Every Sunday morning, I send out three art-related recommendations to my email list. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the list). This is a compilation of those recommendations through 6/5/2017. Patreon subscribers receive a fourth recommendation, access to the current compilation, and my very sincere thanks for supporting my work.
Sections in this list (not bookmarked, until WordPress gets its act together re bookmarks): Fiction * Poetry * Painting * Sculpture * Music * Movies & TV * Architecture * Decorative Arts * Nonfiction * Podcasts.
Want more recommendations? Look in the Obsessions cloud at lower right for Book Recommendations, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museums, New York City Sculpture, Painting, Poetry, Music, Sculpture, and Washington National Gallery.
Fiction, including Drama and Short Stories
Cordair, Quent. “Mujahid” (2014). A wonderful edge-of-your-bus-seat short story. See Lawrence, Mencken, and Frudakis below.
Francis, Dick. To the Hilt (2004). One of my favorites by Dick Francis, who writes well-plotted mysteries with very appealing characters. The hero in this one is an artist, and yes, he paints a portrait in To the Hilt. … Francis develops his characters so well that I tend to think of them as still carrying on their lives after the book ends. (Alas, Francis’s son Felix isn’t in the same class as a writer.)
Jackson, Joshilyn. Gods in Alabama (and others). If you read only one book this year, this should NOT be it. But if you read voraciously and have run through the best authors in your favorite genres, try Jackson. Her characters are fascinating and memorable; they have in common that they’re fiercely protective of their values. Rereading Gods in Alabama I realized that I never like Jackson’s main characters at the beginning, but they develop and change, and then I do. Her plots are well-constructed and twisty, and I’ve never yet seen a passage I really, really wanted to take my red pencil to. If you don’t enjoy the short story “My Own Miraculous” ($.99), this author’s not for you. Jackson does an exceptionally fine job of reading her own books for Audible.
Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind (1955). The authors note in the preface to the play: “The collision of Bryan and Darrow at Dayton was dramatic, but it was not a drama. Moreover, the issues of their conflict have acquired new dimension and meaning in the thirty years since they clashed at the Rhea County Courthouse. So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre. It is not 1925. The stage directions set the time as ‘Not too long ago.’ It might have been yesterday. It could be tomorrow.” My favorite line: “Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty which lifts man above all other creatures on the earth: the power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse is stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the simple sponge is more durable!” Least favorite scene: Darrow’s choice of books at the very end. NOTE: The set-up and much of the action in the play is different in the movie, which is also worth watching.
Neel, Janet. Death’s Bright Angel (and the rest of the Francesca Wilson / John McLeish series, in order). First in a series of well-written cozy English mysteries with Francesca Wilson and John McLeish, that often involve musicians. I’ve read every book in the series at least twice, which is rare for me.
Sherriff, R.C. Journey’s End. See Movies below.
Shute, Nevil. Landfall: A Channel Story (1940). Early Shute, but already in his distinctive style. A pilot, a barmaid, a submarine. For maximum suspense, read the intro (in the Kindle edition) after you’ve finished the novel.
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Mahomet, ou le Fanatisme. Voltaire’s drama, first performed in 1741, has some wonderful lines – especially if you can read French. If you need English and don’t like this archaic version, have a look on Amazon and see if you can find one in print. In case you’re not in the mood, here are my favorite lines, in French and in my very literal translation:
Tu veux, en aportant le carnage & l’éffroi,
Commander aux humains de penser comme toi;
Tu ravages le monde, & tu prétens l’instruire:
Ah! Si par des erreurs il s’est laissé séduire;
Si la nuit du mensonge a pû nous égarer,
Par quels flambeaux affreux veux tu nous éclairer?
You want – while bringing carnage and fear –
To command humans to think like you;
You ravage the world, and pretend to instruct it:
Oh! If the world allows itself to be seduced by such errors,
If the night [darkness] of lies has led us astray,
With what horrible torches are you trying to enlighten us?
Walton, Jo. The Small Change trilogy: Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown. Set in an alternate-history Great Britain where the government made a pact with Hitler. The trilogy starts as a murder mystery and ends as a political thriller. Appealing characters, plausible motivations, and a satisfying outcome that I did not see coming.
Untermeyer, Louis, ed. The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry. This wonderful illustrated collection includes many familiar poems by authors ranging from Robert Louis Stevenson, William Blake and Robert Browning to Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe and Ogden Nash. It’s particularly strong on story-poems like “The Highwayman” and “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” You could get most of the poems for free on the Net, but Untermeyer’s commentary (connecting Tennyson’s “Lady Clare” with W.S. Gilbert) is worth the price of the book.
Prelutsky, Jack, and Arnold Lobel, eds. Random House Book of Children’s Poetry. 1983. I have a Word document full of poems that I don’t want to lose track of. A surprising number came from this book, which I’ve owned since my daughter was a toddler. “Do not jump on ancient uncles. / Do not yell at average mice. / Do not wear a broom to breakfast …” (“Rules,” by Karla Kuskin, p. 137).
Woods, Ralph L., ed. A Treasury of the Familiar. More than 700 pages of prose and poetry, including excerpts from Lincoln, the Bible, Aesop, Tennyson, Sandburg, Yeats, and on and on … My copy was signed by my mother before she was married, and when I flip it open to p. 382, I can hear my father’s voice reading “Abdul A-Bul-Bul A-Mir.” Poetry sticks with you. This week’s Wednesday blog post, “The Listeners,” came from this volume.
A Treasury of the World’s Best Loved Poems, 1961. If you want to start small: a 177-page collection ranging from Psalms to Poe and Kipling, starting with Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”
Guest, Edgar. “Results and Roses.” Guest (1881-1959) wrote some corny poems and a few that have always stuck in my mind. This is one of my favorites.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We went back and forth all night on the ferry;
And I ate an apple, and you ate a pear,
Of the dozen of each we had bought somewhere.
And the sky went wan, and the wind grew cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
Scott, Sir Walter. “Lochinvar.” From Sir Walter Scott: pithy, amusing, and satisfying. Who’d’a thunk?
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Escape at Bedtime.”
Tennyson, Alfred. “Lady Clare,” with an illustration by Waterhouse.
Bradford, William. An Arctic Summer: Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay (1871). A reminder of the courage it takes to explore the unknown: the sailing ship in the background; the mast of a wrecked ship jutting out of the ice in the foreground. The polar bear turning to look back at the ship looks like a small, adorable, furry animal (a mink?) – the shape and position of its forelegs, I think.
Canaletto. Piazza San Marco, 1720s. Even if it rained continually while you were in Venice, you’d remember it as sunlit if you had one of Canaletto’s gorgeous souvenir images on your wall.
Hals, Frans. Willem Coymans (1645). My favorite Hals portrait, and one of my favorite portraits ever. If the Zinsser / Buechner article (see below) intrigues you, look at this and some of the other posts tagged “Portraits” in the Obsessions cloud on my site.
Kalf, Willem. Still-life with the Drinking-horn of the St. Sebastian Archers’ Guild, a Lobster and Glasses. Still-life painting reached a pinnacle in 17th-c. Holland, where painters delighted in portraying the luxury goods that Dutch traders gathered from around the world.
Lorenzetti, Ambrogio. Frescoes in the Council Room of Siena’s Palazzo Publico, 1338-1339: Allegory of Good Government; Effect of Good Government on City and Countryside; Effect of Bad Government on City and Countryside. In 14th-century Italian paintings such as these, you can see the change in thinking that resulted in the Renaissance. After centuries when artists illustrated only Biblical subjects, here’s a landscape that shows the painter’s own time and delivers a sharp lesson to earthly rulers regarding how they ought to behave and the consequences of their actions. This 10-minute video from the Khan Academy explains the frescoes. The captions are occasionally misspelled: never mind, the pics are wonderful and the commentary is very good.
Morse, Samuel F.B. Susan Walker Morse (The Muse), ca. 1836-37 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). Morse, one of the earliest skilled portraitists to be born and practice in the United States, painted John Adams, James Monroe, the Marquis de Lafayette, DeWitt Clinton, and many others. This portrait of his eldest daughter is one of his last: soon afterward he gave up painting for science.
Rubens, Peter Paul. Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen (1636). Since Protestantism forbade religious images, paintings of earthly subjects became common in wealthy Dutch homes during the 17th century. Rubens (1577-1640) was famous throughout Europe for his portraits and narrative paintings. This “portrait” of his own country estate was apparently painted for his own enjoyment, and kept growing: the wooden support consists of 17 different pieces of wood. Morrall’s book on Rubens’s technique has a detailed discussion of this work and nine others.
Rubens, Peter Paul. Two Heads (ca. 1609). Rubens developed a technique of painting skin using thin, semi-transparent layers that allow light to penetrate the surface, making the skin seem to glow. Looking at “Two Heads” vs. a Van Dyck portrait is like looking at a 16-year-old girl with glowing skin vs. a woman wearing an opaque, matte foundation. Yes, you do need to see that in person: those two paintings are in the same gallery at the MMA. (This Rubens is one of the paintings I use in my “Innovators in Painting” talk at the Metropolitan Museum, whose revision is high on my to-do list but not at the top quite yet.)
Wyeth, N.C. Treasure Island illustrations. In 1911, N.C. Wyeth did a set of wonderful illustrations for Stevenson’s Treasure Island: they’re my standard for what children’s book illustrations can and ought to be.The Brandywine River Museum (with works of N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth) has excellent high-res images of all of the Treasure Island illustrations.
French, Daniel Chester. Marquis de Lafayette. For French’s elegant, dignified Marquis de Lafayette, see this blog post.
Frudakis, Zenos. Clarence Darrow. In July 2017, Darrow will face off against Bryan in front of the courthouse where the Scopes Trial was held. This post includes a fabulous excerpt on how to deal with superstition from Mencken’s account of the trial:
The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. (See the post for much more.)
Kaskey, Raymond. Portlandia. An artist who believes in capitalism and a journalist who skewers the modern art establishment. Oh, yes, and a pretty sculpture.
Pickett, Byron M. Samuel F.B. Morse. Morse is commemorated in Central Park as the inventor of the telegraph, which helped make New York City the nation’s financial capital. The blog post is an excerpt from my Forgotten Delights: The Producers.
Saint Gaudens, Augustus. Diana (1893). Diana was designed as a windvane to top Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. In the Metropolitan Museum, a smaller, gilded version of Diana dominates the American Wing Courtyard. At Brookgreen Gardens (see Museums below), the same sculpture is on an even taller pillar, overlooking a garden. I love them both.
Brookgreen Gardens: five favorites
Walters Art Gallery: five favorites
Handel, G.F. “Tornami a vagheggiar,” from Alcina.
Tchaikovsky. “Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35” (1878). The piece performed at the end of The Concert. Watch Joshua Bell with the Youth Orchestra of the USA, led by Valery Gergiev, or Itzhak Perlman and Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra. When finally I get 20 years’ worth of writing & photos onto my new laptop, this is what I’ll listen to at a loud yet still civilized level.
Wilkinson, Colm. Stage Heroes. One of my favorite collections of Broadway songs. Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables (West End and Broadway).
Movies & TV
Beauty and the Beast (2017). As the slightly peculiar, nose-in-a-book girl in my H.S. class, I’ve always sympathized with Belle’s search for someone who gets as excited as she does about what lies beyond her immediate circle. I loved seeing this story again, loved Emma Watson, loved hearing the Menken & Ashman score again (the 3 added songs aren’t as good, but not terrible), hated Gaston as always, and thought the 3D was quite good (usually not a big fan). — Incidentally, I always consult Metacritic for move reviews: they give separate ratings for critics and normal people, and the difference often helps me decide whether or not to see a movie.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My husband and I just finished the whole series, for the second or third time, with the invaluable commentary on the DVDs. From an essay I wrote back in 2003: “What’s refreshing about Buffy is that the heroes treat the villains as, in the long run, much less significant than friends, lovers, family and careers. With efficiency and humor, they annihilate evil so that it no longer threatens what they value.”
The Concert (2011). If you enjoy fights against tyranny and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, you should watch this movie – for the first time, or the second or third.
Inherit the Wind. See above, under Fiction / Drama.
Justified (6 seasons). From the Amazon blurb: “U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) confronts murder, drugs, bank heists, mobsters, crime families, corrupt politicians and even his own tumultuous past – and never backs down.” Binge-worthy TV (although I still hate Elmore Leonard’s books).
365-367 Jay St.’s terracotta facade. The facade of the building, constructed in 1892 as the City of Brooklyn Fire Headquarters, is reminiscent of the style of Louis Sullivan, employer / mentor of young Frank Lloyd Wright.
Many men are created by nature small in person and in features, who have a mind full of such greatness and a heart of such irresistible vehemence, that if they do not begin difficult – nay, almost impossible – undertakings, and bring them to completion to the marvel of all who behold them, they have never any peace in their lives; and whatsoever work chance puts into their hands, however lowly and base it may be, they give it value and nobility. …
Herter Brothers. Library table with constellations, ca. 1879-92 (Metropolitan Museum of Art). This rosewood, brass, mother of pearl, and abalone table was created for the library of William H. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son and heir. The tabletop shows the stars over the northern hemisphere on 5/8/1821, the day Vanderbilt was born.
Wrought iron gate on East 64th Street, NYC. One of my favorite ways to relax is to pay attention to someone doing something really well, or to look at the end result of such effort. This amazing wrought-iron gate appeared on East 64th Street within the past 20 years or so.
I also began my odyssey with a question that had formed in my mind on the basis of earlier research in the papers of the revolutionary generation. It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior. Within the gallery of greats so often mythologized and capitalized as Founding Fathers, Washington was recognized as primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all. Why was that? In the pages that follow I have looked for an answer, which lies buried within the folds of the most ambitious, determined, and potent personality of an age not lacking for worthy rivals. How he became that way, and what he then did with it, is the story I try to tell.
Haffner, Sebastian. Defying Hitler. An autobiography that effortlessly segues from vivid concretes to broad abstractions: for example, from the fact that the author had to attend a Nazi “training camp” before taking a scholarly exam, to the character trait that led himself and others to put significant effort into learning jobs they had no use for, in order to serve an ideology they disliked or despised. It’s a great complement to Walton’s Small Change trilogy (How do normal people become appalling?) and to Leonard Peikoff’s Ominous Parallels.
Horowitz, Alexandra. On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation (2013). Even though I’m not an artist, I felt like I saw more after reading this book. Horwitz walks the same few blocks in Manhattan with a toddler, a dog, a doctor, a calligrapher, an entomologist, a blind person, and others with very particular points of view.
Mayle, Peter. Acquired Tastes. Chapters on hand-made shoes, stretch limos, custom tailors, truffles, cashmere, caviar, antiques, servants, cigars, private jets, Christmas tipping … The man’s so persuasive that reading the book may cost you a couple thousand dollars.
Mencken, H.L. Coverage of the Scopes Trial (1925). Mencken reported on the Scopes trial in a series of thirteen articles published in the Baltimore Sun in June, July, and September 1925. His comments on Bryan and fundamentalist Christians are blistering. I included an excerpt from the last article at the end of the post on Frudakis’s Darrow.
Rappleye, Charles. Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution. An utterly fascinating angle on the American Revolution: how did we pay for it? This bio covers Morris’s career as a businessman and his efforts to arrange financial support for the Revolution.
For me, you buy into the whole thing for your whole career or you don’t do it. You don’t create good habits all of a sudden. They were created somewhere in the beginning. You can’t say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to have a bad habit here, but when I leave here, I’m going to have a better habit.’ That doesn’t happen. …It begins when you wake up. It’s got to be a philosophy. You have to be determined, determined to do it every day. If you’re going to have a clean plate, you’ve got to have a clean oil bottle.
How I Built This. Half-hour interviews with men and women who have built very successful companies, from Spanx to Sam Adams to Zumba. Informative and uplifting, even when some of the explicit philosophy is wrong.
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