Agony and the Ecstasy

Stone, Irving. The Agony and the Ecstasy: the Biographical Novel of Michelangelo. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.

Reason read: September is the month of the Italian holiday Feast of St. Gennaro.

I enjoyed the biographical novel of Michelangelo very much. The great master became flesh and blood before my very eyes: from early childhood Michelangelo was audacious. He could get his master to pay for his apprenticeship when it should have been the other way around. He could connive the mortuary key from a priest so that he could do the unthinkable – dissect corpses; all to better understand the muscles and bones that make up human body. He steals another man’s mistress because he could. He count strand up to a Pope and not take no for an answer. His loves were passionate: while he loved three women dearly, his art meant more than anything. He believed he was freeing his subjects from their marble prisons. He battled Pope Julius II who insisted Michelangelo work in every medium except marble. He was capable of emotional outbursts of jealousy and despair like when his competition with Leonardo da Vinci became too much or when the woman of his dreams held him at arms length and never offered him more than a hand to kiss…
He was such a tragic figure, but I also enjoyed getting to know Michelangelo as a physical human being; learning that he was ambidextrous while chiseling his sculptures. When his right hand grew tired of driving the chisel he would simply switch hands to keep working. The fact he became an architect at age seventy was astonishing.

Quotes I liked, “Strange how his heart could stand empty because his hands were empty” (p 169), “I need my complete self-respect” (p 439), and “Michelangelo’s ears were plugged with the bubbling hot wax of anger” (p 369). Oh! And the countless times Michelangelo said, “I’ll put my hand in fire” when he was extremely confident he could accomplish something.

Author fact: Irving Stone also wrote The Origin, a biographical novel about Charles Darwin (also on my Challenge list).

Book trivia: at the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy Stone includes a bibliography, glossary, and the present locations of Michelangelo’s works (present for 1961).

Nancy said: Pearl called The Agony and the Ecstasy a “great biographical novel. I would have to agree!

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Ciao, Italia” (p 48).


Lives of the Muses

Prose, Francine. The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.

Reason read: John Lennon married his muse, Yoko Ono, on March 20th, 1969.

Francine Prose covers the lives of nine muses; the women who inspired creativity and passion in their artists. Prose’s introduction sums up the impetus behind the book saying, “The desire to explore the mystery of inspiration, to determine who or what is the “moving cause” of art, resembles the impulse to find out a magician’s secrets” (page 2). Prose begins Lives of the Muses with Hester Thrale. Despite being a married woman, her influence on Dr. Samuel Johnson was profound. Prose then moves on to such well known muses as Alice Liddell, Gala Dali, Lee Miller and of course, Yoko Ono. She also includes lesser known muses (to me, at least) such as Elizabeth Siddal, Lou Andreas Salome and Suzanne Farrell. The residual appreciation I gleaned from reading Lives of the Muses was an education in Rossetti and Miller’s art. I couldn’t read another word without looking up such pieces as Awakening Conscience, Found, Remington Silent and Night and Day, respectively. Attaching the visual to the imagination was a bonus, especially when it came to Dali’s over-the-top creativity and strangeness. The only aspect of Lives of the Muses I found detracting was the myriad of speculative opinions Prose insisted on voicing.

Best lines, “Madmen are all sensual in the lower stages of distemper. But when they are very ill, pleasure is too weak for them, and they seek pain” (p 37) and “The violation of Lizzie Siddal’s grave was only the coarsest and most explicit manifestations of the necrophilia that had tainted her relationship with Rossetti from the start” (p 103).

Convergence: Robert Pyle wrote a book about Bigfoot. Prose wrote a book called Bigfoot Dreams.

As an aside, I did not know that Samuel Johnson obsessively counted his own footsteps. I find myself keeping track, too. Other notes: Natalie Merchant chose a poem by Christina Rossetti for Leave Your Sleep. Christina was Gabriel’s sister.

Author fact: Prose is a year older than my mom and was born in Brooklyn.

Book trivia: Lives of the Muses includes some great photographs.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust in the chapter called “People You Outta Meet” (p 185). I definitely would have liked to have met Lee Miller.


November ’12 was…

I don’t know what makes me feel this way, but November arrived and left before I knew it.  It felt like it was one of those elusive party-goers who pops in for a quick hello and is gone before anyone else knows. Something I would do. We had a fit of snow to add insult to New Jersey/New York injury. My neighborhood survived just fine but mother nature had it in for my old stomping grounds in the worst way.

My routine of reading during my lunch break hasn’t changed. I’ve come to look forward to camping out in the stacks, listening to students pass my study carrel. It gives me perspective. This month I seemed to read nothing but really short, easy to read books.

  • Good Thief’s Guide to Paris by Chris Ewan ~ a continuation of the series I started last month. I think I read this over a weekend.
  • Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, Vol 2 by Giorgio Vasari ~ a continuation of the series I started last month.
  • Breakfast with Scot by Michael Downing ~ in honor of national adoption month. This was cute. I was able to read it in one day.
  • Camus, a Romance by Elizabeth Hawes ~ in honor of Camus being born in the month of November. I took my time with this but still managed to finish it in two weeks.
  • Scar Tissue by Michael Ignatieff ~ in honor of national Alzheimer’s month. Read over a weekend, I was glued to the words because almost a year ago I lost my uncle to dementia. This really hit home.
  • Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood by Carolyn Slaughter ~ in honor of November being a good time to visit Africa. Or so they say. Another quick, weekend read.
  • Edward Lear in Albania: Journals of a landscape Painter in the Balkansby Edward Lear ~ in honor of November being the best time to get to Albania (which I never thought of doing). This took me three weeks to get through.
  • The Cold Light of Mourning by Elizabeth Duncan ~ in honor of Dylan Thomas living in Wales. Don’t ask. It’s a long story. Read in four days.
  • The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin ~ in honor of November being a good time to visit Africa (yeah, yeah I read two books for the same reason). This was really short. I was  able to read it over four lunch breaks.
  • Corregidora by Gayl Jones ~ in honor of Jones’s birth month. Another short (but difficult) read. Read this in one day.
  • The Akhenaten Adventure by P.B. Kerr ~ in honor of November being Fantasy convention month. Read this over two lunch breaks. Really cute.

For audio books I listened to:

  • Churchill, a Life by Martin Gilbert ~ in honor of Churchill being born in the month of November. A few trips to the eastern part of the state allowed me to finish this sooner than I thought.
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers ~ for the fun of it. This was hard to listen to simply because of the heavy dialogue.
  • Complications: a Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande ~ in honor of National Health Month. This was only six cds long so it was a great way to finish out the month.

What else was November about? I got to see a pretty exciting Patriots game thanks to my husband. I also got to stay home alone and read for an entire Sunday thanks to another Patriots game. Staying local for Thanksgiving definitely allowed for more reading time, too.


Lives of the Painters

Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vol. 1. Translated by A.B. Hinds. London: J.M. Dent, 1927.

The Lives of the Painters is about exactly what the title states – biographies of painters and sculptors and architects, beginning with Giovanni Cimabue, a religious painter from Florence, Italy. It’s pretty amazing to think his childhood was like any other normal boy, enthralled with art over school work. I could see him doodling with his bird feather and dye! (Cimabue, 1240 – 1302.) Other artist biographies included Arnolfo Di Lapo (1232 – 1302), a father and son team named Niccola and Giovanni Pisani (1205 – 1328),  Andrea Tafi (1213? – 1294), Gaddo Gaddi (1259 – 1333), Gotto (1216 – 1293?) and on and on.

Disclaimer: Vasari admits that the statements made about some lives are not to be accepted as absolute truth. In fact, many of the footnotes correct Vasari and point out inaccuracies. Interesting. But, not interesting for me to keep reading. I made a decision that any biography that had an inaccuracy didn’t deserve to be read so I skipped a lot. A lot. Another frustrating element to the text is the number of times Vasari says there is more to the story, “but I will not relate it in an effort to avoid being tedious…” Nothing drives me crazier than someone saying “I have something to tell you…oh, never mind!”

Great line, “In short, the latter part of the work is much better or rather less bad than is the beginning, although the whole, when compared with the works of to-day, rather excites laughter than pleasure or admiration” (p 56).

Reason read: October is Art Appreciation month.

Author fact: According to the first volume of Lives of the Painters, Giorgio Vasari was born at Arezzo in 1511 and died in Florence in 1574. It blows my mind I am reading the words of someone who died over 400 years ago.

Book trivia: Lives of the Painters has four volumes. To be honest I cannot imagine reading all four volumes!

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Ciao, Italia” (p 46).