Saturday, August 9, 2014

stones of florence

I borrowed this book from my office lending library. It looks like the type of thing someone might have read before a trip to Italy, to get a sense of Florence so they would be better informed about where to go, what to do, and to better understand Florence's people. It may also have been assigned reading in a design studio or art history course. However it ended up in our lending library, I will say that Mary McCarthy does seem to have done the research and has certainly traveled to Florence many times in the preparation of this book.

The Stones of Florence is a travel book, and art history book, and a history of Florence rolled into one, but it reads more like a travel journal. McCarthy gives us a sense of what its is like to be there (in the 50s, when this was written) * and weaves in the history behind what she sees, and then ties that history to the city that remains; was built and shaped by it, right down to its people. McCarthy describes the people of Florence as different from other Italians because of their unique history. McCarthy focuses on the Renaissance period as the most formative and walks us through the various political and religious upheavals in the city (or dukedom, before the unification of Italy) and the rush of famous artists who descended on the city, and the architecture which still exudes that uniquely  Florentine attitude.

McCarthy is--surprisingly, I guess--not a big Michelangelo fan (she refers to him as monomaniacal at one point), much preferring Donatello, saying;

"Michelangelo was the last truly public sculptor, and his works, so full of travail and labor, of knotted muscles and strained, suffering forms, are like a public death agony, prolonged and terrible to watch, of the art or craft of stonecutting."

This lady's not fooling around, or pulling any punches. This was fun to read, not least because of the time perspective; I found it really interesting to look at the Renaissance and 'modern' Firenze through the lens of 1956 pop America.


[A closing note: I was on vacation for the last two weeks in July, and I read a bunch of books. Some of these reviews and thoughts may be out of order, and may be slightly vague in my memory now.]


* I read the 1963 paperback version of this books which does NOT include the illustrations of the original 1956 book. I just discovered this (doh!) If you're going to read this, it seems like it would be better with the illustrations.



Friday, August 8, 2014

james deans

Reed Farrel Coleman's books can be hard to find. I talked about that a little when I described how I ran across copies of his books in Vermont in a review of Redemption Street. Unfortunately, the store I found didn't have a copy of all of the Moe Prager novels, so I ended up reading them out of order. I read The James Deans and Empty Ever After in the past few weeks while on vacation. if I think of it, I'll come back here and add a link to the review of the next one once I write it 

Maybe more than other series, it seems like it would be a good idea to read these in order if given the opportunity. They are dependent on one another, but one of the important aspects of the Prager character is his strong ties to the past, so the past comes up a lot in the books, and if you haven't read one of them, then the good news is that Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. The bad news is: Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. read them out of order and get ready for some subtle spoilers

The James Deans is a mystery inside of another mystery, and guess when one of them takes place. Yeah, in the past. Prager feels like he may just be lucky rather than talented when it comes to his detective work, but if you're successful, why does it matter. The fact that he thinks about it at all is where the interest in these stories lie. The Moe Prager novels are told first person, so while Prager tells his story, he also tells us all of the other things he's thinking as well, but that doesn't slow these stories down at all. In fact, these novels (the ones I have, anyway) are pretty short. The writing is lean and on point.

The James Deans may be more than one mystery inside a mystery, or it may be mystery inside mystery, inside mystery, its hard to tell. its turtles all the way down Coleman knows how to build tension, and surprise into his stories, and he's not afraid to do things that his readers don't expect.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

blood of flowers

This is not the normal type of book I read--if one could actually throw a net over the kinds of books I read--but it got the thumbs up from my wife so I gave it a go. It falls into that group of books written by women, and seemingly targeted to women, that I have occasionally read in the past (Diamant and Kingsolver, I'm looking at you) and which is sometimes referred to as Chick Lit. Or at least, it was, when that was a hip thing to say, like 10 years ago. The Blood of Flowers is good enough however, just as the others I've linked to above are, not to be simply dismissed as genre books.

Anita Amirrezvani penned this novel of Isfahan, Persia in the 1600s, which follows the life story of village girl who moves away from her village to Isfahan when her family falls on hard times. Her life in the city is a trial and she is often close to starvation or some other type of destruction which is sometimes caused by, and other times resolved by her stubborn nature. In fact, I think the entire novel is an examination of what its like to be a woman in this historic Islamic society, and what it would mean to be strong-willed and driven in such a case. Amirrezvani's character longs for power over her own destiny and that drive moves her forward, but also irritates some in the male-dominated world in which she lives, and she is made to suffer for her dreams as well.

Amirrezvani also weaves stories within the story: tales and fables told by women to one another, to give counsel, to give comfort, and to commiserate. These tales take the reader outside the story for a few pages, and even outside the time of the novel, and tie the novel to a larger social context. They give the story depth and texture and often help to illuminate particular points the author is trying to make without being too heavy-handed.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

shadowings

I borrowed Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn from my office lending library yeah we have a lending library and I didn't know what to expect. Half-way through, I still didn't know what to expect. Hearn is an international type guy. He was born (according to a Wikipedia article about him) on the Greek isle of Lefkada (presumably where his middle name comes from; full name Patrick Lafcadio Hearn) to an Irish father and Greek mother. He father happened to be stationed there during the British occupation in the 1840s. Lafcadio came along in 1850. A broken home and a re-stationed father left young Lafcadio bopping around for a while, until he made his way to the US in his late teens. A few years later he found work at a newspaper, and by 1890 was sent to Japan on a story, and he never left.

Hearn stayed in Japan and continued to write, and eventually took the Japanese name: Koizumi Yakumo. He became pretty well know internationally for his writings about Japan, and Shadowings is one of those books. Shadowings seems like a collection of whatever Hearn had on his desk when print time came, and maybe all of his books are like that. This volume includes translations, and re-tellings of traditional Japanese folks tales, the history and meanings of Japanese female names, and at the end a series of ghost stories and essays about dreams. Sometimes dreams about ghosts.

These essays at the end--which are written by Hearn, as opposed to researched and documented or translated, like the first half of the book--are where the book comes into its own. The essays are like a cross between Tom Robbins, Edgar Allan Poe, and maybe a little Carl Sagan or someone like that. He's very honest with himself, his writings are almost journal entries, and he's questioning and probing all kinds of things: life, and its meaning, the after-life, a higher-power (or lack thereof), reincarnation, love, humanity, and the nature of intellect. He even tries to figure out why Gothic architecture is gloomy, and does a thought experiment on the crowd behavior. This is a busy guy!

I didn't love this book, but it was interesting to read.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

her (robot love iii)

I don't do a lot of movie reviews, and I'm not even sure this is a movie review, but I saw her last night by Spike Jonze starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson and I had to write about it. It has everything that I've been interested in, when thinking about the singularity, all in one place; things I've written about here on the blog in the past. Spike Jonze actually showed up most recently here at the blog, when I wrote about his sci fi short: I'm Here. I titled that blog post to recall another post about this subject, robots in love, or maybe more accurately, people in love with robots.

The robot jr. post has one of the highest hit rates on the blog, and I just had to write it after running into one too many references to folks falling in love with artificial intelligences. AND, I probably should add, I've got this sci fi book of my own that's been brewing for years, and there is some artificial intelligence interaction in my story as well. One of the reasons I'm drawn to these stories is so that I can witness all of my fresh ideas from my 20 year old book being scooped while my book languishes, but enough about me!

Jonze and company look hard at the potential realities of future human/artificial intelligence relationships and what they come up with is much like you might expect for any inter-species relationship: some things are amazing, and other things, not so much. What I found fascinating was how closely the hiccups and major road blocks to such a relationship--as well as the uncanniness of some element--struck nerves with me that are very closely tied to feelings I have about fairness, equality, and human rights.

Are these types of relationships the next logical step for mankind as some would have us believe, or will they be a more modern version of the typically ill-fated May-December relationship?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

redempton street

I heard about the Moe Prager novels on NPR at some point a while ago. I'm not sure what the show was, but they had some folks on there making recommendations, and it may have even been for summer reading. This was a few years ago and I took a note and looked them up. Based on what I heard on NPR, I thought my wife would like them, but they were a little hard to find. I didn't find them at my library and they didn't have them at the Barnes & Nobel, but I did find them up in Vermont. I was driving through Brattleboro on the way to Manchester and I stopped to eat and found a bookstore that specializes in mystery books. The bookseller knew exactly what I meant and told me he actually met Reed Farrel Coleman when he visited the store himself.

I wrapped up three books from the Moe Prager series and sprung 'em on the better half, and she started with this one... but didn't like it. bummer So I gave it a go and I can see why she didn't like it, its done in the old style. Think first person private dick, film noir, chit-chat and private banter knocking around in this guys head while he takes a gander at who's puttin' the screws to old Mrs. Brown from down the block. This guy is ex-cop, Brooklyn born, Jewish city guy who now owns a wine store with his brother, and has secrets from his past that eat away at him like the night sky eats away at sunny days in the park.

Coleman wrote this, and the other Moe Prager novels in the early 2000s but they are set in the 1980s, when the 1960s and even the 1950s are still someone fresh memories to many. Its part of how Coleman taps into the gumshoe era. Coleman has that continuous inner-dialog, street-beat down pat and it carries the story along as it bubbles through the narrative.

Coleman notes in an Afterword that Redemption Street is the book that most folks write to him about, saying that although its not their favorite Prager novel, its the one that they felt the closest connection to. Prager airs some of his fears, secrets and even dips into his feeling about religion and trust in this story, and according to the Coleman, this is really the only one of the novels that does that. Maybe that soul searching under current is what turned off my wife on this one, I found that it helped me understand this character and really brought him to life for me.

There are two more of these in the house somewhere. I'm going to keep my eye out for them.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

abyssinian proof

The Abyssinian Proof is the second novel by Jenny White, and the second in her series of Kamil Pasha mystery novels set in Constantinople in the late 1800s. The first is The Sultan's Seal, and the third is called The Winter Thief. this is only one I've read so far White has done some serious research into Turkey and has written a number of books on Turkey beginning in college. Her most recent book is also on the subject. SO, I'm saying, the lady knows her way around Turkey. And that shows in her writing.

White has put together a detective in the old timey tradition, similar to a Sherlock or a Dr. Thorndyke story, from that grand era in the late 1800s to the early 1900s, which includes such great protagonists as Charlie Chan, Hercule Poirot, and others. And her detective, Kamil Pasha fit in there well with his peers. White has created a sleuth, that like so many of these earlier generation detectives, weren't actually detectives, and are more the 'unwilling hero' a la Joseph Campbell. Kamil Pasha is mid-level judge, and does what he can to aid the police in solving crimes, if only to satisfy his betters above. At least to begin with.

Kamil Pasha is soft spoken, thoughtful, measured, fair and very thorough. He is also a bachelor, reasonably well off and grows orchids in his small greenhouse. White weaves a very compelling and fast paced story, spinning in threads from religion, history, mysticism and cult practice to the politics and class struggles of Constantinople in that era.

This was a fun one, and I'll be looking for the others. Read this book.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

shadow over babylon

Shadow Over Babylon is (was) David Mason's first book. Its says on the book jacket that Mason was trained as a sniper so he comes at this early 1990s novel from the perspective of a military man with specialized training and that shows in the detail he includes in this thriller. I didn't find anything since this one written by Mason, but that doesn't necessarily mean he didn't write one. right?

Mason imagines a very different outcome in the post Iraq war era, and populates his story with a band of organized and dedicated ex-service men (mostly) who decide--with very little prompting, it seems to me--to take matters into their own hands and remove a lingering middle-eastern problem. Mason has actually hatched a very intricate and elaborately planned mission, that he spins out for us as it takes place, keeping the reader wondering where this team is headed, and how they'll accomplish what they've set out to do. The story is well paced, really well thought out and suffers only a bit from a huge cast of characters that is at sometimes a little difficult to keep track of. the main characters seem pretty well flushed out, but the other are almost inter-changeable in a lot of ways.

There were a few sub-plots that kind of seemed like Mason had cooking, and then sort of let them boil off and come to nothing. The final story may have been better without them, but who's to say. It was fun to read an alternative history, and also fun to read something a little different than the regular stuff I read, if you can call the range or stuff I read regular.

I would have read something else by this guy, but it doesn't look like I'll get the chance unless he cracks out something in the future!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

black list

Black List is the latest (for me) by Brad Thor. Scot Harvath is an ex-Navy SEAL working for a private American national security and anti-terrorism firm. He's on location in Europe, doing his thing, when the crap hits the proverbial fan. Harvath is, for one of the first times in his life, completely at a loss and just barely scrambles away with his life.

And then it gets worse.

Thor writes a pretty good spy novel. The action is tight and the characters have some weight to them (in most cases). According to the interwebs, Scot Harvath is a recurring character, and Black List is the 11th installment in the Harvath series.
I'm sure I've seen Thor's books around the house, and after reading this one, it seems like the kind of stuff my wife reads pretty regularly, and we have similar tastes, so I'm willing to bet that I've read me some Brad Thor in the past.

The comment I made about most characters having some weight to them became especially relevant near the end of the story, when a pretty minor character came back in and I found that I didn't really know anything about this character. It seems as tho there is really only enough room in an action novel for the action and fleshing out the main characters. I don't mind that so much, but don't expect me to feel for a character you haven't told me anything about.

I bet there are some more Thor books around the house, I'll know what I'm in for when I'm checking them out for my reading list. my reading list consists of a few titles I'm too cheap to buy, and I sometimes know what I'm reading next, an...that's about it.