Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Historian

I tried to read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova a few years ago, shortly after I had read Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it just didn't work for me. I can't put my finger on what I didn't like then, other than it being the wrong book at the wrong time.

Browsing the audio books at my library last month and wanting a little break from the 44 Scotland Street series that I had been listening to non-stop since discovering them this summer, I picked up the audio version of The Historian and am so glad I did.

I ended up liking it quite a bit--it's not the best book I've experienced this year, nor is it as good as the original Dracula--but it was interesting with intriguing characters and good plots twists. The exotic locations and macabre tone was perfect moving into the autumn months and definitely put me in the mood for Halloween. I found interesting and a tad nostalgic the parts of the story that took place in Communist eastern Europe. When I was a teenager, Communist spies were a dime a dozen--it was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra would say, to have them back as the bad guys.

When I started it before, I thought the girl who does the initial narration of the story would be the main character, but I was pleased to spend more time in the company of her father, mother, and Professor Rossi as I found them and their time period and story more interesting than hers. I enjoy multiple character narrations, and thought Kostova did a good job of weaving the stories together.

I'm not sure that I would like reading it, however. In the audio version, different actors played the different characters so it was easy to tell who was narrating/talking/thinking. I'm not so sure it would be this easy on paper as Kostova didn't seem to use many dialogue tags and other conventions in story-telling to keep voices straight. The other thing about listening versus reading--you cannot skim for plot and so all the cliches in less than stellar writing are given full voice (e.g., I got quite tired of hearing about people staring at each other or things for "a long moment" and often the subtlest expressions in a person's eyes were described in what felt like excruciating detail).

But I'm quibbling--the story was fun. Loved the fact that most of the action took place in libraries and that books were the vehicles for communicating across the ages, which for a reader is really what it's all about, isn't it?

I know it's all the rage these days to paint vampires as sexy, seductive, even lovable creatures in their own dark way. I liked that Kostova kept her Dracula true to Stoker's monstrous archetype both physically and emotionally--after all selfishness, gluttony, and avarice are the monstrous attributes given form in this meta-vampire.

One more quibble before I end, however. I never did understand why all the characters kept on being thwarted in their attempts, early on, to get a copy of Stoker's Dracula. It was spooky, but in the end, I didn't see the point of this. That's a downside to listening instead of reading--you can't go back and reread a puzzling section.


  1. The Historian is one of those books that is really let down by the ending, very rushed and not very feasible,I felt. I loved the descriptions of the Eastern European countries, but I hated the revelation of why Professor Rossi lost his memory - that really made no sense at all to me.

    And yes, the action really does take place in libraries - this vampire really does have an inordinate fondness for librarians!

  2. I have very mixed feelings about the onslaught of vampire books out there. I loved Dracula, which I read several times in school, but these modern, Twilight styled vampires are not at all to my liking. It's always good to hear that people are still writing about real vampires - you know, the kind that are predatory yet still sympathetic. I'll look for the audio when I'm next heading out on a road trip. The library setting is very appealing.

  3. This sounds like a good book to listen to. I don't think my library has it, but perhaps I can order it from another library. It does sound like a fun story.

  4. I read The Historian 4 years ago before I started my blog. At that time I just noted down very brief remarks and for this book I wrote 'OK - long'! My memory is that I found it a bit tedious in parts but I liked it.

    It's interesting you liked the audiobook version rather than the book. Maybe the readers brought it more to life?