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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

Page Three

Reviewers Jill Norgren and Nichola Gutgold are reading long denied treats and must-read books:

Jill Norgren writes:

I want to start the new decade by digging into long denied treats. The theme here is clearing the decks. High on my list of want-to reads is the gifted biographer Stacy Schiff's A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America; Henry Holt & Co., 2005. Schiff won the her second Pulitzer Prize for this historical work. Who wouldn't attract attention with a chapter one opening line that reads, "Silas Deane was stranded in Paris, sick with anxiety, and nearly out of invisible ink."

Biography is a passion. Still, I have been staring too long, guiltily, at Hilary Spurling's two volume study of the life of French painter  Henri Matisse (The Unknown Matisse: A Life Of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869-1908, University of California Press, 1998; and Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: the Conquest of Colour: 1909-1954, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

Spurling, a British theater critic, literary editor, and book reviewer has been praised for bringing a new interpretation to Matisse's early years and the haunted nature of his life. Giles Waterfield, of The Independent, described the biography as "inspired," with Spurling's particular achievement the manner in which she enters into Matisse's character and communicates "his charm, his obsessiveness and restlessness."

Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale published by Vintage is an early non-fiction work by the noted Indian novelist (whose work The Glass Palace is a favorite of mine). Ghosh wrote In an Antique Land after living in 1980 as a graduate student in an Egyptian farming village. He excavates a little known aspect of Middle Eastern history in a book that moves back and forth from the 12th century to the 20th, detecting and describing the interactions, real and imagined, of an Indian slave and local Egyptian merchants, holy men, and sorcerers.

Gardeners and lovers of mysteries will be pleased to learn that several of the books of British born (John) Beverley Nichols have been re-issued by Timber Press. In Down the Garden Path,  I chortled at lines such as "I would rather be made bankrupt by a bulb merchant than by a chorus girl." I expect the same witty, high-spirited writing in Merry Hall. And if I wish my flowers served up with a bit of murder and sleuthing, Nichols' detective novel, *The Moonflower, praised by novelists Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth Bowen, also rests on my to-read pile.  

Excerpts and quotes from Beverley NIchols

*The Moonflower (Hutchinson 1955; Dutton 1955 as The Moonflower Murder)

© 2010 Jill Norgren

Editor's Note: Julia Sneden's review of A Great Improvisation, for in 2005

Nichola Gutgold writes:

Since the temperature had been hovering around twenty degrees in Pennsylvania, curling up and reading has been a very attractive idea.  One look at my pile of “must read” books [Ed's note: See Nichola's picture above of her reading chair and stack of books] and you get the sense that I love books about politics.  

I can’t believe the intricate, behind the scene detail in Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson’s  book, The Battle for America 2008, Viking Books, 2009.   I know that Balz is a lead political reporter for The Washington Post, but everything from the thickness of the briefing that Sarah Palin received on her first trip to meet John McCain to the frame of mind of Obama pre-presidential announcement, all I keep thinking is:  How do they know all of this detail

Of course, I zeroed in on all of the Palin and Clinton material,  and much to my delight I felt as though I was re-living that highly entertaining and historic election all over again. 

If you yearn for a gentler time in politics, as I sometimes do,  I recommend The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas  by Sally Denton, Bloomsbury Press, 2009.  It gives rich detail of the Hollywood heyday and the woman most remembered for Richard Nixon's rough treatment in the 1950s senate campaign. This portrait of Douglas is sympathetic and admiring, yet offers a glimpse into the complexities of her personal relationships as she made a name for herself in politics when women seldom dared to venture into the workplace.

©2010 Nichola Gutgold

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