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Last updated: June 30, 1999 - other books may have been reviewed in the daily diary at sff.net.


Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art

Strange coincidence yesterday, and confluence, of art and science. I got my Artemisia book (Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art) from amazon.com yesterday, and was leafing through it looking at the gorgeous pictures -- and lo, there was a picture familiar from not art, but the history of science: four pictures of the Moon, wash drawings done by Galileo through the first astronomical telescope. Which point to a startling critical banana peel slip on the part of Mary Garrard, the book's author.

Artemisia's most well known painting is _Judith Slaying Holofernes_, a brutal gory painting of a muscular woman sawing off a man's head with a sword, while her maidservant holds him down, struggling, blood spraying all over. She did at least five versions of this scene (and the subsequent scene of the two women absconding with the head), and for almost 400 years interpreters have made the obvious connection between this scene and the central trauma in Artemisia's life: she was raped by Augostino Tassi, her father's collaborator and student, and was tortured during her testimony. (Most historians don't know, or relate, that the torture was by request of Artemisia herself, to prove the veracity of her testimony.)

The present volume is very much about that trauma and trial, and the paintings so intimately connected with them. Enter Galileo, stage left.

It turns out that Artemisia knew Galileo, having met him around 1613 at the Medici court where he was sort of hiding out from the Inquisition. The wash drawings of the phases of the Moon date from 1610, and it's not unlikely that Artemisia saw them.

I wonder, though, whether Artemisia knew more about astronomy than Mary Garrard. Garrard thinks that Galileo's pictures are of a lunar eclipse, showing the Earth's shadow on the Moon's roundness, and goes from that to Artemisia's 1635 painting _Judith and Her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes_, where Judith holds her hand up to shade her eyes from a candle, and yes, the shadow does look something like a crescent moon. It looks more like a crescent moon than, say, a lunar eclipse. But then the author goes on to link the painting with the wash drawings with the Medici and, finally, with a letter Artemisia wrote to Galileo 25 years later, asking whether he might lean on his patron Ferdinando II, and make him cough up for a painting.

It reads like a scholar who wants to write a pretty long book but is pretty short on data.

(Nevertheless I do recommend the book to anyone interested in the period. It's full of great pictures, not only by Artemisia, but also anyone else who could possibly have influenced her.)


 

DIXIE CITY JAM by James Lee Burke

Like all his novels about Dave Robicheau, it's a real page-turner, hard to put down. The good and evil constantly at war in Robicheau's character, and his bleak awareness of his own fragility and mortality, make for prime crime fiction.

The other characters, especially the bad guys, tend to be caricatures, but they're carefully drawn and meaningful, like the people in a Moliere satire or a Hogarth cartoon.

The book could have used some closer editing. There's too much repetition, catch phrases repeated over and over, and sometimes even complex rhetorical figures. Twice he describes street scenes as being as devoid of people as a watercolor by Adolph Hitler -- that's not repetition for effect; it's repetition because you had the idea sitting around and forgot you'd used it earlier. I've done it myself. Highly recommended book, though.


 

THE GARDEN OF EDEN by Ernest Hemingway

4 May 98 --

Yesterday I started reading _The Garden of Eden_, the only Hemingway novel I've never read. When it came out 12 years ago, there was a lot of controversy. Hemingway's heirs had allowed Scribner's to carve up the thousand-plus-page manuscript (which Hemingway had specifically said he never wanted published) and paste together a short novel.

I bought it but didn't read past about p. 40. It read like excruciating unintentional self-parody, like late Heinlein. The story, about bizarre sexual role exchange, did not sound at all like Hemingway, and the feeling I got was that the thing's intellectual purpose was postmodern literary character assassination. Beating up on Hemingway. Exposing the lace panties under the he-man jeans.

Well, in a couple of weeks we're going to the Hemingway conference in France, and this novel is going to be the main focus of the event, so at the signing in Albequirky I picked up a copy.

It's not bad. In fact, it's kind of fascinating. I guess I'm over the sense of betrayal and just glad to have a new Hemingway novel, even if it's not as good as the others.

It does have an open-mindedness about sexual roles that is foreign to the rest of EH's ouvre -- and I do mean sex, not gender. Does it reveal anything about EH's life that he wanted to keep hidden? With most writers you'd say aw, that's silly. But most of EH's writing comprised the imaginative reinvention of the events of his life, and he made a big deal about doing extreme things in order to have material to write about. Maybe he got extreme in the bedroom.

A lot of the people at the conference will have read the original manuscript, which is evidently even weirder. (The family won't let you copy it now.) So I'm looking forward to some of the papers with genuine prurient interest.

5 May 98 --

Finished _The Garden of Eden_ today, actually glad to be stranded in a Midas Muffler shop so I could read the rest of it.

There's much to like about it. It does have an element of self-parody, conscious or not, in the resonances with earlier stories (like "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" and "Hills Like White Elephants") which are sometimes distracting, as is the self-consciously layered and ambiguous dialogue, which in his best work is as complex, but better avoids calling attention to itself.

It's a good story on several levels. For anyone who loves writing and women, it's a horror story more frightening than a lot of stories that set out to frighten. Meanwhile it explains and explores the process of writing as only Hemingway can do, and it also explores womanhood -- especially in extremes -- as Hemingway did not do in his other writing.