Book – Surrealism, as it was invented, wasn’t just an art movement but a political one as well, designed to help the practitioner break out of the mindset imposed on us by the culture we live in and invent a new and better world. Given that, it was really only a matter of time before China Miéville wrote a book about a surrealist city rising up to overthrow its fascist oppressors.
It’s 1950, and Paris is still occupied – both by the Nazis and by the manifs, physical embodiments of surrealist art and poetry that sprang into existence after the S-bomb exploded in a café in the 40s. The city has been sealed off to prevent the manifs from infecting the surrounding countryside. Thibaut is the last remaining member of Main á Plume, a surrealist Resistance faction, when he’s joined by Sam, an American photographer who’s chronicling the manifs for a book she wants to produce, The Last Days of New Paris. But Sam has other goals in mind, and they have to do with the Nazi scheme to leash the manifs as weapons, which is beginning to show signs of success.
This is such a perfect China Miéville book that I really can’t give it a better recommendation than that: If you like his books, you should love this. It’s probably a little easier to follow if you’re moderately familiar with the Surrealists, but there are some helpful illustrations (and an index chronicling the sources of the manifs, if you want to look them up). If you’ve never tried Miéville before, this isn’t necessarily the place to start (unless you really love Surrealism). May I recommend The City & The City, a surrealist mystery novel that’s recently been announced for an upcoming BBC adaptation?
Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.
I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.
I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.
Book – Claire Roth is a very talented yet struggling artist. She is so good at observing the techniques of famous artists and reproducing their works, that she makes a living of copying famous paintings for an online art retailer. She also wants to be recognized as an artist for her original works and she jumps at the opportunity for an exhibition of her work in exchange for forging an original Degas painting for a prestigious art gallery owner. The masterpiece is one of 13 that was stolen in 1990 from the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston, also known as the largest unsolved art heist in history. As Claire begins to paint she starts to question the authenticity of the Degas she was given and realizes that she may be in danger by having a stolen masterpiece in her possession. Claire also becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of the rest of the stolen paintings. A wonderful blend of fact and fiction, this story of suspense is richly detailed. The reader will gain an understanding of the art world as well as painting techniques.
Book – This Pulitzer prize-winning story has been likened to a number of classic coming-of-age tales from Charles Dickens. The central character in this novel, Theodore Decker, loses his mother during a tragedy that he himself survives at a New York art museum. The traumatic event, told from Theodore’s perspective, provides a compelling start for the book.
The audiobook for this title is narrated by David Pittu. His narration is exceptional as his voice conveys the pathos of young Theo and the psychic burden that overlays his life. Theo and his mother had been estranged from his father, and after the events in the museum Theo is housed for a time in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with the wealthy family of a socially-inept schoolmate. His appreciation for the art and antiques in the apartment touches upon on-going themes in the book: the immortality of masterpieces, the messages they convey through the ages, and the profound attachments individuals form with these pieces.
I was especially glad to be listening to the audiobook version of this story when Theo, as a teenager, develops a friendship with Boris, a boy from Ukraine. Both author and narrator played delightfully with the Slavic dialect. Boris is a wonderful character because he brought levity and perspective to the story, and David Pittu’s Boris was very likable.
Movie – If you are in the mood for something different, or want to do a bit of armchair traveling via stunning visuals from distant locations, Samsaramay interest you. It is a movie that is experienced rather than simply watched because of the impact of the graphic imagery of landscapes and human culture that are presented without a defined context. Filmed over four years, the images were photographed entirely in 70mm and transferred to 4K digital projection format. I’ve read recommendations for seeing this film on as large a screen as possible because of the splendid visuals, and I completely agree. Amazing real-time and time-lapse images that are as diverse as natural landscapes, spiritual sites, and industrial settings are accompanied only by ambient sound and music, and no dialog accompanies the film. This enriching film alternates between soothing meditative scenes of aesthetic grace and thought-provoking, slightly disturbing, scenes evoking social commentary. Samsarafollows in the footsteps of two award-winning predecessors Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi (which was accompanied by the music of Philip Glass).
Book – According to Macnamara, Chicago lies along a bird migratory route called the Mississippi Flyway. Insects such as butterflies and dragonflies migrate through this area as well. This beautifully printed little book succinctly introduces novices such as myself to the migration groupings one might expect to see in the Chicagoland area each season. Reading this, it felt like a treat to go behind the scenes with Macnamara and her co-authors to learn what ecological wonders local naturalists have witnessed through their work and observations. The inclusion of ancedotes from local establishments such as the Willowbrook Wildlife Center and the Field Museum bring the narrative close to home. Macnamar’s art and words even take us behind the scenes into the restricted sections of the Field Museum. Each beautifully printed illustration is accompanied by notes on the production of the artwork. These notes would be especially helpful to any fledgling wildlife artist. Because portions of the book are arranged by season, it is easy to flip to the relevant section to gain some insight into what might be traveling through my neighborhood currently.