Saturday, January 30, 2010

J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner, by Peter Ackroyd

In the second of his "Brief Lives" series, Ackroyd delves into the life of the man who was arguably England's greatest landscape painter. A Londoner to the core, he was the son of a barber and his mother's family were butchers. He began drawing quite young and, having initially apprenticed with an architect, entered the Royal Academy when he was only fourteen years old.

This little volume is jam-packed with information about Turner's rise to the top of the artistic heap, how he worked and taught, his techniques, his rivalries. He seems always to have been working. Ackroyd cites a comment made by a fellow traveler in Italy, who, not knowing who his traveling companion was, described Turner as "continually popping his head out of the window to sketch whatever strikes his fancy."

It's also the story of his personal life; although he never married, he was a great one for the ladies and had more than one long-term relationship. His mother is believed to have died insane, but he was very close to his father, who lived with him and worked as his assistant.

This is quite a good little introduction to both Turner and his work.

The Autobiography of an Execution

The Autobiography of an Execution, by David R. Dow

David Dow works in the belly of the beast. He's the litigation director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, mostly in federal habeas corpus proceedings (or what's left of them), and provides assistance to capital trial lawyers. The TDS' mission is to "establish a fair and just criminal justice system in Texas". Yeah, well, good luck with that one. In Texas, they'd as soon send you to Death Row as look at you.

This isn't, however, a diatribe against capital punishment. It's about how this work affects someone who does it, how you balance your commitment to someone whose life is, quite literally, in your hands with your commitment to your family. He misses the Hallowe'en visit to a haunted house he promised his son. His family goes on vacation without him. He tries to juggle overwhelming workloads and not enough time and resources, and how that means that his office can't do anything to help a man who believes that Jesus has arranged that he will walk out of Death Row, a mentally ill man who was allowed to represent himself at trial and on appeal.

The "hook" here is the story of Henry Quaker, a man convicted of killing his wife and children, whom Dow is representing. Then he receives a letter from another inmate, telling him that Quaker is innocent, that this man had hired another to kill a woman who had been stealing from him and that he'd killed the wrong person. What happened? Hell, this is Texas. What do you think happened?

There's one thing that bothers me about this book. Dow writes about the death penalty system that "the abolitionists' single-minded focus on innocence makes them seem as indifferent to principle as the vigilantes are." And there is something to that. But it seems to me that by centering this memoir around the execution of a probably innocent man, Dow is doing the same thing. It's as if he felt that writing about representing the guilty would somehow diminish his memoir, and I don't believe it would.

Dow tells the story of a childhood friend of his wife's, a famous artist, who, inebriated, reveals herself to be "racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, narcissistic, and altogether unlikable." Dow says that he realized that his "clients were better people than this piece of garbage, and they even killed somebody." But, you know, I take a different lesson. Katya tells him, "She's been my friend since she was eight years old, which is way before she was a terrible person. What am I supposed to do? Abandon her?" They remain friends for the same reason we ask juries not to kill our clients: we are more than the worst thing we've ever done.

(The names of people in this book have mostly been changed, some circumstances altered, in order to respect the confidences of clients. In an appendix, Meredith Duncan, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, discusses the duty of confidentiality that lawyers have to their clients. I appreciated this very much, because it's something most people don't understand, particularly when it comes to people like the Cook County public defenders whose client confided in to them that he was responsible for a murder for which another man had been convicted. Counsel kept the secret for years, until the client, who had given them permission to reveal the confidence after his death, died. The lawyers were vilified, but they were right.)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Lost Art of Gratitude

1. The Lost Art of Gratitude, by Alexander McCall Smith

An Isabel Dalhousie novel.

I first encountered Alexander McCall Smith through The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but for whatever reason that series did not hold my interest as much as this one, or his 44 Scotland Street series (the latest of which I have placed on reserve at my library). Perhaps it is because, to some extent, I identify with the older, intellectual Isabel Dalhousie (though having neither her wealth, her leisure, or her hot younger lover!).

Be that as it may, I enjoyed this most recent entry of the series, in which Isabel's relationship with Jamie, the father of her child, advances apace, while her niece Cat yet again chooses an unsuitable companion. Isabel is challenged anew by her nemesis, Professor Dove, who accuses her of plagiarism, and, once again, she bests him. She is also approached by financier Minty Auchterlonie, who wants her help in dealing with the father of her child, a man not her husband. All this leads to musings about trust, reputation and relationships.

As always, a pleasant read.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Dybbuk

A Dybbuk, and the Dybbuk Melody and other themes and variations, by S. Ansky

In Eastern European Jewish folklore, a dybbuk is the soul of a dead person that maliciously possesses the living body of another. Ansky's play, The Dybbuk here adapted as A Dybbuk by Tony Kushner, relates the story of a young bride possessed by the spirit of the lover who was rejected by her father. In this adaptation, one can see echoes of the phantasms that often inhabit Kushner's work, specifically Angels in America.

Also in this volume are a number of stories by Ansky that draw on the Hasidic tradition and from the Talmud and Kabbalah, as well as poems by him, and several folktales. There's an absolutely amazing piece in which the old man, Feyval, sues God in a rabbinical court for allowing the king of Romania to issue a decree banishing the Jews. Not to mention The Egyptian Passover, telling that story from a different point of view!

A thread of music runs through these stories. An old man, who had no time or money to study as a boy, wishes to study Torah, but cannot understand the rabbi's words. So the rabbi sings to him a "melody that contains all the beliefs of the Baal-Shem-Tov"* and the man understands. The spirit of a dead cantor enters the new one, and the rabbi must drive out that dybbuk with a melody of his own.

This book is a reminder of a world lost forever to the evil that is anti-Semitism.

* Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer, who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism

Love Among the Butterflies

Love Among the Butterflies: the diaries of a wayward, determined and passionate Victorian lady, by Margaret Fountaine

This book is, in fact, a mere smattering of Fountaine's actual diaries, which began in 1878 and continued on until 1939, shortly before her death.

I hope that by now most of us are disabused of the notion that well-off Victorian/Edwardian women did nothing but pay calls and swoon in the orangerie. Those who still hold that view should read Miss Fountaine's diaries.

The daughter of a country clergyman, Margaret and her mother and siblings were left, after his death, without a great deal of money. However, as there were large, comfortable families on both sides, the widow and children were not what we would consider poor. Two of her uncles were quite wealthy, and one made provision for his sister's children in his will, resulting in Margaret's independence.

And, oh! what she did with it! She had fallen in love with a man who, frankly, didn't deserve her, and quite literally attempted to buy him, renewing acquaintance in a letter following her inheritance in which she boldly points out her good fortune. Fortunately, despite his positive response, nothing came of the relationship, and she was free to wander the world and leave us these diaries.

It was not uncommon in this era for young ladies of her class to study natural history, and Margaret's consuming interest was lepidoptera. She pursued this interest in Italy, Hungary, Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, and in 1901, in Damascus, she met a young Syrian with "grey eyes that were always looking toward me." For the rest of his life, despite separations, disapproval, and his marriage, they continued to look towards her, as hers did towards him.

She was always open to what was new, adopting first the bicycle, then the car, and ultimately the airplane as modes of transportation. She grew from a modest maiden to a woman fully in charge of her desires. She took risks, she never stopped learning, she reveled in life.

I am only sad that this volume ends in 1913. I'd like to read what she had to say about the next twenty-seven years.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Light in the Piazza

The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales, by Elizabeth Spencer

More years ago than I care to remember, I saw the movie based on Spencer's story, The Light in the Piazza, with Olivia de Havilland, Yvette Mimieux, Rossano Brazzi and George Hamilton. A few years ago, I saw the Craig Lucas/Adam Guettel musical. I have now, finally!, read the book.

In the title story, a well-to-do American woman, Margaret Johnson, is traveling in Italy with her daughter, Clara. They make the acquaintance of a young Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli, who falls in love with Clara. But Clara, due to an accident, is still mentally a child, and Mrs. Johnson had resigned herself to Clara's never being in a position to marry. Now she sees the possibility. Her struggle between her desire to see Clara settled and happy, and her concerns that her disability will prevent that, form the conflict. In Margaret Johnson, Spencer has created an interesting and strong woman, one who will do what she has to for her child's well-being. She is rational, practical, not seduced by the romanticism of Florence's light.

Spencer's women deal. In one of my favorite stories, The White Azalea, the protagonist is a southern spinster traveling in Italy following the death of her father, whom she had nursed through his final illness, as she had nursed her mother and an aunt. She had spent those years reading the classics, dreaming of Europe, and has followed that dream. But now a letter from her brother George ("the only boy, the family darling") arrives, urging her return home to live with and look after an elderly cousin. She literally buries the letter. Three cheers!

Friday, January 1, 2010

What else I read in 2009 - not yet reviewed.

These will all be reviewed at a later date (really, I promise!), but I wanted to list the remaining books I read in 2009.

In no particular order:

102. The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales, by Elizabeth Spencer
Link to review

103. Love among the Butterflies: the diaries of a wayward, determined and passionate Victorian lady, by Margaret Fountaine
Link to review

104. A Dybbuk, and The Dybbuk Melody and other themes and variations, by S. Ansky
Link to review

105. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel

106. The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic, by R.K. Narayan

107. Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction, edited by Timothy J. Lambert and R.D. Cochrane

108. I Like It Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, edited by Richard Labonté and Lawrence Schimel

109. Confessions of an Art Addict, by Peggy Guggenheim

110. J.M.W. Turner, by Peter Ackroyd
Link to Review

111. The Listener, by Shira Nayman

112. The Autobiography of an Execution, by David R. Dow
Link to Review