Life Drawing by Robin Black

life drawingI just can’t pass up a novel about art and artists.

Especially if the cover art features a broken paintbrush which has left a streak red paint (cadmium red medium?) across the cover, hinting at some kind of danger or menace. How intriguing.

Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House US, July 15, 2014) is an astutely psychological novel about a troubled marriage between an artist and a writer. Seeking to escape the city, Gus and Owen buy a country home where she can turn the back porch into an art studio and he can use the stone barn for a writer’s retreat. Sounds idyllic, romantic even? Hardly.

From the very first line you know the husband will be dead by January: “In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death, he visited Alison’s house every afternoon.” Gus is narrating, and what a multi-layered voice she has: remorseful, restless, thoughtful, haunted and sad. She quickly lures you into the mystery of her misery.

It is not a question of what happened to her husband, but how and why. The mystery is even more beguiling because Gus is just barely coming to understand it herself. Gus tries to explain: “as one of my teachers used to say, you cannot see a landscape you are in.”

And what a complicated landscape she’s in. Even before the new neighbor Alison moves in, Gus and Owen are having a rough go. Gus had an affair a couple of years ago, and they’re still sorting things out. As Gus says, the betrayal was “a lingering presence in our lives, a taunting little goblin in the shadows, daring us to call him out.” Her husband suffers from writer’s block, and Gus believes that she is to blame for killing his creativity. In contrast, Gus’s imagination is sparked by old newspapers she finds in the farmhouse and she is both enthralled and challenged by her work on a new series of paintings. Owen is irritated and Gus feels guilty. But still she escapes to her studio and paints.

Chances are that you will soon be convinced, like I am, that Gus is utterly real. Even the paintings on her walls come alive, complete with their own backstory. One in particular captivated me. There is a painting above the fireplace, Owen’s favorite, a painting Gus made in an old millinery shop in Philadelphia. I’d love to know where Robin Black got the inspiration for that fictional painting, maybe . . . here?

tissot milliner's shop

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, from the series Women of Paris, 1883-85, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Or here perhaps?

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas, The Millinery Shop ca. 1882-1886, The Art Institute of Chicago

Just knowing that Gus had spent weeks sketching and painting in a millinery shop, looking past the vivid hats out to the dingy gray of a February streetscape, and somehow doing a pretty good job of it – good enough to hang the completed painting above the fireplace anyway – made me admire her as an artist. Was it the subconscious pull of art history that was drew her to the same kind of place as Tissot and Degas? Or did Gus just need a warm sheltering place to change hats after her affair was finally over?

I found myself wishing that Gus could stop by my own  studio some time, have coffee, and talk about art. Maybe we could take a life drawing class together at our local art league. Gus struggles with the human form; she’s not a natural portraitist. She’s just not that good with people.

Poor Gus.

Such is the talent of Robin Black. She makes her characters live and breathe and entangle  you in their world. I care deeply about Gus. It’s been about a month since I finished an advanced copy of the book and I’m still wondering how she’s doing.

Trust me, you won’t be able to put this book down until you learn how and why Gus’s husband died. Life Drawing is a beautiful literary book with deep personal insight and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Without a doubt, one of my favorite reads this year.


–Margie White is a former bookseller, an avid reader and a painter of limited talent but unlimited enthusiasm.


A gathering at Printers Row Litfest (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black

A gathering of fans and authors following a panel discussion at Printers Row Lit Fest, June 2014 (from left to right): Jenny Offill, Sue Kowalski, Rebecca Makai, Margie White and Robin Black



D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944

The recent anniversary of D-Day has put me on a reading streak of WWII related books. My favorite is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (You can read my earlier review and see my photographs of its setting in St-Malo here.) One of the most powerful insights from the book was the realization of how much damage the Allies caused as they forced the Germans out of St-Malo.

An Alliance Francaise teacher recently shared with me a line she recalled from her parents: “Nous aimons les Américains. Mais nous aimerions qu’ils encore plus si ils ont bombardé un peu moins.” (We like the Americans. But we would like them even more if they bombed a little less.)

d-day through french eyesSpurred on by these insights, I was drawn with great curiosity to this book: D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 by Mary Lousie Roberts (University of Chicago Press 2014). The book is based on first-person testimony by French people who lived in Normandy in June of 1944. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear their stories.

Paratroopers fell into family gardens and farmers’ fields and were welcomed into French farmhouses, regardless of the danger. Norman families gathered up the silk parachutes and later used them to make shirts, blouses and even wedding dresses.  As Roberts put it: “In the next few years, hundreds of Norman brides would be married in dresses made from that material.”

But the truth is much more complicated. Liberation came at great cost. Nineteen thousand civilians were killed during the Norman invasion. The towns of LeHavre, Caen and Saint-Lo became “martyred towns, almost completely wiped off the map.” These towns were key transportation routes for advancing German troops and the Allies were determined to  destroy their bridges and roads. The Allies dropped leaflets to warn the occupants of these targeted towns, but they often had nowhere else to go. Bomb shelters were rare in France, unlike England. The Normans hid under tables or mattresses and prayed the rosary while “friendly” bombs fell and their homes were destroyed. By the time Caen was liberated, just one-quarter of the town was still standing.

In a chapter called “First Glimpse,” the French share their first impressions of the American soldiers. They were all amazed at their height and size – they called the Americans “giants,” “beanpoles,” “strapping fellows.” They noticed the Americans’ silent rubber boots, so different from the loud sound of German boots they’d become accustomed to.

Norman children fondly recalled American soldiers who gave them their first Hershey bars and their chewing gum. They thought the “brownish-beige chocolate . . .  tasted funny,” and didn’t really know what chewing gum was. “Do you just keep on chewing?” Many Norman children were fatherless during the war, so they bonded quickly with the American soldiers who befriended them, playing soccer and basketball. The adults marveled at “thin” Lucky and Camel cigarettes wrapped so neatly in cellophane. The French noticed that German soldiers smelled like leather, soap and tea, but American soldiers smelled like peppermint, doughnut and American tobacco.

These are just a few of the many well-told first-person stories in D-Day Through French Eyes. They offer a refreshing and sobering point of view for Americans who are more accustomed to looking at the world through their own eyes. We should probably try it more often, n’est-ce pas?

A Remarkable Story of French Resistance: The Silence of the Sea

This summer has been a busy one for 20th century historians. First we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France in 1944, and soon we will recognize the beginning of World War I in 1914. It’s been a great time to dive into the sea of new books about both wars.

silence of the sea

I’d like to recommend an old book, forgotten by many, that was secretly published in France in 1942: Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) by Jean Bruller, alias “Vercors.”

It is the story of an older man who lives with his niece in a small town in France that is occupied by the Germans in 1940. A polite and aristocratic German officer is quartered in their home.

The German greets them in good French and offers an apology: “I am extremely sorry. . . . It had to be done, of course. I would have avoided it if I could.”

The Frenchman and his niece do not respond. You can feel the silence fill the room: “The silence was unbroken, it grew closer and closer like the morning mist.” The officer begins to grasp what is happening. The Frenchman and his niece are refusing to speak to him. They are creating their own form of resistance. Silent and stoic, polite but proud. The officer is taken aback, but then smiles and says, “I feel a very deep respect for people who love their country.”

The rest of the book is the story of the German’s stay, filled with gesture and nuance, but the only person who speaks until the very end is the German. We learn a great deal about the German officer through his monologues at night in front of the fire. The uncle, who narrates the story, explains:

I can’t remember today everything that was said during the course of more than a hundred winter evenings, but the theme hardly ever varied; it was the long rhapsody of his discovery of France: how he had loved her from afar before he came to know her, and how his love had grown every day since he had the luck to live there. And believe me, I admired him for it. Yes, because nothing seemed to discourage him, and because he never tried to shake off our inexorable silence by any violent expression.

The Frenchman and his niece grow to admire the German, despite their circumstances. The niece’s gestures betray a developing fondness. The German is hopeful and somewhat deluded that the occupation can turn out well, both for him and the niece, and for both countries as well.

The niece speaks but one word to the German, and only at his final parting. It’s a very powerful story, beautifully done. The simplicity is all on the surface, much like its title, The Silence of the Sea. Beneath the veneer of politeness is a hidden intensity, dignity and power.

In the literary introduction to my edition of the book (Berg 1993 paperback) it explains that Bruller based the cultured German character on a real German officer who stayed in Bruller’s mother’s home, to whom Bruller never spoke.

I would recommend this short but powerful story to anyone who enjoyed Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. You may have already recognized this book’s similarity to the second novella in Suite Francaise in which French villagers adjust to the presence of German soldiers during the occupation. However, there is good news about the author of Silence of the Sea, unlike Nemirovsky’s tragic story. Jean Bruller (who was Catholic) took great precautions in the face of enormous risks in getting his story published. He never even told  his own wife and mother about the book or his nom de plume as “Vercors.” Not only did Bruller survive the war, he was still alive in 1988 when he helped prepare his story for republication.

The edition I ordered  is especially good for those of us working on our French. It is a bilingual edition with historical and literary introductions, explanatory notes and even a glossary of French terms. The story itself is less than 20 pages long. For those with further and deeper interest in the subject, the bibliography offers a thorough list of books and articles about the French Resistance and Vercors in particular.


For further reading:

Some V-E Day Reading Recommdations on this blog:






Van Gogh in St. Rémy

Van Gogh, Maison de Jeune (1888), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Van Gogh, Yellow House (1888), Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

You know the story. Van Gogh was living and painting in “The Yellow House” in Arles when he became increasingly unstable, began fighting with Gaugin, and cut off part of his own ear.

It happened just two days before Christmas in 1888. Van Gogh was hospitalized and by May of 1889 he had voluntarily committed himself to St-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

When Van Gogh entered the asylum, he was diagnosed with a form of acute mania and epilepsy. The lead physician, Dr. Théophile Peyron, believed that only complete rest would help, but Theo Van Gogh convinced Peyron to allow his brother limited painting privileges. Van Gogh converted an adjacent cell into an art studio and began painting within the grounds of the hospital. Later, Van Gogh was considered stable enough to paint in the fields around Saint-Rémy as long as he was accompanied by a hospital aid.

It is here that Van Gogh would paint Starry Night and some of his most magnificent paintings, over 130 of them during this one-year period alone.

Van Gogh, Starry Night (1889), Museum of Modern Art, New York

Van Gogh, Starry Night (1889), Museum of Modern Art, New York


A trip to St-Paul-de-Mausole was on this art lover’s travlist for years. St. Rémy is a lovely little town within a short drive of Avignon in southern France. I traveled there in September, when unfortunately no lavender or iris were in bloom. If you’re lucky enough to visit from late June through early August, you might catch the gardens at just the right time.

You can take a guided tour of the grounds of St-Paul through the St-Rémy tourist office or grab a map and do it yourself. There is a lovely pedestrian path with art walk signs all the way from the tourist office to St-Paul-de-Mausole (Le Promenade Dans L’Univers de Vincent Van Gogh).



Van Gogh, St-Paul-de-Mausole (1888), Private Collection

Van Gogh, Vue de l’Asile et de la Chapelle de Saint-Rémy (1888), Private Collection. The late actress Elizabeth Taylor bought this painting in 1963 and reportedly kept it above her mantel for the rest of her life. It was auctioned off to a private buyer in 2012 for $16 million, twice its estimated value at the time.


St-Paul-de-Mausole, view from the back gardens in September

St-Paul-de-Mausole, view from the back gardens in September


St-Paul-de-Mausole view from the back gardens in September

St-Paul-de-Mausole view from the back gardens in September


Van Gogh, St-Paul-de-Mausole, Dr. Peyron (1888)

Van Gogh, St-Paul-de-Mausole, Dr. Peyron (1888)



St-Paul-de-Mausole, view with blue shutters but without Dr. Peyron


St-Paul-de-Mausole, front entrance

St-Paul-de-Mausole, front entrance

The Asylum Garden at Arles, 1889 (oil on canvas), Gogh, Vincent van (1853-90) / Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland / The Bridgeman Art Library

Van Gogh. The Asylum Garden at Arles, 1889 (oil on canvas), Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland


The inner courtyard garden of St-Paul-de-Mausole

The inner courtyard garden of St-Paul-de-Mausole


Van Gogh, Irises (1888), Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Van Gogh, Irises (1888), Getty Museum, Los Angeles



One of the art site signs at St-Pul-de-Mausole indicating the place where Van Gogh painted his Iris series

One of the art walk signs at St-Pul-de-Mausole indicating the place where Van Gogh painted his Iris series. Unfortunately, the irises weren’t in bloom at the time of my visit.

Van Gogh, Olive Orchard, June 1889 Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

Van Gogh, Olive Orchard, June 1889 Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

The olive trees surrounding St-Paul-de-Mausole

The olive trees surrounding St-Paul-de-Mausole


One of the many lovely art walk signs in St. Remy identifying the site of a Van Gogh painting



The lovely walk up to St-Paul-de-Mausole

The lovely walk up to St-Paul-de-Mausole

Entrance to St-Paul-de-Mausole

Entrance to St-Paul-de-Mausole

Sculpture of Van Gogh at the entrance of St-Paul-de-Mausole

Sculpture of Van Gogh at the entrance of St-Paul-de-Mausole

A quiet street in nearby St-Rémy

A quiet street in sunny St-Rémy

Delicious provençal dish for lunch in St-Rémy - Provençal Tomatoes

Delicious provençal dish for lunch in St-Rémy – Provençal Tomatoes


Lovely little art shop in nearby St-Rémy called Charvin

Lovely little art shop in nearby St-Rémy called Charvin


Through Rembrandt’s Eyes: The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal

I found another lovely art history novel that I think you really must read. If you loved Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, chances are you’re going to enjoy this one too.

anatomy lesson

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal (Doubleday, 2014) tells the story behind The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), Rembrandt’s famous painting from the Mauritshuis in The Hague.

I love novels based on famous paintings (the list goes on and on: The Goldfinch, The Painted Girls, The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Luncheon of the Boating Party, so many that I think I need to do a follow-up post). But still, I couldn’t help but wonder, why would Nina Siegal choose this painting to write about? After all, it’s a bunch of Dutch guys goggling over a cadaver, right?


Rembrant, Anatomy of Dr. Nicholaes Van Tulp (1632), The HAuge, Marthuis

Rembrant, Anatomy of Dr. Nicholaes Van Tulp (1632), The Hague, Mauritshuis

The story behind a public autopsy in Amsterdam in the 1600s seems like a difficult subject for a novel, certainly less approachable than writing about Vermeer’s pretty girl with a pearl earring. But Siegal was meant to write this story. She grew up with a reproduction of this painting in her father’s study and has been intrigued with it all of her life.

Siegal was drawn into reading nonfiction accounts of Rembrandt’s life as well as the people and the cadaver pictured in The Anatomy Lesson. There were conflicting stories about the people behind the painting, which left Siegal a great deal of creative freedom to plan her own narrative. I think she did a marvelous job.

The story is told from alternating points of view including Rembrandt, Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, the French philosopher René Descartes, the dead man, a coat thief named Aris Kindt, as well as Aris’s sweetheart Flora. Each character adds interest and depth to the portrait, but it is the sympathetic love story between Aris and Flora that brings it to life.

When Rembrandt meets Flora and learns more about Aris’s story, Rembrandt is inspired to go far beyond the intent of the original commission – which was to make a portrait of the town’s elite Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild – and to create a masterpiece that would honor Aris’s short tragic life.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, c. 1632, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, c. 1632, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland. Rembrandt made dozens of self-portraits throughout his career, but this one was made the same year he painted The Anatomy Lesson. It is the first portrait where he is starting to look like a successful painter. The success with The Anatomy Lesson did indeed launch his career.


I guess it’s no surprise that the scenes where Rembrandt was actually planning and executing the painting were my favorites. Siegal did a beautiful job of explaining how Rembrandt used highlights to create the mood and focal point of the scene, and why he didn’t display the body cut wide open during the autopsy.

I brought my lantern closer to the easel again. What if I were to illuminate Adriaen, to bring him into the light? If he were not sliced open and degraded but instead elevated and lit? What if I did not show the power of the men over him but his own power over them?

. . .

As I continued to dab my paintbrush into the Kassel earth and bone black, I recognized what was possible through this portrait. I could make a broken man whole. I added some lead white to my palette and painted on, . . . adding color to the flesh so that it was pristine.



Reading this book you get a sense that young Rembrandt is at a turning point in his life, and that he is about to become the master painter that we all know today. When Siegal has him pick up his paintbrush to finish The Anatomy Lesson, you feel as if this is the moment that his genius was sparked.

Most art travelers know that Amsterdam is the home of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. But if you’ve never been to the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam you really need to put it on your Art Travel Bucket List. It’s a complete gem.

Rembrandt bought the house in 1639, just a few years after he painted The Anatomy Lesson, the same year he was commissioned to paint Nightwatch. He was living large, but only for the next 15 years. He went bankrupt in 1656 and was forced to auction off his house and assets. Luckily, the house was never torn down and was bought by the city of Amsterdam in 1906. It has been beautifully restored to the condition it would have been in during Rembrandt’s day, including many reproductions of his own and other paintings he collected. The museum staff offers daily art demonstrations in the etching and painting studios.

If you can’t get there soon, maybe you can still enjoy my photos. They’re not the best quality, but you get the idea.

IMG_1630 IMG_1632 IMG_1636 IMG_1637 IMG_1640 IMG_1642 IMG_1643 IMG_1645 IMG_1647 IMG_1648 IMG_1649 IMG_1650 IMG_1652 IMG_1654 IMG_1655 IMG_1657 IMG_1658 IMG_1659 IMG_1660 IMG_1661 IMG_1662 IMG_1663 IMG_1664 IMG_1665




The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal: Highly recommended

The Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam: Also highly recommended

For further reading: I highly recommend another historical novel set in Amsterdam: History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason. Read my post about that book and the Willet-Holthuysen Museum in Amsterdam here.

History of a Pleasure Seeker - US paperback cover

History of a Pleasure Seeker – US paperback cover














Visit Saint-Malo with Anthony Doerr

I just finished Anthony Doerr’s most recent book, All The Light We Cannot See (Scribner 2014). I’ve loved Doerr ever since The Shell Collector, About Grace and Four Seasons in Romebut this latest novel is nothing short of breathtaking. And best of all, at least for me, the novel is set in Saint-Malo, a small fortified town on the coast of Brittany which I’ve had the pleasure to visit. Doerr captures its briny smells and moody seas just perfectly.


Doerr has a rare gift. He understands what makes science and nature tick, but he also has the words to elevate them them into art. He can make seashells, snails, rare diamonds and radio waves all seem miraculous.

This time Doerr sets his sights on France during World War II, blending history, technology and legend to tell the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier whose destinies are entwined through the miracle of sound. All the light we cannot see.

The story is artfully woven. It moves back in forth in time and place, spiraling faster and faster toward its incredibly suspenseful center. It begins in Paris where a young blind girl named Marie-Laure lives with her devoted father, who is the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. She grows up in a magical world of science and cherishes her braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In the meantime, Werner Pfenning begins his own story in a German orphanage where he lives with his sister Jutta. They come upon an abandoned radio out in the trash and Werner plays with it until they hear music — and as Doerr himself would say, “the magic of a stranger’s voice.” Werner dabbles with radios until his aptitude for math and technology (not to mention his snow-white hair and Aryan eyes) earns him a spot in an elite Hitler Youth Academy. Werner becomes an expert at radio transmissions and is drafted into the German army.

When the Germans occupy Paris in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father escape to the west and are welcomed in by a reclusive great-uncle who lives in an old house on the sea in Saint-Malo, Brittany.

The Germans quickly take over Saint-Malo as well, and it becomes a natural German stronghold with all of its medieval ramparts and old stone fortifications. The Germans rule the little town with an iron fist. Little do they know that Marie-Laure’s great-uncle has a secret radio transmitter in his attic.

In this video, Doerr tells us about the inspiration for his novel and his decision to choose Saint-Malo for the setting. Apparently he was traveling through France on a book tour and found himself in the lovely town of Saint-Malo. Like me, he had no idea that the town had nearly been destroyed by American bombs during the liberation of France in 1944.

If you get the chance to take a 2-3 day side trip from Paris, you should go to Saint-Malo. It is easily reachable by train from Gare Monparnasse. Or perhaps take the train to Rennes, rent a car, drive to Mont Saint-Michel, and then drive 25 or so miles to Saint-Malo. I enjoyed my stay at Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes, which is right on the beach and a short walk from the old town walls. You can take a tour of Fort National, the place where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle is imprisoned at the end of the German Occupation, or Memorial 39/45 Blockhaus, which is what remains of a German anti-aircraft defense blockhouse. A guided tour of the blockhouse is followed by a film “The Battle of Saint-Malo.”

But most of all, take an afternoon to stroll through the same Saint-Malo streets as the brave young Marie-Laure. Walk along the windswept ramparts, enjoy the fabulous seafood, and then maybe stop in a boulangerie and order a baguette. And just in case, check inside the baguette in case there’s a secret slip of paper from the French resistance. . . .


Porte Saint-Thomas, Saint Malo, France.



Saint-Malo sea ramparts with Fort National in the background. Marie-Laure’s uncle Etienne is arrested and imprisoned in Fort National at the end of the German occupation. A stray American shell hit the Fort on August 9th, killing 18. Etienne is there.


The houses of Saint-Malo reflect their golden light onto the wet beaches as the tide recedes. I didn’t know at the time that much of Saint-Malo had to be rebuilt after the war.



Saint-Malo sunset in more peaceful times.


A view of Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes from the beach


The view from Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes

The view from Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes


A view of the Saint-Malo harbor from Dinard


If you have time, the drive west from Saint-Malo to Cap Fréhel is magnificent.


Cap Fréhel, France, which was also occupied by the Germans in World War II.


Cap Fréhel, France in more peaceful times


All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Most highly recommended. I’m serious, it’s knock-your-socks-off good.