Thursday, January 5, 2017

So Many Books!

In past years I have selected my top ten books from the 60+ that I read in the course of the year. Sometimes it feels like a fool's errand to select ten books.  Forced choices mean that so many good ones end up on the cutting room floor. Plots that are not as fresh in my mind may suffer against those freshly read.  At my first pass through my list, I trimmed it, but was nowhere close to ten. Then I decided that since this is my list, I get to impose the order or disorder as the case may be.

I began to group them by theme and author. When I discover a new author, I often read a selection of their work. I also often have topics that I explore and this year art seems to top the list.  When I tally it up two authors accounted for over 20% of my reading while art topics took in another 10%+.  I think authors are worthy of special acknowledgement when I return to the well for more, so let me introduce you to two authors and the topic that merited my attention.

Connie Willis has been a name on my "to read" book list for some time, but I've long forgotten the source of this recommendation. I vaguely recall mentioning my penchant for time travel books and being told that I must read Connie Willis. As someone immersed in genealogy, I am fascinated by imagining life in earlier times. I am often surprised by how similar people are throughout time even as the world changes around us.  My interest in genealogy has also deepened my interest in history in all its forms, time travel, historical fiction and nonfiction. To say Willis writes about time travel, really doesn't do justice to acknowledging her literary talents which span many genres including mystery with a touch of romance and a dose of wry humor. The first book of hers that drew me in was To Say Nothing of the Dog which takes us back to Victorian England from 2057 to solve a puzzle from the 1940s. It should be read in conjunction with a timeless Victorian novel titled Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome which Willis draws on in her novel.  Now if you accept the premise that you can travel through time you must also accept the rules that accompany it. Nothing from the past can be brought to the future lest it change it, a rule that comes under examination in this book. 

Once captivated by Willis' talents I proceeded to read nine of her books taking me back to the medieval times of the plague in the Doomsday Book, to WWII England, from Dunkirk to the Blitz, in Blackout and All Clear. I was also intrigued by an exploration of near death and post death experiences in Passages. What fascinates me about her writing is her range and her ability to bring it all home at the conclusion in a clever solution that doesn't feel forced or disappointing. It is like watching a master juggler end their act with a flourish. She also does an extraordinary amount of historical research leaving me feeling much smarter than I was at the beginning without even realizing I had been studying.

The other author I discovered was Paulette Jiles. The important thing to recognize about her is that she was a poet before she became a novelist and that is evident in her writing. It is often beautiful, but not in an overpowering way that obscures the story. Her work is often based on history, but fictionalized to the extent that history leaves much unsaid and a writer has gaps to fill. The first book I read of hers was News of the World which follows the post Civil War story of a man who makes his living bringing the news to the towns on his route through Texas. In each city he publicly reads from a variety of papers to the townspeople. In route he is asked to deliver a ten year old girl to her family after her recovery from the Indians who kidnapped her.  A simple premise, but so beautifully told.  

I was taken with the sheer elegance of Jiles' storytelling, so followed this book with The Color of Lightening which has some overlapping characters and provides more of the back story of the theme of Indian life and kidnapping of children who readily adapt to it. I then moved on to Stormy Weather, the story of a mother and her three daughters who carve out a life in Texas during the Depression. I closed with her novel Enemy Women, set during the Civil War and depicting the struggles faced by both sides. Each one of these books was well crafted and beautifully written with well-developed characters who you come to care about.

My art reading accounted for seven books that took me into a deeper understanding of Velasquez, O'Keeffe, Soutine, Rilke, Rodin, Michelangelo, da Vinci, the School of Paris and the Abstract Impressionists.

The Vanishing Velasquez is nonfiction and explores a painting that has disappeared, but was believed to have been a Velasquez. It is as much an exploration of the 19th century bookseller who purchased it and defended its provenance as an exploration of Velasquez himself. Written by art critic Laura Cummings it reads like a novel and a fascinating detective story, exploring the passion that art can summon. I have another book by her on self portraits, A Face to the World, that I am eager to read.

Georgia is a fictionalized story of Georgia O'Keeffe, but appears to be quite an accurate depiction as it draws heavily on her correspondence. It explores her romance with Alfred Stieglitz and her efforts to define herself separately as an artist, distinct from her role as muse. Dawn Tripp does an excellent job of humanizing O'Keeffe and allowing the reader to see the world through her eyes.  

I am always intrigued to learn that lives of well known historical figures overlapped and influenced each other.  Two books explore this theme, one through non-fiction, the other fictionalized, but drawing on historical record. The first is You Must Change Your Life by Rachel Corbett which explores the relationship between Rodin and Rainier Maria Rilke. Rilke was both a friend and one time secretary to Rodin and viewed him as a mentor in how he approached an artistic life. He was also ultimately disillusioned in his hero, perhaps a necessary step as he matured as a poet.  I followed that book with Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, a book that looks at the competition between Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as they created their works of the Mona Lisa and David respectively during the same window of time.The book gave each of them form and personality and explored the process of creation of these masterworks.  

Other books on my art list included The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos by Dominic Smith,The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro and Shocking Paris by Stanley Meisler.  The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos  is not about an actual artist, but rather a fictionalized story that follows a Dutch painting by a female artist in its journey in modern times. It is a well constructed novel that enters the world in which the painting was created as well as the modern day world of those whose lives it touches. The Muralist also is fictionalized, but placed into the actual world of the Abstract Expressionists. It too moves between past and present and incorporates family lost in the Holocaust, reminding us that events are never far from their historical context.  Shocking Paris is a nonfiction book that explores the artists who made up the School of Paris with a focus on Soutine and the other Jewish artists who emigrated to Paris and formed a significant part of this group. 

Now that leaves over 40 books out of which I will address some of my remaining favorites in a subsequent post.

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