Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Portrait of Edmond Maitre (The Reader) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Oil on canvas
22.23 cm x 28.89 cm (8.75 in. x 11.38 in.)
Currently in a private collection

Renoir is a master of impressionist style and his paintings are notable for their saturated color with people in intimate and candid compositions at the center of them. This painting is a fine example of that with Maitre portrayed casually reclining on the couch with a book in which he appears to be engrossed.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Griet, the young daughter of a tilemaker in seventeeth century Holland, obtains her first job, as a servant in Vermeer's household. Tracy Chevalier shows us, through Griet's eyes, the complicated family, the society of the small town of Delft, and life with an obsessive genius. Griet loves being drawn into his artistic life, and leaving her former drudgery, but the cost to her own survival may be high.

When Tracy Chevalier was a guest on BBC World Book Club she said that the longer she looked at the eponymous painting the more she wondered about the relationship between the subject and the artist, and what made the girl look so yearning and fearful at the same time. This book is an exploration of these questions and answers, and it packs a surprisingly hefty punch for such a slim novel. The surprise is of course a result of the 600+ page tomes we are so used to nowadays, and is a reminder that a book doesn't have to be heavy enough to pass for a weapon or a small boat anchor to hold a world vivid enough to make a reader want to explore it further and characters so complex and full of personality that they stay with you long after the book is finished.
In a lot of ways this novel is like a painting, with symmetry between various characters' relationships, juxtapositions of actions and traits, and repeating details that tie the story together. Just like in the painting Griet is at the center of the novel, with her small world reflected in the pearl earring she must wear to complete the work of art. She is an unusual teenager, by current standards, with her sober appraisal of people and situations, clever navigation of the Vermeer household and her being almost completely distanced from her own emotions and relying on reason more than feelings in her decision-making. Had it not been for their respective circumstances I think she would have made a good partner for Vermeer, despite their age difference, for while devoted to his art she does see the world outside of it. She would balance him out in a way that nobody in his family does.
There is quite a bit of allegory and symbolism in this novel, which also reminded me of works of art. While in New York last week I visited The Cloisters museum and the guide there explained every detail of a statue as a symbol of something relating to the patron to whom the statue belonged. I got a similar impression reading this book that a lot of what happened or existed in the story had a special meaning. Sometimes the allegory is subtle, sometimes it's obvious, but it works nonetheless.
There are as many conflicts in this novel as there are symbols and the main one, the one that drives the story, is rooted in Griet's internal struggle between a good protestant girl who takes pride in clean floors and starched caps and a passionate girl in love with colors and beauty. I think this is the discord Vermeer captured so well in his painting and I commend Chevalier for writing it so believably.
The language of the book and Griet's voice work very well with the subject and plot of the novel. There is restraint and spare prose which are easy to associate with protestant sensibilities, and there are also glimmers of the more liberal aesthetic that runs as an undercurrent in Griet's personality, hidden from everyone, just like her hair, but showing through in her eyes and actions.
I never really understood why Griet's role as assistant to and later model for Vermeer was to be kept secret from his wife. It is true that there was animosity, and the situation could be seen as different despite the fact that this was not the first time Catharina lent her clothes or her jewels for her husband's paintings, but had everybody not acted in an unusual fashion and had they been upfront with Catharina the drama could have been avoided. This novel wouldn't be what it is though either, so I suppose the drama was necessary.
I've been thinking about this book since I finished it, mulling over Griet's decisions throughout the novel, Vermeer's single-minded focus on his work at the expense of everything else, Maria Thin's place in it all and Griet's parents' contribution to the story. I wonder how close Chevalier's interpretation is to what really happened between the Vermeers and the girl with a pearl earring and whether had even one character been different the novel would have been as engaging as it is. The paperback copy of the book I read was on loan from a friend, so I will be purchasing a copy for my home library, because for me this one is a keeper.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Week On The Go In New York City

This week you may have noticed that there wasn't a regular Wednesday post or a Sunday review post. This highly unusual behavior is due to the fact that I went on vacation and hadn't done anything but sightsee. It was wonderful. There was so much to do and so much to see that I was on the go all day every day and returned to the hotel in the evening exhausted and full of impressions. Here are some of the highlights of the trip:

Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum
This is the original library that was part of the Morgan mansion and it was recently restored and made accessible to the public. Photographing of the exhibits was not allowed, even with no flash, so I had to be satisfied with taking pictures of the room. As you see it is amazing and the very informative audio commentary made up for the photography restrictions.

St. The Cloisters Museum of medieval art
Here the only restriction is that flash photography is not allowed and I took advantage of that taking pictures of the beautiful medieval tomes like this one. This is St. Augustine's City of God and it is my favorite of the collection, despite it not being the oldest one, because of the way it is illuminated. I thought it the most beautiful of them all.

New York Public Library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building branch
This is the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, where all the furnishings are original from the day when the library was first opened in 1911.

While visiting the library I saw the Charles Dickens The Key to Character exhibition and later during the guided tour the guide showed us Dickens' original desk, chair and lamp in one of the rooms closed to the public. Fortunately the room has glass doors so I can show you where Dickens worked. The object in question are in the very back corner, partially obstructed by the desk where modern scholars work.

In the Children's Department there is a case with the toys that inspired A.A. Milne in his creation of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. The bear was the toy he bought his son for the boy's first birthday and the collection grew from there.

And last but not least the best souvenir of all for a book nerd: the NYPL library card. It is valid for three months and even though I'm not in New York any more I can use it to check out their digital items. Can't wait to try it!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary

When Susannah Delaney discovers her young son is being bullied and her adolescent daughter is spinning out of control, she moves them to remote, rustic Sounder Island to live for a year. A simple island existence--with no computers or electricity and only a one-room schoolhouse--is just what her over scheduled East Coast kids need to learn what's really important in life. But the move threatens her marriage to the man she's loved since childhood, and her very sense of self.
For Betty Pavalak, who moved to Sounder to save her own troubled marriage, the island has been a haven for fifty years. But Betty also knows the guilt of living with choices made long ago and actions that cannot be undone. "A Simple Thing" moves beyond friendship, children, and marriages to look deeply into what it means to love and forgive - yourself.

When I first picked up this book I wondered if it was going to be one of those character-driven novels where there is a lot of talking, very little actually going on, and by the end of which you're wondering what is it exactly you've just read. I am not too big of a fan of those. But "A Simple Thing" turned out to focus both on the characters and on plot. From the very first chapter it was obvious that Susannah is a woman who is not afraid to act, even if fear is what propels her. She, as well as her children, made things happen, and I liked that about them as much as I liked that Susannah recognized her mistakes and was willing to correct her course when necessary. She may seem flighty to some, but to me she is a woman figuring it out as she goes, and I feel that this makes her relatable for most people. Betty, the second protagonist, is her antipode in many ways, a solid, sure woman who makes plans and follows them, even if she realizes later on that she has made a mistake somewhere. The blurb on the back cover suggests that both Susannah and Betty undergo a transformation but I found this misleading. Suzannah is the one discovering herself and while Betty's story often mirrors that of the younger woman she has already recovered from the pain of her past and is now there to sympathize, listen, and provide a gentle nudge in the direction of healing.
A novel such as this one I think relies heavily on the author's ability to create a sense of a place, not just set the scene, but make you comfortable in the setting. McCleary does this very well and in a way that doesn't intrude on the characters or their journeys. By the time the book was over I felt as if I knew what it's like to live on Sounder, understood the rustic nature of the islanders' existence, and even loved the place for the simple comforts and the camaraderie. This even made me yearn for a place like that in a way, until it occurred to me that this sort of romanticized portrayal was very fitting for the perspective of a person who, like Susannah, is not really passing through but not staying either, and that given more opportunities Betty might've revealed more gripes than just having to take care of the chickens, who clearly don't hold a special place in her heart. After all, living in a tiny community for decades can't be bliss all the time, no matter how much hard work there is to keep people out of each other's business.
There are a few good messages woven into this novel, and one of my favorites is the one that talks about the necessity of nurturing oneself. We forget about that much too frequently and it really is a universal truth that applies to both men and women, although women are the ones who need reminders most frequently. Susannah getting in touch with her artistic side after a hiatus of many years was the turning point of the book for me, echoed by Betty's recollection of the time whine she remembered that she was more than just a woman who took care of everything and everyone. The parallels between these two women's lives were eery at times, and while they are very different people their stories somehow anchored each other, showing that no matter how different the people the same principles of recovery apply.
For the most part this was a very enjoyable book filled with interesting characters (Barefoot stole every scene he was in and Katie definitely made things interesting with her indomitable spirit) and sage advice on subjects such as guilt, responsibility, knowing when to hold on and when to let go, and it worked for me until almost the very end when a dramatic event seemed to be too over the top to fit in with the rest of the story while remaining its climax. That chapter was well-written but it was just too much for me, although it did help Susannah put a lot of things in perspective and move forward with her life. Throughout the book this was a relatively subtle story with the struggle mostly internal and turning it almost into an adventure story at the eleventh hour seemed incongruent.
A friend offered me an ARC of this book when she somehow got two copies and I'm glad that she did. It is a solid novel and I won't hesitate to pick up other novels by Kathleen McCleary should I happen upon them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Not so very long ago, Eragon—Shadeslayer, Dragon Rider—was nothing more than a poor farm boy, and his dragon, Saphira, only a blue stone in the forest. Now the fate of an entire civilization rests on their shoulders. Long months of training and battle have brought victories and hope, but they have also brought heartbreaking loss. And still, the real battle lies ahead: they must confront Galbatorix. When they do, they will have to be strong enough to defeat him. And if they cannot, no one can. There will be no second chances. The Rider and his dragon have come further than anyone dared to hope. But can they topple the evil king and restore justice to AlagaĆ«sia? And if so, at what cost?

Christopher Paolini and I go way back: Eragon was one of the books that in a way led me to starting this blog. When I finished it I wanted to talk about it, share my thoughts in a place that was mine and where my comments wouldn't get lost in the shuffle of thousands. So I posted my thoughts on my then-personal blog. Several months later I realized that what I really wanted to talk about was books, so after testing several platforms Bibliophile's Corner as we know it was born. Now, over two years later, I read the last installment in the story of Eragon and Saphira and their fight against the evil Galbratorix and I'm very impressed with Paolini who at such a young age created such an elaborate and sprawling story with excellent adventure, insightful commentary on the human condition, and characters who grew and evolved in the most satisfying way.
If there is a book or a series the Inheritance Cycle reminds me of it is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It is a bit simpler and scaled down but it has the same concept of a quest, an unlikely hero, lots of races and languages (can you even imagine creating a whole new language, let alone five?), armies marching through lands and a seemingly omnipotent villain. I'm not much of a fan of bloody battles and longish conversations about affairs of the state so there Paolini lost me just as successfully as Tolkien did. Fortunately there was enough to keep my interest in between and I particularly enjoyed the sections where Roran was the protagonist because it gave a different perspective of events as well as a view from a position of no magical powers and the struggle to keep up and hold one's own through sheer will, courage, determination, creativity and intellect.
Throughout the book Paolini revealed secrets and brought plot lines to conclusion, many of which began as early as the first volume, and I couldn't help but admire his plotting prowess. With Inheritance it becomes that much more obvious how much planning went into this series, and anybody who can do this as well as Paolini did is undeniably talented. Not all mysteries were revealed but there are plenty of hints to allow the reader to connect the dots and draw their own conclusions. I do wish however that we learned the true names of Eragon, Saphira and Arya - in the course of the book they discover and reveal them to each other but not to the reader. Then again, maybe it was intentional to avoid possibly disappointing the readers, it happens so often that the hype surrounding the affair is greater and more exciting than the affair itself.
When I think about what is my favorite part of this book I inevitably come back to the battle with Galbratorix. That chapter was so full of bare humanity despite all the magic, of intentions true and misguided, and alliances that seemed unlikely but nonetheless made perfect sense that it made for an excellent culmination of the struggle that's lasted through most of the series. It was very satisfying to see how things turned out despite the fact that it wasn't exactly a 'happily ever after' for everyone, and, fittingly, it was the strongest chapter of the book.
Now that the last book in the series is finished I have been thinking about the kind of person Paolini must be to have written a book and a series such as this. He is very young, not even 30 years old, and yet his books are full of the kind of thoughtful perceptiveness I would expect from an older person. His examinations of right and wrong and how one gets there as well as his insights into human nature are often startling in their simplicity and truthfulness, and I still have one of the quotes I copied from Eragon or Eldest hanging on my cork board. I'm glad to have given Eragon a chance way back when and I look forward to what Paolini will reveal next, and judging by the hints he's dropped in an interview for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association there's much more to come.