Sunday, November 28, 2010

Russian Winter, by Daphne Kalotay

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - W is for Winter.

Nina Revskaya was once a petite, powerful ballerina wowing the Soviet audiences of the Bolstoi Ballet, including even Stalin himself. But time and bitterness have allied to stiffen her body, leaving her wheelchair-bound and alone, living in Boston in the new millenium. Nina has decided to auction off her large jewelry collection, ostensibly to benefit the Boston Ballet but truly, as the reader comes to learn, to rid herself of painful memories.

The novel leaps back into Nina's memories, painful and otherwise, with the grace of a ballerina and provides a convincing and harrowing depiction of Soviet Russia in the 1930s through 1950s. These flashbacks are interspesed with the connected narratives of Nina, Drew - the young woman handling the auction, and Grigori - a fifty-year-old professor of Russian literature who owns, via mysterious family connections, a necklace that appears to be a part of Nina's set. These four streams gradually move together, revealing mysteries from the past and lessons for the present.

Kalotay writes best when she's looking back at Nina's years in the Bolstoi. Those pages are rich with research and sympathy. The mystery itself is not terribly difficult to divine, but it's still a pleasure to watch unfold. In all, this was a charming book, and I look forward to Kalotay's next.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bookshop report from Spain

Madrid, apparently, is a city of art. Its three most prominent and popular museums are art museums. But I noticed when I was there last week that it also seems to be a city of books. I was visiting for work so did not have a whole lot of free time, but we had some evenings to wander the streets. And in doing so I was thrilled to see a great number of bookstores (almost all of which were independent or perhaps small chains). According to UNESCO data, in 2008 Spain published 86,300 new titles, or 1 new book for every 533 Spaniards. The same year the US published 275,232 unique titles, or about 1 new book for every 1089 Americans (or so - I guesstimated the 2008 US population). Not too bad for Spain.

In that bit of research, I also found this headline:

AMERICANS ARE BECOMING SMALL BUYERS OF BOOKS; Per Capita Production of Volumes Here Less Than That of Other Leading Nations --- Poor Methods of Distribution and Modern Amusements Blamed in Part.

Printed in ... 1914.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A different form of storytelling

I've long loved stop-motion animation movies, starting from when my dad made "Attack of the Bunny Monster" (a lost classic) with us when my sister and I were in elementary school. Since then, I've only done a few quickies, most notably a fork crawling out of a drawer. Compelling. (Hey, it was post-college and we were on vacation.) But today, all that changes! I've finally gotten around to making another one - this one complete with tweaks courtesy of video-editing software, yay! The movie is intended as a part of an invitation for a holiday party my husband and I are hosting next month.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge. V is for Vreeland.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Renaissance had gifted its tremendous artistic outpouring to the people of Italy. Artists in particular benefitted from this boon, the accumulated greatness of the masters that came before them. Michaelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli, and all the other greats had left their mark to inspire those who came after them. But they were all men, and Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of a great painter, aspires to be a master herself. The burden of her gender, however, may make her dreams impossible.

Artemisia's trials begin in a court - in a case brought by her father against his friend and partner, who raped her. But in the end it is Artemisia's honor that is in question, and the humiliation she endures in court will haunt her for life. Scorned, Artemisia leaves Rome for Florence, a city she hopes will nourish her ambition to be a reknowned artist.

Vreeland writes with tremendous sympathy for her characters and draws a compelling tale. The story rarely lets up, although from a distance, the drama may appear slight. She deepens the narrative with themes of forgiveness and the cruelty of choice, even if at times her discussions of these become a little heavy-handed. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful book, rendering brilliantly the dynamic Italian world at the time of Gallileo and Cosimo de Medici, and enshrining in the reader's heart the brave and talented Artemisia Gentileschi. (The painting here is a self-portrait completed by the real Artemisia Lomi, or Gentileschi.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bookstore Love

Last weekend my husband and I traveled up to Cape Cod to visit some beloved family and attend a wedding. Neither of us had been to the Cape before and we were quite charmed. The Parnassus Book Store played no small part in that - this photo explains it all (look at the ceiling!). The first floor of a wooden-frame house is filled, literally top to bottom, with used and new books. They are organized in sections but have no labels, nor any clear order. The cookbooks are next to the poetry books, which are across from the military hardware books. Which makes for fun, and often serendipitous, browsing, while walking on creaking, about-to-collapse wooden floors.

I bought a book I plan to use for research for my next writing project (well, the one after I finish the one I'm in the middle of now, which still has a long way to go). I love the research phase of writing, when I'm filling the attic of my mind with all the details and facts and people that, someday, I'll hope to pull just a few treasures from.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jumping into the fire - again

I've decided to start submitting query letters to agents again. I took a nearly six-month hiatus from seeking representation for my historical fiction piece because I realized, unfortunately rather belatedly, that it needed some serious editing. Now I think it's ready. I think my query letter is polished. Of course, I have some mammoth-sized butterflies about the process this time, since my assessments were so off previously. (I certainly thought my manuscript was ready over a year ago, but with the help of some readers, I learned how wrong I was!) But I've edited and edited and edited, and I feel good about what I've got. I also feel at peace - if this doesn't work out, well, I'll keep trying with something else. One of the best lessons I've learned this year is to avoid setting artificial goals and to focus on the writing, not the publishing. It's difficult to hew to, but rewarding and liberating.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma