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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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I read Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh to fill the “a graphic novel or comic book” square on my book bingo card. And because my daughter finds some of it hysterical and some of it wise. And a young, smart colleague at work said it was one of the most helpful things she’d read when a friend was depressed, because it helped her see what that was like. And I am simultaneously admiring and jealous of bloggers whose work is published in books — Hyperbole and a Half was (and still is) a blog before it became a book.

When I brought it home, my daughter wanted to read two sections to me — I LOVE being read to, and I can’t even think of the last time that happened. She chose “The God of Cake,” and “The Party,” and by the time she got to the end of each she was laughing so hard she could barely catch her breath and was almost in tears, and that made me ridiculously, thoroughly happy.

I read the rest myself but she frequently came in and asked where I was and commented.

My take? Both my daughter and my young smart colleague are correct — it’s hysterical, and wise, and helpful. It’s also scary and maybe even a little painful. “Identity Part One” and “Identity Part Two” are so packed with observant insights into human nature and the philosophy of the self — or  is that just my identity, thinking I’m smart and wanting to feel special by saying things like that? Eek.

In “Depression, Part Two,”  Brosh writes (and draws), “And even if everything still seems like hopeless bullshit, maybe it’s just pointless bullshit or weird bullshit or possibly not even bullshit.

I don’t know.
But when you’re concerned that the miserable, boring wasteland in front of you might stretch all the way into forever, not knowing feels strangely hope-like.”

Wow. This is hard, funny, amazing stuff and I loved it, even when it made me uncomfortable. Tonight as I was looking at the blog, I read a comment that said “Oh my….this sort of hurt to read yet, I feel oddly connected to you.”  Yes. That, exactly. And bonus points because you make my daughter laugh.

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I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, and it did not disappoint. Romie Futch is a middle-aged taxidermist in South Carolina, obsessed with his ex-wife, deep in debt. He is surfing the internet in a drunken haze one night when he sees an ad seeking participants for an “intelligence enhancement study” in Atlanta that promises $6,000. All he has to do is “undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface.” Romie signs up.

At the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, he’s a little creeped out by the downloads, and a little concerned that he’s signed away permission to access his brain. But he goes through with the experiments, and soon, his head is full of humanities and a “sense of postmodern self-reflexivity.” Flush with cash and full of dreams, he refurbishes his shop, pays off bills, gets (mostly) sober, and starts planning a return to his first love — art. Rumor has it that there are mutant squirrels in the woods near his home, which is also near “GenExcel, a subsidiary of Monsanto and BioFutures Incorporated.”

Romie hunts some squirrels and creates taxidermy dioramas enhanced with animatronics, which he eventually shows at a gallery under the title “When Pigs Fly: Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Postnatural Wildlife Simulacra.” But he also realizes that his brain is still vulnerable to the Center’s interference as he experiences migraines and blackouts and strange dreams in which he is being made to perform tasks. And BioFutures not only owns the company responsible for the mutant wildlife nearby, but also funded the Center’s work.

Soon after getting out into the woods and swamps, Romie gets caught up in the search for Hogzilla, an allegedly winged wild boar, reputed to weigh around a thousand pounds. I don’t want to reveal the whole plot, but suffice to say it’s a rocky road for our hero as he veers between success and self-destruction. Will he get a show? Will he bag Hogzilla? Will he spiral into a haze of drugs and alcohol? Or become the remote-control agent of a powerful biotech conglomerate?

Hilarious and wicked smart, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a delightful read. Like many of my favorite authors, Elliott mixes a good story with social commentary and plenty of humor. It was bittersweet to get to last page, because Romie’s adventures are clearly not over. I sincerely hope he’ll be back for a sequel.

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This week’s column covers two books that celebrate what’s all around us: The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and New Hampshire Women Farmers: Pioneers of the Local Food Movement by Helen Brody, photographed by Leslie Tuttle.

Here’s a bit about each – read the rest here.

Clare Walker Leslie’s gorgeous “The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You” is designed to help grown-ups reconnect with nature. Leslie writes, “Consider this book a companion. Leave it by your window to remind you to look outside. Take it to work for when you need a break.”

Author Helen Brody and photographer Leslie Tuttle collaborated on “New Hampshire Women Farmers: Pioneers of the Local Food Movement.” This is another visually pleasing book, celebrating farms around the state and the women who work on them. Many places and faces will be familiar if you frequent markets, farm stands, or pick-your-own orchards, but the stories behind these women and their family enterprises may be new to you. Brody and Tuttle also shed light on the growing importance of agritourism in New Hampshire and the movement to teach younger generations not only where their food comes from, but how they can produce their own.

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Artist Sue Anne Bottomley‘s book Colorful Journey: an Artist’s Adventure: Drawing Every Town in New Hampshire got me out of a reading funk. I’d lately found myself dissatisfied which much of what I tried to read for pleasure — something that seems to happen when work reading overwhelms. Reviewing books pile up, I have limited time to read, and I end up feeling very choosy. I liked the idea of this book — a project, born of an artist’s desire to get reacquainted with her home state after forty years. Following through on a project like this had to be challenging, and I admire Bottomley’s perseverance.

Colorful Journey is part art book, part travel diary, part guide to tidbits of New Hampshire history and culture. It took Bottomley two years to visit and draw all 234 towns and cities in the seven regions of our state, and the book gives a page to each, with the pencil/ink/watercolor pictures taking up most of the space. Her style is fluid and colorful, and in the text she calls attention to the way she composed her drawings, when she took artistic license, and what details drew her eye.

In the process, patterns emerge — there are many interestingly re-purposed meeting houses and railroad stations around the state, many cozy general stores, well laid out town centers, and decoratively designed libraries. A lot of New Hampshire’s steeples are topped with weather vanes. Mills abound as well, and it’s interesting to read about all the ways they are being used today and what they produced in their time.

The accompanying text adds even more local color, as Bottomley recalls what she saw as she sketched, what the weather was like, who she saw or met, and sometimes what she ate. For each town there is also a fact laid out in a different font and another set in larger, bolder font. I am usually not a fan of more than one font on a page, nor of such variety of type size and strength, but it really works in this book, and the design seems to add to the reading — you can just look at the art, catch the highlighted facts, and move on, or you can read more closely.

I love New Hampshire, where the Computer Scientist and I feel most at home of all the many places we’ve lived. I find that despite it’s small size, it’s hugely interesting, and this book reminded me of bits of history, geography and culture that make it that way. I also learned that most towns seem to have changed names as well as borders at one point, and one even declared itself a sovereign nation (The Republic of Indian Stream, now Pittsburg) when its people tired of being taxed by both the U.S. and Canada. And of course I loved that Bottomley visited and drew so many libraries.

Whether you live in New Hampshire, vacation here, or just want to learn about it — we are, after all, soon to be on the national stage again as the “first in the nation” presidential primary state — enjoy this beautiful, informative book.

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