September 28, 2018

Book review: “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” by Christopher Moore

  As usual, Christopher Moore is goofy and silly in Island of the Sequined Love Nun, his fourth novel, published in 1997. Consider the back story of his central character Tucker Case who, Moore tells us, grew up in Elsinore, California, the only son of the owner of the Denmark Silverware Corporation.  Tuck’s girlfriend was Zoophilia Gold, the daughter of his father’s lawyer, “a lovely girl made shy by a cruel first name.” Tuck was away at college in Texas when he got the call from his mother: “Come home.  Your father’s dead.”  He drove home in two days and called Zoophilia who “informed him that his mother had married his father’s brother and his uncle had taken over Denmark Silverware.” If this is sounding at all familiar, it’s supposed to.   Twisting to his own purposes This, I think, was Moore’s first foray into paying homage to — well, let’s be honest, absconding with, beating over the head and twisting to his own purposes — some of the greatest stories in Western civilization. He followed these Hamlet references here with an entire book of his wacky version of King Lear (Fool), a mash-up of the Merchant of Venice and […]
September 26, 2018

Book review: “Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope

  Barchester Towers, like the other five novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barset, is characterized by psychological nuance and an affection for humanity in all its waywardness. There are novels written by authors who don’t like their characters — not a one of them.  Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom comes to mind.  Most writers like at least some of the people who populate their stories. Trollope likes all of his characters, even the bossy bully Mrs. Proudie who takes up a lot of pages of Barchester Towers, and Mr. Slope, the oily, conniving liar who takes up even more. When I say “likes,” I mean “understands.”  Trollope understands the weak bishop’s wife and the weak bishop’s chaplain as fully rounded, many-layered human beings.  They do a lot of bad and mean things, but none of Trollope’s characters is all bad.   Curious and lovable It’s a measure of the author’s affection for the human race that he can tell of the depredations of these two with more of a touch of humane forbearance, as if to say, “Aren’t people just so curious? And, at the same time, lovable?” Mean-spirited or gentle-minded, Trollope’s people can’t help but get themselves into trouble, can’t […]
September 24, 2018

Book review: “Pyramids” by Terry Pratchett

    So, it’s nearly the final page of Terry Pratchett’s 1989 Discworld novel Pyramids, and his recurring character, called Death (because he is), suddenly finds himself with a problem: THIS IS MOST IRREGULAR. We’re sorry.  It’s not our fault. HOW MANY OF YOU ARE THERE? More than 1,300, I’m afraid. VERY WELL, THEN.  PLEASE FORM AN ORDERLY QUEUE.   Small and dark and boring There is Pyramids in a nutshell.  For thousands of years, the kings and queens of Djelibeybi, the Discworld version of Egypt, have, upon death, had to put up with their bodies being locked up within pyramids. Each found himself or herself in a space that was small and dark and, worst of all, boring, dead but never freed by Death — that rather bony character with the hood and scythe — to go do whatever a spirit does after its body is finished. All this begins to come to an end when 19-year-old Teppic, having just won a degree from the Assassin’s Guild in Anhk-Morpork (which means he survived his final exam), learns that his father has died, and he must come home to be king.  Home to a nation that Pratchett describes in this […]
September 12, 2018

Book review: “Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence” by Ross King

    Okay, I recognize that — as Ross King writes in Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence — building the dome over the long-undomed Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral had become, by the early 15th century, “the greatest architectural puzzle of the age.” And I see that, in solving that puzzle, Filippo Brunelleschi not only fashioned a great work of art — the dome remains the tallest and widest ever created without modern materials — but also raised the status of architect above the level of manual worker to that of the artist.  King writes: Largely through his looming reputation, the profession was transformed during the Renaissance from a mechanical into a liberal art, from an art that was viewed as “common and low” to one that could be regarded as a noble occupation at the heart of the cultural endeavor. Even more, Brunelleschi’s feat gave new meaning to the word “genius.”  King writes: Before Filippo’s time the faculty of genius was never attributed to architects (or to sculptors and painters, either, for that matter).  But Marsuppini’s epitaph refers to Filippo as possessing divino ingenio, “divine genius,” marking the first recorded instance of an architect […]
September 10, 2018

Book review: “Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King

It’s a daunting task to write the story of the creation of a work of art and, even more, for one that comprises a multiplicity of art works. After all, the work — Shakespeare’s King Lear or Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” or Joyce’s Ulysses or Piano Sonata No. 11 by Mozart — speaks for itself. To know about Lear, you watch Lear.  Any prose written as a commentary runs the risk of sounding like so much wasted breath. How much more intimidating is it, then, to write a book about how Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, came to be? A masterpiece with 150-plus pictorial units, including more than 300 individual figures, many of which are considered masterpieces in their own right? Masterpieces that are among the most popular and ubiquitous of art images in the Western culture?   Delightfully interesting In Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King faces these many challenges, and he triumphs.  His 2003 book is delightfully interesting, informative, inspiring and thought-provoking. King’s book explains without being boring.  It gets into nitty-gritty details without bogging down.  It gives the larger-than-life personalities of its three main characters, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pope […]
September 5, 2018

Book review: “Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution” by D. Peter MacLeod

  Most accounts of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also called the Battle of Quebec — a turning point in the history of North America, when Canada became British — focus on the two commanders, both of whom died in the fighting. However, in his 2016 book Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution, D. Peter MacLeod takes a different tack. In the early morning hours of September 13, 1759, General James Wolfe sent his British soldiers climbing the face of the nearly 200-foot-tall cliff of the Quebec Promontory, a cliff that, to the French, had seemed unclimbable, especially with regular patrols along the cliff-edge. Nonetheless, through luck and energy, the British force got to the top and set up a battle line on the west side of the plateau, with some 2,100 troops. The French, once they realized that the British had snuck behind them, established their own battle line on the eastern edge of the plains, on and in front of the Buttes-a-Neveu. This was a raised mound that, MacLeod points out, would have provided the 2,000 French and Canadian militia troops with an advantageous higher-ground position […]
September 5, 2018

Book review: “Quebec: Historic Seaport” by Mazo de la Roche

  I was flabbergasted by Quebec: Historic Seaport, ostensibly a history of the Canadian city, published in 1944 by novelist Mazo de la Roche.  And my flabbergastation only grew greater the more I read the book until it evolved, near the end, into out-and-out disgust. Of course, I knew going into the book that it might be a challenge.  Novelists use different intellectual and artistic muscles than historians do, but, sometimes, this can result in a wonderful work, such as Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell’s history of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. Not here. De la Roche writes her book as if it were a historical romance with manly men and daintily beautiful women.  And it isn’t really about Quebec.  It’s more a history of Canada in which Quebec plays an important-ish role.   “Their own doom” That’s not the real problem, though.  Ultimately, de la Roche’s effort is completely undercut by her deep and sharp prejudices. This reaches its nadir when de la Roche is discussing the Treaty of Versailles which ended the American Revolution, giving the colonies their independence.  She writes: In that treaty the New Englanders wrote their own doom, for in their […]
September 3, 2018

Essay: “God is the ocean in which we all swim

Patrick T. Reardon 9.4.18