Vulcan’s Peak

Book log: Prisoner of Trebekistan and
The Thirteenth Tale

November 2, 2009 10:10 pm

thirteenth-tale
At first glance, a more unlikely pair of re-reads would be hard to find.

The Thirteenth Tale is very much a reader’s story, a book for people who love books — and in this case, old books in particular.  It’s the sort of tale in which you know your heroes by how much they love to read.  The narrator, Margaret Lea, lives above the antiquarian bookstore that she and her father run.  An amateur biographer, she is prevailed upon to write the life story of a famous novelist called Vida Winter.

trebekistanPrisoner of Trebekistan, as the cover makes immediately clear, is about Jeopardy.  And while it includes a range of tips and tricks for memorizing anything from books by Daniel Defoe to Secretaries General of the U.N., it’s more a memoir than anything else.  Bob Harris writes about the role Jeopardy has played in his life and the games he has played on the show.  But in between “Who is Henry James?” and “What is Avignon?” Trebekistan develops into a book about Harris’s life and the people in it, the joy of learning and how full the world is of unexpected connections.

That’s what he means by Trebekistan, actually: a wold view that sees how bits of seeming trivia connect because of a shared location or time in history or an unexpected acquaintance between two famous dead people.  It’s Six Degrees of Separation played with a liberal arts curriculum.  And if that starts to sound a little weighty, let me tell you that Harris is a comedian.  This one I borrowed it from my brother in September and read it on the plane.  It’s been sitting on my desk since then, so inevitably I picked it back up.  I’ve skimmed some of the memory trick paragraphs this time, but otherwise it’s entirely re-readable.  This is a clever, funny, heartwarming book.

Perhaps it was Trebekistan’s light cheerfulness that sent me back to the shelf for The Thirteenth Tale.  With Halloween approaching I felt the need for a book of ghost stories, or perhaps Dad’s collection of classic tales of suspense.  Short of Hamlet and Nearly Headless Nick, I didn’t see any ghosts in our bookcases, but I did remember that The Thirteenth Tale was full of an atmospheric creepiness.  Vida Winter’s bizarre biography contains obsession, madness, and an understaffed Gothic mansion in which a few survivors rattle around — possibly with the company of a ghost.  Intent on proving that the unreliable Miss Winter is telling the truth, Margaret delves into these mysteries while also trying to reconcile her own personal tragedy.  As it takes place in November and December, the setting is very bleak midwinter-y and it made a great read for a quiet Halloween weekend.  Better still, since I’d read it only once, a couple of years ago, I didn’t remember all of the plot twists — but it would have been worth re-reading even if I had, as the prose is just beautiful.

The point of comparison that jumped out after reading these books at the same time was the way they deal with the passage of time, foreshadowing, and generally jumping ahead of the story.  Harris makes an art of jumping from his story to his childhood to his present self, writing in a coffee shop, to a mention of something later in the story.  “But I’m getting ahead of myself,” he says, carefully parceling out just enough to leave a few hints.  He introduces his friends before he meets them, sometimes, noting that they’ll become important later on.  Sometimes an anecdote that happened later the perfect introduction to something the reader ought to know sooner (what to call the buzzer is a particularly good one).  And eventually he lets us know that we’re at last getting very close to meeting his very best friend properly, someone he’s mentioned off and on since page 21.  It’s a handy device for a memoirist to have in his pocket, and Harris is conscious enough of it to turn jokes around it.  It’s fun, and it’s exactly the sort of thing Vida Winter doesn’t want anything to do with in The Thirteenth Tale.

A dying woman haunted by her past, Miss Winter wants to tell her story straight through, from beginning to end.  Margaret agrees, but insists on first getting three facts she can check through public records, something to insure that Miss Winters isn’t giving her the sort of fairy tale biography she gave reporters throughout her career.  And of course it’s in the checking of those facts that Margaret gets the  hints that help her piece together what Vida Winters isn’t telling her, and even what Vida Winter doesn’t know.

And if The Thirteenth Tale is haunted, then Trebekistan contains an Easter Egg hunt — with the slight irony that Harris jokes about being unable to slip a DVD-style Easter Egg into a book, yet after a fashion, that’s exactly what he does.

From her first appearance on page 21, Harris drops hints about the woman he refers to simply as Jane.  Jobs she once held, shows she used to write for.  The Hugo she won.  And when he introduces her properly, Whedon fans will have no trouble figuring out exactly who she is, why I discovered this book through a blog I used to read, and by extension why there’s a blurb from Joss on the back cover.

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The Thirteenth Tale

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