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This past week or so I’ve been reading Sy Montgomery‘s illustrated memoir How to Be a Good Creature: a Memoir in Thirteen Animalswhich my book club is discussing next week, and Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis. The friend who went to the Five Colleges booksale with me last year went again this year and got Strapless. I had picked it up myself at some point (possibly on a free cart), so when I asked her lately what she was reading I decided to read it as well.

I’ve written about Sy Montgomery’s last few books here at bookconscious — if you’ve been here with me you know she is an excellent writer who combines eye-opening, thought provoking insights into the animal world with similarly observant and self-aware insights into the human animal. Many of her books are part memoir — she is a large-hearted person who shares her own thoughts and emotions and that’s part of what makes her writing so delightful. Reading her work often feels like listening to a friend telling you about their life.

How to Be a Good Creature is more like listening to a wise teacher. Montgomery reflects on how from a young age she felt more at ease with animals than other children, how she took a dream trip as a “citizen scientist” in the Australian Outback that changed her life, and how the many vertebrates and invertebrates (a tarantula named Clarabelle as well as more recently, the octopuses made famous in her best-selling The Soul of an Octopusshe’s known have contributed to her life and added to her understanding of the world. “Just being with any animal is edifying, for each has a knowing that surpasses human understanding,” she writes. “Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

There are some tough things in this book; if you’ve read any of Montgomery’s other books you know she didn’t have the best time as a child and had a longstanding rift with her parents that she handled with grace and empathy. Montgomery has also lived with bouts of depression. But ultimately she has come through some very real challenges with her spirit and her large heart in tact with help from the animals she has known, and she writes about that here. So if you’re in the mood for a book that will restore your faith, if not in humanity (although there are also many wonderful humans in Sy Montgomery’s life and she writes affectionately about them as well), at least in the general goodness of creation, this is a book for you. And of course, if you’ve had an animal help you through difficulties you’ll be nodding along.

If on the other hand you want to read a book that will remind you that obsession with fame and a press that inundates readers with sordid and titillating stories and profits from feeding a perceived mass desire to judge people and relish in their bad fortune are nothing new, Deborah Davis’s Strapless is for you. It’s certainly also a book about John Singer Sargent, and about the wealthy, vain, eccentric French Creole woman, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, who Sargent painted in his iconic portrait of Gilded Age Paris, Madame X. Even if you’ve never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see that famous painting you’ve probably seen an image of it at some point. You may or may not know it caused a sensation and humiliating criticism for both artist and subject when Sargent showed it at the Paris Salon in 1884 in large part because it originally portrayed her with one strap fallen off her shoulder.

This is incredible to us today, but Davis does an excellent job of showing exactly how bizarre it was then, given the types of entertainment popular in Paris at the time. This aspect of the book is a fascinating and somewhat alarming examination of how humans have always created strangely detrimental ways of engaging with each other in society. A very popular activity in 1800s Paris was viewing dead bodies at the morgue, another was reading ridicule of famous people in newspapers, and still another was reading sensational reports of crimes. The next time you despair of the endless cycle of bad news and the obsession over Kim Kardashian’s shape, remember this is nothing new.

Beyond this disheartening reminder that dehumanizing popular culture is not a contemporary invention, Davis provides a really interesting look at the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century art world, at Sargent’s career and work, at his friend Henry James’ role in helping Sargent gain the attention he deserved, and the many other people who befriended him, commissioned his work, or admired it. I am an admirer, and I also am a big fan of Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose own scandalous portrait (which like Madame X does not appear scandalous today), is one of two portraits he painted of Gardner on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Which also holds one of his famous large scale works, El Jaleo. Gardner actually built a space to display El Jaleo before she even owned it.

Anyway, as my friend noted, there is a lot packed into this book, and it’s a really interesting read. I learned new things about Sargent even though I also read Sargent’s Women not that long ago. That book was also good, but focused more on the wealthy American and English women he painted (including Gardner). If you enjoy art, or even if you don’t but you’re fascinated by culture and history, you will enjoy Strapless.

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In my last post I wrote about The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, and over the last week I finished the trilogy, reading A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. These books are the continuing story of Liz Headland, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, friends since their late teens when they arrived at Cambridge, in their fifties by the end of The Gates of Ivory.

A Natural Curiosity also focuses on a few other characters who are introduced in The Radiant Way but don’t play a large part in the first book. For example, Shirley, Liz’s sister, and others who live in in Northam, where Alix has moved. Drabble also discusses one of her signature topics in this book — marriages, and how they work or don’t. We watch Shirley and her husband Clive as his business implodes and Esther, faced with a proposal after being single and mainly living alone her entire adult life. We see a middle aged lawyer in Northam whose wife starts a torrid affair, trying to carry on. And her girlhood friend, who is married to a famous archeologist, who are happily married even though they don’t seem to be at all suited. And Liz, seeming to grow closer to her ex-husband, Charles, who left her so dramatically in The Radiant Way but has come home from Washington and is in the process of a divorce.

There’s also a fair bit of politics in these books, which is one of the critiques of them that I’ve seen in reviews. Personally, I don’t mind. I also empathize with the characters, who find that their views shift a bit as they mature, but who are also disappointed, even disillusioned to see the world as it’s evolving. Unlike Liz and her friends I was never an apologist for communism, and as a young person I didn’t really have well thought out views. I parroted the views I’d heard as a child from adults, and it wasn’t until I had children that I began to think for myself about what I valued, and to try to understand what various political views meant practically in the world and whether any politicians or parties actually represented my views.

Drabble’s characters are surer from the start, and a few really live their views in accordance with their views — like Alix and her husband Brian, and Brian’s best friend Stephen Cox. In the second book, Alix is trying to help Paul, the serial killer, now jailed near her home in the north, who lived above Esther’s flat and killed one of Alix’s students in The Radiant Way. And almost the entire third book is about Stephen Cox trying to get to Khmer Rouge territory (which in the early 80s were officially out of power and not in charge in the cities, but still controlled parts of the Cambodian countryside).

Cox is a Booker winning novelist and we watched him grow closer to Liz in the second book. In fact it is at dinner with her that he says he’s going to go and see what happened, and why the communist ideal didn’t work in Kampuchea, and write a play about Pol Pot. Liz is a little alarmed, but doesn’t stop him. In the beginning of the third book she receives a package containing some finger bones and packet of fragmented writing — notes, sketches, journals. The novel bounces between scenes of Stephen making his way to Cambodia and meeting various people along the way (including the wonderful Thai business woman Mrs. Porntip), and Liz and others back in England.

She and Stephen’s other friends decide they have to determine what happened to him. Drabble introduces a character who narrates bits of The Gates of Ivoryat times addressing the reader directly, Hattie Osborne. She is Stephen’s agent and a former actress, and the night before he leaves they attend a friend’s 70th birthday dinner and a party and in the wee hours he suggests she stay in his apartment while he’s away. Hattie, it turns out, was also at the party at the very beginning of The Radiant Way, and is additionally an acquaintance of Polly Piper, Alix’s former boss.

It’s this social network — the myriad ways Drabble’s characters’ lives interweave — that made me think last night as I finished The Gates of Ivory that these books would make great television. I can see them adapted for a multi-season drama. These books together tell not only the story of three women and their friends and relations, but also of England, through the post-war years, the Thatcher years, the massive social, economic, and political changes. of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the art, theater, music, and media that Liz and Alix and Esther and their friends enjoy. In this way, Drabble’s books are like Jane Austen’s, social in more than one way — they examine the lives of particular families but also the life of a society, with all the layers that entails.

 

 

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I was a little skeptical of the praise Trick received (it’s on at least one list of best translated books of 2018) because I wondered if the star power of Jhumpa Lahiri as the translator turned reviewers’ heads. I was wrong: this is just a good book, deserving of praise. It’s the story of an artist in his seventies, recovering from poor health, a widower. He is called to his daughter’s house — the house he grew up in — in Naples, to care for his four year old grandson while she and her husband, both mathematicians and professors, go to a conference. He quickly ascertains that they are fighting, and that the boy, Mario, is both ” well behaved and out of control.”

I have to say Starnone does a terrific job of writing Mario — he is precocious in his family’s eyes, as all children are, and yet ordinary, well spoken as children of the well educated often are, and yet fully a four year old. He also writes Daniele Mallarico, the elderly artist, very well. He has recently been commissioned to illustrate a deluxe edition of Henry James’ story, “The Jolly Corner.” Which I plan to read.  He is struggling to send off a few plates to his editor before he goes to Naples when the book opens.

As he cares for the child, he reflects on his own childhood and especially, his adolescence in Naples, and on what he became, and whether he is who he wanted to be. He also reflects on his body of work and as is so often the case with creative people, doubts himself. It’s an incredibly poignant, but also incredibly realistic, examination of identity, creativity, and growing up — and old. Mario represents what childhood is but also what childhood means at the end of life; his actions and his contrary, slightly crazed little self bring out both love and doubt in Daniele, and create both a tension and a source of introspection and examination. Is Daniele a talented, important artist or did he simply believe those who saw talent in him, regardless of what he was actually capable of? It’s a good question and this novel really drills down on what is talent and what is human nature, and it desire for influence and importance?

There’s also an amazing appendix of “notes and sketches” for the illustration project. A good read.

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I read an article stating that The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt is the best novel of the 21st century so far, and the stories (both the novel’s and the author’s, who seems to live an interesting life) seemed intriguing, even if I am no fan of declarations like that. So I ordered it on interlibrary loan. I read it this weekend, and I do think it’s original, even though it is the classic story of a young man on a quest. Ludo, the young man in The Last Samurai, is younger than many questers — only 11 — and is looking for his father. Sibylla, his unmarried mother, won’t tell him his father’s identity because the man is a writer who reminds her of Liberace, because like him, the man is prone to “slick buttery arpeggios . . . self-regarding virtuosity . . . And yet he was not really exactly like the pianist, because though he did genuinely have the emotional facility of the musician, he had only the air of technical facility . . . .”

The book takes place in London, where Sibylla has gone after deciding that Oxford, where she had a scholarship, is not for her, not because she can’t do the work expected of her, but because that work seems pointless. She meets a woman who can get her a work permit and a secretarial job in a publishing company, and that’s how she meets Ludo’s father. Around the same time an American company buys the publisher and, realizing her job will go away, she accepts a job typing back issues of obscure journals into a computer, which she can do at home while raising her child.

She answers all the questions Ludo asks and teaches him whatever he wants to know, and by the time he is 6 he knows Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic and is learning Japanese. By age 11 he knows about twenty languages along with a great deal of math and science and he’s read widely, including all the travel writing he can find, since that is one clue he has — his father is a travel writer. He and his mother watch Seven Samurai repeatedly, some would say obsessively. He gets the idea that he can seek and challenge seven men in his quest for a father. These men are well known — writers, an artist, a musician, a diplomat, a scientist. His exchanges with his mother and these men are the bulk of the book.

DeWitt says a lot about life, art, family, love, education (I really loved her send-ups of school), and the irrationality of modern life. It’s a book that refers to art and music and languages and cultures and mathematical principals and philosophical ideals you may not know (I didn’t know them all) but unlike some books that reference other works, The Last Samurai doesn’t condescend. It seems natural that the strange and brilliant Sibylla and Ludo are immersed in this kind of knowledge, and fitting that in London they can be immersed. Despite Ludo’s strange upbringing and Sibylla’s isolation, it’s not an unhopeful book. It’s an unusual story, interrupted by chunks of movie subtitles, passages in one of the many languages Ludo or Sibylla is learning or studying, or books he is reading. I’m glad I read it. I’m not making any declarations, however.

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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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