Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The frustration of reading blocks.

Well I have been missing in action for some time.  I had intended to continue to record my reading here, but, life did somewhat hijack my best intentions.  I suspect I may soon have a return, to time on my hands, as my current employer is currently undergoing a re-structure, and I am afraid, I may become surplus to requirements.

Anyway, on this tentative return to blogging, I just thought to write about the difficulties of reading blocks.  The sheer frustration of desperately wanting to find distraction in the pleasure of reading, when for some seemingly inexplicable reason you are unable to concentrate on, or finish a book.  I have just endured a month long reading block, that with each title picked up, and then abandoned,  my frustration and inability to actually read and finish something seemed to grow. In a way, each new title was condemned to failure even before I started.  This particular block seems to have had its origins in general uncertainty about the future.  I felt that particular demon lurking some time ago, but at the time I was immersed in an truly wonderful and compelling novel that demanded I finish it.  Perhaps, if I had not been so immersed in, and so far into the title, the block would have hit before the book could have taken me into its firm grasp, but this was a book that totally captivated me and by the sheer power of its intelligence distracted me from the smallness of my concerns.  Great writing can distract and change us, but only if we able to let it, to be able to fully engage with it.  So what was the novel?

Earlier this year I had a weekend in Sydney with B to see the Frida Kahlo exhibition.  Kahlo has been the subject of a recent obsession for B so it was opportune that the State gallery of NSW was holding a special exhibition.  Any trip away necessarily involves checking out the best local bookshops, since we were in Sydney that meant dropping into Abby's.  B has been on the lookout for a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Lacuna, a friend of hers had adamantly recommended it, particularly in light of her Kahlo obsession.  So Abbys provided the title and I spent the weekend listening to B enthuse about the novel as she progressed through it.  B and I tend to share reading tastes and it is kind of nice that we do.  So I to read, Lacuna,  which proved rich and rewarding.
image source

I loved Kingsolver's prose and the way she uses symbol and metaphor, everything contained in the novel is set up in the first chapter, which demonstrated exceptional craftsmanship.  On so many levels this was a rewarding read; as an historical novel, as an exploration of the role of the artist or writer, as a study of censorship and an exploration of identity and nationalism.  It was a totally engaging read, in part, because it was a novel that demanded my full attention.  It was not a passive easy read.  I sometimes think that I have trouble moving on from such novels and that when I finish a great read like that, I then struggle to engage fully with the next read.  After I finished Lacuna I seemed to be utterly incapable of getting into anything new and I tried.

I picked up book after book.  Some of the problem might have been connected to format, as several titles were eBooks. I must admit that I still much prefer to hold a book in my hands. I know I am no Luddite, and have been quick to embrace new tech, but I still prefer the sensation of reading a physical book.   In the last month I have started so many ebooks but have given up half way through, admittedly they were also books that in one way or another were connected to work, so maybe that also had an impact.

image source:
Last week the reading drought finally broke and I again seem to be able to read.  I still can't figure out what changed.  The book I finished on the weekend was one that I had picked up previously, only to put down, but last week I picked it up again and was able to lose myself in the world of that novel.  Not an intellectual read, but, certainly a very good escapist one.  The book was Ruth Downie's latest historical mystery, Vita Brevis.  I wish I new the formula for breaking out of a reading block, but the end always seems so random, for now I am just grateful I can again read to relax.  Finished another title after Vita Brevis and still reading, hope this keeps up and I don't fall back into reading lethargy.  And I have broken the blogging drought, yay.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Some recent reading

Still struggling with keeping up the blog.  Really need to organise my time better and work on discipline, anyway this is just a brief  reading update post.   Reading primarily non-fiction at the moment, with only one completed fiction read so far this year.  So what have I been reading:

Chasing Aphrodite:  the hunt for looted antiquities at the world's richest museum.
by Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino

This was a fascinating, journalistic expose' on the unethical and criminal behavior at the Getty.  Detailed and gripping, I was absolutely fascinated and horrified by the behavior of acquisitions and curatorial staff at this museum, unhappily they are not the only ones guilty of supporting looting.  One thing that does become obvious, is that having an abundance of money, much like power, corrupts absolutely.  Perhaps, if it had not been so easy to fork out millions for looted antiquities it would have been easier to do the right thing and report the criminal behavior of looters and dealers.
Part art history, and part true crime, this was a compelling read.  The authors capture fascinating personalities and render the story like an art crime thriller.  They add to the discussion about the management of antiquities and history, raising questions about nationalism and exploitation.  Think about the debate surrounding the Elgin marbles.  This was a fascinating read.

New dawn women: women in the arts and crafts and suffrage movements at the dawn of the 20th century. 
by V. Irene Cockroft

Next up I was looking to books that had information on the way life changed for women at the end of the 19th century.  I was particularly interested in the way that the arts and crafts movement intersected with the suffragette movement.  I stumbled across this interesting  if brief overview of that very topic.  Published by the Watts Gallery this was a great introduction to the subject but I was left wanting more.  The book introduced me to a couple of new names, fascinating women, who I want to know more about, like Ernestine Mills who created wonderful enamels, including  pieces designed as jewelry to advertise and support the  suffrage campaign.   This was a nice little book but I was really left wanting, so I think perhaps I need to seek out more on this topic; the suffrage movement in general and female artists of the age.  Lots of nice illustrations and a great introduction to some largely forgotten artists. A quick, easy read that I really enjoyed.

Arabesques: a tale of double lives
by Robert Dessaix

Robert Dessaix is always a compelling, stimulating wordsmith whose works, both fiction and non fiction are always worth reading.  I stumbled on this in the library while looking for something else, it was a sudden impulse read.  

Part memoir and travelogue, philosophical and discursive, it is, in part a book about the French Nobel laureate  Andre Gide.  Dessaix admires and has a sense of identification with Gide, and it is his interest in Gide, that inspires this personal account of travels in France and the countries of North Africa.  Dessaix ranges widely; religion, identity, aging, why we travel, are topics he eloquently explores.  Pederasty too is considered fair game, and love and attraction are also explored within the context of Gide's own unconventional personal life.  A fascinating read but definitely not a book for the homophobic, both Gide and Dessaix are gay, and the exploration of pederasty would make many readers uncomfortable. Dessaix left me thinking deeply about things like identity, friendship, and why we travel.  I found the opening chapter detailing Gide's encounter with Oscar Wilde in Algiers fascinating and completely surprising as I have not previously read about Wilde's travels in this part of the world.  I really must read more by Dessaix and there are least two recent collections of essays I will be seeking out.  

The lady in the van
by Alan Bennett

The last of my recent non-fiction reads, Alan Bennett's famous account of the elderly, homeless woman who lived out her days in a derelict van, parked in Bennett's driveway.  This is a gentle, charming memoir.  
Bennett felt sorry for the the eccentric Miss Shepard and let her park the van in his drive, leading to years of co-existence, and the story forming the basis for one of Bennett's most well known works. By letting her stay in his drive, Bennett effectively gave her a fixed address and some protection from the incessant harassment that the eccentric and vulnerable are subjected to.  There is humor and pathos in this simple story, drawn from Bennett's memories and diary entries.  The writing is simple and compelling, a quick read I, managed to almost finish it in one sitting during my pre-work reading and coffee time.   I felt enriched by the reading experience and the experience of knowing Miss Shepard and the unassuming compassion and honesty of Bennett.   It is an honest little book that does not gloss over
the reality of Miss Shepard's existence and their co-existence.  A compelling exercise in close observation and an enjoyable read.  I have enjoyed much of Alan Bennett's work, the wonderful plays;  The habit of art and The history boys and the delightful  novella,  Uncommon reader.  The Lady in the van proved to be a nice quick read and since I will almost certainly go see the new movie it was important that I finally get around to reading the story.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Soap opera history

Dynasty: The rise and fall of the house of Caesar
by Tom Holland

Knowing the past, or perhaps I should say, explaining the past, is always a challenging task to undertake.  At least with an author of the caliber and track record of Holland, you pretty much know you are in for an informative and entertaining read.  Combined with an account of the family that practically invented soap opera, that  is a safe bet indeed.   Sensation and scandal have surrounded the Julio-Claudians ever since they strode the streets of Rome and they have been the subject of titillating speculation ever since.  Tom Holland revisits the accounts of the Julio-Claudians and, while he does make some attempt to empathetically interpret some of their more outlandish actions, he does not really bring an overtly critical eye to the interpretation of the history of the first Caesars.  I suspect the title of this account, with its evocation of a famous soap opera, is no accident or coincidence.  This is an intentionally dramatic and sensational piece of popular history, filled with sex, violence and family scandal as only the Romans could deliver.

In some ways Dynasty attempts to interpret the distant past in light of contemporary issues and attitudes, which perhaps gives relevancy to the account.  Holland uses the past to make comment on current issues; migration, multiculturalism and religious conflict even terrorism have some counterpart in the ancient Roman world.  Holland quotes Claudius's speech to the senate advocating the acceptance of Gauls to their own ranks: "Everything we now believe to be the essence of tradition', he had reminded his fellow senators, 'was a novelty once.'  Why. Clausus, his own ancestor, the founder of the Claudian line,had been an immigrant.  Senators had duly approved Claudius's speech.  Gauls had been admitted into their ranks.  The Senate House had ended up just that little bit more multi-ethnic." (pp.371-372).  Claudius, of course has a somewhat privileged position in the ranks of the Caesar's, having a reputation that lacks quite the same tarnish, that titillating scandal bestows on the likes of Tiberius and Caligula.  Personally, I would have liked to see greater analysis of the interpretation of the history of these figures, and while Holland attempts to give some understanding of these infamous figures, there is no strong analysis or discussion of the interpretation of the history.  Where Claudius is concerned Holland merely confirms the image I have of him, which I must confess is largely gained from, and influenced by Robert Graves I Claudius and the the BBC's iconic adaptation of Graves books.

While Claudius may have been uncharacteristically well read and erudite, the theatricality of  Roman brutality finds its apotheosis in Nero.  I will not bother recounting the sensational stories of the Emperors here, they are mostly well known, and if you are not familiar with them, then read Holland's book, you definitely won't be bored.  I just thought I  would share this extended passage from the book and let the work speak for itself.  The passage refers to the aftermath of the great fire that destroyed Rome and may well have been lit at Nero's own instigation.  I just find the threat posed by Christians particularly evocative and relevant and again illustrates how the past has something to say about our present and how we react to events:

...Who better to devise a theatrical display of retribution than the man who had attempted to drown his own mother with a bobby-trapped yacht?  Sure enough, once the guilty had been successfully identified and arrested, they were subjected to deaths as grotesque as they were excruciating.  Some for the entertainment of spectators, were torn to pieces by hunting dogs; others were crucified in ways to calculated to make them look ridiculous.  The need to mock the arsonists as well as punish them was a pressing one - for otherwise they would have risked haunting the imaginings of the Roman people.  The culprits turned out to be the embodiment of everything that decent citizens had always most feared about immigration:the adherents of a sinister, not to say sociopathic, cult.  'Christians', they were called, after their founder, a criminal who had been executed in Judea back in the days of Tiberius.  Worse even than the Jews - whose teachings were at least ancient ones - they were motivated by 'a hatred for all the norms of human society': contempt for the gods, and  scorn for all those not in their sect.  Who could doubt, gazing at the smoking ruins of Rome, that they were the very embodiment of the enemy within?  Now, though thanks to Caesar's tireless efforts, they had been identified, and all was well.  Nero,ever the showman, devised a particularly brilliant reassurance of  this to his fellow citizens.  Not all the Christians were hunted like wild beasts or nailed to crosses.  Some, smeared with pitch and set alight, served as human torches: a punishment to fit their crime.  Erected in the Emperor's private gardens, they illuminated the flowers and grottoes which Nero had invited the Roman people to come and explore.  Nero himself, dressed as a charioteer, wandered affably among them, mingling with the crowds; the very model of a responsible and popular Princeps.  The message was clear.  Fire had been tamed, and a menacing superstition with it. The future, thanks to Caesar's good stewardship of it, was radiant.  Where before there had been darkness, now all was light. (pp 383-384).

Tom Holland's Dynasty was a fairly easy read but perhaps not his best book and perhaps not the best book on the history of the Roman Empire, but certainly a page turning read.  I would recommend reading it over Suetonius, or perhaps reading it with Suetonius's Twelve Caesars.  It is a very readable account if you are unfamiliar with the history but would like to know more.  Reading it made me want to pick up and re-read Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, still my favorite book on this time.  I read it when very young and now am  wondering if I will enjoy it as much now, so another title to add to my list of books to try and read this year.
This summary is very brief.  Mainly it is simply to give me some reminder of what I read, and record titles and impressions for reading challenges, in this case the non-fiction challenges I am participating in.  I am finding it hard to find time to read and blog.  Although after a particularly stressfull and unproductive week, work wise.  I have decided that I really need to stick to my goals on work life balance.  Being less stressed and therefore more focused is more effective, at least for me.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Gender, untold stories and a rambling account of some tenuously connected reading and movies

A bit of a meandering catch up post.  Christmas and new year was a bit of a break from work, so time to catch up on stuff and get myself organised for the new year, hence the determined return to blogging.  During the brief break I managed to see a couple of movies, one of which was the excellent Suffragette with Cary Mulligan.  A fantastic movie, I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Some minor liberties were taken with exact historical accuracy, but it was a compelling and I guess, entertaining drama.  Good script, great cast and performances, a great  movie.  Since seeing it, I have had someone suggest that it was a movie they would not take a male partner to.  A statement which is disappointing, but I guess not surprising.  Having worked with young adults, I know that while girls will read a book regardless of the gender of characters, or the masculine or feminine nature of cover art, boys will go out of their way to avoid reading books that feature female characters, or in any way smack of femininity.  I know we are starting to see exceptions, and Hunger Games, is probably the most obvious example, but as a general rule it has long been recognised by those who work with adolescents, that gender is a serious factor in regards to literacy and reading.  Sorry, do not want to go off on a tangent about literacy and gender issues, just want to say that the comment gave me some pause for thought and a vague sense of disappointment.  To me, Suffragette, is in no way a chick flick.  It is a compelling piece of drama that features both male and female characters, it just happens to focus on a piece of history that principally involves women.  It focusses on the experience of working class women within the suffragette movement.  If you get the chance it is a movie well worth seeing.

posted on YouTube by patheuk

Recent reading and viewing has made me think about the huge number, of as yet untold stories that are out there.  One of the books I read towards the end of last year was a biography of Effie Gray, simply entitled Effie by Suzanne Fagence Cooper.  Emma Thompson, used this book as the basis for her screenplay for the film Effie Gray,  another movie I enjoyed.  Effie's marriage and subsequent divorce from John Ruskin is well known, the story is one of the great scandals of the Victorian age, and like Suffragette, it highlights the oppression and  injustice faced by women.  When it came to escaping her unhappy and emotionally abusive marriage, Effie was fortunate only because she was able to prove her marriage had never been consummated.  Impotence was virtually the only option open to a woman in order to gain a divorce, and the circumstances of the Ruskin marriage was something of a bizarre oddity that has fascinated ever since.  The mystery of Ruskin's lack of attraction to Effie is one of the elements that Suzanne Fagence Cooper explores, but her account is about more than just that infamous marriage and divorce.  Essentially she writes about Effie's life and family within the context of the age, and the book delivers much detail on upper middle class life of the time and the Victorian art scene.  Effie also famously went on to marry the great Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Everett Millais.  Ruskin possibly tried to engineer an affair between Effie and Millais so he could divorce Effie on the grounds of adultery, a trap Effie managed to avoid.  The book records a great deal of detail about the Gray family, and of particular interest is  Effie's rather stunning and tragic younger sister Sophie, whose beautiful  and rather challenging face can be seen in some of Millais paintings.  Cooper makes some interesting suggestions about Sophie, and the impact of the  events surrounding her older sister and her complex relationships.  Sophie in adulthood suffered from anorexia, and the reasons for her condition allow for some interesting speculation.  I found Suzanne Fagence Cooper's account of the life of Effie Gray to be an utterly fascinating read.  I can see why Emma Thompson saw a movie in Effie's story.  I watched the movie on dvd and while the film really only covers the story of her marriage to Ruskin and her early encounters with Milais, it is a rather sumptuous and beautiful film to watch.  I hugely admire Emma Thompson, both as a writer and as an actress.  It is exceedingly rare for me to think a movie ever improves on a book, but Emma Thompson is responsible for my favourite film based on a book; Sense and Sensibility, possibly the only time I have ever preferred the movie to the book.  Effie Gray is not in the same league but it was an enjoyable movie all the same, visually stunning and with a great cast, but a little slow, so perhaps not everyone's taste in cinema.

posted on YouTube by    Movieclips Coming Soon

Some of my other reading towards the end of last year also featured art in a vague way, and made me think of the untold stories of women. I read Esther Freud's new novel Mr Mac and Me, largely an account of life in a Suffolk coastal village at the time of the Great war.  The novel is narrated by a young boy, Thomas Maggs, who befriends a mysterious Scottish artist and his wife.  Thomas thinks the mysterious Mac looks like a detective, with his cape and pipe, but Mac is no detective, he is the great Scottish architect Charles Rennie Macintosh.  What attracted me to the novel was the fact that it appeared to feature Charles Rennie Macintosh and his talented wife and while the Macintosh's are integral to the novel, it is really more about the impact the great war had on coastal villages at the time.  Rural life and close communities of experience are at the core of Freud's gentle, lyrical novel, which in its quite way highlights the plight of the outsider or the individual, the other. 
 Freud, almost in passing draws attention to the underrated genius of Macintosh's wife, Margaret, even Macintosh acknowledged that while he had skill, Margaret had genius.  I have to admit that I know only very little about the group of  artists, including the Macintosh's, that are generally referred to as the "Glasgow boys" or with some recent interest in the female artists of the same time the "Glasgow girls", but I am very intrigued, particularly about the emerging female voice in art at the time.  I would like to read more, especially about the Glasgow girls and I know there is an art book simply entitled Glasgow Girls, which is on my list of books to acquire.
So what did I think of Esther Freud's novel?  Well it was lyrical and eloquent, but rather slow and while the fictional characters that made up the village felt believable and well realised, the characters of the Macintoshs felt distant and not as fully realised.  I did enjoy the novel, although it took a bit to get into.

I won't mention all of the books I read last year while taking a break from blogging, but I will mention just one final book, and that is the Jane Harris novel  Gillespie and I, a Victorian mystery that is set in Glasgow in 1888, the time of the Glasgow exhibition.  A rather odd mystery, it involves a fictional artist and his family. The novel is narrated by a rather strange woman by the name of Harriet Baxter.  The novel is a curious study of unreliable narration, and Harriet Baxter is a rather complex character.  The novel is quite gripping, and despite its length, about 600 odd pages,  I raced through it.  I had high expectations for this novel and while I was captivated by the story and the suspense, I was left feeling a little unsatisfied by the book.  I found I generally disliked the characters, and the mystery held no real surprises for me.  I am finding it very hard to say too much about this title, without giving away spoilers, and given that the novel is all about suspence and mystery, spoilers are a definite no no.  Like the above mentioned books and movies Gillespie and I also seems to highlight the changing nature of the roles of women and the emerging of new opportunities.For any reader who likes mystery with an historical setting, in this case Victorian Glasgow, this might be a great read, although for me the book was ultimately a little disappointing.

Okay that was a bit of a catch up, on at least some of my reading over recent months and I doubt I will get around to blogging about some of the other books I read during the blogging break, but at least I have made a start, and so far I am sticking to my reading and blogging commitment.  I have finished my first read for the year Tom Holland's history of the Julio-Claudians; Dynasty, but that is the subject for another post.

Monday, 4 January 2016

More non-fiction reading challenges

Just discovered someone else is hosting a non-fiction reading challenge, Jen at Introverted reader, so I thought I might as well sign up for that one as well.
Jen has set up some levels for the challenge and I will be aiming for the explorer level of 6 - 10 non-fiction reads.
My first read for the challenge will be, as already mentioned my current read Dynasty by Tom Holland.  Dynasty is Holland's account of the Julio-Claudians and so far is proving an excellent read.
I outlined some possible reads for the non-fiction challenge, in a previous post and no doubt my list of titles will grow as the year progresses.
Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader

Saturday, 2 January 2016

A non-fiction reading challenge.

Okay, against my better judgement I am signing up for a 2016 reading challenge.  I have been really good in resisting the urge to sign up to so many great challenges, and choosing only this one; the non- fiction reading challenge hosted by Angie at Lady Knight reads.  Angie has made the challenge pretty low maintenance, with no restrictive lists or goals, so easy to jump in, and participate to any level you feel comfortable.  Non fiction seems a safe bet for me, since I seem to be reading more and more non-fiction, and finding it incredibly satisfying.  I think the current ratio is about 40% non-fiction and 60% fiction.  I wonder if my non-fiction reading will continue to grow?

I am starting off 2016 with a non-fiction read in the form of Tom Holland's new history of the Julio-Claudians; Dynasty: The rise and fall of the house of Caesar.  I also received a copy of entomologist Dave Goulson's recent account of rehabilitating a meadow called a Buzz in the meadow.  I read Goulson's account of bees; A sting in the tale last year and really enjoyed it.   I seem to read mostly history and natural history when it comes to non-fiction, so I want to try and choose some less familiar subject areas.  I have Neil deGrasse Tyson's, collection of essays; Death by Black Hole and other cosmic quandaries, on my TBR shelf so that will also be one of the titles I will read this year, and I would like to maybe try, and read something that relates to business and economics since that is a subject on which I feel totally ignorant.  I would also like to read Libby Connor's account of the life of the Aboriginal warrior Dundalli in her book entitled; Warrior.  That title seems to be a particularly important piece of local history, and is a book I am particularly looking forward to reading. 

I seem to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, often choosing a fiction title that relates to my non-fiction reading.  That was certainly the case last year when I found I was getting bogged down with a history of the Viking world, so I looked around for something in historical fiction to re-ignite my interest.  The result was I picked up Bernard Cornwell's; The Last Kingdom, about Viking age Britain and Alfred the Great.  That was a novel I greatly enjoyed, and as a the start of a series I still have many more titles to look forward to.  I must confess to a penchant for historical fiction.  I love the way that fiction can bring dry fact, to vivid life, and make a distant past seem more immediate and alive.  In the case of The last kingdom it also proved a great escapist and relaxing read.

If anyone has any reading suggestions please leave them in the comments, I will be sure to check them out.

Happy New Year!

Well Happy New year!!!
I have been so slack about keeping up the blog.  But here we are again.  The start of another year,  the traditional time for beating yourself up over your general lack of discipline and other failings.  Time to promise to do better this coming year, and publically commit to improvements.  So what are my new years resolutions?
Well I resolve to try and update the blog at least once a week.  I resolve to continue getting to work at least an hour early everyday and spending that hour sitting in the coffee shop or refec with a coffee and a book. 
I also resolve to jump on the exercise bike every morning, just for a few minutes before jumping in the shower.  I am such a couch potato and I really need to find time to fit in some physical activity.  I could go for a walk in the morning, instead of coffee and reading.  The uni has some lovely spots to walk, like the Japanese Gardens and the Gumbi Gumbi gardens, but still I don't want to give up my morning reading time.  Maybe I should aim for an afternoon walk after work.  I tend to write off the worst of the summer months for outdoor exercise, because of the heat, so I am not committing to anything too demanding.
I am very wary of making resolutions I know that I am likely to break, so I am keeping this simple and realistic, no grand promises.  So my resolutions are simple I resolve to engage in realistic exercise in the form of an intense, brief session on the bike.  To spend an hour every morning reading and to continue making healthy sensible choices in diet.  My biggest resolution is to commit to the discipline of blogging at least once a week.   I would like to work on general organisation and stop time wasting where ever possible.  Where work is concerned, I resolve to always 'eat the frogs' first and be especially focussed and organised. I even plan on cutting back on  my Goodreads 2016 challenge in order to keep things realistic and pressure free.  So all in all a pretty dull list of resolutions. 
So Happy new year and may 2016 be a happy and productive year for everyone!

Monday, 7 September 2015

Slack blogger - quick update.

I have to confess to incredible slackness with the blog at the moment, new job, a bit preoccupied with the learning curve and general adjustment.  I find it hard to switch off and just relax after work, that is part of the reason the blog is neglected and I am behind.  So just a brief post on latest reads.  I finished The Martian by Andy Weir  and what a rollercoaster of a read that was.  The blurb:

A mission to Mars. A freak accident.  One man's struggle to survive
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there. After a dust storm nearly kills him & forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded & completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—& even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark isn't ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—& a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?  

 I will keep this brief.  The novel has great pace and suspense, hard to believe that a novel that largely involves the trials of one man, on his own, with no other human to interact with could be so compelling, but it is.  I am sure others have made comparisons with Robinson Crusoe and that is a pretty apt comparison, although Mark Watney's struggle is much more immediate and tense that Robinson Crusoe's story.  Watney staggers from one emergency to another in his struggle to stay alive long enough to be rescued.  I loved his black humour and optimism, it made the novel a very enjoyable read.  I also enjoyed the way the novel presents the underlying science of his predicament and efforts at survival, although I felt uncertain about the accuracy of some of it.  My other half, who is much better informed on that front, assured me that the novel is plausible.  It is the kind of novel that makes science exciting, especially those hard core physical sciences that are so challenging for people like me.  I could see this novel being particularly useful for inspiring an interest in science, space travel, engineering etcetera, a great book to give to young adults and I suspect a particularly good book for teenage boys.
Weir has written a great read, but I also suspect he has tapped into a current zeitgeist of interest in extra terrestrial travel given the talk about future travel and colonisation of Mars.  In The Martian he is allowing us a very vivid imaginative encounter with space travel and the red planet.   Curiously, Weir originally published the novel onto a blog before it was picked up by a main stream publisher and became the phenomena that it has, which just goes to show what absolute gems can be found on the web.  It is also worth mentioning that it is a debut novel, making Weir an author to watch.

And some other reading; The Remarkable Friendship by Ann Galbally.  The blurb from Goodreads:
Journeying through the struggles and failures of artistic life in the late 19th century, this tale details the lifelong friendship between Vincent van Gogh and Australian painter John Peter Russell. Amid the highly competitive art world of Paris in the 1880s, van Gogh and Russell spent years together experimenting with—and ultimately rejecting—Impressionism before going their separate ways to pursue painting in isolation.
I sought this one out because I was initially curious about the Australian artist John Russell and was surprised to discover his deep involvement with other artists of the time, including Van Gogh. It is informative, but quite academic and perhaps a little dull despite the fascinating figures of Russel and Van Gogh and so many other significant figures from both European and Australian art of the time.  Galbaly does provide extensive descriptions of the art culture of the time and the experience of art training in Paris.  This does seem to be a fairly obscure academic publication, so perhaps a title with limited appeal, interesting, but a bit of a slow read, or maybe that was just me.   I feel like I learnt something, but it was not a book I particularly enjoyed.

What else have I read, well I did finish Hemmingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro,  Hopefully I will find time to post on that one soon but right now I just want to find something new to read for the next week, something escapist and diverting, really need to find something relaxing.  I must apologise for not being online and visiting and reading blogs, hopefully I will catch up.  Hopefully this week will see things settle back to normal and I can get  back into the routine.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Is there a future? The Sixth Extinction.

The Sixth extinction
by Elizabeth Kolbert

Over the last half billion years, there have been five mass  extinctions on Earth.  Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the next one, which is predicted to be the most devastating extinction since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs...

This was one of the most depressing books I have read for a long time, despite Kolbert's efforts to remain positive and optimistic in her concluding chapter; The thing with feathers.  This is an important, and informative book, but the ground that it covers is pretty bleak, but then a book about extinction both past and current was never going to be cheerful reading. 

There have been five major extinction events in Earth history to date, evidence of which are  recorded in the geological record. Currently we seem to be witnessing another such event slowly unfolding.  It is extinction science both past and present that Kolbert is exploring is this readable account.  The book did win the 2015 Pulitzer prize for general non-fiction, and I noticed it was also on Barack Obama's summer reading list.  I would suggest that it should be on everyone's reading list, given the rapid rate of change we are currently witnessing.

In many respects, The Sixth Extinction functions as an introduction to a variety of fields and ideas related to extinction.  It can seem a little superficial at times, as it does jump around between disciplines and environments, but it is unified by its overarching theme.  The book is a conversation starter.  It confronts the reader with the reality of declining biodiversity and challenges the reader to face the reality of such loss and the possibility that ultimately humanity itself may follow other species into oblivion, somewhat ironically given that as Kolbert argues it is primarily human actions that are currently driving extinctions.  This is not another book heralding disaster in the form of climate change, although climate change is one element. 

Kolbert looks at recent catastrophic declines in certain species, such as amphibians, particularly frogs, to conclude that human activity has disastrously contributed to that decline.  The decline in amphibians is largely due to a fungal infection that most species have absolutely no  resistance to.  Kolbert presents the argument that the spread of the infection began with the widespread use of African clawed frogs in pregnancy tests in the fifties and sixties.  African clawed frogs, Kolbert states do not seem to be adversely affected by, the fungus, though they are widely infected with it.  She continues her argument with North American bullfrogs, another species infected but seemingly adverse to effects, which were also widely spread for human consumption.  She sums up the argument as the 'out of Africa' and 'the frog leg soup' hypothesis, (p18).  The key factor is the human factor, the fact that we inadvertently spread this fungus into vulnerable populations with no resistance and no means of fighting back.  Kolbert discusses the rate of evolution and the fact that change is happening so rapidly and at such a rate that evolution and adaptation are not real possibilities for most species.   Climate change, spreading infection, habitat destruction or change and ocean acidification, are all occurring at rates that limit the ability of life forms to cope and all are threats that in one way or another are being driven by human activity.

Kolbert reports that scientists believe we have effectively entered a new geological epoch:
Meanwhile, whatever the future holds for rats, the extinction event that they are helping to bring about will leave its own distinctive mark.  Not yet anywhere near as drastic as the one recorded in the mudstone at Dob's Linn or in the clay layer in Gubbio, it will nevertheless appear in the rocks as a turning point.  Climate change - itself a driver of extinction - will also leave behind geologic traces, as will nuclear fallout and river diversion and monoculture farming and ocean acidification. 
For all of these reasons, Zalasiewicz believes  that we have entered a new epoch, which has no analogue in earth's history .  "Geologically," he has observed, "this is a remarkable episode."
So what should the new epoch be called?  According to Kolbert, "Anthropocene" is the front runner, with a conclusive decision on the existence and naming of the epoch due in 2016. (pp.106-107).

The book ranges across the disciplines of natural science including geology and evolutionary biology and ocean and climate science, Kolbert visits locations and research projects  across the globe, reporting from the field on diverse projects.  The book has a journalistic feel and is aimed at the everyday reader rather than the specialist.  Kolbert's account is personalised, allowing the reader an easy hook into the science.  The reader is a witness to diverse and global change, because Kolbert takes you to the sites of that change, which at times is dramatic and tragic.  Again highlighting the human factor Kolbert looks at recent decimation of bat populations in the US.  Bats like frogs have been infected with a fungus that has lethal consequences, leaving colonies as nothing but macabre graveyards:
... Apparently at one point there had been dozens of bats hibernating inside it.  Now there was just a layer of black muck studded with toothpick sized bones.  She recalled having seen, on an earlier visit to the cave, a live bat trying to nuzzle a group of dead ones...(p.214)

 The bat fungus can also be traced to human action, having been probably spread via tourist caving sites from Europe where it originated.  As social animals, it is quite hard for us not to be moved and horrified by the plight of so many creatures with whom we share the planet.  The future is not without hope, desperate efforts are being made to protect and preserve what we still have, but it is hard to remain positive in face of so much devastation.  Kolbert is offering a warning in The Sixth extinction, she quotes Richard Leaky; "Homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction but also risks being one of its victims."  Throughout the book she stresses the interconnectedness of life on earth and the delicate balance in which existence is poised.  In providing this synthesised overview she does risk being seen as sensationalist and alarmist but it is hard, if not impossible, to argue with the gravity of the situation we are currently facing. 

Sunday, 16 August 2015

"Revenge is a dish best served at auction..." The art of Forgery

I have been holding off on posting on a great non-fiction art read, mainly because I purchased it as a gift for Bronte who has  a particular fascination with fakes and frauds and as a future curator, this for her is a professional interest as well as a passion.  Sneakily I purchased it with the intention of quickly reading it before handing it over to B as part of her birthday gift.

The art of forgery
by Noah Charney

Art, crime, revenge and psychology, this was a great read, absolutely fascinating and after reading it I can now understand Bronte's fascination with forgery.  It is fascinating; why are forgeries so prolific, why do artists commit forgery, why are people so willing to fall for a skilful forgery.  Charney, an expert in art crime, examines forgery throughout the history of art, so this relatively small volume actually covers a lot of art history, and has a lot to offer anyone with a general interest in art.  Charney is fascinated by the motivation and psychology of forgers, who after all, generally don't begin as career criminals, but rather as artists themselves.

The book takes a historic and case study approach, covering all the major known forgeries under a general thematic organisation, based on the motivation of the forger, thus the book has chapters such as; pride, revenge, fame, money, power, just to mention a few.  Art forgery is not the only kind of forgery discussed, The Piltdown man, and the Hitler diaries are also examined, as is the issue of wine forgery.  While Charney does devote some space to the discussion of technique, his main interest is the motivation and general thinking behind the desire to commit a forgery.  What sort of person becomes a forger?  Charney does point out that conceptions of originality and uniqueness are a very modern way of thinking and that traditionally artists train by copying. 

Charney wants to condemn the criminality of art crime, but I can't help but feel, that despite his protestations to the contrary, Charney has a kind of admiration for some of the great forgers.  Admiration may be the wrong term, perhaps it is just a kind of empathy, certainly some of the forgers mentioned come across as quite likeable characters, forgers like the infamous Eric Hebborn, perhaps the greatest forger of the 20th century.  Hebborn, a complex and undeniably talented, and clever man was certainly motivated by revenge.   Revenge is a big motivator for fraud and one of my favourite lines from the book is: "Revenge is a dish best served at auction."

I am afraid my bolshi tendencies make me inclined to be a little sympathetic with someone who sets out to get even with an art establishment, that he felt exploited and rejected him. Like many forgers, I am intolerant of pretension and snobbery.  And I have an intrinsic sympathy and fascination with the outsider and underdog.  A healthy distrust of pretence and elitism is perhaps a contributing factor as to why so many forgers seem to approach the activity with a sense of irreverence and humour, like the artist Lothar Malskat who painted medieval frescos that included turkeys, (native to North America and not existent in Europe at the time), and Marlene Dietrich, also somewhat foreign to the medieval period.  Malskat wanted to be found out and have his own genius acknowledged but you have to admit that the inclusion of turkeys and Dietrich, does indicate a sense of irreverence if not humour.

The book also includes some discussion of the troubles facing collections like the Getty, with some discussion of issues like looting, an issue that has particularly plagued the Getty and made it vulnerable to exploitation by forgers.  Failures in communication, or perhaps, unintentional presentation of forgeries, in the case of exhibits of the terracotta warriors are also mentioned.  Ultimately forgery succeeds, because, for whatever reason the viewer wants to believe, and that includes experts, that raises all sorts of questions about value and why we privilege certain things over others.  The book also discusses those occasions where galleries and museums have held specific exhibitions of forgeries.

This was an absolutely compelling and fascinating read.  I bolted through this book, not just because of my limited time frame to complete it, but because I didn't want to put it down.  Charney is a great story teller, and this book is a collection of absolutely gripping stories.  His prose is easy to read and the narrative he presents is not only wide ranging and informative, but entertaining.  I should also mention that the text is richly illustrated.  After reading The art of forgery, I will certainly be on the look out for other books by Charney.  The art of forgery is a great introduction to, and overview of forgery in general, and of art forgery in particular.  For interest sakes I have embedded the book trailer below, the trailer is published by Phaidon Press  and can be viewed on YouTube .  I discovered YouTube is full of videos about forgers and including many documentaries about the very forgers that Charney discusses  including a documentary about Hebborn.  I won't embed them here, partly because I suspect copyright is iffy, but I will include this link: , for anyone who might be interested.
Also  there is this great podcast with the author that is well worth checking out:

And just by way of a taste of Charney's account, this is the opening of his introduction to the material:
"Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains! Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maximilian that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings? Listen! And bear in mind that if you do so, through spite or through covetousness, not only will your goods be confiscated, but your bodies also placed in mortal danger. "
– Albrecht Dürer
This may well be the most belligerent copyright notice ever penned. It appeared in the colophon to an engraving series called Life of the Virgin¸ published in Nuremberg in 1511. Its author and the creator of the engravings, the great painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer, had good reason to fear forgers.
Five years earlier, Dürer had received one of his prints from the original 1502 Life of the Virgin series, sent to him from Venice by a concerned friend. Dürer’s prints were wildly popular throughout Europe, considered highly collectible and yet a more affordable alternative to commissioning an original painting. Dürer cultivated his status as a celebrity artist, one whose name alone, associated with a print or painting, would raise its value. He was perhaps the first internationally self-promoting artist in history, more akin to a Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, from a publicity standpoint, rather than the solitary, morose likes of his contemporaries, such as Giorgione or Pontormo. He even created what some consider the first artist’s trademark: a stylized monogram signature featuring a small upper-case letter “D” between the legs of a large upper-case letter “A.” The authenticity of Dürer’s prints was assured by the inclusion of this famed monogram-cum-signature.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Reading block and postcard exhange

I seem to be trapped in a bit of rut in regards to reading and blogging, a bit missing in action at the moment.  This last week seems to have been a particularly bad one.  I am usually a pretty prodigious reader and yet in the last week I have struggled to concentrate and every book I pick up, fails to grab me.  The less I read, the more frustrated I become.  I have decided to put aside any book that fails to reward the effort at the moment, often that is not the fault of the book, but just a quirk of me and where I am at.  One title I put aside in the last week or so was a David Mitchell novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I love Mitchell, and this particular title is one I have been saving up.  I am not even really sure what the problem is, it is definitely a title I am extremely interested in, and one that the majority of readers seem to love, and yet I just cannot get into it at the moment.   I am also currently reading two great non-fiction titles, but even they are not inspiring me to sit and read for any length of time and I hate that.  It is definitely not the books, but me.   It is not helped by the fact that I feel pressured to read, and finish at least one title, as B borrowed it from the uni library for me.  I think part of the problem might be my habit of reading more than one title at a time, which normally isn't a problem, but whenever I have a reading downturn, trying to focus on more than one title is the absolute death of reading, especially if there is any pressure to finish one of the titles. 

Reading block is a well documented phenomenon on book blogs, unfortunately no one seems to have come up with a fail safe cure.  If you know one, please share it with me?  In the mean time I will just try to chill out about reading.  Maybe restricting my choices might help.  I have been thinking of giving myself an extended period of just reading books from my own current shelves.  No new purchases allowed, and only read or re-read, things already on the shelves, maybe that would help.  I keep finding great new titles, I buy them and then feel guilty if I don't read them straight away.   The other thing that sometimes helps, is a change of scene, and finding time to just go sit in a good café and read; good coffee, good book, just the right level of scenic distraction, alone of course, no one to distract from the book. 

I am also behind on posts about books I have actually read.  I find if I don't blog about a title fairly promptly I loose impetus and the content starts to fade a little.  I guess I will eventually catch up.  The internet itself, is a terrible distraction, I am amazed how much time I can waste on pinterest or blogs and news sites.  Sometimes I really just need to move away from the screen and do something constructive.  Sometimes I seem to end up wasting time, when I know I should be doing something useful, like applying for new jobs, procrastination is a vicious and self destructive behaviour and I know it feeds into my time wasting.  This is a frustrating and ridiculous problem.  Talk about your first world problems.  Essentially where blogging is concerned I know I need to remain disciplined, in fact, it is that discipline that is half the attraction of blogging.  I just need to remember sometimes not to get distracted.

But on a positive note, I did discover one cool thing in recent weeks; the postcard exchange.  I discovered it via Debbie's excellent book blog Silk & SerifPostcard exchange is a Goodreads group, in which, each month members exchange post cards, via snail mail, who doesn't love surprise mail.  This will be the first month I have participated but it sounds like such a fun way to connect to other book lovers from all over the world, so I have signed up.  Follow the links if you are interested in joining, and check out Debbie's blog Silk & Serif, aside from anything else I just love the name.  I am always on the look out for interestingly named blogs, I figure the name is often a good indication of the creativity of the author. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Shirley, Charlotte Bronte's condition of England and position of women novel.

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them, both for good and evil: their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend.  Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other's creations, worshipping the heroine of such and such a poem - novel - drama, thinking it fine and divine!  Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial - false as the rose in my best bonnet there.  If I spoke all I think on this point; if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first rate works, where should I be?  Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.” (p.343).

by Charlotte Bronte

I have fallen so far behind with reading/book posts, so I will keep this brief.  I read Shirley for the Victorian Celebration in June/July.  It is a novel that was a re-read for me, I first read it as a student many years ago.  At the time I had initially found it hard to get into, but ended up absolutely loving it.  How do I feel about it now?  Well my feelings on this particular novel are quite complex.  Again, I found it initially, a hard book to get into.  It does not have the immediate grab that Jane Eyre possess, but that is quite possibly just me, having already read the novel I approached it with a different kind of expectation.  The novel does pick up and after the first hundred odd pages it becomes quite a compelling tale.

Shirley is Bronte's "condition of England" novel, dealing as it does with the luddite revolt in the North of England and the economic implications of the Napoleonic wars and the hardship they cause.  The novel is also a fiercely feminist document, that examines the position of women in society and makes a passionate case for equity and respect for women.   Romance is also at the heart of the plot, despite Bronte's claims to the contrary.  The novel revolves around two principal female characters, the first of whom is Caroline Helstone, orphaned, who lives with her uncle the Reverend Helstone.  Caroline is quite a complex character, damaged by her family relationships; abandoned by her mother and subjected to a lack of love and respect from her uncle.  She is isolated and vulnerable, intelligent yet frustrated in her efforts to achieve some kind of independence.  She is in love with her cousin, the mill owner Robert Moore but knows that Robert must marry someone with an independent income, something she lacks.  Shirley Keeldar, an independent, headstrong, young heiress arrives in the neighbourhood and rapidly becomes Caroline's friend.  Caroline assumes that Shirley and Robert will eventually marry.  There are several twists and turns in the plot, revolving around both potential romances and parental relationships, but all ultimately serve to allow comment on the position of women in society, and it is on that theme that the novel is especially strong. 

The plight of the poor and the hardships incurred as a result of the wars, "orders in council", (restrictions on trade), and the emergence of labour saving technology, are almost secondary, to what is clearly an issue deeply felt by Charlotte Bronte at a very personal level; the position of women in society.  The novel is interesting for the insight it gives into what was a period of great turmoil.  While Bronte sympathises with the poor, she clearly has less sympathy with those willing to fight for their rights with violence, and machine breaking.  In that sense the novel can seem a little conservative in tone and ultimately patronising in its attitude to the working class and poor.   Bronte does aim to intelligently examine the issues and bring balance to her portrayal of the history, I am just not sure that she always succeeds.  This is a complex novel and one that rewards close examination  and re-reads.  I am already wondering if perhaps I should not schedule another read in the future. 

The characterisation of the two young women is fascinating and compelling.  Shirley's embrace life and meet all challenges attitude, is charismatic and appealing, but it is Caroline's vulnerability that is most interesting.  In a way Caroline is a more interesting character, she does not have the comfort of an inheritance to give her some cushioning from the bruising realities of life, and in many respects is completely powerless in the face of what life ordains for her.  With a sense of desperation she attempts to get her uncle to agree to her seeking her own life as a governess, something which is opposed by all concerned.  Nor is life as a governess very favourably painted.  And yet there is no other option, for a woman of that class, at that time. Circumstances leave Caroline completely disempowered.  Feeling powerless, in face of her love for Robert, which circumstances make impossible, and powerless to act in any way independently, she becomes ill.  Caroline begins to virtually will herself to die.  Only in the sphere of her personal health and continued existence does she seem to have any kind of personal power, which she begins to exert, at one stage becoming seriously ill.  It is only the intervention of another woman and the revelation that the mother she thought had abandoned her, is again present in her life that Caroline again returns to life.  In many respects this is a very angry novel.  Angry about the lack of love and concern for vulnerable children.  Angry about the selfishness of some adults.  Angry about the disempowered position of women and the plight of the poor and working class. 

I will attempt to keep my thoughts brief and merely sum up my response to reading Shirley.  It is a novel which could inspire a much more lengthy discussion.  I did again struggle with the novel a little at first, but it is worth the effort.  It is complex, full of ideas, some of which at times seem counter intuitive, I am thinking of attitudes to class, work and poverty.   And while often very angry, it is also capable of producing moments of humour, like the incident where Shirley throws a pretentious, begging, curate out of her house.  I loved the fierce feminism of the text.  The way it portrays the capacity of women to respond with defiance and fortitude.  It is not a novel that will appeal to everyone and I would never recommend it to someone looking for a light read.  It is not Charlotte Bronte's best work, but it is worth spending some time with, in fact it is one of those novels that does invite the reader back for deeper acquaintance.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Quick final Paris in July!

Oh dear, time has gotten away from me and I have not updated on reading as quickly as I should, or planned.  I still have not managed to find time to post on Charlotte Bronte's Shirley which I read for the Victorian celebration or my final Paris in July reads.   I think this will just be a quick interim post and I will post on Shirley early next week.  For Paris in July I ended up going with some French noir for the end of the month and read some Georges Simenon, which I really enjoyed.  Simenon is an author I will be reading more of, for two reasons: firstly I really enjoy the psychology and observation that underpins his crime stories, and secondly I really appreciate the extremely tight writing, brief but powerful prose.  Simenon's short novels can each be read in one sitting or perhaps two.  I will not post at length about the Simenon novels now but will save it up for when I have a little more time.  I have really let things get away from me and I have failed to post on some other classic crime I read a few weeks ago, so I will throw something together soon.  I am thinking about crime and vicarious travel; Agatha Christie and the middle east and Simenon and France, particularly the Paris of Inspector Maigret.

This is just a quick post to conclude my Paris in July participation, which was heaps of fun.  I have enjoyed my Paris themed reading.  I have extended my reading list and discovered some great new blogs.  Reading others posts has made me want to visit Paris again, one day maybe.  I just wanted to get this quick post in and thank Tamara at Thyme for Tea for hosting this fun event.  I look forward to participating in future Paris in July events.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

An afternoon in Paris with The Age of Desire.

The age of desire
by Jennie Fields

This is one of the many titles I have been introduced to via Paris in JulyLisbeth @ The Content Reader reviewed this one early in the month, check out her post.   Lisbeth's review alerted me to Jennie Fields and this title, it  
just sounded like the perfect read for me at the time, just enough substance with the escape of a remembered romantic past, it didn't disappoint. 

I love historical fiction, and that was the appeal for me, I was looking for something with a belle epoque, or very early 20th century setting, and this title which begins in 1907 was perfect for that.  Essentially it is an account of Edith Wharton's life in the early 20th century, her complex marriage, friendships, relationships with the literati of the time and an unexpected romance.  I must confess to not being a reader of Wharton's work, but not having any kind of investment in the Wharton legend was probably an advantage in approaching this novel.  I did not feel in any way that the fictional Edith of Fields' novel disappointed my expectations.  Sometimes taking real people, especially literary figures as characters can be a bit of a fraught activity for an author, as the invested reader already has an image of the person and their voice in their heads, which may not gel with the character presented.  I guess I wondered how someone more knowledgeable of Wharton and her work would react to this novel.  For me it was a reminder of a significant gap in my reading and an inducement to go off and read some of Wharton's work.

The novel is set mostly in Paris and at the Wharton's American home "The Mount", with the occasional detour to another location.  Fields does wonderfully evoke the Paris of the time with its salons and bohemian literati, the likes of Anna de Noailles and Henry James featuring as minor supporting figures.  It  is at a salon, that Wharton first meets Morton Fullerton, the rakish American journalist living in Paris and working as a correspondent for the Times.  The novel largely revolves around Edith's emerging sexual awaking and romance with Fullerton.  I have to admit that I did not find the romance all that interesting, I was more fascinated by Edith's deteriorating marriage and her husband's all to obvious bi-polar state. The Wharton's marriage and the tragedy of it's passionless, and loveless state was, to me more interesting than Edith's sexual awakening with Fullerton, who despite being her intellectual equal emerges as  little more than a sexual opportunist. Neither major male character, Fullerton or Teddy emerge as particularly admirable figures.  What is interesting and compelling is the women, Edith and even more interesting was Anna Bahlmann, originally Edith's governess and now her p.a.  The complex relationship between these two women was intriguing,  Anna and her position as the handmaiden to Edith's creativity was fascinating.

I can't really add much more to the discussion of this novel, except to urge readers to check out Lisbeth's post.  It is a good historical fiction read, perhaps not a great novel, but certainly diverting, entertaining and for me at least informative.  Reading it did make me want to curl up with my favourite French Earl Grey tea and some of the raspberry macaroons that Fullerton gives to Edith.  I was out of French Earl Grey but did discover an excellent alternative in a Madame Flavour tea, Afternoon in Paris.  A black tea with roses, vanilla and berry notes,  it felt romantic, and decadent and helped provide an evocative escape.   French Earl Grey is one of my all time favourites, so I was surprised to find a tea in the supermarket that compared so favourably, it does not have the bergamot flavours of Earl grey but it does have the fruity floral notes of the French version of Earl Grey and I think I even preferred the vanilla flavour to the bergamot.

Thirty six views of the Eiffel Tower also arrived and is as gorgeous as I expected.  I don't buy a lot of art books as they tend to be very expensive, as a result I am especially selective in my purchases.  This one was not really expensive and definitely worth getting.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Paris, Japonisme and Henri Riviere

In the last week I had an unexpected Paris in July experience, one of those amazing serendipitous moments, and made a discovery that took my breath away.  Visiting the Queensland art gallery is something of a regular and default activity when in Brisbane, the gallery entrance costs us nothing and so from a young age the gallery has been a serene and familiar escape from the world.  It was on my most recent visit that I turned to see a new acquisition that astonished me.  There is one room in particular that B (daughter), and I always visit.  In the past it mostly contained Asian ceramics and Japanese prints, recently some of the items have been changed, the Satsuma is no longer on display and the netsuke have been reduced in number, but a selection of Japanese, "floating world" prints remain on display.  The room is now more about Japonisme, than Japanese arts themselves.  A selection of impressionist works, including Degas, now feature, and it was in this room that I encountered something so striking and beautiful, it simply left me astonished and awed by its beauty and simplicity.
Expecting Japanese works when I first glanced at a series of prints on one wall, I thought ukiyo-e, ‘pictures of the floating world’, but then I noticed the subject, which was not the typical scenes of Japan, but rather it was, soft, muted colours showing Paris scenes, all in one way or another featuring the distinctive Eiffel tower. The work was entitled, 36 views of the Eiffel tower by French artist Henri Riviere, and according to the signage a recent acquisition.  I found myself standing before these images amazed at their striking beauty, simplicity and powerful evocation of Paris.   The title evokes the famous Japanese prints of Hokusai and his series of 36 views of Mount Fuji.  I have a casual awareness of Japonisme, I was aware of the influence of Japanese prints on the impressionists, but I was totally unaware of Henri Riviere and here was a French  artist who absolutely epitomised Japonisme, integrating another culture so absolutely and effectively in the evocation of  the most evocative of Parisian icons.  The prints were astonishing and I felt utterly ignorant in never having encountered Riviere before.  I stopped at the gallery shop in hope of picking up some post cards or a book, but to no avail, the only book I could find that referenced Riviere, was a rather expensive exhibition volume on Toulouse-Lautrec and the avant-garde at the end of the 19th century, so my research had to wait until I got home but I was utterly captivated by Riviere's striking images.

Since then I have learnt a little about Henri Riviere and unable to escape from the evocative images I have ordered a publication that re-creates Riviere's 36 views of the Eiffel Tower, still eagerly awaiting its arrival but in the meantime I thought it was worth sharing this discovery and experience as part of Paris in July.  The images I am sharing here I have borrowed from the QAGOMA blog site and their brief description of the Riviere  works:, a link worth checking out for an introduction to this striking work and Japonisme in general.  Riviere was as obsessed by the Eiffel tower as Hokusai was by Mount Fuji and I also discovered that there are some very striking photographs by Riviere of the construction of the tower see this link to the Musee d'Orsay. 
The other thing I learnt via Wikipedia was that Riviere is perhaps most famous for his work in creating shadow plays for the celebrated Chat Noir café.  This I feel will  be an ongoing interest and area of personal research for a while.  I see books on Japonisme in my reading future.  I was certainly very taken with Riviere's 36 views of the Eiffel Tower.  The soft, subdued autumnal and winter shades and scenes, seemed to really speak to me, as on both occasions that I have visited Paris it has been in winter,  these images capture the feel of that time of year exactly.  The images seem to perfectly capture not only the famous icon but the nature of Paris in the early 20th century; with a sense of modernism and modernisation, a sense of cultural experimentation and cultural integration, a place of excitement and serenity, experimentation and beauty.

Below is another of the views that I found on the web, the original article and image can be found here;
Please feel free to leave me some suggestions for further reading on this topic, right now I am working from a position of complete ignorance, and let me know what you think of Henri Riviere's views of the Eiffel tower. 


Thursday, 16 July 2015

The moon and sixpence - Somerset Maugham

Another Paris in July post.  I have been wanting to read Somerset Maugham's The moon and sixpence for some time and given that a large section of the novel takes part in Paris it seemed a good choice for Paris in July.  The inspiration for the novel was Paul Gauguin, although in Maugham's story the artist is English rather than French.   Maugham's main character, Charles Strickland is, like Gauguin,  a middle aged, middle class, married, stockbroker, who abandons everything to pursue a career in art.  The  novel is about obsession and art, the drive to create it and how behind creative genius is a force that is oblivious to the sensitivities of others.  The creative force becomes something basic, primitive and unable to be ignored.
This was a compelling and engaging read although the first few pages felt a little turgid, but once I got through those first few pages it became a gripping account of the creative drive.  Maugham's artist is not a likable man, in fact by modern standards he could be described as sociopath/psychopath, that, or the victim of a monumental midlife crisis.  Strickland is middle aged and married with children, he has previously given no hint of an interest in art or any kind of alternative artistic career and yet he suddenly abandons his wife and children who had no inkling of his inclination or intention.  The story is narrated by an unnamed writer, who is acquainted first with Strickland's wife, but then pieces together the narrative from his own experience of Strickland and later from the accounts of others who knew him.  Strickland is shown to be utterly callous in his abandonment of family, but then is as equally uncaring about his own comforts, choosing to live in absolute and utter poverty, caring only that he is able to paint. 
The novel begins in London, but very quickly moves to Paris, where Maugham narrates the account of Strickland's Paris life.  The unnamed author also embarks on a Paris sojourn, recording the café and artistic life of the time and Strickland's brutal engagement with others.  He is utterly insensitive to both the kindness and sensitivities of others, another artist, an enthusiastic but relatively untalented Dutch painter takes an interest in Strickland's plight, recognising his genius when no one else does, at least not yet.  When Strickland becomes seriously ill he takes him into his own home and nurses him back to health, only to have Strickland take over his studio and his wife.  Strickland treats the woman with equal contempt, merely wanting to use her temporarily as a lover and model.   He cares nothing either for the kindness of others, or the harm he inflicts on others, leaving a string of casualties in his wake.
Eventually the anonymous author loses touch with Strickland, but later in seeking to conclude his account he presents the accounts of others who encounter Strickland first in Marseilles and then in Tahiti, where the driven artist eventually ends his career, another obvious similarity with Gauguin.    
Maugham cleverly avoids too much direct description of the art, he uses the opinion of peripheral characters to hint at its primitivism and importance.  The narrator himself does not particular like the paintings when he does finally see them for himself, making the art itself secondary to the artists drive to create, which emerges as something primal, barbaric and painfully honest, much like the character of Strickland himself.  This is a brilliant piece of writing and despite the unpleasant nature of the main character, this is a novel that is hard to ignore and very hard to put down. 
If I have any qualms about the novel, it is that there is a bit of a misogynist tone to Maugham's writing, a chauvinistic contempt for the sensibilities of women:
“Women are strange little beasts,' he said to Dr. Coutras. 'You can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your arm aches, and still they love you.' He shrugged his shoulders. 'Of course, it is one of the most absurd illusions of Christianity that they have souls.”
I sometimes felt he did not like his female characters, but then, there is also a sense that he finds much in men he does not like either. Perhaps it is just his attempt to write honestly about the human condition that leaves me with that impression and maybe I am being unfair, nevertheless, this is a remarkable novel, well worth taking the time to read.
“Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener's aunt is in the house.”