Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, NY

The first time I ever heard about this library was by absolute accident: fellow subscribers of a mailing list were discussing what to do on a visit to NYC and someone recommended The Morgan saying that there are manuscripts by Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens there, among others. So of course I had to know more and the more I learned the more I wanted to go there immediately and look at all the treasures with my own eyes.
The library was founded in 1906 to house the private library of J.P. Morgan and was made a public institution by his son in 1924. It is now a museum and research library and houses priceless manuscripts, diaries, correspondence and books from all over the world.
Here's what's there, from the library's website:
A centerpiece of his collection was—and still is—the sole surviving manuscript of John Milton's Paradise Lost, transcribed and corrected under the direction of the blind poet. Other collection highlights are Charles Dickens's manuscript of A Christmas Carol, Henry David Thoreau's journals, Thomas Jefferson's letters to his daughter Martha, and manuscripts and letters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Lord Byron, Wilkie Collins, Albert Einstein, John Keats, Abraham Lincoln, and John Steinbeck.
The Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts has been enriched by many gifts and acquisitions, and twentieth-century holdings have increased significantly. The collection, particularly strong in artists' letters, was greatly enhanced by the Pierre Matisse Gallery Archives, the gift of the Pierre Matisse Foundation in 1997. These archives include more than fifteen hundred letters as well as records of the gallery installations of Balthus, Chagall, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Miró, and other twentieth-century artists. The Carter Burden Collection of American Literature includes important manuscripts and correspondence of John Cheever, Ezra Pound, and Tennessee Williams. The 1999 acquisition of The Paris Review Archive added correspondence, interviews, typescripts, and revised proofs of several hundred post-World War II writers, including Donald Hall, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, George Plimpton, Philip Roth, and Anne Sexton.
The [Printed Books and Bindings] collection's strong base derives from the major acquisitions of Pierpont Morgan, who sought to establish in the United States a library worthy of the great European collections. It is rich in special and unique copies, first editions of classical authors, and works of notable printers, such as Jenson and Caxton. Among the highlights are three Gutenberg Bibles, a strong collection of works by Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, John Ruskin, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and William Morris, and classic early children's books. The Carter Burden Collection of American Literature, a major 1998 gift, strengthens the Morgan's twentieth-century holdings with authors such as Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Gertrude Stein, and Tennessee Williams.
I could go on and on but I really want to go back to the website and explore some more so that when I finally get there some day I'd know my way around and won't completely fangirl over Jane Austen's manuscripts. Hopefully.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillippa Gregory

The Boleyn InheritanceAfter the death of Jane Seymour the Tudor dynasty is once again in need of a queen to give the country an heir and Henry VIII decides to marry Anne of Cleves. Soon after her arrival however it becomes obvious that there would be no heir and that the king is infatuated with the young Katherine Howard, his "rose without a thorn". With Anne's future more uncertain than ever she almost believes that death would be better than going back to Cleves and hopes for a solution that would save her from both her brother and her husband.

This is a story about Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, three women tangled up in the events of Henry VIII's fourth and fifth marriages, three women having to deal with the consequences of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn because it affected all their lives in one way or another. It is unusual in that these women take turns talking about the same events as history progresses and takes them from their ordinary lives and to the royal chambers. This was the first book I've read that was written in the first person but still had the effect of 3rd person omniscient perspective and I thought that having three separate narrators was a simple but ingenious solution. The only downside was that with the narrators changing every chapter and the chapters being rather short it took several cycles to get used to the switches but the voices are very distinctive once the switching wasn't confusing any more I enjoyed seeing what the different narrators thought about how their lives unfolded and I actually looked forward to Anne's chapters - she was the one I could relate to the most.
Creating surprising plot developments in a story where the outcome is as common knowledge as it is here is challenging and I didn't expect any. It was interesting however to discover how Phillippa Gregory envisioned the people who lived in those tragic times and who either shaped history or fell victim to those who did. I sympathized with Anne, felt sorry for Katherine and couldn't help but find Jane disturbing throughout the book. The men such as Henry and the Duke of Norfolk mainly left me feeling incredulous at how they manipulated or bullied those around them, how what they wanted mattered most regardless of how many lives were sacrificed for either their whim or power lust and how nobody could stop them because they were either too clever and careful or because there simply wasn't anyone to reign them in.
I've come to expect superb writing from Gregory and this book does not disappoint. I look forward to reading the other installments in her Tudor series, especially since historical fiction from authors who don't take excessive liberties with the facts is my favorite way to learn about history. If you enjoy historical fiction in general and tales of Henry and his six wives in particular I would recommend this book to you.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Name of the RoseFranciscan friar William of Baskerville and Benedectine novice Adso arrive at a monastery in Italy for a theological dispute. Many influential figures in the Catholic church will be there and the abbott is eager to have everything in place and perfect for such an important event. When a body of a monk is found in the most unusual place the abbot asks William to investigate and find the killer before the legates get there, but neither of them suspects that it will be no easy task because every day there is a new murder.

I read this book in 2009, after an almost 10-year hiatus from reading (college and its thick textbooks apparently can have that effect sometimes), and nearly two years later I couldn't quite get all the plot points straight in my head but remembered that I enjoyed it very much. That is until I heard an interview with Umberto Eco on BBC World Book Club and it brought back the details of this complex story. I couldn't put the jovial and oh so clever Mr. Eco out of my mind and eventually decided that writing a review of the book would be a nice little tribute to his work.
It was fascinating to find out that Eco is a scholar who specializes in medieval studies so the details of places, conflicts, ideas and descriptions of monastic life are historically accurate, especially since they so seamlessly blend with fiction to create an intriguing narrative that reads like a memoir of a participant, albeit in a modern language.
There are several things that make this book not your average historical murder mystery. Eco doesn't find it necessary to spoon-feed his audience, he feels we must do some mental work while reading: there are so many plot lines that complicate William's investigation that sometimes it was a real exercise to remember who everybody was and what their deal was, as they say; the text is peppered with phrases in Latin, quotes from books and religious authorities of the time, and there is no translation for them (apparently some European translations included a glossary but not the American ones); there's also quite a bit of theological discussion, which is to be expected considering the time and place where the novel is set. For these reasons I couldn't breeze through the book and I feel that this made me appreciate the setting and the characters as much as the action - often when I can finish a book in just several days I don't remember much about it in a month and this one is definitely memorable.
The murders are the driving force behind the story but it is the possible motives and the interactions between the monks that give it substance. There are plenty of theological issues to discuss, belief systems to evaluate and question, secret associations to uncover and pure human impulses and wishes ruling these men of faith to make the Benedictines an interesting and sometimes far from saintly bunch. William and Adso are rather colorful characters themselves. They are newcomers to this little community with William using his unusual skills and tools in his task of amateur detective and Adso struggling with the rapidly unfolding events and his own emotions, temptations and fears.
I expected that the reason for the murders would be something very human in its nature, like possessions or indiscretions. I was very surprised that instead it was a theological issue and even more surprised to realize that it was an issue at all in the 14th century and subject of much debate in the religious circles. It really was a different time back then and learning more about it makes me glad to be living today when the most basic things don't have people traveling all over the continent to argue about them.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy murder mysteries with a side of intellectual conversation.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, Denmark

When I started thinking about today's post it almost immediately seemed fitting to look up the most famous mermaid of them all. Sculpted by Edvard Eriksen and unveiled in 1913 The Little Mermaid is a symbol of Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre primaballerina, Ellen Price, modeled for the statue's head but refused to pose in the nude so the sculptor’s wife Eline Eriksen modeled for the body. The statue only stands 1.25 meters tall (a little over 4 feet) but consistently attracts large number of tourists and is often copied around the world, which sometimes results in litigation since it's still under copyright.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Review: Lost Voices by Sarah Porter

Lost VoicesLuce is used to being the new kid in school and to her books being her only friends. She's even used to avoiding her drunk abusive uncle. One day though his abuse goes too far and Luce lets go of her humanity. When she wakes up she is a mermaid, part of a tribe, and has the most beautiful and powerful voice of them all. Too bad mermaids take lives with their voices.

I haven't read a mermaid story since H.C. Andersen's Little Mermaid and seeing this book on NetGalley decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did. Luce is an avid reader so while the story is definitely YA the vocabulary isn't simplistic but still feels natural, without the effect of thesaurus overuse. I really liked the narrative voice for how lyrical and visual it is. Singing is a very important part of the bulk of this book and Ms. Porter did a wonderful job describing the mermaids' singing in a way that wasn't flat or confusing. I actually felt like I knew exactly what their songs sounded like and could understand the almost physical nature of the songs.
There's a stark contrast between the beauty of the mermaids, the world they live in, the exhilaration of their strength and speed, the magic of their voices and the reason why they are all there. It's very dark, actually, because they are all teenagers, the oldest is only 16, but they've all lived a life of pain and abuse and when it all became too much they left the human world but didn't really die. I enjoyed having the weight of this fact to balance the general immaturity of the mermaids, it helped give depth to the story that otherwise could have felt too much like "mean girls gone wild", especially in the second half of the book. There is also the interesting concept that the girls who had no voice in their human lives, were never heard and always disregarded now had voices that could not be ignored.
Lost Voices is the first in a trilogy and it is the beginning of what I think will be a theme arc of coming to terms with who you are, learning to take control of your life, forgiving past hurts and friendship and it's good to know that this book is only the beginning because the way it ended was a bit confusing to me. It was so abrupt that for a moment I thought that I received an incomplete file but the more I thought about the ending after I confirmed that the file was indeed complete the more it made sense. The external conflict here was so strong and volatile that I've almost forgotten all about the importance of the internal conflict while it is the internal conflict that pushed the story forward from the very beginning. Throughout the book Luce struggled with having become a mermaid and signing ships to their death, she struggled with the power of her voice and with the fact that her father most likely died because of mermaids but in the end she comes to appreciate her new world and the beauty of it, she is determined to choose her destiny and grows up just enough to take on the out of control mermaids in the next book. At least I hope she'll take them on because with Anais at the helm those girls have most definitely gone wild.
I would recommend this book to those who enjoy fantasy YA, mermaids and don't mind a protagonist who's not a lara croft type.

ARC of this book was obtained through

Friday, June 17, 2011

Review: His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass)

When 12-year-old Lyra Belaqua leaves her home in Oxford to pursue the elusive and dangerous gobblers and rescue her friend from their dangerous experiments she doesn't know that her adventures will take her to another world, that she'll meet creatures she's never even suspected existed, that she'll make friends and enemies and that she has a destiny more remarkable than anything she has ever imagined.

When I sat down to write this review I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I've already chucked everything a couple of times and here's why: I can't help but feel ambivalent about these books. As far as the writing goes they are brilliant. I wish there were more books with this level of writing and that children were strongly encouraged to read them. The language is beautiful and combined with the extremely accessible style it creates an effect of easygoing elegance. The plot, the characters, the universe as a whole and every scene in particular are expertly crafted and the elaborate machine of multiple character arcs and multiple worlds never misses a beat. I admire Pullman's world building, attention to detail and creativity and would love to find out more about how he actually came up with all the pieces of the puzzle that's never really straightforward.
If you've been following the blog you know that I'm very fond of books that show people and the world we live in as realistically as possible even if the genre is fantasy. After all human nature is the same regardless of the time and place. Pullman definitely delivers as far as that goes. I kept catching myself thinking that every single character cannot be categorized definitively as good or evil. They all perform feats worthy of heroes and they all lie and kill to defend themselves, their friends and what they believe in. They all grow and change and discover something about themselves and each other. And it's like that in the real world too - things are hardly ever just black and white, pretty much everything is a shade of gray.
My reservations with these books stem from the theme, which is the struggle between science and religion where on one side there's knowledge, self-awareness, acceptance of maturation and understanding of the world around us and on the other side there's faith, church, innocence, reverence for mystery of creation. This conflict is nothing new, but here's the twist: here on the side of science are the good guys, young, honest and brave and on the side of religion are the bad guys, at best decrepit and senile and at worst underhanded, cruel and deceitful. As a Christian I found it difficult to read books like these, especially since as an adult I know what I believe, but young minds are still forming and while I don't think teens and pre-teens are so unperceptive that this radical, uncompromising view would elude them I do wonder whether they would regard it as perfectly acceptable or whether they would question it for its onesidedness. For this reason I would suggest that parents read the books before their children and decide whether they are appropriate for them.
I would definitely recommend these books to those who are looking for a beautifully-written, well-crafted story but I would speak about my apprehensions as well.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Reader by Ferdinand Heilbuth

32x40 cm
Oil on canvas
Current location: The Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl

Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French GirlDebra Ollivier is a California girl who’s lived in France for 10 years. There she married her husband, had two children and discovered what being a French girl is all about, beyond the stereotype of thin and stylish. And let me tell you, it's not all about wine and cheese and fancy lingerie.

I’ve always had a soft spot for all things French. Some of my favorite authors are Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas Pere, Anne Golon and I dream of being able to read their books without translation. The little black dress is an absolute must have and French onion soup and a piece of baguette make a perfect lunch. The little cafes seem beyond enchanting and La Vie En Rose makes me have goose bumps every time I hear it. And last but not least when I look at pictures of Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tatou and Juliette Binoche I admire their ability to look so effortlessly chic. It is no wonder then that I’ve been picking up books about French women and what gives them that mysterious and self-assured presence and the ability to look so put together no matter how casually they dress. My most recent find is this book and I’m glad to have stumbled upon it. At first glance it’s like All You Need To Be Impossibly French but that’s only at first glance.
This book talks about who the French girl is on the inside, as much as on the outside and it truly is a fun and thought-provoking read. Here Debora Ollivier talks about all the different aspects of a French girl’s life. She discusses the way she dresses, the way she takes care of herself and her family, the way she cooks and entertains, the way she works and spends her leisure time, but that’s not all. She also talks about the way the French girl raises her children, nourishes her mind and focuses on nurturing her true self, not changing her personality according to the latest fad self-help book. According to Mme. Ollivier the true French girl is discreet, selective, private and self-contained and her shape and size have little to do with her level of confidence because she knows who she is and she owns it completely and flaunts it without reservation. I don’t know about you, but taking a few pages out of a French girl’s book seemed like a good idea to me when I finished this volume.
Another aspect of this book that I really enjoyed is that in addition to the author’s insights into the French life we also got little fun tidbits like book and movie recommendations, interesting quotes, recipes and comparisons of life in the States and in France. I laughed out loud reading about Pere Noel and Santa Claus, Halloween in Paris and a block party to which the Parisians brought their fine china. The only thing about these tidbits that I didn’t like is that they appeared in the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a sentence even, and until I figured out to skip them until the chapter’s end and then go back to enjoy them separately I kept feeling interrupted all the time, which as any reader knows is rather annoying.
I would highly recommend this book to any Francophile girl out there for a look at the French girl through the eyes of a girl who’s become French in a way. You can tell she loves her homes on both sides of the Atlantic and that gives the whole thing the air of authenticity the real French girl cherishes so much.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Special Feature:

I love the local library dearly but they don't always have the books I'm looking for and book stores can get pretty pricey, even second-hand ones. Luckily there's this site where book-lovers can swap books. You simply post what you have on the site, fellow users request the book from you and you mail it to them. For every book you mail you get a point and with these points you can request books from other users. You don't have to pay for them because you've already essentially paid for postage when you mailed your book earlier. If you send the package using the Media Mail option postage is usually under $2.50 and that's pretty good. I am yet to see a book I want to read priced that low. So if you have volumes stacked in piles and insulating your house but you don't want to deal with the "2 for 1" formula of the used book stores I recommend that you check these guys out, they are at

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a GeishaAt nine years of age Chiyo is sold to a geisha house. If she is obedient enough she will begin her training to become a geisha. If she is strong and talented enough she will rise above obscurity. If she is lucky and perseveres her fondest dream will come true. This is the story of the daughter of a poor fisherman becoming one of the most celebrated geishas in Japan. But will her status bring her happiness?

I picked this book up at a store after watching the movie by the same title and learning that it was based on a critically-acclaimed book. It sat there for several years because I always want to forget what the story is about almost entirely before I revisit it. Just so happened that its time came during the week of season finales of my favorite TV shows and let me tell you, it held my attention so completely that I couldn’t put it down even to watch the highly-anticipated episodes. Luckily there’s Hulu.
Golden's writing reminded me of oriental silkscreen paintings where elegant, almost ephemeral brush strokes create a very solid image that is earthy and organic and capable of turning a setting that isn't that attractive into something beautiful. Here the setting is like splotchy skin under flawless white makeup: the world of Gion revolves around money, relationships between men and women and reputation, children are essentially sold into slavery when they are brought to Gion to train to become geisha and when they grow up they are almost always “the other woman” in the lives of the married men who become their danna. The book is so masterfully written that I couldn't put it down, but it bothered me that while it is obvious that Sayuri regards her life as difficult I never got a sense that she sees anything reprehensible about it or the world she lives in. I still have a hard time coming to terms with this aspect of the story.
Even though I could not readily relate to any of the characters I enjoyed getting to know them. Their personalities unfolded gradually and in one instance I was even surprised by the turn of events only to understand a moment later that what happened wasn’t all that surprising after all. Mameha in particular stood out in her role of a strict but kind and fair mentor because you could tell that there was much more to her than met the eye.
What made this book especially satisfying is that with the help of the foreword (or Translator’s Note, as it is called here) the story began in present day New York and ended there. That gave it a sense of completeness, as if the events came a full circle and had a true end. I highly recommend it to any avid reader and am seriously considering keeping this volume for my home library, which doesn’t happen with many books I read.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, #3)When Robert Langdon receives a last-minute invitation to speak at a lecture in Washington, DC from his good friend Peter Solomon he doesn't realize that there's no lecture, that his good friend didn't invite him and that there is a fiendish villain manipulating the powerful Mason's friends and family in his pursuit of supernatural powers and revenge. Again Langdon is in a race against time but now his friend's life and national security are on the line, as well as the mystery of the lost symbol.

After reading Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code I looked forward to this book and when it finally came in the mail I set to devour it in a weekend. The beginning was very promising. Robert Langdon is once again plucked out of his academic routine by a mysterious phone call. There is an ancient secret that has to do with the Masons. The villain is especially chilling in his ability to be an outsider who is somehow in the thick of things. The police and the secret service are on Langdon's heels and it's impossible to tell whether they're the good or the bad guys. So far so good. Except that's when things started getting different.
For one thing there's not a murder. There is a kidnapping and a threat of a murder which gives the story a new level of intensity. The scientist here is a brilliant woman working in the field of revolutionary Noetic Science, who also happens to be the kidnapped man's sister. (If you're wondering what in the world Noetic Science is here's an example from the book: Katherine Solomon studies the physical, quantifiable effect of positive thinking on matter and weighs a human soul.) And finally the lost symbol is a secret glyph that stands for a word that according to legend can unlock the gates between our world and the other side and imbue the dark priest with demonic powers. Told you it was getting different.
Of course Brown is a master of weaving improbable tales into a believable narrative so I sat there white-knuckling the couch as people died, the identity of the villain was revealed and the fate of the most powerful politicians in the country hung by the thinnest thread over the abyss of unthinkable scandal. I waited with baited breath to discover what this much guarded lost symbol was and what it stood for and then... then the house of cards collapsed. I could not believe it. The elaborate structure of incredible imaginings, breathtaking plot developments and sympathetic characters crumbled in a way that made me think that Brown had to quickly wrap up the story because it didn't really have anywhere else to go and couldn't think of a good way to do it. Without giving away the exact resolution I can say that my level of dissatisfaction with the ending could only compare to the dreaded "and then he woke up and realized that it was all a dream" scenario. I quite literally turned the last page, flipped back, turned the last page again and thought to myself "Er... What?!?" Not much in terms of eloquence but that was the extent of my confusion.
So there you have it. I really did enjoy the first 4/5 of the book. It's always fun to follow Langdon in his tweeds and loafers on his mad dashes in pursuit of truth with the timer ticking; the spiritual side of me understood the whole idea of Noetic Science and I was really sorry to see those who died go (as King said, kill your darlings, and Brown does just that here); the extent of research that goes into Brown's books is staggering and the "lectures" consistently tickle my historical curiosity but the ending spoiled this book for me and there's not much I can do about this lingering sense of dissatisfaction. If you've read the book let me know what your thoughts are. If you're considering reading it don't let me dissuade you, may be you'll love it and it'll make perfect sense to you.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shelves and Cases

We book lovers tend to accumulate books like they're going out of style. Of course piling them up on the bedside table is all very well but eventually they don't fit there and require a more sizable storage space, like a book shelf or more frequently a book case. So today I wanted to share some pretty, creative and downright avant garde places to keep your books. Enjoy!