Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Dirty Secret of Hosting Events--Reading Books at the Last Minute, on Rebecca Johns' The Countess Event This Saturday, October 16th, 2 PM.

Oh, I suppose the dirtier secret is not reading them at all.

I remember one of our event coordinator at Schwartz, who worked so hard to read the event books. The problem was that this person (no, I'm not even giving away gender) was always so far behind that the book would be read just before the event, and at that point, there was little he/she could do with the newfound knowledge of the book, except, perhaps, write a more splendid introduction. And that won't help me, as I am of the very short introduction school (to probably be discussed on a later post).

Recently having complained of my inability to read all the books beforehand (knowing there are at least some that even the author's don't expect me to read, though I have tried to struggle through several textbooks. What do I do when I get to the assignments?), someone (no gender!) from a substantially larger store sort of rolled eyes and said their event people hardly ever read the books.

I'm sure that person just said that to make me feel better.

That said, it's only two days until our event for Rebecca Johns, author of The Countess, her second published novel. Johns is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and is currently an assistant professor at DePaul.

It's a somewhat classic historical novel, but with a dark twist, almost hinted at with serial killer proportions. Countess (and I apologize in advance for any misspellings or missing accents, we're talking Hungarian) Erzsebet (most historical accounts translate her name to Elizabeth, but I am being loyal to Johns here, sans accent) Bathory was married at a young age to Ferenc, a well off soldier whose match united some economic interests. There was some issue with showing Erszebet affection, a little vieing for affection from other parties, the usual stuff.

The thing is that Erzsebet is telling the story from behind prison walls, accused of (and I'm not giving anything away here) murdering many of her servant girls. Now the problem is that servants at the time weren't necessarily serfs, though Erzebet saw them like that. Instead they were the children of slightly lower classes, relatives who'd fallen on hard times perhaps, who were looking for the mistress to find their child a decent match.

Now Erzsebet keeps order in her household, the same as any other countess. If servants are theiving, or cavorting with the boys, they must be punished. But she's been taught to be kind and just, like by making the maidens do their work naked for a day, in view of and facing the ridicule of all. Maybe rubbing honey on their skin to attract gnats. That sort of thing.

Ruthless or fair, truthful or not, worse than anybody else in the book or perhaps better, that's for you to determine, but in a way, it's just a reflection of what was going on in Hungary at the time. While Erzebet is struggling with her domestic concerns (and keeping hold of the family money and holdings), families are feuding, alliances are forming, insurrections are being quelled. It's a brutal time, and villainy, as it often is, becomes a matter of whether you are on the losing side.

Another interesting theme of the book that connects the inner and outer worlds is family as political and economic struggle. Relatives see marriages as a tieing together of economic interests, and it is really not unusual for family ties to be broken over money. When Erzsebet's friend/rival Griselda is stripped of her holdings by her own children and sent off to a nunnery, she's too poor to come to the wedding of one of Erzsebet's children, while Griselda's own daughters arrive in all their finery. Erzsebet has her own revenge there; she gives them crappy rooms. The inner workings of the estate mirror the outer workings of the continent.

So here's the real twist. In most historical accounts, Countess Bathory is compared to a real life vampire, a serial killer of epic proportions, perhaps even the inspiration for Dracula. Johns has a totally different take on it. In letting her tell the tale, or we hearing the words of a sociopath, or just one of history's victims? More than once, Erzsebet bemoans the fate of a woman without a man, and one sees how her panic on this subject good lead to an endless quest for beauty, at whatever the cost. But that's someone else's novel

Historical fiction does an easy genre to write in, though it seems to me it's easier than some genres (satire?, novellas?) to get a contract. Though many publishers try to launch with a bang, many authors build over several books, because word of mouth is key. And if you get a big launch and it doesn't take, you're stuck with that for your writing career.

I tried to bring in a few copies of John's first novel, Icebergs, but it's currently out of stock. It was only as I was reading the book that I recalled that Schwartz had an event with Johns for her first book, and that one of my coworkers really liked it. I do not recall the gender, but I do remember the book was finished in time to tell me before the event.

So perhaps you're up for a little historical fiction this Saturday at 2, maybe you just want to talk Hungary (I'm sure Johns has done a good amount of research) or celebrate Halloween early. Come visit us and hold court with The Countess.

Here's a Q&A from Reuters. And one of the more gruesome depictions I could find of the Countess.

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