Italy, I miss your cappuccinos.

ImageI saw the famous “Last Supper” in Milan four months ago on a complete whim of a trip. I went with an old college roommate that I hadn’t really spent time with since graduation three years ago, as I couldn’t convince my husband that traveling to northern Italy in January to sight-see was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The accommodations—the floor of the studio apartment of a friend that I hadn’t spoken to since high school—were likewise not to his taste.

It was on the fifth day of this odd trip, in the early dark of a January evening, in a hazy ice-cold drizzle, wearing brand new [fake] leather boots that I hadn’t worn in yet and that were giving me awful blisters, with a roommate that was increasingly getting on my nerves and a friend that I was enjoying but just barely knew—that I found myself at Santa Maria della Grazie with a group of Asian tourists. At least I wasn’t the only one deluded into thinking that January in Milan was a great deal.

We stepped past the guards, through a sliding door to a closed room, through another door—once the first door had closed—to a room that again served some nameless purpose, through another set of doors—again opening once the second set of doors had closed—to finally step into the refectory for our fifteen-minute appointment (if you’re late, no money back). We walked into this bare stone room and turned 90 degrees to see it—the bits of paint on the wall that are at once a masterpiece of technique and a complete failure of chemistry. There are chairs for those that are incapable of standing for fifteen minutes (either for medical or attention-span issues).

Paintings always seem larger in real life—perhaps because paintings in books and on the Internet—and on postcards—are so small [and if that’s not the most obvious statement you’ve read today, you’ve had a rough day]. The sheer size of some works never ceases to amaze me. The “Last Supper” covers an entire good-sized wall. Even though so much of the paint is gone and only the briefest outlines of color are visible, it’s still incredibly plain even to a art ignoramus like myself that this—this is genius. It seems like the artist of the mural on the opposing wall must’ve done something deserving of a low circle in hell to be placed eternally in comparison with Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

It is this experience that led me to pick up this title when I saw it at the library last week. I actually read my first Ross King book while on the train in Italy—one on Brunelleschi’s dome [on the Florence cathedral] that I read on the way to, appropriately, Florence. Florence was rainy. Brunelleschi’s dome was spectacular. Ross King’s book was highly entertaining and informative—enough that I was very happy to see that he’s not a one-hit wonder.

Like the Brunelleschi book that I read five long months ago, Leonardo and the Last Supper doesn’t deal solely with this single event in Leonardo’s life—it starts with his childhood, provides scholarship and numerous references to current events of the time, talks about social and economic trends, what Leonardo’s life would’ve been like, what he would have eaten, etc. I learned that Leonardo was left-handed; that he preferred pink and purple clothes; that he had a weakness for curly hair. I also learned some less-fun trivia about political actions in the 1480’s. Interesting, but just not the same as coming out in the middle of a dinner conversation with the visual of Leonardo da Vinci in a pink cape.

If you like Italy, or history, or art, or biography—I highly recommend this one. It’s fun & not too long, and Ross King has such a fantastic narrative voice and persona. For me, he’s the Bill Bryson of art history. My only very small complaint was that he seems to have a personal issue with the Da Vinci Code and people who think that there’s any merit to the claims about the Priory of Sion and that whole set of nonsense. Honestly, I don’t know anyone that gullible. As fiction—why do so many people miss that classification?— The Da Vinci Code didn’t merit the kind of scholarship in refuting Dan Brown’s fake claims that King paid it.

Other than that, phenomenal. Very fun. Check it out.

The Orphanmaster

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The next semester of my MBA starts in less than a week now, so I figure I better get these reviews out now while I still have my head above water! Plus exciting times—my little brother is graduating from university this weekend, and pretty much every member of my family [except me] has a birthday this week. Lots of fun times to be had before I hit the textbooks.

On the book side, it’s a complete but weird coincidence that I read two books about orphan masters (this one & The Orphan Master’s Son) in a row…I mean, it’s not like orphan master books are all over the place. Orphan books, sure. Orphan masters? I’m not even sure what that is. There also seems to be some disagreement about one word or two. I’m not calling that one.

In this case, an orphan master was apparently a real job in New Amsterdam [now we call that place New York, guys, which is way shorter to write on envelopes] in the mid-1600’s. The idea was that there were a lot of orphans wandering around, & somebody should get those kids off the street & into people’s houses as free labor, dude. I mean, the idealist perspective was apparently to keep the orphans safe, but basically we’re putting them into servanthood while doing lip service to “safety.”

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um, maybe you should stop smiling and run, little annie.

But the main character isn’t really the orphan master, Mr. Visser himself—it’s the spunky traditional-female-role-rejecting Blandine von Couvering, the only female tradesperson in the colony. &, of course, her male counterpart, the mysterious British spy, Edward Drummond. Edward is a horrible spy and basically gets nothing spy-related done except write some snarky comments about the governor, but hey, it seems like a fun life.

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The story has all the makings of a good historical suspense novel—great historical details, a great setting, interesting characters, a good villain, horrific crimes & the misunderstood heroine and hero that have to race against the clock to save their friends—pretty classic. The problem I had was with the execution [um, pun not intended]. The pacing is funky; the POV switched around so many times in the first hundred pages that I got whiplash. The historical setting has obviously been meticulously researched, which is good, but sometimes that comes out in strange ways—like the paragraph near the beginning of the book that lays out the town map—market street is parallel to blah blah street, which faces blah blah other thing, where this quarter of people lives—completely unnecessarily. And boring.

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The rhythm of suspense didn’t flow quite right, either—we find out way too early who’s involved in the suspicious murders, and the characters seem ridiculously slow to figure out who’s behind the whole nefarious scheme. And then right in the middle of the action, things basically take a week-long vacation. Accusations of witchcraft are thrown around. People obsess about making ridiculous jokes about a guy with one leg.

Overall, very fun idea, but it definitely felt like a first novel.  Maybe you should stick to nonfiction, Jean, ‘cause those bits were interesting [other than the town map, I seriously can’t get over the ridiculousness of that part]. But the plot—not so much. Three stars for you, Jean Zimmerman.

Oh, James Salter, we cannot be friends.

allthatisI’m really torn on this one because Salter’s prose is gorgeous. I can see why he’s put in the same category as Roth & other literary-white-males-writing-about-white-males. Take a look at this quote:

“Beatrice, perhaps because of her father’s death, which she remembered clearly, had a certain lingering dread of the fall…They knew. Everything knew, the beetles, the frogs, the crows solemnly walking across the lawn. The sun was at its zenith and embraced the world, but it was ending, all that one loved was at risk” (25).

I love this. I feel the same way about September—it’s beautiful, but it’s the beginning of the end, and there’s so much sadness for that. I love books that put into beautiful words what I haven’t or can’t express. A good book does that, I think.

On the other hand, the plot of this book was…well, there wasn’t really one. Instead, we get basically all the love affairs throughout one man’s life. I know that author=/ narrator, but this guy was so obnoxiously misogynistic—for example:

“He told her everything. He knew she didn’t think about these things,
but she understood and could learn. He loved her for not only what she was
but what she might be, the idea that she might be otherwise
did not occur to him or did not matter” (43).

That makes me itch. It also makes me want to throw something, a little bit. I mean, sure, it’s a little tongue in cheek, but it’s not just that quote—it’s an entire book’s worth of attitude toward women. It’s the fact that nothing is sacred—if the girl is pretty, what does it matter if she’s in a relationship or married? He goes through like six or seven women, tossing them all (or getting tossed, finally) when he gets bored.

This is basically the whole plot. So while I did really love the writing itself, Salter’s turn of phrase, rhythm, and diction, and I will be picking up A Sport and a Pastime eventually, I am not going to be recommending this one to all my friends. Skip it, pick up something else instead. Like Life After Life.

I’ll leave you with one last quote that I’m pretty sure I violently disagree with, just for funsies.

“The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened.
It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized
and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it.
The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be
part of it, to be in publishing, which had retained a suggestion of
elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a
bankrupt man” (261).

This is exactly why the love-hate relationship. On one hand, this is gorgeous. The simile in the last sentence is PHENOMENAL. But the sentiment itself–I just can’t get on board with it. eBooks have brought books back into the spotlight, in my opinion, like they haven’t been in years. For good or for bad, I’ve had more discussion about books and where they’re going in the last few years than…ever. Phenomena like Harry Potter, Twilight, and Fifty Shades of Gray (however much I may not personally like the last two) keep bookstores in business, and the power of the novel–like, for example, The Orphan Master’s Son, is as strong, in my mind, as it’s ever been. So there, James Salter. So there.

Review: A Tale for the Time Being

Look, two reviews in one day! I’m on a roll! Image

I read these two subsequently, one right after the other, and I completely did not intend to keep reading on the  same them—but they do follow the same theme in many ways. A Tale for the Time Being alternates between two viewpoints—Nao, a Japanese girl in living in modern Tokyo, and Ruth, a writer living with her husband in a small island off of the coast of British Columbia.

Ruth finds a message in a bottle diary in a Ziploc on the beach, which belongs to Nao, who just moved back to Japan from Cali & is suffering culture shock, bullies, a suicidal dad, and recruiting from prostitutes escorts. It’s a tough life in Tokyo.

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Tumblr says this is Tokyo.

It’s hard to explain what happens without giving the whole thing away. As Ruth reads, we read—as we react, we often switch back and watch Ruth react. It’s all very metafiction. I’m having Borges flashbacks from college. Let’s just say that it’s not a coincidence that the author’s name is Ruth—it’s supposed to be all sorts of intertwined in what’s real, who’s reading who, and what the relationship is between reader and writer.

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I absolutely loved the first two thirds of this thing. Nao’s great-grandma, Jio, is a Buddhist monk & yet all sorts of hip & feisty; the Japanese culture is fascinating and disturbing in parts [just like American culture, I suppose]; the perspective on the earthquake in Japan in 2011 was really humbling, since that was just a blip on my news radar, and yet it was such a huge deal for so many people.

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This is the bubble I live in. Just go with it.

I really lost it in the last quarter, though—I felt like Ozeki was trying to stick too many ideas in the same novel. All of a sudden we’re talking about Schrodinger, and we’re getting some sci-fi/fantasy action, and lots of coincidences, and physics, on top of all our philosophy and history and Japanese culture—and it just got a little out of control.

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But overall, I would absolutely, completely recommend it. You can tell that Ozeki is a filmmaker, too—so many of the scenes feel like scenes. I can picture exactly how this would look in a movie, and I would not be surprised to see this made into a feature film in a couple years. Four stars: wholeheartedly recommended with shrugs about the ending.

[edit: I received this copy from NetGalley in return for a fair review]

Review: Life After Life

“History is all about ‘what ifs’”*

Image There was a lot of hype leading up to the release of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life—I saw this one on the Millions’ list, on ads on Goodreads, on people’s blog posts, on Amazon’s anticipated list, and on many other blogs and publications. I pre-ordered it to see what the fuss was about, but I was prepared to be disappointed. I guess I’m just pessimistic like that.

Other than one point about 2/3 of the way through when I got a little tired of poor Ursula screwing up her life and dying again, I LOVED this title. It has so many of the things that I love: a fantasy element, philosophical musing, history, real characters, a thought-provoking story-line.

Life After Life follows the life/lives of Ursula Todd, born in 1910 to a moderately well-off English family living in a town outside of London. Ursula is born dead—strangled on the umbilical cord. Then she’s born again, and this time she makes it—but then she dies of drowning. Or gas inhalation. Or falling. So she’s born again—and again, and again, and again, living out different scenarios of all the different choices that she makes throughout her life.  

It was so incredibly fascinating to see how miniscule choices can change the course of a life—the butterfly effect. What I found even more interesting, though, is Atkinson’s assumption that by making different choices, we shape our personality and the choices we make for years to come.

“’[Hitler]’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.’ No, Ursula thought, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become.” (360)

The choices & personality that we choose affects those around us—but not everyone. Some characters—Ursula’s aunt, her sister Pamela—were remarkably stable in their futures, while others—her mother, her brother Teddy—varied enormously in their choices. Do some of us have more potential for variation than others? Are some of us fated to some things? What can change, and what do we have a choice about?

I adored this book and all the things that it had me thinking about—the nostalgia of wondering what my life would look like if I had made different choices.

“I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history” (474).

The whole book—the whole wonderful, slightly-too-long opus—can be summed up in the one quote that I started this musing with. What if you had taken a different way home? What if you said no instead of yes? What if you travelled to Paris instead of Venice?  What would your life be like then?

I read this one straight through without stopping; I overcooked the spaghetti noodles for dinner because I was trying to read and cook simultaneously. Five stars.

*quote from page 473

Literary Cage Match: Part 2

ImageWhen I paired up this contestant cage match, I was—well, let’s just say the content doesn’t align much. I comfort myself with the fact that most of the TOB (Morning News Tournament of Books, 2013 results here) matchups didn’t necessarily have anything in common other than the fact that they were both books. & yep, both my contestants fulfill that qualification.

Travels with Epicurus is not so much a travelogue as a meditation on growing old, philosophy, and ways of living. The subheadings are things like “On solitary reflection”; “On existential authenticity”; “On mellowing to metaphysics.” & those sound pretty damn intimidating, but honestly, this is not a book that takes a Ph.D. in philosophy to understand.

It’s written in the slow, relaxed, conversation speech of an old man that has come to accept the fact that he is, in fact, old. He’s gone to an island in Greece to hang out & experience life there—specifically to read Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher one generation more recent than Plato with some ideas about how to live.

Epicurus’s basic idea is that you should maximize happiness in life, which seems, well, pretty obvious.

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Here are some of my favorite takeaways:

“Nothing is enough for the man whom enough is too little.” (Epicurus)

“Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.” (Epicurus)

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“What, then, is the right way of living? Life must lived as play.” (Plato)

“An old man does not have to fret about his next move because the chess game is over. He is free to think about any damned thing he chooses.” (this one is quoted directly from the author, I just think it’s AWESOME)

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” (Kirkegaard)

If deep thoughts aren’t your jive, you probably won’t like this one. But I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s just for old people—I mean, come on, we’re all getting older. Who doesn’t wonder at some point [even if it’s just after one too many…drinks] why we’re here? & what we’re supposed to be doing? & why that stupid kid from college got the amazing job that I wanted so badly? Etc.

This is about those questions.

So going back to my criteria that I can basically manipulate however I want:

1. Successfully accomplishing what the author set to accomplish: I would say basically yes. He set out to talk and write about old age & ponder how you can age gracefully or live gracefully. I do think that he did this better in the first few segments; the last two or so seemed a little…without conclusion, but that’s kind of the point too. A- because I liked it.

2. Speaking truth—I would say absolutely on this one, if only because he quoted a whole lot of philosophers with some really awesome things to say. A

So I’m going to give this one an A—as a work of page-turning fiction, this one is…not that, but it’s a quiet, reflective book that I really enjoyed.

So grade-wise? This one kicked the pants off Seduction for me.  But I am open to discussion and disagreement on that.

Also, I think if Jac & Mr. Klein (TwE author & narrator) had a conversation, Jac would totally get fed up with his questions & pondering and leave, so she’s disqualified anyway.

Have a great hump day tomorrow!

 [I received this ARC free from NetGalley]

Literary Cage Match: Part 1

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading…kind of obsessively lately. This is partly because I was on vacation last week and had time, and partly because my finals are all over for this semester, and I’m free [aka I’m just working full time instead of working full time & going to school part time] to do a lot more ignoring of my hubby in the evenings.

So I was lying in bed last night with all these characters & books racing through my head—and March Madness, of course [GO BLUE]—and it occurred to me: I don’t have the attention span to do a whole tournament, but what if these books were in individual cage matches? Who would win, for example, between The Pink Hotel and Mom & Me & Mom? Both talk about moms, right? Or which character would win a no-holds-barred fight, Mae from Gameboard of the Gods or Yagharek from Perdido Street Station?

Suffice to say I had some really weird dreams last night.

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I thought I’d give it a try as a feature, and debuting here tonight….

LITERARY CAGE MATCH!

I figured we should have so guidelines around what criteria I’m actually using to judge these suckers. Besides the random meaningless points I’ll give out for things that I like about the book, I’m keeping this two things in mind:

  1. Successfully accomplishing what the author sets out to accomplish. If this is supposed to be suspenseful, was it actually suspenseful? If it’s supposed to be sad, did it make me sad? If it’s a comedy, did it make me laugh? And so on. We can go into the whole complicated mess of authorial intention later; I want to keep this as simple as possible.
  2. Speaking truth of some kind. I know this is vague, and it’s intentional—but I mean that it reveals something true about life; it’s timeless; it’s realistic. I’m talking about awesome descriptions that take your breath away, thoughts that make you stop and ponder, realistic depictions of relationships—that kind of thing.

These are intentionally simplistic and vague because dangit, this is my cage match, and it gets to be what I want it to be.

 

WITHOUT ANY FURTHER ADO…OUR FIRST CONTESTANT!

 

SEDUCTION

I picked up this ARC at Net Galley because, well, it has a pretty cover.

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See? Pretty. & It did what covers are supposed to do, which is to attract attention. What I didn’t know until after I’d already read this sucker is that it’s actually fifth in a series, which explains some of the vague references to earlier happenings in the main character’s life that I had no clue about. Whoops, my bad.

Seduction: A Novel of Suspense (that’s the subtitle according to Goodreads) follows Jac L’Etoile, a young woman with a television show about mythical happenings & where they came from. Kind of like Mythbusters, but with like, actual myths instead of urban ones. Anyway, she gets a call from an old friend that takes her to Jersey, which is NOT the same as New Jersey, which I figured out very confusedly after a few pages and a Wikipedia search. Jersey is actually an isle off the coast of Normandy that’s owned by the UK. Courtesy of Google Maps:

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Obviously I do not have the best grasp of geography. That’s England on the top side, there, and France in the bottom right.

Anyway, in Jersey, she gets to know the Gaspard family, which is troubled in many ways. Her present-day story is interspersed with flashbacks to 1885, where Victor Hugo is also living on Jersey, in exile from Paris, and getting increasingly immersed into the world of séances & spiritualism (see: crazy ghosties) world.

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What I didn’t like about this book: in the first five pages of this book (so I’m claiming this is not a spoiler), Victor Hugo finds out that his favorite daughter has drowned, and honestly, I found his grief in the first few pages really boring. & I may be a horrible person, given, but I was completely untouched by the whole thing. Maybe it was just that I didn’t have time to get to know the characters before he was having a meltdown. I found the first fifty pages, in general, really tough to slough through. They were awkward in parts, completely overdramatic in parts, and I certainly did not myself unable to tear myself away from the plot that was developing.

What I did like about this book: woven throughout this book is a love of scents; both Jac and one of the characters from Hugo’s time, Fantine, are perfumers by profession/family trade, and so much of the book is described in terms of the scents that are found. I saw some comments on goodreads that there was too much description, but I really enjoyed the thorough description of the location in terms of multiple senses: olfactory, auditory, visual.

I’m also a sucker for mythology and history, and I really don’t know much about Celtic mythology or history at all, which is super sad because it seems awesome. Big huge mystical rocks? Druids? Women in respected positions of authority? I am so there.

So did M.J. Rose succeed in weaving a “atmospheric tale of suspense with a spellbinding ghost story at its heart,” like the publisher claims? At least mostly. Once I got through the first 50 pages or so, I was at least 90% hooked through the rest. Fans of Kate Mosse and Kate Morton—maybe even Elizabeth Kostova—will love this one. I’ll give it a B.

Did M.J. Rose tell a story that spoke truth of some kind? More doubtful. Fantasy is tough, because it requires a buy-in on the reader’s part to the world that you’ve created, and I just didn’t get one hundred percent there. At some points I was still like

skepticaloprah

You expect me to believe what now?

Although I won’t be looking out myself for the next book in the series, I would still recommend it to certain of my friends that I think would enjoy it.  For truth-telling, though, I’m gonna give it a C.

TOTAL SCORE: B-

UP NEXT: CONTESTANT NUMBER TWO COMING SOON!

Sorry folks. This post is just getting WAY too long.