Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Face of a Model

In The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, the author attempts to add dimensions to one of Degas' models, Marie van Goethem.  In fact, Degas also attempted to give Marie three dimensions, in his most famous sculpture, Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, which is pictured below.

In her book, Buchanan appears to have invented sisters and a mom for Marie, and given a full back story to the dancer's life.  What surprised me was when I got to the Afterward, and found that Marie's life actually is well known, and that Buchanan, for the most part, stuck to the facts.  At the time that Degas was creating his art, Paris was the center of the art world, and many of the artists of the time were well known.  His contemporaries included Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Cezanne, Gauguin, Cassatt, and Renoir, most of whom were working in Paris at the same time.  The artists of that period must have been like our celebrities today, so much so that a fourteen year old model's name would be known now, more than 100 years later.  Buchanan is not even the first to write about Marie.  From what I have seen, she has at least three other books written about her and a BBC special.  This is not to mention the Marie doll and snow globe, which I would assume could be purchased at the gift shop of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, or in any of the museums where the brass castings of the original wax sculpture are on display.

Nor is Buchanan the first to write about the subjects of famous works of art.  A similar book that I reviewed a few years ago is Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriett Scott Chessman.  The best known recent book about the subject of a painting is The Girl With the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier.  My favorite is Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland.  Luncheon tells the story of the making of the famous painting primarily from the point of view of the painter.  Buchanan takes an entirely different approach, and one more similar to Chevalier's, by focusing on the subject of the art instead of the artist.  The interesting thing about Painted Girls is that it attempts to explore Degas' motives, especially in regard to a theory about whether the shape of a person's face can predict their future, but that it does so without Degas' voice.

Marie's life is made for a novel.  As a parent who has paid the "pay to play" fees for the last 15 years, I was surprised that the ballerinas of Paris in the late 1800s started as poor children who were paid to attend the classes.  The pressures on the 14 year old Marie were astonishing.  That the ballet would pay her enough to survive, but expect her to find a sponsor to help her put food on her table was pure exploitation.  Even Degas' treatment of her would now land him on a sex offenders registry.  Buchanan takes some liberties in tying Marie's story together with that of another of Degas' subjects, but she does so in a way that seems possible.

I read this book for The Typical Book Group, and I will write more about it when we get together to discuss it in November.  We are sure to talk about Marie's relationship with her sister, Antoinette, about a choice Marie made, and a certain lie Antoinette told her.  I'll fill you in soon.

Next Up on CD:  Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  I'm not so sure about this one . . . I'll give it a few discs to decide.

Still Reading:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Penumbra's Conundrum

When Clay Jannon takes a job at a bookstore that is open all night, he wonders what is up.  The store has few if any best sellers, random classics that Clay assumes are the store owner's favorites, and a whole library's worth of books that are not for sale.  The customers are as odd as the bookstore itself.  A few "normal" people come in, but Clay is more likely to encounter odd customers who are desperate for a certain book from the lending library, and immensely relieved find it.  Because he is working the night shift and has so few customers, Clay has a lot of time on his hands.  As a beginner computer geek, Clay designs a method of tracking what the lending library customers check out, and he notices a strange trend.

In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store by Robin Sloan, the primary conflict is between the old and the new.  A 500 year old society is studying old books of codes in an attempt to find the secret to immortality.  Across town, a newish company, Google, has a team working on discovering the same secret, but through modern and futuristic technology instead of ancient codes.  Clay is the force that leads the two groups to work together, with those focused on the past embracing technology, and the Googlers challenged by "OK", which is what they call "old knowledge".

Penumbra had some of the feel of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, with technology doing amazing things which are taken for granted by the users.  Both books are also similar in that the key to solving the puzzle is hidden in plain sight in the same manner.  I'm not going to spoil that one for you - read the two books and you'll know what I am talking about.  A difference, however, is that Penumbra is set in the modern day, and the reader is left wondering which of the technologies that Sloan describes really exist, and which he invented.  Predictably, I spent time Googling just that as soon as I finished the book.  Some of the reviews that I have read have warned that Penumbra was written in 2012, and will only be relevant in 2012, because of its reliance on then current technology that will soon be dated.  I couldn't disagree more.  Sloan did choose to use the name of a real company, Google, and to talk about things that Goolge may or may not really be doing.  But even if Google does have the technology that Sloan describes, it won't be available to or understood by non-techies for years.  At one point, Mr. Penumbra compares Google to a start up company from his day, Standard Oil.  Yes, it is possible that Google won't be here in 50 years, but it will still be discussed and its practices will be studied due to the revolution that it caused.  Sloan seems to be saying that the new technology doesn't make the old knowledge irrelevant, and instead, the old knowledge can enhance the technology.

Sloan grew up in Troy, Michigan, which is a neighbor to my village.  Despite its great school system and affluent residents, Troy has struggled to support its library in recent years.  In fact, its voters have decided more than once that the library is not worth keeping, and should be closed.  Fortunately, for now, reasonable minds have prevailed, and the library remains open.  I was happy to stumble upon this great interview where Sloan credits the Troy Public Library specifically for his success as a writer.  I'm happy to link to the interview, so that when future Troy voters Google "why should we keep the Troy Library open", there is one more chance that they will find the interview with a great author crediting their library for giving him "a reason to write".   

I checked the NYT Notable Book list for 2012, and was shocked not to see Penumbra there.  I'm not the only one.  Penumbra, and another book that I loved from 2012, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, were both listed on Flavorwire's list of "25 Notable Books Unfairly Overlooked by 'The New York Times'".  I absolutely agree with Flavorwire.  Penumbra was also picked by BookPage as one of the 25 Best Book Jackets for 2012.  It's funny how many books made both Flavorwire and BookPage's lists.  Anyhow, I totally agree with BookPage too.  Although the cover, which you can see at the top of this post, looks relatively plain, I was surprised when I turned off my light to go to bed, and could still see the books on the cover glowing.  The glow in the dark cover could have seemed really childish and gimmicky, but for this particular book, it was like a neon sign twinkling outside of my window, reminding me that while I may be going to sleep, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is still open, and waiting for me.

Next Up:  The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Still Listening to:  Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Monday, October 21, 2013

Child's Play

In 1984, three twelve year old children are playing in the woods.  Hours later, two of the children are missing, and the third is clinging to a tree, unable to speak, with his shoes full of someone else's blood.  The missing children are never seen again, while the survivor is unable to help with the investigation, because his brain won't let him recall what happened.

Twenty years later, a twelve year girl's body is found in a clearing of those same woods.  She has obviously been murdered.  The lead detectives on the case, Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, begin to interview the people who found the body, the people who live in the area, and the girl's family.  However, Ryan and Maddox have a secret.  They both know that Ryan is the child who survived in 1984, and that if anyone else finds out, they will be off the case.  Because of his personal connection, Ryan doesn't think that anyone else could investigate this murder as well as he could.  Really, what are the odds of three twelve year old children being killed in the same woods in a small town outside of Dublin?  The cases must be related.

And that's just about all that I want to tell you about In The Woods by Tana French. The first half of the book is a mystery, as the detectives try to figure out "who done it", and then the story focuses more on police procedure and interviews with suspects.  I liked the first half better than the second.  Everything else that I want to say about this book will be a Spoiler, so check out my Spoilers Page, if you are interested, and don't mind finding out what happened.

That's one more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next Up On CD:  The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Still Reading:  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Perfect Shot

A group of boys go into the woods.  One of them has a slingshot that he made himself.  The boys all think the slingshot is pretty great, but they doubt the boy, Will, when he claims to be able to hit a rook on a branch far away.  Somehow, he finds the perfect trajectory, and the bird falls.  The boys are thrilled!  While they don't know it, William Bellman's life has been changed forever.  And so begins Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield.

From that time on, death follows William everywhere.  His family members, his friends, his children, everyone he loves seems to be dying.  For some reason, the same person appears at all of their funerals.  William doesn't know who this stranger is, but he begins referring to him as "Black".  In a fit of grief induced madness, William decides to make a deal with Black, to try to keep his last daughter alive.  The problem is that once the deal is made, William is not quite sure what he agreed to do.

William spends the rest of his life trying to live up to his end of the commitment.  He creates a funeral department store, selling everything that a mourner could need.  He makes a fortune, but carefully saves a fair share for Black.  It is only when business declines that Bellman recognizes a familiar trajectory from his past.

I went into this one expecting a ghost story.  Perhaps this is because the full title is Bellman and Black:  A Ghost Story.  There wasn't anything in the story that sent tingles down my neck or made me wonder what was lurking behind my curtains late at night.  The ghost here (if there was one) was more like the Ghost of Christmas Past than like the ghost in The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.  It's funny though, because when I reviewed Setterfield's last book, the best seller, Thirteenth Tale, I cautioned my readers that although it too was billed as a ghost story, it really wasn't.

What Bellman and Black is like, unexpectedly, is World Without End by Ken Follett.  Both stories begin with children in the woods being part of something that shapes the rest of their lives.  They both involve families struck down by the plague, a daughter who miraculously survives, and a revolutionary building project, with Merthin in World building a bridge and William in Bellman building his department store.  Merthin and William share the same business acumen, attention to detail and foresight.  But where the bad guy in World is an evil person in a position of  authority, that role in Bellman is played by Black.  The question of whether Black is evil or even if he is a person, is shimmering at the edge of every page.  If you liked World, you will tear through Bellman, which is only 336 pages, compared to World's 1,024.

There is more that I want to say about Bellman and Black, but I don't want to ruin it for you, so I will post those comments on my Spoilers Page, for you to read after reading the novel.  And you should read the novel.  It's certainly a good book, even if it isn't scary.  Bellman and Black will be released on November 5, 2013.

Full Disclosure:  I was offered and claimed a free electronic copy of this book from Net Galley.  No promises were made, no payments were received.

Next IRR:  I've noticed that the last five Industry Requested Reviews that I have done were for books by well known if not best selling authors.  While I do like doing those, I'm feeling like I'm missing out on the "unknowns" out there.  So, for next month, I have requested two books from lesser known authors, Melt:  The Art of Macaroni and Cheese by Stephanie Stiavetti, Garrett McCord and Michael Ruhlman, and Upload by Michael McClelland.  If I get them both, I'll review them both!  Stay tuned.

Next Up on Paper:  Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Typical Book Group Report - 15

Tonight, The Typical Book Group met to discuss The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.  While there were only 6 of us there tonight, we all LOVED the book.  In fact, we think that we might have talked about this book more than any other book that we have ever read.  Although the story was emotional and a few of us cried while reading it, we couldn't stop talking about the funny parts.  We were amazed by how well Evison thought out the characters and their ideas.  We also felt that Benjamin Benjamin's voice was so clear, that it was almost as though we knew him.

One obvious thing that came up in our discussion was the redemption of all of the dads in the story.  They had all screwed up, they all knew it, and they were all doing whatever they could think of to make it better.  Ben helped them to find more constructive ways to reconnect with their kids while finding a way to forgive himself.

We also talked about whether Ben and Trevor's trip was more an odyssey or a pilgrimage.  You didn't think we were that deep, did you?  We decided that it was more of an odyssey, because it was more about the journey and the challenges that they faced along the way than it was about the destination.

100% of Typical Book Groupers agree, The Revised Fundamentals is a great book. 

Next month we'll read The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

In Other News, the Man Booker Prize winner was announced today.  And the winner is . . . Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries.  Apparently this is the longest book ever chosen for the prize, at 848 pages.  We'll have to consider it for The Typical Book Group's Big Fat Book next summer!

Still Reading:  Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfeld

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French

Monday, October 7, 2013

Telling It Like It Is

So, if a white author wrote a book where in the very first chapter, a black character is cooking fried chicken, complaining about living in a bad neighborhood, and thinking about her granddaughter named "Noxema" who was taken from her daughter by social services, what are the chances that you would read the second chapter?  I'm guessing slim to none.  In fact, I would bet that the author would find herself on the Today Show trying to defend the "research" supporting her offensive characterization.  But in Who Asked You, where the first chapter includes just that character, the author doing the writing is the best selling African American author, Terry McMillan, who is known for telling relatable stories.  Personally, I was still a little put off by the stereotype, and wondered if McMillan still knows how "it is" for people not optioning their books for movie deals.  But I kept reading.

I'm not new to Terry McMillan.  I think that I read Waiting to Exhale first, like most of America did.  It must have been then that I learned that McMillan had grown up in my husband's hometown of Port Huron, Michigan, and that an earlier book, Mama, was set there.  While Mama does not portray Port Huron in such a way that would encourage endorsement by the Port Huron Chamber of Commerce, I read it anxiously, and passed it on to my mom.  McMillan's descriptions were so precise that I was pretty sure that if we followed the roads that she named and turned where she said, we could drive to all of the settings in the book, even though the characters were supposedly living in "Point Haven" instead of Port Huron.  My mom and I gave it a try, and while we couldn't find all of the locations, some directions were spot on.  When we turned on to my husband's grandmother's street, Strawberry Lane, where the mother in the novel cleaned houses, I think that my mom was a little disappointed to see ranches with walk out basements instead of the mansions McMillan described.  But despite the exaggerations, the descriptions were so true that I've always wondered if McMillan's own mom really did clean houses there, and if I may have known one of her employers. 

This tendency to stick closely to the truth of her own life is a McMillan signature. Whether or not her (now ex) husband was the inspiration for a character in How Stella Got Her Groove Back was a hot topic that resulted in litigation.  So this is why I was so surprised that McMillan seemed to be using racist stereotypes in Who Asked You.  I should have known better.

Who Asked You is primarily the story of Betty Jean.  She is living in what she calls a "ghetto", working as a maid in a hotel, and trying to take care of her husband who is bed ridden with something like dementia.  She has three adult children, one who feels he is too good for his community and has left, one who is addicted to drugs, and one who is in prison.  Early in the story, her daughter with the drug addiction asks Betty Jean to watch her two sons for the day, and never comes back. Suddenly Betty Jean is stretched in yet another direction, as she finds herself raising the young boys.  The story is told through the voices and perspectives of Betty Jean, her children, her grandchildren, her sisters, her neighbor, and a few other characters. 

Betty Jean could be a one dimensional stereotype, but she is not.  She is part of a family.  There is something about the family relationship that makes people feel free to express hurtful opinions and to say mean things that they really do think, but that they would never say to strangers. Through the story, Betty's family members grow and change, forcing each other to open their minds.  McMillan's message is clear:  Don't judge.  Even if you know you are right, and think that your family members would benefit from your opinions, be supportive.  You might think that you know your siblings or kids better than they know themselves, but you will never really know what they are going through, or what they don't want you to know.

At first I also thought it was a little hooky that the story started with 9/11 and ended with Obama's election.  Those events are huge in American history, but it seems like 9/11 especially is becoming an overused device for authors.  But again, this worked.  Thinking back, the entire country went through the changes that Betty's family faced during those years.  We all learned.  We all opened our minds.  The "great recession" came and hit us all, and we learned a lot about judging and being judged.  I'd like to think that we are better people now than we were before.  Who Asked You had such a positive ending that it made the journey of the book worthwhile.  It's an ending that I would like to believe in, even if it might be a little too good to be true.

I read Who Asked You at the request of Angela Messina of Viking/Penguin Publicity.  No promises were made, and no payments were received.

Next Up:  I am so late on getting my September Industry Requested Review out, that I'm going to rush right into the IRR for October.  So, my next book will be Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield.

Still Listening to:  In the Woods by Tana French.  This is a good one!
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