Monday, January 19, 2009

Two novels and a bit of lit crit

7. Fraud, by Anita Brookner

I was not familiar with Ms. Brookner's work until I received a copy of this book at a Bookcrossing Meet-up. When the book begins, we learn that Anna Durrant, a middle-aged spinster, has disappeared from her London flat. Her life, and the events leading up to her disappearance, unfold through her eyes and those of other characters in the novel.

Having spent her entire life living with, and caring for, her recently-deceased mother, Anna at first seems to be one of those women without independent social and intellectual resources, who depend upon others lives to make their own interesting. But we gradually learn that that is not the case, just as we learn about the façades her friends and acquaintances have erected in order to live up to the expectations of society, family and themselves. Brookner slowly and realistically reveals the truth behind these "frauds", alternately dashing and reinforcing our stereotypes of spinster daughter, devoted grandmother, and the like. A well-written, complex novel.

8. Jan & Catharina, by Michael Tobias

To begin, a confession. I bought this book primarily because of its design and illustrations. It is graced with black-and-white photographs by Rocky Schenk, images which in their intended blurriness are reminscent of watercolors. Interspersed throughout the book are full-page translucent sheets with details from paintings of Vermeer.

I wish the text had been has compelling. The protagonist is an FBI agent who is sent to the Netherlands to try to locate and recover a Vermeer painting that has been stolen from a Boston museum. There seems to be no reason for this. He is not an art expert, not a part of the art squad. For the flimsiest of reasons, he is also himself suspected of the theft. This assignment thus beggars belief. How someone with a few weeks training in Dutch art is expected to realistically set up as an antiques dealer in order to lure the thief to him is, frankly, beyond me.

In Delft, our hero wanders into a bakery, and immediately falls for a young woman who works there, an infatuation that he later realizes connects to her resemblance to Vermeer's wife, whose name, you will not be surprised to learn, is the same as the young woman's. Throughout the book, imagined scenes from Vermeer's life are juxtaposed with the activities of the protagonist (who has taken the alias "Jan" for his assignment). Connections and coincidences abound. Logic and common sense, so necessary to any detective story, do not.

9. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s, by Winifred Brooks

Any lover of the Victorian triple-decker should find this book a treat. Hughes shows how the sensation novels of M.E. Braddon, Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins and their fellows developed from the Gothic works that preceded them. But rather than ruined abbeys and other exotic settings, these books are set prosaically in Victorian home and hearth. These ordinary places, familiar to the books' readers, are juxtaposed with bigamy, adventuresses and murder, threatening and endangering the Victorian ideas of domesticity and femininity. And yet, Brooks makes clear that, at the same time, a close reading of these works reveals that they are reinforcing these ideals. If the hearth is threatened, it is nevertheless true that an adulterous Lady Isabel (East Lynne) is severely punished, ending unrecognized as a governess to her own child in the home her husband now shares with his new wife.

If there was any danger to one's morals in reading sensation novels, there is also danger to one's pocketbook in reading this book, as one scribbles down the names of authors and novels mentioned by Brooks, ready for the next visit to one's local bookstore!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Three on things Japanese

4. Kimono and the Colors of Japan: Kimono Collection of Katsumi Yumioki

As the title suggests, this stunning collection of photographs of kimono and obi groups them by color, an interesting, and very Japanese, conceit. But do not think that we speak of mere "red", "blue", "green", etc. No, there are many aspects of each color. As to each, there are a couple of short paragraphs describing the color, its meaning and use, and the source of the dye. The one thing I miss is specific information about the individual pieces in the collection. Unfortunately, while the rest of the book is in both Japanese and English, the kimono guide, with information about each plate, is in Japanese only.

5. Patterns and Poetry: Nō robes from the Lucy Truman Aldrich Collection at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design by Iwao Nagasaki

I cannot complain of lack of detail in this book! In addition to informative essays about the collector, the collection, and costume in Nō performance, the book gives images of both the full costume and a detail of the cloth. Each plate dates the item, and describes it fully, including measurements, and details of the weave structure. The firm from which Miss Aldrich purchased the robes had labeled many with their provenance, and, where that is the case, images of the wrappers and labels are included.

I must say that Miss Aldrich herself is quite as interesting as her collection. A spinster, born in 1869, congenitally deaf, she traveled around the world three times, and made about 50 trips to Europe with a paid companion, collecting along the way. A very intrepid character, she was kidnapped by bandits following an attack on the Shanghai-to-Peking express, but was apparently unfazed by this encounter. One of the bandits helped her to escape, and a photo is included of "Miss Lucy's bandit"! (According to the biographical essay by Susan Anderson Hay, her hearing actually improved at times of crisis.)

Although Asian art was becoming a focus for collectors in the latter quarter of the 19th-century, Miss Aldrich did not enter this arena until her first trip to the Orient, in 1919. She began purchasing prints, but also bought textiles, furniture and jade. Years later, when she had exhausted her textile collecting, she turned to porcelain, primarily European. Clearly, she was a woman of many and varied interests, and of a great intellect.

6. Wagashi: The Graphics of Japanese Confection, by Mutsuo Takahashi, with photographs by Hiroshi Yoda

Japanese confections are often a mystery to the western palate. Generally made with bean paste and/or various forms of rice, they are an acquired taste. But it takes very little to acquire an appreciation for their design. Often shaped in the form of a flower or an animal, they reflect the Japanese sensibility to nature and the changing seasons. It is the latter that informs this book. Each two month period has its own section, with gorgeous photographs of the confections that reflect that part of the year. And each season has its "Mount Fuji in Four Seasons", of course. There are confections intended for specific festivals, such as a spool-shaped confection for a festival for women who seek progress in their sewing. There are confections shaped like plums and eggplants and sunflowers.
It's a lovely volume, in Japanese and English, and there is, naturally, a bit of poetry.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The first books of 2009

I've started 2009 out with a bang, reading-wise. It helped that I visited bookstores every day for the first four days of the year (and, naturally, brought at least one book home from each). So, thus far (and in no particular order):

1. The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of "American Cookery", 1796, by Amelia Simmons.

Before Simmons' cookbook was published, housewives depended on cookbooks published in England. Even when these were reprinted for the American market, they did not take account of American tastes, or, more important, American ingredients. Here we find "receipts" using cornmeal and squash, and the first for pumpkin pie as we know it. And we find American language: "molasses" rather than "treacle", for instance, and other Americanisms.

Miss Simmons' directions as to how to choose the best meat and fish are not entirely useless today, though I do not think that we need inquire as to whether our veal was brought to market in panniers or carriages, as opposed to being "bro't in bags, and flouncing on a sweaty horse"!

Much experimentation would be required to duplicate some of the recipes here (how hot should an oven be to equate to "a clear good fire that will not want stirring or altering"?), but many could easily be followed by today's cooks. The size of these, though! These cooks did not make small portions. Consider a recipe for "A rich Cake", requiring 2 pounds of butter, 5 of flour, 15 eggs, 1 pint of emptins (a sort of yeast), 1 pint of wine, 2 1/2 pounds of raisins, a gill of brandy another of rose-water, 2 1/2 pounds of loaf sugar and 1 oz. of cinnamon. Rich, indeed!

A fascinating glimpse into America's culinary history.

2. Third Helpings, by Calvin Trillin

Mr. Trillin is far and away one of my favorite food writers. His obvious pleasure in good food, taken in good company, is delightful, and his humor infectious. In this collection of essays, he searches for the origin of Buffalo chicken wings, hunts for the perfect sausage sandwich at the Feast of San Gennaro, and attempts (with minimal success) to broaden his daughters' culinary horizons. Always a joy to read him.

3. Ingo Maurer, by Michael Webb

One of Chronicle Books' Compact Design Portfolio series, this small volume is a brief introduction to the work of lighting designer Ingo Maurer. I first fell in love with his work when I visited an exhibit of it at the Cooper-Hewitt in New York City (completely by accident - I was there to see another exhibit). Had you told me that I would covet a hanging lamp made of broken crockery and cutlery, I'd have said you were nuts. But I do. I'm quite fond of his Lucellinos as well, winged lightbulbs that fly alone or in flocks. So I was quite happy to find this little book. It is primarily photographs, though there is a short essay by Mr. Webb.

(More to come.)

My new blog

I have decided to create a new blog, devoted to book reviews, and other literary musings and discussons. Here I will tell you how much I loved (or hated) the latest book I've read, but I'll also tell you about author readings I attend, serendipitous bookstore finds, and my latest book sale haul.

I hope you enjoy it.