Tag Archives: HarperCollins

Madonnas and memory

April 8, 2015

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Raphael's The Conestabile Madonna

Raphael’s The Conestabile Madonna

Lessons in history and humanity plus drama, unconditional love and insight into one of the most difficult to understand of all diseases — Alzheimer’s — make Debra Dean’s “The Madonnas of Leningrad” a superb, satisfying read.

There’s a sampling of an art appreciation class, too, and brief, maybe too brief snatches of modern family dynamics. But those glimpses into contemporary life form the perfect background to better contrast with the values of the Russians who survived — and even those who didn’t survive — the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Da Vinci’s The Litta Madonna

With the war there is starvation and death and ruin, to be sure, but tremendous self sacrifice, too, and life, life so valued, life so amazing, captured so well in one scene, where women who have survived the siege learn that the story’s protagonist, Marina, is expecting and, after a winter of death, line up to touch her stomach and to feel the baby kick in her womb.

A tremendous sense of irony pours from the pages. In the godless Soviet Union the invaluable art collection of the Hermitage Museum, including precious images of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child, is crated and trucked away to be saved from ruin or confiscation by the approaching German army.

At the suggestion of another Hermitage tour guide, young Marina, who later in life cannot remember the names of her own family members, commits to memory of all these wonderful madonnas — the Rubens, the da Vinci, the van Dyck, the Rembrandt and more — storing in her “memory palace” not only the details of the works and the stories they tell but even where they hung on the walls of the czar’s former Winter Palace.

It’s an act of mutual benefit. Not only does Marina save the memory of the art to share with those who may never have the chance to see them, but doing so gives her a reason to live, to survive at a time when bombs, cold, starvation and illness take the lives of thousands during the siege.

van Dyck

van Dyck’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

And, while this isn’t an outwardly religious novel, as the situation worsens for those freezing, starving, cowering from the bombs and removing the corpses of those who die each day, even a strict non-believer decides a little prayer couldn’t hurt.

“The Madonnas of Leningrad” is not a new book. Published in 2006, it garnered a number of honors. But as timely as the topic of Alzheimer’s is, you would think someone would make a movie of this terrific story.

If you choose to read the book — and even if you don’t — you’ll find images of some of the famous works of art named within at this website, along with excerpts of how they were described in the book. Start googling the paintings and you could lose several hours of your day!

Dean also mentions the Jordan Staircase in her novel. Here’s why:

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

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‘Gutenberg’s Apprentice’ a superb novel

November 25, 2014

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Gutenbergs ApprenticePrinting history and church history mesh to make for compelling reading in the terrific first novel of Alix Christie, “Gutenberg’s Apprentice.”

Protagonist Peter Schoeffer is the apprentice of the title, and there’s no fiction there: Schoeffer was Gutenberg’s apprentice in the 1450s as the German’s workshop developed moveable type and used it to print 180 copies of the Bible.

The fictional story comes from Ms. Christie’s imagination, but there’s hearty research behind the tale, particularly when it comes to the details of printing and the hurdles that elements of the church put in Gutenberg’s way. Interdicts on dioceses and conflicts between archbishops and religious communities are fact and a dark part of church history.

Gutenberg gets credit for combining the various elements needed for mass production of printed matter. He pulled together dozens of ideas and technological advances systematically, including the creation of metal type, ink and the press itself. But in the novelist’s hands the much-lauded inventor, talented as he is, is schizophrenic. One moment he’s praising his apprentice for his marvelous gifts and telling the tradesmen in his workshop that he couldn’t have printed his Bible without them, and the next he’s taking all the credit, declaring that he did it all alone and needed no one’s help.

Through Schoeffer, who in real life went on to become one of the first publishers of note in Europe, Christie presents a spiritual element to the process that brought about not just the first printed Bible but an invention that was key to the Renaissance and often named as the greatest invention of all time.

Christie’s  Schoeffer sees his part in the drama as one divinely led, that God has placed him in his time and his place to use the gifts he’s been given to be a part of this amazing fete that will change life on earth.

“You always did think that you had some private pact with God,” a life-long acquaintance charges Gutenberg’s apprentice.

Author Christie answers for her story’s hero: Of course. How could he not. . . . How could he have understood his own life otherwise?

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