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Penguin Moderns: Albert Camus and John Steinbeck

Create Dangerously by Albert Camus **** (#17)
9780241339121In Create Dangerously, French-Algerian author Albert Camus ‘argues passionately that the artist has a responsibility to challenge, provoke and speak up for those who cannot’.  This ‘powerful speech’ has been accompanied by two other pieces, which were also delivered orally, entitled ‘Defences of Intelligence’ and ‘Bread and Freedom’.  The speeches were delivered between 1945 and 1957.

In ‘Create Dangerously’, Camus says, in rather a poignant manner: ‘In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it.  The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence.’  The three speeches collected here, the style of which is quite similar, are intelligent, fascinating, and well-informed.  They are filled with thoughtful ideas and discussion pieces.  It seems fitting, in our current tumultuous global climate, to end with the following quote, taken from ‘Bread and Freedom’: ‘… we shall henceforth be sure… that freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.’
The Vigilante by John Steinbeck ***** (#18) 9780241338957
I adore John Steinbeck; in everything which I have read of his, I have been struck by the clarity of his writing, and the depth of emotion which he demonstrates.  I was thus very excited to read this selection of his short stories, presented as the eighteenth Penguin Modern book.  Collected here are three stories – ‘The Vigilante’, ‘The Snake’, and ‘The Chrysanthemums’ – set in the Salinas Valley in California, in which Steinbeck ‘explores mob violence, a disturbing encounter and a bitter betrayal’.  All have been taken from Steinbeck’s short story collection, The Long Valley, which was first published in 1938.

The content here is varied.  ‘The Vigilante’ focuses upon a man who first storms a jail along with others, and then watches the lynching of a black prisoner, recounting his experience to a bartender whom he meets later the same evening.  The protagonist of ‘The Snake’ is about a scientist who ‘could kill a thousand animals for knowledge, but not an insect for pleasure’; a woman comes into his seaside laboratory, and requests some rather unusual things of him.  ‘The Chrysanthemums’ tells the story of a farmer’s wife in a rural part of California, who meets a new acquaintance, and learns quite as much from him as she teaches him.

Throughout these stories, Steinbeck’s prose has a pitch and tone which is customary with, and unique to, his work.  He manages to fit so much into a deceptively simple sentence; for instance, in ‘The Vigilante’, he writes: ‘The park lawn was cut to pieces by the feet of the crowd’, conjuring up myriad questions in the reader’s mind.  Steinbeck’s long fiction really packs a punch, and these stories are no different; indeed, I found them quite difficult to read in places.  Their scenes are haunting and memorable.  The stories collected in The Vigilante are fantastic in their breadth, and in the brutality and beauty which sears from the pages.

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‘The Singing Bones’ by Shaun Tan ****

In his inspired and unique take on the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, Shaun Tan presents seventy-five of their stories, each with an accompanying sculpture.  He has photographed each of these interpretations beautifully, with light and shadow coming into play almost as much as the objects themselves. 9781760111038

The Singing Bones includes an introduction by fantasy aficionado Neil Gaiman, and an insightful essay by Jack Zipes, entitled ‘How the Brothers Grimm Made Their Way in the World’.  Tan himself adds an afterword, which, despite its brevity, demonstrates his passion for his interpretation.  He has chosen to take extracts from Zipes’ 1987 translation of the Grimm tales; his text feels fresh and modern, whilst still getting across the horror of many of the stories.

Tan has focused upon both well-known tales – for instance, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘Snow White’ – as well as the more unusual.  Tan’s accompanying sculptures are beguiling and strange; some of them are even creepy.  Despite their differences, there is a marvellous coherence at play here; details have been followed from one sculpture to another, from the set of the eyes of particular characters, to their absence in others.  He has a style all his own.  Of his work, Gaiman says: ‘His sculptures suggest; thy do not describe.  They imply; they do not delineate.  They are, in themselves, stories – not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be.  These are something new, something deeper.  They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves.’

In his introduction, Gaiman writes: ‘People read stories.  It’s one of the things that makes us who we are.  We crave stories because they make us more than ourselves, they give us escape and they give us knowledge.  They entertain us and they change us, as they have changed and entertained us for thousands of years.’  This sums up Tan’s achievement perfectly; he has worked with a slew of stories which we are all familiar with, but has managed to make them entirely his own.  The way in which Tan has managed so seamlessly to translate his distinctive style from illustrations and graphic novels into the three-dimensional form shows that he is an incredibly talented and versatile artist.  The Singing Bones is a marvellous choice for all fans of fairytales, or for those who want to see how the same story can be so differently presented.

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The Book Trail: From Amsterdam to Paris

I was lucky enough to spend a week in beautiful Amsterdam in early March, and am pleased to say that it has inspired me to pick up a wealth of themed reading within my yearly projects forecast for 2018.  I am actually thinking of Reading Cities as my main 2018 challenge, and focusing upon literature from and about my favourite places in the world.

That said, I hope you enjoy today’s Book Trail!  It begins in Amsterdam, and takes us all the way to Paris.

1. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland 9780140296280
‘This luminous story begins in the present day, when a professor invites a colleague to his home to see a painting that he has kept secret for decades. The professor swears it is a Vermeerbut why has he hidden this important work for so long? The reasons unfold in a series of events that trace the ownership of the painting back to World War II and Amsterdam, and still further back to the moment of the work’s inspiration. As the painting moves through each owner’s hands, what was long hidden quietly surfaces, illuminating poignant moments in multiple lives. Susan Vreeland’s characters remind us, through their love of this mysterious painting, how beauty transforms and why we reach for it, what lasts and what in our lives is singular and unforgettable.”‘

 

2. Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman
This richly imagined fiction entices us into the world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. The story is told by Mary’s sister Lydia, as she poses for five of her sister’s most unusual paintings, which are reproduced in, and form the focal point of each chapter. Ill with Bright’s disease and conscious of her approaching death, Lydia contemplates her world with courageous openness, and asks important questions about love and art’s capacity to remember.

 

2765783. The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey
In this passionate and atmospheric debut novel, Elizabeth Hickey reimagines the tumultous relationship between the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt and Emilie Floge, the woman who posed for Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss – and whose name he uttered with is dying breath.  Vienna in 1886 was a city of elegant cafés, grand opera houses, and a thriving and adventurous artistic community. It is here where the twelve-year-old Emilie meets the controversial libertine and painter. Hired by her bourgeois father for basic drawing lessons, Klimt introduces Emilie to a subculture of dissolute artists, wanton models, and decadent patrons that both terrifies and inspires her. The Painted Kiss follows Emilie as she blossoms from a naïve young girl to one of Europe’s most exclusive couturiers—and Klimt’s most beloved model and mistress. A provocative love story that brings to life Vienna’s cultural milieu, The Painted Kiss is as compelling as a work by Klimt himself.

 

4. With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
‘Paris in the 1860s: a magnificent time of expression, where brilliant young artists rebel against the stodginess of the past to freely explore new styles of creating—and bold new ways of living.  Passionate, beautiful, and utterly devoted to her art, Berthe Morisot is determined to be recognized as an important painter. But as a woman, she finds herself sometimes overlooked in favor of her male counterparts—Monet, Pissarro, Degas.  And there is one great artist among them who captivates young Berthe like none other: the celebrated genius Édouard Manet. A mesmerizing, breathtaking rogue—a shameless roué, undeterred and irresistible—his life is a wildly overgrown garden of scandal. He becomes Berthe’s mentor, her teacher…her lover, despite his curiously devoted marriage to his frumpy, unappealing wife, Suzanne, and his many rumored dalliances with his own models. For a headstrong young woman from a respectable family, an affair with such an intoxicating scoundrel can only spell heartbreak and ruin.  But Berthe refuses to resign herself to the life of quiet submission that Society has dictated for her. Undiscouraged, she will create her own destiny…and confront life—and love—on her own terms.

 

5. Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell 6797515
In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.  But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time.  His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.  But Camille had her own demons – secrets that  Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.  A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude and Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order.

 

6. The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. Though they were often ridiculed or ignored by their contemporaries, today astonishing sums are paid for the works of these artists, whose paintings are celebrated for their ability to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape but in scenes of daily life. Their dazzling pictures are familiar?  But how well does the world know the Impressionists as people? The Private Lives of the Impressioniststells their story. It is the first book to offer an intimate and lively biography of the world’s most popular group of artists.

 

5738967. Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
In this delightful memoir, Jean Renoir, the director of such masterpieces of the cinema as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, tells the life story of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist painter. Recounting Pierre-Auguste’s extraordinary career, beginning as a painter of fans and porcelain, recording the rules of thumb by which he worked, and capturing his unpretentious and wonderfully engaging talk and personality, Jean Renoir’s book is both a wonderful double portrait of father and son and, in the words of the distinguished art historian John Golding, it “remains the best account of Renoir, and, furthermore, among the most beautiful and moving biographies we have.”

 

8. Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe
A humiliating military defeat by Bismarck’s Germany, a brutal siege, and a bloody uprising Paris in 1871 was a shambles, and the question loomed, “Could this extraordinary city even survive?” Mary McAuliffe takes the reader back to these perilous years following the abrupt collapse of the Second Empire and France’s uncertain venture into the Third Republic.   By 1900, Paris had recovered and the Belle Epoque was in full flower, but the decades between were difficult, marked by struggles between republicans and monarchists, the Republic and the Church, and an ongoing economic malaise, darkened by a rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism.   Yet these same years also witnessed an extraordinary blossoming in art, literature, poetry, and music, with the Parisian cultural scene dramatically upended by revolutionaries such as Monet, Zola, Rodin, and Debussy, even while Gustave Eiffel was challenging architectural tradition with his iconic tower. Through the eyes of these pioneers and others, including Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Clemenceau, Marie Curie, and Cesar Ritz, we witness their struggles with the forces of tradition during the final years of a century hurtling towards its close. Through rich illustrations and evocative narrative, McAuliffe brings this vibrant and seminal era to life.”

 

Have you read any of these?

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