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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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Loving Vincent

er-lovingvincentLoving Vincent

Category: Movies

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A bold animation experiment by a Polish artist Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, it tells the story of an attempt to discover the reasons for the death of Vincent van Gogh, undertaken a year later by his casual acquaintance. The movie uses oil painting combined with more typical animation and regular live acting in a truly impressive way, pushing forward the formal limits of animation. Van Gogh’s paintings come to life, the people he painted begin to inhabit his own story and the viewer follows an investigatory journey into his last days. Or you can think of it as of a painted, animated version of that Don McLean song (whose cover, appropriately, is used during the credits).

How I found it:
I saw some sort of trailer when it was being made and thought it a somewhat interesting idea and then my friend A asked me to go with her to see it.

Summary judgment:
Whether you like van Gogh or not (I’m not a fan) this is a chapeau-bas impressive work of art – and of love, which shows.

Best things about it:
I’m really impressed with the guts and patience it took to undertake the whole endeavor, and no less with the fact that it worked. Not only does the movie look great and employs actual paintings by van Gogh in an intelligent way – the story also keeps you interested. It manages to recreate the atmosphere of the places where van Gogh lived in France and to breathe life into the people he immortalized in his portraits. The colors live on the screen and I loved focusing on the thick texture in some of the backgrounds. This technique works particularly well for the images of nature.

Worst things about it:
I said already, I think, that I don’t like criticizing things that are obviously labors of love because I know what it feels like to become so obsessed with a creative idea that you push through just to see it done and, frankly, we could always use more of those. So I’ll just put some minor stuff in “Minuses” but mostly I’m writing to express my admiration.

Other pluses:
✤ The colors and how they are used to create the mood of the scenes. You can see what the light must have looked like for the characters.
✤ It’s quite a feat of both the screenwriters and the actors that even the minor characters are lively and memorable, particularly those in Auvers. You also become quite involved in the very mystery of what happened.

Other minuses:
✤ You need to get used to the vibration that stop-motion animation brings: sometimes the screen seems to twitch before your eyes.
✤ The style is slightly uneven in that in some scenes the actors seem to push through the paintings’ layer more than in others. But I do realize that with an experimental technique like this one, there are no conventions the viewers are used to so everything, both good and bad, becomes more visible.
✤ Probably the storytelling might be called sentimental. I don’t mind so much but I imagine some people I know that would cringe so hard at that. Basically, if you like “Starry Night” the song, you won’t mind this either because the tone is similar.
✤ I guess the biggest thing for me personally is that most of van Gogh’s paintings don’t speak to me on an emotional or aesthetic level (and so I actually preferred their animated versions to the originals). A movie in which e.g. Corot’s paintings come to life, that I would love to see even more.

How it enriched my life:
It interested and impressed me, both on a narrative and technical level.

Fun fact:
At the end of the movie as people where getting up you could hear muffled sniffling in the theater.

Follow-up:
I will be interested in seeing it again, at least to pay even more attention to how the whole thing is done. It’s also definitely worth seeing some sort of making-of movie about.

Recommended for:
Painting and animation lovers. Anyone fascinated by van Gogh’s legend or even just by the whole “tragic artist” myth.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Stranger Things

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