Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book 19: The Girl in Hyacinth Blue

The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

In The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland traces a painting's history back in time, introducing the reader to its various owners in short vignettes, and ending with stories from the perspectives of first the painter and then the subject. The last owner she introduces is a math teacher at a private school, and he received the painting from his father, a former Nazi who claimed the painting from an apartment after gathering up its Jewish owners in Amsterdam. The painting's current owner believes it is a Vermeer painting that has been lost to the world though he has no documentation to prove it (Vermeer has been fictionalized before in The Girl with the Pearl Earring).

The painting is owned by a variety of people, but all of them love this painting, seeing different things in the girl in blue. For one woman, she represents innocence, for another beauty; one man is reminded of his first love while a young Jewish girl in the occupied Netherlands sees someone equally thoughtful. Some of the stories were definitely more interesting to me than others, such as Hannah, and the family during a flood. However, I have never been a big fan of short stories, and while this is a novel rather than a collection of short stories, I didn't necessarily feel like the stories were that deep. They were vignettes, snapshots of lives, and as a result, I thought the book was pleasant but forgettable - I don't think I would recommend this to anyone, not because it was bad, but because there wasn't that much to it.

I understand that Vreeland was trying to show the influence of art and beauty on life as well as how people interpret art in their own ways, and she succeeded well enough but it wasn't an earth-shattering revelation. I admit that I have also never been a huge fan of the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt or Vermeer, so perhaps part of my reason for not connecting with this book had a lot to do with not connecting with those artists. I believe Vermeer is famous for scenes of domestic life which is what Vreeland appears to have been aiming for herself in this novel. The novel is well-written, many of the stories are well-done but there just wasn't enough for me to really think of this novel as very remarkable. I know I said I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend this novel, but I really don't want anyone to think this was a bad novel or be dissuaded from reading it - for me, it was pleasant, leisurely but not very noteworthy read.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Book 18: The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1) by Robert Jordan

I've been vaguely aware of the Wheel of Time series for a while but had various reasons for holding off on beginning the series. At one point I was confusing them with A Wrinkle in Time, I had heard that it dragged in the middle, and I knew the series was over 12 books so far, all over 600 pages - it seemed like a bit more of a commitment than I was ready to make. However, a friend of mine over here recently received the latest in the series, and raved about the co-author of the last few in the series (Robert Jordan died, and Sanderson is finishing up the novels based on his outlines), so I decided to give the first one a shot - I didn't have to read the rest after all.

As a first novel in a series, it has a few similarities to much other popular fantasy: it tells the story of the hero's journey or quest, the reason a simple farm boy left his village behind. Actually, the novel begins with a prologue were a man is running through his home looking for his wife, surrounded by his dead relatives. An old enemy of his shows up and the man realizes he has gone mad, and killed his entire family. In his grief, he entombs himself in a mountain. As the book later shows, this man was the Dragon, a man that fought against the Dark One. From here, the novel transitions to three thousand years later to Rand al'Thor and his father who are enroute to their village for the springtime festival, even though the winter has been long and harsh and hasn't cleared. There are strange guests in the village, a woman and a man, a peddlar is there, and the village is expecting a gleeman - all things to make for an exciting festival. However, the village is attacked by Trollocs, the things of fairy tales even for these people, and the woman, Moiraine, turns out to be an Aes Sedai who can yield the One Power. Her efforts help save the village, and she convinces three boys (young men) that they were the target of the attack and the only way to save the village is to leave. These are Rand, Perrin and Mat. However, their escape doesn't go as smoothly or unnoticed as planned, and Egwene, one of the women of the village and Rand's girlfriend of sorts, follows along while the gleeman Thom also joins their party. Later, Nynaeve, the village's Wisdom (healer among other things) finds them as well to bring them back.

When they first leave, the goal is to get to Tar Valon, the city of the Aes Sedai for protection. However, there are several chases and adventures on the way, and the group gets separated. For the most part, the novel is from Rand's perspective but after they get separated there are a few scenes from Perrin's perspective. Eventually, the group finds each other again, and based on information they have found, they decide to head north in search of the Eye of the World.

While this is only the first in the series, Jordan packs in a lot of information about the different kingdoms and lives of the different people. Sometimes, he repeats himself (he has mentioned in every single novel, at least once, that certain tunes have different songs and words in different places), but for the most part he has developed a very rich world with several different cultures: there are the Tinkerers, a peaceful, gypsy-like people as well as the Two Rivers folk, and then the tough men in the North. He also portrays several different cities, and hints at the history of these societies. However, there was a part of me that wondered why we spent so much time on the quest, and this was the part of me that was thinking, "over 12 more books." However, while George R.R. Martin remains my favorite fantasy author, this series definitely combines the best of all worlds: it has political intrigue, and a large cast of characters like Martin, but also deals more with the fantasy elements such as the One Power and Trollocs like Tolkien. The politics aren't necessarily as obvious in this first novel, but especially as the series progresses, it becomes just as much about the game of thrones/houses as it is about fantastical elements.