First and foremost, thank you all for your kind wishes in connection with our domestic crisis. I can’t say that it is as yet resolved, but The Bears and I are in what might be described as the eye of the storm, so yesterday I took the opportunity to hop on a train and take myself off to Oxford for the day to see the Cezanne and the Modern exhibition at the Ashmolean.
I came very late to an appreciation of art and even later to an awareness of the greatness of Cezanne. We don’t have a work by the artist in the Barber and so it was only when a self-portrait came on loan last summer that I had the chance to explore his talent first hand. The opportunity to see several of his watercolours and four of his oil paintings all at one go was too good to miss so I have been hoping a day would materialise when all the auguries came together and I would be able to make the journey. Yesterday it did.
I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the paintings, I’m afraid. The best I can say is that if you’re able to get to Oxford while this show is on then you won’t be disappointed. Typically, while I loved the Cezanne’s and especially the still life above, it was one of the other paintings in the exhibition that really took my breath away and that was this one by Alfred Sisley. I’m afraid this reproduction does it no justice whatsoever because the really glory is in the texture of the paint and you can’t make that out at all.
By the way, there is a lovely story attached to the painting of the pears. Apparently, the artists Pissarro and Degas both wanted to buy it really badly and the only way they could decide who should have it was to draw lots. Degas won. I can’t quite see that means of acquisition catching on at Christie’s anytime soon.
Well, my acquisitions didn’t include any of the paintings. (I think the powers that be at the Museum might have had something to say about that.) But who can go to Oxford for the day without going into Blackwells? And who can come out of Blackwells without a bagful of books? I think I was very restrained in only buying five -although it has to be said I’m not sure that Jolyon Bear agrees with me.
I’m not a great reader of short stories, but everyone has been telling me how superb George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December is and of course it recently won the Folio Prize, so I thought I would try and ignite my appreciation for the form with what seems to be a first-class example. The blurb promises that this is
George Saunders’s most wryly hilarious and disturbing collection yet [one that] illuminates human experience and explores figures lost in a labyrinth of troubling preoccupations. A family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of DarkenfloxxTM in some unusual drug trials; and Al Roosten hides his own internal monologue behind a winning smile that he hopes will make him popular. With dark visions of the future riffing against ghosts of the past and the ever-settling present, this collection sings with astonishing charm and intensity.
One a day, I think, until I see how I get on with it.
Then there is Graham Joyce’s most recent novel The Year of the Ladybird. I first came across Joyce through Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which I wrote about here. I loved the psychological reality of Joyce’s storytelling and I’m hoping that this book will be similar in its effect.
It is the summer of 1976, the hottest since records began, and a plague of ladybirds speckles the countryside. A young man called David leaves behind his student days to begin the adventure of growing up. A first job in a holiday camp beckons. But alongside the freedom of a first job and the excitement in dangers of first love, political and racial tensions are simmering under the cloudless summer skies. And who is the man in the dark suit, with the boy by his side? Outside on the sands, glimpsed through a heat haze?
David discovers there is a terrible price to be paid for his new-found freedom and independence. The price that will come back to haunt him, even in the bright sunlight of summer.
And, making up the trio is the latest offering from Elizabeth Strout, whose Pulitzer winning Olive Kitteridge is one of my favourite books of all time. The Burgess Boys is about two brothers.
Haunted by a freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, who idolises Jim, has always taken it in his stride.
But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan – the sibling that stayed behind – urgently calls them home. Her teenage son, Zach, has landed in a world of trouble and Susan desperately needs help. And so the Burgess brothers returned to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.
It sounds similar territory to her previous books but when she explores it so well, there is nothing wrong in that.
Then there are two books in a genre that I can never resist – books about books.
The first, An Everywhere by Heather Reyes, subtitled a little book about reading, has an endorsement on the back from novelist and poet, Helen Dunsmore.
I have so much enjoyed ‘An Everywhere’. It is a brilliant travel guide to the city of books: the city we hold within us, and the one we share with all its other citizens. I love Heather’s passion for reading and the blend of erudition and intimacy that she brings to the discussion of what reading is and what books can do within a life. It is such a truthful book, honest about panic and anguish, and fascinating about what happens when the panic ebbs and the reader continues.
It sounds intriguing and I think this is probably the one I will start to read first.
Finally something I picked up on the off chance – a book that might be brilliant or might not – A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé. Amazon says of it
Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence
which makes it sound rather more prosaic than do the the blurb and the comments from the reviewers. I know nothing of either book or author. Has anyone else come across them?
So, all in all an excellent day out made even better but the fact that for once all the trains were on time. In this life what more can one ask?