Wednesday, February 28, 2018


In The Shadow of 10,000 HillsIn The Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”After her family was murdered, she didn’t speak for a month Maman tells her, although it felt longer. She stayed in her bedroom, listening to the rustle of the pines in the forest that seemed to cry for her; the fear had drained her of tears. Most of the people in her village were dead. It was being alive, not the deaths, that was somehow shocking. Her existence seemed to be an accident of fate, her life spent waiting in this room in Lillian’s home, this room that was not hers. She was paralyzed, for the inevitable correction.”

The inevitable correction, when the universe finally realizes that she is still alive. It doesn’t have to be a boy with a machete and a wild look in his eyes. It could be a Biblical bolt of lightning from the sky, or maybe she just falls down dead as if her life string has been plucked.

It is hard to live when being alive feels like an offense against the natural order. When being alive feels like a mistake, as if the angel of death just missed scooping her off the earth by a fraction of inches. The swoop of the scythe makes a sound of displaced air as it...misses her.

Nobody escapes this life without losses, but for most of us it is a slow trickle spaced out over decades, so the burden grows, and we can adjust to the weight even though we feel whittled down, weaker, exposed, moved up in line to be the next one to be taken. We are the only species on Earth who knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that we will die. As children we are barely aware of that inevitability, but as we age that awareness grows steadily to the point that we have to even start preparing for it.

For Nadine, a lifetime of loss is crunched into two minutes of madness.

During the Rwandan genocide, a million people, most of them of the Tutsi tribe, were massacred in a matter of a 100 days. 10,000 people a day. Rape has always been an unfortunate part of war, but in the Rwandan genocide it was used as an act of war. It was an insidious tactic to instill fear and make sure that even the survivors were left forever scarred.

This story is not about the genocide, but about the ability of people to grieve and find the scattered pieces of themselves so that they can forge a path to a new life. It is the story of three women. I’ve already introduced you to Nadine. Let me give you an idea of the woman Lillian Carlson. She is an activist in the United States. When Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, she is disillusioned with her ability to make a difference. She finds that she can make a difference in the lives of orphans in Rwanda. She takes in as many as she can and even more than she should have, but when children have no one she chooses to be their someone.

The third woman is Rachel Shepherd, who is searching for her father. He disappeared when she was a child. With some amateur sleuthing and the benefit of the internet, she traces him to Kwizera, the place of hope built by Lillian in Rwanda. Henry ties these three women together. He knew Lillian in Atlanta and never forgot her. He is the perfect father for Rachel, attentive, fun, and always as interested in her as he is interesting for her. He proves to be the same great substitute father for Nadine when he comes to Rwanda to find Lillian again.

He proves to be an enigma for all three women. He is amazing, and then he just disappears. He is a famous photographer, and maybe, just maybe, he sees things too clearly through the aperture of his camera.

How about this for a snapshot of Kwizera? ”The backyard, if you can call it that, is more of the same, a slash of red dirt and scrubby bushes with some kind of irrigation ditch tricking down the center like a tear. But it’s not totally hopeless. There’s a tall stack of lumber to one side, a rusty green tractor that may or may not work, and an assortment of shovels and rakes splayed on the ground. Two monkeys sit atop the tractor, examining a purple gardening glove. One flicks his tongue at it like a child might test the flavor of a lollipop.”

To some, all they see is desolation in that scene, but for me, all I see is a chance to make paradise.

Jennifer Haupt spent a month in Rwanda interviewing victims of the genocide. She was there as a journalist, but came home with a story that she felt compelled to tell. It is a novel, but like many novels nothing in this book is untrue. We must tell the stories to try to keep the dangerous fallacies of the past from becoming the future. I came away from this book thinking about how life continues after tragedy. I thought about how important it is for survivors to continue to live for those who perished. I thought about how hard it is to find a path when the universe feels so arbitrarily brutal. This book is about finding a place beyond grief and about gathering those around you who need you as much you need them and discovering together a path that will raise you all up together.

I want to thank Jennifer Haupt and Central Avenue Publishing for sending me an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist ArtIn Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”It is a wonderful thing how much courage it takes even to buy a clock you are very much liking when it is a kind of one everyone thinks only a servant should be owning. It is very wonderful how much courage it takes to buy bright coloured handkerchiefs when everyone having good taste uses white ones or pale coloured ones, when a bright coloured one gives you so much pleasure you suffer always at not having them. It is very hard to have the courage of your being in you, in clocks, in handkerchiefs, in aspirations, in liking things that are low, in anything.”
---Gertrude Stein

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The young Pablo PIcasso, circa 1904, photographed by Ricard Canals i Llambi.

As I continue to add prints of Modernist and Impressionist painters with a few Da Vinci’s and Vermeer’s to my growing collection,I find it so inspirational to have surrounded myself with such divergent artistic concepts. When I look at a Matisse or a Picasso or a Vlaminck or a van Dongen or a Modigliani or a Dali or a Van Gogh, their expressions of ideas are so unique to them that it is as if I’m seeing the world through their eyes. I can steal the eyes of a painter, at least briefly, and even once my eyes have flicked away from the painting, the dazzling array of colors can transform my reality into a Matisse or a Picasso masterpiece.

I decided to paint some of the walls of my house a celery green. It is bold. Bolder than I expected, but maybe there was a part of me as I looked at those color chips that wanted to break loose from the safe color scheme of beiges, grays, and creams. A benefit I hadn’t expected is this color sensuously frames the art on my walls and seems to give each painting more depth. I also discovered that looking at celery green makes me happy. So when I read that quote by Gertrude Stein, I thought about my celery green and the reactions I’ve received so far from neighbors and friends who see this, dare I say, courageous color for the first time and look like they have just bit into a piece of raw rhubarb.

Americans came to Paris to experience the Montmartre district, to see the scandalous shows, drink too much, flirt with beautiful Parisian girls, and hopefully brush shoulders with some of these almost famous celebrity painters. These painters are known in certain circles, but not known as well as they soon would be. These Americans were being shown paintings unlike anything they had ever seen before, and for those who could really SEE these paintings, they were mesmerized and bought as many as they could afford. I can only imagine, when they returned to America and unboxed some of these lurid beauties with vivid colors that overwhelmed the eye, what reactions they would have received from friends and family. Those paintings might even have left some of the viewers, with a delicate disposition, feeling as if they have been punched in the gut.

It is interesting to observe the varied reactions that people have to bold colors before we can even discuss, say, a painting of a woman with three noses.

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Henri Matisse circa 1891.

Sue Roe deftly balances all these diverse personalities who came together in Paris at the turn of the century and she shares these wonderful stories that vividly bring them back to life. The fashion designer Paul Poiret, who was immersed in this dynamic culture, shared a story that has stuck with me long after finishing the book. ”Many years later, Poiret remembered watching Vlaminck and Derain as they trudged along the riverside, forced to move out of their lodgings (their shared studio, presumably) when the landlady grew tired of giving them credit. ‘I can still see them by the flowery banks,’ he reminisced, ‘their boxes of colours under their arms, their canvases piled in a wheelbarrow.’” The book is full of intriguing snapshots, daubed in paint. These brilliant, impoverished painters were just beginning to have an idea that they were part of another renaissance in art. Another one of my favorite vignettes is of a clever, fussy writer : ”Marcel Proust sat quietly at a corner table drinking hot chocolate like a pale-green ghost.” To think of him out in the Montmartre district, observing all that decadent behavior, made me smile.

The women of Montmartre were probably some of the most liberated women on the planet in the early 1900s. They were models, lovers, dancers, mistresses, and in many ways their emancipation added fuel to the creative energy of the artists, writers, designers, and buyers who flocked to Montmartre to be inspired. One of the most alluring of these creatures was Fernande Olivier, who caught the eye of many painters, but absolutely captivated Pablo Picasso.

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”Here she was now, the beautiful, tall redhead. She seemed languid, aloof, more voluptuous than the girls he was accustomed to, with strong, vivid features and a contrasting aura of lightness. From now on, wherever he went, he kept seeing her.”

The rivalry between Matisse and Picasso was one of those necessary driving forces that makes really great artists keep creating masterpieces. They would cringe and look with awe in equal measure whenever they viewed each other’s latest creations. Their relationship was cordial, honest, but sometimes mildly disagreeable. As Francoise Gilot (muse of PIcasso) put it: ”‘In their meetings, the active side was Pablo; the passive, Matisse. Pablo always sought to charm Matisse, like a dancer, but in the end it was Matisse who conquered Pablo.’” There are many great artists of this period; one of my favorites is Amedeo Modigliani, but without a doubt, the names that emerge as champions of the era are Matisse and Picasso.

I always find reading about artists so inspirational, even more so than reading about writers. I’m not sure why, except maybe that there is so much more for me to learn about artists. I don’t usually pick up overviews like this, but Sue Roe does such a wonderful job capturing the place and the people with such precise sketches that I am indebted to her for moving the needle of my understanding of the artists and of this era forward in a leap rather than just a bound.

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