Tag Archives: Ecco

Of Cabbages and Kings

the-muse

The Muse: A Novel by Jessie Burton (Ecco, $27.99, 390 pages)

At first glance, The Muse presents as a carefully constructed novel composed of six distinct parts each of which is titled and separated into time frames – set in 1936 and 1967. Upon further examination, the reader might notice that the chapters set in 1936 are numbered sequentially with Roman numerals while the ones set in 1967 are numbered with Arabic numerals. The final chapter is an afterward. Moreover, the last element is a bibliography that attests to the author’s immersion in the lives and events of her characters.

Thoughtful and elegant book design is integral to the experience of the novel contained between its covers. The Muse delights the reader with illustrated pages that define each part. The illustrations are black, white and grey tone depictions of paint on canvas with a type font typical of the 1930s era. They serve as a reminder that the underlying theme of the tale is the convoluted history a work of visual art may have hidden in the daubs of paint applied to the canvas.

Author Jesse Burton has written a most engaging tale about two women of artistic talent who endure deeply emotional journeys for the sake of their work. Odelle Bastien, an emigre to London from Port of Spain, Trinidad is stuck in a dead end job at a shoe store. Odelle and her best friend, Cynthia, have shared a flat for five years. Cynthia encourages Odelle to pursue her gift of writing. The chapters that are narrated by Odelle are set in 1967.

Olive Schloss lives in the bucolic countryside of pre-civil war Spain near Malaga, Southern Spain. Her father, Harold Schloss, is a Jewish art dealer who only sees value in the paintings created by men. Olive yearns for success and acknowledgement as she paints with her heart and soul in the attic of the rented house she, her father and beautiful mother, Sarah, occupy. Their chapters are narrated in the third person and are, of course, set in 1936.

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As each life contains a bit of mystery, so do the lives of Odelle and Olive. Rather than a procedural “whodunit”, this book unfolds organically and weaves back upon itself. Author Burton is in her mid-thirties and by most standards rather young to have crafted such an elegant tale. There’s no need to rush through the pages. The experience is well worth savoring.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Muse was released on July 26, 2016. Jesse Burton is also the author of The Miniaturist, a New York Times bestselling novel.

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A Whiter Shade of Pale

Bacchae Robin Robertson

Bacchae by Euripides: A New Translation by Robin Robertson (Ecco, $19.99, 128 pages)

The final work by one of the three greatest Athenian playwrights and poets might have been on the list of required reading assignments for a serious 19th century student. Not so for this mid-20th century university student whose classics exposure was confined to the statues, temples and artifacts of the era in which Euripides lived.

Bacchae: A New Translation arrived in the mail unbidden, a slender advance review copy that proclaimed its relevance in today’s world. Feeling a need to round out my classical education with a sampling of literature, I worked my way through the book, devoting ample time to the play as well as the most helpful ancillary material.

The book’s elements included a well-developed preface written by Daniel Mendelsohn that provided ample contextual and historical information for the novice reader of Greek tragedies. The introduction by Scottish writer and translator Robin Robertson further set the reader on a path toward comprehending the play. A family tree of the main characters set forth the relationships in a graphic. And lastly, a glossary complete with pronunciation guide appeared after the body of the text. It is assumed that these key elements remained as parts of the final, published version.

As to the take away, alas, most of the insightful and relevant themes touted on the cover flew over this reviewer’s head. Perhaps the extreme drama and graphic nature of the violence contained in the play was just too much. Alternatively, the silent statues, temples and painted vases of the same era held immense appeal nearly five decades after the captivating lectures presented by Dr. Crawford H. Greenewalt, Jr. have nearly faded from memory.

Recommended for students of the classics.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Mick Jagger by Philip Norman.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Up All Night: My Life and Times in Rock Radio by Carol Miller.

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Nobody Told Me

On Book Reviewer-Author Relationships

“Everybody’s talking, and no one says a word.”   John Lennon (“Nobody Told Me”)

Here’s an experience that I’ve had multiple times, four times to be exact.   I’m involved in an e-mail conversation with a writer who is new to me, and communication is taking place naturally.   Then, all of a sudden, comes this message – as if taken from a new author’s handbook, “My publicist/editor/publisher (someone, in other words) has told me that I’m not supposed to become friendly with book reviewers.”   Naturally, my response to this is to type “Why?”

I don’t think I’ve ever received a very specific answer other than the statement that it would make the author-writer appear to be currying favor, or angling for a positive review.   This explanation may well make sense to others, but not to me.   I say this because I’m about to go on to read this author’s book – about which I virtually never have a pre-impression – and write a review of this product; I have no interest in writing about the author’s personality.

I also doubt that there’s much connection between how much I know and like the author as a person and my review, or reviews written by other reviewers.   Let me provide an example.   One author is someone I’ve known for decades.   He is a friend and yet when I wrote my review of one of his novels I think I wrote about its positives and negatives in the same way I would have with anyone else, known or unknown to me.   So my friendship with this good gentleman did not result in my insisting that everyone go out and purchase his book!   Even more curious, my wife read a different novel from this author.   She has never met him, e-mailed him or spoken with him.   Her review of his more recent novel was effusive and glowing, thus showing the lack of a direct connection between friendship and an honest review.

There’s also the fact that I know authors who have written both very, very good and average books.   If I read the very, very good book first and the average one later, I never decide that I’ve had it with this writer.   No, I think, “He/she has it in him/her to write an outstanding book, so he/she will probably do so the next time around.”   Maybe this is just me, but I disconnect the product from the person, and I keep hope alive for the next time around.

I pray this is the same with my reviews and my readers.   If I write several good reviews and then one that you find is sloppy, I hope you won’t say, “I will never read another one of his reviews again!”   Hey, we all have off days, weeks, months, and/or years – sometimes lifetimes.   But as I have stated in Our Fairness Policy, if I write a review you disagree with, feel free to write your own review (of about the same length) with a different perspective.   I will post it.

A few readers have taken me up on this offer, and I have very much enjoyed – literally enjoyed – reading their views.   Why?   Because I don’t think they’re judging me, they’re simply offering more information.   And this is why I’ve posted multiple reviews of some books.   Information is good, not just for readers but also for the authors who happened to have written the books in question.   If some information is good, more information – more perspectives – should be better for their own writing futures.   (If I write that I loved the first half of a novel but not the second half, and you feel the opposite and we both explain our views in writing, does this not help the author  to identify his/her strengths and weaknesses?   I think so, I honestly do.)

I was taught, as a one-time debater and as a law student, that all information has value.   Sure, some pieces of information and some perspectives may have more intrinsic value than other pieces and perspectives, but how do we know that without testing them in the real world?   This is what I hope we’re doing with books and book reviews…  Reading them, making some honest assumptions or conclusions about their values, and asking others to do the same.   In this way, I think we writers and reviewers are assisting each other.

We’re helping each other through open and honest dialogue while avoiding unnecessary division and rancor.   As I’ve written before, the book review/opinion process should not be a debate; there’s no true right or wrong.   There are no definitive reviews, at least in my opinion.   If I looked up all of the reviews on the internet of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, could I find one of each that I would point to and say, “That’s the one!   No one should ever dare write another word because that was a perfect review of a near-perfect book!”   I hardly think so.

Our dialogue should continue to be open and honest and friendly.   And perhaps one day authors and reviewers will live in harmony…  Until then, write on my friend.   Let’s talk a few months after the book comes out and reviews are over and done.  

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing by Roger Rosenblatt, which will be released on January 2, 2011 by Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers.

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Clothes Make the Man

Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini, Translated by Eric Karpeles (Ecco; $19.99; 144 pages)

“A rare and wonderfully written book.”   Michael Ondaatje

“Proust had also been measured for an overcoat in plaid with a bright purple lining.   He said he was going to leave it in the cloakroom…”   William C. Carter (Proust: A Life)

A confession is in order here at the beginning of the review.   I have never read the writings of Marcel Proust.   The only sense I have of him comes from the charming line drawing made by his friend Jean Cocteau.   The drawing is indicative of the clique of quirky artists who lived in France at the end of the 19th century.   It is the drawing and collage-like cover of Lorenza Foschini’s petite volume that drew me to this book.  

Don’t let the size of the book influence a purchase decision.   This is not a casual account of the artifacts of a world-famous writer’s life.   Rather, Proust’s Overcoat reveals the power of the collecting urge that can take hold of a person.  

Jacques Guerin was the collector whose passion for everything Proust led him to stalk the belongings that remained after Proust’s death.   Guerin’s perfume business afforded him the funds necessary to purchase the desk, bed, pictures and, of course, the iconic overcoat.   The surviving Proust family members and a junk dealer named Werner made these and many other acquisitions into sequential victories that were celebrated by Guerin over the course of many years.

Just as a curator arranges the items of the museum’s collection into a catalogue, author Foschini has done the same with the written and pictorial history of the items from Marcel Proust’s life.   The way in which his surviving family members treated the belongings revealed the mixed feelings they felt for him.   Isn’t that always the way with families?

Highly recommended.   A knowledge of literature or museums is not a prerequisite for enjoying this book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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