Summer Reading for Historians

Yes, we are all ecstatic that the semester is over.  For those history grad students pondering the link between history and fiction/literature (shout out to Derrida), here are a few non-history tomes to keep the juices flowing over the summer.

As a blanket statement, all historians should read War and Peace.  In 1869, Tolstoy published his rumination on the nature of history.  Believing that history belonged to the people, not just generals, politicians, and kings, Tolstoy was basically trying to write a social history – comparing the life of the military with the life of the civilian.  His humanizing portrayals of the tsar, Napoleon, and the Russian generals will forever alter your perceptions of those folks.  I know W&P can be scary, so our other 5 books are perfectly manageable.

1.  Babel Tower – AS Byatt.  For the linguists in the crowd, Babel Tower explores themes of language.  The third book in the Frederica Potter quadrilogy has our intrepid heroine forging a life for herself in the intellectual circles of 1960s London.  Gender and women’s historians will enjoy the re-creation of the limited choices intelligent women had during that time and can debate how much has changed since.  You don’t need to read the other books in the quadrilogy to understand this book.  The Frederica Potter quadrilogy is a rarity in literature, with its headstrong, generally unsympathetic heroine who makes some horrible choices but never compromises her intellect.

2.  The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood.  Any Atwood is worth reading.  Historians may be more familiar with Alias Grace or The Blind Assassin.  Again for the ladies in the crowd, I will merely quote the blurb on the back:  “Ever since her engagement, the strangest thing has been happening to Marian McAlpin:  she can’t eat. … Marian ought to feel consumed with passion, but she really just feels … consumed.”

3.  Cycles-The Science of Prediction – Edward Dewey.  Economists typically study this book.  Humanities folks may be a bit overwhelmed by the formulas and graphs.  You can skip those pieces.  The key point is that human behavior/events occur in predictable cycles.  Yes, history repeats itself.  You may disagree with Dewey, but his arguments and evidence are fascinating.

4.  A Summer of Hummingbirds – Christopher Benfey.  That’s right.  Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Harriet Beecher Stowe all moved in the same circles.  Benfey’s book is part biography, part analysis of the creative process, and part social history.  He explores the impact of post-Civil War life on American art and artists.  Learn how artists incorporated their lives into their works.

5.  Speak, Memory – Vladimir Nabokov.   A classic of Russian pseudo-biography, Nabokov actively explores how we remember and recreate memories in this memoir of his childhood and early adult years.  Nabokov explains how he uses his fiction to memorialize people but is concerned that his personal memories slip away after he has fictionalized someone.  Make sure you get the Everyman’s Library edition with the extra Chapter 16.  Nabokov writes a review of Speak, Memory in the voice of a literary critic.



The Art of Cemeteries

Cemeteries aren’t the first place that springs to mind when looking for art, especially nowadays when tombstone design is expensive.  Finding stonecutters can also be problematic.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, renowned architects and sculptures did create works to memorialize a client or themselves.  These memorials were also a way to show that a family was prominent and deserved respect even in death.  Each cemetery can restrict the type of monuments or memorials allowed.  The art in Bohemian National Cemetery and Rosehill Cemetery reflect their founders intellectual and artistic beliefs.

Born from a battle where the Catholic relative of free thinkers was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery, Bohemian National maintains an inclusive attitude towards memorials, tombstones, and mausoleums.  The memorials contain examples of limestone statuary, photography, Art Deco imagery, and Chicago Cubs logos.

The limestone trees are the most striking memorials in Bohemian National.

Each tree is unique, although certain symbols are repeated.  A cluster of houbys appears at the bottom.  The bent branch references a life ended.  The oak leaves symbolize strength.

The mausoleums tend to reference Art Deco.  The most famous person buried at Bohemian National is buried in one such mausoleum:  Anton Cermak, the mayor of Chicago assassinated in 1933.

The torch imagery references a life snuffed out, as well as an eternal flame.  Bohemian National is replete with dual life/death images.   Clasped hands can mean “together forever” or “good-bye”.  A broken branch means a life cut short, but oak leaves and acorns symbolize life.

Porcelain ceramic photographs are also prominent on Bohemian National tombstones.  As long as the photographs are not broken, they withstand the elements quite well – better than the limestone statues.

Rosehill is a bit more staid.  Developed by Masons, Rosehill does contain its share of obelisks, including the legendary John Wentworth memorial.  If he could have created a monument larger than the Washington Memorial, he probably would have.

The sculptor Leonard Volk, known for his Lincoln life mask and hands, is buried alongside a statue of himself.

Rosehill was proud of its celebrity clientele, starting with General Thomas Ransom, killed in the Civil War.  Prominent Chicago families like Peck, Dick, Lill, and Kedzie have impressive plots.  One of the more unknown but arguably more consequential is George Bangs who created the post office mail train car.  George went with a limestone tree that included a train carving.

Before city parks existed, people would picnic at cemeteries.  The rolling lawns, peaceful settings, and beautiful sculptures are a prototype for the parks created by Olmstead and others.  Sculptors and architects like Thomas Boyington, Leonard Volk, and Anton Heller produced stunning works that are not trapped in museums or private collections. These are works meant to be appreciated and seen through the generations.


The horror of birth is oft lost in the profundity of creation.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein graphically explores the tension between the creator and creation or the parent and the child.  Equally famous is the birth of that novel:  a child-centric summer in Switzerland.  Byron fights to see his daughter while impregnating Shelley’s sister; Mary and Percy care for their second child, prepare for the birth of the third, and silently mourn the death of their firstborn; Percy defends a local nanny accused of murdering a child.  The melodrama of these Hideous Progeny was enacted by the Livewire Chicago Theatre company.

Mary creates her monster in an act of catharsis.  The play hints at that act but is content to focus on the raw emotions among the vibrant characters.  The actors do a fine job of balancing the outlandish behaviors with small scenes hinting at the pain hidden by those facades.  The flippant word games and sexual intrigues distract from the talent and intellect of the true life counterparts, but are easier to display.

Returning to the monstrous catharsis, the play provides a context for the novel’s readers and generates the core question:  who is the monster?  The dead firstborn child?  The petty traumas inflicted by the residents in that Swiss summer home?  The difficulties of artistic creation?  The risk of childbirth in that age?  The plight of intellectual woman in that era?  The burden of surviving as a child when your mother died in childbirth?

Mary Shelley was a surviving child and the mother of a dead child and of living children.  She eventually married an artist and was one herself.  She understood biological and intellectual creation.  Her articulate, human, and rage-filled monster symbolized complete creation and the struggle between parent and child or prey and predator.

The dance between prey and predator is displayed in shadow, puppet, and human animal form in Julie Taymor’s The Lion King, at the Cadillac Palace.  Her minimal use of dialogue and music provides a skeleton for the story.  The battles among animals are the bulk of the stage time.  Taymor’s shadows, puppets, and human animals continually stalk, restlessly prowling the stage.  There is no death; there is no creation; there is no angst; there is only the circle of life.  All beings participate.

Taymor’s interpretation of The Lion King deepens the moral lessons of the film and forces the audience to recognize its part in the circle.  The joy at the birth of Simba and sadness at the death of Mustafa are tempered.  The events are expected and are to be respected.  Each creature is subservient to this lifecycle.  Taymor evokes feelings of peace and belonging, where Shelley emphasizes the mystery and violence of birth and death.  Shelley and her creation are outcasts from their families and from society at large.  They are battle-hardened, showing the scars from their dances as both prey and predator.  The consequences of their wounds are on vivid display in the play and in the novel.

Artistically, The Lion King is a complete, thoughtful piece, based on slighter material.  Hideous Progeny struggles to humanize its strong personalities, though its source material is deeper.  Both plays and their complementary works challenge their audiences.  Is birth/death a comforting, cyclic inevitability?  Or are the complexities of birth/death too horrifying to ignore?

Silvery Backflips

Need to impress a teenage boy?  Go see Lookingglass’ production of Hephaestus.  Even bigger and better than the last production.  The larger Goodman Theatre space enables the aerialists to swing three stories high and permits an expanded cast.  The Wallenda playing Iris smacked herself on the ceiling but continued on with the performance, which impressed said teenage boys.  The reality of people flying through the air and walking a tightrope without a net amazed most of the audience.  Only a few stuck to their Blackberries and iPhones. Silly rabbits.

The basic story of Hephaestus is that he is the bastard-child Greek god flung out of the heavens by Hera.  His legs are crippled by the fall; he becomes a silversmith of uncommon talent.  Hera, of course, covets his silver trinkets and forces him to build her a silver throne.  He builds the throne as a trap from which she cannot escape.  So she gives him Aphrodite in marriage.

The real action is the integration of acrobatics, percussion, high-wire walking, and dance to enact the story.  There is no dialogue – only a narrator.  The performers are from the Blueman Group, Cirque de Soleil, and the Flying Wallendas.  Text is a poor way to describe the breathtaking action.  The website has some videos.

If you are looking for full-bodied theatre, Hephaestus runs until June 6.  Then Lookingglass Alice, another acrobatic take on a classic story, begins.  Both Hephaestus and Alice are signature Lookingglass pieces.  Integration of physicality, thoughtful and sparing use of props, and using only essential dialogue are the hallmarks of all Lookingglass productions.  The directors tell the stories in 3D and bring the audience as physically close to the stage as possible.  The actors enter and exit through the aisles – making the entire theatre the stage.  The new regular season starts in October with Peter Pan – more high flying action.

Reviving the Roosters

Laura sent me two identical goldwork on silk embroideries that are in terrible shape.  She thinks I may have the skills to save them.  I appreciate the thought.  After a year of restoration research (I really don’t want to screw up), I began the restoration process.  Let’s see what we have to start with:

Yeah, it’s pretty ugly.  Take a closer look:

When you do goldwork embroidery, you use layers of fabric so the weight of the gold doesn’t rip apart the fabric.  The goldwork itself is stunning, which is why I am so surprised that the embroiderer screwed up the fabric layer part.  This is one layer of silk on a layer of netting.  The roosters and other birds are padded and therefore 3D – making them that much heavier.  The silk has now hardened and crumbles like paper. The weight of the gold is too much for the silk.

Let’s enjoy the goldwork:

I’m not giving up without a fight.  Today, I cleaned it using Restoration, a fabric cleanser made specially for antique fabrics.  Using a paint brush, I applied it to the fabric only and then used the same technique with plain water to rinse.  The silk is so hard.  I had hoped the water would soften it.  We shall see.  Phoebe is very concerned.

We’ll see what happens after everything dries.  Theoretically, the next step will be to insert a layer of muslin between the silk and the netting – adding some support.  Then I can use Miracle Muck (an archival polymer adhesive) to glue everything back into place.  Then I would add some quasi-quilting stitches in invisible thread for more support.  To quote the inimitable Tim Gunn:  this concerns me.

If the silk remains too brittle, then I may have to cut out the centers and try to save the goldwork edges.  You could stick a gigantic candle in the center or a tricked out Christmas tree.

Ultimately, the pieces would be matted to a velvet board for further support.  In future, they would have to be displayed on a horizontal surface, like a glass table or shadow box on a table.  Next weekend, Phoebe and I will try to muck!  Fingers crossed for the miracle part.

The Third Dimension

A couple of years ago, I took a class in stumpwork (three-dimensional) embroidery with one of the world’s leading experts:  Jane Nicholas.  She jetted over from Australia to teach a week long EGA class.  She is probably best known for her anatomically accurate bugs.  She also has a series of bugs done in stumpwork and goldwork that are unbelievable.  She uses a magnifying glass to work them to size.

My Bittersweet & Butterfly Medieval Panel - designed by Jane Nicholas

Our class was “Bittersweet and Butterfly Medieval Panel”, which contained a butterfly, caterpillar, and a bittersweet plant.  To create the 3D leaves, petals, and butterfly wings, you couch wire to a piece of muslin and then embroider over the wire (leaving a tail of wires) and muslin.  After completing the embroidery stitches, you cut out the object and insert the wires through the background/main embroidery piece.  On the back you tack down the wires.

3D Effect of the Panel

The berries are made by wrapping silk around beads and then attaching them to the background.  The border is actually a hand-dyed, red-copper silk ribbon named Hot Flash.   Then gold wire is twisted through beads to create the lattice effect.  The threads are all Soie d’Alger silks.  Love Soie d’Alger.  Needlepoint Inc silks are the best; the Soie d’Alger are a close second.  Both are very soft and supple.  Eterna Silks are good, too.  They have a twist and sheen to them.  NPI and SdA have a matte finish.

Another 3D View

The caterpillar is worked by layering threads and embroidering over the thread layers – gives him a pop.  The dragon fly wings are organza with blending filament for the veins.  The effect is very sparkly.  The whole piece is actually sparkly  – hard to capture in a photograph.

As you can surmise, the process is a tad tedious, especially for a large piece like this.  It’s about 4″ by 9″.  Typically stumpwork pieces are about 2″ to 3″ per side.  I’ve seen some museum pieces that are over a foot per side, which is why those embroiderers went blind at young ages.  I have a few more stumpwork pieces that I plan to do at some point in my lifetime.  Given Phoebe’s proclivity to help, I may have to wait a few years or win the lottery & rent an art studio.  Go Powerball!!!