Saturday, June 28, 2008

32. Fabergé's Eggs

The title: Fabergé's Eggs
The author: Tony Faber
Publication: Macmillan, 2008
Got it from: Library

Well, I'll say one thing for Tony Faber: he doesn't put himself into his writing. Not one "I" anywhere. Which is kind of frustrating, because I kept getting the feeling that he was somehow connected to the famous Fabergé, given his last name. There was also frequent mention of a London shop, Faber & Faber. Given that the author is British, I figured he must have some connection to it. Alas, not a word.

This book is purely for people who (like me) are enthusiastic about Russian history and/or have a fetish for garish, ornate regal objects. Especially ones with murky histories and strange tales. The first part of the book was excellent, chronicling how Fabergé made his annual Easter eggs, presents from the Tsar to his wife and mother. And oh, how I wish I could see one after reading the detailed descriptions and seeing their photos. The book was also kind of sad, considering I knew how the ending would go for the Romanovs. It's like watching a horror movie and screaming at the main characters, "Get out! Save yourselves!" Even when you know it's inevitable.

The novel gets weighed down, however, after the Bolsheviks take over and the eggs scatter to the four winds. Some have never been recovered, some stayed in the Kremlin, and others made strange and convoluted journeys to their present homes worldwide. (One egg belongs to the Emir of Qatar, two are Queen Elizabeth's and a great number are in museums in the States. Who knew?) Although it's fun to play detective and retrace each egg's steps, I found in some cases there were just too many steps and too many names and stories to remember. It's exciting to think that there is a very strong possibility of some of the missing eggs turning up some day.

I'll leave you with a link to one of my favourite of Fabergé eggs, The Winter Egg. Not only is it absolutely stunning and considered to be the best of all Fabergé's eggs, it was actually designed by a 25-year-old woman who worked for Fabergé named Alma Pihl.

I rate this book 30 Fabergé eggs out of fifty.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pump up the volume

So here we are, halfway through the year already, and I thought I'd better assess my progress - to help push me back on track, so to speak. So far this year I've read 31 books (15 fiction, 10 non-fiction), which is ahead of last year's total, but nowhere near reaching my goal of 100. Not to mention I haven't really branched out into any new areas, although I am reading a mystery right now for a change.

So I am herewith announcing my goals for this summer:
1. Read at least one Western. Longarm would be good for a larf, if I could stand the blatant misogyny. Or I could actually read a good one.
2. Read the next book in the Amelia Peabody mystery series. I've read one every summer since 2001, but I missed it last year because I'm sure the last one I read was in Ireland, 2006.
3. Read at least one book in my collection that's been on the shelf for years which I should have read a long time ago.
4. Read at least one other Civil War romance, one that I actually enjoy. Of course if I don't, you'll get another hilarious review.

Friday, June 13, 2008

25-31. The Chronicles of Narnia

The title: The Chronicles of Narnia (The Magician's Nephew; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Last Battle)
The author: C.S. Lewis
Publication: HarperCollins, 2001 (this edition)
Got it from: UNBSJ bookstore, 2002

D. and I saw Prince Caspian a few weeks ago and have been making jokes about Prince L'Oreal of the Prettiest Hair ever since. I will refrain from this. Okay, just one: his hair is purtier than mine!

To be fair in judging these books, I've decided to break them down into my brief feelings on all of them. Overall, I'd probably give the series a B. They were entertaining and I found that they raised some interesting concepts and had some memorable characters. But get ready to shoot me: I didn't like Aslan. I know, I know. How could I dislike the all-knowing, all-wise, all-good God figure of the book? For the same reason I hate it when people try to shove their "disappointed patriarch god" into my face to make me feel guilty about something. Every time Aslan came into the picture, the story suddenly became weighed down the same way church weighs Sunday down.

The Magician's Nephew: Most people dislike this book the most in the series, but I personally think it's far and away the best. I loved Polly and Diggory as the adventurers - I wish Polly had her own book. I thought Uncle Andrew was a scream as the bad guy and I'd have loved to hear more about his evil studying of magic. Most of all, I have always been fascinated by the rings and the idea of the Woods Between the Worlds. And the Queen is fantastic. She's even more interesting than in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, the only place I stop loving the book so much is when the Narnia section begins.

As a matter of fact, from now on, you can pretty much assume that any section with Aslan I'll dislike, and any book that's heavy on Aslan I'll enjoy far less than the Aslan-light ones. (Heh heh. Aslan-light. Sounds like imitation butter. "I can't believe it's not Aslan!")

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: The grandma of the series, of course, the one that everyone just looooves, because Lucy and Peter are so brave and noble and Aslan sacrifices himself, just like Jesus! Okay, okay. I didn't actually mind it all that much, except for the Aslan-sacrificing bit. It was pretty good with the Edmund and Turkish Delight bit, and the beavers and all that. It was a really good story until you-know-who shows up. Then it's all, "For Narnia!" this and, "Epic CGI battle!" that.

The Horse and His Boy: My second favourite story of the series, mostly because of the hilarious non-veiled racist attack on Muslims. (Not that I find racist attacks on Muslims funny. What I find funny was how obvious Lewis was about it.) But it is an excellent adventure story on top of it, and Aravis was definitely the most kick ass of all the females in the series, and in particular she definitely beat the crap out of Shasta.

Prince Caspian: Mostly, too me, this story felt like filler. The first half with the fleeing from the evil uncle was pretty good, but the second part was highly forgettable. I mean, I've just read it and seen the movie version and I can barely remember what happened. Oh yes, some battle. Yawn.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: This one was quite good, although it was a little slow getting started. I kind of got bogged down at about the fourth chapter and didn't have the heart to pick it up for about two weeks. It picked up more momentum towards the end. The whole thing kind of reminded me of the Odyssey, which I suspect Lewis lifted from heavily (and even mentions in the text). I liked how each chapter was a mini-adventure. The introduction of Eustace was brilliant. I would have liked to have given that stupid mouse a good kick, though.

The Silver Chair: Again, the first part was kind of dull and dreary. It picked up somewhere in the middle when they got to the giant's castle and the whole thing turned Alice in Wonderlandish. I wish Jill could have been a better-written character, though. And Lewis just had to put that last dig in about how the female headmaster was so incompetent and was to blame for all the supposed problems of "Experiment House."

The Last Battle: Okay, could you hit me over the head with Christian end-of-the-world allegory a little harder? I wish this book had never been written. Seriously. Couldn't there have been a better way to tie up "loose ends?" All the characters seemed like such self-righteous prigs and the whole thing turned into a guilt-tripping sermon. I wanted to smack Prince Tirian for being such a cardboard character and a patronizing ass. I can't count the number of times he referred to Jill or Lucy as "sweetheart" or "little lady" or something equally eye-rolling. And then there's the whole, "Susan doesn't care about Narnia anymore, she just cares about boys and parties now" and that's soooo bad. (Read: "Susan doesn't come to Narnia anymore because she's conforming to patriarchal standards of womanhood and that makes her TEH EVIL and unworthy of the glory of Narnia, even though she'd be punished in our world for not conforming." If you ask me, I'd rather hang out at parties in England than spend eternity romping through fields with such smug little beasts. But I'm trying not to analyze these books too much with my feminist eye.

And what the hell is with that ending? (SPOILERS)

Aslan: "Oh yes, you all died in a horrible trainwreck. Now you're dead and living with ME!"
Everyone: "Hooray!"

WTF? Thanks, but no thanks.

Yes, 'twould have been better to end with The Silver Chair, methinks. But I'm glad I finally finished the series after having read only the first four when I was a child. Someday my kids will want to read them and I want to be able to help them understand what they're reading.

Monday, June 9, 2008

24. Our Dumb World

The title: Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth
The author: The Onion
Publication: Brown and Company, 2007
Got it from: Library

Although I found some parts funny, I have to say that on the whole it would have been a lot better had it not been written by the same liberal white doodes who write everything. C+

Thursday, June 5, 2008

23. Soul of the World

The title: Soul of the World: Unlocking the Secrets of Time
The author: Christopher Dewdney
Publication: HarperCollins, 2008
Got it from: Library

Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sundial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions
-Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 B.C.)

Some people pick up Jayne Ann Krentz for their summer reads. I prefer to read about the meaning of time. (Since Einstein theorized that all times exist at once, somewhere on a June day in 1991, that little bully Francis Logan is hissing "nerd!" at me in third grade French class, while Mme. Sutton tsks, "Écouter , Mademoiselle Howe!") I didn't think I'd enjoy this book nearly as much as I did. I found myself unable to put it down for long periods of time. There were a lot of things in here that I've read extensively about (such as time-travel) and many more things I encountered for the first time.

The author is a Torontonian, which made his description of local landscapes accessible to me. He hails from the "personalize everything with anecdotes from my life," school of non-fiction writing. (See: Bryson, Bill. Winchester, Simon.) Some people like this, others do not. Beware: rambly sojourns ahead! This is no straight scientific/social narrative. There's a lot of sub-plot involving the author's garden. I like him. I could see myself having tea with this man at a tea shop. That's saying something. I actually did meet Simon Winchester, once, but we didn't get to have tea. If I ever met Bill Bryson, I'd take him to The Rocky Mountain Candy Company, because he seems like a chocolate-covered apple kind of guy. But I digress (as does the author, frequently.)

What nuggets can I use to tempt you to read this book? Well, there's always those fascinating details that makes you go: hey! I never knew! For instance, the 2004 tsunami actually changed the angular momentum of the Earth's spin, shortening our day by 3 millionths of a second. I mean, not just the day it happened, but every day since then. How cool is that? Another interesting part is when he asks friends and acquaintances to describe time in terms of its physicality. Most people said it was blue. Someone described it as "the colour of diamonds underwater." I like that. On a more practical note, one of the most fascinating sections was on how technology, specifically things like telephones and motion pictures, changed our perception of time forever.

I'll leave you with one of my favourite pieces from the book. Since much about time is speculative, it's a bit of a whimsy, but I found it funny. Maybe you have to be a nerd to get it. I don't know. On pages 52-53, he describes a possible sub-culture living among us: the Femtonians. A femtosecond is one millionth of a billionth of a second, so naturally Femtonians living among us would be unaware that we were anything but unmoving mountains. We, in turn, would not be able to detect them:

The Femtonians could be living among us as if we were so many figurines. Should their science become advanced enough, a genius among them might announce that the statues are not utterly unchanging, but that they are, in fact, moving! Controversy would erupt. It would be well-known that, although most of the statues' eyes are open, some are half-closed, while a minority are completely closed. Using comparison photographs from over a century, the Femtonian scientist would show how the eyelids of a particular statue with half-closed eyes have moved incrementally over the decades. "Preposterous!" would be the response from the dissenting scientists. "How could statues move? I suppose next you'll be telling us they're alive?"

Ah, the theory of relativity in practice. A.