Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World presents twelve manuscripts, some breathtakingly beautiful and others surprisingly modest looking, that illustrate important periods, concepts, or owners. The author investigates myriad of details about each, including (to my great delight) how the book is handled by its current library and whether its guardians supply appropriate foam holders or gloves to handle it. (It turns out that different libraries have very different approaches, which was a surprise to me. Surely someone should have figured out by now what the best mechanisms are!)
I cannot present I remembered all I read, as we learn about how to prepare animal skins for manuscript, how the books were copied and illustrated (often by different people), and of course the minute textual differences between copies of supposedly the same text. It’s probably best to read the book in small increments, something I did not do.
Co-written by an English professor and a visual artist, On Color is organized in a series of chapters (named, of course, after colors) that explore colors and politics (for red, of course!), colors in literature, and of course, colors and art. It’s a wonderful assortment of essays.
I read this book on a black-and-white kindle. Don’t do that!
If, like most of us, all you know of Hokusai is the iconic wave that adorns the cover of this book, you will enjoy Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave. It turns out that Hokusai lived a long life, during which he traversed through many different styles of painting and illustrating, and that he correspondingly changed his name from time to time, becoming “the artist formerly known as Hokusai” at the end of his life, a title that I found particularly delightful.The gorgeous illustrations, always positioned right next to the text, are also a delight.
The Strays paints a brilliant picture of a willfully bohemian family that draws in the best friend of the middle sister, who is dazzled by the unlikely goings-on of artists, so different from her own poor and conventional family. Of course, not all is well in bohemia and the family (and the girls’ friendship) will eventually explode and destroy some of the players. The separate world of children and teenagers is perfectly captured. The part of the book that does not work is the present day musings of the main character, which read like a cheap novel with canned feelings. Fortunately it’s a small portion of the story.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History could easily be a sugary, romanced story of American heroism during WWII — but it is not, although it occasionally paints (;)) a Manichean picture of Nazi actions and characters.
It tells the story of a small group of men (all men, alas, although some of the crucial supporting characters are women) who were tasked with locating, identifying, and returning art work stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. With a tiny team and scarce resources, they visited hidden caches in private cellars as well as vast salt mines transformed into enormous warehouses, exploiting the well-kept records of the Nazis while needing to gain the trust of the victims who had learned to resist and conceal and were often, understandably, leery of sharing their secrets. The author chose to draw vivid portraits of the men and included personal correspondence between them and their families, which gives glimpses of everyday life during the war, both for soldiers and the families back home. Well done.
(If you are worried that FT Books has succumbed to rating inflation in the new year, fear not. I just read a wonderful series of wonderful books. I remain unafraid to assign one-star ratings when deemed necessary!)
Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies is an erudite review of how weather figures in the work of British artists. (English artists? That’s what the title says but she makes reference to Wales; how can a non-Brit figure it out?)
So we start, with Roman-time orders for some nice woolens. Poor Romans, they must have felt cold, and damp, in Britain… We plow through Chaucer, and Ms. Harris insist we read it in the original language. Maybe a footnote would suffice? We peek at toes being warmed on a fire in medieval illustrations. I liked the art better than the literature, both because the illustrations are perfect and because much is lacking in my knowledge of British literature. A treat for literary Anglophiles, and an interesting read for everyone else.
The Last Painting of Sara De Vos starts brilliantly, with an audacious (and never fully explained) heist of a Dutch painting right from the bedroom of a wealthy lawyer who is bored with his job and his wife. In an effort to recover the piece, he gets into an ambiguous relationship with the woman who created the copy that was substituted for the original, and the story bounces from the present to the time of the theft, all the way to 1637, when the painting was created, between New York, place of the theft, Sydney, where the forger now lives, and the Netherlands. Alas, the wonderful setup runs out of spunk and the bizarre relationship between the forger and the collector could not convince me. Enjoy the beginning!