Sunday, August 30, 2009

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?

65. Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction, by John Sutherland

In this book, a follow-up to his Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, Sutherland seeks to answer questions that most of us have never asked. Some are unanswerable, except by reaching for that old chestnut,"even Homer nods"! But, for others, he actually comes up with reasonable (or not wildly unreasonable) explanations. And it's rather fun getting there.

Have you ever wondered what is in Heathcliff's will? Or what the Prynnes were doing in Boston? Neither have I. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Sutherland's attempts to answer these and other literary conundrums. He has a fine sense of humor, taking none of this too seriously. His disquisition on the question, "What is Elfride's rope made of?" (Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, had me in stitches. It's not even necessary to have read the books (does anyone, not a college English major, actually read Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier these days?), you'll find plenty of diversion, anyway.

The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner

64. The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Patricia Vigderman

Neither a biography nor a guide to the collection, but rather a meditation on the identity, the soul, of Isabella Stewart Gardner, this small volume is Vigderman's attempt to understand, through her collection, why Gardner collected what she did, why she displayed it the way she did, why she left it to the public the way she did.

This is a stroll through the Museum, pausing here and there, thinking about this piece or that. How does it fit with that piece over there? What might it have meant to Mrs. Gardner? Who urged her to acquire it and how was that person important to ISG? That is the structure of the book, in three parts, each broken down into smaller sections headed with the title of a work, its author and date. Something about that work inspires and speaks of the words that will follow. Thus, Helleu's Woman Threading a Needle calls forth thoughts of how ISG "threaded the needle" through a world where wealth and status did not necessarily allow a woman to "make her way into the kingdom of books" to one where she found "pleasant lifelong learning":

As Vigderman wanders through those rooms and corridors, she talks to us about Bernard Berenson, whose career ISG helped launch. We learn of art politics, and in-fighting in the lofty rooms of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. And, finally, Vigderman, joins old Boston and the clutter of Victoriana with the simplicity and grace of the Japanese tea ceremony through the figure of Okakura Kakuzō, first head of the MFA's Asian Arts department, and author of that book of philosophy, The Book of Tea. (The postscript, An Invitation to Tea, follows the form of the other three parts, but each subsection is headed with a caption of an illustration from the Kodansha International edition of that book.)

In the end, do we know more of Gardner than we did before we began? I think we do. Vigderman's digressive musings help to understand how ISG was both a product of, and a rebel against, her time and place.

Why this book is not available at the Gardner Museum's bookshop is beyond my comprehension.

Reviewed as part of

Please support your local independent bookstores!

Yesterday, I had what I would ordinarily call an excellent book buying day. I bought a dozen books, at two different bookstores, at 50% and 70% off the normal prices. But it wasn't a good day, because the reason for the tremendous discounts is that, as of tomorrow, two wonderful bookstores in downtown Chicago will be no more.

(Photo by MICAH MAIDENBERG/Staff, Chicago Journal)

Powell's Books, on S. Wabash, couldn't withstand the rising rents in that gentrifying neighborhood. The stock will go to their wholesale warehouse. Athough they have two other stores, the building that houses the Lincoln Park branch is up for sale. The store will continue to operate until the building is sold (which, in this market, may be a while). At least, we have the small comfort that the 57th Street Store (my usual haunt, as it's a few blocks from my home) will remain open.

Much sadder, therefore, is the loss of Prairie Avenue Bookshop, which has been called the finest architecture bookstore in the world.

(Copyright 2009, Prairie Avenue Bookshop)

Part of the reason for the closure is that the owners are getting on in years (they've been running the place since it originally opened in the Prairie Avenue historic district in the mid-'70s - read its history here) and have been unable to find a buyer. But they were also contending with competition from the big box stores' ability to discount, and Chicago's increased sales tax and the resulting flow of buyers away from retail stores and to the internet. Unfortunately, those places may have the latest books, but they don't have backlists, they don't have old copies of journals, they don't have used books. And they don't have the sheer beauty and ambience of Prairie Avenue Bookshop. You went in and browsed bookcases with leaded glass, sat at a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed table, in a Charles Rennie Mackintosh- or Josef Hoffmann-designed chair, near a Louis Sullivan frieze. You can't do that on Amazon, and, now, you can't do it in Chicago, either.

So, please, if you care about stores like these, shop at them!

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

63. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe

Connie Goodwin is a graduate student specializing in colonial American history. She has just been accepted as a doctoral candidate at Harvard when she accedes to her mother's request to go to Marblehead to close up her grandmother's house, a house that had been sitting empty for years. Whilst clearing out the place, she finds an old Bible which contains a key with a tag on which is the name "Deliverance Dane". Her curiosity is aroused, and she begins a search for the identity of Deliverance, and for an old book, variously called a "physick book", an "almanack", a "grimoire". Meanwhile, her thesis adviser begins to behave very oddly, and the young man she meets and becomes enamoured of is the victim of a strange accident. And she, herself, begins to develop extraordinary powers.

Howe manages to capture both contemporary academic politics and 17th-century religio-social politics and creates a fascinating story of "bewitchment". She shifts easily between scenes set in 1991 and in 1692, and thus we are aware of things that will impact Connie's story before she herself knows them (in fact, she probably never knows as much as we do).

There are some loose ends, things that remain unexplained (for example, why is it dangerous for a man to be romantically involved with a Dane descendant?). I've also seen some criticism of this book on the grounds that it negatively stereotypes librarians, but I don't see it!

Oh, there really was a Deliverance Dane. The image below is her husband's Petition for restitution for Deliverence Dane, from the Massachusetts State Archives. The University of Virginia has created an online archive of documents relating to the Salem witchcraft trials held in various special collections across New England, which makes for fascinating browsing.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Heidenkind's Art History Challenge

Thanks to Jemima's post on her blog, The Reading Journey, I discovered Heidenkind's Art History Challenge. Though I'm not usually the "challenge" type (I get antsy if I feel that I have to read a particular book at a particular time - too much like school!), this one speaks to me, perhaps because two of my current reads are in this field. I also like it because the framework encourages digression, of which I am a big fan! So, I will do this one.
The two books I am currently reading are The Memory Palace of Isabella Stewart Gardner, by Patricia Vigderman, and Confessions of an Art Addict, by Peggy Guggenheim, so you can probably see that my theme (at least to begin with) will be art patrons and patronage. But I see Venice? museums? collecting? as potential detours. We shall see.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Boston Books

I've just spent a glorious week in Boston, and naturally prepared by reading books set there, about there, and so on. And took some to read while there and on the plane. So I have much to review!

To begin, there is, apparently, something about Boston that leads murderers to choose extremely bizarre methods of offing their victims. Two of the books I read were mysteries, and both involved very odd forms of murder. One cannot, it seems, eliminate a Boston Brahmin with nothing more than a bullet to the head or a simple stab wound. Oh, no! That would be déclassé.

57. Coign of Vantage, or the Athenæum Club Murders, by John McAleer

Someone is killing members of Boston's venerable Cart-Tail Club. The book begins with one member being knocked unconscious and locked in a freezer, where, of course, he suffocates. We learn that other members of the club have died in what had been written off as accidents. Our hero, who has just been proposed as a member, is a probabilities expert, and is asked to solve the mystery (discreetly, please, as befits a venerable Boston club).

It turns out that the murders are all connected to a woman who wrote pulp fiction years earlier, her work all based on secrets and transgressions of ancestors of the murder victims.

The motive ultimately makes little sense and the book is hard to get into. Too many characters are introduced too quickly, with too much esoteric gabbing. But once past that, it's rather amusing, though the satire is probably best appreciated by Bostonians.

58. The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl

There really was a Dante Club, with many of Boston's 19th-century literary élite, that worked with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his translation of the Divine Comedy.

In Pearl's mystery, which ranges throughout Boston and Cambridge, the Club tries to solve the murders of various Boston brahmins, murders that are very specifically, and down to the last detail, replications of the punishments of sinners described by Dante in The Inferno.

The solution is not satisfactory - it's complicated and quite a stretch - and I'm not terribly fond of books that attempt to place historical characters out of their milieu. That said, however, Pearl does a decent job of evoking the atmosphere of Boston in 1865, particularly the "town and gown" conflicts and the aftermath of the Civil War. And certainly you will learn a great deal about Longfellow and the other members of the Dante Club, probably more than when you had to memorize their poetry in school (or am I dating myself? do you have to do that now?).

59. The Silent Traveller in Boston, by Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee was a Chinese scholar, poet, painter and calligrapher, who taught Chinese first in England, and later in the United States. Over a period of about four decades, he wrote the "Silent Traveller" series, describing his travels in various countries and cities around the world.

The Silent Traveller in Boston was published in 1959, but Yee's descriptions of the important landmarks of Cambridge and Boston are still relevant. I was glad that I had read of his visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, though I envied him his invitation to dine there!

It was most interesting to read Yee's comparisons of American and Chinese ideas and customs, as when he contrasts the New (and Old) England concept of witches with the Chinese. (At the end of the book, he comments on the McCarthy-ite "witch" hunts earlier in the '50s, and notes that Joseph Welch was a Bostonian and that "[t]he Boston spirit of love of universal liberty had acted again."

Yee has the artist's eye for detail, and he continually surprises by what he notices and the relationships that he sees. He has an intense curiosity and desire to learn all about the places that he visits, and we are fortunate that he shares his what he learns, and, more so, what he thinks, with us. The books are greatly enhanced by Yee's illustrations, both full page color pictures and black-and-white drawings, as well as poems which are given in both English and Chinese.

If you are visiting a city which Yee included in his "Silent Traveller" series, I would strongly recommend that you find a copy of his book and read it before you go.

60. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: Guide to the Collection

This guide is an absolutely indispensable adjunct to a visit to the Gardner Museum.

Mrs. Gardner opened her museum in 1909. When she died in 1924, her will provided that nothing be changed or moved. All was to remain as she had left it. There was method in this, as she was an absolute genius at installation, and when she placed an item, she had a reason for that placement, particularly in its relation to other objects.

But there are no wall signs and the one page guides available in some of the rooms are not as detailed as one might like. And not all the rooms have them. Although this slim volume does not contain every item, either (well, there are a couple of thousand!), it does cover more of them, and gives more information. Because nothing can be moved, the guide can be very explicit as to where everything is located in a room or gallery. (My edition is from before the 1990 robbery, so it includes the stolen items. How sad to see an empty frame or a card saying "stolen". Someday an obsessive art collector will die, and his heirs, I hope, will return the ill-gotten goods.)

There's a short, but useful, biographical sketch as well, that will likely leave you wanting to learn more about this dynamic woman. If so, I'd suggest Douglas Shand-Tucci's biography, The Art of Scandal: The Life and Times of Isabella Stewart Gardner and Elizabeth Anne McCauley's Gondola Days: Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Palazzo Barbaro Circle.

61. The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, by Charles Bahne

The Freedom Trail is a two and a half mile trail, marked by red brick along Boston streets, that takes you to some of America's most historic places, such as Old North Church ("one if by land, two if by sea"), Faneuil Hall, and the site of the Boston Massacre.

This little book is splendid, particularly for the individual who prefers to go it alone. A starting point at Boston Common is suggested, and directions are given from there. But the book is hugely informative, with lots of history told in an interesting manner. I particularly appreciated the extensive detail about who is buried in which burying ground. There is a good map, a list of hours and admission fees, information about wheelchair access, and the like.

My copy is the second edition, published in 1993, which I picked up at a used book sale shortly before my trip. I did not, however, encounter any outdated information, other than the fact that the "Big Dig" is now over with!

62. The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

Who were the Puritans? What did they really believe? Would you really want them living next door to you?

What you were taught in school about the Puritans and the settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is mostly bunk. There's a grain of truth in the "fled England to escape religious persecution", but only a grain. They believed in religious freedom - if you believed as they did. They were a bunch of contrary, ornery, fascinating folk.

Vowell's book brings to life these people who live in dry and dusty textbooks, warts and all. She does so with style and mordant humor. An excellent and enjoyable read.