Tuesday, June 30, 2009

State of Jones

46. The State of Jones: the Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy, by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer

There is a part of the history of the American Civil War that is not very well-known, that is rarely taught in the schools. It is the story of southerners who believed in the Union, who not only refused to fight for the Confederacy, but actively fought against it. Some did so by joining the Union forces, others did so by engaging in guerrilla warfare. The rural county of Jones in Mississippi was a stronghold of men who opposed secession. Some were staunch Unionists. Some were anti-slavery. Some believed it was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. One such man was Newton Knight, and this is his story.

Newton Knight was the grandson of Jackie Knight, one of the early settlers in this part of Mississippi. By the time war came, he was "merely a rich man in a state full of tycoons", but the owner of several hundred acres of cotton and rice, and of a couple of dozen slaves. But his son, Albert, Newton's father, unlike Jackie's other children, refused to own any slaves, and led a modest life as a shoemaker and tanner. This split in the family would echo down through the years and the generations.

When the Civil War began, Newton, like many others, was forced into service in the Confederate Army. After Vicksburg, he, like many others, deserted. He spent the rest of the war with a band of like-minded souls, fighting the Confederacy in Jones County. The book does not, however, end with Lee's surrender, because the war really didn't end there. There was a period when men like Knight were in the ascendancy, when it looked as though the Union had won the war. But it soon became apparent that, in Mississippi at least, the South had won. National politics meant that the federal government soon declined to enforce the rule of law, and ex-Confederates came to power through murder and intimidation at the polls, leaving a legacy of racial injustice that still haunts this country today.

There's another part of Newton's story that's told here, the story of his love for a black woman, a woman named Rachel who was owned by his grandfather. Newton was married to a woman named Serena, by whom he had several children, but he also had children by Rachel. Now, it wasn't unusual for a white man to have children by a slave woman. What was unusual was that theirs was a true consensual relationship. He viewed her as his wife (the authors suggest that later conversions of some members of the family to Mormonism might have been caused, at least in part, by that faith's then recognition of plural marriage), he recognized and helped to raise and support his children by her, he made sure she had financial independence.

One would like to know what it was that caused Albert (and, through him, his children) to be not only opposed to slavery, but a friend to African-Americans. I cannot, however, fault the authors for being unable to answer this question; it is, at this remove, likely unanswerable.

I was, for the most part, riveted by this book. If I have any quibble with it, it is that in the early part it jumps around a bit too much for my taste. However, the authors combine serious scholarship and research (among other things, they located and interviewed descendants of Knight) with good storytelling. Civil War buffs will appreciate the vivid descriptions of the battle of Corinth, the siege of Vicksburg, and the guerrilla bands. About the only folks who won't like this book are those who don't want their preconceived ideas about the south and the Confederacy disturbed.

(For another story of Union sympathizers in the South, this one fiction, I highly recommend Sharyn McCrumb's Ghost Riders, one of her "Ballad Series".)

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

45. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

When you sell your soul to the devil, there's always a catch. When Johannes Cabal sold his, he thought it was irrelevant to his researches. He found that it wasn't. So he went to Hell to get it back.

Now Satan isn't generally inclined to return souls, but he also loves a wager. So he made a bet: if Cabal garnered him 100 souls within a year, he could have his soul again. To assist him in this endeavour, Cabal was supplied with the Carnival of Discord, which he will staff with "people" conjured from bits of bone and hair and fat, with runaway insane asylum inmates (who chant a hymn to Cthulhu) and various and sundry other odd fellows. They travel the country, and at each stop Cabal gets more contracts signed.

The Faust legend is so old, and has been done so many times, that it's hard to find a fresh take on it. This Howard accomplishes, and he does so with a delightfully wry sense of humor. Did you know that you must apply to be admitted to Hell? If you don't fill out the "Infernal Regions (Local Authority) Hades Admission Application -- Provisional (AAAA/342)" properly, back you go to the end of the line, and a couple of thousand more forms, all vetted by the very annoying Arthur Trubshaw.

But there's more to this story than humor. We learn that Cabal is responsible for his brother's transformation to a vampire, yet he calls upon him for help in his quest. The brother is the moral side of Cabal, and as they travel, carnies together, this rubs off on Cabal, until, at last, he must trick the Devil again.

A most enjoyable first novel, and it's not a surprise when one reads in the Acknowledgements a brief homage to Ray Bradbury, whose Something Wicked this Way Comes caused Howard to wonder where an evil carnival would come from. He has given us a quite credible answer here.

The Lost Chalice

44. The Lost Chalice: the Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece, by Vernon Silver

Anyone who pays any attention to art news these days cannot have missed the increasing number of stories about archaelogical artifacts being sent back from the museums where they have been housed to the countries from when they came. This book is the saga of artifacts stolen from Etruscan graves at Cerveteri in Italy, who profited, how they were dispersed, and the struggle to recover them.

Late in 1971, a few months before the effective date of UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, tomb robbers in Cerveteri, Italy (Etruscan Caere), dug into an Etruscan necropolis and uncovered a trove of grave goods, including fragments of a krater signed by the Athenian vase painter Euphronius, depicting the death of Sarpedon. This and other artifacts were ripped from the site, wall carvings hacked away. Sold to a regular buyer of antiquities, Giacomo Medici, who smuggled it out of the country, through him to the collector and dealer Robert Hecht, taken by Hecht to the Swiss vase restorer Fritz Bürki, the krater ended up at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where blind eyes were turned to the question of its origin.

(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shortly after the million dollar purchase and all its attendant publicity, the existence of a kylix by Euphronius, decorated with the same subject, was revealed. It had come from the same tomb. But where was it now? That's one of the plot lines of Silver's book, which reads like a good thriller. If only it were fiction.

There are many villains here. One can, to a small degree, feel sympathy for those in poverty who know that what is buried deep in the ground can bring them a modicum of comfort. No sympathy can be felt for the dealers in stolen grave goods, and the collectors who buy them.

Most disturbing of all, however, is the attitude of people like those at the Met, who not only didn't care if an item they desire was stolen patrimony, they actually thought it didn't matter. Silver quotes Philippe de Montebello, the Met's recently retired director, as saying "How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in -- supposedly Cerveteri -- it came out of? Everything is on the vase." It is astounding to me that anyone with an ounce of concern about items such as the Euphronius kylix could fail to understand or care about the importance of the context in which it was found. To think that such an item exists in a vacuum, and is of value only for itself and in relation to the artist's other work, is abysmally short-sighted and narrow-minded.

Silver is right on the money when he notes that what was exciting about the find of Tutankhamen's tomb, and the exhibit of the artifacts therefrom, was the fact that it was the discovery of an undisturbed tomb. Despite the minor importance of Tutankhamen in the political history of Egypt, this find gave us a vast amount of information because the artifacts were found and recorded in situ.

Sadly, as long as there is arrogance and greed in this world, it is unlikely that even the most aggressive action against it will stop the theft, smuggling and sale of the cultural patrimonies of this world. Items looted during the American invasion of Iraq are still turning up, as collectors with more money than ethics pretend not to know.

From the New York Times: Michael Kimmerman on the Euphronius krater at the Villa Giulia

Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady

43. Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady, by Cecil Beaton

When noted photographer and stage designer Cecil Beaton went to Hollywood to work on the film of My Fair Lady, he took pen and paper with him and kept a daily diary, which was subsequently published to the great delight of his admirers, as well as anyone with an interest in film history. Beginning on the day he first met with director George Cukor in London, and ending just over a year later as he flies home, his journal is a fascinating and edifying glimpse into the world of film-making in the old days of the Hollywood studio system.

He describes the difficulty in getting just the right extras to set off his glorious Ascot costumes, the ease of getting offices painted and sets built, the vast treasure trove of furniture and decorative items in the Warner studios warehouses, and the hard work, talent and dedication of the costume shop ladies. Interspersed throughout are wonderful photographs (I'm particularly delighted by the ones of Audrey Hepburn wearing several of the Ascot gowns worn by extras), and, even better, costume sketches.

Beaton is a fine writer, and amidst the hustle and bustle of getting the film's design just so, he takes some time for introspection. On seeing a delphinium, he waxes eloquent on the lack of seasons in L.A.: Here, everything comes out within the same week. In England, the departure of winter is a long, drawn-out process, and how welcome is the first scylla and grape hyacinth! When the lilac is in blossom we feel spring upon us. We have to wait for high summer for a delphinium! But here it has no value, because it grows too readily when everything else is available. Nothing is rare except quality.

He describes his anxieties, the vicissitudes of Los Angeles freeway driving, and the startling lack of real conversation. It is no wonder that his most pleasant times seem to be those weekly dinners with fellow Englishman Christopher Isherwood, "in this sympathetic atmosphere with the talk that invigorates".

I picked this book up assuming I would find it a quick bit of fluff to while away an hour or so. What I found, instead, was "talk that invigorates". Thank you, Cecil, for sharing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Inside Job

42. Inside Job, by Connie Willis

Rob is a professional skeptic. He makes a living debunking psychics, channelers, mediums and other frauds. One day, his employee, Kildy Ross, urges him to go see Auriaura Keller, who channels a spirit named "Isus", but she won't tell him what's so different about this woman. They go, and, what a surprise! In the midst of the usual New Age b.s. from this so-called spirit, a second voice interrupts, calling the proceedings "hokum" and Keller a "snakecharming preacher". What the heck is going on?

As they attended in their own names, and being known in their profession, Keller appears at the office and blames Rob for what has happened. In the midst of her ranting, she again begins to talk about "quacks and crooks". But it's her reference to a trial in Dayton, and "boobus Americanus" that causes Rob to realize she's spouting H.L. Mencken. Why would she fake channeling the skeptic's skeptic? And is Kildy in on it? Is she "a beautiful, calculating woman who seduces the hero into helping her with a scam"? Or is it real? And if it's real, what a can of worms!

A very engaging, clever and amusing novella.

Monday, June 22, 2009

41. Death Vows: a Donald Strachey mystery, by Richard Stevenson

When Jim Sturdivant calls private detective Donald Strachey to investigate Barry Fields, the young man his friend, Bill Moore, is about to marry, Strachey naturally expects to find a gold-digger. He does find that Fields, and his friend Bud Radziwill, had popped up seemingly out of nowhere several years earlier. But he also learns that, far from being friends of Moore's, Sturdivant and his partner have been engaged in some underhanded loan dealings with him and other members of the town's gay community.

When Sturdivant is found shot to death following a very public confrontation with Fields, the latter is naturally the prime suspect. His fiancé hires Strachey to clear his name, and find the real killer. In the course of so doing, Strachey learns that just about everyone has a secret, some relevant, some not. The whole ends with a confrontation between a Fred Phelps-like religous sect and a bunch of Mafiosi!

A light, quick, enjoyable read.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Shoe Fleur

40. Shoe Fleur: a Footwear Fantasy, by Michel Tcherevkoff

Photographer Michel Tcherevkoff noticed that a leaf, the photograph of which he had just taken, looked like a shoe. He manipulated the image and came up with his first "shoe fleur". Inspired, he made more of these fantastic images, now not only of shoes, but of handbags.

These images have been gathered into a book, a book which is itself a work of art. Heavy cardboad covers with the image of a shoe on the front and a handbag on the back are attached to a cloth-covered spine which carries the title and author information. The endsheets are a pale green, with a faint leaf design. The title page is faux vellum, with the script "shoe fleur", overlaying an image of that first shoe, called "La Première". The book is enclosed in a pink plastic slipcase with a ruffled edge that meets the image of leaves on the cover and a circular opening that reveals a variegated tulip that is part of the cover shoe.

Interestingly, although these shoes are fantasies, many of the designs, if translated into less delicate, less ephemeral, materials, would be quite wearable. I would certainly be happy to own any of these items!

The photos and text are enhanced by a preface written by Ferruccio Ferragamo and an introduction by Diane von Furstenberg.

And you've got to love the punny title!

More images can be seen at Tcherevkoff's website.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stone's Fall

39. Stone's Fall, by Iain Pears

Do not be afraid of this book's 800+ pages! Because it is a page-turner.

It begins in a cemetery, at the funeral of one Mme. Robillard. Matthew Braddock, who knew her under another name, in another time, in another place, is approached by a representative of her lawyers' who informs him that the firm is holding a parcel intended to be given him only upon Mme. Robillard's death. But it will be another 300 or so pages before we learn the contents of that parcel. First, Braddock must tell us the story of how he met Mme. Robillard, or Elizabeth, Lady Ravenscliff, as she then was.

That story begins in London, in 1909, when Braddock she hires Braddock to investigate the mysterious death of her husband, financier and arms dealer John Stone, Lord Ravenscliff. As he delves into the case, he finds complex layers of intrigue and, not incidentally, falls in love with the widow Ravenscliff. Naturally enough, neither she nor Ravenscliff, nor any of their colleagues, is what they at first appeared to be. So dramatic and compelling and complete a story is this narrative that, at the end, I found that I had forgotten that parcel and was startled to find that I was only one-third through the book.

The second part moves back in time, beginning in Paris in 1890, and is the story of one Henry Cort, who had become known to Braddock during his investigations. Another mysterious figure, to say Cort was an intelligence operative for the British government is to understate the case. His parcel contains his narrative of his own life, and how he came to his position, and how he knew Lady Ravenscliff, before she was a lady at all.

It also contains certain documents of John Stone's, documents that had gone missing at his death. These form the third part of Pears' novel, and go back even further in time, to Venice, 1867, where Stone's enterprise begins. And it is here that we learn the real history of Elizabeth, and the reason and manner of Stone's death. It will, I think, be a surprise.

Those familiar with Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost will, however, not be surprised at his ability to take multiple strands of narrative and weave them into a complicated, yet understandable, whole. Like the best Victorian triple-deckers, Stone's Fall is full of surprises, twists and turns, but it hangs together logically. Even more than this, Pears creates characters who engage our sympathy, even if their actions do not. Like real people, their psychology is not simple, and their motives are mixed. Some do good for bad reasons, and some act badly for good reasons. Some act for no reason, but emotionally. Just like you and me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tutto Dante: an evening in the Second Circle of Hell

(or, from the ridiculous to the sublime.)

The Italian actor, writer, director, etc. is also a Dante scholar, and he has been touring in a program called Tutto Dante, which ranges from humor to intellectual discourse to dramatic reading.

Benigni bounds onto the stage, in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who anyone who saw his reaction at the 1998 Oscar ceremony when Life is Beautiful won Best Foreign Film. His show begins with humor, with particularly pointed jabs at Silvio Berlusconi that were greeted with loud laughter and cheers by the largely Italian audience. He also took a swipe at ex-Governor Blagojevich. I don't know if it was a coincidence that there were two empty seats front row center, but he said, "Blagojevich booked a seat, and then sold it." He also expressed great admiration for Chicago, especially its architecture. He does not, however, understand why the cabs and hotels have the air conditioning turned on in this un-spring like weather (neither do I!).

After a while, Benigni becomes what you would like your college lecturer on Dante to be. (I have to say, though, that my high school English teacher effortlessly taught me to love his work.) His passion for the Divine Comedy is palpable, and his discussion of it deep and broad, if not always accurate. He begins by placing the text in its time and place, talking about Florentine history and politics, literature and philosophy.

quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante
His focus is Canto V, the second circle of Hell, in which Dante meets and speaks with Francesca da Rimini, who tells him the story of her passion for her brother-in-law, Paolo Malatesta (the scene is depicted below in the Doré illustration):

Each tercet, in the Robert and Jean Hollander translation, is displayed, one at a time, on a screen as he delves into its meaning, its metaphors, what it shows us about the progress of literature. And here is where he, in his passion for this poem, goes, I think, a bit astray. He credits Dante with being the first to use "I" in poetry, to address and write about ordinary people. I immediately thought, "What about Sappho?" And she's not the only one. Nor was the concept of "pity" a new one; Aristotle spoke of it in his description of tragedy centuries earlier. Nevertheless, the discourse was instructive and compelling.

Then, Benigni set aside the lectern. The lighting changed. Facing the audience full-on, he took a breath, and, changing from English to Italian, he began:

Così descesi del cerchio primaio
giù nel secondo, che men luogo cinghia,
e tanto più dolor, che punge a guaio.

"From the first circle thus I came descending
To the second, which, in narrower compass turning,
Holds greater woe, with outcry loud and rending."
(Canto V, ll.1-3, Dorothy L. Sayers' translation)

He recited the entirety of the canto from memory. (I understand that he has the whole Commedia by heart!) The recitation was deeply moving, even to those of us whose knowledge of Italian (particularly medieval Italian) is not great. By the time he reached the end, e caddi come corpo morto cade ("and, as a dead man falling, down I fell"), we were on the edge of our seats.

Share the experience:

(Photo of publicity poster by: jkannenberg, Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.0)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Printers Row Lit Fest (formerly the Printers Row Book Fair)

Keeping dry

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night shall keep the book hunters from their appointed rounds. Well, okay, there's no snow in Chicago in June, nor is the Fest held at night, but this morning's sprinkles just brought out the plastic to cover books and browsers. The weather forecast said the storms would come in the afternoon (in the event, they didn't), so I went down in the morning, not deterred by the aforesaid sprinkles. In fact, the cool and overcast weather was ideal for walking and browsing, particularly as the day wore on and my bag of books got heavier and heavier. (Fortunately, Half Price Books was giving away nice big bags.)

Since the Chicago Tribune took over from the South Loop Planning Board several years ago, the event has seen a bit of a change in focus, so that author readings have increased tremendously, with events at the Harold Washington Library Center and the University Center as well as at the Fair itself, and there are more non-book exhibitors (t-shirt manufacturer? yarn store?). But it's still a ton of used bookstores, along with small presses and university presses, and a lot of self-published authors.

I made a fair haul:
Chicago Churches, by Elizabeth Johnson (which I reviewed here)
Asia in the Eyes of Europe: Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries, a catalogue from an exhibition at the University of Chicago Library
Shoe Fleur: a Footwear Fantasy, by Michel Tcherevkov, photographs of shoes made of flowers (!)
Permissions: a Survival Guide: blunt talk about art as intellectual property, by Susan Bielstein
The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, by Donald Keene
The Heather Blazing, a novel by Colm Tóibín, one of my favorite authors
Napoli in Cucina, by Fabrizia Gerli
Bolzano in bocca, by Eva Kurt

The last two are cookbooks in Italian, of which one seller had a huge number! Kurt's book is actually a triple-language book: German, Italian and English. It's a very nicely designed book, with cardboard covers and old-style illustrations, printed on a heavy paper. The recipes are in German on the verso, in a font designed to resemble handwriting, and then in Italian and English on the recto. There's a glossary in the back, with German terms translated into Italian. I may try some of the recipes, but not the Beef Brain Croutons.

I was also very tempted by an edition of Dante's Divina Commedia, in Italian, with the Doré illustrations, but at $150 (even though the guy would have come down) it was way out of my price range.

I stopped by the Charles H. Kerr booth:
Studs on Charles Kerr
hoping to speak to Penelope Rosemont and give her my condolences on Franklin's death. I had just missed her; however, I left a note and will go to the memorial service at the Newberry in July.

I did see Michelle Duster, whose book, Ida in her own words: the timeless writings of Ida B. Wells from 1893, I had bought at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference Book Fair. We had a nice chat and said rude things about the University of Chicago and its relations with the community.

It wasn't all books, however. As I strolled down the street, I was accosted by a woman, an animal shelter volunteer, who asked me if I'd like a cat or kitten! I demurred, telling her that I already had two cats. She agreed that I had done my part, but noted that there were cats and dogs up for adoption who could be visited in the grooming salon right behind us. So, I visited. Look! A two-headed cat!
Please adopt me and my sister!
(Oh, not really. Just two kitty siblings sharing a blanket.)

All in all, it was a lovely day, and now I have a bunch more books to read.

Blue 2

38. Blue 2: A Pop-up Book for Children of All Ages, by David A. Carter

A pop-up book and an alphabet book, it's two of my favorite things! There's a blue "2" somewhere in each pop-up, and they're not all easy to find. Look inside the pop-up, turn it upside down. Where is it? I had fun with this, though I wonder if some children might get a bit frustrated at the difficulty of finding some of the 2s, those "terrible twos"! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Chicago architectural photographs - churches and the River

36. Chicago Churches: A Photographic Essay, by Elizabeth Johnson

Take any expressway into the city, and you will be struck by the number of spires and steeples that you see. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, a place where many people, when asked where in the city they live, name their parish. Chicago is a city of immigrants, and they brought their religions with them and built buildings in which to worship. As the city's demographics changed, a church named for a German saint fills with Mexican worshipers, a Greek Orthodox church becomes a mosque. And in the city that invented the skyscraper, we have a church housed on the top floor of an office building.

Elizabeth Johnson traveled the city (and some of the suburbs), photographing houses of worship. (The title Chicago Churches is really a misnomer, as she includes synagogues and mosques.) They range from the ghetto storefront churches to Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural masterpiece, Unity Temple, from the Gothic splendor of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel to the sterility of the O'Hare Airport Chapel.

The photographs have an old-fashioned sepia tinge to them, and the buildings appear in a variety of moods. Johnson often takes a shot angling upwards, as though reaching for the heavens, and she likes to juxtapose a traditional church building with a modern neighbor, as with the cover shot of a steeple seen next to the antennae of the John Hancock. Interspersed throughout the book are quotations from the world's major religions.

A beautifully designed book, this should find a home on the shelves of anyone who loves Chicago, architecture, photography, or (like me) all three!

37. Chicago from the River, by Joan V. Lindsay

If you come to Chicago any time from May to November, I will advise you, nay, order you, to take the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Architecture River Cruise. I can't think of a better way to see some of Chicago's most magnificent buildings, and also to learn and understand the importance of the river to Chicago's history and growth. It's the best damn tour there is.

One of the reasons it's so good is the docents. The CAF training is incredibly deep, and these people know whereof they speak (even if I don't always agree with them - we're not all fans of Helmut Jahn!). Joan V. Lindsay went through that docent training and acted as a guide on river tours, so it's not to be wondered that she has penned a lovely paean to the river and to Chicago architecture. It's a slim volume, but filled with beautiful photographs and plenty of information about the buildings. The captions don't simply give the name of the architect and date of the building, but describe the style and place the building in the context of Chicago's architectural history. She's also thrown in a couple of old photographs of the city so we can see how it's changed. What's a bascule bridge? Why does the River run backwards? Lindsay knows, and tells.