Five Unrelated Books to Get Through the Winter

images  As February slams the country with icy winds and snow, my part of the world stays relatively warm, with only rain and wind interrupting the sunshine.  Although most locals welcome the opportunity to wear their sweaters and jeans, the tourists strip down to muscle shirts and shorts, rightfully thinking sixty degree weather is warm compared to the below freezing climes they left.  Suggestions for reading around the fire, sipping hot chocolate are moot here.

I have a list of books helping January blend into February, listing them below before I forget I read them – have you read any?

The Collector’s Apprentice B.A. Shapiro

Another mystery by Shapiro with art suffusing the narrative.  I connected with Shapiro when she wrote The Art Forger, and then The Muralist.  I always look forward to her next thriller.  In this one, I found myself researching the art pieces stolen – from Picassso to Matisse, one of my favorite artists.

Happiness: A Novel by Aminatta Forna

Don’t be fooled by the title, happiness is elusive in this compelling novel of two unlikely connections who collide in London – Jean, an American woman who studies the habits of urban foxes and a Ghanaian psychiatrist, Attila, specializing in refugee trauma. Attila has arrived in London to deliver a keynote speech on trauma and to check up on the daughter of friends who hasn’t called home in a while. He discovers she has been swept up in an immigration crackdown and her young son Tano is missing.

Jean joins him in his search for Tano, mobilizing her network of fox spotters. mostly West African immigrants: security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens. As the search continues, Attila and Jean reveal the true nature of happiness in a world where everything is connected.

The Reckoning by John Grisham

A family secret haunts a small town in post World War II Mississippi, as Grisham addresses race and war trauma in his latest thriller. The story begins with the decorated war hero, Pete Banning shooting the town’s Methodist minister and refusing to explain his motive.  The major clue is his sending his wife to an insane asylum for her nervous breakdown.  The big reveal comes in the last pages. A quick read, and I was tempted to skip to the end.

The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg

In the style of popular books by Patrick (The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper) and Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry), this translation of Lundberg’s story focuses on an old character, in this case a 96 year old woman.  Unlike her counterparts in other novels,  who seem to be getting more lively as they get older, Doris is alone and confined to her home, with only a weekly Skype session wit her grandniece, caretakers who come and go, and the memories triggered by the names in her little red address book. Doris is writing her memoir, and each name in the address book creates a short chapter revealing an adventure in her life   Soothing and cozy –  best read with a cup of hot chocolate near a fireplace.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin

Prompted by a recent article in the New York Times, I looked for this ten year old book set in the nineteen sixties with one of my favorite healthy eating advocates, Dr. Andrew Weil, as the focus.  This nonfiction narrative explores the relationship of Timothy Leery, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil and Huston Smith   Full of surprises – Well wrote his undergraduate thesis on “The Use of Nutmeg as a Psychotropic Agent – the book reveals not only the connection of these four men but also witty observations of their influence as they grow from university researchers to future gurus.  In his 2010 review for the New York Times, Dwight Lanier captured my thoughts on the book:

“I’d be lying… if I said I didn’t enjoy just about every page of “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” This groovy story unfurls — chronicling the lives of men who were brilliant but damaged, soulful but vengeful, zonked-out but optimistic and wry — like a ready-made treatment for a sprawling, elegiac and crisply comic movie, let’s say Robert Altman by way of Wes Anderson.”

Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

unknownAlthough I haven’t read all the books still on my to read pile from last year, I am already thinking about new books to be published soon in 2019.

Here are five I want to read, with more to come:

  1. The Suspect by Fiona Barton – a psychological thriller
  2. The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley – a Flavia de Luce mystery
  3. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict – historical fiction with actress Hedy Lamarr as the main character
  4. Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman – romantic comedy with one woman’s trash becoming another woman’s treasure
  5. Spring by Ali Smith – the next installment of her seasons

 

The Museum of Modern Love

51vG9TBXECL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_   I read the first paragraph of Australian writer Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love:

“…But this is not a story of potential.   It is a story of convergence. Such things are rarer than you might think. Coincidence, I’ve heard, is God’s way of being discreet. But convergence is more than that.  It is something that, once set in motion, will have an unknown effect.  It is a human condition to admire hindsight. I always thought foresight was so much more useful.”

and before reading more, I decided to find out more about the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who inspired the book.

In her review for the New York Times, Tacey Rychter summarizes the author’s experience with Abramovic’s 2010 art show – The Artist is Present:

“…Rose was one of 850,000 people who attended Abramovic’s 75-day performance, “The Artist Is Present,” in which visitors {to the Museum of Modern Art – MOMA} waited for hours to take a chair opposite the then 63-year-old artist and share a meditative gaze with her for any length of time. People described transformative experiences. Many wept through their mute encounters. ‘It was as if they were seen in a way they’re not normally seen,’ Rose said. She returned every day for three weeks. She watched the crowds and saw others came back, too.

The books mixes fiction with the real life of the Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramovic, whose career has included knife slashing, self-flagellation, razor blades, and walking the Great Wall of China.  Using the 2010 performance art at the New York City Museum of Modern Art, Rose not only plays biographer to the artist’s life but also connects to a small cast of characters she creates, representing the more than 1000 people who took turns sitting in a chair opposite Abramovic and meeting her gaze and the thousands more who came to observe from the sidelines.

Not knowing about Abramovic, I used youtube to find the live performances Rose vividly describes in her story.  I was sorry I did; some of those images are hard to see and to forget.  At times, the controversial performance art seemed more of a stunt than art,  but Rose’s characters and their stories make the book compelling, and Rose gives the artist a higher level of intention through her characters’ participation.

The central character is Arky Levin, a composer of movie soundtracks; the others who converge with Arky as they each experience Abramovic’s art show include: Jane Miller, a recently widowed middle school art teacher from Georgia; Brittica, a pink-haired Chinese doctoral student from Amsterdam who is writing her dissertation on Abramovic; Healayas Breen, a black art critic and singer and a former girlfriend of Arky’s former musical partner; and Marina’s dead mother, who hovers over the museum watching and commenting.  Abramovic’s performance helps each face and resolve an inner conflict.

The most poignant story revolves around Arky Levin and his wife, Lydia, a brilliant  architect.  Her congenital disease has recently deteriorated to a semi-comatose state, and she is in a nursing home. Arky has learned that Lydia had previously created a court order to keep him from visiting, having long doubted his ability to care for her and wanting to free him from being her caregiver.  Their daughter and friends question Arky’s willingness to abide by the legal document since Lydia is no longer capable of changing it. Unable to write music and not able to decide how to show his love for his wife, Arky finds himself drawn repeatedly to Abramovic’s MoMA performance.  His struggle ultimately has him taking the seat across from Abramovic for his epiphany moment.

Although the focus is on the power of redemption through art, the book is difficult to read.  The background information on the artist reveals not only her grueling performances but also the horrible life in a war-torn area forcing her into creating her own style of salvation.  And Arky’s experience facing his wife’s debilitation has a note of incredulity – what spouse would exonerate the other’s commitment from the vow to be there in “sickness as in health” – maybe that’s a question for a book discussion?  

A key element of Abramovic’s performance art is the eye contact she makes and holds with each one who sits across from her, whether the person sits for five minutes or five hours.  In the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of the book, the author suggests trying this stare or “gaze” with a friend or loved one to see what happens.  Arky practices by staring at a pillow before he attempts trying it with the artist.  It’s not easy to sit perfectly still, staring at someone.  Even in meditation, you get to close your eyes.

Not for everyone, but a book with staying power and inspiration to anyone trying to deal with grief, suffering and recurring illness.

“Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.”

Leonardo

51PHThzD-2L._AC_US218_Leonardo da Vinci is my new hero – with unfinished projects,  a stylish fashion sense, and insatiable curiosity about everything.  Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci is heavy, not only in the depth and span of its content but also in it actual weight.  Within almost 600 thick glossy pages, Leornardo, his paintings and drawings, as well as his curiosity and genius, come to life. I read them all, and I took notes.

Alexander Kafka’s review for the Washington Post in 2017 summarizes the book’s highlights – How to Unlock Your Inner Leonardo da Vinci – noting:

If Leonardo’s life reads like a wide-screen epic, that hasn’t escaped Hollywood’s attention. Paramount has bought the rights for a movie adaptation of Isaacson’s book with Leonardo DiCaprio playing his namesake. Here is Machiavelli… conniving overtime, working his connections with Cesare Borgia and Leonardo. Here’s Francis I, king of France… finally offering to the artist in his final years the no-strings-attached patronage he’s always sought… it’s a good story…

I look forward to the movie but glad I read the book first.  My notes will remind me of this great genius, a caricature I remember from his portrayal in the movie “Ever After.”  The movie seems to reference many of Isaacson’s notes, especially in Leonardo’s old age, but of course there was more to the artist than on the screen.

From my Notes while Reading, I will Remember:

Leonardo da Vinci was a vegetarian, left-handed, and wrote in mirror script (right to left with his letters backwards to avoid smearing the ink).

He was self-taught and excelled in geometry.

He was the illegitimate son of a notary, but his father acted as his patron into old age.

He was an idea man but his “execution did not go as well as his conception” – lots of unfinished projects.  He planned to write many books he never got around to publishing.

The fresco of “The Last Supper” had deteriorated badly after only twenty years because Leonardo changed the fresco technique into oils on dry plaster; it all flaked away.

Leonardo was a friend of Machiavelli, and his rival was Michelangelo.  When Leonardo was on the committee to approve Michelangelo’s “David”, da Vinci has “a garland made of brass and twenty-eight copper leaves…covering David’s genitalia.  It stayed that way for forty years.”  in the guise of decency.

He was a favorite of the kings of France and retired in the Loire Valley before he died at 67.

And my favorite line at the end of the biography:

“The best way to approach {Leonardo’s} life is the way he approached the world: filled with a sense of curiosity and an appreciation for its infinite wonders.”

In his last chapter, “Conclusions,” Isaacson draws together many of the observations he made throughout the book as he documented da Vinci’s life.  He leaves the reader with a set of maxims to live by.  Here are a few you may want to adopt to release your own genius:

  • Be curious, relentlessly curious
  • Seek knowledge for its own sake and create for yourself, not just for patrons
  • Retain a childlike sense of wonder; indulge fantasy
  • Observe; start with the details
  • Go down the rabbit holes
  • Get distracted
  • Let the perfect be the enemy of the good (don’t settle for good enough)
  • Let your reach exceed your grasp
  • Make lists
  • Be open to mystery

Hemingway at Eighteen

After reconnecting with an old friend today in Kansas City, of course our conversation meandered toward books. Her most recent read is a book set in Kansas City about one of my favorite authors. The local bookstore is, not surprisingly, sold out, so I’ve downloaded the ebook. What better book to read in Kansas City than Steve Paul’s Hemingway at Eighteen: The Pivotal Year That Launched a Legend – Hemingway’s year as a journalist for the Kansas City Star.

The Chicago Review Press Overview:

“In the summer of 1917, Ernest Hemingway was an eighteen-year-old high school graduate unsure of his future. The American entry into the Great War stirred thoughts of joining the army. While many of his friends in Oak Park, Illinois, were heading to college, Hemingway couldn’t make up his mind and eventually chose to begin a career in writing and journalism at the Kansas City Star, one of the great newspapers of its day. In six and a half months at the Star, Hemingway experienced a compressed, streetwise alternative to a college education that opened his eyes to urban violence, the power of literature, the hard work of writing, and a constantly swirling stage of human comedy and drama. The Kansas City experience led Hemingway into the Red Cross ambulance service in Italy, where, two weeks before his nineteenth birthday, he was dangerously wounded at the front.Award-winning writer Steve Paul takes a measure of this pivotal year when Hemingway’s self-invention and transformation began—from a “modest, rather shy and diffident boy” to a confident writer who aimed to find and record the truth throughout his life. Hemingway at Eighteen provides a fresh perspective on Hemingway’s writing, sheds new light on this young man bound for greatness, and introduces anew a legendary American writer at the very beginning of his journey.”