Unblogged (and soon to be overdue) books

January 11, 2021 at 7:16 pm (Book review, books)

So recently I was cruising through the various rooms in my house when I encountered a stack of books sitting stolidly on the edge of a bookcase. They’d  been read but not blogged. Horrors! The world is awaiting my comments on these volumes! Actually the library is waiting, as in, Woman, are you planning to return these any time soon? There are others wanting to read them, you know…

Okay, so let’s make a start:

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam.  City dwellers Amanda and Clay have found (via Airbnb)  a quiet place to vacation on Long Island. So they drive out to their getaway home. With them are their two children, fifteen-year-old Archie and Rose, age twelve (or thereabouts). Upon arriving, they’re all pleased with what they see. The house is well turned out and has a swimming pool. There are woods nearby. It is quiet, a welcome respite from the perpetual noise of Gotham.

Rumaan Alam extracts much humor from the foibles of America’s upper middle classes. He describes Amanda’s initial food shopping expedition in detail, noting that that she was sure to throw into the basket “Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream.” (As we are regular purchasers of this product, it is now designated in these exact terms on our shopping lists.) At the outset, the tone of the novel is lighthearted, but it does not stay that way. Events occur which are unexpected, strange, downright threatening. The light has more and more trouble penetrating the darkness.

Oh, they are leaving the world behind, all right…. Or is the world leaving them?

Rumaan Alam is a terrific writer. His prose is urgent and graceful at the same time. And as for the tale he relates herein, I can only say that it’s been a long time since I was this thoroughly unnerved by a work of fiction.

Highly recommended.

The Searcher by Tana French. Cal Hooper, a former detective with the Chicago police, has traded the chaos of the big city for a whole new life in a small town in Ireland. The house he has purchased is run down, to say the least, but fixing it up provides him with a much needed project.

He enjoys this  rain. It has no aggression to it; its steady rhythm and the scents it brings in through the windows gentle the house’s shabbiness, giving it a homey feel. He’s learned to see the landscape changing under it, greens turning richer and wildflowers rising. It feels like an ally, rather  than the annoyance it is in the city.

Trey Reddy, a teenager, appears out of nowhere to give him a hand with carpentry and painting. Welcoming the help, as well as the companionship, Cal finds himself drawn into a classic mystery: Trey’s brother has disappeared, and Cal’s help is needed in order to  find the missing sibling.

There’s some lovely writing in this novel; it contributes greatly to the sense of being in the midst of rural Ireland:

Eve smack in the middle of a temperamental Chicago neighborhood, dawn sounds rose up with a startling delicacy, and  the air had a lemony, clean-scoured tinge that made you breathe deeper and wider. Here, the first light spreads across  the fields like something holy is happening, striking sparks off a million dewdrops and turning the spiderwebs on the hedge to rainbows; mist curls off the grass, and the first calls of  birds and sheep seem to arc effortless miles.

Well, zowie, the woman can write! On the other hand, the dialog, while realistic and believable, at times drags on for too long. In fact, the novel as a whole could have been shorn of a hundred or so pages and  been none the worse for it – better, in fact, with the plot being somewhat tighter. Even so, Cal and Trey are beautifully drawn characters, as are numerous others.

Tana French is a writer that readers and reviewers consistently rave about. Her books don’t always work for me, but by and large, this one did.

Anne Perry

A Christmas Resolution by Anne Perry. In recent years, it has become Anne Perry’s custom to pen a work at Christmas time with an appropriate theme. This short novel – almost a novella, really – is set, as we’d expect from this author, in the nineteenth century:

Celia approached the vicar, who stood alone for a few moments in the shadow of the rounded arch above the doorway, sheltered from the rising wind.

With such an opening sentence, we know full well that we are in Anne Perry Country. Celia wishes to compliment the vicar on that mornings sermon. Alas, the Reverend Arthur Roberson is a melancholy figure. He is oppressed by matters of the heart.

A Christmas Resolution is characterized by a mixture of charm, earnestness, and peril that is so characteristic of this author’s works in this genre. We are soon involved, with Celia and her husband Detective John Hooper, in an urgent effort to prevent Celia’s dear friend Clementine Appleby from making an ill-advised marriage.

Okay, so not  a very original plot premise, but one is lulled into a sense of mild anxiety without having to be overly concerned. We know things will turn out all right. Clementine will be saved! Even the vicar might be delivered from his unhappy state.

In other words, a pleasant diversion for which I was grateful, what with the world being in its current state.



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Christmas 2020, in Art and Music

December 25, 2020 at 8:07 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Associates streaming service, I recently had the great good fortune to attend via Zoom a webinar entitled ‘The Nativity in Art: Centuries of Storytelling.’ Our speaker was art historian Elaine Ruffolo.

Here are some of the images she shared with us:

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Taddeo Gaddi

Jacopo Tintoretto

Gentile da Fabriano

Lornzo Monaco


Federico Barocci

Hugo van der Goes (from the Portinari Altarpiece)

And my favorite of all these gorgeous works of art – I can’t say exactly why: Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds:

Elaine Ruffolo was speaking to us live, in real time, from Florence, Italy, where she resides.

And now, some music:







My Chicago family, at Thanksgiving. They’ve been a model of resourcefulness and buoyancy. Hopefully, I will be seeing them again, before too long. I am starved for hugs!

This has  been a tough year for many of us. I believe that next year will be better. Love to all. And to my British friends: Hang in there, as you always have, with courage and resilience.



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‘History has failed us, but no matter.’ – Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

December 22, 2020 at 9:42 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction)

Lee’s stunning novel, her second, chronicles four generations of an ethnic Korean family, first in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th century, then in Japan itself from the years before World War II to the late 1980s. Exploring central concerns of identity, homeland and belonging, the book announces its ambitions right from the opening…. Lee suggests that behind the facades of wildly different people lie countless private desires, hopes and miseries, if we have the patience and compassion to look and listen.

From the New York Times’s “10 Best Books of 2017

Stunning indeed. The place is Yeongdo, Busan, Korea.

At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money.

This plain sentence follows the one quoted in the  title of this review. We go at once from a sentiment of cosmic significance to a statment of almost painful plainness.

From this ordinary decision, made by ordinary people, springs an entire universe of consequences. The fisherman and his wife Yangjin have a daughter, Sunja. The fisherman, Hoonie, soon dies of tuberculosis. Yangjin and Sunja, who is at that time thirteen years old, are left to run the boarding establishment as best they can.

And then….

Nowadays, many works of fiction label themselves (or their publishers label them) novels of suspense. And yet Pachinko, a more or less traditional family saga, whose narrative marches , at a steady and unshowy pace,  through the decades, is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. This might be because I cared so deeply about the fate of the characters.

And what a fate, what a fate.

The Japanese occupation of Korea was beyond cruel. Life was made horribly difficult; the Koreans were debased and humiliated. Innocent and good people had their lives upended and ruined.

It seemed as if the occupation and the war had changed everyone, and now the war in Korea was making things worse. Once-tenderhearted people seemed wary and tough. There was innocence left only in the smallest children.

Still, having no other recourse, making use of what meager resources they could find, they persevered.

This was a hard book for me to review. I’ve written about numerous meritorious books in this space. But Pachinko stands apart. I have not been moved in quite this way by a work of fiction in a very long time. Superlatives fail me. In my opinion, this is a brilliant novel, deserving of the highest praise. Congratulations, Min Jin Lee, for an astonishing achievement. And thank you.

Min Jin Lee





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John Le Carre

December 17, 2020 at 4:08 pm (books, In memoriam)

David Ignatius has written a wonderful feature on John Le Carre for the Washington Post. It is entitled “LeCarre’s People.” In it, he states:

His spies and their world were based on real life, and yet totally his own inventions.

His spies and their world…and what a world it was, by turns bleak and terrifying, with long stretches of boredom in between. Its ethos was embodied in the character of George Smiley, played on screen unforgettably by Sir Alec Guinness.

The other great portrayal of a Le Carre character was done by Richard Burton; he was Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, surely one of the greatest espionage films ever, based on the novel of the same name, published in 1963. This was Le Carre’s third work of fiction; it vaulted him to stardom in the literary world, where, it being the early 1960s, such things still mattered to the general public – sigh…

The acclaimed, best-selling novel by John le Carré, about a Cold War spy on one final dangerous mission in East Germany, is transmuted by director Martin Ritt into a film every bit as precise and ruthless as the book. Richard Burton is superb as Alec Leamas, whose relationship with the beautiful librarian Nan, played by Claire Bloom, puts his assignment in jeopardy. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a hard-edged and tragic thriller, suffused with the political and social consciousness that defined Ritt’s career.

From the Criterion Collection site

Le Carre’s first two works of fiction are Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality(1962). Both feature George Smiley in a more or less conventional detective setting. They’re a good way to make the acquaintance of Smiley. I enjoyed them both, especially A Murder of Quality, which is set at a boys’ boarding school and has that tense, claustrophobic atmosphere which often characterizes such places, both in fiction and in fact.

More recent tiles by Le Carre that I’ve enjoyed are A Legacy of Spies and Agent Running in the Field. That last came out in 2019. It’s hard for me to believe that there will be no more from the astute and brilliant pen of John Le Carre.

A YouTube commenter on the trailer for The Spy Who Came In from the Cold wrote, three days ago:

R.I.P. John le Carré. You are in from the Cold.

David John Moore Cornwell, aka John Le Carre , October 19, 1931-December 12, 2020


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The Coldest Warrior, by Paul Vidich

December 11, 2020 at 4:06 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  An investigation into the death of a scientist working for the CIA yields shocking results.

The year is 1975. Jack Gabriel, an Agency veteran, has submitted his retirement to the Director. But his departure is put on hold. Instead, he is tasked  with finding out the truth about the death, just over twenty years ago, of Charles Wilson.

Jack has always had a degree of ambivalence concerning his chosen profession.

Lawyer? Investment banker? College professor? Those were the careers he had contemplated, but still the allure of espionage drew him to her bosom. The cerebral challenge of the work, the immediacy of the problems and  their complexity, the urgent call to fight  the great Cold War against Communism. These were what drew him.

He reluctantly embarks on this investigation, only to find that every step of the way, obstacles are placed in his path.

Charles Wilson had been a family man, with a wife and children. Antony, the eldest, has never been able to accept the verdict of suicide in his father’s death.

“What happened!”Antony snapped. “He died. Fell or jumped. That’s pretty clear, clear as mud.”
Gabriel was impatient with Antony’s testiness. “We both believe someone needs to be held accountable.”
“Really?” Antony stared. “He suffered the killing love of his friends.”

Paul Vidich’s prose is salted with allusions to classic literature: At one point, a character remarks that “Men strut their time in power and then are  heard from no more.” Or, as Shakespeare says in MacBeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
For me, this is one of the most genuinely shocking passages in all of Shakespeare’s works. Even in the tragedies, he  usually seems so life affirming. But here – a blank void of night, sheer nihilism.
The Coldest Warrior is based on a true story. I knew that, going in. I’m interested in the field of intelligence work, and had encountered a description of the actual events in my reading. What I was not aware of was that this author, Paul Vidich, has a personal connection to these events. I won’t say any more here. He reveals all in the acknowledgement section that follows the novel’s conclusion.
I will say, though, that this novel has a greater impact if you read it in conjunction with a viewing of Errol Morris’s Wormwood. Available on Netflix, this six part documentary film recounts the actual story of the death of Frank Olson and the subsequent investigation – or perhaps, one should say, the subsequent cover-up. Some reviewers have felt that Wormwood is longer than necessary, and that in places it drags and is repetitious.
I thought it was excellent. For one thing, the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia was evoked in a way that was positively uncanny. It lay dark and heavy over the unfolding events of the story. For another, the extended interview material with Frank Olson’s son Eric was riveting. Eric Olson simply refuses to let go of this inquiry until those responsible for his father’s death are named and held accountable. Quite a few of the individuals involved are now deceased. No matter. Dead or alive, they must be made to take responsibility.
I came away from Wormwood with enormous respect and compassion for  this man who, decades ago at the age of nine, suddenly and unaccountably lost his father. The Olson family has had more than its share of tragedy. But decades after his father’s death, Eric Olson is still fighting the good fight.


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‘He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.’ -The Sun Collective, by Charles Baxter

December 7, 2020 at 9:23 pm (Book review, books)

  The Sun Collective is a novel that is both magical and ordinary. Charles Baxter’s numerous bon mots are, to my mind, enchanting. His characters are at once pedestrian and unique, in the way that all persons are unique.

Harry and Alma Brettigan share a decades old marriage. Here’s how Harry sums things up:

He and Alma had  been married so long that love really didn’t really figure into the whole business anymore, and their tolerance for each other’s eccentricities didn’t matter much either–Alma was like water: you didn’t have to love water when you were thirsty. You just needed it to live. That’s how they were with each other. They had gone from love to post-love, where each one for the other was a necessity.

With regard to those eccentricities: Alma has a much shorter fuse than Harry. She is forever criticizing his ‘tone’ and trying to shut  him down. I rather enjoyed Harry’s piquant, aphoristic style of speech. Alma’s repeated objections took on a whining tone – at least, they did for me. So while my affection for him grew, so did my irritation with her. I objected to her objections!

The whole thing was rather entertaining.

Meanwhile, their son Timothy has gone AWOL; there’s a suspicion that he’s allied himself with a  group called the Sun Collective. Then there’s a young couple, Christina and Ludlow, who are definitely involved  with this mysterious organization. (To Christina belongs one of my favorite ‘thought bubbles’ in the novel: “She bit into her cheeseburger. Who could ever be a vegan when food tasted like this?”)

It’s difficult to determine whether the goals of the Sun Collective are benign or sinister. Actually, I found it hard to care, one way or another, because I was so wrapped up in the ongoing psychodrama of Harry and Alma’s relationship.

Here’s one of Harry’s wry observations concerning the vagaries of his fellow citizens:

In America, with its strange pragmatism, the idea  was that you could postpone death indefinitely if you simply took the proper steps and followed the self-help advice given out by paid programming dietitians and fitness experts who could also be found expounding their theories on the internet. If you died, you would be criticized for your bad  habits: too much pasta, a sedentary lifestyle, whiskey instead of herbal energy drinks, pessimism. Your death would  be all your fault.

Passages like this occur throughout this novel and are one of its chief joys.

Baxter’s writing is at times quite lyrical:

On that porch, Brettigan sat in the late afternoons with his glass of sun tea, his mind empty of anxious thought, and when the sparrows, who were used to him, flew down onto the edge of the porch, he would reach into his pocket  for bread crumbs and toss them down. He was so inwardly calm, he was like St. Francis, and the birds knew it as they approached him.

In those moments, he felt the peace that passes all human understanding, and he thought: This is what everybody wants. The Kingdom of God is on Earth.

The events of the novel, such as they are, take place in Minneapolis and its environs. The cold, unpredictable climate has an inevitable affect on the course of the story.

I remember years ago reading a novel by Charles Baxter called Saul and Patsy, and liking it very much. This is the reason I downloaded The Sun Collective as soon as  learned of its existence. I was not disappointed; on the contrary, I was delighted.

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All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny

December 1, 2020 at 3:57 pm (Book review, books, France, Mystery fiction)

  I must dash this review off, lest I start forgetting what I’ve just read. Oops! – it’s already started!

Okay, so:

Armand Gamache, former head of the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife Reine-Marie have recently arrived in Paris from their home in the village of Three Pines, in Quebec. They’ve come to await the birth of their fourth grandchild. Also present is Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather. Horowitz is a very wealthy man who presents a mysterious face to the world, but not to the Gamache family, who know and love him.

Having established the mise en scene in the City of Light and peopled it with her familiar characters, Penny proceeds to launch the story almost immediately with a dastardly transgression committed right in their midst, a crime whose evil intent very nearly succeeds. From this point on, events unfold rapidly, with Armand forced to pit his wits against an extremely ruthless and cunning foe.

This plunge directly into the icy water of criminal intent has  become a familiar trope in contemporary crime fiction – in other words, don’t waste time on description, get things moving at once! (You can just hear the editor/first reader exhorting the author.) It didn’t trouble me this time, mainly because Penny kept the pace lively right up until the home stretch when, at least for me, the plot became labored and overly complex. I find that when that happens  in a crime novel, I start to zone out, not really caring whay happens next – or worse, not being able to believe in the increasingly arcane developments.

As for the characters, all the members of the famille Gamache are front and center. Everyone does not love everyone equally, which refreshing. Armand is ferociously devoted to everyone, which can be grating at times. Also grating is his Superman schtick – he is always there to save the day (Oh wait – should  that be Mighty Mouse?), always on the side of Right, always stronger and more resourceful than the next guy (or woman). As if to affirm her wokeness, Penny has grown men crying and declaring “I love you!” to one another – again, this is usually Armand.

I loved the Paris setting. I don’t always read Penny because I don’t always like her novels, but when I realized that this one was not set in the overly cute little Québécois village of Three Pines, I thought I’d give it a go. (I was especially pleased not to have to spend time in the company of one of my least favorite denizens of Three Pines, the truculent poet Ruth Zardo and her pet duck Rosa.)

Finally, a point concerning grammar. Penny makes frequent use of ‘this’s’ as a contraction of ‘this is.’ I did a bit of research on this, and as is frequent with question of usage, I got widely differing results. My conclusion is that while ‘this’s’ is not flat out wrong, it could still be termed nonstandard. Now this may seem like a small point, but I’m something of a grammarian – blame long years as an English major and then an English teacher – so things like this matter to me.

Looking over this write-up, it would appear that this is a negative review. If so, I’ve conveyed a not quite accurate impression. I actually enjoyed the book and pretty well raced through it – at least, up until the closing chapters, where too much was happening that was confusing and strained credulity. Nevertheless, a thumbs, up, although with reservations.

My favorite Gamache novel is still Bury Your Dead.


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More on Paul Gauguin and Brittany

November 29, 2020 at 8:53 pm (Art, France)


….in February 1888, Gauguin returned to Pont Aven. Brittany suited his temperament. At that time, he wrote to his friend Schuffenecker:’I love Brittany. I find a wildness and a primitiveness there; when my wooden shoes ring out on its granite soil, I hear the muffled, dull, powerful note that I am looking for in my painting.’ The moors, the valleys gouged by rivers, hidden pathways, hedgerows, the old slate-roofed grey dwellings huddled in the hollows, dark forests of beech, ash and oak-all these contributed to the romantic atmosphere of the legendary landscape. A dampness in the air, a special quality in the light, revealed that the sea and its rocky coast were not far away. Gauguin found a spiritual climate here that was perfectly in tune with his desire for a simpler, more intimate form of painting. The little chapels nestled among mossy trees, the stone Calvaries and the crudely carved wooden statues became fused in his mind with other primitive forms that haunted him.

The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard, and Their Circle, by Claire Freches-Thory and

Antoine Terrasse 

Maybe it’s my current immersion in art, but this paragraph struck me as exceptionally beautiful.

Paul Gauguin en Bretagne

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Recent Reading

November 26, 2020 at 12:34 am (Art, Book review, books, Nature)

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter.

So, after reading Ron Charles’s rave review of this title in the Washington Post, I felt I had to give it a try. (I get a kick out of Ron Charles; he becomes almost incoherent with enthusiasm sometimes, especially when he REALLY, REALLY [as my grandson would declare, for emphasis] likes a book.) So…

A jumble of riotous action set against the backdrop of labor unrest and free speech suppression, chiefly in Spokane, Washington, in the early years of the twentieth century.. Main characters are brothers Gig (Gregory) and Rye (Ryan) Dolan, struggling to survive amid the tramps and hobos out of work and out of luck in the Pacific Northwest.

I could  believe in Rye and Gig, but my credulity was strained by the character of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a nineteen-year-old married and pregnant firebrand and uncompromising crusader for workers’ rights and freedom of speech. Yet in his acknowledgements, the author states that she’s drawn from real life.

And lo! Here she is, in full haranguing mode:

Of course, truth can be stranger than fiction, but…well, read it and decide for yourself. In any event, the book is a wild ride, and great  fun (if confusing at times).

Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald 

What science does is what I would like more literature to do too: show us that we are living in an  exquisitely complicated  world that is not all about us. It does not belong to us. It never has done….

Centuries of habitat loss and slow attenuation of our lived, everyday knowledge of the natural world make it harder and harder to have faith that the way things are going can ever be reversed.
We so often think of the past as something like a nature reserve, a discrete, bounded place we can visit in our imaginations to make us feel better. I wonder how we could learn to recognize that the past is always working on us and through us, and  that diversity in all its forms, human and natural, is strength. that messy stretches of species-rich vegetation with all their invertebrate life are better, just better, than the eerie, impoverished silence of modern planting schemes and fields. I wonder how we might learn to align our aesthetic and moral landscapes to fit that intuition.

One could become impatient with too many of these generalized exhortations,  eloquently expressed though they may be. Fortunately, Macdonald does leaven them with specifics. Of course there is much delightful writing about birds, not surprising from this author, but here’s a less expected passage, from an chapter entitled “Nothing Like a Pig.” The set-up: her boyfriend has taken her to see an animal she had previously known only from stories and folk tales:

This creature was not what I expected, despite its slap of familiarity. It had the forward-menacing shoulders of a baboon, and the brute strength and black hide of a bear. But it was not really anything like a bear, and what surprised me most of all was that it was nothing like a pig. As the beast trotted up to us, a miracle of muscle and bristle and heft, I turned to the boy, and said, surprised, “It’s nothing like a pig!” With great satisfaction he grinned and said, “No. They’re really not.”

This essay collection has been much anticipated by readers of Macdonald’s award-winning work H Is for Hawk. A number of people have asked me if I’ve read that particular book. Truth to tell, I tried to, but I ran afoul of Macdonald’s description of the steps involved in taming the hawk. I felt an intense aversion to the whole process – it seemed to me a form of avian torture. So that it was it, for me. Vesper Flights is blessedly free of such content, and a very rewarding read.

The Revenge of Thomas Eakins, by Sidney D. Kirkpatrick

What an interesting man: a deeply gifted painter and, except for a brief  European sojourn in his youth, a life long resident of the City of Brotherly Love. Born in 1844, Thomas Eakins grew up saturated with the rich artistic culture that characterized Philadelphia in the late 1800s.

Painted in 1875, The Gross Clinic is probably Eakins’s most famous work:


Another work, one of my favorites, is Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871):

The artist’s wife, Susan Macdowell, 1884-89

Self-portrait, 1902

The Writing Master (Benjamin Eakins, the artist’s father), 1882


Portrait of Walt Whitman-1887. The poet and the painter were great friends.

(Eakins  was a great portraitist; his skills were much sought after in this area.)

This is the house in which Eakins live:

Designated as an historic landmark in 1965, it now houses an artists’ cooperative. In Eakins’s time, the place seemed to be bursting with life – relatives an friends would come frequently to visit an often to stay. There were numerous children (although Eakins and his wife  not have any) and pets also -including, for a while, a monkey who caused untold mischief.

You could understand why, in the above portrait, Susan Macdowell looks rather long suffering. And there were other reasons, as well.

Thomas Eakins was not only a great painter, but an enthusiastic and committed teacher. He also became infatuated with photography. And that’s where the trouble began…

While some of the photographs are entirely decorous, others are…well, something else. A large selection of works by Eakins in both media can be accessed at WikiArt.

Why the title of this biography contains the word “revenge” I am not sure. Unless it refers to the frequently heard saying, “Living well is the best revenge.” Eakins’s life was turbulent, that is for sure, but most of the strife he encountered he brought on himself. He was stiff and unbending in his principles, even in situations where a little bending would have cost him little.

The subjects of a number of his nude studies, both painted and photographed, were often drawn from his young male students, many of whom seemed all too willing to doff their garments in order to please their esteemed instructor. The speculation prompted by this practice, can be easily imagined.

Whatever took place in his personal life, as a professional, he was exact and uncompromising. He was left us a legacy of realistic art for which we can only be grateful. As for this book, I found it utterly absorbing – a  great about an artist and his  times.



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More on the Post-Impressionists

November 22, 2020 at 9:10 pm (Art, France, Mystery fiction)

[Click here for the previous post on this subject.]

Roderic O’Conor was an Irish artists who lived and worked with the Pont Aven painters, for a time.

Yellow Landscape 1892, by Roderic O’Conor


Moonlit Lndscape, Roderic O’Conor

On the Irish Times site, there’s an excellent piece on O’Conor. Be sure to watch the video; there’s a presentation by an exceptionally eloquent curator.

  Our instructor recommended to us a mystery novel set in Brittany. Death in Brittany, translated and published here in 2014,  features Commissaire Georges Dupin. Judging by  the name, c’est un hommage, I assume, to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous Parisian armchair sleuth. But this Dupin spends very little time sitting around waxing intellectual. Instead, he traverses the length and breadth of his adopted  home, trying to solve first one murder, then another.

Being as he’s a newcomer – only lived in Brittany for three years, specifically resident in Concarneau – he is still in the process of getting to know the place, and to understand it:

Inhale in Concarneau and you tasted salt, iodine, seaweed, mussels in every breath, like a distillation of the entire endless expanse of the Atlantic, brightness  and light. In Pont Aven it was the river, moist, rich earth, hay, trees, woods, the valley and shadows, melancholy fog-the countryside.

And there’s more:

The landscape became more and more enchanting as the narrow little streets of Pont-Aven gave way to thick woodland. The trees were dripping with mistletoe and ivy, overgrown and moss-covered. some of the trees here had entwined as they grew, forming a log dark green tunnel. now and then the Aven shimmered between the trees on the left hand side as though it were electrically charged, a pale silver color. The last of the day’s light bathed everything in its glow, lending the landscape even more of a fairytale atmosphere.

As for the painters of more than a century ago – their traces are still very much present. Dupin enters a room in the main floor of a hotel that’s central to his investigation and at once  beholds stunning collection:

There were twenty-five of these by his estimation, maybe thirty, by artists from the famous artists’ colony such as Paul Serusier, Laval, Emile Bernard, Armand Seguin, Jacob Meyer de Haan and of course Gauguin….

The Talisman, an 1888 work by Paul Serusier, so called because it attained an iconic status for Les Nabis. They thought of it as the jumping off point for their artistic movement.

The author of Death in Brittany writes under the pseudonym. Jean-Luc Bannalec is German but spends much of his time in Brittany. Monsieur Bannalec is the holder of a doctorate from l’Université Johann Wolfgang Goethe de Francfort-sur-le-Main. He has worked as an editor and journalist. There’s a Wikipedia entry for him in French under his real name, Jorg Bong.

The Georges Dupin novels currently number five. I look forward to reading the next one.

Breton Girls Dancing, by Paul Gauguin


Although Van Gogh is classified as a Post-Impressionist, he did not go to Brittany to paint. He famously went to the south of France instead, hoping to found an artists’ colony there. Gauguin joined him there for two months. It did not go well.

There’s an interesting book on this failed experiment: 

Alas, poor Van Gogh; very little went well in his short, sad life. I read a biography of him recently that was excellent, very engrossing, but…”If you have tears, prepare to shed them now….

Many of us wish that Van Gogh could somehow come to know how much his art is loved and valued in the present era. There’s an episode of the long running British series Doctor Who that made  that happen. I for one am very grateful to them:








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