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Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

SouthernHerbGrowingI have tried gardening on several continents with many climates and soil types. I soon learned that a plant that grows well in one place may get resentful and sulk — or outright die— in another. That is why gardening books that address local conditions are spectacularly useful. Here in southeastern Virginia we are well served by Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardener, by Wesley Greene. When I was starting to grow herbs I was looking for a book about a particular type of plant rather than tightly focused on one place, and Southern Herb Growing has turned out to be a wonderful resource to help me with our hot and humid conditions.

The author Madalene Hill was  the national president of the Herb Society of America in the 1980s and her expertise shines through. The first part of the book is called “A Herbal Primer” and covers getting started with sections on soil, mulch and propagation. A large part of it is given over to design ideas including historical knot gardens and theme gardens. The before and after photos can be a little discouraging because the full, tangled cottage-garden look that I crave may take five years to grow. I guess I just have to be patient and wait for my two inch tall sprigs of rosemary to become bushes! And for those readers who can only dream of the space to grow a proper garden, the book includes container gardening (which herbs are well suited to).

Around half the book is the “Growing Guide” with hundreds of herbs listed alphabetically with advice for growing them in the hot, humid South, the herbs’ historical uses and significance, and their modern culinary and medicinal uses. Each listing has the scientific genus and species names, as well as alternate names, so from from Acanthus to Yarrow you should be able to find almost any rare or common herb you are interested in.

Southern Herb Growing is a great book for all gardeners, especially if you want prosaic advice poetically put such as “Basils go home to their fathers at the first sign of cold nights in the fall.” It includes hundreds of beautiful photographs of herb gardens growing throughout the South, so try it whether you are able to immediately use their advice to improve your current garden or look at the lovely pictures and dream…

Check the WRL catalog for Southern Herb Growing.

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RiddleLabyrinthDo you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

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Nothing speaks teatime more than freshly baked scones, slathered with strawberry jam, and topped with cream.

RoyalTeas

In my world real scones are plain and stodgy objects which I learned to bake a long time ago, first at Brownies and then as “quick breads” in Cooking class at Intermediate School. When I have made them ever since, I used my Grandmother’s ancient and annotated Edmonds Cookery Book. In the antediluvian antipodes I learned that, as the name quick breads suggests, they are meant to replace bread in a meal, not something sweet, so they are mostly flour and milk and never have eggs. But I am game to try most things once (especially if it involves baking), so tradition be hanged, I exactly followed the Basic Scones recipe from Royal Teas with Grace and Style.  These were not my grandmother’s scones, but light, airy, with cranberries and a crunchy sugary top–they were well worth making (and consuming!)

Author Eileen Shafer has run teashops and tea tours for many years and it shows in this engaging idea, etiquette and recipe book. Almost half the book is hints and advice for making the perfect elegant tea party, and with chapter headings like “Setting a Beautiful Table” and “Creating an Inviting Atmosphere” there is a lot to work with. It is full of exquisite photographs of table settings, tea sets, dignified rooms and (my favorite) food. Eileen Shafer lives part of the year in Williamsburg and the book is part of Williamsburg Regional Library’s Local Author Project.

Royal Teas with Grace and Style has smaller selection of savory tea time recipes such as sandwiches, but comes into its own with a great selection of cakes, cookies and slices. I got carried away one day and made so many cookies and cakes that the chocolate cake didn’t get eaten (unusual in my teenager-filled household). The book gives the splendid idea of using the left over chocolate pound cake to make trifle, but the recipe for trifle calling for cool whip and instant pudding didn’t sound nearly so splendid. This time I stuck with tradition and used whipped cream and custard from imported custard powder for a scrumptious trifle. I also made the lemon drop cookies and they were mouthwatering – strongly lemon flavored and slightly astringent. I like lemon flavor with other flavors so I had the idea of rolling the dough out with a batch of chocolate cookie dough to make lemon and chocolate swirl cookies, with triumphant results.

Try Royal Teas with Grace and Style for great recipes and wonderful ideas about stylish teas. My colleague Janet wrote a lovely review of Eating Royally, by Darren McGrady in 2012, which features how the British Royals really eat. Royal Teas with Grace and Style may not have the British authenticity of Eating Royally but it has plenty to inspire fans of baking and fans of elegant tea parties.

Check the WRL catalog for Royal Teas with Grace and Style.

sconesLemonCookies

And here are some of the lemon cookies and scones that I made.

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imageI hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.

Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.

Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.

Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.

Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)

Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.

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MysticLambVan Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, painted to adorn the altar of a Belgian cathedral in the 1400s, is the most frequently stolen painting in the history of art. This is an especially neat trick considering it weighs around two tons.

Opened only on special occasions, the wood panels of the altarpiece portray a host of saints, martyrs, angels, and patrons, a showpiece for the kind of minute detail the layering of newfangled oil paints could achieve, and a transition from the art of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Its central panel, a cryptic, symbolic scene called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, furnishes the title of this fast-paced, entertaining art history read.

Art historian Noah Charney describes the painting’s 500-plus-year history to great effect, incorporating the little we know about Van Eyck along with art criticism, war stories, true crime, artists who may have been secret agents, and enough farfetched but entertaining conspiracy theories to fuel Dan Brown’s next novel. From Napoleon to the Treaty of Versailles to the salt mines of Alt Aussee, Charney describes how bits and pieces of the altarpiece have been looted, defaced, confiscated, stolen, ransomed, and coveted by Nazis. Is the painting also a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, studied by Hitler’s Ahnenerbe for its clues to finding supernatural weaponry? Cue the Raiders of the Lost Ark music…

If you’ve read Robert Edsel’s Monuments Men, the chapters detailing the painting’s WWII history will be quite familiar (actually, I think Charney tells the story a little better). Officers Posey and Kirstein, an unlikely duo from the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit careen around the Austrian Alps in search of a treasure trove of paintings looted from throughout Europe, including the Altarpiece, while SS officers caught in the last days of a lost war are bringing in aircraft bombs to blow these same paintings to kingdom come…

And then there’s the mystery of the Righteous Judges, a long-missing panel that may have been replaced with a copy… or by a copy painted over the original in a diabolically byzantine plot to disguise the return of the panel without admitting to its theft in the first place. Unsolved to this day, this cold case comes complete with ransom notes and deathbed confessions: “armoire… key… [dies].”

Like Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spellthis is a fascinating read for folks who are interested in the intersection of art and war.

Check the WRL catalog for Stealing the Mystic Lamb.

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Priceless is a memoir about the true crime undercover investigations carried out by FBI Agent Robert K. Wittman. Since the late 1980s, Bob Wittman was the original solo art crime investigator for what became the FBI’s Art Crime team in 2004, now numbering 14 agents who are well-versed in the fine arts, skilled with undercover work, and are prepared to rapidly deploy to any worldwide site for art theft recovery work and sting operations, often in cooperation with international law enforcement agencies. The FBI updates an online top-ten listing of art crimes and maintains a database of stolen art.

The book is arranged so that you’re following developments in FBI Agent Wittman’s career as well as some pivotal events in his personal life throughout the book. However, each chapter neatly portrays a particular case and its wrap-up. There is one thread running from the beginning through the end, the notorious unsolved 1990 case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft. Wittman’s frustrating battle with the restrictions under which he had to work in the FBI’s bureaucracy, including power struggles with senior officials, seems to provide some clues as to why this case might have been solved long ago had it not been so botched by red tape.

The stories truly bring the high-stakes investigations of art theft to life for the lay reader, and open up our eyes to the realities of art crimes. The biggest revelation in this book is the fact that those who steal art are seldom glamorous, handsome and powerful art connoisseurs, as they have been portrayed in films such as Dr. No or The Thomas Crown Affair. That characterization may be true in some cases, although they are usually your typical thugs who can’t resist taking something that seems incredibly valuable yet easy to steal for even the dumbest of crooks. Some of the book’s photos of captured thieves make that contrast startling. As security systems and staffing have become more sophisticated today, even better organized art theft rings have staged some thefts on the level of Ocean’s Eleven style drama, but most of the crimes investigated by Wittman and told in Priceless are more a case of your average guy taking advantage of an opportunity to get away with something for money.

These are very interesting and sometimes thrilling tales.  They’ll take you behind the scenes of the FBI and around the world to exotic locations and scenarios, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Look for Priceless in the WRL catalog.

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Thrillers rarely come along that are created with as much verve as Headhunters, a standalone novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø, who also writes the Harry Hole series. The crafty, intelligent plot has a bit of noir as well as some jaw-dropping comic moments; you won’t believe the literally sticky situations that come up amid Hitchcockian twists and turns. You’ll also find well-developed characters despite the book’s brevity (less than 300 pages), which I always appreciate.

Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief to maintain a lavish lifestyle for his wife. He is also clearly trying to compensate for his short height and his insecurity about having such a gorgeous wife, terrified that she’ll discover his true colors. In Roger’s misguided drive to supplement his already lucrative work and preserve his marriage, he suddenly finds himself caught in a web of unclear motives and loyalties, with no one to trust. He wonders just how long he’s been the target in someone’s larger scheme rather than solely the mastermind of his own crimes.

Clas Greve is not only a brilliant and devilishly handsome corporate icon, he’s also a tried and tested covert special forces operative skilled as another type of “head hunter.” His history with GPS tracking technology landed him the CEO position with a major corporation rumored to have lost him following a takeover. Roger Brown’s wife Diana, who meets Greve through her art gallery, tips Roger off to Greve’s availability as a potential CEO candidate, and Roger thinks he is perfect to head a competing GPS technology firm. Diana also tells the tale of a missing masterpiece by Rubens that was found in Clas Greve’s grandmother’s apartment in Oslo. Not only does Roger think he has found the perfect executive for his client, he plots to steal the work of art that might set him up in luxury for life.

Pampered, polished Roger, a sophisticated businessman and very classy thief, may be in over his head, but in the course of an adventurous and outrageous series of circumstances, he reveals his true grit. The reader will end up rooting for this undeserving hero. Fans of Stieg Larsson, Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen are likely to be enraptured.

“MPAA rating: R; for bloody violence including some grisly images, strong sexual content and nudity.” If you are over 17, and know that you could at least stomach Pulp Fiction or Fight Club, don’t let this intimidating film rating prevent you from viewing the riveting Norwegian film version of the novel. Despite the rating, I found it less disturbing than expected, not as violent or brutal as your average Tarantino flick—the murders in Headhunters come across as rather accidental, not cold-blooded or ultra-disturbingly violent. Yes, there are some graphic scenes, but you’ll be so caught up in the unexpected plot twists that I doubt you’ll find them too extreme—well, except for one scene reminiscent of the unforgettable outhouse scene in Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed suspense this much since Fargo. What you should know is that the details in some scenes are so much more graphic in the book that you’ll be glad that the director chose to leave them out!

The DVD has settings for viewing in Norwegian with subtitles or with English dubbing. I enjoyed it in Norwegian more because the English was dubbed with American accents. Roger Brown’s character is British and all the other characters are either Norwegian or Dutch, so it just made more sense to use the English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for the book 

Check the catalog for the ebook

Check the catalog for the DVD

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Shapiro uses a true crime event, the 1990 theft of priceless works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as the backdrop for this engaging novel about a young artist with outstanding talent but a soiled reputation whose susceptibility gets her neck-deep into a forgery scheme. Cleverly, author Shapiro inserts a fictional masterpiece by Degas that, of course, was not among the 13 works stolen in real life. This way she is able to weave an entirely new provenance, history, and fate for her invented painting for the sake of this story, which includes a fictional alleged relationship between the museum’s founder Isabella and Edgar Degas.  Clues are slowly revealed to the reader through the inclusion of a mysterious collection of undiscovered letters composed by Isabella, telling all to her favorite niece.

Reluctant at first, but eventually coerced into accepting that her part in copying the painting is innocent—it’s apparently legal to copy art as long as one doesn’t try to pass off the forgery as the original—Clare Roth feels safely distanced from any related criminality. She convinces herself that it’s legal to create a fine copy of an original masterwork; after all, she legitimately copies masterpieces for a fine art reproduction business.  She’s in denial, however, that storing the stolen art in her studio home or developing a romantic attachment to the art dealer makes her an accessory to the crime. Feeling removed from the Gardner theft, and unconnected to any of the buyers or sellers interested in the proposed forgery, Clare still becomes increasingly enmeshed as the plot unravels, family secrets are uncovered shedding new light on the museum’s history and benefactor, and the authenticity of a valuable masterpiece is questioned.

Those who love true crimes and/or mysteries with a sprinkling of romance (that doesn’t dominate a story) are likely to enjoy this novel. It will also appeal to those who like contemporary novels based around true events.

Information on the real art theft in the wee hours following Saint Patrick’s Day reveling is described on the Gardner museum’s Website and also in The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser. Art investigators are still trying to recover the stolen artworks, and a $5 million reward is offered for information leading to their safe recovery.

In The Art Forger, the device of using a bolder and smaller font to distinguish sections in the novel that describe events that occurred years earlier helps to keep time and details straight. Unfortunately, this technique was lost on me as I was reading the e-book version; it’s there but I just didn’t notice it easily on my particular device—just thought I’d mention that for those of you with e-readers.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Art Forger, available in print, large print, on CD, and e-book.

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I was instantly absorbed in this fast-paced, detective-style investigation of the mysterious manuscript, the “Crown of Aleppo.” Parchment fragments of the ancient codex are still unaccounted for today, so those who want the book to end with a nice neat conclusion or happy ending should not even get started. However, those who love a good unsolved mystery and a series of unreliable accounts from multiple viewpoints, perhaps reminiscent of Iain Pears’s novel,  An Instance of the Fingerpost, are likely to love this story. One after the other, we read contradictory accounts of the same event in Aleppo, Syria. In 1947, anti-Jewish violence protesting the creation of the state of Israel endangered the sacred texts, which were housed in the Jewish synagogue in the city; consequentially, most of Syria’s Jewish community fled. Amid the chaos, parts of the document disappeared. Various individuals closely associated with the synagogue claimed credit for protecting the codex.

Investigative reporter Matti Friedman bravely followed an obfuscated trail, having to carefully negotiate his way into archives, museums, and libraries, and into the trust of those who may harbor what truths still exist in living memory regarding the codex. Along the way, he discovered a number of cover-ups, suppressed documentation, and red herrings, yet he relentlessly and obsessively pursued the previously untold story.

The tenth century “Crown” is the oldest Hebrew Bible manuscript, considered the authoritative text from which all copies of the Torah were meant to be hand copied in the old days. All sorts of legends and pesky rules, not very well suited to the preservation of disintegrating, aging old manuscripts, surround the “Crown,” including the stipulation that it was never to be moved from its location in Syria (riot, fire, and political unwelcome brought an end to its residency of over a thousand years), and that no one would be allowed to photograph or scan it (a rule certainly not instated before its most recent centuries). Therefore, when leaves of the folios went missing, no photographic images existed to at least preserve their memory, such as those we have to remember many stolen artifacts and fine art these days.

I just loved reading about this great mystery, and it kindled in me a new interest in other investigations of manuscripts with storied pasts.

Check the WRL catalog for The Aleppo Codex

Check the catalog for the ebook version

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All this week, Mindy reviews books about art theft, starting with two titles about some of the more sensational cases:

Museum of the Missing (2006) and Stolen (2008) are very similar booksboth have introductory material written by Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, a tool used worldwide to authenticate artworks and aid in the recovery of stolen art. Some of the true crimes described in the earlier work are also in Stolen. Both include pages filled with color illustrations of lost art and the fascinating stories detailing what is known about their thefts. (Those who are tracking the fluctuating state of art theft cases may also want to follow current events. One way that I have been doing that is with a Google alert that sends newly published articles and blog posts to my email inbox daily.)

These art crime stories range from sad, disturbing, and shocking losses of our cultural heritage to hilarious and often audacious stupid-crook capers. The good news is that a number of stolen works of art have been recovered by art crime investigators, often working in undercover sting operations designed to thwart criminal schemes. It’s delicate work, often prioritized in favor of recovering works of art unharmed rather than on locking up the culprits who stole them. Appeals to the public are often made, with rewards offered, without fear of prosecution if involved.

The reality is that the high-priced art world often makes the headlines with record-breaking art sales. This attracts thieves who can’t seem to resist. What thieves unfortunately fail to calculate is the market for fencing their loot. Thus, they’re sometimes stuck with stolen art, and without backgrounds in art history or an acquired taste for fine art they seldom show any concern for its preservation. Thieves who couldn’t find a buyer have sometimes destroyed the stolen art in order to eliminate the evidence of their crime. Sculptures are stolen for their metal content and melted down for scrap.

Houpt and Webb each do an excellent job of storytelling about these intriguing art thefts. They also provide a great deal of insight into the history of art and what has made stealing it such an irresistible crime. A nice shelf to browse for more titles like these is located in the true crime area of 364.162.

Check the WRL catalog for Museum of the Missing

Check the catalog for Stolen

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OperationYesBo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.

The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.

Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.

In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.

Check the WRL catalog for Operation Yes.

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I used to read and re-read this novel over and over again, especially during my college years. It always seemed to be the one I’d pick up when procrastinating or killing time around finals time. Always fascinated with artists and how they each discover a unique personal vision, I felt that this book captured the artist’s internal development and anguish so well. It also dealt with a religious subject that I knew very little about but found very intriguing. It captured the angst of a person responding to his innate passion as an evolving creator while also receiving powerful spiritual messages and under constant societal and familial pressure.

Asher is the only child of orthodox Hasidic parents whose livelihood revolves around service to God and the requirements of their religious community. Asher’s father has a very important job directly reporting to the Rebbe or spiritual leader of their Hasidic group in post-World War II Brooklyn, New York. His father must travel frequently for the Rebbe and expects Asher to behave appropriately and reverently as has always been expected of members of his family and community. It is difficult for Mr. Lev to accept Asher’s insatiable compulsion to express nearly everything he sees and experiences, every emotion or thought, through drawings and images. Even before he’s presented with conventional drawing tools, he is discovered using the ashes from his parents’ cigarettes to create images on paper as early as age four. Asher’s mother, in a position to witness the naturally unfolding quality of Asher’s prodigal gift more directly, seems to embrace Asher’s gift more easily, yet she must enforce her husband’s demands.

We learn in the first few paragraphs of the novel the shocking fact that Asher Lev, an artist of rare talent, has become famous by painting an iconic Christian image in his “Brooklyn Crucifixion” painting despite having grown up as a strictly religious Jew.  How this Hasidic Jew grew up to become an artist who paints Christ on a cross is a very engaging tale, told in the artist’s point of view, and reads much like a memoir. Asher Lev’s act is dramatically symbolic and forges a permanent barrier between himself and his sect and family.

Many would say that the book is hard to finish, with its slower pace, but I found that to be no trouble at all. In fact, I somehow found it to be a page-turner I could not put down late into the night, even when I was re-reading it.

Check the WRL catalog for My Name is Asher Lev.

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TheRights of the ReaderReading should not be torture.

I’ll take a stab, and guess that you, today’s Gentle Readers, who are perusing a blog about books, created by a public library, are a special bunch. You, like your faithful librarians, are all enthusiastic and heavy readers. So, for all of us, it is difficult to imagine reading as torture. But, on the other hand, do we all remember that one book at high school that was cruel and unusual punishment? Maybe it was a book that you came to appreciate later, but wasn’t really suitable for school? I don’t know on which planet The Great Gatsby will excite middle schoolers, but I doubt it is this one.

Daniel Pennac is from France and I am not sure if French middle schoolers have The Great Gatsby forced on them, but  they obviously get similar treatment because the author dedicates his slim, humorous book with the admonition to “Parents, teachers, librarians, please on no account use these pages as an instrument of torture.”

The Rights of the Reader is divided into dozens of very short chapters, some only a few sentences long, interspersed with Quentin Blake’s quirky and appealing illustrations. This makes it great for dipping into. And “dipping in” is one of the rights Daniel Pennac assigns to readers in the last section of the book. He enumerates ten rights and I like them all, but they are not all universally acknowledged, even by librarians. For example, Number 4, “The Right to Read it Again.” I love to revisit old books, but sometimes we are encouraged to constantly read new books as life is short and so many great new books are being published.  But since life is short I want to keep the prerogative to go back to The Secret Garden simply “for the joy of being reunited with it.”

I recommend this book for everyone. In our library The Rights of the Reader is shelved in the “Parents Corner” with books for parents and other adults about raising children. It definitely has utility for parents, but is also a manifesto for all readers. There are many reasons to read, and sometimes we should read for information, or to learn, or to better ourselves, but as in many aspects of life everyone has to allow time to read for sheer pleasure. For today’s gentle blog readers, this may be obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded.

Check the WRL catalog for The Rights of the Reader.

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Approximately five years ago, I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as her other five novels after receiving an all-in-one collection as a gift. Having only truly read Pride and Prejudice once (I can’t count the Cliff Notes I used in high school), it’s a wonder that I am reviewing this festive micro-history which delightfully illustrates why Jane Austen’s perfect Regency romance has remained so untouchable since its publication in 1813, even as her style and subject matter are profusely imitated, now more than ever!  

Reading Susannah Fullerton’s pleasant homage to the timeless novel upon its 200-year anniversary provided me with all sorts of intriguing details, historical background, and gossipy tidbits about its creation and legacy that enhance my appreciation of the novel.  Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, effectively demonstrates the reasons for the novel’s perfection and its ever-increasing appeal for readers of either sex, of all ages, in nearly every community worldwide. She cheerfully describes her analysis of individual characters, Austen’s style, and the famous opening sentence on which an entire chapter is devoted.

It was especially amusing to learn of all the various editions, versions, translations, sequels, retellings, mash-ups, adaptations, film interpretations, and other assorted Austen-inspired endeavors that have fueled a sort of Pride-and-Prejudice mania. Darcy-mania culture took off on the tails of the sexy 1995 BBC film version, starring Colin Firth (of the infamous lake scene), and kindled much new interest in the reading of the novel.

Fullerton pretty much concludes that no sequel author or film producer has ever really matched Jane Austen’s masterful style and that what lovers of the novel should really ever do is just keep reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I agree that the masterpiece stands alone, but Austen did very effectively infect most of her readers with a desire to continue knowing Elizabeth and Darcy and to learn ever more about each well-drawn character’s future. Imagine if she’d lived long enough to write her own sequels, or to taste the fame her novels eventually gave her!

Check the WRL catalog for Celebrating Pride and Prejudice : 200 years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece

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The Art Detective Philip Mould became a television celebrity from his role appraising works of art unearthed from dusty attics or flea markets on the popular “Antiques Roadshow,” but according to his memoir he began as an ambitious art dealer who just happened to fall in love with the game of chasing down a good find using the forensic and research expertise of his reliable staff, his vast knowledge of artists and fine art portraiture and often pure instinct along with a willingness to risk his reputation in the highly competitive art world.  Sheer luck seems to have been in his favor with a number of great finds that, had he been wrong — such as in his decision to scrape away some over-painting — might have had disastrous consequences both financial and for art’s sake.  He seems very fortunate to have found early success that he has been rolling with ever since, which makes for a very fascinating read about his life’s work.

“In this book I explain how the history of a picture can color its appearance.  I show how provenance can completely blind eminent authorities into believing a picture is authentic when it is a fake, and also how provenance can unlock a picture’s importance and stature.”

This book was very appealing for the sense of mystery involved with researching and following clues to determine a work of art’s provenance and condition, often literally peeling layers of paint to reveal the true masterpiece in disguise. I liked the storytelling skill and use of suspense.  Descriptions of bizarre art collectors’ habits created vivid portraits of the persons associated with the art under investigation.  These and some incredible frauds provided a number of laugh-out-loud moments for me as well.

The stories relating the complex process of unraveling the truth about individual works of arts were rich with detail, wit, and sensationalism.  I will say that they could have benefited from more complete documentation of his findings; particularly, some additional dates would have oriented me into the moment better.  Some of the works discussed are in museums or locations that I have either had access to or had contemplated in books previously, which increased my interest in learning more.  The book also sparked my interest in seeking episodes of Antiques Roadshow on both BBC and PBS, which before I read this book were the type of put-me-to-sleep programs I would have clicked right past.  I felt as though I were being welcomed behind the scenes of the elite art environment in which Philip Mould makes his living.

Check the WRL catalog for The Art Detective

I found it to be a very quick and engaging read as an e-book.

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Just KidsPatti Smith is the proto-punk goddess whose music is fierce, but hardly every listener’s cup of tea. Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer whose most famous works were pictures of nude men, often depicted in sexually explicit poses and masochistic acts. I like some edgy things, but neither of these artists really do much for me, and a more conservative person might run the other way. I’m not even a huge fan of their scene, where style and innovation seem to matter more than substance, but I’ve always been curious about those magical moments in history where a group of creative people find each other and use the energy of their meeting to create something new.

Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, captures just such a time perfectly. Smith came to New  York in 1967 after giving up a baby to adoption upstate. She was young and looking for a fresh start. One of the first people she met was Robert Mapplethorpe, a minor acquaintance who became her fast friend after saving her from a bad date. The two moved in together and tried to make a go of a relationship, even though it soon became apparent that Mapplethorpe was obviously homosexual. Patti somewhat naively believed that their love would overcome Robert’s sexual preference, and so began several years of ups and downs. Robert could be incredibly supportive of Patti and her art, but substance abuse and a need for fame could make him neglectful at other times.

The background here is fascinating, as Smith and Mapplethorpe rub elbows with the artists and scenesters of the Chelsea Hotel, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the pioneering music venue CBGB’s. The story follows the early rise of both friends, then jumps forward a decade and ends poignantly with Robert’s death from AIDS in 1989.

Smith writes with real heart. The prose gets a bit florid at times, but that’s easy to forgive, as is her sometimes naive view of Mapplethorpe, as the author so clearly feels all of the emotions behind her story honestly. This especially shines through on the audiobook. Smith is a clumsy reader, a bit monotone and with funny pronunciations for some words (“drawlings” instead of “drawings”), but she’s so absolutely free of pretense that I found the awkwardness charming and authentic, not off-putting.

Check the WRL catalog for Just Kids

Or try it on audiobook on CD

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pillarsOK, so here it is.  In my post for Pillars of the Earth I mentioned that an illustrated source would add to the impact of Ken Follett’s prose.  With  photographer f-stop Fitzgerald’s beautiful work, such a source is available.

We’ve become jaded to the visual elements of the cathedral in our day.  At best, most of us who go to them will take a tour with a guide who repeats the same text 20 times a day; at worst, we will look at, but not see what the average 12th century person would see.  What we see is a big building filled with bits of this and pictures of that.  What even the illiterate masses would see was their own Bible, with clear lessons about sin and salvation, the examples of saints, martyrs, and evangelists, and the everlasting punishments awaiting the damned.  But the technological innovations of the Gothic cathedral would be the psychological setup for congregants to strive for a heaven shown in soaring ceilings, intricate carvings incorporated into the structure, and light pouring through unimaginably large and stained glass windows.

Working with text from Pillars of the Earth (which sadly doesn’t align with the photos), Fitzgerald gives us unique and intimate views of elements that might prove overwhelming or inaccessible to a modern visitor.  The profligate details in medieval churches overwhelm the modern viewer, and are inaccessible both from a physical standpoint and from an iconographic standpoint.  Some of his portraits are black-and-white images that appear to be reproduced as negatives against silver backgrounds.  Others are full-color illustrations drenched with the hues of sunrise and sunset, taking advantage of the east-west alignment required of an cathedral.  And still others are black-and-white closeups of carved figures, including the grotesque gargoyles and monsters that reminded viewers of the imps of hell awaiting sinners.

Fitzgerald doesn’t limit his subject to ancient cathedrals or images—he incorporates a few pieces that have the same feel but an unmistakably modern sensibility.  They show that the fascination and need to build these immense and awe-inspiring buildings was not limited to pre-Reformation communities.  The introduction by sculptor Simon Verity is a reminder that artists are still working in stone to capture visceral religious emotions.

Williamsburg Regional Library has decided to catalog and shelve this kind of book with the original source so that readers will hopefully find them when looking for the original fiction.  (Other authors we’ve done this with include Patrick O’Brian and J.R.R. Tolkien.) Hopefully books like Pillars of the Almighty will drive readers’ imagination and understanding of the story.

Search for Pillars of the Almighty in the WRL Catalog.

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Sacrebleu “En garde!” said Toulouse-Lautrec, … boldly drawing a cordial glass from his walking stick. “Oh, balls. Run it is, then.”

I would read many more books in which crimes were solved by Count Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec, who frequently mixes up his sword cane with his flask cane, in which is concealed cognac and a cordial glass. The artist as inebriated detective is the best thing about this magical-realist historical farce, in which Toulouse-Lautrec teams up with Lucien Lessard, a baker and aspiring painter, to investigate the murder of Vincent van Gogh. It’s a romp through the cabarets, brothels, and studios of Impressionist Paris.

“Henri was finding the detective work did not agree with his constitution as it involved talking to people who were odd or stupid, without the benefit of the calming effect of alcohol.”

With his last breath, van Gogh warned his fellow artists against the Colorman, a pigment grinder who supplies his customers with a particularly potent shade of blue, and his female companion, a woman of many guises. Perhaps you’ve seen her as Manet’s Olympia, or the inexplicably nude picnicker in Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Maybe she’s Whistler’s White Girl, or Toulouse-Lautrec’s Carmen Gaudin. Maybe she’s the mysterious and elusive Juliette, with whom Lucien Lessard has fallen in love. And if she is, Lessard is in trouble, because where this muse goes, madness and murder follow. As they say in France, cherchez la femme.

Moore’s humor often comes with its own rim-shot (of course Georges Seurat’s muse is named “Dot”), but the number of things that are played for laughs can’t disguise the fact that Moore has fallen deeply in love with this time period and its crazy bohemian painters, and his enthusiasm buoys the story.

As an added bonus, the text includes color reproductions of most of the paintings that are mentioned, so, although it may be like learning about Wagner from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you can pick up quite a lot of art history. And if you want to know more, Moore has a time sink of a web site preserving his research notes, additional paintings, and photographs.

Check the WRL catalog for Sacré Bleu

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