Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Arthur & George

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Based on real life events, the novel tells the story of Arthur Conan Doyle and his involvement in the unjust conviction of a lawyer, George Edalji. Or, while this is the reason why the two men met, the novel goes further than that because it tells almost their entire life stories and puts them against the background of the early 20th century Britain.

How I found it:
I don’t remember at all but the blurb sounded just like my thing. I never read Barnes before either.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed it though it missed something that would make me enjoy it ferociously. So I just enjoyed it in a lady-like manner.

Best things about it:
The novel is a very well-crafted, subtle piece of writing, employing a truly gentlemanly restraint: in fact, it manages to reflect what was expected of a well-bred man of the era through its very form. At the same time it reads well and the muddy details of the criminal case make one want to keep going to find out how it was solved.
Obviously, a book about Sherlock Holmes’ creator may be well-expected to involve an investigative plotline and, equally obviously, this is hard to pull off in anything un-pulpy. Barnes managed nicely.

Worst things about it:
As mentioned, I felt something was missing to make my involvement in the story complete. The restraint kept me from getting excited about any of the developments but, I suspect, the main thing missing is a female element. This is just such a manly book, and not at all in a Hemingwayan sense.

Other pluses:
✤ The characters relate to each other in a very interesting manner: even though at first glance they seem extremely different, the deeper you get into their personal relationships, families, limitations, the more similarities you find.
✤ The historical world is rendered in memorable detail, it feels lived in not just copied from research materials. I always appreciate that.
✤ One of the main themes of the novel is the impossibility of really knowing things (and, perversely, human beings’ need to know). It aligns interestingly with both Sherlock Holmes (whose popularity relies on the absolute knowledge he stands for) and with the crime that the novel focuses on.
✤ As I mentioned before, I’m often uncertain about the ethics of writing about historical figures but I feel Barnes did right by them. While I didn’t find either man particularly likeable, they are both drawn with attention and compassion.

Other minuses:
✤ In a few fragments the narrative voice changes: while it normally sticks closely to either Arthur or George, a few times it presents the point of view of another character or two. I found that inconsistent on a few levels and not really adding much to the story.
✤ Similarly, the novel employs two tenses: past for Arthur, present for George. I don’t find a good enough reason for that.
✤ Another prominent theme of the novel, Englishness, does not interest me in the least, but I’ll admit that it’s probably much more interesting for actual English people.

How it enriched my life:
I learned about a fact from Conan Doyle’s life that I didn’t know about so I guess it’s something for a trivia night (I don’t do those). I’m always curious to learn more about Victorian and Edwardian society.

Cover notes:
While I acknowledge what the cover is trying to do – create an old-fashioned, turn of the last century impression – this is done in an extremely uninspiring way, especially in the ornaments and the typography. The illustration is the best part, particularly the fact that we see the men’s backs, which corresponds to the theme of unknowability.

Follow-up:
I’ve already put Flaubert’s Parrot on my reading list because I’m curious to read more Barnes and his interests seem to align with mine.

Recommended for:
Fans of somewhat more ambitious, more serious historical novel focused on people’s everyday life (also: real people’s life) rather than on huge historic moments.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Back to Legion

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Bookworming, Personalness

100 Years of Poland (the Literary Edition)

On 11th November Poland celebrated 100 years of independence which was a grand occasion – and I’m only writing this post now because my time management sucks these days, what with nursing and working.

This post has been inspired by my friend A’s celebration on Facebook, where he listed his favorite Polish music albums (hi, A). What music is to him, books are to me and I decided to celebrate (belatedly) with writing about something I actually thought a lot before. See, I read almost exclusively in English these days and I have for quite a few years now. So I wondered the experience of reading which books and authors I would actually miss if I didn’t speak any Polish. Here’s the list:

  1. We’ll get more serious than that but I will start with Małgorzata Musierowicz. She was my introduction to YA before I even knew the term or could be considered any sort of adult (I was 7 when I got one of her books for Christmas and fell in absolute love). She’s been writing for some 40 years now a series of books centered around one family and their friends. The newer books are arguably not up to the level of the older ones and you can certainly have a lot of complaints about the details of the story but it didn’t matter to me then: instead I was delighted to find a book reflecting the world I lived in. See, the great innovation of Musierowicz was the fact that she placed the romantic and family adventures of her heroines in the realistically described world of Poland as it was: first the People’s Republic, then the 90s transformation (which happened to be my childhood experience) but kept it cheerful and optimistic. I still return to those books regularly because if you know one thing about my reading habits, you know I like reading to be fun.
  2. From now on we’re moving to what will feel like a required reading for school but only because these books belong to the canon for a good reason. I’m starting with my absolute literary, theatrical, all-around favorite: Wesele by Stanisław Wyspiański. This alone is a reason enough to cherish one’s knowledge of Polish because the play is untranslatable: both its poetry and its historical context make it exclusively Polish. But it’s such a beauty and I used to know most of it by heart, I swear.
  3. And if we’re speaking of poetic plays, here’s another: Balladyna by Juliusz Słowacki. Słowacki is one of the most cherished Polish writers for his patriotic poetry but Balladyna is different: it’s a sort of Polish folk take on Shakespeare and it’s quite delightful. I read it first as a kid and liked it already without getting the whole context (same with Wesele, actually) – which confirms my theory that you can read good literature at almost any age and intellectual level and get something from it.
  4. Chłopi by Władysław Reymont is actually a Nobel Prize winner so a little less obscure outside of Poland than the rest of them. This story happening in the 19th century countryside can rival the best of 19th century novelists (yes, even Hardy and I love Hardy). It’s written partly in a peasant dialect and I don’t believe it translates very well.
  5. Another 19th century novelist who can rival any of the greats is Bolesław Prus, with his historical novel about Egypt (Faraon) and my personal favorite: Emancypantki. I guess some of British classic novels provide similar levels of enjoyment but Prus still belongs on the list of writers I’d be sorry to miss.
  6. Moving on to the 20th century again, Marek Hłasko and his short stories. I’ve outgrown them somewhat but my first encounter with them was such a revelation that he defined for me what a writer should be like, to such an extent that for a while I thought in his sentences.
  7. For someone who’s at best lukewarm about poetry I sure put a lot of poets here but that’s because they suffer most in translation. One of the most original and charming Polish poets is Bolesław Leśmian, who created a whole mythical, fairy-tale world through his poetry. He was also my dad’s favorite poet so that gives him extra points.
  8. Leopold Tyrmand’s Zły is this weird picaresque novel happening in post-war Warsaw and I guess you can live well enough without knowing it but you’re missing a good book.
  9. Witold Gombrowicz. His are some of the most ambitious books on this list, particularly as he embraced the 20th century’s opaqueness of literature – in other words these are books to study rather than just enjoy. But the way he plays both with language and with patriotic ideas and obsessions of his predecessors makes it for fun, iconoclastic reading.
  10. Finally something slightly different: a tribute to my childhood reading, the poetry of Jan Brzechwa. If I didn’t speak any Polish, I would probably know enjoyable children’s poetry in whatever language I would speak, but Brzechwa is in a class of his own, with his joy and his absurdity.

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Bookworming, Picture Perfect

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The 50 States

In case you didn’t know this crucial thing about me: I love picture books!

er-the50statesThe 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero

Category: Books

Find it on: see nice pictures on our design blog

What it is:
A collection of illustrated maps of all the states in the United States, filled with facts and curios. For each state one gets to know basic data, important(ish) dates from history, location, famous people and a whimsical selection of things worth seeing in the state. Everything is gorgeously illustrated and very entertaining. And yes, technically it’s a children’s book but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

How I found it:
I think it might have been some random Amazon recommendation which my husband then bought for my birthday.

Summary judgment:
It’s both lovely to look at and quite educational, I kid you not.

Best things about it:
How lovely it looks. Sol Linero and the graphic designer Nicola Price have created a pretty object which gives joy to look at. It is especially impressive when you do a search for other books on the similar subject (spoiler: they’re ugly). The book uses a lovely color palette and charming, whimsical typefaces, plus many inherent design problems in page layout etc. are very well solved (I’m not going to get technical, just trust me). Learning about states becomes an aesthetic pleasure.

Worst things about it:
One, infinitesimally small thing: too many exclamation marks. They start irritating after a while.

Other pluses:
✤ The illustrations are charming in their simplicity and use a unified style, which is worth underlining because I’ve seen some books with a similar idea that didn’t manage to be stylistically consistent.
✤ Again, design is also very good, including typographic choices.
✤ I like the progressive politics of the book which mentions many important moments from the history of American struggle for social rights.
✤ The selection of facts manages to create a positive image for each state and convey its (sort-of) uniqueness.

Other minuses:
✤ This is an observation, not a minus: the book refers to so many children’s books that I never heard of. But, probably, American children, who are the real target of the book, will know them (especially those children who are into books in general) and it will even make them like 50 States more because it mentions their favorites.
✤ I guess the portraits of famous people are rarely recognizable. Cute, though.

How it enriched my life:
You’re going to laugh but I have actually learned a lot: I now know where all the states are and what their capitals are (seriously, you may quiz me). And before you conclude that I sound like a simpleton, this is not something generally required from an educated person here, some distance away from the US and I forgot all I learned about the geography of the US in the elementary school. It was actually fun to re-learn.
A completely different thing: this is certainly an inspiring standard for picture books. If I ever get down to creating one, I hope it’s not worse.

Fun fact:
If I had a bucket list it would be one thing: Making a picture book. This is only tangentially relevant but still worth sharing.
More to the point, I’ve always wanted to do a road trip across the US but this is so unlikely that’s not even on the bucket list.

Follow-up:
There is another book by the same authors, about American cities, and while it feels less essential, I will probably be getting that one too for some special occasion when nobody knows what to get me.

Recommended for:
Children interested in American geography and/or good illustration. People who love pretty, interesting books, even if they’re no longer children.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The Magicians

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Wicked + The Divine

I’ve been reading through a list of best comics and while most of them leave me mildly entertained at best, I found something more engrossing:

er-thewickedthedivineThe Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

Category: Comics

Find it on: LibraryThing (link for vol. 1)

What it is:
In the universe of the story, gods reincarnate every 90 years as artsy teenagers / young adults who live for only two years – but before they die, they get to be famous, loved and hated. In 2010s they are pop stars. If it sounds Gaimanian, it’s because it is, broadly speaking.

How I found it:
Through the NPR list of best comics. But also once I started reading the other comics, this kept popping up in various recommendations.

Summary judgment:
Of all those comic experiences so far, this has been not the deepest but the most engrossing.

Best things about it:
Its slowly-developing-but-not-too-confusing mystery keeps you wanting to learn more. The action never overwhelms the story, as it often does in other comics. I didn’t find the characters very relatable but still quite interesting and differentiated.

Worst things about it:
It is actually rather hard to put into words but I feel the story doesn’t quite have the depth and, hm, gravitas? I would expect from something so Sandman– and American Gods-like in concept. It seems more interested in music stardom than mythology, which I find a slightly missed opportunity.

Other pluses:
✤ Clear art and quite lovely colors.
✤ It’s fun to figure out which gods are inspired by which musicians (and in specials by which other artists) but I was only good with some writers and didn’t get many beyond the most basic pop stars. I’m not good with pop music, guys.

Other minuses:
✤ I saw that people find further volumes confusing and directionless but it wasn’t exactly my impression. I feel the level is even enough.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the story a lot and brushed up on some lesser known mythologies (not in any particular detail, though).

Fun fact:
In addition to the regular story, the authors occasionally publish extra volumes that show pantheons of different eras and I love that they’re nothing as boring as musicians in the historical appearances. The 19th century pantheon is composed of writers and the 20th’s of modernists (how cool is that? so cool).

Follow-up:
I’m there for the last planned arc and some time when I forget the story once it’s all out I’m planning on re-reading all of it.

Recommended for:
Fans of Sandman (though with slightly lowered expectations) and of similar stories.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The Americans

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Bookworming, Randomosity

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Fun Home

I’m catching up on some comics I managed not to read so far, like

er-funhomeFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Category: Comics

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Alison Bechdel (yes, of the Bechdel Test) tells an autobiographical story of growing up with her distant, closeted father and of his suicide. She also describes how she discovered her own homosexuality.

How I found it:
Very deliberately: I went through an NPR list of best comics to find something interesting I hadn’t known and came up with a really long list of stuff to read.

Summary judgment:
It’s a worthy addition to any list of good comics.

Best things about it:
This is one of those graphic novels that prove the medium goes beyond silly pictures and is a true literary genre (if anyone still needs a proof in this day, I mean). It tells a complete, sombre, unflashy story, using the medium to its fullest capability, creating a collage of words, drawings, quotes and childhood memorabilia.
The honesty of the narrative (or its pretense, but it amounts to the same thing here) makes the story memorable and moving. I feel that the value of each autobiography will always be measured by how much other people can find of their own stories in the author’s one. I’m sure this one resonated with many people and even I, who had mostly very different experience of growing up, found things that felt so close to my childhood.

Worst things about it:
Honestly, I don’t think there’s something I would consider “worst.” I certainly missed some perspective on how the father’s transgressions affected Bechdel’s brothers but then I understand she respected their privacy, keeping them in the background of the narrative.

Other pluses:
✤ I like Bechdel’s art, even when it doesn’t leave me stunned with awe. Its directness and simplicity serves the story well and remains clear. The watercolory shading adds a nostalgic feel to the narrative.
✤ I also liked the use of literary classics as leitmotifs for each chapter, including the scholarly analysis. I enjoy when books are treated seriously.

Other minuses:
People talk about the humor of the story. Personally I didn’t find it particularly funny – but I didn’t really need the humor either.

How it enriched my life:
Like many things it made me want to draw more.

Fun (?) fact:
So there were two things I felt particularly close to in Bechdel’s story: one was her various obsessive behaviors as a kid, which I did have too, to a much milder extent. Another fact was her last serious talk with her father, not long before he died. It so happened that not too long before my father’s death I also had a serious, personal talk with him about his life choices and life story, unlike any we had before, and I’m forever grateful that we managed to do that.

Follow-up:
I might check out Dykes to Look Out for, Bechdel’s most famous comic, though it’s not necessarily my favorite genre. Also, this NPR list is still full of things I’m going to read.

Recommended for:
People who like slice of life stories and coming-out stories.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Love, Simon

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Tropic of Cancer

Every now and then I will give my reading habits a self-educational slant and read a classic I managed to miss in school. I rarely review them because, really, what can I add to the discussion of Madame Bovary, but this time I have a few things to say.

er-tropicofcancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
An American classic, for a while considered too pornographic to be allowed in the USA, Miller describes the adventures of a Henry Miller in Paris in late 1920s. He lives as a bum, with no money and no prospects, sort of working on a book and expertly leeching off people he meets, sleeping with every prostitute he can find.

How I found it:
The first time I heard of Henry Miller was in high school, from my high school teacher who said he was her favorite writer. I mixed him up with Henry James and said I’d read him and found him boring, which really surprised her. Then I did start Miller but did indeed find him boring and only returned to him now as a sort of project to fill some of the gaps in my literary education.

Summary judgment:
I had this category for required reading that I finished because I was a good student but had to make myself finish: a feat of endurance. This wasn’t quite so hard to get through but really didn’t do much for me.

Best things about it:
Miller has a good sense of place. The Paris of his book is not the Paris I know and love (which is a very touristy, very postcardy one) but it lives and his description of the other places he visits are even more lively.

Worst things about it:
In general, I didn’t find particularly good reasons to immerse myself in this unpleasant, (literally) lousy world that Miller creates – other than a (misplaced?) intellectual ambition.
But if I were to choose one thing that was the worst, I would say the philosophizing, which would always turn into indecipherable, “poetic” drivel with nihilistic undertones. Oh, and sometimes when you felt it couldn’t get any muddier he would start describing a dream, which is generally the most useless writerly activity in the world.

Other pluses:
Sometimes when Miller focuses more on the people his character meets than on his insufferable inner monolog, the book flows better and reads faster. Some characters he describes remain fairly memorable, even though that’s usually because of how callously he writes about them.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s been discussed many times and there’s no disputing the fact: Miller’s depiction of women is offensive and heartless (and it doesn’t help much that his depiction of men has little heart as well). It was bad to begin with but it has grown old even worse.
✤ When you’re no longer 13 and sex scenes are not something exciting because you read them on the sly in your parents’ books, you appreciate how boring most sex descriptions are. So when their presence is the main thing that made the book famous, the book doesn’t stand the test of time too well.

How it enriched my life:
I can tick off one more book from the list of unread classics and now I can dislike Miller in an informed way.

Fun fact:
The book was banned as pornography in the USA and Great Britain and only became legally available in the 1960s. You can see why, of course, but the decades that passed since have really made us less sensitive to this kind of thing.

Cover notes:
A classic shot of a naked lady is a safe choice that’s hard to dispute and I could get behind the framed typography, especially that it makes for a recognizable series. But the last frame, with the Cancer, has no outline and rounded corners and this I just can’t approve of because it shows the designer’s helplessness.

Follow-up:
I’m quite happy never to take up another Miller again.

Recommended for:
This book should only be read by two kinds of people: American lit professors who need to know the classics and pretentious teenagers who still think descriptions of sex make a book some kind of revolutionary.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Wonder Woman

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Age of Wonder

I don’t read non-fiction as often as I perhaps should because I always miss fiction when I do that. But non-fiction, and particularly history of something else than wars and battles, always gives me this pleasant feeling of accomplishment.

er-ageofwonderThe Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A history of British science in the time of Romanticism, focusing on the biographies and achievements of several great scientists, like William Herschel, Humphry Davy and Joseph Banks. It aims to find connections between Romantic science and Romantic art (mainly poetry).

How I found it:
It was among a batch of historical books I’ve once marked for future reading. But I read non-fiction rarely and it took me a while to get to it.

Summary judgment:
It is more interesting that it has any business being.

Best things about it:
It reads almost like a novel, focusing on anecdotal details from the lives of the greats of British science, making them human and memorable. I didn’t know about any of them too well and now the facts are vivid in my memory.

Worst things about it:
I feel like the book doesn’t offer a clear enough thesis about the relationship between Romantic thought and its practical applications. The attempts to relate them mostly get limited to quotes from poetry without a more theoretical, maybe even more spiritual analysis of the contemporary ideas and when they do get mentioned (like Vitalism), they are not particularly well explained.

Other pluses:
I appreciate the effort put into emphasizing the role of women who participated in the discoveries, or at least William Herschel’s sister, Caroline. It feels like the author felt a particular mission to re-establish her well-earned position.

Other minuses:
Despite its length the book didn’t bore me, but I feel it could be shortened and thus become even livelier.

How it enriched my life:
I actually learned a lot about people I only knew vaguely or not at all and gained a clearer idea about various early-19th century scientific discoveries.

Cover notes:
I will always appreciate a cover which uses an old engraving, especially with such a whimsical, subtle use of color. This one conveys well the mix of playfulness and academic seriousness, which Holmes manages to create.

Follow-up:
It gave me a desire to read more non-fiction about explorers because I found those the most exciting chapters in the entire book (and explorers never interested me much before).

Recommended for:
Science and history buffs who appreciate lively writing.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Nashville farewell

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