Wyeths in the Farnsworth Art Museum
Memoirists, of course, spend a lot of time thinking about the past--so it's perhaps no wonder that the end of the year is an especially important time in my little world, a time for sifting through all the material of the past year and chronicling it for future use. Memory-cataloguing is one of my special gifts, and I think now is a good moment to share some of my favorite discoveries of the past year:
This was a somewhat impoverished year for reading for me, as I was writing a lot and at times intentionally avoiding books as an easy means of escape and as potential influences on my writing voice. Still, I unearthed a few gems, none of them new to the world but all new to me.
Cloudstreet, Tim Winton
If you're put off by the first few pages of this book because of their unusual cadence and vocabulary, I give you full permission to skip over them and return to them later, when you have understood the story a little better. Personally, I let these initial paragraphs keep me from this book for years; my mom brought it back for me from a trip to Australia, as Winton is an Australian writer, and it sat lonely on the shelf for a long time. I am so, so glad it finally demanded to be read. The story itself is about the down-on-their-luck Pickles family settling in Perth and renting out half of their house to the Lamb family, and a set of adventures ensues. Part Grapes of Wrath, part As I Lay Dying, cloudstreet is a truly Great novel whose characters I continue to miss, months later.
Comfort Me with Apples, Ruth Reichl
I love and admire and envy this writer who has managed to turn her interesting life into a series of beautiful memoirs, and I might recommend any of them to you. I love Garlic and Sapphires and Tender at the Bone and many of her essays and reviews, but now that it's the end of the year, I realize how often I still think about this one in particular, perhaps because it most closely resembles the current phase of my own life. Comfort Me with Apples is ultimately a memoir about settling into adulthood, about leaving the commune and growing up in the world. Combining good food with strong writing--what could be more "Jamie"?
NC Wyeth: A Biography
In the new bookstore in Littleton center, I was standing at the register paying for a new book when this one called to me from the shelf at the last minute. This is the biography that launched me into Wyeth fandom--and while I have really come to appreciate Andrew Wyeth's genius and his artwork, I will always harbor a little softspot for NC Wyeth because of this wonderfully-written biography. He struggles with the concept of being a commercial artist who strives for something more profound, even while his paintings sell at high prices and he can support his growing family. He was a family man and a highly emotional individual, and this biography truly explores his inner-life, which so few biographies do as successfully. So unfortunate that I listened to a podcast that spoiled the ending for me: NC Wyeth's untimely death.
Bel Canto, Ann Patchet
Oh, this is not an original one, I know. Everyone knows how beautiful and wonderful Bel Canto is, but I didn't until I went to Parnassus Books in Nashville and I thought, Oh, I'm here, why not? and then I spent the next few days driving across the rest of America and reading this book and saying to myself, Ah, they were right, there is a reason that this book is so loved. Best of all, I loved the cross-cultural themes, the points we find in common across humanity. It is also a highly interesting commentary on multi-lingualism, and it's beautifully written (I mean, it's Ann Patchett, of course).
Essayists on the Essay, Montaigne to Our Time
When I checked this book out from the library, John checked the inside cover for a kind of Reference Librarian code--and he told me that he had chosen it for the collection. "Well, you have excellent taste, as usual," I said, and then buried myself back into this book that I absolutely loved. The essay is my preferred genre to write in, but it gets so little attention and particularly so little praise. Everyone loves a novel, of course, but this book helped me to continue to define why I so love the essay and what I think it brings to the world.
Georgia O'Keefe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Although smaller than I anticipated, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum was one of the real highlights of my first-ever weekend in Santa Fe, and like many museums dedicated to a single artist, this one shows the artist's progression over her lifetime--a retrospective that helps you appreciate just how innovative she was. Plus, it's not often we find a whole museum dedicated to a woman artist! Truly a special place--no wonder it was so packed with people on a rainy day.
Isabella Stewart Gardner, Boston, Massachusetts
2017 was the year I rediscovered the Gardner Museum and fell utterly in love with it. Sometimes, I think about moving back to Boston for the sole reason of being near it. It was especially pleasant on my second trip this summer when there was a sound exhibit taking place in the courtyard, and we could hear birdcalls and insect buzzes echoing through the elegant rooms. I felt like we were moving through the museum in a kind of warm cloud--it was a really wonderful morning.
Petit Palais - Anders Zorn, Paris
Both Anne and I were surprised by how much we enjoyed this exhibit--lots of references to Boston and to the people if our historical-social-circle, plus the watercolors were impressive and the portraits were very beautiful. Toward the end of his career, Zorn became really interested in nude figures, and the caption hilariously mentioned his "avalanche of nudes," an expression I am keeping in mind for the future. I'm not sure if this exhibit will travel, but it's worth seeking out a Zorn in a museum near you.
Augustus Saint Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire
I recount this visit in Awake #24: Mere Coincidence. It was a special day for me, but also this museum is worth the drive (pretty much a drive from no matter where you are) because it makes a full-day visit, particularly in good weather. I highly encourage you to go and to take the guided tour, as the guides are very knowledgable.
Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
The Andrew Wyeth Retrospective was hands-down the best exhibition that I saw this year. I was going through the exhibit and trying so hard not to peek ahead but just to make it last and last. Finally, I decided just to keep going around and around until I felt I had seen it enough. But no, I will never see enough Wyeth. The wind blowing through the lace curtains, the Helga pictures... they are truly the paintings that for me define Maine.
99% Invisible #90: Wild Ones, live
Dinosaurs & Dolphins: Representations of Animals in Culture was my favorite course in graduate school, and we read Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones as part of the course (the subtitle is rather a mouthful: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story about Looking at People Looking at Animals in America). And although my favorite podcast, 99% Invisible, has only one cardinal rule ("No Cardinals," that is, no episodes about the natural world), they did the right thing when they decided to break it and include Mooallem's essay as part of the podcast. This is a work of genius: an essay read over bluegrass. YES.
99% Invisible #114: Ten Thousand Years
This is the most interesting thing I heard all year. That's all I have to say about it. Do yourself a favor and let it humble you.
National Gallery of Art #205: Andrew Wyeth, Rebel
This was truly the year of Wyeth. On the way to the Brandywine Museum, I listened to a whole list of podcasts about Andrew Wyeth, but this one had me actually speaking out loud in agreement with the reader. It is a beautifully written essay about Wyeth read for the National Gallery of Art, but the themes are wide-reaching and will speak to any artist of any medium.
This American Life #109: Notes on Camp
Thanks to my friends Diana & Austin for this podcast that really sent my into podcast-obsession. Granted, I listened to this as I left summer camp this year, which might be part of why I loved it so much and found myself crying when it was over. Like a summer at camp, it felt like a real ending. Still, I think about these stories all the time, months later, especially as an expat in a country with little summer-camp-culture. If you know someone who never shuts up about "camp," it might help you to listen to this story, to better understand what it means to them, to better understand them as well.
Essays & Editorials
"How Rebecca Solnit Became the Voice of the Resistance" by Alice Gregory
There must be many of us who feel vindicated by the sudden interest in Solnit's writing, which originally called to me from this sunny corner of the sixth floor of the library at the University of North Carolina. Her ability to defy genre is a quality I so admire, and her essays have this truly ethereal quality while remaining grounded. The article about her is just as well-written.
How to Make an Attractive City (A Visual Essay) by Alain de Botton
I couldn't stop talking about this when I first saw it; I became obnoxious and repetitive. But it is truly wonderful and captures a lot of what I love about living in Europe compared to typical American cities. They are human-sized.
Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming by Neil Gaiman
In French, you can put a noun where an adjective might go if you want to say that you are really into something. "I'm very library," I might say, in French, to mean that I love being in libraries and the whole idea of them in general--but this long lecture really took me by surprise with its accuracy and detailed explanation of what we really need in the world. I'm glad that John has job security in libraries.
I Knew I Had to Write with Authority So I Wrote Like a Man by Nicole Krauss
I want to shout this one from the rooftops, braless, forever.
Why Does Anyone Write? by Alice Adams
The last several paragraphs of this essay spoke to me so loudly that I have copied them out several times and even put a handwritten copy on my writer's mantle. It was written last year, but it is so relevant--and highly-motivating in times of "blank page syndrome."
This is the second year in a row that I have used Susannah Conway's Unravel Your Year workbook and found it enlightening, and I only wish I had saved last year's workbook for reference (I won't make that mistake again for 2018). If you like this kind of intentional exercise, this is a great way to set yourself up for success in the coming year.
I'd also love to know what you do to prepare for the New Year--are you setting any resolutions? Intentions? Making an important reflections? And do you have any resources to share? Leave a note in the comments below!
May you enjoy a deliberate pause for reflection before launching into a highly productive and successful New Year.
All the best to you,