Friday, November 25, 2011

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

Once and a while I have a convergence of events in my life that make a book particularly powerful. Such experiences surround my reading of The Swan Thieves.

First, about the book itself. It is a complex story of love, families, madness, and art. Kostova is what others would probably call a "literary" writer. Her books are enriched with historical, literary, and artistic references. This book, focused on artists, their art, and lives is one I read quite slowly and with great relish. It was a rich reading experience. As a result I will be looking at books of impressionistic art, mythologies of the story of Leda, and reading about the historical period as well. A good book always leads to the reading of others. I am also going to have to reread Lord Jim, a book I read as an undergraduate and The Historian, Kostova's first book and one I enjoyed the first time.

Now, about how my life has conspired to make this book especially powerful to me. In the last few business trips I've taken I've extended my stay by a day or so to do some touring. In each case I have included art museums as part of the tours. Last spring I spent a day at the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida exploring Lewis Comfort Tiffany's works and another day at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. I recommend both, but particularly encourage visits to the Dali Museum. I remember photos of Salvidor and Gala Dali in Life magazine as a child. I thought them extremely weird. Visiting the Dali museum gave me an entirely new understanding of his intellectual depth and the complexity of his art work, beyond the surrealistic pieces for which he is so well known.

This fall, prior to beginning this book, I had the opportunity to spend half a day at the National Gallery of Art. I spend much of my time in the Chester Dale collection and with the Dutch and Flemish galleries. Within the Dale collection I spent much of my time viewing the Impressionists within the collection. As a child, my mother had decorated my bedroom with Degas prints. The art books in my personal library lean heavily toward the Impressionists. (But several of those were inherited from my mother.)

Finally, one of the important pieces of my personal history are the years that my parents were guardians of my mother's cousin. He was a gifted musician who was also mentally ill. His diagnosis was never clear, something like schizophrenia or bi-polar disease. I remembered him as a wild and crazily funny "uncle" who entertained my brothers and me as we visited Lake Okoboji in Iowa. As an adult, caring for a man who was unpredictable wasn't so amusing.

Shortly after my return from D.C. I opened The Swan Thieves. It had been on the stack of books I have anchoring the hall tree. (Actually, my to-read collection.) I had purchased it nearly a year ago but hadn't yet had time to pick it up. It was perfect timing. I'm near the end of the book I'm writing (a book for teachers--not fiction). I felt able to pick up something just a little selfish, even though I need to be reading in advance of teaching a YA lit course this spring.

My last few weeks have been lovely, spent with this book. It is one I can recommend to high school students with strong interests in art, artists, psychology, and history. However, it would be an ambitious read for most high school readers. I have already been talking about it with friends and colleagues. They may feel my stories go on too long, but weaving together my trips to the art galleries and the reading of this book is a story I enjoy retelling.

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