Category Archives: book reviews

[Book Review] Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre

This is a book for an energetic mind.

I haven’t finished it yet. I’m having a hard time getting into it, not because it isn’t good or well written or whatever, but because I’m always so damn tired. If I felt like reading something, it would be this book.

My first thought, after reading the description of the book, was that Viper Wine had the potential to make a powerful statement about the social and psychological damage done by the beauty standard. The false value of aesthetic beauty, the judgment of worth by beauty, the patriarchal grading of women by their relative beauty, the competition that arises and demands unnatural measures to achieve “beauty” – all of these damage ourselves and our society, and this book could show us how.

I looked at the table of contents. The chapter titles sounded like short stories (“A Discourse Between Brothers”) or poems (“Moonbeams Are Cold and Moist”). The include modern pop culture references (“Fame” and “Yellow Submarine”). Together, they hinted at a poetic, ornate, satirically flowery style of writing. They were right.

There is a prologue, and Epilogue, and 38 chapters. There are about 400 pages of text. Large pages. There is also a Bibliography (selected), and a list of illustrations. This surprised me. I mean, yeah, it says it’s based on real events, but that phrase gets tossed about quite a lot with very little research to back it up. Not so in this case. Perhaps it’s because this novel, this fictionalization, was written by a journalist. But frankly, calling Hermione Eyre (surely that’s a pen name?) a journalist after reading any of this book at all, feels so incomplete as to be false. This woman is an Author. She has crafted what is perhaps a masterpiece.

I took a peek at the author photo on the back flap, curious about the face that made Viper Wine. The woman in the photo challenges the viewer and does not seem above leaping out of the photo for a fist fight – if only to place bets on the winner.

I wondered, before beginning the journey that has been Reading The Book, whether there could be a connection between the ornate writing style and the theme of social beauty concepts, especially in the damage those concepts do; is the writing style another layer of satire? Now that I’m halfway into the book, I feel it must be intentional. Whatever the case, it works.

Seriously, don’t let the ornate style turn you away before giving this book a try. It isn’t over the top, and somehow it manages to not be pretentious. The story is woven by its prose. Every thread is important. Every word addresses the characters in the most human terms and stabs at the modern feminist’s foes. The text describes the patriarchy without subscribing to it. If nothing else, this story is a feminist victory.

In the end, I ranked this book at four stars instead of five only because it is not broadly accessible; the average reader will have difficulty with some of the style devices – both the overall ornateness and the insertion of radio static (no really; I don’t know how else to describe it), which is original and interesting, but hard to ‘get’ at first.

(I ranked the back cover copy fairly low because books that only list their praise on the back annoy me. Give me a reason to open it, not sound bites.)

 

Also, you should know that I was given a copy of Viper Wine to review, through bloggingforbooks.com, which is awesome.


[Book Review] When the Railsplitter Went Foreign

I don’t usually read non-fiction history books cover to cover, but when I do…

Here’s the thing. I picked this book from the Blogging for Books website because, frankly, the selection at that time sucked, and this was the only one that struck me as having potential. I really wasn’t in the mood for a presidential biography (I’ve never been in that mood; I’m not sure I’d even recognize it, if I did stumble across it). But the other options were downright dismal. So I selected this one, about Abe Lincoln.

The book is Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power, by Kevin Peraino. And yes, I received a review copy in order to do this review.

I’ve had good luck with the books I’ve chosen from Blogging for Books. Here’s to hoping that continues. Lincoln in the World certainly didn’t disappoint.

Maybe I should reword that. I was expecting to struggle through a dry accounting of treaties and dignitaries lists I’d never remember quit reading after a few paragraphs. Instead, I got sucked in by Peraino’s humor and insight.  Who wouldn’t smile knowing that the esteemed president was completely aware of and honest about his lack of preparation for his post as our leader in foreign affairs? “I will be very apt to make blunders,” he said to an unnamed foreign dignitary.

I’m totally stealing that line, by the way.

But anyway.

I grew up thinking Lincoln was something of a romanticist; perhaps that is only because our history books remember him romantically. The truth is that Lincoln was a literalist. Peraino quotes Lincoln’s friend as saying that Lincoln’s mind “crushed the unreal, the inexact, the hollow, and the sham,… Everything came to him in its precise shape and color.”

Here’s something I don’t think many people understand: why do we study history? Peraino says that “in the age of Lincoln, we see shadows of our modern global arena.” And that is why we study history: to recognize ourselves and discern what is real in our present. Peraino’s treatment of Lincoln provides the lens for any reader to do exactly that. He makes Lincoln real, reminding us – or perhaps telling us for the first time – that Lincoln was just as human as the rest of us.

We tend to think of History as a list of dates, names, and wars, but history is nothing more, or less, than our story. It is the story of humans. Rather than listing the minutia of all Lincoln’s foreign politics, Peraino examines Lincoln’s character via the hard choices he navigated, thus giving a complete picture of how personality and interpersonal conflicts affected our young country’s foreign involvement.

To illustrate this picture, Peraino focused on five conflicts Lincoln faced:

  1. with his friend and law partner, Billy Herndon, over the Mexican War

  2. with his Secretary of State over which of them would control foreign policy

  3. with the British Prime Minister, over a diplomatic crisis in the midst of the American Civil War

  4. with Karl Marx, in a race for public opinion

  5. with the emperor of France, over their short-lived occupation of Mexico.

In the last chapter, Peraino addresses another conflict brought about by Lincoln’s foreign policy: the efforts of biographer John Hays to efforts to define Lincoln’s foreign policy legacy. Peraino titled this chapter “Lincoln vs. Lincoln,” a nod to the conflicting presentations of Lincoln’s legacy by the several biographers, all contemporaries of Lincoln, and all seeing him differently. From this, we learn why Lincoln’s foreign policy has traditionally been such a minefield for historians (and for some of us, we learn that is was a minefield, and why is was, all at the same time).

As any good biography, this book tells enough about the era that non-historians will get a clear picture of the setting and cultural climate, allowing the reader to grasp Lincoln’s personal development. Peraino’s analysis flows smoothly in the context, and will be easy for anyone to read. So, if you have even a passing interest in American history, check this one out. It won’t disappoint.

~~~

Incidentally, Lincoln was really funny, though maybe not always the way he intended. From the text:

As for French, the nineteenth-century language of diplomacy, he did not understand enough to read a menu. (“Hold on there,” the Railsplitter once told a waiter in a New York French restaurant. “Beans. I know beans.”)

… In the White House, Lincoln’s attempts at diplomatic finesse could seem comically inept. His efforts to bow elegantly to visiting diplomats were so “prodigiously violent” that they had “almost the effect of a smack” in their “rapidity and abruptness.”

… “His conversation consists of vulgar anecdotes at which he himself laughs uproariously,” the Dutch minister complained.

Confession: I pictured something akin to the Beverly Hillbillies’ shenanigans when I read that.


[Book Review] Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, by Jennifer Clement

I’d seen Basquiat’s name in my art history books. I didn’t learn how to pronounce it. His work never spoke to me, then. I was looking for something more ephemeral, something more fitting to my adolescent pretentiousness. I forgot about him, somewhere in the next chapter.

I chose to read Widow Basquiat: A Love Story, by Jennifer Clement, because it looked more interesting than the other options.

Because of that, my perception of our world -shifted- just a little bit.

I flipped the book open when it came in the mail, and read a page. There was a big heading: LESSONS ON HOW TO BE A WOMAN. This is a two-page passage. It describes how art critic Rene Ricard hired Basquiat’s long-time lover, Suzanne Mallouk, to transcribe his poetry. During the employment, Ricard gave Mallouk advice on being a more glamorous woman. It’s all interesting advice that deserves its own review, but this is the key phrase: “he tells her to study the drag queens because only they know how to act like women.”

I’ll let you chew on that, because that isn’t what this book is about.

Technically, this book is about Suzanne Mallouk, focusing on her relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Literally, this book is about two people, the 1980s art scene in New York City, and addiction. It’s a coming of age story for Suzanne, as much as it is a love story for them both. And even though the book is from Suzanne’s perspective (more on how the author uses that, later), Jean is the one who captures the reader, much as he captured the art world in life: by burning like a firecracker and laughing at our blinded eyes.

I read another review of this book, that ends with the phrase, “Unfortunately, Clement never interprets or judges, but the book still provides insightful clues for Basquiat enthusiasts to decipher this ’80s art legend.” The reviewer calls Basquiat a misogynist, and I can see why, but I disagree. On the other hand, I agree that Clement doesn’t interpret or judge, and disagree that this is an unfortunate thing. I always wonder, when reading biographies, what the real motives were for the subject. In Clements’ work on Basquiat, he is allowed to speak for himself. Of course, that means it’s the reader’s responsibility to get it right.

I could have this wrong, but I don’t think Basquiat was a misogynist. He seemed to treat all his lovers in about the same careless way, and they weren’t all women. Jean and Suzanne treat each other badly at times, like lovers sometimes do, but I suspect that even their worst moments had more to do with all the coke they were doing than anything else.

Perhaps it’s all about perspective. From a monogamist’s perspective, Jean’s constant infidelity might be reason enough to say he was a terrible person. For many, his nonchalance about non-familial relationships – be they sexual, romantic, or platonic – might be reason to call him insincere. I didn’t see it that way. His behavior was consistently non-committal; he was free of such fetters as social norms except in the ways he mocked them. But I don’t think he disliked people. I think he loved them – individually, that is, as opposed to in groups. I find him absolutely fascinating.

A note on the style of the text: it’s brusque and charming, it’s a tale told in snippets, and it speaks sometimes in the third person – this is Jennifer Clement, holding the spotlight to events, no photoshopping allowed – and sometimes in first person – this is Suzanne Mallouk herself, speaking from her journal. It’s not nearly so jarring as it sounds, reading these two perspectives side by side. In fact, I suspect Basquiat would have enjoyed the dancing way the two narratives engage each other. The reader is never bogged down by, well, anything. Each passage – I can’t call them chapters – is no more than two or three pages. Most are two or three paragraphs. Some are less. The story jumps along, just as Basquiat seemed to jump through life.

And along the way, I learned some things, about art, about love, about the wounds we think have healed, about racism, about humor, and about manliness.

I see his art with new eyes.

 

 

 

 

For perusal:

  1. The Radiant Child” – an article by Rene Ricard, the first written about Jean-Michel Basquiat. During the interview, Basquiat was high and naked. Rene complimented the beauty of Jean’s penis.

  2. An excerpt from Widow Basquiat, page 73; the regular font is Jennifer, the italics is Suzanne:

BLACK TAR SOAP

Jean-Michel’s favorite soap is Black Tar Soap. He uses is every day. It makes a gray lather. No one else can use it. It is his joke. Jean-Michel draws it on his paintings.

Everything was symbolic to him. How he dressed, how he spoke, how he thought, who he associated with. Everything had to be prolific or why do it and his attitude was always tongue-in-cheek. Jean was always watching himself from outside of himself and laughing.

 

 

 

 

 

I received a free copy of this book from bloggingforbooks.org, so that I could do a review.
I’m so glad I did.

This review is also posted on my primary blog.