Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris

***Spoiler Alert!  I can’t believe I would have to give this warning, but just in case you’re one of the six people left on the planet who has never heard of this book/movie, consider yourself warned.***

There is a serious problem with reading a book that has been turned into a movie that everyone has seen and knows so well.  I realized this while re-reading The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris.  I first read The Silence of the Lambs during a summer in University where I was reading books that had been turned into movies almost exclusively.  As that time, I think I might have seen the Jodi Foster/Antony Hopkins version once or twice on cable, but without any serious commitment to the story.  Since reading the book for the first time, I’ve seen the movie a couple of times.  The problem is reconciling the book with the images created by the movie.

The plot is well known to all.  Although, really I think I should say plots, as there are two main stories being told. The first is the interactions between FBI trainee Clarice Starling and the serial killer Hannibal Lecter.  Clarice is sent to see if Lecter will assist with psychological profiling of serial killers in general, and of the most recent serial killer (styled Buffalo Bill) in particular.  Dr. Lecter, an incredibly brilliant sociopath trades bits of his knowledge for information on the case and on Clarice herself.  It feels like a deadly dance that the reader is observing.  The second plot centers around Buffalo Bill, the serial killer who is abducting and flaying young woman to create a suit of skin.  We join this plot line after Buffalo Bill abducts the daughter of a US Senator.  The plots do overlap, but they do seem to stand alone as well.

Harris’ work is engaging and interesting, but there is a stylistic choice that I’m not crazy about.  Mainly, he seems to flip between present and past in his narrative.  When you speak or write about a book, you traditionally reference it as being in the present tense (the theory being that they book currently exists), but the narrative story told in books is generally told in the past tense.  It’s the difference between “Clarice walked up to the house” and “Now, here is the house in question.”  Worse, Harris is guilty of using both tenses on the same page.  It’s a little jarring. 

Now, the real problem with reading this book is that it is almost impossible to take the Jodi Foster out of Clarice Starling if you’ve seen the movie.  For an adaptation, the movie holds remarkably close (with a few changes for the sake of expediting story telling), and Foster did a great job in taping into Harris’ character study.  The same could be said for the Hopkins and Lecter.  The result is like reading a screen play; you can see the way Jonathan Demme set the shots as per Harris’ description.  For a thriller of a book, this really kills the flow and interest.  It’s my own damned fault, I know, but it’s still something of a shame that such a great book got ruined by being turned into such a great movie.

So, final verdict?  I don’t know… I guess read it?  But why would you if you’ve already seen the movie more than once?  And when the movie is so great, is there even a need to read the book?  Wow, I didn’t think I would ever say that.  Okay, let me put it this way: read the book as it is part of the zeitgeist, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t hold up to the image of the movie that you have in your head.  It’s still an enjoyable read, but without the suspense that would make it a fantastic read.

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The Sookie Stackhouse Series, by Charlaine Harris

After being laid-off from the worst job imaginable in March of last year, I jumped from the frying pan into the fire by accepting a job at the Government of Canada general inquiries call-centre.  I still have mixed feelings about that job; the management was great (one set of rules for everyone, versus the politics of favoritism at the other place) and I really enjoyed my co-workers.  What killed me was dealing with the public; I don’t suffer fools lightly, and I guess I have some non-verbal cues to shut down idiocy pretty quickly – but non-verbal cues aren’t worth crap on the phone.  The result was a serious anxiety-ridden month where I wasn’t eating, barely sleeping, and hardly talking to anyone.  I would work 9 to 5 (and, as a morning person, it would feel like half my day was gone by 9) and get home and have no energy to will to do anything.  Except read.  During the last weeks at the call-centre I was reading the True Blood books by Charlaine Harris.  They went a long way to keeping me sane.

A year later, and I found myself on a staycation.  I knew I wanted to spend a lot of time reading, since I love to do it so much, and so I decided to revisit the series.  It was as enjoyable as I remember it being last year, which I was glad to see.

For those of you living under a rock for the last five or six year, the True Blood series tell the story of Sookie Stackhouse from Bon Temps, Louisiana.  We are introduced to Sookie two years after the Great Revelation, when the world’s vampires (encouraged by the development of synthetic blood that meant they no longer had to feed of humans for survival) came out of the proverbial closet and have started mainstreaming with the rest of the world.  Sookie is different herself – she’s a telepath.  Out of place with other humans, Sookie is excited to see a vampire in the bar she works one night.  After a chance act of kindness, Sookie ends up dating that vampire and emerging herself in the supernatural world.

Harris’ skill as an author is clear in a variety of ways.  First of all (as previously mentioned), she’s got a great wit and sense of humour.  At first blush, the topic mater could be considered rather darks, but Harris makes it laugh out-loud funny in a variety of ways.  Second, her characters are engaging as fuck.  If I’m willing to read a dozen books about the same people, you’d better believe the characters are charming – from Sookie’s down-to-earth personality, to Bill’s soft courtesy, to Eric’s self-conflict, all the characters are interesting and are constantly growing and changing (which says something when you’re talking about centuries old vampires).  

Finally, Harris is deftly building a supernatural world – there is always something new that the reader learns about vampires, or shifters, or fairies, or other supernatural creatures in each book. I don’t know if Harris has a road-map in mind of when/where/how she wants the series to end, but there’s no Twilight-syndrome at work here where it’s pretty clear that the author is out her depth.  Of the 11 books I’ve read so far (Dead Until Dark, Living Dead in Dallas, Club Dead, Dead to the World, Dead as a Doornail, Definitely Dead, All Together Dead, From Dead to Worse, Dead and Gone, Dead in the Family, and Dead Reckoning ), they all have this forward momentum with only one exception.  (I wonder though if that exception is born from the fact that I knew that serious shit would be going down in the following book.)
What I didn’t like about this series is that there are apparently short stories that accompany the full books.  There is one book where the plot is based almost completely on a short-story that is never referenced or mentioned in the ‘other books by the author’ list at the front of most books.  It made me feel out of depth for most of the book, a feeling I didn’t enjoy.  I’m going to (eventually) seek out these short-stories and see what they add to the experience in reading the Stackhouse books.

What this series did do for me is realign my expectations for the next non-Stackhouse book I read.  I found that I was so accustomed to Sookie’s telepathy helping with story development, that in the next book I read, I couldn’t figure out why the main character didn’t just drop into the minds of the people she was talking to to get the answers she needed.  Then I realized what I was doing and had to laugh at myself.  To really mark how blond I am, I had this thought twice while reading a book by another author.  I think it says something about Harris’ ability to craft believable characters when I’m trying to impart their skills on un-related books.  Sheesh. 

No review of the Sookie Stackhouse books would be complete without mentioning in passing at least HBO’s True Blood series.  Last year, when I first read the books, I was interested in seeing the show.  After asking around and doing some on-line reading, I realized that the show doesn’t hold very closely to the books.  The best way a friend described it was to consider it as being ‘loosely based’ on Harris’ work.  But I like Harris’ work.  A lot.  I don’t want to invest time and money (because I’m a DVD box set collector) on a show that wasn’t going to deliver on what I was expecting.  I made the decision last summer to forgo the HBO version of True Blood.  I’ll be sticking with the books, and the books only.

So, final verdict?  Read these books!  Harris has created a world that is at once fantastical and believable, populated by characters that are engaging and likable.  These books first got me through a really tough time (and, BT-Dubs, I quit the call-centre job in just over a month), and they were how I just spent an enjoyable staycation.  I highly recommend these books as a great series to read.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

Chapters is brilliant.  Slap a “Buy 3 Get the 4th Free” sticker on a bunch of books and watch me spend 20 minutes trying to figure out what I want to buy.  Clever bastards… anyway, that’s what brought me to my latest read Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear.  To be fair, Maisie was a last minute addition to my pile (I had accidentally picked up two of the same book, and had a rush to find a replacement), but I’m really glad I did.  As the cover proclaims, this is the first book of a series, and I think I’ll enjoy adding Winspear to my rotation of authors.  But, lets back up a second here, and talk about Maisie Dobbs.

Maisie Dobbs tells the story of Maisie Dobbs.  Well, duh.  Admittedly, it’s not the best name for the first book a series.  Regardless, Maisie’s story begins before the First World War, when she was a downstairs maid for Lady Rowan.  A clever girl, and voracious reader, Maisie was discovered one night reading in the Lady’s library, and was then allowed to pursue an education few women at that time were allowed, let along a maid.  While at Girton College, the Great War begins, and Maisie decides to leave behind the comfort of England and enlist as a nurse.  Following the War, Maisie moves to London and becomes a private detective.  Coupled with this back-story, Maisie Dobbs also tells the story of one of her cases.

When you lay out the plot like that, it seems rather neat and tidy, but Winspear makes an organizational choice in laying out the plot that I didn’t like – the reader gets the first half of the private detective story, then Maisie’s entire back-story, then the conclusion of the private detective story.  This flow leaves something to be desired.  As it is the first book featuring this character, I’m assuming that the back-story will not be repeated; I can only imagine that subsequent books will build on this private detective angle.

Regardless of this bump in the road (major though it was), I really enjoyed this work.  Winspear is able to capture the feel of pre- and post-War England, as well as the battle field.  It is an interesting time-period to write about - this is the era in which the old-school class traditions really begin to erode in England, but are still present and observable; women as starting to be viewed as equals to men out of both necessity and insistence; and modernization is picking up steam (yes, I know that’s a bad pun) in Europe.  Winspear tapped into all these developments to create an ambiance that never seems wrong or out of place.

Where she excels though (in my opinion), is her description of the nursing profession during the time.  I’ve recently begun working for a nursing organization, and there’s been some talk of writing an institutional history of nursing education in Canada - Maisie Dobbs is a great inspiration in making me want to learn more.  While woman didn’t fight in the Great War, they did serve very near the front line as nurses, caring for the injured and dying who came back from the trenches.  Winspear spares her readers no detail in describing what life was like for Maisie at the casualty clearing station she was posted to in France.  This helps the reader understand the era, and Maisie’s character, which benefits the overall plot.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  I found it to be compelling and engaging in both plot and characters.  Winspear is definitely going on my list of author’s to watch out for in the future, and I hope that her Maisie series continues in the same vein as this first book did.

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The Secret Journals of Queen Elizabeth II, Edited by Constance, Lady Crabtree

I am an Anglophile.  No surprise there, considering my choice of Master’s thesis topic, my choice of reading, and my choice of TV viewing.  But on top of being an Anglophile, I’m a monarchist.  I advocate for the role of the Queen in Canada, and will join in on any rendition of God Save the Queen that occurs within my earshot.  So, when I was handed a book this week entitled The Secret Journals of Queen Elizabeth II, I couldn’t wait to dig in.  

The Journals, edited by Constance, Lady Crabtree, are culled from HRH’s personal journals, which she’s been keeping since the year of her assent to the throne.  Lady Crabtree reviewed all the original materials and selected multiple passages from 1953 to 1988.  In these entries, the reader is treated to an ‘inside-the-palace’ view of Lilibeth and her family, her travels, and her country.  

Oh, and by the way, they’re all fake.  Of course they are.  For about a minute when I was handed the book, I wondered why I had never heard of this compilation before as it wasn’t out the realm (pardon the pun) of possibility – after all, Queen Victoria was a noted diarist whose personal writings have been published.  When I started flipping through the book, two things were made it pretty obvious I was dealing this a satire: 1- the New Year’s resolutions for 1955 included “…stop laying foundations stones.  My back aches for days afterwards.” And 2- the author’s picture of Lady Crabtree looks suspiciously like a dude.  

Needless to say, all that brought me to a new appreciation for the book, even before I started reading it!  Satire AND the monarchy?  I’m in.  What is depicted of HRH in these pages is a woman who is a little naïve of all things sexual, a wife whose husband a sense of humour that is questionable, a mother whose children are less than successful in their personalities, and a monarch who is the institutional memory for a nation.  Sprinkled in between all that are race-horses and corgis.  It rocks. 

Authored as it was in 1988, it’s more than a little out of date.  For a tongue-in-cheek look at British royal life and politics, it does its job amiably.  However, as someone who was 3 when it was published, a lot of the jokes go over my head.  What it relatable to anyone who has a passing knowledge of the politics/history of Britain during that period is the description of the royal tours, the royal family, and the royal news-making events.  The reader is treated to ‘Elizabeth’s’ impressions of her commonwealth, and to a look at the Queen Mum, Prince Philip, and her children/grandchildren that, while obviously fake, still ring true.  I would assume the reason for that is that ‘Lady Crabtree’ only had the public personas to write about, so of course the reader’s impressions will be the same.  It might be false, but it’s enjoyable.

The real gut-busting laughs, however, comes with Elizabeth’s impressions of her Prime Ministers.  From Churchill to Thatcher, the Queen worked closely with them all.  Churchill, however, is depicted as a bull-dog who should probably be left to sleep in front of a fire somewhere, chewing on a favorite slipper, while Thatcher is depicted as a whirl-wind of presumptive energy, who thinks nothing of hemming the Queen’s drapes while briefing her on the war in the Falklands.  In a no-holds-barred telling of the political history of the nation, the work taps into the public impression of its politicians and turns them into Punch-like characters for the modern era.  Again, it’s all fake, but it’s believably fake.

In the end, I highly recommend that you read this book.  It’s hilarious.  I could only wish that someone would put together an up-dated version from 1988 to today.  I would love to get the ‘Queen’s’ impression on the 24-hour news cycle (which was just coming about in the 80s) and Kate Middleton.  In some ways, I suppose this exists already – for those who are curious to know when it’s #ginoclock, I highly recommend you follow @Queen_UK on Twitter.  But, having a compilation of her impressions of modern life would be highly satisfying as well.  In the end, I suggest you seek out this book, and enjoy!  

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Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

I love living in Ottawa, the national capital of Canada.  It’s a big city, but it’s not so big that you wander around downtown feeling lost all the time; it’s small enough that you can run into people you know regularly in the hotspots (like the Market and Elgin Street); and it has all the amenities you could want (theater, shopping, sky diving – okay, so I don’t use the last one, but I know you can do it hereabouts).  The one thing I don’t like about living in Ottawa is Canada Day.  The heat, the crowds, and the progressively ridiculous stage-shows on the Hill make the day a hassle to me.  About five years ago, I figured out how to avoid the whole affair: hunker-down in my apartment with the six-hour British version of Pride and Prejudice, staring Collin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  Suddenly, Canada Day has become something I enjoy every year again…. So, needless to say, July puts me in the mood for some more P&P, which meant that Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James, was a no-brainer reading choice.

Death Comes to Pemberley falls into that category of ‘fan-fiction,’ but without all the homo-eroticism that is so popular on-line.  Rather, it picks up the story of Elizabeth and Darcy six years after their marriage.  While preparing for the annual ball at Pemberley, they get a shocking visitor: Lydia Bennett, who is in hysterics and claiming that her husband, Wickham, and long-time friend, Denny have been murdered.  Out into the night goes Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam to find the gentlemen in question.  The rest of the tale reads like the murder-mysteries that we all know and love.  The plot is interesting and true to the spirit of the original Austen work.

Of course, with a cast of characters that everyone who picks up this book is already going to know, James doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room in changing them up.  I think she holds true to the characters that Austen originally wrote; you can hear Jane’s goodness, Lydia’s selfishness, and Georgiana’s quiet strength in this work.  However, Colonel Fitzwilliam has become something of a sour puss.  Moreover, the reader spends very little time with Elizabeth in this book.  The trade-off to this is getting to hear Darcy’s voice more.  If you go back and re-read the original Pride and Prejudice, you realize the Darcy’s role is very minor (he and Elizabeth can’t be together for more than two or three weeks out of the entire work) – but James has written quite a lot on his personality and actions.  Luckily, it’s believable and (I think) true to Austen’s character development.

However… this book drags on and on and on… I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to use a well-loved piece of the literary zeitgeist as your backdrop, you sure as shit better tap into the original author’s style and voice.  Oddly enough, James seems to do this – you can hear Austen in the prose; where James falls short is in the exposition – it takes forever to get anywhere with the story, something Austen avoided.  Some judicious editing could have brought this book in under 200 pages.  I’m of the firm opinion that the last 50 pages or so could be dropped completely, the information imparted elsewhere, and the reader allowed to explore other books had James ended her own in a timely manner.

So, final verdict?  I would say read this book if you’re a big Austen fan.  If your not, take a pass.  If you consider this a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, it’s satisfying to see what has become of the characters.  If, however, you’re looking for a murder-mystery, Death Comes to Pemberley is not going to be my first choice for a recommendation.  While the characters are solid and the basis for the plot is intriguing, it’s far too full of chaff to make it an exciting read.  While death might have come to Pemberley, this reader wishes the editor’s pen had come to James.  

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good, by Kevin Smith

So, we all know I’m a voracious reader; and as I’ve implied a time or two (or three or four), I’m a big TV watcher as well.  The last piece of the triumvirate that is my favorite form of entertainment are podcasts.  But not just any podcasts.  Rather, one of my favorite ‘entertainment industry’ past-time are the podcasts found on the SModcast network.  The original SModcast is hosted by indie film director Kevin Smith (some of my favorite films of his include Clerks, Dogma, and Red State) and his long-time friend and producer Scott Moser.  SModcast is two dudes sitting around having a conversation – and they are some of the funniest conversations you’re ever likely to hear.  SModcast birthed a plethora of other shows that I enjoy, like the podcasts Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave, Hollywood Babble-On, and the AMC original production Comic Book Men (based on TESD).  With a stable of podcasts and other entertainment mediums springing from the original SModcast, Smith created S.I.R. – SModcast Internet Radio – where all these podcasts (and oh so many more) can be heard for free.

Besides being a podcasting magnate, Kevin Smith is also very much still connected to the movie-making business; he is something of a stand-up comedian, as anyone who has seen one of his Q & A can attest to; and he’s a wickedly sharp writer.  All three (or even four) dimensions of the artist that is Kevin Smith gets wrapped up in his latest book, Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this book.  I have all of Smith’s films on DVD and have enjoyed them for years including the first three Q&As (full disclosure: I didn’t understand or appreciate Clerks until I was in my late teens, and I was less than kind to it and Smith before that); I’ve tried reading Smith’s My Boring Ass Life, but found it too aptly named to follow through but enjoyed his collection of essays Silent Bob Speaks; I following Smith on Twitter; and I listened to his SModcasts religiously since discovering them (in fact, they helped me survive the worst job I ever had).  All that to say, I’ve spent so much time with his art and creations that I feel like I know Smith personally and I’ve heard a lot of his stories.  But Tough Sh*t was new and refreshing, and not all what I was expecting.

Like the title suggests, Tough Sh*t is a combination of stories of Smith’s hard-earned experiences with a soupcon of advice thrown in to illustrate what he took away from each passage in his life.  Fans of the podcast will recognize names and certain events, and they will be familiar with back-stories, but that’s not to say fans of SModcast can’t enjoy this read.  For those interested in the workings of the film-industry, Smith walks the reader through the Weinstein’s production empire; he writes about his own experiences in creating his art; and most shockingly of all, he names names.  Smith might be considered an honourary Canadian at this point (he loves hockey and Scott Moser so damned much, how can we refuse him?), but what’s out of character with most uber-polite Canadians is his willingness to openly admit who screwed him over in what situation.  For the reader, it’s deliciously naughty to read about him telling Harvey Weinstein to shut the fuck up at a screening of Red State, but is Harvey going to be happy that that story was put in print?  Probably not.  (And it made me sad to read that that was the last time Smith ‘spoke’ to him.)

My favorite part of Tough Sh*t gives closure to one of the stories frequently alluded to on SModcast that Smith never fully explained: what went wrong with Bruce Willis.  As most people know, Smith worked first with Willis on Die Hard 4, then again on the film he directed, Cop Out.  While listening to the podcasts around the time of production, there would be hints that all was not well on the Cop Out set, but no real details.  Following production and release, those hints got stronger and more obvious, but again, no real details.  But in Tough Sh*t, Smith outlines exactly what happened.  It’s at once satisfying to be let in on the secret, and yet not at all shocking to hear about Willis’ shenanigans (he just seems like that type of dude) – I highly recommend you read Tough Sh*t if for no other reason than to burst any disillusionments you may have about Willis.

This wouldn’t be much of a book review if I didn’t talk about the writing style itself.  Anyone whose seen (and appreciates) a Kevin Smith movie knows that he’s a master of dialogue and story telling.  Tough Sh*t is just further proof of that.  The writing is fast-paced and never lags, it’s on-point and clever, and it makes you want to read more.  Again, because I’m so familiar with the podcasts, I know this is the genuine article as I can hear Smith’s voice in my head while reading it; it’s completely honest to who Smith is. 

Up to now, this entire review must seem like one long love letter to Smith (or as he would put it, I’m sucking him off).  And in some ways, it is – I really did enjoy the book, and I enjoy all his other work.  But, there is one aspect of the work that stood out as a miss for me, and that were the passages containing the ‘life advice.’  It’s not the content I disagree with (rather, some of them are really inspirational, and I hope I learnt something from them to move my own art forward), it’s the manner in which they were presented.  Always at the end of the chapter, and related to the story that chapter told, the life advice often seems like an addendum – you can literally feel the tone change, and it’s often times abrupt and jarring, not at all as finessed as the rest of the work.  Moreover, editorially, I would have rearranged the final three chapters to end with the description of the Carnegie gig – the chapters about Jen (as lovely as it is) and John Hughes are like an anti-climax, the content for which could have been presented earlier or integrated elsewhere.  As I always tell my tutoring students – never introduce new thoughts into the conclusion of your writing as it throws off the reader.  Unfortunately, Smith is a little guilty of this.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Watch all the Smith’s movies.  Become a devotee to the SModcast empire (it is, after all, where the puck is going in the entertainment industry).  I can’t say enough good things about Smith and all the free funny he’s provided for me over the years.  Weather you choose to read Tough Sh*t as an overview of a long and fruitful career in Hollywood, or as a Tony Robins-esque self-help guide, I believe you’ll get what it is your looking for.  Having said all that, there’s only one way I could end this review, and that’s by imploring you all to have a week.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Casual Vacancy Cover Art

The big news in the world of books this week is the release of the cover art for J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.  I can’t say I’m impressed – it’s very stark and unappealing.  Now, I know there’s irony in judging a book by its cover, but come on.  

I think this is just future proof of how clever Rowling is; she knows she doesn’t have to try to hard on this one to make a killing on it.  Now there’s a second dimension: the first is that all the Harry Potter fans (or their parents) are going to buy it to see if she can maintain her streak with this one.  Now she’s testing that theory – how bear-bones can she make it look and still make more money on it than I’m ever likely to see in my lifetime?

Am I not going to buy it based on the cover art?  Of course not – my reasons for wanting to read it still stand.  But, eventually, I’m going to get around to writing that author review about how Rowling is one of the cleverest sums-a-bitches in the publishing game today…. This is just another piece of proof.

UPDATE!  Check my author review on Rowling here!

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The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Giant history nerd that I am, I like to read Author’s Notes at the end of historical fictions.  I enjoy seeing which historians they consulted for their own works, see if I recognize any names, and getting ideas about whose works I should check out in the future.  Even before I got through the second chapter of my latest read, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I knew whose name I was going to find.  And I was right – it was Simon Schama. 

Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Schama wrote the definitive historical study of how the Dutch interacted with the wealth of their empire in relation to their Calvinistic world-view.  My own thesis acknowledges Schama’s contribution to historical methodology, and uses his approach to justify my own ‘magpie-like’ use of sources.  His ground-breaking work, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age would literally break the ground (or at least dent it), as it can only be described as brick-like in nature.  The problem is, I hate Simon Schama; I find him a pretentious windbag who loves the sound of his own voice and is incredibly annoying as he takes every opportunity to make people listen to him.  Blargh. 

Now, what does that have to do with The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier?  Not a whole lot – I just like to take the opportunity to rant about people that annoy me when one presents itself.  However, Chevalier did use Schama’s study as the historical background for her tale, and she used it spectacularly.

The Girl with the Pearl Earring tells the story of Griet, a young woman living in the 17th century Dutch Republic; after her father looses his ability to work, Griet is sent to be a household maid to the master painter Vermeer’s home.  While Griet adjusts to her new life, she and Vermeer develop an oddly chaste, yet highly charged relationship.  All this occurs within the domestic setting of a multi-generational household that adheres closely to class-lines, and less closely to religious division.

Chevalier’s work is a wonderful study of the time and era – the reader can almost smell the market hall Griet shops in, feel the grit in the paints she grinds, and see the quality of the paintings produced by Vermeer in the mind’s eye.  This work is a textual cornucopia that engages all your senses.

Besides all that, Chevalier paints entirely believable and endearing characters.  Griet is a good girl who finds herself in an unenviable position that no one can understand; Vermeer is cold and aloof, yet oddly connected to those around him; his children are either lovable or detestable; and his wife is almost pitiable in weaknesses.  Each character is presented and developed in a believable manner that carries the story forward in enjoyable ways.

In 2003 a movie of the same name was released based on Chevalier’s work.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I can’t remember all the details, but it seems to me that it holds true to the original book; that could possibly be because the original is only a couple hundred pages (an afternoon’s light read).  I’m now curious to go back and re-watch it to see if there is anything completely out of place.  What I do remember, however, is the visual bleakness to most of the film; in that, it hold true to the book.

Final verdict?  I’d definitely say read this book.  It’s not too heavy, but it is engaging and the historical descriptions are interesting.  While I would recommend The Girl with the Pearl Earring, I recommend you avoid Schama’s works (I couldn’t help getting in one last shot, what can I say?).

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Now Face to Face, by Karleen Koen

It is oh so very difficult to trap lightening in a bottle once, let alone twice.  That, in summation, was my impression of Now Face to Face, Karleen Koen’s follow-up to Through a Glass Darkly.  While the first book was a poignant character study, the second lacked the spark that made its predecessor so endearing.  But let’s back up a second here.

Now Face to Face picks up almost exactly where Through a Glass Darkly ends.  Barbara has fled England to avoid the fall out of her husband’s decisions, and she has embarked for new ports.  With her goes Thérèse and Hyacinthe, and she leaves behind her family, friends, and the Hanoverian court.  Life for Barbara is about to become very uncomfortable, but in her indomitable fashion, she rises above and carves out a niche for herself.  Then Koen takes a tangent, and the endearing qualities of the characters are lost.

Rather than being character driven, Now Face to Face is, instead, an overview of the fall-out of the South Sea Bubble, and Walpole’s ministry.  This book is very heavy on the historical research and fact-based plot, and very light on the character development of the first book.  Now, I’m a British Historian; I specialize in Hanoverian Britain; I sub-specialize in the good of Empire and their Companies; and even I found this work to be less than engaging.

Sadly enough, Koen’s masterful writing style is still present and can occasionally be glimpsed behind descriptions of court or parliamentary life.  It makes you want to pick up the book and shake it see if you can shake-loose some of the essence that made the first work so great.  This is no Forever Amber, let’s just put it that way.

So, final verdict?  Read it if you’ve read Through a Glass Darkly.  It is nice to catch up with the characters; just don’t expect to get satisfaction from the continuation of their stories.  (In the case of Hyacinthe, it’s sadly truncated, and even Barbara’s story seems to get short-shrift at the end of it all.)  Don’t, however, complain to me when you don’t enjoy it nearly as much as the first book.  While Koen’s spark and penance are present, she clearly missed hitting the right notes with this work.

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