Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Picture Day: Holiday Dining Party at Chatsworth

How does your Christmas dining spread compare to this sumptuous setup at Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, in England?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I'm Signed Up! Are You? 2015 TBR Reading Challenge

Wendy Crutcher, Super Librarian, has posted her 2015 TBR Reading Challenge. I loved it so much this year that I promptly signed up for next year. I read off-theme but if you like themes, here are next year's suggestions:

January 21 - Category romance, novellas, short stories

February 18 - Recommended book

March 18 - Series book

April 15 - Contemporary

May 20 - Copyright date is 10 years or older

June 17 - An author who has more than one book in your TBR pile

July 15 - Past RWA RITA winners or nominees)

August 19 - Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!)

September 16 - Historical

October 21 - Paranormal or romantic suspense

November 18 - It's All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking)

December 16 - Holiday Themes

Friday, December 19, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Parisian Book of Hours

This is a Book of Hours that was created in Paris in 1553 in the shape of a fleur de lys. It was sold by Christie's on June 6, 2006 for $28,000.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection by Toby Faber.

When the Faber of publishing company Faber & Faber writes a book, people sit up and take notice. It is reviewed everywhere, which means my expectations going into it were riding high. Luckily, it was not a case of "much ballyhooed, soon deflated" variety. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What brought me to this book?

I played the violin from when I was eight to twenty one. I took lessons, I practised (reluctantly most of the times), and I performed. I have played the violin at events, at competitions, at school assemblies, and even at a state fair with the cows lowing in the barn next door. I loved the sound of the violin even as I deplored how difficult it was to learn and to play. After I became a paying guest with a professor's family in graduate school, I had to stop practicing and thus performing, and the violin fell into disuse. I briefly resurrected the playing at jamming sessions with a colleague at my first job. Since then though, the violin's bridge has fallen, the bow hair are matted, and the strings are hopelessly frayed. It will need a lot of TLC from a luthier to restore it to its former prime.

In 2005, I read a newspaper article, about a $6 million Guarnerius being on loan to the San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. It used to belong to Jascha Heifetz, widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. The article traced the ancient history of the violin and how it came to be on loan to Barantschik. Coincidentally, a few days after I came across this book about Stradivari, and I was primed to buy it.

However, you know what happens when you're an eager book buyer. The book languished on my TBR bookshelf for nearly ten years. The TBR Challenge was the perfect tool to rescue it out of obscurity.

Well, on to the book...

"I have a violin that was born in 1713. It was alive long before me, and I hope it lives long after me. I don't consider it my violin. Rather, I am perhaps its violinist; I am passing through its life."

In a poignant statement in 2000, violinist and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Ivry Gitlis highlights what is at the heart of this book: Violins (and cellos) of ancient pedigree that flit through the lives of humans, illuminating everything and everybody in their paths.

Yehudi Menuhin expresses the same sentiment beautifully here:

"A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker's intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners."

The book Stradivari's Genius traces the origins of the violin in the court of Catherine de Medici in the mid-sixteenth century. Violinmaking in Cremona, Italy began around the same time with the Amatis making the first memorable one in 1564. Everything of today's violins' form and function can be seen in that 1564 violin. A brief history of the Amatis, the Stradivaris, the Guarneris (beginning with del Gesù), the Rogeris, the Rugeris, and the Guadagninis follows.

In talking about the violinmakers of Cremona, Faber does an excellent job of explaining how the various parts of the violin were constructed and how the shape, size, thickness, type, etc. of the woods chiseled by the Cremonese artists affected the acoustics of the instruments they constructed.

The book follows the stories of five violins and one cello, from their origin in Stradivari's workshop to their ownership by various players and dealers. The Strads, as they're affectionately known, each have names, which they gained from their famous owners. Four of the violins are called: the Viotti, the Khevenhüller, the Paganini, and the Lipiński. The cello is called the Davidov. The fifth violin is called The Messiah from a joke by one of the dealers about its reputation.

The majority of the book is delightfully gossipy about the passionate violinists, their glories and their peccadillos, the men and women they consorted with, the dealing shenanigans of the collectors and luthiers, the benevolence of the patrons, and the daredevil schemes hatched by violin lovers to safeguard or steal the instruments. Have you seen the movie The Red Violin? That is the style of the book.

The book is characterized by occasional spurts of humor: "Complaints about the 'rubbish put out by the BBC' started almost as soon as it began broadcasting." Well, nothing has changed about that to this day.

One negative aspect of the book was the occasional sexism in Faber's writing. Here's how he describes virtuosa Marie Hall: "A slight eighteen-year-old, dark and beautiful, with lips that might nowadays be called sensuous." None of the men were described thusly. They were called handsome of charming but with no specific commentary. Another example: "It [the player and the instrument] is a marriage. The violin is such a feminine instrument that the metaphor seems almost inescapable at least for men. Women are more likely to regard their violins as an extension of themselves."

Pity about him descending to such lows in an otherwise well-paced and engrossing narrative.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Video Day Friday: Beowulf in Old English

Have a listen to the prose-poem Beowulf as read in the original Old English language.

From Open Culture: "As you can hear in the Beowulf reading above from The Telegraph, it’s a thick, consonant-rich language that may put you in mind of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elvish. The language arrived in Briton—previously inhabited by Celtic speakers—sometime in the fifth century, though whether the Anglo-Saxon invasion was a hostile takeover by Germanic mercenaries or a slow population drift that introduced a new ethnicity is a matter of some dispute. Nevertheless it’s obvious from the reading above—and from texts in the language like this online [written] edition of Beowulf in its original tongue—that we would no more be able to speak to the Anglo-Saxons than we would to the Picts and Scots they conquered."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Big Fat Book December Update: The Game of Kings


The Big Fat Book Project of reading The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett is over. I have listened to the audiobook, read the paper copy twice, and read the companion The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey.

For reference, here are my July, August, September, October, and November updates.

What an experience this has been—exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. For a text of this complexity in characterization, plot, and prose, this type of close reading was the best way to appreciate it. Doing any one thing would've made the experience so much poorer.

I have lived with the story for more than four months now. Scarcely has a day gone by when I have not thought of Lymond and his unceasing activities. I have endlessly debated the intentions behind everything that he does and utters. He is moralistic in his own way and has feelings just like anyone else. Nothing about him is obvious; sometimes, he is obscure even to himself.

I cannot say I like him. However, lack of likeability has not hampered my identifying him as the hero of his tale. Without Lymond, the story dwindles to nothing. He's larger than life and affects everything even when he's off-stage. Every person, every event in the story is a puppet under Lymond's control. His grandiloquence set against his vulnerability and his passion are what save him from being an out and out villain in his own story.

Lymond's, and Dunnett's, astonishing intellectual gifts are far more appreciable with the companion guide. What is also appreciable is the depth of research and historical authenticity Dunnett brings to this tale.

Samuel Gilles's reading added so much depth and texture to the emotional content of the story. He made the characters come alive as individuals, each with their own motivations and hang-ups. His reading was part of what delivered the redemption of Lymond's character to me.

This is historical fiction at its finest. The story is peopled with real historical people interacting with fictional people. At no point does anyone step out of character, time, or place. You could not take any of the characters out, displace them in time and place, and expect the story to remain unchanged. This was key for me. This story, these fictional characters could not have existed in any other time or place.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Canterbury Cathedral

I can only link to the virtual tour of the Canterbury Cathedral, not reproduce is here. But it is worth going over there for a look-see. Magnificent!