Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

A poet’s quiet, beautifully composed, powerful story of self-healing by viewing the paintings of Vermeer will be a balm to troubled minds as well as satisfying to lovers of art and memoir.

travels

Poet Michael White’s unusual and riveting memoir, Travels in Vermeer, opens in the midst of a nasty divorce and custody battle. White lost his first wife to cancer, but counts this second marital tragedy as a “total loss,” of faith as well as of his partner. Reeling, he flies to Amsterdam (“all I’d wanted was an ocean behind me”), and heads to the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandts. But what he sees instead is The Milkmaid, a tiny painting by Johannes Vermeer. The maid evokes a “tingling at the back of [his] scalp,” and this knee-buckling discovery inspires a plan, hatched on the museum grounds, to devote his breaks from teaching university-level creative writing to traveling the world viewing all the Vermeers he can. For the next 14 months, he chases the life-changing insights and soothing, healing effect provided by the Dutch master’s small-scale, intuitive paintings, in which he sees expressions of love.

White studies biographies and art criticism about Vermeer, while visiting museums in The Hague, Washington, D.C., New York City and London. The reader shares in this lucid examination of Vermeer’s remarkable lighting techniques, occasional trompe l’oeil and the solitary women who feature in his work (alongside a few group scenes and landscapes). White sheds light as well on his difficult childhood, including a scene when his mother dumps him unannounced at his father’s apartment, following their divorce: unlike White’s own daughter, he was an apparently unwanted son. While Vermeer occupies the bulk of this brief, eloquent book, a few scenes from White’s battle with alcoholism and his tentative success with Alcoholics Anonymous round out a self-portrait sketched with great feeling in few words. Only a poet could communicate so economically, in language deserving of contemplatively paced reading.

White’s descriptions competently guide even the most unfamiliar or untrained reader through an appreciation of the mechanics and mysticism of Vermeer’s art. Readers will regret the lack of reproductions of the paintings under consideration; but as he observes upon meeting Girl with a Pearl Earring, “reproductions are useless.”

Travels in Vermeer is a thoroughly user-friendly piece of art education, but it is even better as a thoughtful, spare memoir of pain and recovery, unusually formatted and exquisitely moving. For a companion piece, consider White’s previously published book of poetry inspired by the same journey, entitled Vermeer in Hell.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 daubs.

Teaser Tuesdays: Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

spinster

There is a lot to love about this book, in which a fun, intelligent woman discusses singledom and the arguments in favor, while exploring the lives & writing of those who’ve gone before her. A Maximum Shelf is coming. For now, I wanted to share these charming lines.

Because I’d started contributing to magazines and newspapers as a graduate student, the transition was seamless enough, save for the fact that reviewing books makes it very easy to never go outside.

I certainly identify, Kate. Here’s to continuing to make an effort to go outside (& also loving what we do).

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

hammer head

When I saw this book, it reminded me immediately of Dirt Work, which I loved. Similar concept: young woman is educated to be an academic, a writer, a journalist with a background in the classics in this case; fed up with that world, but having few or no skills in the other, she nevertheless gets out there and takes on something new. Nina MacLaughlin answers an ad for a carpenter’s apprentice, and learns a physical trade.

But clearly, also, she couldn’t leave the writing behind. Check out this sentence.

I was usually alone when I walked the bridge, occasionally drunk, a few times crying, one time kissed by someone I didn’t like too much.

It is constructions like that that make me want to be a writer, too.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully by Allen Kurzweil

The lengthy and bizarre search for a childhood bully, with humor, pathos and redemption.

whipping boy

During his single year at a boarding school in Switzerland, sixth-grader Allen Kurzweil roomed with a boy improbably named Cesar Augustus, who bullied him physically and emotionally. Then Allen moved on, lived all over the world, found a successful career in journalism and writing, married a French anthropologist and had a son. But throughout those intervening years, Allen was bothered by the memory of Cesar.

In researching Cesar’s likely whereabouts, Allen dismisses false leads and relives old trauma. Eventually, he finds his childhood tormentor in a nearly unbelievable narrative: Cesar was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a criminal scam so outlandish that it reads like a novel. Allen Kurzweil’s Whipping Boy is a work of nonfiction, with no names changed; just when it starts feeling like a thriller, it gets stranger than fiction.

Kurzweil is obsessed with Cesar, his “menace and muse.” He wants to right wrongs, to avenge himself and to solve a mystery. He also wants to stick up for his son, also bullied at a young age. Along the way, he is distracted–as is the reader–by the monstrosity and incredibility of con men who claim to be royalty, with costumes and jewelry to match, who manage to defraud eminent savvy businesspeople; and he is forced to consider questions about the nature of memory. But in the end, courage and closure are the rewards for a heartfelt, very funny, poignant and extremely weird story to which Kurzweil’s self-deprecatory voice is perfectly suited.


This review originally ran in the January 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 foosballs.

Publishing by Gail Godwin

In a winning voice, novelist Gail Godwin shares her experiences in publishing, which are alternately humorous and moving.

publishing

Gail Godwin is the author of 14 novels, as well as story collections, nonfiction and memoir, now including Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir, which she calls a “meditation on publishing.” In vaguely chronological fashion, she recounts her experiences with the industry; toward the end, she reflects upon earlier times.

Godwin begins with her years as an aspiring writer. Knowing well her mother’s progress from collegiate playwright to journalist to author of magazine romance stories, she is plagued by a hunger for publication and success (which presumably come together). She writes about failed marriages, fiction workshops and teachers who were encouraging and helpful (as well as those who weren’t), rejection and, finally, the book that sold: The Perfectionists, published in 1970. Several poignant chapters cover the “dance” between an author and an editor, with vignettes of each of Godwin’s dance partners over the years, several of whom she lost to unexpected deaths.

At points, her tone becomes elegiac, but Publishing is often funny and joyful as well. In a series of anecdotes, Godwin muses on book tours (the question of funding, author escorts, how long a reading modern audiences will tolerate, the new practice of hiring facilitators to help authors along in public appearances) and the value of bad book reviews. She profiles wonderful, helpful, joy-bringing people, and though she humorously describes the less-pleasant people she has encountered, she graciously avoids naming names. These entertaining, elegant, knowing recollections are accompanied by beautifully simple and appropriate black-and-white line drawings by Godwin’s friend Frances Halsband, which subtly add to the reader’s experience.

While her accounts of writing and publishing are fascinating and amusing, Godwin’s central strength is in her utterly charming personality: wise, occasionally self-deprecating and quietly playful. As promised, Publishing is not a history of the industry nor an instructive manual for the next generation of aspiring writers. It’s simply one woman’s well-told memories, peopled by appealing characters, sketched with wit. Stories about family, travel, love and life make this a book not only for fans of memoir, or dedicated readers, writers, editors and publishers, but for anyone who has pursued a dream or appreciates those who do.


This review originally ran in the January 8, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 funerals.

writing about the visual arts, in Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

travelsWhen I read about the visual arts in My Grandfather’s Gallery or Lisette’s List or Hell and Good Company, I can always tell that the writer is well-intentioned, but I can rarely recognize the painting being described after having read the description. And these words leave me with the impression that I can’t even begin to appreciate the art without knowing a great deal beforehand. When I encounter really good writing-about-art, as here in Travels in Vermeer, I do find my enjoyment is increased by what I know, it’s true. But I chafe at the idea that these High Arts (as Spiegelman called them) are inaccessible to me without my having a background in art history, art criticism, what have you. It seems so snotty, exclusionary, elitist. Surely not what Picasso et al intended? (Do I care what they intended?) This is the first writing-about-art I’ve encountered that both amplifies the art, and leaves me free to love it from my beginning point of plebeian ignorance. Maybe White – a poet – is the right one to introduce me to poetry, too, another form I often find intimidating and opaque.

Look out for this book. It’s a special one – for reasons beyond those I’ve just named.

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus by Art Spiegelman

Begin with Maus I and Maus II. And then move on to MetaMaus, filled with images from the book and discussions with Art, and his wife and two children, about what it all means, his process, his motivations, and the impact these powerful little books have had on all of them.
metamaus
At the outset, let me say, holy magnificent book. MetaMaus asks the questions (according to its back cover), why the Holocaust? why mice? why comics? And of course, the Holocaust is the easiest to answer, to me: the Holocaust because it was what he knew (“write what you know”), except that he didn’t know the Holocaust. He emphasizes that. (And I confess it surprised me, that a survivors’ son could have grown up with such a limited knowledge of what happened so recently, and so centrally to his own personal and family history. I had a fairly decent, basic grasp of the Holocaust in grade school. But then, I grew up a full generation after the author did. Clearly a lot had changed.) Still, it was what arced over him, what oppressed him or at least leaned against him; what else was there? In fact, my surprise was that it wasn’t that obvious – that he wasn’t driven to write (draw) about the Holocaust, at least not that he knew: “What consciously motivated me was the impulse of wanting to do a long comic that needed a bookmark.” He needed to make a full-length comic, as it turned out. Who knew. I am baffled by the visual arts, at least as much as I am stimulated and inspired by the written/verbal ones; most of the visual artistry of Maus escaped me before reading this book, which is part of why I found it so wonderful. Unlike many monographs meant to elucidate the visual arts for us plebeians, this really brought it home to me, exposed so much more, increased my understanding & appreciation.

But the real question I was here for: why mice? Honestly, this was my chief concern (followed by: why cats, why pigs, why dogs…) and all those questions are answered, happily. And of course there are only more questions behind them, much discussion of the imagery and symbolism that belongs to animals in different cultures, for example, and some of that taking-back of the derogatory where Jews were called rats by the Nazis, for example. MetaMaus follows these paths, and lets us get to know the author. I found it very satisfying, after getting to know a version of him and feel him so strongly. We should always be so lucky.

And then the CD! This book is accompanied by a CD with complete images of both of the books; over 7,000 early sketches & studies & the like; video and audio files including recordings of interviews with Vladek; and some of the pamphlets off his mother’s bookshelf that Art used in his research. I think there were about 4 hours of Vladek interviews – the man’s actual voice! – and an hour-long home movie made by Art and Francoise on a visit to Auschwitz. Holy smokes, the CD is chock-full of goodies. I did not exhaustively study it, I confess. There was just so much; and I felt so well-served by the reading of the book itself. I did enjoy listening to Vladek’s voice, though: it brought everything to life, and was an interesting counterpoint to the relative unreality of comics.

Of course another theme of the book is the power and faultiness of memory. I love memoir, and I love that memoir almost inevitably has to confront this obstacle: the ‘mem’ in memoir is unavoidably problematic, at least enough to raise questions. In Maus‘s case, the clearest example comes when Vladek describes leaving Auschwitz and denies that there was an orchestra playing at the gates. As Art has documented, there is substantial support for the existence of this orchestra: there are photographs, and there are eyewitnesses among the Nazis, the Jews, and the musicians. But Vladek is sure there was no orchestra. What to do? I love Art’s discussion of the problem: how he could have represented Vladek’s version, or the official one, or left the whole question out of his story; but he instead elected to show the actual question. There is a panel in which there is an orchestra – followed by Vladek’s denial of the orchestra – followed by a panel in which the orchestra is no longer present, except that if you look closely, you can see the tips and shadows of their presence behind the marching prisoners. This is really something. Of course, when I read the comic, I didn’t catch that visual shadow, just the discussion of the question.

I learned a lot of intriguing details. Who knew the size of these (quite small) comics was so important to Spiegelman? Or more surprising, that he drew the originals in that same small size? And the details about the different reactions to the books in different countries (it’s been translated into some thirty languages) were fascinating to me. I had innumerable little details of the comics pointed out to me and elucidated – things I would never, in 100 readings, have figured out for myself, but value greatly once they were explained to me. But I most enjoyed the feeling of greater intimacy with a very talented, and unique artist. And I remain boggled by the dual artistry of the composition of this book as narrative, next to the visual artistry of the comic aspect. Art Spiegelman is a special man. The two Maus books were special, and should be required reading (for, I don’t know, everyone). And then if you like those – do yourself a favor and immerse yourself in this behind-the-scenes look. If you appreciate art (in any format) and are interested in process, also check this one out. And for those of you who prefer other formats than plain old reading, the CD has a great deal to offer in formats all over the map. Major win!

Additionally, I had to mark many passages for further consideration, so many philosophies I found valuable…

On communication vs. High Arts:

I do like to communicate clearly. It’s a pleasure. And as soon as one is involved with communication, one’s already suspect in the High Arts. A lot of what happens in the more rarefied precincts of art is that the word “communication” gets replaced by “communion,” and one is involved in a kind of religious experience with the artist as shaman. And that’s really different than, “Hey, I’ll tell you a yarn.” Or even “I’ll tell you a parable,” if you want to be didactic. And it’s always been either a skill or a deficiency that I try to make contact with with people.

I appreciate this, because I think High Arts (his phrase, but I like it) can sometimes let us down a great deal when it gets religious, or mysterious, or snooty. I’m not saying everything has to be forever perfectly literal and transparent, and I do enjoy moments of inexplicable beauty. But I think it’s exclusive and elitist to shun honest communication.

On the authenticity of his way of story-telling:

Everything drawn in the so-called past in the story that Vladek is telling is very clearly an attempt by the son to show what the father is telling. And that offered a margin within which to operate authentically. The fact that you’re told that I’m trying to show you what I understand of what Vladek is telling me is built into the fabric of the narrative itself, and allows that narrative to get told.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies, 2 Seconds. There is an extended sequence where Lorenzo is telling Laurie the story of his professional bike racing career and how it ended. He speaks, and we see the action he is describing – but we see it as imagined by Laurie as she listens – but apparently Lorenzo can see it too, because he corrects it here and there. For example, he’s describing walking down a country road, and we see a young man doing just that, and kind of waddling on his clipless cycling shoes, with the cleats on them. And then we skip back to Lorenzo and Laurie sitting and talking, and he corrects her: “no no, we didn’t waddle, our shoes were soft leather” (I paraphrase). Skip back to the young man walking down the country road, smoothly on his smooth soles. I love love love this effect. In the same way, for example, in the question of the orchestra at Auschwitz, Spiegelman makes it clear that his father is correctly his visualization as they go. And this makes it honest and clear that he is only telling a story as told to him and as he understands it, which I appreciate deeply for its honesty.

On nihilism and ethics:

One night, we’re going down to feed the cats after one of our snooze-and-probe sessions, and he’s carrying those scraps downstairs and he says, apropos of I don’t remember what, that basically he’s a nihilist. And I ask him how this involves getting up in the middle of the night to talk to dying AIDS patients, and being so available to patients way past the point of it being good for his health, and he says something that one might take as just an off-the-cuff remark, but I found profound: “Well, I decided that behaving ethically was the most nihilistic thing I could do.” It delighted me as an idea, as a way of living one’s life.

This quotation launched a lengthy discussion for my father and I of the different meanings of ‘values,’ ‘morals’ and ‘ethics.’

On stories:

[The word ‘story’] comes from medieval Latin historia. It refers to those very early comic strips made before the invention of newsprint: the stained-glass windows that told a superhero story about that guy who could walk on water and turn it into wine. This is how in English, the word ‘story’ has come to mean both story as in stories of a building and story as a narrative. And at that point one is steered toward an architectural model for what a comic is, something very basic about comics narrative. Comics pages are structures made up of panels, sort of the way the windows in a church articulate a story. Thinking of these pages as units that have to be joined together, as if each page was some kind of building with windows init, was something that often happens overtly in Maus, and sometimes is just implicit in the DNA of the medium.

Story as architecture was a little mind-blowing to me, too. Allow these few examples to show how deeply thought-provoking I found this book. It’s a really dense, exciting experience.

So, to sum up: I found each Maus book thrilling and touching it itself. MetaMaus was equally thrilling and touching, increased the experience of both Mauses, and additionally set loose all kind of thought threads for me, that I have listed here as briefly as I could stand so as to not ramble on all day. Clearly I’m a fan. Pick up this book, and keep your notebook handy as you go.


Rating: what the hell, 10 sketches.
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