A historical novel about the last months of Van Gogh's life, imagining a romance between the painter and the daughter of a (historical) quack doctor w...moreA historical novel about the last months of Van Gogh's life, imagining a romance between the painter and the daughter of a (historical) quack doctor who was treating him at the time.
I rarely ever stop reading a novel part-way through, but I'm sorry to say that I disliked the prose style of the author enough to do so in this case after only about five or six chapters. I just found her writing style extremely flat and unengaging. Part of the trouble is that the author is constantly spelling things out that would be better illustrated through character actions or descriptions, and so even though it's all grammatically smooth, and there are even the occasional interesting and nicely-phrased descriptions, I kept feeling like I was reading something written for first graders.
The whole thing is narrated in the heroine's voice (the doctor's daughter), and she's constantly telling you things like, "I felt attracted to Vincent, despite the fact that he resembled my father, whom I never respected very much." Or, "My brother clearly wanted to compete with me for Vincent's attention." The book could have been so much better if these endless flat sections of matter-of-fact narrative could have been replaced with scenes of dramatic action or interesting dialogue. For example, she could instead have written something like, "When Vincent met my eyes, heat crept up the back of my neck. My father shot me a look of annoyance." In short, she's constantly and repetitively telling you everything about the characters and their background and their relationships to each other, rather than showing you by what the characters do and how they interact with each other.(less)
Though it kind of reads like a powerpoint presentation at some points, this is a really interesting and useful guide to the realities of violence for...moreThough it kind of reads like a powerpoint presentation at some points, this is a really interesting and useful guide to the realities of violence for writers who (God willing) will never experience anything close to some of the darker things they have the impulse to explore in writing. I don't think my writing - or reading of literary scenes of violence - will ever be quite the same again after reading this, and that's a good thing.
An unassuming self-published book written in very unassuming, direct, and non-literary prose that nevertheless is a worldview-changer (along with confirming some things about violence that I've long suspected). The author's voice also feels very trustworthy because of his unadorned, no-bullsh*t approach.
I would love to see an expanded, more polished, traditionally published version of this book. I also would have liked a nice long solid bibliography or list of books for further reading at the end of it, and an expansion of the firearms chapter, particularly more depth about gun wounds since they are so abused as a narrative device both in movies and literature - since the author notes that firearms are a huge topic and he is leaving a lot of information out.
The chapter on historical and cultural issues ("violence in other places and times") was a little rough and weak, and I would have loved to see a much more in-depth treatment of historical violence, though I realize that might go beyond the author's expertise. It's easy enough to grasp the basic point that if your social/cultural/historical norms are different, you might have an easier time accepting or participating in certain kinds of violence - but to what degree are there "universals" that persist through time and culture? As a historical novelist I'm very interested in making characters relatable to modern-day readers, so the universals, if there are any, or the aspects of human psychology that are relatively resistant to change across time and cultures, are extremely important. You want to strike a balance between historical accuracy in getting into the "mentality" as well as the factual world of your characters, and still make their reactions like enough to those of modern-day readers that the reader can identify with them.
In George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, his characters engage in levels of violence so extreme and ubiquitous - presumably in an effort to capture some realities of the medieval world, despite the fact that it's a fantasy series - that I personally struggled with whether any world that took place on our earth peopled with real human beings could be so non-stop brutal and merciless. My own theory is that even in other times and cultures, the majority of people at base just want to go about their business in friendly peace with each other, and human impulses to avoid violence and show compassion are persistant, even in societies where the cultural norms and external circumstances are very conducive to violence, and individuals' peacable impulses may be in conflict with the society's overall violence. But I guess it would take a very big book and maybe several Ph.D.s in anthropology and psychology and history to really get a good handle on the degree to which that might be true.
Edited to add: I keep think of more items to put on my wishlist for this book. I would have also loved to see more discussion of how being under the influence of alcohol or drugs affects the various kinds of fighting and violence he discusses.(less)
A popular-style history of Herod the Great's successors, by a British author, from the late 1950s. This was kind of fun and well-written, a readable s...moreA popular-style history of Herod the Great's successors, by a British author, from the late 1950s. This was kind of fun and well-written, a readable summary of the main classical sources, but the style is so, so 1950s British. I'll admit, that was part of the fun for me ... Perowne goes around making value judgments right and left, in a way that would never fly for a historian today, and clearly writes from a Judeo-Christian-centric perspective. If you can groove with the dated style and just want a readable overview of the history, it's pretty accessible - you just have to take the opinionated bits with a few grains of salt! May not be the best pick for more advanced history buffs or academic researchers though.(less)
Very interesting and readable biography of Hans Christian Andersen - long though! Interestingly, the biographer includes a kind of literary vignette a...moreVery interesting and readable biography of Hans Christian Andersen - long though! Interestingly, the biographer includes a kind of literary vignette at the start of each chapter - a kind of imagined short story involving Hans Christian Andersen. I wasn't quite sure what to make of those, and I was honing in on specific aspects of HCA's biography, so I mostly skipped them. HCA is a fascinating figure - very confident and persistent from a young age in his vision of his own destiny as an author, and throughout his life a constant hard worker and prolific producer in his craft. He was famous throughout Europe, though more respected abroad than at home in his native Denmark; an extremely social being for a writer, but also socially strange and awkward, and it seems in later years ever more self-centered.(less)
I was curious to read the original versions of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (La belle et la bete in French), so I checked out this collection o...moreI was curious to read the original versions of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (La belle et la bete in French), so I checked out this collection of translated French fairy tales from the library. (I wasn't confident enough in my French to try to read them in the untranslated eighteenth-century original.) There's a great introduction which explains a lot about the historical context in which the tales were created - they were a product of salon gatherings during Enlightenment-era France, and gradually developed and mutated as social, economic, and political conditions in France deteriorated under the rapacious and incompetent monarchy of the Ancienne Regime. Rich and highly educated women led these salons, and the tradition arose of telling long elaborate fairy tales that were supposed to sound like spontaneous creations, though in fact the women carefully composed them in advance and in writing and then memorized them so as to sound spontaneous and natural. The first version of Beauty and the Beast is actually quite bizarre ... it goes on and on and just gets weirder and weirder and weirder - I finally gave up on getting all the way through it and just skimmed it. The better-known abridged version that came later, at the hand of another "salonniere," is much better.
Interesting, but not anything you'd ever want to read to a kid ... these stories were meant for grown-ups.(less)
A fascinating look at how French culture, language, identity, and borders took shape, particularly during the 1700s and 1800s. I read some chapters an...moreA fascinating look at how French culture, language, identity, and borders took shape, particularly during the 1700s and 1800s. I read some chapters and skimmed others, but on the whole I was surprised at how readable, charming, engaging, and well-written this was. Granted, I came to it with low expectations, since anything with the word "geography" in the title I automatically assume will be a slog to get through. But the author knows how to tell a story, and he weaves together a fabric of strikingly detailed anecdotes rather than organizing the material didactically point-by-point. The overall effect for me was feeling myself transported back in time, immersed in the motley patchwork of tiny villages and dialects and myths and religious practices of provincial France of centuries past. I loved this book and strongly recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in French history and culture.(less)
Translation seems fine (not that I know more than a few words of Danish), but it's just a bit frustrating because the translator picks and chooses whi...moreTranslation seems fine (not that I know more than a few words of Danish), but it's just a bit frustrating because the translator picks and chooses which dates to cover, and you don't know if you're missing good stuff or can just trust her that the missing parts are boring. Interestingly, she includes some stuff that strikes me as TMI (e.g. "loose stools today ...") I really wish there were a complete English translation of the diaries, but haven't been able to find one so far.(less)
Only got the chance to skim a few chapters, but some fascinating stuff. The chapter on abortion and birth control was very moving. I wish there were m...moreOnly got the chance to skim a few chapters, but some fascinating stuff. The chapter on abortion and birth control was very moving. I wish there were more attention paid here to prostitution, because the question of how prostitutes dealt with those issues is interesting to me. But she explicitly, unfortunately, excludes them from her scope. Which is a bummer, since the other big work I read on French 19th-century prostitution, Corbin's (Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France After 1850, barely goes into the issue at all either. And it really seems like it'd be a major concern for your average prostitute!(less)
A charming, well-written look at a culturally rich time in France's history, Napoleon III's benevolent dictatorship. Rather than writing a straightfor...moreA charming, well-written look at a culturally rich time in France's history, Napoleon III's benevolent dictatorship. Rather than writing a straightforward big-picture political history, Williams chooses instead to illuminate different aspects of the period by giving us a biography of a different pivotal figure in each chapter. There are chapters on political influencers, the composer Halevy, the artist Corbusier, writer and literary critic St. Beuve, an educator, a scientist, a promenient woman, and so on. I thought it was great, really fun and a nice way to delve into the cultural and "daily life" history while still getting a good sense of what was going on politically.(less)
In this massive doorstop of a book, scholar Ephraim Urbach explores the worldview of the rabbis of the Talmud through the primary texts. Urbach's thor...moreIn this massive doorstop of a book, scholar Ephraim Urbach explores the worldview of the rabbis of the Talmud through the primary texts. Urbach's thoroughness is an amazing achievement, and reading through just a few chapters will leave you much more enlightened about what rabinnic Judaism is all about than when you started. The big limitation of the book, however, derives largely from the nature of the rabbinic sources themselves - namely, that this literature arose out of oral traditions as a compendium of legal rulings, rather than through the systematic effort of a unified author's effort ... as a result, Urbach's careful scholarship, through no fault of his own, often is incapable of conveying a sense of historical context - instead, it often starts to read like a series of paragraphs arranged by topic that sound like: "And then R. Such-and-such said this, and then R. Whosit said that, and then R. Thingamajig said that." That said, this is a fabulous resource if you have the patience to work through individual chapters.(less)
I gave up on trying to get all the way through this, because the sad fact of the matter is that it was just too bloated and meandering to hold my inte...moreI gave up on trying to get all the way through this, because the sad fact of the matter is that it was just too bloated and meandering to hold my interest. I skimmed probably the last hundred pages or so, and it just gets creepier and creepier with all the incest and Victorianly tacit free love between creepy people.