"But is it Art?" by Cynthia Freeland

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Cynthia Freeland, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Houston, came out with But is it Art? in 2001. It’s an excellent introduction to various theories of art, particularly for an abject layman like me. In it, Professor Freeland expounds on competing and converging beliefs held by critics and philosophers, and she does so in a logical, concise, and accessible way. The book is a slim one, bolstered by References, Further Reading and an Index, like any scholarly book will.

However, as I say, the body of this book contains no stuffy jargon, no obfuscating phrases; its points are painstakingly made, and highly accessible to the average adult reader. Her own preferences and beliefs are no mystery, but she handles the presentation of competing thought processes with commendable fairness and even-handedness.

You will get a very convincing and non-judging assessment of some of the more shocking art which has been presented in the last 25 years. You will encounter deep discussions on such thinkers as John Dewey, Arthur Danto, the anthropologist Richard Anderson, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean Baudrillard, among numerous others.

This book is required in an aesthetics class at a local university. I have taken copious notes from it, but won’t bore you with them. Suffice it to say, I found this brief, direct, and accessible book a commendable starting point in discussing art. The flow of the ideas reach other media besides graphic art, but those media are its main focus.

"A Peculiar Grace" by Jeffrey Lent

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Jeffrey Lent’s heroes face challenges out of the run of the mill. Some of these, as in In the Fall and Lost Nation, face an onslaught of outside forces strong enough to bow or break even the strongest protagonist. In A Peculiar Grace, hero Hewitt Pearce’s toughest tests result instead from his own past and his not-always-healthy ways of coping with it. In this book, Mr. Lent has shrunk his canvas down from the sweeping, heroic backdrops he used in Fall and Nation, to the emotional life of one stubborn yet searching man, who trusts his emotions and views of life maybe a little too much. And he succeeds beautifully again, the author does.  This book makes me feel many things; however, surprise at the author’s skill is not one of them.

Vermont blacksmith Hewitt Pearce was lucky enough as a teenager to feel the desperation and euphoria of deep love. When this affair ends unhappily for him, he lets it sink him into an alcohol-soaked despair which he survives only through the last-ditch efforts of his friend Walter. Twenty years later, he’s essentially a hermit with a good blacksmith’s practice, and a tractor for getting to the store. Suddenly twenty-something Jessica crashes onto his property and into his life.  She’s a fugitive from life’s vagaries, somewhat in the mold of Hewitt himself. Their quirky exploration of each other’s boundaries, beliefs, and personality form - and charm - the bulk of the book. This is the “peculiar grace” of the title. Although Hewitt’s life and heart become torqued up again when his onetime great love is widowed, he cannot revert to form - to chase her and/or pine after her - because of the new presence in his life.

I did what I very seldom do after finishing a book. I went back to re-read scenes of especially well-done dialogue, because they are some of the great charms of this charming book. We sink neck-deep into Hewitt’s psyche, and watch him

take his painful steps toward a more balanced emotional outlook. Mr. Lent grants his hero the capacity to give and also gives him the knack of communicating, through a forthright and laconic way - almost a shorthand - that captivates. His writing captures this perfectly. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Peculiar Grace, after the previous heroic entries I mentioned. What I got demonstrates Mr. Lent’s mastery. He remains one of the very best practicing the craft today, as his every book amply proves. Take this up. It’s also one of the few that I definitely plan on rereading, even with my reading time at such a premium. 

"The Empty Throne" by Bernard Cornwell

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So. When last we saw Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he was fighting a desperate battle against extremely long odds, even for him. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, fighting for his life, he is savagely wounded in the same instant that he kills his enemy.

And at the outset of The Empty Throne, the eighth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, Uhtred is indeed gravely wounded, limping as he walks, stalked by agony if he simply turns his body or mounts his horse. Aethelred, the puppet ruler of Mercia, dies from wounds himself relatively early in the story, and the jockeying for lordship over Mercia begins. Uhtred is just as good at royal politics as he is at fighting, and maneuvers the assembled nobles into accepting Lady Aethelflaed as the now-famous Lady of Mercia. I invite you to look up her legacy and exploits.

Mr. Cornwell consistently brings us to the middle of 10th-Century Britain. The sights and conflicts, the smells and superstitions, envelop us as always. And the indomitable Uhtred lives to plot and scheme and bully his way to victory yet again. I confess I more than half expected this to be the final chapter in this riveting saga, but the author concluded once again with a note that unmistakably indicates that at least one more book is coming in the series. And I am betting that two more books will follow The Empty Throne. I know I hope it’s at least that many.

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Kazuo Ishiguro adopts a surprising setting for The Buried Giant: Britain in roughly the sixth century AD, and he conjures a dark and enfeebled mood for the island’s inhabitants, who are held in the thrall of a dragon’s amnesia-inducing spell. In addition to the dragon, there are ogres, evil sprites, and a flock of ghostly harridans to bewitch and bedevil. 

Mr. Ishiguro chooses this milieu to explore two combating ideals: one demands redress of injustice even if it means opening old wounds to do so, and the other seeks to forget the battles and conquests of the past and get on with life. On the large canvas, this means ending a dragon’s spell so that the country as a whole may remember the enormous injustices inflicted on the Saxon immigrant/invaders by the native Britons. And the married couple, Axl and Beatrice, whose story focuses the book, winnow this conflict down to its essentials.  They fret between themselves about what they’ll remember when the amnesia lifts, and what they’ll find at the end of their journey.

The author has a certain position on the issue, and it shows in how he resolves the conflict. He chose his setting very subtly, very shrewdly. By plunging his reader back to a time when King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lives and still serves his long-dead king, he strips away anything that might distract from the problem at hand. The legend/lore aspect of his story serves to highlight the universality of the problem at hand. The balance evoked here is a tragic one; the Saxons in the story sing the lament of the vanquished, but we know their eventual success over the Britons does not same them their terrible trial with the Danish vikings centuries later. And I’m convinced this is part of Mr. Ishiguro’s design. I compliment the author both on his treatment of the issues undertaken and the elegance of his construct for doing so.

My qualms arise from some plot features that seem unnecessary - are the river-sprites really needed? The mortal danger Axl and Beatrice find themselves in could certainly have been illustrated without extra creatures. And the children on the mountainside and the poisonous goat? There are several places where I felt befuddlement about it all. And the aspect of nothing-is-as-it-appears felt too insistent at times, and at other times too slowly resolved.

On the whole, Mr. Ishiguro demonstrates his championship versatility - to have written this and The Remains of the Day just boggles the mind. I understand the thrall other readers feel, I do, but this effort falls a little below what I anticipated.