From the Book’s Jacket :
An unforgettable voyage across the reaches of America and the depths of memory, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay tells the story of America’s artistic birth. Following his family back through the generations, renowned critic Christopher Benfey unearths an ancestry- and an aesthetic-that is quintessentially American. His mother descends from colonial craftsmen, such as the Quaker artist- explorer William Bartram. Benfey’s father-along with his aunt and uncle, the famed Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers-escaped from Nazi Europe by fleeing to the American South. Struggling to find themselves in this new world, Benfey’s family found strength and salvation in the rich craft tradition grounded in America’s vast natural landscape.
Bricks form the backbone of life in the rural Piedmont of North Carolina, where Benfey’s mother was raised among centuries-old folk potteries, tobacco farms, and clay pits. Her father, like his father before him, believed in the deep honesty of brick, that men might build good lives with the bricks they laid. Nurtured in this red-clay world of ancient craft and Quaker radicalism, Benfey’s mother was poised to set out from home when a tragic romance cracked her young life in two. Salvaging the broken shards of his mother’s former life and exploring the revitalized folk arts resisting industrialization, Benfey discovers a world brimming with possibility and creativity.
Benfey’s father had no such foundation in his young life, nor did his aunt and uncle. Exiled artists from Berlin’s Bauhaus school, Josef and Anni Albers were offered sanctuary not far from the red Piedmont at Black Mountain College. A radical experiment in unifying education and art, Black Mountain made a monumental impact on American culture under Josef’s leadership, counting Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller among its influential students and teachers. Focusing on the natural world, innovative craftsmanship, and the physical reality of materials, Black Mountain became a home and symbol for an emerging vision of American art.
My Thoughts :
When TLC Book Tours offered me the opportunity to review this book, I felt both excited and a little unsure. After all, even though I do study art history, American art, pottery and related topics are far from my expertise. I did worry I would have a hard time to get into it, but I shouldn’t have; Benfey’s writing pulled me in from the start.
Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is a book that defies genre classification. It’s a memoir, a story of family, a book about art, history, nations… It is all of this and a little more, all of it coming together in one single narrative. Benley retraces his own origin through his parents and grand-parents’ story while narrating the historic and cultural background of each, and this is what I mostly enjoyed about his book : the intimate point-of-view. It makes history sound a lot more personal and a lot less clinical, all while sticking to the facts.
The book is divided in three parts, and I found them almost all equally interesting. I did enjoy reading about Wedgwood and the Cherokee in the last part, since I am curious about both but haven’t read a lot about either in the past. But, if I am honest, I do wish I could have read even more about the author’s uncle and aunt, Josef and Anni Albers. Maybe because I had heard a little of them before, of maybe because they felt closer to my field of study, I was the most intrigued by their part of the story, and I could have read a complete book about them. However, with a book so full of stories, it was clear the author had included just enough of them.
On a final note, I really liked Benfey’s writing. At times it was a bit unclear which point he was trying to make; he would mention an event, which related to someone specific, which then ended up being a story about someone else, sometimes coming back to the original idea, and sometimes not. It wasn’t a negative point for me; on the contrary, it is precisely what made this non-fiction book more personal and different from a traditional, dry history book.
I am so glad I got the chance to read this book; I’ll be honest and say that it isn’t something I would have picked by myself, but it was certainly a great experience. Benfey made me travel through time and space, gave me a lot to think about on history, family and artists, all of this wrapped in pleasant writing.
For more information or to read more reviews on this book, visit its page on the TLC Book Tours website.
I read a lot more holiday-related books last year than I did this year, but by the time I was ready to review them, it was January and it felt a little late to post these reviews. So, I’m doing this all at once, reviewing my sole Christmas read of 2011 (which was a disappointment) and last year’s reading (much better!) If you’re looking for a last minute holiday read, maybe these books will inspire you; if not, you can take a look to holidays-related posts for plenty more reviews and suggestions!
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The Christmas Wedding by James Patterson
Pages : 266
Genre : Fiction, Holiday
My Rating :
What it’s about : Gaby has a huge surprise for her kids : she is getting married on this Christmas, to one of the three men in her life – but they won’t know who until the big day! But for Gaby, this special day is also the occasion to celebrate with all of her family again, for the first time since her husband passed away five years ago.
My Thoughts : The Christmas Wedding was meant to be a cute story focused on family, and of course the mystery of Gaby’s wedding. And while I imagine it would make a good movie, the story felt a little rushed for me. There were many characters, each with their story lines, and in the end I felt like I never connected and only got a glimpse of their lives. I was also more interested by Gaby’s children than by the wedding mystery! It wasn’t bad, and for a holiday read, it was quick and had a little heart. So while I wouldn’t exactly recommend it as a must-read, I would say borrowing it is a safe bet if you’re not too sure about it either.
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The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore
Pages : 306
Genre : Fiction, Fantasy, Holiday, Zombies!
My Rating :
From the book’s cover : ‘Twas the night (okay, more like the week) before Christmas, and all through the tiny community of Pine Cove, California, people are busy buying, wrapping, packing, and generally getting into the holiday spirit. But not everybody is feeling the joy. Little Joshua Barker is in desperate need of a holiday miracle. No, he’s not on his deathbed; no, his dog hasn’t run away from home. But Josh is sure that he saw Santa take a shovel to the head, and now the seven-year-old has only one prayer: Please, Santa, come back from the dead. But hold on! There’s an angel waiting in the wings. (Wings, get it?) It’s none other than the Archangel Raziel come to Earth seeking a small child with a wish that needs granting. Unfortunately, our angel’s not sporting the brightest halo in the bunch, and before you can say “Kris Kringle,” he’s botched his sacred mission and sent the residents of Pine Cove headlong into Christmas chaos, culminating in the most hilarious and horrifying holiday party the town has ever seen.
My Thoughts : There’s no way I could have summarized this book in my words in such a perfect way! Because the book’s summary not only tells you what this fantastic novel is about, it also gives you a great idea of Moore’s voice and humor. The author definitely has a special brand or writing and humor, and I can see now why his books are so popular. The Stupidest Angel is not a cute Christmas tale, nor is it all fluffy and sentimental. It takes the magic of Christmas and turns it on its head, replacing it with silliness and zombies. It’s different, and funny, and while not something everyone would enjoy, it is something that those looking for a different kind of holiday reading will appreciate. The tagline, A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, really says it all!
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Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
Pages : 166
Genre : Non-Fiction, Short Stories
My Rating :
What it’s about : A collection of short non-fiction stories, of the author’s personal experiences with the holidays.
My Thoughts : Without a doubt, the star of this too short book is the first essay, SantaLand Diaries, describing with great humor Sedaris’ life as an elf for Macy’s Santa. It was entertaining and memorable and sometimes heartbreaking – which I cannot say of the following stories, I have to sadly say. There are other interesting stories, but the first one is by far the best. Reading this book made me realize one thing though; I’m not sure I’m a Sedaris fan. I remember reading him a while ago and I thought I enjoyed it, but reading Holidays on Ice was a roller-coaster; I sometimes couldn’t let go of the book, and sometimes just couldn’t bother picking it up again. So overall, not great, but really not bad either; certainly worth a try!
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Home in Time for Christmas by Heather Graham
Pages : 285
Genre : Romance, Time-Travel, Historical Fiction
My Rating :
What it’s about : Melody is driving home for Christmas when a man suddenly appears in front of her car, all dressed in what looks like a Revolutionary War-era costume. It’s too late to avoid him, and Melody hits him. When Jakes insists he’s from another time, Melody is sure she hit him a little too hard on the head. Feeling guilty, she brings him home to her parents as a friend, just in time for a very unique Christmas.
My Thoughts : At some point in my blogging life, I’ll have to actually come out of my denial and admit that I do, sometimes, enjoy the occasional romance. I certainly enjoyed this one!
It had the Christmas magic mixed in with the additional time-travel magic. Melody was actually likable and, for a book that was mostly light fun, I was surprised by the fact that she wasn’t too cardboard-like. I like the other characters, too, and the story would make an excellent Christmas movie! It’s sweet, but not excessively sweet, more on the side of romantic-comedy than comedy-comedy, which is probably why I liked it so. I also appreciated the historical aspect.
Stiff : the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Pages : 304
Genre : Non fiction
My Rating :
If you’ve been around my blog for a while, a review of a non-fiction book about the human cadaver is probably not what you’re expecting! And truly, though I have a certain curiosity for shows like C.S.I. or Bones, it’s not something I usually go out of my way to find information about. The positive reviews I had read of this one though really convinced me it was to be read, so when my sister let me borrow it, I couldn’t say no.
From crash test dummies to crucifixion experiments, with chapters on body snatching and organ donation, Mary Roach describes the life of the human cadavers now and before. The author’s approach is fortunately not hardcore science, but rather an historical one, which makes it a comfortable read for those who, like me, can’t remember the last time they had a science class of any kind.
The author also lightens the mood with a good dose of humor, which is particularly appreciated when the descriptions get a bit disgusting (and I’m not going to get into more details here, by respect for those of you who don’t want to read about this while drinking your afternoon coffee). However, I could have done without the author’s personal insights on some aspects, where she inserted personal remarks that had nothing to do with the subject at hand, probably in the hope of making it all a little less dark. Her humor generally worked for me, (and, in fact, was welcomed!) but since I wasn’t reading to hear about her personal life outside this specific research, these passages distracted me.
That being said, reading Stiff was such a fun experience. I learned lots of things that would do great weird small talk (let me tell you about head transplants!) and Roach’s style is really easy to get into. While some of her personal insights annoyed me, her personal approach to this research had a lot of heart in it. She showed a lot of compassion for the bodies, all the while keeping a respectful distance from their life before death. It really was about the material body, and not about the person they used to be. She also didn’t shy away from asking the questions we’re dying (ah!) to ask, making this a book that will satisfy even the most curious readers!
In the end, I kind of forgot, in a way, what I was reading about. I wasn’t too grossed out, as I had expected to be, and went through the book as quickly as I would have with any fiction novel. If you have any curiosity on the subject but haven’t really read on it before, this could be a great start 🙂
French Milk by Lucy Knisley
Pages : 193
Genre : Graphic Novel, memoir
My Rating :
French Milk is an adorable graphic novel, illustrating Lucy and her mother’s trip to Paris during the 2006-2007 holidays. Charming and evocative of the beautiful French city, this visual travelogue is also illustrated by a few photographs, though the author’s drawings really are center stage to the story.
I adored reading French Milk, and went through it in one single sitting. In fact, I cracked it open late at night before bed, and ended up reading the whole thing. Knisley has a way of telling her story that made me feel like I was there – and I certainly wish I was – while being entertaining and extremely likable and honest.
This being simply a diary of events taking place over a few weeks, I imagine some readers would find it a little dry; there is no action, suspense, questions, it is only a day-to-day account of what Lucy and her mom do while in Paris. Personally, I loved that, because it reminded me so, so much of our (too) short vacation there. I believe readers who’ve been there, or who have a strong interest in visiting the city, will be most likely to enjoy this one, though honestly I would still recommend it to anyone who enjoys graphic novels and/or traveling. Or eating. Because a lot of Lucy’s time is occupied by food. So. Much. Food!
Another strong aspect of Lucy’s story is the fact that, at 22 years old, she finds herself facing an important and scary moment of her life: she’s getting ready to leave college to finally enter her adult life. I believe many readers will, as myself, relate to her fears
All in all, a very pleasant read with a lot of heart (and food!)
The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
Pages : 260
Genre : Non-fiction, Memoir, Recipes
My Rating :
What it’s about :
Moving to Paris to build a new life, american pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz realizes this is, indeed, a different life France has in store for him. Through memories and recipes, combined with good humor, the author shares his experience of adapting to a new culture.
My Thoughts :
One thing is for sure : when reading The Sweet Life in Paris, you’ll get hungry. Better stack a bunch of cookies and a good cup of coffee by your side for the trip!
From the simple “chocolate mousse” to the decadent “cinnamon meringue with espresso-caramel ice cream, chocolate sauce and candied almonds”, Lebovitz punctuates each chapter with delicious recipes. Most of them will put your sweet tooth in appetite, though there are also a few more meaty recipes to make sure you don’t overdose on sugar, such as “pork ribs” and “warm goat cheese salad”.
The recipes weren’t the only part of the book I enjoyed though. Lebovitz narration is honest and funny and takes you right into the Parisian life. I loved revisiting the city through his eyes, which was a much different point of view from the one of a tourist, like me a year ago (and hopefully, soon again!) It’s less about the architecture, the art, the landmarks, and more about the gastronomy and the cultural differences. Oh,and the language barrier, of course.
I do think the book could have been shortened a bit. Not that it was really long from the start, but because I found there was some repetition in the narration, and sometimes between the chapters.
Whether it’s because you want to experience a bit of the Parisian life, because you’re hungry for new recipes, because you love to travel and learn about other cultures, or simply because you already enjoy David Lebovitz’s amazing blog, The Sweet Life in Paris is a sweet way to feed both your heart and your stomach.
I mentioned in my August recap that my August reading had been kind of “meh”; this is mostly due (but not entirely, of course), to 3 of the 4 books I borrowed from the library. Let’s just say I’m glad I borrowed, not bought these books! So to spare the pain of writing many not-so-positive reviews, I decided to rip the band-aid off at once.
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TMI by Sarah Quigley
Pages : 302
Genre : YA, Fiction
My Rating :
What it’s about : Becca has a tendency to overshare, a fact she always knew but never cared to change. When her over-sharing drives her boyfriend away, Becca decides she needs to stop saying everything that crosses her mind; instead, she starts an anonymous blog where she can say as much as she wants without getting in trouble.
My thoughts : TMI was a cute story and there’s not much more I can say about it. I enjoyed it enough, but I felt it wasn’t really memorable. I expected Becca’s blog to be about gossips and episodes of her life, but instead it was more about putting her daydreaming in words. Her blog was the least interesting part of the book for me, but the author did managed to make Becca entertaining and likable enough. Also, I felt the book really was directed to a younger crowd than the YA fiction I usually enjoy, so I can’t really blame the book or the author for my lack of excitement.
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Pages : 218
Genre : Non fiction, Memoir,
My Rating :
What it’s about : Howie Mandel, comic and host of Deal or no Deal, shares about his struggles with ADD and OCD.
My thoughts : Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know about Mandel’s brand of humor or about his career, really. He was just this guy I saw once in a while in a publicity for his show. I went into this book only interested in learning about how he dealt with his OCD (he’s a germaphobe) and how this affected his life. Sadly, this book was mostly a huge apology to friends and family for the troubles his disorders caused. He shares what happened, but we don’t really get to know what were the consequences, what he did to fix it, etc. Also, I didn’t get his sense of humor, so most of his jokes fell flat for me.
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Gravity by Leanne Lieberman
Pages : 239
Genre : YA, GLBT, Fiction
My Rating :
What it’s about : Elli is an orthodox Jew, but she also has a thing for girls. It’s the summer, it’s the eighties, and Elli is spending a month at her grand-mother’s house by the lake. There she falls for a girl like no other, and her life will never be the same.
My thoughts : I don’t even know where to start with this one. First of all, Elli had the most boring summer I have ever read in a YA novel, so boring that I almost stopped reading many times (so boring, she loses track of time herself). Fortunately, the pace gets better when her month at the lake is over, but the books doesn’t improve much. I guess the author had a great idea, but very poorly executed. Her views on being a lesbian or an orthodox Jew seemed stereotyped to me, and borderline offensive when it came to explaining how it was to be a Jew. Now, I’m not going to write a defense for being a Jew or not and all that, but her view felt limited and therefore, not respectful. Plus, there were so many inconsistencies (her parents are strict, but still let her spend a month with her grand-mother, who’s everything but orthodox?) that it drove me crazy. Also, the numerous references to “breasts” and how they were “squeezed” in a too tight shirt felt a bit ridiculous. Of course, if you’re into girls you’ll be into their physical attributes, but I do wish there’s more to it than that. Sigh.