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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Laura Cumming, THE VANISHING VALAZQUEZ: A 19TH-CENTURY BOOKSELLER'S OBSESSION WITH A LOST MASTERPIECE

As other reviewers have noted, this book holds at least three interrelated, mirroring stories: that of John Snare, who believed he had purchased a lost Valazquez when everyone else insisted it was a Van Dyck and who lost his family and his fortune defending it; Valazquez himself, who painted himself into the masterpiece *Las Meninas*, where there is represented both a mirror and a canvas; and Cumming (the author) who is retracing/mirroring John Snare's path, partly as an historian and art critic and partly, she admits, as a response to the death of her father (a painter) and her overwhelming sense of loss. At times I felt the book got a little hot and breathless over what is, at bottom, a relatively uncomplicated story; but I enjoyed it and learned a lot about painters and Valazquez, and I greatly admire the amount of research she did.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Hanya Yanagihara, A LITTLE LIFE

This is perhaps the most painful book I have ever read. It's beautifully written. Yanagihara traces the tiniest shades of emotion and thought, of interactions between characters, precisely and without getting overly writerly. The book begins as a story of four young men who leave a Massachusetts college for New York City. But it shifts fairly early into a deep delve into the traumatic past of one of the four, Jude St. Francis; and the other three characters largely recede into the background, except insofar as they relate to Jude (they love him, they paint and draw him, they're envious of him, etc.). Still, Jude's character is so well done that it's a wholly compelling read.
However (TOTAL SPOILER ALERT), the delve backwards reveals a harrowing childhood (like therapy, we get the worst and most deeply buried last) that includes being abandoned beside a dumpster, being rejected for adoption, continual sexual exploitation, a sadistic doctor, (and yes, there's more), all of which leads to Jude's self-abuse as an adult. It's just a really, really hard read. I confess that after the second passage about him cutting himself with a razor, I had to start skipping paragraphs. They were so graphic and perfectly described that they were putting images in my head that I couldn't set aside.
In some ways, the most heart-rending parts for me were those in which Jude interacted with all these kind people around him and always expected cruelty; he wonders how long he can keep them around, when they are going to leave, when he is going to arrive to find them locking the door against him and laughing at him. Of course they never do. We have the benevolent couple Harold and Julia, the heroic doctor Andy, and the brilliant Willem, all of whom love Jude constantly and with an almost unfailing generosity. And I have to confess, I found this part of the novel unbelievable. (Though that begs the question: what does it say about me that I can't believe anyone is going to love Jude so unconditionally?) They love him despite that fact that he frustrates them to no end by abusing himself and by distrustfully pushing them away, to try to reproduce the abandonment and cruelty he felt as a child ... and yet they all stay.
But that small gripe aside, this narrative is a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to survive and to find joy. I felt a hollow space carve out inside my chest reading this book; and yet I also felt it fill up. And it has haunted me for days after finishing it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Andrea Avery, SONATA: A MEMOIR OF PAIN AND THE PIANO

I haven't been this touched by a book since I read LIT, the memoir by Mary Carr. Avery's SONATA is at once deeply felt and light on its poetic feet, even playful, and I found myself putting little ticks in the margin for the lines that sang to me. I found myself in tears at parts; but this book is not a melodramatic tale of her disease; nor is it a cerebral meditation; nor an example of how to "make the best of a rotten situation." Far from any of these genres, it is a woman's deeply personal account of how she learned to create, build, rebuild, start over, and stay open and vulnerable and soft in the face of a cruel and unpredictable disease. I'm in awe, not just of her ability to craft a deeply meaningful life but to craft a book that I will probably push at everyone I know for the next month.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Nicola Phillips, THE PROFLIGATE SON: OR, A TRUE STORY OF FAMILY CONFLICT, FASHIONABLE VICE AND FINANCIAL RUIN IN REGENCY BRITAIN

An incredibly well-researched historical account of a young man in Regency England who grew up in privilege but slid into debt, depravity, crime, and eventually the penal colony in Australia. One review I read said the book made the reader want to shake William--and I had to agree. Nowadays, he'd probably be diagnosed with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. He seemed to have no ability to understand that his actions brought about consequences, with an attitude of "Well, yes, I bought eighteen shirts on my father's credit and then pawned them for ready money so I could get drunk and visit a prostitute, but it's my father's fault because he doesn't give me enough allowance!" As a parent, I found it a bit terrifying to contemplate. My one gripe is that William's repeated errors and crimes are precisely that--repeated--and I found myself skimming at points in the narrative because it was just another incident of his bad judgment. But as a researcher, I greatly admired Nicola Phillips's ability to make this individual story a lens into the historical period, illuminating many of the prevailing social and legal issues. I would recommend for anyone interested in early- to mid-1800s England.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Graham Moore, THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT

If even half of what this book says is true, Edison was one of the most unethical, revolting (no pun intended) men on the planet in the 1880s. Westinghouse wasn't much better; J.P. Morgan and the rest of the businessmen come off as soulless and, at times, petty. The book is told in 3rd person but focalized through Paul Cravath, the young and somewhat idealistic lawyer hired by Westinghouse, out to prove his chops in NYC. The fight was ostensibly about who created the first lightbulb; Edison sued Westinghouse 312 times to assert his claims. I lost track of all the countersuing. The other question was whether Direct Current or Alternating Current would prevail. At one point, Edison fed false facts to newspapers and tested Westinghouse's A/C on dogs, killing them to prove that it was deadly. There are some odd touches; at the heads of chapters, Moore includes quotes from Steve Jobs in this book about 1880s New York; they felt jarring to me. But overall, the historical details are well managed; it's a compelling story, and toward the end I was race-reading, wondering how on earth Cravath was going to manage it all.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Anderson Cooper, THE RAINBOW COMES AND GOES

There is a tender story buried in this book, but I found the question-and-answer format, between Anderson and his mother, clumsy, workmanlike, and hard to read (and to take as truth). Gloria Vanderbilt comes off as whiny and not terribly self-aware; there is no real trajectory of discovery or enlightenment; and Cooper's repeated "Wow, that must have been hard for you" sounds like something out of a superficial therapy session. Bummer, because I like Anderson Cooper, and Gloria had talent to spare.

Abir Mukherjee, A RISING MAN

I enjoyed this debut mystery about a Scotland Yard inspector transferred to India in 1919 and asked to solve a murder. The depiction of Calcutta was very good, and I was rooting for the main character. I did have a few quibbles ... At times the phrases seemed anachronistic; perhaps I'm wrong, but "We'll have to abort" doesn't feel quite right for 1919 Calcutta. Captain Wyndham's backstory of the WWI trenches seems a bit too casually used; to me, the trauma of it seemed not to be deeply interwoven into his psyche; I would have liked to see more of a connection between his backstory and his present actions. There are two "teaching" characters in the book, who each explain to Wyndham (and the reader) what we need to know about the corruption in India and the unfairness of British rule in what amount to monologues; this felt a bit heavy-handed, although I found all the information interesting. And Wyndham's "eureka" moments were, for the most part, very sudden and a product of him ruminating, rather than immediately following a new discovery; he'd realize something and dash off, and I was still standing in the room thinking, hunh? But these are minor points. The Captain is engaging; his Indian sidekick is a charming foil; the politics complex; and the wry humor tucked in is welcome. I'd definitely try another.