Archive for August, 2012

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

By Christopher Moore

The Short Take:

Did Van Gogh truly kill himself, or was it murder? That’s the question that drives this Parisian romp featuring many of the famed Impressionist painters, particularly Toulouse-Latrec. The plot is a tad confusing but this book is so much fun, who cares?

Why?

Moore writes joyfully absurd novels. In fact, depending on the topic (he’s taken on a Shakespeare play and the unknown years of Jesus) they can seem down right outrageous. This one is no exception with its supernatural elements, frequent “bonking,” and bizarre characters — real and invented.

While many artists make appearances — and advance the story — Henri de Toulouse-Latrec plays a central role, along with the baker/artist Lucien.  Known for his short stature and licentious ways as well as his art, Toulouse-Latrec is a superb choice for a witty and raucous book such as this.

Color reproductions of famous paintings are scattered throughout the text, providing the reader with a quick tour of Impressionist master works. There are also “Interludes” focusing on the color blue (the central theme for this novel), ranging from the source of the paint pigment  to how light absorption and reflection creates the colors we see. These factual additions not only help to advance the story but delight the eye and expand one’s knowledge (unless you really know your art).

Fans of Moore’s writing style should particularly enjoy this outing.

A Little Plot:

Van Gogh is murdered but everyone thinks it is a suicide. Lucien and Toulouse-Latrec have their suspicions and team up to discover the truth. Out of the blue, Lucien’s lost love, Juliette, reappears and insists on being painted.

There’s more to her than meets the eye, as there is with the mysterious Colorman who offers high quality paints for sale. What’s up? It’s too complicated a plot to pretend to describe further without ruining your fun. Moore keeps you wondering the whole time while you continue to giggle..

Moore actually has a blog that features chapter-by-chapter additional art and information about this book. You can visit it by clicking here. But you should really read the book first.

A little personal aside, I thought the author had made a major error by referring to a painting titled Luncheon on the Grass as a Monet. The famous painting featuring a nude woman and fully clothed men is a Manet! However, it turns out Monet painted his own Luncheon on the Grass. Monet’s ladies are fully clothed which probably explains why the other one is better known. Thank you Google, for making it so easy for me to see both paintings in seconds.

The Pleasures of Men

Friday, August 17th, 2012

By Kate Williams

The Short Take:

Dark and moody, this psychological thriller/mystery packs a powerful punch. Set in early Victorian England during a major financial depression, it follows a damaged young woman’s obsession with a series of ghastly murders. This is Williams’ first novel but you would never guess it. Drawing on her extensive historical background, she creates an intense  atmosphere of unease, class divide, and oppression.

Why?

Think The Heiress combined with Jack the Ripper and you’ll get the general idea. The central character, Catherine, an orphaned woman of 19 with a tragic past, seems to teeter on the edge of madness. Or has she already crossed over? Living with an eccentric uncle in a decaying neighborhood, her isolation and the restrictions placed on her seem extreme. Or are they warranted? With this novel everything is in doubt until the stunning climax. And, it is truly stunning.

Fear seeps through every page: Catherine’s all-encompassing fear, all London’s fears as businesses fail and fortunes disappear, and young women’s fears as the Man of Crows continues to prey on them. This is one dark mystery, alright, and almost impossible to put down.

Williams in-depth knowledge of the period brings a heightened sense of atmosphere and textural depth to her book. Catherine observes the small signs of decay the financial crisis brings to once-secure households. Her slippers can’t protect from the cold of the cobblestones. Men are a danger, because even though only one of them is the killer, they all hold sway over the world of women.

This novel will grasp you firmly, shake you up, and refuse to let go until the end. That’s what I call a satisfying read.

A Little Plot:

Catherine has recently come to live with her uncle, who decorates his shadowy home with African masks and other exotica. Convinced she carries evil in her, she is as awkward in company as she is in her own skin. When she hears about the bizarre murder of a shop girl — plaited her in her mouth, her chest cut open to reveal her heart — she becomes obsessed with the idea that she can identify the murderer.

As the body count increases, she writes the stories of the victims as well as that of their killer, sure she is getting closer to finding him. Then she decides that writing is not enough. She must do more.

For more about Kate Williams and her writings, click here.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

By Carol Rifka Brunt

The Short Take:

Families, death, memories, art, and beauty — this debut novel brings them all together with grace and eloquence. Set in 1987, and narrated by a misfit 14-year-old girl, this touching novel explores how even in death those we love still shape our world. Rich and rewarding, it’s an exceptional first novel.

Why?

When the person you feel closest to dies, it’s hard indeed. When that person dies from an illness that no one wants to talk about or acknowledge — AIDs — it’s even harder. When you feel all alone and completely misunderstood without that person, it’s hardest of all. However, this book is not a terrible downer. It focuses on finding ways to deal with loss while continuing to treasure the person you miss. It’s about moving on without moving away. It’s lovely.

The young June makes an engaging narrator, with all the angst and self-loathing that seems to automatically come with being different and 14. What a hard age that is! Her deceased uncle reaches beyond the grave to help her, as well as the one other person who is mourning him in solitude and even greater despair — his dying partner.

The evolution of this relationship, as well as the changing relationship between June and her more popular,older sister form the dual heart of this worth-while novel.

However, I really do not get the title. It draws from the title of a portrait of the two sisters and there is a negative-space wolf head in the portrait, but it still seems odd to me.

A Little Plot:

Dying uncle Finn insists on creating a portrait of two sisters who have grown estranged as they enter their teen years. Neither of them want to pose. June because she treasures the time she spends alone with her uncle, who is also her closest friend and confident, and doesn’t want to share him. Greta just doesn’t want to.

After Finn’s death, mysterious packages begin arriving for June — treasures from her uncle. Then comes the request to befriend the stranger she first saw at Finn’s funeral. For June it is a thunderbolt: her beloved Finn also loved someone else, the man her parents claim killed him. She is torn, yet also in need of comfort herself. Making this connection could make the difference.

For more about Carol Rifka Brunt and her novel, click here.

 

The Presidents Club

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Short Take:

This non-fiction book about how USA presidents of the last 60-plus years interacted with each other is a must read. Learning how these men reached out — and still reach out — to  support and help each other, despite party affiliation or personal interest, is inspiring. I was often buoyed up, occasionally shocked, and constantly entranced by what went on and goes on between members of the most exclusive club in the world.

Why?

With all the negativity and outright name calling that goes on today, it’s easy to lose sight of the extreme gravity, complexity, and importance of serving as President of these United States. This book restores all that, heightens your respect for all who have filled that role, and feeds your hope for the future.

Regardless of how you feel now about any of the various office holders, this book is sure to change your opinion — almost exclusively for the better. I have been recommending it to people like crazy. Even if non-fiction is not your favorite genre, reading this one is simply good for your soul.

With about 70 pages of notes and a 10 page bibliography, this book is heavily researched. It felt truly unbiased, except in its constant reminder of the weight and importance of every single American president.

A Little Plot:

Starting with Harry Truman, who reaches back and across party lines to call on Herbert Hoover to help him keep post WWII Europe from massive starvation, as well as other vital tasks, this book carries you right up to the present day (minus a year or so). Relationships between presidents — both before, during and after their time in office — are fully explored.

Some get a bit disenchanted with each other over time, others grow ever closer. In every case you will get a fuller, more nuanced picture of each president included in this book. Unless members of “the club” were involved, major historical events are sidelined. This both keeps the focus clean, and the page count reasonable.

Except for one major exception (it has to do with 1968), I came away with a better feeling of all our presidents. For that alone I will be forever grateful to Gibbs and Duffy.

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