Degrees of Separation

Using a fellow writer’s suggestion of six degrees of separation connecting books, authors, and articles, I started with the travel section of the New York Times and found 1) an artist, who led to 2) an author, 3) a new book, 4) a reminder of a novel reviewed, 5) an obituary, and ended with 6) a slight deviation off course to books on psychology.
content   Starting with Suzanne MacNeil’s description of Vancouver Island’s lush beauty, I found Canadian artist Emily Carr, whose famous work documented the beauty of the region.  Her book Klee Wyck (“Laughing One”) was published in 1941 to document her efforts to sketch and paint the totem poles found on the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“And, who, you might ask is Emily Carr?…Painter, writer, admirer of forests and totem poles…environmentalist before the word was popular…an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own…Besides the statue and all the things named after her, including a university in Vancouver, she has been the subject of biographies, films and a novel (by an American, no less — the late Susan Vreeland). “

fl-cover-2-200   I wondered about the mention of a novel based on the artist,  and found Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, historical fiction based on Carr’s life as a Canadian artist.  The book includes some of Carr’s paintings.  Had I read anything by Susan Vreeland? Why did her name sound familiar? A quick search led me to my review of Clara and Mr. Tiffany. 225x225bb   MacNeil referred to the author as “the late Susan Vreeland”?  Her recent obituary from this past August noted her breakout novel in 1999 – The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and another I’d read – Lisette’s List.

51ZfXSH8Y-L._AC_US218_  MacNeil described Carr as “an ardently independent woman at a time when women weren’t necessarily applauded for striking out on their own…” diverting me to Penelope Green’s article in the Style section on Gretchen Rubin’s new book The Four Tendencies.   Rubin’s theory proposes that everone falls into one of four personality types (the new Myers Briggs categorization), depending on their answers to a short quiz asking how they respond to expectations.   I wondered how Emily Carr fit into Rubin’s classifications. Would Emily Carr be a Questioner, an Upholder, an Obliger, or a Rebel? Maybe a little of the first and last, or maybe leaning to the label I received after taking Rubin’s test – Questioner.

51np2MaD5FL._AC_US218_  Rubin’s mention of the Harry Potter sorting hat led to Carol Dweck’s Mindset, a book advising readers of their possibilities when they change their view about themselves – “rigid thinking benefits no one, least of all yourself.”  According to Dweck, everyone has the ability to change their minds about what they can do and who they are, no matter what the personality test label or the sorting hat has identified them as,  and Bill Gates’s review of the book offered more insights.

The article in the Style section was right above an article by Gabrielle Zevin. Hadn’t I just read snd reviewed her new book Young Jane Young? This article had a funny and inviting title – The Secret to Marriage is Never Getting Married.

And so I ended my degrees quest connecting with:

  1. Klee Wyck by Emily Carr
  2. Forest Lover Fby Susan Vreeland
  3. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland
  4. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
  5. Mindset  by Carol Dweck
  6. The Secret to Marriage is Not Getting Married by Gabrielle Zevin

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Suggestions for Next Year’s Book Club

unknownLooking forward to next year, some books clubs have already finalized their monthly reading list. Others are having parties to discuss possibilites, or desperately asking their members to host a book – any book.  As I reviewed the books I’ve read in 2017, I thought about those I would be willing to reread for a discussion, and which would offer some value for expanding knowledge, nudging introspection, or just be fun to revisit.

 

With its inherent possibilities for comparison to what really happened, historical fiction is strong on my list.  Requiring the host to research (but google is so easy), the fictionalized lives imagined by the author compared to facts recorded in history could make for a lively discussion.  Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life adds the possibility of comparison to the popular PBS series “Call the Midwife,” based on its own memoir.   Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate opens a hornet’s nest but also addresses foster care.  News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post Civil War Texas and nominated for the 2016 National Book Award, with its “True Grit” flavor, is an easy and direct tale of a young girl and her gritty escort but with surprising twists.  All four books are easy to follow and carry the weight of information worth knowing.  Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is another of my favorites based on historical fact and is well worth reading, but may be too ambitious for some book clubbers (there – I’ve thrown down the challenge).

Meeting new authors, especially if the book is short, a little frivolous, but with a smattering of philosophy, is always good for mixing up the list.  Joanna Trollope, an author new to me but who many already have read, has a new book – City of Friends.  Lisa Allardice describes Trollope’s books as “tales of quiet anguish and adultery among the azaleas; Trollope created the original desperate housewives.” Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will be welcomed by readers who enjoyed The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.  Rooney adds a dash of New York City as she reminisces on her New Year’s Eve walk through the city.

Not a big fan of nonfiction, I still feel compelled to include one on my list.  Alan Burdick’s Why Time Flies offers enough scientific inquiry with relatable anecdotes to  be readable.  The National Book Awards recently published their longlist for best nonfiction, but they seem too political for me.  You can decide for yourself – National Book Awards nominees for Nonfiction.  I have yet to read Theft by Finding: Diaries (1977-2002) by David Sedaris, but I expect to like it – more a memoir, but could fit the nonfiction category.

When bestsellers are not in the library system, classics are usually available, and this year I reread Edna Ferber’s So Big – with an amazingly contemporary message.  Wallace Stegner’s books Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose should be required reading for everyone, but this year I read one of his earlier, shorter books – Remembering Laughter – a good book to start a discussion of this famous author.

For my final two, I nominate a coming of age story – Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, and a story about an abandoned child – Leaving Lucy Pear.  

My list has 11 books, one month off the year for the annual luncheon or decision-making party.  If you click on the title, you will be directed to my book review.  What books are on your book club list for next year?  What books would you recommend?

MY LIST:

  1. My Notorious Life
  2. Before We Were Yours
  3. News of the World
  4. Lincoln in the Bardo
  5. City of Friends  
  6. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
  7. Why Time Flies
  8. So Big
  9. Remembering Laughter
  10. Ordinary Grace
  11. Leaving Lucy Pear

Books from 2016:

I have not included books from earlier years, but, if not yet discussed, I would point to:

A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.

 

Why Time Flies

9781410496928_p0_v1_s192x300Alan Burdick’s treatise on Why time Flies offers no solutions to slowing down or speeding up time, depending on what is preferred, but it does relay a sense of exploration about how we live and a philosophical view on the individual experience of time, combined painlessly with scientific inquiry.

In an interview with Robert Siegel of NPR (National Public Radio), Burdick noted “our brains do a lot of work to kind of hide what you might call reality from us… a possible explanation for the discrepancy and argument over what is true (time).”  He cites experiments with Martian time, references St. Augustine and William James, offers some solutions for jet lag, and throws in a little wry humor and his experience with his preschoolers. His scientific inquiry, however, is grounded in his curiosity – his frame of reference.

Because Burdick explores time through his personal experiences (“walking back to the deli to my office one day after lunch, I glance at a clock that sits on a high pedestal outside the bank…I’m suddenly made aware of the clock’s quiet efforts to orient me…”), the scientific references are tempered and made more palatable.  If you have ever awakened in the middle of the night and refused to check the time on the bedside clock, you will empathize with his rebellion to “ignore this chatter in the middle of the night…and drift alone, for a little while…”

“For well over a century researchers have recognized that we shape time as we move through it; it seems to speed or slow depending on whether you’re happy, sad, angry, or anxious, filled with dread or anticipation, playing music or listening to it; a study in 1923 found that a speech seems to go by more quickly to the person who gives it than to a person who listens to it.  When researchers discuss time perception, typically the time in question is just a handful of seconds or minutes.”

When Burdick fell into describing experiments involving computers and diagrams, I admit I skimmed through, anxious to return to his storytelling.  Overall, the book leaves as many questions unanswered as addressed, but that is the nature of scientific investigation after all.  As he ends the book with sand castles overrun by the tide and a reference to Nietzsche, I wondered how much time I had spent reading the book – and decided it was worth the time.
 

 

 

 

The Vanishing Velázquez 

l54j4lkjWhen Laura Cumming described seeing Velázquez’s famous Las Meninas in the Prada museum in Madrid in The Vanishing Velázquez, I immediately connected with her epiphany.  Copies of the famous scene do not compare to seeing the life-sized scene in person. As I listened to the docent’s information about the seventeenth century picture when I visited, I experienced those same feelings as Cumming of being in the room with the infanta and imagining she was staring back at me.

9781476762180_p0_v3_s192x300 Cumming, the art critic for The Observer, follows nineteenth century bookseller John Snare’s obsession with a long lost portrait of King Charles I by renowned Spanish artist Velázquez.  As she documents the bookseller’s journey from discovery to disgrace, she includes short lectures on Velázquez, and carefully analyzes not only the characters in Las Meninas but  also many of Velázquez’s other paintings. With a storytelling style making the facts seem like fiction, she inserts historical anecdotes taking the reader inside the portraits’ lives.

Cumming cleverly inserts her lessons on Spanish history and on Velázquez’s art, painlessly informing the reader in alternate chapters while maintaining the motivation to know more about the one particular painting discovered by the bookseller.  Although I impatiently kept looking for the next chapter about John Snare, I never skipped Cumming’s chapters about art history.  If anything, she has motivated me to return to the Prada to see the art again in the light of her review.

As much an analysis of the artist’s work as a quest for finding the missing portrait, the book draws the reader into a fascinating glimpse of the seventeenth century with tales of King Philip’s Baroque court and the characters who became the focus of Velázquez’s art.  Under commission from the king, Velázquez painted at the king’s request and his art adorned the walls of the Alcázar  palace before it burned down. Most of his work remains in Spain today at the Prada museum.

As I read the intervening chapters digressing from the hunt for the missing Velázquez, Cumming’s descriptions of the Spanish court had me stopping to investigate the royal Spanish family.  Just like the royal line of Britain, Spain’s order of succession was full of wars, intermarriage, and heirless kings.  Philip IV,  Velázquez’s patron, had a difficult reign and was succeeded by the last of the Hapsburgs.  With careful attention to many of Velázquez’s portraits and scenes, Cumming notes how he recorded the lives and interactions at court – almost the way a photographer would do today. Through Velázquez, the era comes alive, and unlike his contemporaries who sketched drafts before the final production, his paintings capture the moment in one take with no preliminaries or revisions.  His paintings captured the moments – revealing and sustaining the history through his genius.

The search for the missing portrait of Charles remains the focal point of the book.  Cumming sustains the suspense about the missing portrait as she follows Snare from respected bookseller in Reading, England to his court battles in Scotland, and his final journey with the painting to New York City.  Despite the cost he pays, both personal and financial, Snare never sells the painting.  The big mystery, however, is never solved.  Where is the painting today?

Sadly, no copy of the missing portrait exists and no recent  descendants of Snare can be found.  Nevertheless, Cumming ends on a hopeful note with a tribute – and a graceful unspoken nod to her father, whose death inspired her to research and write the story:

“The figures of the past keep looking into our moment. Everything in Las Meninas is designed to keep this connection alive forever.  The dead are with us, and so are the living consoled. We live in each other’s eyes and our stories need not end.”

Although reading The Vanishing Velázquez requires patience and a slow and careful read, the reward is a better appreciation of art history and an exciting adventure into the art world rivaling any fictional tale.

Related ReviewThe Art Forger