Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey




I'm still listening to Jean Sibelius.  Here's his 13 Pieces.


Sargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the CanvasSargent's Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna M. Lucey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The value of this book is that if someone is a fan of John Singer Sargent's portraits, as I am, the stories behind four of the portraits are a real boon. No longer are the women staring out at you from the canvas an empty shell but someone with a history.

I suppose if someone were to create a Venn diagram out of the lives of these four women they would see that what they all had in common was the fact that they were extremely rich American women. They belonged to the upper crust of society of the 19th century. But being rich doesn't make someone happy. It does not make someone nice, or a good financial steward or even autonomous over one's life, although they certainly had privileges that the average person did not.

They spent much of their lives in Britain, hanging out with intellectuals and bohemians, scorning the rich business men who were their fathers or husbands, whose money they rode on to live out their idle lives, never working a day themselves.

That may make these ladies less than desirable, but frankly it is true. They were rich and selfish and even though their lives weren't always rosy, a lot of the unhappiness had more to do with strong will and poor marriage choices.

The first portrait is about a youngish girl, Elsie Palmer, who carried a burden of family responsibilities that would have sunk weaker shoulders. But she soldiered on, finally marrying in her thirties, someone who her family was against, but I think she was trying to free herself from her controlling father, especially since she had to leave England to live with him and her sisters in Colorado after her mother died. Her first romance did not work out, because he was a married man and anyway, her sister ran off with him and became his mistress.

The second woman is as vague as her portrait which is only a side view with her face wrapped in a scarf. Sally Fairchild was so beautiful that all sorts of rich and famous men asked for her hand in marriage. She said no to them all and stayed devoted to her mother all her life. And that's about all we know of her, so Lucey concentrates on her more colorful sister Lucia.

Lucia married for love and then spent her life supporting her husband and children through painting. Neither side of the family would support her because they were against her career as an artist. Yet somehow she eked out a living and maintained a social life with the same artists and writers who socialized with the other ladies in the book. She became a known miniaturist in her day, painting tiny portraits of the Morgans, Rockefellers and other prominent members of New York society of the day.

The third portrait is the most beautiful yet. We see a self-possessed woman regarding us with confidence and a calm demeanor. Elizabeth Chanler was one of the famous Astor orphans and lead a childhood that was wild until relatives intervened and put her in a strict British school for ladies. She tended to be sickly while growing up and one of her legs was shorter than the other, probably due to undiagnosed tuberculosis.

Yet when she was old enough she carried on a clandestine affair with her best friend's husband. The whole thing is strange. This man, Jack, beat up a man whom he thought insulted his wife, Minnie. He was mistaken and in penance burned his arm in a fire. The arm was so badly injured it had to be removed. So why did he later cheat on his wife? You're willing to lose an arm for her honor but not be faithful to her?

And why would any woman be attracted to a man of that quality?

Minnie died suddenly, freeing Jack to marry Elizabeth. This he did and soon after went insane. He slowly recovered and they remained devoted to each other for the rest of their lives, but his children had their own problems, some committing suicide, which was apparently a habit among the rich. Lucia and Sally Fairchild had four brothers who also ended their lives.

Lucey saves the most scandalous for last. Isabelle Stewart Gardner married money and lavished it on herself and her interests. She seemed to have two main interests: scandalizing Boston society with rebellious and outrageous behavior (by Victorian standards) and collecting art. Her portrait by Sargent is considered risque because her "decolletage" is exposed with a low cut dress. Frankly I've seen lower necklines on earlier portraits. Gardner adored her portrait and the uproar it caused. Frankly I find it hideous. She stands with her hands clasped in front of her with her rear end jutting out, looking as wide as a gate, probably due to the corset was wearing and her mouth open.

Her husband, upon seeing it said, "Well, it looks like hell, but it looks just like you."

While I found the women in this book not the most particularly interesting people I've read about, it did inspire a thirst for more of Sargent's art and I have ordered some books of his work accordingly.



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Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth


 I hope you enjoy this link to Bach's Flute Sonata in E-Flat Major performed by Emmanuel Pahud accompanied by Trevor Pinnock on harpsichord.





Note:  I have revised this review in order to take out a few spoilers.

The Radetzky MarchThe Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the third book I have read by Roth and it was very interesting. We begin with the Battle of Solferino, which was part of the battle for Italian independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph I is saved from a lethal bullet by a Lt. Trotta who throws himself in front of the Emperor and takes the bullet for himself, but survives.

The Emperor gives Trotta a Baronetcy, which thrusts Trotta and his progeny into the uncomfortable realm of aristocracy. Baron Trotta does not wear it well and continues to act like the peasant he was born as, retiring to his estates and burying himself there.

His son becomes a District Captain and his son becomes a Officer in the Calvary. While the District Captain upholds his aristocratic bearing, his son sinks into ignominy through the usual way of women, alcohol and gambling.

The lives of these three men parallel the rise and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is the back drop for the story.

The first Trotta barely enters into the story while the focus centers on the second Trotta and his son. The father being the pinnacle of proper conduct and honor and his son the opposite.

The youngest Trotta is a tragic figure because his thinking is so simple. He has no friends, he does not connect to his fellow officers and when he finally makes friends with a man, it is complicated and tragic because the man is Jewish.

This friend is interesting. He is also an outcast because he is Jewish. Joseph Roth, while being Jewish himself, did not write "Jewish ethnic" literature the way Isaac Bashevis Singer or Chaim Potok does.  One would not necessarily know Roth was Jewish from his writing.  In this he is like Stephen Zweig.  In fact I find their writing similar.


Yet, they do bring Jewish characters into their writing and show the racism and discrimination against them during the time period.

By the time of WWI, the Trotta fortune is gone, the Archduke has been assassinated and when it's all over the Empire no longer exists.

The interplay between father and son and the personal relationships with others is what I found the most intriguing about the story. There is a sequel called the Emperor's Tomb which follows the Trotta family and Austria into Nazi Germany. I am looking forward to reading this book as well.



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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig





Here is the second movement of John Davison's Sonata for Trombone and Piano. This is not my favorite interpretation but I could not find another one on youtube.

I found this book in the Boulder Bookstore in Colorado.  I had heard about Zweig and was curious to read his work.  If this is a good example I will be looking for more of his work.

Beware of PityBeware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book was quite powerful. I do not know when I have become so emotionally involved with a story. I found myself involuntarily having conversations with the characters, lecturing them on their fatal flaws.

This is a book about fatal flaws. Our protganist, Hofmiller, is an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer stationed at a small village at the edge of the empire, in what would now be Hungary.

While there he encounters a wealthy family who welcomes him like a family member. Hofmiller is delighted while surprised and a little confused. Why have such important people included him so definitely into their life?

The story is written in first person so we hear every thought Hofmiller has as he tells his tale. The family's name is Kakesfalva and Herr von Kakesfalva practically adopts Hofmiller as a son and treasured guest.

Kakesfalva lives in a large estate, owns most of the property of the village and is kept company by his beautiful niece, Ilona, and his daughter, Edith.

What starts out as a pleasant break from his harsh existence as a soldier gradually turns into a psychological nightmare, making his life in the barracks as a carnival in comparison.

Edith is a teenager, maybe seventeen, and a few years ago, by some kind of staph infection, probably polio, lost the use of her legs. She has kept the household enslaved and miserable with her bitterness. Lashing the whip with threats of hurting herself. Her father and her cousin are completely in her thrall.

Hofmiller finds himself becoming ever more entangled in this unhappy family's affairs. At first he is invited simply to keep them company and provide diversion for an otherwise weary existence. But as time passes, it becomes evident that the family all expect more from him.

And here is the hero's fatal flaw. Even though he becomes more and more ill at ease visiting, he is afraid to extricate himself for fear that it would destroy Edith.

This story is a brilliant discourse on emotional manipulations. Not just the manipulators but people who allow themselves to become manipulated, all because of pity.

Hofmiller knows that pity is his only motivation for continuing his relationship with the family. He sees it and feels absolutely helpless. And by acting out of pity, he makes the situation worse and worse. In the end, he still does not see clearly. He thinks too poorly of the Kakesfalvas and too highly of his own ability to "save" Edith to do the right thing.

I do not want to give away the plot because there are some interesting and unexpected developments that take the reader deeper into the lives of each character.

But I will end with the last sentence of the book:

.."no guilt is forgotten as long as the conscience still knows of it."



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Sunday, July 1, 2018

She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac translated by Geoffrey Sainbury




Going in a different direction in music.  Honestly, I wasn't listening to classical music while writing this.  This is a recording by a group that got music degrees from University of North Texas in Denton.  My little niece is getting a degree in Interior Design there.  North Texas has a top notch music school; I almost went there but decided to go north.  The band is called Midlake and the song is Roscoe.  I personally love the subtle harmonies that are above and below the main singer.  They blend so well.

I first became interested in this book because of one of my favorite detectives, Columbo.  If I ever get another bird, I will name him after the lovable, squint-eyed Lieutenant. 

I came across an article where the creator of the TV series wrote where he got the idea for the Columbo.  He mentioned the detective in Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and another detective in the movie Les Diaboliques.  Curious, I watched the movie.  Then I read the book.  Below is my review.

She Who Was No MoreShe Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is undoubtedly one of the most suspenseful and unexpected stories I have read.

I first saw the movie, which took a little away from the book since I had foreknowledge of certain key elements and, honestly, I don't know whether to advise seeing the movie first or reading the book, because whichever one you do first, it will rob you of a great surprise. But both the movie and the book are extremely good.

Incidentally the movie is titled, Les Diaboliques and is in French with sub-titles. Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make the film but French film director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, beat him out by a nose. It would be interesting to have seen how Hitchcock would develop the film, but I do not know if Clouzot's version could be surpassed.

I will tell you just enough of the plot to know what the storyline is about but I won't give anything away, because that would be robbing you of what makes this story so successful.

Fernand Ravinel leads an existential life and is sick of it. His wife, Mireille, is faithful and good, but a bore. Yet he knows that he is also bore. He acquires a mistress, which alleviates some of the emptiness in his life but he knows that he bores her as well.

The mistress, Lucienne, hatches a horrible plan that should turn their lives in a better direction. Or so she claims. Together they plot to murder Mireille. Afterwards they will start new lives away from Paris and down to southern France.

I say together they hatch a plot, but really Lucienne is the mastermind. She instructs Ravinel to take out a life insurance plan on himself. Mireille decides to do the same. After Mireille's life insurance is secure, Ravinel lures his wife to a hotel where he is staying (he is a traveling salesman).

When she arrives, he prepares a drink for her which is drugged, but not too much. Just enough to knock her out. Lucienne is a doctor and has taken every precaution. After Mireille is unconscious, Ravinel and Lucienne drag her to the bath tub, which is full of water and put her under with weights on top and leave her for forty-eight hours.

Two days later, they pick up the body and take it to Ravinel and Mireille's house and dump it in a stream behind the yard. It should look like she slipped and knocked herself unconscious and drowned.

And that is all you're going to get.

The movie's strength is that everything is visual with very little talking. The book's strength is the opposite. The narrator is Ravinel in third-person, limited. We read every single thing Ravinel is thinking. His observations about his life, about Mireille, Lucienne, about what he did, why he did it. The suspense and torture of trying to work out their plan. His desperate hopes for a new life.

And his thoughts about the shocking things that happen next.

Boileau-Narcejac were a writing team, several of whose books were turned into film versions, most famously by Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo; and Eyes Without a Face by Jean Redon.



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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance



A wonderful saxophonist and I performed the third movement of Lawson Lunde's Saxophone Sonata.  This summer I am learning the first two movements because we'll be performing them as a part of a recital this fall.  After we record, maybe I'll post the link to our performance.  In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Tom Walsh's rendition.


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


This book was not what I was expecting. What was I expecting? An adequate description of a largely forgotten ethnic group in America: the poor whites of the Appalachian region. I also thought the author was going to provide lucid reasons as to why this group is forgotten, why they are so poor and what solutions might help.

This book is part memoir, part sociological observation and I would also say part therapy for Mr. Vance to work out his own feelings and anger at the bum deal he got growing up in poverty with a mentally ill mother, revolving door of fathers and dysfunctional extended family.

J.D. Vance was born in Appalachian Kentucky to poor parents that did not stay together. He describes his extended family as largely dysfunctional due to alcohol and drug abuse. He seems to consider this a unique trait of the Appalachian region when in fact it is the life story, indeed symptomatic, of most poor people regardless of race or region, urban or rural.

However, being poor does not necessarily equal trashy. Vance seems to revel in just how trashy his parents, and especially his grandmother could be. For those of you not from east Texas (where I live) "white trash" is a term to describe behavior more than economic level.

Basically white trash is someone with a filthy mouth that usually has a Marlboro hanging out of it, who does not mind starting fights over the most trivial of reasons at ball games ("my son wasn't out you ----- of an umpire! I'm gonna slash yer tires!"); with their neighbors ("yer dog pees in my yard one more time, I'm gonna shoot his legs off!")

Or like my neighbors behind me. Their stupid Schnauzers kept barking at my dogs, who then proceeded to eat their way through my fence to get at them. The old lady would jump on the fence and scream she was going to sue my a--- if I did not control my dogs. Some people are so edgy.

I should also mention that "white trash" really isn't limited to an ethnic group, either, but that's beside the point.

There is more to people than swearing, dropping the f-word like piles of excrement everywhere they go; drinking themselves blue; and getting into fights both domestic and with everyone else, but you would not know it from Vance's description of his family.

Especially his grandmother. He talks of her fierce love and loyalty to her family, but it was not enough to keep her and his grandfather from trying to kill each other over every minor offense. Or his grandfather from coming home drunk and keeping his two daughters, one of them Vance's mother, in constant upheaval and fear.

Vance's mother grew up to be a drug addict and alcoholic. She had a constant stream of men living with her, which makes me think she must have been attractive on one level, but her violent tendencies usually chased them away.

At one point he goes to live with his birth dad who gave him up. It turns out that his father really wanted him, but the custody battle became so nasty, he thought it was in his son's best interest to just stay away.

His father had by this time converted to Christianity and was Pentecostal. While he respected how religion helped his father get his life together, keep a stable family without domestic squabbles (he was impressed how nobody in his father's house screamed at each other, the normal form of communicating in his mother's home), he felt that Christianity produced too much of an "us and them" mentality and after a few years returned to his mother's, breaking his father's heart.

At this point Vance makes some general remarks that the average Southerner as a church going Christian is a myth and that "Bible belt" actually has the lowest church attendance in the country. Where he gets his information he fails to say.

He also makes an obvious conclusion that people are products of their environment. And yet he admits that is not always so. His sister did not turn out like their mother and their mother's sister grew up to have a stable life and marriage. He does not dig into why this might be so.

He also describes his own success. He became a marine, went to Ohio State and eventually Yale Law School. His methods of success is interesting. Basically you need to network and befriend someone already "in" to get a job. Don't think your resume alone is going to hire you. I would like more information from other sources on that.

In fact, I would like to read other sources of information about Southern poverty and particularly the Appalachian region.

I read this book in one sitting because I found it rather unpleasant reading and wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.



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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris







Playing is Mozart's  "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", performed by the Slovak Chamber Orchestra.  




 A month ago Josh and I flew up to Virginia to see our son, Derek, graduate from college.  As a little graduation treat we then took him up to Williamsburg and Washington D.C.  While flying up there I finished a couple of books, some hard copies, others on my Kindle.  Usually I don't read my Kindle at home, but it is a great traveling companion because I can carry hundreds of books in one little electronic device.  I am a sucker for free downloads, so most of the books on my Kindle are public domain.  Naturally some are better than others.  One I read was fantastic.  Of course, when I bought it on eBay, I thought I was getting a hard back.  No wonder it was a great price.  Word of caution.  Make sure you are not buying a electronic download when you buy on eBay, unless that is what you want.  Sometimes we can be blinded by the cheap price and miss a crucial detail like that.

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian MedicineThe Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Simply fascinating account of the life of Joseph Lister and his efforts to decrease the mortality rate of hospitals in the 19th century.

It's amazing to us, but back then doctors did not realize that they were spreading disease among their patients by not washing or changing clothes after dissecting cadavers and then proceeding straight into the wards to treat sick patients.

Microbes were not discovered at the time. The microscope had been invented but was considered a rich man's toy to look at butterfly wings and such with. Joseph Lister changed that by studying germs. He also realized that carbolic acid could be used as an anti-septic to reduce the chance of disease. He proved this by raising the survival rates of patients in the hospital wards.

His discovery was met with great resistance by the old guard of doctors. Why? And why did other doctors not arrive at the same conclusions, especially when they knew that city hospitals were notoriously unclean and killed more people than they saved? A couple of reasons were responsible for the lack of progress among doctors.

One, public hospitals were free. They were where poor people went to get treated. People who could afford it went to private practice. Doctors were not paid to work in hospitals, they were paid in private practice and as professors in medical schools. City hospitals were nothing more than a place to provide practice for students and professors to teach. Because the patients were poor, it was not a major concern to anyone if they lived or died. In fact, one could say that the objective wasn't to save lives as much as it was to practice the craft of medicine.

This changed with Joseph Lister. A devout Quaker he believed life was sacred and all humans should be afforded the same dignity and care regardless of their status in life, hence his scrupulous care and tireless efforts at improving the sanitary conditions of hospitals and reduce the spread of infectious disease.

He made little headway with his colleagues but they gradually aged out and were replaced by new and eager young medical students who wholeheartedly embraced his theories of antiseptic and hygiene.

Eventually he made his way to the United States where he was met with the same stubborn resistance. His methods were banned from some hospitals and if doctors were found using antiseptic they were threatened with firing.

But the United States finally saw the light and Lister spent his final years as a hero. A couple of brothers by the name of Johnson were so impressed with Lister's work, they were inspired to start a medical supply company.

A chemist by the name of Joseph Lawrence showed his appreciation of Lister by naming an antiseptic mouthwash he developed after him. (I'll let you guess it's name. He named it after "Lister", get it?)

This book provides wonderful, vivid, and at times gruesomely graphic accounts of the history of medical practice during the Victorian age and I found it enthralling.



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Me and my baby boy.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser


Parting from the norm, here.  This song is by an indie band out of Seattle:  Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes.






The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art TheftThe Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy Bostonian who spent liberally on priceless works of art. Eventually she built a museum to house them and it opened in 1904.

In 1990 two men dressed as policemen demanded to be let into the Isabelle Stewart Gardner museum. Against instructions, the security guard let the policemen in. The men lured the young man away from the panic button that would have notified police and called the other guard down. They then hog-tied the two of them with duct taped and hand-cuffed them to pipes in the cellar.

The men raided the museum, making off with a Vermeer, Rembrandt, a couple of sketches by Degas, Manet and Titian as well as some others. Although there have been a number of suspects, no one has been convicted of the theft and the art, to this date, has never been recovered.

Ulrich Boser does a thorough job tracing the crime and providing several clues as to who stole the art. He starts with biographical information of Mrs. Gardner, how she acquired her art and built the museum. He also gives a brief history of the individual pieces that were stolen.

But what makes this book as suspenseful as any spy novel, is the chase Boser engages in to track down the culprits.

Boser inherits the case from Harold Smith, a man renowned for finding lost or stolen works of art. When Smith died of cancer in 2004, Boser collected his information and took on the mantle. His investigation took him on a seamy journey through the underworld of organized crime and terrorist organizations. After four years, Boser offers his conclusions as to who he thinks stole the paintings and his argument is persuasive.

Whoever it was, we learn how and why art gets stolen in the first place and it is never because some big underworld boss, a Dr. No sort, is looking to add to his collection of stolen artworks. Mostly it is organized crime and other criminals who steal the art to use as bargaining chips to reduce a prison sentence, or to negotiate deals with other crime bosses and terrorist organizations.

Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Columbo or Hercule Poirot, who work mostly solo as they put together a series of clues and solve the crime, real-life investigators rely heavily on informants. These informants tell what they know in order to rat out a competitive crime gang, or to reduce their prison sentence, or get immunity from any kind of sentencing. Sometimes they just want to be an important person.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of cranks who pose as informants for the same motives. These "false witnesses" wasted a lot of Busor's time by causing him to chase dead ends.

But it's a dangerous game. Many key informants in this book end up murdered. It is even possible that the original thieves have since been murdered.

It is disheartening to see how many deadly criminals have been granted immunity because of their willingness to cut-throat other criminals. There is one particularly hair raising case where a Crime Boss worked with an FBI agent to get all of his competition behind bars and then took over their turf and businesses while enjoying the immunity granted to him by the agent.

Another disheartening fact is lawyers who make careers out of getting criminals off the hook. One of the primary suspects for the Gardner Heist was a known criminal in organized crime, committing all sorts of murders, and robberies only to get off due to the expert handling of his attorney.

Who was his lawyer? John Kerry.

In fact there is more than one politician listed in the book with connections to organized crime. A scary thought.



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