The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

June 9, 2021 at 2:19 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Published in 1963, this is a strange, most intriguing little book. The time is the early 1960s. The place is the Desert Southwest, more specifically the border between California and Arizona. Hugh Densmore, a medical intern at UCLA, is traveling this route home to his family in Phoenix. The occasion is the upcoming wedding of his niece.

When he sees a young girl by the side of the road, he stops for her. She is desperate  for a ride to Phoenix. Feeling that her situation is deeply unsafe, he agrees to let her come with him.

The heavy hand of fate is poised above this irrevocable  act…

The background to this story consists of escalating social and political turmoil of the 1960s. Hughes describes this strife as the eyewitness that she was. Her depiction of the desperation of a pregnant teenager is especially vivid. It occurred to me while reading this compelling novel  that I didn’t recall ever reading about this explosive issue in a work of fiction actually written during that time.

In these pages you will find a word that I for one had never before encountered: ‘aborticide.’

And yet…there is grace in Hughes’s writing, especially when she is describing the desert landscape:

This was the desert as it should be, this was the desert of the picture books, with the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and the brushy mesquite. Because there had  been some winter rain, the desert was in bloom.The saguaro wore creamy crowns on their tall heads, the ocotillo spikes were tipped with vermilion, and the brush bloomed yellow  as forsythia.

No one who has seen the bleak desert terrain suddenly burst into wild color will ever forget the sight.

Dorothy B. Hughes’s best known work of fiction is probably In a Lonely Place. This is no doubt because of the fact that it was made into a great film noir, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.

I tried to read that book but couldn’t – I don’t remember why. But The Expendable Man was an entirely different story. I couldn’t put it down. There are many twists and turns in this story; possibly the most surprising one concerns Hugh himself. However, some things about him remain constant throughout: his courage, and his integrity.

This was Hughes’s final work of fiction.

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Art Certificate Earned!! :))

June 5, 2021 at 8:39 pm (Art, Italy)

I got it! And I’d like to share with you just a small fragment of my delightful experience in getting there.

Art historian Rocky Ruggiero presented two four session courses this Spring for the Smithsonian: Italian Renaissance Art and Drama Most Splendid: The Art and Architecture of the Baroque and Rococo. I want to briefly talk about the Italian Renaissance course  first.

Professor Ruggiero gave us a quick survey of late Medieval Art, after which we slid easily into the early Renaissance. First, Cimabue (c. 1240 – 1302), whose famous Crucifix was so badly damaged in the 1966 flood in Florence. It took them eleven years to restore it.

The Crucifix, right after the flood

 

Cimabue Crucifix, restored

Today in Florence, priceless artworks or manuscripts are not kept at street level or underground. Higher flood barriers are in place near the Uffizi Gallery; new reservoirs and another dam were built. Regular flood drills are conducted in the city, and advance warning systems are in place, yet some experts question whether enough has been done to prevent disaster next time the Arno bursts its banks.

Cimabue’s Crucifix is now fixed on a high wall in the Museum of Santa Croce, with an electrical pulley designed to haul it up to safety in the event of another deluge.

[From “The Great Flood of Florence, 50 Years On,” by Eileen Horne, in The Guardian, November 5, 2016]

There’s a terrific book on this subject by Robert Clark: Dark Water: Art, Disaster, and Redemption in Florence.

Anyhow, after a necessarily brief stop in Siena, highlighting the work of two of its great masters, Giovanni di Paolo and Duccio di Buoninsegna,

Adoration of the Magi, by Gentile da Fabriano

Detail of the above:

Duccio’s spectacular Maesta. I love the story of how the people carried this masterpiece through the streets of the city before placing it on the altar of Siena Cathedral. I can almost see the procession, in my mind’s eye…

it was back to Florence, Cradle of the Renaissance. But wait – There’s still Pisa, a place which as lots more to see than this:

Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano, equally gifted father and son, created these beautiful sculptural works:

 

Decoration of Siena Cathedral, by Nicola Pisano (c. 1220/1225 – c. 1284)

 

Pulpit – Baptistery of Pisa

So when we finally get back to Florence, we must immediately salute the mighty triumvirate of the Italian High Renaissance: Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo.

Of the three, Raphael is my personal favorite. I love his portrait pf Baldassare Castiglione:

Also I like this video, with its dramatic re-enactments and its appealing actor, Joe McFadden, in the role of Raphael:

I can never forget standing, alongside my sister-in-law Donna, before Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks in London’s National Gallery:

Finally, Michelangelo. Professor Ruggiero waxed rhapsodic over this genius, of course with good reason:

Pieta

Section of the Sistine Chapel

Professor Ruggiero stated most emphatically that Michelangelo did NOT assume a prone position while painting the Sistine ceiling. He painted standing up, on the scaffolding.

This is such a quick run-though, with so much left out – sorry!  Also, I hope I haven’t made any errors – let me know if you spot any.

And I didn’t even get to “Drama Most Splendid.” Next time, then.

 

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‘The Missionary doctor not only became a champion of Manifest Destiny but did so with his eyes open to the potentially catastrophic consequences–for the Cayuses and for himself.’ — Murder at the Mission by Blaine Harden

June 1, 2021 at 4:51 pm (History)

For a book that purports to belong in the True Crime genre, Murder at the Mission is unusual. To begin with, the murders happen very early on in the narrative; from the outset, there is no doubt as to the perpetrators. The remainder of the story concerns the use and abuse of an historical incident, providing a vivid illustration of the ease with which disinformation could be spread across a vast distance, way before the advent of social media.

The chief dramatic personae:

Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Dr. Marcus Whitman

 

Henry Spalding

All three were missionaries, come to Oregon in 1836 to convert the Native Americans, specifically those of two tribes:

Nez Perce

 

The Cayuse, astride their famous ponies

Before too much time went by, Marcus Whitman’s work devolved from Christianizing the Indians to facilitating the settlement of Oregon by Easterners and immigrants. As their rightful claim to the land was subverted over and over again, the Cayuse people became increasingly angry and resentful. Then a measles epidemic ravaged the area, often proving fatal to Native Americans and White settlers alike.

The Cayuse held the missionaries responsible for all of these evils. They had, finally, had enough.

This is not to say that their slaughter of the Whitmans was in any way justified. But they considered themselves to have been provoked beyond reason and thus impelled to act.

(It is worth remembering that Oregon was not even a Territory in the 1830s – it was a settlement, and one both jointly owned and disputed with the British, at that.  It became a U.S. Territory in 1848, and finally a State in 1859.)

As I stated at the outset, the tragic story of the killings is told very soon after the book commences, The mystery is not about who was responsible for the carnage. That was known almost immediately afterwards. Rather, the remainder of the narrative concerns a rather amazing journey undertaken by Marcus Whitman not long before his demise. The purpose of the journey…well, let’s say  that the purpose of the journey was vigorously disputed.

Meanwhile, Blaine Harden gives us a deep, hard look into the hearts and minds of the missionaries. It is a fascinating depiction. And at times an enraging one. And as I headed toward the fraught conclusion of this tale, I could not help pondering the central question…What on Earth were they thinking??

The American missionaries demanded more than just religious conversion. Assuming that their way of life was superior in every way to the centuries-old spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of Indians, they sought to transform the “copies of their white neighbors.”
To that end, the missionaries insisted that the Indians learn English, cut their hair, wear white people’s clothes, forsake collective ownership of land, accept private property, settle down as  farmers, embrace “hard work,” learn to plow, and raise row crops–all the while obeying the Ten Commandments, and renouncing polygamy, drinking, gambling, dancing, and horse racing.

Don’t know about you, but I don’t know many people who could live like that, whatever their ethnicity.

And what, pray tell, were they supposed to do for fun?

There is plenty of material in Murder at the Mission concerning the treatment of Native Americans that was meted out by their White counterparts. It is an appalling record of deliberate injustice – ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.’

Blaine Harden demystifies these matters with a sense of quiet outrage. He is a native of Washington State, so truth telling in this aspect obviously carries great weight with him.

This is an amazing, illuminating, and ultimately heartbreaking story.

 

 

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Art to calm and to inspire

May 22, 2021 at 9:50 pm (Art)

Art and books, art and books! I am awash in both.

I know…lucky, lucky me.

Here are some paintings that I have recently come to know and love – in no particular order:

Christ Healing a Deaf Mute Person, by Philippe de Champagne

You could almost forget that this is a religious depiction, the landscape is so compelling and beautiful. Yet it is vital to know that in a small corner of the picture, a miracle is occurring.

Moonlit Landscape by Washington Allston

The Mill, Rembrandt

Is is the singularity of the structure, set against a threatening sky, the steep cliff descending into calm water below, the juxtaposition of almost glaring light, and encroaching darkness…. I don’t know. This picture has, for me, an hypnotic quality.

In the Orchard, Sir James Guthrie

To my eye, there is in this picture an element of the sacramental. The way the girl is looking past the boy rather than at him. It puts me in mind of a radically different image in which a woman is staring fixedly at something she alone can see:

Sir James Guthrie is a part of a group of Scottish artists called The Glasgow Boys. He is an artist new to me. I find his work deeply appealing.

View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, Velasquez

I have an inexplicable passion for this painting. I asked by art  guru Nora if she could help me to understand why I should feel this way about it. She noted that a view that at first seems straightforward seems later to be full of mystery. Why is the entrance to this structure boarded up in such a haphazard manner? We cannot know. And the trees seem almost to surround it, protecting it.

To me this is a portrayal of sheer beauty. It is also an atypical work for Velasquez, made on a trip to Italy. He was primarily a portrait painter.

In his youth, Velasquez was apprenticed to the painter and writer Francisco Pacheco. In time, he also became Pacheco’s son-in-law.

In the book Lives of Velasquez, Pacheco writes:

I gave him my daughter in marriage, persuaded to it by his virtue, chastity, and good qualities and by the expectations raised by his great native talent.

Michael Jacobs begins his introduction thus:

Velasquez is an artist whose works are so dazzling in their technique and so uncannily lifelike that it is difficult at times to think of him as a man of flesh and blood.

So the book I’m referring to is part of a series put out by Getty publications. They’re unusually small for art books; this volume on Velasquez measures about six inches  by four and a half. It contains Michael Jacobs’s wonderfully illuminating essay, plus the piece by Pacheco and another by Antonio Palomino (1655-1726), a Spanish painter and art historian. I should mention that there are numerous color reproductions in these books, and althouh they are small, they are nevertheless wonderful.

In order to see all the titles currently on offer in this series, click here.

Here are a few more works by Velasquez to feast your eyes upon:

Portrait of Juan de Pareja

I vividly recall the excitement at  the Metropolitan Museum of Art when this work was acquired in 1970. It has been described as “among the most important acquisitions in the Museum’s history”.

Old Woman Frying Eggs

Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Pablo de Vallidolid, the King’s fool

The famous, and incomparable, Las Meninas. To the left, Velasquez himself can be seen, pondering his work.

Whenever I gaze at the art of Velasquez, I hear the timeless, evocative music of Joaquiin Rodrigo. Here is the Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez:

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About Robertson Davies

May 18, 2021 at 8:00 pm (books)

  I was already an admirer of Stacey Abrams when I encountered her interview in the May 9 issue of the New York Times Book Review. In it, she sings the praises of the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, in particular his novel What’s Bred in the Bone. She concludes her brief but enthusiastic commentary by saying, “Rarely has anyone heard of him or the novel, which is a shame.”

I’ve heard of him! While I’ve not read What’s Bred in the Bone, the second novel in the Cornish Trilogy, I have read the three novels that constitute the Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. This was a while back. I remember enjoying them greatly. (Davies has a gratifyingly extensive Wikipedia entry.)

Davies died in 1995, at the age of 82. His last novel, The Cunning Man, came out the previous year. When I finished reading it, I recall that I closed my eyes and sent up a brief prayer of thanks, that someone could still write superb novels like this one.

I haven’t read anything by Robertson Davies in quite some time. Now I think I’ll read What’s Bred in the Bone.

Thanks, Stacey!

I love this picture of Robertson Davies. He resembles a magus. If memory serves, it captures, to some extent, the spirit that imbues his fiction.

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Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me…

May 14, 2021 at 6:23 pm (Art, Family)

 

 

Art books, a cookbook, and a mystery, all wonderful, all courtesy of this terrific guy:

Oh,and if you look closely, at the table, you will note the presence of an Amazon Gift Card.

Such bounty, such generosity! Such love.

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Happy Mothers Day

May 9, 2021 at 7:24 pm (Family)

Mother and Child, by Mary Cassatt, 1890

I wish  a very Happy Mothers Day to all mothers, and to all women who have given care, tenderness, and love to the children in their lives.

Lillian Helen Gusman Tedlow, my mother, in a graduation photo from the late 1930s. She attended the New Jersey College for Women, as it was then known.. Founded in 1918 as part of Rutgers University, it was renamed Douglass College in 1955. Daughter of immigrants, she was the first woman in her family to attend college.

My grandmother, my mother, and me, mid 1950s

My daughter-in-law Erica and granddaughter Etta

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A Weekend Worth Waiting For

May 6, 2021 at 7:30 pm (Family)

Ron dropped me off at the airport this past Friday. We wanted to kiss each other farewell, but of course the extremely infuriating masks made the maneuver quite tricky. I immediately thought of a painting by Magritte:

Finally – Finally! – I made it to Chicago.

Bedraggled from travel, I rang the bell. At first, nothing. Then the door flew open. “Hey there!” exclaimed my son Ben.

We hadn’t seen each other in eighteen months. I tumbled inside; we struggle with my baggage. I dropped everything and turned to him, we hugged, and I said:

“Wow! I haven’t felt a surge of pure joy like that in such a long time!” It was true. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how dull and flattened out my emotional life had been since the pandemic took hold.

Ben and Welles

Soon, Mom Erica (and a truly terrific Mom she is!) and I went to pick up the children from school. Etta is ten, Welles is seven. As they piled into the car, Etta greeted me cheerfully – “Hi, Grandma Berta.” As if she’d seen me only yesterday. When we got back to the house, hugs were freely distributed. (All four adults thoroughly vaccinated.)

Saturday and Sunday were  given over to baseball, softball, and soccer, with some screen time in between.

 

Welles is an aspiring pitcher. We feel that he’s got a pretty good arm, already.

Two dinners out, two in. Etta, as always, spent some time making art. She gave one of her creations to me:

I left on Tuesday, hating to say goodbye. I hope to return in just a few months. A year and a half long separation was way too much, but thankfully, it is over.

 

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Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber – coming soon

April 28, 2021 at 7:33 pm (Book review, books)

I was not planning to do any blogging today, but as soon as I opened the Style  section of today’s Washington Post, I knew that I had to. This is because Ron Charles has written a full length review of Joan Silber’s latest book, Secrets of Happiness. It appears to be a mostly positive review. I say ‘appears’ because I don’t want to read it too closely. I want the contents to surprise and gratify me when I have the book in my hands.

Now I’m fully aware that one’s favorite author may not always thrill her devoted reader. But I’m not too worried. I consider Joan Silber to be a superb practitioner of the art of fiction. Secrets of Happiness apparently consists of a series of linked stories. Silber employs this device brilliantly in Ideas of Heaven, a book I’ve read three times and will probably read again, I love it that much.

As for Secrets of Happiness, its publication date is Tuesday of next week, May 4. This is a minor gripe I have with the publishing and media industries, this tendency of reviewers to whip you up into a frenzy of reader’s desire, only to find that the object of that desire is not yet available to the general public. (Also, as of this writing, it is not yet on order at the local library. Feel free to request that it be ordered.)

Oh well. I can wait. I can happily, buoyantly wait.

Joan Silber

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‘Art has been a blessing and a lifeline for so many.’

April 21, 2021 at 6:39 pm (Art, Magazines and newspapers)

It certainly has been, for me.

The above title comes from an article by Caroline Campbell in the December 2020 issue of Apollo: The International Art Magazine.

Campbell continues:

It reminds us of our humanity, and links us to others. In it, we can resilience and comfort.

She then observes:

The  art of the past, however, has a task that seems particularly salient at this moment: to remind us that creativity endures in hard times, and  that crises and pandemics are nothing new. Nor do they last forever, or entirely define the life and experience of those who live  through them.

This is the first time I’ve seen an Apollo’s Awards Issue. It proves to be an especially enriching trove. A few of the highlights:

Toyin Ojih Odutola, selected as artist of the year.

I’d never heard of this Nigeria-born, America-raised painter. I definitely like her work.

The Firm

The Missionary

For Museum Opening of the Year:  The Yemisi Shyllon Museum of Art, Nigeria

And the British Galleries, Metropolitan Museum of Art:

 

Obviously I can’t wait to see this, ardent Anglophile  that I am!

In other venues, notable acquisitions:

Marie Antoinette in a Park, by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Lebrun,  acquired by the Metropolitan Museum

 

Palm Sunday by Elisabeth Sonrel, acquired by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 

Nice work by the women, I think. It puts me in mind of a  book I read recently, entitled Eighteenth Century Women Artists: Their, Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs. The author is Caroline Chapman. If this sounds fascinating – well, it is, and then  some.

Several of these women were familiar to me: Elisabeth Louise Vigee Lebrun (whose self-portrait graces the cover), Angelica Kaufmann, Rosalba Carriera. But others were new, and I was happy to get to know  them.

Summer, by Rosalba Carriera. This artist, who worked mainly in pastels, was in her day much in demand as a portraitist.

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