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Posts Tagged ‘cultural history’

In more than one article where he’s asked about favorite books, Michael Ondaatje cites J.L. Carr‘s A Month in the Country.  That was more than enough endorsement for me to add it to a list of books to look for . . . and then I found it on our ramble through the used bookshops of Portland at the beginning of the summer. I read it today and it was just the balm I needed after a tough couple of weeks of hard thinking at work about my research project and the new semester and at home about my project for my final year of grad school.

It was also the perfect book to read after The Secret Lives of Color. In A Month in the Country, the main character, Mr. Birkin, is a WWI veteran who arrives in 1920 in a northern English village called Oxgodby, where he’s been hired to uncover a medieval painting whitewashed over centuries earlier in the local church. As he works he notes various pigments, like ultramarine and hematite and verdigris, and as he commented on their richness, colorfastness, scarcity, or cost, I understood.

Both Birkin’s work and that of his fellow veteran and “southerner” Mr. Moon are funded by the recently deceased Adelaide Hebron, whose last wishes include hiring someone to uncover the artwork and to find the tomb of her ancestor Piers, who was excommunicated and so isn’t buried in the churchyard. Moon, an archeologist, suspects the meadow also holds even more ancient remains and the foundation of a much earlier church, dating back to the 7th century. He stays in a tent (and a hole he’s dug under it), Birkin stays in the bell tower, and between them they work and observe the locals and discuss the vicar, Rev. Keach and his lovely young wife, Alice, who seem mismatched. Which of course provides room for speculation, but there’s no sappy or simple love story here. Just tension, well told.

Birkin ends up being absorbed into village life as he is pressed into officiating local cricket matches and looked after by the stationmaster, Mr. Ellerbeck, and his family. As their teenaged daughter Kathy notes, “Mam says you’re over-much on your own and traipse around like a man in a dream and need to be got into company.” They are “chapel” rather than church people, and out of appreciation for their kindness and their generosity (Mrs. Ellerbeck feeds him regularly) Birkin ends up attending their Wesleyan services and helping with Sunday school. He even takes an uncomfortable turn at preaching in a nearby chapel when Ellerbeck is overextended, and helps his new friends shop for an organ for the chapel in the nearby town, in scene which is a hilarious send-up of sectarian snobbery.

The humor, the portrait of village life, the commentary on post WWI England’s cultural, social, and religious landscape, and the mysteries of Birkin’s and Moon’s work are all delightful. The story is certainly entertaining, but the deeper threads about healing from war wounds visible and invisible, and finding one’s way in a world that seems both completely changed in some ways and very much what it’s always been in others, make for a thoughtful read that explores the kind of “big T” truths that I enjoy in fiction.

Moon tells Birkin, as summer draws to a close and their work is nearly done, “You can only have this piece of cake once; you can’t keep munching away at it. Sad, but there it is! You’ll find that, once you’ve dragged yourself off round the corner, there’ll be another view; it may even be a better one.” Later than evening, Birkin reflects on this and thinks, “And he was right — the first breath of autumn was in the air, a prodigal feeling, a feeling of wanting, taking, and keeping before it is too late.”

That’s what A Month in the Country is about — that feeling, and how we respond to it. Birkin has decisions to make. Moon has plans. The story ends without our knowing precisely what they intend to do, but with a delicious sense of “a precious moment gone” as Carr writes. This is a book I’ll read again, and one that I picked up at just the right time.

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Don’t worry, I’m still here. I know two weeks is a long time between bookconscious posts. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, for one, and also I spent over a week reading a book I disliked and don’t want to blog about. But I also read The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair which I enjoyed very much, but which took longer to read because it’s a collection of dozens of dense, fascinating brief essays and each requires careful attention. There is nothing to skim here — nor would you want to. St. Clair carefully and skillfully connects each color to the social, cultural, and historical context in which it was created or dominated as a pigment.

I heard about the book from an episode of 99% Invisible, one of my favorite podcasts. I think if you listen to St. Clair talk with Roman Mars you will want the book immediately, as I did. Part of its charm is St. Clair’s voice — she writes authoritatively but personably, so that you feel as if a very smart friend of a friend is talking to you. This keeps what is arguably a very specialized topic — the history of 75 different colors in art, fashion, and decor — from feeling impenetrable for readers who may never have really given it any thought before. Here’s a taste of her writing, in the essay on Heliotrope (a shade of purple):

“While this hue’s fortunes have suffered something of a collapse in the real world, it has a distinguished literary afterlife. Badly behaved characters are often described as wearing the color . . . . The word is pleasurable to say, filling the mouth like a rich, buttery sauce. Added to which, the color itself is intriguing: antiquated, unusual, and just a little bit brassy.”

Honestly, even though I like art and history, if I hadn’t heard this episode, I’m not sure I would have picked up The Secret Lives of Color other than to gawk at it’s lovely cover and the rainbow effect of the colors printed in strips that frame each essay (the book’s design enhances the text perfectly). But I’m very glad I heard about and then sought out the book. It’s an unusual format, just right for the topic, and a terrific read, appropriate for times when life is so hectic that finishing one exquisitely interesting, well-written essay is just what you can manage in the evening.

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