Friday, November 30, 2012

Books of 2012

The annual release of the "100 Notable Books of 2012" by The New York Times always gives me an opportunity to blog about books and reading, something as a writer I probably should do more often. Followers of bklynbiblio may recall my past posts about this list in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, all written right around this time of the year. Not surprisingly, as in the past, I haven't had a chance to read anything on this year's list, but keeping track of these lists is useful in helping pick up some works that I can put on my "future read" list and see how they hold up over time. The NYT list once again is divided between non-fiction and fiction/short stories/poetry. Of the fiction titles, only 2 also appear on Amazon's top 10 Best Books of the Year, which is the lowest number so far since I began comparing the two. It seems the gap between what's popular and what's respected is widening. That said, Hilary Mantel's Tudor-themed historical novel about Anne Boleyn and the Tudor court, Bring Up the Bodies, is on both lists, even appearing at #1 on Amazon's, so that may be worth checking out. From the NYT list in fiction, I know I will eventually read Toni Morrison's Home, as I do admire her writing about the African-American experience (Beloved was brilliant). In non-fiction, however, I've already had on my "to read" list Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy, an account of the numerous attempts on the life of Queen Victoria over her 64-year reign, so I'm pleased to know that appears on the list.

Since last year's post on this topic, I've read 29 books (which, interestingly, was the same as last year). Among my noteworthy art historical reads were: Linda Bolton's take on the 19th-century modernist Edouard Manet, part of the History and Techniques of the Great Masters series (1989); Kate Culkin's biography of Harriet Hosmer, the 19th-century American lesbian sculptor (2012); and--rather surprisingly--Netsuke: Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982) by Barbra Teri Okada, an exhibition catalogue on the ivory- and wood-carved Japanese figurines that originally served the practical purpose of keeping an inro (purse) attached to an obi (sash) of a kimono. This last book was related to having taught an introductory course on Asian art this semester. I also read Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (2009 edition). A former nun, she has written about a number of world religions with what seems like an open mind. In this book, her last chapter on religious fundamentalism in an age of terrorism is superb. Everyone should be required to read it.

A year ago, I was in New Haven on a fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art, reading for pleasure The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (2006). Sadly, it is my least-favorite of her novels. This year I did finally read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (2009, English edition), which was on the NYT 2010 list, and I agree that it was the best of the books in the trilogy (the misogyny prevalent in the first two books is completely rewritten here). One of my other favorite novels of the year was Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953), a novelist whose English tea cozy characters have greater depth than you'd ever imagine. A few other noteworthy novels I read this year were James Joyce's Dubliners (1914; short stories), Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence (1920), Agatha Christie's Nemesis (1971), and Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic (2011, on the NYT 2011 list). I am at present slowly reading 2 novels: The Pickwick Papers, the first novel by Charles Dickens (1837), which I started a long time ago but never finished; and History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason (2012), an ambiguous tale of a young man that starts in 1907 Amsterdam. With a painting by Surrealist René Magritte as the cover image, the book must be good!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Rediscovered Art by the Solomons

It's been a while since I last blogged about the work my friend/colleague Carolyn Conroy and I have done on the gay Anglo-Jewish artist Simeon Solomon and our Simeon Solomon Research Archive. She has continued to provide updates to it and add more images, having secured permissions from some museums to add works from their collections. This has helped make the site grow tremendously and improve greatly in its usefulness to researchers. Two recent additions to the site, however, are worth further promotion. The first relates to the discovery of a heretofore unknown portrait of the Duke of Wellington from 1844 by Abraham Solomon, Simeon's elder brother. The portrait was made from a daguerreotype and then used to make engravings. You can see images and read more about it by visiting the SSRA page about the discovery. Our second addition to the site relates to the picture you see here, A Young Teacher, 1861, by Simeon's sister Rebecca Solomon. Although this painting was published as a black-and-white image in a 1988 article in Burlington Magazine, this is the first time it ever has been seen in color, and it's a beautiful work of art. We are very appreciative to the owner for providing us with a digital image of the painting from his collection and allowing us to put it on the SSRA. The painting shows an Indian ayah, or children's nurse, who watches the family baby while being instructed rather precociously by the young girl who is also in her charge. Although the subject may seem like Victorian sentimental kitsch, the picture says much about race relations through the presence of Indian servants in Victorian middle class homes. It's important to remember that just a few years before Rebecca painted this, the Sepoy uprising led to the slaughter of numerous British citizens and Indians, and subsequently the official absorption of India into the British Empire (about which I've blogged regarding a painting by Edward Armitage). Thus, although one might find it sweet that the little girl is teaching her ayah, in fact the painting suggests the political agenda of imperialism: the British are superior to the Indian race, and therefore they have the right and moral obligation to educate and rule over them. For more about Rebecca Solomon, you can read my biographical essay about her.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

DW: Christmas 2012

There's nothing more delightfully Dickensian than a Victorian-themed Christmas. Throw in The Doctor, some aliens in Victorian clothing, man-eating snowman creatures, and what a fun-filled Christmas it will be! Yes, clips for the upcoming annual Doctor Who Christmas special have been released, and it looks like great fun. (Here's last year's post.) We see some familiar alien faces, and the first episode with his new companion, pictured above. A Victorian girl who will be brought to the future? Rather clever, I must say. Below are two video clips: first, a brief prequel that picks up where we last saw The Doctor, mourning the loss of his companions the Ponds; second, the preview clip for the upcoming episode, also starring Richard E. Grant as the bad guy. Since I don't have official plans for Christmas yet, I'll be happy to curl up with some hot cocoa and watch this on BBC America.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


This past week a story went viral online about a young man who found his doppelgänger in a portrait by an unknown 16th-century Italian artist at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A doppelgänger (from the German meaning "double goer") is a ghostly double--not a spirit, but an actual person. The resemblance between him and the portrait is rather uncanny. Notice how people in the article speculate that he might have to lose the tie-dye shirt and wear a bigger codpiece though? But, like others, the story made me wonder if anyone else had ever seen their doppelgänger in art.

When I was younger, I thought I bore a striking resemblance to the messenger god Mercury in Botticelli's Primavera (Spring), ca. 1478, from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. You see a detail of Mercury here, but click here for the full picture. It's perhaps not a coincidence that this painting also just happens to be my all-time favorite in the history of art. Of course, the resemblance was perhaps much more true some twenty years ago when I was younger and had a mane of curly hair. Back then, people also used to think I looked like actor Kirk Cameron or singer/songwriter Richard Marx. But the weirdest thing lately is having heard a few people say I look like Derek Jeter! Doppelgänger to a baseball player? Hm...I think I'd rather look like someone in a Renaissance painting.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Helping Animals after Sandy

Hurricane Sandy (plus the annoying Nor'easter that whipped through the other day) has impacted so many people in the NYC area, that it's a challenge in some ways to determine what is the best way to help out. Although I feel terribly about families who still are without power and who lost everything, I also am concerned about those for whom We Are Their Voice: the animals affected by the storm. I've made a donation to the ASPCA (bklynbiblio readers know I actively support them), as they are working hard to provide shelter and food for pets as their families deal with the aftermath of the storm on their lives. I've also now made a donation to support the New York Aquarium (part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, located on Coney Island), which suffered horrific damage from the storm. They are now closed with no idea when they will reopen. I've not had an opportunity to visit yet, but I can guarantee that once they are back up and running I will be going for the first time. I was very happy to hear that, despite the setbacks to the facilities, almost all of the animals survived and are doing well. Watch this heart-warming video segment from yesterday's Today show so you can learn more about how they are all coping, and see how one baby walrus provided the staff with hope that the New York Aquarium will recover and be better than ever. If you want to help these organizations, follow the links above to donate.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

First Snowstorm: 2012-2013 Fall/Winter

When I posted yesterday about our first snowfall, I wasn't expecting it to actually turn into our first snowstorm! The Nor'easter (that curiously seems to have been named Athena by some meteorologists) packed a punch in terms of snow accumulation that surprised me. The heat in my apartment wasn't working and I was getting quite chilly here in Brooklyn, so my friend AA invited me to stay with him in NJ, so off I went through the snowfall, first on the F train then on the PATH train. When I arrived in Jersey City, the snow was coming down like a blizzard accompanied by a howling wind, but his apartment was toasty warm, so it all worked out well. Some neighborhoods lost power again, but fortunately it wasn't as bad as it could have been. I was back in Brooklyn this morning and took this picture, which shows that even though some trees made it through Hurricane Sandy unscathed, the heavy wet snow was too much for them. (Yes, readers, A Tree Falls in Brooklyn.) It's strange how last year we had an early snowfall in October, but we never had a snowstorm after that. The last time I reported about that was almost two years ago on December 26, 2010.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

First Snowfall: 2012-2013 Fall/Winter

As if Hurricane Sandy wasn't enough weather to deal with for a while, we're having a Nor'easter! It's 2:45pm and it's snowing here in Brooklyn. With the wind chill, it's about 24 degrees out. The map above (image: NBC meteorologist Raphael Miranda's Facebook page) shows the tracking of snow and rain for the tri-state area. There will be high winds and potential flooding later into tomorrow. This is nuts. I realize it's November, but this is early for snow. Of course, it's not as early as last year's snowfall in October! Can you say "global warming"?

Four More for Forty-Four

Four years ago, I blogged briefly about Barack Obama becoming our 44th President, and I followed up with my thoughts on the day of his inauguration. (I also couldn't resist reviewing the cultural events of the inauguration.) Regular bklynbiblio readers know that I intentionally avoid blogging about politics because I think others do it much better than I, and because politics is frequently divisive and painful I choose not to engage with it. That said, the election is a time for reflection, and so I thought I'd take a few moments to write about why I'm thrilled that America has reelected Obama. He may have won the electoral vote (as of now, 303 to 206), but he just barely won the popular vote (50% to 48%). Clearly Obama has a long road ahead of him that is going to be filled with obstacles. He will have to be steadfast on some issues, and make great allowances on others. Admittedly, he may not have a very successful second term at all. And yet I'm still thrilled that he was reelected.

During Obama's January 2009 inauguration, I wrote the following: "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." Do I still believe that? Yes, but with some hesitation based on the past four years. According to critics, Obama's two major strikes against him during his first term have been his inability to successfully reinvigorate the economy and his move toward socialized health care. Do I agree with these critics? Perhaps, although I'm more sympathetic on his health care reforms than I am on his economic recovery. Clearly Obama isn't an economist or a financial expert or a business entrepreneur. That said, I'm not sure that even if he were any of these that he would have done a better job (note: if he were any of these things, he probably would have been a Republican). I'm not convinced that Obama or Romney or anyone in the government has the answers to fixing the economy. Personally, I think Obama and Congress need to create a non-partisan think-tank of economists, financial specialists, and business executives--people who are not in or running for political office!--and have them hash out ideas and make recommendations as to how to jump-start the economy. There has to be a middle ground between all the stalled attempts between Republicans and Democrats to fix the economy, and I can't help but feel that this middle ground is comprised of individuals who are knowledgeable from hands-on experience and (more importantly) are not in political office. As for health care, to me this is a no-brainer. Health care and insurance costs are astronomically high, and everyone is entitled to reasonably priced medical assistance. The obvious option is for the government to place restrictions on health care costs, but that will never happen because no one would allow the government to monitor and control the insurance and medical industries. The only other option then is to provide a government-sponsored form of health care that allows for everyone to be able to receive medical assistance. Of course that is going to be an outrageous fortune and a financial burden on the American people. But it is at least an option available to people who currently have no option at all, and left unchecked health care costs are going to sky-rocket.

While some of you reading this post may agree with me, I know there are others who will adamantly disagree with me. That's fine. That's why this is America. To quote my dear friend CF, who commented on my inaugural post: "To be able to disagree with our leaders and not face imprisonment, torture or banishment, that is what makes America unique." Although most people in my circle of family and friends are Democrats, others are Republicans, and I respect that we all have different opinions about these things. People assume I'm a Democrat and of course I am (a gay, art-loving writer, educator, and librarian?--hello!), but I publicly admit that I'm not as leftist as people assume. I'm not anti-Republican. I think there are points about the Republican party's platform, such as lessening government involvement and aspects of business politics, that are important and need to be taken into consideration. But I more firmly believe the Democratic party is right in its progressive move forward in the realm of civil rights. For me, the biggest mistake the Republican party ever made was aligning itself with the fundamentalist Christian population. America is (theoretically) about the division of church and state, and whatever personal religious affiliation an individuals has, those tenets must be overlooked to ensure that all Americans are treated equally from a socio-legal perspective, regardless of their own affiliations. In the long run, that is to me the most important part of this election and why I'm thrilled Obama has been reelected. To me, the fundamentalist Christian right has kept the Republican party from evolving and moving forward in understanding that the old way of doing things has to change. We need to start embracing change and moving forward. We can no longer keep looking back to the past like it was some sort of utopian America.

According to the Huffington Post, Obama secured anywhere from 70-75% of the Hispanic/Latino vote, and Republicans are admitting that they didn't work hard enough in that area. I'm not sure why exactly Republicans (in general) seem less aware of the power of this particular demographic group, but the fact remains that America is rapidly becoming more Hispanic/Latino, and the traditional White community that founded this nation is losing its place as the dominant socio-political group. I'm not sure where Blacks fit into this, but in some odd twist of fate, I think in a few decades Blacks and Whites will together be dominated by the rising Hispanic/Latino population. Let's face it: America is changing. Republicans--and Democrats--need to recognize this. We have a responsibility to become bi-lingual and learn Spanish (it's on my to-do list for 2013). I don't mean because immigrants coming to America aren't learning English; clearly people coming to the United States have a responsibility to learn English. But English-speaking Americans have an equal responsibility to recognize the rising power and influence of Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America with the United States, and we must learn to engage with these people and nations by becoming equally bi-lingual--as so many of them are--in order to engage more peacefully with them economically, socially, and politically. 

And then there is the gay community. Maryland and Maine have now voted for the recognition of gay marriage, raising the number of states to do this to eight (Washington soon will be nine, plus Washington, D.C. already recognizes gay marriage). Wisconsin has elected the nation's first openly-gay senator. And our President and Vice-President openly support gay marriage, although they see it as a state issue, not a federal issue (another no-brainer since people are married by the laws of a state, not by the laws of the nation). I've blogged about gay marriage, so I won't repeat my thoughts on that right now. Admittedly it may seem like I'm pleading for the gay community as a group deserving special treatment, but the fact is gay marriage as a political platform is beyond any one individual's personal interest. This is about civil rights: all Americans are entitled to equal rights. And this struggle is no different from the battles that women have had to fight for the right to abortions, and African-Americans have had to fight for desegregation and equal rights beyond the color of their skin. As a country where democracy flourishes stronger than anywhere else on the planet, we have a responsibility to show the rest of the world that America is a progressive nation when it comes to civil rights. I cannot help but believe, from the rhetoric I have heard, that to have voted Romney into office would have set the nation backwards in its progress toward a more national acknowledgment of basic civil rights for the gay community.

What's interesting to me though is that these two issues I bring up about the Hispanic/Latino and gay communities will not always be this way. As I recently said to some of my friends, I believe there will be a time in say thirty years from now when gays and Hispanic/Latinos will have become so mainstream in American social politics that the current perception of special interest pleading will have dissipated. Indeed, I anticipate and expect a significant number of gays and Hispanics/Latinos actually will be Republicans. I wouldn't even be surprised if in say 2046 America elects as President its first gay Republican, a successful bi-lingual business entrepreneur whose parents were from the state of Puerto Rico, or perhaps immigrants from Mexico or Argentina. And perhaps it will be under that future President that the civil rights debate will be over the ethical treatment of clones, i.e. if cloned humans are entitled to equal rights since they weren't "born" but "made." Okay, so maybe that's a stretch into sci-fi, but I think you see what I'm implying. Life in America is going to keep evolving, and there will be new issues to tackle that Americans will debate and politicize. Eventually, however, they will settle those issues progressively as America has done in the past. That is what I see and hope for the future. And that future begins now. That's why I'm thrilled Obama has been reelected. As for 2016...anyone thinking Hilary Clinton could be our first woman President?

Friday, November 2, 2012

MWA IX: Kahlo's Self

Since my last Monthly Work of Art post was about Goya and themed for Halloween, I thought in celebration of Mexico's Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) that I would share a picture by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), one of Mexico's greatest painters who was married (rather tumultuously) to another of Mexico's great painters, Diego Rivera. Kahlo fascinates me as she does everyone for her hidden visual language and constant self-reflective portraits that seem like surrealist dreamscapes. I'm no Kahlo scholar, though, so rather than try to talk about this particular self-portrait, I thought I would provide an excerpt from the collection database at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where this picture resides.

"Like many paintings by Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky focuses on a particular event in the artist’s life. It commemorates the brief affair Kahlo had with the exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky shortly after his arrival in Mexico in 1937. In this painting, she presents herself elegantly clothed in a long embroidered skirt, fringed shawl, and delicate gold jewelry. Flowers and coils of red yarn adorn her hair and adroitly applied makeup highlights her features. Poised and confident in her stage-like setting, Kahlo holds a bouquet of flowers and a letter of dedication to Trotsky that states, 'with all my love.' . . . Kahlo, like many Mexican artists working after the Revolutionary decade that began in 1910, was influenced in her art and life by the nationalistic fervor known as Mexicanidad. The artists involved in this movement rejected European influences and favored a return to the country’s native roots and folk traditions. Kahlo often wore the distinctive clothing of the Tehuantepec women in southwest Mexico; she also looked to pre-Columbian art and Mexican folk art for forms and symbols in her paintings. The compositional elements of the stage and curtains, for example, draw upon Mexican vernacular paintings called retablos, devotional images of the Virgin or Christian saints painted on tin, which Kahlo collected."