Friday, November 26, 2010

100 Years and Still Writing

Harry Bernstein, author of our next book, The Invisible Wall, is a man with a plan.  Having celebrated his 100th birthday this year, Mr. Bernstein's plan for 2010 is to finish his fourth book, based on his older sister, Rose.  The Invisible Wall was his first major publication which came to print in 2007 when he was 96.  Since then he has written two more memoirs, The Dream, about his family's immigrant life in the United States, and The Golden Willow, about his 67 year happy marriage to this wife, Ruby.

Ruby's death in 2002 precipitated a dark spell of grief for Mr. Bernstein, but he states, "I had this gap to fill.  Writing was sort of therapy.  When you're old, it seems you have no future.  Where are you going to go?  But I could go back to my past." The Invisible Wall takes the reader back to Harry's earliest memories of life with his hard-bitten family in an English mill town in the early 1900's.  Bernstein credits old photographs with bringing back a flood of memories which he then turned into his family's story of poverty, prejudice, cruelty and love.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

X-Rays of Madame X

Technical analysis completed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and published in 2005 reveals some very interesting data about John Singer Sargent's struggle with the composition and shading of Mme. Pierre Gautreau's portrait before and after it was debuted at the Paris Salon of 1884. Museum conservator, Dorothy Mahon, and associate research scientist, Silvia Centeno, demonstrate through X-radiography that Sargent reworked Gautreau's profile at least eight times.

The placement of her arms was changed from a completely different pose, and the angle of the tabletop was revised after the Salon exhibition. Most notably, Sargent altered the falling strap after it had been exhibited, as we know both anecdotally and from a black and white photograph of the Salon painting.  X-ray imaging shows the fallen strap underneath the repainted right arm of the sitter. As the article explains, Singer also changed the color background.

John Singer Sargent sold this portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916. Photographs in this posting are from the article cited:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Freudian Slip of the Strap?

Saturday Samplers will discuss Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X by Deborah Davis on Saturday, November 6, at 3:30 p.m. in the Community Room of the library.

Strapless tells the fascinating story behind John Singer Sargent's famous portrait of Mme. Gautreau. This life-size oil painting caused an absolute sensation at the Paris Salon of 1884. Exhibited alongside hundreds of paintings by renowned and aspiring artists, Portrait de Mme *** singularly attracted the disdain of both art critics and the Parisian public.

Why should this particular painting of a Belle Epoch socialite arouse such instantaneous revulsion and criticism? After all, Mme. Gautreau was considered to be an exotically beautiful young woman known for her remarkable neckline and figure. Why should John Singer Sargent's work be so reviled when he had successfully exhibited paintings at previous Salons? Could the artist's placement of her loose dress strap be enough to inflame the French or were there other factors behind their general disdain for what is now considered to be a masterpiece? In Strapless, Sargent's career is examined in terms of the impact this portrait had on both the artist and the sitter, Madame X.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri, author of our next selection, Interpreter of Maladies, started her writing career with a flourish, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for this collection of short stories.  Interpreter of Maladies also won the PEN/Hemingway Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Addison Metcalf Award.  Lahiri's subsequent publications are The Namesake, 2003, and Unaccustomed Earth, 2008.

Born in London to Bengali parents  in 1967, Lahiri moved to the States and earned degrees from Barnard College and Boston University.  She is married and the mother of two children.  Although she was raised in Rhode Island, the author visited family in Calcutta, India, numerous times. India is the setting for some of her short stories as well as for The Namesake.  Of interest to our group is the fact that the character Mrs. Sen is based on Lahiri's mother who babysat in the family home.  About her mother the author states, "I saw her one way, but imagined that an American child may see her differently, reacting with curiosity, fascination, or fear to the things I took for granted."

In his Time Magazine article "Jhumpa Lahiri: The Quiet Laureate", Lev Grossman notes that "Lahiri's stories are static, but what looks like stasis is really the stillness of enormous forces pushing in opposite directions, barely keeping one another in check."  He further comments that "It's difficult to quote from her stories: they refuse to sum themselves up with a neat final epiphany."   Lahiri states that "Interpreter of Maladies" had to be the title story for this collection because she, as the writer, is like an interpreter of the emotional pain and distance experienced by her characters.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Here We Are

Here's our great group!
(minus Evelyn who is lurking behind the camera lens)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Got Candy?

Wow, I came right down to the line in finishing this epic book, The Candy Bombers.  I started out in July listening to it, but realized I could read faster than the folksy pace of the audiobook narrator.  Author Andrei Cherny did a great job weaving all the various content together to make sense of a complicated bit of history. Historical figures were given a breath of life that only narrative nonfiction can achieve, and I certainly found the book compelling and comprehensive, if rather long.  Here's a CBS interview with Andrei Cherny and pilot Hal Halvorsen.  What did you think of the book?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Yukking It Up With David Sedaris

Saturday Samplers will be laughing and scratching this Saturday, July 10th, as we meet to discuss the humor of David Sedaris.  Our chosen book is Me Talk Pretty One Day, but the group is welcome to share their own favorites by the author as well as other humorists.  For instance, I really had a laugh riot over another Sedaris book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and look forward to more recommendations.  Here are some short interviews featuring the author's offbeat humor as well as the issue of comic exaggeration.

Friday, June 11, 2010

There are Mountains Beyond Mountains in Haiti and Rwanda

In 2003 Tracy Kidder published Mountains Beyond Mountains which vividly describes the "mountains" Dr. Paul Farmer and his associates crossed to bring equitable medical care to Haiti.  Although Farmer's pioneering treatment of multi-drug resistant TB in Peru and Russia is also chronicled in the book, Kidder's story begins and ends with Haiti.  In fact he wrote that Farmer "would always return to Cange.  It seemed to me that he didn't have a plan for his life so much as he had a pattern.  He was like a compass, with one leg swinging around the globe and the other planted in Haiti."

Yet by 2004 Paul Farmer had journeyed to a new frontier and a new home in Rwanda.  This country had  made a remarkable recovery from the horrific genocide of the prior decade, but was still in dire need of medical care.  Partners in Health established hospitals in the neediest regions with the help of the Clinton Foundation, and Paul Farmer was directly involved from the beginning in selecting sites.  It might come as a surprise, but Farmer decided that Haiti had become too dangerous to raise his family, so he moved his wife, Didi Bertrand, and daughter, Catherine, to Rwanda with him.  They have since adopted a Rwandan baby daughter, Elizabeth, in the same year that they had a new son, Sebastian.

Farmer's associate and co-founder of Partners in Health, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, has gone on to become the new president of Dartmouth College in 2009.  Last month he invited Tracy Kidder to give a talk at Dartmouth to discuss Kidder's new book, Strength in What Remains.  The imprint of Paul Farmer can be felt in this book, too,  which follows the journey of a Burundi refugee, Deogratias, from homelessness in New York to Dartmouth Medical School and back to Burundi where he established a medical clinic.  The common factor in this story is Paul Farmer, who introduced Tracy Kidder to Deogratias.  And so it goes.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, Then and Now

Here are some pictures and links to articles about Paul Farmer and Partners in Health.

The first picture shows Pere Lafontant and his wife, fondly called Mamito, who passed away last month. Farmer wrote a nice tribute to her on the Partners in Health Web site.

Paul Farmer with the Lafontants in the 1980's

Recently Farmer has been working in Rwanda with PIH hospitals.  His wife Didi initiated the adoption of a Rwandan baby girl while pregnant with their second child who was born just a few months afterwards.

Farmer with wife Didi, daughter Catherine, new son Sebastian, and adopted daughter Elizabeth (in pink) - Rwanda, 2010

Partners in Health and Paul Farmer in Rwanda, 2010

The following link provides many recent photos of the Partners in Health clinics/hospitals in Rwanda and Farmer's current activity there.  He has also published a collection of writings called Partner to the Poor.  On the occasion of this new publication, Tracy Kidder, author of our book Mountains Beyond Mountains, reflects on some of his experiences with Farmer, many of which were not included in the book.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Elizabeth Strout

Maine is both a natural and, I believe, a conscious choice as the setting for Elizabeth Strout's book, Olive Kitteridge.  Many of the thirteen stories which comprise this book take place along the rocky coastline of Maine which Strout describes with the subtle, true familiarity of a native. In fact, Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in remote towns in Maine as well as New Hampshire. Her parents deliberately protected Elizabeth from outside influences,and she describes her upbringing as being very strict. The stony, isolating, and lonely nature of some of her characters seems to be reflected in the natural landscape of Crosby, Maine, the fictional town in Olive KitteridgeRead more here about the author's life and the fragments of her own family history that appear in bits and pieces in Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Further Links: The Lost City of Z

Kuikuro Men

Here are a few links and a video for you to explore, armchair-style, the question of  lost civilizations or organized societies in the Amazon. 

The first is a press release from the University of Florida announcing Michael Heckenberger's paper on his findings which were published in Science magazineThe second is a National Geographic article which provides some of the illustrations from the academic paper itself.  And last is an interesting article and video about the bioengineering of Amazon Basin soil in ancient times.  This "biochar" indicates that the unusually rich soil there was actually man-made centuries ago and would have supported cultivation, thereby sustaining organized settlements.

Monday, April 5, 2010

David vs.Goliath

Percy Fawcett would never have picked David Grann to join his expedition to the Amazon.  That much is clear.  And yet, Grann has emerged from his own Amazonian quest intact and with a walloping good story to tell in The Lost City of Z.

Grann is a book author and writer for The New Yorker magazine who considers himself to be something of a couch potato.  He certainly lacked camping and survival skills when he first sought answers to Fawcett's last (and lost) expedition.  What a break for Grann that technology has advanced to the point where he had better odds than Percy Fawcett to survive a trek into this unwelcoming, unknown territory.

I thought you might find the interview above to be interesting.  It was conducted last year by newspaperman Phil Bronstein and is quite extensive.  You can hit the play button for the entire interview or link here to select topics in the interview you want to cover.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson

Swedish author Stieg Larsson poured a lifetime of causes and interests into the few pieces of fiction, collectively known as the Millenium series, which he wrote before his untimely death at the age of 50 in 2004. Issues such as feminism, fascism, corporate crime and the role of media in Sweden propelled his life as an activist and as a writer. These same issues fall front and center in his books.

Professionally, Larsson was a graphic designer for Tidningarnas Telegrambyra, a Swedish news agency, but he devoted much of his time to investigative journalism, political activism, ethics causes and (to throw a curveball here) the promotion of science fiction. A member of the Communist Workers League and editor of a Trotskyist journal, Fjarde internationalen, Stieg Larsson put his political beliefs into action by founding the Expo Foundation, a Swedish organization formed to counteract racist and extreme right-wing Swedish groups. He was the editor for this foundation’s magazine, entitled Expo, which is more than a coincidence as the character, Mikael Blomkvist, also publishes a magazine, Millenium, in Larsson’s books.

Karl Stig-Erland Larsson was born in the northern town of Skelleftea, Vasterbotten, Sweden in 1954, but changed the spelling of his name to Stieg as an adult. He was intimately familiar with the culture, landscape and “personality” of the north, having been raised in the country by his grandparents. This knowledge is apparent in his descriptions of the towns and countryside in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As a young man he pursued interests in photography, and he enjoyed reading science fiction and mysteries.

His efforts to expose racism, neo-Nazism and extremist groups active in Sweden garnered him numerous death threats. For self-protection, he and Eva Gabrielsson, his partner of 32 years, sought to hide their personal information and address as much as possible, and this is why they never married because under Swedish law a married couple must publish their address. The fact that they were not married became a legal issue after Larsson died of a sudden, massive heart attack. Swedish law did not recognize Gabrielsson as his wife, and Larsson’s estate went to his father and brother, neither of whom were close to him nor had the intimate understanding of Larsson’s writings as did Eva Gabrielsson. The Guardian Observer just published an interesting interview with Gabrielsson which provides more insight into Larsson’s life and literary pursuits, which I recommend you read.

Stieg Larsson died having completed three books which he had hoped to turn into a long series. Known as the Millenium series, they are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish title being Men Who Hate Women), The Girl Who Played with Fire, and finally The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Swedish title being The Aircastle that Blew Up.) The first book has been released in film form by Swedish and English companies and the next two books are to be turned into television productions. The poster for the Swedish film is illustrated below, giving you some sense of how the characters have been portrayed on film.

          Eva Gabrielsson

Movie poster for Men Who Hate Women (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien knows a thing or two about Minnesota where our book, In the Lake of the Woods, takes place (born there in 1946), Vietnam (served there in 1969), and writing (contributor to magazines , The Washington Post, and award-winning author of numerous books.) Among these awards is the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians for the 1994 book,  In the Lake of the Woods. O'Brien's 1990 book, The Things They Carried, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. To learn more about Tim O'Brien, read his 1999 President's Lecture at Brown University. In addition, you can refer to a critical analysis of our book selection in the context of the My Lai Massacre.

Friday, February 5, 2010

After Dark and Sleeping Beauty Syndrome

Well, here's a tidbit too fascinating to pass over!!  I saw this on the news today and found a video link for you.  I immediately thought of the character, Eri Asai, in Murakami's After Dark.  Kleine-Levin Syndrome proves that truth is stranger than ficion, but Murakami has managed to straddle that gap by sheer force of his imagination. I am impressed.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In the Lake of the Woods

Click on the title of this post to read a very brief blurb I wrote about our next book. It appeared in Bernardsville Public Library's blog, Book News and More, last year.  I will be posting information about the author, Tim O'Brien, soon, and I hope you find this book to be intriguing and thought-provoking.