Best of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.
Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.
In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”
In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.
Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.
How to Be Both
Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew
Although we live in Washington, one of the most beautiful wild areas nearby is the Columbia River Gorge between Washington and Oregon. That’s why, when we saw a program about Wild Beauty on television, we had to have a copy of the book.
Wild Beauty is a collection of stunning photos of the Gorge, taken between 1867 and 1957. The introduction explains how the Gorge was formed geologically and tells about advances in the field of photography during the time these pictures were being taken. Then, the book is divided into five sections, roughly chronological.
Section I features the photography of Carleton Watkins, who made several trips up the Gorge between 1867 and 1885. The introduction explains that the state of photography at the time required him to cart along large panes of glass and a portable darkroom, because the photos had to be developed immediately. Each picture is accompanied by a short caption telling what is known of the photo. This section contains the first known photo of the famous Multnomah Falls.
Section II shows photos by a variety of photographers between 1885 and 1910, when advances in both transportation and photography made it easier to take photos in the Gorge.
Section III is devoted to the work of Lily White and Sarah Hall, whose photographs tended more toward the artistic than the historical. The two women traveled up and down the Gorge on a houseboat between 1903 and 1905.
Section IV features photography along the Gorge’s new scenic highway between 1911 and 1929, including some photos that are hand tinted.
Section V features photos between 1930 and 1957 after dams were built along the river. Many of these are also hand tinted.
This book is full of stunning photographs that provide a historical record of the Gorge. This is an interesting book for people interested in the beauty or history of Oregon and Washington or the history of photography.
The Hare with Amber Eyes
The Memory Keepers Daughter
Set in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.
The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.
Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.
Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.
However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.
This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.
The Blazing World
How to Be Both
Sometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.
This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.
The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.
This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.
As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.
The Blazing World
How to Be Both
The View from Castle Rock
Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!
Eva of Paperback Princess
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink
TJ of My Book Strings
The Blazing World was one of my favorite books of 2015, so I won’t recap my review but instead provide you the link so that you can read my original review. Then I’ll go on with my comments for Literary Wives.
What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?
Although Harriet is a widow at the beginning of the book, all her actions are centered around her experiences of being first a daughter and then a wife. She has been a good wife, but she has had no support from her art dealer husband for her art. She has sat quietly by and watched him claim credit for her ideas. Fiercely intelligent and original, she has become convinced that as an older woman, she is almost invisible. In fact, her entire focus on the project that she conceives and that drives the plot of the novel is fueled by anger at the paternalism of first her father and then her husband.
Unfortunately, she finds that the art world is paternalistic in just the same way, as she has trouble claiming her own art after conducting her experiment. This is a powerful novel about institutional sexism—particularly the difficulties women still have in being taken seriously in any realm except that of the household, but especially in the creative arts.
A Lady and Her Husband
The Enchantment of Lily Dahl
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
I 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.
The Blazing World
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Let 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.
There 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.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany