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ArtofAcquiringEveryone’s heard of the painters Matisse and Picasso, but fewer have heard of the sisters who early last century brought hundreds of their paintings to the United States and, in the 1940s, bequeathed their huge collections to the Baltimore Museum of Art. To this day the Baltimore Museum of Art has one of  the world’s premier collections of modern art housed in the sisters’ three-thousand piece, three-story Cone Collection.

The Art of Acquiring is a portrait of sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, who were born into a large and wealthy American family around the time of the Civil War. They never married and spent a good deal of their lives traveling to Europe, particularly Paris, and spending their inherited wealth on art. They were notable for their time for their unbending independence. Claribel trained as a doctor when such things were uncommon for women and she worked as a research scientist for a number of years. Younger sister Etta appears to have lived in her big sister’s shadow but she quietly asserted her own independence by buying paintings society considered obscene and scandalous, but are now seen as artistically important such as Henri Matisse’s 1935 “Pink Nude” (Grand nu couche). The sisters can only be described as tough and single-minded. A famous family story recounts that when Claribel became trapped in Berlin after the start of World War I, she hunkered down and waited out the war, diverting and charming visiting army officers with stashed candy.

Author Mary Gabriel spent years extensively researching the Cone sisters using letters, Etta’s diaries, Claribel’s notes, oral histories, and interviews. In the time before instant communications, people–especially rich people going on European tours–wrote lots of letters, sometimes several a day. Quotes from the letters are occasionally catty (especially when Gertrude Stein was involved), sometimes poignant, but always enlightening. The book also includes extensive notes, a bibliography and an index.

The color plates in The Art of Acquiring show some of the more significant paintings mentioned, but keep an art book or two handy to look at the other art works as they are described, both as they were created by the artists and purchased by the Cone sisters. The Art of Acquiring will be of great interest to modern art lovers and readers fascinated by the Belle Epoque of Paris in the early years of the twentieth century, with real life characters such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, Matisse, Picasso and more.  It is also engrossing if you like biographies of real women who went against the social mores of their times and always followed their own paths.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art of Acquiring.

TaleofHilltopFarmWhy does the name Dimity appear only in a certain sort of British cosy?* I have never met (or even heard of) a real person named Dimity but one so-named occurs in Miss Read’s Thrush Green series, the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, and Susan Wittig Albert’s series The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter (starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm). I view it as a kind of code. If I read the name Dimity then I promptly make my hot chocolate, put on my dressing gown and slippers, and curl up in my over-sized armchair for a cosy treat.

And for those readers interested in a cosy interlude The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter are indeed a treat. Beatrix Potter is of course a real person and Susan Wittig Albert researched her extensively and followed her life events as they are known. Beatrix Potter really purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Near Sawrey in England’s lovely Lake District and spent increasing amounts of time there away from the overwhelming presence of her parents. But the series is highly fictionalized even though some of it reads as a travelogue as the reader learns about charming Hawkshead, and some reads as a romance as Beatrix Potter’s affection grows for lawyer Will Heelis whom Beatrix Potter married in 1913.

On the shelves of the Williamsburg Regional Library these books have a small purple magnifying glass sticker showing that they are classified as mysteries, although nothing disturbing or gory happens. In The Tale of Hill Top Farm the mystery arises from the death of elderly local spinster Miss Tolliver. Could it possibly have been foul play and is it related to the inheritance of desirable Anvil Cottage? Beatrix Potter has a trained artist’s eye and is soon in the thick of village affairs to solve the mystery.

Fans of Beatrix Potter’s famous books will be thrilled to recognize many animal characters such as Tom Thumb mouse, Mrs. Tiggy Winkle the hedgehog, and Kep the farm dog. Like Beatrix Potter’s famous children’s book creatures, the animal characters in The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter can talk, but only to each other as the Big Folk generally don’t understand them. They also wear clothes, use furniture, and Bosworth Badger XVII is even writing a badger genealogy, but like Beatrix Potter’s animals they follow their animal natures in personality and appetite.

The books are nicely rounded out by a map, a cast of characters, a list of resources, and recipes (I highly recommend the Ginger Snaps!).

The Tale of Hill Top Farm is the first in the series that continues on with eight titles, the most recent of which, The Tale of Castle Cottage came out in 2011.

These books are great for fans of cosy British series like Miss Read.
I listened to The Tale of Hill Top Farm on audio and I can only say that narrator, Virginia Leishman, did a lovely job with just the right sort of British voice.

*And “cosy” not “cozy” is most appropriate since they are Very British.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm.

Check the WRL catalog for The Tale of Hill Top Farm on CD.

 

BeatrixPottersGardeningLifeA rabbit wearing a blue waist coat is a familiar icon of childhood, but adults usually assume Peter Rabbit’s antics don’t have much bearing on reality. Beatrix Potter was a naturalist at heart so her animals often act their natural way (apart from speaking in the manner of citizens of an English country village and wearing clothes). In many cases they are also pictured in real places that Beatrix Potter knew and loved–her own lands and gardens.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life explains how that came about. The book starts with a biography, telling of her privileged, but perhaps lonely, childhood full of pet hedgehogs, country visits and drawings of fungi. Her overbearing parents didn’t want her to marry but she was finally able to wriggle out from under their thumbs by the age of nearly 40 by becoming engaged to her publisher Norman Warne, but her fiance died soon after of leukemia. She always took solace in nature so the great success of her children’s books meant that she was able to buy Hill Top Farm in England’s lovely Lake District. She was only able to live there part time for many years but gardened and farmed enthusiastically. She kept on buying land until at her death at the age of seventy-seven, she left over four thousand acres to the British National Trust. Her house and garden at Hill Top Farm still belong to the National Trust and can be visited by tourists.

If you love Peter Rabbit and his friends try Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life to see their real homes and haunts. Keep copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her other famous works handy because it uses quotes from Beatrix Potter’s actual letters, her drawings, (both her sketches and her finished book illustrations), historical photos, and beautiful modern photos of the places she wrote about, making the book a delight even if you only have time to browse through and look at the pictures. I loved seeing a sketch or watercolor of a real place and then to see Peter Rabbit or Tabitha Twitchit standing in the picture.

For garden lovers, Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life doesn’t have much practical advice, so it is best as a wintertime curl-up-by-the-fire and dream book. It includes sections on her garden through the seasons, how to visit all the gardens she knew and created throughout her life and and a list of plants she mentioned or drew. It is essential reading for established Beatrix Potter fans who have already consumed her biographies Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature by Linda Lear or The Tale of Beatrix Potter: a Biography by Margaret Lane; or her book of art, Beatrix Potter’s Art: Paintings and Drawings by Anne Stevenson Hobbs; or the series of cozy mysteries featuring her life and haunts by Susan Wittig Albert starting with The Tale of Hill Top Farm (more about these tomorrow).

As Beatrix said in a letter, “The best thing about sharing plants is that they always bring the giver to mind,” and the best thing about reading Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life is that her story will always bring to mind her enduring animal characters, her brave life, and the beauty and solace of gardening, especially in the real Lake District.

Check the WRL catalog for Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.

Omens, by Kelley Armstrong

omensOmens is a fast-paced book with a nice mix of mystery and paranormal plot.

Olivia Taylor-Jones grew up in a privileged family.  She attends the right type of charity functions, works as a volunteer at a shelter, and is engaged to be married to a handsome, proper CEO with political ambitions.  Her life couldn’t be more perfect, until everything falls apart.

Reporters uncover that she was adopted and her birth parents are serving time for several heinous murders.  Everyone has heard of the serial killers Pamela and Todd Larsen.  Olivia just had no idea that she was their daughter.

The scandal and zealous publicity hounds are a bit too much for her adopted mother and fiance – so Olivia flees.  At first she tries to find an apartment in Chicago, but because of her reluctance to tap into her mother’s money, she has very limited resources. After a particularly unsettling experience in a cheap, but unsafe, neighborhood she takes the advice of an older man and heads to Cainsville, a small town just outside of the city.

Cainsville is an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past. And Olivia feels strangely connected to the place.  She lands a job as a waitress at the local diner and begins a rocky relationship with her birth mother’s lawyer, Gabriel Walsh.  Walsh would like Olivia to help mend his professional relationship with Pamela Larsen – and Olivia wants to meet Pamela to find out about her past.

In the course of investigating her parents’ alleged crimes, Olivia stumbles upon the truth about one of the murders.  Poking around in the past puts Olivia and Gabriel in danger – but also brings the two unlikely partners closer.

I appreciated that this one murder mystery was solved and I wasn’t left completely hanging at the end, though I know the story has many other issues to resolve. I’ll keep reading the series because I care about the characters and love the hints about there being something more than what meets the eye.

If you are just now starting the series — lucky you! — the second book just came out. Visions provides additional material as to what is so special about Cainsville’s residents.

I would definitely recommend picking up the book if you enjoyed Karen Marie Moning’s Darkfever series (Gabriel and Barron have similar personalities) or Richelle Mead’s Gameboard of the Gods.

Check the WRL catalog for Omens

Check the WRL catalog for Visions

whistlingHere’s another fantastic book I read based on my colleague Nancy’s suggestion.  Like her last recommendation, The Supreme’s at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, this one takes a look at friendships and race relations in the South.

Starla Claudelle is an impetuous, spunky 9-year-old kid who learns a lot about the world during a two-week adventure in the summer of 1963.

Her mother moved to Nashville to be a country music star when Starla was just 3 years old.  She has vague memories of a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, and her most prized possession is a demo record her mama sent her a few years ago.

Starla rarely sees her dad who works on an oil rig in Biloxi. She is growing up under the care of her grandmother, Mamie, who doesn’t have a lot of patience with Starla.  Maybe Mamie is just worried that Starla won’t grow up into a proper young lady without the restrictions and high demands, or maybe she’s just got a mean streak…

After losing the privilege of attending her favorite holiday festivities because she was defending a younger girl against a bully, Starla decides to sneak out for the 4th-of-July parade and get her share of candy. When she is caught by one of Mamie’s friends, Starla reasons that she might as well run away to Nashville and live with her famous mother instead of staying in Cayuga Springs and being sent to reform school.

There aren’t many cars on the road on the holiday, and Starla is beginning to rethink her impulsive action when a black woman pulls up and offers her a ride.  You know from the start that Eula doesn’t believe Starla’s story about why she’s on the road alone, but Eula takes her home anyway and eventually helps her get to Nashville to find her mother.

Through the course of the story Starla learns about kindness and meanness, justice and injustice, truth and lies. And the reader learns it, too, through her eyes.

I loved the way the reader, Amy Rubinate, handled the narration of the audiobook.  I particularly enjoyed Eula’s voice – soothing and calm. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say, especially after hearing Starla go on about something she was upset about. Rubinate received AudioFile’s Golden Earphones Award for her work on this book.

When I got nervous that Starla was going to get in a heap of trouble, what Starla referred to as getting a “red rage,” I had to turn off the CD and pick up the book.  It sounds silly, but I cared about the characters too much to listen to something bad happen to her or Eula.  And no, I won’t spoil the story by telling you whether my fears were unfounded.

I’d recommend this one to book groups looking for a something like The Help or as Nancy suggested, The Sweet By and By. There is a lot to discuss about friendship, family and racial tensions. A reading group guide is available online at the publisher’s website.

Check the WRL catalog for Whistling Past the Graveyard

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of Whistling Past the Graveyard

dorothyModern day teen Amy Gumm is having a tough time at home and at school. Her day gets worse when a tornado barrels through her Kansas trailer park home and deposits her in the land of Oz.  Amy quickly finds out this isn’t the Oz of the storybooks.  What was beautiful and magical is dull and dead.

Like Dorothy, Amy wanders the countryside looking for a way home.  Along the way she makes a few friends.  But instead of watching out for wicked witches, Amy and her companions are on the lookout for the Tin Woodman and his soldiers.

Dorothy came back from Kansas many years ago and something has gone very, very wrong.

The Tin Woodman is now the Grand Inquisitor of Oz.  You can get arrested (or worse) for sass, for not smiling, for lack of loyalty… As Amy comes quickly to realize, all of Oz is subject to Dorothy’s bizarre and selfish whims.

The Scarecrow and Lion aren’t much better.  Scarecrow used his brains for horrible experiments which make the machine-human hybrids of the Woodman’s army.  The Lion attacks villages and kills innocent people.  He is fearless – and completely lacking compassion. And Glinda the Good is actually an evil slave-driver who makes the Munchkins mine for magic!

All is not without hope. There is an underground movement to remove Dorothy from power.  The formerly wicked witches want Amy’s help.  They spring her from prison and begin training her in magic and combat techniques so she can play her part in freeing Oz from the tyranny.

This debut novel certainly gives a unique and dark twist to the Wizard of Oz story.  The tale itself follows a familiar story arc of a strong, female teen relying on herself to overcome obstacles (think Hunger Games, Divergent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – but the similarities and differences with the familiar children’s story makes this new YA book a very interesting read.

Dorothy Must Die ends with plenty of questions still needing to be answered.  A sequel is expected in March. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Oz.

Check the WRL catalog for Dorothy Must Die

House of Games (1987)

house of gamesA prominent psychiatrist is seduced by the world of con men and confidence games in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet’s 1987 directorial debut, House of Games.

Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) enjoys a thriving career, including the recent publication of a well-received book called Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life. One of her patients is a compulsive gambler named Billy Hahn (Steven Goldstein). During a therapy session, a distraught Billy confides in Margaret that he owes $25,000 to a shady gambler named Mike. He doesn’t have the money and his life is in danger if he doesn’t repay Mike by the following evening. When Margaret tries to reassure Billy that his life is not in danger, he pulls out a gun and tells her that suicide may be his only way out of the problem. She successfully calms Billy and takes the gun from him.

Later that evening while reviewing her notes on Billy’s situation, she finds a reference to Mike and the place where Billy lost the money: the House of Games. Determined to help her patient, Margaret goes to the House of Games looking for Mike (Joe Mantegna). She confronts him about Billy’s debt and learns that he only owed Mike $800, not $25,000 as originally claimed. Mike makes Margaret an offer: in exchange for helping him win a poker game, he’ll forgive Billy’s debt. Although the poker game is exposed as nothing more than a clever ruse, Mike keeps his word and forgives the debt, and Margaret finds herself intrigued by Mike and his shadowy world of deceptions and con games.

Her evening with Mike sparks an idea for another book, and several nights later she tracks him down and asks if she could watch how he operates. He agrees, and takes her along as he pulls several small cons, all the while explaining to her how confidence games work. She also finds herself falling in love with Mike, seduced by his charm and his insight into why people fall for his cons. Margaret’s whirlwind affair with Mike culminates in a complex confidence game involving a briefcase containing $80,000 borrowed from the mob. Will she risk her professional reputation and her life to protect the man she’s grown to love?

I enjoyed House of Games for the same reason I enjoyed Nine Queens, Fabián Bielinsky’s excellent 2000 film about a pair of con artists trying to sell a sheet of counterfeit stamps. I know an elaborate trick lies at the heart of the story, but the pleasure of watching the film comes from seeing how the trick was constructed and executed. Mamet’s clever and fast-paced screenplay pulls the viewer along for the ride as Margaret finds herself caught up in a situation that is quickly spiraling out of control. The lead performances are particularly strong and credible. Joe Mantegna’s smooth talking Mike is charming, but unapologetic about his life as a con man. Lindsay Crouse’s character is a bit more complex. Dr. Margaret Ford is a caring psychiatrist who wants to help people; however, her experience with Mike leads to subtle changes to the way she regards herself and her profession. Without giving too much away, I suggest that viewers pay careful attention to Margaret’s clothing and demeanor in the scenes at the beginning and end of the movie where she is approached by fans of her book.

Tightly constructed and well-paced, House of Games is a fine mystery and fascinating character study.

Check the WRL catalog for House of Games

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