Tag Archives: art

** 1/2 The Strays by Emily Bitto

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.

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*** Monument Men by Robert Edsel

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!)

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** Weatherland by Alexandra Harris

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.

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** The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith

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!

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** Originals by Adam Grant

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World is a messy book that seems not to be able to decide whether it is a self-help book or simply a trove of entertaining stories. As the former, it is prone to drawing lessons from isolated anecdotes but the entertaining and profoundly optimistic voice of the author carries the narrative through. And there are many good ideas, in particular  on how to communicate new ideas: from highlighting the reasons not to support the idea (to disarm the audience and preempt objections) to repeating exposure to unfamiliar ideas, to systematically seeking out the opposition.

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** The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places From Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley often reads like an indulgent travelogue to locales that share little more than having been, once upon a time, happening places of one kind or another. The author attempts to identify a common thread between Athens,  Edinburgh, Hangzhou, Florence, and Silicon Valley, but it’s not always easy to distinguish between the cause and the consequence of creativity. Of course, creative places are cosmopolitan and chaotic, and of course they will recycle ideas already in the air and not be too rich (there goes Silicon Valley) but what came first, creativity or chaos?

Still, the narrative is charming and the author describes many non-obvious geniuses such as James Hutton and Shen so the book is fun to read, if not entirely convincing.

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* A Strange Business by James Hamilton


A Strange Business: Art, Culture, and Commerce in Nineteenth Century London talks about the artists, their patrons, and all the craftsmen and business people that made the practice and commerce of art possible in the United Kingdom during the 19th century. The author starts off with a painfully assembled foursome, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Turner, and Faraday, but does not seem to do much with them (although they obviously make repeated appearances in the various chapters of the book, which focus on various aspects of the art business). He also has some difficulty showing that what happened in London art circles at that time was any more than the normal benefits of wealth in making it possible for artists to thrive. There are a few interesting comments, such as when he points out that both artists and the nouveaux-riches who so wanted to appear cultured often came from the same, unhealthy backgrounds. But otherwise I found the book a little dry, full of dull correspondence and bills for various works of art and art supplies.

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Filed under Non fiction