The sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey moves glamour to a more dramatic setting. I liked the idea of possible military uses for glamour, especially wh...moreThe sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey moves glamour to a more dramatic setting. I liked the idea of possible military uses for glamour, especially when contrasted with its usual aesthetic use in the beginning of the book. I also liked the author's technical explanations of glamour (I'm a sucker for books with footnotes, indices and glossaries).
However, the best part of this book for me was Jane and Vincent's relationship. I love the idea of a couple that is much more than just lovers, but are equal partners, trying to create something of value together.
On the other hand, I found that the writing faltered a little here - it felt more modern than the previous book. Surprising, considering the author's note describing her research to maintain the authenticity of the language. Perhaps it was the attempt to shift the scene to something more action-packed than the genteel Austenesque drawing room drama of the previous book, but again, Susanna Clarke's excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu manage to talk of drawing rooms and battlefields while preserving the tone of the language.
In any case, I still like this series enough to want to continue with this. The next book seems to be about the Luddite uprising, and that should be rather interesting.(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 didn't actively dislike this book but I was rather disappointed. It is funny in bits but they are only small bits.
Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfe...moreI didn't actively dislike this book but I was rather disappointed. It is funny in bits but they are only small bits.
Professor Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld tackles the dirty business of paper pilfering professors, dental pain, Italian xenophobes, Irish swear words, murderous prison governors and the proper way to address a colleague's dog while travelling about in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, India and Ireland. Most of the humour seems to come from the fact that he's German and academic which is just as flimsy as it sounds. However, I did like von Igelfeld's musing on the rapid loss of language: "Where previously there might have been four adjectives to describe a favoured hill, or the scent of new-mown hay, or the action of threading the warp of a loom, now there would only be one, or none. And as we lost the words, von Igelfeld thought, we lost the texture of the world that went with them." But then, it's not comic.
On a side note, I was rather irritated with Mr. Smith's penchant for making up Indian names. Paliwalar Patel from the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is nothing compared to the travesty that is "Janiwandillannah Krishnamurti Singh". Leaving aside the fact that it's a very bizarre and unlikely name, the Asian equivalent of calling someone Jingleheimer François McGillicuddy, it worries me because all this while I have loved the Setswana names in the detective agency series. What if someone from Botswana is as bewildered by Phuti Radiphuti or Mr. J.L.B Matekoni as I am by Rasi Henderson Paliwalar (seriously, where are these names coming from???) or Mr. Majipondi? Surely it can't be difficult to patch together a believable name: there's always Google. Also, how hard is it to look up the correct spelling of Chandigarh? And it's not just the Indian names that are massacred here: I don't think many Germans are called von Igelfeld either.
I don't know if I'll be reading the two other books in the series. Herren von Igelfeld, Unterholzer und Prinzel are just not funny enough to merit a trawl through the murky waters of academia.
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 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)
This was a difficult read for me because the protagonist, Siddhartha is an extremely unlikable character. In his youth, he is supercilious; in his mid...moreThis was a difficult read for me because the protagonist, Siddhartha is an extremely unlikable character. In his youth, he is supercilious; in his middle age he is weak and in his old age he is obtuse. I understand that it was Hesse's intention to show his as human and fallible but it is frustrating and tiresome to see him fail over and over in his quest.
Siddhartha receives a burst of inspiration after meeting the Buddha and makes grandiose plans towards enlightenment and all of it basically goes flying out the window when he meets a beautiful woman five seconds later. He believes himself above all the people he considers childish and animalistic, even when he becomes one of them. When he finally realises this, he goes off and has another epiphany but wait, this time it's his son come to shatter any hope for inner peace. And when he finally does find contentment, it falls magically into his lap in a few minutes pow-wow with the wise old ferryman Vasudeva. Yes, all his years of suffering and screwing up brought him to this point but his redemption is ultimately unbelievable. It doesn't help matters that in the end he goes back to his holier-than-thou preachings with his friend Govinda as the usual hapless victim.
On the positive side, the philosophy does make you think - the absence of time, the necessity of learning from one's mistakes and the dual nature of everything. However, these are established spiritual principles and stand out despite Herman Hesse's characters, not because of them. I admire Hesse's quest to make Indian transcendental philosophy more accessible, but this book was not the best way to do it.(less)
I first wanted to read this book seven years ago. Perhaps I would have appreciated pointless existential angst better at 17 than I do at 24. Unfortuna...moreI first wanted to read this book seven years ago. Perhaps I would have appreciated pointless existential angst better at 17 than I do at 24. Unfortunately, I got round to reading Herman Hesse only this year, when I no longer believe in intellectual snobbery.
This book had a strangely soporific effect on me. I've read much drier literature but I couldn't get past the first 20 pages for three days because it - honest - kept putting me to sleep. Ploughing on wasn't exactly entertaining either. Hesse seems an intelligent man, which is why I cannot understand why he insists on populating his books with such toerags like Harry Haller and Siddhartha. Haller is Siddhartha, if Siddhartha were German and actually more infuriating. He alienated me from the beginning with his misplaced intellectual pomposity even when I could relate to his troubles. However, when you vandalize other people's houses after being fed there because they are bourgeoisie incapable of understanding the awesomeness of Goethe like you do, it doesn't mean you are tragically misunderstood. It means you're an ass.
Haller trips into the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll jazz. He takes dance lessons, but hates them. He is introduced to his opposite, Pablo and can't like him because he won't listen to his sermons on music. He also mistakes what is essentially a physiological reaction for enlightenment, proving that the majority of Harry's miseries come from not getting laid as often as he'd have liked. A juvenile rebellion against the social and sexual mores of the day is less meaningful and path-breaking than people think it is. If Haller were a puberty-stricken adolescent, I could have still understood but he is not. And there's some truly awful writing here, desperately aiming for the 1927 equivalent of a Bad Sex Award.
What irritates me most about Haller is how utterly useless he is. He makes me feel I was unduly harsh on Stephen Dedalus, who's positively admirable compared to this man. Haller would rather spend his time moaning over the bastardization of "art" and make up some waffle about the wolf in him than do anything to remedy the situation. He idolizes Goethe and Mozart and yet he is nothing like them - he has no real passion to work on, apart from a few lines of bad poetry. He writes but runs off the moment he receives a bit of vitriolic criticism. If he'd man up and go do an honest day's work, it would have solved half his problems. Nut up or shut up, Harry, nut up or shut up.
This could have been a good book had Hesse done away with Haller and some of the more pointless subplots with Maria and Hermine. He captures well the loneliness and alienation. Pablo was the one character I could somewhat like and his explanation on the importance of performing music instead of spewing hot air is something I can definitely understand - it's the reason why I stopped caring about high-brow, pseudo-intellectual fakery. The Magic Theatre in the end and the interesting portrayal of Mozart redeemed the book slightly. He says what I wish someone said much earlier to Haller - chill. Unfortunately, by then it was too late and I cared far more about finishing this tiresome book than on hoping that Haller redeems himself by acting on the one piece of sensible advice. (less)