Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Top 10 Read Novels: 2010-2013

Regular readers of bklynbiblio know that near the end of each calendar year, I do a "Books of" post highlighting some of my favorite reads of the year. In addition to those posts, just over 3 years ago, I blogged about my Top 10 Read Novels that I had read between the years 2005 and 2009. (Yes, I am actually that neurotic, in that I not only keep track of every book I've read, but I also rate and rank them!) Since posting that in 2011, I have been gathering a few more favorites, so I thought I would write an update, highlighting my Top 10 Read Novels from 2010 to 2013. As with the last list, it's important to realize that I'm not claiming this is my list of all-time-favorite novels, or that the books on this list were published between these years. This is my 5-star ranked list of novels I read between these years. Counting down from 10 to 1...

10. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym (1953). Pym was my great author discovery, thanks to TC in TN, although I read this book in 2012 after having read Excellent Women (see below) in 2011. Yes, I have enjoyed Pym's books so much her name appears twice on this list. Few authors have been able to make me laugh aloud with their sardonic observations of everyday life. Here, friends Jane and Prudence, in post-WWII Britain, try to figure out what they truly want out of life and men, living between town and country, all leading to a charming ending.
9. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson (2009, English ed.). This third book in the trilogy that began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo brings it all home in a way that not only resolves a lot of loose ends, but restored this reader's faith in what seemed to be the author's/narrator's blatant misogyny. The women rule the show in this book.
8. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002). This is the story of young Susie Salmon, who has been murdered. She narrates her story from the afterlife, struggling to let her family know she's still watching over them, but also trying to help them realize who it is that killed her. There is a spiritual message here, but it's not traditionally religious, and it's surprisingly very human in the end. A touching, beautifully-composed book.
7. A Russian Affair by Anton Chekhov (1896-99). This little book is a collection of a few of the Russian author's short stories, all focusing on love, grouped together by Penguin Books as part of its "Great Loves" series. These stories amazed me with their near-perfection in short form. I'm intentionally waiting a while so I can read them and relish them again, as if it were the first time. "The Lady with the Dog" in particular will leave you swooning as much as the characters do.
6. The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt (2009). Byatt still holds a special place for me as the author of my all-time favorite novel, Possession. Here she tackles twenty+ years in the lives of a group children who grow up from the 1890s to World War I. You can read my review of the book here.
5. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1952). This was the first Pym novel I read, and it is (so far) the best. She will have you chuckling aloud as you pour out another cup of tea, and join thirtysomething Mildred Lathbury through another seemingly boring day with her fellow church ladies and her high-strung neighbors. You will be amazed at how much adventure can come from doing nothing. I can see Pym's influence on some of my other favorite British authors, including Byatt and Ruth Rendell.
4. Howards End by E. M. Forster (1910). Of course, I saw the Merchant-Ivory film with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins a long time ago. But having read almost all of Forster's other novels, I finally settled down for what is considered one of his best, and it did not disappoint. The Schlegel sisters are divine characters, but what amazed me most was how the individual houses all were anthropomorphized and became characters as well.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008, English ed.). My thanks to PR for giving me this book. It is one of the smartest and wittiest (and tragic) books I've ever read. The dowdy, provincial concierge Renee, who works for a grand Parisian apartment building, is secretly a genius, but keeping to herself becomes more and more difficult when she inadvertently befriends both the quirky young Paloma from upstairs, who films her family because they are stupid, and a new resident in the building who sees through her disguise. My friend Shermania has blogged about the book as well and has some interesting observations.
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874). I struggled as to whether this book should be number 1 on the list, and in some ways perhaps it is. The books is, truly, a masterpiece, and I think I will struggle to ever find another novel as incredibly well-written. Eliot's genius as a woman writer (using a man's name) was to make her readers realize that everyone has the capacity to think, including women (a rather new idea for Victorian men). The heroine Dorothea Brooke is so well-rounded and complex, struggling as she does to be both an intelligent and a passionate woman. But, honestly, what got to me most was the ending. I sobbed during the last few paragraphs, understanding the story's underlying message: awareness of what one's true gift to the world can and should be.
1. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875). It is rather surprising to think that Trollope's social commentary novel was published in book form just a year after Eliot's masterpiece. They are such different books, it is worth reading both of them to understand that "Victorian fiction" is most definitely not one mode of writing. Middlemarch is certainly a better-written novel and arguably a greater work of literature. But Trollope's novel is timeless in that the plot speaks as much of today's society as it did in the 1870s. Social climbing, greed, corruption, and embezzlement have not changed at all. This book can teach you a great deal about the world we live in today. It's also rather hilarious, which makes for an enjoyable read, and probably the one reason why I made it #1. You can read my pre-review I blogged about here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Walk to End Alzheimer's 2014

Back in 2008, two years after my mother passed away, I decided to participate in the Alzheimer's Association's annual memory walk. You can read about that special day by going here. Having now lost my father to the effects to Alzheimer's as well, I decided to participate in the walk once again. 

Team "Ferrari & Friends" will be doing the 2014 NYC Walk to End Alzheimer's on Sunday, October 19th. Although we are doing this in memory of my mother and father, we are also walking in support of all those who suffer from this horrible disease and their caretakers & families who must endure the pain of this disease with them. My team currently consists of me, AA, MS, JG, and the FF-POs, but we are looking for more people to join us. Our team goal is $2500 and so far we've already raised $375. Will you help us work toward eradicating Alzheimer's disease and make a donation? You can visit our team page and make a donation online by going to http://act.alz.org/site/TR/Walk2014/NY-NewYorkCity?pg=team&fr_id=5304&team_id=231105. Thanks in advance for your help and generosity.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Tomorrow I depart for Munich on a work-related trip associated with the afore-blogged story about Florine Stettheimer, for the exhibition at the Lenbachhaus. This summer got away from me and I never had a chance to blog about my trip with AA to Chicago, or even my recent get-away weekend to Maine. But hopefully I will have a chance to write about Munich. I am actually intrigued to be going here. The sculptor John Gibson visited Munich rather frequently from the 1840s on, and always seemed to enjoy it. Much of the city was destroyed during World War II, so I have been told that the architecture today has a tendency to look as if "something isn't right," to quote my former dissertation adviser PM (who kindly loaned me a little travel guide on the city). This will be a week filled with work-related tasks, but I am hopeful I will get to see many of the important art museums and collections there, most notably the Glyptothek (seen above), which houses some of the more important sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome. It's also Oktoberfest, so I suspect it will be important to drink some beer...to fit in with the locals, of course...

Monday, September 1, 2014

MWA XXVIII: Stettheimer's Model

One of the more interesting aspects of my job at Columbia University as Curator of Art Properties has been researching the art work of Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944). Columbia holds the largest collection of her art work anywhere in the world, so it has been an insightful journey to learn more about her life and art work crafted in and among NYC's artistic elite. She and her fellow "spinster" sisters Ettie and Carrie held a regular salon in their home on the Upper West Side of NYC (not too far from where I live), and Florine had a painting studio in the Beaux-Arts building overlooking Bryant Park. They befriended and hosted some of the leading artists, writers, and theater performers of the day, including Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The first international exhibition of Stettheimer's work opens later this month at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. Columbia is a major lender to this exhibition; you can read the official press release here. As a tribute, I've made September's Monthly Work of Art one of Stettheimer's most famous paintings from the Columbia collection: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait). The following is adapted from my own essay on this painting, which will be published in the catalogue for this exhibition.

"Odalisque: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) by Florine Stettheimer"
Roberto C. Ferrari

By the time Florine Stettheimer returned to America in 1914, after spending more than fifteen years living abroad, the subject of the female nude in European art was not only a standard part of academic study, but also a means by which to experiment with Modernist practices. Stettheimer had studied at the Art Students League of New York during the 1890s, and she learned the academic practice of drawing and painting the nude female model. It is hardly surprising, then, that around 1915-16 she painted a large-scale reclining nude entitled A Model. Striking, however, is that the figure probably is a self-portrait, albeit a younger, idealized vision of herself, as she was in her mid-forties when she painted this work.(fn.1) In presenting herself as a nude, she offered the viewer a popular artistic subject, but in being painted by a woman the picture challenged its own historic origins. Stettheimer’s European contemporaries Paula Modersohn-Becker and Suzanne Valadon also painted nude self-portraits at this time. It is unknown if Stettheimer ever saw works by these women, but together they collectively introduced a modern image of how women artists could control representations of the female body.

Stettheimer’s choice of Chinese white paint makes the skin of her model modulate in tones from ivory to icy blue, and applications of palette-scraped excess over visible underpainting give texture to the curves of the model’s body. Her orange hair is short, and the playful grin on her face is held up by fragile Botticellian fingers. Her torso is frontal, showing level nipples on small breasts. She lies on an ornamental shawl with a necklace strewn nearby. Surrounded by a fringed canopy, she presents her body as if on stage. She is an odalisque, a reclining nude associated with the harem, intended for voyeuristic display.

The reclining nude has origins in Renaissance paintings like Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538; image here), a work Stettheimer greatly admired, describing it in her 1906 diary as “as beautiful as ever” after visiting the Uffizi.(fn.2) Stettheimer’s Model, however, is not a classical goddess; she shares more compositionally with the modernism of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (image right, Musee d'Orsay). Although Manet’s painting caused a sensation in Paris at the 1865 Salon for featuring a modern-day courtesan, Stettheimer’s painting shows us not a prostitute, but a modern-day woman. Both paintings show the flattening of the perspectival plane and the thrust of the nude into the viewer’s space.(fn.3) The black servant is missing from Stettheimer’s work, but the flowers remain a focal point. For Manet, these were a symbol of sexual commerce, but for Stettheimer the bouquet serves as a distraction. Stettheimer adored flowers, painting throughout her career bouquets that she called “eyegays,” instead of nosegays, because they delighted the eye.(fn.4) Stettheimer’s model holds an ornate “eyegay” in the center of the painting, intentionally distracting the viewer from the triangle of pubic hair below it, the private place that both Titian and Manet drew attention to by placing the woman’s hand directly on it.

Stettheimer’s contemporary Henri Matisse also painted reclining females such as The Blue Nude (1907; image here), which some may consider another source of inspiration. But, in fact, Matisse’s odalisques from the 1920s (e.g. image here) have more in common with Stettheimer’s painting in their depiction of the nude in an exotic setting.(fn.5) And both Matisse and Stettheimer arguably were inspired by another famous nude: J.-A.-D. Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814; image here), painted a century before Stettheimer’s work. The manneristic body for which Ingres is famous can be seen in Stettheimer’s model, who seems to lack a skeletal structure. Under ultraviolet light, one can see that Stettheimer overpainted the attenuated legs, which bear a striking resemble to those of Ingres’s odalisque. Thus, inspired by Titian, Ingres, and Manet, Stettheimer shared with Matisse the aesthetic experiment of using shocking colors and elongated forms to modernize the academic nude.

Although A Model is seen today as an important work in Stettheimer’s oeuvre, her contemporaries never acknowledged this painting in articles published during her lifetime.(fn.6) The painting was not shown at her 1916 exhibition at Knoedler, and it was excluded from her posthumous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. Yet the painting clearly was important to her, for it is the only picture she proudly presented in its entirety when she painted Soirée (StudioParty) a few years later. This work shows the artist, her sister Ettie, and friends such as Leo Stein and the Hindu poet Sankar (seated beneath the model’s pudenda) in her studio. Juliette Gleizes, seated on the couch and gazing at A Model, is the only one who seems to wonder if the figure is Stettheimer herself, a comment perhaps on women’s intuition. It is this reimagining of the woman’s body, painted by a woman artist, that makes Stettheimer’s odalisque a significant contribution to the early history of modern art.

1. Barbara J. Bloemink first argued this painting was a self-portrait, based largely on Stettheimer’s other self-representations with similar orange-colored hair, most notably Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun). The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 66–68. Parker Tyler dated A Model and Self-Portrait with Palette to the same period, ca. 1915–16, also drawing attention to the similar hair color and style in each figure. However, he did not suggest that they are both Stettheimer. Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Co., 1963), p. 22.
2. Florine Stettheimer, diary entry, May 30, 1906, Stettheimer Papers, YCAL MSS 20, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
3. For a more extensive comparison between Stettheimer’s and Manet’s paintings, see Bloemink, pp. 63–67.
4. Henry McBride astutely compared Stettheimer’s paintings of flowers to those of Odilon Redon for their mysticism, and to the biomorphic forms of Joan Miró for their abstraction: “The flowers in her flower pieces were . . . mere points of departure. They are, I believe, sufficiently botanical, but they are also unearthly. I never heard her speak of Redon, and she would not have thought herself related to him, yet there is a kinship between their flowers. Both imbued them with the occult, something reaching out of this world to that other; and of the two, Florine granted them more actual freedom, and the blossoms in her vases wriggled upward with a whimsicality in the stems that is not to be outmatched for waywardness in the ‘automatic’ paintings of Miro.” Florine Stettheimer (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), pp. 15, 18.
5. After viewing Florine Stettheimer: An Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors & Drawings, held at Columbia University in 1973, the composer Virgil Thomson wrote to the curator: “[Stettheimer] may be a better fauve than Matisse. Certainly she was a better painter.” Virgil Thompson to Jane Sabersky, February 24, 1973, Florine Stettheimer Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries.
6. Tyler, in his 1963 biography, is the first author to reference the painting. It was only with renewed interest in Stettheimer in the 1980s that art historians began to discuss this picture. Controlling her sister’s image, Ettie Stettheimer may have intentionally kept this painting away from public view because of its provocative nature.