Five 30-Second Summer Book Reviews

Seeing as the summer is drawing to a close (and I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while), I thought I’d summarize my thoughts on a few of the books I read this summer — and hopefully give some of my recommendations to add to your August reading lists. These were all great reads for me (I don’t say that lightly, by the way), and I highly recommend all of them, although the subject matter and writing styles differ a lot between the books. Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you’ve read any of these yourself!

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1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Admittedly, the fact that I read this on the beach in Italy probably makes it seem a lot better than it is. However, Tom Rachman’s debut novel is pretty wonderful, and I would read it again in a heartbeat (that is, if I didn’t already have a hundred books in my “read this now” queue). Tracking the lives of individuals involved with an English-language newspaper in Rome (from readers to publishers to copy editors), Rachman weaves a stunning narrative that doesn’t quite come together until the very end…which, of course, is what makes it so perfect. Each chapter reads like a little insight into the life of each individual, and explores their personal struggles as well as their relationship to the newspaper. Rachman is gifted at painting vivid, realistic, and raw characters, and even though each chapter is relatively short, his writing (which is very clear, by the way) packs a punch, as he pulls out distinct details from each character’s life. Bit by bit, the reader is also fed the story of how all these lives intertwine — both intentionally and unintentionally — which kept me hooked until the very end. Perfect beach reading, very fresh and original, and overall just fantastic writing.

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2. The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik, a novelist and writer for The New Yorker, is one of my hands-down favorite authors, and he particularly excels with his memoirs. I read one of his other memoirs, Paris to the Moon, a year or so ago, and fell in love with his writing style — it’s sharp, witty, intelligent, and yet decidedly unpretentious. The Table Comes First is less of a memoir than Paris to the Moon, but very enjoyable nonetheless. Although it’s a 300-page volume on one seemingly simple topic, food, there is never a dull moment in Gopnik’s writing. Incredibly cultured, his wealth of knowledge shines through as he weaves together food’s history, philosophy, and its criticisms alongside personal experiences on the topic. It’s really a brilliant read, and I highly recommend this for all a) foodies, and b) francophiles.

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3. Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

If you’re looking for a good briefer on the history of Islam and the Middle East, look no further. (Okay, I know most of you probably weren’t looking for this. That being said, it’s totally relevant to the world today, and will seriously enhance your understanding of current events. So go read it!) Ansary’s book is widely regarded as one of the best histories of Islam out there, and his writing style is simple and understandable — this is not some stuffy book intended only for academics. What I love about Ansary’s writing is his humor, ability to synthesize, and that he doesn’t assume his readers have any prior knowledge of the topic. It reads like an engaging historical narrative, so if you’re into non-fiction/history, this is a good pick!

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4. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

This is the first novel I’ve read by Rushdie. It’s still banned in many parts of the world and can be controversial in many respects (the book is partly a re-telling of the life of Mohammed, and Rushdie includes narrative elements which run contrary to the Muslim faith), but that’s part of what makes it an interesting read — it’s equal parts entertaining and relevant to our understanding of society today. I’ll admit, though, this is a tough book to understand without a lot of background knowledge of religion (and not just Islam), as well as historical events. I would recommend reading some sort of analysis to better grasp the major themes. This reading guide is a good start (and doesn’t give away the plot — just use it as you go from chapter to chapter). However, it is still an entertaining narrative, and Rushdie is a phenomenal writer — so I’d recommend this for anyone that really appreciates more complex literary styles and long, intense novels (think Beloved).

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5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

This is a classic. I’ve been reading The Alchemist every summer for the past six years — I’m currently on my seventh reading. Regardless of whether you’ve read it before, it’s always a great addition to your reading list, and I find that I learn something new every time I pick it up. It’s not so much that the book has changed as it is that my life and perspective shift from reading to reading — so that something new stands out to me each time. That being said, the novel (very short, by the way — you could read it in a few hours) is packed with wisdom, reading more like a fable than anything else. It tracks the life of a former shepherd, Santiago, who abandons his flock in search of his “Personal Legend” — looking for buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. It’s a timeless book about following your dreams (yes, I know this sounds cheesy), but all of us could use a reminder like this once in a while. A great book for self-reflection, and perfect for pretty much any time, ever.

{Images: The Imperfectionists; The Table Comes First; Destiny Disrupted; The Satanic Verses; The Alchemist}

The Chocolatier of Venice

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It’s been about two weeks in Venice, and so far the biggest surprise has been this: the food in Venice is mediocre at best. Much of this, I believe, can be attributed to the rampant tourism industry, and tourist menus abound on almost every street, unless you wander far away from the crowds. Even then, you’re going to be paying a lot for a so-so meal, unless you’re careful. This is not to be pessimistic though — there are some great places to eat if you take the time to seek them out! They’re just hidden from the daily crowds or cost a small fortune.

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But even though Venice is not known for its food in the way that Rome and Florence are, the desserts are still spectacular. I think I average about two gelatos a day, sometimes more (and I’m really not picky about ice cream, so it’s relatively easy for me to find a gelato place I’m happy with). So, naturally, when I repeatedly read about “the best chocolate shop” in Venice, I had to go. Immediately. Vizio Virtù is easy to find and absolutely fantastic — if you’re ever in Venice (or Italy, for that matter), do not miss this place!

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Simply put, this place is divine. It’s nestled in the neighborhood of San Polo, right by the San Tomà vaporetto (waterbus) stop. The façade is quaint and unassuming, and the shop is small but pristine. When I was in France a few years ago the chocolate was amazing, but I don’t think even that could compare to this.

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Of course, it’s ridiculously expensive. I tried the chocolate-dipped candied oranges (about 1 euro each) and the caramel chocolate bar (7 euros apiece). It’s definitely worth a stop though, even just to try a few of the by-the-kilo candies, and I can’t recommend this place enough — everything is exquisite. This place is a gem in Venice (a place where the food scene pales in comparison to the rest of Italy).

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In addition to chocolates and jellies from the case, they also offer gelato, mousse, freshly baked brownies (which I have yet to try), and pre-wrapped chocolates, which are great for taking home — if you can make it that far.

Directions: Take the vaporetto to the San Tomà stop. Walk until you reach a T-shaped intersection and turn left; the shop is on the right. Open from 10am-7:30pm, closed Sundays.

Trendspotting | Baroque

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On the Street in Europe | Photographed by Tommy Ton for style.com

It’s been a while since I’ve done a trendspotting post. I’m not as big on blogging about fashion trends, but this one is simply too fabulous to pass up — in other words, I’ve become completely enamored with the Baroque trend.

History

Baroque has an interesting history. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, the Baroque period began in 17th century Rome and was mainly reflected in architecture, sculpture, and painting (although Baroque themes were also reflected in the literature, music, and theatre of the time). Baroque — which relied on ornamentation, drama, and visual grandeur to create the style — was encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church as a means of expressing the emotion of religion through art. The Baroque style also exaggerated the concept of motion, articulating events visually with clear, dramatic lines. This would also become important when Baroque influenced the fashion world, then and now. (Below is very obviously a picture of “then”…)

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“Lady with Fan” by Diego Veláquez, mid-1600s | Source

Style also developed during the Baroque period, impacting fashions throughout Europe. Trends swung heavily during the 17th century, but at the beginning of the 1600s, wide, detailed collars, large sleeves, and dark, heavy fabrics were popular (these would later be replaced by pastels and more relaxed silhouettes). The waistline was raised — for both men and women — and corsets as well as full, ornate skirts remained popular until later 17th century, when a more streamlined silhouette began to take shape. The shoulders were also heavily emphasized.

Baroque-inspired style today is characterized by some of the earlier fashion from the Baroque period. On the fall 2012 runways, luxe materials, exaggerated silhouettes, heavy embroidery, brocade, lace, and chunky jewels were quite possibly the most popular trend. You could literally go baroque with the sheer amount of opulence that took over the runways and glossy magazine photo shoots (and apologies for the awful joke).

Runway

There was no shortage of opulence on the Fall runways to counter the past minimalism of the past few seasons. Here are just a few highlights:

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The Dolce & Gabbana show is probably the most-cited example of the Baroque trend’s reemergence into the fashion world. With gorgeous gold brocade detailing, pretty prints, and dramatic silhouettes, the show evoked 17th century opulence redefined for a modern era.

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McQueen and Marchesa also showcased Baroque style: McQueen with a more futuristic approach and exaggerated shaping, and Marchesa with beautiful fabrics and distinctly feminine designs.

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Robert Cavalli and Stella McCartney opted for a brighter, modern take with colorful brocade. As always, the tailoring on the McCartney runway was impeccable and clean. Oscar de la Renta offered printed fabrics and lots of jeweled details.

Editorial

Plenty of editorials from around the world featured Baroque styling. Here are a few of my favorites, for some inspiration:

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Photographed by Takahiro Ogawa for Elle Mexico | fashiongonerogue.com

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Photographed by Mikael Wardhana for Karen Magazine | fashiongonerogue.com

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Photographed by Mario Testino for Vogue Spain | fashiongonerogue.com

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Photographed by Sofia Sanchez and Mauro Mongiello for Vogue Turkey | fashiongonerogue.com

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Photographed by Zhang Jingna for Harper’s Bazaar Vietnam | fashiongonerogue.com

I love the drama of the last image! If any thing, the Baroque trend is very obviously over-the-top, especially when it comes to the details — whether it be a painted blouse, gold brocade, or lace overlay — extravagance defines the Baroque trend. To emulate the Baroque look (not mimic, that would certainly be a disaster), take a cue from the runways and editorials from this season and look for pieces with gold detailing, lots of lace, defined shoulders, or jeweled accents. You’ll feel like Renaissance royalty in no time.

What’s your take on Baroque for this season?

{Sources: street style, Tommy Ton @ style.com; painting, marquise.de; runway photos, style.com; editorials, fashiongonerogue.com}

Book Review: “The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson

I was required to read The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson for college, and finished in just two days. Equal parts hilarious and touching, this novel has a great amount of depth and soul, with fully developed characters and an incredibly original plot line. Although a bit offbeat, I would highly recommend this book to anyone — it’s easy to read, but the prose is excellent and the story not one to be missed.

The novel, which alternates between past and present, centers around the Fang family — parents Camille and Caleb, and their two children, Annie (Child “A”) and Buster (Child “B”). Camille and Caleb are performance artists who seek to create chaos and, in effect, something that they call beauty. At one point in the novel, Caleb muses to himself:

“The act is not the art,” he told himself. “The reaction is the art.” (page 166)

Many of the public acts they commit are incredibly bizarre, only stirring up trouble and undoubtedly disturbing the people around them, whose spontaneous reactions the Fang art depends on (one such example: the book opens with a scene in which Camille attempts to steal a ludicrous amount of jelly beans from a candy store, with the intent of getting caught). In the flashbacks throughout the book, Caleb and Camille use their children as props in their pieces, often forcing them into strange and often dangerous situations all in the name of art.

The present-day plot focuses on Annie and Buster who, now adults, have to deal with the irreparable consequences of a childhood of forced participation in their parents’ art projects. Annie is a fairly established actress with a bad publicity streak and Buster, a struggling writer. After several unfortunate turns of events, Annie and Buster find themselves living again with the parents they haven’t spoken to in years. At this point, the novel changes pace — losing some of its earlier hilarity as the reader becomes more invested in the lives of its characters. Annie and Buster must confront their past again, and observe how their parents’ art has evolved since losing “A and B.”

There are many unexpected twists and turns in this novel, all of which reveal something deeper about the characters. Wilson has deftly crafted a story that is truly brought to life by its protagonists — a story which is entertaining and engaging on the surface, but also one which delves into moral issues underneath. It is soulful, witty, and packed with originality, while at the same time managing to be incredibly thought-provoking. This is a can’t-miss novel with a lot of heart, and I would recommend it to anyone.

{Source: Image from wilsonkevin.com.}

From the Shelves | “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk

Snow, a novel by contemporary Turkish author and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, is widely regarded as a great work of literature.  The story is told simultaneously from two angles: that of the protagonist, a poet named Ka, and the wider political context of the cultural change in Turkey following the rise of Ataturk. I suppose it must be noted here that I find this novel particularly fascinating because I also find Middle Eastern and Turkish history incredibly intriguing. However, you do not need to be a historian to read this book: ultimately, it is a work that focuses on the life of its protagonist and does not dwell on any sort of political or historical context. Anyone who loves a compelling and beautiful story will enjoy this novel — the setting of dramatic cultural change in Turkey is only a bonus for those of us who happen to be interested in it.

Of course, the history is central to the plot, but all is explained. In summary, the book takes place in a small city in Turkey called Kars. Ka, the poet-protagonist, visits the border city from his home in Germany, with the intention of doing journalistic work on the recent plight of the “head scarf girls” — a group of school girls who, rebelling against Ataturk’s westernizing policies, have continued the tradition of wearing head coverings. However, Ka also has another intention: to win the love of Ipek, the girl from his childhood whom he hopes to marry and take back to Germany with him. (Her younger sister, coincidentally, is the leader of the head scarf girls.) The majority of the novel takes place within a few days, as a blizzard descends on Kars and no one can get in or out. Violence escalates in the small city as the head scarf drama unfolds and multiple religious and secular groups clash. It is important to note here, I believe, that this by no measure reads like a thriller: instead, it is a poignant account of Ka’s few days in Kars, the poems that he writes there, his relationship with Ipek, and his reluctant role in the violence that begins to unfold.

Without giving anything away, it must be said that this is a tragic story. Ka’s character is not a perfect one: he is flawed, like any human being, which makes him so much more compelling. His time in Kars revolves around the poems he is able to write in the city, which flow from his pen more easily than they have in many years. These poems, he decides, represent different facets of his conscience (reason, imagination, memory), but ultimately they lead to little conclusion in terms of self-discovery. This is a complex novel, and one that can be confusing to read, but the language is beautiful and the plot is mesmerizing if you allow yourself to get into it. Snow is not a light and fun read, but it is a wonderful piece of literature (it almost reads like a meditation) that I would highly recommend to anyone.

As Margaret Atwood aptly writes in her introduction to the novel:

Pamuk gives us what all novelists give us at their best: the truth. Not the truth of statistics, but the truth of human experience at a particular place, in a particular time. And as with all great literature, you feel at moments not that you are examining him, but that he is examining you.

… Just some food for thought.

Have you read Snow, or any of Pamuk’s other works? What were your thoughts? If not, do you plan on reading any of them?

{Image: CoverSpy.}