Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios
by J. S. Anderson
The first of a trilogy
Brother Alphaios, a cloistered monk in brown habit and rope belt, is brought from Italy to an American city to illuminate and restore an extraordinary, long-lost medieval book of hours. Compelled to work outside the cloister for the first time, he bends his vows to explore the city and its inhabitants, including a man starving to death in a sumptuous art deco flat, a brash woman bar owner who is a both a former ironworker and opera aficionado, and demonic Mad Old George. His brothers at St. Ambrose Monastery, their outlook frayed by a lifetime of the city’s noise and grit and shadow, question both Alphaios’s faith and skill as an illuminator. The city captures his spirit, and he increasingly finds his brothers’ crimped search for salvation dour and uncharitable. Meanwhile, the book of hours is so badly damaged that Brother Alphaios and archivist Inaki Arriaga must explore the great cultural and religious storms of the Middle Ages to solve both the mystery of its origin, and why such a beautiful work of art was kept hidden from the world for nearly six hundred years.
SEE EXCERPTS BELOW
Buy this book:
Your book is stunningly beautiful. The weaving of this story reminded me of an old great weaver, Harold Robbins. Your story was artful, intelligent, humorous, suspenseful, romantic and loving. I can’t think you enough for this great read. I walked the streets with Brother Alphaios, smelled the city, sat in a coffee shop sipping my coffee and embraced this marvelous, colorful adventure. Such an exciting book to read. It was a surprise gift and resides among my favorites. I want more! Brother Alphaios can travel the world. I’m thinking maybe he should take a trip to Israel next. Thank you. DG
I find your style very engaging and your approach to telling this story quite captivating . . . it comes across an as an intelligent, engrossing story that I feel like as I reader I could really get happily lost in. But it also comes across as quietly plotted and very character driven, which sadly isn’t always a good thing in the eyes of agents these days. On the other hand, there’s a terrific sense of atmosphere in the writing and also an assuredness to the storytelling that I think will get you taken seriously…. Ross Browne, President and CEO, The Editorial Department
What a wonderful story! I have to tell you the subject is one I would have never found interesting previously, but you made it so! I couldn’t put it down. So well written, researched and explained. Your obvious love for the subject matter created a fascinating story. Hope you can handle the “gushing” because I just had to tell you how much I loved “The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios!” I have a new appreciation for the talent and patience that went into the creation of ancient books. MB
Editor’s Blog Post
By the time I was a few chapters into the book, I was convinced that the author had been a cloistered monk whose monastic duties included restoring the illuminations of antique manuscripts—just like his protagonist. This is what I mean by an authentic voice. Even if readers know nothing of the author’s background, they feel they’re listening to someone who knows what he’s talking about, and that even if the story is fiction, it’s true to life.
…Like Hemingway, Anderson doesn’t dwell on the tools of the trade but concentrates on his protagonist’s intent and how he plans meticulously to achieve it.
Authenticity seems to have more to do with the characters’ involvement in the setting and props than with the author’s factual knowledge of them. Peter Gelfan, Editor, www.editorialdepartment.com
Reviews on amazon.com
An Interesting Read, Well Written. Anderson made the book come to life with his great use of description. Editing was near-perfect, a rare treat these days. I enjoyed reading this book and am waiting for the next installment. PAN
A fun read. An engaging glimpse of monastic life as well as the world of art and book restoration. …a delightful first novel. With transparent prose he immerses us in the world of a monk transported to a city in the United States…. DR
A great read. Really liked this book, it was a fast read for me…. MD
An enchanting journey of discovery into the realms of power and justice, relationships, problem solving and accomplishment. Brother Alphaios is treated with a tender touch….The historic characters and those of present day are colorful and vividly brought to the imagination of the reader….The book cover art and design by Guilherme Gustavo Condeixa are a brilliant display of talent in its own right and a complement to Anderson’s integrity in pursuit of this exemplary book. The story was attractive to me on levels of personal interest: art history, European history, architecture, and curbside people watching allowing time for reflection. DL
Very interesting character, Brother Alphaios. Author did a lot of research…I really related to Brother Alphaios reaction to a large city after 30 years in a Monastery. Fun read. AWA
A multi-faceted book that left me wanting more. Very vivid pictures were developed in my mind with the author’s rich descriptions. ECW
Good read. The book was a little slow getting started, but I fell in love with Brother Alphaios, the humble monk and could not put the book down…. SW
Outstanding read!!!! This first novel is an outstanding read. Plot and characters well developed and believable; historical information woven into the plot in a compelling manner…J
I’m ready for a next installment. It is obvious that J.S. Anderson likes words and likes to challenge others…. It was the author’s chutzpah in trusting that I’d be interested enough in his story to want to spend so much effort looking up new terms in order to follow his tale…let alone then recommending this exercise to others! I found it worth accepting the challenge….I wanted to see the paintings, smell and taste the bread, hear the noises of the city and the quiet of the monastery, and feel for myself the softness of the sable brush….The ending of this book to me seemed like sort of a subtle explosion. I didn’t expect it. MA
A Vivid, Unusual Book. I especially enjoyed reading his encounters through his eyes, those of a naïve monk. The author has a style of writing that is a rich tapestry of description….The explosion of described colors made a permanent impression on me….It was an educational and unusual read. DMO
Beguilement, Indeed. Book of Hours: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, is a wonderful read; in fact it is beguiling in every sense of the word….Brother Alphaios defamiliarizes places that we Americans take for granted….Along with the series of mysteries, universal and human, Brother Alphaios beguiles us, like Keats, with the beauty of his vision. The author… provides Brother Alphaios with a love of music that asks us to revisit Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and think of the sounds as they relate to a great American city and its people….Furthermore, he offers historical and geographical insight to the medieval European monasteries and mystery after mystery that we, through Brother Alphaios, are tasked with solving. Literati
Reviews on barnesandnoble.com
A multifaceted book, rich in description and thought. Anon
He lifted the edges of the bifolium and turned it over. Here had once been an extraordinary, full-page painting. Its left, outward side was ruined, gone. What remained was vivid in color and meaning. The painter’s work was exceptional, the subject the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. The point of view was from a moderate height, looking down. On the far side of a high stone wall were lush green trees, flowing water and abundant fruits all highlighted with the warmth of gold leaf and the sparkle of crushed silver. Were the picture intact further to the left, Adam and Eve would be seen emerging fearfully from a gate, covering their nakedness as best they could.
In a treatment he’d never before seen, the painting simply stopped at the wall. There was only bare parchment across the foreground, which was perhaps the lower third of the page. There was no baking desert outside the wall, no wolves or jackals waiting, no fires of hell, no hint at all of what was to come. The effect was electrifying, even in this fragment. What awaited Adam and Eve, and what would be most terrifying to them, was the complete unknown.
If these pages were any indication, at one time this book had been the equal of the most famous illuminated manuscripts ever created.
Moments later they descended into a canyon so deep he could no longer see the sky. Endless lines of cars and trucks struggled to occupy the same narrow spaces. The city growled, squealed, howled , banged and thudded. It was noisy, but more than just loud. It sounded strident, as if it were some great, chained beast straining to pull forward its own impossible weight.
Around them armies of pedestrians advanced in all directions. Now Alphaios shrank back. For the first time in his life, he felt awkward, naïve in his simple rust-brown habit, rope belt and blocky ankle-high shoes. He began to wonder if it had been wise for Cardinal Ricci to send him here.
Inaki took a notebook from his brown leather bag. “Let’s start at the abbey. We already talked about the monastic orders that used it. There’s an old monk there, must be eighty-five years old, Brother Joseba. He’s been the abbey’s historian most of his life, and the library’s his own personal fiefdom. He’s Basque, hard of hearing and eccentric.” Inaki chuckled. “Hair stands out from his head all day long. Fingers are as stiff as rusted hinges and black from battles with his fountain pens. Can’t remember yesterday, but seems to know what happened centuries ago. Keeps muttering to himself. In Euskara, of course.
“So anyway, I began asking questions about the first decades of the fourteen hundreds. Yes, there was a scriptorium there, large and productive for centuries before the printing press was invented. Then they acquired a press themselves, only the fifth one in all of Spain. Amazing. He showed me some pieces of it in a back room. Felt like I’d stepped all the way back in time to Gutenberg himself. I swear I could hear the rattle of block type being put into the trays.”
“Living history.” Alphaios had sensed such ghosts more than once. The sensation was profound and startlingly real.
“I asked Brother Joseba if he knew of any book with the size and characteristics of ours. He didn’t. I asked him if he were aware of any illuminators of the time who were known to have extraordinary talent, or if he’d ever heard of a book or illumination with a controversial wink. He didn’t know of any. I spent ten full days in the stacks at Leyre. It’s an impressive collection, more than a thousand old books, very well catalogued. But there are almost none before 1420, and all of those are rather ordinary. It’s like the scriptorium didn’t exist until then. Or like some catastrophic event occurred.
“Turns out it did.”
Some of the monks had started to peer around the refectory, perhaps looking for a glimpse of Alphaios’s colors. “The pink? Our own Brother Malcolm, you will admit, turns many shades of pink when embarrassed or exerting himself. He’s obliging us right now.” This brought forth a few smiles.
“Yes, yes, and I suppose the greens are from Timothy’s plants,” Levi said. “Here in the monastery, the colors you’re pointing out are tiny by comparison. Yet they dominate your painting.”
“And the tender shoots of the trees in the spring, and their leaves in the summer,” Alphaios said. “The weeds that come up between the flagstones despite Brother Timothy’s best efforts. And do you notice the black? This isn’t the black of the night, but the blue-black of an iridescent beetle.”
Alphaios paused again, hoping for silent attention. “My brothers, I study colors every day, everywhere. Then I apply what I learn to my craft. I don’t expect you to approve of the style I’ve chosen to paint, nor of my generous use of colors. I know this painting will not be hung inside these walls. But two questions were presented to me to answer. And I hope you will permit me to answer a third. First, am I a painter or a copyist? The answer to that question is both. Second, is further study necessary for me to accomplish the work I’ve been called to do? I hope I’ve demonstrated that studying color is inherent to my craft. I’ve been trained to seek out, to see color wherever it is. For me, noticing color is like breathing.”
He paused again, and the silence held. “Finally, if I may, there is the question of whether or not color is a distraction from our prayers. We all have distractions—hunger, physical urges, anxieties, memories. For some of you, colors may be a distraction. I will not impose them upon you. But as for me, my brothers, I celebrate colors in my prayers. I must say, in fact, that I pray in color.”