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.

How Paris Became Paris: A Review

More often than not, I will come back from visiting a place and then read a random book that turns out to be chock full of information about the place I just got back from. This is typically followed by lamentations of “Why? Why? Why didn’t I read the book before I left for the trip?!” And then a reflection on life’s unfairness: “How was I supposed to know that a Teddy Roosevelt biography would tell me so much about New York?” Or “I was that close to the Jardins des Plantes?!”

Fortunately, the gods of Amazon took pity on my poor soul and deluged with my inbox with recommended reading about Paris, where I am headed today. That is how I ended up with a copy of Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. It was with great joie de vivre that I tore the book out of the box, ready to devour its contents. I flipped open the book and noticed the print was… small. Sigh. C’est la vie.

  The small type was compensated by lots of fascinating pictures and many big ideas. It is the perfect kind of book to read before visiting a city– especially Paris. When I think of how Paris became Paris, I think of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III and the tearing down of old Paris and building the one we know and love today. But DeJean takes us out of the the 19th century and firmly places us at the dawn of the 17th century to show us how Paris went from a cramped, dirty hovel to being the City of Light that set the trend for how all cities should be. Baron Haussmann just improved on the design.

We take for granted everything that makes a city a city: public spaces with park benches, promenades along river fronts, places for people of all classes to mix, streetlights, distinct neighborhoods, the sense of style, shopping, and postal service. This mode of living is commonplace to us now, but four hundred years ago they were a part of a French revolution: a revolution on what it means to live in city. This was not a grassroots movement as it stemmed from forward thinking monarchs who realized that Paris itself could be a crown jewel and a reflection of their status as rulers.

The Pont Neuf bridge serves as a metaphor for the effects of all of the Parisian innovations. Built in 1604, it defied the typical bridge purposes by being made of stone instead if wood and not having any homes or stores built upon it. It was a connection between places, with nature, and ultimately, with people. Traversing the Seine through the the Ile-de-Cite, it was built to allow both carriages and people across. The stone construction allowed for heavier cargo and brought more trade through the city; to allow pedestrians safe passage, it included new raised paved walkways. This design was so new that there wasn’t a word for it. Today we call them sidewalks. The lack of buildings encouraged the public to stop during their walks and enjoy the view of their meandering river. Parisians flocked to this bridge; it became the epicenter of news, performances, commerce, and a place to just be. People from all walks life could meet together, to see and be seen.

Each innovation, in its own way, succeeded in this endeavor. The open spaces of the Tuilieres and Place Royale, the quais along the riverfront, expanded paved roads, mixed use buildings all brought people together. The use of streetlights enabled people to stay out after dark with less fear of crime; shops and cafes stayed open later. Since it took its counterparts in other countries almost a hundred years to fully implement lighting, it gained its moniker “City of Light”. As Paris became the fashion capital, newspapers and the advent of fashion magazines and fashion plates helped export Paris to the world. Plate glass windows, textiles, and a new level of commerce brought about boutique stores and a new hobby called shopping. Visitors from around Europe flocked to Paris to partake in its unique, cultured city life, and other cities worked hard to catch up to its modernity.

How Paris Became Paris is not just an enjoyable read for anyone heading to that city, but for anyone who is interested in how civilization turned the corner from Medieval life to the modern world. For this traveler, I look forward to enjoying the sidewalks, the boulevards, the bridges and parks, knowing how these simple daily pleasures helped transform the world we live in.

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.

The WWI Book Club: The War That Ended Peace

A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.

Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.

So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.

How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.

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Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.

Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?

What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.

MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.

March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room

Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?

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Being a nerd, I didn’t want to show up to book club with nothing to say…

The Homestead and The Orchard House: A Tale of Two Literary Tours

Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott are quite possibly America’s most beloved 19th century female authors. They share more in common by being daughters of men who were both pillars of their communities and who valued education; they were both fiercely independent; both suffered deep personal tragedies; both lived in Massachusetts and reacted against society’s strictures for women. However, both are very different.

Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson's home.
Outside of The Homestead, Emily Dickinson’s home.

Dickinson’s poetry resists static interpretation; her use of idiosyncratic punctuation, words and images that convey multiple levels of meaning, and closing lines that often turn a poem’s meaning on its head create very personal and individual responses in the reader. Some poems have a universally agreed meaning; others unfold with each rereading. To read her work is to embrace uncertainty. This is compounded by the many myths and images of the poet that have proliferated over the years as a result of the portrayals of her by her niece Mattie Dickinson Bianchi and Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress whose motives were far from altruistic. Was Emily Dickinson a meek, retiring woman in white, broken-hearted over a lost young love? Or was she a fiery, passionate woman ahead of her time? In addition to the poems’ multiple meanings, there also persists the question of which Emily Dickinson wrote them.

Alcott, on the other hand, is most famous for her classic Little Women, the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. She presents the reader with a family that on some level, we’d all like to have as our own. And as a precursor to other narratives that have multiple female characters (ie. Sex and the City and Girls), readers can easily identify with one of the sisters (however, I most closely identify with two, Amy and Jo). Even though Alcott is read all over the world by disparate readers, the novel, and the movies, provide a shared experience.

These two different ways of “reading” and “knowing” the authors shape the tours of their homes. Granted, there are many factors that play into a tour. There is the quality of the artifacts in the home based on how many belonged to the original family to how well they represent the time period if they don’t. What is shared with the public is determined by what organization puts on the tours and how they wish to present the people who lived there. What is shared is also determined by the type of tour chosen, and last, but not least, the personality and knowledge of the tour guide.

Our tour guide obviously loved and admired Emily Dickinson, and it was apparent that she had a long history working at the Homestead. She also had some very definite ideas about the poet, but I do not know if her ideas are part of the museum’s party line or are a reflection of her own beliefs. She explained at the beginning that she would “dispel the myths” about Emily Dickinson, but she dispelled them with didactic statements such as, “Emily Dickinson was NOT a recluse. She went to many social gatherings.” When asked about whether or not ED suffered from epilepsy as posited in Lyndall Gordon’s book Lives Like Loaded Guns, she brushed it off with a wave of her hand, “Emily did NOT have epilepsy. Her nephew did, but Emily did NOT! An author wrote that in some book, but doctors have shown that what she describes as epilepsy is NOT epilepsy. She has apparently written two good biographies before, so I don’t know how she got so off the rails with THAT book.” Why it is so bad to suggest that she might have been epileptic, our guide did not explain. She did not go into why ED had so much freedom to write nor why she was never expected to get married (both went against standards for women at that time). She stated that ED’s father supported and encouraged her education, but did not mention his ambivalence as ED once said, “my father bought me books, but begs me not to read them.” She also glossed over Austin Dickinson’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that tore the Dickinson family apart, and instead said, “It’s a good thing we had Mabel, otherwise ED would not be known to the world.” While there is a lot of truth to that, Todd is one of the major reasons why we have myths about ED. Also disconcerting was that she told us that ED was not published much in her lifetime was because the male editors found her work to be too “wild” and preferred her simpler nature poems. Throughout the tour she recited some poems to us, but instead of giving us the more complex ones, she read those that most likely would be found on a card in a Hallmark shop. She perpetuated Samuel Bowles and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s expectations.

It felt like rather than dispelling the myth about ED, she was set on maintaining her view (or the museum’s). Ideas were presented in black and white, and there was no room for contemplation and wonderment. It was like reading an ED poem with all of the dashes taken out–no pauses for reflection about what it all means.

Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.
Stewart and I in front of the Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott lived.

The Orchard House was a different tour entirely. It probably helps that Louisa May Alcott’s life is not shrouded in myth and mystery, and Little Women is universally loved and understood. It also helps that my own expectations of how a tour should be did not clash with the tour guide’s. Our guide also did not carry the task of having to promote a certain image of Alcott. If the guides at the Homestead loved ED, their love paled in comparison to the women who worked at the Orchard House. It was palpable. Our guide was warm and thoroughly knowledgable about the house and all of the artifacts in it– the majority of which had belonged to the Alcott’s. She was visibly saddened when she revealed that Laurie and Mr. Laurence were made up; she displayed obvious pride in May’s artwork that was featured throughout the house. The Alcott’s joys were her joys; their sorrows, hers too. She carefully delineated which events in the novel happened in the house and which ones did not. If she didn’t know the answer to a question, she said so, and made sure to get the answer before the end of our visit. Understanding our interest in the house, she went out of her way to point out the smaller details–like the picture of Bronson Alcott sitting at the desk we were standing near. It brought history to life.

Because of her and the rest of the staffs openness, our tour was a much more gratifying experience, and I left with a greater appreciation of the Alcott family and their role in Concord, education, art, and literature.

The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
The Alcott plot at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery.

Readers, what tours have you been on that have been especially enlightening?

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?

“She took life by the throat and dealt with it.”

This post’s title is a quote from Dorothy Wickenden’s book Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, a biography of Dorothy Woodruff (the author’s grandmother) and Rosamond Underwood who in 1916 left their upper-class lives of teas and socials in New York to teach in a Colorado school for a year– far, far away from the comforts of home. Nothing impelled them to go; they were college educated, unmarried, and bored. The wilds of the still untamed West sounded like an adventure. And it was. Thrust into a world more foreign than the Grand Tour of Europe, the girls, with their charm, wit, and grace, embraced it all: the landscape, the people, their students. Their experience challenged them, and through the community, its children, and the wild terrain, they learned the true meanings of work, tenacity, and survival. Later they described their year in Colorado as being the best in their lives. It also prepared them for the challenges of life outside of their parents’ money and close knit community. Both experienced immense struggles and heartbreak later in their lives, but they “dealt with it”.

I read Nothing Daunted right after finishing Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, a novel about the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic who fight against Trujillo in the 1950’s. Like Woodruff and Underwood, the sisters gave up their lives of comfort, but this time for a principle rather than boredom. Through the use of facts, documents, and interviews, Alvarez presents a fictionalized account of how Minerva, Patria, and Maria Teresa (Mate) each come to the realization that they must fight against Trujillo’s regime, one of the most bloody in Latin America, and their transformation into las Mariposas— the Butterflies. Dede, the fourth sister, whose domineering husband and own need to not “rock the boat” prevent her from joining up with her sisters, is left to tell their story. Each woman “took life by the throat and dealt with it”. Each understood the meaning of their commitment– destruction of possessions and property, prison, torture, death, and the fact that someone else would live to take care of their children. While they are single-minded in their battle against Trujillo, their journey into the revolution breaks down their pride– whether it be their pride of family, God, status, or marriage. Alvarez develops the theme of appearances and what is “buried” underneath– the outward revolution against the regime leads to inward revolutions as each questions what she knew of life before.

These women’s stories inspire me. Woodruff, Underwood, and I are much closer in spirit– I am always looking for the next adventure. But I wonder if I have the same tenacity of spirit and dedication to ideals as the Mirabal sisters. Could I put a principle above my life? Would I? Woodruff and Underwood had the luxury to make their choices– a warm bed and a cushy life would always be there to welcome them home. In Trujillo’s Dominican Republic the choice is not as cut and dry. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” To live life as the status quo may prevent one from getting into trouble, but it is not a guarantee for safety. It might leave one with a warm home, but a cold conscience. In a regime as cruel as Trujillo’s (or any regime for that matter), where people were killed or disappeared as a matter of routine, the sisters’ ambush and murder might seem in vain. By the time of their deaths they were revered national symbols of the revolution, and their deaths inspired Trujillo’s future assassins. In the end, they achieved their goal. I’d like to think that if I had to fight for what I believed in that I would do so with as much humanity and courage as they did. They knew the risks of their decisions; they knew what they were giving up; they “took life by the throat and dealt with it”.