museums: MFAH and the Holocaust Museum

Over the winter break I traveled home to Texas, and had a wonderful time with all the friends, restaurants, events… and a couple of great museum visits. Just some quick notes here.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston (photo credit)

With an old friend, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see the new Norman Rockwell exhibit there. I learned a lot about him. We all know Rockwell in some way – his better-known images are in the fiber of American culture. But (of course) there’s more story there than I knew. For instance, I hadn’t realized that after forty-some years, he left the Saturday Evening Post at least in part for moral reasons: they forbid portrayals of Black Americans outside of service roles. It was the 1960s, and he needed to depict what was happening in the real world, including the Civil Rights Movement. Look published his work in that later era, including “The Problem We All Live With” (you know this one, if not by name: it features Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans, flanked by U.S. Marshals and backgrounded by ugly graffiti and a thrown tomato). I saw some striking paintings from that later career, including one of Lincoln, and several portrayals of multiculturalism and interracial camaraderie.

In the earlier Post era, especially, Rockwell is accused of being overly optimistic, of depicting an America that is homey and happy and quaint. (He’s even inspired an eponym.) I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Optimistic? Yes. But I think he was always portraying real life, even if his images had a hopeful slant to them. There is the element of the everyday, of skinned knees and half-peeled potatoes, that feels more authentic than sentimental, not that there’s an absence of the latter. Also, he likes strong girls and women, which I appreciate (think “Outside the Principal’s Office,” which I’m very sorry was not a part of this exhibit). The attention to detail and to the everyday and the modest is what seems to me to have carried him into the civil rights subjects of his later work.

In telling my father about the Willie Gillis series, he shared that my great-uncle (my father’s namesake), who died in WWII, had sent home a series of his own cartoons of military life. I was thrilled to get to see some of these that he scanned over for me, and he gave permission for me to share one here. Not every soldier was a Norman Rockwell, but many of them recorded their lives in the same way, including one of my own family that I never got to meet.

my great-uncle’s wartime art

Rockwell’s four paintings portraying the Four Freedoms were present in several iterations, and I got to read about how they each came to be; they even have the jacket that was used for the “Freedom of Speech” painting (worn by his model). At the end of the exhibit, a small room was filled with photographs taken as part of a recent project, “For Freedoms.” These images reimagine Rockwell’s originals – the same scenes, same poses – but populate them with more diverse faces and bodies. Click the link and spend a few minutes. With all that I found powerful about this exhibit, this final small room was the part that moved me most, and made me feel really good.

In short, I found the Rockwell exhibit intriguing and moving, and was glad to learn more about the man.


Holocaust Museum Houston (photo credit)

The next day, I took myself to Houston’s Holocaust Museum, which I think I last visited some 30 years ago. What to say about the Holocaust Museum? I think they’ve done a pretty good job with an unspeakable task, to communicate a history of massive scale and unthinkable cruelty and ugliness and hate… I also did some thinking about how the Holocaust is something we sort of just all know about, to some extent – except that I now know that not everyone does know, which is a piece of profound news I’m still processing, actually. I have some memory of discovering this topic for the first time, when I was a kid, in elementary school. In my memory, much of the horror was communicated in images, photographs that showed graphically what it looked like to starve to death. This museum did not rely on such graphic, upsetting images. Most of the photographs were of healthy families and children from before the war, with a note that this child was killed at age seven, etc. I think graphic images are powerful, on the one hand, because they viscerally communicate how bad things were. On the other hand, they run the risk of sensational “torture porn,” of the image itself and its shock value taking away from the message we most need to hear. I appreciate the Holocaust Museum’s approach here. Also, one notable exception: there was a video showing on a monitor, near the floor, pointed straight up at the ceiling, and in a tube, so you had to stand directly over it and look straight down – in a rather uncomfortable position. I couldn’t figure out why they’d use such a weird design, until I saw the content of the video. It was about the post-liberation coverage of the concentration camps, how Eisenhower had the media come in to record and show exactly what was there. It was that footage, of the bodies recovered near death. It was quite graphic, and very affecting, and upsetting; at that point, the physical discomfort of the position required to watch the video made sense. It felt like part of the effect. My theory is that this design is to keep small children from watching.

I also visited the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit of the Civil Rights photography of Danny Lyon, an exhibit on Dolores Huerta, and the art of Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak. It was a lot to take in, but it was all good. I was especially taken with Lyon’s photography of SNCC, the Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, MLK and Stokely Carmichael, among other landmarks. There was one, captioned something like “police officers pose at such-and-such place,” where six white cops stood around and sneered; one raised his middle finger, while another offered a crotch grab and full-body fuck-you posture. Speaking of graphic; the hate was visible. I kept thinking, I wonder where this man is now, who his children are, if they’re proud of their father.

The Holocaust Museum is no joy, even if the stories of resistance and rescue are moving. But it’s at least as important a history for us to see now as it has ever been, and I’m grateful this museum exists. I have been thinking about the balance, between graphic ugliness and truth about the horrors, and upliftingness of stories of resistance. I don’t know where the right balance lies, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job. I recommend this visit to everyone.


I find even the best museums exhausting, but I do love a good museum, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take in some such experiences while I was in Houston. Among other things, I saw some old friends, attended a great yoga class, ate at a whole pile of excellent restaurants… it’s perhaps more bittersweet every time I go back to my hometown, but I do love every visit, too.

Unforgettable Portraits by Rosamund Kidman Cox

Lions, tigers and bears–and more–light up the incandescent pages of this collection of stunning wildlife photography.

Unforgettable Portraits is a beautiful, large-format collection of images from several decades of the international Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Each stunning photo–close-ups and dioramas; elephants, leopards, ants and springtails–gets accompanying text explaining the species, the context, the photographer’s equipment and technique, with an emphasis on endangered species and climate change. Readers meet the Atlantic wolfish, the spotted-tailed quoll and the Namib Desert’s welwitschia, and learn that spirit bears have “a mutation of the same gene that gives rise to red hair in humans” and that the photographer must be part wildlife scientist to get these shots, designing blinds and lying in wait for days, weeks and longer.

These 70 stunning images, by more than 50 photographers from more than 20 countries, would make a wondrous gift for any lover of wildlife, strangeness and beauty.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2019 gift 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: 8 whiskers illuminated.

Homesick by Jennifer Croft

This stunning memoir with photos is a love letter from one sister to another, a celebration of language and a story of devotion and disaster.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick is a startling memoir, stylistically as well as in its content and in the unusual mind it reveals.

Amy and Zoe are very close. This is the defining feature of their young childhood and arguably beyond. The sisters grow up in Tulsa, Okla., where their mother worries over all the possible disasters in the world and their father teaches college. Then the younger sister, Zoe, has her first seizure, and their lives become dominated by seizures, hospitals, surgeries; the girls are both home-schooled from then on. A tutor, Sasha, comes in the afternoons to teach Zoe Ukrainian and Amy Russian–the girls’ choices. Amy loves numbers and letters; she is entranced by the Cyrillic alphabet. Partly out of devotion to Sasha, she throws herself into this study with all her considerable will.

Zoe’s health continues up and down, while Amy’s academic achievements soar. She enters college at age 15, moving into the Honors House dorm, and this separation from her sister is both catastrophic and necessary. “Something new has begun to be erected between them, something like a wall, and on Zoe’s side it must stay safe, and on Amy’s side it can’t. Amy is responsible for repelling her sister as her sister tries to scale this wall.”

This memoir is told in a close third person from Amy’s perspective–that of Croft’s persona–and interspliced with photographs captioned by an ongoing direct address, apparently from Amy to Zoe in a later time. The snippets of text under these photographs offer meditations on words, clearly one of Amy’s passions: “For dozens of centuries, the word leave meant stay…. And a scruple was at first a pebble you couldn’t quite shake from your shoe.” The words accompanying the photos form a separate narrative thread, so that the book can be read cover to cover, or as two discrete stories. Amy is a photographer from a young age, and her younger sister is her chief subject, in ways that Amy does not yet understand.

Disjointed, sometimes heavy with foreshadowing, lush with a love for words and language, the dual narrative of Amy and Zoe’s intertwined lives and shared pain seems the right artistic choice for this twisting dual story. Among other threads or themes is the difficulty of translation, in its literal and more metaphoric meanings. “When you consider the plenitude of any word’s experience you might think all words are untranslatable.”

Homesick is astonishing in its emotional reach, its evocation of a child’s discovery and a young adult’s suffering and all the wonder of words. What is translatable is perfectly communicated here.


This review originally ran in the August 8, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 letters.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.

shorts by Cather; Sandor; Wheeler; Irving; Chesnutt; Maren; and Bourne of National Geographic (and links followed, etc.)

Whew, a long one today – sorry, folks, but I’ve been reading.

Because I’m not busy enough (ha) I’ve been reading a few short prose pieces here and there. Some of the following come from the Library of America’s Story of the Week (an email you can sign up for for free, if you have tons of free time or are a glutton like me). One I found languishing in a file on my computer. The internet, and friends’ referrals, account for the rest.


Willa Cather’s “A Death in the Desert” was a Story of the Week, viewable here. I found it a moving story, but much more so with the context included, about Cather’s devotion to a composer who died young. As the Library of America points out, the fact that this story was published in three versions, each subsequently edited and shortened, makes it an excellent opportunity to study editing for length (if you were to go find all three). There’s something Victorian in the manners and fainting emotions in the story that is less compelling and relateable for me personally, though. I’m glad to have learned a bit more about Cather, but it’s not my favorite thing I’ve read this month.


Marjorie Sandor’s “Rhapsody in Green,” however, blows my mind. (This was the one found on my hard drive. Originally published by The Georgia Review and viewable here, if you sign up for a free account.) It is a very brief lyric essay about, yes, the color green. Sandor evokes so much via this color, and her search for an unachievable shade: color, we might think, is a visual element, but she uses touch, smell, and taste as well. On its face about this color she can’t find, this essay is also a glancing view of the narrator’s life story, at least in a few relationships and geographical locations. There are four references (in less than three pages) to a time “I fell in love when I shouldn’t have.” It is a brave and risky move to so emphasize an event that she never explains further. As we writing students say, this one would have been destroyed in workshop. But I love it, this level of tantalization, and her bold implication that no, we don’t need to know any more about it than that. There are also two references to “a/my friend who puts up with such eccentricities.” I love this epithet, this characterization, and in both cases – this, and the “fell in love when I shouldn’t have” – I appreciate the use of an intentional echo to good effect. Also, nothing I’ve said here begins to get at the loveliness, the lyricism and sensual intimacy, of Sandor’s writing. Do go check this one out.


Disclosure: Dave Wheeler is my editor at Shelf Awareness, and a friend.

I have done a poor job of keeping up with Dave’s work, and recently returned to see what I’d missed, particularly in his essays, which impress me so. I am gradually catching up now – you can see his published essays here (and more in other links on that page). And I love a lot of what Dave writes: I appreciate the short, dreamy, feeling quality of “Science for Boys”, and the inquiring mind exposed in “Death and Its Museum”. But I think my favorite essays of those I’ve read so far deal with art, and how Dave takes it in. “Two Men Kissing” and “Some Holy Ghost” each offers so much, and I’ve forwarded them to many friends.

Today, I am very pleased by “A Moment Spins on the Axis of You: The Fourth Dimension of Yayoi Kusama‚Äôs ‘Infinity Mirrors'”. Here Dave encounters Kasuma’s installation, in particular, and the grand scale of its claimed subject. But even more than the named artwork, he considers what it means to wait – for art, for anything – and what contribution waiting, or time, or the audience experience, may offer. I appreciate his voice: he speaks with authority about his own experiences, but with a humbleness as regards the world of art criticism; he can be playful even as we feel he is serious. And of course I recognize myself when he writes, “As a lifelong reader, I have cultivated a sharp sense of when I can quit a book without worrying that I have missed something of importance. As a wide-eyed novice to visual arts, I am less assured.” I think I feel something like the same thing when I try to see my own reactions to visual art: I don’t even know what I don’t know.

Perhaps recognizing myself in Dave is part of recognizing Dave, someone I know personally and enjoy talking to, however infrequently we get around to it. And maybe that enjoyment is inextricable from my appreciating his writing. Maybe you want to help me test this: go check out Dave’s work and let me know what you think.

Good, right?


Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, another Story of the Week, was engaging enough in its descriptive power; I was interested in getting a better grasp on one of those legends that’s in our collective consciousness whether we’ve read it or not (I don’t believe I had). The misogyny in the treatment of Dame Van Winkle, and the cursory treatment of all the women in the story (none of whom, if memory serves, had names), rankled. I’m not sorry I took the time, but it wasn’t a highlight, or anything.


Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”, on the other hand, was both lovely and harrowing. (I went ahead and followed this link to a Wiley Cash article in Salon, where he argues for Chesnutt as genius, and I don’t disagree.) If you want to feel gutted by our national heritage where race is concerned – well, none of us does, but I feel it’s important we don’t look away, either – give this short story a try. It has a surface on which it can act as a sweetly sad and simple tale, but its depths are significant.


Disclosure: Mesha Maren regularly serves as guest faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College in my alma mater MFA program. I consider her a friend.

I was deeply impressed with Mesha’s recent essay in Oxford American, titled “West Virginia in Transition”. She moved away as a young, closeted, queer woman, and upon moving back, she investigates the experiences of her counterparts: queer youth growing up twenty years later in her own hometown. She muses on the ways in which their lives are different and the ways in which they’re similar. It’s a story that’s important to me, because both queer communities and Appalachian ones are much on my mind. I’m glad topics like this are getting bandwidth. But also, as anyone who knows Mesha’s work will expect, it’s a gorgeously written story. “The way these ridges and hollows both cradle and cleave.” Beautifully done, and highly recommended.


Finally, my father sent me a link to this story from National Geographic: “Clotilda, ‘last American slave ship,’ discovered in Alabama.” Joel K. Bourne, Jr. brings us up to date on the recent confirmation that Clotilda has been identified where she was burned and scuttled in the Mississippi Delta after a voyage spurred by a wealthy white man’s bet that he could import slaves from Africa more than 50 years after such imports became illegal. In 1860, 109 men, women, and children survived the voyage into Mobile and were then sold into slavery. Part of what’s unique about this group of abducted Africans is that late date: Clotilda’s survivors lived long enough in some cases to be interviewed on film. They founded Africatown on the edge of Mobile, and their some of descendants live there today. When I passed through Mobile this spring, I missed Africatown. But, unknowing, I stayed in Meaher State Park, which is named after a wealthy white family, including the man who made the bet.

I found this article, accompanied by pictures and video, moving. I think it’s an important story to read and consider today. I also followed several links, like this one offering a list of destinations to visit for African American history and culture. I found a few of these on my travels this year; I’ve added to rest to my itinerary.


There is always something to keep our minds busy. I just feel lucky to have the time to follow these leads. What have you read lately?

Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road by Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose

Beautiful photos, enthusiastic essays and handy tips portray vanlife as desirable and attainable.

Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose are partners at the blog Vanlife Diaries, a community of and for nomadic types, where they promote relevant nonprofit organizations and meetups and other events, and vanlifers share their stories. A few years and a few hundred thousand followers later, Vanlife Diaries: Finding Freedom on the Open Road is available as a beautiful collection of photographs and essays, tips and tricks, celebrating this way of life and offering inspiration to those setting out.

Contents are organized by motivation to travel: for family, for love, for art, for nature and so on. Each section includes an essay by a featured vandweller, with helpful how-to pieces slotted throughout: guides to cooking in small spaces, traveling with pets, finding wifi and other finer points of life on the road. More than 200 accompanying photographs feature van set-ups and their human, canine and other inhabitants in breathtaking natural settings around the world. Even readers who thought they were immune to wanderlust can’t help but be swept away by such stunning images. And the more serious consumer of vanlife literature will be impressed by the balance of these impressive images with the kind of gritty, realistic details that rarely accompany Instagram versions of the trending lifestyle.

Vanlife Diaries is for anyone who’s ever considered nomadism as a means to reduce their carbon footprint, pursue nontraditional work or simply live more slowly and simply. With practical advice and inspirational full-color photos, this book has something to offer readers at every stage of the journey.


This review originally ran in the April 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 cast-iron skillets.

The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands ed. by Huw Lewis-Jones

This delightful, engrossing exploration is for every reader who’s ever admired a book or a map, let alone both.

In The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, historian Huw Lewis-Jones offers a collection of essays by authors, illustrators and designers as they ruminate on processes of reading, writing and creating, as well as the link between map and story. They consider maps in two and three dimensions, sketches, stories and outlines that live only in the writer’s mind, and argue that creating maps, like creating stories, is essentially an act of compression, a set of choices about what to leave out.

Contributors include Robert Macfarlane, David Mitchell, Lev Grossman, Joanne Harris, Philip Pullman and the graphic artists for the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies. Literary references in this gorgeously designed, detailed coffee-table book begin with Kerouac, Tolkien, Twain and Thoreau, and visit Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows and so many more.


This review originally ran in the November 6, 2018 gift 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: 8 archipelagos.
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