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The Day's writers choose their favorite exhibitions and books of 2021

EXHIBITIONS

"Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry & C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art"

May 29-Aug. 22, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London

The art showcased in this exhibition was stunning, and the pieces were wide-ranging in style and subject. I particularly loved how this collection came to be. The stereotype of art collectors is they are wealthy. The Davises of Atlanta are not — Kerry was a postal carrier until his retirement — but he and wife Betty love art. They found ways to buy art, or even barter for it over the course of 35-plus years. More than 60 of the 300 pieces by African-American artists in their collection are on a tour of museums around the country. The works and the backstory are inspiring.

— Kristina Dorsey

"A Passage Between Earth and Sky — Michael Melford Photographs"

Oct. 1-Dec. 19, at Mystic Museum of Art

Photographer Michael Melford formed an intuitive, almost mystical bond with trees at an early age. In his longtime career shooting images for National Geographic, Melford either conceptually or by happy accident encountered thousands of opportunities across the globe to capture the magnificence of trees in full seasonal splendor. This dazzingly curated collection leaves the viewer with an appreciation of nature that borders on awe.

— Rick Koster

"Revisiting America: The Prints of Currier & Ives"

Oct. 2-Jan. 23, at the Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme

Currier & Ives lithographs idealized life in an earlier America, and today they are all about nostalgia. But one of the themes of this show was that even in the 19th century, people were looking back wistfully, sometimes at unpleasant things.

— John Ruddy

"Brian Keith Stephens: Almost True Tales"

Feb. 6-May 9, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London

Stephens' paintings boast not just magnificent artistry but also wonderful wit. I loved that the title for a painting of a whale seeming to swim in the sea was "Sometimes I Dream of Driving 100 mph." In "Perfect Romance," a flamingo stands on a tortoise's back. Many of the works featuring animals were inspired by fables and folktales, and they could be appreciated on so many different levels. Stephens is a locally based talent: he grew up in North Stonington and now lives in Old Lyme.

— Kristina Dorsey

"Käthe Kollwitz: Activism Through Art"

Feb. 3-April 10, at the William Benton Museum of Art, Storrs

The universality of suffering was the abiding theme of this German artist, who lived through two world wars and knew her own share of it. The show displayed her stark woodcuts of haunted faces and tortured body language, evoking the darker side of the human experience.

— John Ruddy

"Luster: Realism and Hyperrealism in Contemporary Automobile and Motorcycle Painting"

Oct. 23-Jan. 2, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London

Who doesn't love cars? This show of colorful and meticulous paintings explored the mystical bond we have with our wheels. Classics predominated, with a world of reflections lurking in the chrome.

— John Ruddy

"The Way Sisters: Miniaturists of the Early Republic"

Oct. 30-Jan. 23, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London

Two pioneering artists from New London were rescued from obscurity in this show about a personalized form of portraiture that was common in the days before photography. Many of the subjects were movers and shakers who defined an era in New London history. 

— John Ruddy

"Encountering Resonance: Aaron Taylor Kuffner's Gamelatron" 

Feb. 27-May 23, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London

Little known in the West, gamelatron is indigenous orchestral music written for and performed by ensembles on gongs and sets of tuned percussion throughout Java, Bali and Indonesia. American artist and composer Aaron Taylor Kuffner became fascinated with the aesthetics and hypnotic beauty of the art form and, in this exhibition, using computer algorithms and mechanical sleight-of-hand, Kuffner presented an array of automated gamelatron set pieces. At random points, any or all kick into mesmeric, dissonant but lovely music.

— Rick Koster

 

BOOKS 

"We Begin at the End"

Chris Whitaker

This is the 2021 book I cannot get out of my head. After her well-meaning-but-screwed-up mother Star is murdered in their blue collar NoCal beach town, 13-year-old Duchess, as an act of will, becomes wise and resilient to protect and look out for her baby brother Robin. It's a close knit community and Star's lifelong friend Walk is sheriff, and he's doing his best for the kids. But he knows the wrong man was convicted of the crime, and despite efforts by Duchess to remain independent, she and Robin are relocated to rural Montana and Star's estranged father. Gorgeous and heartfelt writing, with a surprise around every corner, "We Begin at the End" should have been shortlisted for the Big Literary Prizes.

— Rick Koster

"Cloud Cuckoo Land"

Anthony Doerr

The title of Doerr's previous novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "All the Light We Cannot See," is a reference to knowledge that even the thirstiest thinker won't find time to assimilate. It's a fine metaphor for Doerr's own writing, for he seems to approach plots and characters as a means to fulfill and explore his own curiosity. "Cuckoo" is also a love note to books and libraries in general, and he ties three incredibly disparate plot threads and five wonderful characters — set respectively at the fall of Constantinople, a present-day library in Wyoming, and on a future spaceship fleeing a dying earth — in ways that leave the reader gasping. Doerr is a genius, and this is storytelling from the heart and mind, signed with love and affection.

— Rick Koster

"The Cold Millions"

Jess Walter

“The Cold Millions,” which was released in late 2020, tied with “Cloud Cuckoo Land” as the favorite books I read in 2021. This historical novel was an immersive experience, bringing me back to the early 1900s in Spokane. Two brothers, ages 23 and 16, are trying to survive in a hardscrabble world, where transient workers like them are used and abused. It’s at a time when unions are trying to organize, and wealthy business owners are resisting, with scheming and brutal force. The characters are all fascinating, and Walter’s writing is sublime.

— Kristina Dorsey 

“The Field House: A Writer's Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine”

Robin Clifford Wood

Rachel Field was walking down a New York City street in the late 1920s when she and a friend spotted a doll in an antiques shop window. Intrigued, they began to make up stories about the girl in the calico dress and her adventures in history. The result was Field's “Hitty, Her First Hundred Years,” a book that would win the Newbery Medal and the hearts of generations of children. In this meticulously researched biography, Wood does the same for Hitty's author, chronicling a life of success and tragedy.

— Betty Cotter 

"Chasing the Boogeyman"

Richard Chizmar

As a professional dullard, I tend to cringe when I see a new book lauded as a fresh bit of metafiction. But Chizmar has blended autobiography with a serial killer in a novel that reads as though the Night Stalker decided to take his act to suburban Maryland and a neighborhood that might have inspired the writers of "Leave It to Beaver." Chizmar writes with easy rhythm and affection about coming of age and, later, coming home — but the darkness and uncertainty about the identity of the murderer quicken the heartbeat and adrenaline beautifully.

— Rick Koster

“Margreete's Harbor”

Eleanor Morse

A moment's inattention brings sudden change to the life of Margreete Bright, a fiercely independent woman living on the family homestead in Maine. When she forgets a pan on the stove and nearly burns down the house, her daughter, Liddie, decides it's time to move her family back home. As Margreete slowly loses her grip on reality, the lives of Liddie, Harry and their children take over the narrative, just as they have Margreete's house. Each of these characters bursts out fully realized on the page in this sensitive and evocative novel.

— Betty Cotter 

"The Guncle"

Stephen Rowley

It's weird: Humor is frequently a means to deal with loss and grief, and for some reason it (fortunately) seems like only those who are truly witty instinctively utilize laughter in this fashion. Rowley is very funny, and his book subjects are very sad. Patrick, a gay, reclusive ex-television star hides in Palm Springs until circumstances — the death of his best friend, a woman who was married to Patrick's brother, a pill addict in rehab — means he has to take the couple's young children until some stability returns. Rowley incorporates a tender appreciation for life's cruelties into this story and makes us chortle through the darkness.

— Rick Koster

"Billy Summers"

Stephen King

This (mostly) straightforward crime novel is yet more proof — because for some reason it's still needed — that King is a superb novelist in any genre or style, and he's more than capable of the "literary" chops so many contrarians continue to deny he possesses. The titular hitman, weary of his craft, ill-advisedly takes one last job. Yes, it's been done before, but not like this. King takes us on a path with many forks in the road and no shortage of unexpected characters and situations. Masterful, irresistible and perhaps metaphorical for King's own self-perspective at this point in his career.

— Rick Koster

"The Empathy Diaries"

Sherry Turkle

In books like "Reclaiming Conversation" and "Alone Together," MIT professor Sherry Turkle has cast a humanist eye on the technology age. With the same expansive approach, she details her own life, from growing up with her grandparents in the Rockaway section of Queens to navigating the class differences of a sheltered Jewish girl attending Radcliffe in the 1960s. Along the way, she puzzles out questions of her identity and the secrets her mother kept. This is a finely written memoir that transcends an individual life to wrestle with questions about privacy, technology and feminism.

— Betty Cotter

"The Man Who Wasn’t All There"

David Handler

I started reading Handler’s mysteries because he is an author living in Old Lyme and referencing our fair area in his novels. But I now happily anticipate all new Handler releases simply because they are such a pleasure to read. “The Man Who Wasn’t All There” brings back Handler’s witty ghostwriter Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag to his ex-wife’s bucolic homestead. A member of a famously wealthy family descends on the place, threatening Hoagy. And then a murder happens, which Hoagy sets out to solve.

— Kristina Dorsey

"Plain Bad Heroines"

Emily M. Danforth

Truth told, this delightfully clever, increasingly dark/hilarious novel came out in fall of 2020. What with the pandemic, though, I didn't learn of it until this year. Danforth, a resident and native of Rhody, using an omniscient and wry master of ceremonies, interwines two stories. One is a sapphic gothic tale of murder at a haunted girls boarding school in 1902; the other a modern-day account of a hip and big-money horror film to be made based on the earlier story, and starring a triumvirate of disparate but equally intriguing heroines.

— Rick Koster

"Razorblade Tears"

S.A. Cosby

Two fathers' lives are clashed together in a gritty Virginia town only because their gay sons married each other. The dads are not exactly role models. They're ex-cons. One's white, one's black, and both are just managing to stay straight. When their sons are shot dead in the street, though, and the police seem indifferent, Buddy Lee and Ike join up to not just find the killers but exact brutal vengeance. A novel relentlessy great and enraged; a savage meditation on contemporary homophobia as well as race and class. It's set in the south but, sadly, it could be anywhere.

— Rick Koster

"Why We Swim "

Bonnie Tsui

Let's be honest: "Why We Swim," as far as book titles go, isn't as tantalizing as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" or "Love in the Time of Cholera." But do NOT let that stop you from reading this — a memoir of sorts as told through the prism of swimming. Tsui, a gifted stylist, takes us through the evolution of swimming as it has evolved in our species. So many fascinating nuances and so many amazing stories of swimmers and feats thereof. You'll probably finish reading this doing laps in a pool or dog-paddling across Long Island Sound.

— Rick Koster

"Heathens"

Ace Atkins

Fans of my pal Atkins's Quinn Colson series were frankly worried after the shock ending of 2020's "The Revelators." Had Atkins painted himself into a corner with blood instead of Benjamin Moore? Of course not! Too many great characters and an e'er-expanding spider web of plot lines. Some crime writers avoid the "real-time" problems that come with a series; Atkins embraces the challenges and "Heathens" is a remarkable story that makes you want to pound on his office door and scream, "Don't come out till you've got another Quinn!"

— Rick Koster

"Crying in H Mart"

Michelle Zauner

This memoir first reads like Zauner’s celebration of her mother’s Korean culture. But she ends up creating a moving portrait of their complicated relationship with each other, which becomes more entangled and emotionally fraught when the mother is diagnosed with cancer. It’s a deeply felt (but never saccharine or morose) love letter to family.

— Kristina Dorsey 

 

 

 

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