The Strangest Book Ever Created?

0847842134.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini
Source: National Library
Edition: Rizzoli (2013), Hardcover, 396 pages
Original publication date: 1981

A truly bizarre work which has often been described as the strangest book ever created, and which has to be experienced to be believed. The physical book is in itself is a work of art, presented as a large format hardcover volume with countless colour illustrations printed on a high quality, thick, ridged paper, which make the coloured pencil and ink illustrations look as though they’ve been drawn directly on the page. The overall work has the aspect and organization of an encyclopedia, with clearly formatted pages of explanatory text and diagrams in a wholly invented language, presenting exquisite though illegible calligraphy throughout; the language of the book has defied linguists for decades, but one cannot help but try to make sense of it. Many “specimens” are shown in detailed drawings, from fantastical plant forms to local costumes, mechanical devices, architecture and landscapes, which could only exist in an alternate universe, the brain of someone on LSD, or as Serafini himself explained for this recent 2013 edition, from the mind of the cat who kept him company in the late 70s as Serafini worked feverishly on this project during 30 months, with the feline perched on his shoulders and transmitting his ideas to him telepathically. He in fact credits the cat as the true creator and himself merely as the scribe. Not surprisingly, Serafini is an Italian artist, architect and designer who has, among other things worked with the famous surreal film director Federico Fellini, and his book has been compared to works by M.C. Escher and Hieronymus Bosch.

I find I cannot rate this book, for the simple reason that I was completely enchanted in the beginning, as well as astounded at the level of detail, sheer work and vivid imagination put into this huge volume, but perhaps changing moods coloured my perception as I kept turning the pages because I was at times delighted and enchanted, and on some days I felt as though I was seeing nightmarish visions. I’m glad I was able to borrow this volume from our national library system and didn’t go ahead and spend the $80 listed price on it, as I may want to pore over it again once or twice, but ultimately found it too disturbing to have in my permanent collection. But that’s just me. Others I’m sure will be delighted to own this fantastic volume, and for good reason. Click on the thumbnails below to see larger reproductions.

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Currently Listening To…

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On audio, picked up The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir last night. No big shock that after completing the Matthew Shardlake Dissolution series, firmly set during King Henry VIII’s reign, I’d feel inspired to pick up a work of non-fiction on the big man’s women, especially as Harry’s last 5 queens are featured in the novels rather prominently. I’m now at the point where Catherine of Aragon has just been married to H8’s older brother Arthur, Prince of Wales and the question of whether the marriage was likely consummated or not has just been covered. Fascinating stuff, in light of my fairly recently acquired interest in the Tudor era, ever since I picked up Wolf Hall exactly two years ago, and now just finished all five voluminous Shardlake novels in under 4 weeks… a record for me in more ways than one.  I’ll be putting down my thoughts on books 2-5 soon and posting mini-reviews about them, and will have to be patient till book 6 comes out later in the year.

Woke up from nearly 2 hours napping, with a pleasant tune playing in my mind, which I’d been singing to myself in my most recent dream as I traipsed around a lovely make-believe home I shared with my mum. Probably inspired by the fact that after reading my recent review of The Cuckoo’s Calling, she was inspired to send me a link to a Joan Baez song she used to listen to when I was a child called When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin` (link to YouTube clip). My dream air was just two bars of music, and I’m fairly sure they are of my own composition, which I tried singing to myself when I awoke, and I must say, thought I’m no kind of singer, do sound rather lovely and timeless (in a moody medieval/folk kind of vein). If I could remember how to take down music scores, I should put it down for future remembrance.

Tabloid Mania

1478980826.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) ★★★½
Series: Cormoran Strike (1 of 2)
Edition: Mulholland Books (2013), OverDrive Unabridged MP3, 15h54
Original publication date: 2013

Things aren’t going very well for Cormoran Strike. When we meet him, he’s just broken up with his long-time girlfriend and fiancée, who’s run out on him like a fury, and since they were living together and his private eye practice hasn’t been doing well, now he’s stuck sleeping in his office on a camp bed amid boxes of his belongings. On the same day, a saviour in the form of temporary secretary Robin Ellacott appears, along with a client who is willing to pay a high fee to solve a case. Famous supermodel Lula Landry plunged to her death from her luxury pad’s balcony a few months ago, and her brother John Bristow suspects this was not a suicide as the police determined, and wants Strike to find the killer. Strike himself has an interesting background. He’s a veteran from the war in Afghanistan where he lost his leg, and he is also the bastard son of a famous musician, his mother having been a well-known groupie back in the day. This is practical as far as getting people in high places (always impressed with his link to fame) to talk to him, but otherwise he is far from liking the too-close-for-comfort association with the world of tabloid press.

I liked the story well enough, and found Cormoran and his helpmate Robin to be appealing characters I had fun getting to know, but the tabloid elements felt too prevalent for me to feel I was sinking my teeth into a murder mystery of substance. There’s the world-famous gorgeouser-than-thou supermodel with bipolar disorder and a possible drug habit, there’s the loser heroin-addict famous musician boyfriend who likes to toy with the paparazzi, there’s the super-gay high fashion designer who alternates between adoring and exploiting his muse, there’s the lifestyle that is something akin to billionaire racing heiress Petra Ecclestone’s (a recent tabloid fixture in the UK), there’s the attractive wannabe-actor chauffeur who is chummy with the stars… it seems J. K. Rowling (writing under the pen name of Robert Galbraith) didn’t have to look much father than her supermarket’s checkout line to find inspiration for the first book in her Cormoran Strike series.

That being said, this was my first reaction as I was listening to the excellent narration by Robert Glenister of this audiobook a few weeks ago, but I thought I’d let the experience mellow and see what impressions I might be left with after a while, and I must admit that Galbraith/Rowling managed to create a very vivid little world few of us are usually privy to, yet seems familiar because of the media fascination with this élite world of people with too much money to have much common sense. Do I think this book will become a classic and be read in coming decades? Perhaps if readers are keen on getting a snapshot of what the second decade of the 21st century was like as far as popular culture goes. But for this very same reason, I’m now quite curious to see what Galbraith will do with his/her next book, where the mystery takes place in the just slightly less high-profile and less tabloid-centric world of a novelist gone missing, and a private detective whose next steps I’m keen to follow in the upcoming follow-up being released later this month, The Silkworm.

***

My rating system:
★ : Hated it! (May or may not have finished it)
★★ : It was just ok…
★★★ : Enjoyed it (Good)
★★★★ : Loved it! (Very good)
★★★★½ : Loved it—must read again! (Excellent)
★★★★★ : Brilliant!—will read again, and again… and again! (All-time favourite)

Engrossed in 16th Century Murder Mysteries

f001035b372b141596944436967444341587343Dissolution by C. J. Samson ★★★★½
Series: Matthew Shardlake (1 of 5)
Edition: Vintage Canada (2012), Kindle eBook, 464 pages
Original publication date: 2003

When Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer at the employ of Thomas Cromwell is ordered to investigate a murder in a Benedictine monastery, he finds he is quickly enmeshed in a mystery that just keeps getting more complex, more tangled up and more dangerous day by day. Cromwell, known as a harsh master and a tough man to please, expects to get a quick resolution to avoid having to relate the incident to King Henry VIII, as the details of the crime are sure to greatly displease the monarch. The year is 1537 and England is in the midst of Reformation; the Catholic religion, which had been practiced in England for countless generations is now out of favour, ever since King Henry decided to divorce himself from the Roman Pope and declared himself the head of the Church of England, to enable him to rid himself of his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn in accordance with his pious beliefs. At this time, Anne has been gotten rid of well over a year ago—a beheading which Matthew was ordered to attend much against his will—and Henry’s third wife Jane Grey has just died in childbirth. King Henry’s men, all ardent Reformers, with Thomas Cromwell at the helm as vicar-general, and the newly formed Court of Augmentations (created expressly for the purpose), are busily closing down all the smaller monasteries to replenish the royal coffers and take over land which is to be given over to prominent landowners as royal favours. But Henry VIII and Cromwell’s sights are now set on the large monasteries, from which there are countless riches to be gained, and the monastery of Scarnsea on the Southern coast of England is their next target. The political situation is fragile however, and the king’s men are in no position to force the monks to abandon their holding as they’ve done with the smaller monasteries, since a revolt in the North has forced them to reconsider their strong-arm tactics, and they must employ finer stratagems now to encourage the abbots to give up the monasteries willingly.

The royal commissioner recently sent to investigate Scarnsea has just met with a most violent murder on the premises, and Master Shardlake is expected to find the culprit and conclude the business his predecessor was sent there to take care of. Of course, he fully expects to be met as an unwelcome guest at the monastery; as the vicar general’s man, he has unrestricted access and can question anyone he likes to enable him to find means to put all the monks and their servants, who have been living in the monastery in luxury and comfort for hundreds of years, out on the street. So he is all too aware that he and his assistant, the young Mark Poer, are putting their lives at risk in a place where a murderer has already dared to strike off the head of his predecessor, all the more so when other suspicious deaths take place and a long-dead corpse is discovered. Shardlake, as an ardent reformer, has his share of preconceived notions to contend with before he can see past his prejudices against the Catholic papist traditions of the monks and recognize when he is being told the truth and given clues he should attend to.

I’d seen many glowing reviews for this book and the Matthew Shardlake series in general, but am glad I followed my instincts and decided to put it off until I’d learned about the major players in King Henry’s time and understood more about the political and religious situation of that particular period covered in the book. Reading Hillary Mantel’s excellent Wolf Hall with the assistance of a tutor on Library Thing who is extremely knowledgeable about that period, followed-up with Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which treats specifically on Henry Tudor’s displeasure with Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell’s efforts to eliminate her so the monarch could move on to Wife Number Three, proved to be just the kind of high quality literary background that helped me appreciate this historical crime novel all the more. I also found reading this as an eBook very practical, as it made googling particulars and looking up biographical details on wikipedia available at the touch of a button, but that being said, I don’t think deep historical knowledge is necessary to enjoy this series, with its countless atmospheric details which plunge you right into the 1530s and a fast-paced, complex yet riveting plot that certainly kept this reader completely engrossed and barely able to put the book down. I’ve been told by fans of the series that the Matthew Shardlake books just keep getting better and have now moved on to book 2, Dark Fire, which is proving equally captivating. In fact, I think I’ll go and read a few more chapters now, and am already hoping Sansom puts out more sequels to keep me going for a good long while!

My Little Lamb

Coco Before-After

My little lamb, aka Coco went to the groomer’s today and got all shorn for spring. Couldn’t resist doing a before & after shot. I think he looks pretty adorable before and after. Poor thing is winking because his eye is bothering him, probably some form of hay fever.

Short and Bittersweet

0393067203.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Coventry by Helen Humphries ★★★★
Edition: W. W. Norton & Company (2009), 1st American Ed, Hardcover, 192 pages
Original publication date: 2008

I read this book in just two sittings—yes, partly because it’s short, but also because it made for compulsive reading and was very difficult to put down. It’s my first book by Helen Humphreys, and I think the others currently on my wishlist will end up on the TBR sooner rather than later. Two women and a young man are at the heart of this novel which mostly takes place during one terrifying night, during the worst and most destructive of a series of German blitzes on the city of Coventry, UK, this one occurring on November 14th, 1940. Our first glimpse of Harriet Marsh, the lead character, is when she is perched on the roof of Coventry cathedral on firewatching duty just before the bombs start raining down. As a woman, she shouldn’t really be there, but she’s replacing her injured neighbour that night, which is how she meets the young Jeremy Fisher, another firewatcher who, unbeknownst to her at this point, will end up spending the better part of the night with her, as they both try to reach their homes, which are located close to each other and where Jeremy hopes to find his mother Maeve. As they make their way through the city, the are forced to walk through the burning inferno that Coventry has become, with the constant pounding of bombs, buildings toppling at every moment, trying to help victims who are instantly buried in the detritus in front of their very eyes, and hoping not to get exploded to bits themselves or to find their homes annihilated either. Harriet had already lived through the First War twenty-six years earlier, to which she lost her young husband, both only eighteen years-old and just married at the time. He’d gone missing and probably killed a few weeks after he’d enlisted and left for the front on September 1914, just one month into the war, and Harriet has never gotten over the grief of her loss. He’d only had the chance to send her one letter, and she’s held onto this relic like a talisman ever since, and when the novel begins, she is convinced that this second war with the Germans can’t possibly have such a devastating impact on her as did the Great War. But in this she is mistaken of course, and at that point she can’t possibly know that Jeremy is the son of a woman she’d casually met 26 years before, on the very day she’d seen her newlywed husband off at the train station.

I found this short review by the Guardian, which I thought did a better job at resuming the book than I ever could, though I should say that it’s written from the perspective of a British person who is familiar with the history of the war as it happened in her own country, unlike myself, to whom the events of that night were formerly mostly unknown and therefore did not seem quite as inevitable, which took nothing away from the story—quite the contrary in fact:

“To set a character on the roof of Coventry cathedral on the night of 14 November 1940 leaves no doubt about the path the narrative will take. The inevitability of the firestorm sounds ominously from the first sentence of Coventry, but Helen Humphreys makes of that certainty a subtly crafted, surely paced novel. From Harriet Marsh looking up at a “bomber’s moon”, we slip back to a meeting between her and another young woman on a tram at the outbreak of the first world war. Long before either Harriet, Jeremy, the young man with whom she shares firewatching duties, or his mother, fleeing the desperate bonhomie of drinkers in a pub cellar, realises, the reader is aware that the bombing of Coventry will tie up the loose ends of that earlier encounter. Bleak images of death are counterpointed by moments of escape. As Harriet and Jeremy pick their way through collapsed buildings and burning streets, a fleeing horse embodies the possibility of survival. Coventry hauntingly depicts the nightmarish power of chance.” (Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian, 12 September 2009)

Funny Moments in Tragedy

Quote

KingLear_McGillivray

“Our present business
Is to general woe.”

~ King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3

For some reason, that line delivered so solemnly by the Duke of Albany in the final act of the play makes me smile every time. There are so many dead bodies piled on top of one another and the drama is so compounded of endless miseries, that his words somehow seem incredibly redundant, and make the unendurable tragedy of it funny. But that’s probably just me.

I’ve just completed another reading of Shakespeare’s play, this time from the Oxford World’s Classics annotated edition, in preparation for watching a performance in a National Theatre Live presentation tomorrow evening. Sam Mendes directs Simon Russell Beale as King Lear. Looking forward to it!

Painting:
King Lear in the Storm (1881)
by James Pittendrigh McGillivray
oil on canvas
24 x 20 in. (61 x 50.8 cm.)