Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Amidst the Shadows of Trees, by Miriam M. Brysk

Miriam M. Brysk. Amidst the Shadows of Trees: A Holocaust Child's Survival in the Partisans. East Stroudsburg, PA: Gihon River Press, 2013. 142 pages. ISBN 9780981990699.

Miriam Brysk escaped the Lida ghetto with her parents in 1942, joining Jewish and Polish partisans in forest brigades. Children and women were not generally welcome in the forests, but Miriam and her mother had a special status because Miriam's father was a surgeon whose skills were highly valued. In Amidst the Shadows of Trees, Miriam recounts how at the age of four, the German army invaded Poland and began to attack Warsaw, where she lived with her parents. They moved to Lida, which was in the Russian-occupied part of Poland, where they lived for the next three years. In 1941, though, the Germans attacked Russia, and Lida became a prison for them and many other Jews. As the violence escalated, it became apparent that they would need to leave Lida if they were to survive.

At the age of eight, living in the forest and hiding from Nazi soldiers, Miriam was issued her own pistol. She recounts those years with detachment, telling of the dangers that existed for unattached women and even girls such as her. Hunger was a constant, as was the cold, damp, and mosquitos, since their camp and hospital were located on an island in the middle of a swamp. In 1944, they were liberated by the Russian army, and their long trek to the United States began. Living at times in displaced persons camps in Russia, Hungary, Romania, and Italy, they were finally able to secure entry visas into the United States. Miriam's accounts tell of the difficulties catching up in school, since she had not been able to attend school at all in her life. Ultimately, she did very well for herself, earning a graduate degree and working as a scientist researching cancer therapies. She fought depression her whole life, finding strength in her family, her research, and her art. (One of her works is used as the cover illustration.)

I found this book interesting and inspiring. I recommend it to anyone interested in Holocaust or war memoirs.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Taking Root in Provence, by Anne-Marie Simons

Anne-Marie Simons. Taking Root in Provence. Waitsfield, VT: Distinction Press, 2011. 208 pages. ISBN 9780980217575.

Taking Root in Provence is a collection of short vignettes about the author's experiences settling in Provence and getting to know her new neighborhood and culture. Author Anne-Marie Simons retired with her husband, Oscar, and spent some time travelling before settling down in the town Aix-en-Provence, France. Simons writes about the weather, shopping, holidays, art, language, food, wine, and more. As I read through the short three to four page chapters, it occurred to me that they read like a series of blog posts, which indeed, they were originally.

While I enjoyed reading each of the short essays, I think they could have been better integrated into a narrative that tells Simons' story about moving to and living in Aix-en-Provence. For example, the chapters jump from one topic to another: spring, Easter, Cezanne, two chapters on language, the influx of Gypsies in spring, etc. Rather than publish all of the anecdotes jumbled together, it might have helped to have some transitions that tie the story together.

I was also slightly put off by the author's complete dismissal of contemporary French literature; she reported about one year's new publications, "Many of these books were written by sour-looking youngsters or by pseudo intellectuals who invite us to crawl into their beds and partake of their sex lives which, they seem to think, is really worth knowing about" (p. 30). Really, is that how you sum up the entire publishing output of your newly-adopted country? Another false note was Ms. Simons' reference to the "village idiot" (p. 130) in an anecdote about a small town she visited. I wonder why she wasn't able to come up with a better term than that one?

Nevertheless, Taking Root in Provence contains many pleasant, short essays about all aspects of life in the author's new environs. Aside from the two passages to which I objected above, I enjoyed reading about her new life and experiences. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys armchair travelling.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York

Mike and I visited Glens Falls, New York this past Saturday. What brought us there was a chance to visit the Hyde Collection, an amazing private collection of European and American fine and decorative art.

Glens Falls is located about fifty miles north of Albany. It was a nice day for a drive, although rain was predicted for later in the afternoon. The Hyde Collection was created by Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, and her husband, Louis Fiske Hyde. It's housed in the family's mansion, one of three that were built on adjoining properties overlooking the Hudson River so that the Charlotte and her sisters could live near each other. Modern galleries have been added on to the mansion; these contain changing exhibits. When we visited there was a collection of Ansel Adams' early works, along with other early photography. There was also a collection of landscapes called "Winter Light: Selections from the Collection of Thomas Clark." This included about 20 paintings of winter scenes in which the light on snow and clouds was particularly interesting and beautiful. The permanent collection includes paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso, Winslow Homer, Van Gogh, Thomas Eakins, Degas, and many more. It's amazing to see these painting displayed in such comfortable, homey settings. I particularly enjoyed seeing the furniture and other decorative works, much of which was imported from Europe.

We had worked up an appetite visiting the Hyde Collection, so on the recommendation of the receptionist we drove back to Glen Street to have lunch at the Gourmet Café. They offered a typical diner menu, and I settled for a Greek Steak salad and Mike had meatball sliders. One of the things that I haven't gotten used to here is the availability of alcohol in restaurants like this. Many small restaurants and diners offer a full bar, or at least wine and beer. Not what we were used to in Pennsylvania! Not that I'm complaining... However, since we were driving, and had plans for later, we decided to forgo alcohol for coffee and soda.

Next to the Gourmet Café was Poor Richard's antiques. It's a standard-sized storefront jam-packed with two floors of antiques. We had a nice time looking at the furniture, glassware, pottery, and other items. I was tempted by a pair of giraffe-shaped lamps, but resisted. We did end up buying a cat-shaped creamer and a turkey platter, something that I'd been on the lookout for.

I recommend a visit to Glens Falls and the Hyde Collection!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2012. 307 pages. ISBN 9780060885618.

Billy Lynn is on a whirlwind tour of the United States during a two-week leave from the Iraq War. He has survived a fierce battle that was filmed and widely televised, and now he has to survive the media storm during his leave. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk tells the story of his last day in the U.S. before he's shipped back to the front. He's had his two-day visit with his family, and now has to spend his last day (Thanksgiving) participating in the halftime events of a Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.

The day is full of photo ops and meet-and-greets, and the Bravo Squad members are the focus of everyone's attention. They meet the Cowboy's owners, the famous cheerleaders, and share (briefly) the halftime stage with Destiny's Child. Throughout the day they're bombarded with questions about the war and cheered on by the many supporters of the war. They're repeatedly asked to affirm the U.S.'s right to be fighting the war in Iraq, with many of their fans pointing to "nina leven" as the reason we're fighting there.

Because Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk was a finalist for the National Book Award, I had high expectations for it, and it didn't disappoint. The writing is very good and the characters are well-drawn. The book evokes strong emotion when Billy struggles with his indecision about returning to the war. One of his sisters is encouraging him to refuse to go back; her biggest fear is that he won't make it home again. While Billy is tempted by the fantasy of staying home, it's clear that this isn't really a possibility, as he would never leave his new family, the members of Bravo Squad. I recommend this book to anyone who likes contemporary fiction rooted in today's world events.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Williamstown, Massachusetts

Mike and I recently spent a Saturday in Williamstown, Massachusetts, a small, college town that's only 45 miles from our home in Albany. What drew us to Williamstown was the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, home of an excellent collection of European and American painting, sculpture, drawings, and decorative art from the Renaissance through the early 20th century.

Unfortunately, the museum is under renovation so only a small portion is currently open to the public. Three rooms of paintings, sculpture, and decorative items are on display at the Stone Hill Center, another building on the Clark Institute property (you have to drive past the main buildings and keep going up the hill where you will find the Center). However, even those three rooms showcased the excellence of this collection. From Renaissance paintings to works by Monet and Renoir, the collection includes a wide swath of European artists. American artists include John Singer Sargent, Frederic Remington, George Inness, and Mary Stevenson Cassatt. I look forward to visiting the Clark Institute again when the renovations are complete, after July 4. More information can be found at:

The Williams College Museum of Art is also worth a visit. Current exhibitions include paintings and drawings by Monika Baer, a contemporary Berlin artist; and photography by Zanele Muholi, a South African photographer documenting the LGBT community in South Africa and other African countries. The permanent collection includes a few Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts, as well as two large Assyrian wall panels. The Williams College Museum of Art is free and open to the public. More information can be found at:

Williamstown also has an excellent independent book store. Water Street Books presents an attractive and comfortable atmosphere for browsing either the latest fiction or stimulating non-fiction. It has an inviting children's section, and also serves as the Williams College book store, so you can find school supplies, textbooks, and Williams College apparel there as well.

Mike and I are fond of antique stores, so we were happy to see an antique store in a small shopping center called "Shops at the Library". They have a nice collection of art deco bookends, although the price ranges were not in our ballpark ($350-$850). We're more in the under $30 range! More information can be found at:

Finally, we stopped at the Sushi Thai Garden Restaurant and had a great lunch. Mike had a sushi lunch box, and I had my old standby: pad thai. Very nice! Check them out at:

All in all, a great Saturday!

Friday, March 7, 2014

The World of the Bible, by Roberta L. Harris

Harris, Roberta L. The World of the Bible. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995. 192 pages. ISBN 0500050732.

I have long been interested in the archaeology and history of the ancient Mediterranean lands. The World of the Bible is an excellent introduction to the history of ancient Israel and Judah, and parts of what are now Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Roberta Harris tells this story chronologically, describing the lands around ancient Israel and how they developed over the millennia.

Harris discusses the development of both Judaism and Christianity as religions and the growth of Israel and Judah as political entities. The many struggles with invaders from other lands, such as the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols, and Turks, are also discussed.

The only drawback is that this book is now 20 years old and there have been many developments in those years that clarified some of the issues Harris discussed (e.g., the size and extent of David's and Solomon's respective kingdoms).
One of this book's strengths is the significant number of illustrations, including photographs, drawings, diagrams, charts, etc., many of which are in color. They are particularly useful in helping the reader imagine the geography of the countryside or layout of a town or village. I recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient Mediterranean studies.