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“Over the past few decades, Emily Carr’s reputation has soared so high that it now can be argued she is Canada’s best-known artist, historic or contemporary. Her impassioned paintings of the West Coast of Canada – her depiction of the monumental sculpture of British Columbia’s indigenous peoples and of the towering trees and dense undergrowth of the region’s rain forests, executed during the early decades of the twentieth century – have superseded [every other] claim to Canadian wilderness. And to national identity.” – Robin Laurence, “The Making of an Artist,” Introduction, 2005. In this autobiography, Carr shows her superb talent as a writer and observer, concentrating on her feelings and her intense responses to life’s challenges over the seventy-four years she has lived – including her struggles to acquire the skills she needed as a painter on an island where there were few others, her trips to aboriginal villages and her desire to preserve their unique qualities, and her friendships with the Group of Seven which gave her new impetus to continue with her landscape paintings. Lawren Harris, in particular, became a mentor. Fascinating and enlightening story by a woman whose success almost did not happen.

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Can’t say much about this one without spoiling some of the incredibly dramatic action, but I really enjoyed it. Irish author John Boyne creates several plot lines within a novel that is both gripping for the stories within the story and wildly satiric for its depictions of the writing life. As he reveals the life of loathsome author Maurice Swift from his young adulthood until his fifties, Boyne clearly relishes the opportunity to focus on the writing profession from a new point of view, one in which dreams can become nightmares, and no subject is barred. As he develops some of these nightmares, he mitigates the shock by writing with his tongue held so firmly in cheek that the reader is constantly aware of the satire and dark ironies involved. The result is a novel which, according to the reviews on Amazon and other public sites, appeals to a wide audience, to many critics, and to book prize committees, though it is controversial among a few critics, who have criticized its overly dramatized sentiments and its sometimes wandering plot lines. For me, Boyne shows the remarkable ability to control every aspect of the reader’s attitude toward main character Maurice Swift, an antihero and narcissist, and he does this naturally and efficiently by highlighting those qualities which make the reader want to identify on some level with this struggling writer, even while recognizing that he is a loathsome individual.

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For those who have always seen Edgar Degas’s most famous ballerina statue as a sweet, romantic symbol combining dreams of the past with dreams of the present, this study of the model, the artist, and the environment in which the sculpture was created may be a shock. Author Camille Laurens spent over two years doing research on this sculpture and its little model as part of her PhD. thesis, and she became totally consumed with the little dancer’s victimization. In 1880, the girl who became the model for the sculpture, Marie van Goethem, was the fourteen-year-old child of Belgian immigrants, unschooled and working as a “little rat” in the Paris Opera, a child in training for the corps de ballet and earning almost no money. Harsh reality comes alive as Marie is needed by her family to help support them, and she eventually follows in the footsteps of her older sister, accepting a modeling job with Edgar Degas, in addition to working at the ballet. When Degas finally exhibits “Little Dancer” in 1881, it is a shock to viewers and critics. No one likes it – for many reasons – discussed in detail by the author. Ultimately, she feels sorry for the little dancer, and decides to do additional research on her life. Fascinating story of an intriguing sculpture by an author who has “done her homework.”

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I am especially fond of Japanese novels for their quiet power, restraint, and careful structure, and I was looking forward to this one, written by a Japanese woman but focusing on characters who have immigrated to Australia, with its totally different culture and completely different language. Iwaki Kei, the Japanese author, knows all about this, having first gone to Australia herself twenty years ago when she was a recent college graduate. She has stayed there with her expatriate Japanese husband ever since, an eventuality which I expected would give much added insight into cultural adaptation, perhaps also including an overlay of analysis into how the differences between cultures affect every aspect of the lives of immigrants. What I found was completely different – surprising, even shocking at first, but which made this, ultimately one of the most intriguing and original debut novels I have read in years, as a Nigerian war refugee and a Japanese scholar both find themselves together in an ESL class in Australia, where they both learn more about life than pronunciation and grammar.

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Jamel Brinkley, author of this extraordinary debut collection of stories, is much more than “a lucky man” in having this collection published by Graywolf, one of the most respected literary publishing houses in the country.  Brinkley’s literary talents and his insights into people – all kinds of people of various backgrounds and ages – kept me spellbound for the entire time I spent reading and rereading these stories.  I am not young, black, male, or the resident of a city, as these characters are.  I have not experienced (or do not remember) most of the kinds of events which Brinkley’s characters experience as normal – growing up in a broken home, having few resources for dealing with the turmoil of the teen years, struggling with responsibilities which would be challenging even for an adult, and living a life in which “betrayal on the cellular level” is complicated by surprising naivete regarding love and sex, expectations and reality, and issues of identity and reputation.  Still, as the young male characters of the nine stories here live their lives as well as they can, given their ages and limitations, they achieve a kind of universality which cannot help but touch the heart of the reader as s/he connects with these characters on a deeply personal level.

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