Sunday, January 01, 2017

Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings (1987)

I had never heard of abstract artist Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007) before I picked up my friend John's copy of Elizabeth Murray: Paintings and Drawings (1987), the companion publication to a retrospective exhibition of her art held at the midpoint of her career. If you are also unfamiliar with her, you can check out some of her work here.

The book begins with some introductory essays on Murray's paintings and drawings, followed by a section of reproductions, each annotated by the artist, and ending with a long interview with Murray. While I'm not sure that her work speaks to me 100% (and, honestly, I get the feeling that you need to see her work in person and not in small prints in a coffee table book), being able to read her annotations about her process and the thoughts behind the images was fascinating. Particularly in the world of abstract art, being able to combine your own response to the work on the page with the intention and process of the artist adds a real depth to the artwork.

I will be the first to admit that I don't know as much about art history and contemporary artists as I should, so I'm very happy that this collection fell into my hands!


Monday, December 26, 2016

The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation by Justo L. González (2010)

I decided to audit the church history class at the seminary where I work this past semester, and one of the textbooks we used was The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation by Justo L. González (2010). Auditing the class was a great experience -- it was taught by one of my favorite faculty members and I got to know a bunch of the new students by serving as their "embedded librarian" and learning all the ins and outs of the early church alongside them.

Because this class covered about 1500+ years of human history, things had to move pretty fast by necessity, but having González's text to fill in some of the gaps and add a foundation to the lectures and class discussions was really helpful. I'm no Christian history expert, but I felt like this book gave me just the right amount of detail and context to explain the implications of events, without getting too lost in the weeds of historical detail. The book is well laid out and includes some pictures to break up the historical events. Starting back in the events of the New Testament, this volume takes us all the way up to the very start of the Protestant Revolution (which is picked up at the start of the second volume by González, which I'm working my way through now -- can't wait to find out what happens next!).

One thing I wasn't expecting to have to conquer in church history was a philosophical understanding of the different theological controversies that have rocked the church (and particularly the early church) over the years. I'm basically familiar with Christian theology, but my mind was a little blown when we really started digging into the Trinity and Christological interpretations. Probably will not be embedding myself into the Systematic Theology class anytime soon.

Regardless of how you feel about Christianity, there is no denying the huge impact it has had (and continues to have) on the political, cultural, and social history of the Western world. I feel like my dip into a survey of Christian history has given me a better launching pad for understanding the world around me and how it ended up this way (for good and for bad). It is also really helping stoke my fascination with the English royal family, although that shows up more in Volume two....

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Roald Dahl (1984)

I read this lovely anthology of classic ghost stories (Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories (1984)) as a Halloween-themed treat for the always excellent DAFFODILS book club.

Weird, sexist, and rambley old man introduction aside (seriously, Roald Dahl, why do you have to be so beloved AND so crotchety?), this is a great collection of creepy short stories -- mostly from the 1950s, but with some intriguing earlier stories as well. My personal favorite was the one written by one of the only authors in the collection that I knew beforehand, "Afterward" by Edith Wharton. "The Telephone" by Mary Treadgold and "The Sweeper" by A.M. Burrage were also pretty great. 

As one member of the book club pointed out, the thing about an anthology of ghost stories is that you know for certain that at the end, that weird guy or beautiful woman or adorable kid on the playground is going to end up being a G-G-G-G-GHOST! I don't mind, though, as the satisfying ghost ending is all part of the fun. 

It would be perfect to follow up reading these stories with a late-night viewing of Crimson Peak... Highly recommended for anyone who likes some classic short fiction and a good (mild) scare.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki (2015)

I got my copy of The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki (2015), a historical fiction / romance novel, at a librarian book exchange from a fellow archivist who said she got it as a gift but would never read it. Honestly, half of me wishes I had just let this one go, but I started it, I finished it, and now I'm writing about it.

To be fair, I have really enjoyed some historical romance in the past, particularly when it involves royalty, and this story of a scrappy Bavarian duchess turned Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed like it could be a good fit. The book itself is pretty predictable and not bad enough to be a fun bad read or good enough to be a fun good read. The life of Elizabeth (known to her admirers as Sisi), however, is fascinating. Take a minute to check out her Wikipedia page. She's got some excellent mother-in-law tension, a doomed romance, a son who died in a crazy murder-suicide pact, a wild beauty routine, an independent life as a traveler, and then was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in Geneva who wanted to kill the next royal personage he saw. Plus her life overlapped with the invention of photography so we have tons of kick ass photographs of her and her beloved hair.

This particular book just goes through the first part of Elizabeth's life, through the couple's coronation in Hungary, and Pataki has already published a second book in the Sisi series that delves into more of her interesting life. (And if that name sounds familiar, Allison Pataki is indeed the daughter of George Pataki, former New York governor and ex-Republican potential presidential candidate.)

On the plus side, the descriptions of court life in Vienna and the Hungarian countryside are very well done, and the book has a nice structure that helps to give the story a little bit of a life. I mostly read this one in airports and on airplanes, and it was just about the perfect thing for that kind of reading experience (except when I ended up sitting next to a woman who had THREE royal historical romances in her carry on bag and then wanted to talk to me about how great the historical romance genre is for half of our flight).

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir (1992)

I love me some English royal history, and Alison Weir's The Princes in the Tower (1992) definitely scratches that itch.

Weir sets out to review all the available evidence on the fate of the two Yorkist prices (Edward V and his brother, Richard) who went into the Tower of London during the rule of their uncle, Richard III, and were never seen again. Weir is staunchly in the "Richard did it" camp and deftly brings together centuries of documentation, interpretation, and research to bolster her claim. She also brings in some pretty sharp (and sometimes smirky) counter-arguments to those in the "Richard is innocent" camp (a centuries-long tradition).

I liked that she didn't go 100% Shakespeare and claim that Richard was evil or necessarily more scheming than anyone else -- she puts his decisions and actions in a context that makes a lot of sense for the man and his times. The book ends with a fascinating look at the archaeological evidence gathered when the bones of two young boys were found in a trunk buried under a staircase in the Tower during the reign of Charles II (about 200 years after their deaths), as well as a scientific study of those bones done in the 1930s. There is something very CSI: Medieval England about some of this (in a good way!) and Weir makes the history and connections understandable for a non-expert without seeming to dumb anything down.

I'd be curious to see how Weir would integrate the 2012 discovery of Richard's skeleton and subsequent testing and reburial, but a cursory google search didn't turn up any reaction from her to the project. It did, however, turn up this article with a truly excellent headline.

This is a readable and straightforward book about a key moment in British royal history that led to the end of the Yorks and the the rise of the Tudors. Definitely recommended.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Images of America: Nebraska City by Tammy Partsch (2015)

As an archivist, I'm a fan of Arcadia Press and their local history publications -- always heavy on photographs and focused on a niche location or topic, they do just what they intend and also spread the love of archival photographs (AND they were also a sponsor of the Austin Archives Bazaar, so they deserve lots of love!).

As a Nebraskan, I'm also a fan of Nebraska City, where my dad grew up and my grandparents lived for many years. Put those two loves together, and I'm the natural market for Images of America: Nebraska City by Tammy Partsch (2015). My aunt picked this up when she was back in Nebraska City for a reunion and I'm so glad she did. Having grown up with frequent visits to the city, I never really knew much about its history and, as one of the oldest cities in Nebraska, its history is very rich.

Partsch divides the photographs in the book up by topic, with big sections focusing on the Morton family / Arbor Lodge, as well as the local orchards and the legacy of firefighting in the town.

While the topic may be a little narrow for the general reader, if you have any attachment to Nebraska, Arbor Day, or the settlement of early towns in the west, this is a worthwhile read.

I may be a little biased, but my favorite picture in the book was this group of kindergartners from 1956 in the "Daily Life" section, since it also happens to feature my grandmother, Lilly Sorensen. Love you Bemor!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016)

The Society of American Archivists is running a One Book, One Profession nationwide book club this fall, and their selection is Teaching With Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (2016). A group of Austin-area archivists decided to read the book and get together during October (which just happens to be Archives Month!) to discuss it. I'm really glad I jumped on board with this event because this is a book that I might not have ordinarily read, and I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

The book consists of three independently-written modules, which move generally from the more theoretical to the more practical: "Contextualizing Archival Literacy" by Elizabeth Yakel and Doris Malkmus; "Teaching With Archives - A Guide for Archivists, Librarians, and Educators" by Sammie L. Morris, Tamar Chute, and Ellen Swain; "Connecting Students and Primary Sources - Cases and Examples" by Tamar Chute, Ellen Swain, and Sammie L. Morris. Sammie is a friend of mine and I was so excited to see that she contributed to two of the three modules in the book, building on the articles I'd read about her research in identifying core skills in using archives for history students.

I found all three modules to be applicable to my work as an archivist, even though I don't do that much traditional teaching in a day-to-day context. I do spend some time every semester doing more formal library instruction, which sometimes involves the archives, and I also do a lot of one-on-one archival instruction and advocacy, both with students and faculty (and members of the general public). The pedagogical framework as well as the concrete case studies and sample activities all help to put this important and often ignored work more to the front of what archivists do. While some of the teaching scenarios were way more involved than I'd ever see as a lone arranger in a small school, reading about the successes and mis-steps in these case studies will help me with my own smaller teaching experiments.

Certainly not a light read or something that everyone is going to want to pick up, but if you are an archivist, an historian, or a teacher of any subject, I think there's a lot to dig into here. Nice work, archivists!