I have been planning to read this one and off from almost a decade now but it wasn't until Coraline and The Graveyard Book that I seriously decided toI have been planning to read this one and off from almost a decade now but it wasn't until Coraline and The Graveyard Book that I seriously decided to. The story itself was engaging but naturally, it's the characters that really draw you in. Shadow, far from being bland, somehow manages to be the perfect foil for the larger-than-life (and morally ambiguous) characters around him. Laura might seem to be one of those unlikable women in fiction that the male protagonists seem to be puzzlingly fascinated with but she does have layers to her personality and is ultimately, a fairly sympathetic character. Of course, it is the gods, or rather, the stories, beliefs and hopes that made them gods that are the most fascinating.
The writing is as good as any Gaiman book, equal parts witty and thoughtful. The "Coming to America" segments were interesting, even if they weren't really what you might call pleasant. However, I thought the book lost steam towards the end. Plus, the "new" gods came across as gimmicky and tacky and barely inspired the kind of magic the "old" ones did - or is this the millenia of collective memory in me speaking? Also, I'm not sure that "call no man happy until he is dead" is from Herodotus but that's a minor point. I don't know why I didn't like this book as much as I thought I would. It is well written but the build-up to the climax was a little lacklustre and the plot often meandered unnecessarily.
That said, I do love the way Neil Gaiman writes about the stories in our stories but I somehow seem to find that best in his books for children....more
The Historian requires a good investment of time, not just because of its length but also because of the plodding writing that makes up the first partThe Historian requires a good investment of time, not just because of its length but also because of the plodding writing that makes up the first part. And yet the rewards yielded after 700 odd pages of Vlad the Impaler, travels through the Iron Curtain and academic research are rather disappointing.
The problem, I think, is that Elizabeth Kostova simply doesn't understand what makes fantasy and horror so much fun. It's the low-brow aspects: the blood and the gore, the flights of imagination. I laud Ms. Kostova's research and the book is full of snippets of historical information. However, reams of data without interesting writing to back it up is a research paper, not a novel. As I read the book, I couldn't help but be reminded of the scintillating Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell that I read some months ago. That book had its share of information dumps as well (even if they were all completely made up), but I vastly preferred Susanna Clarke's mile long footnotes to the mind-numbingly boring academic paper on the Chronicle of Zachariahs that Kostova shoved into the narrative.
I liked the lush description of Eastern Europe and especially the village towards the end. However, the two narratives - the narrator's and her father's - don't always go together; the former is often left sparse at the expense of the latter. So basically, while this wasn't altogether a bad book, I can't say I liked it too much. Ms. Kostova manages to make the undead boring and only partly because she believes that a 500 year old vampire's most burning desire is the Dewey Decimal System....more
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 myI 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....more
Alright, so Hemingway may not have been romantically impoverished in Paris. Paris itself may not have been very romantic to begin with. Yet there is sAlright, so Hemingway may not have been romantically impoverished in Paris. Paris itself may not have been very romantic to begin with. Yet there is something about this book that drew me in, like Hemingway does every time he writes of himself, and of real stories that may or may not be true.
This book is set in one of my favourite eras - the 1920s - and that might have something to do with it. I liked the beginning and I loved the middle and was less enthusiastic about the ending. I loved the chapters from Ford Madox Ford and the Devil's Disciple to An Agent of Evil. They are funny, straight-forward and clear - all that I love about Hemingway when I love him. I especially liked Ford Madox Ford and the Devil's Disciple, at first for its description of the Closerie des Lilas and its clientele - "...and I watched how well they were overcoming the handicap of the loss of limbs, and saw the quality of their artificial eyes and the degree of skill with which their faces had been reconstructed" - and then for its hilarious denouement (for me, the joke lay not in the identity of "Hilaire Belloc" but Hemingway's "'Sorry,' I said.").
I was somewhat indifferent to the chapters about F. Scott Fitzgerald, probably because I haven't read him yet and partly because they stretch on too long. At the same time, his eulogy to Fitzgerald is moving: "His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings... and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless." I like how poetic Hemingway can get sometimes, the clarity of his words and his "distrust" of adjectives somehow combining to create a rough music.
The best thing about this book, for me, was the imagery; the people and places. The cafés and the racetracks, Paris in the winter, second-hand book hawkers, Monsieur Dunning est monté sur le toit et refuse catégoriquement de descendre, substituting lunch for the Louvre, the kindness of Ezra Pound, opium in jars of cold-cream, underground poker with the captain of the gendarmerie. I wanted to imagine everything golden brown and dappled by the shadows of afternoon foliage (that's how I always see anything between the 1910s and 1940s). I'd like to be cynical and say that this is just pretentious tosh and that every artist wants to be miserable if it makes them look good. But Paris in the Roaring Twenties has an inexplicable magic and I can't help but want to be there when you could be "very poor and very happy."...more
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 surroundedI 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....more
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 laThe 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.
I'm not a summer person. And while I often lapse into daydreams of leaving it all behind and running away to the countryside, I would choose the PacifI'm not a summer person. And while I often lapse into daydreams of leaving it all behind and running away to the countryside, I would choose the Pacific Northwest over Provence any day. I almost didn't buy this book: I had gone into my neighbourhood bookstore to get get another copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to replace my tattered one. How glad I am that I did (and also that it was ridiculously cheap).
I loved this book the way I love biscuits dipped in a cup of tea after a nice afternoon nap. Yes, the eulogies to food and the sleepy pace of life described at length in this book are that infectious. I read this book slowly, giving it a few pages each evening in between other books. This is a comfort read.
I loved the simplicity of life in Peter Mayle's Provence; I loved the food and the landscape, both natural and manmade. Most of all, I loved the people. They had a tendency to become one dimensional caricatures but they were endearing people, people you would love to know. What I loved most about the book was the kindness of the Provençaux, whether it's Faustin and Henriette, the melon millionaire or the cheerfully undependable workmen. I've been a big city girl all my life and it was with a mix of incredulity and emotion that I read of M. Sanchez's gift of wild mushrooms to the Mayles, even though they had only met the day before, even though the mushrooms were only mentioned in passing.
The book is a treasure chest of humour and I had to fight the urge to grab a marker and highlight every second page. Whether it's M. Menicucci and jeune, the irascible Massot, Fructus of the "vibrant socks" or - my favourite - the mason who broke his arm "playing football on a motorbike" they're all quaint, simple delights.
I realise, with some sadness, that this book was written in 1987 - the year I was born, incidentally - and that Provence today might be a different place. All the same, the moment I read the last page, I knew that this book was going to become a favourite, to be opened at random and read ever so often when life becomes a little too fast and furious, to add a touch of simplicity and calm....more
I wouldn't have read this book if it weren't for the constant Goodreads Book Club ads. Once I did, though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover thatI wouldn't have read this book if it weren't for the constant Goodreads Book Club ads. Once I did, though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it did have some of those elements that interest me after all. I love reading about time: it's the only true constant in human lives. So, I was looking forward to see how Jennifer Egan expands on the basic theme of this book: "Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?".
I liked the structure of the novel, the loosely interconnected stories. It was interesting to discover minor characters tucked away as protagonists in later pages, to see their journeys in the future and past. Egan's writing is sometimes quiet and beautiful: "... What moved Ted, mashed some delicate glassware in his chest", sometimes quick and witty. I am somewhat undecided about the infamous PowerPoint chapter. I like the concept and the title, Famous Rock and Roll Pauses reminded me of something Debussy once said that I love, about music being the silence between the sounds. Still, the writing was often self-conscious and pretentious (a grown woman, not a 12 year old is more likely to use the words "primordially cute"?) and this is one of the reasons that the book couldn't enchant me despite it's subject.
This book seemed like a more sophisticated version of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife in a lot of ways. Both are about time and both have an interesting approach ruined by unlikable characters and pretentious writing (although there's less name-dropping in Egan's book). Sasha is just not believable: when teenage girls run away to become groupies, more often than not, they are more likely to end up without a kidney somewhere than travel around Europe and Asia. On a side note, I don't understand the recent trend I've noted in a number of books, of quirky-but-troubled-pale-redhead heroines. These writers (it may be a coincidence but they're almost always female) seem to use physical appearance as a shortcut to character development, instead of you know, actually spending time giving a character depth and personality. Frankly, the offbeat redhead is as tired a cliché as the dumb blonde and the sensible brunette. As for the other characters, Jules is interesting until you have to plough through the tiresome rant that is his escapade with Kitty Jackson. Lou is never anything more than an old lech. To be fair to Egan, she does have some sympathetic characters, like Scotty, La Doll or even Bosco.
The tone is often depressing, as looking back on the passage of time is and Egan reminds the reader constantly of what time can do: "... such universal, defining symbols made meaningless by nothing more than time". However, there is also redemption. Egan doesn't forget the circular nature of time. Time taketh away, and time giveth....more
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 downI 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....more
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 wildernThere 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.