C’est la vie:Paris Reflections

Where Are They Now?

It was quite a scene inside the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Artisans carved stones, men sawed wood, workers lifted beams up with pulleys, others stoked the for for iron work, and the horse pulled carts across the workspace.  Out of sight were the artists assembling the stain-glass Windows and beginning the multitude of paintings.  The diorama showed how people worked together to build this great landmark; there were centuries of these men.  As a twenty-first century visitor snapping pictures of it on my iPhone, I wondered, where are they now?

The men who helped build Notre Dame are long buried along with the world that needed skilled artisans. Today’s world has little need of men who wield tools and know their craft to create things of beauty.  Much of anything now can be pre-fabricated and made with machines.  Yes, we need people who know how to fix machines and build houses, but what do we have for our artisans? What roles do we have in our society that fosters this creativity and hands-on knowledge?  Paris abounds with work from another time, but where did their descendants go? What legacy did they receive beyond a big, beautiful, buttressed cathedral?

Two Worlds

Some things never change. Montmartre, for instance.  It’s always been a home to the bohemian set and rough around the edges.  The first shots between the Communards and the Versailles government were fired there in 1871 after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War.  Escaping Baron Haussmann’s  demolition and redesign, it holds on to its old world Parisian charm of quaint buildings; some of its inhabitants make one hold on to her purse. Tightly.

On top of the Montmarte Butte sits Sacre-Couer, the stark and majestic cathedral that overlooks the city: the church of the clouds. Majestic and otherworldly, it provides a sharp contrast to the gothic scrolls and spires of Notre a Dame and St. Chappelle.  It’s power is hidden from sight as you exit the Ligne 2 Anvers station and walk the narrow cobblestone streets lined with souvenir shops and falafel places. At the base of the hill young men spread their wares on the ground hoping for a gullible tourist.  The stairs that ascend to the church are littered with Heineken cans, orange juice containers, and drunken reveled playing loud music.  Beneath them lies the Paris skyline– pinkish gray in the setting sun; above them, behind heavy wooden doors, a haven of calm.

  The priest intoned his service and prayer as nuns sang behind him.  The congregation made up of visitors and locals peppered the pews. Visitors walked quietly around absorbing the understated beauty.  Unlike most European cathedrals, the colors and decorations were muted.  The mosaics represented biblical figures as common men– people like you and me.  These scenes inspired comfort and compassion; the God that ruled here was a compassionate and forgiving one who realized our humanity.  He did not inspire fear, damnation, and guilt. Everything prompted reflection and care– from the careful placing of the tiles in the mosaics to walls of blank stone.  It allowed space for one’s own thoughts, a space to process the narrative of guidance, support, and becoming better people; how can we make the world a better place?

These thoughts weighed on my mind as we walked back into the night.

The Other Man

It’s true.  I confess it.  There’s another man in my life and there has been for quite awhile.  This affair transcends time and spans two continents.  He’s always been part of my life– in the background, waiting– but it wasn’t until 2010 that we were properly introduced, and it seemed fated that we should meet.

Although I’ve met him in New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Dresden, and London (and oh, what a time! But I missed him Boston.) and have spent much time trying to peer into the depths of his soul, he remains a mystery to me.  There’s so much about him that I don’t know, that nobody knows.

His name is Johannes.  And you might know him: as Vermeer.

If you haven’t met him, he’s the 17th century Dutch painter from Delft known for painting mostly quiet, contemplative indoor scenes of people engaged in an activity from reading letters, mapping the world, making lace, making music.  He’s most famous for a painting a woman doing nothing at all, just looking over her shoulder as if to respond to something you’ve said.  She’s known for her pearl earring.

It’s through her and the author Tracy Chevalier that I became acquainted with Vermeer.  I read the novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and frankly, was not that impressed.  The plot was dark and creepy, few characters were likable, and the only part I really enjoyed was when Vermeer explained how clouds are not white– instead they are yellow, pink, blue, brown.  It changed the way I look at clouds, but it didn’t really compel me to look at a Vermeer.

Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.
Me with Woman with a Pearl Necklace at the Gemaldgalerie in Berlin.

Shortly after, as fate would have it, one of my friends invited me to join her art book club.  Knowing nothing about art, I decided to give it a try.  The first book I read for it was Edward Dolnick’s The Forger’s Spell, a nonfiction work about a 20th century failed Dutch painter named van Meergen who forged Vermeers.  He even came up with a way to paint and bake the canvas so when the painting would be checked for authenticity, it would act like an “old” painting.  Vermeer presented a perfect opportunity for forgery.  No one knew how many Vermeers were in existence because a random one would pop up every now and then in someone’s barn or wherever paintings are stored.  They were also quite rare.  There are only 36 in existence; compared to the copious output by Rembrandt and Rubens, Vermeer seems quite reticent.  van Meergen’s success was so great that he fooled Goering and Hitler with his work, and it wasn’t until after WWII that he was discovered. In retrospect it is amazing that he fooled anyone at all.  His work next to a real Vermeer is flat, awkward, and dull.  How could have so many people been fooled?

If you look at a Vermeer, you cannot help but notice his use of light and keen attention to detail.  Textures are vivid and rich; the people look as though they might look out of the painting and straight to you.  In Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window the oriental rug bunched on the table invites your fingers to touch it, to feel the roughness of each fiber.  The Girl with the Wineglass looks directly at the viewer as if to share some secret joke about her two apparent suitors.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vermeer did not have a workshop of understudies who mixed the paints, prepared the canvas, or in some cases, painted the majority of the paintings for him.  He did it all himself; this limited his output.

However, it is not his rarity that makes his work so special; it is that he doesn’t necessarily tell you what to see.  In so many pre-Modernist/Impressionist paintings, the subjects allude to the bible, history, and myth.  They tell a specific story or present an event or person in a prescribed way.  While Vermeer does have a couple of religious and mythological works, most reflect Dutch life. On a recent flight, my seat mate who was a stranger to me and I discussed Vermeer and what made his paintings so special.  I suggested that he gives us a story, but does not provide the narrative.  For the girl reading the letter, we know she is reading a letter, but from whom?  What are its contents?  What is its affect on her?  He allows the viewer to create the story.

His works also quiet the mind; they offer a sanctuary away from the noise and hoopla of everyday life.  Within his frames everyone speaks in hushed voices.  In Soldier with a Laughing Girl, the girl softly laughs at the soldier’s quip.  The loudest of his paintings, The Procuress, is loud from the subject matter– a young woman being fondled by a man as he pays her for what is to come.  They are flanked by an old woman who seems to egg the man on and by another man holding a glass of wine who looks at the viewer with a knowing smile.  All of their mouths are closed and the only sound you hear is the clinking of the coins.

Slowly Vermeer became part of my life.  It started by seeing his work at the New York Met and the Frick Collection.  It continued as my friend Julie invited me to the Legion of Honor to see The Girl with the Pearl Earring in an exhibit of Dutch masters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen and clearly outpaces the other woman with a mysterious smile.  My travels have brought me into contact with more of his paintings, and I have seen 22 (sort of) of his works.  To be officially clear, I’ve seen 21 paintings and one frame.  In March of 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and stole many artifacts and knifed a few paintings out of their frames. Vermeer’s The Concert was one of them.  The frame is still on display as a remembrance of what has been lost.

Unwittingly, I became part of a group of Vermeer hunters: people who travel the world to see Vermeers and the exhibits around his work.  There are more travels ahead as I continue this affair.

A Year of Reading

When I first started this blog, I predicted that I would abandon it for the power of the written word, or more specifically, words written by somebody other than myself. It is especially challenging to have a steady balance of reading and writing (at least it is for me). After writing quite a bit in 2012, 2013 began with not having too much to say. I started the year recovering from an illness, longing for sleep and solitude; words, stories, reflections went elsewhere. I had nothing to say, even after I recovered and became myself again. The prescription for good health depended on a steady stream of books, and really, why ruin a good thing?

So without further ado, here’s how I spent my time not blogging:
1. Darwin’s Ghosts: A Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott. When Darwin first published Origin of Species, a reader called him out for not crediting those whose ideas and studies paved the way for Darwin’s own revelations. Darwin’s compilation of his fore-fathers goes all the way back to Aristotle. Interesting, if somewhat dry at times.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Absolute delight! I received this as a “Crappy Day Present”, and it is THE antidote for a crappy day. It’s the saga of a magical circus– romance, competition, drama ensues!

3. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout. I don’t think this book has received the attention it deserves. Masterfully written double narrative of George and Ruth Mallory. George’s narrative spans several years as he is driven to reach the top of Mt. Everest; Ruth’s spans a single day as she reflects on her life with George.

4. Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Calasso. I read this for my art book club and take an exorbitant amount of pride in having finished it. It’s Calasso’s argument of why Tiepolo is an important artist and how Tiepolo used repeated images in his art to tell an over-arching story. I think. I mostly thought it was a load of BS, since Calasso didn’t really have a specific point to what he was saying– which is why I finished the book, to see if their was one. And, nope, not really. The benefit of having read this book is that I can now spot a Tiepolo in any museum, and distinguish it from a Fragonard (lucky me).

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Once you get past the fact that it is written in present tense and an interesting third person limited perspective (“he” always refers to the protagonist Thomas Cromwell), it’s a good book. Mantel brings to the reign of Henry VIII to life as she shows the wheeling and dealing that occurred to make his marriage to Ann Boleyn possible.

6. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. This was suggested for a book club choice by my friend who “says” she didn’t want to join. My question is: why suggest a great book if you don’t want to join??? Anyhoo, I got the best of both worlds: she joined and this book is amazing. It’s based on the true story of the Mirabal sisters who worked to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Not for the faint of heart.

7. Nothing Daunted:The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden. The title says it all: two bored society girls tired of teas and husband-hunting take jobs as teachers in a one-room Colorado school house at the turn of the twentieth century. Needless to say, their lives are changed forever. A reminder of how we need to eschew routine for grand adventures.

8. An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. Besides being a comedian and playing the banjo, Martin is quite the art connoisseur. This novel is about the schemings of the art world and those that get caught up in them. It was okay.

9. The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got that Way by Bill Bryson. Exploring the development of the English language the way only Bill Bryson can. Funny and informative.

10. Master of Shadows: The Secret Diplomatic Career of Peter Paul Rubens by Mark Lamster. Rubens, it turns out, was a jack of all trades at ease in the artist’s studio and the offices of various kings and queens. He used his role as an artist to influence and spy on his subjects as he helped reshape Europe. Rubens differs from the stereotypical flighty, scatterbrained artist as he had astute political and business acumen.

11. Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers. Romping around England solving crimes with the charming and urbane Sir Peter Wimsey. Need I say more?

12. The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow. YA fiction that also makes a good grown-up read. Coming of age story of Karl Stern, a Jewish boy who doesn’t consider himself as Jewish, growing up in 1930’s Berlin. He takes boxing lessons from Max Schmeling and learns what kind of person he wants to be as Hitler rises to power.

13. The Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Janet Wallach. Bell is indeed an interesting figure as she explored what is now modern day Iraq alone at the turn of the twentieth century. Her knowledge of the area and relationships developed with various warlords helped unite Iraq after WWI. However, Wallach is too enamored of her subject, and seems to feel every slight that Bell received in her lifetime while overlooking Bell’s horrendous treatment and betrayal of others. Not an even-handed biography.

14. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut. This was one of this year’s biggest surprises for me. The only Vonnegut I had ever read is “Harrison Bergeron” because I teach it to my sophomores (it’s on the pacing guide), and it never inspired me to read more of Vonnegut’s work. Then at a book club Bluebeard was suggested, and inwardly groaning, I agreed to it as a “good sport”. It combines a curmudgeonly protagonist, WWII, and Abstract Expressionism. What more could I ask for? But it’s Vonnegut’s insights about the modern world and how we tell our stories that resonated the most.

15. Steal Like An Artist by Austin Klein. Cute little tome about developing creativity.

16. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. Fun adventure with teenage demigods struggling to find their purpose in the world while fighting scary monsters in a race against the clock.

17. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Heartbreaking story of friendship, jealousy, and betrayal in China. Have your Kleenex ready.

18. After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey. Hainey’s memoir about investigating the night his father died, which was always explained to him as “after visiting friends”. He is tenacious in his investigation to solve that life-long mystery. This memoir resonates because I think we all have those moments in our lives where what actually happened is not as it was told to us and we know it. For me, I think it also brings up the question, how much, exactly, do we want to know?

19. To End All Wars: A Story of Rebellion and Loyalty by Adam Hochschild. Engaging history of the anti-war struggle in England during WWI. The war started so quickly and there was such propaganda for it that those who opposed it are often overlooked.

20. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows. Do not be put off by the cutesy title! (I was.) A wonderful epistolary novel set in post-WWII Guernsey, an island off the coast of Britain occupied by the Germans during the war. A testament to the power of books, friendship, and community while not shying away from the horrors of war.

21. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918 by GJ Meyer. A concise and compelling retelling of the war. I appreciated that it captured the human elements and casts an unbiased eye over all of the players. It does not get bogged down in the minutiae of battle maneuvers, but instead gives overviews of the battles. If you have to read one book about the Great War, let this be it.

22. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Probably THE civilian memoir that came out of WWI. Brittain recounts her life prior to the war and shows how the war transformed her values and beliefs. She brings the carnage and destruction of the war to a human level.

23. Chasing Cezanne by Peter Mayle. Wonderful art heist caper written in Mayle’s breezy style. Perfect summer reading or airplane book (even better if you’re flying to France!).

24. Regeneration by Pat Barker. Reading Pat Barker’s writing was a revelation– her style is spare, direct, and vivid. It’s hard to say this without sounding a bit sexist, but as I read I had to keep looking at her picture. The novel didn’t sound/read like it was written by a woman. Not to say it sounded like a man’s voice, but it was just the way she told the story. Regeneration focuses on Dr. William Rivers who treated shell-shocked soldiers in WWI such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to highlight the inhumane treatment of those who fought bravely on the front. It’s an anti war novel that reveals how many soldiers wished to decry the war, but could not leave their units behind.

25. The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I didn’t want to read this one, but it was for a book club, and I hoped for a redeeming “Vonnegut effect”. None came. Bradbury explores what would happen if we colonized/invaded Mars. Lots of social commentary. Still not a fan.

26. The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker.
27. The Ghost Road by Pat Barker. These finish out the Regeneration trilogy. She continues following the life of Dr. Rivers and his patients. Highly recommend. A side note: I finished the trilogy right before I left for my trip to the UK. At this point I had read six books about WWI, and at the Edinburgh Castle there was a monument to the Scottish soldiers of that war. Inside, etched into the walls were the names of all of the battles: Ypres, Dardenelles, Verdun, the Somme; lining the walls were counters topped with thick books listing the names of the Scotsmen who died in the war (over 150,000) and how and where they died. Everything that I had learned was still fresh in my mind, and it felt very personal. It was quite overwhelming.

28. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. This was my first exposure to any of Somerset Maugham’s work, and his writing style places you squarely in the scene– you are there. This is a reimagining of Gauguin’s life in Charles Strickland, a middle class stockbroker and family man who shocks everyone by abandoning his comfortable life for art, poverty, and Tahiti. Ultimately forces us to ask ourselves, what is a life well-lived? What is art’s purpose and who is art for?

29. Love by Toni Morrison. Do not be fooled by the book’s small size (just over 200 pages). What it lacks in physical weight, it more than compensates for emotional weight. This is not an easy book to read, even by the typical Morrison standard. Set in an all-black resort town run by Bill Cosey, the novel explores the relationships of the women who loved Cosey, now deceased. No one is likable and the first 120 pages are the longest 120 pages ever (unless you’ve read Young Man Luther by Erik Erikson– it trumps this book), but it finally picks up and revelations are made, and before you know it, you feel for these characters and their shattered lives.

30. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Perkins Gilman is most known for writing “The Yellow Wallpaper”; there’s a reason for that. Steer clear of this “feminist utopia”. It might have been revolutionary in her day, but it has not aged well.

31. Garlic and Sapphires: The Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl. Fun, fun, fun. Reichl’s memoir about being the NYT’s restaurant critic, and given the competitive nature of the NY food scene, all of the restauranteurs had the low down on her. This forced her to visit eateries in disguise. As she goes about her work as somebody else, she learns how people are treated and about herself. She also gets herself into many funny–and hair-raising–scrapes. Her reflections are down to earth, and if I were took look to a mentor on how to write a memoir, Reichl is an excellent candidate.

32. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Here is a story that has aged well: a good man trying to do the right thing, but is screwed over by forces outside of his control. My AP kids and I had many debates over how much control he had over his destiny.

33. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. One of my favorite novels, and this year’s Academic Decathlon novel selection. Finally, after The Grapes of Wrath (snore), Heart of Darkness (snore), and Dr. Zhivago (less of a snore, but what the hell is going on?!), the powers that be threw us a bone. Again, it’s another novel that grapples with the question if what does it mean to live–especially after your life does it turn out how you intended? Even though it is centered around Jake Barnes, all of the characters struggle with this this question (except Pedro Romero who is young, unscathed by war, and is saved by the church of “aficion”).

34. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. Good lord! Have some Prozac ready after this one. Miller’s timeless morality tale of the perils of false values and the American Dream. Dr. Phil would have a field day with the Loman family.

35. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. YA WWII fiction about female pilots and spies and unlikely friendships. This is an intricate plot chance, coincidence, and irony as one gets caught by the Nazis in a secret raid and the other seeks to set her free. Intense!

36. A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. If you are an animal lover, go get this book! Told from the perspective of a dog, this story reveals the bond of a dog and his human. Cameron writes this tale with warmth and manages to not make this saccharine or corny. I guarantee, though, that you will cry a minimum of four times.

37. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman has a devoted following. I get it. However, after reading this fantasy of unleashed spirits that haunt a vulnerable little boy, I’m not part of that group. My response after reading this book was, “And? So?”. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but I just didn’t see the point. But I have friends who love it.

38. The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. In 1990 Boston’s Gardner Museum was robbed– most notably of a Rembrandt and a Vermeer. The paintings were knifed out of their frames, rolled up, and carted out. After years of investigation, the leads ran cold, and Boser decided to pick up the loose ends. Long story short: he doesn’t find them either. His book details the social, cultural, and financial value of art; problems museums face with hubris, funding, and security; the mafia and the art world; and a whole cast of crazy characters who may or may not have seen the art. This is especially upsetting to me since my goal is to see all of the Vermeers– there are only 36 (now 35)– and I,and everyone else, will never see “The Concert”.

39. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. This book sat on my bookshelf for years before I read it; for some reason–don’t ask me how– I equated it with Milan Kundera’s Incredible Lightness of Being. Instead it is a Danish crime drama where snow is an important motif. Smilla is the proto-type for Lizbeth Salander of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: single-minded, determined, an outcast. Very technical and, well, cold. If you’re into all of the Scandinavian crime genres, then you should add it to your repertoire.

40. Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. This is a quiet and beautifully written novel based on Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother”. It spans the life of Mary Coin, based on the mother in the photograph, and Vera Dare, a fictionalized Lange. It shows how both women survive tImes of great hardship, determining who they are as mothers and women, and the choices they make for survival.

41. The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower. Edgar Allan Poe was one bitter, combative, and manipulative little man! Gee whiz! When you buy a book with a sensationalist title, you hope for a sensationalist book. I think Stashower tried to do too much here by showing how the 1830’s press, the fickle public, and the uncooperative New Jersey and New York police forces bungled up the investigation of the murder of Mary Rogers, the beautiful cigar girl. In the meantime, this inspired the habitually broke and scheming Poe to write a story about it that purportedly solved the crime. The most interesting thing for me was reading about NY and how it was in that time and trying to imagine 66th Street as farm land, but otherwise much of this was repetitive.

42. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This is one delight of a novel. Simonson weaves together the clashes of culture, generations, tradition, and the expectations of others and creates two endearing characters in Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Jasmina Ali in a comedy of manners. It’s also set in England. So get your tea and biscuits and cozy up to this novel.

43. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Where to begin? How about this? Italy, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Idaho, writing, acting, performing, building a tennis court on the side of a cliff, Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Cleopatra, taking chances, staring over, search for love, identity, redemption, and last but not least: Pasquale Tursi. Don’t know Pasquale? Read this novel and meet him.

44. Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. A biting and satirical (doesn’t this describe all of his works?) novel about an American stationed to work with the Nazis now on trial for war crimes in Isreal. I read this on the plane back from NY; I was really tired and sensed I was missing much of the sarcasm. I want to reread this one to get the full experience.

45. Othello by William Shakespeare. “Oh monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world,/ to be direct and honest is not safe.” The levels of irony and betrayal in this line from Iago and its effect on Othello is one of the reasons I teach this tragedy. Except this year one of my (AP) students missed the point and thought Iago was quite the matchmaker and rooted for #teamCassio. SMH.

46. Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl. Reichl spent her youth guarding her parents’ guests from eating her mother’s “cooking” to prevent untimely deaths and other disasters. With such a dubious background, it’s remarkable that she embarked on such a successful career in food. In this memoir she explains how she got from here to there.

47. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Let’s be real here. How can you not like this novel? It’s got everything: a proud but misunderstood and shy man, a woman prejudiced by her own abilities, a secret feud, elopements, great fight scenes, a creeper, a player, lavish estates, an imperious old woman set to have her way, a quirky family, and unrequited love. Every year I have the great joy of exposing this novel to teenagers, and what makes me happy is the amount of boys who like it. This year one of my boys wrote me note thanking me for introducing him to P&P, one of his new favorite books.

48. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. If you need to escape from reality, let this book be your portal. Set in post WWII Barcelona, ten year old Daniel Sempere and his father visit the secret Cemetery of a Forgotten Books. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by the mysterious Julian Carax. This selection changes the course of his life and leads him to adventure, danger, and romance as he searches the past of the elusive author. Full of larger than life characters and plot twists galore.

49. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I didn’t want it to end, so I read it again.

50. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. This is probably one of my favorite contemporary novels. This was my third time reading it. It’s about asthmatic Reuben Land whose father works miracles and whose brother is on the run from the law. He, his father, and younger sister go on a voyage looking for their outlaw. Together they grapple with what is legally right versus what is morally right. Enger’s other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome is also worth a read.

51. October Sky by Homer Hickam, Jr. This was originally titled Rocket Boys, but they used the anagram for the movie. This is Hickam’s memoir of growing up in a coal mining town in West Virginia in the 1950’s. Inspired by Sputnik, he and his friends are determined to learn how to build rockets. The community rallies behind them as they create prototype after prototype. This is also a story about a boy trying to understand his father and his place in the world. It’s a bit dry in places, but overall a good read.

52. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. The great thing about teaching this novel is that it generates its own discussion. My kids came in everyday with some point they wanted to discuss. Janie Crawford resonated with my students; I wonder if it is because they, too, are going to be on their own journeys soon and will they find the bee to their blossom?

53. The Painted Veil by W . Somerset Maugham. Again, Somerset Maugham puts you right there in his books. This is the story of a Kitty Faine who enters a loveless marriage, gets caught in an affair, and is then taken to the cholera-plagued Mei-tan-fu region in a China where she can reflect on her actions. If you’re looking for “happy ever after”, move along. If you’re looking for a clear-sighted look at the confinement of women’s choices, this is your book. As I was surprised that Pat Barker could tell men’s stories so well, I was equally surprised how well Maugham could capture the thoughts and feelings of a woman.

54. Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures by Cynthia Saltzman. America, being such a new country, lacked great art, and as it became a greater player in the world, it needed art and culture to prove it. This is the story of Henry Marquand, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Henry Clay Frick, and other tycoons buying up art to display their status, rebuild their images, and leave a legacy of culture and learning to the American people.

55. The Woman Who Heard Color by Kelly Jones. One way to determine the type of book you’re looking at is seeing whose endorsements are on it. This particular book has one by Nicholas Sparks on the front. And on the back. AND inside. So is this romantic? Yes. Are there hardships? Yes. Are the lovers seperated? Yes. Does someone die? Yes. There we have it, folks! A novel Nicholas Sparks would like. Fortunately, the subject matter saves this book. It’s about a woman who becomes an art dealer alongside her Jewish husband in 1930’s Munich. They specialize in Modern art, or “degenerate art” by Hitler’s standards. She works to save what art she can before it is destroyed. How much art Hitler deprived the world of will never be known– my mind cannot wrap around how much death and destruction he caused.

This is my wrap up of 2013. On my shelves are more books yet to be read, so here’s to a new year full of reading , exploring, and learning. What book made an impact on you this year?

Who’s Making Love?: A Night With The Christian McBride Trio

It was an odd sight to see.  The audience smiled, clapped their hands to the beat, and grooved to the music.  It was especially odd since I was smiling and grooving to the music– I refrained from clapping since I can’t find a beat even if it beat me over the head.  Normally, I stifle my yawns and prop my eyes open.  Even though I know I’m in the presence of genius, it’s difficult to stay awake at a jazz show.  In the presence of the Christian McBride Trio, however, only the comatose are asleep.

I have had the great fortune to doze off to many of the jazz greats: Ellis Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Brad Mehldau, and Jason Moran.  If Wayne Shorter had stuck to the standards rather than tickling his experimental fancy, I would have dozed off rather than squirm in my chair, fighting the urge to walk out.  If the drummer for The Bad Plus hadn’t been so interesting (he used children’s toys as drumsticks), I would’ve fallen asleep at that show, too.  It’s not that I don’t like jazz or that the performances were awful, all of them were stellar, and Shorter is a matter of taste, but the conditions are right to cast a soporific spell.  The shows start late in the evening, the rooms are small and dark, the performers are serious and into their music, and all that is required of me is to sit, listen, and drink wine.  Hence, sleep.

As I walked into UC Davis’s Vanderhoef Theater, I fully expected to carve a notch on my bedpost marking the Christian McBride Trio– another artist that I have “slept with”.  The Vanderhoef, unlike the larger Mondavi auditorium, is fairly intimate.  The stage is surrounded by small, circular tables that allow the audience an uninterrupted view of the artists.  Bassist Christian McBride, pianist Christian Sands, and drummer Ulyesses Owens, Jr. used this to their advantage to engage the audience.  Jazz musicians often give the audience a cursory smile before getting lost in their music.  It’s as if the audience doesn’t exist; it disconnects the visual from the aural.  They do stop and say “thank you” and maybe tell a story or two with their smooth voices, but it’s back to the music.  It’s all very sedate.

Christian, Christian, and Ulysses don’t hang with sedate.  They married the visual with the aural as they were all fun to watch.  Throughout the the performance they smiled at the audience and at each other.  They encouraged each other– each basking in the moment of playing together.  When Owens knocked out his drum solo (which would give Neil Peart a run for his money), the others did not stand silently and respectfully by.  Sands stood up from his piano seat, pumping his fist into the air.  They enjoyed it as much as the audience did.  Sands fingers floated and fluttered across the piano keys like hummingbirds’ wings– at points moving so fast, they were a blur.  McBride, a giant in the music world, having played with all of the big names in jazz and many in rock (think Sting), was down to earth and funny.  He poked fun at Owens’s hometown of Jacksonville, Florida for having a team that “nobody wants to root for.”  With his big smile and down-home humor, he pulled the audience in in a way I had not experienced before.  We were no longer there to just honor and enjoy the music, we were there because we cared.

Their performance was amazing.  Sands and Owens, both in their very early twenties and extremely accomplished, are perched to dominate the jazz scene for years to come.  All three performers played with a freshness and verve that, well, kept me awake. They played a wide variety of standards from Oscar Peterson’s “Hallelujah Time”, Richard Rodger’s “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I, “East of the Sun (West of the Moon)”, and the go-to standard, “My Favorite Things.”  Ironically, as much as I love The Sound of Music and all things corny, “My Favorite Things” is not my favorite song.  I’d much rather hear “The Lonely Goatherd”.  Steve chuckled as the first few notes played, knowing how I rolled my eyes at the song.  The McBride Trio did not fall into the same trap as Coltrane, who again and again emphatically states that These. Are. My. Favorite. Things. with his saxophone. Their interpretation was light and playful with interesting variations of the chords that I didn’t mind it as much; I might even go so far to say that I liked it.

My favorite part of the performance was when they played a cheeky version of “Who’s Making Love?” by Johnnie Taylor– a master of funk.  This is what got the audience grooving and smiling.  The trio’s energy and enthusiasm infected everyone.  It was hard not to get into the music. It was clear they were having fun, and in their fun, we had fun.

Kudos to the Christian McBride Trio for keeping me up my past my bed time– a truly enjoyable feat.

Michigan Mornings And A Love Affair

Michigan has a special place in my heart.  It’s where my parents grew up, met, and married.  It’s where my grandparents and aunt and uncles lived.  It’s where I spent a majority of my childhood summers, and now as an adult, it’s where I travel to every year.  There’s a lot to love.  It’s rolling hills, green grass and trees, wildflowers, the sweet smell in the evening as the sun finally goes down and the fireflies come to life.  The quaint towns and civic pride.  The people who wave and say, “Good morning!”.  The scent of zucchini bread emanating from my grandma’s house– a cozy and comfortable place that envelopes me in security.  This is where I have spent the last eight days.

My husband teases me because a lot of stuff reminds me of Michigan– especially smells.  When it’s humid here, I ask, “Do you know what this smell reminds me of?”.  Steve will roll his eyes and groan, “Michigan.”  This time when I arrived on the 10th, it didn’t smell like Michigan. It smelled like California– dry and dusty. The state, as well as much of the Midwest, is suffering a severe drought.  The typically lush green grass was brown and crispy; the soybeans in the fields hung limp and the corn drooped.  It was a sad sight.  The drought did afford me a new opportunity: long morning walks.  Normally the air is so thick and warm with moisture that going out for a walk is uncomfortable; my energy is sapped before I get to the corner.  This time the dry air allowed me to explore areas in depth and see parts of my second home that I’ve never seen before. Not to mention the fact that I could indulge in my love affair with my favorite flower, Queen Anne’s Lace.

Queen Anne’s lace is actually wild carrot.  The carrot is edible while young, but it’s not recommended to start chowing down anytime soon since it closely resembles wild hemlock (remember what happened to Socrates).  It’s seeds, ground up, were also used as a contraceptive a long time ago.  I love it because it is delicate and graces the roadsides– like nature’s white picket fence.

Here are some pictures from my walks and visits in Michigan; many feature my love, Queen Anne’s Lace.

Flowers for sale at a Frankenmuth farmer’s market.
Queen Anne’s Lace and purple flower.
I wish I had a barn.
The sun’s rays grace the Queen Anne’s Lace.
Two swans enjoy the stillness of the Old Mill Pond.
The sun enjoys the pond, too.
A lush cluster of Queen Anne’s Lace.
I wish I had a silo, too.
Wild turkeys eating a soybean breakfast. Does this make them Tofurkey?
Red wheel, white flowers.
It’s very quiet at the Old Mill Pond. This is a nice place to come to just sit and think.
Over the hill and through the woods…
Queen Anne and kayak.

Since I have returned, the corner of southwestern Michigan has received two inches of rain and more is expected tonight.  Hopefully that will provide some relief.

Solitary In St. James’s

Being a chaperone had many perks.  I got to travel with really cool kids and listen to their viewpoints on the sights seen.  I got to meet other chaperones from across the U.S.  I also had an inexpensive way to travel.  One unexpected perk arose one day in London when my kids signed up to see the Windsor Castle, and I didn’t.  Five hours.  In London.  All. To. My. Self.

Earlier that day we visited Buckingham Palace and then walked briskly through St. James’s Park.  It was enchanting.  However, our tour director loved our schedule more than us and we sped through it.  Later that afternoon after I explored the Tate Britain, went up on the London Eye, and had an ice cream, I decided to walk from the South Bank to Piccadilly Circus, our meeting place.  St. James’s was sort-of, not quite en route, but I had to see it again.

Lucky duck.

The irony here just tickles me.

If there is any place with birds, ducks, geese, and swans hanging out, then that’s where you’ll find me.

You’ll also find me where the flowers are.  Over the course of our trip, I heard my kids say more than once, “Oh, Ms. L. will want to take pictures of those flowers.”  One of my girls drew a caricature of the five of us, and it in she portrayed me looking at my camera.

I barely got to see the main part of the park, but all this does is provide incentive to come back (not that I need incentive) and visit.  It was such a lovely place and so peaceful.  Would you blame me for contemplating skipping out on dinner so I could stay longer?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Movement

Hungry goose coming through!

Recently when I was in London, I took a “detour” through St. James’s Park.  It’s an idyllic place with a pond full of ducks, geese, and swans.  Nearby was an elderly woman who carried a big plastic bag of bread.  She’d rip the bread apart and toss it in front of the birds. Needless to say, it was a feeding frenzy.  When I saw that this week’s photo challenge was movement, I thought of this little guy and his foot that is just a blur.  With his honking, pushing, and shoving, he proved that he was the hungriest of them all.

He ran right out of my picture!

Are You Going To Finish That?

Last night I ended it.  It lasted over a month, and it was the epitome of an on-again-off-again relationship.  Once we got going, we’d stop, and then we’d get going again and stop again.  I made a renewed effort to salvage this commitment and get finally hot and heavy, but like SITC‘s Jack Berger, I had to say, “I’m sorry.  I can’t.  Please don’t hate me.”  There was just no more incentive for me to go on… I just did not want to finish the book.

Last night was also the last time I opened it.

The book in question is Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude, a book selection for my art book club.  It’s about the painter Tamara de Lempicka’s relationship with her much younger muse Rafaela Fano.   On the surface, it should be a dream book for me: a novel about self-discovery, relationships, artists, Paris, 1920s.  Between the pages it was full of characters I didn’t like and revolved around a plot I really didn’t care about.  Sheltered 17 old Rafaela escapes from the clutcthes of her family to Paris, and enters a world of sex and prostitution and being a mistress to both men and Tamara.  Tamara’s paintings of Rafaela set Paris agog, and soon there are tense bidding wars between two powerful men for her work. Who will get the paintings?  Who does Tamara love?  Will Rafaela’s overtures for her affection pay off?  Or my biggest question: who cares?

The novel felt like it was populated with prototypes for Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Lady Brett Ashley: bored and vapid rich people who use other’s to their own advantage and try to think of new ways to spend their money and flaunt their status.  It reads like Avery is trying to create a Jazz Age novel.  Paris? Check.  Lack of communication? Check.  Sex?  Check.  Wild, fancy parties? Check. Like Nick Carraway, I wasn’t at all enthralled with what I saw, and left.

I rarely stop reading a book because I don’t want to read it anymore.  Normally, if I put down a book it’s because I’m not in the mood to read about that particular topic, but I do want to finish it at some point.  There are only two other novels I can think of that prompted me to call it quits: Crime and Punishment and The Secret Life of Bees.  The first novel I just didn’t get.  Referring to the nickname glossary every five minutes gets old in a book that is half my body weight.  As for Bees, I thought it was contrived.  If I want to read about the coming-of-age of a young girl in the South, I can read To Kill A Mockingbird.  Which is what I did.

I read Avery’s book for 200 pages (it has 306) before calling it quits.  I gave it and myself a chance to make reading magic.  But how long do you give a book before calling it quits?  What books have you given up on and why?  When do you allow yourself to put it aside?

Sacramento Peace Garden

On the grounds of Sacramento’s Capitol Park lies a peace garden made up of numerous rose bushes representing a myriad of varieties.  The garden is in the shape of a heart and has many plaques bearing poems about peace written by California youngsters.  Just a few feet away is the state’s Vietnam memorial that bears statues of young soldiers in various stages of war.  The most touching is the young man reading a letter from home– his youth, innocence, and sadness surrounded by the horrors of war serve as a reminder as to why we should always seek peace.  The garden is a quiet place, and I found myself there this afternoon, little pink camera in tow.

Garden entrance.
There were roses of all shapes and colors.
I think yellow roses are my favorite.
Peppermint, anyone?
One of the many poems about peace by youngsters.
I don’t normally associate pink with Playboys, but okay.
A rose is a rose is a rose.
“Hey! I’m not a rose! I don’t smell as sweet!”
This one happens to match my little pink camera.
A bee gets his lunch from a Rhapsody in Blue.
Are these roses hiding?
A view of the fountain.
The back of the capitol. The capitol grounds is home to over a thousand plants that represent places from all around the world.
This set of blooms is closely followed by others.

Jardin du Luxembourg: A Parisien Afternoon

Better than Versailles?

Sometimes not knowing where you are going leads you to the best of destinations.  Last Tuesday the bulk of our tour group went to Versailles, leaving my group and two others, who did not sign up for that excursion, free for the afternoon.  Out of the seven of us, I was the only one with an idea of what we should do, and even that was nebulous at best.  The St. Germain des Pres neighborhood with its history of artists and writers (think Monet, Renoir, Sartre, Camus, Stein, Hemingway, etc.) called out to me, and as the newly-appointed tour guide by default, I led my group to that area.  The metro dropped us off at the St. Germain church, and once there I had no idea where to go, so we began walking.  Our walk took us through charming neighborhoods and the Rue de Fleurus, the street that Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas lived.  While I wanted to walk down it and explore, my group’s tummies were rumbling louder than their questions of “Who are those people?”.  Moving along looking for a cafe, I explained Stein’s influence on writers and artists in the 20s and how she was instrumental in getting people to accept their new forms of art and literature.  They listened politely.

Stein and Toklas lived around here.

I began to sweat as I really did not know what we were going to do. The thought of being compared to our inept tour director, who we were lucky enough to escape, haunted me.  Then a thing of beauty appeared, the Jardin du Luxembourg.  The tranquil setting, the flowers, the Senat building called out to me and allowed me to formulate a plan: lunch at a cafe and an afternoon spent wandering around the gardens.  The group agreed to it, specifically the cafe/food/water/sitting down/free toilette portion.  We read the menus of a few different cafes before deciding on La Terrasse du Laurier which offered a “formule” lunch that provided a fixed rate for either a starter and entree or entree and dessert (guess which most of us chose).

Some ordered the pan-fried Steak Tartare– which surprised the kids since it was still mostly raw inside, but that’s the nature of Steak Tartare. They really liked the potatoes and eventually got used to the chèvre on top.
Others ordered the lamb shanks that literally fell off of the bone.
I ordered the hake (a Japanese fish) with mushroom sauce and pasta. It was very good– probably one of the most flavorful white fish I’ve ever had.
While I lamented at the fact that my kids chose vanilla ice cream for dessert, it came out with flecks of vanilla bean in it and was very good.
Lynda was more adventurous and selected the creme brûlée trio: toffy, berry, and spiced biscuit flavors.
I chose the coffee and dessert selection: pineapple with strawberries and cream, toffy creme brûlée, and yogurt with a berry syrup and ginger cookie crumbles. Surprisingly, the yogurt was my favorite– it was light with a delicate flavor.
After lunch, Lynda made a lovely diorama with a paper crane.
Happy campers with happy bellies!

During lunch, we reveled in the fact that we were in an area with no crowds and pesky tourists who sought out hot dogs and ranch dressing.  We made our way to Luxembourg Gardens by first stopping the the park of World Explorers.

See? No people!

We were expected to go back into town for a perfume museum tour, so I left it up for my group to decide.  Did they want to go back and take a tour of a smelly, crowded, noisy perfume museum whose goal would be to separate us from our money on stinky souvenirs or did they want to stay here in paradise?  Can you believe it?  The vote was unanimous.  We stayed at the garden.  This is what we saw:

The Senat building.
The most beautiful geraniums.
The garden is a wonderful place to be pensive.
This is a fountain for somebody important.
Why go to the Eiffel Tower when you can see it from here?
Visitors can hang up their coats to play petanque.
Even the bugs feel at home here.
If I lived in this park, I’d be this proud, too.
All of the landscaping was beautiful.
Very serene.

Later on we heard about the other’s visit to Versailles.  It was crowded and they didn’t have a chance to see much and were limited on time.  If you have a limited amount of time in Paris, save your nerves, sanity, and money and make your way to the St. Germain des Pres area for a peaceful afternoon to watch the world go by.