Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest

While Modigliani: A Life by Meryle Secrest was not exactly the biography I was looking for, it is an entertaining, educational read that has much to offer both fans of the artist and general readers.

Several years ago I picked up a copy of Becoming Judy Chicago more or less on a whim to discover one of my favorite reads of 2007.  Turns out I enjoy reading critical biographies of artists.  (Finding a new sub-genre you enjoy is one benefit of reading outside your box.)

Ms. Secrest’s book on Modigliani is not really a critical biography.  My loose definition of a critical biography is a book that looks at an artist’s work in an attempt to illuminate how it came to be, to examine how it works, and to evaluate its overall quality.  Of course, much of the artists personal life will be covered but it is not the focus of a critical biography.  Ms. Secrest covers all of Modigiliani’s life which is her main focus.  She does spend plenty of time discussing how he came to be an artist and explaining both how is art works as well as why it is significant, but the life of the man takes precedence.  Hence the title, I suppose.
It’s an interesting life.  If you were one of the many people participating in the recent Paris in July by day-dreaming about being an artist in Paris during the heyday of Monet or Picasso, you will find plenty to enjoy in Modigliani: A Life.   Amedeo Modigliani arrived in Paris from Italy, in the early days of the 20th century.  He lived among the major artists of his day, became friends with Pablo Picasso, was the center of attention in avant-garde social sets, and lived la vie Boheme on nothing a year.   He struggled as a sculptor for years until he found his signature style as a painter.  While he never became rich or famous during his lifetime, he did live to enjoy some success before dying  at the age of 36 from tubercular meningitis.   In Modigliani: A Life you’ll find a rich story of struggles with art, family, women, and day to day existence in Paris of the early 20th century, when the art scene left Montmarte for cheaper quarters in Montparnasse.

Ms. Secrest attempts to correct several aspects of Modigliani’s reputation, namely that he helped bring about his own early death through excessive drink and the use of narcotics.  She builds a strong case.  What struck me most is the idea that he drank as a means to control the symptoms of tuberculosis which he kept secret until just before his death.  His fear that he would have been ostracized by just about everyone if his condition became known was probably correct.

If, like me, you’re looking for information about his paintings, you’ll find it towards the end of Ms. Secrest’s book.  Modigliani was at the height of his skill during the final year of his life.  He had been painting portraits of friends for several years, he worked with anyone who would sit for him without pay because he had no money to hire models, but these did not sell.  In Modigliani’s day, if the sitter didn’t buy the portrait, no one did.  Once he moved on to painting nudes, his work began to sell, and he painted what many argue are his best works.
Like Picasso and many other artists living in Paris at the time, Modigliani was heavily and clearly influenced by the African masks which were beginning to appear on the art market in Europe.  Ms. Secrest writes about the mask like faces in Modigliani’s work:
“The more he (Modigliani) paints individuals the more their particular features fade into the background, and the more faces seem encased in a smooth shell as hard as a carapace.  As Pierre Daix observed, the comparison between Picasso’s revised portrait of Gertude Stein and Modigliani’s mature style is apt.  Modigliani, however, never took his experiments with features further than that. Unlike Picasso, who has already turned his women’s faces into beak-like appendages by the time he is working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Modigliani’s noses stay where they were put, the mouths fall beneath them, there are no double profiles or eyes placed in the middle of foreheads. Picasso’s interest is schematic, to see how far he can rearrange facial features and still have them be recognizable.  Modigliani’s interest is otherwise. He is trying to simplify and reduce to the irreducible minimum the essence of a personality without actually losing it altogether.  The masks of the commedia dell’arte wore, as Pierre Louis wrote in The Italian Comedy, “an indefinable expression as full of possibilities as of impossibilities, like the Mona Lisa, which every generation interprets differently.” Modigliani’s self-imposed challenge, to see how far he could venture into abstraction without ending in either anonymity or caricature, must be one of the most difficult any artist since the Renaissance has attempted.”

So why is Modigliani not held in the high esteem less able painters like Picasso are or recognized alongside the great painters of his generation like Matisse?  Ms. Secrest blames three major culprits.  The first is the author’s own personal reputation.  Modigliani’s private life was one of near complete chaos which gave him a lasting bad reputation deserved or not.  Second, because his work is so easy to fake and because he did not keep accurate records of the work he did, he became one of the  most frequently counterfeited artists of the 20th century.  For a long time, there was really no way to be sure you were buying a Modigliani.  Finally, his artwork itself worked against a lasting reputation.  Because Modigliani worked to create his own signature style, he was not included in the early narrative of 20th century art.  He is neither a cubist nor an abstract painter nor does he fit within any other school of art.  His work stands outside the rest and was often left out of the early histories of 20th century art as a result.

Fans of Modigliani, like myself, can hope that as more and more people begin to see how inferior Picasso’s work is to that of Matisse, that other excellent painters like Modigliani will be given their due.  Ms. Secrest’s book is a step in the right direction.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., I remain a fan of Modigliani, but I’ve become a devote of Henri Matisse.  Fortunately, we don’t have to pick one or the other, we can enjoy them all.

Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.

Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe by William Rosen

Some things I learned from reading William Rosen’s book Justinian’s Flea:

  • Justinian I was as unlikely to become emperor as Theodora was to become empress.
  • Theodora really did work in a brothel, most likely, but she had retired prior to meeting Justinian in her early twenties. That bit about covering herself in seed and letting a small flock of geese peck it all off was probably just a rumor, though.
  • Justinian I and Theodora really were in profound love with each other though he was old enough to be her father.  The two were the ultimate power couple, acting as co-rulers much of the time.
  • Justinian outlived Theodora by many years, Neither died of the plague.
  • The plague outbreak can be blamed for the ultimate decline of the Roman Empire.
  • The flea has evolved into hundreds, maybe thousands of different species, many of the specialized and specific to a single animal.  Dog fleas are not rat fleas.
  • Rabbit fleas do not lay eggs unless their host is pregnant.  They leap to the newborn rabbits once everyone is born.
  • Though they may prefer one species, fleas will leap to another if no other host is available.
  • What the Bible calls “leprosy” is almost certainly not Hansen’s disease.  It’s probably psoriasis or eczema.
  • While what the Bubonic Plague does to humans is terrible, what it does to the fleas that carry the Yersina Pestis virus is even more horrifying.

The actual plague makes up only a small portion of Justinian’s Flea, which was a bit disappointing for me since that was my main interest in picking up the book.  Mr. Rosen spends most of his book on the life and work of Justinian.  It’s an interesting life, to say the least and his work is darn impressive too.  While there were a few chapters that I skimmed, I’m not all the interested in the details of Justinian’s Code for example, I enjoyed most of the book quite a bit.

And learned a lot from reading it, too.


American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen

Did Lincoln free the slaves, or did the slaves free themselves?

A high school history teacher friend of mine recently asked me this question while explaining the new writing program she’s using in her tenth grade U.S. history class.  In the program, students are given a set of historical documents to read, discuss and draw conclusions about in essay form.

The point of the activity is not to reach a pre-determined correct answer but to produce a quality piece of writing with a well-reasoned argument based on historical evidence like historians.

Sounds like a great class.  But the question bothered me.  I think the Emancipation Proclamation has been long under-rated.  Any cursory look at the document will reveal that it frees very few people, but cursory looks reveal very little.  Lincoln was fighting to uphold a Union based on a constitution.  This meant following the rulings of the Supreme Court  which had ruled slaves were property, without rights, in the Dred Scott decision.  Roger Taney, the chief justice who wrote that decision still had the power to over-rule Lincoln.  The Union Lincoln was fighting to preserve included four boarder states that allowed slavery.  Should Lincoln free the slaves, even if he had the authority which the Dred Scott ruling said he did not, he risked losing those four states to the Confederacy thereby losing the war.  The Emancipation Proclamation, while it did not end slavery immediately, was an act that crossed the Rubicon.  There was no way slavery could last afterwards.  Win the war and in a few years slavery would end nationwide.  Frederick Douglas said as much himself.

You can see that I’m a Lincoln fanboy.

Even if we set aside the  question of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the question of the slaves freeing themselves remains.  How can slaves themselves bring about an end to slavery?  Don’t the people in power have to agree to give up that power?  Doesn’t that make them the only ones who could have ended slavery?

Daniel Rasmussen’s book, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, provides a case study explaining just how the slaves themselves brought about an end to slavery.  Decades before the Civil War, long before the Nat Turner slave revolt, several hundred slaves took up arms against their masters, burned down the plantations where they were kept and marched on the city of New Orleans.  Although their revolt was eventually put down, it is one among many actions that led to the end of slavery in America.

This revolt is almost completely forgotten today.  Those who put down the revolt made sure they got to write the history books.  This means there is little documentation for Mr. Rasmussen to draw on for American Uprising, not enough for a book devoted to the revolt.   So Mr. Rasmussen fills out his book with background on slavery and slave revolts in America.  Unable to describe in detail the lives of the revolt’s leaders,  Mr. Rasmussen provides a general overview of the slave trade, the conditions faced by slaves in America, and the successful slave revolt in Haiti which came to represent the greatest fear and hope for Americans in the slave holding southern states.

In the end, American Uprising is a good primer on slavery in America.  A highly readable 200 pages, American Uprising provides a solid general background on a shameful chapter on American history.  The details and documentation that would have provided the information necessary for a book length account of this slave revolt are lost to history, but Mr. Rasmussen has done a good job rescuing this story and bringing it to our attention.

I think it would make a fine addition to any tenth grade history class.  My high school history teacher friend agrees.  She’ll plans on using American Uprising with her students next year.

Full Disclosure:  I received a advanced review copy of American Uprising from the publishers.  It’s been on my TBR shelf for several months.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., several years ago.  Since then the tenor of discussion about slavery in America has changed greatly, for the better in my opinion.  We’re not looking at “The South” or at slavery in the same way.  The “noble lost cause” reading of the Civil War has come into question and been discarded by a growing number of historians.  There is even serious talk of reparations, thanks to writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates.   Anyone looking for a good overall background on slavery in America, especially people like me who were taught that the Civil War was the result of unfair tariffs, would do well to pick up a copy of American Uprising.  

But she was woman; he was dog.  Mrs. Browning went on reading.  Then she looked at Flush again.  But he did not look at her.  An extraordinary change had come over him.  “Flush!” she cried.  But he was silent.  He had been alive; he was now dead.  That was all.  The drawing-room table, strangely enough, stood perfectly still.

Ending to Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

This is the first time I’ve ever started a review with the closing lines of the book.  Before accuse me of ‘spoiling’ hear me out.  If you are a reader of dog stories, then you know that all dog stories are sad stories because they all have the same ending.  The protagonist always outlives the dog.  Many people refuse to read dog stories for this very reason.

But note the complete lack of sentimentality in Ms. Woolf’s ending, “He had been alive; he was now dead.  That was all.”  No one could ever accuse Virginia Woolf of sentimentality.  In its way, Flush is a dog story for people who hate dog stories.

Flush entered Elizabeth Barret’s life several years before she met Robert Browning.  At the time she was an invalid and would remain bedridden for several years.  Flush immediately bonded with her, sleeping on the rug at her feet throughout the day, though Ms. Woolf would have us believe he longed to roam the countryside.  Fortunately for Flush he would survive multiple dog-nappings, a common crime in Victorian London, to spend several years in the Italian countryside after Elizabeth Barrett met and married Robert Browning.  It’s difficult to imagine a spaniel that wouldn’t thrive in the Italian countryside, but Flush did pay a price for his freedom.  Upon his return to England he was so infested with flees that he had to be shaved, losing his thick golden coat forever.

Add Virginia Woolf’s prose style to this dog story and you end up with a strange little book.  Virginia Woolf said that she found Flush mentioned in several of Ms. Barrett-Browning’s letters as well as in a poem she wrote about him.  Ms. Woolf became fascinated with the dog and decided to take a break from her more serious work to write a biography of him.  She was close friends with Lynton Stratchy and may have been working in response to his successful book of short biographies Eminent Victorians.    If you need a break from more serious stuff, like Ms. Woolf did after finishing The Waves, Flush: A Biography may be the book for you.  Think of it as an aperitif to savor in the glow a a fine meal.

Since I began with the ending, I’ll finish with the beginning:

It is universally admitted that the family from which the subject of this memoir claims descent is one of the greatest in antiquity.

Opening to Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in August of 2010.  I read Flush because of mentions on other book blogs.  That year, for some reason, I kept running into reviews of Flush. While it wasn’t the big book of the year, for some reason it enjoyed a minor blip of fame, an extra 2 and a half minutes of attention.  I remember enjoying the book.  I do like that ending.  That’s the way to go.  Peacefully sitting in a comfortable room, glancing one last time at the person you’ve loved all your life.  “He had been alive; now he was dead.  That was all.”  That is some darn good writing, right there.  

Noah Webster: a Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef

noah websterI needed to read a biography.  This semester I  invited my students to play “Book Bingo” with their reading.  Everyone has a “Book Bingo” card glued into their English journal.  Each time you finish a book, you check off a corresponding Book Bingo square.  Up to three bingoes earn extra credit and anyone who completes a blackout by June 4 is entered into a prize drawing.

To help build enthusiasm for the game, I’m playing along.  Which is why I needed to read a biography, read one biography and I’d have my first bingo.

Normally, I don’t read many biographies, but that’s part of the point with Book Bingo, to get students to try types of books they might not otherwise try.  Reading teachers do this a lot.  I’m separating reading teachers from English teachers here because it’s not quite the same thing–lots of us are really both by the way.  In my career, I’ve assigned genres to the entire class at times, reading mystery novels to make “book reports in a bag” was always a favorite.  Read a mystery, put five “clues” (objects) in a bag and present a “report” to the class on the objects in your bag.  It’s an extensive show-and-tell, but it was always fun.

So, I’m playing Book Bingo which means I have to read books I might not otherwise read, like biographies which led me to Noah Webster: A Man of Many Words by Catherine Reef.  Recommended by my school librarian who said “Sometimes I buy books for myself.”  I know the feeling.  I think all reading teachers have a few titles we’ve been trying to convince our students are as wonderful as we think they are.  It took me years to get anyone to read Emily Cheville Nevil’s It’s Like This Cat because the cover was so dated and I could never describe the story in a way that made middle schoolers want to read it. After years of trying I finally did get a few to read it–they loved it.

In a long, very round-about way, this is sort of what happened to Noah Webster.  He spent many years trying to get people interested in the book he was writing, finally did get some people to read it….no that’s not going to work.  Try again.

Come Monday morning, when we all record what we read during our vacation week on our Book Bingo cards and I check off biography, my students will all want to know if I liked the book.  Maybe they should read it?


Maybe it’s the nature of Noah Webster’s life.  He lived a long time, struggled to be successful in publishing; worked to make the new country he lived in better than it was; believed in the power of words, American words in particular, as a unifying force.  While there is a good story in there, it’s not really one that has much appeal for 12-year-olds.

Though I can see why it would be popular with librarians.


Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel by Edmund White

Athur Rimbaud made a splash on the Paris literary scene, became a scandal, destroyed Paul Verlaine’s marriage, revolutionized French poetry and left it all for an obscure post in Northern Africa before the age of 21.

At age 16 he sent a few poems to Paul Verliane, already the leading figure in French poetry.  Verlaine was so taken with them he sent word to Rimbaud, “Come, dear great soul. We await you; we desire you,” along with a one-way train ticket.  Rimbaud was an instant sensation, more for his character, or lack there-of, than for his poetry.  He was the talk of the town and then the one the town refused to talk to.  Paul Verlaine fell head-over-heals in love with him.  The two lived openly as lovers, in spite of Verlaine’s marriage and in spite of the anti-homosexual laws of 19th century France.  In disfavor with most of Paris, the two travelled to London where they tried to survive as language tutors and where Rimbaud wrote some of his major works including A Season in Hell and Illuminations.  Their London stay ended badly, an argument got out of hand and Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist.  Rimbaud survived, but he left Verlaine and abandoned poetry altogether.

Rimbaud never saw the profound effect his poetry had on French literature, nor did he ever see any fame from his work.  At one point he tried to have all of his writing destroyed.  Verlaine, who remained devoted to Rimbaud all his life, published his poetry long after their separation, once Paris had had time enough to forget how hated Rimbaud had become.  Rimbaud’s poetry was a success; his reputation and influence have only grown since his death at age 36.  Today, he enjoys a secure place in the cannon of French literature and a strong cult following.

Edmund White is his biggest fan.

Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel is an informative biography but it’s also a love letter.  Mr. White discovered Rimbaud in school, when he was a lonely student, looking to find a place in the world.  It’s easy to see why Arthur Rimbaud would inspire Mr. White.  Many teenagers see themselves as outsiders, gay teenagers especially so.  In Rimbaud, young Edmund White found a kindred spirit.  In his poetry he found inspiration.

In spite of his love for Rimbaud, Mr. White’s biography is clear-eyed and honest.  He doesn’t sugar-coat any of the details, nor treat his subject with kid gloves.  Rimbaud was a horrible person. He may have been guided by a vision of literary greatness, but he was not a nice guy to be around.  Paul Verlaine paid a very heavy price for his affair with the young poet.

Mr. White’s biography is in part a reading memoir, by which I mean an account of what it was like to read Rimbaud.  It’s here that Mr. White is free to justifiably gush over his subject.  It’s also here that Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel is most fun to read.  I doubt anyone will end up loving Rimbaud the man as a result of Mr. White’s book, but I do suspect I’m not the only one who’ll give Rimbaud’s poetry a try because of this biography.
I knew of Rimbaud and Verlaine before reading Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel but I’d never read any of his poetry beyond the poem about the vowels and their colors that often finds its way into school textbooks.  I consider it a testament to Mr. White’s book that it made me want to read Rimbaud’s poetry.  I did and it’s amazing.  I can see why the young Edmund White fell in love with the author of The Drunken Boat.

Enough tears! Dawns break hearts.
Every moon is wrong, every sun bitter:
Love’s bitter bite has let me swollen, drunk with heat.
Let my hull burst!  Let me sink into the sea!

If I still long for Europe’s waters, it’s only for
One cold black puddle where a child crouches
Sadly at its brink and releases a boat,
Fragile as a May butterfly, into the fragrant dusk,

Bathed in your weary waves, I can no longer ride
In the wake of cargo ships of cotton,
Nor cross the pride of flags and flames,
Nor swim beneath the killing stares of prison ships.

I’ve only a vague idea what Rimbaud is talking about, but I’m with him.  I’ll drink the absinthe.  Sign me up Mr. White, I’m buying his complete poems. 

For more on Paul Verlaine see the wonderful posts at Wuthering Expectations here.


Since first publishing this review in 2010 I remain a big fan of Arthur Rimbaud.  I’ve read Season in Hell several times.  It’s wonderful, but I still would not spend time with the poet.  What a jerk.