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Old 01 March 2018, 02:01 PM
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Richard W Richard W is offline
Join Date: 19 February 2000
Location: High Wycombe, UK
Posts: 26,397

I read quite a lot in February but mostly short and easy books.

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco. I think I mentioned this somewhere else - it's about somebody setting up a newspaper in the early 90s, that's nominally going to expose wrongdoings by political and business figures, but he's actually never intending it to be published because he thinks he can get a bigger payoff by using it as a blackmail threat. His staff are creating dummy issues, hence "number zero". It's got some quite decent stuff about the ways newspapers operate(d) and a conspiracy theory around the death of Mussolini. I enjoyed it.

The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville. This is set in an alternate occupied Paris during WWII, which has carried on until the 1950s. Somebody created and set off an "S-bomb" which brought to life manifestations of surrealist art which then proceeded to attack the Nazis, and anybody else they felt like attacking. Meanwhile the Nazis worked out how to summon demons in a counterattack. The protagonist is one of a group of surrealists fighting the occupation and trying to harness the various manifests to help them. It's an interesting premise (as usual from China Miéville) and gives plenty of scope for weird goings-on, but I thought it was less than the sum of its parts - it didn't say a lot to me beyond the descriptions of some artworks that I didn't know much about. It's sort of a surrealist ekphrasis, really.

A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich (trans. Caroline Mustill). This was originally published in 1935 but Gombrich updated it in the 1980s and was working on the English version when he died in 2001 - his assistant finished the translation. It's a children's history, and because it started in the 1930s tends to be a traditional history of western Europe, north Africa and the near east with only a few chapters about other goings on elsewhere. It was originally written for an Austrian audience so concentrates more on central Europe than the same book would have for a British audience. Part of what Gombrich was doing was to add chapters to the English version for a British audience, but he died before finishing. In some ways it's old-fashioned, and by nature it's simplistic, but it's very clear and interesting, and was pretty progressive for its time and place (the Nazis banned it; Gombrich had already left Vienna for the UK by then). It fitted together a lot of things that I hadn't quite put in place.

The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot (a comic). Blatherskite was reading this back on page 1 of the thread. It's about an abused runaway girl trying to get her life back together, while inspired by and inadvertently following in the footsteps of Beatrice Potter. Really good - lovely illustrations, and more hopeful than grim.

Pissing figures 1280 - 2014 by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn (trans. Jeff Nagy). I picked this up a bit randomly at the checkout of the art section in Foyles last year. It's pretty much what it says - an examination of pissing figures throughout the history of art. I hadn't realised quite how much of a recurrent motif this was, but it's very interesting and pretty good on the symbolism and how that's changed over time from an earthy symbol of innocence, to an indication of prosperity or even fertility, to something more confrontational or territorial, and fetishistic. I learned some new words, like "ithyphallic" (that might be useful), "puer mingens" and "ekphrasis"...

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Since this was very popular a few years ago I thought I'd give it a go. I enjoyed it, but really almost all the characters in it are pretty unsympathetic, even when you can identify with their weaknesses. It's quite cynical in its way. I felt the ending was a bit contrived and not quite as neat as it seemed meant to be.

I'm currently reading Romola by George Eliot, which is set in Florence in 1492 just after the death of Lorenzo de Medici. (Overlap with some of the art history and history above). A young Greek man called Tito has arrived claiming to have been shipwrecked and having some jewels to sell. He's been introduced to Bardo di Bardi, Romola's father, who can introduce him to the right people to sell them. He's also a scholar who's going to help di Bardi with some work, and he and Romola clearly fancy each other. I've not got far enough to know where it's all going yet, but there's a suggestion that Tito isn't what he seems and may be a spy or a con-man or something.

di Bardi and Romola are a bit like a prototype version of Dorothea and Casaubon from Middlemarch, in that di Bardi is a similarly disillusioned elderly scholar (who blames his son's departure a few years ago for his lack of progress, even though he'd have already been 60 when his son left), and Romola is trying to help him with his work, but (whether through her own limitations, or her father's refusal to believe that a woman is capable of doing this stuff) isn't able to do so to the extent she'd like.
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