Mary Gordon brings Joan to life with a novelist's rich understanding of character. She does more than tell Joan's story, she explores Joan's mystery, the contradictions and secret desires that propelled her from obscurity to glory.
©2000 Mary Gordon; (P)2000 Books on Tape, Inc.
"One would expect nothing less from Gordon than a splendid, spare account of Joan's life, and she delivers in this slender but satisfying account." (Publishers Weekly)
This book is a great listen. The author succeeds in bringing you into some version of the historical present of the early 1400s in France, & into a speculative but ultimately quite plausible view of Joan of Arc's own mind over the course of her very very short career. She is helped by an abundance of documentary evidence about "the maiden" warrior, much of it from her interrogation & trial, & a bit more from her reaffirmation 25-30 years after her execution. The book lacks the "drama" I recall from film & childrens' book treatments of Joan of Arc that were current in my childhood. But like many things of this kind, the real drama of her life & times is geometrically more interesting & compelling than the distorted portraits in the popular biography realm. I came away from the book feeling that I had "understood" Joan through her intense adolescent passions, manifested in religious ferocity & a peculiar sort of patriotism. But also seeing the complexity & contradiction always present in adolescent passions that helps explain some of the documentary evidence about what happened to her (especially once she was imprisoned & being interrogated). The odd thing about these short-biographies is that I always finish wanting to know more & a bit disappointed with the priority choices the authors must make to keep the volumes within prescribed length. In this volume, the author chose to shortchange the reader on the historico-political context, in my view, & to then include an extended analysis toward the end about how later writers interpreted & distorted the real story. But that section was interesting even though I would have preferred something else. I would advise the prospective reader that even if you are not particularly interested in learning about Joan of Arc, you will still enjoy the book & be happy in the end that you learned about her life & times.
Mary Gordon has written a fresh, clear, and concise biography of Joan of Arc. Joan appears here as a real person, a young girl with a tendency to boastfulness and rashness, but who had an undeniably charismatic effect on the people around her. And she appears as a person who truly suffered: Gordon doesn't spare us the painful details of Joan's imprisonment, trial and execution. (One of the hardest passages for me describes the outrage that immediately followed her death: the executioners beat the flames away when they were sure she was dead but still recognizable; by then her clothes had burned off, and the crowds were allowed to view her charred and naked body. Only after they'd had their fill was the fire restarted and the body finally consumed to ash. As Gordon asks: if she'd been a man, would she have been subjected to this final humiliation?)
In a couple of brief closing chapters, Gordon carries the story forward to Joan's canonization and her appearance in various films and plays from Shakespeare to Leelee Sobieski.
Unfortunately this wonderful book is spoiled as an audiobook by the narrator's inability to pronounce proper names. She seems to be using a mix of French consonants and German vowels for many of the names; others seem to be following rules only she is privy to. For example - to pick a couple of the more grating ones - she pronounces the word Dauphin as daw-FEEN; and perfectly good English words like Burgundian are given a pseudo-French inflection at the end. (I'm not an expert on this, but given that Burgundy in French is actually "Bourgogne", I think "Burgundian" really is an English term and should be spoken as such.) This isn't just being picky. The net effect is to make many of the already difficult names completely incomprehensible to the listener.
If you can get past that, by all means get the audiobook. I gave up and bought the actual book, something I've only ever done once before that I can recall.
I enjoyed the book, which is of good quality in both content and style, but was really appalled at how consistently the reader mispronounced the name of every person, place and thing not in modern English.
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