Monthly Archives: December 2019

The year in culture


It was a star-studded year for culture. We saw Uma Thurman in Ibsen’s Ghosts, J.M.W. Turner’s paintings at Mystic Seaport Museum and Ansel Adams’s photographs at the MFA in Boston.

But the real story in our wanderings this year was the secondary. At the Clark in Williamstown, Mass., Renoir was the headliner, but we got much more out of the sideshow of Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe’s small works. The Turner exhibit was certainly thrilling – 92 watercolors and four oils in their only North American stop – but a companion exhibit of Turner’s influence on the impressionists and tonalists, at the Mystic Museum of Art, made for a charming coda. 

And the Ansel Adams exhibit was so crowded – three people deep – that we eventually departed for the MFA’s permanent exhibits.

The lesson here is that you never know what will wow you and what won’t, so you might as well keep an open mind.

Thurman certainly wowed us in the role of Helene in Ghosts. From our front-row seats, all the performances were powerful in this tale of a family disintegrating amid lies and blackmail in 19th-century Norway. Less impressive were the special effects, with a musician eerily lit but visible behind a glass partition at stage rear. The characters walked in and out of this space, challenging our suspension of disbelief and giving the play a gimmicky feel.

Up the road at the Clark, Renoir’s nudes took center stage in the main gallery space, while Ida O’Keeffe was relegated to the Manton Research Center. How fitting for someone who languished next to her sister Georgia – and lending irony to the show’s title, “Ida O’Keeffe, Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” 

Ida’s talents were as varied as her subject matter, and in this small show you could see her struggle to reconcile her need to make a living with her need to make art. From illustrating school materials to teaching as an adjunct at various colleges, she had to fit art into her life in a way that her more successful sister did not. Art was Georgia’s life, and financial success gave her the freedom to escape her philandering husband and make New Mexico her adopted home.

The Turner show is breathtaking – it remains up through Feb. 23 – and easily was the artistic highlight of the year. Curated by Tate and brought to Mystic Seaport Museum by former senior vice president Nicholas Bell, “J.M.W. Turner: Watercolors from Tate” brings together a sweeping series of works from 1790 to 1850. Here you can see the artist’s development of technique and how his travels widened his outlook. As a bonus, Tate included “Turner and the Sea,” 17 watercolors, oils and sketchbook scenes of whaling and the coast that speak to the museum’s main mission.

Having viewed the show during a preview for reporters, we headed to the Mystic Museum of Art a few months later to catch “Oil and Water: Mystic Art Colony Artists Respond to Turner.” The show was underplayed in a back gallery and on display for far too short a time (Oct. 11 to Nov. 16), but it provided striking evidence of Turner’s influence. Many of his techniques, including foregrounding trees, could be seen in these works from the museum’s permanent collection.

Not every show wowed us.

At the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., the former artist colony was occupied by Jennifer Angus’s explosion of insects as part of “Fragile Earth: The Naturalist Impulse in Contemporary Art.” Some of this – insects in amber, insects pinned, insects in diorama – was inspired, but taken together the displays were overdone and, well, a little creepy. We can’t help imagining Miss Florence herself, who was so tolerant of her impressionist boarders’ impulses to paint her door panels, sweeping half of these insects off their perches in one decisive gesture. 

As for the MFA, I suppose no one can expect to drop in on a Saturday and have an Ansel Adams exhibit all to themselves. Still, it makes an argument for limiting access during times of high demand. It’s impossible to take in the majesty of his prints when you have to jostle a crowd of people just to read the title of the photograph.

Overall, it was a great year of cultural and artistic adventure. You’ll notice I discuss only visual art and theater, not music, film, or TV, and that’s intentional. Painting and, to a lesser extent, theater feed my writing much more than popular culture does. It’s the rare art show that doesn’t send me off with a new way of looking at something. A visual artist’s struggles with creativity, while not completely parallel to a writer’s, give us new ways of creating as well. Theater may inspire dialogue, music mood, and film a story arc, but art speaks to the visual nature of good writing. As 2019 winds down, I’m still thinking about Turner’s landscapes, Ida O’Keeffe’s abstract lighthouses, even those preserved beetles camped out on Miss Florence Griswold’s windowsills.


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A year of magical reading

Although I mostly review fiction, nonfiction dominated my personal reading list this year. Here’s a look back.


The year 2019 began, and is ending, with Colm Toibin, and there is a reckoning in the Irish author’s novels and nonfiction that makes him an appropriate literary god to bookend the year. In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner, 2018), the literary fathers are more interesting than their sons. Yeats’s father, in particular, was a dynamic letter-writer and “failed” painter who had an undeniable creative fire. Here is the senior Yeats expounding on what it means to be an artist in a world that values only rational thought:


The men of science hate us and revile us … They always work in gangs, many minds engaged on one task, whereas we live and work singly, each man building for himself accepting no fellowship – for we say it is only thus we can build our habitations.


  In a way, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know picks up where Toibin’s 2004 novel of Henry James, The Master, leaves off, although I read them in the opposite order. In the novel Wilde appears as both a hated rival and an object lesson in what might happen if the tightly wound James acted on his homoerotic nature. The Master is, well, masterful, in both its insight into James and its immersion into his style and tone. It is not mimicry so much as a complete synthesis of the writer’s inner life. All is told through hint and suggestion, every gesture and silence burdened with the unexpressed and unspoken. Like T.S. Eliot after him, James sloughed off his American self to become a British subject, and there is something of J. Alfred Prufrock in his mannered regrets.

I did not stay on the periphery of Bloomsbury but dove into it, first with Katharine Smyth’s memoir, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf (Crown, 2019) about the author’s attempts to recover from her father’s death by reading Woolf and visiting her haunts; then with Woolf’s letters, anthologized in Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joanne Trautman Banks (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989) and then finally with an excellent new biography, Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her World, by Gillian Gill (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019). I even got halfway through The Voyage Out, Woolf’s early allegorical novel, written in the wake of the Titanic sinking, a fact I discovered in The Age of Titanic: Cross-Currents of Anglo-American Culture, by John Wilson Foster (Merlin Publishing, Ireland, 2002).

But the truth is, I’ve always enjoyed reading Woolf’s diaries and letters, and biographies of her, more than her fiction, which can be dense, mannered, and arch. I know this is probably a personal failing (I did love To the Lighthouse), and I would not go so far as one critic did this year in trying to kick her out of the literary canon, but her fiction seems to operate at a frequency slighter higher than my own. Which is a way of saying that if only I were smarter, I might get it.

Yet we remain fascinated with Woolf for her feminist ideals, her gender fluidity and her lifelong struggle with mental illness. I even got to ask Gillian Gill about this in an interview earlier this month, and she maintains you cannot separate an author from their lives, as much as critical theorists want us to. And that feels right to me: the fiction has to be taken in totality with the life in order to be understood.

Another author’s life I continue to study is Emerson’s. I discovered Emerson and his Eccentrics by Carlos Baker (Viking, 1996) at the Kingston Hill (R.I.) Bookstore, a treasure of rare and slightly used books curated by the knowledgeable Allison Goodsell. Baker, who died before the book was published, was a Princeton scholar who delves deeply into the usual subjects – Margaret Fuller, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott – while also concentrating on Emeron’s lesser known contemporaries, such as Jones Very and Theodore Parker. Thus it becomes a biography not just of friendship but ideas, one I can imagine rereading some day.

I also read biographies of Pearl Buck and H.P. Lovecraft, memoirs by Patti Smith, Howard Norman and Amy Tan, and Casey Cep’s excellent account of the book Harper Lee couldn’t write – Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, 2019). But literary nonfiction shared the shelf with another genre, a combination of nature writing and adventure and history for which I have no name.

Stumbling upon a nature writer always opens new doors of thought. Bernd Heinrich is the author of more than a dozen books about birds, insects and habitats. Like my idol Edwin Way Teale, whose book Wandering into Winter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, Heinrich also has written books centered on the seasons. But it was the audiobook One Wild Bird at a Time (narrated by Rick Adamson, Dreamscape Media, 2016) that introduced me to the New England writer and scientist. Through his ingenious experiments and statute-like patience, Heinrich shows us not just how wild creatures behave, but why, and his curiosity is infectious. I followed up with Summer World (narrated by Mel Foster, Tantor Audio, 2009) and then bought a print edition of his latest, A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018).

A good nature book is never far from my hands. Another discovery was Wyman Richardson, a Boston doctor whose The House on Nauset Marsh (Chatham Press, 1972; originally published in 1947) painted an evocative picture of the Cape Cod house where his family summered (Richardson died in 1953). I journeyed west with David Gessner (All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West; W.W. Norton, 2015) and Cecil Kuhne (River Master: John Wesley Powell’s Legendary Exploration of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon, Countryman Press/Norton, 2017) and  a wonderful copy of Oscar Lewis’s High Sierra Country (Duell, Sloan and Pearce/Little Brown, 1955), part of the American Folkways Series. These books, besides transporting us to a different world, talk to each other, and threads stretch from one to another, weaving new ideas.

What, after all, is the point of reading? Although all of these books were read “for pleasure,”  they seeped into my writing in complicated ways. All year I also read books intentionally for research, into the life of Caroline Hazard (president of Wellesley, 1899 to 1910), for a biography, as well as into moonshining, for a novel in progress. All of these books informed my thinking, leading me from one place to the next, from one nascent idea to another. 

Stegner, quoted in Gessner’s book, defined biography as “transformation of fact by the imagination” as long as “imagination [works] with the real.” I jotted this down in my journal. Two days later, while reading something in the New York Times, I thought, “biography is the attempt to find meaning – contemporary meaning – in a former life,” and wrote, “I don’t know what made me think this.” Of course, that Stegner quote had been percolating in my mind for two days, waiting to merge with my own thoughts. 

Thus all of these readings remain just below the surface, pinging off this and that neuron for new insight. Emerson’s intellectual circle, Stegner’s fascination with the West, Heinrich’s detailed observation of the natural world, Woolf’s ability to transcend her 19th-century upbringing – all of this seemingly unrelated material is connected to this biography I’m researching, of a woman who could not transcend her 19th-century roots, who saw the West – Santa Barbara – as her escape, who surrounded herself with strong women, who will need to be observed with incredible patience and ingenuity if I am to understand her at all. Just as the subtext of Toibin’s books is the literary influence on him of Henry James, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, so too we are all products of what we read and where those books lead us.

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The witness tree


The Christmas tree came to us the year there was no Christmas – at least, not a Christmas anyone remembered. This fir was supposed to be high-end, and I suppose for the 1960s it was: a conical shape, like a balsam or a spruce, with lush up-curving branches. Artificial, of course, but a step above the typical tinsel-strewn or aluminum tree that resembled a retractable clothesline. It came from Grants.

For 11 months of the year that fake evergreen lived in a cardboard box in the spare room. In early December my father would haul it and the boxes of ornaments downstairs, and for hours my sister Andi and I would puzzle out how to put it together. Each wire branch was color-coded, red, yellow, blue, according to how it fit into the green wooden pole that made up its trunk. 

My mother mostly sat by and watched, and my father retreated to his sawmill in the backyard. They had grown up with real but scraggly trees that would be adorned with a few presents: an orange, hand-knit stockings, a metal toy.

After getting pricked by the spiky metal branches and removing and replacing those that seemed out of place, we would pronounce ourselves satisfied and hang the ornaments. They were glittery Shiny Brites, green and red bells, and faded balls, most from Woolworth’s. We had one strand of garland that did not quite reach to the fir’s wide bottom, and some colored lights. The bare pole could be camouflaged by bendable wire greenery; a piece of white felt was then bunched around the base to approximate snow.

My parents would never have bought themselves an artificial tree, least of all one this elaborate. It arrived in the fall of 1967 with my older sister, one of the remnants of her brief disastrous marriage. Mary Jane came home with that tree and a few wrapped presents to put under it, though that had never been our custom. My mother always waited until Christmas morning to bring out the gifts.

I don’t remember anything about that Christmas. I can’t recall one item pulled from our stockings, a set of three embroidered by my Aunt Leona, mine with my name misspelled, perhaps because she had run out of room: Mary Jane, Andrea, Betty Jean. Not one gift tag scrawled “from Santa” in my mother’s cursive. Not one pair of socks, Barbie doll, or Milton Bradley game.

I remember Christmases before and after; I can even conjure memories of the days before that holiday and days after. But Christmas itself has been vacuumed into a black hole from which it can never be retrieved. Each time I try to recall it, I know my generalities are mere inventions, the mind taking snippets from Christmases before and after and trying to knit them into a new memory of what must have happened the year I was 7. 

Of course, we had Christmas the year Mary Jane died, though 11 days before she had walked out into the night to meet two men in the Chevy Corvair that would send her to her death.

Everything went on as before. The presents she had left beneath the tree – a blue or black pocketbook for my mother is all I recall – must have been opened. Someone filled two stockings instead of three, wrote Santa’s name dutifully on the gift tags, boxed and taped and wrapped our gifts. For me, especially, they must have made an effort. For what does a child know of grief when Santa has pulled up in his sleigh and dropped off boxes swathed in red and green paper?

Yet, the memory of the day has been wiped clean. A sensitive child, I could not have been immune to the struggles of my mother, my father, and my sister Andi that Christmas morning. And so something in my mind flipped a switch and opened the black hole, extracting that day forever from the clutches of memory. Even a child knows what it can’t handle.

Each year after Mary Jane’s death, we continued to unbox the artificial tree and assemble its metal branches. It stood in the same corner of the living room, a talisman of continuity against the gaudy floral drapes and flesh-colored walls. No one suggested getting rid of it, or returning to my father’s practice of cutting down the spindliest scrub pine he could find. Like everything else in our old farmhouse, from hand-me-down furniture to faded rugs, once that tree arrived, it was assured of living out its days with us.

When my mother died, the tree was still upstairs in its over-sized box, a jumble of spiky green metal branches, though my mother had long ago stopped using it. As we cleaned out the house, I might have picked up one or two of its curving arms. Perhaps I daydreamed for a moment about that first step of laying them out on the floor, painted tip to painted tip. I might have flashed back to all those Christmases it had served us, long after its original owner had vanished into the cold December air.

But one Christmas would remain elusive, a TV screen gone black. I lifted up the box. In the triage of sentimental objects, this one was too big, too sharp, too overwhelming to stay.

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Beat on loudly, heart

I’ve had many echocardiograms over the years. When you have what one doctor described as “the second loudest heart murmur” he’s ever heard, you’re going to get some attention.

The first test was in 1978, before I was due for wisdom teeth extraction. The doctors were so nervous about my heart murmur that they put me in the hospital over night and gave me general anesthesia.

Back then the technology was so primitive I couldn’t make out what the technician was looking at. All I saw on the monitor were a lot of scraggly black and gray lines, like a half-erased chalkboard.

But just as whiteboards (and smartboards) have replaced slate, so too has the echocardiogram blossomed into full-color doppler splendor. 

Thus it was that the other day I decided to watch my echocardiogram in progress. And lo and behold, I could really see my heart.

There was the mitral valve, open and closing like a little gate. It didn’t look floppy to me, or seem to be letting much blood back into the chamber. In fact, it looked tight as a drum. Beat, it opened, letting out a rush of blood like so much cattle heading to a field. Beat, it closed, letting nothing back in.

And so the mystery of my loud heart murmur remains a mystery. My cardiologist said, as he does every time I have this test, that I’m fine. Despite the loud murmur, there’s little evidence of regurgitation.

“You always were loud,” was my husband’s only comment.

Watching that computer monitor, I pondered what an odd thing the heart is. We never see it or touch it; we can’t hold it in our hand or even feel it beneath our skin, beyond the flutter of its beating. It never rests. Whether we are sleeping or eating or briskly walking, it continues its work behind a wall of ribs, indefatigable, steadfast.

Unique among our organs, the heart has been endowed with meaning. It, not the brain, is supposed to be where our emotions lie. Politicians try to win both “hearts and minds.” Our heart is “broken” when we lose a loved one; if a person lacks enthusiasm, we say, “His heart wasn’t in it.” We get to the “heart of the matter” in boardrooms and “heart” someone in our Facebook feed.

Meanwhile, our heart keeps on beating, oblivious to the symbolic weight we’ve placed upon it. Speaking of which, our “hearts grow heavy” in times of tragedy or sadness, while we are “light-hearted” when we feel happy or playful.

The writer Gail Godwin wrote an entire book meditating on the heart in literature, religion, philosophy and history, all while grieving for her half-brother. Curiously, the idea for the book came from someone else, and she resisted it at first; but once started on the subject, she – really put her heart into it, you might say.

Since watching my heart in action, I’ve felt a new awe for the work it does every day. Despite being taken for granted, and blamed for both grief and joy, it has never faltered, and it actually does a fine job, despite the murmuring sound.

So what am I to make of that noise? Medically misleading and benign, maybe that loud murmur is just a quirk of the self, no different than my off-key singing or thunderous sneezes or riotous laughter. Maybe, as the man said, I am just loud.


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