Monday, December 27, 2010

The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier (2003)

I reread this book, because I got to see the real Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in Paris last month. I remember loving the book the first time (I read it before I started this blog), but was frustrated that the book did not contain images of the tapestries themselves. When I gave it as a gift to a friend for Christmas, I located images in books and on the Internet, and created a booklet of images for her to go along with the book. The version I now read had at least partial images of all six tapestries.

The tapestries really were amazing. They are hanging in a separate room at the Musee National du Moyen Age - formerly the Musee de Cluny, now the Museum of the Middle Ages. They are quite powerful, each containing a lady, sometimes with a lady in waiting, and a unicorn and a lion. Each tapestry represents one of the senses - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and the last one is My Soul's Desire. I had a period in life where I loved and collected unicorns and books and stories about unicorns. They are definitely fascinating, phallic, mysterious. I did not remember much about the lions (they are barely mentioned in the book and are not depicted in the partial illustrations of the tapestries in my book), but I was surprised at their docileness, even goofiness.

I remembered really liking this book about the artist, who painted the originals for each tapestry, which would then have to be rendered into large cartoons to place under the looms of the weavers in Belgium, who would then weave the images row by row, never seeing the whole until the tapestry was done. I had forgotten much of the details, and after the convoluted museum brochure that spent most of its energy describing the controversial interpretations of the sixth tapestry, I decided it was just time to reread this book. I knew it was based on as much truth as Chevalier could unearth, and the rest was just a good story about romance and medieval life, and the art of creating tapestries, that I still found intriguing.

The artist Nicolas des Innocents is a portrait painter commissioned to paint the original tapestry paintings, and he convinces the lady of the house Genevieve to ask her husband Jean le Viste for ladies with unicorns instead of battle scenes for the tapestries. Their daughter Claude falls for this rouge of and artist, but of course they must be kept apart. Nicolas goes with the merchant Leon Le Vieux to Brussles, to bring the paintings, get the commission started. He stays a while and helps Philippe work on the cartoons and is fascinated by the blind daughter Alienor of the weavers Georges and Christine. These human encounters give the story of the plot, which otherwise would be simply:  rich lord commissions tapestries and they are woven by a workshop of weavers. What gives the book its richness are the details of making a tapestry - getting the right colored wools, how they are sorted and wound into hanks, how various weavers sit all day at the looms, and then at night the women sew the weaving together. I had heard of guilds in my history of Latvia, and there are still the Big Guild and Little Guild building in old Riga, but now I had more sense of how they functioned. They regulated their members, but also insured quality and supported each other.

And now, 500 years later, I could still feast my eyes on the work of the artists and craftsmen, who are maybe still anonymous, but I have a sense that Chevalier has brought them to life, and I am left with a feeling that Chevalier's characters are the real authors of the tapestries I saw in Paris. Plus fun to keep reading about Paris after visiting it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Juliet by Ann Fortier (2010)

Wonderful mix of history and today's world, but actually both fiction. Juliet of today finds out that she may be the descendant from the "real" Juliet of Romeo and Juliet, which was supposedly based on a real story of star crossed lovers. Today's Juliet goes to Italy and has wild adventures, follows clues left by her deceased mother, falls in love...

One Day by David Nicholls (2009)

We follow Emma and Dexter through twenty years on one day each year. It starts with their graduation day from college and follows the ups and downs of their lives, as they discover what they really want to do, and as they discover what they mean to each other. Not great, but some good observations on youth, searching for one's place in the world, the power of friendship, not giving up on each other, etc. At times I wanted the book to speed up, but in the end I was quite enamored of both characters.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (2010)

Another amazing historical fiction book by Tracy Chevalier. This time she takes the historical figure of Mary Anning, who discovered many unique fossils on the beaches of Lyme Regis, England in the 19th century. Since she is a woman and not an officially schooled scientist, she is not taken seriously, nor can she participate in scholarly discussions, but her discoveries provide the basis for a lot of work by scientists in her time. The story is partially told from Mary's point of view, and partially from Elizabeth Philpot, a gentlewoman who also is intrigued by fossils and who helps Mary.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (2010)

Wonderful book about the immigrant spirit. A brilliant young Chinese girl lives in an unheated apartment and works after school in a garment factory, but perseveres in school and proves to all that she can overcome all her circumstances and become successful.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Butterfly by Patricia Polacco (2000)

Just saw this book lying around the library - by one of my favorite childrens' book authors. Seems like I am still drawn to France, and France during WWII. It seems that Polacco has a never ending supply of relatives, that played an important role in history, but then again, I like getting the history of the world through Polacco's eyes. This is about a girl Monique, whose mother protected Jews from Nazis in France. The butterfly is the symbol of freedom, and a German soldier crushing one symbolizes the way they crushed many a human life.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (2009)

Just grabbed the latest Caldecott Medal winner and found it was by an old favorite - Pinkney. This worldless book is just gorgeously illustrated - and it too is one of my favorite of Aesop's fables about the tiny mouse saving the lion from the poacher's net.