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One of the joys of cataloging is that I see books as they come in that I might not otherwise notice. Sargent’s Women by Donna Lucey was on one of my carts in the late fall and I was excited to read it. One of my favorite places is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and one of the four women Lucey writes about in this book is Gardner. I started reading Sargent’s Women after visiting the museum last weekend and hearing a docent talk about some of Sargent’s work, including his famous portrait of Gardner.

The three other Sargent portraits Lucey writes about are of Elsie Palmer, Elizabeth Chanler Chapman, and Sally Fairchild, although that chapter is primarily about Sally’s unconventional sister, Lucia Fairchild Fuller. Each woman’s story is interesting in its way. Fuller seemed the most compelling to me, not only because she came to live in New Hampshire near Cornish, where an arts colony thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but also because she overcame illness and adversity to support her family with her own art (she became a renowned miniaturist ).

If there’s a common thread between these women it’s their status — all were wealthy, although Fuller fell on hard times because her husband was an entitled jerk and neither he nor his family cared to support Fuller and their children. All four women moved in rarified circles, where Sargent worked. Gardner was the only one who really did what she wanted in life, and enjoyed the support of those closest to her for the most part. These families seemed to all be pretty awful to each other, too, and it’s not just a matter of men ruling over women’s lives, although they did that plenty. There were mothers, sisters, and aunts interfering as well.

The four women are interesting to read about, in their way. I would have liked to know more about Sargent himself, although that’s not the point of this book. Sargent’s Women is interesting, and you could dip into a chapter, set it aside, and come back later to read about another woman and her portrait. It’s always intriguing to look at the lives of women mostly forgotten to history, even very privileged women, and to understand a little about the context in which an artist painted. This book, like the paintings of these women, gives us a glimpse into a world most of us can’t imagine.

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Less by Andrew Sean Greer

One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

I’ve written about two of Antoine Laurain‘s other novels here at bookconscious: The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat.  Like those books, The Portrait is about an object that changes someone’s life. In this case, as you can guess from the title, the object is an eighteenth century portrait that Pierre-Francois Chaumont, a Parisian patent attorney with a lifelong love of collecting, finds at an auction and buys because the man in the painting looks just like him. He has no idea who it might be, but there is a coat of arms in the painting so he researches it.

I don’t want to spoil the story by saying exactly what he finds out, but it leads him to discover, if you will, a whole new self. I had a little trouble with the plot — Chaumont basically walks entirely away from his old life, taking time to bully and blackmail someone into helping him do so. Then he takes a great deal of trouble to recover his collectibles and antiques only to lose them again in what seems a very preventable accident. Also no one in his old life seems terribly troubled by his absence, based on the tiny glimpses we get of the aftermath.

The idea that an image could be a portal of sorts is appealing, and I enjoyed as always the details about France and French life. A minor character, Pierre’s Uncle Edgar, was more interesting than Pierre himself to me, but the other minor characters were nearly one dimensional. Pierre seems rather self absorbed and sees women as merely beautiful body parts.

So if you want to try Laurain, I wouldn’t start with this book, but it was, overlooking the disagreeable main character, a diverting short read. It might be interesting to talk about with a book group because the plot poses an ethical, if completely improbable, question: is it right to take on someone else’s identity if no one seems to really get hurt?

My dad and I share books and he brought me Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brulee  by Thomas J. Craughwell the last time he visited. It’s the story of how Jefferson’s slave, James Hemings, learned French cooking in Paris when Jefferson was sent to France in 1784 as an American envoy. Jefferson took James, who was Sally Heming’s older brother, along, promising that if he learned to cook like the French and agreed to teach a slave back at Monticello, then Jefferson would free him. The book also explores Jefferson’s love of food, gardening, and wine. It’s a quick read, with some interesting digressions, such as some brief observations of Jefferson from John and John Quincy Adams and a bit about Jefferson’s difficult relationship with Alexander Hamilton. The French revolution began when Jefferson was preparing to leave France, and those events appear in the book as well. There’s also a fascinating look at 18th century travel and details of Jefferson’s three month trip around the south of France and northern Italy.

But mainly, it’s about what Jefferson liked to eat and drink, what was superior about French cooking (for starters they cooked on stoves, rather than over hearths, and had better pots and utensils), and how Jefferson tried to improve American agriculture through what he learned abroad (bringing plants, seeds, techniques, and even a rice cleaning machine home). Craughwell credits Jefferson with introducing French cooking to America along with champagne, which wasn’t often consumed here. He and James also brought home macaroni and cheese, that all American food which was unknown here before Jefferson’s French sojourn.

Because not much is known about James Hemings, Craughwell can only speculate about how he felt and why he did not claim his freedom in France, where he could legally do so. Hemings’ altercations with his former French tutor in Paris, and later his tragic death in America, are also mostly a mystery. It’s sad that this man’s life was valued so little that he’s mostly a shadow in the historical record.

Another man who played a large role in the life of a historical figure and then was almost erased from history is Abdul Karim, Queen Victoria’s “munshi,” or teacher. Like James Hemings, he changed culinary history, as he introduced the Queen to curry. In fact writer Shrabani Basu was working on a book about curry when she learned of Abdul’s life, and she went on to write about him and his beloved royal pupil. I went to see the film adaptation of Victoria & Abdul a couple of weekends ago and that got me curious about how much of it was true, so I read the book. If you haven’t heard of the film or the story, Abdul Karim was a Muslim Indian clerk in Agra who was sent to London for the Queen’s golden jubilee and ended up becoming her teacher and friend. His elevation from simple servant to confidant who Queen Victoria bestowed with gifts, including homes at Windsor, Balmoral, and the Isle of Wight, caused so much conflict with Victoria’s household, family, and even some government ministers that she was physically ill from the stress of defending her friend.

The film compresses what was actually thirteen years of service into what appears to be a much shorter time. But it does depict the racism, bigotry, and classism of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his allies in the Queen’s household. Quick aside — the film is worth watching just to see Eddie Izzard being a racist jerk and Judi Dench having none of it. While Victoria, in her late sixties when she met Abdul, was curious and open to learning about his culture and religion, and mastered Urdu enough to write and speak it, her family and many of the government officials tasked with administrative powers over India were disdainful of India, couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between Muslim and Hindu servants, considered Abdul low born, and even questioned whether Victoria was of sound mind. Some wished him dead, others just wished he’d disappear, and several conspired to try to find dirt on him. The Queen dealt with it all, and stood by her friend.

She comes off better than Abdul in the book; he sometimes appears vain and he did ask for a lot of favors. But he also knew that he was suspected and looked down upon. Victoria interested me enough that I may seek out more books about her — Basu’s portrayal of her is that she recognized how prejudiced and selfish people close to her were and did what she wanted to the extent she could. Basu’s book also illuminated for me that even though Victoria was a very powerful woman, she lived in a man’s world, and many of the men around her did not credit her with being smart or worldly enough to know what was best.

Both books are entertaining; Victoria & Abdul seemed like it couldn’t done with some editing, as some information repeats. Neither takes long to read — I finished both in the last couple of days. If you like history and are interested in the stories beyond the headlines, either book is a good read. If you enjoy food history, both are interesting additions to that genre, although Victoria & Abdul is only marginally about food.

A friend whose reading tastes I trust went out of her way earlier this fall to tell me she had a book recommendation for me: The River Why. I had not heard of the book nor its author, David James Duncan, but now that I’ve read it I’m filled with the usual sense I have after “discovering” an author whose writing I admire: regret that it’s taken me this long to find their work and anticipation as I consider reading everything else they’ve written.

It’s hard to say what this novel is about. I was trying to explain it to coworkers when I was less than halfway through and said it was a character driven coming of age novel that is also about fishing, but not really just about fishing but about becoming so adept at something that it becomes not a pastime but a part of your being. Now that I’ve finished I’d add that it’s about being a son, a brother, and a friend. It’s about yearning for solitude but needing community. It’s about getting so focused on something — in the protagonist, Gus’s case, water and fish — that you miss the bigger picture until someone wiser — Gus’s brother, Bill Bob — reveals what’s been right in front of you all along. It’s about realizing there is something yearning in you for something that yearns back towards you, and figuring out those are your soul and what Gus comes to think of as “the Friend.” And it’s about love.

Gus is the child of a snobbish fly fishing legend and and a down to earth bait fisher and as he gets older he grows impatient with both. After a meltdown that results in the destruction of a treasured family trophy, Gus moves out of the family home in Portland, Oregon, renting a cabin to go and live out his dream of fishing more hours than he sleeps. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s been deluded by his own ambitions and that the life he thought he wanted to lead isn’t what he really wants. He hikes with his much younger brother Bill Bob, who shows him that the Tamanawis river near his home is shaped like the word “Why” when viewed from above. Then he encounters two very different mysterious strangers (that’s all I’ll say, so as not to reveal too much) one of whom leads him to meet Titus, a friend who initiates him into a world of ideas. He also meets neighbors, and as he examines his own way of being he learns from theirs.

I’m not really doing the book justice. It’s strange — especially if you have no idea, as I didn’t, about fishing.  It’s mysterious and funny, full of wonders like a garbage swilling fish, a singing mouse, and dog who likes rocking in his master’s chair and drinking teat. There are touches of native American, Eastern, and Western mythology, philosophy and religion, bits of poetry, and copious quotations from The Compleat Angler, a fishing tome from the 1600s. It’s about growing up and growing into yourself and yes, it’s about finding God. If you are looking for some substance and wisdom in your fiction, The River Why is for you.

 

 

I received two Penguin reprints of Vita Sackville-West‘s novels for my birthday a couple of months ago, and read The Edwardians last week. It’s kind of a literary Downton Abbey but far sharper and funnier. That Sackville-West belonged to the strata of society she was sending up makes it even more admirable, to me. Her characters are delicious, and the story of Sebastian, a young Duke whose mother Lucy is among the “fast” set, favorites of the king, and who loves his estate, Chevron, and runs it well, is tender and also searingly critical. His sister, Viola is considered “cold,” and treated with suspicion by her mother’s friends because she is always quietly observing. It turns out she is in the end brighter and more observant than any of them.

Early in the novel, Sebastian and Viola meet a man their mother is considering as a potential lover, an explorer named Leonard Anquetil. Lucy invites Anquetil to a house party at Chevron to amuse her friends with this man who survived in a “snow hut” on a polar expedition. Anquetil ends up spending time with Sebastian and Viola, talking with them, and having a profound effect on their young minds, allowing them both to see (although I would argue Viola probably already does) the vacuousness of their society and the potential for them each to make their own way in the world.

The joy of this book is that Sackville-West makes it far more complicated than that, even as some circumstances of the book fall together as neatly as they might in a fable or fairy tale. Sebastian goes through a series of affairs, testing the strength of his sense of duty and propriety, and Viola manages to become her own person, against the odds for a woman of her position. I do wish the book allowed readers into Viola’s world — we only hear of her through Sebastian, or other characters.

This was a very enjoyable, intelligent read that combines the escapist pleasure of a “Masterpiece” style story (plenty of balls and Worth gowns and weekends in the country) with the bright insights and cultural commentary of an author who was no stranger to challenging convention while still embracing the lifestyle privilege afforded her. And the ending is pleasantly speculative: will Sebastian become a socialist? Will he accept Aquentil’s offer? What about the woman he’s about to propose to? What is Viola up to? How will Lucy react to her children’s latest outrageously independent choices? What about WWI, which readers know is looming (the novel ends on Coronation Day for King George and Queen Mary, in 1911)? A good read.

My book group chose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith for November. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, which is one of the lovely things about being in a book group, hearing about authors and books new to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the gist is that it’s the story of a fictional 17th century Dutch painter, Sara de Vos, and of a 20th century Manhattan patent attorney, Martin de Groot, whose family has owned what is thought to be the only landscape painting de Vos painted, and of Ellie Shipley, a young Australian woman writing her dissertation on 17th century Dutch women painters and making money on the side as an art restorer. The book moves around from de Vos’s time to the 1950’s when Ellie and Marty meet in New York to the late 20th century in Australia, where Ellie has returned when Marty reappears in her life forty years after the events that brought them together.

At the heart of the story is the painting Marty’s family owns, “At the Edge of the Wood,” which depicts a young barefoot girl in a ragged dress watching people skate on a frozen river. It goes missing during a benefit dinner at Marty’s penthouse, replaced by a fake so realistic it takes months for him to notice the switch. The mystery leads him to Ellie. And in between, Smith takes readers to de Vos’s Holland, a place grieving from plague deaths, where the art world is controlled by guilds and the whims of the marketplace (tulip paintings come into and go out of fashion with the great speculation in bulbs, for example).

Each of the periods Smith describes beautifully, with details that take the readers right into the scene. The stink of Ellie’s apartment, caused by, among other things, a perpetually moldy ceiling and the rabbit pelts she boils down for her restoration work, is one example. The tension of an art auction. The way a Citroën engine sounds and the color of Marty’s driving gloves in the sunlight.  The slice of skates on a frozen river in Holland. The bustle of Sydney’s sidewalks at night. A scene where Ellie is reflecting on her life and watching men trying to maneuver a refrigerator onto a small boat to ill effect. And detailed depictions of artists at work.

Even ordinary scenes between characters are richly imagined, like this, when Ellie and Marty are together in Australia towards the end of the book: “He hasn’t been neutered by time exactly– there’s still a tiny high pressure weather system that hovers between them– but his potency moves in and out, at the edges of reception, muffled then surging then gone.” Relations between characters throughout the book are described beautifully, whether between friends, co-workers, or couples.

This is a lovely, intriguing novel and if you like art, an incredibly interesting look at what art means to the people who create and collect it. A great book for escaping from the world with. And one I look forward to discussing with my book group!