Wednesday, 30 December 2015

My favorite books of 2015

Last year I read a lot of books. In total I read 168. This seems like a lot, but I also read a lot of thin books, a Patrick Modiano for example is mostly around 200 pages. And during a reading slump during the Summer I read a lot of Agatha Christie, and I can easily read three of those in one day.

I read 20 books from French authors (I really discovered French literature this year!), I read 17 books about Italy or by Italian writers. I read 33 non-fiction books and 21 thrillers.

So, what are my favorite books of 2015?

Fiction
First the fiction, my absolute favorite was Monsieur Linh and his child by Philippe Claudel (here). I think this will also be in my list of favorite books of all times, so very very beautiful. If you have not read it already, I urge you to do so!

I also loved A private affair by Beppe Fenoglio (here)
The two Dutch covers of my favorite books of 2015.
There is also a Dutch book in my top-3, but since this was not translated, I did not review it over here.

Non-fiction
As for non-fiction, three books come to mind immediately.
First the excellent and definate biography about Marilyn Monroe Icon by Gary Vitacco-Robles (here)

Secondly another biography, this time about Caravaggio by Andrew Graham-Dixon (here)

And finally The edge of the world by Michael Pye, such a good recount of Europan history (here)
The non fiction top 3
Other categories
I also loved the thriller The Axman's Jazz by Ray Celestin  about a serial killer in New Orleans during the roaring twenties. (here)

I had a few books I absolutely hated this year, but on the whole I read more books I liked than books I disliked.

So what are my plans for 2016? I do not make plans where reading is concerned. I do not make a plan to match the amount of books this year, or to read a certain type of books.
I intend to go on as I did this year, just to read the books I want to read when I want to read them.

So, here is to a lot of new and beautiful books in 2016!!

Monday, 28 December 2015

The judgement of Paris, Ross King

In the 19th century it was the Salon in Paris that decided what was good art and what was not.
A painting should have a historical or Biblical scene and should be painted with perfect details. 

Each two years the Salon held an exhibition and if you wanted to sell your work, you had to get your works shown in the Salon. Unfortunately, the Salon-jury was very strict in their opinion and refused many works they thought did were not up to the standard.

Ernest Meissonier was one of the most famous painters in France. He was known for his detailed perfection, his love for history and his disdain for modern times. He was rewarded for this attitude by having his paintings in the Salon year after year, he won many medals and was able to ask high prizes for his work.

On the other side was Édouard Manet and he wanted to paint in a new fashion. He wanted to paint modern scenes and not restrict himself to the conventions of the Salon. His works like Dejeuner sur l‘herbe or Olympia were not just ridiculed, but detested.  
 
Manet. Music in the Tuileries.
This painting was ridiculed by the critics
In The Judgement of Paris (beautiful title, by the way, with so many layers)
Ross King describs how Manet tried to get his works into the Salon from 1863 without much success, while Meissonier had triumph after triumph.

Slowly the climate changed. Manet’s friends like Monet, Degas, Renoir and Cézanne saw him as an inspiration and took painting even further away from the Salon. They began to paint in the open air and lost most of the details, but tried to capture the moment.

The rigid rules of the Salon were met by more and more criticism and painters who got refused even had their own exhibition a couple of times (Salon des Réfusees) and the rules became a little less strict.

Nowadays we see the paintings by Manet and we admire his works, his new vision and his courage. We also see the influence he had on the painters who came after him.

Ernest Meissonier is almost forgotten by all of us and if we see his paintings now, we can admire the technical perfection, but the painting itself does not move us anymore.
 
Meissonier, French campain.
The judgement of Paris tells the story of two painters, who each stand for a movement in art in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. We get to know both Meissonier and Manet, learn how much preparation went into one of those historical paintings, understand the frustration that Manet felt every time one of his paintings was refused or ridiculed. In short, these two painters, both so different, come to life for us.

Ross King, who also wrote Brunelleschi’s Dome, managed again to write an engaging and well written story that does not shy away from technical details, but that also brings Paris in the 19th century and the artworld in those days to life.
Very well done.

Published in 2006

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas music

Merry Christmas to all of you and I hope you have a lovely time. But too much goodness and Christmas candy can become nauseating and I have the perfect anti-dote.
Enjoy Fairytale of New York by The Pogues with Kirsty McColl!


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

A portrait by Whistler

James Abbott MacNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was not an easy man, he was arrogant, picked fights with his friends and did not hesitate to drag a critic of his work to the courts.

He was also a very talented painter who started as a realist, but soon became known for the way he used colours. He took inspiration from everyday life and emotion was more important than perfect details. He took a lot of inspiration from Japanese drawings, that had become popular in the 19th century in Europe.

Whistler often gave his paintings names of musical pieces, like a nocturne or an arrangement or a symphony, because Music does not describe and then it is left open for interpretation.

His work was both hated and admired. Works were refused both by the Salon in Paris and the Royal Academy in London, but sometimes a painting did get in.
His portraits in full length were admired and also gained him commissions.

With the Falling rocket Whistler seemed to have bit of more than he could chew. The famous artcritic Ruskin accused him of defrauding the public by just throwing some paint on the canvas. Whistler took Ruskin to court for this and won, but the process left him bankrupt. He immediately went to Venice, where he could get a commission.

A friend and an artdealer went into his studio and took the paintings that were left there, to see if he could sell them. One of these works was Symphony in white, girl in musselin dress. This painting ended up in the hand of Mr and Mrs Singer, who were building an art collection in The Netherlands.

When their private collection became a museum in 1956, the painting by Whistler was one of the highlights of the museum. Only shortly after there were doubts if this really was a Whistler. The seize of the painting did not fit and other things also did not add up. The painting was moved to the depot and never taken out again.

Until recently. A new investigation was done, looking at the techniques and the material. The result of that investigation is that it is indeed a painting by Whistler.
The paint that was used was the same Whistler used, and the technique of layering very thin layers of paint also matches.
The different stages of the investigation
The discrepancies with his other works can be explained by actions of the art dealer who took the painting. He cut it up to a smaller size so it could be sold quicker and he had somebody else paint the background, since the painting was not finished when he took it. But the girl in front is undoubtedly by Whistler.

The Singer museum in Laren is very proud to say they have a Whistler in their collection (again). They have organized a small exhibition with the painting, and two other paintings they have borrowed from other collections (one from Amsterdam and one from Glasgow). There you can also see what the investigation brought to light.

Last Saturday we went there and also listened to a lecture about Whistler, very interesting I can say! The lecture was a one-time event, but the exposition of the Whistlers can be seen until January 17th 2016. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

The map and the territory, Michel Houellebecq

Studying life, looking at life from a distance can be more meaningful than actually living. At least that is what is the case for the main character Jed Martin in the book The map and the territory by French author Michel Houellebecq.

Jed Martin is an artist who  becomes very successful, almost despite himself. He had two relationships with women, but neither one lasted. His mother committed suicide when he was little and he sees his father about once a year, when they have dinner together at Christmas. At one point Jed has the most contact with his boiler, at least he talks to it.

Jed does not feel related to most of the people, he just observes them. When he began as an artist he made photographs of consumer goods, but then he switches to making close ups of Michelin roadmaps. These become very popular and his first exhibition is called ‘The card is more important than the territory’.

After the success of this exhibition Jed takes up painting and starts on a series of painting different professions. This brings him in contact with the writer Houellebecq, who will write the text for the exhibition’s catalogue. Jed feels a connection with the writer and decides to paint the writer’s portrait as a closing piece to the exhibition.

Michel Houellebecq is a controversial French author. It seems there are only two sides, either you love his work, or you hate it. His pessimistic view on society and nihilistic view of life (he has the opinion people are only motivated by greed and either want sex or money, or both), will always cause different groups who feel insulted to protest against his books.

The map and the territory is the first book I have read by Houellebecq, and I must say I did enjoy this first acquaintance. I do understand that this is considered to be one of his mildest books, so when I will read his next book I will expect to be shocked, but somehow I have the feeling I will be able to enjoy those as well.

What also made me like Houellebecq is that he can make fun of himself in the way he portrays himself in the novel. The novel-Houellebecq will meet a horrible end, but has a chance to rant a couple of times. Although when Jed Martin tells him after a rant that he is now playing a version of himself, the writer immediately agrees.

It is sometimes said that Houellebecq does not have a beautiful way of writing, he used odd changes in perspective and switches from present to past in one paragraph. I must say I did not notice this. I quite liked the way he manages to fit all kinds of detailed explanations and digressions in the story. I just liked this book very much.

The novel-Houellebecq is not such a nihilist as he wanted people to believe, it turns out he was baptized in the Catholic Church a few months before his death, and that leaves room for hope. Perhaps the real Houellebecq will mock this interpretation, but it pleased me.

There is a lot I have not told about this book, but then I would be giving away too much. This is one of those books you should read for yourself.

Original French title: La carte et le territoire
Published in 2010

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Parfums, Philippe Claudel

Smell and taste can bring back memories like nothing else can. Within a second they can transport you back in time. 

The most famous literary example of this is of course Marcel Proust and his Madeline cake, but other authors also use it.

Philippe Claudel wrote sixty two short stories, impressions and memories all centrered around certain smells and scents of his childhood. 

In a few pages he tells about the memory and the smell that belongs to that memory and sometimes he will start with a scent and then the memory follows.

From the smelly cheese his father bought that had to be kept outside the house, the menuire that had to be spread over the soil, the special motoroil that went into a moped, the ink at school, freshly washed sheets, the cinnamon that inspired fantasies of exotic destinations and the differences in smells between the tobacco of a Gitane or a Gauloise.

Smell is something incomprehensible to me and something I cannot grasp, since I have no sense of smell. I never had it, at least not as far as I can remember. I have never been able to imagine how warm bread, fresh coffee or a just mowed lawn smell. On the other hand, I also do not smell the odor coming from a dirty catlitterbox, and that is an advantage.

But Philippe Claudel has achieved the impossible: in his beautiful way of writing, his amazing sentences and poetic images he has given me the sense of smell. Or rather, for the first time in my life I have an idea of what it must be like to be able to smell. His words conjure up images that bring the scents to life. Scents I do not know, but now I can imagine them.

Parfums is for me a beautiful book, that again proves that Philippe Claudel is a great writer. One of the best as far as I am concerned.

Original French title: Parfums
Published in 2012

Friday, 11 December 2015

The most charming neighbourhood in Berlin

One of the oldest and most charming neighbourhoods of Berlin can be found near the Hackescher Markt (market). Here you have charming houses, cute courts and loads of history.
The old trainstation is also quite beautiful.
The trainstation
This used to be a neighbourhood where a lot of the Jews in Berlin lived, until the nazi's came into power. Here you can find the eldest Jewish cemetery, which was completely destroyed by the nazi's. All that remains is this park, two gravestones and a monument.
The entrance to the Jewish cemetery

Beautiful monument
There are other reminders of the war as well. This house was bombed. A French artist searched and found who used to live there and made signs with the name and the profession of the people who used to live here. A good way to remember.
Reminding those who lived here
When you walk around in this neighbourhood, you see many houses with holes in them. These are the bullitholes from the battle of Berlin in April 1945.
The bullitholes are still visible
This neighbourhood is famous for its couryards. There are many courtyards in Berlin, but most of them are private and only the people who live there have access to them. Here, in the Hackescher Hofe, every pedestrian can walk from courtyard to courtyard and enjoy the beauty and the charm.
One of the Hackescher Hofe

Monday, 7 December 2015

Parisians, Graham Robb

Did you know Marie Antoinette got lost on her way from the Tuileries to the coach that would take them out of Paris because there were no maps of Paris yet?

Did you know there is an entire city with streets and squares under Paris, that prevents the city from falling down? And do you know why the bones of the dead are kept here?

Do you know which criminal did not only play a huge role in founding the Sûretée, but was also their chief investigator for many years?

These stories and many more can be found in the book Parisians by Graham Robb.

How do you tell the history of a city without falling into a long list of facts or drowning in details?
Graham Robb found a very original way and uses the voices of the Parisians themselves. He used books, letters and other documents and lets the different people in different times to the talking. He does this in such a way that it feels like these people are actually talking to you and you are there with them.

Napoleon who visited the Palais Royal when he was just a young lieutenant.

The children who grow up in a city that is occupied by the Nazi’s.

Emile Zola’s wife who has to deal with the other family her husband has, and who ends up taking better care of them than her husband does.

Hitler, who was always fascinated by the grandeur of Paris and who organized a tour with himself as a guide on the first day the Nazi’s occupied Paris.

The bohemians, the communards, the people who used the metro for the first time in 1900, baron Hausmann, the students in 1968, general de Gaulle and Mitterand, the young people in the Banlieu’s all tell us their story.

It helps if you know a little of the history of Europe and France in general, since it is not always clear which person is speaking to us and what the chapter is about. Often Graham Robb begins with a certain detail and goes from there to his point, but never in a straight line and always with many details.

Fascinating, interesting, huge fun and very well written, Parisians is a book for everybody who loves Paris.

Published in 2010

Friday, 4 December 2015

On being fast

Mosaic in the Centrale Montemartini
Sometimes I can be very quick. I read quite fast for example, faster than the average person. Some people have the idea that I do not read all of the books I say I read or at least suspect that I do not read a book well. 

I have had people who have asked me literally if I knew what the book was about, since I read it so fast. This in a slightly accusing tone.

The answer is yes, I read every letter and every word and I do understand and enjoy what I read, even if I do it fast. Fast is not the same as lazy or inaccurate, certainly not in this case.

Assuming I do not know what I read because I read so fast is equally stupid if I would assume people who read slower than I do are stupid and just do not understand the book. 

I also have the same problem in museums. I am not one of those people who reads all the information, so when there is an exhibition, I tend to walk through it a bit faster than people who do read all the information (but to be fair, if I would read all of it, I would still be faster). 
Not reading the extra information is a deliberate choice I make.

I suffer a little bit from professional-deformation; with everything I do I think about how I can use it in a classroom or in one of my lessons. And when I go to a museum, this is not what I want to be doing, I just want to watch and enjoy the beauty of what I see.

I also do not want to make the same mistake the German couple who sat next to me the Musée d’Orsay in Paris made. They read the entire Baedeker to eachother, but forgot to look at the painting.

Every now and then when there is something I do want to know, I’ll read the information. But for the rest I’ll skip those little cards with information so it will not distract me from what I see.

This can give some people the wrong impression.

When I was in Rome this Summer I visited the Centrale Montemartini. On the ground floor there were artefacts that had to do with Roman burial rituals. These are things I know about and I have read quite a good deal about the Romans. So I did not bother with the informationboards and just wandered through the exposition.

There was a Dutch couple there that meticulously read every card with information. When I was on my way back the woman said to the man: ‘Look, that lady is already finished on this floor and she came in after us.’ The man replied, rather smugly ‘Well, then I suppose she does not enjoy it as much as we do’. 

I could have explained of course. I also could have put that man in his place by telling him I am a historian and I did not need to read it since I already know these things. 

I did no such thing. The man was so happy with the idea he and his wife were doing this museum thing in a better way than I was, I just let him. 
I just hope they had a lovely day.
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