What I’ve Been Reading: Dec. – Jan. 2011

I read a lot during winter. OK, I read a lot all the time. But especially when the days are dark and dripping. And then there’s the influx of books around the holidaze. You may question all the 10/10 ratings: I was very lucky! Good books can be enlightening and even life changing. Most of the books here have left an impression on my middle-aged mind (got to keep it digesting for a healthy outlook!).

The History of Beauty by Umberto Eco (editor)

History of Beauty cover
History of Beauty

I found this at our local library and have to admit I was attracted by Umberto Eco’s name having read, and enjoyed, two of his novels: The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. The history of beauty in Western art, both visual and written, is a huge topic to tackle. However, this book provides an fascinating overview with many examples, both pictorial and  written. Starting with the Greeks and ending with contemporary art. The History of Beauty shows how ideas on beauty have changed, and been discussed, over the centuries.

My only criticism would be some of the choices he made for the pictorial timeline of beauty through the ages. Dennis Rodman? Richard Gere? Fashion models? They seem like concessions to pop culture. However, the rest of the book takes a scholarly look at the changing perceptions of  beauty. There are quotes from philosophical works, artists’ and critics’ writings and numerous examples from the visual and literary arts. The diversity of thought and works is wonderful.

I think The History of Beauty might be best suited as a reference book, one to return to as one encounters art and literature from different periods. I found that I was a bit overwhelmed and skipped over many of the literary quotes the further I got into the book, focussing on those that most interested me. There were also some awkward moments in the text, probably due to translation of difficult passages, and more than a few typos. At times I felt I was reading one of those companion books to a TV series or CD, due to blue highlighted words and allusions to information not contained in the book. However, this is a book I’ll probably borrow again from the library or I may even buy a copy as a reference book. Rating: 7/10

Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates
Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates

A lighter approach to philosophical questions about why we’re here and where we’re going. Y’know… the life and death stuff. Although written by the authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar this volume contains fewer jokes and more emphasis on interpreting philosophical questions and scientific inquiries for the layman. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It investigates many avenues of thought, with chapters such as: Dead! Whatcha Going to Do About It? and Eternity When You Least Expect It. Ther philosophical musings are leavened with large dollops of humour. Where else would you read quotes from heavyweights Friedrich Nietzsche (“Live so that you may desire to live the same life again and not only once, but an infinite number of times!”) and Woody Allen (“Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”) together on the frontispiece?  Rating: 10/10

Street Photography Now by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren

Street Photography Now
Street Photography Now

This volume explores a practice close to my heart, street photography, from cities around the world. The 46 photographers are featured in alphabetical order with no preference given to the well-known, the established, the pros or the up-and-comers. Interwoven are four chapters looking at different aspects of street photography and a chapter featuring a discussion between some of the photographers on various aspects of street photography. There are many examples of different styles and techniques. As someone who takes a lot of street photos I was intrigued by the different approaches, ranging from the in-your-face-with-a-flash photos to the casual off-the-cuff candids to the staged, or manipulated, images. The book is a nice size (28x24cm), with many large and small images. The text is well written, presenting thoughts of both the authors and the photographers. There’s also a good list of resources, both print and web, at the back. I’d highly recommend this book both to photographers and to the general reader, interested in seeing some amazing images from around the world and curious about the ethics and legalities of street photography. Rating: 10/10

Steichen: The Master Prints 1895 – 1914 by Dennis Longwell

Steichen: The Master Prints 1895 - 1914
Steichen: The Master Prints 1895 - 1914

I picked this up from the used art books section at Talisman Books, on Pender Island. Published in 1978 to coincide with an exhibition at the MOMA this book contains beautiful colour reproductions of Edward Steichen’s pre-WWI photographs (even the B/W images benefit from colour reproduction, showing many the subtleties of tone). This is considered Steichen’s ‘symbolist’ period, when his photos were influenced by his painting aesthetics, rather than the ‘straight’ photography of his later years. These years also encompass his first use of colour, the influence of  Alfred Stieglitz (Steichen was one of the most featured photographers in Stieglitz’ Camera Work magazine) and his journeys to Paris. Besides the opening essay there is also a section on his printing techniques, (mostly platinum and gum-bichromate). A real find!  Rating: 10/10

Scott McFarland by Grant Arnold, Martin Barnes, Vincent Honore and Eva Respini

Scott McFarland
Scott McFarland

I first encountered Vancouverite Scott McFarland’s work at the MOMA a couple of years ago. I was having a close look at an image (from an exhibition entitled New Photography) and noticed the Vancouver skyline in the background. I found his technique fascinating. McFarland takes a series of photos of one place over a period of time, using a large format film camera, and then digitally scans and combines the images to create large images in which impossible situations occur (e.g. all the  plants are in bloom at the same time). The effect can be very subtle; sometimes the viewer might notice a variety of shadows indicating that the image has different sources. McFarland, a former student and assistant of Jeff Wall, is influenced by Wall but is following his own inclinations. Many of his images explore the intersection of photography and paintings created around the advent of photography. Frequently his images are large panoramas, showing urban wild areas, with skies that look like they belong in a Constable painting. Produced by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the book also features enlightening texts by several authors. Rating: 9/10

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

The Redbreast
The Redbreast

I’m a fan of the works of Ian Rankin and Stieg Larsson. I like not only the plots but also the less than perfect protagonists. The Redbreast is the first in a series of three books by Jo Nesbo. I enjoyed the unexpected plot twists and  the exploration of Norway’s WWII and post-war history. The Redbreast is well written, believable and captivating. A real page turner with nice short chapters making it easy to put down and pick up again. The protagonist, Harry Hole, is similar to Rankin’s Rebus: smart but can be his own worst enemy.

(We got a Kindle for Christmas and Sue ordered the three book series for it. She found the Kindle perfect for easy reading while reclining in bed and read the two subsequent books in quick succession. I’m now waiting for her to return from her travels so that I can read the next two volumes. We did get the Kindle mainly for traveling, to lighten our book load, but Sue is very impressed by its readability and ease of use.)  Rating: 10/10

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

The Beauty of Humanity Movement
The Beauty of Humanity Movement

My sister gave me this book for Christmas. What an excellent choice! Perhaps it’s because I lived in Hanoi for a short time but I was entranced by this tale of coming to grips with the past in a country torn apart by colonialism and revolution. The past is not talked about much in Vietnam, other than the official government line presented in museums and approved texts. In this beautifully written book the reader encounters not only the modern Vietnam but also the not-so-long-ago past, now almost lost in the mists of revisionist history. The humanity of the characters shines through the dark past and the contrary present. This is a novel of redemption and hope, for all who care about the “beauty of humanity”. Rating 10/10

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna
The Lacuna

Another look at recent history, this time the 1930s to the mid 50s, mainly through the eyes of the protagonist, born of a Mexican mother and an American father. Due to his origins Harrison Shepherd lives in two worlds, the USA and Mexico. This novel follows his tale through his journals, which his one-time stenographer his compiled after his death. She sometimes inserts bits of explanatory text but the story is mostly told from his point of view. ‘Lacuna’ means ‘gap’ and this novel explores the gaps between American and Mexican cultures, between reality and politics, reality and media representations and between people. Historical characters populate the tale: Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Leo Tolstoy and Eugene McCarthy. Although written about events that took place roughly 5o years or more ago this tale is compelling as one can see how little things have changed. Artists are still misunderstood, politicians still do whatever is expedient and work to keep the populace in fear, while most of us just duck and try to get on with our lives. Rating: 10/10

Well, that’s the roundup for this past month. A month filled with excellent reading material. I’ve got another book on the go now, Patti Smith’s award winning Just Kids and no doubt I’ll post again next month with thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

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