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Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels

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Sure to be hailed alongside H is for Hawk and The Hare with Amber Eyes, an exceptional work that is at once an astonishing journey across countries and continents, an immersive examination of a great artist’s work, and a moving and intimate memoir. In 2012, facing the death of his father and impending fatherhood, Toby Ferris set off on a seemingly quixotic mission to track Sure to be hailed alongside H is for Hawk and The Hare with Amber Eyes, an exceptional work that is at once an astonishing journey across countries and continents, an immersive examination of a great artist’s work, and a moving and intimate memoir. In 2012, facing the death of his father and impending fatherhood, Toby Ferris set off on a seemingly quixotic mission to track down and look at—in situ—every painting still in existence by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the most influential and important artist of Northern Renaissance painting. The result of that pursuit is a remarkable journey through major European cities and across continents. As Ferris takes a keen analytical eye to the paintings, each piece brings new revelations about Bruegel’s art, and gives way to meditations on mortality, fatherhood, and life. Ferris conjures a whole world to which most of us have probably lost the key, and in the process teaches us how to look, patiently and curiously, at the world. Short Life in a Strange World is a dazzlingly original and assured debut—a strange and bewitching hybrid of art criticism, philosophical reflection, and poignant memoir. Beautifully illustrated with sixty-six color images, it subtly alters the way we see the world and ourselves.


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Sure to be hailed alongside H is for Hawk and The Hare with Amber Eyes, an exceptional work that is at once an astonishing journey across countries and continents, an immersive examination of a great artist’s work, and a moving and intimate memoir. In 2012, facing the death of his father and impending fatherhood, Toby Ferris set off on a seemingly quixotic mission to track Sure to be hailed alongside H is for Hawk and The Hare with Amber Eyes, an exceptional work that is at once an astonishing journey across countries and continents, an immersive examination of a great artist’s work, and a moving and intimate memoir. In 2012, facing the death of his father and impending fatherhood, Toby Ferris set off on a seemingly quixotic mission to track down and look at—in situ—every painting still in existence by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the most influential and important artist of Northern Renaissance painting. The result of that pursuit is a remarkable journey through major European cities and across continents. As Ferris takes a keen analytical eye to the paintings, each piece brings new revelations about Bruegel’s art, and gives way to meditations on mortality, fatherhood, and life. Ferris conjures a whole world to which most of us have probably lost the key, and in the process teaches us how to look, patiently and curiously, at the world. Short Life in a Strange World is a dazzlingly original and assured debut—a strange and bewitching hybrid of art criticism, philosophical reflection, and poignant memoir. Beautifully illustrated with sixty-six color images, it subtly alters the way we see the world and ourselves.

30 review for Short Life in a Strange World: Birth to Death in 42 Panels

  1. 4 out of 5

    Judith Johnson

    Reading is such a subjective activity - when I love a book it's often with a passion, and I'll champion it to friends, re-read it, make it a keeper, and feel a warm glow when I think of it (e.g. Ruth Park's Swords, Crowns and Rings). But when I'm disappointed with a book I can feel quite vehement, and personally affronted, which I admit is fairly ridiculous. When I spotted this book in my local library in the new non-fiction section I grabbed it, as I am, along with my artist/art teacher son, a Reading is such a subjective activity - when I love a book it's often with a passion, and I'll champion it to friends, re-read it, make it a keeper, and feel a warm glow when I think of it (e.g. Ruth Park's Swords, Crowns and Rings). But when I'm disappointed with a book I can feel quite vehement, and personally affronted, which I admit is fairly ridiculous. When I spotted this book in my local library in the new non-fiction section I grabbed it, as I am, along with my artist/art teacher son, a big Bruegel the Elder fan, and also a Europhile, so I thought that I might learn more about Bruegel, the paintings, the settings they depict, and where they now hang. To an extent I did learn something about the paintings, but I found I was slogging through the book, and occasionally speed-reading, something I rarely do, in order to finish it (yep, I'm a completer-finisher where books are concerned). Since I like concrete detail (in poetry too) rather than philosophy and conjecture, and in this case am very much more interested in Bruegel rather than the forensic description of the author's experience of seeing every painting in situ, I guess I was doomed to find it all a bit too cerebral. The author writes: 'I have very little interest in biography. It is not Bruegel's completeness that I am interested in but my own'. Mmm. Also, I found the links to Toby Ferris's musings on his father quite contrived. I'd rather have read a memoir about this relationship rather than the (to me) tenuous links to the subject of the book. The publisher's blurb on Goodreads states: 'Sure to be hailed alongside H is for Hawk and The Hare with Amber Eyes, an exceptional work that is at once an astonishing journey across countries and continents, an immersive examination of a great artist's work, and a moving and intimate memoir.' Having read both of the above and found them fascinating and interesting, I can't agree. It's no Patrick Leigh Fermor either. The visits to some of the galleries involved a flight in and out with barely a glimpse of anything other than the painting. I have seen several of the works myself, in Berlin, Naples, New York etc, and would hate to think that I'd used up all that energy just to meet such a narrow aim without taking in at least some of the culture of its host country. I was lucky enough to see Bruegel's The Blind Leading the Blind in the Capodimonte in Naples, but would have been distraught not to have also taken the opportunity to see Caravaggio's magnificent and heart-stopping The Flagellation of Christ. To be fair, maybe the author did. Art is admittedly hard to write about, but when I have to read a paragraph over several times to get its meaning, I suspect it's not very clearly written. Steinbeck managed it without the reader needing a dictionary close at hand! Fair play, I did mine a few nuggets though: my ears pricked up when I read that 'The Roma and Sinti refer to the Holocaust as the Porajmos, or the Devouring. No survivor was called to testify at the Nuremberg trials.' That's a book I'd like to read, if anyone's written one on the subject. Having said all this, I'm sure there are readers whose taste will be wholly satisfied by this book. Robert Macfarlane, he of many devoted followers, provided the back cover blurb: 'I was reminded a little of Sebald, a little of Teju Cole, a little of Geoff Dyer - but mostly I knew I had met a book that kept its own rules and knew its own voice. Oddly beautiful and beautifully odd, it will draw many readers into its strange world, and the short lives that it contains.'

  2. 4 out of 5

    Miguel

    I was eagerly waiting to read this not knowing anything more than it was a book about Bruegel. I vaguely recall an art teacher showing our 8th grade class (probably “Hunters in the Snow) and being bored stiff. That all turned around in old age in having the opportunity of seeing several of his works in person throughout Europe with those in the Prado and Kunsthistorisches Museum being the standouts. You can keep your renaissance Italians and 18th century French painters – the most interesting pa I was eagerly waiting to read this not knowing anything more than it was a book about Bruegel. I vaguely recall an art teacher showing our 8th grade class (probably “Hunters in the Snow) and being bored stiff. That all turned around in old age in having the opportunity of seeing several of his works in person throughout Europe with those in the Prado and Kunsthistorisches Museum being the standouts. You can keep your renaissance Italians and 18th century French painters – the most interesting part of the museums to me are walking into the Flemish masters and beyond Bosch, Bruegel is always the standout. Mileage out of the book itself will likely hinge on one’s appreciation (or disinterest) in the author’s personal musings, as he weaves both his tale of grappling with his relationship to his father (which likely in some metaphysical sense ties in with his views on Bruegel’s art), the story his journey to most of the locations often with his brother in tow to where the art resides. The reflections on the art itself are worthwhile, the road trip portions are sometimes interesting, but as the story strays into very personal territory my interest waned at times. Having said that, I am glad that the author created this work and it has provided inspiration for future trips and Bruegel sightings.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Magdelanye

    Everything in this world has an explanation...not always available to us. Contexts, common habits of thought are erased over time. p197 We are a social animal, and we cluster around the fires of society for warmth, but in so clustering , we also jostle and riot and steal and kill; we seek advantage and we manipulate; we consume by the gallon...and generate great streams of waste; we grow drunk and fat, petty and small-eyed; we find no answers and live by no code. p191 This is a strange hybrid of o Everything in this world has an explanation...not always available to us. Contexts, common habits of thought are erased over time. p197 We are a social animal, and we cluster around the fires of society for warmth, but in so clustering , we also jostle and riot and steal and kill; we seek advantage and we manipulate; we consume by the gallon...and generate great streams of waste; we grow drunk and fat, petty and small-eyed; we find no answers and live by no code. p191 This is a strange hybrid of of a book. The social commentary spans the centuries of change linking the artist Bruegel to the author, who turned his fascination into a quest. Someone wanting a more formal account may be frustrated by the fact that Short Life in a Strange World is as much about Toby Ferris as it is about Bruegel. Someone as ignorant as I was about his genius will find much of interest to inform them, not least the colour reproductions. Not everybody will be as interested in the many personal anecdotes nor appreciate his lengthy philosophical asides. When a man encounters a resistance to the fires of self-infatuation he becomes quarrelsome and disturbed.p174 Not only is there nothing new under the sun, it has all been commoditized for your convenience.... one tyranny ...is much like another.. There are, even so...fine gradations of freedom. We are not all equally free and we are not all equally bound. p16 TF was not born into an especially cultured family. His father apparently had never even been in a museum but preferred on occasion to wait for the others in the adjacent bar. Others from his circle of family and friends were occasionally convinced to join him on his quest to view all of the 42 extant authenticated panels of the painter Bruegel, or in some cases by his son who took over his workshop after his fathers early death. Considering the fair amount of travel this project required, it makes sense that TF concocted a plan with spread sheet and a schedule that had no room for exploration. I was rather appalled that he carried out this agenda on the lines of a military operation. Imagine going all the way to Vienna or Rome to view a single painting, and considering anything else a distraction. And yet. Evidently he gets it. The evolution of the social dynamic is well represented here and his commentary, regarding the panels or directed at the persistence of social ills is generally lucid even if his methodology seems random. There are degrees of engagement, disengagement. Survival, on all sorts of levels is a joint endeavour. In isolating ourselves we dehumanize ourselves. We remove ourselves not only from the foolishness of the world, but from it's love, from its communal possibility. p193

  4. 4 out of 5

    Shane

    Toby Ferris's adventure through Europe and the USA to see 42 different paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is a strange undertaking. His way of weaving in an autobiographical tale of his own family, of coincidence, and of travel is nicely worked although occasionally clunky in its verbosity. The tone too can be robotic, even when personal, which creates an enjoyable dream-like experience of reading the book, as if Ferris was observing himself from outside his body and writing down the uncanny Toby Ferris's adventure through Europe and the USA to see 42 different paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder is a strange undertaking. His way of weaving in an autobiographical tale of his own family, of coincidence, and of travel is nicely worked although occasionally clunky in its verbosity. The tone too can be robotic, even when personal, which creates an enjoyable dream-like experience of reading the book, as if Ferris was observing himself from outside his body and writing down the uncanny activities of a creature he couldn't fully understand. It also serves as a nice way to become familiar with the work of Bruegel without reading more technical biographies. Unfortunately, many of the paintings are only reproduced as details (or not at all) so at times it is frustrating to have to leave the book and sift through unreliable internet reproductions to see the details referred to. Still, the book is fun, poetic, and an enjoyable story told in an unusual way.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kirk Johnson

    The author meanders through his physical viewings of the Bruegel panels, including tales of Bruegel, of the paintings, of his own journeys, and his own wandering thoughts. Some truly lovely passages result, and the book is beautiful with its interspersed detail paintings. Some pages have less of an impact, but on the whole it's a quiet, worthwhile journey. Be prepared, however, to have your computer or your high-end smartphone at the ready, as unless you're already intimately familiar with Brueg The author meanders through his physical viewings of the Bruegel panels, including tales of Bruegel, of the paintings, of his own journeys, and his own wandering thoughts. Some truly lovely passages result, and the book is beautiful with its interspersed detail paintings. Some pages have less of an impact, but on the whole it's a quiet, worthwhile journey. Be prepared, however, to have your computer or your high-end smartphone at the ready, as unless you're already intimately familiar with Bruegel, there's a lot of looking up of images to do on your device.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Michael Coté

    This book is fantastic.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Junior Pope

    Added it

  8. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    This was an interesting take on the paintings by Bruegel.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Steven Kopstein

    A Wonderful Journey This is the perfect book to escape to. I knew little of Bruegels work before reading it and at the end I felt educated and entertained.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Robt.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Martin

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ildi Sabján

  15. 4 out of 5

    Harry Laughland

  16. 5 out of 5

    Max Amerongen

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mary

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jason Gresh

  19. 4 out of 5

    Will

  20. 5 out of 5

    Geert Claassens

  21. 5 out of 5

    ken

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sharon D.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Julia Denne

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kristy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Meg

  26. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  27. 5 out of 5

    James Edmonston

  28. 4 out of 5

    Emma Clarke

  29. 4 out of 5

    Paddy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kristine

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