Posts Tagged ‘books


Book Review: John Berger – The Success and Failure of Picasso

The Success and Failure of PicassoThe Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In an eloquent and insightful book-length essay, John Berger lays out his theories and critiques of Picasso, an artist almost everyone knows of but perhaps few seem to understand as deeply as Berger.

Essentially, Berger lays out how there were a couple periods where Picasso’s art was truly extraordinary and redefined the rules of painting. Conversely, he also explains the times when Picasso’s art was stale and lacking in inspiration. He does so through a deep analysis which ties together everything from Rousseau to anarchist theory to examinations of Picasso against peers like Van Gogh or Velazquez.

Of course, it’s far more than just that. When Berger’s insights are at their deepest, he’s examining the social differences of pre-Franco Spain and western Europe, the way art has been turned into a commodity by the bourgeois and the failings of Soviet artistic theory. But the most penetrating insight is Berger’s examination of success: what it does to people, how it changes them.

For Picasso, Berger explains success wasn’t something he aimed for, but something which profoundly shaped the arc of his work. It came early to the artist, who was so talented as a teenager that his father – also an artist – gave up painting entirely. As a Spaniard living in France, Picasso was an outsider (a “vertical invader,” as Berger writes) who belonged to no school. True, he was part of the Cubists. But they, as a general rule, lasted a short while and after the end of the first world war, their approach to painting was overshadowed by new schools like Dadist, Surrealism and others which reflected the horrors of the trenches.

As Berger writes, success didn’t ruin Picasso, but it kept his art from developing. In isolation, Picasso couldn’t advance as an artist and his best works came only when he had a direct, emotional response to what he painted. Berger lays out a compelling case for Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Therese, of Guernica and – most interestingly – a late series of sketches from late 1953.

Perhaps the observation which stands out the most is when Berger notes how Picasso can own things by drawing the, His fame was such that if he needed something, he could draw and turn the painting into whatever he desired: a house, a car, etc, etc. “There is the implication that his passions, his will, can control things – even against their wishes, and that by means of painting a thing, he possesses it,” writes Berger.

All in all, an engrossing and insightful work of criticism. It’s not a biography and it’s not concerned even a little with the private life of Picasso. There are few new things here to be learned about his life and if you’re seeking a list of events and influences, you’d look elsewhere. But if you want an understanding, a look at what makes a painter succeed or fail and how one person can shape the rules of painting, there’s probably few books as interesting. Recommended for art fans.

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Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot here to chew on. Democracy in America took me the better part of 2012 to read and that’s not just because I was pacing myself: it’s a dense volume, with a lot of information and analysis. Tocqueville moves from everything from what could cause a civil war in the US (he wasn’t far off on that one) to a future when the US and Russia are the dominant powers in the world (remarkably insightful for someone living in the early 19th century) to the tyranny of the majority (I’m still not sold on that one). I’m not sure it’s as indispensable as is sometimes claimed, but I feel like I have a much better grasp on the political theories around the way the US was constructed.

But like I said: this is a long read. He covers a lot of territory and a lot of theorizing. There’s some end notes, but I kept wishing there were more of them (and weren’t as obvious as explaining who people like Napoleon were) to help make some of his insights a little easier to digest. And for what it’s worth, the two essays included at the end of this book are enjoyable reading, too: they’re both accounts of Tocqueville’s travels along the Canadian/US border, plunging deep into the woods. Recommended for political buffs, but it might be overwhelming for casual readers.



Book Review: Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of CrowdsExtraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay

A charmingly dated look at frauds, hoaxsters and other chicanery, Charles Mackay’s classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, is an interesting, facinating read.

Originally written in the mid-19th century, Mackay was a Scottish writer who dabbled in poetry, journalism and even songs, but is primarily remembered these days for this massive look at the ways people get sucked into scams and hoaxes. His book covers a wide range of these, from money bubbles to witchcraft trials to even more casual scams: wood taken from Shakespeare’s desk or relics of popular saints.

Indeed, his stuff about money bubbles is what draws readers to this book: it’s gotten accolades from people like Michael Lewis and Will Self; on the cover, Andrew Tobias says the first 100 pages are “worth many times it’s purchase.” It’s not hard to see why: there are three contrasting stories about economic bubbles which rose quickly, made a few people wealthy and popped, leaving a lot of people without money. His story about the Tulip Mania in Holland is already well-known, but his chapters on the Mississippi Company and South Sea Company are worth reading. The schemes, where people keep building and lending on credit, thinking the money will keep pouring in and in, have ominous echoes for anyone who thinks about Silicon Valley and the subprime lending crisis.

That said, the rest of the book is wild, entertaining and occasionally shocking. A lengthy section of alchemists is like a shadow history of the rise of scammers in Europe: people who’d leech off of rich nobles who thought pewter could turn into gold. Likewise, the stuff on the assorted quacks and fraudsters engaged in what we’d now call New Age-adjacent stuff shows people haven’t really wisened up in almost 200 years (or perhaps that money talks).

Meanwhile, his section on the witch trials in Europe is shocking: his stories of grotesque torture, people being thrown into lakes to drown or burned alive at the stake are horrific. Thousands of people died because of superstition, maybe, but he acutely points out the often political or personal reasons behind such killings: it was almost impossible to defend from a charge like this and some people made a living at going from town to town, calling people a witch and killing them – usually with the state’s approval.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Mackay has a dry, dark sense of humour which often finds it’s way into even the darkest of it’s passages. For example, take this section on a witch trial, where an old woman was accused of giving a priest headaches through dark magic:

“One poor witch, who lay in the very jaws of death, confessed she knew too well the cause of the minister’s headache. The devil had sent her with a sledgehammer and a large nail to drive into the good man’s skull. She had hammered at it for some time, but the skull was so enormously thick, that she made no impression upon it. Every hand was held up in astonishment. The pious minister blessed God that his skull was so solid, and became renowned for his thick head all the days of his life.”

There are other nuggets, like when Sir Walter Raleigh was challenged to a duel and spat upon: “if I could as easily wipe from my conscience the stain of killing you, as I can this spittle from my face, you should not live another minute.” Ice cold.

Although I’m not sure everyone would like this book as much as I did – and to be fair, I did skim it here and there because it’s awful dry in places – but I think those who would like it will like it a lot.


Book Review: A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero of Our TimeA Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
(translated by Marian Schwartz)

Short and wild, a romp through the Caucasus with a Russian noble who doesn’t really give a shit about anyone but himself and even only casually at that. Pechorin doesn’t treat women very respectably, but then again he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t like his friends very much either; I suspect he’d be the kind of guy who wears a trilby in 2016.

Still, it’s an entertaining and short romp and I banged this one out in a couple of days. Perhaps it’s the translation (by Marian Schwartz, for the Modern Library), but Lermontov’s prose is almost cinematic: the landscapes are picturesque, with pivotal scenes happening on mountainsides, moonlit beaches or society-packed ballrooms. The whole time, I kept finding myself wondering if this has been made into a movie and who should play Pechorin (I finally decided it should be a Coen brothers flick, starring Paul Rudd: an ironic comedy).


Book Review: Shakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

Shakespeare's LivesShakespeare’s Lives by Samuel Schoenbaum

The other night a local newscast had a story about Shakespeare’s grave, namely that his skull may or may not be inside there. I didn’t bother paying a ton of attention to the story because just a day or two before, I’d finished this book, which says (among many other things) that the grave has either Shakespeare’s bones, a horde of manuscripts or nothing but dust. It depends on who’s story you believe.

That’s kind of what this thick, endlessly facinating book is about. It’s less a biography of Shakespeare than a survey of his biographers, idolaters and haters. It looks at dozens and dozens of books, pamphlets, monographs and memoirs about the Bard and charts how a poet and playwright from Stratford became the national poet and heir to controversies that will never quite go away completely.

In a brief biographical sketch at the beginning, Schoenbaum lays out the facts of Shakespeare’s life: family history, as proven by biographical records, his career and a general order of plays, his retirement death and, eventually, the extinction of his direct biological line. It takes him maybe 100 pages, give or take. That’s when the fun starts. With Shakespeare dead and buried, the legends begin to fly all fast and furious: he was a deer poacher! He died after a drinking bout with Ben Jonson! He was cuckolded and in a final fit of pique, denied his wife the honor of being in the same grave! Soon, the legends didn’t fill in the gaps, they replaced the known facts. Oh, and we’re just getting started here, folks.

Over the centuries, more and more stuff sprung up about Shakespeare, all of which Schoenbaum has a knowledge of. There was eccentric scholars like George Steevens and James Halliwell-Phillips, rigorous biographers like Edmund Malone and EK Chambers and forgers and fraudsters like William Henry Ireland. And to his credit, Schoenbaum makes these controversies and battles of letters come alive in his pages; the Ireland-Malone battles are downright facinating and would make a good book on their own, although I could say the same for the battles over portraits 0r a wild and drunken Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769 where people danced and drank during a flood that wrecked havoc in Stratford.

Throughout the book, Schoenbaum tries to keep an even tone, never going too far to bash one critic or writer unfairly; he’s even rather kind to forgers like Ireland. But when he gets to the people trying to discredit Shakespeare completely, he just unleashes on them and it’s amazing; he calls books unreadable, writers cranks or lunatics and dryly leaves in large chunks of their nearly-unreadable prose. It’s fun, but it’s also interesting and colourful history: Delia Bacon waits overnight in Shakespeare’s vault, working up courage to break into it and get the proof she needs William didn’t write his plays; Ignatius Donnelly builds elaborate machines to prove Francis Bacon left a hidden message inside the plays. All sorts of names pop up here: Mark Twain says he doesn’t believe Shakespeare could have written all these works, while Malcolm X says he didn’t even think Shakespeare was even a real person.

Although this book sounds like the kind of thing only a scholar would have any interest in, I think really anybody with an interest in Shakespeare can get a lot out of this. Although his writing is rather British in tone (lots of passive voice, too), Schoenbaum’s book never stops being interesting. And he’s read so, so many things it’s impressive; he’s even read multiple versions of books he despises for this project.

By the end of it, I was left with one sort-of regret about this book: it was written too soon! A little over a decade after the second edition was published (1990), a new spate of controversies arose: a portrait of Shakespeare found in Canada (see: Shakespeare’s Face), duelling biographies by Germaine Greer (Shakespeare’s Wife) and Stephen Greenblatt (Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) and more arguments over if he wrote Edward III. It would’ve been nice to see his opinion on books by James Shapiro, Bill Bryson and Harold Bloom. But really, that’s such a minor quibble.

Don’t make this the first book you read about Shakespeare, but I’d definitely recommend reading it after Greenblatt, if only so you can see how much supposition went into that book and give you some perspective into it.