Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Madame X

This painting, Madame X, has always appealed to me. John Singer Sargent has simultaneously captured studied elegance and privileged disdain. The model, Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau, was a notorious socialite, known for her indiscretions. She was part of a new generation of sophisticates. Her beauty was intense, and there were many artists wanting to paint her. She and Sargent had a bond, both ex-patriots looking to augment their reputations by painting and posing.  
Sargent captured her singularity by contrasting her stunning alabaster skin against a dark background and black dress. He was able to articulate her hourglass figure. The essence of her snobisme is the tip of her perfectly pointed nose. 
While French society was shocked at the married woman who encouraged the gaze of men, I find her bold, unapologetic; an "in your face" beauty. The poor girl married into the French upper class by wedding a man twice her age. She managed to keep her independence and even her bravado in a claustrophobic situation.
Madame X elicits debate and heated argument to this day. Sargent found the image he knew was in her and that image made his reputation.

Strapless : John Singer Sargent and the fall of Madame X
Davis, Deborah, 1952-
759.1 SARGENT DAVIS 2004

Icons of beauty : art, culture, and the image of women
Mancoff, Debra N., 1950-
704.942409 MANCOFF V.1

John Singer Sargent
Sargent, John Singer, 1856-1925.
759.1 SARGENT, J.

John Singer Sargent: paintings, drawings, watercolors.
Ormond, Richard. 
759.1 S245o

John Singer Sargent and his muse: painting love and loss
Corsano, Karen.

January 2017 Staff Book Recommendations

Circling the Sun
By Paula McLain

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”—Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa 

This first line of Karen Blixen’s memoir of colonial life in Kenya near the end of the British Empire could also begin Circling the Sun, a fictionalized account of the childhood and early adulthood of Beryl Markham neé Clutterbuck, the famed female aviator and author of West With the Night

Like Blixen, Markham was born into an upper-middle class European family, but when her family of origin fulfills her father’s dream of owning and training horses on a farm in Kenya, the trajectory of her life is changed irrevocably. It doesn’t take too long before Beryl’s mother abandons her and her father on the farm to return to a more sedate life in England, and henceforth Beryl is more or less raised by the neighboring Kipsigis tribe, resulting in a free-spirited, precocious child who loves animals, nature and all things wild. What she doesn’t love is conformity, which becomes problematic as she matures and is expected to enter into “society,” such as it is, in 1920s Kenya Colony. After a few bumps in the road, including a disastrous first marriage and a couple of other scandalous relationships, Markham emerges as an esteemed horse trainer in her own right. Eventually, her love of adventure leads her to embrace flying and she becomes one of the first women to make a living as a professional pilot. 

McLain’s prose is eminently readable and she is expert at describing the emotional timbre that Markham was likely experiencing at a time and place in history in which her progressive choices were almost uniformly discouraged. Also, for those of us familiar with love affair of Karen Blixen and fellow expatriate Denys Finch-Hatton, let’s just say there’s a lot more to the story than was portrayed either on film or in Blixen’s memoir. 

A must-read for Out of Africa fans, and a solid choice for readers who enjoy historical novels with strong characters. Armchair travelers, buckle up, you’re going to Kenya in a biplane! 


The Paper Magician
By Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician is a spell-binding, quirky, and beautifully written genre bender that includes elements of fantasy and mystery with a touch of romance. In The Paper Magician, author Charlie Holmberg creates a world in which select humans (magicians) can learn how to master man-made materials such as metal, glass, paper, or rubber, and, with them, create extraordinary magic.

Apprentice and magician-in-training Ceony Twill has long coveted the opportunity to become a Smelter Magician in which she would be able to bend and manipulate metal to her will. All students, especially those who graduate at the top of their class can choose any material they want to master, so Ceony is convinced she will get her first choice. However, instead of continuing her daydreams to fashion guns with the flick of her finger, Ceony is blindsided by the news that she has to be a Folder where she will be bonded for life to the most lackluster, uninspiring, “How in the world can this even have magical properties?” material: paper.

Throughout the story we meet a charming cast of characters, including Ceony’s kind and mysterious teacher Folder Magician Emery Thane, Jonto, the skeleton butler, and Fennel, the paper dog who helps to teach Ceony all about the beauty of paper. When an evil Magician threatens to destroy Ceony and her loved ones, Ceony discovers that paper is not only way cooler than metal, but it is also more powerful than she could have ever imagined. In this turning point of the story, Ceony must gather all of her courage to face her own self-doubt, and recognize that within the layers of humanity’s darkness resides points of light are as numerous as the stars. 

Check out the Paper Magician trilogy at WPL today!


Friday, January 13, 2017

Rothko Forever

Collage of works by Mark Rothko
As a kid, I spent long hours in the museum of the Harry Ransom Center staring at their Rothko; part of their permanent collection. My mom worked as a librarian at the University of Texas, and I often roamed the 40 acres, finding myself drawn to the Rothko over and over. I found peace there; and transcendence.
Many years later, as an Art History student, I participated in a field trip: we were off to see the holdings of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. As  part of our journey, we were shown the Rothko Chapel. The architecture is  based on a church, and there are fourteen floor to ceiling dark to black Rothko paintings. The space is open to worship of any denominations, or just to peaceful contemplation. You can definitely feel the spiritual charge by entering the place.  
Mark Rothko's designs are deceptively simple, but convey a depth of emotion and philosophical thought behind his rich colors. If you have the opportunity, take the time to get lost in a painting. It will change your life forever. 

Visit the works of Mark Rothko on the third floor of the library by enjoying these books: 
Ashton, D. (2003). About Rothko. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo.
759.1 ROTHKO, M. ASHTON 2003
Baal-Teshuva, J. (2015). Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: Pictures as drama. Koln: Taschen
Breslin, J. E. (1993). Mark Rothko: a biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
759.1 R846b

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Treasures from the Worcester Room: A Historical Feud!

Some of my favorite books in our Worcester Room collection are books that have to do with Worcester's most influential citizens throughout its long, proud history.  Unquestionably, any list of famous Worcesterites would have to include renowned historian and politician George Bancroft. Bancroft is the namesake of both the prestigious Bancroft Prize for history, as well as Worcester's Bancroft Tower.  However, you don't get to that level of influence without making a few enemies along the way, which is why our Worcester Room collection includes the 1867 title Correspondence and Remarks Upon Bancroft's History of the Northern Campaign of 1777, and the Character of Major-Gen. Philip Schuyler by George L Schuyler.

For fans of Hamilton, yes this is the same Philip Schuyler who was Alexander Hamilton’s father-in-law.  The book features George Schuyler’s long and increasingly angry letters to George Bancroft regarding what he felt were slanderous criticisms of General Schuyler’s commanding ability in Bancroft’s account of the Revolutionary War.  A descendant of Philip, George also considered himself a historian, and wrote the book to feature a point-by-point defense of  Philip Schuyler’s conduct during the war, also including all of George and Bancroft's testy correspondence with each other.

In one exchange, George Schuyler writes that “I have no alternative but to deny publicly the correctness of your account of General Schuyler’s character for courage, which I can view in no other light than a gratuitous insult,” whereby Bancroft responds with “the tone of your note today shows conclusively how proper it was for me to decline entering into a correspondence with you, on a subject which you can hardly be expected to consider with the critical calmness of a disinterested inquirer.” I can’t help but feel that if this dialogue were to take place today, it would be delivered through a series of angry tweets.

While most of the books regarding influential Worcester residents tend to be respectful biographies, it is occasionally refreshing to read about a historical argument like this.  It is nice to know that those from the 1800's could be just as preoccupied with petty feuds as we can be today.  Just another example of the fascinating items that can be found in the library's Worcester Room collection.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

December 2016 Staff Book Recommendations

Under the Udala Trees
By Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala Trees is a coming-of age tale about an eleven year-old Nigerian girl named Ijeoma. Her story begins on June 23, 1968, on the day of her beloved father’s death. His untimely passing occurs during and as a result of the Biafran War, a civil war in which the Igbo people attempted secession from Nigeria and lost to disastrous effect. Although Ijeoma’s mother lives on, grief has rendered her incapable of parenting Ijeoma and protecting her from imminent danger. She sends her to live with a local teacher’s family and there, she befriends Amina. Because Amina is not Igbo but instead Hausa, few approve. When it is discovered that the two girls’ friendship has evolved into a romantic relationship, Ijeoma is abruptly packed up and sent back to her mother. 

What proceeds is a story of hidden love and attempting to bridge the gap between the expectations of the family one is born into and the possibilities of the family one desires to manifest. Believing she can cure Ijeoma of homosexuality through biblical force, Ijeoma’s mother sets out to eradicate her daughter’s most tender feelings order to meet the socio-politico-religious beliefs of Igbo life in the 1970s. 

Okparanta excels at evoking empathy from the reader through her lyrical language, imagery and detail. As Edwidge Danticat says, this is a book “that demands not just to be read, but felt.” If you like the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ishmael Beah, or Edwidge Danticat herself, put this on your list. 


Before Jamaica Lane
By Samantha Lane

There are some books you read that just fit you. You find them at the right time in your life and they fill up a need you didn’t know you had. In contrast, there are books that emotionally drain you and make you feel things you don’t want to feel…Samantha Young’s Before Jamaica Lane was one of these books for me. 

Before Jamaica Lane takes place in Scotland where we meet best friends Olivia and Nate who bond over their shared love of geek culture, “Would You Rather?” questions, and the hardship of losing a loved one to cancer. Even though Olivia and Nate share many things in common with each other, their love lives are drastically different. Nate brings home a different woman every night without ever returning her phone calls, while Olivia can barely speak with a man she finds attractive without stuttering or turning bright red. Furthermore, in addition to Olivia’s shyness, she loathes her body and thinks that no “hot” guy will ever find her attractive. 

One night after striking out one too many times with her crush Benjamin, Olivia drunkenly and tearfully confesses to Nate that she hates her body. Nate, being her friend, as well as confident in his own experience with other women, offers to help boost Olivia’s confidence and brings Olivia to a mirror in her bedroom. Nate instantly refutes every criticism Olivia has about her body (such as her belief that she has: flabby thighs, a huge butt, and average looking features), and assures her that he, as well as any man would want to sleep with her (actual language more colorful) because she essentially has the body of a Kardashian and “great hair”. The story of course goes on to track the complexities of Nate and Olivia’s relationship (from friends to friends with benefits) and is chock full of all kinds of emotional upheaval. 

I’m no stranger to romance books and I count myself a big fan of the genre because I adore love stories and happy endings. However, part of the fantasy in reading a romance novel is that you can put yourself in the story-warts and all. Yet, the constant focus on the characters’ level of attractiveness (both with main and secondary characters) puts this story in a completely different category. Instead of escaping into a fun story I noticed myself judging what I saw when I looked in the mirror a little more harshly than usual. 

It’s important to note that I’m in the minority in terms of my review (Before Jamaica Lane received a 4.5 out of 5 on Goodreads because of its friends-to-lovers theme, emotional depth, and heaps of sexytime scenes), but in my opinion, when only certain types of physical appearances overtly meet the criteria for what is considered beautiful (whether in fiction or in real life), this is never something to ignore. 

Before Jamaica Lane is #3 in the On Dublin Street series:

1. On Dublin Street
2. Down London Road
3. Before Jamaica Lane
4. Fall From India Place
5. Echoes of Scotland Street
6. Moonlight on Nightingale Way


American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804
By Alan Taylor 

When someone mentions the American Revolution, most people probably get a few well-known images in their heads. They might think of George Washington crossing the Delaware, or Minutemen fighting Redcoats, or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The book American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Alan Taylor argues that the truth is quite a bit more complicated and interesting. In fact, Taylor makes a compelling argument that the American Revolution could easily be referred to as the 1st American Civil War. 

What Taylor does amazingly is really drive home the idea that there were a large number of loyalists who did not favor independence. Taylor points out that the tactics used by the pro-independence groups included the wholesale destruction of homes and property, and tarring and feathering anyone who was considered a collaborator. Taylor also describes how many Native Americans and African Americans resisted independence, believing that continued rule by the Crown offered them the best chances for survival and freedom. Moreover, Taylor makes a compelling argument that much of the American Revolution was caused by the colonists’ fears that England would abolish slavery and prevent the westward expansion that worsened conflict with the French and Natives and sparked the costly French and Indian War. These arguments aren’t all new; however, Taylor collates the arguments in a very convincing manner and makes the case to think of the Revolution as a civil war. 

Taylor, a historian who has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, has a great writing style. American Revolutions is written in a compelling fashion, and is not dryly written as you might expect from a book of its size and scope. A basic knowledge of American history would be helpful to readers, as the book is not really written for the layperson. However, I found Taylor’s writing and arguments to be highly accessible and easy to follow. You don’t need to be an expert in history to appreciate Taylor’s book. I would highly recommend this one.


By Byron Katie

“I am an old man who has known many troubles, but most of them never happened.”  This quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, tells a simple truth: most of our troubles are in our heads. These words also hint at a path to freedom from those very same troubles, a freedom Bryon Katie aims to help you find. 

In Loving What Is, Byron Katie details this path to freedom in what she calls “The Work,” a method of self-inquiry which centers on asking simple questions about the thoughts we have regarding difficult people, events, and life circumstances.  The method itself is simple and to the point – simple to the point that it may be difficult to swallow. 

While Katie does explain her method, much of “The Work” is illustrated by dialogues between Katie and a series of participants.  The themes of the dialogues vary, ranging from common issues such as shyness and infidelity to difficult topics like rape and death of loved ones.  The plausibility of the transformation found in the dialogues varies, but more than anything, the dialogues show that “The Work” can be done on anything, even the most difficult people and circumstances. 

Katie’s self-inquiry work consists of asking half a dozen questions which always have similar answers.  The uniformity of the answers may be off-putting for some, but the questions are not about getting into the details of our anxious narratives.  Indeed, the point of the questions is to break through the details, to drive home the understanding that most of our pain is caused by thought. This lesson is easily lost when we get caught up in the details of the stories we tell ourselves, but the plot-holes in our narratives are easily torn apart by the inquiries Katie provides.

Loving What Is
is a beguilingly easy read with a simple teaching that is more than meets the eye.  This is a book of tough love which is not for everyone, but the opportunity for radical transformation awaits anyone willing to undertake this difficult Work.  


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Treasures from the Worcester Room: Books of Appreciation from England

One of the great things about Worcester is what a welcoming city it is. You can see this today in how Worcester has embraced the refugee community.  One of the best examples of Worcester's welcoming attitude is the case of the schoolchildren from England who lived in Worcester during the Second World War in order to be safe from the Nazi bombing campaign against England.  While not widely known today, this act of kindness by the people of Worcester inspired a generous donation that still benefits our library.

Recently, when going through books in our Closed Stacks collection in the basement, we came across a book with a bookplate saying "Presented to the Worcester Free Public Library by parents of children from Sherrardswood School, Welwyn Garden City in the County of Hertford, England, in token of their gratitude to those in Worcester who cared for their children during the War of 1939-1945." Obviously we were intrigued by this and decided to further investigate the story.

Looking through our records and papers in the Worcester Room, I found a binder with a number of papers documenting both the children's stay in Worcester, and the donation of books by grateful families in the aftermath of the war.  I was able to find newspaper clippings, correspondence between the Library Director during that time and the parents of the children, and a list of all of the books that were donated.  Over one hundred books were donated in 1948 to our library, most having to do with British history or culture.  Many of these books are still in our collection, available for library users to borrow, and, according to their website, the Sherrardswood School is still in existence today. Just one more example of a connection that the city has made with communities across the globe.