Category: american writers

Monday Miscellany: Books, Veggies and Ancient Rome (not in that order)

Have I mentioned that I have a big research paper to write on Renaissance child portraiture?  Oh, I have!!!  Since making that communique I’ve actually managed to complete a few pages at an astonishingly slow rate of production, so slow it would have gotten me promptly fired from my old brief-writing job, pleading (with utter sincerity) for truth, justice and the American way of life, not to mention the government’s right to collect its trust fund taxes or to impose appropriate market designs on various energy exchanges.  (If you’re unfamiliar with trust fund taxes, market design or energy exchanges consider yourself  very, very fortunate.  I thought I had mercifully blanked it out, but I do believe the pressure of writing my portraiture paper is giving me stress induced flashbacks.  I suppose it’s the equivalent of PTSD for a Vietnam vet).  Anyways . . . . since I’ve just completed a paragraph or two on Renaissance family life (nutshell summary: father knew best) I felt totally justified in taking a teensy, weensy little break this morning involving breakfast out (i.e., someone else cooked), a farmer’s market and new (to me anyway) books.  And, since it’s Monday, I have a perfect recipe (so to speak) for a Miscellany!

Miscellany first:  Veggies!

Since I do love a farmer’s market, and summer is drawing to a close, I thought I’d make one last batch of gazpacho.  Inspired by Sylvia’s pumpkins (have you seen them?  If not, stop reading now and click over immediately to marvel!  They’re awesome!), I thought I’d share a quick snap of some of the fixings:

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Hopefully, not quite the end of the seasonal produce.  This is destined for my next (and probably last) batch of gazpacho!

Miscellany second:  Book binge!

In a truly rare work break (smiley face here) from my Renaissance research this morning, I decided to catch up with my blog reading.  My very first (and, as it happened, last) click of the day landed me here, where “Stuck in a Book” described in voluptuous detail a very recent and quite major book haul.  Well, dear reader, Janakay has been a very good (and fiscally responsible) girl this summer vis à vis book purchases (interlibrary loan works quite well thank you) but . . . it’s just never safe, dangling temptation in front of an addict!  And the combined omens were just so overwhelming — my very first blog stop discussing a book binge; the absolute necessity for a reward after all my hard work; the fact that my favorite breakfast spot is practically on the way to:

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Second Story books is a local chain of used, rare and out-of-print books;  described by USA Today as one of the ten best bookstores in the country.

Well, it just all came together!

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In pre-internet days Second Story had several brick and mortar stores; now it’s down to two.  This is the warehouse store — 16,000 square feet of books.  Is there a better definition of heaven?

 

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A (very) small portion of the interior . . .

 

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More interior.  A little deceptive — most of the aisles aren’t this open (lots of stacks on the floor)!  This was my first trip to the Warehouse Store, which I found quite impressive.

 

When I first drove up I thought the yellow “50% Off” sign was hyperbole but no!  These guys were really discounting everything in the store by FIFTY PERCENT!!!  What did I tell you about those omens?  I mean — it was so obviously MEANT to be!  I headed for the fiction section straightaway, but (another intervention by Divine Fortuna.  If you follow my post to the end, you’ll see I’m in a Roman mood) I first had to pass through “Art History.”  This section was pretty tightly packed (I had to move a few piles to get to stuff) and space was a bit limited, requiring me to sit on the floor to examine the treasures.  The effort, however, was more than worth it, as I scored some major finds.  (A tip for the temperate  — you know it’s a binge when the cashier gives you a box and offers to help you carry your books to your car!).

 

 

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The haul, a combination of art history and fiction (only from authors whose last names began A – J; my arms were so full I was tragically unable to add anything from the K – Z  section!)

 

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The haul, after it’s been de-boxed but prior to being shelved (there has to be some space somewhere in the house  . . .)

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The fiction portion of my newly acquired  treasures . . . .

 

 

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Isn’t this cover fabulous? I’ve used Auchincloss in the past as a “go to” guy when I’ve wanted character driven fiction and a high degree of literary skill.  It doesn’t hurt that he also sets his novels among the rich and aristocratic, U.S. style!

 

 

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I already had a paperback copy, but I like the cover of this hard back edition better! Anyway, since I never got around to reading the second novella of this two novella collection.  I think it’s perfectly logical to have two copies!

 

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A headlong rush into nostalgia — this was one of my favorite (subversive) reads in my oh-so-conformist high school days!  As this is one of those books that actually did influence my thinking, I was morally obligated to replace my moldy old copy, especially for a mere $3!

 

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Another nod to the past.  I suspect Pearl Buck is one of those writers who’s out of favor these days, but many years ago I loved this novel about an upper class Chinese family in the 1940s.  I only wish the publisher had opted for more colorful cover art.

 

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Although my last re-read was some years back, I’m a fan of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, so much so I decided to take a chance on Book 1 of his Avignon Quartet.  Taking risks such as this is a moral obligation when a book sale is on!
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I was ignoring this art book, until I remembered from class that Michelangelo almost certainly saw these frescoes before he painted his “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel.  Since there’s nothing more fun that looking at great depictions of hell . . . . I sat on the floor and started reading!

 

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G vs E, or Good vs Evil!  Fortunately, the good guys appear to be winning, although the bad guys look a lot more animated.  How do you like the woman in the lower right who’s getting a piggy-back ride from a demon?

My last art image, I promise, but I couldn’t resist just one more!

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Hell certainly looks pretty lively!  Sometimes I wonder why artists seem to put more energy into depicting hell and sin than heaven and good deeds.  I found Dante’s Inferno & Purgatorio, for example, much more gripping than his Paradiso.  Hmmm . . . perhaps says something more about me than Dante?

Miscellany third:  Ancient Rome

At this point, I  bet you thought I’d never get around to ancient Rome but ha! fooled you.  I was headed that way all the time!

Last week I was very excited to have my first class in Roman art and archaeology.  Back in the day, i.e., when I was a “real” student (trying very hard not to think about getting a job) I was very interested in classical subjects. Although my interest has waned over the years I still love classical culture and was thrilled when I was finally able to enroll in this course;

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As I long ago discovered, however, one can love a subject and still find one’s mind wandering down wayward paths, particularly when one is trying to distinguish between two early Roman temples that look distressingly similar!  During one such detour from required learning I found myself thinking about what a presence, still, ancient Rome holds in popular culture; from there I began mentally listing movies and books with a Roman theme (perhaps the equivalent of counting sheep?)  Because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of these, I established the following parameters to keep my list manageable:  (1) I allowed only 30-40 minutes to come up with titles (and a little longer to research a few); (2) I listed only items about which I had personal knowledge (i.e., I’ve either read it, read a review of it or have it on a TBR list) and (3) I attempted not to annotate (that part wasn’t very realistic, as you can see below).  Since I may actually get around to making this into a real bibliography one day, I’d love to have additional recommendations or reactions to the titles.  Also, as you’ll see, most of the listed books are pretty dated, so if you know more recent titles, please share!

Historical novels about ancient Rome (alphabetical by author):

Bulwer-Lytton, Edward.  The Last Days of Pompeii.  Perhaps the best known novel by an unfortunately prolific Victorian novelist.  You may not know that Bulwer-Lytton penned the immortal opening lines, “It was a dark and stormy night.”  His greatest claim to contemporary fame is that lines such as this inspired the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to see who can write the worst possible opening sentence for a novel.  If all this doesn’t scare you off from reading Pompeii, I say  — go for it!  (You’ll be sorry.)

Caldwell, Taylor.  A Pillar of Iron.  The novel gives star treatment to Cicero; Caesar is a vaguely sinister character.  I can’t believe it’s still in print, but life is full of such mysteries.  Since my assessment may be inaccurate (it’s certainly biased.  I spent a miserable semester trying to translate one of Cicero’s speeches) I feel compelled to note that one reviewer on Amazon refers to it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read.”  Don’t you think that it’s differences in taste such as this that make our big beautiful planet so very interesting?

Dolan, Mary.  Hannibal: Scourge of Imperial Rome (also published as Hannibal of Carthage).  The Romans are the bad guys in this fictionalized recreation of the lost account of Sosylos, a real-life Greek historian (probably a freedman) who accompanied Hannibal over the Alps and into Italy in the Second Punic War.  I read this novel several times as a kid and loved it.  Tragically out of print.

Douglas, Lloyd.  The Robe.  A 1940s? 1950s? best seller with a religious theme (Roman soldier is present at the crucifixion); the stuff many movies are made of.  Watch them and skip the book.

Duggan, Alfred.  Family Favorites (not the warm and fuzzy kind!  Set in the reign of an emperor who made Nero look like Santa Claus) & Three’s Company (the second Triumvirate of Mark Anthony, Octavian & Marcus Lepidus; told, in a typically Duggan touch, from the point of view of the non-entity Lepidus).  I don’t think Duggan is much read these days; a pity as his wit is dry and his historical research impeccable.  I prefer his novels set in Medieval times (Count Bohemund is great) but these are definitely worth checking out (Favorites at least is available on Kindle).

Fast, Howard.  Spartacus.  A best-seller from the 1950s; the movie, I suspect, is better known.  Haven’t read it in years, so I’m not sure how it’s aged.

Flaubert, Gustave.  Salammbo.  I was so intrigued to learn that Flaubert wrote an historical novel set in the time of the first Punic War I bought a copy.  What are TBR lists for?

Graves, Robert.  I, Claudius & Claudius the God.  Fabulous books, thankfully well known and readily available. Less well known but worth checking out if you like late empire (I do) is Graves’ Count Belisarius.

Harris, Robert.  Pompeii.  The title rather explains what’s going on, doesn’t it?  My reaction was “meh” although Harris has a lot of fans out there.  Are you one?  If so, speak up!  Janakay is open-minded (about books, that is!)

Shakespeare, William.  Anthony & Cleopatra.  O.K., I know it’s a play (I could have also listed Julius Caesar, but I like this one better).  Worth it just to read Anthony’s “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch Of the ranged empire fall.  Here is my space.”  If the story didn’t happen this way, it should have!

Sienkiewicz, Henryk.  Quo Vadis?  Did you know that Sienkiewicz won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature?  Neither did I, until I did this list!  I do know that this novel has been the basis for a couple of movies.  And — one of the novel’s great characters, Petronius the Arbiter, was “real;” Tacitus wrote all about him!  (spoiler alert: Petronius comes to a tragic end when he falls out of favor with Nero).  Petronius turns up again (below) as the author of the Satyricon.

Sutcliff, Rosemary.  A wonderful English novelist who specialized in writing about Roman Britain (her Sword at Sunset is a wonderful, very realistic re-telling of the Arthurian legend).  She did several novels classified as YA that, depending on your mood, are well worth reading regardless of your age (hey! I’m ancient and I just finished re-reading one); the best, IMO being The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers and The Eagle of the Ninth.  I loved these books so much I’m seriously considering a nostalgia purchase of the reprints (with original illustrations) offered by the folks at Slightly Foxed (a wonderful quarterly publication for those who read BTW).

Waltari, Mika.  The Etruscan & The Roman.  Waltari was a Finnish writer who did several of these single title thingeys; perhaps the best known is The Egyptian.  I’m not sure I’d like them now, several thousand books after I first encountered them, but I do recall particularly enjoying The Etruscan, perhaps because that pre-Roman culture is just so very mysterious.

Vidal, Gore.  Julian.  The life of this last pagan emperor of Rome (and enemy of the emerging Christian faith) was grist for Vidal’s pen.  If you like Vidal, you’ll probably like this.  If not, stay away, life is short.

Wallace, Lew.  Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ.  Did you know that Wallace was a general (Union variety) in the U.S. Civil War?  Mr. Janakay, who knows quite a bit about the subject, informs me that Wallace was “not bad” as a military commander and that he rather unfairly took the fall for the Union’s first-day losses at the battle of Shiloh.  As for his literary ability — well, I’d probably just watch the movie (particularly if you like mega-Hollywood, old-timey Charlton Heston things).

Warner, Rex.  The Young Caesar and Imperial Caesar.  Warner was an English classicist; these two books are fictionalized first person accounts of Julius Caesar’s life.  Although they’re stand alones, you’ll need to read both to get Caesar’s entire life.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn they’re available on kindle for a modest price; they’re now on my “will one day re-read them” list.  When I do so, I’ll let you know if they’ve held up well!

White, Edward Lucas.  The Unwilling Vestal (a Tale of Rome Under the Caesars).  A former professor of mine (“The Classical Epic in Translation”) spent much class time raving about this old novel’s whimsical charm.  Being an impressionable child, I wasted a couple of days discovering the guy had lousy taste for novels originally written in English.  Learn from my example, grasshopper!

Wilder, Thorton.  Ides of March.  Set in the last days of the Roman Republic & a very popular read in the 1950s, when (I believe) it reached best seller status.  Not sure how it would date; if you’ve read it — let me know!

Williams,  John.  Augustus.  Re-issued fairly recently in one of those nice NYRB classics editions.  This is one that’s been on my TBR list for some time.  Williams BTW is also the author of Stoner, the newly re-discovered lost classic du jour.

Yourcenar, Marguerite.  Memoirs of Hadrian.  Another permanent resident on my TBR list.

Contemporary (and popular) mystery series set in ancient Rome:

Davis, Lindsey.   Marcus Didius Falco mysteries.  I started reading these as they were being published and lasted through the first four or five.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully funny, well-plotted and entertaining series but . . . we all have to say good-bye sometimes.

Saylor, Steven.  His Sub-Rosa series is set in the time of the late Republic and centers on the exploits of a detective known as Gordianus the Finder.  There are a lot of books in this series (twelve? fourteen? difficult to count, as I believe there’s also a novella or two); the few I read back when were quite good but — three was enough!

Science Fiction directly inspired by Roman history:

Asimove, Isaac.  The Foundation Series.  An incredibly influential sci-fi classic (Elon Musk & Paul Krugman cite it as inspiration); the ancient Galactic empire is dying and humanity faces centuries of barbarism.  Edward Gibbon’s Decline & Fall, anyone?  I read this work repeatedly in my teens; my attempted re-read about twenty years ago was a tragic failure.  Like much of early sci-fi, brilliant ideas combine with a clunky style, which I can no longer handle (after a similar experience with another Asimov novel, I’ve decided my love affair is over!).  Others, however, have had different reactions, so check it out for yourself.

Contemporary essays about the classics (includes Greek classics): 

Mendelsohn, Daniel.  How Beautiful It is and How Easily It is Broken.  Mendelsohn is a scholar steeped in the classics; he has the rare and wonderful ability to link classical themes to current pop culture.  I’m not a big reader of essays, but I loved this collection.

Beard, Mary.  Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations. Your very own tour of the ancient world, with one of the greatest classical scholars on the planet as your guide. And — she can write!  If you’re at all interested in the classics, this is a necessity.

Hamilton, Edith.  The Roman Way.  An oldy, but a goody; very readable essays on the major Roman authors.  Hamilton gives non-Latinist a wonderful sense of the various authors’ styles, as well as lots of substantive information about the works’ contents.  Hamilton’s The Greek Way is even better, but that’s off topic!

Writings by actual, real life ancient Romans that are worth checking out:

Please keep in mind that I’ve only read a smidgen of the vast amount of available material, and did that years and years ago.  (In other words, additional suggestions are welcome.)  But since I’m nothing if not foolhardy, here’s my very selective, highly idiosyncratic and very limited list.  Do you have any Latin favorites? If so, share, share!

Apuleius.  The Golden Ass.  The only Latin novel to survive in complete form; adventures of a would-be sorcerer who mistakenly turns himself into a jackass (if memory serves, I think he wanted to change into a bird but got the spell wrong).  Aside from its considerable literary merits, I have a soft spot for this one.  Back in the day, I loaned my copy to a friend who was driving home for Christmas.  When she was pulled over for speeding (hey! we all want to get home quickly for the holidays!), my loaner was clearly visible in the empty passenger seat.  The cop who flagged her down not only found the title hilarious, he also thought it perfectly described his patrol partner.  The cop was so amused, in fact, that my friend got off with a warning rather than a ticket!  Never say reading great literature doesn’t pay off!

Petronius.  Satyricon.  The author was a favorite courtier of Nero’s until he criticized the imperial poet’s rhymes (not to mention his musical skills) once too often (see Henryk Sienkiewicz, above).  Only fragments survive, but as one of them is Trimalchio’s Feast, it’s a must-read.  Warning: not for the squeamish or puritanical (I learned lots of interesting Latin verbs the semester we read this).  The translation you choose is everything for this particular classic; look for the liveliest, most irreverent possible.  You could always watch the Fellini movie of the same name if you don’t feel like reading (it’s filled with arresting images) but the book is better.

Virgil.  Aeneid.  If you like epics, only the Iliad is better (well, maybe Beowulf, but that’s a different culture).  Read the poem and you’ll discover why Dante made Virgil his guide through the afterlife, the poetry is that good (particularly the chapters about Dido, one of the best female characters in all of classical lit).

Catullus.  If lyric poetry’s your thing, it doesn’t get much better.  Catullus was probably the only guy of his day and time who didn’t realize his beloved Clodia was the most sexually promiscuous woman in Rome and a husband-poisoner to boot; but it’s that kind of blindness that makes great love poetry.  Although the Clodia poems (he calls her “Lesbia” but no one was fooled) are probably his best known work, Catullus’ poetry covers much more ground.  His poem on Attis, who joins the priesthood of the savage goddess Cybele, is incredible (not, not, not for the faint at heart) and there’s the wonderful poem written when Catullus visited his brother’s grave (“now and forever, brother, hail and farewell”).  Many, many translations are available.

Ovid.  Metamorphoses.  A prime source for every myth you ever wanted, or needed, to read.  Trust me, reading Ovid will make it much easier for you to enjoy the artwork the next time you visit the museum (when in doubt European artists have always turned to Ovid for a subject).

Histories:  if you’re into the (technically) non-fiction, there’s lots and lots to chose from.  A “you were there” account from the front:  Caesar’s Gallic Wars, perhaps the oldest surviving piece of cleverly disguised political propaganda (Caesar wrote it to convince the folks back home that he was a serious military commander).  Juicy, filthy, wonderful gossip (in the 21st century, this guy would be working for the tabloids):  Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars.  Stern, republican, “this is what made us great” virtue:  Livy (in our day, he’d probably be writing political speeches).

Well, that’s it for tonight folks!  I’d love to hear comments, or additions to my list, but for now it’s back to those two very similar, early Roman temples . . . I think one of them has a few more columns on the left side . . . .

Monday Miscellany: Back to School, Movies, Books & History (not in that order)

Those of you who check out my blog now and again may have noticed that it’s been quite some time since my last post.  Three weeks!  How can that be?  Where has all that time gone?  My fall semester classes officially begin tomorrow, but I’ve actually been at it for most of August, frantically working on the second part of a two semester project that I began last spring, on 16th century Italian portraits of children.  I’ve spent several months doing research and I’m now at the point where I simply MUST begin writing!  I’ve made outlines, collated notes, requested ten more books from the interlibrary loan department, read many interesting art history articles (some even tangentially related to my topic), went to the movies, went shopping for novels on Amazon, made banana bread, went to more movies, bought more novels, made cranberry bread, started this post  . . . . . wait! wait! Something’s wrong!  I simply must begin writing about Italian Renaissance portraits!  Oh well, I think I’ll do this post instead (then check out the movie schedule and catch up on some book blogs).

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Well, maybe my class rooms don’t look quite like this, but the idea’s the same . . .

MISCELLANY PART  I: BACK TO SCHOOL READING

Since this is Monday, my post will be a miscellany that’s more of a “mess–allany” than usual!  It’s in several parts, so if you get bored (now, honestly, how could that be? Please do realize I am being sarcastic here!) you won’t lose content by scrolling through the dull parts.

Since this is a book blog, I’ll begin with – – – reading!  Although I’ve done a tremendous amount of it this month, most of my reading has been very narrowly focused —- of the “I simply must begin writing my paper but first I’ll skim another article” type  — which is not to say it’s been dull (if I weren’t the type to find Renaissance Italy interesting, I wouldn’t have used August to read about it!)  I am stuffed, positively stuffed, with interesting factoids about the Italian Renaissance!  Did you know, for example, that families in 16th century Florence recorded their sons’ births in the family account books but often didn’t bother recording the daughters’?  That children of both genders were farmed out to wet nurses almost immediately after birth and only rejoined their biological families around the age of three or so (some even stayed with the nurse until age seven)?  That couples who wanted to conceive a son were advised to tie the guy’s left testicle with string and to eat lots of hot food (I’ll spare you the theory behind this)?  Did you know that some scholars estimate that half of the children born during this period died before their first birthday, and that half of these survivors died before age thirteen?  Although scholars only begin studying the history of “childhood” around 1960 or so,  they’ve produced some incredibly interesting and very accessible work since that time on families, marriage, childhood and women’s roles in Renaissance Italy.  If you’re up for non-fiction, some of these are definitely worth reading, such as  . . .

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Described (accurately) by one reviewer as an “elegant and accessible” survey of ideas about childhood in western culture … but … illustrations are in black and white!
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Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! Painting, furniture, clothing, interiors, sculpture, musical instruments! And, oh yeah, a highly readable text by one of the English-speaking world’s great Renaissance scholars . . .

As for my own particular Renaissance woman and her depictions of certain Renaissance kids (the topic of my paper and my excuse for all that reading about childhood and family life):

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Sofonisba Anguissola, the first generally acknowledged female artist of the Italian Renaissance (there have always been woman artists, they just haven’t been acknowledged).  Sofonisba painted this self-portrait when she was about twenty years old.

And — here’s the kids!

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Little Massimiliano Stampa, aged twelve or so and already the ruler of a small town in northern Italy.  I just discovered a few days ago that Massimiliano grew up to have ten children himself and ultimately renounced his title to become a monk!  His portrait was one of Sofonisba’s first commissions.

 

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Not a great deal is known about this painting, including the identity of the sitters.  Most likely they’re siblings from a rich Florentine family whom Sofonisba painted in the 1580s, towards the end of her career.

 

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San Diego’s Museum of Art, where this painting is now located, calls it  “Portrait of a Prince at the Spanish Court.”  Isn’t he adorable, in his little miniature hunting costume?  This was painted around 1562, when Sofonisba was a lady-in-waiting at the court of Philip II of Spain.  Again, lots of unknowns; the child’s identity is disputed and at least one major scholar thinks the painting is by someone other than Sofonisba.

 

MISCELLANY PART II: AUGUST MOVIES

Does anyone besides me like movies?  Although I’m really not addicted (honestly, I can go weeks and weeks without a hit), in times of stress they’re my go-to drug of choice, especially when combined with potato chips!  Like most sane people, I generally watch movies at home, but when piles and piles of (unread) Renaissance art books are staring at me, I resort to a conveniently located local theater, which specializes in current art house, repertory and foreign films (fortunately, it also has a great bonus program, which has come in really useful this month).  In August I hit the jackpot, so to speak — my local guys were celebrating the 1970s, one of my favorite periods for “old” American movies.

I did go current, however, at least at the beginning, by kicking off August with Quentin Tarantino’s latest, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”  Has anyone else seen it? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts, particularly as I’m not a Tarantino fan (I generally think he’s a bit over-rated, and his movies normally are far too bloody for me).  In a sense, I liked this one despite myself, but it was good! (although it is pretty violent).  Anyway, August movie month had what I considered an auspicious beginning:

 

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I followed this current release with lots and lots of repertory, seeing, in no particular order:

“You Only Live Twice” (1975):  Didn’t date well and don’t bother, unless you really, really want to see Sean Connery masquerading as a Japanese fisherman, complete with skin makeup (don’t ask).  I didn’t and left halfway through, as life is short.

“The French Connection” (1971):  I wasn’t a fan when I first saw this, oh so many years past, but it’s held up surprisingly well.

“The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968):  A heist movie totally devoid of suspense; even Steve McQueen couldn’t save it.  High point was Faye Dunaway in a lavender hat (she was lovely).

“Chinatown” (1975):  One of the all time greats; saw this one twice!  Who could forget that closing scene?

“Nashville” (1975):  I love Altman’s movies and this is one of his best.  Surprisingly (and depressingly) still relevant to our sad political times.

“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971):  another Altman (told you I love his movies).  Saw it twice this month, once solo and once with Mr. Janakay (it was necessary for his cultural development!).

“Diary of a Mad Housewife” (1970):  Carrie Snodgress won a Golden Globe (and was nominated for an Oscar) for her work in this comedy-drama.  She is good (makes you wonder what her career might have been had she never met Neil Young) and, despite being a bit of a period piece, the movie still works.

“The Last Picture Show” (1971):  How could I have forgotten how great this was?  Cloris Leachman deserved three oscars!

Does my list include anyone else’s favorites?  Or not-favorites, as the case may be?  Any recommendations?  (I still have lots of Renaissance art to get through, so movie going in the near future is a distinct possibility.)  Has anyone seen “The Farewell”?  If so, please share your opinion, as I’m dying to see whether Awkwafina lives up to her reviews!

MISCELLANY PART III: FUN READ

Humanity has perished, victim of a zombie plague; all that’s left are the animals.  The tale is (mostly) narrated by S.T., a formerly domesticated crow who’s spent his life with his beloved Big Jim, a junk-food eating, beer-drinking redneck, and Dennis, a slobbery but good natured bloodhound.  Aside from being hysterically funny (yes, it is!), there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple little story.  Take my word for it, this is NOT just another post-apocalypse zombie novel (and if you don’t believe me, check it out on NPR).

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MISCELLANY PART IV:  THE 1619 PROJECT

You may or may be aware that in August 1619 a ship carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans landed in the British colony of Virginia.  The unfortunates aboard were sold to the colonists and “American” history (at least, of the United States variety) was off and running.  To mark the 400th anniversary of this momentous event the New York Times compiled its 1619 Project, which explores the history of slavery (a history that was certainly never taught in any school I attended) and the way in which it’s affected every aspect of life in these sort-of-United States.  The Project uses historical objects from the National Museum of African American History and Culture as a starting point for its scholarly essays and journalistic pieces, and interspaces its factual material with poems and short stories by noted black artists.  Not to be missed; here’s the link to get started.

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A photo from the 1619 Project, showing prisoners from the Ferguson prison (for young men ages 17 to 21) in Huntsville, Texas.  This is 1968 and they’re still picking cotton.

MISCELLANY PART V: CONCLUSION

Did I mention that I have a paper to write on “Changing Concepts of Renaissance Childhood: Three Portraits by Sofonisba Anguissola”?  (note: title is subject to change)  Clearly, it’s time to call in someone who’ll keep me focused  . . .

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He-who-must-be-Obeyed says “follow my example and get back to work!”

 

P.S.  The old-timey school room shown at the beginning of my post is an 1871 painting by Winslow Homer, called, appropriately, “The Old School Room.”  You can see it at the St. Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Toni Morrison: 1931-2019

 

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As I’m sure everyone is aware by now, the great Toni Morrison died yesterday at the age of 88.  She was the first (and only) African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first American to do so since John Steinbeck.  More than the prizes, she was an utterly transforming voice in contemporary literature.

I’m not going to pretend to recap her incredible accomplishments, as the media is already doing so.  If you’re interested in getting the details of her extraordinary career, check out these pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post.  I’m writing this little piece because I feel I owe it to a writer who transformed my view of the world.

I grew up as a white Southerner under a system that is best described as apartheid: “Whites only” drinking fountains; “White” and “Colored” restrooms; and restaurants and diners that legally refused to serve Black Americans simply because they were Black, to mention only a few things.  I attended public schools that Black children could not attend.  I did not sit in a classroom with an African American student until I was sixteen, when one incredibly brave kid exercised her legal right to attend an all White school and dared, actually dared, to enroll in a Latin class intended to prepare my home town’s elite White kids for admission to the local, and still segregated, state university (our governor, a soul mate and harbinger of the current occupant of the White House, was busily fomenting racial hatred and division by blocking the admission of Black students to its hallowed halls)  The American history I had been taught was that the Civil War was a tragic misunderstanding over states’ rights; that slavery, while “regrettable,” wasn’t really that bad; that the Ku Klux Klan’s tactics may have been a little extreme, but its violence was an understandable response of Confederate veterans deprived of their citizenship; and that Reconstruction’s insistence on Black participation in the political process was an unmitigated evil.

Although I grew up in a system that privileged all Whites over all African Americans, unlike many White southerners I never deluded myself that all Whites were equal; I could see for myself that kids descended from the landed gentry and former plantation owners were  treated with much more respect and consideration than kids from poor backgrounds.  My South wasn’t the Tara Plantation or cotillion balls of Gone With the Wind; it was the hardscrabble south of Norma Rae, of generations of coal miners and sharecroppers and “poor White trash,” of people who died young from malnutrition and overwork, of incredibly bright men and women who could barely read and write because the South they lived in saw no need for them to be educated.  My own mother picked cotton when she was a child (from “can’t see to can’t see”  —  daylight to dusk, for you non-Southerners) and I grew up hearing tales of how frightened she was of the overseer who would ride his horse around the fields and how often she and the others were cheated when the cotton was weighed at the end of the day.  I also knew that for a portion of her adult life my mother was “legally” barred from voting because she was unable to pay the poll tax that kept so many poor Whites, as well as African Americans, from participating in elections.

My family were survivors against the odds — we weren’t intended to flourish, or to survive beyond a subsidence level, but we did.  My blind spot (one of many, I’m afraid) was that I equated my own family’s experience with that of African Americans.  We were both poor, both denied education (poor white kids couldn’t afford to buy the textbooks they needed to learn, faced ridicule from their classmates and were expected to leave school young) and both were cheated economically and politically.  I thought the South’s poor Whites and Blacks were essentially in the same boat. Toni Morrison and her books about the Black experience in America made me realize how foolish was my belief, that White people, even very poor White people,  always had it better simply because they were white.  This truth came home to me when, many years ago (but not soon enough) I read Morrison’s Beloved, her story of Sethe, the slave woman, who kills her own child because being dead is better than being a slave.

Reading Beloved was one of those experiences that don’t come very often in a lifetime, when you’re one person before you read a book and just a little bit different afterwards, that what you have read has shifted your view of your world in a significant way.   My family picked cotton and so did Morrison’s characters, but my mother and grandmother weren’t deprived of knowing each other and they weren’t sold on an auction block; they (or more realistically me) could move into the world of privilege simply because of the color of their skin in a way that African Americans of their (and my) generation could not.  Although it was painful to realize that I was a part of the system that created these horrors, just as much as the arrogant rich kid sitting next to me in that high school Latin class, I wouldn’t trade that insight for my master’s degree, or my law degree or for anything else I have.  Thank you Toni Morrison.

Love & Fate in Tom Drury’s “The Driftless Area”

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Isn’t this a wonderful cover photo?  Don’t you wonder who she is, and what she’s thinking, that woman of great but unconventional beauty, lost in her thoughts, so suggestive of mystery?  And the title — the “driftless area” — whatever could it mean?  It’s embarrassing to admit —  but, dear reader, I hold nothing back from you — that I had never heard of Tom Drury, the author, when I bought this book, a purchase based strictly on the title and the cover art.  Unbeknown to me, however, at least until a month or so ago, Drury is considered a “writer’s writer,” described by the New York Times, no less, as “a major figure in American literature, author of a string of novels without a dud in the bunch.”  Oops!  My bad!  To add to my humiliation, only a few weeks ago the Guardian included The Driftless Area in its “Top Ten Books Set in the American Midwest.”  At least by that point I had actually begun reading the novel, which had been gathering dust on my shelves since its purchase in 2013.  All I can say is — thank heaven for Challenges!  Had I not listed this as one of my selections for the 2019 TBR Challenge, The Driftless Area might still be sitting, forlorn and unread, in my upstairs junk room.  And that would be a personal loss, for it’s a truly wonderful book.

The wonder, as far as I’m concerned, begins with the title, which is not only poetic but geologically precise.  The Driftless Area (or Zone, as it’s sometimes called) is a relatively small area in the American Middle West that extends over parts of several states (for the precisionists among you, it covers extreme southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa and western Wisconsin).  Because the ice age glaciers that smashed into the center of North America and created those flat-as-a-pancake midwestern corn fields missed the Driftless Area, the region has hills, caves, some of the oldest rivers in the world, sink holes, and rare bird and animal species that aren’t found elsewhere in the Midwest.  I don’t often wax rhapsodic about book titles, but Drury’s is a gem.  Not only does it give you the novel’s precise physical setting, it also hints at the strangeness and mystery of the story you are about to read.  And, on yet a third level, it’s a subtle comment on the way some of these characters navigate or, more accurately perhaps, drift through their lives.  A title like this sets the bar pretty high for the novel to come.  Fortunately, Drury is such a skilled writer he carries it off.

One of the pleasures offered by Driftless is to be drawn very gradually, almost imperceptibly, into the very peculiar world that Drury describes.  Conversely, this quality makes the novel difficult to review — aside from the fact that you don’t want to give too much away, it’s just a very difficult book to characterize.  On one level, it’s an ultra-realistic story set in a small town in the rural midwest; on another level, well, it’s not.  The blurb refers to Driftless as a type of “neo-noir” revenge drama, which it is, but — that’s not all it is (although that part of the novel is quite well done).  Although I think the professional reviewers might differ from me here, I found that Driftless operates on what I can only call a metaphysical level.  As one of the characters explains to another, there’s an “idea *** that time doesn’t exist;” that “everything that happened or will happen was here from the start” or that different versions of it were.  In other words, what seems to be chance might not be; that in the Driftless Area the seemingly random course of events might actually be precisely and irrevocably charted.

Oh, dear — haven’t I made this novel sound terribly, terribly serious?  Portentous even? Well, it isn’t either.  The events revolve around Pierre Hunter, a mid-twenties graduate of Iowa State, who’s taken his science degree and cello, and returned to his small home town of Shale, where he tends bar at a speakeasy called the Jack of Diamonds.  Pierre isn’t a slacker, exactly — he’s far more complex than that — but he lives his life stripped of the pretenses that most of us navigate by and that quality leads to unintended consequences.  One of which is Stella Rosmarin, the beautiful, mysterious solitary who saves Pierre’s life and becomes his lover.  Another is Shane, an itinerant criminal who tries to rip him off and ends up losing a small fortune in ill-gotten gains.  Drury is a master of terse, elegant dialogue that can be extremely funny in a very dry way.  He also has a wonderful knack for creating characters; even his minor ones tend to linger in the mind (one of my favorites is Pierre’s boss, a former Silicon Valley type, who worries that the Jack’s red vinyl chairs might be “too busy.” The locals who patronize the place, on the hand, are impressed by the air conditioning).

In conclusion, dear reader, I enjoyed this book immensely.  Do I recommend it without reservation, with enthusiam, to you?  Well……………… do you enjoy the Coen Brothers?  Do you like your reality straight-up, or do you prefer it mixed with a hint of the strange?  Can you accept that sun needs shade, that life needs death, that, as Pierre puts it “everything that succeeds creates the conditions for its own demise”?  If your answer to at least a couple of these questions was a resounding “yes,” then go for it!  You’ll love this book as much as I did.