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.

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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.

The World Until Yesterday

ImageThis title is pretty instantly recognizable, as it [obviously intentionally] echoes the covers of Diamond’s earlier books—most notably the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gun, Germs, and Steel and the 2004’s Collapse.

In this tome [seriously, I was reading the digital copy, and it went on FOREVER], Diamond analyzes the different characteristics of traditional societies & then compares them to our general modern [WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrial, & Rich Democracies] societies, emphasizing where traditional societies suck more & where our current culture could learn a thing or two.

It’s divided into a number of thematic sections—friends & strangers, children, war, old people, constructive paranoia [AKA why it’s good to walk around thinking about all the things that could go wrong in life], religion, linguistic diversity, and diet [hint: don’t eat like Americans ‘cause you’ll get fat & get diabetes and stroke and heart failure etc].  He tried to talk about EVERYTHING. Noticeably did not include a chapter on women & their roles. That was a pretty obvious gap.

I felt like some chapters were way better than others. Some [diet, old people, war] were filled with some pretty obvious conclusions. Like shocker, traditional societies [aka tribal societies] fight a lot of wars and die at a much higher rate than we do in modern societies. I know you’re all surprised. Also starving to death occasionally is apparently very good for your overall health [unless you actually die] & not being obese.

Maybe it’s just that I’m in my mid-twenties, but the section on child-rearing was probably the most interesting—talking about allo-parenting [community parenting, takes-a-village style], carrying children facing frontward and vertically [papoose style], attending to a child when it cries vs. letting it cry, and then the not-so-good things like abandoning disabled children and/or neglecting them so that they die. Hey, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is tough. Not that I would know, but apparently Jared does.

Now all I can think about is Subway.

ANYWAY, other than the fact that some of the chapters are insultingly obvious [don’t eat too much salt & sugar, guys] and he tends to repeat himself a lot to get his point across, this was interesting & overall worth reading in all the spare time that I’m sure that ya’ll have. 3.5 stars.

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

& The Fantasy Kick Continues

gameboardI generally try to stay away from authors with leagues of screaming fangirls and anticipatory memes covering the Goodreads review page of their not-yet-published titles. I made an exception in this case, mostly because I have a weak spot for fantasy—especially fantasy referencing off-the-beaten-path mythology [this does NOT mean you, Rick Riordan] & with just, you know, a little bit of romance.

Richelle Read, who you may know from the Vampire Academy series (I think there’s a TV series based on the books?) is publishing her twentieth novel (so what have you done so far today?).  The title is Gameboard of the Gods, and unlike Vampire Academy, this is a book for grown-up peoples. Scoot, kiddies. Here there be….some not PG-rated parts.

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Gameboard of the Gods follows Mae, a “praetorian” (read: super-soldier) with a mysterious past & commitment issues; Justin Marsh, a cult expert/Ph.D./guy with mysterious past & voices in his head; and Tessa, a spunky immigrant. The book’s set in an alternate present/future, where the U.S./Canada has become the Republic of United North America (the southeast spun off and become Arcadia, because apparently the Cajuns won that one?). The capital? Vancouver. Yes. Richelle Mead is that awesome. Also, if you’re paying attention, we have RUNA, and praetorians in uniform, and there are castes, and apparently yes, this is the Roman Empire. Except in Canada/Northern U.S.

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Anyway, RUNA is controlled by this crazy super-government that oppresses all religions because of some huge backstory that I’m not going to go into, and Justin Marsh has been called out exile to handle some strange murder case, and Mae is assigned to protect him, but off course there’s sparks, and all the things that you would expect to happen, do. I mean, this is not a plot that’s going to knock you off your feet with its originality, but it’s fast, exciting, and kept me up ‘til midnight [which is wayyyy past my bedtime] because I wanted to see who ended up together, dangit.

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It was fun. It reminded me, strangely enough, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, if you’ve read that, but mostly because of the gods part. & some other things that I can’t really share without spoilers.

Anyway, it was fun. Perfect book to read on the beach or when you’re home sick from work. The characters are lovable even through all the clichés, and the dialogue is clever & witty.

Get this one from the library or an indie bookstore near you when it publishes on June 4th.

Disclaimer: I received this book free from NetGalley in return for a fair review