The plot of Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California is quite absorbing, but the story about her book is pretty engrossing as well. First a recap—then a review.
Award-winning author Sherman Alexie was a guest on Stephen Colbert’s television show, The Colbert Report, June 4 to discuss the dispute between Amazon and Hachette Book Group. Books by both Alexie and Colbert are part of the Hachette Group, as is Lepucki’s novel. Colbert had asked Alexie to recommend a forthcoming Hachette book that he liked. Alexie picked California. Colbert held up a copy of the book and implored his viewers, “the Colbert Nation,” to preorder California (but not from Amazon) to demonstrate their power. Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, agreed to handle the process. Before long, Lepucki found herself signing over 10,000 copies in just three days to meet those preorders. California was published July 8. Then, on July 21, Lepucki herself was a guest on The Colbert Show. Her book tour included a talk on July 30 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas, which I caught.
“I didn’t realize how much power Colbert had,” Lepucki told the audience. Someone asked how the unexpected event had changed her life.
“I’m in a different city every day. I know how hotels work now,” she replied. “It’s no stage. I’m on this publicity machine that is like a real monster. I figure it’ll end by September. I’m still a good ol’ girl.”
Blue Arabesque opens with Patricia Hampl’s discovery in the Chicago Art Institute of a painting by Henri Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium. She was a recent college graduate writing fiction and poetry, but Hampl knew little about art when the painting transfixed her as she rushed to meet a friend in the museum’s cafeteria. Her friend told her it was a lesser painting, but it spoke to Hampl: “Looking and musing were the job description I sought.”
Who was the mysterious woman in Woman Before an Aquarium and what does she mean? She with her almond eyes mirroring the goldfish? Hampl figures she’s a writer—see the notebook—and she’s posed before a Moroccan screen that Matisse brought back from North Africa. Of equal import, Who was the bookish girl transfixed by the gazing woman? We’ll learn more of her, in time, and of her deep affinity for Matisse’s “decorative instinct.”
Hampl’s narrative, moving chronologically through her life of consuming art, is diffuse. This risks losing readers, but you come to see and to savor her journey. And to appreciate the slow, indirect, and subtle self-portrait that emerges. Classed by its publisher as a memoir, it isn’t exactly. More like a book-length essay (nicely divided into seven chapters) that’s deeply and intrinsically personal and obliquely memoiristic. A meditation on the arts, on looking, and on the “leisure of great private endeavor” needed to make art, Blue Arabesque moves from story to story—about paintings and their creators, especially Matisse, but also Hampl’s “pagan saint,” writer Katherine Mansfield, and an obscure filmmaker from Hampl’s hometown.