Friday, January 30, 2009

Library Bytes: Public Libraries Rule!

I know some of my librarian friends & colleagues read bklynbiblio, so this post may seem like I'm preaching to the choir, but for those who are not librarians, allow me a moment to point out something: PUBLIC LIBRARIES RULE! I just came to this realization once again only this afternoon. The last time was in July 2008 when my dear friend SVH took me around her public library in Florida. I was dumbfounded by the work she does in conjunction with the enormity of services and facilities their public library provides. But today's realization had to do with homework. One of my professors has assigned a book to which we have to write a response paper. The book is Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes (1970; trans. 1982), in which the author speculates on his visit to Japan, wondering if his experience of this culture (which he never names) is the same or different from what someone else's experience of it may be. (It sounds horribly enervating, I know, but Barthes actually was an amazing scholar, and other works of his that I have read have been provocative and illuminating. But I digress.) So, as it turns out, my school library doesn't have a copy of this book and I did what I normally do, which is look into buying the book. When you go to Barnes & Noble online, you can search to see if a book is available in one of their stores in the City, but in this case there was no such luck. The Strand Bookstore didn't have it either, and they usually have everything. Ordering it online was out of the question because the assignment is due soon. Then something occurred to me. Why not search the Brooklyn Public Library online catalogue? Now, I should say at this point that I do have a BPL library card. I'm very proud to say that it was one of the first things I did when I moved to Brooklyn. In fact, my local branch of the BPL system in Carroll Gardens is an original Andrew Carnegie-funded library from the early 1900s, which you can see in the very cool archival photograph here, courtesy of the BPL website. But do you think I've been in a BPL building since then? Nope. The thing is, I don't usually think about using public libraries. It's crazy. I'm a librarian, and I never go to the public library. The main branch of the New York Public Library doesn't count because that's a research institution. Sure I'm always at school or museum libraries doing work, but never the public library. Why would I need to go? Here's why. Because it's the one place in the entire world where you can walk into a building with a card and take a book out so you can read it without having to pay for it. All you have to do is take care of it and return it on time. I mean, think about what an amazing privilege that is! As a citizen of this city to which I pay taxes, I'm entitled to walk in and take out any book (or DVD, for that matter) they may have on their shelves, for free. What an idea! What a concept! And if that wasn't enough, the public library also provides space for people to read or do homework (the branch was filled with people when I was there), and it offers educational and fun programs for children and adults (there were a bunch of children in some sort of reading session when I was there). There was even a display in the library of toys from the early 1900s that was fascinating. And it's all free! All of this occurred to me this afternoon as I left the library, because it turns out they did have a copy of it. It was easy to find and sitting there waiting for me. So, big deal, it was in the Brooklyn Heights branch a 20-minute walk away. But if it had been a big deal, all I would have had to do was go to my local branch, order the book, and they would have delivered it to my local branch in a few days. When I'm done reading it, I can return it to my branch, not the owning branch. The convenience factor to all of this is mind-boggling. How could you not want to take advantage of this? So, readers, all I have to say is that if you have not explored your local public library, do so. You're already paying for it in a way, so you might as well take advantage of it. Do it now though, before your local government cuts its funding because they think no one is using this amazing service.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Why Victorian Art?" - Part 1

The image you see here (courtesy of the Tate) is a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti entitled Aurelia (Fazio's Mistress) (1863-73). The picture represents the lover of a 14th-century Italian poet named Fazio degli Uberti, whose poetry Rossetti had translated and published in a collection entitled Early Italian Poets (1861). The model for the picture was Rossetti's mistress, Fanny Cornforth, which makes the picture an autobiographical subject and the painting a visual poem itself. This picture represents a new trend in Victorian painting at the time, with images of beautiful women sitting before mirrors, in windows, or on balconies, works which Rossetti is credited with making popular. These works conjure romantic visions of the Italian Renaissance in their modeling and posing. These works are, in truth, beauty for beauty's sake. Paintings like this became extremely popular among the nouveaux riches industrialists who loved the sensual subjects and use of colors. But they were also controversial because they challenged the Victorian middle-class ideology that painting should teach a moral lesson.

The complexity of this painting demonstrates how intricate Victorian art can be, something about which I have written on this blog in the past ["Victorian Painting (Part 1)"]. I bring this up again because I have organized a symposium entitled "Why Victorian Art?" that in part will address this issue. The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the City University of New York Graduate Center next week, on Friday, February 6th. My fellow PhD students Margaret R. Laster and Paul Ranogajec have been instrumental in helping organizing this. I will write more about the symposium after it is held, but for now, below is some information on the symposium. I am not officially presenting, but acting as the so-called master of ceremonies, providing opening remarks and introducing all the speakers. It's going to be a fascinating day of discussions. If you would like more information, send me an email.

In American academia, British Victorian art has been perceived pejoratively as regressive relative to French art’s trajectory toward modernism. In sharp contrast, English departments in the United States have encouraged the study of British Victorian literature since it was first set down on paper, with postmodern scholars championing Victorian literature’s handling of issues from colonialism and racism to aspects of gender and sexual identities. The Victorians were the dominant imperial power and leaders of the industrial world at the dawn of the twentieth century, but the study of Victorian visual art and culture is still largely looked upon unfavorably in the United States, with American museums only rarely mounting exhibitions about Victorian art. Recently, this trend has been slowly changing. More students are pursuing dissertation topics in the areas of British Victorian painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography. Furthermore, conferences such as the 2008 annual meeting of NAVSA acknowledge the rising importance of Victorian art, including interdisciplinary panel sessions on topics such as sculpture and global contexts, queer visualities, and Darwinism and the arts. "Why Victorian Art?" will bring together scholars to address two critical issues: why the study of Victorian art has been overlooked in the U.S., and how a closer examination of Victorian art can provide new or alternative perspectives in the study of nineteenth-century art and culture.

* Geoffrey Batchen (CUNY Graduate Center), "Perplexity and Embarrassment: Photography as Work"
* Jordan Bear (PhD Student, Columbia University), "Knowing Too Much?: Victorian Photography Now"
* Kathryn Moore Heleniak (Fordham University), "The Victorian Prelude: New Subjects, New Patrons, New Public Collections as Seen Through the Lens of William Mulready’s Career"
* Richard Kaye (Hunter College/CUNY Graduate Center), "You May Safely Gaze: The Conservatism of Contemporary Victorian Art Criticism"
* Margaret R. Laster (PhD Student, CUNY Graduate Center), "Victorian Art and American Gilded Age Collectors: Henry G. Marquand and Catherine Lorillard Wolfe"
* Elizabeth C. Mansfield (New York University), "What Is Victorian Art?"
* Andrea Wolk Rager (PhD Student, Yale University), "Art and Revolt: The Work of Edward Burne-Jones"
* Catherine Roach (PhD Student, Columbia University), "Why Not?: Victorian Paintings-within-Paintings"
* Jason Rosenfeld (Marymount Manhattan College), "Not Stokstad-Worthy?: Mainstreams of Modern Art and John Everett Millais"
* Talia Schaffer (Queens College/CUNY Graduate Center), "Why Victorian Crafts?"
* Peter Trippi (Editor of Fine Art Connoisseur), "The Challenges of Exhibiting Victorian Art in America: A Case Study"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Passing of Dina Vierney

William Grimes has authored an obituary in The New York Times--"Dina Vierny, Artist's Muse, Dies at 89"--that is a fascinating read. Vierney died in Paris on January 20th. I wouldn't have thought much about the headline had I not written about Vierney a month ago on this blog ("Artists' Models"). That post had been inspired by an interview she did with NPR. Vierney was one of the great artists' models of the 20th century. She posed for the painters Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, and Pierre Bonnard, but she was the muse for sculptor Aristide Maillol, helping to rejuvenate his career and working hard to promote his reputation after his death. In 1995, she opened the Musée Maillol in Paris. The picture here is a public sculpture by him entitled The Mountain for which she posed (the image is from the NYT website, courtesy of Vierney's estate). Her life story is quite interesting, especially the fact that she was part of the French Resistance during World War II and was arrested more than once for her activities. Her biography would make a great movie. They should get the fabulous Audrey Tatou (Amélie, Dirty Pretty Things) to play her, although she probably would have to gain some weight to accommodate Vierney's self-proclaimed Rubenesque body, a figure that helped make Maillol's sculpture internationally famous.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: A History of Britain

When I returned from the holidays, I began watching a documentary series written and starring Simon Schama called A History of Britain. The 15-episode series originally aired in 3 parts from 2000 to 2002. The series recounts aspects of British history, attempting to make what could be a boring subject very enlightening and thought provoking. Schama's take on much of the historical events is revisionist in nature, as he attempts to have us rethink some of the lessons the British (and everyone else) may think about its history. I've mentioned Schama on this blog before (Schama on Turner), and I admit that I'm a bit of a fan. He has a way of capturing your attention and engaging with you, the viewer/listener, drawing you into a world that isn't all just a bunch of names and dates, but events that still impact our lives today. His revisionism offers objective perspectives on the so-called "good guys" and "bad guys" in history. For instance, his take on Thomas Becket, who I had always thought of as a "good guy" against the power-hunger King Henry II, suddenly comes off as an opinionated, power-hungry person himself, turning the tables on everything we assume to be true then about Becket's assassination in the Cathedral of Canterbury in 1170.

One of Schama's strengths is the way he makes each episode tell a story, and this works successfully at times through the use of counterpoint, whereby one person or event is positioned against another. One of the best parts of the series, for example, is the episode entitled "The Body of the Queen." While primarily about Elizabeth I of England, it's also about her arch-rival and cousin Mary, Queen of Scotland. The idea of the queen's "body" refers to her physical body, her ability to reproduce, the fact that doctors believed at the time that if a woman didn't reproduce, her internal organs would spill out of her body. Mary gave birth to a son. Elizabeth had no children. But the idea of "body" also becomes a metaphor that connects these queens to their countries, and the people become their children. The ironic twist in this story is that although Elizabeth was forced to execute her cousin for treason, it was Mary's son James VI of Scotland who became Elizabeth's successor, James I of England and Scotland. Schama plays this same counterpoint in other ways. In the fantastic episode "The Wrong Empire," Schama demonstrates how British colonies in America and India grew concurrently, but how each evolved in differently, America eventually fighting for its independence, India absorbing British totalitarianism because of its fractured political state. This changes drastically, of course, in a later episode called "Empire of Good Intentions" where we see the later history of India, in particular after the Sepoy Massacre in 1858 that led to Britain officially annexing India into its empire. Schama does an amazing job showing how the rebellion in India compared to the plight of Ireland at almost the same time, with the great potato famine of the 1840s and the subsequent fight for Ireland's independence taking place along with the incorporation of India.

Of course, Schama's two episodes on Victorian England pleased me. The second is the aforementioned "Empire of Good Intentions," but the first is "Victoria and Her Sisters," which discusses how Queen Victoria represented an idealized form of womanhood in England, while simultaneously non-aristocratic women were fighting for social reforms as writers, suffragettes, nurses, artists, and so on. It is a fascinating contrast of two modes in the development of women's studies. In the last episode, instead of presenting a straight survey of 20th-century Britain, Schama instead focuses on "The Two Winstons": Winston Churchill, born to the aristocracy and eventual Prime Minister, and Eric Blair, the working-class socialist writer who is better known by his pseudonym George Orwell. Schama uses these two men to demonstrate the two very different ways in which British men were raised in the early 20th-century, and how politics and social events were both impacted by and on these men.

Ultimately, it is Schama's desire for us to consider history itself, to recognize that it isn't all about names and dates, but lessons we need to learn from the past, and carry forth into the future. Near the end of the final episode, he says that history is "written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living." If ever there was a succinct way of describing how we must learn from our mistakes and move forward, that was it (something we need to learn from today in our own country). I was so moved by Schama's complete closing remarks to that final episode and series that I've transcribed them below for your reading pleasure. Below that is a 10-minute clip from the opening of the episode on Elizabeth I and Mary. It's worth checking out because it gives you a sense of Schama's style and how the documentary plays out.

But then, when it counted, neither Churchill nor Orwell did the predictable thing, towed the party line. More important was their common belief that if Britain was to have a distinctive future in the age of super states it had better keep faith with the best traditions in its long history, the history that tied together social justice with blood-minded liberty. But history ought never to be confused with nostalgia. It's written not to revere the dead, but to inspire the living. It's our cultural blood stream, the secret of who we are, and it tells us to let go of the past even as we honor it, to lament what ought to be lamented, to celebrate what should be celebrated. And if in the end that history turns out to reveal itself as a patriot, well I think that neither Churchill nor Orwell would have minded that very much. And as a matter of fact, neither do I.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: Inaugural Arts Performances

During the inauguration on Tuesday, there were three events related to the arts: Aretha Franklin (pictured above) singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," a quartet performing "Air and Simple Gifts," and Elizabeth Alexander reciting her poem "Praise Song for the Day." Overall, they were successful, but I'm not convinced they were all performed to their best. Few could argue that Aretha is one of the queens of soul music. We all love Aretha, and her performance of the American patriotic standard we all sang in grammar school was excellent. Her command over the piece was most evident in the third verse where she used her voice to repeat in every imaginable melodic way the words "let freedom ring," recitative-style as in Baroque opera. But what will we remember best about her performance? That amazing hat that she wore, carrying herself in the tradition of Southern black women wearing their best hats to church (The New York Times called it "an outsized, glamorized church-lady hat"). Word has come out in the news that both Franklin's performance and that of the quartet were partly prerecorded. Franklin sang, but the music and background chorus was prerecorded (well, that was a bit obvious, since a chorus was nowhere in sight). The quartet's performance of John Williams's "Air and Simple Gifts" was quite beautiful, even if the Obama children were getting a bit restless. Williams is best known to people for his instrumental scores to blockbuster movies like Star Wars. Apparently the version of "Air and Simple Gifts" we heard was prerecorded as well. The quartet (Itzhak Perlman on violin, Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Gabriella Montero on piano, and Anthony McGill on clarinet) did actually perform live, but their sound was not amplified, so only those in the immediate vicinity could hear them. To be honest, I was shocked that they were doing it live because it was so cold. Having played piano for many years, I can attest to the near impossibility of performing any instrument with cold hands. Your limbs need to be limber (interesting word play there) in order to maximize musical output. So I'm not disturbed that it was prerecorded. I still have to download the piece though, because I do think it had some wonderful parts, although my memory tells me the clarinet was lost in the recording. Of course, the whole thing would have been better had Joshua Bell (one of my fantasy boyfriends) had been performing on the violin, but that's just my opinion. As for Elizabeth Alexander's poem, I admit I was disappointed by her delivery of it. She spoke clearly, articulating each word, but I felt that by doing that she ruined the overall tone of the poem itself. You're better off reading the poem on your own. It has more meaning that way. It follows in the Walt Whitman tradition of American patriotism and the middle/working classes. I don't think it's a great poem. Maya Angelou's inaugural poem for President Clinton in 1992 still gives me chills with its opening words, "A rock, a river, a tree." But Alexander's poem does still speak loudly about the idea of America, and how love and patriotism work hand-in-hand to help define an America we dream will come. The webpages for MSNBC have articles on each of the performances with video clips, so if you want to read/see more, click here for the quartet and click here for Alexander's poem and her reading. Below is the video of Aretha Franklin's performance (or click here to see it on MSNBC).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama

I purposely avoid talking about politics on this blog because there are plenty of other blogs that do it better than I, and (quite frankly) politics gives me a headache. The negative energy that politics generates is something I try to avoid because its antagonism literally hurts me at times. But I cannot let today go by without talking about what is, undoubtedly, one of the most monumentally historic moments I will ever experience in my life. To see Barack Obama take the oath of office and be sworn in as our 44th President made me feel a sense of pride in America that I have not had for a very long time. I have witnessed a few inaugurations already, but this time was without a doubt the first time I ever have thrilled to see the beauty that is America. The idea that our nation has elected its first African-American President sets a standard for excellence in cultural relations not just here in the US, but everywhere in the world. Obama represents a type of America that is today's America, a melting pot of races, cultures, ethnicities, and orientations trying to work side by side in harmony. During his inaugural address, as I wiped the tears of joy from my eyes, I could sense that a black cloud which has been hovering over us for the past 8 years finally was dissipating. I know for some that sounds ridiculously poetic, but that's how I felt. I'm not so naive as to think that Obama is a magician whose going to make all our problems go away, nor do I think he's a miracle worker who will heal all our woes. But I do believe that Obama brings a sense of education and righteousness and charisma that makes me believe in the possibility that our problems will dissipate and our ills go away. That belief is what we need right now, more than ever. With the difficulties of our economy, the war, our fractured global relations, and our own impoverished education and arts communities, we need to feel a sense of hope--yes, hope!--that he will lead us to a place where we can be whole again. The past 8 years have emanated fear and arrogance. I feel as if I have been bullied and threatened by an ignorant regime. It's time to learn from these mistakes and move forward. It's time for us to heal and reconnect with the world. It's time for us to change the impression we have given off as to what America is. For the greatest part of today that I will carry forth with me forever is how President Obama reminded me that America is more than a country, a land, or a people. America is an idea, one that sheds love and life and help and makes every effort to solve problems with diplomacy and not weapons. I am so tired of America being a bully, to other nations and to its own people. America needs to shine with the liberty and equality that this country strove for in its origins more than 230 years. The dark clouds are dissipating. A new day has begun.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Hope" Continues...

A few posts ago, I shared news that Shepard Fairey's original mixed media work Portrait of Barack Obama was going to be on display at the National Portrait Gallery. In anticipation of tomorrow's inauguration of our 44th President, take a look at the video my friend PR forwarded to me. It comes from Talking Points Memo and it has to do with a group exhibition called Manifest Hope at a gallery in Washington, D.C. in honor of Fairey's portrait and other Obama-related work, by him and other artists. It's interesting to hear what artists have to say about their own work, so check out the video below (if you can't see it, click here).

Winter Tree

We had more snow when I woke up, and the morning light was perfect the way is glistened off of everything covered in crystalline whiteness. I took this picture of the tree in my backyard using my digital camera on its black-and-white setting. I have to confess I love the way it came out.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Review: The House of Mirth

About 10 days ago, I finished reading The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton. A classic in American realist fiction, it is considered a "novel of manners," meaning that it has to do more with the upper classes and negotiates issues of inner conflicts between social expectations and personal desires. About an hour ago, I finished watching the film version of the book released in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson. The image above comes from the movie and shows one of the most beautifully filmed scenes, with Anderson strolling in the afternoon sun along the water.

The title comes from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes 7:4--"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." The implication here is that a sober, temperate household gives solace in the long run, whereas wealth and society, although enjoyable, are actually a false face for ignorance and stupidity. (I still wouldn't mind a little mirth...just to experience the misery, of course.) Wharton's novel is about Lily Bart, a socialite raised by her aunt in Gilded Age New York. She is an astounding beauty, and everyone expects her to make a successful (i.e., wealthy) marriage, but despite previous offers of marriage and gestures of love, Lily, now 29-years-old, is at a crux: she needs to marry soon or she never will marry at all. The problem is that she secretly is in love with Lawrence Selden, a lawyer who floats in and out of the upper-class circles, but never fully a part of it. As a result, he's not officially of their world, so he never could make her truly happy in the way she was raised to believe she should be. Readers of my reviews know that I don't like revealing much of a story's plot (I really detest when other people do that), so I won't reveal more of what happens. However, I will provide a few ideas to whet your appetite: gambling debts, secret letters, illicit affairs, potential blackmail, attempted rape, and fashionable Gilded Age houses in New York and Newport, as well as yachting in Monte Carlo. In short, Wharton got it all, and she knew all about it first-hand. She was raised in a wealthy New York family of old money that did everything the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers did from the 1880s to World War I. With all of that action going on, her novel reads almost like a soap opera. Almost. Its realist strain actually keeps it from slipping into melodrama, which is probably one of the reasons why it's such a fantastic book.

Wharton writes witty dialogue, almost like an Oscar Wilde platitude, but with a sharper edge. Her characters have a psychology that helps you understand their actions, even if you cannot identify with them from our perspective in 2009. Upper-class women are meant to marry and, well, that's about it. They're not really seen as being able to do anything else. Another example is in a scene where Lily makes a charitable donation, and she's startled by how good it makes her feel about herself, not to mention that she has helped a poor woman. We forget that social reform for the underprivileged and working classes took a very long time to impact the upper classes. Social Darwinism ran the gamut of society, whereby people believed that the privileged were better and deserved their wealth, whereas the poor were obviously in their lot because they were lazy and did not deserve help. (We'd like to think the world has changed since then.)

From a literary perspective, however, I think I appreciate even more the way Wharton integrates descriptions of settings with the psychologies of her characters. It makes for incredible reading. Here's an example of what I mean (pages 43-44 of my Barnes & Noble paperback edition of the book):

The windows stood open to the sparkling freshness of the September morning, and between the yellow boughs she caught a perspective of hedges and parterres leading by degrees of lessening formality to the free undulations of the park. Her maid had kindled a little fire on the hearth, and it contended cheerfully with the sunlight which slanted across the moss-green carpet and caressed the curved sides of an old marquetry desk. Near the bed stood a table holding her breakfast tray, with its harmonious porcelain and silver, a handful of violets in a slender glass, and the morning paper folded beneath her letters. There was nothing new to Lily in these tokens of a studied luxury; but, though they formed a part of her atmosphere, she never lost her sensitiveness to their charm. Mere display left her with a sense of superior distinction; but she felt an affinity to all the subtler manifestations of wealth.
Clearly Lily Bart likes the good life. From the way Wharton describes the morning sunlight to how Lily appreciates the breakfast tray, we understand Lily's feelings upon waking up that morning, this after her distress the night before in discovering how little money she has left in her purse. Of course all of this makes for a great literary technique, for it only highlights how far the story turns dark and spiral downward.

The character of Simon Rosedale is intriguing from a social perspective. He represents the nouveau riche in New York society, struggling through his money to gain entrance into high society. Of course they all despise him for it, but the more he flashes his money, the more he gets in. What makes him even more intriguing is that he's Jewish, which is really why he's a pariah to everyone, including Lily. Carry Fisher is probably my favorite character. Here is a woman who knows how to work society, jumping from family to family when she knows the waters are getting hotter in one camp and she needs to spend time in another. She is the most forthcoming character in the book, holding little back and speaking her mind with all practical wisdom. I think she knows more about everything than Wharton lets on, which makes her seem more like a puppetmaster to me. As for poor Gerty Farish, she's got a good heart, but she's a marshmallow. I'm convinced she's a lesbian. In fact, I'm almost certain Lawrence Selden has homosexual tendencies as well. He surrounds himself with aesthetic luxury a bit too much for a single man, and he seems ever so reticent about committing to anyone. Well, any woman. Alas, I wish I could say I liked Lawrence, or even Lily, but sometimes I found myself so frustrated by them that I wanted to scream and slap them. Then again, I think my reaction says much about Wharton's power as a novelist.

As for the film version, I'm not going to say very much. The costumes and the settings are spectacular. It's a visual feast for the eye. Gillian Anderson (yes, of The X-Files) works as Lily Bart. She does fit the role perfectly in terms of what defined a beautiful woman at that time. However, I wasn't always convinced by her acting. Actually, I wasn't crazy too much about anyone's acting (Eric Stoltz, Dan Aykroyd, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, and Anthony LaPaglia are also in the movie). For that, I blame the director and writer Terence Davies. I was struck over and over by how much the film seemed like an episodic splicing of scenes from the book. The whole first hour just picked at parts, without ever giving the viewer a real sense of what defined these characters. There was a conscious attempt to follow Wharton's novel closely, but then why do things like merge two characters into one? Why change Lily's presentation in a tableau vivant from a portrait by Reynolds to one by Watteau, when Wharton spent so much time emphasizing Lily's choice of posing as the model in the work by the British artist? It doesn't make any sense. The movie does get better after the first hour, though, so it's worth holding on and watching it. Still, if you're going to make a movie based on a book, in order to be a success it needs to stand on its own as an interpretation with a theme or an idée fixe or something. I'm not convinced the film version does this. (Click here to see a trailer for the film.)

So all in all, the film was all right, but if you're interested in finding out more, than I recommend you skip the movie and read the book. You'll feel rewarded for it. That said, I think it's only fair that I confess that, as much as I enjoyed reading the book, I did not always like it. In fact, when it was over, I wasn't even completely sure I was glad I had read it. I thought about this quite a bit, and I realize now that the best way to describe my feelings is to say that I'm frustrated by the novel, both as a reader and as a writer myself. But I also see now what an amazing book Wharton wrote, because for the past 10 days, the book has stayed in my mind, haunting me at times. I find myself considering my own financial plight as a student trying to live la dolce vita in New York City, wondering about my own future and whether that cappuccino and scone at Dean & DeLuca is worth $6.81. I find myself wondering how our society 103 years after this novel is still struggling to maintain the idea of the high life, especially now when a recession is affecting each of us. How will that turn out? But even more, I keep thinking about Lily Bart, as a character and as a person. You may or may not like her. You may or may not pity her. But you will have to recognize that she has a psychology and a survival instinct that is all her own, and perhaps that is what everyone should hold onto, no matter the consequences of one's decisions in life.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jellyfish Invasion

I post on this blog things about nature every once and a while, and I felt the need to do so after watching an episode of National Geographic Explorer entitled Jellyfish Invasion (while I was eating a tuna sandwich, no less). It's been a while since a nature program made my jaw drop, so I had to share. (The on-demand version I watched apparently split the original episode into two parts, so I missed the half on how jellyfish sting people, for which I'm rather glad.) Now, when we look at jellyfish like those in the picture above, we usually have one of two responses. Some people think they're beautiful, wisping through the water in gelatinous form, glowing in iridescent colors not unlike nebulae in space. Others see them and think of the venomous sting their tentacles can cause you in the water. I'm somewhere in-between in my opinion, but after seeing this show, I'm not sure how I feel. Apparently in the past few years there has been an explosion of jellyfish all around the world. In the United States, the largest area hit has been in the Gulf of Mexico (my family will love this). Jellyfish normally come and go, but now they're populating at an exponential rate and in doing so they are threatening ecosystems, forcing other fish and animals to leave, if not killing them with their poisonous limbs. As a result, fishing industries are being affected (of course economic impact is why people are most concerned). Jellyfish have been around for over 500,000,000 years. They are some of the oldest surviving species on our planet. Yet, they have no brain, skeletal structure, or power of locomotion (they move with the current in the water). Why the population explosion? Apparently we're to blame. As we overpopulate, we increase waste and pollution, and this dynamic change is causing areas of water to become dead zones for most of nature. Jellyfish, however, thrive in these dead zones, since pollution doesn't affect them, and from there they move into healthy channels of water. Wait. It gets better. Global warming is affecting them as well. Subtle changes in water temperature are causing them to reproduce faster. Apparently there are government-sponsored programs (in Japan, for instance) that are working to get rid of the jellyfish by slaughtering them. However, this plan is apparently backfiring. (Here's the part where my jaw dropped.) Jellyfish have millions of eggs and sperm, and when their lives are threatened, they instantly release all of their microscopic reproductive cells, which commingle and spawn polyps. These polyps rest on surfaces underwater--up to thousands of feet in the ocean, no less--and over time they, quite literally, just pop out new jellyfish! (It's like the mythological nine-headed hydra who, whenever someone cut off a head, grew three more in its place.) So what we're saying here is that for every jellyfish that is killed, a million new polyps are created that can generate tons of new jellyfish, and subtle changes in water temperature from pollution and global warming are causing it and their invasion. Not only are we causing the problem, but our current solutions are making it worse. Exciting, huh? My favorite part of the episode was the end, when the narrator said in a doom-and-gloom voice, "The age of the jellyfish is returning, and somehow man is going to have to learn how to live in harmony with them." Boy, I can't wait to get back into the ocean now! Here's a video clip via YouTube about the full episode (if you don't see it below, click here).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Snowy Brooklyn

Outside my apartment window, I can see snow building up on the fire escape and in the bare trees of the courtyard. The snow started during the night, and it is coming down pretty heavy right now, but we probably won't get anymore than a few inches by the time it's done. I was inspired to share the picture above, Winter Scene in Brooklyn by Francis Guy (1760-1820), which is one of my favorite American paintings at the Brooklyn Museum. This small image doesn't do it justice, but the museum's website for the painting allows you to download a larger version and details that will make it easier to look more closely at this work. Painted just before the artist's death, the picture shows a photographic-like representation of a section of Brooklyn after a snowstorm. The people in the picture were identifiable to its residents of the day, and the buildings are considered to be accurate representations of Brooklyn life at the time. This picture was, in essence, a photograph in that it captured Brooklyn life on any given winter day around 1820 (note this is 20 years before photography officially appeared on the scene). The subject of this picture follows the tradition of Dutch landscapes by artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael, whose paintings are known for their rugged, realistic depictions. Guy's picture is also a genre painting, depicting everyday people doing everyday things, and in that sense it borrows on the Flemish traditions of artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who populated his pictures with scores of people in everyday activities (one of my favorite Bruegel paintings is Hunters in the Snow at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). Surprisingly Guy's painting is quite large, measuring 58 3/8 x 74 9/16 inches in size. This is unusual for American local art at the time. Paintings that large were reserved for history painting, considered at the time to be the highest form of Western art in which historic or mythological characters were represented as idealized figures with identifiable narrative subjects. Thus, Guy is elevating a landscape/genre scene to the level of history painting, something which would not have been as acceptable in Europe at the same time. Interestingly, the picture is even missing a section. In the late 1800s, a portion of it was burned in a fire. (Fortunately, another copy of the same painting with the missing piece intact does exist, recently acquired by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, aka the Wal-Mart Family Museum.) There are so many other wonderful things about this picture, including the fact that it represents African-Americans living among the rest of the Brooklynites of Dutch and English ancestry. But for now I think I'll just watch the snow outside my window in Brooklyn.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Genealogy Bytes: The 1911 Census

One of my passions is genealogy and family history (years ago, I had a bumper sticker that said "Genealogy is my hobby. I collect ancestors."). I started working on my own family history twenty-five years ago, just after my Nana had passed away. I realized how her death had taken a tremendous part of our family's history with her, and I started reclaiming it. The Internet has transformed the way we do genealogical research. I have connected with distant relatives that I never thought I would know. I've even become great friends with my fifth cousin HA in England, who I met through email. She has managed to take our linked line of the family back to the 1500s (they're all Lancashire stock, through and through). But the Internet also has made doing research much easier with the availability of online indexes and digital archives. Just this week, the British National Archives released 80% of the 1911 Census for England and Wales with transcriptions and digital scans of the handwritten registers of British residents at the time. The UK has had an official government census in effect every ten years since 1801. Digitized versions of records are now available online from 1841 on. Because the UK has a 100-year privacy law, however, they are only now releasing the 1911 census. This contrasts with the US where our 75-year privacy laws means our government already has released the 1930 Census. Mind you, these records are not free to look at online. You have to buy subscriptions to companies or agencies to look at these things. That said, it's worth it.

Naturally, when I heard about the 1911 census, I couldn't resist, so I bought a number of credits and I started doing some searching. I found very quickly my widowed great-great-grandfather Charles Ambrose who was living in Birkdale with his niece/housekeeper Dinah Turner and his grandson Ambrose Wright. There weren't too many surprises there. Everything was in order, including the same house they had lived in for some time (which still exists, by the way). I did a few other searches on Ambrose Wright's family, but I wasn't having any luck finding his father or sisters (his mother had died in 1898). I need to do some more searching, but I suspect at this point that they may not have bothered filling out the census, which as you can see now makes this researcher very frustrated a century later.

I decided then to take a peak at some other relatives that should have been there. My maternal great-grandmother came from England in 1881 with her siblings, parents, and (Scottish) grandmother. The only one in her immediate family who remained in England was her elder sister Mary Alice Bagge, who had recently married John E. A. Eaton. Together they ran a pub and inn, and they had a few children. I had been able to find them near Manchester in other censuses, but in looking at the 1911 census, I discovered that Mary Alice had died a short time beforehand. However, the new census record told me that her husband was still around, running a pub in Ancoats near Manchester, and he was assisted by four children. Suddenly, I realized that their eldest child, John Edwin Eaton, had had his name crossed off the census. I read through all the scratch marks, and imagine my surprise when I discovered that it said he was in America! So my great-grandmother's nephew had come over from England as well, which is something none of us knew about.

John Edwin Eaton would have had to go through Ellis Island to get into the US, so I switched over to the Ellis Island website where you can search--for free!--ship manifests for everyone who came through Ellis Island. It turned out to be easier than I suspected. John Edwin Eaton first came to New York in 1904 with $32 in his pocket. He was 20 years old and an engineer. The best part was that he was on his way to meet his uncle George Bagge in New York City. They even gave his street address, which I had on file already. It was the work address for Neville & Bagge, an architectural firm that my great-grandmother's brother ran with a partner building homes for New Yorkers. John went back to England a few months later, but he was apparently determined to move to the States for good. He arrived in New York on July 5, 1905, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Liverpool on what was then a brand new ship, the R.M.S. Caronia. That, my readers, explains the photograph of the ship above. Yes, that is the Caronia, the ship on which my first cousin twice removed arrived back in 1905. (The image comes from a fantastic online site,

I found another listing for him at a later date, at which point he is married and a naturalized citizen living in the Bronx. As you can see, I have much more research to do on this cousin of mine. Hopefully this little story has entertained or intrigued you a bit. If it has, then start searching. You'd be amazed at the history you can find out about your family.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Hope" at the NPG

The original mixed-media, stencilled Portrait of Barack Obama that was created by the Los Angeles-based artist Shepard Fairey has been donated to the National Portrait Gallery and will be on display in time for his inauguration. (You can read more about it from the NPG's official release and in this article from The Art Newspaper.) It eventually will join the large collection of portraits done of every President that is in the recently-refurbished museum in Washington, D.C. I was there over a year ago with friends, and I have to admit that seeing all the faces of the Presidents and First Ladies around you really does give you an inspiring sense of patriotism. This particular picture became one of the core images of Obama's campaign and was reproduced in postcards, illustrations, and posters (my friends RL & DG have an enormous one in their apartment). I find myself wondering about the uniquely odd mix of colors. Although it's not photorealistic in any sense, the red, white, and blue of course signify America. They bleed into one another to suggest a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. Even the way Obama's face appears in different colors implies his own bi-racial roots, which makes both him and this election so pivotal in the history of the United States. At the same time, the play of dark and light in the colors also creates a wonderful depth that radiates from Obama's face, complementing the way he looks aloft, toward the future. It is, after all, subtitled Hope.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Scribner on Rubens

Following a post I did back in September (Schama on Turner), I thought I'd write briefly about another lecture I went to this evening with my co-workers JAM and JM. Art historian Charles Scribner III gave an engaging and highly entertaining talk at The Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "Rubens Meets Miami Vice: The Art of the Heist." The picture you see here is an oil painting from the mid-1630s by the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) entitled Venus and Adonis that is part of the Met's collection. It epitomizes Rubens' late style with its exuberant coloration and sensual, fleshy zest for life. Scribner is an art historian who has written on Baroque artists such as Rubens and Gianlorenzo Bernini, but if you think you recognize his name for something else, it is worth noting that he is a member of the famous book publishing company Charles Scribner's Sons. His doctoral dissertation from Princeton University was on Rubens' Eucharist tapestries, and, as a Rubens scholar, he was called upon in May 1991 to help Miami customs agents determine whether a painting smuggled into the U.S. and being offered for sale was actually a work previously stolen from the Museo de Belas Artes da Coruña in Spain. The picture turned out to be a small work entitled Aurora (Dawn) from later in Rubens' life. With Scribner's help (he assured them it was a Rubens), the customs agents were able to arrest and prosecute the smugglers, although the main perpetrator who had stolen the painting and its companion from the museum in 1985 is still at large. Scribner gave a brief introduction to Rubens' life and work, helping the audience appreciate his importance both as an artist and diplomat in 17th-century European politics (he is apparently the only artist ever to be knighted by two monarchs). But rather than approach this like a traditional lecture, Scribner spoke freely about how the paintings had been stolen, how one of them first turned up in Stockholm, and how the suspect managed to elude the Swedish law despite being prosecuted. But without a doubt the highlight of the evening had to be when he showed an excerpt from a television program that had aired recounting the events of the Miami sting operation. The funniest part of it had to be that despite the dangerous situation he was in (the smugglers had weapons on them), and direct orders from the customs agents to keep his contact with the smugglers to a minimum, the inner scholar in him couldn't help but get excited that he was holding in his hands a Rubens painting, and he wound up giving the smugglers and customs agents an art history lesson! That is the test of a die-hard art historian. All in all, his talk made for an entertaining evening at the museum.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pilots N Paws

After the disturbing pet story I posted the other day, in particular commenting about the many dogs stuck in shelters that need homes, I thought it would be fun to post a good story and video about Pilots N Paws. I heard about it watching the Today show while eating breakfast this morning. The organization is a group of pilots who work with animal shelters to fly dogs and cats to different areas of the country where they are wanted. Many animals are euthanized after a while because the shelters are so overcrowded and there aren't enough homes locally for the dogs. With this program, pilots help by transporting pets to new owners in different parts of the country. It's just another example of what animal lovers will do for one another and for their furry, four-legged friends. For more about the organization click here, or watch the great video below (it begins after a 30-second commercial). If you're getting this post via email and the video hasn't come through, click here to go to the full entry for this post where you'll see the video.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cloned Dogs

This morning in The New York Times, there was a very disturbing story about the cloning of dogs, "Beloved Pets Everlasting." This photograph by Heidi Schumann is from the article by Eric Konigsberg and shows MissyToo and Mira, clones taken from the DNA of their "mother" Missy, a border collie-husky mix breed who died in 2002. Lou Hawthorne, the owner of a California-based biotechnology company called BioArts that works with a cloning institute in South Korea, used the DNA of the dog that had belonged to his mother. (In one of the more bizarre parts of this story, much of the funding for this project came from the founder of the distance-learning online institution, the University of Phoenix, who also happens to be Hawthorne's mother's boyfriend.) The article focuses more on the idea of how the four surviving clones (others didn't make it) are largely the same but have some differences, which in essence can be credited to environmental factors. As I read the article, I couldn't close my mouth, I was that much in shock.

The ASPCA has issued the following statement about pet cloning: "The ASPCA calls for a moratorium on the research, promotion and sale of cloned and bioengineered pets." Their primary concern is that more research and evaluation is necessary before one can assess any benefits for pet cloning. They are calling for "a multidisciplinary commission ... to evaluate the manner in which the work has proceeded, the regulations and oversight required to protect the safety of human and nonhuman animals, and the ethical consequences of continuing this work." (Click here to read their entire policy on pet cloning.) Needless to say, I am definitely against it.

In the article, clients of Hawthorne's who paid for a clone of their dog are quoted as saying, "The only problem with dogs is that they have such a short life." Yes, they do have a short lifespan, when compared to humans. But that is part of what one must accept when taking a puppy into your home. Anything can happen. Pets die. All animals die. Guess what? So do humans! We have to learn to let them go. We cannot hold onto loved ones from the past, or we will never be able to live our own lives. Death is the one thing that teaches us about living, and to be able to replicate a loved one only enhances selfishness and denigrates the loved one's own life. Death is the one thing we cannot control. (I think you can see what I'm suggesting with the potential future of this.) By manipulating DNA and cloning replicas of previous pets, we are rejecting the pet's own life, ignoring the inherent value in the pet's life, for its very self and for what it meant to the pet's family. The fact that Hawthorne wants to clone these pets because the original Missy had great traits may sound wonderful in theory. Of course we want our loved ones to stay with us. But doing so ignores the fact that every creature is unique and should be respected for its uniqueness, not for the potential of replicating its uniqueness.

The irony of the entire story is that Hawthorne's own mother doesn't even like the cloned dogs. She thinks they're nothing like her Missy. Indeed, after her dog died, she eventually got another dog. Before people start cloning their pets, they need to remember there are hundreds of thousands of unwanted pets already sitting in shelters that are desperate for homes, and waiting to be loved. Please let us not add to their number by throwing out rejected clones who turn out not to be exactly like the original, not what a client paid for.

Happy 2009!

bklynbiblio is back home in Brooklyn, where the temperature this morning was a balmy 0 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill (quite a difference from the 80-degree temperature I was experiencing in Florida). I thought I would change the look of the blog a little bit to kick off the new year (if you're reading this post via email or a reader, you can see what the blog looks like by going to So here's wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and arts-filled 2009! (And if you're wondering who the kid is, that's Happy, the Baby New Year, from Rudolph's Shiny New Year!)