Saturday, September 16, 2017

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

In 1999 we traveled to Washington D.C. for a getaway weekend. One of the places that we put on our itinerary was the Phillips Collection. There was an exhibit of Impressionist paintings. Among them was The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir. This painting has fascinated me ever since. When I saw Vreeland's book appear on the Kindle Daily Deals, I immediately bought it. The appeal was even more enhanced after seeing a number of Renoir's paintings, especially Ball at the Moulin de la Galette at the Museé d'Orsay in June. I chose it for our Gables Book Club's September selection, with apologies for picking another art book. 

Susan Vreeland does a wonderful job in creating the back story of the attendees at the luncheon. In 1881 Renoir was a struggling artist both in the artistic sense and in a personal sense. He had been painting in the impressionistic style, but had wanted to extend his notoriety beyond that group, especially after the critical review of Emile Zola. He had painted numerous portraits, but knew that he needed another large painting to follow the Ball. At the urging of his patron, Madame Charpentier, he decided on a painting that would take place at the Maison Fournaise. And so he began to assemble the models. They came from every walk in life, including artists, actresses, lawyers, the children of the owner of the cafe, a seamstress, and a dancer. Over an 8 week period of time he painted them and the setting of the party. He was really under a self-imposed deadline due to the natural lighting and a nautical festival that would be taking place there. 

Thirteen of the people in the painting are easily identified, but there is a mysterious person in the center of the work, almost hidden. Renoir was consumed with the fact that he needed to have 14 people appear so as not appear to be imitating The Last Supper. Could it be that he painted himself in? Prominently seated in the fore of the painting is Aline with her dog. She would eventually become Renoir's wife. The lives of the other models give a peak into the cultural, historical, and social mores of the time. Vreeland in her narrative gives an insight especially in to the issue of women's rights and the women who strive to assert them whether it be in subservience to a man or the right to an abortion. 

The description of the food that is served prior to Renoir's painting on the Sunday afternoons leaves one craving some of the dishes. Chapter 17 begins with such a description of a Charlotte Malakoff:
"They’d sung a few songs while eating the Charlotte Malakoff, a mold of strawberries, ladyfingers soaked in rum, and almond cream, and now they were ready to take their poses."
This was the inspiration for the dessert at the evening's book club discussion. 


There is also a bit of a romantic triangle between Renoir, Aline, and Alphonsine Fournaise, both of whom were in love with Auguste and he with them.

This was a delightful book to read and one that you should read with the painting at your side. The characters are well developed, the setting well described, and the research extensive. I will be looking to read one of Vreeland's other books.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin

This book was chosen as the August selection for the Gables Book Club. Unfortunately, the member who was so enthusiastic about it became ill and could not attend. I would love to have had her perspective added to the group discussion. 

From the blurbs and promos about the book came this synopsis of it, "A man with a painful past. A child with a doubtful future. And a shared journey toward healing for both their hearts." That pretty much sums it up. Martin really is a master of foreshadowing and secrets. The reader first encounters Annie on a street corner selling lemonade. One suspects that there is a good reason for this as Martin alludes to her having a scar on her chest. Reese, the main character of the novel has left her a hefty contribution for the lemonade that he enjoys and as he leaves the money blows away and Annie runs into the path of a car as she is chasing it down. Reese is first on the scene of the accident and takes over with an authoritative command of trauma protocol. His background could be medical, EMS work, or a person who has suffered the same as Annie. 

In chapters that alternate between the present and flashback, we slowly learn about Reese and Annie's past. His story centers around his devotion to a childhood sweetheart, Emma, who suffered from heart problems and who had died awaiting a transplant several years earlier. Reese has had a hard time dealing with this tragedy and although the reader is not sure why, but seems to shoulder more than his share of guilt. He lives an almost hermit-like existence save for his relationship with his brother-in-law, Charlie, who is blind. The two work on restoring and building boats on the shore of Lake Burton, Georgia. 

Annie also has had her share of cardiac problems and lives with her aunt Cindy who has raised her since her missionary parents' deaths. She sells lemonade and crickets to help raise money for a heart transplant. For all that she has gone through, she remains upbeat, loving, and sweet girl. She sees the glass half full rather than half empty. Her description of the crickets gives the book its title. 

As the Reese and Annie's lives intertwine, the action builds toward a climatic operating room description of a heart transplant. It is dramatic and educational at the same time. There are some collateral characters, namely Davis, the owner of a Christian bar and "Termite," a soul in need of saving. The theme of the heart being the wellspring of life permeates the novel as well as many biblical quotations. 

The book was a fast read and probably the only one I have ever read that could be classifies as Christian Fiction. In nearly every chapter there is reference to spirituality and religion. I am sure it would find an esteemed place in a church library, but it is not what I would normally seek out to read. The ending, although shrouded in uncertainty, is fairly predictable. If one is drawn to Hallmark Channel movies, this would be a great read. For me, an ok one that was easy to finish and put down.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

I first heard of The Race for Paris when Margaret Atwood mentioned that she was reading it. It was also the perfect book to pick up as we left France and Normandy in July. 

The book is a work of fiction, but with the quotes and references to real-life female journalists and photographers who covered WWII, it reads like a personal account or memoir. After the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, the allied armies set about to liberate the French countryside towns on their way to the liberation of Paris. 

The novel's three main characters are Jane Tyler, Liv Harper, and Fletcher Roebuck. Jane is a reporter from the Nashville Banner, Liv, a photographer who is married to Charles, editor of The New York Daily Press, and Fletcher who is a credentialed war photographer. The three team up to be the first in Paris to report the ultimate liberation. Although Jane narrates the novel, it is really Liv's book and a tribute to her. 

Female journalists were often under undue regulations as they attempted to cover the war. Liv requested a jeep to go to the front, was denied by a commanding officer, and so convinces Jane to go AWOL from her position at a hospital. They meet up with Fletcher whom they convince to accompany them on their quest. What ensues is a action filled account of their goal of reaching Paris. 

The three not only have to avoid being discovered for fear of being sent back to their homes, but also to avoid the German defenses and bombs. As they journey through the small towns, finding places to sleep and rations to eat, the reader senses a commitment to the cause, but also to each other among the three. The book is a tribute to the courage of those who covered the war, but especially the woman who faced event greater hardships. Witnessing a childbirth in a cave where a group of Jewish people were hiding was so poignant, disturbing, and revealing more than anyone could imagine. I was angered by the fact that the male correspondents were handed virtually everything, but the women were denied so much - to the extent that Liv could not submit her photos with her name. 

There is also a bit of romance that is written into the account. It develops as a triangle between Liv and Fletcher and Jane and added to the angst of the harrowing war scenes. But as the book draws to a conclusion, it seems to be a natural progression.  Liv's husband's conduct disturbed me very much. Encouraging her to take on the job of covering the war, he then seems to undermine her work by starting rumors, having multiple affairs, and underhandedly trying to have MPs arrest her.

In addition to the story that it tells The Race For Paris is a tribute to those women who covered the war. Interspersed in the story are quotes by and references to Ruth Cowan, Margaret Bourke-White, Iris Carpenter, Martha Gellhorn,  Lee Miller, and Dickey Chapelle. Also figuring prominently in the book was Ernie Pyle.

This was a very enlightening book and one where the words on the page conjured pictures in my imagination that I saw from having visited some of the towns referenced. It was a great read as a culmination to our French journey.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

How does he know? Daniel Silva may be the most clairvoyant writer of all time. In his book from 2016 he predicts ISIS terrorist attacks before they happened. So eerie were the predictions that Silva, in his preface, nearly delayed the publication of this book.

The Black Widow is the 16th adventure that involves art restorer/Israeli intelligence officer Gabriel Allon. Silva brings back in this novel some of his familiar characters and some new ones, his twins Irene and Raphael. As the novel opens, an explosion in Paris kills one of those characters from The Messenger and Gabriel inherits a very valuable painting. However, before taking possession of the painting, he must aid the French in the investigation and bringing the terrorists to justice. 
He realizes that he must infiltrate the ISIS group and chooses a brilliant Israeli doctor, Natalie Mizrahi. She was originally born in France, but moved to Israel with her parents to whom she is still very close. Reluctant at first, she agrees to the plan as revenge for the death of her former boyfriend. With intensive training in the Muslim religion and way of life she assumes the identity of Leila Hadawi. 

As the Israeli intelligence moves through the investigation, they identify the perpetrator of the attack as Saladin and it is up to Natalie/Leila to discover Saladin's true persona. In tense and pressure filled drama, she is asked to save Saladin's life when she is called to his compound after he is injured. She realizes that she could let the mastermind die and her self be killed because of it or she could save his life and allow him to continue to devise horrific terrorist plots. With every turn of the page, the reader is thrust into thrilling scenes and "edge of seat" events. From Paris to Paris to Jerusalem to Raqqa to Washington, the action builds as Natalie pursues her mission in outing Saladin and the Black Widow

As in all of Silva's books, if one divulges more of the plot, the suspense is spoiled for those who read. Suffice it to say, that once started, the reader will not rest until it is finished. Daniel Silva does not hide his political bias in any of his novels, and this one is no exception. His contempt for the soft treatment of ISIS by the Obama administration is obvious. One of the author's most skillful hallmarks is his ability to develop characters. In this novel, Natalie's personality is well developed and crafted. Readers understand her dilemma, appreciate the moral and ethical decisions she must make while still developing an empathy for the warring sides in the Middle East. 

Although The Black Widow could be read as a stand-alone novel, one would be cheating him/herself if the other 15 had not been read. Having just finished this book, Silva's new one just arrived on my doorstep and I cannot wait to crack it open. Daniel Silva is a genius. 
 


Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Tumblng Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

Sometimes you have to read a book that is just plain fun. Juliette Fay's The Tumbling Turner Sisters is just that kind of a book. Set in Johnson City, New York the novel journals the 4 Turner sisters as they take their place in a long list of vaudevillian performers at the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

Frank Turner, father to the sisters and husband to Ethel, gets into a brawl at a bar and injures his hand so badly that he cannot work as a boot stitcher. Ethel decides that in order to make some money for the family the sister will become a scantily clad vaudeville acrobatic act. Kit, Gert, Winnie, and Nell are a bit reluctant but rise to the occasion. Signed by Mortie Birnbaum the act hits the road to second rate theatres and opera houses of northern New York, including Sackets Harbor, Clayton, Oneonta, Geneva and Lyons. Told through the eyes and words of Gert and Winnie, the reader gains a real insight into the life of a performer and the history and society of 1919.

Nell is a widow whose husband fought in the Great War, survived the battles, but before he arrived home fell victim to the Spanish flu. Nell also has a baby, Harry. Gert and Winnie bring different perspectives to the novel. Gert is outgoing and flirtatious; Winnie is a bookworm who wants to go to college and become a doctor. Both get a taste of a bit of romance on tour. Secondary characters add to the drama and frivolity, even the act of two orangutans and a couple of parrots. Tip, the tap dancer, and Joe and his sister, Lucy play major roles in the lives of the young women.  

The historical events provide a sense of the times: the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire, prohibition, the influence of Birth of a Nation and the Klu Klux Klan, and the anti-immigrant feelings are major themes. Fay provides the reader with her historical resources including the memories and stories of her great grandfather who was a vaudeville dancer. 

Being set in upstate New York added to the appeal of the book. The places were familiar and could be easily pictured. Even in the epilogue, the mention of Tower Court and Wellesley College brought back fond memories. This was an enjoyable book and one that could be read in a fairly quick time frame. There are laughs and some tears, cheers and boos, relationships that grow and those that are jolted. A book to slip in between longer and more contemplative tomes.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeeper's Wife has been on my "want to read" list since its publication in 2007, just 10 years ago! It moved up the list to "currently reading" spurred by a Kindle Deal of the Day ($1.99) and the release of the movie based on it. I am glad that I did wait to read it until we had visited Poland. Having a picture of Warsaw in my mind allowed me to visualize the landmarks that were described and referenced. 

The zookeeper in this nonfiction book is Jan Żabiński and his wife is Antonina. The zoo in Warsaw was well renowned before World War II and Żabiński a well respected curator and as the Nazis moved in, Lutz Heck, the zoologist of the Berlin zoo, started pillaging the Warsaw zoo. He stole valuable animals and what he didn't steal he killed. The discovery of Kasia, a favorite elephant, dead in her enclosure was startling and a shocking beginning to the horrors that would follow. But the Żabińskis had a different plan in mind. Jan was also a professor in the underground and secret Warsaw University. With access to the Warsaw ghetto he was able to smuggle Jews out and hide them in the secret passages, cages, and tunnels of the zoo. Perhaps he was not suspected as carrying out these heroic deeds due to the fact that he was able to turn the zoo into a pig farm.

Once Jan got the "guests" to the zoo, it was then up to Antonina to take care of them. She never considered herself a heroine, but because of her efforts in hiding and feeding them she managed to save over 300 Jewish men, women, and children. She put herself and her children in danger as the Nazis became intent upon arresting those who were suspected of hiding the Jews. One of the clever ruses was when Antonina played an Offenbach tune with the refrain “Go, go, go to Crete” it was code to her “guests” to hide as Germans were around. To complicate matters Antonina was pregnant and required bed rest before giving birth to her daughter Teresa. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Jan goes off to fight with the resistance and Antonina takes the children to a small village to avoid the decimation of the city. She desperately tries everything in her power to learn of Jan's fate. And when she does, it is not good. He was shot through the neck, but miraculously recovers.

After the war they reopened the zoo, but under the Communist regime it was just not the same. The theme of kindness, caring, and compassion resonates through this book. It is so hard to imagine what it must have been like to live during this horrific genocide. Even walking the streets of Warsaw today, the destruction is unimaginable. If there is such an entity as an enjoyable book about the Holocaust, this would be one. The spirit of the Żabińskis is so deep and caring that sets a high bar for us all. Would we have been able to accomplish what they did and with the courage that they showed. I am intrigued to read more about the Żabińskis. Ackerman relied on Antonina's diary for a lot of the book. That would be well worth searching out and reading a first hand account. It will be interesting to see how the movie portrays their lives, the Nazis, and the ghetto. I have a feeling  I may be disappointed after reading the book.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies explores and tries to explain the marriage of Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde. The novel is told from two perspectives his (Fates) and hers (Furies). As can be expected in many situations the perspectives are totally at odds with each other. The novel spent the better part of a year (2015-2016) at the top of the NYT Best Sellers List. It was proclaimed the most favorite book of President Obama in 2015.

Lotto's story is first. He is the product of a very wealthy Floridian couple who comes across as privileged, vain, and a more than confident. His father dies very suddenly and he and his sister Rachel are raised by his mother, Antoinette and his Aunt Sally. During his high school years he dabbled in drugs with his friend Chollie and Chollie's twin sister Gwennie. Sent away to a prep school he is separated from that life. He meets Mathilde at Vassar and the two marry right before their graduation. The remainder of the Fates section details that relationship as they struggle to make ends meet while Lotto struggles with his career as a playwright. Mathilde does everything in her power to help him and support him.

Mathilde's story is told in the Furies section. The reader learns that her name is really Aurelie and that she was born in France. After a tragic accident, she is sent to live with a grandmother and then an uncle. Although well provided for, she is virtually on her own in a large mansion. The chauffeur is her only friend and as she leaves high school she strikes out on her own. In order to pay her tuition, she enters into a "money for sex" masochistic relationship with Ariel, a NYC art dealer. She is a survivor and a conniver, for sure. The reader also learns of Mathilde's relationship with Antoinette and Chollie. All is not is as it seemed. 
Lauren Groff signing my copy of Fates and Furies

Central to the novel is the theme of marriage and the secrets that it inevitably hides. I really believe that Lotto and Mathilde loved each other. It is a passionate relationship, but one filled with anxiety. Groff's strength is in her character development. She switches narrators but keeps their voices clearly distinct. The crafting of sentences is amazing and, again, distinctively different in each part of the novel. With all that said and with all the glowing reviews, and a period of reflection since I finished the book, I am still vacillating between liking it and not. From reading reviews, readers either hate it or love it. I guess I just didn't have those strong feelings either way. Each reader needs to judge for him or herself.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I was intrigued by the description of this book when I first read about it in Bookmarks magazine. I chose it for a read for our February book club and it was met with a somewhat lukewarm reception - that is until people read it. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos was one of the best books that I have read in the last few years. It has a bit of everything one could want in a book - history, mystery, art, and some interesting relationships. Taking place on 3 continents and in 3 eras of history, the novel weaves its tale through the painting, "At the Edge of a Wood." Smith gives the reader a detailed description of the painting before the narrative begins and he relates the story of Sara and her family. Barent, her husband is a painter in 17th century Holland. They have a young daughter and live what seems to be a bucolic life. And then, suddenly Kathrijn, their daughter dies of the plague and their world is turned upside down. 

Fast forward to 1957 and the apartment of Rachel and Marty DeGroot, a wealthy couple hosting a charity dinner after which Marty discovers that the painting "At the Edge of a Wood" that has hung above their bed has been replaced by a meticulously crafted forgery.  The forger is a young graduate student, Ellie Shipley,  whose specialty is women painters of the Dutch Golden age. DeGroot becomes obsessed with finding the original painting that has been in his family for 350 years and eventually he becomes acquainted with Ellie. As the story builds to a climax, after another 40 years, the original and forgery are side by side in an Australian art gallery where Ellie has held a prominent position. 

Concurrently, the reader learns of the hardships of Sara and her quest to be admitted to the Guild of St. Luke, the painters union in Holland. She is a strong woman and has had to overcome the hardship of both personal and monetary loss. Her story parallels the struggle of Ellie and so many women who were never really given the credit for their talents or intellect. 

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is an incredibly fulfilling read. It is full of twists and turns, wonderful character development, and themes. Smith deftly handles time and place from 1631 to 2000, from Holland to New York City, and Australian as he focuses on a painter, an art enthusiast, and a forger. This is not to be missed if a reader yearns to read a book that he or she does not want to end.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Poland by James Michener

Nearly a year after I started Poland by James Michener, the book has been finished. I began the book in anticipation of our trip to Poland in June of 2016. The tome was over 650 pages and really needed a very extended period of free time to be able to read it in a timely fashion. That is something that just doesn't happen in my life. Between book club books and client work, I had to read the book in piecemeal style. I have always enjoyed Michener's books, but this one was tedious and I probably would have not finished it if I weren't so stubborn about reading to the end of a book that I have started.

The novel centers around the story of three families of Buk, Bukowski and Lubonski from the very early history of the land around 1240 through the present time - that when Michener wrote it - 1983. They represent 3 social groups from peasant to noble to magnate. It begins in 1981 with a meeting of the minister of agriculture and the leaders of the farmers. It is during the Communist rule and centers around the possibility of forming a union. It is reminiscent of the beginning of the Solidarity movement. From that introduction to the families the reader is taken back to the time of the invasion of the Mongols into Poland.

It would take nearly as many pages to describe all the action of Poland as the length of the book itself. One of the most ponderous effects of the novel was the superabundance of names. It was difficult to keep them all straight. I did find that the pace of the novel picked up as we got to the 1800s. The story of the Golden Freedom, the partitioning of Poland, the rise of the Nazis and the horror of the Holocaust were much more accessible than earlier chapter. To this reader the in depth description of battles, armies, and armor is tedious and "skip-worthy." However, Michener does weave certain themes through the book. Poland has always been a liberal player in the history of eastern Europe and has been the target of numerous Russian invasions. Yet, through it all, the Poles have managed to survive and as we are witnessing today, almost thriving. Warsaw is a growing and vibrant world capital today, proving Michener's points. 

For anyone with the time and interest in this country, this is would be a great read. It begs to be read in less time than a year, but it did give insight and perspective into the history of a beautiful country that is a gem for anyone to visit.