By Peter Ackroyd
J.M.W. Turner is a short biography in Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. J.M.W. (Joseph Mallord William) Turner was born to a barber and butcher in London in 1775 and went on, in a remarkably long, varied, and busy career to become a master artist who used light and atmosphere as no one had before him.
Ackroyd chronicles Turner’s life in a linear fashion and sheds light on Turner’s private and familial struggles. Turner’s mother Mary, a butcher, was known for her temper and was eventually confined for life in an asylum while Turner was still a young man. It was a topic he never spoke about and it may have had a bearing on Turner’s decision to not marry. He preferred to live with a partner and had some relationships – rather stable ones – during his life. He had two daughters out of wedlock. His father William became Turner’s confidant and assistant in the business of Turner’s studio and gallery. Ackroyd stresses the importance of Turner’s travels in England, Scotland, and Europe, particularly Venice, in his development as an artist and his romantic and spiritual views about nature and the classical views of nature. Turner composed thousands of drawings in his sketchbooks, some of which became iconic paintings or watercolors and etchings.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem currently has a major exhibit, Turner & the Sea, which contains oils, watercolors, and his sketches and studies. It was his use of light and atmospheric effects that made his reputation and this is very obvious looking at his work. His personality seems to have been gruff – he was secretive, never spoke very much, and had a reputation as a very, very parsimonious and commercially-oriented person when it came to his work. However, his talent was undeniable.
Ackroyd’s biography is – and I used it as such before visiting the exhibit – a good jumping off point to learn something about what made Turner tick and what his life was about. It is also an excellent base for more detailed biographies about Turner.
June 16, 2014
An Untamed State
By Roxane Gay
The national conversation on violence against women came to a head recently after the tragic murder of six people in Isla Vista, California. News media blew up with stories of the murderer's misogynist manifesto, and thousands contributed their personal stories of sexual assault and harassment on Twitter with the hashtag #yesallwomen. This happened soon after Congress announced plans to crack down on sexual assault in colleges. Statistics show that one in five women are assaulted during their college career. Sexual assault and sex trafficking is an even bigger problem in the developing world. Women's stories need to be told. The unique, heartbreaking novel An Untamed State is one example of such a story, although it is also much more than that.
Mirielle is a complex main character and narrator. She was raised in America to successful Haitian parents. Her father was obsessed with excellence and very demanding of his children, especially Mirielle, the youngest. After she and her siblings are grown, her parents move back to Haiti and start a construction company. They live in a lavish mansion in a place of abject poverty. Mirielle stays behind in the States and studies hard to become an immigration lawyer. She is a strong, sometimes difficult woman who does not expect the fairy tale that her life becomes when she falls in love and becomes pregnant.
The novel begins with Mirielle's adduction in front of her father's Haitian estate. Kidnapping is common in Haiti, and her father immediately hires a negotiator and expects she will be treated well until she is ransomed. Mirielle fights the kidnappers as hard as she can, refusing to cooperate with their dehumanizing demands, and they repay her with shockingly brutal rape and abuse. Her time in their cage is prolonged by her father’s proud refusal to pay. I will say that much of this novel is difficult to read. However, it is also a testament to the human spirit and a compelling, moving story that will keep you up all night. Mirielle's experience as a survivor in Miami, rebuilding her sense of self and family, is told with startling detail. Highly recommended for all readers, especially those interested in contemporary global issues and immigrant experiences, PTSD or mental health.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: Book v. Movie
“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”
For the last few months any time a patron under the age of 18 has approached the reference desk I’ve been pretty well able to guess what it is they’re looking for. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green’s 2012 novel, has recently seen resurging popularity with the release of the film adaptation. Green was already a Printz award-winning author at the time of TFIOS’s publication, but this novel was a transformative step forward for the young adult writer. We’ve been thrilled that the novel and movie have inspired young people to read.
The book is the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old girl living with stage four cancer. Her prognosis is terminal, but the medication she’s on has so far succeeded in extending her life beyond doctors’ expectations. Hazel lives a mostly isolated life before attending a cancer support group where she meets her great love, Augustus Waters, a cancer survivor who’s in remission at the novel’s opening. The really important thing to remember about this book is that it spurns the traditional tropes of “sick-lit.” Hazel’s experience confirms that the Hollywood myth of the strong and noble cancer kid suffering through terminal illness with a smile is fallacious.
Green tells an honest, funny story about two precocious teens living with pain, never flinching away from revealing the indignities of sickness. Although the film is very true to the book in terms of plot details, it felt to me that the soul of the novel was lost in translation. Green shows us the daily realities of Hazel’s sickness: hooking up to a breathing machine every night, cheeks puffed up as a side effect of her medication, the constant, aching awareness of her lungs struggling to fill. The movie, perhaps unavoidably, glosses over these details. We don’t get to watch Hazel scrolling through the Facebook page of Gus’s ex-girlfriend, who died from a brain tumor which transformed her personality. We also don’t see Hazel’s reaction to finding Gus, incoherent and weakened, lying in a pool of his own urine during the late days of his cancer. We don’t hear support group leader, Patrick, read the growing list of those members who have passed away. Instead the movie, perhaps necessarily because of its format, succumbs to the glossy, Hollywood sad story structure that the book confronts and spurns.
Not to be all whiny or anything. The film certainly had its bright spots. Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother was absolutely wonderful. The confrontation of Peter Van Houten and the Anne Frank House scene were both spot on. Watching Hazel struggle up the stairs, carrying her oxygen tank on her back, and hearing the words of Anne Frank, another child who struggled with the pain and cruelties of the world, was the shining point of the movie. In the end, I guess I’ll conclude as I usually do when talking about a book-to-film adaptation: make sure you read the book first! The movie is good, but the book might change your life.
How the Hot Dog Found Its Bun
By Josh Chetwynd
How the Hot Dog Found Its Bun: Accidental Discoveries and Unexpected Inspiartions That Shape What We Eat and Drink is one long title for a book that is relatively short but very much fun to read. Written by Josh Chetwynd with illustrations by David Cole Wheeler, this book is a collection of the origins of common food and drink items (and also kitchen utensils) we consume and often take for granted, from buffalo wings, to popsicles, to Kool-Aid, to paper towels and many, many more products. Chetwynd’s book is divided into categories such as Starters and Small Plates, Main Courses, Desserts, Candies and Snacks, Additives and Extras, Drinks, and Kitchen Inventions and Innovations. His anecdotes are comical, weird and serious – often all at once.
For example, the tale of tabasco sauce, also the subject of a recent Sixty Minutes segment, is an interesting enterprise that rose from the ashes of the Civil War. The McIlhenny family had lost all their land and crops on Avery Island in the Civil War except for some Mexican capsicum peppers. When McIlhenny returned to Avery he took the peppers, mixed them in salt from his island salt mines, added vinegar, combined them in an old cologne bottle and liked the result. He wanted to call it “Petite Anse Sauce”, since Avery was also known as Petite Anse, but after objections to using the family property’s name, he settled on “E. McIlhenny Tabasco Pepper Sauce”.
The idea for the name twinkies, by bakery manager James Dewar, came from seeing a billboard advertisement in St. Louis for Twinkle Toe Shoes, which he shortened to “make it a little zippier for the kids”. They were originally stuffed with strawberries so were available only seasonally. He switched to bananas since they could be found year round but rationing in World War II forced Hostess to switch to the vanilla flavored filling familiar today. The Twinkie segment does refer to the infamous “Twinkie Defense” used in the San Francisco Moscone and Milk murders in 1978. So, if you occasionally enjoy browsing this type of background information about common products ,sit back and grab a Twinkie - but maybe not a Graham cracker. You’ll have to look at this book to find out why!