I think this is a book to be experienced, rather than read. I should like to read this on Walden pond and see what Thoreau is trying to show me. There...moreI think this is a book to be experienced, rather than read. I should like to read this on Walden pond and see what Thoreau is trying to show me. There are places where his words shine but I felt the same way I do with Wordsworth - as if I'm reading a less satisfying translation of a well-written original.
Walden is also one of the books that I would have loved and embraced wholeheartedly at a younger age. However, perhaps I am more cynical now but I feel that Thoreau was a little simplistic in his views. It is easy to desire the truth above love or money, as he demands, but this comes across as naiveté - might not love inspire a higher life? Cannot money provide a way out of the quite desperation he talks about? I completely agree with the idea of not letting material possessions rule your life but I refuse to romanticize poverty. Anyone who genuinely believes that being poor translates to a higher happiness has obviously never been poor themselves. It is very easy for Thoreau, an educated man of fairly sufficient means to experiment - he could always go back to the comforts he voluntarily abandoned. But would he have continued to wax eloquent about the nobility of such a life if he had nothing to go back to, if starvation were imminent and he felt the not-so-quite desperation of being utterly helpless to change the course of your life? The chapter where Thoreau preaches to John Field makes him seem not like a visionary but a self-important hipster.
Also, is a noble life only what he himself lived? Is it possible to live a life of equal depth without agriculture and with more than three chairs? Would it not be a greater achievement to apply those ideals in the chaos and complexity of everyday life, or are doctors, waiters and trumpet majors incapable of the serenity and nobility a bean cultivator enjoys?
I liked this book less than I expected to - I think I need to re-read this again at some time. Maybe I could not appreciate it fully thanks to the quality of the writing. I felt the book meandered and strayed often, losing sight of the subjects at hand, a task already made difficult by Thoreau's smug and oversimplified view of things. For all the beauty of his ideas, Thoreau can be a fairly disappointing writer. I often felt that the book was a jewel set in plastic - his writing fails to capture the brilliance of his ideas.
I still agree with Thoreau's core philosophy, almost Zen-like, of the love of nature both when it is welcoming and when it seeks to challenge you; of following your personal convictions, even if those might go against the grain; of the benefit of solitude from time to time; of living "deliberately". At 16, I would have wanted to run away to Walden Pond for that life. At 26, I would rather bring Walden Pond to the life I already have.(less)
I remember being 16 and angsty, and on one particular angsty day when it seemed nothing would go right, I read this:
"Look again at that dot. That's he...moreI remember being 16 and angsty, and on one particular angsty day when it seemed nothing would go right, I read this:
"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
It was magical, that moment when you realise that you've read something that is going to change the way you look at the world, at your reality, at your life forever. To this day, these words are what I seek out and what cheer me up faster than anything else when I feel out of sorts.
This isn't a review as much as a thank you letter to Carl Sagan, the man who let me see myself as a part of something bigger, Reading Sagan has always been a profoundly spiritual experience for me. The poetry in his books evokes the same pleasure, the same appreciation of something more as any Romantic poet. His books are accessible, without sacrificing intelligence. Reading them is like taking a walk with a friend, a favourite uncle and your eyes widen and you break out into a smile because you're noticing for the first time, the quiet beauty of things that have always been there.
So thank you Mr. Sagan, for everything because that's what he brings to you - the world, the universe, everything.(less)
Once you get past the squat bold typeface and the dated black and white photos, this book actually throws up some interesting questions.
I liked the fi...moreOnce you get past the squat bold typeface and the dated black and white photos, this book actually throws up some interesting questions.
I liked the first essay, which talks of the "mystification" of art, something I agree with myself. The other essays, in images as well as in words, deal with subjects as different as gender roles in Western art, oil painting as a distinct visual language and advertising. Yet, the essays often link together and I especially liked the parallels drawn between oil painting and publicity in the last chapter.
However, at times there was a a lack of clarity in the ideas expressed and topics are often skimmed through (although John Berger admits it himself). The essays, especially the last one, often feel a little dated given that they're almost 40 years old but Berger and his colleagues leave you with ideas that are worth thinking about yourself.(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)
The reason I enjoy reading Ohiyesa's books so much is his unique perspective, one that came from living in two different worlds, native and mainstream...moreThe reason I enjoy reading Ohiyesa's books so much is his unique perspective, one that came from living in two different worlds, native and mainstream American. This book traces his life in the first world, growing up in a Sioux camp.
Most of his account is set in Canada where he went into exile after being separated from his father and siblings following the 1862 Dakota War. Before Indian Boyhood, I read Old Indian Days and my favourite story in that book was based on this event; it was interesting to find out that the author was more closely connected to it than I imagined. I guess I should have read Mr. Eastman's biography more closely (and perhaps I should be referring to him as Dr. Eastman instead).
As always, his writing is honest and his depiction of Sioux life without pretension, whether he talks of hunting or making sugar, feasts or evenings in the lodge with his grandmother and uncle. The latter comes across as a truly admirable human being, whether because of his skill as a hunter or his simple but honest opposition to slavery. While Dr. Eastman writes from a clearly Sioux perspective, he isn't really biased either as in his retelling of a Cree legend where the Sioux are the antagonists. I like that even though the philosophies here are meaningful and spiritual, they avoid cliched mysticism as if their spirituality exists only to offer solace to jaded modern readers. At the same time, these are ideas that you can appreciate learning from, like when Ohiyesa's uncle says, "I think we are really bravest when most calm and slow to action."
The book is also full of homely pleasures, like the hilarious story about Chadozee and the bear (especially the bit about the bear scowling at him :P) as well as the ones Smoky Day (whom I first met as a fictional character in Wigwam Evenings) tells. I love that in Sioux society, solitude is not necessarily a bad thing. As someone who enjoys the refreshing calmness of being alone and is often questioned about this supposedly strange habit, I am grateful for Ohiyesa's defence of it. This book also helped me understand many of the things Dr. Eastman talks about in The Soul of the Indian. On the other hand, the author's narration feels a little abrupt sometimes, especially when he shuffles between the first person and the third person.
Reading this book creates a strange sort of wistfulness. Ohiyesa never paints his life as some sort of New Age hippie paradise - Indian life back then was clearly difficult and not always simple. And yet, he makes it clear that it was a good life. The sheer freedom without avoiding a sense of duty, the luxury of solitude combined with the warmth of community living is something I wish still existed.(less)
I really wanted to like this book more. It seems such an interesting idea and yet it could have been a lot more engrossing.
Part of the reason is that...moreI really wanted to like this book more. It seems such an interesting idea and yet it could have been a lot more engrossing.
Part of the reason is that Bill Bryson tends to ramble. This is understandable given the wide scope of the book, but his vision of fitting human history into the rooms of his house doesn't come together as neatly as it might have, so you find yourself going back to subjects that you thought were done with a few hundred pages ago. Then again, the book more or less limits itself to Victorian era Britain and North America, with occasional forays into other times and places. I'm not particularly interested in the Victorians - imperialism, sexual repression and bad personal hygiene aren't fun to read about even if steampunk and Sherlock Holmes aren't all that bad. I understand that trying to cover the entire history of the world would have been unwieldly but the narrow geographical scope had me losing interest, especially when he devotes half a chapter to staircase accidents.
Couple that with the fact that the chapters on the bedroom, the bathroom and the nursery are either positively depressing or positively disgusting and you don't feel too cheery by the time you get to the end of the book. Suffice it to say that the next time I watch a period film, all I'll be able to think of is that none of the people wearing pretty ball gowns and dashing away on horses had regular baths, that their moral compasses were skewed when it came to a lot of things, including children and the poor and that if they ever got sick, they would be better off dying than going to a doctor. Of course, you already know that, but it's worse when Bryson reminds you with full force that if Gabriel Oak or Heathcliff ever existed, they would stink to high heaven. I wonder if generations to come will ever react to our lives today with such horror? All the same, never have I been more happy to be born in the twentieth century and living in the twenty-first.
On the plus side, I love all the little tidbits and trivia that Bryson has dug up and I have to say that I commend his research - the bibliography cited is huge. I like how he shows that history is often random and nonsensical, made up by people and not events. It gets a little depressing when you realize how often history books ignore the real heroes and how often history-makers are total jerks. Still, there are plenty of good people and inspiring stories about, particularly Joseph Paxton and Lancelot Brown (Brown's letter to his wife was one of my favourite bits of the book).
I can't fault Bryson's writing, it's hilarious and insightful and he does keep you entertained for the most part. If not for the things he says, this book was worth reading for the way he says them.(less)
I bought this at the airport while waiting for my flight, but I didn't get to read it until I got back home. The irony was, I spent my trip surrounded...moreI bought this at the airport while waiting for my flight, but I didn't get to read it until I got back home. The irony was, I spent my trip surrounded by all sorts of awesome Thai food, with hardly any appetite at all. In any case, I'm not exactly a foodie, although my family watches a lot of food shows, including Anthony Bourdain's. What drew me to his show, and to this book was Bourdain's seemingly natural gift for telling stories. This is what kept me interested in what is basically a book about the food industry.
Reading this book, was like sitting down next to the author and listening to him; I could almost hear Bourdain speak the words I read. I liked the preface The Sit Down, the contrast between who Bourdain was and who he is now. Lust claims to heartily embrace food porn but it's surprisingly deeper than that and speaks beautifully of food and the people who eat it. The Rich Eat Differently Than You and Me, although giving out a little too much private information than I would like to know, is an interesting read, with its depiction of the "douche-oriented economy" that Bourdain mentions later in the book: "Perhaps it’s that they’re so ugly, these ‘beautiful’ people... the people who decide what the world will wear next year, who’s pretty, what’s “hot” and what’s “not, are uniformly hideous beyond the lurid imaginings of Cub Scouts round a campfire." I think Mr. Bourdain might be rather closer to the 'rich' side of the line than he believes, but I can't deny that there is a guilty pleasure to be derived from his gleefully malicious tirade against the rich and famous.
While decrying multi-billionaires who sell their soul to Mammon in return for boiled lentils at St. Barth's is mildly entertaining, it got a little tedious for me when Bourdain started venting his spleen on characters from the food industry. Of course, that is because I don't really know these people and so it's equally tedious when he's praising them as well. One thing I can say for Bourdain: he's equally passionate in his hate and in his admiration. Again, Bourdain's distinct style kept me interested. My Aim is True is immersed completely in the world of restaurant kitchens, but I found it among the best chapters in the book.
I think reading Kitchen Confidential might have made it easier for me to appreciate this book. Nevertheless, it's Bourdain's straightforward narration that kept me engaged, whether he launches into vivid descriptions of pho in Vietnam or states his ingenious plan for conditioning his daughter against Big Macs. As with his show, it was the stories he tells that made this book worth reading.(less)
This is one of the books I got from Project Gutenberg's Art bookshelf. I've always loved Native American jewellery from the South West United States b...moreThis is one of the books I got from Project Gutenberg's Art bookshelf. I've always loved Native American jewellery from the South West United States but I especially love Navajo silver and turquoise and I was hoping this book would give me some insight into this art form.
The book is unfortunately, too short to give any details on Navajo silvercraft; not surprising since it is only a report. Washington Matthews is a tad patronizing but on the whole, he points out the inventiveness and hard work of the Navajo. His writing made me appreciate a whole new aspect of these craftsmen beyond their artistic achievements. As he points out, the Navajo silversmiths often worked with rudimentary tools, sometimes scavenged from Fort Wingate or Pueblo settlements. I think their refusal to be constrained by circumstances makes their work all the more impressive and really defines their artistic spirit. The next time I moan about not being able to afford Canson board or Sennelier oil pastels, I'll remind myself that the Navajo silversmiths used awls repurposed from broken knives and set up their own forges to make their works of art. (less)
The last time I picked up a little travel book from my local Crossword, I was rewarded with the delights of A Year in Provence. This time, it's the la...moreThe last time I picked up a little travel book from my local Crossword, I was rewarded with the delights of A Year in Provence. This time, it's the laid-back string of seasons in the hills of northern India as lovingly described by Ruskin Bond.
This is also one of those books you can pick up at random and start from the middle. It reads like a conversation with an old friend. I loved Mr. Bond's descriptions of hill life: the little joys and sorrows, the flora and the fauna (both animal and human!) and the life of a writer. I also understood why I found his collection of ghost stories incomplete: many of them might have been culled from his larger works as his tale of the Savoy Hotel's resident ghost was from this book.
This book was a nice blend of humour (sometimes of the laugh-out-loud kind) and a wistful recording of the passage of time. And yes, I'll be going back to Crossword and hunting around in their travel section again: it seems to be fail-safe.
There were parts of the book I really loved. I liked much of the writing, the mix of tenderness and humour with which Bill Bryson takes in the wildern...moreThere were parts of the book I really loved. I liked much of the writing, the mix of tenderness and humour with which Bill Bryson takes in the wilderness and the people and places in it. And I really loved David Cook's enchanting illustrations.
On the other hand, Bryson is downright obnoxious for a good deal of the book; it seems every town he goes into is aesthetically challenged, the people he meets, intellectually so. He is frank enough in admitting that he skipped much of the Appalachian Trail and never actually finished it in the end. But this just makes the book feel somehow incomplete, especially since instead of reading about the trail you end up reading typical Bryson-style tidbits of history and trivia with rather too many numbers and citations thrown in for what seemed to be a humorous travelogue.
I think Umberto Eco is writing for an audience more erudite than I here. This book does not try to cater to lay people and you really do need to have...moreI think Umberto Eco is writing for an audience more erudite than I here. This book does not try to cater to lay people and you really do need to have some interest in linguistics to even begin to enjoy it. That said, it is less dry and dreary than I expected.
The five short essays, while decidedly academic, are interesting with a touch of humour (I liked Eco's contemplation on the language that would be spoken were Dante, Abulafia and Adam to convene in heaven) and cover the various aspects of language - religious, political, historical and social. I liked the first chapter, which talks of the way in which lies have shaped the world and the second, describing the quest to find the original language of paradise by people over time, among them Dante Alighieri and the effect this search had on the Divine Comedy.
My grouse is that the title (and the back cover, I might add) is rather misleading. Almost all of the discussion on serendipity is limited to the first chapter. The fourth and fifth chapters were unable to hold my attention as well as the first two. Then again, I suppose this is best appreciated by academics.(less)
I was originally going to splurge on a bilingual German-English edition of the Duino Elegies, complete with an Art Deco cover. Instead, I chose to rea...moreI was originally going to splurge on a bilingual German-English edition of the Duino Elegies, complete with an Art Deco cover. Instead, I chose to read these ten letters that are almost as luminous as the ten elegies.
Rainer Maria Rilke's letters as unfailingly elegant and polite, talking without arrogance on art, solitude, love, nature. They are honest and unpretentious without sacrificing any depth of meaning. I don't think I can offer up any in-depth review for a book that cannot be finished with one reading. This is the kind of book you can read when you want, from the middle, from the end - pick any page. This is the kind of book that makes you want to get up and do something. And that is the best kind of book there is.(less)
I raided Project Gutenberg's collection of books on arts and artists recently and this was one of the books I downloaded. Albrecht Dürer is one of my...moreI raided Project Gutenberg's collection of books on arts and artists recently and this was one of the books I downloaded. Albrecht Dürer is one of my favourite artists and it has been interesting to see him in the most mundane way, removed from the mystique of an artist.
The book is a collection of letters and diaries, and they deal for the most part, with firmly quotidian concerns. Dürer pays bills, receives payments, trades drawings. I would be lying if I said it doesn't get very dry. However, it's also a look at a time when being an artist was first and foremost, being a craftsman, when painting was as much a trade as baking and cobbling and candle-stick making. I enjoyed reading about the artists' guilds and the procession of the tradesmen in Antwerp. I was also reminded that art, like most things at the time, was mainly a man's job, when Dürer commends an illumination by a young girl, saying that, "It is very wonderful that a woman's picture should be so good." I'm taking this positively, though because he comes across as agreeable, witty and appreciative of art in all its forms and origins.
Besides the constant accounts of florins and ducats and angels and stivers, Dürer mentions other things: his escape from a runaway ship, the beached whale in Zeeland, the bridge "where men are beheaded" and all the gifts he gives and receives, from sugar loaves to snail shells. There is also a religious note to Dürer's musings, especially his impassioned support of Martin Luther. The greater presence of religion then is striking, even in the smallest of instances, such as the dates and timings, which almost always mention a feast day or religious holiday of some kind. Of course, this was not extraordinary for the time but a first-person account makes the historical fact come alive. In the end, that's why I liked the book: for its glimpse into the every-day life of a master artist and the fascinating times he lived in.(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)