Saturday, June 29, 2013

Happy Birthday To:

Antoine de Saint-Exupery
June 29, 1900

"Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux."
 "Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."
-from The Little Prince

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.

Ever since it's publication in 1990, A. S. Byatt's novel Possession has garnerd much acclaim.  It received the Booker Prize, and was included on TIME Magazine's "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005" list.  Part historical fiction, part contemporary novel, it explores the worlds of Victorian literature, academic research, and relations between men and women.

The Plot:

Roland Mitchell is an obscure scholar studying the writings and life of the manly Victorian nature poet Randolph Henry Ash.  A chance discovery in the London Library puts Roland on the scent of a possible relationship between Ash and another Victorian poet, the reclusive feminist Christabel LaMotte.  Needing more information on LaMotte, Roland looks up Maud Bailey, a descendent of LaMotte's niece and a scholar of her works.

Though Maud is initially resistant to Roland's theories surrounding a possible romance between the two poets, she finds herself drawn deeper into the mystery with him.  Their search takes them from the heart of the English countryside to the wild shores of Brittney.  It isn't long before other academics begin to sense that an earth-shattering discovery is about to be made and soon the race is on to discover the truth and claim a piece of history for their own.

My Review (Caution - Spoilers):

I discovered this novel after seeing the film version.  I found the story intriguing and wanted to find out more about the original.  The story remains intriguing in the book, but of course the depth is much greater and Byatt explores many different themes.

As the title suggests, the main theme surrounding this story is the idea of possession.  Roland and Maud's whole search is based on them possessing the knowledge of Ash and LaMotte's relationship, and yet they themselves are possessed by the search itself.  The relations between lovers become complicated as each one tries to fully possess the other.  And the various academics are most concerned with who will end up possessing the various documents relating to this discovery.  The depth to which Byatt plays on this theme is incredible.  It becomes obvious almost from the beginning that she is a very intelligent writer.  Not only does she have to create the two parallel stories of Roland/Maud and Ash/LaMotte, but she is also responsible for the dozens of Victorian-style poems found throughout the novel.  Her understanding of modern academia is also an incredible thing to read.

And yet for me, it was this very intelligence that became my downfall.  To truly appreciate this novel, I think you have to possess a Ph. D. in either Victorian poetry or creative writing.  There are entire chapters consisting of nothing but poems in the high Victorian style.  And while it is important to read them so that you can fully grasp the meaning of later chapters, it is quite a chore.  On top of that you have academics having long discussions about the poetry, long discussions about sexuality and feminism, and long discussions about the academic world itself.  I often found myself bogged down in topics that I had no real interest in with no desire except to just get back to the story.  On the surface it was something I should have loved, but it had such a heavy tone that it times it nearly overwhelmed me.

There are plenty of people who love this novel and it is REALLY well written, so I am in no way trying to discourage you from reading this.  Just be prepared for a very intellectual novel with lots and lots of poetry.  Not a horrible book, just not entirely my cup of tea.  Maybe one day when I'm smarter I'll find time to give it another try.

The Movie:

The 2002 film version stars Aaron Eckhart as Roland, Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud, Jeremy Northam as Ash, and Jennifer Ehle as LaMotte.  Obviously it is a very simplified version of the book with much of the focus staying on the various romances and the thrill of the search.  I enjoyed the film, especially the parts involving Ash and LaMotte.

Trivia: This film reunites Paltrow and Northam who previously starred together in the film adaptation of Emma.  May I say it was also interesting to see Mr. Knightley (Northam) get it on with Elizabeth Bennet (Ehle).  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


This looks interesting...the Weinstein Company will be releasing a documentary later this year on the mysterious life of J. D. Salinger.  Known the world over for his influential novel, The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger became a recluse in his later years and lots of mystery surrounds that time as well as what other writings he might have created.  While I haven't personally read this novel, it is impossible to ignore the affect it has had on our culture over the last 50 years.  Check out the trailer here.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Monuments Men

The art world realized that Germany’s powerful weapons, and especially its use of massive aerial bombardment, had suddenly made the bulk of the continent’s great artistic masterpieces susceptible to destruction. 

Those of us lucky enough to have visited the great cities of Europe will never forget the incredible art and architecture to be found there.  From magnificent cathedrals to priceless paintings, we are constantly bombarded by the masterpieces of Western art.  But so often we take their existence for granted.  We forget that it is nothing short of a miracle that they are even still here for us to see.  They are here due to the efforts of a few courageous men and women who faced down the greatest cultural thieves in history and risked their lives to restore it to us.  In his book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Robert Edsel tells the story of these brave people and gives an even greater appreciation for the art treasures that populate the museums and streets of Europe.

I have long had an interest in World War II and am no stranger to the many different stories surrounding this troubled period.  But until I read this book I had no idea that there were people whose sole mission during the war was to protect and recover the art treasures of Europe.  I first heard about this book when Rick Steves interviewed the author for his radio program, and I am so happy that I read it because it is a fascinating story.  What is perhaps most remarkable about this group of individuals (collectively termed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section) is that these were not hardened soldiers, but rather ordinary citizens.  Art historians, artists, and museum curators who volunteered to serve even though most of them were older than the average soldier.  Many of them could have had comfortable desk jobs or even stayed out of the war all together, but they gave it up to serve their country and save Western culture.

But though their motives were noble, the task before them was far from easy.  They usually worked on their own, rarely having the chance to communicate with other Monuments Men.  They had no real commander and had to rely on their own knowledge and wits to complete their mission.  They even lacked the basic equipment to complete their tasks like typewriters, signs, and vehicles.  And they were constantly at odds with other members of the armed forces who had no intention of changing their way of doing things to spare a small village church, no matter how important.  Perhaps no one in this book had it tougher than Jacques Jaujard and Rose Valland, curators of the Louvre and Jue de Paume respectively, who had to work under the watchful and suspicious eyes of the Nazis.

The importance of their task becomes clear early on as this is not just about saving individual works of art, but about rescuing a millennium of European culture from almost certain destruction.  Some pieces like the Madonna of La Gleize had significance beyond their value as art and served as a comfort to the downtrodden people of occupied villages.  Perhaps what moved me the most was how these men didn't just look out for the culture of the occupied nations, but also for that of Germany itself.  Despite the hatred and disgust they had for the Nazis, they knew that German culture was worth saving and they set their own feelings aside to complete the task.  Edsel stresses this idea of saving culture because it is sorely needed in the wars of today.  Unfortunately, our army did not remember the ideas of the Monuments Men when Iraq was invaded and many priceless pieces of Iraqi culture were stolen or destroyed.  Hopefully, this story will become more well known and teach us all the respect we should show another culture, even when it belongs to our enemy.

As I read the stories of the many buildings and works of art that these men helped save, I couldn't help but place it in the context of my own travels.  I remembered walking the corridors of the Louvre and standing inside Aachen Cathedral, totally captivated by what my eyes were seeing.  And yet my experience would not have been possible without the work of these courageous men.  We are so lucky that these treasures are still here to awe and inspire us.  I highly recommend this book for those interested in art, World War II, and European culture in general.  You will certainly gain an appreciation for the work that was done.

The Movie:

Later this year, a film version of this book will be released.  It will star George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin, and Hugh Bonneville.  I have to say that this is one film I am really looking forward to.       

Sunday, June 9, 2013

“Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

-Gustave Flaubert

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Prisoner of Zenda

“For my part, if a man must needs be a knave I would have him a debonair knave... It makes your sin no worse as I conceive, to do it à la mode and stylishly.” 

In 1894, British author Anthony Hope published a slim adventure novel that would become an instant success and define a literary genre for decades to come.  The Prisoner of Zenda would set the type of the Ruritanian romance, stories set in a fictional country (usually in Eastern Europe) revolving around the aristocracy and devoted to such themes as honor, loyalty, and love.  Praised by such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, Hope's novel remains well-known to this day and is considered by many to be a minor classic of English literature. 

The Plot:

Rudolf Rassendyll is a somewhat idle young man who is a member of English nobility.  After being chastised for his laziness by his sister-in-law, Rudolf decides to visit the Ruritania, a small country in Eastern Europe whose royal family is illegitimately linked to his own.  He arrives on the eve of the coronation of the new king (also named Rudolf), and chances to meet the royal while walking in the woods.  The resemblance between the two is uncanny and even the king's own advisers initially mistake Rassendyll for the king.  

That night, the king is treacherously kidnapped and imprisoned by his half brother, Prince Michael, in an attempt to stop the coronation and have himself crowned instead.  The king's attendants convince Rassendyll to impersonate the king and be crowned in his place.  Various complications occur as Rassendyll attempts to rule the land, rescue the king, and woo the beautiful Princess Flavia.  Rassendyll soon finds himself tempted to retain the power that has been thrust upon him, and must summon all of his honor and courage to save the country.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I love a good swashbuckler.  Whether it is a flight through the heather like in Stevenson's Kidnapped or sailing the high seas with pirates as in Sabatini's Captain Blood, there is nothing to get your heart racing like a well told adventure story. 

And that is exactly what The Prisoner of Zenda is.  All of the classic elements of a swashbuckler are here.  Our hero at first seems to be a calm, quiet man who doesn't get involved in anything too strenuous.  But when he finds himself put to the test, he more than rises to the occasion with his wit, talent, intelligence, and honor.  Our villain (not really Prince Michael in this case so much as his right hand man Count Rupert of Hentzau) is cunning and ruthless with a dash of charm.  And the romance between our hero and Princess Flavia is passionate and honorable (though doomed, unfortunately).  It is no wonder that lovers of adventure find this to be a satisfying read.

But while it is classic and satisfying, it doesn't quite reach the heights of the novels mentioned above.  It is a very simple story that isn't given as much length or development as some other novels of it's kind.  Our characters don't have quite the depth to really make them leap off of the page.  Princess Flavia is one in particular that could have been a really outstanding heroine with a bit more polish and depth.  It is still a very enjoyable novel, just don't expect it to be as amazing as the works of Stevenson.

For those times when you need to lay down your heavy literature and set off on an adventure, you could certainly do worse than The Prisoner of Zenda.  It is a fun novel that certainly deserves it place on the list of novels everyone must read.  I suggest this one as a read aloud for the whole family that will help teach them about how doing what is right is more important that fulfilling your own desires.

The Movie:

This is one of those stories that was meant for the screen.  There have been numerous adaptations over the years, but two in particular stand out.  The first is considered by many to be the most definitive.  Released in 1937, it stars Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll, David Niven, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. 

The 1952 version is almost exactly the same shot for shot.  It stars Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, Jane Greer, and James Mason.  Either one is an excellent way to enjoy this classic story on your TV.            

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book Party

Looking for something fun and bookish to do this summer and fall?  Love hobnobbing with your favorite authors, book vendors, and other readers?  Looking to snag a few new reading gems for your collection?  Look no further than an annual book festival.  No matter where in the world you live, chances are good that there will be a book festival of some sort happening near you.  Here's a glimpse at some of the various opportunities you have to celebrate books, reading, and the written wor
d in general:

  • Book Expo America: This conference happens every year at the end of May/beginning of June in one of America's major cities (it was in NYC this year).  It is a conference mainly for the book publishing and services world and only people in those fields can attend the entire event.  However, they have recently opened up the final day of the expo to the general public (Power Readers).  It is a chance for you to meet some of your favorite authors, check out what new books are on the horizon, chat up with various publishing and self-publishing companies, and load yourself down with lots of giveaways and merchandise.
  • The National Book Festival: America's largest book festival happens on the National Mall every September.  This year's dates are September 21-22.  It is an opportunity to not purchase books, but to interact with some of America's most famous authors through book signings and readings.  Some of the authors at this year's festivals include Richard Paul Evans, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini, and many others.  One plus to this festival is that you do not have to purchase a book there for an author to sign, you can bring your own.
  • Edinburgh International Book Festival: If you happen to find yourself across the pond in August, head north to the home of Stevenson, Burns, and Scott to celebrate books from around the world.  Over 800 authors are involved in around 750 different events during this two and a half week festival.  There are two huge bookstore tents, one for adults and one for kids, where you can load up on all kinds of goodies.  I think this one is definitely going on my bucket list.
 You can find information on other various festivals and publishing events here.  Festivals like these are an amazing way for readers all over the world to share the passion we have for books.  Do you have a favorite festival or book event?  Share it here!