Friday, May 27, 2016

The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey

    • The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey
    • Published January 11, 2016
    • Other books by the author include: Food for Free, The Unofficial Countryside, and Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.

    • Plants and trees are central to human existence and the author covers specific types of them over the course of the book.
    • Each chapter covers a different type of plant life: baobabs, yew trees, old trees, cotton (he calls it the "vegetable lamb" but do they actually shear lambs? Shouldn't that be "vegetable sheep"? Am I overthinking this?!) and many more.
    • I didn't love it and found most of it kinda boring but the section on ancient cave art was fascinating. Since that was at the beginning I kept reading in the hope of more chapters like that one. Alas, no.
    • Usually when I read a micro-history I can recite pointless facts ad nauseum afterwards but not this time. I have remained unscathed by new knowledge.
    • The author does have a lovely writing style but this book was not ultimately for me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

    • The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
    • Published February 2, 2016
    • Other book by the author: Edinburgh

    • An opera singer has a hidden past. As the book blurb says: "Only four could have betrayed her: one is dead, one loves her, one wants to own her. And one, she hopes, never thinks of her at all."
    • It can be viewed as a rags-to-riches tale: young, poor girl from Minnesota travels to Europe and becomes a legendary soprano and not just a soprano but a "falcon" soprano, a rare voice type. She moves from circus to prostitution to prison to servitude, changing her name as she goes. 
    • Someone has written an opera based on her life for her to perform. Who told the composer of her life story? She flashes back telling the story piecemeal.
    • The story mostly takes place in France during the Second Empire from the 1850s through the early 1870s, when Napoleon III was emperor.

    • I liked the story and the history of the era (of which I knew nothing before) but the author is one of those writers who eschews quotation marks. This makes it frustrating to read because you need to keep figuring out which is dialogue and which is description. Ugh.
    • The information about opera is interesting but words on a page cannot explain the difference in operatic voices. I assume some explanatory videos exist on Youtube that would illustrate the different soprano voices but that's not what I want to stop and search for while I'm READING A BOOK.
    • I always enjoy reading about the details of life as a prostitute and/or a courtesan so this book satisfied that. (Like Forever Amber, The Crimson Petal and the White or Memoirs of a Geisha and those of that ilk.)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

    • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    • Published 2004
    • Won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2005
    • One other book by the author so far: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

    • The story takes place in England starting in the year 1806. It is an alternate history of sorts: magic is something that is assumed to have been real but had disappeared centuries before. Mr. Norrell, a reclusive magician, makes his talents known to the world and the story follows from that.
    • Jonathan is an aimless young man who decides to make magic his career.
    • The two magicians come together in a tutor-pupil relationship but part ways when their philosophies on magic differ. Norrell believes magic should stay "theoretical" and in books he has hoarded to keep from others, including his pupil. Strange believes magic should be practiced rather than hidden away in books.
    • The magic involves the fairy world (and prophesies too!) and a whole cast of characters.

    • I watched the BBC America miniseries last summer and loved it. The two main actors, Eddie Marsan (Norrell) and Bertie Carvel (Strange), were wonderful. I highly recommend it for people who like stories about magic and the era of the Napoleonic Wars.
    • The book includes numerous footnotes with asides about the history of magic and explaining the fairy tales affecting the story. Most people don't seem to like footnotes in scholarly books much less a novel. I am not one of them. I adore footnotes, especially when they expand on the topic rather than just cite a source.
    • Obviously this is a book that intrigues me as I enjoy stories about weird, magic worlds. It was a bestseller so I guess a bunch of people were also intrigued.
    • The author apparently took over 10 years to write this novel. She is supposedly writing a follow-up. Since 12 years have passed then perhaps it means a new book is on the horizon in the next few years.
      • The Ladies of Grace Adieu, published in 2008, includes stories taking place in the same alternate world but many of these were written and published previously to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.