Library Director’s Notebook
Tracy Chevalier, best known for her international bestseller The Girl With the Pearl Earring, has also written another novel in which she uses her rich imagination to create a complex fictional story around an actual work of art. In the case of her novel The Lady and the Unicorn, Chevalier’s story centers on the creation of the famous tapestries known as The Seduction of the Unicorn which hang in a museum in Paris and are among the most highly-prized tapestries in the world.
The year is 1490 and the place Paris. Jean Le Viste, a rich parvenu, eager to solidify his status at the French court, decides to commission an expensive series of tapestries to hang in his salon. Through the help of his agent, he engages the services of an arrogant, talented artist named Nicolas des Innocent, whose work has primarily involved the painting of miniature portraits of the female aristocracy and who convinces his patron to theme the tapestries around the seduction of the unicorn rather than the usual bloody battle scenes.
As accomplished a womanizer as he is as an artist, Nicolas des Innocent manages to seduce and impregnate a hapless girl in the service of Jean Le Viste and to nearly ravish his eldest daughter within a few weeks of receiving the commission. Sent off hastily to Brussels to supervise the creation of the tapestry, Nicolas des Innocent manages to roil up emotions at the master weaver’s well-regulated workshop and home as well.
In both Paris and Brussels the story is told through the voices and observations of various men and women whose lives are drawn into the creative and extremely demanding project of weaving the magnificent tapestries. George de la Chappelle, the master weaver, must risk everything to make the tapestries, which might lead to making his fortune or equally might lead to his financial ruin. His wife Christine , his son and his workers devote all their energies to the point of exhaustion to the task, knowing how much is at stake for everyone. The most touching part of the story revolves around Alienor, their blind daughter, whose intelligence and heighted awareness through her other senses make her a valuable member of both the family and the workshop. Despite her usefulness and gentleness, however, her family knows that she will find few men willing to marry a blind girl; and it is with horror that Alienor comes to realize her father means to betroth her to a repulsive oaf in the dye trades named Jacques LeBeouf once the unicorn tapestries are completed.
Not only is this a lively, romantic, moving and suspenseful story, it also relates fascinating information about the skill and artistry involved in the making of tapestries, the rigid social structure of the time, and the various roles of women, sexuality and marriage in medieval society. By the end of the book, through narrative and incident, the desires and hopes of all the principle characters have been revealed, their fates at least partially determined, and in a very few cases, their dreams fulfilled.
The Director’s Notebook
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Ekphrastic poems are poems about a specific work of art. In that case, what do you call a novel written about a specific painting? Perhaps it hasn’t been done enough-writing a novel about a specific painting—to warrant a defining label. Yet,no matter what we label The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, it will fall into the enviable category of “books you cannot put down.”
The Goldfinch is a real painting by a real painter, Carel Fabritius, a contemporary of Rembrandt . The rest of the book is unabashed, compelling fiction. When reading this lengthy novel we are introduced to a young boy named Theo Decker who narrates in an urgent and disarmingly honest way his story which begins with unimaginable trauma, progresses through years of dishonesty, escapism, and obsession in the company of some very unsavory characters and ends, less than a dozen years later, with a kind of battered understanding that life is never what you hoped it would be.
Along the way Theo takes advantage of some, and is taken advantage of by others. With a shocking lack of adult guidance or concern, Theo is handed around among various “caregivers”, including his charming ne’er- do-well, usually absent father and his specious girlfriend, and the well-to-do , icily polite family of one of his eccentric school friends. Perhaps no one makes quite as strong an impression on Theo as Boris, another young boy equally neglected by his mostly absent father, but more accustomed to the violent and law breaking side of life. Under Boris’ tutelage Theo begins a long, slow decent into alcohol and drug abuse as a means of trying to fill up the endless pit of his loneliness and the heartbreak of losing his mother. Yet through every vicissitude Theo holds on to his stolen talisman, Fabritius’ Goldfinch, the delicate painting of a chained bird shackled to its perch.
For all the violence and despair in the book, this is not a grim story. In fact, Theo lives a life not just of despairing escapism but of daring escapades as well. The last quarter of the book is an edge-of-your- seat thriller that would translate beautifully into a fast-action movie. And at every corner the opportunities are there for Theo to change course and against the odds take back control of his own life. It would be an unusual reader who wasn’t rooting for him, all the way.
The Director’s Notebook
The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared , by Jonas Jonasson, is to my mind a perfect summer read. It is silly, ingenious, engaging, and full of imaginative connections between an oddly-assorted group of oddly-endearing people.
This novel falls into the category of picaresque, which is just a grand way of saying that the central character, in this case a wily old man named AllanKarlsson, goes from one adventure to the other, pretty much without skipping a beat or losing any sleep. Compared by many critics to the appealing adventures of Forrest Gump, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared has become an international best seller. Perhaps in addition to the lively and unpredictable plot, the book’s appeal is created by the fact that Allan, on the run at age 100 from his repressive and unsympathetic nursing home, represents for all of us the importance of maintaining our dignity and self respect even in extreme old age.
Yet there is not really any serious point to this book. Allan Karlsson’s myriad adventures are too bizarre and satirical for anything resembling seriousness. But what fun they are to read! Over the course of the book, Allan helps invent the atomic bomb for the Americans, shares his knowledge with the Russians, rescues Mao Tse-tung’s wife, helps establish a new government in Indonesia, blows up some bridges and buildings and steals a suitcase stuffed with millions. And that covers only a small portion of his adventurous and wacky life.
Through it all Allan stays devoted to only two things: his passion for vodka and his dislike of all politics and religion. Oh, and towards the end of his life Allan comes to love a cat and a woman, with mixed success. Stepping through the nursing home window and becoming a fugitive is no great challenge for Allan, the centenarian. In fact for Allan the craziness that follows his escape is only a logical extension to the daffy adventures of his 100 year old life!
The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is escapist literature at its most goofy and appealing: as I said earlier, the perfect summer read. And what an amusing summer movie it would make as well!
The Director’s Notebook
The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace
For those who will be travelling this summer and who are looking for a small, portable, delightful book that won’t take up too much space in their luggage or carry-on bag, I would recommend The Blind Contessa’s New Machine by Carey Wallace.
Carolina Fantoni, the blind contessa, was not always blind. As a young girl drawn to close observation and appreciation of the natural world, Carolina used her precious sight to observe everything in her privileged world. As Carolina grew from childhood to early adolescence, she found a kind of shadow slowly and insidiously restricting her vision. At first it seemed as if the darkness would limit only her peripheral vision, and she worked quietly to compensate. Yet inexorably her field of vision grew smaller and smaller until Carolina could no longer deny that she was going blind.
Bravely, she told her mother and her father. Neither of them believed her. Next she told Pietro, her handsome fiancé. He made flirtatious jokes about her being blinded by love. Only her childhood friend Turri took her seriously and tried to offer her support and help. But nobody had ever taken Turri seriously, considering him with his numerous inventions and passion for obscure knowledge a kind of comical, harmless buffoon.
Despite her gentle but unvarying insistence that she is going blind, Carolina is married to Pietro. When her blindness is nearly complete, her husband and family are finally forced to believe her, although there is little they can do but treat her with overly protective and suffocating pity. Yet Carolina is determined not to be an object of pity, and with Turri’s help she attempts to lead as normal a life as she can.
Turri surprises Carolina one day with an invention he has created especially for her—an early prototype of a typewriter . In fact, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is an imaginative and sensitive love story based on this true incident in history in the early 1800’s. Yet this book goes well beyond a cool recounting of dry historical fact.
The Blind Contessa’s New Machine is a novel written with astounding and deeply moving perceptiveness, bringing the reader into Carolina’s mind and heart as she deals with the terrifying reality and consequences of going blind. Yet so courageous and brilliant is this young girl that we can only admire her as she strives to master every challenge she encounters.
Library Director’s Notebook
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Some wise advice that has been given to novice writers of novels is to start their story as close as possible to the “day that was different”. Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, certainly heeds this advice with remarkable skill.
Harold Fry is a newly retired man whose life has fallen into an uncomfortable, albeit typical rut. With very little to occupy his time, no true friends and only a nodding acquaintance with his neighbors, no deep interests or absorbing hobbies, and worst of all with a prickly and at times even hostile relationship with his wife, Harold feels very little pleasure in his existence.
One day Harold receives a surprising letter. The letter is from a female co-worker whom Harold has not seen for decades. The writer, Queenie Hennessy, says that she is dying of cancer in a hospice and that she felt she wanted to say a few words of farewell to Harold, who had always treated her with kindness.
The letter astonishes Harold. He is touched that Queenie remembered him and had reached out to him in such an unexpected way. Setting out to post a return letter to Queenie, Harold finds himself walking right past the letter box. Instead Harold decides that he will continue walking until he reaches Queenie, a journey of more than 600 miles. In a kind of epiphany, Harold believes that Queenie, despite her rapidly advancing illness, will stay alive as long as he is walking to her.
To say that this trip is ill-advised would be an understatement! Harold is improperly dressed, out of shape, has no idea how to get to the hospice, very little money, and—horrors—doesn’t even have his cell phone with him! His sufferings, especially in the early days of his pilgrimage, are extreme. His wife and neighbors think he has gone mad, and Harold at times thinks they must be right. Yet the more he walks the more he believes in himself and the closer he comes to a feeling of purpose and peace.
As he walks, mile after mile, Harold meets many people, all with their own stories and worries and plans. He is moved and changed by these unplanned interactions, but even more so, he is moved with compassion for his own unhappy life and experiences, particularly those involving his troubled son, David. There is a mystery surrounding David and a burden of guilt for Harold that keeps him in sadness and torment even as he also blossoms with the beauty of his journey.
Some unexpected twists crop up along Harold’s path that threaten the success of his pilgrimage. Meanwhile, his wife Maureen, at first an impatient skeptic of all things Harold , begins to find her own bitter prejudices and disappointments starting to shift in disturbing ways.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is filled with a sense of light and hope, even during Harold’s darkest hours and most heartbreaking memories. Like all pilgrims, Harold carries with him a vision of a better world, a world that cannot be quite dismissed or crushed or buried, so long as there are some people who believe in the near divinity of the human spirit.
Library Director’s Notebook
Somerville and Ross were two women writers and cousins who wrote rollicking stories about the Anglo-Irish and their trials and tribulations in Ireland during the late Victorian period. Their best known work, which was dramatized by the BBC is Some Experiences of an Irish RM. Yet Somerville and Ross considered The Real Charlotte to be their best work.
Part farce, part drama and in the end, part tragedy, The Real Charlotte might be said to be a combination of the deep seated vengeance found in Balzac’s Cousin Bette, the sad fate of the heroine in Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles, a good dash of the broad silliness of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers and the vivacious candor of Fieldings’ Tom Jones!
Pretty, inexperienced, yet ultimately manipulative Francie Fitzpatrick has lived a life of genteel poverty in her small Irish town, and so is happy to take up refuge with her older, seemingly sedate cousin Charlotte. Within weeks of her establishment in the rustic town of Lismoyle, Francie has conquered the male population pretty completely, including Christopher Dysart, the son of the local squire, Gerald Hawkins, a dashing English army officer and Roddy Lambert the estate land agent, with whom Francie was acquainted as a child.
Charlotte watches these goings on with increasing displeasure, particularly since she has herself been enamored of Lambert, the land agent for years , who is himself married to a dull, nervous, semi-invalid wife. Francie, unaware of Charlotte’s passion for Lambert, keeps him dangling with her other suitors as she sets out to have the best time possible before making any permanent choice of her own.
The passionate rivalries, overt or unspoken continue to heat up, with Francie flaming the fire with her dazzling loveliness and headlong pursuit of amusement. Charlotte, thwarted and bitter and neglected one time too many, begins to concoct her own schemes, with tragic results. Meanwhile a motley crew of locals, replete with thick layers of ignorance, superstition, and age-old resentments comment on the unfolding drama like a kind of Irish chorus, discoursing on the action with censorious tongues.
The Real Charlotte is not as well known at it ought to be. Although written more than a hundred years ago, it raises questions of morality, psychology, and social interaction that are entirely relevant today. Its humor, at times broad, at times subtle, stands the test of time. Lastly, the lovingly detailed descriptions of the Irish countryside elevate the spirit, as all carefully observed writing of the natural world inevitably does.
Library Director’s Notebook
For the past few weeks I have been enjoying the novels of Anthony Trollope, who although a contemporary of Dickens and a more prolific author, is not as well known and not usually as highly regarded as Dickens by modern readers. Trollope has written nothing, for example, as loved and universally lauded as A Christmas Carol, yet in his own way, Trollope had as keen an eye for both the sublime and the ridiculous as Dickens.
If you like long, complicated descriptions, lively dialogue, dry, sardonic wit, and romantic entanglements, you will love reading Anthony Trollope, especially his six volume series of novels known collectively as the Chronicles of Barsetshire. These novels, written between 1855 and 1867 feature a cast of characters living in the fictional county known as Barsetshire, including the cathedral town of Barchester. Featured in the impressive cast of Victorian characters are clergy, bishops, dukes, earls, landed gentry, lawyers and farmers, numerous lovely ladies, with or without fortunes to attract numberless well- or ill-meaning suitors, anxious mothers, clueless fathers, eager daughters and feckless sons.
It is a delight to read Trollope, but perhaps it is an even greater delight to hear his work read by a gifted actor. My long commute back and forth to work has been wonderfully enlivened by listening to superb actors read Barchester Towers and Dr. Thorne, two of the chronicles of Barcestshire. In the first novel, a new bishop comes to Barchester with his overbearing wife and scheming chaplain and soon throws the self-complacent clergy and their families into an uproar. In Dr. Thorne a lovely, self assured young woman of no fortune and very dubious birth is wooed by the heir of the local squire, much to the despair of his relatives who keep intoning “Frank, you MUST marry money!”
In fact, nearly all of Trollope’s novels have to do with money; what the pursuit of it, or the want of it, does to people of all classes. Trollope himself knew what it was to be born into a family that experienced more than its share of stressful financial difficulties. All his life Trollope worked very hard to keep such difficulties from blighting his adult life, and his astounding outpouring of novels and short stories certainly was effective at keeping the wolf from the door!
One habit of Trollope’s as a writer that some modern readers might find disconcerting, if not actually annoying, is his habit of intruding his opinions and reflections directly into the novel, sometimes slowing the pace of the story down to a crawl. Like some other novelists of his time, he had no scruples about suddenly addressing “the reader” directly; commenting on characters and their motivations or suddenly going off on a flight of discourse about modern politics or social commentary! He has been criticized for this, and while understanding the criticism, I usually find these comments and musings of his to be quite enjoyable.
In fact, I think that if Trollope had lived in modern times, he would probably have loved having his own blog, where he could have nattered on and on about everything under the sun! But being a Victorian, with only his novels to feed his passion for commenting about all and sundry, including his remarkable knowledge and insight about each and every one of his hundreds of characters, he had to be content with the fiction he left behind for us to enjoy! And although my Director’s Notebooks are usually reserved for reviews of books, including recorded books, I want to also urge readers to view a wonderful adaptation of one of Trollope’s last novels The Way We Live Now. The multi-part series, broadcast a few years ago on Masterpiece Theater features performances by an outstanding cast of British actors, led by the inimitable David Suchet, of Hercule Poirot fame. Although written more than 130 years ago, it shows an insight into financial chicanery and rapaciousness that is very modern indeed!
Library Director’s Notebook
A new novel by Lee Smith is always a much-anticipated event by thosel of us who love her work. Known to some of a “southern writer”, Lee Smith both fulfills the finer expectations of that label and extends far beyond its boundaries. It is hard to find a writer from the South, the North, or any place betwixt or between who has a greater capacity to spin a tale, craft a sentence, provoke a startled laugh, or evoke a searing memory better than Smith.
In her latest novel Guests On Earth, Smith introduces the character of Evalina Toussaint, a young girl whose early childhood in New Orleans in the 1920’s at first seems ideal, at least from a child’s innocent point of view. Unaware of the struggles of her highly overwrought, beautiful mother whose sustenance and comfort depend on the pleasure of her male protectors, Evalina knows only that her mother is an exotic, fascinating creature. When her mother commits suicide and dies in Evalina’s arms, the distraught and now orphaned Evalina is eventually brought to Highland Hospital, an actual hospital that existed and thrived for many years in Asheville, North Carolina, where it was known for its unconventional approach to the treatment of mental disorders, including various forms of shock therapy.
In fact, Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of Scott Fitzgerald was a frequent patient at Highland Hospital. In Smith’s fictionalized account ,Evalina and Zelda meet each other and get to interact many times over the years. Yet Guests on Earth, although narrated by Evalina, is not only Evalina’ s story, nor is it primarily Zelda’s story. Instead, through Evalina’s eyes the reader has a close up view of several of the inmates whose lives were shaped and changed during their time at Highland Hospital, sometimes for the better, and sometimes with less enduring success.
Ominously looming over the story is the fact that Highland Hospital was the scene of a horrific fire in 1948 that took the lives of nine women, locked in one of the wards on the top floor. Evalina as a survivor of that fire leads us along a circuitous but inevitable path towards that day of horrible reckoning. Along the way we come to know and care about Evalina’s friends and loves including Dixie, a vivacious Southern Belle, Ella Jean, a warm-hearted and extraordinarily gifted musician, Jinx, an amoral young woman with a mysterious past, and Pan, a near mute but seductive young man, abused as a child in horrific ways, yet able to connect with Evalina in a way that no one else can.
With Guests on Earth Lee Smith once again creates a work of fiction that resonates and lives on, well past the last page.
Library Director’s Notebook
The Collector of Lost Things by Jeremy Page is a book about rare, priceless, irreplaceable things, lost forever, not due to some cataclysmic eruption of the universe, but through the banal brutality, and senseless acquisitiveness of mankind. It is very difficult to read the detailed, bloody descriptions of the slaughter of animals by sailors, explorers, and even by scientists. Paradise is not always to be found in a lushly appealing tropical setting. Sadly, there is no paradise so frozen, so remote, or so self sufficient that it cannot be discovered, claimed, and exploited by man.
The Collector of Lost Things is not merely a condemnation against animal exploitation. The story is told through the point of view and memories of a young collector, Eliot Saxby, commissioned by several wealthy patrons to see if he can locate, while on an Arctic voyage, any remnants of the extinct Great Auk. The story, set in 1845 at the height of the Victorian passion for scientific collecting and classifying, also brings to life the social, spiritual, and psychological milieu of the age, through the eyes and impressions of the rather naïve Saxby.
In the crowded microcosm of the sailing ship, Saxby interacts closely, if at times uncomfortably, with the various officers and crew, along with two civilian passengers including Clara, a beautiful young woman accompanying her male cousin on the ship. Clara mystifies and excites Saxby who cannot understand why such a frail woman in obvious distress and ill health should attempt such a dangerous voyage. To make matters more disturbing and mysterious, Saxby is certain that Clara is hiding her true identity and is in fact another unhappy young woman named Celeste whom Saxby had tried unsuccessfully to rescue from her domineering father nearly a decade earlier.
As the weeks go by, Saxby and Clara form a passionate bond and friendship. Together they attempt to hide on ship a creature of incalculable value, unique in all the world. They are forced to confide in others about their hidden treasure in order to keep it alive; although they know betrayal and failure are probably inevitable, as their dread of discovery grows with every hour.
Yet nothing is a given when there is passion enough to defy all odds. The Collector of Lost Things is astonishing and deeply moving, up to and through the very last remarkable pages.
Library Director’s Notebook
I have just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of the bestseller Eat, Pray, Love). I have spoken with a few people who finished reading The Signature of All Things, and I find it interesting that there appears to be a wide range of opinions about the book. One reviewer said she loved it and found it endlessly fascinating, while another reader said it was boring and not worth finishing. I think the reason for the disparity of opinion about this book is that in some ways it is a book with a split personality!
On the one hand , The Signature of All Things is a story about love in all its forms, love between men and women, love between children and their parents, love among siblings, and love for dearly held principals or passions. The book’s protagonist Alma Whittaker participates with varying degrees of success in all these love relationships. Her intense search for love drives the story and generates our alternating feelings of compassion or impatience for her.
On the other hand, Alma’s primary passion, for science, observation, and classification brings an entirely different slant and depth to the book. Anyone interested in the history of science, or in botany, evolution, natural science, or the accomplishments of women in science would find this aspect of the story equally as compelling as Alma’s emotional struggles, if not more so. I am interested in all the subjects I just mentioned, so I loved reading about Alma’s painstaking, scientific observations and theories which eventually led her to a revolutionary insight. However, I can understand that not all readers would be willing to plow though pages of Alma’s close, not to say obsessive, observation of mosses, a study she devotes most of her life to and which occupies a major portion of her time, thought, and intelligence.
Yet it is Alma’s lifelong passion for mosses that defines her personality and determines her place in the world. It is her obsessive, perfectionist need to understand the natural world and her ability to extrapolate her findings to include the world of humans that leads to her astounding insights and ultimately prevents her from sharing her theories with the world.
The Signature of All Things is not an easy read; it is long and complex and at times too full of coincidences to be entirely believable. However, it is also quite thought-provoking. The character of Alma is fully developed and entirely believable in her many errors, misunderstandings, passions, and regrets. Throughout her long life ( a period that encompasses 1800 up through the early 1880’s), Alma never fails to be her own worst enemy; but she is also a woman of extraordinary ability, determination, courage, and ultimately, compassion and wisdom.