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.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

bird by birdI have known of this book for some time – I first remember hearing of it in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones – and recently yet another reference made me finally go looking for a copy of my own. I’m so glad I did. While Writing Down the Bones had some good writing tips, and Keep It Real provided good nuts and bolts, this was a great combination of writing tips, and nuts and bolts, and also heartfelt and encouraging advice about (as the subtitle says) writing and life.

Lamott’s conversational and even confessional tone makes me feel like we are friends – me and her, personally. She tells me confidentially some of the same things she tells her students in the writing classes she teaches; but it feels like I get a more intimate version. Her description of life as a writer is honest; she pulls no punches about publishing and the woes of full-time writing – well, what would I know about it, but at least I believe she has pulled no punches; that’s the impression her tone gives.

We get some a glimpse of Lamott’s life: her upbringing in a joyfully readerly household; her beloved father, the writer; her long and painful journey towards publication, and her discovery that it doesn’t solve the problems of the world or even of her world; her experiences as a single mother. We get to know her good friends. Lamott is hilarious and imaginative as well as kind. I love her; I want to go have a glass of wine with her right now.

As often when I love something, I find myself reduced to listing my favorite lines.

All you can give us is what life is about from your point of view. You are not going to be able to give us the plans to the submarine. Life is not a submarine. There are no plans.

Wonderful. Not a submarine. She is full of these excellent, inventive lines. This is why she is a writer.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

…And, I would add, repeatedly. When I am doing my best work, this is exactly what happens. I don’t know if I’m hypnotized, precisely, but for me the analogy is vomiting: when it’s going well, I just sit down and braaaaaaap it all just… comes out. And later I can go over it and clean it up. But what I needed to get out, I got out all in one go.

Writers tend to be so paranoid about talking about their work because no one, including us, really understands how it works. But it can help a great deal if you have someone you can call when you need a pep talk, someone you have learned to trust, someone who is honest and generous and who won’t jinx you. When you’re feeling low, you don’t want anyone even to joke that you may be in some kind of astrological strike zone where you’ll be for the next seven years. On a bad day you also don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little empathy and affirmation. You need to feel once again that other people have confidence in you.

Again, this is advice not only for writing but for life. I think I am going to send this on to everyone I might ever ask for a pep talk, so they can be sure to get it right.

Her writing advice is decidedly geared toward fiction, and I am an aspiring writer of nonfiction. But I think there is still a great deal to be gained here. This is my favorite book of writing-and-life advice to date.


Rating: 9 birds, if that’s not too obvious.

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.

Maximum Shelf: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on February 9, 2015.


dead wakeIn May of 1915, a torpedo fired from a German submarine struck the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship with nearly 200 Americans aboard. She sunk off the coast of Ireland in less than 20 minutes (due to a sequence of events unforeseen even by its attacker), killing 1,200 passengers and crew, fully half of whose remains were never recovered. Common knowledge has it that this event drove the United States to enter a European war that would become World War I, but, in fact, while the Lusitania‘s fate played some role in that decision, it took two full years and the secret German Zimmerman telegram for the U.S. to enter the war in 1917.

Erik Larson examines this extended U.S. isolationism, the final days aboard the Lusitania, and related events and characters in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As in his earlier books (Isaac’s Storm; In the Garden of Beasts), Larson presents exhaustive research with precision and accuracy, in extraordinarily compelling prose. Dead Wake is a masterpiece of gripping narrative nonfiction, arguably the most riveting of Larson’s works.

Nearly 2,000 people boarded the Lusitania in New York City, bound for Liverpool, including 1,300 passengers, of whom 189 were Americans. An unusually large proportion were children and babies. The Lusitania was the biggest and fastest civilian ship on the seas in that 10th month of European war. These superlatives–plus the reassurances of the captain, William Thomas Turner, and the Liverpool-based Cunard Line–allowed the ship to confidently set sail despite a German warning published in all the New York papers on the morning of the Lusitania‘s departure, that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction.” Larson provides detail and humanity by profiling several passengers and crew members, including a Vanderbilt heir; a psychic; and a Boston bookseller who boarded with a small but invaluable collection of William Makepeace Thackeray’s original illustrations and Charles Dickens’s own copy of A Christmas Carol, complete with the author’s marginalia.

Just weeks earlier, another vessel had departed from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. German Unterseeboot-20 was captained by Walther Schwieger, a well-regarded young Kapit√§nleutnant known for his aggressive and innovative tactics. Because submarines lost radio contact with their bases almost immediately upon departure and remained out of contact for much of their cruise, Schwieger was in full charge of his boat, empowered to cruise, dive and attack on his own, with the full support of his government. In following Schwieger’s submarine in the weeks leading up to the climax, Larson gives the story dimension; far from presenting the German captain as a monster, he is humanized, for example, by the devotion of the men who worked under him, and the presence on board of a litter of puppies rescued, interestingly, from another ship sunk by torpedo.

As he builds toward the inevitable intersection of U-20 with the Lusitania, Larson introduces more characters. Captain Turner of the Cunard Line had decades of experience at sea, and had just testified in a civil case against the owners of the Titanic on behalf of the families of deceased passengers. He was known to his men as a brave and capable but old-fashioned captain, with “one foot on the deck of a sailing ship.” U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had had a rough year, even without the European conflict: having lost his wife Ellen in late 1914, his mourning left him unmoored and struggling to concentrate, until he met widow Edith Bolling Galt. His love for her would prove overwhelming, and their courtship strained–she rejected his first marriage proposal. This love story is affecting, and if it serves as a distraction from the sinking ship at the center of this book, that is a fine style choice by Larson: it was a distraction for Wilson, too.

Meanwhile, a secret section of the British Admiralty was tasked with intercepting and decoding German wireless messages, a purpose known to only nine senior officials, who were hampered in using any information gained for fear of having its cryptanalysis ability revealed. They would therefore fail to warn Turner of U-20’s preying presence in the waters he sailed. Such parallel plots and individual profiles add color and depth to Larson’s account, as when the chief of British naval intelligence is described as “part Machiavelli, part schoolboy.”

The Lusitania‘s story is in itself moving, and carries great historical significance, but these events positively glitter with life in Larson’s engaging, quick-paced and captivating prose. Though it incorporates well-documented history, Dead Wake still contains elements of suspense for all but the most expert readers; as Larson acknowledges, he had his own misconceptions coming into this project, and learned surprising facts in his research, as readers surely will. The pages fly by as such details are revealed and the action ratchets up toward a climactic event that we all see coming, but that still makes us catch our breath. In spellbinding, immediate language, Larson contrasts the “books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life” on the Lusitania with the “U-boat sweat,” foul odors and close air aboard U-20. His enthralling description of passengers joking about submarines and torpedoes, in the very moments before the torpedo strike, and “making polite apologies” just after, in the scramble for life jackets, keep the reader fully engaged. Appealingly, in his “Note to Readers” and “Sources and Acknowledgments,” Larson writes in a more personal voice about the joy of the research process, and about his frank difficulty in understanding the passengers who boarded the Lusitania in the face of warnings from Germany about travel in a war zone.

Dead Wake is both a thoroughly satisfying read, and an unparalleled adventure into world history. Larson’s fans will rejoice, and grow in number.


Rating: 8 life jackets.

How lucky am I to get to interview Erik Larson?? Come back tomorrow to read the result.

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made by Richard Rhodes

The Spanish Civil War, and its medical, military and artistic contributions to modernity.

hell

The Spanish Civil War was a precursor to World War II, and served as a practice field where medical and military leaders experimented with new technologies and refined strategies. Creative minds from around the world drew inspiration and horror from the conflict, yielding Picasso’s Guernica, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Miro’s El Segador and Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. In Hell and Good Company, Richard Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) examines the Spanish Civil War not in exhaustive chronology or complex international intrigue–although both are present–but in its gifts, good and bad, to the world that followed.

As Germany and Italy begrudgingly contributed to the Spanish nationalist (fascist) side, and the Soviet Union just as reluctantly supplied the republicans, new military technologies met old. Advances in aircraft were matched by new strategies, including “carpet bombing,” a term used for the carnage at Guernica. In response, doctors and nurses from Spain and abroad innovated as well: while reliable blood typing and preservation for blood banking had been under development since World War I, safe transfusions in the field were born in the Spanish Civil War, as was the autochir (a mobile, sterile surgical unit).

Rhodes follows various individuals, famous (Hemingway, Picasso) and less so (volunteer doctors, nurses and soldiers from around the world), providing a vivid, wrenching view of war, art and love. While it scrutinizes world-changing new technologies and ways of life, Hell and Good Company is also a fine, accessible introductory history of the Spanish Civil War, and an evocative human story.


This review originally ran in the February 6, 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 bombs.

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.

book beginnings on Friday: Untangling the Knot, edited by Carter Sickels

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

untangling

This is an essay collection, Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships and Gender. I found it quite eye-opening and recommend it highly. From the introduction by editor Carter Sickels, a beginning for you:

I’m writing this the day after Oregon has legalized gay marriage, and I can’t stop looking at the pictures of people lined up at the courthouse or listening to the interviews of couples who’ve been waiting for this moment for ten, twenty, thirty years. Today, Portland is a city of celebration.

There is a ‘but’ coming, though. Stick around: it is interesting and enlightening.

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

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