Thursday, August 10, 2017

Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo

by Stephanie Storey
Arcade    2016
345 p.      Historical Fiction

Make sure you have access to the Internet  before you begin reading Oil and Marble by Stephanie Storey, because you will spend a great deal of time looking for images of the works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, among others. Storey has created a well-imagined rivalry between the fifty-year old Leonardo and the much younger Michelangelo. When the novel begins, both have returned to their home city of Florence to begin new projects.

Leonardo had fascinating interests—from science to painting. The narrative emphasizes the plan he had to reroute the Arno river, so that ships could get from Florence to the sea. He is also fascinated with the idea of flying, and devised a plan for a flying machine. 
At the same time he is on this creative journey, he receives commissions from the city to paint frescoes on public buildings, which he works at sporadically. His primary obsession, during these years, is a young wife of a successful silk merchant. Her name is Lisa Gheradini, and Leonardo convinces her husband to commission a painting of her—the painting that became the enigmatic Mona Lisa.

Michelangelo's obsession is a huge block of marble owned by the city. He had just returned to Florence from the successful completion of his statue, the Pieta, in Rome. Surprisingly, for a relative unknown, Michelangelo receives the commission to sculpt a statue from the gigantic hunk of marble. He decides to create a statue of David, slayer of Goliath, and he dedicates all his energy to its creation—an effort that nearly costs him his life. The David statue came to symbolize the strength of the city of Florence and set Michelangelo on a path to artistic super stardom.

The New York Times reviewer calls Oil and Marble a "richly imagined tale," and indeed the novel is eminently readable. Storey really knows her history, and she manipulates her knowledge gracefully so that it tells a cohesive story. Even though I have been to Florence and seen David, and to the Louvre to see Mona Lisa, I had no idea that both artists were living and working in Florence at the same time. Of course Storey took dramatic license with the plot and the historic figures involved. Even Machiavelli plays a manipulative role in the story line.

I was particularly drawn to the concept of creativity, and how these two men exemplify the spirit of the times and of the creative movement in Florence, in particular. The early 1500s were an amazing time in Florence, and the two men were so fortunate to be part of that era. One quote from the novel about da Vinci speaks to his creative potential: "Leonardo believed in potential like many men believed in God." The scope of his creativity knew no bounds. I was fascinated with the way Michelangelo let the stone speak to him, and after he decided to sculpt David out of the stone, he found that he was asking David to speak to him through the stone, guiding his hand and his hammer.

The rivalry between the two men is a secondary story line, but a powerful one. It reminded me of the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri as it was depicted in Amadaeus, although in the case of da Vinci and Michelangelo, both of them created iconic representations of the times—neither was a secondary player. 

Another minor plotline, but also a powerful one, is da Vinci's idea about redirecting the flow of the Arno River. With my ever handy Google, I found that this was, in fact, true. The construction project failed, and much land was wiped out by a flood, killing many people. Leonardo's shock and grief over the failure of the project is exciting and horrifying at the same time—one of the best written sections of the book. The plotline involving Lisa Gheradini and Leonardo's obsession with her is not as well developed and much less believable. 

It has been at least 45 years since I was in Florence, but Oil and Marble really made me want to return. I loved the city. Storey has made the city of Florence in the early 1500s one of the characters in the book. The book is perfect for lovers of history and historical fiction, art, and excellent character development.

Here are 10 top questions about the creation of Oil and Marble.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

by Senator Al Franken
 Twelve 2017
416 pages     Nonfiction/Memoir/Humor
Audio Book

As we were planning our long road trip earlier this summer, I asked my husband what book he would like to listen to in the car. My regular readers know that my husband is a lifelong Republican (albeit currently a very disillusioned Republican). He suggested Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. Not surprisingly, that was the book I was thinking about, so I jumped at the chance to add it to our audio collection. Might I suggest that this is the perfect book for audio, because Franken reads it himself and is able to add all the nuances that make it both incredibly effective and incredibly ironic—irony being his comedic modus operandi.

These are his words to introduce the book: "Senator Al Franken has represented Minnesota in the United States Senate since 2009. Before entering politics, he was an award-winning comedy writer, author, and radio talk show host. He's been married to his wife, Franni, for 41 years — many of them happy. They have two children, Thomasin and Joe, and three grandchildren. Senator Franken graduated from Harvard College and received his doctorate in right-wing megalomania studies from Trump University." Admittedly, the book was written just as the election was decided, so his comments about Trump are only a small part of the narrative.

Primarily a memoir, Franken tells the story of how he got to where he currently is—a two-term Democrat Senator from Minnesota. His first career, of course, was as a comedy writer, for Saturday Night Live and the movies. When he decided to run for the Senate in his home state of Minnesota, he found that his constituents were not interested in having a comedian for a Senator. After all, they had already lived through a wrestler as a governor. So, in order to be elected, he had to work extra hard at being serious, all the while repressing joke after joke in his brain. He says that it was the hardest thing he ever had to do. His brain bleeds humor, such as the time he got in trouble for rolling his eyes at Mitch McConnell. His staff monitored his comments for the entire first term in office.

Now, well into his second term, he is able to let it all out. Al Franken, Giant of the Senate is funny but also very true. During his first campaign, his opponents mined material from his career to attack him. At first he was offended because the offensive remarks they were using had been his job, and he felt that to have to apologize for work he had done as a comedy writer was to sell out his career. Eventually, however, he was able to show Minnesotans that he was very serious and after an extremely close election and months of recounts, he was able to take his seat in the Senate.

Besides being funny, the book also shows Franken to be very serious about his work and extremely well-prepared. I was impressed by that, but I was also impressed by Franken's understanding of the value of humor in political discourse. He discusses which members of the Senate have a sense of humor, and which do not. He says, for example, that Lindsey Graham has the best sense of humor in the Senate and Ted Cruz has the least. He believes that a well-placed quip can ease tension in any room, and now that he has been in the Senate for 10 years, he can occasionally add a note of humor to a discussion. There is some talk of Franken running for President in 2020. Imagine that—someone who could make (and take) a joke.

My husband and I really enjoyed our time with Al Franken, and we heartily recommend the book. We have read several political books, including Being Nixon: A Man Divided and books about the Obamas, and Orrin Hatch. None of these had any laugh lines in them, so Al Franken, Giant of the Senate was refreshing in its candidness. The reviewer in the New York Times thinks that there is a lot of "stale recitations of liberal talking points" throughout the book, but that as political memoirs go, it's a "whole lot funnier" than most. 

You will find Franken's interview with Stephen Colbert about his book interesting.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story

by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor
Viking     2010
304 pages     Spiritual Memoir

In the late 1990s, Sue Monk Kidd and her young adult daughter, Ann, traveled twice to several sites in Greece and France. Kidd, the author of Secret Life of Bees, The Mermaid Chair, and The Invention of Wings  among other works, was in a creative funk. She was turning 50 and feeling her age. She had begun thinking about a fiction book that she wanted to write that involved bees, a young girl, and a Black Madonna. 

The second trip the mother-daughter duo took to Greece helped her ferment and develop the concept of the sacred feminine in her mind. She says that "When I visited Mary's House in Ephesus during Ann's and my first trip, the theological polarization I felt about how to relate to Mary began to be resolved." Each event in the story of Mary "feels like a universal story, offering points of entry into my own experience." 

Ann had just graduated from university and had broken up with her boyfriend when the pair took their first trip. She, too, was in a funk and quite depressed. A university trip to Greece had convinced her that she wanted to study ancient Greece for a graduate degree, but unfortunately, she was not admitted into her graduate school of choice. By the second trip, Ann is in a better place emotionally and is planning to be married soon after they return from their travels. During this trip, she debates whether to become a writer. On both trips, she ponders the poem by David Whyte that says, "Give up all other worlds except the one to which you belong." What world does she belong in? She finds that to be the mission of her travels.                                                              

In each section of Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue and Ann share their journals and their impressions of the area they are visiting. They also express their spiritual growth and their heart's longings. Sue purchases glass pomegranate charms to wear on necklaces as a way to counteract what she sees as a growing estrangement between mother and daughter. The necklaces serve as a reminder of the story of Demeter rescuing her daughter Persephone from the underworld. They find the answers to their inner searching through their growing understanding of the Madonna and other images of the sacred feminine. Both grow from these travel experiences—individually and together.

I found Traveling with Pomegranates to be both intriguing and tedious. The most intriguing part for me was how Sue formulated the concepts that became her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. The tedious parts were their inner arguments, which became strained and repetitive as the pair journeyed. On the other hand, the book is an excellent example of how travel can formulate ideas and creative expression. 

I read the book for the monthly spiritual growth book group at my church. It engendered a great deal of discussion, but several times, members of the group were heard to say, "Well, it wasn't my favorite." Many felt that the publishing of the book was Sue Monk Kidd's attempt to help her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor begin her career as a writer. But, everyone agreed to reread Secret Life of Bees for next month's book group, citing the introduction we got from Ann in Traveling with Pomegranates.