Day 1078: How to Be Both

Cover for How to Be BothI thought How to Be Both was only a bit experimental until I read that the book, which is divided into two related stories, appears in some editions with one story first and in the other editions with the other first. I can see that switching the order of the stories would change the novel quite a bit.

In the version I read, a Renaissance artist watches a boy who is really a girl look at one of the artist’s paintings hundreds of years after the artist has died. The artist follows the girl through a few incidents in her life. As the painter follows her, we learn about the painter’s own life.

I am purposefully not using a pronoun to refer to the artist, because we learn fairly early that the painter is a woman passing as a man to receive art instruction and be able to work as an artist. Only a few people know he is a woman, and he comes down through posterity as a man.

In the second story, a teenage girl named George is grieving the death of her mother. As she copes with her feelings, she remembers conversations between them. Shortly before her death, her mother took George and her brother Henry to Italy just so she could see the work of the painter from the first story.

This novel is about the role of art in our lives, but it is also about finding ourselves and about the relationships between mother and daughter. George’s mother tries to challenge George by presenting her with provocative ideas. Some of these ideas are difficult to grapple with.

Although during the first pages I didn’t think I was going to like this novel, I found both of the stories and the connection between them deeply interesting. This novel is another surprising shortlister (surprising for me, that is) for the Booker Prize that I probably would not otherwise have read. I’m glad I did.

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Day 941: Let Me Tell You about a Man I Knew

Cover for Let Me Tell You About a Man I KnewLet me first get this over with. I have rarely encountered a book title that seems so inappropriate to the actual book. This title, which seems so similar to the opening of a 60’s Ray Charles song, is for a historical novel about a fictional relationship between an ordinary woman and Vincent Van Gogh.

That over with, the book itself is another matter. Susan Fletcher’s Corrag was one of my favorite books a few years ago. Even though I have missed some of her others, I was excited to hear about this one. It did not disappoint.

Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of Charles, who runs the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy. She finds herself in a lonely time of life. Her best friend has left town, and her boys have gone off to lead their own lives. She and her husband sleep separately, and she feels unloved. He has many rules about how the house should be run. She feels separate from the other women in the village, whom she feels gossip too much.

link to NetgalleyThere have been no arrivals at the asylum in years, so Jeanne’s interest is piqued when she hears a Dutch painter is coming. Charles does not allow her near the asylum, but she sees the man in the olive orchard painting and begins talking to him. Slowly, she finds herself wondering how she became what she is, instead of the adventurous girl she was.

This novel is more about Jeanne than Van Gogh, but it is touching and compelling. Jeanne Trabuc and her husband were actual people that Van Gogh painted, but Fletcher tells us that the lives she has created for them within the novel are entirely fictional. This novel is about the silences that can grow between people.

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Day 848: RASL: The Lost Journals of Nikola Tesla

Cover for RASLEvery once in a while, I dabble in graphic novels, without really knowing much about them. I’m not at all interested in the violent or superhero ones that seem to dominate the genre but in the more unusual ones. This volume of RASL pulled me in with its reference to Nikola Tesla. Tesla is one of my husband’s interests, so I picked it up at the library to read together.

Alas, there was no indication on the book that it was part of a series, and it was a little difficult to pick up what was going on. Also, I should have paid more attention to the guy with two blazing guns on the cover.

RASL is an ex-military engineer and art thief whose discovery with his partner of Nikola Tesla’s lost journals has allowed them to create a machine that takes them across parallel universes. RASL has figured out that the work of his previous lab to draw energy from the parallel universes to use in ours will destroy people in all the universes involved. He returns from another universe to find the entire town surrounding one of the labs destroyed and the authorities lying about it being a small accident.

RASL sets out to destroy the labs and Tesla’s notebooks, pursued by the dastardly Agent Crow, who has apparently already killed RASL’s parter, Dr. Miles Riley. RASL is also betrayed by his ex-lover Maya.

The science is unlikely, although the story does give a good background about Tesla (ignoring the fact that he was insane when he died). However, the story devolves into the usual violence.

The art is pretty good, although I didn’t like Smith’s rendition of people’s faces. At least the book isn’t full of rippling muscles and pulchritudinous females.

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Day 758: The Ten Thousand Things

Cover for The Ten Thousand ThingsIn keeping with my goal to read all of the finalists and winners of the Walter Scott Prize, here is my review of the winner for 2015. The Ten Thousand Things is John Spurling’s novel about a turbulent period in Chinese history. It is written from the point of view of Wang Meng, an actual artist of the time, and inspired by Wang’s paintings of the ten thousand things, all of creation.

This novel is related by Wang from his prison cell, where he chooses to tell about his past in the third person. He has been arrested on charges of conspiracy because he accepted an invitation to view the art collection of the disgraced Chancellor Hu.

Wang’s story begins in a mountain retreat when he is already a grown man. He has resigned his minor government post to pursue his art, although strictly as an amateur. This action has disappointed his more ambitious wife, but she is barely a character in the novel.

China is uneasy under the Yuan dynasty, which is dominated by the Mongols. The Chinese upper class resent the fact that the powerful jobs go to Mongols. Taxes are heavy, and men are restricted to following the professions of their fathers. Wang’s own grandfather, General Meng, was controversial because of having decided to support the Yuan government instead of retiring from his government post as many of his peers did. In Wang’s time, revolts are underway under several different war lords and groups of bandits.

When Wang withdraws to his retreat, he has three fateful encounters. He meets Ni on the way there when he is forced to share a room in an inn. Ni is a great artist whose work affects how Wang views his own. Next, when Wang’s cousin Tao asks him to a nearby village to meet a woman he is thinking of marrying, Wang and Tao are just in time to witness a demand from the Red Scarf Bandits that she marry their chief. When her father asks Wang’s advice, he suggests that she choose for herself. She decides to marry the bandit, and soon becomes a bandit queen named the White Tiger. Finally, Wang meets Zhu, a would-be monk from a nearby monastery who asks Wang to take him as his servant. Wang politely explains he can’t afford to and advises him to join the bandits if he wants to learn about the world. Later, Zhu becomes a powerful war lord and then an emperor.

This novel documents the turbulent period of the overthrow of the Yuan dynasty and the establishment of the even more repressive, but Chinese-lead, Ming dynasty under the paranoid Emperor Hongwu. It moves a little slowly and is told in a detached way from the point of view of an artist who attempts to stay away from the seats of power. It also spends a good deal of time describing Wang’s paintings. The novel reflects a sophisticated and intellectual culture, although it certainly concentrates its story in the upper realms of this society.

link to NetgalleyI think it was this detached viewpoint that kept me from enjoying the novel more. The subject matter is interesting, as I know little of Chinese history and have long thought it was a ridiculous bias that we didn’t learn any history of the Far East in school except when it intersected with Western history. Yet most of the characters seem only sketchily drawn, and I didn’t fully engage. The novel is said to illustrate the principles of Daoism, but since my brief reading on that subject left me completely clueless, I did not understand in what way the philosophy is reflected, except perhaps in the perceptions of the narrator.

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Day 732: The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldBest Book of the Week!
Every once in awhile I read a book that is so remarkable that I doubt my powers to convey it. Such a book is The Blazing World. This novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2014, but frankly, I think it is better than the novel that won. It is stunningly filled with ideas about such varying subjects as perception and misogyny in the art world, but it is ultimately the touching story of a flawed but compelling human being.

Harriet Burden is already dead when this novel begins. It is purportedly a book about her life, assembled through interviews, excerpts from her diaries, and art reviews and journal articles.

Our examination of Harriet’s life really starts with the death of her husband Felix. Harriet realizes that she has spent her entire life submerging her identity to please first her father and then Felix. She is a ferociously intelligent, well-read woman who has sat by and let Felix take credit for her ideas. Even more importantly, she is an artist. Although Felix was an art dealer, he never helped her find a market for her art. She has become convinced that no one pays attention to her work because she is an older woman.

Harriet, or Harry, as her friends call her, concocts a project she calls Maskings. She will convince a series of young male artists to present her work as his. Once the work gains the recognition it deserves, she will reveal it to be her own.

This novel is remarkable for the character Hustvedt creates in Harry—intelligent, articulate, caring, and extremely angry. Other characters are also complex and insightfully depicted—her grown children Maisie and Ethan, her lover Bruno, her second mask Phinny who becomes her friend, and even the Thermometer, a mentally ill man whom Harry gives a place to stay.

The novel is also remarkable for its ability to describe Harry’s art so that you can imagine it and understand its power. Some of Harry’s ideas are too abstruse for me—she is much smarter than I am and I couldn’t follow all of them even with Hustvedt’s footnotes. Still, this novel is an accomplished feat of storytelling, intellectual and dazzling.

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Day 683: By a Woman’s Hand: Illustrators of the Golden Age

Cover for By a Woman's HandBy a Woman’s Hand is essentially a picture book for adults. It does not have much in the way of written content, but it has many lovely illustrations.

A short preface tells about the prevalence of woman illustrators toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Then the book provides a very brief, one paragraph or so, biography of about 20 illustrators, surrounded by several pages of their work.

Mother Goose by Clara Burd
Mother Goose by Clara Burd

Although there are lots of chubby children, the illustrations show influences from several different art movements—Art Nouveau, the Pre-Raphaelites, for example. Some of the illustrations are complex and others look almost like paintings. Clara Burd also trained at the Tiffany Studios and designed stained glass windows.

I have been interested in illustrations for children’s books for a long time, although I have not made a study of it. This book is a nice little addition to my collection of children’s books with nice illustrations.

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Day 572: Lisette’s List

Cover for Lisette's ListIn 1937, Lisette and André Roux are on their way to Provence. Lisette has abandoned the opportunity to become an apprentice at the Galerie Laforgue and André his job as the frame builder for famous artists. They have left their beloved Paris to take care of André’s grandfather Pascal, for Pascal has written to say that he is dying.

When they arrive in Pascal’s village of Rousillon, however, they find Pascal has been out playing boules. Lisette is horrified at leaving her life behind on a false pretense. Pascal is sometimes ill, but he is mostly lonely.

He also has a legacy he wants to pass down. Pascal owns seven paintings by masters that he traded for picture frames back when the painters were struggling. He wants to pass to Lisette the stories about these paintings, three by Pisarro and three by Cézanne and one study of heads by an unknown artist. Pascal is also proud of Rousillon, where workers have dug ochre out of the ground for centuries to make the paints used in these paintings.

Although Vreeland’s descriptions of Provence and Rousillon are evocative, I feel that the first part of the novel gets bogged down in these teaching moments of Pascal’s. Even though I am interested in art, these conversations are too didactic to come across as authentic.

There are other moments like this farther into the novel, but it picks up during and after World War II in Lisette’s efforts to survive as a Parisienne alone in the village. André leaves to fight at the beginning of the war. Before he leaves, though, he hides the paintings because he has heard that the Germans will search out art and either take it or destroy it because of decadence.

http://www.netgalley.comI was mildly interested in this novel. It is clear that Vreeland loves art, and she does a fine job of evoking the paintings and the gorgeous landscapes of Provence. She is so interested in these subjects, though, that we get a much sketchier idea of the character of Pascal, for example, or André.