This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal, 2010, * * * *

Edmund De Waal, the most renowed ceramacist in England today, became the fifth generation to inherit an exquisite collection of 264 netsuke, miniature sculptures carved from ivory or wood that were invented in 17th century Japan.  None of the sculptures is larger than a matchbox.  I first learned about this book after reading a column in the New York Timesby Roger Cohen entitle "The Netsuke Survived" which described the survival - not only of a collection of netsuke ("prounounced netski") but also of the European Jewish family through whose various hands the objects passed. De Waal's research sidetracked him for two years and turned into an obsession.  The story is at once absorbing and moving and follows the Ephrussi family as they work their way to fame and fortune in Paris and Vienna in the late 1800s.  The fortune derived from their prodigious success in the banking business - a success that initially gave its members access to social elites and cultural salons - the family was friends with Proust, Renoir, Degas etc. Following "l'affaire Dreyfus" and its opening of the deep vein of envy and distrust of Jew in French society , the family was now personae non grata.  The Anschluss, the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938 changed their world beyond recognition.  The Ephrussi family appropriated their possessions and homes and the netsuke survived only due to a loyal maid who smuggled them in a mattress.  The survival of the netsuke is wondrous but sometimes they are more distraction than narrative.  The story of the Ephrussis is amazing but the netsukes are often belabored.  Despite that, it is still a rich and absorbing read.

Facing the Wind: A True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation by Julie Salamon, 2001, * * *

This is a suspenseful, well-researched account of the life of a Brooklyn lawyer named Robert Rowe, who murdered his wife and three children in 1978 and escaped prison with an insanity plea. Salamon (Wendy and the Lost Boys; Hospital, The Devil's Candy) draws on court and hospital records, Rowe's diaries, and her interviews with the people who knew him to explore the psychological dynamics of his crime from every angle.  His marriage to his first wife, Mary, seemed idyllic until their second son, Christopher, was born with severe visual and neurological impairments. Eventually the Rowes joined the Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB) - a support group in which parents, mostly mothers, discussed the emotional challenges of raising disabled children. The author's sympathetic portraits of IHB members reveal that homicidal thoughts were common among such parents, forcing readers to realize the personal pressures that parents of disabled children face.  During the 1970s, Rowe began to suffer from an undetermined mental illness that prevented him from working. Heeding what he claimed to be the wishes of his late mother, one day he bludgeoned his wife and three children to death with a baseball bat.  Charged with four counts of second-degree murder, he was sent to Creedmoor Psychiatric Center for ten years.  Salamon devotes the second half of her investigation to Rowe's second wife, Colleen, who although aware of Rowe's crime, gave birth to his fourth child.  In the final chapter, after Rowe has died of cancer, Salamon allows the women of IHB to meet Colleen and debate Rowe's right to evade punishment and create a new family.  While Salamon concludes that Rowe believed himself to be a victim of mental disability and refused to accept responsibility for his actions, she encourages readers to make their own judgment.  It is a perturbing read that probes one to consider guilt and innocence from new perspectives. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889, * * * *

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) was an instant success when it was published in 1889 and it has been in print ever since.  It has to be one of the funniest books every written beginning with the opening chapter where the narrator reads a medical book and decides that he has every medical disease mentioned excepting 'housemaid's knee."  From there, he and his two bet friends, and a world-weary fox terrier named Montmorency decide to get away from it all with a boat trip up the River Thames - and that's the book.  It's full of one hilarious episode after another with side tidbits on the historical places they pass on the way.  The humor lies not in the plot but in the detail and the antics of the three men with their differing attitudes and approaches to the problems that arise.  Most of the comedy comes from set pieces such as the agony of putting up a tent in adverse weather conditions, finding the correct train at a railway station, or the simple act of hanging a picture.  I first heard about the book on an NPR program and thought that it just could not be that funny but I was wrong.  Perhaps the key to its success is a combination of simplicity and set-piece humorous incidents, most of which have a timeless, universal appeal.  All I can say is that if you like Mark Twain and P.G. Wodehouse -- get this book -- it is intelligent, witty, and laugh-out-loud hilarious!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir by Rosamund Bernier, 2011, * * * *

In the late summer of 1926, when Rosamond Bernier was not quite 10 years old, her father put her on a ship and sent her off to her English boarding school, all by herself.  Every evening she changed into a party dress and then retired to a smoking room for gambling.  "I had spectacular luck," Bernier writes in this bonbon of a book.  Throughout her long life, Bernie who is now 96, has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Rosamund Bernier has lived an unusually full life, remarkable for its vividness and diversity of experience and she has known many of the greatest artists and composers of the twentieth century.    With little experience her determination and instincts led to jobs such as Vogue's first European feature's editor and a gig at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where her lectures were "the hottest ticket in New York." She wasn't an artist or a socialite, but she turned being social into an art. In Some of My Lives she has made a literary scrapbook from an extraordinary array of writings ranging from diary entries to her many contributions to the art journal L'Oeil, which she co-founded in 1955.  The result is a multifaceted self-portrait of a life informed and surrounded by the arts. Through the stories of her encounters with some of the twentieth century's great artists and composers including Pablo Picasso, Leonard Bernstein, Max Ernst, Aaron Copland,  Frida  Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Kark Lagerfeld, you come to understand the sheer richness of Bernier's experiences, interactions, and memories.  The result is pithy, hilarious, and wise -- a richly rewarding chronicle of many lives fully lived.