June 8th, 2014

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 1

  1. Berger, John — Ways of Seeing (149 pages)
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book cover: Ways of Seeing.

I am drawn to the world of art but find understanding or appreciating what I see a challenge. I can tell you whether I like a work of art but have difficulty going beyond that. I do not enjoy museums or galleries because I find them stuffy, tedious, and impenetrable. Museums (and a lot of books about art) place art on a high pedestal and clothe it in academic language, browbeating into me a sense that I must admire these classics, that I am a lesser person if I do not, and assigning an artificial value to them.

John Berger's Ways of Seeing, based on a four-part BBC television series of the same name, clears away a lot of the clutter. (View Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 on YouTube.) As the title suggests, the 7 chapters are about different ways of seeing art, about helping one see past all the cruft built up around it. Two essays are purely pictorial. Of the non-pictorial chapters, the first, based on Walter Benjamin's famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," discusses how the meaning of any painting has become ambiguous in a world where prints of the painting have become ubiquitous; any meaning is now dependent largely on context, such as accompanying words, sounds, images, etc. The second looks at the distinction between nudity and nakedness, focusing on the female nude in oil paintings and how, despite any artistic quality, they exist as a way for male audiences to enjoy, objectify, and own them. The third demonstrates the various levels at which paintings can be used to denote property, ownership, and status. And the final chapter looks at how advertising capitalizes on art in order to engender a sense of glamour and desire.

I found Ways of Seeing a refreshing, unpretentious, and insightful approach to art criticism and echo the sentiment that anyone who has an interest in the world of art should familiarize him- or herself with these essays.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 2

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  1. Vonnegut, Kurt — God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian (72 pages)
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book cover: God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian.

I had been looking forward to reading God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian since I first heard of its existence several years ago. Maybe I had built my expectations too high, for when I finally read it I felt disillusioned.

God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is a collection of vignettes in which a fictional Dr. Kevorkian sends Vonnegut, by means of controlled assisted suicide, to the afterlife to interview a range of deceased people. It's supposed to be humorous. A few did make me chuckle, but mostly I found them a bit too contrived.

Relax!  Grab a Book!

Book 3

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  1. Roth, Joseph — The Legend of the Holy Drinker (100 pages)
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book cover: The Legend of the Holy Drinker.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker is a revelation. Joseph Roth's last work before he drank himself to death tells the story of a down-on-his-luck drunk living on the banks of the Seine. One spring evening in 1934, an elderly gentleman gives him 200 francs. The only condition attached is that when the drunk, Andreas, is able, he should repay the gift to the statue of St Thérèse de Lisieux at the Chapelle de Sainte Marie des Batignolles. Andreas has every intention of following through, and a series of miracles repeatedly puts him in a position to do so. Somehow, though, every time he is on the verge of paying back his debt, a series of accidents, temptations, and distractions prevents him.

A touching novella, told with compassion and gentle humour, The Legend of the Holy Drinker is fabulous in both senses of the word and left me feeling uplifted.

(While writing this review I discovered an Italian film adaptation (La leggenda del santo bevitore) was made in 1988, directed by Ermanno Olmi and starring Rutger Hauer. It gets positive reviews, so I will be purchasing a copy and, if it is half as good as Roth's novella, I expect it to be a delight.)