Art: A New History (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Art: A New History, by Paul Johnson (2003).  This 750-page tome is about the size and shape of your old college art-history textbook.  But, because it is by Paul Johnson (Churchill), it is probably much more enjoyable to read.  Johnson sets out to survey the whole history of art, starting with the surviving fragments of prehistoric art, spending lots of time with the Greeks and Romans, and then gradually working his way up to the present day.  Well, maybe not the WHOLE history.  The focus is overwhelmingly on Western art; there is very little on Asia, Africa, Australia, or any part of the Americas other than the good old US of A.  Subject to that limitation, he covers an amazing number of artists—although “cover” is probably too strong a word since only the really big names like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Picasso get more than a paragraph or two.  But rest assured that you will meet, however briefly, a vast array of interesting artists.  There are plenty of color pictures in the book, but Johnson mentions so many more artworks that you’ll probably want to have a tablet handy as you read so you can look up some of the paintings he describes that aren’t reproduced in the book.  He also covers architecture in fair detail, which I found interesting.  An enjoyable read if you have an interest but no real background in art.

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Stealing the Mystic Lamb (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, by Noah Charney (2010).  I had the pleasure of visiting Belgium a while back, and one of our tour guides strongly recommended this nonfiction book about the work of art known as the Ghent Altarpiece.  Painted by Jan van Eyck and finished in 1432, the altarpiece is an immense, multi-part work, and this book describes the artwork, its creation, and several of the times it has been stolen in whole or in part.  Alas, I found the book disappointing.  The reproductions of the paintings in the middle of the book are too small, and the reproduction of the interior of the altarpiece goes across two pages so that the central features of the work disappear down into the spine of the book.  The writing is not particularly good, in my humble opinion; it is repetitious in some places and obscure in others.  A good chunk of the book, at the end, is given over to the tale of the altarpiece’s recovery from the Nazis, some of whom intended to blow up this and many other priceless artworks in the waning days of WWII.  There’s some interesting stuff in this book, but on the whole I really can’t recommend it.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (2015).  I guess I will never tire of reading books about ancient Rome.  This is a good one.  It starts at the very beginning, examining the mythical founding stories of Romulus and Remus and the early dynasty of kings of Rome, and then marches up to the year 212 A.D. when emperor Caracalla made every free male inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.  Beard doesn’t focus much on the big names of Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Caesar Augustus, but Cicero gets quite of bit of ink.  Very readable, but I did get slightly irritated when Beard would interject little comments about how barbaric or how sexist some particular ancient practice seems by today’s standards.  I didn’t really need her to prove her up-to-date sensibilities to me.

The Diary of a Young Girl (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank.  I had never read this famous book before, but when I signed up for a vacation trip to Amsterdam I figured I should read it first.  I got about halfway through before my trip rolled around, but that was enough to help give me some context when I visited the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam.  I finished the book over the course of the trip.  Anyway, it is an interesting book, and Anne comes across as a lively, spirited, and strong-willed teenager.  It does get a little repetitive, perhaps, but how could it not, given that Anne lived in hiding in a tiny space with the same group of people for two years?

The Clockwork Universe (book review)

Book review from The Movie Snob.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick (2011).  Aw.  I just pulled this book off the shelf and discovered it still bore a price tag from my beloved Borders Bookstore, may it rest in peace.  Anyway, this is an enjoyable read about the scientific revolution in and around the time of Sir Isaac Newton.  Dolnick keeps it pretty simple and even interesting, which is saying something considering that I generally find science pretty boring.  But Dolnick knows how to tell a story, leavening the science stuff with juicy tidbits about the plague, methods of execution, and the wicked personal rivalries between some of the scientific figures of the day.  I plan to send this volume on to my scientist sister and see what she thinks of it.

Dying Every Day (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero, by James Romm (2014).  Seneca was an ambitious philosopher–poet–politician in ancient Rome.  He became a tutor of Nero, who was heir-apparent to Roman emperor Claudius, and attempted to instill Stoic philosophy and virtue in the young man.  Unfortunately, Nero turned out to be a homicidal maniac who, among other things, arranged for the murder of his own mother.  Things ended badly for Nero, Seneca, and lots of other people in Nero’s orbit, but only after a reign of terror that lasted about 13 years.  It’s definitely an interesting story, and well told by Romm, a classics professor at Bard College.

Kearny’s March (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847, by Winston Groom (Alfred A. Knopf 2011).  This book of popular history is not really my usual fare, but I saw a good review of it somewhere and then saw it on sale somewhere else.  It is an interesting read, mainly about the Mexican-American War and the conquest of New Mexico and California by the United States.  There are, as the title suggests, heroic marches across unforgiving wilderness, and also a few pitched battles that Groom describes in some detail.  I was mainly struck by how few combatants seemed to be involved in the battles—the clashing armies seldom seemed to contain more than a couple thousand men, and sometime only a few hundred.  Groom also gives a thumbnail sketch of what happened to the infamous Donner party (the band of settlers that got stuck in the mountains trying to get to California and wound up turning cannibal).  I thought it was a good book.