Archive > January 2012

Hockney’s Portraits and People

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Hockney's Portraits and People , Marco Livingstone and Kay Heymer, book reviewConcentrating on just one aspect of artist David Hockney’s work, Marco Livingstone and Kay Heymer’s Hockney’s Portraits and People nevertheless contains a huge amount of variety. Of the 246 illustrations, 233 are in colour. Some of the works are well known, but others are published here for the first time. Some depict the famous, such as Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, and Andy Warhol, as well as Henry Geldzahler and Celia Birtwell, both great friends of Hockney. Portraits of lovers and family members also make up a considerable part of the works reproduced in the book, and there are quite a few self-portraits.

Hockney began making portraits and self-portraits at the age of sixteen, and he feels that “Faces are the most interesting things we see.”

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Outnumbered, Outgunned, Undeterred: Twenty Battles Against All Odds

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Outnumbered, Outgunned, Undeterred: Twenty Battles Against All Odds , Rob Johnson, book review“What is it that compels men and women to fight, endure and perhaps emerge victorious, though all the odds may be against them? What conditions must exist to enable relatively small or weak forces to challenge and even overcome the strong?”

With these questions in mind, Rob Johnson – former British Army officer and current lecturer in the history of war at Oxford University – sets out to examine twenty examples of bravery on the battlefield to look for the characteristics of success in war when situations might suggest there is no hope left. His interest lies as much in uncovering why it is that some surrender or break under pressure while others triumph and show extraordinary levels of courage, as it does in explaining the historical and tactical events in each of his case studies. The result is his new book, Outnumbered, Outgunned, Undeterred: Twenty battles Against All Odds, which was published late last year.


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All That I am

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All That I am , Anna Funder, book review“When Hitler came to power, I was in the bath”.

In Sydney, Australia in the 1990s, Dora Becker receives a package, containing the writings of a long dead friend. Those writings and the memories of Dora, a German woman now in her nineties, form the narrative structure of this thought provoking novel. I have read a lot of novels and non fiction about this period recently, but All That I Am is more than just another tale about more victims and survivors of Nazism.

Anna Funder’s first book, Stasiland, was a non fiction work about the former DDR (East Germany), the secret police and their victims.


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Interesting Times

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The Yellow Emperor's Cure by Kunal Basu, book reviewThe exploration of the unknown has fascinated writers since time immemorial, wanderings, encounters with a new culture and the induction into it. This has been seen in popular fiction as well as literary – the latter starting perhaps with Marco Polo, who was accused of manufacturing much of his information. What is also curious is that people have been fascinated by encounters between the west and the orient – one could number books like Lord Jim, Shogun, River of Smoke and most recently The Yellow Emperor’s Cure, the last two written by Indian authors. Amitabh Ghosh and Kunal Basu. In fact, the last two have hit the public gaze within a year of each other. Ghosh’s is specifically about the opium trade with China during Britain’s reign while Basu’s pinpoints the encounter of a Portuguese doctor with Chinese medicine. Specifically a son’s quest to find a remedy for syphilis, the plague that was for 400 years or more the world’s forerunner to AIDs and that was similarly regarded by society and the Church, and save his father, ironically a respected physician who is helpless in the face of the scourge.


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Q&A with Charley Boorman

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Charley BoormanCharley Boorman is an actor, traveller and biker. In 2004 he travelled round the world on motorbikes with best friend Ewan McGregor. He entered the most dangerous race on earth, the Dakar Rally, in 2006, and reunited with Ewan in 2007 for Long Way Down, riding through Africa. Charley then went on to travel from Ireland to Sydney in By Any Means, and from Sydney to Tokyo in Right to the Edge. Now he’s back with a brand new adventure – this time all in one country, in Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada. Extreme Frontiers: Racing Across Canada From Newfoundland to the Rockies is now available on book and DVD at Amazon.

CBF: Charley, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to Curious Book Fans, we’re big fans of yours. Tell us a little bit about Extreme Frontiers – how did the idea come about and why did you choose Canada?

Charley Boorman: Ewan and I had gone through many different countries together including Canada. We travelled through the Rockies but there was a big fire so we didn’t actually get to see them due to the smoke!

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The Winter Palace

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Winter Palace (A Novel of the Young Catherine the Great), Eva StachniakEva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace is a colourful tale of the first years spent by Princess Sophie – who in the course of the novel becomes Catherine the Great – in St. Petersburg’s infamous Winter Palace. Told from the point of view of Vavara, a Polish girl who finds herself at the heart of Empress Elizabeth’s court, The Winter Palace is a veritable assault on the senses as well as a thoroughly absorbing tale.

Left an orphan Vavara, the daughter of an impoverished bookbinder who enjoyed the patronage of the royal court is permitted to serve in the court of Russia’s Empress Elizabeth. She begins her life in the palace sewing room but Vavara is a hopeless seamstress and she has to endure the wrath of the critical wardrobe mistress.


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The Betrayal

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The Betrayal Helen Dunmore, book reviewIn Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal we catch up with doctor Andrei, his nursery school teacher wife Anna and Anna’s younger brother Kolya, now a teenager and the source of much anxiety for his sister. The family first appeared in Dunmore’s Whitbread and Orange short-listed The Siege set during the harsh Leningrad winter of 1941-42.

It’s now the 1950s and Andrei is working as a pediatrician. Like most Russians Anna and Andrei try to live as quietly as possible, avoiding anything that will get them noticed by the authorities. For Anna in particular this quiet existence means a great deal as her father was a writer who was not on the right side of the authorities and whose politics caused problems for the family.


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Last Man in Tower

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Last Man in Tower (Paperback), Aravind Adiga, book reviewAravind Adiga’s latest book ‘Last Man in Tower’ explores what it takes to turn ordinary respectable middle-class people into evil, devious, greedy beasts prepared to contemplate murder. It looks at how neighbours so emotionally and physically close that they live like extended family can become enemies. I would also say it offers wholly believable insights into the psychology of bullying and persecution – tracking how the perpetrators of abuse can convince themselves that they are in fact the victims despite their abusive behaviour. It’s fascinating stuff; a sort of ‘Lord of the Flies’ for India in the 21st Century but with seemingly sensible, normal, respectable adults instead of schoolboys. It’s the sort of book that has you thinking “That could never happen to me” at the beginning and gradually realising that this type of salami-slicing of morality could probably happen to almost anyone.


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Dr. Dimsdale and Catherine the Great’s Fear of Smallpox

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Eva StachniakEva Stachniak brings us an exciting novel, The Winter Palace, about Catherine The Great’s early days and improbable rise to power as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne. Eva was born in Wroclaw, Poland, and came to Canada in 1981. She has been a radio broadcaster and college English and Humanities lecturer. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and her second novel, Garden of Venus, has been translated into seven languages. Her third novel, The Winter Palace, has been published in Canada (Doubleday), US (Bantam) and the UK (Transworld). She lives in Toronto, where she is working on her second historical novel about Catherine the Great, The Empire of the Night. Curious Book Fans want to thank Eva for sharing some insight into the research she did  for The Winter Palace.

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Smallpox had been one of Catherine the Great’s greatest fears. When she arrived in Russia at 14, a fiancée to the Grand Duke Peter, the disease almost destroyed her future. The Grand Duke contracted smallpox and, even though he eventually recovered, it disfigured his body and made him even more awkward and insecure than he had been before. In the dark, long weeks when Peter’s life hung in the balance, Catherine knew that had he died, she would have been sent back to Zerbst without much ceremony.


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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?

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Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,  David Bellos, book reviewIs That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos, with the subtitle Translation and the Meaning of Everything, is a study of the world of translation. What is translation, what does it mean to translate, the history of translation, the pitfalls and different types of translation…these are all areas which Bellos looks at.

Having studied languages to an advanced level, and with an additional focus on translation, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is a book which appealed to me. I was interested to learn more about this field – I may have studied translation itself, but I know little of the history or the issues surrounding it.


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Simply Beautiful Photographs

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National Geographic Simply Beautiful Photographs (National Geographic), Annie Griffiths Belt, book reviewThe title Simply Beautiful Photographs is of course self-explanatory. This book is a National Geographic publication, a hardcover book containing superb images printed on high quality paper. It is just asking to be consumed, but there is of course no way anyone could take in all of its images at once. It is the kind of book to dip into every so often, and every time you do you are bound to come across an image that surprises or delights you and is totally different from the ones you poured over on the previous occasion.

Simply Beautiful Photographs begins with a foreword by Maura Mulvihill and a seven-page introduction, after which it is divided into six sections entitled Light, Composition, Moment, Time, Palette and Wonder.


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The Teahouse of the August Moon

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Vern Sneider -  The Tea-House of the August Moon, book reviewThe Teahouse of the August Moon, by the American novelist Vern Sneider, is a gentle comedy about the American occupation of Japan after the Second World War, where the Japanese get the better of the Americans, the Americans organise the Japanese more efficiently, and everyone learns to love each other’s way of life. My fascination with this book began because it was a beautiful fairy story with a happy ending. Later, I reread it to enjoy the tidy way that everything worked out just fine: I do like the practical organisation of happy endings. I also reread it endlessly to get to the bottom of the mysterious geisha girls: why were they such a problem? They seemed so nice, and did their own sewing.

According to his obituary in the New York Times, during the Second World War Vern Sneider had been part of the American military government team that installed itself in Okinawa in April 1945, as an occupation force. He became the military commander of Tobaru, a small Japanese town of 5000 people. This book is based on his experiences, and must be one of the most gentle novels about army occupation ever written. It must also have been a whitewash, a sanitised recounting of a traumatic time at the end of war.


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