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Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

I came to this book originally some time ago, from Paul Liscky’s The Narrow Door, though they only subtly name one another. It was a happy continuance when Kim Kupperman recommended it. And, I have a thing about oysters. This book is not terribly much about oysters, mind you, but it still attracted me.

Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is a lovely meditation on a single still life painting which shares the book’s title; but it is also a study of still lifes in general, and a thoughtful retrospection ranging through the author’s life and loves by way of a handful of objects, and finally a study on the topic of attention. Doty returns to the idea that we seek both intimacy and independence, both belonging and exploration, both the comfort of home and the risk and excitement of travel. Interesting as ekphrasis, as study of duality, and as biography in objects–even as a lyric list essay, broadly defined. I found it interesting to note all the references he makes to other paintings and other art forms (chiefly poetry). Also lovely writing, although this will surprise no one who knows Doty as a poet.

Another of my continuing obsessions–even more than oysters–is things or stuff. Think Guy Clark’s song “Stuff That Works” or Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Buckeye.” I really appreciated the attention Doty pays to things in this very short book. It was a rewarding immersion, and I recommend him.


Rating: 8 quinces.

A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

giacometti-portraitFor school, again: this book informs an upcoming seminar entitled “Process, Image, Form: What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists,” taught by Richard Schmitt. A Giacometti Portrait is a record of the creation of a work of art. James Lord sits as a model for his friend Alberto Giacometti, a well-known and successful painter living in Paris. Lord flew over from New York to sit for an afternoon; he ends up sitting for 18 days, during which he takes notes and pictures to document the process. The portrait is not finished at the end of this time – it is central to Giacometti’s theory of life and art that such a thing could never be finished – but they agree to stop.

It is an odd but intriguing book. Giacometti is a real character, and the friends become very close while sitting and talking together through Giacometti’s dramatic crises of artistic frustration, and many other threads of life. While Giacometti’s passionate, pessimistic, but oddly magnetic personality is a feature, the portrait itself is at the center of this book, to the exclusion of characterization of Lord himself, outside events and characters, and all else. The book itself, of course, is also a portrait. The title acknowledges this with its syntactic ambiguity.

The material here for a discussion about art, different art forms, techniques and mutual reflections upon one another is obvious, especially as Giacometti writhes and moans, undoing and redoing his work, experiencing one revelation after another, and every one (to him at least) failing. I am most interested to see where our seminar takes us. It’s not a book I’m necessarily prepared to love on my own; it’s too thin, somehow, too occupied with the one thing. But I suspect there’s more here than meets my immediate eye, so I’m very glad to be studying this with help. An unusual, but strangely compelling portrait.


Rating: 7 hard-boiled eggs.

book beginnings on Friday: A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. Participants share the first line or two of the book we are currently reading and comment on any first impressions inspired by that first line.

This is another I’m reading for school (see last week’s teaser), and deals with a work of visual art. The portrait of the title is both one being painted by the author’s friend of the author himself, and the book I hold in my hands: a portrait of the painter.

giacometti-portrait
James Lord is in conversation with the painter Alberto Giacometti as the former sits for his portrait.

“But is even a photograph really a reproduction of what one sees?” I asked.

“No. And if a photo isn’t, a painting is even less so. What’s best is simply to look at people.”

And I thought those lines began to capture part of what the book is about. Also, they spoke to me as a writer who tries to capture life. It makes it all a little futile, perhaps; or maybe it helps the artist to refocus. Plenty to think about.

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

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.

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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.

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.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland (audio)

This was a lovely little audiobook. The writing beautifully, lyrically evokes the setting. At the start of the book, I recognized the tone and I’m sure there’s a literary term for it, although it escapes me; it actually reminded me of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which, however, I didn’t like). There was that same tone of desperate passion for a work of art; there was a similar element of a painting dominating a man. It was emotional, emotive. But it seemed to calm down as the book progressed, getting more contemplative, quieter, more introspective. And that was really nice, too.

The book is about a painting of a girl in a blue smock, taking a moment’s break from sewing buttons onto a shirt to look out a window. It is variously named by different characters in the story; the title is one name for it. The book opens in a present-day setting: a teacher invites a colleague back to his house to show him a painting he’s kept secret until now. He claims it is a long-lost Vermeer. (Vermeer is the real-life Dutch master who painted The Girl with a Pearl Earring.) From there, we trace the painting’s history backwards through time, through its various owners and caretakers, back to its painter and the moment of inspiration, visiting the girl who sat for it.

An obvious comparison to this book presented itself immediately: Tracy Chevalier’s very successful Girl With a Pearl Earring, which was made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson. I thought both the book and the movie were lovely, and for others who enjoyed either, I highly recommend Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Not only is the subject matter very like (a fictionalized explanation of the history and inspiration of a Vermeer – or a questionable Vermeer), I found the tone to be reminiscent, as well. It’s interesting to think of these two as companion pieces. It’s been a few years since I read Pearl Earring (maybe that was 2004 or thereabouts?), so maybe my memory is warped, but they struck me as very alike. And for the record, it looks like both were originally published in 1999, so I don’t think anyone copy-catted anyone else!

The portraits of life painted (no pun intended – really she’s an artist) by Vreeland are remarkable. They’re very clear and realistic and whimsical, lovely vignettes into a nice selection of times and places. We meet Dutch, German, and American characters spanning several centuries, and each is neatly portrayed and very enjoyable even as brief snippets – meaning, each might stand alone nicely even without being part of a larger story. In fact, they stand alone so well that in the audio format, with a different reader for each, I kept thinking the book had ended! A person might even say each brief portrayal of a person or family’s life resembles a Vermeer painting, particularly when we get to the middle-class Dutch folks of his own period.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is an effortless read with beautiful characterizations and scenes of life from a number of times and places, presenting the engaging puzzle of a beautiful painting and its questionable provenance. I highly recommend it.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

I was attracted by the idea of this book when it came out in January, and I’ve just now gotten around to it. I’m really enjoying reading books pre-publication for Shelf Awareness, but it’s also nice to sneak one in every once in a while that’s NOT a thriller/suspense/murder-mystery. For that matter, I have some classics to read for the Classics Challenge, and I’ve been talking about Don Quixote

But at any rate. Recently, on a whim, I picked up Clara and Mr. Tiffany, and it immediately grabbed me with its lovely writing, evocative of the artistic beauty the book revolves around. Clara, the narrator, works for a living in the 1890’s, and before the action of the book begins, has already had to choose between marriage (even… love?) and her passion for her work. Clara Driscoll, a real historical figure, was the artist behind much of the stained glass and the legendary lamps for which the Tiffany name is so famous. Vreeland has fictionalized her story for us here. Clara also has quite a bit in common with another historical figure I read about recently: Annie Londonderry took her extraordinary ride during the same years in which this book begins. It gave me a nice little thrill to recognize the historical setting, especially because the two female characters have so much in common. Reading these two books back-to-back allowed me to immerse myself even more in the times, and I’m tempted to head right into The Devil in the White City next. We’ll see.

I want to share a beautiful excerpt with you to illustrate the writing style.

…I carefully wrapped in a hand towel the one thing I had that no one could wrench from me – the kaleidoscope, his engagement gift to me. Bits of richly colored glass in a chamber served as his sweet acknowledgement that I’d had to give up my joyous work with just such glass in order to marry him. At the slightest turn of the maple-wood tube, the design collapsed with a tiny rattle of falling objects, and in a burst of an instant, nothing was the same.

Vreeland’s writing is quietly lovely and melodic; it expertly creates both a mood and a pacing to match the world in which Clara lives and works, and also evokes the colors, art, and beauty that involve her so deeply. Clara is an artist, first and foremost; she wants to design, to create, to replicate nature (she loves flowers, insects, the sea, leaves) and uplift the human spirit. As a woman at the turn of the century, though, she faces a number of challenges as a working woman, as a single woman, and as a craftswoman intent on earning a living, knowing she deserves one. She’s tormented by the frustrations of being unrecognized by Tiffany and by the world, as Tiffany (the man, and the company) receive accolades for her work. But she’s also tormented by guilt for what she thinks of as her narcissism – in that she desires credit at all.

Clara is a well-developed character. We see her progress, for example, as a feminist. She doesn’t set out with any high-minded ideals, but rather develops them as the world fails to treat her fairly. Clara heads up the Women’s Department at Tiffany, and her “girls” are described in varying detail; some of them become very real and sympathetic characters, and many of them serve to portray the experiences of immigrant workers in New York during this time. When their department comes under attack from the unionized male employees, Clara organizes the women to march into work together through a picket line – not striking, since the union doesn’t recognize them, but vilified all the same. This part of the story serves to underline that not all feminist demonstrators began as idealists or radicals, but rather that “regular” women were forced to stick up for themselves or die quietly. I appreciated that point.

Over the course of the book (spanning 1892-1908), she has a series of relationships: we meet her freshly widowed, she is courted by several men, and has a number of very close friendships. I found her heartfelt friendships, with men and with women, to be very touching. She struggles with love, with the idea that she’ll never find a satisfying romantic relationship with a man; with finding respect and fulfillment at work; with creating ideal art and beauty and being recognized for it. The story is of art, and of a time and a place, of love, and of women’s rights and a changing world. But mostly, it’s Clara’s story.

This was a beautiful book. The art and music bleed through the pages:

The sparrows of Irving Place were preening too, and gossiping pianissimo, and hopping about with an air of importance. Distant medleys of the city blended into a pleasant humming, punctuated at intervals by the Third Avenue elevated rumbling in a crescendo, grinding its brakes shrilly for the Eighteenth Street station, expelling its pfft of steam, then starting up again and fading away in a diminuendo.

I liked the historical aspects, too. As I like my hist-fict authors to do, Vreeland includes a note at the closing to explain where she took liberties. It does seem fairly clear that Clara Driscoll created many or nearly all of the leaded-glass lamps Tiffany got credit for; she did have two marriages; and a number of the figures in the novel did at least exist, with a few verifiable details. But much of the novel is purely fiction.

This was a really beautiful book, enjoyable to read, with a comforting, quiet rhythm and characters I cared about. It was a joy, and I recommend it.

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