Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mr. Tiffany, a Pain in the Glass

Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland is one of those books that took me a little while to get immersed in, but after a few chapters, I was hooked. I became totally absorbed in the world of New York City at the turn of the century. We get a taste of both the poverty the newly arrived immigrants experienced in the Lower East Side, and we also see how the other half lived, the mansions of the monied Fifth Avenue crowd. The author has a knack for making the reader feel as he/she is part of the main character's circle of friends and is experiencing the exciting events of that time period. When Clara and her colleagues are confronted with a picket line, it was both nerve-wracking and thrilling.

Vreeland was inspired to write this historical novel after seeing the exhibit, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls, at the New York Historical Society. After undertaking meticulous research on Louis Comfort Tiffany, the culture of New York City during the Gilded Age, and immersing herself in Clara Driscoll's letters, Vreeland proceeded to write a story (one that reflects many of the events mentioned in the letters) about the unsung artistic contributions of the Women's Department in Tiffany Studios. It seems that those beautiful, celebrated leaded-glass lampshades were conceived and designed by Clara Driscoll and not Louis Tiffany! Unfortunately, Clara and her industrious team of women were never given any credit for their achievements. Tiffany probably only initially created the Women's Department because he wouldn't have to worry about them going on strike like the unionized male employees were capable of. Another chauvinistic policy of Tiffany's was that he wouldn't allow married women to work for him.

I ended up caring very much for Clara and her friends. I totally empathized with Clara's frustrations with not having her artistic accomplishments recognized as they should have been. Louis Tiffany is portrayed as a man with many faults. At times he appears capable of breaking out of his prejudices and old fashioned ways of thinking, but he never fully does. I guess that is what makes him a fascinating character.

Friday, May 6, 2011

East Meets West

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
by Helen Simonson

It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a delightful book. Helen Simonson certainly tackles many weighty issues such as discrimination, honor, family relationships, and greed but does so within the framework of a story that is whimsical, laugh-out funny and unforgettable.


Major Pettigrew, 68, is a very proper widower with a wonderful English sense of humor who resides in the quaint village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex. As the novel opens he realizes that the local shopkeeper, Jasmina Ali, is someone he has a lot in common with and that he is attracted to her. Of course, a Pakistani woman is not exactly what his son Roger or the other inhabitants of the village envision for the Major. There is also the matter of a family heirloom, matched Churchill hunting rifles, that the Major is fighting to keep his greedy relatives (including his son)from selling because he feels it symbolizes his family’s stature.

There are lovely romantic scenes, ones that are a testament to the human spirit and those that have marvelous understated humor. The book is also a lesson to never give up on life or love. For those who love the charm of the "Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society", you're in for yet another treat.



A Death in Dublin

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Skippy dies, there is no doubt about this. The title proclaims it and in the first pages of this book Daniel "Skippy" Juster collapses in the local doughnut shop, writing "tell Lori" in the raspberry filling that he manages to squeeze from a jelly doughnut before he expires. The next 600 something pages (it was originally published in three volumes) of this absorbing novel explores what brought Skippy to this end and what happens to those around him after the tragedy.

Set in an all-boy Catholic prep school in contemporary Dublin, the story draws you in to the lives of the teens and teachers who populate the school as they cope with the casual cruelties and deeper tragedies of life. Here you meet Ruprecht, Skippy's roommate, who is "A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem.." and is obsessed with string theory. There is Lori the girl Skippy falls for, a beautiful but troubled girl from the neighboring girl's school and her drug dealing, bullying boyfriend Carl. Howard is an alumni of the school who has returned in disgrace from his job in finance to take up a teaching position and must deal with bored students and a stagnant relationship. Most of all there is Skippy, a seemingly unremarkable, sensitive 14 year old boy who is struggling to get by.

In this complex novel told from multiple viewpoints, Murray beautifully writes not only about the growing pains of adolescence, but also the struggles of adulthood. The characters may appear stereotypical at first, but the author fleshes them out and makes them seem like real people. This challenging book is worth the effort.