This was given to me by a friend (I adore hand-me-down books! It feels like you're reading them with a friend beside you and I like wondering how the...moreThis was given to me by a friend (I adore hand-me-down books! It feels like you're reading them with a friend beside you and I like wondering how the previous owner would have reacted to this or that part of the story).
It was the cover that attracted me at first though, not the book. The cover is delightfully reminiscent of Lego and a read in itself - I had a great time, discovering all the little stories in it - the cheeky, the cute and the plain weird. But along with the superfun cover, I ended up enjoying the book itself way more than I expected to.
I'm not a big fan of pulp/noir/hardboiled detective fiction and their variants, mainly because they slip into narm territory so often. I prefer cozy country house murders and psychological mysteries. But I liked City of Tiny Lights because it takes familiar tropes (femme fatale walks into the office of hard drinking detective with A Past, for one) and then adds in all these layers to the story. It also helps that Tommy Akhtar is a pretty likeable protagonist. While I found his narration a little grating at first, as you delve into his story and that of the city around him, it becomes less a jumble of argot (thank God for all the 70s British sitcoms my parents watched when I was a kid; I hadn't heard the word "shtum" since Mind Your Language) and more of a unique voice guiding you around a unique city.
I liked that Patrick Neate managed to write about an ethnic character without resorting to the awful stereotypes that books with Indian characters are peppered with (even when so many of them are written by Indians themselves!). Neate treats his characters as people - you get the idea that Tommy and the others are who they are also because of themselves, not just because of where they come from. In fact, most of the characters in the book, regardless of ethnicity and importance, are better fleshed out than I would expect. I also liked the book's treatment of Islamic fundamentalism (Farzad wouldn't like that - maybe I should say Islamic opportunism instead?). It avoids the boogeyman/monster-under-the-bed approach of a lot of fiction - and non fiction - and instead chooses to portray a complex issue in a more nuanced manner than usual. It was this blend of pulp and realism that made this an engaging book to read. I also like the London of this book. I think places in a book, whether houses or entire cities, are as important as the human characters and I love stories that make them come alive.
On the other hand, the ending was quite disappointing. I don't mind the occasional loose end that leaves the reader intrigued but this felt unfinished, as if there was a chapter or epilogue missing. Tommy's decision to involve Avi, while crucial to the climax, was uncharacteristically bad, despite the lampshading and its aftermath wasn't explored in as much detail as I thought it required. The pace of the book starting from the climax onwards was quite hurried and out of sync with the rest.
I did like the book on the whole and I wish Mr. Neate would hurry up and write another Tommy Akhtar mystery. This was an interesting complement to Cuckoo's Calling. I think modern detective fiction set in London is a genre I will enjoy exploring.(less)
I didn't really enjoy this except as a vaguely interesting history textbook. The whole Mount Shiranui subplot that takes up much of the second volume,...moreI didn't really enjoy this except as a vaguely interesting history textbook. The whole Mount Shiranui subplot that takes up much of the second volume, while a shade more entertaining than reading about company politics felt out of place within the larger narrative. I could not see much of a point to it - why was the author trying to inject Indiana Jones and the (Japanese) Temple of Doom in a book about a shipping clerk? Enomoto (and the whole cult for that matter) was so ridiculously over the top that I found it hard to take that subplot seriously.
Jacob, Orito and Ogawa are all pretty likable characters but Jacob comes across as a fool more than a romantic, to be honest. I cannot really fault the writing, even when it gets a little melodramatic and calculatingly sentimental. I especially liked the part when Magistrate Shiroyama observes, "This world... contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself." The ending is a little too overtly sentimental for my taste, and did not erase away any doubts as to what the point of this whole book was. (less)
I rather like Agnes Brontë's naturalistic style, compared to her sisters' more romantic writing but I do wish she were less cynical about the human ch...moreI rather like Agnes Brontë's naturalistic style, compared to her sisters' more romantic writing but I do wish she were less cynical about the human character (and this coming from me!).
I liked the opening chapters of the book, the bucolic English setting as much as the intrigues of the characters. When the narrative shifts to Helen's journal, however, the tragedy is unrelenting. For starters, I really cannot comprehend why Helen chooses Huntingdon in the first place if she already guesses at his moral paucity, even if she plans to reform him. The only possible explanation can be his physical charm (and I have to say that he doesn't come across as particularly handsome) but even that can't justify such a bad decision. I liked that Helen rescues herself, that her strength is not yoked to someone else but her quasi-masochistic piety is often painful to read, even if Ms. Brontë succeeds in making the reader appreciate the travails of being a woman in that age.
Practically every male character - and many of the female ones - are visibly flawed. Even Gilbert is far from perfect: he is often self-centred, more concerned about his chances with Helen than sympathy for her troubles and given to violent theatrics. All of this of course, goes to making the characters more believable and the lack of affectation or romanticism is refreshing. However, this also means that this book isn't exactly comfort reading. All the same, coming from such restrictive times, I suppose it is a brave piece of work.(less)
I liked this second Leaphorn mystery better than The Blessing Way. Tony Hillerman's writing certainly improves and there are some pretty gripping scen...moreI liked this second Leaphorn mystery better than The Blessing Way. Tony Hillerman's writing certainly improves and there are some pretty gripping scenes, beginning from the very first chapter. At the same time, the book is surprisingly poignant in places, such as the scene with Cecil's lunchbox or the ending. This book also really captured the stark beauty of the desert for me, and it was interesting to read of the Zuni from the point of view of the Navajo.(less)
I found out about Tony Hillerman's Navajo Mysteries thanks to the television movies based on his books and thought it sounded very interesting.
As a my...moreI found out about Tony Hillerman's Navajo Mysteries thanks to the television movies based on his books and thought it sounded very interesting.
As a mystery, the book falls short. Part of this is because the two characters most involved in it, Bergen McKee and Ellen Leon, are difficult to care about. McKee wallows in angst half the time and his expositions on the mysteries of womanhood are mystifying. Ellen Leon is one of the most annoying characters I've come across (is it just her or were all women in the 70s such idiots?). I think the story would have benefited from having a lot more of Joe Leaphorn. I also found Hillerman's method of mentioning an event and then going back to describe it in detail rather tiresome.
It was the depiction of Navajo life and the Navajo people that I liked the most; even little things about their culture - like the twitching of the mouth that accompanies the giving of directions. Although the author can't always blend this ethnological information seamlessly with the mystery, I always looked forward to the nuggets of information.
While I have been reading a lot of books on American Indians lately, they've been - with one exception - always written by natives themselves since I don't know much about them and I wanted the information I got to be as authentic as possible (this after coming across an anthology of folklore from Vancouver Island where the author happily admits to having edited the original stories because he didn't think them refined enough). However, in Mr. Hillerman's case, I am told that he has grown up among the very people he writes about and I did find an unpretentious affection and respect for them throughout the book.
So, while the "mystery" part of the book was a little weak, I really liked the "Navajo" part. In any case, I plan to stick with this series and I have a feeling that it's going to get much better.(less)
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about The Doors of Perception as well as its sequel, Heaven and Hell. On the one hand, this book seemed so familiar;...moreI'm not entirely sure how I feel about The Doors of Perception as well as its sequel, Heaven and Hell. On the one hand, this book seemed so familiar; some of the ideas and experiences so mirror ones I've lived through - albeit without the use of drugs - that writing this review will be difficult without divulging details, something I don't really want to.
I liked many of Aldous Huxley's ideas on art, colour and the other worlds. It was personally interesting for me because the shift of my own art into bright and pure colours a few years ago coincided with an experience I can best describe as my version of the flowers.
And yet, the book is almost dull at times. I would have liked to read a lot more about Huxley's actual experiences with mescaline rather than his continuous pontifications. He talks of symbols and their limitations in truly describing a personal experience to another but he himself makes the attempt futile by overloading these descriptions with jargon.
I think the two essays in this book have a rather facile view of the visionary experience. I agree that the exploration of alternate realities is powerful, and may be useful as a tool for growth. After all, when each corner of the world without has been discovered, the explorer has nowhere to go but within. At the same time, the temptation to be constantly immersed in these other worlds - something an entheogen like mescaline can satisfy - would turn these visionary experiences into the same drudgery of the "real" world. To be fair, Huxley does mention this issue when he talks of the modern indifference to the world of lights and colour (I might add that I don't remotely have this problem!). However, while the book touches upon the age-old problem of balancing the material and mystical worlds, it doesn't seem to offer a solution.
Maybe further reading will make me understand and appreciate this book better. As of now, it is mainly the fleeting descriptions of the world seen through mescaline that I liked most.(less)
I discovered Sherman Alexie on the Never Ending Book Quiz here on Goodreads (it's becoming a good source of new books for me). I wanted to read The Lo...moreI discovered Sherman Alexie on the Never Ending Book Quiz here on Goodreads (it's becoming a good source of new books for me). I wanted to read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven but since I couldn't find that book, I decided on this one instead.
Reservation Blues had me hooked from the start, when Robert Johnson and the devil (in his guitar) walk onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and meet Thomas Builds-the-Fire. My favourite thing about the book were the characters. Finally, real people with real hopes and fears, virtues and vices. Not antiquated, Hollywood-approved versions of themselves. Mr. Alexie refers to the restraining power of this farce throughout the book: "Indian men have started to believe their own publicity and run around acting like the Indians in movies". I like the fact that the characters seamlessly blend universal experiences - I could definitely relate to them in a lot of ways - with their Indian identities. It was also interesting to read of them as distinct tribes with their own distinct cultures, such as when Father Arnold wonders why the Spokane aren't hunting buffalo: "... Indians were always hunting buffalo on television" and is told "It was those dang Sioux Indians. Those Sioux always get to be on television.". I loved Thomas; he is such a genuine, decent man and I loved the way his relationship with Chess Warm Water develops: "Thomas smiled at her. He had just met the only Indian who told stories like his". But I also found myself caring about Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin and their friendship. It's a testament to Mr. Alexie's skill in drawing believable characters that he can create bullies with depth - not just Victor and Joseph, but also Michael White Hawk. I also liked the minor characters: The Man-Who-Was-Probably-Lakota (I have a feeling I'll meet him again in another of the author's books), the backward driving Simon, Mr. Alexie's version of Robert Johnson, Big Mom, even Thomas' dad during his impromptu basketball match against the tribal cops.
The magic-realist tone of the book is rich and absorbing - whether it is the music that sets fire to everything, the Fed Ex guy, Thomas' stories, the character's dreams or the horses. I found the latter a frightening, fascinating element in the story and the scene in the beginning of the book with Big Mom and the screaming horses is powerful and chilling. Even the ironical names of some of the characters - Sheridan and Wright, Betty and Veronica - give an oddly phantasmagorical feeling to the book, especially towards the end. I liked the unsettling humour and the way the fantastic throws reality into even sharper relief - which after all, is the sign of magic realism well utilised (and a relief from the superficial acid-pixie nature of many books in the genre).
The book doesn't gloss over all that isn't pretty: the poverty and alcoholism on reservations, substandard government rations and unemployment, the hopelessness experienced by so many young Indians and the duplicity of mainstream culture which is willing to accept Indians - as long as they're not too Indian. The ending - or at least, the events leading up to it - gave me the blues, naturally, but it was well-written and it felt real. What happens to the band's music deal is more common than imagined: Indians and non-Indians alike can discover that artistic integrity and music industry turnovers don't go hand in hand. Thomas' reaction on receiving Betty and Veronica's letter is moving, especially when you note the contrast between their lyrics and those of the band's that start off the chapters. Junior's fate: how many times has it already happened to Indians on reservations across the country? But for me, the most heartbreaking - there really is no other word for it - was the scene with Victor in the end: "That little explosion of the beer can opening sounded exactly like a smaller, slower version version if the explosion that Junior's rifle made on the water tower." When I first read it, it seemed ominous but perhaps his "Fuck it, I can do it too" is more optimistic than I imagine? I sincerely hope so; that there is some hope for him in the end, too. I liked the tone of the last words, optimistic without being complacent. They say that yes, life is hard, tragedies happen but sometimes, you just got to be happy you survived and try and make it better.
I don't know how much reservation life has changed in the sixteen years since this book was written, but Wikipedia tells me that reservation Indians are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic, even now. There's still high unemployment, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse. I think in that case, books like Reservation Blues, books written by American Indians themselves become all the more important: so that the people in the statistics can become real and their problems discussed with logic and dignity.(less)
As much as I liked Middlemarch, I confess that the next time I decide to read a particularly long book, I shall first check whether it was serialised...moreAs much as I liked Middlemarch, I confess that the next time I decide to read a particularly long book, I shall first check whether it was serialised or not. Perhaps this is the reason I didn't like War and Peace as much - a book may be experienced in a completely different way when you read bite-sized pieces of it every week and when you have to swallow it in one go. That said, Middlemarch isn't as bloated and difficult to be immersed in (but then again, it was serialised in bigger portions).
What I liked best about this book was the setting, the period of change that George Eliot portrays so well. This is rather surprising since at the beginning I found the constant discussions on the Reform Bill a little dry. However, as the novel went on and especially as the changing times were placed in reference to the characters - Tertius Lydgate, especially - I found that they kept me more interested than the romances. To be sure, Mr, Brooke getting heckled at a political rally was more interesting to read about than Rosamond's melodramas.
I can't say how far I like the characters, even though most of them are well-written, with multiple shades of personality. My favourites were the Garths, Fred Vincy and Mr. Farebrother and I preferred the story-arc involving these characters to those with Dorothea or Lydgate. I would have liked Dorothea more if there was more to her in practice rather than just theory. I understand that the author wanted to point out the importance of unsung heroes but I wasn't very happy with her ultimate fate: it wasn't all that different from what happens to her with Casaubon, only less stressful, I suppose. Still, her marriage is depicted with a lot of maturity and Casaubon, while disagreeable, never becomes a theatrical villain. On the other hand, I like the way that Rosamond's character is written because she's stronger than Dorothea but all the same, I just couldn't get myself to like her at all. I think Mary Garth was the perfect balance between strength and amiability. Mr. Farebrother was my favourite male character, although I also liked Fred's evolution.
I liked the way Eliot uses epigraphs to head each chapter; they work quite well although a few were rather trite. I was never more grateful for the copious footnotes that came with my copy of the book; I wouldn't have been able to understand the story as well without understanding all the references, literary, historical or social, that Eliot makes throughout the book.
I was able to really get drawn into this book only after the first three or four volumes. Before that, I could barely read a hundred pages every few days. In any case, the book accomplishes rather well the blending of events with ordinary human lives and that was what kept me reading.(less)
I strayed off to Project Gutenberg's Native American shelf after I found Navajo Silversmiths on the Art one. I have to say that I'm discovering a whol...moreI strayed off to Project Gutenberg's Native American shelf after I found Navajo Silversmiths on the Art one. I have to say that I'm discovering a whole wealth of excellent reading material here.
This book really spoke to me because of the ideas in it. Ohiyesa, or Charles Eastman states that he hasn't attempted to write a scholarly treatise, merely a recollection of the spirituality of his Sioux roots. I am a little wary of books that attempt to describe Native American spirituality and religion: too often they're a superficial twisting of facts to New Age ideologies without trying to really understand the people behind the faith. However, since Mr. Eastman was brought up in this culture, I feel safer taking his word for it.
It's true that the book feels idealistic and almost too poetic, but perhaps that is the cynic in me; I haven't been able to associate religion with sense. But the ideas and philosophies of the native peoples - at least of the Santé Sioux tribe that Mr. Eastman belongs to - make perfect sense to me. I was surprised at how much my personal philosophies corresponded to the ones described by Ohiyesa. One point in particular resounded with me: "To the untutored sage, the concentration of population was the prolific mother of all evils, moral no less than physical. He argued that food is good, while surfeit kills; that love is good, but lust destroys; and not less dreaded than the pestilence following upon crowded and unsanitary dwellings was the loss of spiritual power inseparable from too close contact with one's fellow-men."
He refers to this as the reason why the native tribes of North America did not build cities or conquer nations and it makes perfect sense. The freedom that accompanies such a life would surely create a purer faith. As he writes, "The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to the brothers of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation."
I liked the chapters on The Great Mystery and Barbarism and the Moral Code, although the entire book was a pleasure to read. I am really no expert on Native American culture and religion, so even though the philosophy in the book made sense to me and was worthy of admiration, even emulation, I can't say how accurate it is. I don't know if the Sioux really had no priests (I would understand perfectly their reason for it) and if their Sun worship, for example, was purely symbolic. Since I have little knowledge myself, and have much more to read and learn, I will assume that this is how it actually is.
I certainly appreciate Mr. Eastman's attempt to present the beliefs of his people without pretension or attempts at exoticism. Then again, he doesn't shrink back from the transcendental, poetic nature of the faith: "He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas—He needs no lesser cathedral! That solitary communion with the Unseen which was the highest expression of our religious life is partly described in the word bambeday, literally "mysterious feeling," which has been variously translated "fasting" and "dreaming." It may better be interpreted as "consciousness of the divine."
Ohiyesa acknowledges the xenophobia of the white settlers without giving in to bitterness. He talks of a missionary who after talking of the Gospel to a tribe, refused to hear their own beliefs. He chooses to take the higher moral ground by describing them simply as "... the first missionaries, good men imbued with the narrowness of their age."
The only drawback of the book is its brevity; it ends rather abruptly. A pity, because Mr. Eastman writes beautifully, with honesty and insight: "The logical man must either deny all miracles or none."(less)
I have no complaints about G.K. Chesteron's ability to construct a good mystery. While the first four stories in this book are a little repetitive whe...moreI have no complaints about G.K. Chesteron's ability to construct a good mystery. While the first four stories in this book are a little repetitive when it comes to characters, most of them have nice twists and turns that the reader will enjoy seeing unravelled, even if they are a little improbable at times - with the exception of the second story which is VERY improbable and borders on the ridiculous.
What I had a problem with was the often narrow-minded tone of the book, particularly in The Wrong Shape where Chesterton writes of "eastern heavens, rather worse than most western hells". Sure the culture appropriating writer in the story was a bit of a joke but it's difficult to like even Father Brown when he spews absurdities like "They are letters and symbols in a language I don't know; but I know they stand for evil words" while describing Turkish carpets, of all things. Bigoted much?
And then there's the embarrassing caricature of an Italian aristocrat in The Sins of Prince Saradine. Since the book was written in 1911 and not the 17th century, I can't quite comprehend such absurd stereotypes. Even Flambeau, as important a character as the good priest, is not entirely spared; every attribute of his pinned down to the esoteric state of being French.
I have the complete stories so I will be reading all of them but I sincerely hope there's a smidgen of modern thought in the other books that make up the anthology.(less)
One of my favourite words is saudade and I could not help but think of it here. The two stories that make up this book are different in their subjects...moreOne of my favourite words is saudade and I could not help but think of it here. The two stories that make up this book are different in their subjects but both dwell on change and a longing for the past.
In Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, a generation later than Jane Austen writes of the things the latter does not, or could not: of the wars that left behind villages full of women, of poverty and of loss. Miss Matty might have been an Austen heroine who wasn't swept off her feet and carried off into the sunset; Mr. Holbrook her lost love. It is rather gloomy at times to read of a village full of aging women trying to hold onto a decaying elegance. However, the tragedies of every day life can be beautiful as well. The chapter where Miss Matty and Mary Smith read and burn old letters was one of the most moving scenes I have read in a long time.
I found it a little difficult to really like the characters. They are elderly, often narrow-minded women bound by strict guidelines and a somewhat outdated morality. And yet, they are generous in their kindness. They might look with disdain on Frenchmen and "Red Indians", they might kowtow to aristocracy, but they often go out of their way to help their neighbours whether it is Captain Brown who shocks the good ladies by openly discussing his poverty or the mysterious Signor Brunoni, or even the lame postman of Cranford. There are touches of gentle humour here and there: the literary contest between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown over Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Forrester's lace eating cat, Miss Pole's faltering bravado at facing a phantom.
Cousin Phillis is a short novella that subtly intertwines the changing country landscape with a short-lived romance. There isn't much by way of action here but both the Phillis of the title and her father Mr. Holman are engaging, well-drawn out characters: hard-working and rustic and yet well-read and thirsty for knowledge. One can see a slight similarity to the Goethe quoting Mr. Holbrook in Cranford with his alphabetically labeled cows. Phillis, with her love of Greek and her attempts to read The Divine Comedy in Italian is at the same time a naive, isolated country girl and her painful journey to emotional growth forms the crux of the story. Mrs. Gaskell paints a striking picture of the old way of life slowly giving way to the new with harvests and railways, farmer-priests and engineers.
I liked the down-to-earth, unpretentious tone of both stories and the clarity of Mrs. Gaskell's writing is a delight to read. She manages to convey tragedy without dragging down the tone of the book and her humour never escalates into farce. This is a simple, elegant book, like the times it longs for.(less)
I recently read H.G Wells' A Modern Utopia where he seems to spend half the book hating on Thomas More's version of earthly paradise. So when I found...moreI recently read H.G Wells' A Modern Utopia where he seems to spend half the book hating on Thomas More's version of earthly paradise. So when I found Utopia while out book shopping a few days ago, I thought I'd see what the original was like.
There are two reasons that made me like Utopia better. One, it is blissfully short and two, it is far less dry than I expected. I'm not entirely sure, however, how the book is meant to be taken, considering that "utopia" means "no place" (makes you wonder about dystopia then, doesn't it?) and its narrator's name translates as Raphael Nonsenso. It seems that More deliberately treads the line between satire and seriousness for literary as well as political reasons.
Utopia itself is a mixed bag. It's a communist state where there is no money and everyone owns everything. I liked More's idea of the equal importance given to manual labour and intellectual growth. I certainly loved the six hour work day! That and the concept of law being simple enough to be understood by everyone is something that I wish would be adopted in the real world. The death sentence for repeated adultery might be a little harsh but I really have very little sympathy for infidelity unless it arises from domestic abuse, physical or mental. I also liked the Utopian idea of the celebration of death and religious freedom even though I fail to relate to their contempt towards atheists. And the Utopian's attempt to psychologically devalue gold and silver by using them as material for chamber pots was certainly unique.
On the other hand, Utopia is a place where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. I cannot possibly consider any form of governance ideal if it continues to engage in slavery, even if some of them are "willing" slaves or condemned criminals. The very idea of slaves in Utopia is a paradox. And it is not the only one. The Utopians claim to abhor hypocrisy; they will wage war and try to make it as bloodless as possible and yet they are willing to hire a certain tribe of mercenaries since they think the Earth would be better off without them. Women can train for battle and are expected to fight alongside their husbands but they are still subordinate, they must still go down on bended knee and ask forgiveness in a ritual designed to alleviate domestic tensions. In his book, More allows priests to marry and women to be ordained - but he did not subscribe to these views in the real world. His Utopia veers from impractical idealism at times to a police state of sorts (you cannot leave your city without permission and there is no concept of a vacation because you cannot eat unless you work).
At the risk of being cynical, I have to say that Utopia could never work because a group of human beings, no matter how closely-knit will never agree to the same thing. What if someone were to value gold even if it was used to chain slaves? What if one of the Utopian officials imported to other countries decided that he rather likes having his own property and more than one set of clothes? It is easier to turn cities into identical, bland copies of each other than to do the same with human beings - which is the only way such harmony is possible.
I enjoyed reading Utopia, especially the first book. I think this is a book that I will be reading more than once. I understand that some of More's visions are indeed ideal when contrasted against the grossly unfair social and political reality of his day. However, it is difficult to be passionate about a book when its own author won't back it up in all seriousness.(less)
I don't know how - or if - to review this book. How does one review a life? And yet these letters are so essential, so needed. Because they tear down...moreI don't know how - or if - to review this book. How does one review a life? And yet these letters are so essential, so needed. Because they tear down the myth of van Gogh, the eccentric, anguished genius and instead show him as he truly is, something infinitely more admirable - a man, a real man, who dreamt.
I have a tattered National Geographic dated October 1997 that features an article on van Gogh's life through his letters. Each time I was down, out of sorts or simply uninspired I turned to the fragments of Vincent's letters sprinkled in red throughout the article and each time, it never failed to strengthen me.
By a strange coincidence, I received this copy of his letters a few days before Vincent's birthday and at a time when I was going through a situation that mirrored his. And an even greater coincidence - both of us had taken the same decision. In any case, I started reading this book on his birthday; slowly, a few pages each night. Interestingly, I see that I finished it on Theo's birthday.
The letters have been an emotional experience; they drained me almost as much as they uplifted me. Vincent is so impossibly real. A few days before I got this book, another artist friend of mine had been putting up videos about Vincent on Facebook, unaware that they would be commemorating his birthday in a few days' time. When I clicked on one of the links, I was struck by the comments; how much everyone seemed to identify with him. One poster even said that he almost believed he was Vincent reincarnated. And honestly, it's not that absurd. It's so easy to see yourself in him. He represents all that is most human in all of us - a desire to be honest to oneself, to do some good in the world, to be understood and to belong. Because after all, he is human. It is easy to identify with him because the intimacy of the letters shows him as he is - flawed, just like anybody else, but with a "great fire" in his soul.
The letters offer insight into his work too, of course. They show his keen understanding of art, of the science of colour. It was also interesting to see the great influence literature had on his art and his letters are often deeply poetic. I especially loved the letter describing his stay in Zweeloo. His output during his stay in France, notably in Arles are well-known but I found his early Dutch years the most fascinating.
Sometimes the letters are too personal and I felt like an eavesdropper: how would Vincent react if he knew his letters were being read by perfect strangers? Even if he himself was greatly influenced by the biographies of other artists and writers? His need to love, and to be loved and his ultimate sacrifice of a hearth of his own are deeply moving. His letter to Theo, describing his attempts to transform his studio in the Hague into a home with Sien Hoornik - "... you are definitely coming, aren't you? ... and Father as well?" - breaks the heart.
But it was easy to ignore these misgivings when I read of van Gogh's passion for art. And yet, it is more than mere passion - his letters show that he worked hard and sacrificed much to get where he did. Vincent spent two years learning to draw before producing the paintings the world knows him for. He isn't some sort of irreverent genius and to label his work as driven by a mere magical inspiration is to undermine the physical, manual labour he devoted to his craft.
It is heart-breaking and unfair that van Gogh is being subjected to this bawdy apotheosis when his letters show his despair at his apparent failure to be recognized as he would have liked, even if there were those who began to see the value in his work, especially towards the end of his life. Perhaps Vincent would have been heartened to know that his letters are as powerful as his other works of art. That he has reached across space and time to prove that failure is never final and that sooner or later, you always realise your destiny.(less)
I started this book on a lazy Sunday afternoon thinking that it would be yet another piece of magic realism, feminist fiction with a 'Practical Magic'...moreI started this book on a lazy Sunday afternoon thinking that it would be yet another piece of magic realism, feminist fiction with a 'Practical Magic' meets 'Cien Años de Soledad' hangover. As it turns out, there is surprisingly little magic in the story and more realism than would appear at first sight.
The author describes it as a sort of Hero's Journey and the story centres around Towner Whitney's struggle to return to tranquility, as well as her roots. The book is an easy, smooth read and I liked Barry's Salem, beyond witchcraft and haunted houses: I never knew that the ocean and islands formed such a distinct part of Salem's geographical and emotional landscape. Barry is clearly someone with a profound love for the water, and as someone who lives in a city by the sea and would miss it terribly, I can appreciate that.
Towner's self-confessedly unreliable character, is surprisingly sympathetic. However, I found her ultimate redemption as well as the incident that spurs it, to be somewhat unbelievable. I also wish that there was more actual lace reading: while I don't like authors deliberately injecting mysticism and magic into books, lace reading was an interesting concept and could have been developed beyond the excerpts ending each chapter, which I thought was a rather nice touch.
The Lace Reader is not without its flaws but I look forward to reading Brunonia Barry's next. The reason I liked this book, despite its failings, was the reason I like all my favourites: it had atmosphere. The book had the ability to make you feel the waves of the ocean and islands on a windy evening and being able to do that from my sofa made this a very satisfying read.(less)