Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reading List

Just wanted to comment on two books I've read recently.

The first is a the Hayden Herrera biograpy of Frida Kahlo. Like Sylvia Plath, Frida attracts lots of mythologizing. But Herrera is solid, a scholar who has written widely about art, and while her prose has moments of dryness, she ultimately does an amazing job of giving us a sense of Kahlo as a person.

And what a person she was. We all know she was lovely, talented, a stylish dresser who suffered terrible physcial griefs. We know she loved Diego Rivera hopelessly (and God, was he a spoiled boy.) But I had no idea she was so bright. Here was a woman who spoke English fluently and read widely, writing to a friend at one point about the wonderful book she was reading: War and Peace.

The book offers numerous photographs of Kahlo and her work, which is no less stunning in paperback-sized black and white.

I couldn't help reading it and wondering how a personality like Kahlo's would exist today. Would she have kicked Diego to the curb in a feminist rage? Written a blog? Made art using photoshop? Would we, the public, have recognized her unique greatness amidst the sea of mediocrity passing for public culture?

I'd like to think so. I'd like to think people would flock to her today as they did in 1950, and leave Paris Hilton out in the cold, shivering and talentless in her short skirts.

I'm getting my knickers in a twist and it's only Tuesday. Never mind. Let's talk about the other book, Andrea Lee's Lost Hearts in Italy. You'll have to order the book, as this writer is so undersung that even the independents don't carry her.

I got my first taste of Lee in the New Yorker, which published "Brothers and Sisters around the World", a short story from the collection "Interesting Women."

Lee is an African-American who lives in Italy. Here is an interview with her, courtesy of the Random House publicity machine.

Her point-of-view--African American, foreigner in an ancient, heavily coded culture--informs her work and takes us places we would otherwise never go. At least, I woudn't. Lee has the rare, wry insight of a writer who has lived far from home for a long time, becoming privy to another culture while remaining outside it to some degree. And though the interview above calls her work a sort of Sex and the City for the literary set, I find that reductive. Lee's writing has infintely more depth than SATC. (Full disclosure: I loathe that show. I find it unrealistic and stupid.)

Lost Hearts is the story of Mira Ward, an African-American girl who follows her white husband to Rome and becomes involved in an affair with the much older, wealthy Zenin. The affair destroys her marriage and leaves lasting scars on all three people. Flashing back and forth in time, moving fluidly amongst the three characters and a few observers, this is the sort of book that you ride along on, lulled by the beauty of the sentences while marveling at her talent. For example:

"And she knows that some part of her does belong to Zenin. And a part to Nick as well. As we always belong forever to people who have hurt us badly, or been badly hurt by us." (7)

There are no drawings, invented quotes, or characters named Andrea Lee in the book. It's just (just!) an old-fashioned novel, elegant, perfectly structured, evocative, moving. In an alternate universe, this book would be on the NYT bestseller list instead of the garbage below.....

The New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list as of 9/17/06
Hardcover Fiction

Week Last
Week Weeks
On List
1 THE BOOK OF FATE, by Brad Meltzer. (Warner, $25.99.) The apparent murder of a presidential aide reveals Masonic secrets in Washington and a 200-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson.
2 RISE AND SHINE, by Anna Quindlen. (Random House, $24.95.) The lives of two sisters, one the host of a television show and the other a social worker. 1 2
3 DARK CELEBRATION, by Christine Feehan. (Berkley, $23.95.) Carpathians from around the world join together to oppose their enemies' plot to kill all Carpathian women. 1
4 JUDGE & JURY, by James Patterson and Andrew Gross. (Little, Brown, $27.99.) An aspiring actress and an F.B.I. agent join forces against a powerful mobster. 2 6
5 RICOCHET, by Sandra Brown. (Simon & Schuster, $25.95.) A detective is attracted to a judge's wife who he also suspects is not telling the truth about a fatal shooting.



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