Archive for the ‘art’ Tag

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

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Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

Wine Tales   Leave a comment

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When I was a kid, my grandparents lived in Napa. I dreaded the inevitable drives with my parents through the valley to the small, mostly-family-run wineries. Curvy and narrow roads and not being old enough to even sip wine further contributed to my discomfort.

The roads remain narrow, but seem to wind less; my grandparents aren’t alive, and now there are more wineries than I could have ever imagined. Several years ago, my husband and I discovered HALL Wines, so I looked forward to reading A Perfect Score by Craig and Kathryn Hall.

The co-proprietors of HALL and WALT Wines are relative newcomers to the industry; they didn’t launch their first wines until 1995. Although, Kathryn grew up on her parents’ vineyard in Mendocino County (California); Craig, on the other hand, admits to once having little knowledge of wines.

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This is several stories woven into one: How the couple met, came to purchase property in the Napa and Sonoma valleys and ultimately how one of their wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon, earned 100 points from wine critic Robert Parker, Jr., in 2013.

The Halls had their share of setbacks, but their apparent optimistic dispositions and a lot of good luck served them well. The book addresses life in Napa Valley, the camaraderie among vintners, the concerns of neighbors regarding the Halls’ construction plans, the philanthropy of winemakers, the caliber of the Hall staff and more.

This is a quick, fun read and made me want to open a bottle of HALL wine.

A Perfect Score: The Art, Soul, and Business of a 21st Century Winery
Three Bookmarks
Center Street, 2016
207 pages

Love and Vengeance   Leave a comment

My favorite passage by Lauren Groff is where she signed my copy of Fates and Furies at the request of my son Tim’s girlfriend. Groff wrote: “Robin – Mariana is the most beautiful and wonderful, isn’t she!” The answer is yes. It is such a stark contrast to the tenor of the novel; I’m led to believe that Groff doesn’t have it out for everyone, which is a comforting thought.

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The novel is divided into two categories: fates and furies. The first section begins with newlyweds, Lotto and Mathilde, consummating their marriage on the beach, but he is the focus here. It’s all about him: childhood, banishment from his family to boarding school, college days and efforts to succeed as an actor are portrayed in detail; but not too much as to squelch the imagination. Little is revealed about Mathilde – until furies, which is aptly named.

In an effort to avoid the need for spoiler alerts, suffice it to say there are elements of Gone Girl meets Claire Underwood.

Groff’s writing is clever, humorous and rich in detail. The references to various plays and Greek tragedies, however, are distracting metaphors.

Full of unlikable characters, the book, nonetheless, was appealing. Lotto’s a selfish man who exudes charm. Real charm, not something he turns on and off at will. Mathilde is mysterious and bitchy. They are flawed thanks to the characteristics Groff imbues in them. Neither is someone I want to meet, but I was more than content to know them through the distance of fiction.

Fates and Furies
Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2015
391 pages

Growing up With Good Taste   Leave a comment

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Foodies and artists, often one in the same, should enjoy Lucy Knisley’s comic book memoir, Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. It’s humorous, educational and a quick read.

At an early age her parents instilled an appreciation of gourmet food. I’d like to think I did, too, with my own kids, but I never considered serving my toddler children poached salmon. I did, however, insist that they at least try new things even if they only took one bite. The result – years later – is they all have fine palates and enjoy a good meal.

But back to Knisley.

She shares stories about leaving the City for upstate New York following her parents’ divorce. She relates her initial displeasure at having to be around farms, chickens and seed stores. Eventually, her text and accompanying illustrations reflect a tone of gratitude. It’s clear she has good relationships with both parents, but she does include some of the rough spots they endured. These were, no surprise, Knisley’s teenage years. She makes no effort to (literally) draw herself in a better light; this is a highlight.

Humor underlies these chronicles of coming-of-age, food cravings, travel and love for her parents. Knisely also includes illustrated recipes, cooking tips and explanations of cooking techniques.

Among my favorite chapters is the account of her efforts to recreate the croissants she so enjoyed in Italy. Her determination is as evident as her failure, but her humor saves the day. This is always the best ingredient no matter the endeavor.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen
Five Bookmarks
First Second Books, 2013
173 pages

 

From Russia With Art   1 comment

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Anthony Marra is the master of foreshadowing. At times he’s subtle, then he’s as obvious as an agitated teenager reeking of cigarettes claiming he doesn’t smoke. This was true of his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and follows suit in his most recent: The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Marra has chosen a similar setting in Russia with another interesting cast of characters; however, he spans more time, beginning in 1937 continuing to present day. He expands the setting from Siberia to Leningrad/St. Petersburg to Chechnya: landscape is a crucial element.

The narrative begins with an artist in the propaganda department whose job is to erase enemies of the state whose images appear in paintings and photographs. He does this by blotting out faces with ink or by painting something new, which is often his dead brother’s face. It appears in a myriad of scenes representing various phases of his life: child, teenager, middle age and old age.

With each chapter comes a new narrator, in a different setting providing a singular element to the overall novel. The stories are a progression. It’s no spoiler alert to note that the pieces do eventually fit together (very well). Even if they didn’t, Marra’s writing is full of wit and pathos. The images of the pollution-wreaked mining community in Siberia are stark and frigid; just as a Chechnyan hillside is pastoral and warm. The men and women introduced by the author are so human their breath practically turns the pages.

The Tzar of Love and Techno
Four bookmarks
Hogarth, 2015
365 pages

Four’s a Crowd   Leave a comment

I was baffled by Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It’s sweet but confusing. It’s a love story that considers lost chances and perhaps poor decisions. It’s also surprisingly descriptive in its brevity.

Etta is 83 years old when she embarks on a trek across Canada to the ocean. The five-sentence letter she leaves as explanation to her husband sets the tone for the novel: “Otto, I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.”

This isn’t the kind of thing she’s planned, she simply leaves to see the coast. Briefly, Otto considers trying to find her. Ultimately, it’s Russell who does so, while Otto remains on the farm.

Along her trek, Etta gains unwanted attention from the media and towns people she encounters. She also acquires a companion in James, a source of bewilderment.

The relationships among the four title characters are complex. Otto and Russell have known each other since childhood. Both love Etta. Hooper develops the bond between Etta and Otto through letters the pair exchanged during the war. Their correspondence evolves from the mundane to the heartfelt.

Hooper intersperses the characters’ backstories with their present day adventures: Etta bound for the sea, Russell in search of Etta and Otto discovering daily rhythms on his own. Meanwhile, there’s James, who’s difficult to describe. Hooper has crafted a terse novel unpredictably rich with humor and longing.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Almost Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
305 pages

Art and Conscience   Leave a comment

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Disturbing and lyrical are the best words to describe Lida Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children. Graphic and violent could also be added to the list.

Set initially in an unnamed Eastern European village, the narrative involves characters known by single-word descriptions: photographer, writer, playwright, filmmaker, poet, performance artist, widow and girl. Everything centers on the girl.

It is her image as she flees the bombing of her home that is captured by the photographer. The girl has already been victimized by soldiers long before she loses her parents and brother in the explosion. Yuknavitch’s writing is as vivid as the photo that eventually earns the photographer critical acclaim.

The girl runs into the forest and finds her way to the widow’s home where she learns about art and more about survival. Theirs is a quiet, comfortable relationship. Their pasts are always near, but their focus is on the moment.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world the artists believe they must bring the girl to the United States. The hitch is they don’t know who she is or where to find her. As often happens, money solves most problems and here it comes to the rescue in a round-about way. Even with resources the task isn’t easy.

The realistic descriptions of physical and sexual violence make this a difficult book to read. Fortunately, this is overshadowed by demonstrations of humanity and the author’s powerful writing. At its core, it questions the extremes endured to appease consciences.

The Small Backs of Children
Lidia Yuknavitch
Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins 2015
222 pages

Paint Escapes   Leave a comment

 

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The Painter by Peter Heller is a story of redemption. It’s also part thriller. The who-dunnit isn’t in question, but the underlying reasons and the chase(s) help make it a page turner.

Jim Stegner is a painter with a temper, a broken heart and a soft spot for children and animals. His passions are his art and fishing, both of which usually bring him a sense of peace. Set in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico, Heller’s writing renders vivid landscapes with careful, albeit, broad strokes. The images accurately evoke the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

An encounter with a poacher leads Jim from one bad decision to another. At times it’s easy to think the best solution is for Jim’s mistakes to catch up with him. They come close, very close. The problem is there several other characters with whom the reader becomes invested, including – perhaps especially – Sophia, the young model with whom Jim befriends. Irmina, his long-time friend/occasional lover, is also likeable.

There’s more to Jim than his canvases and waders. His past is slowly revealed providing possible explanations for his rash behaviors. The pain he carries regarding his daughter is palpable. So is the disdain he has for law enforcement, art collectors and others. And, he’s a man capable of murder. Ironically, though his actions are crimes and can’t be condoned, they’re almost justified.

Despite Jim’s frustrating behavior, the moments of joy and a fair amount of intrigue make Heller’s novel an enjoyable read.

The Painter

Four Bookmarks
Vintage Contemporaries, 2014
363 pages
 

Survival Modes   4 comments

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I’m usually not drawn to apocalyptic novels, but Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is so much more than a foreboding tale about a small group of people who  survive a pandemic. It’s also about getting through the trials of what we might consider the normal elements of life: existence before the disaster.  She blends the backstory of the half dozen characters she masterfully introduces with their lives following the devastation; and it works!

The story follows the characters whose lives shared parallel paths with Arthur Leander, a famous actor, and which orbit around the fall of society. Unrelated to the flu that kills most of the world’s population, Arthur dies of a heart attack.  Nonetheless, he remains a substantial character as viewed by those who knew him: one of his ex-wives, his best friend, a young girl who watches him die and the man who tries to save him. Another ex-wife and Arthur’s son have important, albeit tangential, roles.  Each character is connected to Arthur, although they don’t all intersect with one another.

St. John Mandel creates a bleak, but not black and white picture, which is often the case in similarly-themed novels. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind as a portrayal of a dismal post-catastrophe world. Sure, there is plenty of anarchy and death in Station Eleven, but somehow they don’t overshadow the power of friendship, love and art.

The author deftly illustrates that fear and loss exist before and after the collapse of civilization – as does hope.

http://www.emilymandel.com/bio.html

Station Eleven
Five Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
352 pages

Family Faultlines   Leave a comment

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson is exasperating and slightly intriguing. Camille and Caleb Fang are performance artists in the extreme. Their definition of art is to create irresponsible chaos amidst the realities of daily routines. The Fangs have children, Annie and Buster, who are used as props and/or unwilling co-conspirators. The kids, also known as A and B, have no interest in being part of their parents’ far-fetched ideas. Once old enough they leave home to pursue more traditional artistic endeavors: Annie is a film actress and Buster writes novels.

When the novel begins, however, both Annie and Buster are experiencing low points in their lives. Though resistant, they return to the family home. Wilson creates a palpable sense of anger and frustration on A and B’s part. This spills onto the reader. In a way Camille and Caleb are like the king who wears no clothes when they create their exaggerated scenarios, most of which are ill-conceived. It’s their children who wonder why no one else can see what they do.

Wilson combines a fair amount of humor, elements of a low-key mystery and the pathos associated with children who have been psychologically harmed and become adults who haven’t outgrown the affliction.

Unfortunately, the narrative doesn’t work. Too many questions arise making suspension of disbelief impossible. For example, if the Fangs are so successful as performance artists why aren’t they recognized? More importantly, why didn’t anyone call social services to keep Annie and Buster out of the fray?

The Family Fang

Three Bookmarks
Ecco, 2011
309 pages