Monday, August 25, 2014

Collector of Souls


With a career that spanned from the 1920s into the 80s, Alice Neel is widely regarded as one of the greatest figurative painters of the twentieth century. Born on January 28, 1900 in Merion Square, Pennsylvania, the third of four children, she was raised in a straight-laced middle-class family at a time when expectations and opportunities for women were limited. After graduating from high school, Neel took the Civil Service exam and got a well paid clerical position that helped support her parents. After three years of work and art classes at night, she enrolled in the Fine Art program at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1921, graduating in 1925.

Still Life, Rose of Sharon, 1973; Whitney Museum, New York

While in art school, Neel met an upper-class Cuban painter named Carlos Enríquez and married him in 1924. She eventually moved to Havana to live with her husband’s family and was there embraced by the Cuban avant-garde, a group of young writers, artists and musicians. It was in this environment that Neel developed the foundations of her lifelong political consciousness and commitment to equality.

Pat Whalen, 1935; Whitney Museum

A daughter, Santillana, was born in Havana in December of 1926. The couple returned to New York where one month short of her first birthday, Santillana died of diphtheria. In November of 1928, a second daughter, Isabella Lillian (Isabetta) was born in New York City. Barely two years later, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him. Mourning the loss of her husband and daughter, Neel suffered a massive nervous breakdown, was hospitalized, and after a suicide attempt doctors placed her in the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital.

Self Portrait, 1980; National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

Released in 1931, Neel moved to New York where for many years she remained poor and unrecognized as an artist. And yet she was a pioneer among American women artists, living a life devoted to her art despite any and all circumstances. For decades she chose her subjects from family, friends, and a wide assortment of local writers, poets, artists, students, textile salesmen, psychologists, cabaret singers, and homeless bohemians, a selection of subjects that was a portrayal of, and dialogue with the city in which she lived. Neel thought of herself as a “collector of souls” and it is clear that she honored those she chose to paint, portraits oftentimes more real than the people themselves, full of restlessness, vulnerability and imperfection. In an interview shortly before her death in 1984 she said, “I could have been a great psychiatrist but it’s more fun being an artist. I see what’s here; I don’t look for anything, I just look…I love to paint people torn to shreds by the rat race of New York.”

Peggy, 1949
Notice the unnaturally lanky arms that stretch out and double back, hands (one open, one curled closed) at rest on either side of the face, fragile but insistent arrows pointing to the cut above one eye, bruises beside the other.

Alice Neel’s obscurity ended when the woman’s movement discovered her in the 1970s and brought a success closely tied to gender equality and feminism. Her portrait of Kate Millet for the August 31, 1970 cover of Time magazine was the result of her new found recognition.

My Mother, 1952; private collection

How does one define the painting of Alice Neel? As realist, expressionist, psychological portraitist, or what? Some might tag her as a social realist but her art is as far removed from social realism as it is from pop. An astute critic may see in the artist’s roots a mixture of the Northern European tradition, New York’s Ashcan School, and American primitive, but there is something about Neel’s art that defies categories. The Art Spirit, a book by the Ashcan School’s Robert Henri was Neel’s bible. Art critic Jeremy Lewison has said that Neel’s realistic approach to the human form at a time of growing abstraction among her contemporaries confirmed her as an outsider. Looking at a collection of Neel’s work the viewer is made to see something fresh, vital, moving, amusing, tender, cruel, mournful, grotesque or sparse. Impressions can be contradictory in the work of Alice Neel, but almost always a visceral experience that plays with the emotions.

Virgil Thompson, 1971

George Arce, a neighborhood boy Neel sketched and painted on several occasions


George Arce, a few years older

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pockets & Watches


Thinking back to what many of us wore to school as kids, blue jeans and white T-shirts were right at the top. Along with a pair of US Keds high-top tennis shoes it was practically an unofficial uniform, making the combination easily the most familiar articles of clothing in the closet and dresser of my boyhood. At the time I never paid much mind to the details of those daily trousers, never thought about the trademark rivets or the button fly, just something I pulled on in the morning and kicked off at night.

I read today in my West Virginia friend’s blog, A Reader’s Life, that she was surprised to discover a lot of people these days don’t know what a watch pocket is. Hey, I’m surprised too. Aren’t many guys out there who still carry a pocketwatch and I have to believe a lot also who didn’t or don’t wear blue jeans. In those days when jeans were a daily custom, I didn’t carry a pocketwatch but I did know that the little pocket in my Levis was made to hold one. I guess, “What’s this little pocket for?” was a question I asked the man in the department store one day. But yeah, I too am surprised that not so many people today know what that little pocket was originally for. 


In the late 1800s cowboys, miners and other outdoor workers often kept a watch on a chain in the pocket of a waistcoat or vest. And then in 1873 Levi Strauss introduced a small pocket designed expressly to hold a pocketwatch. The first blue jeans had four pockets—one in back and two in front with the addition of a small pocket stitched and riveted to the top of the right front pocket. The smaller pocket was included as protection for pocketwatches and thus the name, watch pocket. Since its first appearance this extra pouch-like pocket has had many functions, evident in a few of its other names: frontier pocket, condom pocket, coin pocket, match pocket and ticket pocket. Not surprising that many people today have no real idea of what that little pocket is called or what the Levi Strauss company had in mind when they included it in their denims. 


The thing is, I do have a pocketwatch, but one that hasn’t spent much time in that special little pocket on my blue jeans (Yeah, still wearing them almost every day.) but these days rests in a dish on the coffee table. Not the first time to mention the watch in these pages; it has found space a couple of times in my scribbles about this or that. I got the watch not too many years ago at a secondhand shop in my old Tokyo neighborhood, a conductor’s watch commonly used by drivers and conductors on Japanese trains. The watch has for many years been made by the Japanese watchmaker, Seiko, with upgrades every few years. Mine is one of the 7550 quartz series made in 1978—thirty-six years old and still keeping accurate time. At the time of production, Seiko advertised the watch as having an accuracy within 15 seconds per month. 
………………

Before my head got turned by watches and pockets this morning, I was stopped by the sight of my new and flourishing guacamole tree on the back porch. About a month ago, in the business of making a bowl of guacamole, I cut open an avocado and noticed that the seed was slightly split and with a tiny white root coming out of the bottom end. It was the first time to see that in years and I right away did the old trick of sticking the seed with toothpicks and resting it half in-half out of a glass of water. In two weeks another tiny three roots had grown out and down into the water. At the end of the third week I planted the seed in a pot of soil and put it in a sunny spot near the screen door. Here’s what it looks like today…


In the wild growth of summer my backyard is in some spots an explosion of green. I keep a compost heap for leaf litter, moss and the smaller branches that drop from the oak trees and from the backend of the compost has grown up a wild mix of plants. I can’t identify half the plants and have to wonder what they will grow into. As the picture below shows, the walls of the unpainted enclosure are old and weathered and though it’s hard to see, soon to collapse. The project for next week is to replace those walls.



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Sad Time

Not long after I’d returned to the US from Japan, I met a couple living a few doors away from my place at the beach. There was something about our meeting that first time that assured me we would become good friends. 

And that we certainly did. 

At the time, Fred and Kathleen were good medicine in the sense of helping me through the re-acclimation to American life, something I’d long been away from. It wasn’t long before I was calling them best friends, always happy to share dinner or a bottle of wine or nothing more than an hour of good conversation on the patio. Over the past four years there has never been a day I wouldn’t be grateful for time together with these friends.

About three weeks back Fred and Kathleen went to south Florida to spend time with family at the Club Med Resort. During their days there they renewed their wedding vows for the third time. Nine days ago I had lunch at their beach condo where I practically slavered over a casserole that took the place of the cold cuts she hinted we might have. Twice this past week I have made that dish, something I now call Kathy’s Kasserole.

Between March 2012 and November 2013 she wrote a blog called The Three Rs of Cancer: Remission-Recurrence-Resilience about her experiences of dealing with cancer and about the importance of remaining positive and upbeat in the face of a difficult battle. 

I am heartbroken to report that our good friend-wife-mother-sister and grandmother passed away early this morning. Fred, you and the entire family are in our thoughts and prayers.

Kathleen  1945-2014

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Aftermath of Cleopatra

It took recommendations from different people over a long period of time but several months late I finally got around to Jess Walter’s 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins


Hard to recall a book I’ve enjoyed as much in the last half year. 

With a book buying budget teetering on the brink of calamity, I opted for the local library but discovered the book was on reserve—good sign for one published over two years ago. The paperback came out in April of this year, so finding a copy on store shelves shouldn’t be hard. And of course, there’s always Amazon who can get an inexpensive copy to readers anywhere in a week or two.

Author, Jess Walter lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington with his wife and three children. His most recent book is a collection of short stories titled, We Live in Water: Stories. He has written six novels as well as two non-fiction books. His novel Citizen Vince won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2006, The Zero was a National Book Award finalist and Beautiful Ruins was included in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012. HIs books have been translated into twenty-eight languages.


Beautiful Ruins brings a story that jumps here and there across fifty years from Italy to Hollywood, on to Seattle, London and places far and in-between. It begins with the arrival of a striking young woman in a tiny village on the coast of Italy. While filming the epic movie Cleopatra in 1962 Richard Burton “trifles” with the beautiful young bit-part actress who is later bundled off the set with a story that she is dying of stomach cancer, her symptoms very like those of early pregnancy. None the wiser, she is taken to a tiny village on the coast of Italy where she meets a young Italian named Pasquale. From there we follow a boldly entertaining cast of characters across fifty years to a little theater in present day Idaho. 

For all its color, its richness of character and bravura storytelling, Beautiful Ruins is at heart a novel of social criticism offering the reader much more than mere superficial entertainment. Each of the writer’s characters shows us another side of what it is to dream, to lie, to take advantage, fail and then ultimately understand what we are. Two of Walter’s central characters—the actress and the young Italian, Pasquale—are set apart in their goodness and honesty, but are forced to find their way through a world of others serving only themselves, feeding their own misguided selfishness. 


From here forward this reader’s eyes and ears will be tuned to anything by Jess Walter. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Duh-Byoose 3

Frequent rain along with a near medieval plague of mosquitos here in dirt road country has kept me pretty much housebound the past couple of weeks. Those rare times when I run from front door to car I have to hope that only a dozen or so of the bloodthirsty devils will join me behind the wheel. Farina the dog is wary as well, on more than one occasion breaking into a Saint Vitus dance when the attack comes from all sides. We are both happier ensconced on the back porch where we can watch the rain safe from mosquitos and happy with book or bone. 


Andre Dubus III is the author of six books: The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989), Bluesman (1993), House of Sand and Fog (1999), The Garden of Last Days (2008), Townie (2011) and Dirty Love (2013). His awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, The National Magazine Award for Fiction, two Pushcart Prizes, and a 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, as well as being a finalist for the National Book Award. His books have been published in over twenty-five languages.

Dubus grew up in mill towns in the Merrimack River valley along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border and began writing fiction at the age of 22, just a few months after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelors Degree in sociology.

At my local library a couple of weeks ago I came upon a Dubus book on the New Fiction shelf, his most recent work titled Dirty Love, published in October 2013. The writer’s name was not new to me and I remembered him immediately as the author of House of Sand and Fog, a book I read in 1999. With that in mind, I took home this latest book from Mr Dubus almost certain it would turn out to be a good read. 


And it was. Dirty Love is a book of four novellas, each story set in the same town north of Boston and including minor characters that reappear in a subsequent story almost like a familiar face from down the street or the guy at the local Starbucks. Writing about Dirty Love in The New York Times, Jeff Turrentine reminds us that newlyweds crossing the threshold are walking into a ‘…daunting meshwork of married-folk dialectics: conquest and submission, selfhood and union, lust and shame, rejoicing and regret…so disoriented by love they honestly can’t tell whether they’re looking for a way into or a way out of it.’ This is a good description of characters who fumble through infidelity, philandering, romantic disillusionment and the betrayal of friends and family. My experience with Andre Dubus III has sometimes been that many of his characters come across as unsympathetic people who too often orchestrate their own problems. I found less of that in this new book. The final and best of the four stories is the sad tale of Devon, a high school dropout shattered by dirty love and the betrayal of friends and parents. 


Impressed by Dirty Love, I next dug up a copy of Dubus’s 2008 book, The Garden of Last Days, a story inspired by the suspected visit of one 9/11 hijacker to a Florida strip club shortly before the attacks. Probably my favorite of this writer’s work, it tells the story of an early September night in 2011 when a stripper in Florida is forced to bring her three year-old daughter to the Puma Club for Men because her babysitter has been hospitalized. Not well received by all critics, this was for me a relentless charge through over 500 pages, the story and viewpoint switching between five voices: April the stripper, Bassam the jihadist, A.J. an angry customer ejected from the club, Lonnie the club bouncer and Jean, April’s elderly landlady and babysitter. Dubus shapes anger, desperation, sexuality and fear into an absorbing novel I found hard to put down. Rumor has it that James Franco is planning to direct and star in a movie version of the book. Action-packed, that’s for sure.


A few days later I began the Dubus memoir, Townie, one that followed publication of The Garden of Last Days. Though born in California, Dubus grew up north of Boston in an area of depressed mills, poverty, drugs and alcoholism, where violence lived around every corner and where bullying was a way of life. I stuck with this one for 250 pages but finally put it down because the people of Dubus’s childhood and youth were mostly thugs and drunks quick to pound on the next guy or girl. At one point, afraid of his neighbors or classmates, Dubus took up weightlifting and boxing, turning himself into what he had previously feared. It is a great credit to him that he ultimately lifted himself out of that anger and brutality to become a respected writer, professor and family man. But his was a forge too harrowing for me and after the chapters leading to his early twenties I laid it aside. That said, I would discourage no one from reading the book. It has won awards and been called riveting and unforgettable. 



These days I am rereading House of Sand and Fog, the 1999 book that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and one that Dubus conceived after reading a tiny newspaper article telling of a woman losing her house when erroneously evicted for unpaid taxes. There is something Shakespearian about the tragedy that befalls the characters in this book. Kathy Nicolo is a recovering addict whose husband walked out and who repeatedly ignores letters from the tax office until the day they knock on her door with an eviction notice. Forced into a motel room, her belongings in storage, the house left to her by her father is auctioned off by the state, bought by a former colonel in the Iranian military under the Shah trying to make a life for his family after fleeing Iran. And that is only the beginning. All involved are on a path to disaster. House of Sand and Fog is a harrowing and beautifully written novel. For a reader looking to sample Andre Dubus III, this one is the ticket.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Zen Dog


All of us from time to time get those email forwards that bounce around the Internet and more often than not prove to be either unfunny, treacly sweet, maudlin or politically overbearing. On occasion one of these bouncing forwards comes along with the familiar heading, “How Cute!” or “How True!” and despite the cloying title finds a sensitive spot inside us. In my case those times are rare and the delete key gets a quick tap. But I do have a vulnerable soft spot when it comes to dog stories and dog video clips. I suppose you have to have a dog for that to work. A couple of days ago I got one of these emails and was reaching for the delete key when something about it held me back. Minutes later I was mumbling to myself. “How true!”   

If you can start the day without caffeine, 
   If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,
If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,
   If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,
If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
   If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,
If you can conquer tension without medical help,
   If you can relax without alcohol,
If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,
   Then you are probably the family dog.
Handle every stressful situation like a dog:
        If you can’t eat it or play with it,
        then pee on it and walk away.

All of us get mawkish when the right button is pushed.


Farina Belly Up

Sunday, May 18, 2014

5 Books for 5 Moods

The past couple of weeks have been fortunate as far as book choices go. Most times you read a couple of reviews, flip through a few pages on Amazon and you’re still not sure it’s the right book for your mood. This time I got it right with a string of five books, some new, some not, one something I’d been meaning to read for a long time. It’s unusual to hit upon five in a row that all prove to be the right choice. Here are those that did it for me:


Continental Drift (1985) by Russell Banks
This is the book I had been meaning to read for the last several years. I’ve read a couple of other books by Banks, so to some extent knew what I was getting into. Continental Drift is about a luckless guy from New Hampshire who uproots his family from all and everyone they know and drags them to Florida trying to catch his dream. Like others before him, he falls prey to people looking to exploit, one of many looking for the chance to better themselves in a new setting. The story is built upon a marvelous cross section of characters that range from black and white, to old world and new, from the living as well as the dead. Continental Drift gives us a bleak perspective of opportunity in the America of the 1980s.

Long, Last, Happy (2010) by Barry Hannah
This selection of old and new stories was published shortly after the writer’s death. For a while there, Hannah was a blazing comet across the skies of American literature, a reputation ignited by his first novel, Geronimo Rex, published in 1972. He followed that with another novel before showing readers that his true power lay in short stories. Barry Hannah could do just about anything with words, leaving images on the page that you hadn’t thought were possible. The problem often arises that his beautiful sentences and use of language, along with his fascinating oddball characters never find the plot, or at least one that’s clear. For the reader with an interest in southern writing, Hannah shouldn’t be overlooked. He wrote a good many incomparable short stories that are taught in universities. Long, Last, Happy is a good sampling.

The Painter (2014) by Peter Heller
After reading Heller’s earlier book, The Dog Stars, his new book grabbed my attention at first glance. The author has written mostly non-fiction, but makes the shift to fiction without the least stumble. In the two books I’ve read, Heller tells a story of moral ambiguity, the main characters in each at battle with the laws, traditions and culture that have shaped them. The Painter is about a man successful in his painting but with less luck in his personal life, where violence seems to almost seek him out. Jim Stegner is trying to outrun his past but keeps bumping into reminders that threaten to undo him. The story is set in Colorado and New Mexico, a landscape that is as rugged as it is lyrical and Heller soars in his descriptions of fly fishing in creeks meandering along canyon walls under an overhang of lime-green cottonwoods. With short, abrupt sentences and paragraphs you would expect the story to flow with less grace. Not so with Peter Heller.

The Son (2014) by Jo Nesbo
Saw this book in the window of my tiny local library and checked it out mostly because I had never read anything by a modern Norwegian novelist, or anything set in the city of Oslo. From the first page this crime novel grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Jo Nesbo has a new fan and after the last page of The Son, I jumped up to order two more of his books. The son in this story is a young man serving time in prison for the crimes of others. He is accepting of his sentence until learning that his father’s suicide was not that at all. He escapes from prison (very cleverly) and begins working down a list of those who he believes killed his father. The question is, who will get him first, the cops or the criminals?

The Keillor Reader (2014) by Garrison Keillor
I have long been a fan of Garrison Keillor for two things in particular. It is a long custom of mine to begin each day with a cup of coffee and the latest online edition of The Writer’s Almanac. That has led me to read Keillor’s several compilations of poetry which have done a lot to re-shape my appreciation of a form that high school taught me to hate. By hook or by crook find a copy of Keillor’s splendid introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times (2005) wherein he explains what poetry really is and who it is meant for. The Keillor Reader is something just out and is a collection of his writings over the last forty years. There is so much humanity and warm humor in this writer’s stories that natural reaction is a smile that lasts for 358 pages. Never read any of the Lake Wobegon stories? This one’s for you. I took great enjoyment from this little snippet out of “The News from Lake Wobegon.” 
    

‘I wish to be cremated… I wish my ashes to be placed in the green bowling ball that Raoul also gave me, which somebody can hollow out (I’m told), and then seal it up, and I would like the ball to be dropped into Lake Wobegon.’

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America