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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Going Places, Picture Perfect

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Musée Jacquemart-André

Our recent trip to Paris deserves at least one more post and this time I want to focus on a slightly lesser-known tourist attraction we managed to visit,

Museum Jacquemart-André

er-jacquemartandre

Category: Places

Find it in: Paris, on Boulevard Haussmann (some 10 minute walk from Champs-Élysées)

What it is:
It’s a quite unique little museum that boasts a few impressive works of art – including Rembrandts and Botticellis – which, even more interestingly, is housed in the original location: a residence of the museum founders. A couple of filthy rich art collectors (no really, they were insanely rich, if you think of it), Édouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, spent their lives buying works of art that caught their fancy and, dying childless, bequeathed the collection together with the house to the state to make it into a public museum.

How I found it:
It was actually our second visit to the museum, though the first one without a temporary exhibition so that we could focus on the permanent collection. During our honeymoon stay we saw an interesting exhibition of less-famous Pre-Raphaelites there and when our plans to go to Amiens fell through this year, we decided to revisit Jacquemart-André instead.

Summary judgment:
Obviously you can see more impressive art collections elsewhere in Paris but the building itself and the story of the museum make for a lovely visit.

Best things about it:
I loved seeing the building with a lot of its original 19th century decor preserved and, as we took the audioguides, we learnt a lot about the historical background, which also fascinated me, particularly the details of the life of people who could entertain every fancy and never worry about money.

Worst things about it:
The gift shop doesn’t come up to the standards of gift shops in other museums. And if you think that’s minor, I understand why, but visiting gift shops is one of the reasons we travel. It is what it is.

Other pluses (and yes, bullet points):
✤ Feminist skew. The whole story you hear on the audiobook focuses on Nélie, her rise to fortune and her life as an art buyer. You barely learn anything about Édouard – except that it was really his dream at first. I found it refreshing.
✤ Also, let’s not overlook the art. There might be so much more to see in the Louvre, Orsay and other places but if we had a museum like this here, everyone would be clamoring to see it. Some pieces the museum hosts are really worth seeing.
✤ Charming courtyard through which you enter the museum is well worth sitting in for a few minutes, preferably with a croissant or a pain au chocolat. (And we did.)
✤ Details of presentation allow the visitors to easily imagine the life of the married couple. These are really small things, like music in the ballroom but they improve the experience.
✤ Last but not least (I dislike this expression), I value the overall optimistic feeling of the exhibition. It’s nice to think of people who did live leisurely and followed their passions (well, Nélie did anyway). History is too full of gloomy stories.

Other minuses:
✤ That’s in no way the museum’s fault but we came too late to see the cafe.
✤ Uccello’s painting was being renovated – again, just our bad luck but a pity, too.
✤ Some commentary on the audioguide concerning some paintings (e.g. Chardin) basically listed things that the painting showed. Thank you, that’s all very useful and superfluous, but how about a little analysis?

How it enriched my life:
The visit proved both educational and charming. It was also my first time ever using an audioguide which I’d always considered pointless, and it convinced me of their usefulness, even though they prolong a visit extensively.

Fun fact:
It might be obvious to those of you who know more about history of architectural inventions than I do, but the house had pneumatic walls that you could let down and combine three rooms into one gigantic ballroom. How steampunk is that?!

Follow-up:
I will probably not return soon for a regular visit but it’s a lovely place for a temporary exhibition and I will be happy to check out any that I might come upon.

Recommended for:
People who love history, Paris or art. People who dream about spending their lives leisurely and with tons of money so they could buy the biggest painters in history.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: 10 Things I Hate about You

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Joy Luck Club

As the train ride to Berlin takes 6 hours and the return ride takes another 6 hours, it gave me many hours to read a not-too-long book,

er-joyluckclubThe Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1989 novel about American-born Chinese women and their mothers who left China to come to the US. It tells histories of four women and their four daughters through a series of connected short stories, each showing a different side of the characters and their relations and illuminating partially the other stories as well.

How I found it:
It’s been on my to-read list for a while. I didn’t find it in any particular way, just the summary sounded interesting and I used to really like books about Chinese history (back when I had way less imagination).

Summary judgment:
I quite enjoyed the book, especially its American side as some fragments of the Chinese stories I found a bit too traumatizing.

Best things about it:
It’s well-written and reads well. It also has a lot of empathy for both generations of women and tries to capture the unique mother-daughter relationship in all its beauty and difficulty.

Worst things about it:
It’s embarrassing but I had a hard time keeping track of which story was by which woman and how they followed one another. I think it took me more than a half of the book to remember them properly though I attribute that partly to reading on the train, not the most concentration-inducing environment.

Other pluses:
The structure of the book is unusual and quite well woven together. I got really interested in Waverly’s story ever since her chess-prodigy introduction. It was quite impressive how the mothers are shown through their own words and then their daughers (unjust) views and then the same is done to the daughters. It also makes the reader question their own relations with people they think they know everything about.

Other minuses:
My goodness, that first story about leaving babies on the road was really hard to read. It almost made me give up on the book altogether but its beauty and powerful images made it hard to drop it and switch to a fantasy story I had as an alternative.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me small bits of information about Chinese history that I’m sure to forget soon. It also reminded me not to take for granted my idea about the story of the people important to me. Like my mother.

Fun fact:
Again, not fun, but as I was reading the first story, definitely the most stressful one of all (though there are a few more which are a bit hard to get through), I was sitting across some guy in the train compartment. He had no book nor anything else to kill time on the train and so instead he was staring at me reading and I’m sure my face must have been like a (very boring) movie as I was going through the dramatic developments.

Follow-up:
Actually, now I’m reading that fantasy story for a little emotional reset.

Recommended for:
Mothers and daughters; people interested in Chinese history or the theme of immigration. People with a good memory for names (or a notepad).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Beauty and the Beast

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Rotten Tomatoes

The Heart Is a Lonely Fighter: Bogowie

Every now and then I let a trailer or a word of mouth for a Polish movie fool me into going to the cinema. Every time I leave telling myself: “nevermore.” Nevermore shall I be so naïve as to fall for hype only to leave disgusted (and slightly glad that  my firm belief in the suckiness of Polish cinema still holds true because we like our beliefs to turn out right, don’t we).

Well, the day to eat my words, and gladly, finally came. Bogowie (Gods) interested me with its trailer but I still expected to be heavily disappointed. Then I heard enthusiastic reviews and I thought “ugh, people are always so easy to please.” And then I saw the film.

Bogowie is the story of Zbigniew Religa, a legendary heart surgeon who carried out the first successful heart transplant in Poland when everybody considered it an unnecessary and unethical risk. I’m simplifying, Google it or watch the movie if you’re interested in the history. But even if you’re not, watch the movie because it’s damn brilliant where it has no right to be, proving me wrong. I hate medical dramas, their predictability, sentimentality and how genuinely scary they are but this film kept me engrossed and not grossed out (despite the very realistic – or at least bloody, I’m not a heart surgeon, as I’m sure you’re aware – depiction of operations on hearts). I think I ate a half of my scarf out of sheer suspense.

And here go even more reasons to watch the movie:

Actors. A wonderful lead in the person of Tomasz Kot with strong supporting cast. They create characters which are both realistic and likeable.

Tone. Despite the fact that the subject matter seems to invite sentimentality, pathos and gloom, the movie avoids all of this almost entirely (well, it retains the necessary amount, I guess). It’s dynamic, sometimes humorous and quite exciting. It is also, all in all, a very positive story which manages not to become hagiographic.

Interiors. The drab interiors of Polish apartments and public places of the 80s come to life. The movie is, in fact, a very good period drama.

It makes me really happy that Bogowie managed to revive my faith in Polish cinematography and I can try to look at the awfulness and cheerlessness of an average Polish movie as merely a failure and not a given.

 

 

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