Sunday, August 21, 2011

12-Books-in-12-Months Challenge: A Book About or Set in Your Favorite Place

Book: Prague Tales
Author: Jan Nerua


I went to Prague in the mid-90's. It was my first trip abroad since a trip to England during high school. I fell in the love with the place. It was like something out of book. We went to a Dada exhibit, who knew there were Czech Dadaists? Not only that but they seemed to get Dada better than the French. We visited Jan Svanmajer's place. And went to performance of Mozart's requiem for I think about $2. I think it helped also that the visit to Prague a city preserved in time was contrasted with a visit to Budapest, a city not preserved but that has just as much history.

Of course we visited Mala Strana where Prague Tales is set. The book is a set of sketches of various inhabitants of Mala Strana mostly told from the point of view of someone who has grown up there during the 19th century.

The last tale is one of a student who has made the mistake of taking lodging in the Mala Strana because he has a romantic view of what it will be like to live in this quaint district. The student is rapidly disabused of his notions. While the details would change I think the tale serves as a nice cautionary lesson to anyone who moves to a place because of quaint tales they've heard about it. Vermont comes to mind for me.

This book is not only set in one of my favorite places but it's also set in what has become one of my favorite times, the 19th century. Maybe it's all of the costume dramas I watch. Or all of the Balzac I've read. Lest you think I haven't learned the lesson of the last tale in Prague Tales, I know I wouldn't want to live in the 19th century but I do find its novels a constant source of interest.

It was nice to revisit this book that I bought in Prague and think about my time there.

I hope that you, too, will join the 12 Books in 12 Months challenge. Details are on Armchair Squid where you can also read up on what he's been reading as well as other who are doing the challenge.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

12-Books-in-12-Months Challenge: A Book from a Genre You Don't Normally Read

I was going to do an historical bodice ripper for this but ended up reading a biography while on vacation and realized it's a genre I don't normally read for good reason.

Book: Lee Miller a Life
Author: Carolyn Burke


I've always wanted to know more about Lee Miller. She was a great beauty who started out as a model at Vogue, moved into photography, moved to Paris to study with Man Ray, became his muse and student, was a muse in Jean Cocteau's first film, became the first woman photographer to be on the front lines during WWII, one of the first photographers at Dachau when it was discovered by Allied forces and later became a mentor to young women helping them go through the doors that she had opened.

From Cocteau's Blood of a Poet

Her personal life was interesting and sad in many ways. She was raped at the age of 7 by a family friend's friend. Her father took nude photos of her and her friends throughout a good deal of her life. I think the author and I both had a hard time about it because Lee Miller never really talked about it but had a great relationship with her father and the photos were done with her consent and nothing else untoward seemed to be going on. She also probably suffered from PTSD after the war although they did not have a word for it yet. This probably led to her drinking problems later in life or at least spurred the one she already had on. It also led to her basically giving up photography for the most part and becoming somewhat of a hausfrau although one with surrealist touches to her cooking. She actually dove into cooking around the same time Julia Child did even going to the Cordon Bleu which was interesting. But also a result in a period of her life when she should have had showings of her work and been talking about it, she didn't, so her legacy suffered somewhat.

Picasso's portrait of Lee Miller
The problem with biographies is that often you don't have much actual insight into the subject's personal life. It seemed to be very true for Lee Miller who although she was writing letters to her family didn't really talk too much about her personal life. As a result a lot of conjecture takes place. "Perhaps she did this or felt this way due to her childhood trauma." Also the author seems to focus on how selfish Lee Miller was or the comments that other people at the time made while also recounting generous things she did. There are tales of her being a horrible mean drunk to house guests and yet somehow they managed to have full houses for parties at their country house up until her death for most part. I'm sure Roland Penrose (Lee Miller's 2nd husband) was a nice guy but it doesn't mean that people would trek out to the country for his company if they hated his wife.

Lee Miller in Hitler's bathtub.
To be fair to Ms. Burke, I think these sorts of contradictions are true for any life. I think they're probably even more pronounced when someone is a barrier breaker like Lee Miller was. If you're relying on 2nd and 3rd hand accounts to fill in your story of a woman who does as she pleases in the 1920s and beyond people are going to resent her and thus give a skewed picture in accounts of her at least to 21st century sensibilities.

The one thing I do blame the author for and that I think should be against the law is describing in great deal the importance of a photograph or painting done by your subject and not including the photograph or painting in your book so the reader can see what you mean. Especially for someone like Lee Miller whose work has been neglected to some degree. I would have preferred it to the pictures of her scattered throughout the book.

Overall, the book was enjoyable. I did find myself wondering if she hadn't been considered quite so beautiful how much would she have gotten away with by force of will? I do admire though her ability to set her own rules. So that although she was part of a rather misogynist group (The Surrealists) she could and did cut her own path taking what she wanted and leaving them wanting more from their muse.

Most of the photos borrowed from A Blind Flaneur.

I hope that you, too, will join the 12 Books in 12 Months challenge. Details are on Armchair Squid where you can also read up on what he's been reading.