Saturday, September 27, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (2014)

I think the Russian defector angle caused me to pick up this audio book. I don't really get ballet - the amount of training and constant practice seems insane to me, and this book did not change my mind on that, but did give me an even closer look into the development of top ballet dancers and their world. I remember my mother being thrilled by Rudolf Nureyev and later Baryshnikov. When I look at the Wikipedia bio of Baryshnikov, it seems like the male Russian ballet dancer in Astonish Me is based on him to some extent - defecting in Canada in the early 1970's with the help of an American dancer. And the ballet company's director Mr. K. might be partially based on George Balanchine - also of a Russian background.

In Astonish Me, Joan is a ballet dancer - good enough to dance in the corps of a major New York City ballet, but not good enough to ever become a lead dancer. She spends a season in Paris, where she briefly meets the famous Russian dancere Arsalan Ruskov and leaves him her address. He writes her and when the opportunity arises to defect in Canada, he asks that she be the one to drive the getaway car. They are together for a while, but he is already famous and his attention is pulled away from her, if it ever was with her. She marries a guy that she has known since they were children, they have a son Harry, move out to California, and she eventually starts a dance studio, where her prize students end up being her son and neighbor Chloe.

I guess it is the way of modern novels that they keep bouncing back and forth in time, luckily providing date and place each time, so the story gets moved along at different levels and slowly scatters the clues to the complex set of relationships we find at the end. All in all, well told, drew me in, astonished me at times, reminded me of times Mom took me to the Nutcracker at Rockefeller Center, to Swan Lake most likely at Lincoln Center, I think we actually did see Nureyev live when I was a kid. It is a highly precise skill, and I guess if football players can keep getting injured for our entertainment, why not ballet dancers. I like dance, like watching dance, but prefer more free form, styles that are not as rigid as ballet, but maybe if I understood it more, I would appreciate it more. I know this is supposed to be about the book, but as with many of my comments on books, I go where the book takes me, often reflecting on my own life.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland (2007)

I have read Susan Vreeland before and like her well researched historical novels about art. This one was about Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting Luncheon of the Boating Party. The exciting thing was that I got to see the actual painting a couple of weeks after finishing this book.

I remember being fascinated by Impressionists back in high school, as I wandered the Museum of Modern Art in New York City with my friends. I especially loved VanGogh and sitting in front of Monet's huge Waterlilies. This was a fascinating look into the beginning of the impressionist movement and the artistic community of Paris of 1880. Renoir gets this idea for the painting as a result of a criticism of impressionists by Zola.

I have read of the lively world of artists and writers in Paris in the early 20th century, and am glad to see that this same energy was there 150 years earlier. Renoir has a passion for art, for beautiful women (he has to be in love with each female subject), never has enough money, but has supporters and friends. He turns to many of these to gather the 12 people he wants in this painting of a luncheon by the river, getting ready to go boating. Apparently there were specific clothing styles worn for boating. He gathers people of various classes, so a couple of guys are just in their undershirts, while others have on suits with hats. For a while he had 13 models, an unlucky number, and then squeezed in a 14th, the only one unidentified by art historians. Since Renoir insisted on painting only from actual models, he had to get these people to commit to come every Sunday for a couple of months. The story of getting the models, their complex lives, their interactions, were engaging. One of his former lovers could only come once, but he managed to finish her portrait in that time. The lady that was supposed to be most prominent was a woman of means, but could not follow his directions, so Renoir went looking for another model and ran into Aline, a cheerful young woman with a dog, that ended up in the painting too, and who he ended up marrying. My favorite was Alphonsine, the daughter of the restaurant owner. She was widowed and fell in love with Renoir and helped him complete this painting in practical ways and supporting him morally. Some of the story is told from her point of view. Renoir liked her, but did not fall in love as with some of the other women. It was also fascinating to listen to how he painted, dabbing colors here and there across the whole painting, and getting totally engrossed.

Since this was another book I listened to, I wish I had checked out the actual book earlier, as it had the kinds of things I crave - a color image of the painting (I did get it online and had it in the car as I listened), images of a couple of the other paintings mentioned, a map of Paris with the places mentioned marked off, including La Maison Fournaise, the restaurant at which he painted this work and which was west of Paris, reachable by train or boat along the Seine. There was also a sketch of La Maison Fournaise, which helps visualize the friends gathered to eat up on the balcony.

In the Author's Note at the end, Vreeland explains how she did her research and lists where she modified the facts a bit to serve her story. She also told the story of the painting itself - who owned it, sold it, bought it. In 1923 it was sold to Duncan Phillips for his Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC. I was just in Washington, and when I could not get into my hotel room, a friend suggested lunch around the corner in the Phillips Gallery. I had forgotten that is where the painting is located, but as I walked up to the building, there was a huge reproduction of part of the Luncheon on a pillar by the door. I was thrilled. To be able to actually see the real painting after reading how it was created was amazing. It was the most alive painting I have see in a long time. I will have to go back again sometime, plus I really should look at more Renoir paintings - he was amazing.

Locomotive by Brian Floca (2013)

Locomotive is about the importance of the railroad in the development of America - how crews from both coasts built the railroad to meet in the middle and how the steam engine powered the trains that rode cross-country on the rails. My friend in Montana lives close to a rail line, so I got a bit of sense what it entails to get a train across a mountain. The story-line is about a mother and two children taking the train from Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA to meet up with their husband/father.

This is the 2014 Caldecott winner. Now this one I can understand. Lots of good information, detailed illustrations, story-line woven in between facts, map, cross section of elevation, diagram of a steam engine and more. 

Going North by Janice Harrington (2004)

I heard about this author on NPR, ordered one of her poetry books and checked out a couple of her kid books in our library. Beautifully illustrated, this tells of a black family's journey from Alabama to Nebraska- leaving behind family and loved ones, leaving the cotton fields behind, to get to a place with more opportunity. The part I never realized about segregation, that it included places like gas stations. I travel a lot and know the feeling of anxiety, when you are getting low on gas, but to have to look for a black gas station... They considered themselves pioneers, coming to the north. I know it came out in one of the WWII historical novels, this migration to the north. Could use more reading on it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Time and Again by Nora Roberts (2001)

Knew I had read this just a few pages in, and I had even checked my list, but must have read this before I started the blog, so I kept going. These are science fiction romances, where two brothers from another time and planet come to earth and find their soul mates in two sisters from today's world.

Time Was (1989)
Pilot Caleb Hornblower crashes on earth coming out of the 23rd century after skimming a black hole. He lands in rural Oregon, where he is found by Liberty Stone, an anthropologist raised by hippies who has moved to the old family homestead to get some writing done. They dance around each other for a while, she has never committed to anyone, he has never wanted to - plus he tries to keep it a secret that he is from another time for a while. The main disbelief I had about the story-line was that his language would still be similar enough that she wouldn't be immediately suspicious. And when he stays, I was wondering how he would establish an ID, without a birth certificate, SSN card, driver's licence and all that stuff that says who we are.

Times Change (1990)
Jacob Hornblower comes looking for his brother to take him home, after the brother sends the ship back with a message of what happened. Jacob has to figure out time travel first, but he manages. Once he arrives, he meets Liberty's wilder sister Sunny, who has not figured out what she wants to do with her life, though she is good at everything she tries. Of course they find each other. Another thing I liked in the story is that Liberty's and Sunny's parents supposedly become rich and famous into the future - one an artist, another a seller of teas. Maybe this was written when Celestial Seasonings became a big deal.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (2012)

Another Caldecott Medal winner. Another cutie, with a little fish stealing a hat from a big fish and he may get away with it. This one had some words for beginners. Lovely illustrations, amazing what expressions one can get from simple fish eyes and a few bubbles. Not sure how the artist got all the effects, but fun to look at.

A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka (2011)

I try to look at all the Caldecott and Newberry winners every so often - I was three behind on the Caldecott's. This also got a New York Times best illustrated children's book award. OK, it is cute, telling a story without a word, mostly from the dog's perspective - almost all the images are from a dog's level, only the last few show the humans involved. Daisy loves her ball, plays with it, sleeps with it, and goes out to the park with it, where another dog bites and deflates it. I guess a young child could tell the story as they flipped through the pages, but I expected some words in an award winning book. Though come to think of it, there have been some other powerful books without words. Peter Spier comes to mind. I will have to go upstairs and see how many other winners are wordless. Towards the end I started focusing on the watercolors. I tried my hand at playing with watercolors one day this summer, and remembered how fascinating and, to me, uncontrollable they are.