Sunday Salon 5-27-12

Hope everyone is both enjoying the long weekend and doing some reflecting on Memorial Day! As does happen here in Reno, we went from rain (and some snow!) on Friday to sunshine and 70 or so degrees two days later (and 90 by this Thursday). There may be many things that are boring, but Reno weather isn’t among them.

In other respects, the last few weeks have felt somewhat like trudging through a field of mud: expending great effort and traversing very little ground, all the while making a great mess of myself. I recently went over a week without reading a page, perhaps the first time I’ve done that since I was a teenager. Fortunately, the drought didn’t last. I eased my way back in by reading short selections from a couple of books that have stimulated me in the past, such as Phil Cousineau’s Stoking the Creative Fires and some of Joseph Campbell’s works (especially the first one I read way back when, Myths to Live By). At least temporarily, it seems to be doing some good. But I’m not making any promises I can’t keep.

New stuff actually appeared on my blog this week, the major item being a review of Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House (supplemented by a few images of works by Van Gogh and Gauguin). Next up is the long-planned, slowly-executed look at Christianity in Japan, including a couple of books and a movie. As so often happens, however, my attention sometimes strays to the newest shiny object that makes its way into my book stack, in this case Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution. It looks dense, long (600 pages, and another 100 of notes), and absolutely fascinating. I’ve also been reading some items (here, here, and here) on the upcoming film version of Cloud Atlas, which really makes me want to reread David Mitchell’s fantastic, and I would have thought unfilmable, novel. And I hear that Mohammed Hanif has a new book out. And so on and so on. Ideas and reading material are never lacking…

Martin Gayford: The Yellow House

Martin Gayford
The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence
(2008, Houghton Mifflin Company, 340 pages)

From October to December of 1888, Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh lived together in the Yellow House, Van Gogh’s home in Arles in southern France. This famous artistic and personal encounter has been well documented over the years. Among the most recent chronicles of those months is Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House, which combines biography, history, and helpful, evocative artistic analysis. In the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, Gayford mentions his “dissatisfaction with conventional biography” and relates his desire not just to tell the story of Van Gogh and Gauguin, but also “to put the reader in the same room as the person read about, even inside his head.”

Van Gogh arrived in Arles in February 1888. In May he moved into the Yellow House, and almost immediately started planning for visitors, especially fellow artists who would, as he imagined it, come together to collaborate and form a new artistic community. Gauguin was the artist he courted most enthusiastically. Why had Van Gogh settled in Arles in the first place? Partly because the surrounding landscape, much of it flat, reclaimed marshland, would have reminded him of Dutch landscapes. Also, he craved the warmth of the south, as well as the clear light that, he felt, gave colors the brightness and flatness of his beloved Japanese prints.

Gauguin finally came to Arles on October 23, 1888. As he and Van Gogh started, haltingly, to paint side-by-side, Gayford cogently remarks, “Both men possessed huge talents but neither their ideas nor their temperaments were identical. Apparently, Gauguin was the master; in reality, for most of the time – though he did not entirely know it – Vincent was the greater painter, though his confidence was low and Gauguin’s high.” Both were largely self-taught, and as Gayford notes, “that made them more open to innovations of every kind: stylistic, spiritual, technical.” Read more

Sunday Salon 5-13-12

It would appear as though my blog is going to continue after all! To some extent I’ve been marking time the last couple of weeks, seeing if my motivation would return. Thanks to all those – Scott, Brian, Sandy, Mark, Dave, and Jayne, among others – who have provided me the encouraging words that helped bring the motivation back. Will it remain? We’ll see.

The past week’s main accomplishment was the completion of A Brief History of Ireland by Paul F. State. As usual, what I wrote about it can’t decide if it’s a book review or a Wikipedia article. Actually, I did steal one fact from Wikipedia for inclusion in the review: the four Irish winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Can you name them? If not, you’ll find them here.

As for future plans, I’m about three quarters of the way through The Yellow House by Martin Gayford, and a review should be forthcoming. I’m also returning to something I’d started a year or two ago: a review of the catalog for the exhibition Arts of Ancient Viet Nam: From River Plain to Open Sea. The review had threatened to become a digressive behemoth before I abandoned it. But now, with a more circumscribed approach, the review is underway again. Other possible upcoming subjects include Captain Robert Scott’s ill-starred expedition to the South Pole (the hundredth anniversary of which was recently acknowledged) and Christianity in Japan. Ideas are not what’s lacking. Until later…

Paul F. State: A Brief History of Ireland

Paul F. State A Brief History of Ireland coverPaul F. State
A Brief History of Ireland
(2009, Checkmark Books, 408 pages)

Encompassing the extensive history of a country like Ireland in a relatively brief book is a challenge that Paul F. State, author of similar short histories of France and the Netherlands, proves more than able to meet. He nicely summarizes the country’s long, complex political history, always including not just the machinations of kings and lords, but also the day-to-day lives of ordinary farmers and tradesmen. Occasionally names and dates and battles fly by pretty quickly, but they inevitably do in a survey of this kind. Sidebars are used to focus on important personalities (i.e. Brian Boru, Eamon de Valera), events and concepts (the Battle of the Boyne and Irish Diaspora). Plenty of maps are helpfully included. In a series of appendices State provides basic facts about the government, geography, and economy of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as a chronology of events, a list of Irish leaders, a bibliography, further reading selections, and a good index.

Ireland, or Éire in Gaelic, has been inhabited for around 9,000 years. The earliest hunter-gatherer settlers date from the Mesolithic, around 7,000 BCE. Agriculture and animal domestication arrived around 4,500 BCE, and only gradually did larger settlements and tribal alliances form. Megaliths and passage tombs (the most famous of the latter being Newgrange, c. 3,200 BCE) hint at early religious beliefs. Shortly afterwards, around 2,500 BCE, Bronze Age metalworking was brought to the country, and around 500 years later the Beaker people moved in with their distinctive pottery. The Celts started arriving from Britain and the European continent around 700 BCE, with iron weapons and agricultural implements as well as a more sophisticated approach to politics and governance.

Book of Kells Man Lion Bull Eagle431 CE is the first documented date in Irish history, when a Christian bishop, Palladius, came to Ireland to minister. Within a few centuries monasteries were being built that soon became major centers of learning, artistry – including illuminated manuscripts like the beautiful Book of Kells (c. 800 CE) – and political power. St. Patrick is just the most famous of those who were spreading Christianity in the country. As State reminds us, the famous legendary events of Patrick’s life, like driving the snakes from the country or using the shamrock to illustrate the Trinity, may well not have happened. But Patrick certainly baptized many people (possibly thousands), traveled widely, and founded numerous monasteries. Other Irish monk-missionaries traveled throughout Europe, converting people and spreading their learning. Among the most famous were Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland, and Scotus Eriugena, the great philosopher who headed the Palatine School under Charlemagne’s successor Charles the Bald. Read more