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What Are You Looking At: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye- Book Review

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What Are You Looking At: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye, By Will Gompertz

What Are You Looking At….. is a book detailing the history of modern art for amateurs. Gompertz takes us on a journey through modern art, starting with the impressionists, right up to the hugely popular modern street art movement made popular by Banksy amongst others. The book is split up into the main modern art movements like cubism and abstract art. From here, the author describes the intentions of each movement whilst introducing it’s major players and why they did what they did.

The book takes the standpoint that a lot of people regard modern art to be lacking in skill, with quips like “I could of done that” echoing around modern art galleries. It is a standpoint that many gallery curators would encounter in their everyday lives. It’s a fact that many critics and a great deal of the public don’t particularly see much skill in works like Damian Hirsts ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991’ ,Duschamps ‘Fountain’ or numerous comparable works. It is Gompertz who persistently tries to battle against this mindset in the book and he argues the validity of all modern art throughout.

 

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The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, by Damian Hirst

 

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Marcel Duschamps Fountain

 

This mindset works to varying degrees. If you were of that mindset before reading the book it is great, as it makes you understand the validity of the art. But if you weren’t and you appreciated the art beforehand, then the passages of validation is just hot air.

As a complete amateur to art, this book was exactly the entry point I was looking for. The vast majority of art ‘outsiders’ are intimidated when they try to discuss art in a meaningful way, myself included. But this book is written in such a conversational tone, that it is just engrossing. Gompertz strikes the perfect balance, he doesn’t patronise the reader and he doesn’t bombard them with artistic jargon. This was exactly the way I wanted modern art described to me. Art was of interest to me, but I never felt like I was able to truly understand it or discuss it in any way apart from superficial statements like, “it’s nice to look at”. This book has really helped open my eyes to art and I now feel semi confident when discussing the various movements of modern art.

A problem I found was that the Kindle version had issues. One of these was that the pictures of the art were black and white and not in the best quality. When discussing work like that of Mondrian, you really need to see the pictures in colour. I therefore had to Google all of the images that Gomepertz talks about. This  was time consuming and slightly annoying. But be prepared to do it if you purchase the Kindle version, as it is necessary.

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Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian is an example of artwork that needs to be seen in colour to appreciate.

The book tries to describe modern art as a continuous narrative. I found this really interesting. When talking about a certain artist, Gompertz begins with a short biography, which helps to contextualise the work of the individual. I really enjoyed finding out about the artist and the ideas behind the works, as well as the art itself.

I think this book is the perfect introduction to modern art. Because of this I would give this book a 9 out of 10, it was everything I wanted it to be on purchasing. It gave me the information I craved, told in an engaging and non patronising way. I really enjoyed this book and I would really recommend it to anyone who is interested in art, or those who feel they don’t fully understand modern art. This book has certainly peaked my interest in art and will probably be the first of many art books I purchase in the future.

 

 

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The Minutuarist- Book Review

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The Minituarist by Jessie Burton

The Minutuarist takes place in 16th century Amsterdam, where newlywed Petronella Brandt opens the doors to her new life. But when she gets their, married life is not all its cracked up to be…

The title of this book, to me at least, is slightly misleading. The Minutuarist, (someone who makes small things) is a peripheral figure in the book and the vast majority of the content is about the odd family that Petronella Brandt finds herself in the centre of. So maybe ‘The 16th Century Dutch Housewife’ is a more apt name, but is perhaps less catchy and interesting. This annoyed me because I got something I wasn’t looking for.

There is not a huge amount of description in The Minituarist. One of the main reasons I bought to the book was because of it’s 16th century Amsterdam setting, it’s a period and setting which is relatively uncommon for modern day fiction. Unfortunately where the book takes place is almost completely irrelevant to the story. There are a few romantic descriptions of the famous canals and a bakery, but apart from that, the book never delves into it’s setting beyond face value. Amsterdam is simply a framework.

When you start reading, it becomes immediately clear that it is written for the female market. After reading the books synopsis and reviews prior to buying the book, I don’t feel this was made apparent. This again annoyed me slightly, as this wasn’t what I wanted, but I persisted with the book regardless.

However the story is intriguing throughout, even if is not what I expected. The book tells the tale of Petronella Brandt, a country girl recently married to a rich Amsterdam-based merchant. Life at her new marital home is not what she expects. Whilst her dissatisfaction is going on she is sent numerous miniature objects by a local artisan. The miniaturist makes unbelievably accurate pieces, which begin to concern Petronella as they become more and more insightful. From here the story twists and turns and has some genuinely shocking moments. This is definitely an enjoyable book to read and I found it difficult to put down. However upon completion I felt like it didn’t fulfil it’s own potential. The story certainly seems appealing and on reaching half way, you feel like the book is really going to deliver. But the second half of the story languishes on and goes in directions I didn’t want or expect it to take. This left me disappointed when the book finished.

Overall I feel like The Minitiarist is an interesting book, but it doesn’t fulfil it’s early promise and because of that I would score it a 7 out of 10, it’s a very decent read, but simply not fantastic. For a debut novel, this is an author which I will be looking out for in the near future. I definitely think it is worth a read for some people, but for me, it wasn’t what I expected it to be.

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An Officer and a Spy- Book Review

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An Officer and a Spy is a historical fiction novel based on the Dreyfus affair, a political scandal which took place in turn of the 20th Century France. The affair is a standard bearer for injustice by a nation state. Dreyfus was sent to an isolated prison situated on Devils Island for passing on state secrets to France’s principle enemy of the time, Germany. The action takes place within the French secret service, as Head of the intelligence section Georges Picquart becomes less and less convinced by the Dreyfus trials legitimacy.

The book is historical fiction at it’s best, placing you in the shoes of a prominent figure, involved in a prominent issue in an interesting period in history. I’m a huge fan of historical fiction as it allows the reader to immerse themselves in a time period and also learn about history whilst being entertained. If you don’t enjoy historical fiction then I would avoid this book. To someone not intrigued by the subject matter, this book could be seen as dry and boring. If your looking for action and adventure, look elsewhere, as this book delves into political conspiracy in a bureaucratic style. The majority of the book consists of character discourse and evidence finding and analysis. So before purchasing this book I would give it a bit of thought as to whether this is entertaining to you as I understand that it could be boring to some.

The books protagonist, General Picquart

The books protagonist, General Picquart

Most of the entertainment from this book comes from a truly immersive setting as well as a thoroughly well researched set of characters. General Picquart is a very engaging protagonist and the character creates an empathy for his situation, the powerlessness of being confronted with a national conspiracy is tangible on every page as you reach the books conclusion. This is an impressive feat as Harris doesn’t give trivial details of the character to make him understandable. Very little is known about his life, he is portrayed simply as a man dedicated to his job and to justice. The supporting characters are also complex and interesting, with a host of Picquarts colleagues becoming more and more intriguing as the book progresses.

The narrative of the story twists and turns at a steady pace throughout. The scale of the affair itself is quite extraordinary if you aren’t familiar with it and the subject matter makes this book very absorbing. It definitely falls into the category of page turners. Once you are into the plot, you just can’t wait to see the issue resolved, this makes the book an interesting summer read and worthy of the readers time.

It must be said that this book is in no way ground breaking. The historical fiction is based entirely on true events, not really deviating from real events, except from creating the dialogue of the characters. This makes the book less thought provoking than a historical fiction book with a little bit more fiction, like Dominion by C.J Samson, for example. On completing Dominion a host of questions run through your mind, based on the fact that the author manipulates history to tell a compelling story. With An Officer and A Spy, it’s simply retelling history in a narrative format. This makes it less stirring as a book by comparison. Even so, it is still absorbing, particularly if, like me, you weren’t aware of the Dreyfus affair before reading. Knowing about the subject before reading ruins a lot of the books surprises.

I am giving this book a 7 out of 10. the book is a real page turner for those interested in history, but could be considered boring by those less interested. It is a retelling of an astonishing political scandal and for that alone the book is worth a read. It is proficiently written, with good character development, but this is not a ground breaking book in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

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Hanns and Rudolf- Book Review

 

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Hanns and Rudolf tells the tale of Rudolf Hoss, Kommandent of Aushwitz and Hanns Alexander, a German Jew turned Nazi hunter who eventually caught Hoss. The narrative takes the form of an interweaving biography of the two figures. This is done by separating each of their stories into different chapters. The book is written by Thomas Harding, who is Hanns’ great nephew. The family tie that the author has helps to give the book a purpose as after all, this is a period of history written about constantly.

Firstly I would like to point out that this book was not what I thought it would be. I thought that it would tell the lengthy story of Hanns trying to catch Rudolf, when in fact the vast majority of this book is about their completely separate lives and their journeys pre war as much as their actions during and postwar. The link between the two is that they are both involved in WWII, not that Hanns was the man to catch Rudolf. Whilst the book does include this, it didn’t feel like the main part of the book as you would expect from reading the front cover, which says”The German Jew and the hunt for the Kommandent of Auschwitz”. I therefore found this slightly misleading, so if you are to read this book, don’t expect a lengthy detective novel as this is not what the book offers the reader.

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The book tells the tale of Hanns Alexander (right) and Rudolf Hoss (left) 

Hanns and Rudolf is very well researched, with great detail given about both the characters childhoods. However a lot of the information about Rudolfs early life seems regurgitated from other sources. The Hanns sections stand out because he is a new character to amateur historians and the authors family ties help to personalise him to the reader.  This book is all about portraying the two characters as people, rather than symbols of their armies or  nations. It is a human story of how one German Jew ended up hating his country and how Rudolf became a mass murderer . This personalised take on the characters is typified by the fact that throughout the book they are referred to in first person (because of this, I have decided to do the same).

One of the books most interesting facets  is how Rudolf Hoss did what he did, was he simply following orders, or was he not sane? It certainly is intriguing reading about Rudolf and the extent of his crimes against humanity. It’s compelling reading when Harding writes about Hoss’ constant struggle to keep up his family life normal whilst being Kammondent of Aushwitz. Equally absorbing is Hanns’ journey out of Nazi Germany and his decision to fight against them in the war and him becoming one of the very first Nazi hunters after the wars end. On top of this there is the story of Hanns’ twin brother Paul and how they constantly seem to keep bumping into each other during the war. Both Hanns and Rudolf are very interesting characters and the format of having their stories told in interlinking chapters works very well for the narrative. This book is extremely readable because of this.

The book is a well written account of the two characters. It’s engaging you and wills you to read on to the end. Overall I would give this book an 8 out of 10. It is not as insightful or as original as a book like Monuments Men and is not as well written as a Bryson, but it is an interesting and personal story of two contrasting characters in WWII. I was personally disappointed with the shortness of Hoss’ capture, which should of been the crux of the book, but was relegated to a couple of pages.

 

 

 

 

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One Summer- Book Review

One Summer

One Summer by Bill Bryson

One summer is an interesting proposition for a book, telling a somewhat chronological story of a few months in time. The fact that the summer of 1927 in America was one of the most fascinating periods in modern history makes for a compelling tale indeed.

Having read previous Bill Bryson books, A Short History of Nearly Everything and Shakespeare, World at Stage, (both of which I recommend despite them being rather heavy reading!). I was excited when I came across a new book emblazoned with his name and ‘The Spirit of St Louis’ flying across the cover.

The book follows the main headlines of the year, focussing loosely on the biggest events in the months of May, June, July and August.  Each of these months have particular focuses, these are; Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, President Coolidge and alleged anarchist murderers Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Whilst these figures are the focal points of the chapters, there are numerous other stories interwoven with them.

The talent that Bryson uses to maximum effect, is to pick out of history what’s interesting, something which many historical fiction books fail to recognise or achieve. This results in a thoroughly entertaining, absorbing book which entices the reader to continue on. Brysons writing style brings the period to life, his constant comparisons to modern day life illuminate the vast contrasts between then and now. You feel the optimism of the roaring twenties pulsating from every page. The wild excesses of the time highlight what a remarkable and unique period it was, particularly in America. The book is fantastically well researched, with a wealth of information everywhere you look. All this information is written in Brysons trademark light-hearted style and I believe this to be the most readable Bryson book to date, from my experience.

A criticism that can be voiced about this book is it’s somewhat disjointed format. The action seems to jump arbitrarily between events. The chapters are named after a figure but only parts of the chapter talk about them. Some of the jump off points for the topics are supported by tenuous links. One moment you will be reading about Babe Ruth, then Charles Linbergh and then Henry Ford, all in a couple of paragraphs. The action also deviates from the year 1927, as the title of the book suggests, but goes on to discuss events throughout the twenties and beyond the forties. This makes the title of the book at the very least, a little bit misleading. However neither of these are an issue for me, if anything they add pace to the action and underline what a remarkably busy summer it was. The jumping between different time periods help to give contextual background to the events of 1927.

I would rate this book as 9 out of 10, for the simple fact that it is truly entertaining, informative and completely absorbing. I found this book very difficult to put down and for those reasons it goes down as one of my literary highlights of recent years.

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Saving Italy- Book Review

 

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Saving Italy by Robert Edsel

Saving Italy, The Race To Save A Nation’s Treasures From The Nazis, is Edsel’s follow up to the critically acclaimed Monuments Men, which recently became a major motion picture starring George Clooney. As a result of this I expect this book to get more attention, which is great because it truly deserves it, for both the book itself and the families of the Monuments Men.

The book again stars the Monuments Men, a group of academics, sculptors and  artists who enlisted in the army to save the artistic heritage of Europe, and in particular for this book, Italy. The book follows several of the Monuments Men’s journeys through Italy, in particular the journeys of Deane Keller and Fred Hart, two contrasting individuals who disagreed regularly but pulled together for the cause.

On top of the journey of the monuments men, the book documents the extensive looting operation of the Nazi’s. In particular it follows Karl Wolff, the leader of SS troops in Italy. These moments also include more general war information and history about the Nazi’s occupation of fascist Italy. This ongoing narrative is splendidly put together by Edsel who manages to weave the stories of several individuals together into a coherent, somewhat sequential collection of events .

What really makes this book shine, is the sheer wealth of research that Edsel and others have put into it. This is all that is needed to allow this staggering true story to shine. The story includes genuinely draw dropping factual moments , moments that see some of the greatest cultural treasures in the world at risk. The sheer rate of Nazi looting takes a lot to be believed, but throughout, Edsel recounts the events as they’ve been reported, rather than dealing with the Nazi’s in a hyperbolic way. This is a positive way of dealing with the issue as it makes the book appear more reliable.

Their are touching moments to this book. these come in the form of letters that the men and wives exchanged. They give a sense of humanity to proceedings. The emotional attachment to the soldiers is not something I expected when picking up the book, it serves to add another dimension to the intrigue.

It’s important to add that their is no need to read the previous books to enjoy this one, if you haven’t it will probably result in you reading the previous episodes, as this novel is unlike anything I have ever read, it brings together art, culture, war and humanity in a way that remains refreshing even after reading the previous instalments. It poses the unanswerable question of how valuable art is and what lengths humans should go to protect our cultural heritage.

A negative point about this book is that if you aren’t aware of what the cultural objects are, it’s hard to imagine the scenes in the book. As a complete amateur in artistic history, I had no idea who some of the artists in question were and therefore how priceless their works of art are. I can see that this could take away some of the meaning of the book, due to blind ignorance. However I liked to see every piece of art that was being mentioned so that I could imagine what it meant to the Monuments Men when they saw these sacred items. I did this simply by Googling the works of art just to get a feel for them. Also some parts of the book slow the pace considerably, most notably when talking about the more military history of the war in Italy. I sometimes found these to be of unnecessarily dense detail, which distracted me from the trials and tribulations of the Monuments Men. However these military moments are thankfully short-lived and the action resumes within a couple of pages.

Overall I would give this book an 8.5 out of 10. Due to the book being of a unique nature. This is not just another war novel! It’s an exciting, narrative driven account of an almost unbelievable historical event.

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