Zdzislaw Cyankiewicz (1912-1981) was a Polish artist. That's all I can tell you about him, though Google Images reveals that he painted a good many abstracts and also liked to paint nude women, often ones who were reading.
I'd never heard of Harry Bingham or his detective Fiona Griffiths ('the most startling protagonist in modern crime fiction' according to the Sunday Times) but a review I saw about this, the fifth in a series, gave me a strong desire to read it. It's taken me a while, not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because it got relegated to being a beach and garden read, and I had other fish to fry on other occasions. So, did I enjoy it? That would have to be a moderate yes. It took me a while to get the hang of Fiona, and perhaps I'd have got gripped a bit sooner if I'd read the earlier books in the series. It's clear from the start that she's a bit of a maverick - more than a bit, actually, as it's hard to believe her bosses put up with her habit of taking matters into her own hands, disobeying orders, setting off for places she has been told not to go to and more besides. She drinks a lot of peppermint tea, rarely eats or sleeps, and smokes a great many joints. And she seems to have some kind of love affair with corpses. I guess that this would have been more fully explained in the earlier novels, but here, though it manifests clearly when she encounters the first dead body in the book, we just find her rhapsodising over the pretty, dead young woman who she finds nicely laid out in a so-called dead house in a remote Welsh village ('I spend a moment taking in the scene, its loveliness, its sweet perfection').
This particular corpse turns out not to have been a murder victim, having died of natural causes, but the place where she is discovered, and the beauty and care with which she has been laid out, lead Fiona to believe that something extremely unusual lies behind her death. Soon they are able to identify her, and in doing so discover the existence of a gang of crooks who specialise in kidnapping the children of wealthy international industrialists and demanding huge ransoms. If paid, the children are returned, if not, they disappear and are presumed to have been killed.
So much is clear from very early on, but even after they have discovered the identity of the young woman, Fiona is determined to discover where she was kept in the days that led up to her death. She's also curious about another, presumably unrelated incident, which took place a few years ago in that same isolated rural area - a young woman walked out of her family home one day and disappeared without trace. Suspicion fell on a rough local man, known to be her friend, but no body has ever turned up and no evidence exists to show he had anything to do with her disappearance.
Fiona's investigations take her frequently away from her Cardiff base and up into the wilds of mid-Wales, where she visits a monastery and gets drawn in against her will to the intense daily services held there, and also send her at one point, with a colleague, to explore an underground cave network where they get trapped and almost die. In fact Fiona has some pretty terrifying experiences and only manages to escape through great courage and ingenuity. Needless to say she solves both the crimes to her own and everyone else's satisfaction.
Despite my somewhat lukewarm verdict at the start of this post, I have been sufficiently intrigued by Fiona to go back to the first book in the series, which I'm now listening to on Audible. This is caused me to abandon the novel I had started, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, a Booker long-lister, which just wasn't grabbing me. Lots of things I should be reading for Shiny but hopefully I will get onto those soon.
This is a detail from 'Album' by Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940)
Here's what I read on the site I found it on:
In 1895, Thadée and Misia Natanson commissioned from Vuillard a series of five decorative panels. Collectively known as Album, they took the title of the largest of the paintings, in which a portfolio or album is the center of attention. Languid women suspended in sumptuous, flower-filled interiors are the subject of all five paintings, which are of various sizes. Figures and objects blend in a profusion of patterns, and their closely ranged tonalities of earthy browns, burgundies, and yellows evoke tapestries. The panels’ unusual character matched that of the Natansons’ apartment on rue Saint-Florentin, just off the place de la Concorde, which consisted of a large open space adjoined by several small alcove areas. Its unconventional décor reflected Misia’s taste, which was inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement. Also called the “Annex,” the apartment often served as an alternative office for the artists and writers who contributed to Thadée’s lively avant-garde journal, La Revue Blanche; among them were Claude Debussy, Léon Blum, Stéphane Mallarmé, and André Gide. The evocative Symbolist qualities of Mallarmé’s poetry and Debussy’s music also find echoes in Vuillard’s five panels.
Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement. (Kirkus review)
I've never been a great reader of contemporary fiction, preferring the tried and tested reprints road. That's changed a bit since I started co-editing Shiny New Books, but even now I tend to read and review books by familiar names, such as, in the latest issue, Maggie O'Farrell's This Must be the Place and Rose Tremain's Gustav Sonata. However, when I read the recently announced Booker Longlist and realised I'd barely heard of any of the writers on it I decided it was time to venture out into unknown waters. I was happily enabled to start this project by the kind donation of some Audible credits. Many of the books on the list are not yet available in audio, but this one was so this is where I started. And oh my goodness what a place to start. If this doesn't make the shortlist I'm giving up reading (well, not really, but you see what I mean).
My Name is Lucy Barton was published earlier this year, and I had read a couple of reviews of it, but remembered little of what I'd gathered from them, so really I came to it with little knowledge of what sort of book it is. And what is that, you may ask? Well it's a book partly about writing, partly about families and motherhood, partly (perhaps chiefly) about the nature of love.
Lucy Barton is a young married woman, mother of two small girls, who has ended up spending many weeks in hospital with a mystery infection. She doesn't have many visitors - even her husband (with whom her relationship is clearly troubled, though this is something she is not going to discuss) rarely comes to see her - and she is desperately lonely...
Had anyone known the extent of my loneliness, I would have been embarrassed. Whenever a nurse came to took my temperature, I tried to get her to stay for a few minutes. But the nurses were busy. They could not just hang around talking. About three weeks after I was admitted, I turned my eyes from the window late one afternoon and found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed.“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different. “Mom, how did you get here?” I asked. “Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-sounding but urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”
Her mother stays for several days, refusing offers of a bed and just sitting in the chair, taking catnaps. They talk a bit, but truly what goes on between them is never expressed. There's tremendous love here, something that they can never vocalise, but also many memories, some of which the mother seems to have completely blocked out. Lucy is taken back to memories of her childhood, one of great poverty, deprivation, and probably abuse -- though this last is never foregrounded, it's hinted at and certainly suggested when Lucy's mentor gives her a positive critique of her writing and tells her to ignore negative criticism: 'People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, abuse'.
Whatever the hidden truths about those far off days, the wonderful thing here is that Lucy has no anger or bitterness about her past, harsh though it clearly was. Indeed she is capable of great love, not only for her husband and children and her difficult, uncommunicative birth family but also for her wonderful, kind-hearted doctor, for her neighbour Julian, for Sarah Payne, the woman who encourages her to write. Even the deprivation she suffered has contributed to the work she now pursues with intensity:
My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)
This is a very short novel - only two hundred pages, or in my case four hours of listening. But it's a little jewel of a book, not only for the wonderfully compressed truths about the way people communicate with others but also for the great beauty of Strout's simple, spare, immensely telling prose. The Audible version was beautifully read by Kimberley Farr, and I loved every single second of it. I'll be looking out for more from this wonderful author. If you haven't read this one I suggest you do so very soon.
This is The Bayswater Omnibus by the Irish painter George W. Joy (1844-1925). He was better known for religious and allegorical works, but this gives a great glimpse of middle-class life at the end of the 19th century.
Another great issue of Shiny is out today and there's so much for you to read! It's quite a Brexit-themed issue - Victoria has written a brilliant piece called Brexit Reading, and there's a lively discussion of European Culture between the Shiny ed.s, to which you are invited to contribute. Happy reading!
I’ve seen what success does to people, Isaac, how it separates them from their creative impulse, how it paralyses them. They can’t make anything that isn’t a horrible replica of what came before, because everyone has opinions on who they are and how they should be.
So says the young painter Olive Schloss, whose work is central to this, Jessie Burton's second novel. Unlike a great number of other people, I have not read her hugely bestselling The Miniaturist, so I've got nothing to say about how this one compares to it, though I've read enough to know that Burton herself struggled with the effects of her unexpected success. Anyway, I spotted this one on a list of July releases from Audible and thought it looked interesting - art, and history, and some intriguing mysteries, all sounded like the sort of book I'd enjoy. And I did, though I'm afraid it's not going to be on my list of best books of 2016.
The Muse has one of those dual narratives that seem to be almost de rigeur these days. So we start in late 1960s London and jump back in alternate sections to late 1930s Spain. The two narratives are linked by a painting, created in 1936, which disappears from view and reappears in 1967. The circumstances of its appearance in London are quite strange, and partly owing to a meeting between Odelle Bastien, a young Trinidadian woman who, after five years working in a London shoe shop has got a job in an upmarket art gallery, and Lawrie Scott, who turns out to have inherited the painting from his recently dead mother. When the gallery's co-director Marjorie Quick sees the painting, she goes into a state of inexplicable shock. Although the painting's origins are revealed fairly soon, Quick's connection to it remains a mystery, both to Odelle and to the reader, until almost the end of the novel.
Back in 1936 Spain we meet the artist, who turns out to be a phenomenally talented eighteen-year-old girl called Olive Schloss. Olive, with her art-dealer father and her beautiful, brittle mother, are living in a big old house near the village of Arazuelo in southern Spain. In the village live a young brother and sister, the radical aspiring painter Isaac Robles and his sixteen-year-old sister Theresa, who becomes the family's maid. Olive has been offered a place at the Slade school in London, though her family don't know it - in fact they don't know she paints at all (this seems to stretch credulity a bit, but let's suspend our disbelief here). But one day, by means of a sort of joke played by Theresa, one of Olive's recent paintings is shown to the family as one painted by her brother Isaac. Harold Schloss is overwhelmed by the discovery of a new genius, and Isaac unwillingly allows the deception to go ahead. Soon his work is being sold to Peggy Guggenheim and he is fast becoming an international star. Olive is happy, because she knows her art would never be accepted in the same way if it was known to be the work of a teenage girl.
In many ways this is a story about creativity - Odelle is a writer, very much in secret, and is quite shocked when Quick successfully submits one of her stories for a prestigious literary magazine. She is upset when Quick points out that her work should be made more public - it's her duty, Quick says, a view that Odelle has never taken. Olive, similarly, is happy to keep her identity secret - she loves Isaac, wants him to be successful, doesn't feel the need to claim the work as her own. Isaac, in fact, seems to be the muse of the title -when he ceases to make love to Olive, she is no longer able to paint.
The Muse is a long, complex novel, and one that raises many thought-provoking issues. Both of its time periods are impressively researched and come vividly to life. I was thoroughly absorbed by it, and made extra time for listening, not something I always do with audiobooks. The central mystery - the true identity of Quick - remained unresolved until practically the end, when a useful epilogue finally tied up all the loose ends. I did have some reservations, certain things which I found a little hard to believe, but I was willing to overlook them in the light of the enjoyment of following the twists and turns of both narratives. Jessie Burton is obviously a writer of great imaginative gifts and the ability to create a wholly believable historical matrix to put her stories in. The audiobook was impressively read by Cathy Tyson, who was called upon to do a large variety of accents and managed it pretty well. So, many thanks to Audible for another enjoyable listen.
I don't know about where you are, but here in northwest France the weather is very disappointing. After a brief hot spell last week we are back to day after day of grey cloud with occasional glimpses of sun, mostly in the late afternoon. If you live here you make the best of it, but it must be so disappointing for people who come expecting to lounge around on the glorious beaches. So, though there's not a reader or a writer or a book in sight, here's a lovely painting by the great English painter Laura Knight (1877-1970), to remind us of what we may be missing. Mind you, it may not be all that hot on this particular beach, which was painted in Cornwall where Knight spent several years - the painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1909 and was a great success. Certainly the children are fully dressed, but that was probably the norm when it was painted. Here's hoping for better weather for all of us soon.
I was extremely curious to read this novel. It's decades since I read anything by Edna O'Brien, who is now in her eighties, and I remembered little about her writing except that I'd enjoyed her early novels a great deal. This one is the first she's published for ten years, and I came to it completely cold, having read no reviews and having little idea of what it was about. I did know that O'Brien's novels generally focused on the lives of women - 'women who lose themselves in love', as an early Paris Review interview puts it. And yes, certainly we encounter one of these in the novel - beautiful Fidelma, trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage to a man twenty years older, disappointed by the demise of her once successful boutique, and longing more than anything to have a child. Fidelma lives in a small rural village in Ireland, populated by much the same people we'd have encountered in O'Brien's earlier novels, though life here has moved on and there are now grand country house hotels and fake Irish cottages to entertain the tourists. But the villagers themselves retain something of their traditional simplicity, and thus are quite unable to know what to make of the charismatic foreigner who arrives with the intention of setting himself up as a holistic healer and sex therapist. That last bit very soon bites the dust, but the healing takes off to some extent, and even a nun (admittedly a feisty and untraditional one) goes to him for a startling treatment involving hot stones applied to her naked back. Dr Vlad manages to win the confidence of most of the villagers - memorably rescuing a dog that has got trapped in a rabbit hole - but most of all he attracts lonely Fidelma, who hopes he can give her the child she has always desired.
All this is interesting and appealing, and thus far you could say there are no real surprises. But that doesn't last long. Very soon we discover that Dr Vlad is not what he pretends to be. He is, in fact, a wanted war criminal, responsible for untold numbers of appalling atrocities in his native Bosnia. He is discovered and arrested, and now the novel swerves off into a passage of such horrific brutality and violence that I was quite unable to read it. Suffice it to say that Fidelma is radically damaged both physically and psychologically, and as soon as she is able, takes herself off to London for a life of initial homelessness followed by desperately dead-end jobs in which she encounters many dispossessed and lonely people, many of them migrants escaping from even more desperate lives and conditions. Indeed to a large extent it is the life stories of these people - a louder echo of the ones we heard from the staff of that posh Irish hotel - that come to dominate the second half of the novel, though we never lose sight of Fidelma as she struggles and suffers, even visiting the war crimes tribunal in Holland and having a sad and unsatisfactory meeting with the imprisoned Vlad.
So this is a real rollercoaster of a novel. We have the softness, beauty and innocence of the Irish countryside, and of course of Fidelma herself, contrasted with the brutal realities of what the world outside holds. In fact it's clear that the novel is emblematic of life itself in the present day - so much love and beauty still exists to celebrate and enjoy, but every day we are assailed by evidence of more cruelty, more atrocities, more people who show a complete disregard for truth, honesty, openness, more terrible crimes committed in the name of a fanatical set of beliefs about what is right. The book is one of great humanity, showing enormous sympathy for the stateless and dispossessed. It's impossible not to love and sympathise with Fidelma, even when it becomes clear that despite everything she would like to believe that something genuine and of real value existed between herself and Vlad - and this despite her full knowledge of his true nature and of the depth and horror of the crimes he has committed. Even Vlad himself, deceitful and wholly in denial, remains a complex figure, his undeniable charisma and ability to do real good seemingly reminiscent of those of Rasputin in imperial Russia.
I can't exactly say that I enjoyed this novel - it was a tough read in many places and indeed as I said there were bits I had to skip. But it's a book I won't forget in a hurry and I'm very glad to have had a chance to read it.
This is Felice Casorati, Girl on a red carpet, 1912.
Felice Casorati (1883-19630 was an Italian painter, sculptor, and printmaker. The paintings for which he is most noted include figure compositions, portraits and still lifes, which are often distinguished by unusual perspective effects (says Wikipedia!).