah, but this remains a work in progress and, one must face it, the Old Testament is a deeply patriarchal work. Female Jews could hardly be heartened by a recent lecture from a Manhattan rabbi telling them to have more babies. Is this a problem? According to data collected by a Harris poll, just 16% of American Jews attend synagogue and nearly half doubt the existence of God. Ouch!

It needs to be said, though, that Christian and Jewish sexists are practically devotees of Betty Friedan in comparison to the sexist cesspool that is modern Islam. Here’s a statement that speaks volumes: the most articulate voice in the Muslim world in support of human rights is a sixteen-year-old girl. That would be Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban for the perceived blasphemy of going to school. She has become an advocate for women’s education and for tolerance, the latter commodity in short supply among the male Islamists who dominate the headlines. Are they a minority? One would hope so, but where the male Muslim voices to counter those of the Taliban and its ilk? Why do we see young men carrying Kalashnikovs instead of exposing terror networks? Why do Muslim men take out their anger on Muslim women? What important male Muslim leaders speak on behalf of women in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq? Moreover–as this blog pointed out months ago–the Syrian opposition to Assad is now busy killing each other–in the name of Al Qaeda versions of Islam. Call it a vision of a veiled Syria.

Was Freud right about the need for society to put aside childish beliefs? I don’t know about that–it still seems to me that personal faith can produce true beauty, astonishing acts of selflessness, and powerful moral voices. But the loudest voices simply cannot be ones of hatred or sexism if the faiths they represent are to remain relevant. Mao Zedong famously observed, “Women hold up half the sky.” It wouldn’t be the world’s greatest tragedy if they put down that burden and let the planets tumble down upon the heads of arrogant male religious leaders.