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When my reading buddy and I visited the new bookstore in Manchester, The Bookery, we decided we’d each buy a book to help the fledgling store. As a librarian I am not usually short on books, so I wanted to go for something unusual that wouldn’t be easily obtained at a library. I chose Grayson Perry‘s Playing to the GalleryHaving just read a novel, Smoking Kills in which the protagonist says, “I have always, I admit, been impervious to contemporary art” I decided my next read had to be this one, with the subtitle: “Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood.”

I like art, and frequently visit museums. I don’t always get contemporary art, and have certainly had my moments of looking at something in a gallery that seems like an ordinary object in a glass case and wondering “Why is this art?” Or viewing a painting of a square, and thinking “Hmm, couldn’t most people with a ruler do that?” So I figured I needed this book.

Perry doesn’t give hard and fast definitions or explanations, but he does write clearly about possible ways to consider, assess, and define art, particularly contemporary art. The chapters are short, he infuses them with humor (including funny illustrations of some of his points), and he addresses the major questions someone might have, like how people decide if art is “good,” whether anything is new (or shocking) anymore, etc. It’s a book full of challenging issues, like whether artists speed the gentrification of cities, or whether art and beauty are necessarily related, and mind-bending ideas, such as that in Perry’s view there is no avant-garde today, and that art’s “most important role is to make meaning,” yet “An artist’s job is to make new cliches.”

I’m not sure I totally get it, which is fitting since I’m not sure I totally get art. Probably I need to let the ideas sink in a bit more. I enjoyed reading it, especially as it related to the book I’d just read. Probably it would be good to re-read before my next museum trip.

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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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An acquaintance who reads widely recommended The Muse a few months ago and I remembered that Jessie Burton‘s first novel, The Miniaturist, had been an intriguing read, although I didn’t really connect with the characters. The Muse was even more intriguing and either wanted to be ash main character, Odelle Bastien, or be her friend.

Odelle is from Trinidad, and lives in London. When we meet her she has applied for a typist job at an art gallery. At her childhood friend Cynth’s wedding party, she meets Lawrie, a young Englishman with an incredible painting in the boot of his car. A romance and a mystery ensue.

At the art gallery, Odelle’s new boss is Marjorie Quick, who recognizes in Odelle a woman with creative ambitions. Although she’s clearly a well off, independent woman, Quick takes an interest in Odelle and her writing, and also warns her to be careful of Lawrie. Odelle — and we readers, in turn — isn’t sure what to make of Quick nor her interest. 

The book alternates between 1967 when these things are happening, and 1936, when the painting in Lawrie’s car came to be. In those sections, set in Spain, we meet the Schloss family: Harold, a Viennese art dealer, Sarah, his wealthy English wife, and Olive, his nineteen year old daughter. As soon as the Schloss’s arrive in Spain, brother and sister Teresa and Isaac Robles come to introduce themselves. Teresa becomes the Schloss’s housekeeper, and because she is about the same age, Olive’s friend. Isaac — well, who is is, what he does, and how he becomes involved with the Schloss family is part of the book’s mystery.

I don’t always love alternating storylines but I loved the way Burton built the tension in 1936 and 1967, respectively, leading the reader deeper into the story. The art, fashion, culture, and locations made me fervently hope someone at the BBC has already purchased rights to produce this — I would love to see it on Masterpiece. From the sunny pleasures of Spain before the Schloss’s and Robles’ fully grasp how imminently fascism menaces them, to the everyday racism of 60’s London, Burton brings man’s inhumanity to man to life, slowly, without overwhelming readers.

Also, and I add this because I listed to an interesting episode of The Readers about “impolite” reading, there are a little sex, politics, and violence, but they serve the purposes of the novel, rather than being extra to it. Burton gives readers clues about where things are heading, but they are thoughtful and neatly woven, not embroidered on top of the story. In fact, I’d call the whole book subtle — Burton reels us in with fascinating characters and a story that kept me on the couch a few evenings/afternoons. 

I just had a conversation Saturday with some work colleagues about literary novels that aren’t a bummer. I’m fine with reading about tough subjects if the underlying story offers some hope — a character who grows, a wrong that fate rights, redemption overtaking fear, hatred, or whatever other evil is present. One of the people at my table said that’s not how it works, books that aren’t a bummer are genre fiction (really longtime booksconscious readers know I don’t care much about these categories). I offered Exit West as an example of uplifting literary fiction, and I’d add The Muse as well.

In one of my first bookconscious posts back in August, 2007, I mentioned The Healing Power of Stories by Daniel Taylor, who suggests good stories shape kids’ growing sense of the world, and can impact emotional well being. I find myself avoiding the titillating and the toxic in my reading because there’s enough of that everywhere else. But it can be hard to tell before you start a book where it’s going to lead you, so The Muse was a pleasant surprise, a seriously good read about serious truths, challenging ideas, and painful history that still leaves readers hopeful that good people manage and good things happen in this world. And yes, I seem to be on a books about art kick. Leave me a comment if you know another good one. 

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At my book club’s last meeting it came up that I’d never read Donna Tartt‘s most recent novel, The Goldfinch. I’d always felt I didn’t have time, since it’s such a long book (over 1100 pages as a downloadable library book). But visiting family this week gave me the opportunity to download it. I finished it in only five days; I had no idea it was such a page turner.

For those of you who suspect that is a slight, it isn’t. I’m aware some critics found it unliterary, but I find that whole argument silly. Why shouldn’t a book, especially a long book, tell a story that is absorbing, compelling, even? I don’t see why people found the characters wanting, either. Literature may be full of beautiful mothers who die tragically, sweet father figures, lost boys who must err and be tested before we can call them heroes, roguish but loyal best friends, but isn’t that why humans love stories? And if it were a film we’d laud this “hero’s journey” theme, so why diss it in a novel?

I found it a very good read, one that kept me swiping pages because I cared about Theo, the young hero, and I wanted to know what would happen to him and to the painting of the title. Towards the end of the book Tartt writes, speaking as Theo,”Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.” That seems to me to be the entire point of reading, and recently I’ve read some more universally lauded books that seemed to justify despair rather than sing readers out of it. I could use more of this kind of story, a little bit familiar in some ways, surprising in others, but ultimately more about the human capacity to love, “to wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and heart open,” as Theo says, not letting life’s difficulties, above all death, overwhelm the love we can feel.

Theo is talking about love not only for people but for art. Which is probably why this book gained such a following. If you’ve been avoiding it like I did because of it’s length, give it a try.

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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!

 

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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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This book caught my eye as I was ordering fiction at the library. It absolutely lived up to the prepublication reviews. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read. The protagonist, Carleen Kepper, has recently been paroled after twenty some years in prison when the novel opens. We find out she’s living in a halfway house in New York, working as a dog walker and trainer, and is trying to reconnect with the daughter she bore in prison but who was immediately taken way from her, Pony, now called Batya.

As the novel progresses, the reader learns about Carleen’s early life. Born Ester Rosenthal, she was an artistic prodigy, a sought after and wealthy painter by her teens. But despite her promising future and the friendship of  David, a famous artist visiting the college, she got caught up in drugs and petty crime. All that spiraled into a final botched heist, and she ended up sentenced to life in prison, even though she was underaged when it happened. Elizabeth Swados writes vividly about prison life — beatings, rapes, intimidation, conspiracy, and torture. Power trips by wardens, guards, and other prisoners. Throughout these years, Carleen cycles in and out of madness and violence, sessions in solitary confinement and prison clinics. Just before the worst of her criminal mischief and drug addiction, she had married a man named Leonard, and when he is finally allowed to see her in the second prison she lands in, she gets pregnant during the visit.

Towards the end of her incarceration, Carleen is given a puppy who will be a guide dog who she must train. She shows such affinity for the work that she ends up starting a prison puppy training program with the woman who first brought her this work. Somewhere alone the line a young lawyer reads her case and realizes that Carleen should never have been sentenced to life and gets her paroled, and the work with dogs is her lifeline when she gets out.

I won’t tell you how things turn out, but I will say this was one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. The prison bits are stomach turning but perspective shattering. Carleen is an incredible character. She believes there’s something wrong with her emotional reactions, but it’s hard to know if it is a result of physical and psychological injury from the extensive beatings or, as she tells her daughter late in the book, “I think I was born this way. I’m like a clock that’s set wrong. Or I have lifelong jet lag.” But the people who get to know her well love her — people whose dogs she walks, David, and Elisheva, Batya’s bat mitzvah tutor. She enters prison an artist and that is taken from her; the dogs seemed to me to represent all the good parts of Carleen, and her ability to tame them and earn their complete trust and love is how she is slowly finding and saving her true self.

The glimpses of a loving human we see as she works with dogs is in a constant struggle with the “fragments of a criminal” that are deeply embedded in her psyche. This book is about Ester/Carleen but it’s also about what makes us human and whole, what causes dysfunction to morph into psychosis, and whether the things that make us who we are can also make us crazy. It’s also a shocking portrait of the systematic inhumanity visited upon prisoners. Walking The Dog  gets inside your head and your heart and stays there.

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