Saturday, September 27, 2014

September 2014 Book Recommendations

September 29, 2014 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 
By Haruki Murakami 

The latest and much anticipated novel by Haruki Murakami (1Q84, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle) has hit the shelves, sold more than a million copies in Japan within its first week post-publication, and has been residing on The New York Times Bestsellers List for seven weeks and counting. I have personally fielded several requests for this popular title at the Welcome Desk. Does it live up to the hype? Well, in this librarian’s opinion, yes and no. 

Filed under YES, Murakami dreams up an engaging plot, seemingly without breaking a sweat. The titular Colorless Tsukuru is 36-year-old train station designer living alone in Tokyo. He suffered a devastating loss of friendship when his high school clique dismissed him with no explanation back in his early 20s. But, as life is wont to unfold, sixteen years later, he is forced to confront his grief and find some answers before he can move on to cultivate meaningful relationships anew. Readers will be intrigued by the mystery: Why did his friends shut him out so completely? This question alone kept me engaged. 

However, there exists much “telling” and not enough “showing” throughout the narrative. The author mentions many times that Tsukuru feels like he has no personality (hence the “colorless’ modifier), but never delivers evidence of that idea. I would argue that anyone who feels loss as deeply as this character is likely to be anything but boring. Further, it is the friends who rejected him so callously that are portrayed in a one-dimensional light, i.e., the “athlete”, the “brain”, the “artist”, and the “comedian”. Also, Sarah, the current girlfriend who issues him the ultimatum to deal with whatever is making him emotionally distant or else, comes across as calculating, aloof and in no way the type of person to either intuit a person’s dark past or inspire said person to wrestle with his demons for the privilege of loving her. 

In summary, the plot and prose will keep likely keep you flipping pages. Lingering questions, antiseptic characters and way too much detail about designing trains keep me from recommending this book wholeheartedly. But give it try! 


September 22, 2014 

Nordic Art: The Modern Breakthrough 1860-1920
Edited by David Jackson 

The cover, a detail of Finland’s noted artist Askeli Gallen-Kallela’s 1901 painting Lake View, pulsing with colors of Finland and the Nordic regions, is a perfect choice to represent this catalog of the 2012-13 exhibit of the same name at the Groninger Museum in Munich. The title refers to a cultural movement, Modernism, which affected all areas of northern culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jackson’s opening essay about the movement is extraordinary in its breadth and depth as he explores its impact on Nordic art, French and Paris influences on Nordic painters, and the nationalistic sense many artists developed “…without degenerating into insular chauvinism or xenophobia.” The essays are heady, educational, analytical, informative, and exciting to read. The book is large format and the reproductions – and there are many - are beautiful and inspiring to view. 

The format of the book incorporates a timeline to put world events, the world art scene, Nordic events, and the Nordic art scene in a rich contextual environment that helps to make sense of the flow of the movement. There is also a biographical section for each artist represented in the book, with each painting reproduction and page number listed. When all is said and done, it is the paintings that “talk”: landscapes, portraits, scenes from life, and fantasies. If you do not know a great deal about Nordic art – as I did not – then this book is a rich, rich reward of discovery. Some names you may know of, such as Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson. But many may be new and open up possibilities.


September 15, 2014 

By Diana Gabaldon 

Diana Gabaldon’s classic time-traveling adventure defies categorization. While it’s billed as romance, it could also be called fantasy, sci-fi, or historical fiction. Outlander contains elements of all of these genres. The book follows Claire Randall (or Beauchamp) a World War II nurse who is transported back in time when she steps through a ring of standing stones in the Scottish Highlands. She falls 200 years into the past landing in 1744, where she confronts her husband’s villainous ancestor, Black Jack Randall, and connects with dashing highlander, Jamie Fraser. Claire uses her spotty memory of history to help her survive, while desperately clinging to the memory of her husband and trying to resist Jamie’s muscles and charm. 

So, a little corny—but great escapist literature. Since the Starz adaptation started airing last month a lot of people have hailed Outlander as a feminist version of Game of Thrones. While I don’t think we can compare Gabaldon’s series with Martin’s (they’re completely different things), I agree with the assertion that Claire is a feminist heroine. Claire is transported into a highly misogynistic time and society. Almost immediately after arriving she is assaulted and then kidnapped. Rape is a real and constant threat throughout her ordeal. Despite these trials she is intelligent, funny, and able to adapt. What I love about Claire is that she is a real strong female character (as opposed to the Strong Female Character) yet she’s allowed to be sensual and fall in love and have doubts and make mistakes, and that doesn’t compromise her as an independent and powerful person. 

Gabaldon’s story is engrossing and thrilling, and her writing is lovely, if a little flowery. 


September 8, 2014 

By Edan Lepucki 

 If you enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy and/or conjecturing what post-apocalyptic existence in America would look like, consider reading Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California. Protagonists Frida and Cal, a Los Angeles couple who have escaped the looted, burned-out, pirate- patrolled metropolis, eschew what passes for community and head into the wilderness by themselves. Having fallen in love when Cal was enrolled at an elite avant-garde school for survivalists with Frida’s dangerously charismatic brother Micah as a roommate and best friend, the spouses believe they can endure loneliness, hunger, and extreme deprivation relying only on each other. And so they do, in an abandoned shack, largely relying on Cal’s farming and hunting skills. Until Frida becomes pregnant. 

Suddenly, their isolation seems less romantic than ominous. The rumor of other mavericks living in a secret, possibly violent community a few days’ hike away, brought to them by mysterious trader August, peaks their interest as the reality of bearing and raising a child becomes clearer. Although cautious Cal is reluctant to approach the well-guarded community, Frida’s adventurous spirit prevails and off they go. While some answers from their shared past are answered upon their arrival in this cloistered society, far more questions arise and their idyllic union threatens to become extinct. 

This novel starts off very strong. Told in a back-and-forth style, providing the reader pertinent background as the plot progresses, main story is set against a backdrop of world-changing events. According to Lepucki’s imagination, it’s the weather that’s ultimately going to do us in, i.e., an uber-blizzard that permanently takes out the Northeast. Although this reviewer felt the story’s latter half to be a bit tedious and predictable, many reviewers disagree. For sure, Lepucki is definitely an author to watch. 


September 4, 2014

(Milan: Skira, 2012. ISBN 9788857213736) 

This is actually a catalog of an exhibition held at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, Oct. 11, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012. There are multiple contributors to this book which includes essays by various scholars and is to an extent an attempt to contextualize what is known in Soviet art history not as an aesthetic movement but rather a reflection of totalitarianism. The book has beautiful reproductions of Russian art but most of the paintings discussed have political underpinnings and are analyzed with that theme in mind. It is dense writing, as this long quotation from the publisher foreshadows:

"Socialist Realism was and remains an exceptional phenomenon in twentieth century art. It bore the challenge of promoting realist figuration on a scale without parallel in the rest of the world, employing the talents of thousands of artists over decades and spreading over an immense and varied empire. By glorifying the social role of art, affirming the primary value of content as opposed to form and restoring the central role of traditional practices, socialist Realism was the declared opponent of the modern movement, and in fact represented the only completely alternative artistic system. Socialist Realism. Soviet painting 1920-1970 is the most exhaustive exhibition on Soviet realist painting ever shown outside Russia and follows the movement's development over fifty years through a selection of works from the country's leading museums. Created by the great Russian artists (Deineka, Malevic, Adlivankin, Laktionov, Plastov, Brodskij, Korzhev) the works present a multiplicity of questions, themes and formal approaches to art spanning from the last phases of the civil war to the beginnings of the Brezhnev era, stopping at the early 1970s when trends in official Soviet art took on varied and inconsistent directions such that the cultural supremacy of the socialist-realist current faded definitively. A non monolithic view emerges, in which the movement does not originate exclusively as the product of totalitarian control and political pressures but as an evolving organism that reflected internal issues and echoed the great historic events of the twentieth century."

The book provides an important and critical look at the impact of Russian policies on artists and the influences on artistic development. One very interesting interview is Zoya Katashinskaya’s of the artist Geli Korshev about his life as an art student before and during World War II. Best known for his mammoth work Scorched by the Fires of War, Korshev answers his interview questions in telling detail and humanity. The fact that art students were able to function at the level they did is amazing.  A separate essay on Scorched by the Fires of War by Michael Brown is another “must read” part of this fascinating book.