Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?

Ansel Adams in the Canadian Rockies

Although seeing the resplendent majesty of the Canadian Rockies in person has no substitute, the Sierra Club’s “Ansel Adams in the Canadian Rockies” captures the beauty in a book. I downloaded this visual documentary of Adams’ 1928 expedition for the Sierra Club when I returned from my tour, realizing Adams had trekked high into the mountains and over glaciers I only saw from afar. If I was cold, I could not imagine how he must have felt carrying his tripod and cameras.

The black and white photographs reminded me of my own adventures: Mount Edith Cavell, named after the World War II Canadian nurse/spy captured by the Germans; Mount Robson, the highest and most photographed peak (I have my own collection of shots); and the glaciers, most of which have steadily receded since Ansel photographed them. The Robson Glacier is now more than a mile from where Ansel found it in 1928.

Better than my postcards, better than all my own attempts at documenting my trip, “Ansel Adams in the Canadian Rockies” is my reminder of a wild adventure. If you have never been there, it’s worth a look at the book for a vicarious visit.

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Still Life With Bread Crumbs

9781400065752_p0_v3_s260x420Anne Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs is a fast read with a slow impact that lingers.  Her heroine is a sixty year old photographer with a stalled career who finds a new lease on life and love in a romantic comedy with a happy ending.

After renting a broken-down country house two hours away from the exclusive Manhattan apartment that she can no longer afford, Rebecca Winter inadvertently discovers new inspiration for her work in a dog, a roofer, and a series of roadside memorials mysteriously scattered throughout the woods around her cabin.  As Rebecca progresses through her self-actualization, the story includes romance and satisfaction in her new life and those around her – and the promise that life always has surprises no matter how old you are – some good, some not.  I always look forward to Quindlen’s witty tales, and this one did not disappoint.

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Pilgrimage – Annie Leibovitz

The first time I saw an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’s photography in Washington, D.C., I felt I knew her subjects intimately.  Leibovitz’s art captures her famous targets as posed but vulnerable.  When I found her book with Susan Sontag – Women – the images amazed me for their familiarity and honesty.

Her new book – Pilgrimage – reviewed by Dominique Browning for the New York Times in her article A Pilgrim’s Progress, comes out today – with no people in it.   The book opens with shots of Emily Dickinson’s house “that Ms. Leibovitz took, casually…on a family visit.”  Even on her off days, Leibovitz takes amazing pictures.

“She took her camera to Virginia Woolf’s house, photographing the surface of her writing table, and into the garden, capturing the wide, rolling water of the River Ouse, in which Woolf drowned herself.  She photographed Dr. Freud’s sumptuously carpeted patient’s couch in London, and Darwin’s odd specimen collection.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s bedroom with its simple white coverlets, in her cozy cottage, Val-Kill, stands in contrast to a silver serving dish, its rich patina rippling with light.  Abraham Lincoln’s elegant top hat and white kid gloves…Louisa May Alcott’s house…the view from Emerson’s bedroom window…”

More than another coffee table book, Leibovitz offers…”something about integrity, staying true to a vision…”

Her ad for Sears with the Kardashian sisters – not so much…but photographers have to pay their bills too.

The Last Summer of the World

Frame a scene between your thumb and forefingers – a lens focusing and condensing the picture.  Emily Mitchell effectively does just that by zooming in on the life of photographer Edward Steichen in her first novel – The Last Summer of the World.  Although Steichen became an icon before his death at 93, an innovator in color photography and an artist awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Mitchell focuses on his early years – during a short but important window that influenced his later work and life.

Rodin by Steichen

With a talent for photography and art at a young age, Steichen found his mentors in Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz before becoming a first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps in World War I.  Mitchell stays true to Edward Steichen’s life story, as he marries his first wife, philanders, and finds his niche in the world of art.  Mitchell provides a disclaimer in her “historical note,” but I still looked for more background information on the real Steichen – interested to know how much was fabricated and how much was real.  The dialogue is fiction, but believable and even possible; the relationships and events are real.

The story starts by vacillating between Edward’s daring exploits, as an espionage photographer – taking aerial pictures of enemy sites, while manning a machine gun from the tail of a plane – to his struggle with his married life and artistic career.  Mitchell has Edward mourning a dead comrade in one scene, and then sleeping with Isadora Duncan in another.

His first wife, Clara, a talented pianist who gives it all up, torn between wanting to be the dutiful wife and mother at the expense of her career – cracks under the strain of seeing her husband’s star soar as hers falls…”{she} apparently cannot have both love and time.”

Throughout the narrative, the upcoming divorce looms – with Edward claiming he has done nothing wrong, and Clara feeling betrayed by his alleged sleeping with her best friend.  Mitchell, cleverly keeps you guessing about who is telling the truth – even when the third-party, Marion, makes appearances in and out of the war scenes.  Later in the novel, she flips back and forth from Clara’s point of view and experiences to Marion’s.  Both suffered from loving a great artist, whose great love was his art.  The real Clara did sue Marion Beckett, charging that she had destroyed her marriage to Steichen.

The heart of the story is Edward’s talent and the mystery behind his perception which produces such amazing pictures – some described in detail. Steichen was famous for blurring his images, attributed to his early work as a painter.

With a little of Ian McEwan’s style of storytelling, Mitchell combines historic events with real information and intrigue to tell a story that is hard to put down.  Her facts are always woven into personal triumph and tragedy; I learned about Steichen, his early life and art, but I also had a great time anticipating how he would manage to rationalize his next adventure – in the name of art, freedom, and love.

Mitchell’s story ends with Steichen burning all his original paintings – this really happened in 1923, after he returned to France from serving in the war.

“I’m burning my paintings…to be free of them…it would be better to get rid of them, start again…”

And he does start again with photography, and goes on to fight in another war and marry again and again – but that’s another story.

Related Articles:

Time – Looking Back on Edward Steichen

Biography – Edward Steichen