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Category Archive for '5-2012 Reviews'

This weekend I was struck by the statement of a Presidential candidate that the constitutional separation of church and state was not intended to be absolute, that in his opinion, lawmakers should be allowed to pass national legislation based on their religious faith. Almost four hundred years ago, England faced the same contentious issues regarding the relationship of church, state, and individual freedom. The result was havoc. Ronan Bennett has described this tumultuous time in England in a well-documented, carefully researched, and stimulating novel set in the 1630s, Havoc in the Third Year, which was published to rave reviews in 2004. Bringing the period to life on every level of society, the author illustrates in realistic detail the kinds of gruesome punishments meted out for “sins,” the harshness of life for the homeless poor, the dependence of farmers on luck and weather, the fragility of life, the excesses of religious extremism, and the abiding power of love. The realistically presented motivations for some of the extreme behavior in the novel make the Puritan characters come alive, despite their excesses, while John Brigge, a man who sees more than one side to each issue, becomes a protagonist for whom the reader develops much sympathy.

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With unusual insight and great enthusiasm, Ross King has several times written books about monumental works of art, placing them in historical context, characterizing the artist, and emphasizing what makes these artistic achievements unique. Each of these books about an artwork – the dome of a cathedral, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Last Supper mural – has received international recognition for its literary style, the accuracy of the research, and the excitement King generates as he details the trials and troubles the artist faced while creating his work for a sometimes less-than-adoring public. Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture was Non-Fiction Book of the Year for Book Sense in 2000. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling was nominated for both the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award (Canada), and this year Leonardo and the Last Supper was winner of the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction – all well deserved prizes. King’s fast-paced narrative style, his vibrant descriptions (aided by well chosen illustrations), and intuitive understanding of what makes art come alive for readers make him unique among contemporary authors, a man whose writing about an artwork pays true homage to the art itself. This is an exciting and utterly absorbing study of an artist, his work, his frustrations, and his glory.

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Australian Patrick White’s genius for story-telling is on full display in this big,old-fashioned saga filled with intriguing characters exploring the difficult terrain of their inner lives. For a number of characters, all male, that personal inner journey is also part of a daring adventure they make into the interior of Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, an area previously unexplored by the white people who have recently discovered this continent. The female characters in Sydney during this same period have a far more difficult time exploring their inner natures, even in the unlikely event that they might be interested in doing so. Here, the women are very much a product of their upbringing in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. As the daughters and wives of successful merchants or entrepreneurs, their educations have been in the social graces far more than in academic learning as they ready themselves for their perceived roles in society as the wives of successful men and mothers of a new generation of Australian gentry. The novel is satisfying on every level, thematically, historically, and emotionally, and the characters are memorable. His descriptions are unparalleled, especially in the clever, often satiric presentations of some of the more unpleasant characters, introduced only briefly.

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A choirboy whose voice was akin to the divine has grown up, as this novel opens, and his life has changed even faster than his voice. Now forty-eight, former choirboy Gudlauger Egilsson has been working for a Reykjavik hotel as a doorman, general handyman, and during this holiday season, as the hotel’s Santa Claus. For many years he has lived in a small room in the basement of the hotel, leading a solitary life with no connection to his family. When Inspector Erlendur of the Reykjavik police is called to his room by the hotel, however, he finds Santa in decidedly compromising circumstances, his costume in disarray, and a knife protruding from his chest. With the dark humor that he has made his trademark, Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason describes the murder scene and the reaction of his assistants to it, and even prissy readers will be amused by some of their reactions and comments about this dark and ironic scene. And when Erlendur, who has no plans for Christmas, helps himself to the exotic holiday buffet upstairs, enraging the chef, this wild and darkly funny noir novel takes off, filled with terrible crimes committed by seemingly innocent people.

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Shortly after World War I, Philippe Marcenat is writing a journal trying to explain to his second wife, Isabelle, his personally devastating past life with Odile, his first wife. He believes that if the quiet and accommodating Isabelle can only understand his life with the vivacious and exciting Odile, that Isabelle will be even more understanding of his often thoughtless behavior during their own marriage. Starting his journal in the years immediately following World War I, Philippe reflects the pomposity and vanity with which he, and others of his time and class often treat the women in their lives. Though he wants to be honest, Philippe is limited by his own attitudes and those of his culture, however. He is unable to identify with women in any meaningful way, except as property, and is at a loss to understand why the most beautiful woman he has ever met – his first wife, Odile – has abandoned him for another. Isabelle’s story begins halfway through the novel. As Isabelle reveals their post-war courtship and marriage from her own point of view, the true nature of the marriage and the respective limitations of the two characters become even clearer. “What I want from love,” Isabelle remarks “is a warm, caressing climate, something my family refused me.” The novel, aided by the new translation, moves swiftly and smoothly through time, revealing much about the culture of France between the two wars.

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