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Book Review: I Was Vermeer

I recently read I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger, by Frank Wynne.  The story of Han van Meegeren is fascinating.  This Dutch artist created a worldwide stir after it came out that he had been forging paintings by Dutch Golden Age Old Masters, including Johannes Vermeer.  He confessed after one of his paintings was sold to Nazi Hermann Göring, and he was arrested as a collaborator to the Nazi war effort.

During the war, there was a lot of concern about Dutch treasures falling into the hands of the Nazis.  Selling a painting from a renowned Old Master like Vermeer to Göring and the Nazis was considered treason, punishable by death.  After being held in prison for a while, remaining silent about his involvement, he finally came forward and confessed that the painting was a forgery.  While treason was a death sentence, the lesser crime he confessed to only had the potential for a two-year prison sentence.

The book dives deeply into van Meegeren’s entire life, beginning with his childhood, intrigued by drawing.  It explores his ego, his relationship with his father, his tendencies as a spendthrift and his numerous affairs.  Speculation varies on his motives for forgery; some assume it was strictly a money making venture while others believe that his motive was the fame and ego that came from creating the “perfect” Old Dutch Master painting.  It was probably both.

The book is well written and well researched, with lots of information on van Meegeren’s personal life, his methods of painting and the trial at the end of his life.  A worthy read.

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Book Review: Killing Jesus

I finished Killing Jesus, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, a few days ago.  I decided to read it because a friend was talking about having started it, and then the library happened to have it – which is frankly how I end up with a lot of the audio-books I listen to.  O’Reilly co-wrote the book with Martin Dugard.  I’m sure Dugard mostly wrote the book, but O’Reilly gets the big typeface.  After I finished it, my friend and I basically had the lamest book club session ever over text, consisting of, “Well, did you like it?”  “Yeah.  Did you?”  “Yeah, although it was a bit basic…” There wasn’t even any beer being consumed.

So, back to the book.  Like I said above, is well written but basic, covering the basics, but not going into too much detail on Jesus’ life and death.  O’Reilly states that the goal was to write from a historical perspective only, and on that point I think they do a pretty good job.  It does remain fairly neutral, explaining Jesus and his life without making a political or religious statement, and explaining Pontius Pilate and his role in Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion.  That said, since much of what is known about Jesus, comes from the gospels, you have to have some religious faith, otherwise, you probably don’t accept their history as truth.  Other characters in the history are only very cursorily mentioned, although there is a bit of detail on John the Baptist.  I did enjoy the end of the book, which discusses how the apostles spread the teachings of Jesus after his death and how Christianity was spread and gradually accepted around the world.  I do wish there were more detail.

I was interested the whole way through, and the writing style flowed well.  O’Reilly’s reading of the audio-book wasn’t so lucky – he stumbled through the reading at several points, and his mispronunciation of several words was a bit painful.

It’s worthwhile as quick basic read, but certainly won’t give you any scholarly depth on Jesus or Christianity.  Basically, it’s newsstand history – not a serious, in-depth, historical examination of the life of Jesus the Nazareth.  Read it for what it is.

Book Review: West with the Night

I had never heard of Beryl Markham before, so when this audio-book popped up on the library website, I was intrigued.  Markham was the first female to do a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean from East to West – this flight was much harder than the other direction due to the strong headwinds.  She accomplished this feat on September 4, 1936, at the age of 31.

Markham’s life was amazing in many other ways.  Born in England, her family moved to Kenya when she was four years old, and she spent her childhood among lions and other African wildlife, hunting boar, and riding the racehorses her father trained.

As an adult, she moved into her father’s occupation of racehorse training, and became a celebrated trainer in Kenya.  She also learned to fly planes, and became the first female bush pilot in Africa, flying scouting missions for hunting parties as well as providing transportation around a country with few usable roads.

The book was published in 1942, and is a memoir of her life, from early childhood through her amazing solo flight.  Her writing evokes the images of life in rural Africa; you feel as if you are actually in that plane with her, looking down on the elephants and zebra below.  Her character development is superb – the cast from her life was a unique and motley crew.

Markham is a fantastic writer, but I do wish that she had spent a little more time on her Trans-Atlantic flight.  It is really only given a little bit of time at the very end of the book.  Beyond that, my only gripe would be that the audio-book reader had a bit of a monotone reading voice, which was a distraction at first.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, learning about a strong woman and an important historical figure.  She broke barriers in a world that didn’t give women a lot of chances to do amazing things; she single-handedly did several.

If you have a chance to read it, I hope you will.  If you have already, please let me know what you thought!

Book Review: Hidden Figures

I just finished Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly.  Honestly, when the movie came out, I didn’t watch it, but it wasn’t because I was waiting to read the book.  Somehow it just got lost in a period of time when I really haven’t watched many movies.

The story is amazing in the fact that was seemingly never told before this.  Black, female mathematicians, cranking out calculations on complex engineering problems faced by NASA (and its predecessor, the NACA) to get manned spacecraft into space, and landing on the moon.  These women were a fundamental core to the engineering divisions that worked out these problems, yet lived in an age of Jim Crow segregation.

The library had this in audio-book format, so I checked it out.  It is a decent book, but I wanted to like it more than I did.  I had trouble with her writing style.  It wasn’t that Shetterly wasn’t interesting and engaging – that’s not really it.  The truth is, her characters all blended together. I know there was a Katherine, a Dorothy, a Christine and a Mary, but sadly, in Shetterly’s writing, none of these iconic women stood out from each other.

The stories of how these women got to where they did are each impressive, and truly diverse from each other.  The hardships they faced, the family dynamics that supported them, the interests they had in their careers – these women were all unique from each other as well as being true pioneers in an age when women in science were rare, and black women in science even more so.  Yet the stories ended up nearly indistinguishable from each other, due to the lack of good character development.

So, sadly, although I enjoyed the book, it left a lot to be desired.  Perhaps the visual format of the movie will help.

Book Review: Alexander Hamilton

Wow – this book is a comprehensive digest of Alexander Hamilton’s life.  Written by Ron Chernow, it begins with his childhood in the British West Indies – the city of Charlestown on the island of Nevis.  It goes into detail on the troubled life of his mother and his illegitimate birth, to his rise to fame in the budding United States Government.

Hamilton was a genius, clearly, and in many ways a man of contradictions.

Hamilton was taken in by a wealthy merchant after his mother died, and was sent to the United States as a teenager to pursue his education.  It was there that he volunteered for the Continental Army, became a top aide to General Washington, and set his life on a trajectory that made him one of the most influential and polarizing of the Founding Fathers.

George Washington had a lot of respect for his young aide’s opinions and advice, and the two developed a long-standing friendship that was interrupted only once by Hamilton’s impulsive distancing of himself for a period of time in order to pursue his career – he wanted to get into the action of the war, and Washington felt he was invaluable as an aide.

Hamilton was very influential in getting the US Constitution ratified, which wasn’t an easy process.  He was Secretary of the Treasury in the Washington cabinet, and was responsible for the founding of the national banking system, and many of the economic policies of the Washington Administration.  He was a founding member of the Federalist Party.  He implemented tariffs to raise money to cover the debts remaining from the Revolutionary War, and wrote the Federalist Papers, which shaped opinions on many government and economic topics.

It isn’t any secret that Hamilton died in perhaps the most famous duel in history.  Which is interesting, because his son died in a duel, fought with the same dueling pistols, a few years previously.  After that duel, Hamilton was open about his changing opinion about dueling.   Yet when he was challenged by Burr, he still couldn’t bring himself to step away – instead he further inflamed the feud.

Chernow goes into great detail about Hamilton’s life, both personal and professional.  It is clear that he has done his research, and he is fairly candid about Hamilton’s flaws.  In my opinion he does let his pro-Hamilton, anti-Jefferson-Adams-Madison-Burr bias show a smidge more than he ought to.  It did serve to highlight how divisive our Founding Fathers really were.  Which is probably good to remember when we consider the current political sentiment.

This is an excellent read – and Chernow’s style kept me interested even through a lot of dry detail on banking, political wrangling over the location of the capital, and other similar topics.  It is well researched, well written, and shed a lot of light on a statesman I had never explored much before.  It was certainly a worthwhile read.

 

Book Review: The Witches

I have read a few books on the Salem Witch Trials and have been fascinated by how it all went so far… So when The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, popped up as available on the library website as I was looking for new audiobooks, I was interested.  Into the download folder it went…

This book started off differently, with a history of the Puritan ministers in Salem and Salem Village, as well as the conflict that existed among the villagers at that time.  Wood was already scarce, and whether a minister had to procure his own wood or have it delivered by the congregation was an issue that lead to some deep seated feuds over the years.  Who knew…  She gives several examples like this, where day to day relationships had been breaking down for years.  Add to that the fact that the Massachusetts Puritans seem to be really litigious, and you have a group of people who seemed bent on settling scores.  It makes all the finger pointing make a lot more sense, all of a sudden…

She pulls in the transcripts of the trials when possible, while pointing out that there are some trials that seem to have no transcript at all.  Even the most complete transcripts are mediocre at best, filled with summary, huge gaps and interspersed with opinion and bias.  What is clear from the transcripts is that the judges took confessions as fact, and denials as just another opportunity to wear down the accused.  I bet by the time I’d been in a filthy, cold jail with no food for months, I’d be willing to cough up a confession too if I were offered mercy.

Schiff breaks down the statistics of who went to the gallows; how many confessed vs. denied, how many had seen previous witchcraft allegations, how many were involved in a land or other legal dispute with another villager.  She also broke down the behavior of the judges and other key players long after the trial: who regretted, who repented, and who steadfastly stuck with their original decisions.  It is fascinating when seen in the light of day, and when considering who had something to gain by getting you out of the way…  In Puritan New England, just like now, it was a case of “be careful who you cross.”  It seems we haven’t changed all that much…

The Witches: Salem, 1692

 

Schiff’s book, although relatively long, makes for an interesting read.  She supports her findings with research – there are a lot of footnotes.  She breaks new ground on the topic, offering plausible background context for how the mass hysteria got underway and how it was permitted to continue.  Her writing style draws you in and kept my interest until the end.  A worthwhile read.

 

Book Review: The Goldfinch

I was drawn to The Goldfinch because I had seen the painting once, in real life, on loan to the de Young Museum in San Francisco; an exhibit of the works of the Dutch Masters.  It was painted by Carel Fabritius, a Delft master painter who was a pupil of Rembrandt and a teacher of Vermeer (Girl with a Pearl Earring).  He died tragically in the Delft gunpowder magazine explosion in 1654 at only 32 years of age. Only about a dozen of his paintings survive.  The Goldfinch is exquisite; photographs really don’t do it justice.  It immediately became one of my all-time favorite paintings.

The Goldfinch – Carel Fabritius – 1654

So when I saw The Goldfinch novel, by Donna Tartt, on the library website, I checked it out without knowing what it was about.

Shortly after I started it, I went for a walk with a couple of friends; books are a topic that often comes up.  After I said what I was reading, one friend told me that her book club had tried reading The Goldfinch and had all quit, frustrated and disappointed.  They couldn’t get into it.

I kept going, and found myself drawn into the story of a young teenage boy, whose mother takes him to see the exhibits at the Met in New York City, and The Goldfinch is among those paintings.  What follows is an intriguing coming of age tale of art theft, drug addiction, grief, finding family, international crime and the Russian mafia.  The novel follows a circuitous route of the life of Theodore Decker as he learns to navigate in the world.  In an often bizarre twist of fate, the painting is his anchor.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

You will likely either love it or hate it; I think this is a book where there is no in between.  I am in the former camp.  The novel held my interest, despite its length, and the ending has one of the best summations on life that I have read.  Enjoy.