Acquisition Day


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 L1988-62-16_0away 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.

IMG_0185Unlike Waterstones, Blackwells still does a three for the price of two offer and I’m a sucker for anything that looks like a bargain so the top three were part of that offer.

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?

27 thoughts on “Acquisition Day

  1. It was lovely to see Cezanne’s pears at the top of your post, Alex. I went to the exhibition a couple of weeks ago and that was my favourite piece. I prefer his lighter more delicate work to the brightly coloured work which is perhaps better known. I liked the way that the Ashmolean placed his work within context, showing other contemporaneous artists’ paintings alongside his. I do hope you will be done with the domestic crisis soon.

    1. A new book on Cezanne came out this time last year and I was able to hear the author, Alex Danchev, speak on a couple of occasions. He opened my eyes to the oils and I was then able to see for myself what he was talking about when the Barber had the loan later in the Summer. If you are ever in Birmingham, Susan, and want to see round the Barber, which really is a gem amongst galleries, then do let me know. I would love to show you round.

  2. The first three all sound interesting – I look forward to hearing what you think of them. The last two don’t appeal to me so much – oddly, I don’t really enjoy books about books or reading very often. The description of the ladybird plague in 1976 reminded me of the summer I worked in Butlin’s in Clacton and we had a plague of greenflies for about two weeks – one of the more awful experiences of my life. I’m not sure whether that coincidence makes the book more appealing or less!

    1. Plagues of anything are less than pleasant. I spring cleaned my bedroom last week and found dozens of dead ladybirds. I’m not sure if Joyce has remarkable foresight but apparently they are going to be a real problem this year.

  3. I hope you enjoy your new books. I’ve actually just finished reading The Burgess Boys today and although I didn’t love it, I still found a lot to like about it. It’s the first Elizabeth Strout book I’ve read, so I don’t know how it compares to Olive Kitteridge.

    1. Olive Kitteridge is remarkable, Helen. It is structured as a series of short stories about the same community but when you get to the end you realise you have built up a picture of the life of one woman and how she fits into that community. I really can’t recommend it too strongly.

  4. Going to Oxford for the day sounds to me like the cure for pretty much any ill! Too bad the only place I can go for the day from here is … well, someplace else in Nova Scotia, without anything like the wonders of Blackwell’s. Five books seems very modest, considering! I haven’t read George Saunders either: like you, I am not a frequent reader of short stories. I’ll be keen to hear your comments on how you get on! I did read A Novel Bookstore (you can find my write-up over at Novel Readings). I didn’t think it was brilliant, though I enjoyed it and it made me think about what I wanted from a bookstore as much as about what I wanted from a novel!

    1. Jolyon Bear did not think it modest, Rohan, but then you know what he can be like when he’s on an economy drive. One of the reasons I picked up A Novel Bookstore was that our day on literature from around the world left me wanting to read more in translation and this fitted that bill as much as feeding my love of books about books. I’ll read your review when I’ve finished it and see if we have the same reaction.

  5. I was travelling in Provence a few years ago and knew there was the Cézanne Studio in Aix-en-Provence, but just couldn’t fit it in my short stay there. Fortunately I had the chance to see a few Cézanne in other galleries. But your exhibition in Oxford must be a real treat. So’s your book tour at Blackwells. Like that Cézanne Studio, I must plan it in my itinerary next time I visit Europe. 😉

    1. Only if you can afford to pay an awful lot of excess baggage on your way back, Arti. I guarantee you won’t come out empty handed.

  6. That is the sort of day that stays in your memory – a pleasure indeed, a train journey (no driving!), an art exhibition and Blackwells. I miss Oxford and Blackwells! I first came across (and loved) Alfred Sisley’s painting a few years ago when I did a WEA course on the Impressionists, but didn’t manage to see one in the flesh.

    The books look a good lot, I think I would be drawn to the ones on books in particular. I know nothing about either of them and hope to find out more via your reviews!

    1. The last director of the Barber was an expert of Sisley, Margaret, so we heard a lot about him in her lectures. We do have one in the gallery but it’s on loan at the moment and I miss it.

  7. What a wonderful day out. Sisley is too often overlooked in favour of the bigger hitters like Monet but I love his work. Sadly I can’t see the day when I could actually own one myself and they don’t seem to be in many exhibitions and galleries so you had a real treat there.

    1. We have one in the Barber, Karen, although nothing as wonderful as that currently on show in the Ashmolean. Ours is on loan at the moment and I have to say that I miss it.

    1. I’m still sitting gloating over them, Ali. When I first buy new books I get as much pleasure out of holding them and looking at them as I do reading them.

  8. Lovely acquisitions! A nice new pile of books is such a treat, especially if some of them were three for two. I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about the Graham Joyce — I thought Some Kind of Fairy Tale was terrific, but haven’t read anything else by Joyce yet.

    1. I promised myself I would read all his other books after that, Jenny, but somehow I’ve never got round to it. Maybe this one will be the jolt I need to catch up with the rest.

  9. So glad the crisis has abated and you got to have such a wonderful day out! Cezanne is marvelous. I recently went to a huge Matisse exhibition at one of my local museums and was that ever amazing. You got some wonderful new books too!

    1. We had a Picasso and Matisse exhibition here about ten years ago and it blew my mind out. I was astounded at how much difference it made seeing them in real life as opposed to prints. Mind you, I had to settle for a print of my favourite Picasso. For some reason The Hermitage Museum didn’t like the idea of my tucking the real one under my arm and bringing it home with me. I can’t imagine why! By the way, thanks for the offer of the marmalade sandwiches. With friends like you I can get through any crisis.

      1. Glad you had such a nice day and you found such an interesting haul of new books. I will be interested to see how you get on with the George Saunders – I like short stories and think that the best (Chekhov, William Trevor, Flannery O Connor etc) is some of the best ever fiction but I know a lot of readers are not very keen on the form.

        1. When I force myself to pick up a short story by a really great writer, Ian, I can always see what a miracle of style and precision it is. It is just that I am so addicted to plot that there always seems to be something that is more safely inside my comfort zone waiting to be read.

  10. I have the Everywhere book to read, and also the Graham Joyce you reviewed a while back, which I picked up especially on your recommendation – I really MUST get around to reading it. So pleased you had such a lovely day out. I’ll bet the Cezanne were fantastic.

    1. I learnt nothing about great art while I was at school or indeed in any other of my academic pursuits so I am coming to it very late, Litlove, and revelling in all that I can find.

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