Tag: washington d.c.

Midweek Miscellany: On the Road Again! (Books! Museums! Springtime!)

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Most of the books I read during my road trip last week are in this pile, securely anchored by my little hedgehog friend (there are several pottery studios located near my new home & I find it difficult to resist the wares).

While I’m working up the energy for my next book posting, I thought I’d do a Miscellany just to keep the creative juices flowing.  As this Midweek Miscellany is even more miscellaneous than usual, you’ll miss nothing by skipping over whatever you find boring.

First Miscellany:  Travel and Books

I’m positively giddy with excitement, dear readers, after returning from a (very) limited little road trip, my first real outing since the start of the horrible pandemic last spring.  Nothing fancy or extreme, you understand, and undertaken for serious reasons as it was prompted by unfinished business in my former home in the Washington, D.C. area.  Back in the day when Mr. Janakay and I were birding in exotic locales, this little outing would have been a total nothing-burger, but after a year of being confined pretty much to one area it was (almost) a treat, despite the fact that I spent much of my time running errands and attending to boring old medical things.

Aside from the novelty of being in a different area (although I love palm trees it is nice to see a little variety in the flora), my little trip was quite a morale boaster in another way as well.  When I moved last April, and again during a short business-related return trip last summer, the D.C. area was very different from its usual bustling, busy, self-absorbed self.  Restaurants and movie theaters were closed; very few people were about on the street; the performing arts had disappeared; there were absolutely no tourists that I could see (you’ve never experienced a real tourist town, dear readers, until you’ve fought your way through a gaggle of tour buses all headed towards the tidal basin and the April cherry blossoms); museums were shuttered and — gasp! most telling of all — the beltway and commuting routes were a snap to navigate.  The whole experience was uncanny and depressing; I found my mind wandering to all those college history readings about plague cities and so on.  Sad! (to quote a former unnamed U.S. president.  Don’t worry, dear readers; such a quote won’t happen again on this blog).  On this trip, however, there were signs of life and recovery, albeit somewhat guarded ones.  An increased number of restaurants, with patios draped in plastic to create “outdoor” dining spaces, were open; limited numbers of people were sitting about outside in socially distanced groups and enjoying the weather; a few museums were doing timed-entry admissions and there was, generally, a feeling of life returning, even if not to the same level as BC19 (before Covid-19).  It was so heartening I didn’t even mind the increased volume of traffic.  “Bring it on” I exclaimed to Mr. Janakay, as he dodged an oblivious lane-shifter who was simultaneously running a red light!

In addition to being a morale booster, my little trip was very handy for knocking off a few more titles from Mount TBR, which is increasing at an exponential rate (not my fault! Y’all shouldn’t be writing such great book reviews!)  Since I’m far from ready to entrust myself to air travel, I had quite a lot of car time, physically tiring but great for getting through that satchel of books I always travel with (you would have blushed, dear reader, to have heard Mr. Janakay some years ago when we were packing to go to New Guinea!  Although it’s blindingly obvious to any book blogger, Mr. J simply could not grasp why I needed so many books for a birding trip).  From my early childhood, when I was yanked from my comfortable bed, plunked down in the back seat of a car and exposed to the dawn’s frightful light (my family took many, many long road trips and dad was a fervent believer in an early start.  I still shudder at the memory of those dreadful sunrises), I perfected the art of reading during a car trip.  Between travel and hotel down time during my actual stay in D.C. last week, I not only finished a Challenge book or two but also indulged in some spontaneous selections chosen as “light” relief (I’m using quotes because I don’t altogether buy into the typical categorization between literary and popular fiction).  It’s ironic, however, that my three spontaneous choices were, with the exception of the Margery Sharp novel, so disappointing that I didn’t bother to include them in my pile.

In no particular order of preference, my week of wonderful reading included:

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Any Valerie Martin readers out there? This tale of a declining family of Italian aristocrats, property theft and sibling rivalry set in Mussolini’s Italy deserved its glowing review in The Guardian.   Although I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Martin’s Property (winner of 2003’s Orange Prize) it’s pretty darn good.
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My second Szabo novel (the first was her wonderful The Door), this story of the intertwined lives of four Hungarian families torn apart by WWII was a wonderful read from beginning to end.  An added attraction is the fact that I’ve finally read it, after twice failing to do so as part of the Back to the Classics Challenge!
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The Girls of Slender Means is another perennial entry in my Classics Challenge; it’s so satisfying to finally get around to it.  Another fabulous read and a timely reminder to me to always remember that Muriel Spark is not quite like any other writer!
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I’ve long been curious about Paula Fox’s work and had resolved this year to read Desperate Characters, her best known novel.  For some reason, however, I packed her debut novel instead.  Its New Orleans setting was very appealing (many years ago I lived in the city for a brief period) and . . . what’s that thing about the best laid plans?  The novel has some flaws (what debut novel doesn’t?) but I’m now convinced that Paula Fox should be much more widely read than she is.  Luckily for me, she was reasonably prolific, so I have five more novels to look forward to (including Desperate Characters!)
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Fun, fun, fun!  My first Margery Sharp but it certainly won’t be my last.  A delicious coming of age/finding one’s voice story, combined with an oh-so-wicked sendup of the (pretentious) intellectual life.   Who cares if the message at times may be a bit retro by current standards — after all, shouldn’t a period piece reflect its period?

SECOND MISCELLANY:  Museums

To my great disappointment, most of  Washington’s major museums remained closed last week, including my very own personal favorite, the National Gallery, with the only Leonardo in North America and its four Vermeers (well, maybe three!  One’s an “attributed to”).  I was nevertheless able to get my fix by a short drive up Interstate 95-North to Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and the home of the Barnes Foundation, which is allowing timed entry visits under very strict restrictions (capacity, for example, is severely curtailed).  I’m very fond of the Barnes, although I’m far less familiar with it than my old home town museums.  It has a fabulous collection, noted for its Impressionist, post-Impressionist and modernist art.  Sixty-nine Cezannes!  Fifty-Nine Matisses!  One hundred and eighty-one Renoirs! (my apologies to Renoir lovers but IMO that’s one hundred eighty too many).  In addition to all this, there are also numerous works by de Chirico; Gauguin; Picasso; van Gogh; Degas; Rousseau; and Seurat, with a scattering of old masters (Hals, Rubens and Titian) as well.  Dr. Albert Barnes, who founded the museum in the 1920s, was also far ahead of his time in collecting African and Native American art.  The Barnes is a fascinating place and one of the few museums that continue to reflect the vision and eccentricities of its founder.  If you like art and you happen to be in Philadelphia, this is not a place you want to miss.

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The visitor approach, lined with gorgeous Japanese Maples (I think! My knowledge of plants is limited).  In addition to the fabulous art, the building and its setting are lovely.
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Another exterior view.  The building is surrounded by a shallow, pebble lined pond, which is a great favorite with the local birds.
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Inside of the museum, looking out; this gives you a sense of scale.
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An example of a Barnes “wall ensemble”, which combines paintings of different styles & time periods with objects such as furniture, jewelry, iron work and sculpture.  The observant among you will note the absence of any helpful wall text; Dr. Barnes believed viewers should examine, reflect and form their own opinions about the art in his collection.

In addition to all the great art, the Barnes Foundation has a strong online presence.  Its numerous lectures and course offerings have kept me going throughout the pandemic.

THIRD MISCELLANY:  Nature

For a major metropolitan area, Washington and its adjacent suburbs have quite a bit of green space.  It was a real joy to spend a couple of afternoons re-visiting one or two favorite spots, particularly as spring was well underway.  I love my new climate — for one thing, it’s warm and Washington was quite chilly for most of my stay — but I must admit it’s difficult to tell that the season has changed by looking at a palm tree or a hibiscus plant, which pretty much blooms year round.

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This is actually a very small urban park.  A green space located in a dense residential area,  the park makes a great “migrant trap” during the spring, when traveling birds use it to rest and refuel. In pre-pandemic Mays it was quite common to see folks wearing business suits & binoculars (I once saw a semi-famous retired cabinet secretary who was quite excited about a Blackburnian warbler — and well he might be) using their lunch hour to spot interesting migrants coming down to the stream to bath and drink.
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Can you find the chipmunk? He’s on the left of the flat concrete slab. This one needs to exercise more caution, or he’s liable to be something’s lunch!
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One of my very favorite spots, only 25 miles (40 km) or so from downtown Washington.  Because this series of impoundments is close to the Potomac River, the paths can be a little swampy at times . . . 
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Where there’s a swamp, well, there are swamp critters!  Luckily these were well off the path.
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A much nicer image than those snakes, n’est-ce pas?  In a few weeks, these will be in full bloom.

Enough for tonight!  Time now to do a real book review, only — what should I choose from my recent reads?

Monday Miscellany: Museum Musings (plus photos!)

Despite my inability to concentrate on any one object for more than ten minutes, or to spend more than a couple of hours, max, on an art stroll, I adore museums.  Perhaps it’s because of their variety:  there’s a museum for everyone and for every mood and personality type.  Interested in the history of fire alarms?  The next time you’re on the Baltimore Beltway, take a detour to The Fire Museum of Maryland, which has one of the world’s greatest displays of working fire alarms.  Want to see some interesting stuff without getting out of your car?  Well, the Museum of Wonder in Seale Alabama (which claims to be the world’s only drive-through museum) is where you need to be!

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The Museum of Wonder (drive-through) in Seale, Alabama. Note the sports trophies glued onto the 1992 Cadilac.
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Butch Anthony, founder of the drive-through Museum of Wonder. As Butch puts it, “I let people self-serve.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you an aficionado of the circus?  Then go immediately to Sarasota, Florida!  It was formerly the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Circus (many circus performers settled there, not to mention John and Mabel Ringling themselves) and has a really great circus museum, founded in the late 1940s.

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Ringling Brothers Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida
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Ringling Brothers Circus Museum, Sarasota Florida (interior)

 

And, of course, there are the big boys of the U.S. museum world — the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, to name only a few — those places you go when you’re in need of a serious dose of heavy culture, or a nice cafe to relax in on a hot day in the city or a browse in a great store full of art books and prints.  My favorite of these — the place where I head when I’m not in the mood for one of our quirkier little cultural hors d’oeuvres — is Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.  It’s a fabulous museum to visit especially when, as now, there’s a major exhibition or two going on.

A reasonably good street view of the West (old) building of the National Gallery of Art.  Notice the dome, over the columns?  Just scroll down, to see it from the inside!
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A street view of the NGA’s East Building, designed by I.M. Pei. The two buildings are connected by an underground complex, containing a cafeteria, bookstore and people mover; the triangular glass thingeys you see in the photo provide natural light to the underground museum space.

Although I love the East Building, which houses a wonderful collection of 20th century art, my focus today is on the older part of the Museum.  So — back to the dome!  We all have our little rituals and one of mine is to always stop here for a moment or two to admire and to contemplate.

A partial view of the dome, which was modeled on that of the Pantheon in ancient Rome.
More dome, from a slightly different angle. Those indented square things above the columns producing a honey-comb effect  are called “coffers.”
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Looking straight up, here’s my last dome picture (I promise!).  The opening at the top is an oculus, or “eye.” In ancient times, it would be open to the sky (and rain).  Modern museum folks, however, take a dim view of the elements, so the NGA has sealed its dome with glass.

The NGA usually has some sort of special show or exhibition going on.  The current attraction is a fabulous show on 16th century Venetian art, featuring the paintings of Tintoretto, a contemporary and rival of the great Titian (the two artists, by the way, loathed each other).  Since many of Tintoretto’s paintings are really, really large and seldom travel, this is a great opportunity to see something of his best work without a trip to Italy!

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Anyone out there like 16th century Italian art?  If so, the NGA’s current “big” exhibition should be right up your alley!
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The first room of the Tintoretto exhibition.  See the serious looking young guy in the small center portrait?  It’s the artist’s self portrait, done when he was in his 20s.  The last thing you see upon leaving the exhibition is another self-portrait, which he painted shortly before his death over fifty years later.  It’s surprisingly moving & a wonderful touch to a wonderful exhibition.
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One of my favorite Tintoretto’s. I love the fact that the princess is running away like hell, leaving her rescuer and the dragon to battle it out.  Sensible girl!

Besides the special Tintoretto exhibition (around for the next month or so), there’s always something to see or enjoy at the NGA.  If you’re not in the mood for paintings, or food, or books — well, the building itself is worth a visit!

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The photo is deceptive: this is a moving wall of water, visible from the underground cafeteria between the old (West) and new (East) buildings.  It provides natural light and visual interest while one is munching one’s potato chips and slurping one’s diet coke.
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The people mover in the underground passage connecting the West and East Buildings.  The light display, “Multiverse,” was created by the American artist Leo Villarreal.  The constant shifting and changing lights make little kids (and me) cry out in awe and wonder!  I NEVER get tired of this part of the museum!
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A sideways view of the NGA’s sizable main bookstore, also located in the underground concourse.  It’s much larger than it appears in this photo and has a fantastic selection of art books.  If it’s tchotchkes you’re after, there’s another large shop in the West Building dedicated to prints, cards, toys & museum related items.

And when the weary museum visitor needs a physical and mental time-out, he or she can always head for one of the garden courts in the old West Building, which are thoughtfully provided with very comfortable seating around the edges ……

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You can’t see ’em, but the chairs are there (and usually fully occupied!) in the space behind the columns  ….