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.

 

 

2 Comments

  1. angieboyter said,

    I found it interesting that you could not tolerate the training of the hawk in H is for Hawk (which I have not read but was planning to because Vesper Flights was so good.) but had no apparent problem with Cold Millions. I tried TWICE to read it but could not stand the cruelty. Both times I cut off soon after the herd of horses were slaughtered in order to run off an Indian tribe (a real historic event).

    • Roberta Rood said,

      That part about the horses was ghastly. I got past it as fast as I could, & I wish I’d never read about it. In fact, since you just mentioned it, I’d completely repressed the memory of it. I did feel that COLD MILLIONS was worth finishing, for other reasons, though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: