‘It’s a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization….’ – Queens of Egypt at the National Geographic

May 2, 2019 at 8:14 pm (History, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Yes, there she is, in all her beauty and mystery: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, wife of Akhenaton, the iconoclast Pharoah who instituted worship if the sun as the sole deity of the kingdom. But this exhibit at the National Geographic is not about him. Rather, it is about her, and the other notable queens whose reigns span this remote and exotic era.

The bust pictured above is a copy of the original, which was found in Amarna by a team of German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt. It currently resides in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, much to  the annoyance of its country of origin, which has been trying to get it repatriated since 1924. Museum officials claim that the bust is too fragile to travel.

Meanwhile, it is listed on Time Magazine’s list of Top Ten Plundered Items.

I digress. But it’s hard not to, when dealing with so vast a subject.

Six queens are highlighted in this exhibit. The first is Ahmose-Nefertari; her dates are 1539 BCE to 1514 BCE.

I quote from the exhibition guidebook:

Ahmose-Nefertari was the first queen of the 18th dynasty and of the New Kingdom. She was a powerful and influential queen who enjoyed widespread acclaim. After her death, she and her son were deified in Deir-el-Medina, where she was worshiped as a goddess of resurrection.

Ahmose-Nefertari   1539-1514 BCE

Hatshepsut (1479-1425 BCE), rather singular and remarkable, reigned as Pharoah for some twenty years in the mid-fifteenth century BCE. (The exact dates are disputed.) To emphasize her masculine qualities, she was sometimes depicted as bearded:

Hatshepsut with beard

 

Hatshepsut, clean shaven, as it were

The third queen was Tiye (1390-1340 BCE):

Tiye is found at the nexus of powerful rulers, being the Great Royal Wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Amenhotep IV, who became known as Akhenaton, and grandmother of Tutankhamun. Still, she held her own in the game of power.

Queen Tiye 1390-1340 BCE

Tiye’s mummified remains were discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1898:

Then, there was Nefertiti, wife of AmenhotepIV/Akgenaton (see above).

Nefertari was the Great Royal Wife of Ramesses II. At a time when life expectancy was all too brief, Ramesses II reigned for an astonishing sixty-six years. He ascended the throne in 1279 BCE, ruling until his death in 1213 BCE.

Ramesses lived to be ninety-six years old, had over 200 wives and concubines, ninety-six sons and sixty daughters, most of whom he outlived. So long was his reign that all of his subjects, when he died, had been born knowing Ramesses as pharaoh and there was widespread panic that the world would end with the death of their king. He had his name and accomplishments inscribed from one end of Egypt to the other and there is virtually no ancient site in Egypt which does not make mention of Ramesses the Great.

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Here is the beautiful Nefertari:

Nefertari 1279-1255 BCE

As the passage above indicates, Ramesses was plentifully supplied with wives and concubines. But Nefertari was his great love. On the wall of her tomb enclosure he caused the following to be inscribed:

“My love is unique — no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”

Just by passing, she has stolen my heart….

As well as  being a loving helpmate, Nefertari was apparently an accomplished woman in her own right:

She was highly educated and able to both read and write hieroglyphs, a very rare skill at the time. She used these skills in her diplomatic work, corresponding with other prominent royals of the time.

Wikipedia

In 1904,

Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of Queens was unearthed by a team of Italian archaeologists. It is an exceptionally gorgeous burial place.

 

This picture depicts Nefertari playing an Egyptian board game called Senet. According to Wikipedia, the rules of this game are not precisely known, yet a site called Discovering Egypt provides a  fairly complete description of how the it is played.

The Geographic exhibit had two stations set up side by side, and folks were trying their hand at it.

Finally, Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt(51-30 BCE). What can one say about this storied woman? Perhaps we had best leave it to Shakespeare:

‘Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies;’

……

‘The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.’

Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2

What did Cleopatra look like? The exhibit featured this sculpture, purportedly of her:

Yet it’s my understanding that no one is certain of the answer to this question and that the most reliable likeness is to be found on a coin:

For a more in depth look at  the life of Cleopatra, see this article from the Smithsonian Magazine. This piece features a number of striking images, including, inevitably, that of Elizabeth Taylor.

I also recommend Stacy Schiff’s biography. What I remember best from this book is the author’s description of the city of Alexandria. It sounded so glorious, I wanted to go there immediately. Alas, a period of some two thousand years separates us from that magnificent ancient city.

The Geographic exhibit was about more than just the queens. For instance, there was a set-up whereby people could inscribe their own names and see what they would look like in hieroglyphic script. I found a site online where you can do the same thing, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Here’s what my name looks like: You can try it with your own name by clicking here.

One of the most fascinating components of the exhibit concerned Deir el-Medina. This was a village composed of artisans whose brief it was to help build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was located on the west bank of the Nile in Thebes. There was a recreation of the place being shown on a large screen in a dimly lit room. I kept circling around and coming back to it. I’d just sit on the bench and stare. In short, I was mesmerized.

Our docent – a wonderfully knowledgeable young woman – passed around two items of great interest. One was a swatch of linen of the type that would have been used in the mummification process. The other was a piece of actual papyrus. This last was thrilling to me. It felt like a kind of nubby parchment. It was strange  to hold it in my hand and rub it gently between my fingers.. I was reluctant to give it up.

Numerous archaeologists won fame in the course of their explorations in Egypt. The exhibit featured one, a woman – two, actually – of particular interest, whom I’d never heard of: Margaret Benson (1865-1916) and her friend Janet Gourlay (1863-1912). There’s a detailed recounting of the life and professional accomplishments of Margaret Benson on the site of Egyptologist William H. Peck.

Janet Gourlay, left, and Margaret Benson

In 2013, an historical novel came out about ancient Egypt. Written by Kerry Greenwood, it was called Out of the Black Land. Once I got it, I could do nothing but read it. It brought the era of the rebel Pharoah Akhenaton so vividly to life that I was  seeing it in my dreams. I particularly remember the description of Queen Tiye, Akhenaton’s mother, struggling to give birth, her women grouped around her providing help and support.

An amazing  book.

“It is a fascinating subject, the study of this venerable civilization, extending back to the childhood of the human race, preserved for ever for our instruction in its own unchanging monuments like a fly in a block of amber. Everything connected with Egypt is full of an impressive solemnity.  A feeling of permanence, of stability, defying time and change, pervades it.  The place, the people, and the monuments alike breathe of eternity.”

R. Austin Freeman, The Eye of Osiris: A Detective Romance, 1913

 

 

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Book Bash: Important Addendum

March 8, 2019 at 7:11 pm (Awards, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

  In my post covering the AAUW Book Bash last month, I inadvertently failed to mention a book that is extremely germane to AAUW’s mission: Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, by Lily Ledbetter.

It started with an anonymous note in 1998. Ledbetter had  been working at Goodyear for nineteen difficult years when a mysterious missive informed her that she was being paid forty percent less than her male counterparts.

How did it end? From the Publishers Weekly review:

After discovering the anonymous note, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, leading to her landmark discrimination lawsuit under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. While Ledbetter lost the case on appeal (a decision upheld by the Supreme Court), the experience prompted her to become a spokesperson for equal pay. In January 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, a satisfying coda to this inspiring tale.

The  book jacket states that Ledbetter’s determination resulted in “a victory for the nation.”

Barb C., activist member of the Howard County Branch of AAUW, adds:

The bill is not really about equal pay itself but gives the employee the right to sue about equal pay using the last paycheck rather than the first one. She maintained civility through out the challenges. I have met her at the AAUW conventions. She is a strong supporter of AAUW.

Barb C., Lilly L, and Lisa Maatz, former AAUW Public Policy

 

 

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Best of 2018, Eight: Crime fiction, part one – and one other important item

January 5, 2019 at 9:48 pm (Best of 2018, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Before I do a deep dive into this one, I want to mention with praise and gratitude Tom Nolan’s list of best crime fiction of 2018. Why do I like this list so much? Because I’ve already read and enjoyed four out of ten of the titles he selected. They are:  

Here’s a link to the article. Tom Nolan writes for the Wall Street Journal, which tends to keep its content behind a pay wall. That content can, however, be accessed via the local library’s database HCLS Now! Research. Other library systems probably have a similar service.

Speaking of which, I’d like to commend the Howard County Library System for its generous gesture of suspending fees and fines during the current government shutdown. This has been done in recognition of the large number of federal workers living in this area. Several other measures have been taken to ease the impact of the shutdown. This action has been initiated by our new County Executive Calvin Ball (whom I encountered this morning at the League of Women Voters annual Legislative Luncheon).

Well done, Sir.

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We weep for you, Historic Ellicott City!

May 29, 2018 at 11:59 am (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

It is truly heartbreaking that this should have happened again. We were just there last Thursday, having dinner at our favorite restaurant, Tersiguel’s.

We pray for the missing man, Eddison “Eddie” Hermond, who was trying to assist a stranded woman when he was wept away by  the raging waters.

And they were raging. The power of a swift current is incredible, and incredibly dangerous.

Information is available, including information on how to help the once again besieged residents and business owners, at The Community Foundation of Howard County.

 

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The eclipse at our house, with a poetical digression

August 23, 2017 at 4:22 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

We were forewarned that in central Maryland, the eclipse would not be total. We weren’t expecting much, and frankly we didn’t get much. That’s not to say we didn’t try. And the sun was, in fact, shining – a happenstance not at all dependable here in the Old Line State.

We didn’t have  the special glasses and so did not gaze directly at the phenomenon. We were able to see this indicator, though, as the light penetrating through the leaves of the tree in our  front yard provided a sort of pin hole camera effect:

You will no doubt be impressed by the delicately calibrated scientific instrument that we also made use of:

At any rate, here was the sun once again, yesterday morning, being normal in our backyard:

Being of a literary turn of mind (and an incorrigible English major from way back),, I wish to cite three poetical allusions. The first is famous:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Oh, thanks to thee, Shakespeare, for having words of beauty and meaning for every occasion.

And  then there’s John Donne, who in his poem “The Sun Rising”, is not praising the sun but chastising it. (Imagine scolding the sun! But then, lovers can  be a pretty cheeky lot):

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’ Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, All here in one bed lay.

She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus.
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.

Finally there is W.H. Auden’s meditation on the sad fate of the too-audacious Icarus (and by implication the rest of us, sooner or later). This poem, titled “Musee des Beaux Arts,” was inspired by Auden’s viewing of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69) [Click to enlarge]

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St Michaels, on Maryland’s Easter Shore

July 26, 2017 at 10:20 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Maryland)

I rise early.

I go out on the deck, to survey what for a few precious moments seems like my own kingdom.

Meanwhile Ron sleeps peacefully. My own husband and the kindest man I have ever known, or will know. More and more, as the years pass, I’ve learned from him that thoughtfulness and consideration and selflessness are the true hallmarks of deep, real love.

As I write this, he snores away peacefully in the adjoining room. (If he heard me say this, he would exclaim, with a grin, “Snore? Me? Never!!) O that I could hear that sound forever! (Perhaps I will.)

In this second marriage for both of us, how lucky we have been.

Back to the deck. A couple strolls by. He turns to me, smiles, and wishes me good morning. I return his greeting. They walk on, seemingly content, despite the heat.

I long to see the ducks and rabbits that frequent this place. In the course of the morning, I see both, albeit fleetingly. And of course, numerous squirrels.

The heat is rising. The water glitters. The sun is blazing; the sky is white with heat.

I can sum up in a word why we come here and what we find each time we do: peace.

 

 

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Adventures in art history: Seductive Paris, Part Two

November 9, 2016 at 6:42 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

French naturalism was a direct outgrowth of the realist movement in art. The distinction between the two is rather subtle;  ergo, I’ll direct you to the relevant entry in the Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

Ms Billman cited Jules Bastien-Lepage as one of the main exponents of naturalism. I was thrilled to hear that name, as I knew what was about to appear on the screen. And sure enough:

Joan of Arc, 1875

Joan of Arc, 1875

I first saw this painting on my initial visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was eight years old. I already knew the extraordinary story of the Maid of Orleans. Seeing her brought to life in this way before my eyes – I was stunned.

It turns out that this work is somewhat of an anomaly in Bastien-Lepage’s oeuvre. As an artist in the realist/naturalist mode, he produced relatively little in the way of “history painting” or religious subjects. Here are several of his other paintings:

Pas Meche (Nothing Doing) 1882

Pas Meche (Nothing Doing) 1882

 

October 1878

October 1878

I’ve always wondered why Bastien-Lepage’s works were so rarely encountered elsewhere. I now know that this was due to the sad fact of his early death. According to the French language site “LES SECONDES AU TEMPS DES PEINTRES XIXEME” he died of stomach cancer at the age of 36.

Ms Billman provided a fascinating detail concerning the Joan of Arc painting. It seems that Joan never claimed to have actually seen the saints who spoke to her – only to have heard them. Hence their appearance behind her as she gazes, transfixed, into the middle distance.

I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by Joan’s story. Books about her appear  fairly regularly. I can recommend Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison (2014). joanarc

 

 

 

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Adventures in Art History, Part One: ‘Seductive Paris’

November 7, 2016 at 10:40 pm (Art, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Smithsonian Associates World Art History Certificate Program)

View of Ornans, Gustave Courbet

View of Ornans, Gustave Courbet

In which your intrepid faithful blogger and Jean, her equally intrepid friend and fellow art lover, commence their journey toward a Certification in World Art History, to be bestowed by the Smithsonian Associates, the educational arm of Washington’s illustrious Smithsonian Institution.

Alas, the day did not start out well. Our train, scheduled to leave at 7:59 AM, did not arrive until almost 9:30. Coincidentally, this was the exact time that our class – our very first one in the program – was scheduled to begin. As the train finally appeared in the distance, I could not help exclaiming, “Oh look! There comes a  chugging giant, traveling on these tracks at which we’ve been staring in frustration for an hour and a half! I believe it is a…Can it be..Yes!”

marc_train_at_odenton_2

The MARC train at the Odenton stop, where we caught it – finally

And so it went…

We arrived, panting but barely an hour late, at the Ripley Center, an odd little edifice on the Smithsonian campus where the class was  being held. ripley-center  At least, it seemed little, until we journeyed down two floors and found ourselves in an unexpectedly vast underground space.

But this was no time to stand gaping! We made for the Lecture Hall and were directed to the balcony, where we settled ourselves, whipped out our notebooks, and as the lecturer held forth about Realism in art  history, started scribbling madly. (Everyone around us was doing the same.)

My immediate first thought: I love this!

The program was called Seductive Paris. Our lecturer was Bonita Billman, who teaches art history at Georgetown University’s School of Summer and Continuing Studies. Ms Billman was knowledgeable, discursive, and witty. She possessed a large fund of anecdotes which greatly enhanced her presentation, which consisted of four lectures. They were as follows: French Teachers and American Students; Summers in the Country: American Painters in Brittany and Normandy; Domestic Bliss: Painters of Genre Scenes; and Impressionism in America. All the while Ms Billman was sharing her expertise with us, one gorgeous slide after another appeared on the screen beside and above the podium where she stood. Some of the art work was known to me; most was not. I wrote at frantic speed (and in very low light), trying to get down the names of paintings and artists that I particularly wanted to remember.

There is simply no way I can reproduce here the vast content that constituted these  talks. It was akin to condensing an entire semester of art history into one day’s proceedings. So what follows is a partial recapitulation of what was covered in the morning.

When Jean and I got to the lecture, Ms Billman was discussing Gustav Courbet, an artist of out sized genius with an ego to match. This pleased me, as I recalled the stunning exhibit of his works that I’d seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art eight years ago.

The Desperate Man (Self-Portrait) ca. 1845

The Desperate Man (Self-Portrait) ca. 1845

Ms Billman highlighted The Stone Breakers (1850), which was destroyed during World War Two:

the-stonebreakers

Courbet was in the vanguard of realist painters. These artists turned away from portraits of the aristocracy and royalty, and of historical and mythological subjects. Instead, they sought to depict people one might encounter in the ordinary course of  life, laborers and peasants being chief among these. Jean-Francois Millet was also in this group:

jean-francois_millet_-_gleaners_-_google_art_project_2

The Gleaners, 1857

jean-francois_millet_-_el_angelus_museo_de_orsay_1857-1859millet

The Angelus, ca 1859

Jea-Francois Millet Self-portrait ca 1841

Jean-Francois Millet Self-portrait ca 1841

Our lecturer spoke about the Barbizon School and the artists associated with it. These artists were drawn to natural surroundings, and to their depiction on canvas.The Forest of Fontainebleau was their chief inspiration:

Despite differing in age, technique, training, and lifestyle, the artists of the Barbizon School collectively embraced their native landscape, particularly the rich terrain of the Forest of Fontainebleau. They shared a recognition of landscape as an independent subject, a determination to exhibit such paintings at the conservative Salon, and a mutually reinforcing pleasure in nature.

From “The Barbizon School: French Painters of Nature,” by Dita Amory

 Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot Forest of Fountainrbleau 1830

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot: Forest of Fontainebleau, 1830

Narcisse Virgilio Diaz Forest of Fontainebleau 1868

Narcisse Virgilio Diaz   Forest of Fontainebleau, 1868

This group of artists had its counterpart in what is sometimes referred to as the American Barbizon School.  Ms Billman emphasized three painters associated with this movement: William Morris Hunt, Winslow Homer, and Theodore Robinson.

For a time, William Morris Hunt and his brother Richard Morris Hunt shared an apartment in Paris, hard by the Ecole Des Beaux Arts. Writes David McCullough: “From the training and inspiration each of the brothers was to experience in the next several years in France would come great strides for each in his work.” (This quote comes from The Greater Journey: American in Paris, a book I highly recommend.)

Dinan, Brittany, by William Morris Hunt

Dinan, Brittany, by William Morris Hunt

Landscape, by William Morris Hunt

Landscape, by William Morris Hunt

***************************

Late in 1866, motivated probably by the chance to see two of his Civil War paintings at the Exposition Universelle, [Winslow] Homer had begun a ten-month sojourn in Paris and the French countryside. While there is little likelihood of influence from members of the French avant-garde, Homer shared their subject interests, their fascination with serial imagery, and their desire to incorporate into their works outdoor light, flat and simple forms (reinforced by their appreciation of Japanese design principles), and free brushwork.

From an essay on Winslow Homer by H. Barbara Weinberg, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Weinberg opens this essay with the following statement: “Winslow Homer (1836–1910) is regarded by many as the greatest American painter of the nineteenth century.” It’s not hard to see why.

The Milkmaid 1878

The Milkmaid 1878

Artists sketching in the White Mountains

Artists sketching in the White Mountains

Photo Stduio Comments -there is no master transparency for this...find and check against it Timeline Update - went to see actual piece and color corrected based on the painting. Working Title/Artist: Snap the Whip Department: Am. Paintings / Sculpture Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1872 photography by mma, DT1395.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 9_3_09

Snap the Whip

The Four Leaf Clover

The Four Leaf Clover

Boys in a Pasture

Boys in a Pasture

****************************
Like William Morris Hunt, Theodore Robinson was born in Vermont. He traveled to Paris, Venice, and Bologna, returning to America in 1879. Five years later, he returned to France, where he became part of the artists’ colony that had  formed around Monet at his house and  garden in Giverny.

Robinson returned to America in 1892. He had intended to go back to France once again. Instead, in 1896, while in New York City, he succumbed to an acute asthma attack. He was 43 years old.

Le Cortège Nuptial (The Wedding Procession), 1891

Le Cortège Nuptial (The Wedding Procession), 1891

Nantucket 1882

Nantucket 1882

The Old Bridge 1890

The Old Bridge 1890

There’s more to come on ‘Seductive Paris.’

 

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‘You can never know the whole truth of anything.’ – Wilde Lake, by Laura Lippman

August 6, 2016 at 8:46 pm (Book review, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Lippman  Searching for truth, uncovering deception, both deliberate and inadvertent – these are Lu Brant’s core motivators, in both the personal and professional spheres. She’s the recently elected state’s attorney for Howard County, Maryland, and like her father who served in the position before her, she intends to be an unflinching seeker of justice. But as she starts out making her mark in the legal community, she has no idea how close to home this relentless ambition will soon take her.

A widow with two young children, Lu – short for Luisa – has chosen to move back into her childhood home so that her father, now retired, and his long time housekeeper can help her balance her overloaded life. It’s a bit like living in the past and the present simultaneously. The home in question is in the village of Wilde Lake, situated on the lake itself. Along with her parents, Lu and her much older brother AJ had been among the pioneers of the “new town” of Columbia, Maryland. (As she grew older, Lu had been told the sad facts concerning her mother’s passing.)

The above is but a brief recounting of a complex narrative which alternates back and forth between the past tense narration of the family’s early years in Columbia and the exposition of events occurring in the present. (Also, the past is related by Lu in the first person; the present, in the third person.)  The family’s past is interwoven with Columbia’s early years. In these chapters, Lippman uses the actual names of various streets and neighborhoods.

The problem with parallel narratives is that one of them often asserts a larger claim on the reader’s interest than the other. When that happens,you can become impatient with the narrative that you’re finding less compelling. Again, this was my own experience with the novel.

There is also a problem with reading something that takes place so close to home. The impulse to fact check sometimes overrides one’s attentiveness to the story. At least, that was the case with this reader. I admit it was hard not to jump up and down when ‘Rain Dream Hill’ was mentioned, as I lived there for two years in the mid-1970s, which is pretty much the time period the author is describing in those sections.

Lippman’s writing is as breezily accessible as usual, and her sense of humor is very much intact. At one point, she describes a salad set cherished by her father and referred to by him as his “‘lares and penates’.”  She confesses that “For years I thought that was Latin for oil and vinegar.” (Dictionary.com defines them as “the benevolent spirits and gods of the household.” This is how I have always regarded pets that are kept and loved in the home.)

My overall assessment of Wilde Lake? First off, the local references were fun but at the same time distracting. I found the plot rather convoluted. In addition, I don’t especially care for the technique of jumping back and forth in time, or of switching verb tenses and point of view. I like a straight ahead narration. (This may be one of the reasons I’m currently preferring to read nonfiction, the other being that there’s so much terrific nonfiction being written right now.)

But well, it is Laura Lippman, she is a home town girl and a very talented one, and Lu Brant is an exceptionally likeable and sympathetic character: a thoroughly modern woman in some ways, but still beset with the same doubts and uncertainties that, in the twenty-first century, still bedevil women in this country and elsewhere as well.

So I would say in general that despite the reservations voiced above, I liked the book. I’d recommend it especially to those who are recent residents of this area or who, like me, resided here during the same period as Lu Brant did as a child (and as Laura Lippman herself did as a teenager, graduating from Wilde Lake High School in 1977).

My favorite work by Laura Lippman is still What the Dead Know. This powerful novel from 2008 was inspired by the disappearance of  the Lyon sisters in adjacent Montgomery County in 1975. (Strangely, almost fatefully, after forty years without any substantial leads the case is once again in the news. This stunning development put me in mind of the penultimate line of the story “Dr. Henry Selwyn” by W.G. Sebald: “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead.”

I’d like to give Lu Brant herself the final word:

The truth is not a finite commodity that can be contained within identifiable borders. The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything.

And if you could, you would wish you didn’t.

Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman

 

 

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The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare

August 4, 2016 at 4:21 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

the-merchant-of-venice-at-shakespeares-globe-theatre-5e0447b96ab71c2145f4bdbf0c9f6eca

I’ve been missing our sojourns to the Folger Theatre, so yea, verrily, I was yearning for the wit, wisdom, and poetry of the Bard…

I got all three on Saturday in the Globe On Tour’s production of The Merchant of Venice at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

That’s Jonathan Pryce, above, as Shylock, the play’s most famous and controversial character. This was his first appearance in that role and his first time acting with the Globe. When he was first invited to take the part, he said no. He had never had any desire to act Shylock; in fact, he had a positive aversion to the role. But a seed had been planted. He reread the play, changed his mind, and signed on to do it.

It was brilliant. The entire production was brilliant.

This is not a play with which I’m particularly well acquainted. I came to it relatively cold, deliberately. Of course, I knew about Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. To a degree, I braced myself for the ugliness to come. And ugliness there is, but there is beauty also, mainly in the person of three sets of lovers who, this being a comedy, all ultimately attain their hearts’ desires.

Yet Shylock remains the burning center of the action. And, for me at least, his forced conversion at the play’s end was cringe-inducing in its cruelty. (To me, it seemed not only a mockery of Judaism, but of Christianity as well.)

Shakespeare’s comedy is Portia’s play, though some audiences now find it difficult to reach that conclusion.

Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human

It begins with boisterous music and dance. There’s also a  fair amount of lighthearted horseplay, supplied mainly by Stefan Adegbola as Shylock’s servant Launcelot Gobbo. Adegbola shouts gleefully, and dashes all over the stage and into the audience, where  he grabs people and pulls them onto the stage and into the action. Adegbola is a gifted comedian; he had the audience in stitches.

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo

Stefan Adegbola as Launcelot Gobbo

The single intermission did not occur until shortly before the famous courtroom scene. By then, the mood had turned decidedly somber.

One of the joys of seeing a Shakespeare play with which you are not all that familiar is the way in which familiar lines of dialog pop up now and then, providing richly rewarding “aha!” moments. A good example of this is Portia’s devastating putdown of one of her more irritating suitors: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (Act 1, Scene 2).

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE Shakespeare's Globe 2015 CREDIT: MANUEL HARLAN ... HANDOUT ...

Portia (Rachel Pickup) enduring the importunities of one of her oily suitors, the Prince of Arragon (Christopher Logan)

Then there’s this:

How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

(Act 5, Scene 1)

Portia speaks these words almost in a state of wonderment. That second line appears in Judgement in Stone, Ruth Rendell’s masterpiece. In the context in which the late Baroness Rendell places it, the tone is quite different.

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock remonstrates with his daughter Jessica (Phoebe Pryce, who is Jonathan Pryce's daughter in real life)

Jonathan Pryce as Shylock remonstrates with his daughter Jessica, played by Phoebe Pryce, who is Jonathan Pryce’s daughter in real life

In Act Five, the playwright, as if released from some mysterious constraint, bursts forth with some of the most gorgeous poetry anywhere in the canon. Witness the dreamy, lyrical exchange between Jessica and Lorenzo that opens Scene One:

Lor.  The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night         5
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls,
And sigh’d his soul toward the Grecian tents,
Where Cressid lay that night.
Jes.        In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew,         10
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself,
And ran dismay’d away.
Lor.        In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love         15
To come again to Carthage.
Jes.        In such a night
Medea gather’d the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Æson.

I confess the line I was waiting for was “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” It’s spoken just a bit later, in the same scene, by Lorenzo:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patenes of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

When finally I heard it, I sighed inwardly: how lovely… And I’m delighted by “Sit, Jessica.”  It is a line that’s startling in its contemporary resonance – as when Juliet says to Romeo: “The orchard walls are high and hard to climb.”

As for being Jewish while watching this play – well, I felt strangely ambivalent. My dear cousin, with whom I attended the performance and who is more committed in her Jewish observance than I am, had, I believe, a similar reaction; namely, it is anti-Semitic and it is brilliant. (There’s that word again; no denying it.) You can tell yourself that it is an entertainment of and for the time in which Shakespeare and his fellow players and collaborators lived and worked.

And yet – to quote Shylock:

If you prick us, do we nor bleed?

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