Mr. Peabody’s Corner of Research and Revelation: Art

In An Object of Beauty, author Steve Martin introduces readers to the rarified world of art dealers and art collectors. As a person who is more likely to collect fez-wearing chimps than fine art, I am not overly conversant with art galleries, auction houses or the quirks of rich collectors. Here we find Lacey, a young woman who will use any means to get what she wants, working in the lower echelons at Sotheby’s. As she rises through the ranks we learn about a variety of artists and styles as well as the behind-the-scenes operations of art auctions. Lacey is not a likeable character, but her careless attitude towards others is more self-centered than malicious. Eventually opening her own gallery, Lacey begins to focus on living artists, and thus Martin introduces the many unusual faces of contemporary art.

The story is narrated by an acquaintance of Lacey’s and he presents her adventures as a cautionary tale. We learn that morally questionable business practices can stall a career (when the perp is caught), that the art world is at the mercy of international economics, and that major events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks impact business and economics.

Martin’s writing style is delicate and genteel and the narrator creates just the right degree of tension to make the reader wonder what’s going to happen next.

As a result of my narrow focus on fez/chimp related art, many questions arose as I read Martin’s novel. Here are a few of those questions along with some Everett Public Library holdings that might offer answers.

 1)      What goes on in the lives of art dealers?

2)      Martin paints art collectors as a rather idiosyncratic bunch. How much truth is there in this portrayal?

3)      Collectors might see something in a piece of art that I cannot see. How do I learn to better appreciate art?

4)      After primarily selling works of dead European artists, Lacey becomes interested in living American artists. What are some of the trends and techniques in American art and who are the artists who have been successful?

5)      “What is art?” is an all-encompassing philosophical quandary. A simpler version of this question is, “Why is modern art considered to be art?” Paint splatters, found objects and installations where the viewer is part of the artwork have become commonplace means of expression. How can one appreciate such unconventional works?

Gotta go, so much more to learn!

Ron

Other People’s Homes

What do you think of when the word “home” is mentioned? There are those who still live in their childhood homes filled with memories; there are those who wander this earth looking for a place to set down roots; and there are those who  only want to sell a house after remodeling and redecorating.

Then, there are a handful of individuals who become caretakers of grand, historical homes only for as long as they live; for after they die their oldest male heir will likely inherit their estate. In Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, the Countess of Carnarvon tells the story of Highclere Castle and its surrounds.

People have been living at Highclere for thousands of years as demonstrated by the Iron Age hill fort on the property. The land was owned by the bishops of Winchester for hundreds of years before being awarded, in the late seventeenth century, to the Herbert family, Earls of Pembroke and ancestors of the Earls of Carnarvon. Because of the expense of maintaining palatial properties such as Highclere, male heirs were often encouraged to marry into money so that these properties could be preserved and their splendor sustained. This fascinating book covers the estate and its inhabitants from the late Victorian era to the mid 1920’s.

Sometimes, no matter how much you love your home and what it represents, it cannot be saved. In The House I Loved, Rose Bazelet is determined to stay in the only home she’s really known, a home she has lived in her entire married life. It is the 1860’s and Emperor Napoleon III has given orders to modernize Paris by widening the city’s streets, obliterating entire neighborhoods, included Rose’s. One by one her neighbors move out but Rose is determined to stay. She passes her days and nights writing letters to her dead husband and recalling their past together. Her two closest friends try to encourage her to relocate but she resists them, for how can she leave the place where all her memories reside.

Sometimes there are homes that seem to be charmed. In The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, Heidi, although mourning her husband’s untimely death, travels, along with her young son and sixteen year old niece, to a small village in the south of France. There has been a fire in the ancestral family home and Heidi’s mother has asked Heidi to determine the extent of the damage and stay while repairs are finished. While there, Heidi is drawn into the secrets and magic that pervade this home and, in time, will bring joy and hope back into her life.

There are also homes that seen to beckon us through generations and from distant lands. Going home to Lebanon, Anthony Shadid is determined to rebuild his great-grandfather’s home in House of Stone. His family had fled war-torn Lebanon to build a new life in Oklahoma City where he was raised. The call of family history was too strong, however, and so he returned to his ancestral home determined to bring it back to life again. This wonderful account of restoring a home is interspersed with memorable characters, myths, family histories and traditions, and explanations of the rich culture that exists in his chosen homeland. This superb book is made more poignant by the fact that Anthony Shadid passed away earlier this year.

Finally, if you’re interested in how homes have evolved over the years you should read If Walls Could Talk. This fascinating history covers everything we take for granted in our modern homes: from bedrooms, where sleeping in a private bed is a somewhat recent event, through the even more recent custom of bathrooms, and the modernization of the kitchens of today. This interesting and informative volume is filled with trivia of the everyday running of the home, past and present.

So, pull out a chair (keeping in mind that in a medieval house only the lord or owner was allowed to sit down), relax and be thankful that we live in the here and now and can take the time to enjoy reading about other people’s homes.

Suzanne

Up From the Depths

Photo: Merrill Gosho, NOAA

Spring is slowly, very slowly this year it seems, lurching into view. It is time again to tend to the garden, clean out the house and, for some, wear a pair of shorts and a tee shirt way too soon. If you cast your eye out to Puget Sound, however, you might just be witness to another rite of spring: the return of the leviathans.

The leviathans in question happen to be gray whales. They are now making their way into Puget Sound during their northerly migration back to their arctic feeding grounds. While sightings are somewhat rare, they have been known to come in close to shore while feeding. Sometimes a little too close…

Now there are many, many books on whales at the library. Let me point out a few recent titles that are intriguing, unconventional and products of authors who are obsessed, perhaps at times a little unhealthily, with their subject.

The Whale: In Search of Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare is a good place to start. The author, who usually writes biographies, has been fascinated by whales since childhood. This book is an entertaining journey that blends whale science, the history of whaling, literature and the author’s own experiences to try to find out why humans have been fascinated by whales for centuries.

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale is another product of obsession but this time with an academic bent. Based on nearly a decade of research, this work chronicles the complicated and often disturbing relationship between humans and whales in the 20th century. While well documented, this is no dry read, and the author’s entertaining and lively prose comes across on every page.

One just needs to read the title of Richard Ellis’ latest book, The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean’s Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature, to know that the author is devoted to his subject. And what a subject it is. Ellis lovingly describes the sperm whale in all its scientific, cultural, literary and historical glory and includes many fascinating illustrations.

Lurking at the back of all three of these books is an appropriately obsessional interest in that most famous of fictitious white whales: Moby-Dick. All three authors list Herman Melville’s tale as the inspiration for their fascination with the world of whales.

Due to its length and exhaustive nautical references, Moby-Dick is sometimes considered a hard sell. If you are among the doubters, you might want to check out the appropriately titled Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick. This thin volume is an entertaining plea for the books continued relevance by an unabashed fan. He is also a bestselling author who knows a thing or two about good books.

But I think the prize for greatest whale-related obsession has to go to Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page by Matt Kish. The Ohio artist created an image a day for 18 months to coincide with the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Moby-Dick. Each image is accompanied by a quote from the page and the artwork is quirkily low tech with old book pages and other miscellanea being incorporated. Ahab would approve of this artist’s obsessive fascination.

So no matter what your level of commitment, consider checking out a whale-related book in honor of the return of the gray whales to Puget Sound.

Richard