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29th-Aug-2016 04:56 pm(no subject)
Peacock & Vine: on William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, by A.S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

‘Peacock & Vine’ is a long essay in which the author compares and contrasts Morris and Fortuny and their art. Both men were polymaths who were designers and artists who worked in several media. Fortuny is best known today for his ingeniously permanently pleated dresses that were totally different from the fashions of his day; Morris is known as a pre-Raphaelite who set about to bring beauty to the homes of everyone with beautiful rugs, wallpaper, and fabrics. Both also painted and had amazing energy. The never interacted; they lived a generation apart and in different countries, but they shared a work ethic and love for beauty.

This work does not go deep enough to be a duel biography; it’s more about how the work of these men affected Byatt. She admits that their art made her think deeply about making an artistic mark upon the world.

This is a little jewel box of a book; the front of the dust jacket is a Morris tapestry (with peacock) in warm umbers and golds while the back is a painting of Fortuny’s studio. A huge number of photographs illuminate the text. And, as always, Byatt’s writing is lush and beautiful.

There is one odd spot; in the section “Pomegranate” (a motif used by both Morris and Fortuny quite a lot) she states that Morris’s first attempt at painting pomegranates didn’t turn out well; they look more like lemons. The piece in question actually *does* have pomegranates, in the upper right hand corner; below that are, indeed, lemons-you can tell not just by the shape & color but by the thorns on the branch; in the lower left are peaches, and in the upper left are oranges. I find it odd that the author didn’t catch that.
27th-Aug-2016 03:46 pm(no subject)
baby dragon
Autumn Princess, Dragon Child: The Tale of Shikanoko, Book 2, by Lian Hearn. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2016

This is the second book in a four volume fantasy epic, and I think I made a big mistake by not reading the first one. I found this on the ‘new books’ shelf and went “Hmmm.. fantasy set in feudal Japan.. I’ll take that!” But the author jumps right into the story with no bringing us up to speed, which left me utterly baffled, even with the cast of characters in the front of the book. Who were these people and why were they doing these things to each other? Because of this, I never managed to care about the characters and the story bored me- even though there were magical. There is some cool stuff going on- half demon children born of one woman and five fathers, some very intelligent horses, magical swords, a lot of magic, and a child emperor hiding with a troop of performing monkeys (and probably having the best time of his life). I liked the writing and the style; I just couldn’t connect. So, I think this series is probably brilliant, but don’t even try to read this book without reading the first one beforehand!
23rd-Aug-2016 04:05 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, by Greg Jenner. Thomas Dunne Books, 2015

What were toilets like during the time of Imperial Rome? What kind of underwear was worn during the Tudor era? How did people keep in touch before the telephone was invented- before the post office, even? When did the fork develop, or the mattress? What about dentistry? This book can tell you all these things and more, in a witty, casual, conversational way. The author is both historical consultant and comedy writer, and he’s combined both skills well in this book.

This book does not tell us about kings or generals. It’s not about invasions or wars. It’s about daily life, the things that affected every single person, no matter how rich or poor. Like the toddler’s book says, everybody poops. Everybody also wears some kind of clothing and eats. This is the history of both royalty and the common person. And it’s a really fun book. They should give this book to pre-teens to get them sucked into how interesting history is.
15th-Aug-2016 02:41 pm(no subject)
lights through the trees
A Green and Ancient Light, by Frederic S. Durbin. Saga Press, 2016

In an alternate Italy in World War 2, a nine year old boy has been sent to spend the summer with his grandmother in her rural home, safely away from the fighting and bombings. His father is in the army, and his mother is recovering from giving birth. He misses his family and friends, and is somewhat bored by country life. Then one day an enemy plane comes screaming over the village and crashes into the bay. This event turns everything upside down.

That night, a quiet knock comes on the grandmother’s back door. It’s an old friend of hers, needing help. The boy gets multiple shocks that night; the enemy pilot is alive, his grandmother is capable of sewing up people, the old friend is a faun, and there is an overgrown garden of stone monsters in the woods where the other villagers never go.

As the days go by with the pilot healing, the boy explores both the stone monsters and his grandmother’s past. It’s a magical time for him, but reality intrudes constantly; a major arrives with a unit of men, bent of locating the missing enemy pilot. They make the boy’s explorations difficult to say the least. Between keeping the pilot hidden and trying to figure out what the inscriptions of the stone monsters mean, he and his grandmother have their hands full. And it will turn out that both those endeavors have a common answer.

The prose is so stunningly beautiful that it took my breath away. I’d be willing to say that this book will be a new classic; it’s up there with Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, J.M. Barrie, and Charles de Lint. The story unfolds slowly but steadily. It’s as much an adventure of the mind as of the body. Told by the narrator in adulthood but with the eyes of a nine year old, it’s an enchanted tale, suitable for kids to adults.
15th-Aug-2016 11:49 am(no subject)
calvin reading
The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko, by Scott Stambach. St. Martin’s Press, 2016

Seventeen year old Ivan is cynical, closed off, and a bit of an asshole. He has good reason to be; he’s spent his entire life in the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children. He’s a Chernobyl baby, born with no legs and only a left arm, with a hand with two fingers and, thankfully, a thumb. He was left at the hospital as a baby, a mysterious orphan. His facial muscles don’t work right, and he finds speech difficult. His intellect is keen, though, and he reads copiously. His days are all the same; he reads, pretends to be comatose so he can eavesdrop, watches TV, and masturbates. A lot. The only ray of light in his situation is Natalya, one of the nurses, the only one who treats him like a human being. She brings him his beloved books.

Then one day a lovely teen girl, Polina, comes to the hospital for treatment for leukemia. At first they studiously ignore each other. Then they begin communicating by leaving notes around. Slowly they begin to trust each other, and a relationship blooms as her disease gets worse. She breaks through Ivan’s shell that he’s built up and makes him see that his life actually does have possibilities.

It’s a heartbreaking story laced heavily with black humor. While the reader knows part of what will happen, it does have surprises. I thought I had figured out who Ivan’s mother was, but it turned out I was very wrong. Why is he in a hospital for gravely ill children? He has birth defects, but is perfectly healthy And the final ending was unexpected. Despite the grimness, this was a book I couldn’t put down.
The Looking Glass War was John le Carré’s fourth novel and also the fourth to feature his most famous character, British spy George Smiley. John le Carré had scored a major bestseller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. This was certainly not the first spy novel to feature an unglamorous hero nor was it the first to introduce a tone of gritty realism combined with cynicism and defeat. Eric Ambler had been writing dark cynical spy novels (like Epitaph for a Spy) for years as had Graham Greene (in books like Stamboul Train). It was however The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that really put despair and moral nihilism at centre stage in the world of spy fiction.

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4th-Aug-2016 04:21 pm(no subject)
Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded. David Hepworth. Henry Holt & Co., 2016

David Hepworth’s theses is that 1971 was the most important year in the history of rock/pop music. It was the year of innovations in how albums were made. It was a year of great albums made that still endure today, like ‘Tapestry’, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’, ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Blue’, ‘Pearl’, ‘Madman Across the Water’, ‘Harvest’, and, of course, ‘American Pie’. It was, actually, the year that albums became more important than 45 rpm singles. It was the year the Beatles were no more. The technology of making music and recording it changed. Arena rock started, as opposed to playing in clubs and halls.

Each chapter is one month in the year 1971. He doesn’t just tell us what was released by who; he goes deeper into the rock scene, covering things like Mick Jagger’s wedding, various rock stars battles with drugs and alcohol, and what producers and managers were doing. Some of the people he covers really never went anywhere. Being British, it’s seen through a British lens, but there is plenty about the American scene.

Was 1971 the most important year in rock history? I don’t know. I was surprised to find that ‘Blue’ and ‘Tapestry’ came out in ’71; they were such a seminal part of my teens (I could sing every word of both those albums) that I would have sworn they came out earlier. Likewise, I would have sworn Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Van Morrison became really big before that point. But he’s got the dates correct; that music was just so important to me that it colors my memories of the era.

It’s an interesting book- I read it in two evenings- but oddly unstirring. Hepworth is a reporter, not an ad man, and he gives us just the facts, ma’am. But the facts showed me what was below the surface of the music I came of age to.
31st-Jul-2016 06:13 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
Inheriting Edith, by Zoe Fishman. William Morrow, 2016

Maggie is a professional house cleaner with a degree in English. She’s had other jobs, but she prefers cleaning in Manhattan- it pays a lot better, it gives her time to think, and she has been a compulsive cleaner since she was a child. She is the single mother of a precocious two year old, and has just gotten the surprise of her life: she’s inherited the Sag Harbor beach house and money of a friend and former client that she has been estranged from for years. Along with the house comes Edith, the 82 year old mother with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. The will states that Edith is to remain in the house she shared with her bestselling novelist daughter, who has taken her own life.

Edith and Maggie both have severe doubts about this situation. Edith feels she needs no help, nor does she need strangers in her house. Maggie feels she’s in over her head with caring for an elder. But they gingerly build a relationship, and Edith asks Maggie to help her write down her life story before she forgets it. In the process, they both realize they have things in their pasts that they need to deal with before it’s too late.

I read the story in a day; it’s fast reading and fairly compelling. It’s sad to watch Edith losing ground so quickly, but fun to learn about her past. I did have to wonder why the 2 year old took up so much of the book; obviously she’s the most important thing for Maggie, but I felt her constant chattering slowed the story down. I guess it did show how overwhelmed by the child Maggie is! The obligatory love interest might as well not be there; he really adds nothing to the story. I would have preferred to learn more about Edith’s past, and about her dead daughter. A good beach read.
30th-Jul-2016 03:39 pm(no subject)
librarian ook
The Seed Collectors, by Scarlett Thomas. Soft Skull Press, 2016

“The Seed Collectors” anchors on a mysterious plant on a mysterious island that can only be accessed by helicopter (how then are there aboriginal people there?). The plant makes seed pods that carry the gift of enlightenment- and death. That’s the other problem- since the person dies to become enlightened, how do other people know about the enlightenment? But this part is magical realism, so I put those questions aside and went along for the ride.

The Gardener family lost several members of one generation on a quest for this mysterious seed pod. They disappeared, never to be seen again. Oleander Gardener, great aunt to numerous other Gardeners, has died and left her considerable money, a fancy spa retreat, and other blessings, mostly to Fleur Meadows, who, as far as they know, is no relation to the Gardeners at all. She also left to her nieces and nephews seed pods of that very same mysterious plant. And then there is the book, which turns into whatever book the possessor needs at the time.

If ever there was a family in need of enlightenment, it’s this one. Incest, overeating, compulsive spending, alcoholism, anorexia, and infidelity, are all on the menu. The POV bounces from one family member to another. There is no character who is truly likable; on the other hand, none are truly detestable, either. Bryony is lamentable and wholly self-centered, but she, like them all, is just a person stumbling through life. Did the loss of the one generation cause this one to be this way? That is never answered.

The story lurches around not just in POV but in time, too. There are parts where I have no idea who the narrator is writing about. But somehow, despite these problems, the book was oddly enjoyable and at no point did I consider not finishing it. The prose is beautiful. The people are interesting. The situation is unique. It’s literary fiction at its strangest.
26th-Jul-2016 03:29 pm(no subject)
lisa books
Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University, by James Axtell. Princeton University Press, 2016

Axtell starts his history with Cambridge and Oxford (“Oxbridge”), with English colleges mainly training men for the clergy. Later they became places where the aristocracy sent their sons so that they could find jobs as diplomats or other government posts. From there he goes to the very first college in America, created to educate men for the clergy. Grammar schools proliferated in America right before the Civil War, creating people adequately educated to go to college. He follows the change of colleges as places of rote learning and religious instruction into places that encouraged exploration, experimentation, and research rather than memorizing scripture. Colleges expanded across the USA and became universities that were expected to turn out new findings and technology. The land grant universities are given merely a quick nod. The world war and the GI Bill changed the faces of the universities, as adults filled colleges rather than teenagers. The universities turned into tools of the government, turning out weapons along with economists, scientists, and future legislators.

The book is what it says it is; a history of the universities, with heavy emphasis on the USA. It’s very detailed but pretty dry. I would have liked to see what universities, like Cambridge and Oxford, in other countries had turned into as the ones in the US matured. Sure they have not stagnated for three hundred years. What about the German system that attracted so many students from the US in years before the American system got going? Interesting book but very specialized.
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