Saturday, April 24, 2010

Solomon’s Thieves by Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland

Solomon’s Thieves by Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland is a curious blend of historical fact, comic book visuals, and contemporary cliché.  This graphic novel is the first in what I assume will be a series exploring the downfall of the Knights Templar after the fervor for the Crusades had finally dissipated.  Thankfully, the authors do not go into conspiracy theories although this graphic novel has just about every cliché one could imagine.  A feisty maiden makes an appearance early on as the inevitable love interest of one of the soon to be troubled knights.  If contemporary literature were close to true, it is a miracle the women’s movement hasn’t made more progress because every woman from the Dark Ages through Victorian times is sassy and intelligent and even educated. 

The clichés stop with the young maiden, however.  The bad guys are obviously drawn in a way that the reader immediately knows that this is a bad guy.  Is the reader supposed to boo and hiss as soon as these two-dimensional characters appear on the page?  And who is the intended audience for this graphic novel because I couldn’t figure it out?  The illustrations are drawn in bold lines and visually this looks like something drawn for a younger reader but since the main characters get drunk, look for prostitutes on a bawdy night out on the town, and are even tortured so one would assume the intended reader would be a more mature one.  Unfortunately, because the characters are so tediously predictable, a sophisticated reader will be bored before halfway through the book because there are simply no surprises whatsoever.  That the wayward knights will have their due in the end is obvious.  That one of them will die on the way is also obvious.  Of course, the young man will be reunited with his atypical medieval maiden, probably when she is daring to run away from some unwanted future—marriage or nunnery, no doubt.  Or maybe he will rescue her accidentally.  Either way, love will out . . . *yawn*

If the writing or drawings were more sophisticated, I could easily recommend this to adults and even young adults.  Because of the clichés and the obvious story line, I can’t even recommend this to younger readers; I’d rather encourage them to read something that will rise to the occasion, that will fan the flames of curiosity, something that would not fall flat and leave the reader, at least this reader anyway, bored. 

In the afterward, Mechner lists some of the texts he used as resources in his research for the comic.  Anyone who wants to read about the Knights Templar, the Crusades, or the Middles Ages would do better to pick up any one of these books rather than read this graphic novel.  However, if you want to be entertained then most readers would do better to just watch a movie that takes place in this era.  God knows Hollywood is unable to create anyone but a lovesick hero and a feisty maiden to give life to a time in history that was rife with intrigue, fascinating people, and challenging experiences.  I expect more than typical Hollywood fodder from the books I read, even if it is “only” a graphic novel.  I love anything that is well written, interesting and engaging, without going for the trite and predictable.  That this is a graphic novel is no excuse for laziness in plot, character development, etc.  A two dimensional medium for two dimensional characters and a flat plot—how redundant.

In the end, a dull read about something that deserves something more dynamic.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Venice for Lovers by Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein

Venice for Lovers by Louis Begley and Anka Muhlstein is an interesting and very promising concept—take a married couple, she a writer of historical nonfiction and he a writer of novels, who have been married for a while, and go to Venice annually (30 years and counting) and invite them to write a book about Venice.  She writes about the restaurants where they eat and he offers up both a short story and an essay that is a literary exploration of how Venice is seen through the eyes of Henry James and Thomas Mann. 

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  The most impressive thing about this very short book (which would be even shorter if the font were not so large) is that it can actually make Venice sound rather dull.  If you aren’t sure you ever want to go to Venice, this book will kill even the slight inclination that someday you might.  If you are eager to see Venice for yourself, this book might actually inspire you to call your travel agent and see if you can’t change your itinerary.

Muhlstein’s discussion of the restaurants, including the wines and meals that she and her husband have enjoyed, is the highlight of this book but none of the offerings are described in the kind of sensorial detail one would hope to find.  Not once did my mother water in anticipation as I read through the pages.  I was far more interested in the various characters, the restaurateurs they encounter who, for the most part, remain enigmatic.  If this were a novel or short story I would be frustrated by the lack of details and the flat, undeveloped characters.  Unfortunately, she is describing real life and if this is what it is like to live in another country I can see why so many people prefer to stay home.

Begley provides a digression, a short story that works well as a coming-of-age idea that never reaches relevant fruition.  There are so many coming-of-age stories it can be a challenge to bring something new to the table.  Even placing the story in a city as lovely as Venice doesn’t bring anything particularly interesting to the narrator’s tedious experience.  The coincidences that drive the implied plot are amateurish and the inevitability of the events is beyond tedious.

The final essay is probably great if you are familiar with Henry James and/or Thomas Mann, can bring some contextual knowledge to the points Begley is trying to make by describing how the writers use Venice to inform their writing.  I might have appreciated this section more if I were myself more familiar with either writer’s works.  Certainly, this is more a fault on my part than on the writer’s but I can’t help wondering why the editor and publisher didn’t ask these two talented writers to write something more inspiring, something that would make the reader desire to pack up and get to Venice as soon as possible.

I would have liked so much more.  More details so that I could feel, taste, see, and even hear the experience of being in Venice.  Perhaps some photographs sprinkled throughout, since neither writer bothered to give me any other details.  Maybe some of the history, the art and architecture, the culture, the . . . I don’t know . . . EVERYTHING!

When I go to Venice someday it will be in spite of this book, not because of it. 

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb is a rare gem, a wonderful blend of theory and practical application, drawing inspiration on the works of the Renaissance master to present seven principles by which the reader can draw inspiration for living a more fully balanced life while also going deeper into being who and what he/she is. 

I expected this book to be about drawing and to walk away with some superficial insights into perception and expecting to recommend it to a few people, if any.  However, I found myself about halfway through wishing I could buy multiple copies that I could give to several friends and even family members. I know that when it first was published it was hugely popular, with reading groups working through it much the way people worked through The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.  I can see why and wished I could lure some of my friends to join me in reading through the book. 

Unlike Cameron’s book, Gelb’s doesn’t invite the reader to dig endlessly in a therapeutic manner, exploring childhood issues or even traumas.  Instead, Gelb asks the reader to first go through the book without stopping, reading cover to cover, and the exercises are mostly journaling in the form of listing, taking the lists as a launching point to focus one’s intention, to make life more fulfilling not by necessarily doing more but through focusing, prioritizing, and opening yourself to playing with new ways of being.  Along with the journaling exercises, Gelb uses right brain/left brain theory to explore ideas through mind-mapping which inevitably leads to the final section where he does encourage the reader to do some sketching.  (And before you say “But I can’t draw” let me point out—anyone can draw, just some people are better at it than others.  Like singing or writing or dancing—we can all do these things . . . some of us better than others.)

There is a thorough bibliography, organized by the themes of each of the chapters with additional resources for more about the Renaissance.  Anyone who wanted to revisit a particular section of the book, to explore the ideas more fully can easily find complementary resources through the bibliography, an invaluable resource because even though Gelb is certainly introducing a lot of ideas, strongly contextualized within the life and works of da Vinci, most readers will find some chapters more provocative and inspiring than others.

I still wish I could lure some others to play with this book along with me.  I think it would be great fun.  I further wish I could buy copies to give as gifts because I would enjoy sharing this book with so many people.  For now, the best I can do is share this book review.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

How I Loathe Technology!

At the end of March, my computer died.  Again.

Then I went away for a week and when I came home our internet had crashed.


I was forced to live without the internet and frankly it was lovely.  But now I'm back and I have a lot of book reviews and links to share.  I am also going to try an experiment in the month of May, posting something personal each and every day.  I am not committing to do this past May.  It will be hard enough for me to break through my internet phobia.  However, I am also tired of receiving comments from hackers and spammers and not receiving comments from friends and family.  There are a few exceptions, because I am surrounded by exceptional people, but they are so few and far between and I know it's my own fault.  I mean, unless you've read a book I review and want to discuss it in a comment there's really nothing to which anyone can respond.

So there you go . . . something to look forward to in May.  In the meantime, I'm trying to catch up.

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