Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Google Friend Connect & The Future

Tomorrow, March 1, Google will be retiring the Friend Connect service for all non-Blogger sites and since I don't want my current GFC subscribers to be left without their twice-weekly dose of Bibliophile's Corner here are some alternative (or additional) ways to connect and keep track of the posts:

The easiest way would be to click Follow on top of the page. There is also a Subscribe and Follow By Email section towards the middle of the right panel on every page. Feel free to use them. Don't worry, there won't be any spam mail.

If you're into socializing in 140 characters or less follow bibliocorner on Twitter. The blog is linked to the account so whenever there's a new post a tweet pops up. I also tweet about fun bookish things whenever something interesting comes up on the news feed and/or I find my way out of the introvert shell.

If you're a Facebook fan you can follow me there through Networked Blogs. There's not a dedicated Bibliophile's Corner FB page, not yet anyway, so for now Networked Blogs is it.

For those who firmly believe that Facebook is evil (or any variation on the theme) I'm also testing the waters with Google+. Not sure how it all works just yet so bear with me.

You can also follow me through Google Reader or any other RSS reader.

Good luck with this transition!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: By Fire By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan

By Fire, By WaterLuis de Santangel is the Chancellor to King Fernando and Queen Ysabel of Castille and Aragon but even his position will not keep him safe from the clutches of the New Inquisition and their quest to seek out and destroy those with Jewish heritage. Judith Migdal is an unmarried woman taking care of an elderly relative and her young nephew. After her sister and her husband die she must learn to become a silversmith to support her family in the Jewish quarter of Granada. Cristobal Colon's greatest dream is to reach India and Jerusalem by sea and he will dedicate his life to accomplishing it. History brought these people together and they will change each other's lives forever.

I am absolutely delighted to tell you about this book because this is one of those rare reads where everything is just right. A while back the author contacted me asking for a review of his debut novel and having never read anything set in Spain of that era I decided to give it a try. Reading it last week I congratulated myself on this decision more than once. This is an intelligent, well-written novel that combines drama, history, politics and, to a lesser degree, romance.
I really enjoyed the characters of the honorable Luis de Santangel, the resilient Judith, and the supporting cast who all played a role in the events. Sometimes it would seem that a completely new character was introduced for no observable reason but then time would pass and this seemingly-insignificant character's contribution would become obvious, be it to further the plot, make the setting more vivid, or aid in the development of the main characters. No character arc was left incomplete and seeing them all develop was deeply satisfying.
This isn't really a straightforward set the goal - overcome difficulties - achieve the goal type of novel. Cristobal Colon's endeavor to obtain the monarchs' support in sailing to India is a secondary plot. It is the life of Luis de Santangel and his struggle with his heritage at a time when practicing anything other than Christianity was a sure way to the stake is at the foreground of this story. The life of Judith and her family provides an excellent contrast by giving us a glimpse of a life the Jewish community had in Muslim Granada.
Mr. Kaplan spent six years doing research for this book and the work he's done brings a lot of credibility to the novel. The details shine through on every page and fortunately he didn't let history and theological debate overpower the story, at the end of the day it was still about Luis, Judith and their loved ones.
Usually at this point I talk about things that didn't work for me. Today there isn't anything for me to say. Go get this book. Read it. Enjoy it. This is a quality novel that is worth reading regardless of whether you're a fan of historical fiction or not.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Special Feature - Things: Book Art

Have you guys heard of Pinterest? If not I would recommend that you stop by and check it out. Then again, it's pretty addictive so enter at your own risk. In any case, that site has proven to be a veritable cornucopia of all sorts of fun information, including ideas for Special Feature posts such as this one and when I saw this image on one of the boards I follow there I knew immediately that I had to share it with you. I'm usually not a supporter of using books for anything other than reading material but projects such as this catch my eye with their artistic vision and skillful execution.
Please visit Rochelle Donald's stream on Flickr for the rest of her Where Books Come To Life set. The Harry Potter one is pretty amazing!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review: Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell

Postmortem (Kay Scarpetta, #1)Under cover of night in Richmond, Virginia, a human monster strikes, leaving a gruesome trail of stranglings that has paralyzed the city. Medical examiner Kay Scarpetta suspects the worst: a deliberate campaign by a brilliant serial killer whose signature offers precious few clues. With an unerring eye, she calls on the latest advances in forensic research to unmask the madman. But this investigation will test Kay like no other, because it's being sabotaged from within and someone wants her dead.

The first time I heard about Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries was on BBC World Book Club and when the hefty tome containing the first three Scarpetta novels caught my eye at the used book shop I immediately snatched it off the shelf. It waited its turn until this year when I finally settled in to read Postmortem.
One of the first things that struck me, even distracted me somewhat, was how much technology playing a major part in the story dated the novel. Scarpetta talked about diskettes, bringing up information through Basic commands, dialing in to computers via modem and I could hardly believe the time Cornwell was writing about was just over 20 years ago. Seems like much longer considering the leaps and bounds by which technology has advanced since 1990s.
Once I adjusted to the idea of computer systems being a novelty and DNA testing being so new that it was barely used and took forever I was able to appreciate this book for what it is. Did you know it received the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards and the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure in a single year? It was revolutionary back then to put a woman in the center of a crime novel and Cornwell did it wonderfully. Kay Scarpetta is intelligent and strong, but at the same time she's vulnerable and sensitive. We see her as the tough Chief Medical Examiner and a loving aunt who makes pizza from scratch, we see her doing her best and feeling insecure because she's one of the few women in a man-dominated world. Things have changed some since then but not all that much and it was refreshing to see a woman who isn't all iron lady.
The supporting cast complemented Scarpetta nicely - a rough around the edges detective with both great instincts and integrity to bring to the table, a little girl so smart she beat the adults at their own game, the perfect suspect or two who... well, I'll leave you to figure that one out on your own.
The characters really made the book for me but the writing was great as well. This is one of those cases where the writer breaks the rules we've heard time and time again (limit adverbs, show don't tell, etc.) and does it in a way that works and actually makes the novel better. As they say, break the rules the right way!
Last but not least when it came time for the big reveal I was just as suprised as everyone else. Cornwell revealed the clues so gradually that I actually felt like I was figuring things out with Scarpetta and Marino and the fact that there wasn't a big explanation at the end and neither was the culprit one of the characters who already made an appearance at the scene made the story much more satisfying. Needless to say I look forward to reading the next book in the volume.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shadow of the WindBarcelona, 1945 - Just after the war a boy named Daniel awakes one day to find that he can no longer remember his mother’s face. To console his only child Daniel’s widowed father initiates him into the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library tended by Barcelona’s guild of rare-book dealers as a repository for books forgotten by the world, waiting for someone who will care about them again. Daniel so loves the book he selects, a novel called The Shadow of the Wind by one Julián Carax, that he sets out to find the rest of Carax’s work. To his shock, he discovers that someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book this author has written. In fact, he may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Before Daniel knows it, his seemingly innocent quest has opened a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets, an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love. Before long he realizes that his search for the truth about Julián Carax will bring great suffering to him and those closest to him but there is no turning back.

The first time I heard about The Shadow of the Wind was on BBC World Book Club and it intrigued me immediately. The idea of a book stirring up such trouble and a terrible mystery in the middle of it proved irresistible so imagine my surprise when I discovered the book already waiting its turn on my bookshelf. Not sure when I got it, or where, but I was glad to see it there nonetheless.
The story gripped me from the very first pages, which was easy to do with evocative writing and characters depicted so well that they seemed to be real people trapped in the pages of the novel. They were far from perfect, riddled with weaknesses in fact, but that only made their strengths stand out that much more. The same goes for the setting - the world Zafon created, or portrayed, isn't pretty. There is pain and horror at every turn, some of the things that happened made me wonder why hasn't anyone stopped the perpetrators, why the terrible things were allowed to continue. But that's life, I suppose, and I applaud the author for giving them a place in this story and in this way providing a contrast for the decency and kindness.
There are parts of the book that might create an impression that supernatural forces are at play but I was pleased to discover that all events had a very reasonable explanation and were firmly grounded in facts and people's actions. If they weren't it really would've been too much - in Zafon's post-war Barcelona even things that had a perfectly reasonable explanation seemed fantastical at times.
My favorite thing about this novel was how everything and everyone seemed to be connected, down to the most seemingly insignificant detail. All the threads of the tangled knot that is the mystery of Julián Carax and his life eventually were revealed to be part of one whole and discovering the connections was simply exhilarating. The runner-up favorite thing was seeing the parallels and similarities between Daniel and Julián and their lives. It really seemed as though Daniel was always meant to be the one to find out the truth and everything and everyone simply waited for him to be ready to do it.
I enjoyed this novel from the first till the last page and even the few inconsistencies that seemed to jump out at me didn't spoil it. It was easy to see that some things were done for dramatic effect, and one element of the mystery was obvious to me since I've seen quite a bit of it in Latin American telenovelas, but all that was generously compensated for when the identity of the person who was destroying Carax's books was revealed. If it was anyone else I probably would've felt cheated so I'll forgive the author the little shortcomings and will recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good mystery, great writing, unique characters and above all a book that's difficult to put down.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Special Feature - Art: The Reader by Mary Cassatt

Oil on canvas
32 x 25 1/2 in. (cm. 81.3 x 64.8)
Currently part of the collection of Electra B. McDowell, New York, New York

I stumbled upon this picture on the Smithsonian website here and immediately fell in love with it. Black and white art has always been my favorite and the subject of this painting seemed warm and alive despite the monochromatic color scheme.
Mary Cassatt is known as the "painter of women and children" and a brief visit to revealed how she earned that reputation. Of 400+ paintings catalogued there only one has a man in it. She has several other paintings of readers but this one is my favorite. If you enjoy impressionist art I urge you to visit the gallery on this website, especially since Cassatt was hailed as one of the best three impressionist women artists of her time.
Since very few of Cassatt's works aren't done in color I was curious to see an image of the actual painting and finally found one at the web page of the Adolph Mentzel Museum. Doesn't disappoint, does it?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search For A New Best FriendMoving to Chicago to be with her long-term boyfriend left Rachel happy to finally share a zip code with the love of her life but also feeling lonely because all her old friends are in New York and she has no one to have girl time with. Rachel decides to take matters into her own hands and over the course of the year goes on 52 girl-dates in hopes of making new friends, best friends no less. This is a chronicle of her adventures.

The curse of the introvert is that while I enjoy spending time with people I know, getting there (aka making friends) is a challenge. I frequently wonder how some people go from barely acquaintances to friends in no time with zero awkwardness and lately I've been thinking about the general subject of friendship more than usual. So when a friend gushed about this book I jumped at the chance to read it - here's someone asking the same questions and apparently she has answers!
Rachel's memoir is not just a collection of amusing anecdotes about her 52 new girl-dates in search of friends. She's also done some research on the subject of friendship and the narrative is liberally sprinkled with references to books and articles on the subject as well as summaries of her interviews with experts. This did give the book more of a dry air of an almost scientific article than I would have preferred but at least we know without a doubt that the author has thoroughly done her homework! She is also letting us into her life outside the friend-search, giving us a glimpse of how hew new husband was dealing with the whole thing (from what I can tell Rachel better hang on to her Matt, he’s a keeper), her existing friends' and family's support, and her own analysis of herself and her quest throughout the year. It’s interesting to see the transformation of her wish list for the perfect friend from tentative to defined and grounded in the present and her transformation from a young woman seeking companionship to a young woman who has much to offer not only to a potential friend but also to herself.
I really enjoyed reading Rachel’s insights into what it takes to build a friendship, her take on our culture where admitting that you are looking for friends is tantamount to admitting that you are a weirdo looser, and her thoughts about one’s spouse being one’s best friend (or not). I can relate to her nervousness starting out on this adventure and applaud her for not leaving a stone unturned, and for turning into a yes-woman of friend-making in the name of having a social life, which is obviously very important to her.
While I wouldn’t want to repeat Rachel’s experiment (‘exhausting’ doesn’t even begin to cover my impression of the commitment she made over the course of that year) many of the lessons she learned I would like to apply to my own life. After all, when has it hurt to have more friends?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Special Feature: Libraries of the Ancient World

When you're looking for information where do you first go? I'm betting it's not to the library. With a wealth of information on any given topic available online it's easy to dismiss the library altogether and as far as I'm concerned that is a crying shame. We can get everything scanned and converted into digital files and available at the click of a mouse but what about the sensory benefit of opening a beautifully-bound book for the first time, turning pages that are older than your parents, or even just walking among the stacks, breathing the air scented with paper and ink, and having a whimsically-colorful or gold-lettered spine catch your eye? I'm a huge fan of libraries (if you can't tell yet) and recently I've been thinking about the ones that were the beginning of it all. You know, the libraries in Celsus, Pergamum, Alexandria and a handful of other locations around the world where the enlightened and the curious came to learn.

We've all heard about the library of Alexandria, primarily because it was destroyed and there's not an architectural landmark we can visit, nothing to ground our imaginations in. There are historical records however that tell us about it. The library was charged with collecting all the world's knowledge and it was the first of its kind to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country's borders. This collecting was very aggressive and involved seizing books from ships that came into the harbor and keeping the originals while returning copies to the original owners. It is impossible to say just how large the wealth of materials was at the library but according to legend Mark Antony gave Cleopatra the entire contents of the Library of Pergamum (200,000 scrolls) as a wedding gift, so if that was only a portion of the collection you can imagine the scope of the whole. The lore regarding the destruction of the library is conflicting but Plutarch wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar "accidentally" burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea.

The second largest Hellenistic library after Alexandria was the library of Pergamum, the city that gave the name to pergamus, or parchment, when it was invented to replace papyrus imported from Alexandria. Historical accounts claim that the library possessed a large main reading room, lined with many shelves. An empty space was left between the outer walls and the shelves to allow for air circulation. This was intended to prevent the library from becoming overly humid in the warm climate of Anatolia and can be seen as an early attempt at library preservation. Manuscripts were written on parchment, rolled, and then stored on these shelves. At the height of its cultural glory Pergamum was rivaled only by the cities of Alexandria and Antioch, now the ruins of the city and its library are major archaeological sites in Turkey.

The third great library of antiquity was the Library of Celsus, the smallest of the three (it was planned for only 12,000 scrolls, but unique because it was founded solely with the funds of the man it's named after. It is also unique because after it was destroyed by two earthquakes but was later partially restored. Now visitors can see the facade, which is believed to be a very accurate reproduction, and tour the partially-restored rest of the building. Another thing that makes this library unique is that Celsus was buried in a crypt under the library. At a time when even being buried within the city limits was unusual being buried within the library was a very special honor. I wonder if the crypt is still there, under the ruins...