Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

Hope everyone's was sweet.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

Coats of Arms, Shoes of Feet

In January 1610, Galileo Galilei set up a telescope on the grounds of the Jesuit Collegio Romano in order to decisively show his colleagues, at long last, the movements of the planets and the moons of Jupiter. Once he had demonstrated his new findings to his satisfaction the Father of Modern Science, in true Italian fashion, threw a banquet, and several months later he published his treatise, The Starry Messenger. Astronomy was changed forever.

Four hundred years later, Meridith McNeal is celebrating her own findings with “In the Footsteps of the Starry Messenger,” an exhibition of pen and ink and watercolor drawings at Figureworks in Brooklyn. In the spring of 2009, McNeal found herself working in a studio at the American Academy in Rome on the very spot where Galileo made his celestial discoveries. In his honor, and in the spirit of inquiry both artistic and historical, she set out to capture the essence of the place and its people.

The starry messenger’s footsteps here are not just metaphorical but visible: Shoes, of every description and period, dominate the show, as well as representations of the bounty of the Academy—its toweringly stocked kitchen shelves, ripe fruit, attendant cats.
But the shoes are the headliners. Hung singly and in one magnificent constellation of 16, the drawings are incarnations of a city’s worth of souls, and just as diverse. There are ghostly baby shoes, a sexily reclining pair of ’70s wedges, shiny red Mary Janes, a pair of buckled shoes with a skirt in the brown, pink, and lemon of ’50s trim, expressionistic bold black heels, and the wonderfully graphic “Black Boots with Orange Skirt,” which surely would have made Andy Warhol’s heart beat a little faster. Each work is as different as a face on a busy street, and together they form an intensely pleasing collection of temperaments and slices of time.
There are also some larger pieces to locate us in place and pay homage to Galileo’s banquet. A black and white portrait of the Academy’s kitchen looms dark but not in the least ominous, holding all the quiet promise of a public space at rest. The ink is laid on lushly, with shelves of glassware gleaming from a breakfront cupboard like stars in the firmament. “Apples by the Academy Gate” is voluptuously tactile: pebbles, leaves, a plastic bag, a newspaper, metal bins, and the fresh apples. The rendering, as in all the work here, is strong and personal, each texture given its own character but all part of a bustling whole.
In a way, though, the linchpin of the show is one of the quieter pieces, "l'Accademia." McNeal’s drawing, done in nib pen and ink with watercolor and Italian glitter eyeliner, is a refashioning of the coat of arms representing l'Accademia dei Lincei (the Academy of the Lynx-Eyed), Galileo’s scientific brotherhood. Here the wreath serves as a window onto her studio, with wineglass, brushes and hula hoop rampant, but it also sets the tone for the collection as a whole. For what are the shoes if not coats of arms or a sort? Whether the central image on a textured field of cobblestones or surmounted by the mantling of a woman’s skirt, each is an emblem preceding and representing its wearer. If they aren’t riding into battle, they are at least stepping out into the street, which is close enough. The two handsome black and white cat portraits that dominate one wall are heraldic as well, classical lions couchant composed as central elements crossed with strong diagonals.

This modern heraldry brings the span between 17th and 21st centuries to a human scale. These are Meridith McNeal’s stars, her banquet, her Accademia; although largely concerned with street-level imagery, “In the Footsteps of the Starry Messenger” is celestial in scope. The show is infused with the progression of her gaze: First down, then up and out, over and over—much as Galileo’s would have wandered in the process of discovering how the universe works. In 1610 he wrote in his foreword:

“THE STARRY MESSENGER: Revealing great, unusual, and remarkable spectacles, opening these to the consideration of every man, and especially of philosophers and astronomers.”

I would add to that artists, and the rest of us as well.

(All artwork © Meridith McNeal 2010.)

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Very Definition of True Love

Look at these two. I mean, really.


Friday, January 01, 2010

Two Oh One Oh

Two-oh-one-oh. That's what my mom, who is nearly 82 and tends toward wild imprecision, calls this year. Last year was two-oh-oh-nine. "Two thousand nine, mom," I would correct her endlessly, and she would agree until the next time, and eventually I just had to give up. I wonder if it isn't an oldster inability, on her part, to wrap her mind around the fact that the name of the year now starts with "two thousand." It rolls off my tongue just fine. But maybe if I were 82 it would be a bit more conceptually difficult.

So, two-oh-one-oh. I always say that I'm not really one for reflection prompted by the calendar date, but that's a big old lie. Sometimes I'm happier than others to see the numbers roll over, to say goodbye to a certain period, but there's something satisfying in looking at a big chunk of time like a year to see what I think of it. And this one in particular is fun. Two-oh-oh-nine was a very good year, by my reckoning.

The main thing to recommend it was that I did everything I set out to do. Mind you, we're not talking about finding a cure for cancer or ending world hunger or fostering troubled teenagers. I didn't even pay that extra month on my mortgage that I always say I'll do when I get my tax return. My goals are generally not real lofty. I have a few directives to live by: Do no harm, be compassionate where possible, don't litter, don't gossip, and don't be lame. I hate—loathe—lameness, both personally and in general. But since I can't do anything about other people's lameness and it's pointless to even try, I just worry about my own.

And 2009? Was a year that I wasn't lame. I started blogging for Readerville at the beginning of the year, and while that was something I hadn't really given any thought to before beyond this chatty half-assed enterprise, I liked doing it right away. And when Readerville closed up shop in June my immediate, gut-punch reaction was that I'd start up my own damn blog. And I did. Like Fire launched in September, and within a couple of months I'd made friends with the fine people over at Open Letters Monthly and agreed to partner up with them. Today marks the official startup of Like Fire 2.0, official blog of Open Letters. And away we go.

It's not even a matter of how successful I was or wasn't with the blog. It's just that I said I was going to do it and I did. Maybe I'm setting the bar low for myself, but so be it. There was a bunch of other stuff: I got in the habit of walking a couple of miles with the dog every day before work; rescued a couple of beautiful cats on my block and found them a happy home, painted the downstairs apartment and got a nice tenant, worked hard at my job, took care of my mom, paid down a large chunk of debt. I ate well. Wrote a lot, read a lot. Didn't do anything particularly regrettable.

I can't even come up with any good resolutions—eat less sugar, call my friends more, sharpen my knives regularly—but that stuff is ongoing. Mostly I just want another year of not being lame, and continuing to have fun. Two-oh-oh-nine was fun. And if I can keep the basic momentum going for two-oh-one-oh, I'll be happy. That and make the extra payment on my mortgage come April. That would be pretty un-lame of me.
These fellows aren't lame either. They're just resting.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Big Storm Knocked It Over

Like Fire wasn't the only thing that got its germination at BEA last May. I also, if you remember, picked up a bunch of seed packets—seed packets were popular giveaways in 2009—including these sunflower seeds from, appropriately enough, Columbia University Press.

I did in fact plant them on the weird elevated platform in front of my house, and not only did they grow but they grew HUGE. Every day for the past few weeks I meant to go out and take photos. Seriously, every day. They were monstrous and cheerful—you could see them from a block away. During the last two weeks of September I was vetting new tenants for the downstairs rental unit, and I always got a kick out of telling people who wanted to come see the place "It's the house with the sunflowers."

And then last Wednesday we had a big old windstorm. Tree limbs went down, chunks of the city lost power, and I came home to find my giant sunflowers broken, every one of them, hanging down with their faces to the sidewalk. I wasn't brokenhearted, though. They probably wouldn't have lasted another month, I had found a nice tenant for the apartment, and really—if that's the worst thing that happens to me all week, I'll take it.

The next evening I came home and even from the bottom of the hill I could see they were all gone. We live across the street from the neighborhood community center, and I figured some bored kids messing around after school must have pulled them out. But once inside I saw that Jeff had gotten home early and cut the survivors down to fit in a jar.
So that's it, summer's over. The cats are quite taken with the sunflowers, and every time I look at them (the flowers, that is) I think of Van Gogh. I turned the heat on last week. And off we sail into fall, and whatever the winter holds. Life is good.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Like Fire

When Readerville closed up shop last June, right away I started thinking about putting together my own literary blog. It had been a great roller coaster ride -- staying on top of every shred of book and publishing news, scrolling through my endless feeds and waiting for that excellent click that happened when I came upon an item I knew I'd have something to say about. Writing every day was good for me, having the opportunity to follow my opinions where they led and whittle them down to something articulate. Mostly it was fun.

So I dug deep into my inner Andy Hardy and spent the summer tinkering in that virtual barn out back. And finally -- Hey Kids! -- I'm putting up my own show.
Like Fire is a collaborative effort with some fellow Readerville alumni which will hopefully go on to amuse and delight and inform all our friends and fans. Another litblog, yes, but hopefully full enough of content and opinion to have its own flavor. We also take submissions, so if you have something related to books or the industry, please send it along to

I won't abandon Mappa Mundi, though, I promise. I'm way too fond of it -- and where else am I going to post all those pet photos?

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I had lunch with Pat, my one and only work friend, yesterday. This week marks three years I've been at the workplace, and that's all I'm going to say about that right now. If I've learned only one thing there -- and I have to wonder sometimes if this might not in fact be the case -- it's that you don't sit up front in Tom's during the first week of school unless you want to eat your sandwich with someone's mom and dad mugging on the other side of the window while their embarrassed kid takes pictures. It's like the most famous landmark in New York City for a week, and the folks are lined up three deep to get their photo snapped on the sidewalk.
Pat and I had a nice lunch as far in the back as we could get seats, and then dawdled along in the sun, looking at books for sale on the street. Right off I gravitated to a hardcover copy of Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings -- I'd seen it on the guy's table before and thought it was something I'd like, but never picked it up. I find I'm a little more adventurous when I'm browsing with someone else, though, especially if we're trying to kill some time. So I opened it and there, on the flyleaf, was this:
"How much?" I asked.

"Four dollars," he said.

I had a pang of guilt. It didn't last long. In 25+ years of buying secondhand books, I've never found any buried treasure, not once. This felt like the universe patting me indulgently on the back of the hand -- "That's nice, dear" -- but right around now I could use a little babying from the powers that be.

I Googled the signature when I got back to the office and yes, it's hers. The book's not a first -- more like a tenth -- and while it might have netted the guy a bit more than $4 it wouldn't have made him rich. On the other hand, it made me very rich indeed. On a day that was hard in need of a ray of sunshine, a $4 copy of One Writer's Beginnings with Eudora Welty's handwriting in the front -- "Jackson, Missippi / March 23, 1984" -- was just fine.