Friday, February 29, 2008

Van Gogh for Sale at Maastricht

One of Vincent's Auvers canvases, the "Child with an Orange," will be for sale at the upcoming Maastricht art fair for about $30 million, BBC News and the Independent report today. It has been in a Swiss private collection since 1916.

The child is Raoul Levert, the 2-year-old son of Vincent Levert, a carpenter in Auvers-sur-Oise who made frames and stretchers for van Gogh. The painting was done in June 1890, a few weeks after van Gogh arrived in Auvers-sur-Oise and after he had seen his baby nephew (whom he adored) in Paris for the first time. "Child with an Orange" is one of many portraits of children that Vincent made during his career; it testifies both to his love of children and, at this point in his life, his wistful belief that he'd never have a family of his own. As Arifa Akbar, the Independent's Arts Correspondent, points out, little Raoul has rosy pink cheeks and blooms with health. In June 1890, Vincent was urging his brother Theo and sister-in-law Johanna to bring their child to the country for fresh air, believing that Paris was unhealthy for his nephew. In general, Vincent was feeling fairly optimistic about life and about his new home in Auvers-sur-Oise, so the colors here are bright and cheerful, the mood positive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The "Real" Vincent

I’ve had occasion this week to think (again) about the nature of Vincent’s illness, the effects on his art and personality, and the popular conception of him today. So much about the historical van Gogh has devolved into cliché. Many think of him as some turpentine-swilling, child-scaring, ear-cutting loony-tune, his paintings the result of a mind gone wild.


Yes, he had a mental illness – I’m one of those who believes he had bipolar disorder, aggravated by absinthe consumption, overwork, and self-denial. Yes, that illness governed the last year and a half of his life, as he was plagued by attack after attack and spent a year in the asylum at Saint-Rémy. Yes, during the most dramatic moment of his illness, he engaged in self-mutilation. But Vincent van Gogh, and van Gogh’s art, should not be defined by that illness.

One need only read his letters to see there was so much more to Vincent than the clichés. Yes, he was stubborn as a mule, yes, he could be temperamental and difficult, but the letters also reveal a man who “felt deeply” (as he put it), someone capable of great tenderness, empathy, and spirituality. Someone fluent in many languages, who read so many books you wonder how he had time to paint, who had such tremendous visual recall that he could remember perfectly a painting by another artist he hadn’t seen for years. Someone who wanted to give love to others, who longed for a wife and family of his own, who saw the humanity in folks marginalized by the world at large. In between the attacks, his letters are lucid and self-aware. And before his first breakdown in December 1888, there are times when he is actually happy. In Arles before Gauguin arrives, for instance: Vincent is so enthused about his new yellow house, so pleased with his work, so optimistic about the future, you’d never guess this was a man who in a few months would cut off a piece of his ear.

In short, he was human. Not a “dangerous beast” (as he put it), not some raving lunatic, not some mad genius. Nor was his art the product of his illness; it resulted from years of study and reflection, from experimentation and innovation. He didn’t slap paint on the canvas in fits of delirium—every brushstroke was carefully chosen, and he knew exactly what he was doing. Even that swirling sky of “Starry Night,” while painted in the asylum (between attacks), says more about his creativity then it does about his illness. (It’s also, by the way, a very atypical painting and one he didn’t care about much.)

I’m tired of the clichés. It’s not fair to him. In life, when his art was beginning to get attention from critics, he worried that people would see his illness instead of his art (he was at Saint-Rémy at the time). Unfortunately, too often that’s exactly what happens.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Monsieur Renoir!

Ok, so it was yesterday (Feb 25th). I hope he can forgive me.

I'm fairly certain it's not a coincidence that Susan Vreeland's lovely novel "The Luncheon of the Boating Party," about the Renoir painting of the same name, was released in paperback today. If you haven't read it -- read it! I'm a fan of all her books, and this one is her most ambitious yet through its careful interweaving of the stories of Renoir and his models. As always, she blends fact and fiction so seamlessly that you imagine it happened exactly like that. I gobbled it up in a weekend when it came out last year in hardback.

The restaurant in the painting, the Maison Fournaise, was restored a few years back and can be visited just outside central Paris. It's on my list for next trip!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Vincent in Seoul

The Korea Times reports today that 600,000 visitors have attended the exhibition "Van Gogh: Voyage into the Myth" in Seoul since it opened November 24th. The first van Gogh retrospective in Korea, the exhibit includes 45 paintings and 22 drawings from the collections of the Van Gogh Museum and the Kroller-Muller Museum. "The Yellow House" and "The Sower" are just two of the notable works in the show. (So yes, visitors to Holland will be missing them!) The exhibit remains on view until March 16th. For more information, see

I met a woman from Seoul, about my age, last summer, when we were the only two passengers traveling from Arles on the public bus to Saint-Remy, both on the same van Gogh trail. She told me how popular Vincent is in Korea, and I'm sure she's been to see the exhibit at least once! On the way back to Arles later in the day we shared our experiences, then in one of those great coincidences, I ran into her in a restaurant later that night and we chatted more over supper. She was traveling alone too (in her case, a last voyage before getting married), and we both agreed that traveling alone is a terrific way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture and meet new people. Meeting her made me reflect about the power of Vincent's art, that he'd brought a gal from Korea and a gal from Florida all the way to Provence in search of his spirit.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Return of the Green Fairy

In a few weeks, absinthe will be legal here in Florida, available for purchase in restaurants and liquor stores. It's already available in other parts of the US; apparently stores and restaurants in California have been regularly running out since it became legal there in January. In Florida the brand "Lucid" will be the first to appear and will sell for about $60 a bottle. There's been a lot of buzz about the re-legalization of absinthe in the US since it happened on paper in May 2007, the mystique of the drink and its association with 19th-century artistic bohemia being a huge part of that. The absinthe available now, however, is not the same as the version known in 19th-century Paris; it has a lower percentage of thujone (wormwood). At 50-70% alcohol, though, "Lucid" and the other brands will still have you singing the soundtrack to "Moulin Rouge" in no time. I've not tried absinthe myself, although it was available in France the last time I was there, but I hear if you like ouzo or pastis, you might like it. Absinthe has an anise-licorice type of flavor. You mix the modern version with water like in the old days--artists loved the transformation of color in the drink, what's called the "louche"--and for pete's sake, don't set it on fire like they do on "Moulin Rouge," because that's not 19th-century at all!

Poor Vincent, he's been mentioned in most articles I've read about the reintroduction of absinthe, sometimes with the kind of cracks about his ear that really tick me off. (Mental illness is never funny--you will never catch me making jokes about his ear on this blog or anywhere.) He may well have been under the influence of absinthe on 23 December 1888, and he certainly struggled with addiction to the drink, especially during his time in Paris. He admits in a letter after coming to Arles that he had become "nearly an alcoholic" in Paris, and presumably the cheap and easily accessible absinthe was the problem. He painted glasses of absinthe while there, and in the pastel drawing of Vincent done by his pal Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (shown), Vincent sketches in front of an absinthe glass. In Arles he seems to have tried to limit his consumption of absinthe, although Paul Gauguin mentions Vincent's drinking it in his autobiography--and throwing glasses of it at him. (Perhaps living with Gauguin drove him back to the green fairy.)

I can't see myself partaking of absinthe when it comes to Florida; it costs too much and I'm not a fan of licorice flavors or hard liquor. I do like the shape of the traditional absinthe glasses, though, and the old-fashioned slotted absinthe spoons are neat-looking objects. I wouldn't mind having one for the heck of it. Incidentally, the Van Gogh Museum giftshop had absinthe glass/spoon sets for sale last year, and I have to say, I debated the tackiness of that in my head at the time. Even if Vincent did paint them.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Arrival in Arles

120 years ago this week, Vincent van Gogh left his brother Theo and Paris life behind to head south, arriving in Arles on 20 February 1888. He'd had enough of Paris, of bickering artists and cold weather, and he worried about his health. Why he picked Arles we still don't know, but that's where he got off the train, and that's where he stayed until May 1889. He was disappointed to arrive in a freak snowfall and chilly weather but saw the beauty of the landscape just the same -- the landscape and the women too, as he commented to Theo in his second letter from Arles ("the women here are beautiful, no humbug about that"). Once the snow melted and the orchards started to bloom, Vincent spent day after day painting canvases of almond and peach trees (pictured: a blossoming peach tree painted in honor of Dutch artist Anton Mauve and sent to his wife).

Arriving in Arles today is a different experience. World War II bombings took their toll on the area around the train station, so you don't see the same things Vincent saw in your first moments. Last summer, my first stop was the tourist office at the train station, where I asked in my American-taught-by-a-Parisian-accented French if I needed to take a bus or taxi to my hotel in the centre de ville. The kind mademoiselle responded in her lilting Southern accent that I should walk, it was easy and not far. I set off from the station, backpack on back, wheeling my bag. Down the street to the end of the block, looking around to get my bearings, I realized I was standing a few feet away from the site of the yellow house. My first little prickle of recognition! With high spirits I crossed the Place Lamartine through the old medieval gateway and continued in search of my hotel. "The brothel district was over there," I thought, "Vincent's first lodgings were on this street"--I was mapping 1888 Arles in my head the whole way. Then I learned "easy walk" is a relative term: Arles is not flat, and my hotel was on the other side of the hill hosting the Roman amphitheater. I got some looks from the locals, amused at the pasty-skinned redheaded gal huffing and puffing her way to the Hotel Le Cloitre. (The population of pasty-skinned redheads has not exactly grown since 1888.) Like Vincent must have felt, I too was overwhelmed at this new place, the new people, and all the thoughts zooming through my head. At least it wasn't snowing!

The Hotel Le Cloitre, by the way, is a delightful place to stay in Arles. The owners are friendly and hospitable, the building is a charmingly renovated thirteenth-century structure that used to be part of the Saint-Trophime monastery complex, and the location can't be beat. Because I was staying a while, Madame gave me a room on the top floor with a lovely view to the Saint-Trophime belltower and into the cloister. The bells marked time for me as I drifted from 2007 to 1888 and back again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


The van Gogh and Monet stolen from the Buehrle Collection in Zurich last week have been recovered. A parking lot attendant at a Zurich psychiatric hospital spotted the paintings yesterday in an abandoned white car, the same car reported from the theft. The Cezanne and Degas were not in the car. Museum officials report that the two paintings are absolutely the originals, and that there is no damage.

An interesting tidbit: according to the Associated Press, the police spokesman said in the press conference that he did not know whether a ransom had been paid for the paintings, but the museum director said, "I can't give any information on that." Were the thieves paid to abandon the paintings? Or were they amateurs who realized they couldn't unload the paintings as easily as they hoped? Did the intense media attention spook them?

And where are the Cezanne and Degas?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Venice On My Mind

It's a nice feeling when you find a book so engrossing that it makes you stay up late, read it over breakfast, and put it down with a satisfied sigh when you're done. This week's bedtime-breakfast book was Sarah Dunant's "In the Company of the Courtesan," which for some mysterious reason I had not read earlier. Fantastico! Several things about the book stood out to me: 1) the authenticity/sincerity of the narrator's voice. What a challenge, to assume the persona of a 16th-century male dwarf who business-partners with a courtesan, and Dunant pulls it off. All it takes is one badly chosen word to make an author's first-person voice falter, but Dunant doesn't falter once. Her Bucino lives, breathes, and speaks with utter believability. 2) the power of place. Dunant evokes Venice beautifully while avoiding clichés. The reader feels and smells the city. 3) Dunant's gift of description. Again, evocative, and lyrical too. There's a real rhythm to her words.

I enjoyed "The Birth of Venus" when I read it a while back, but I think I prefer "Courtesan." Venice is certainly getting its share of attention in the historical-fiction world these days: in the fall I read Barbara Quick's "Vivaldi's Virgins," which I greatly enjoyed, and on my list (when will I have time to read all the books on my long list??) is Christi Phillips' "The Rossetti Letter." Apparently Rosalind Laker's "The Venetian Mask," which I have a vague memory of reading a long time ago, is coming back into print soon. Viva la Venezia!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Indy's Back!

I am practically jumping up and down in my seat here. posted the first trailer for the new movie, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," and it actually looks great. I was one of the naysayers--how could they possibly do an Indy 4 when everybody went riding into the sunset at the end of Indy 3?--but the theme music and the sight of Harrison Ford in his familiar fedora sends a chill up my spine. I credit "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with a lot of my career choice: I was in sixth grade when it first came out, my parents took me to see it four times at the theater, and I was totally obsessed. I got so into ancient Egypt as a result of that movie that my Dad took me to the Emory University Museum (back then a bizarre attic-like hodgepodge of stuff) to see the mummies. The rest is ancient history, so to speak, since I ended up going to Emory for university and pursuing degrees in ancient art. I did not, however, become a digging archaeologist. I hate dirt.

To this day, one of my Raiders bubblegum cards--the one with Indiana Jones lecturing to his class--is tacked up on my bulletinboard above my desk at home. May 22nd, I'll be there, popcorn in hand, eyes wide, ready to clap and cheer with all the other geek-out fans when the "Lucasfilm Ltd" logo appears to start the movie. Woohoo!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Project Runway at the Met

Project Runway Season 4, to me anyway, hasn't been as good as the previous seasons. Until last night. I think I squealed when Tim Gunn announced the designers were taking a field trip to "82nd Street and 5th Avenue." Hurrah! The designers were given 45 minutes in three different sections of the Met to choose a work of art for inspiration: the stunning, gorgeous, fantastic new Greek & Roman sculpture court; the pre-19th century European paintings wing; and the Temple of Dendur. Rami the drapery aficionado showed his supreme good taste by picking a Roman statue of Aphrodite, and then made a lovely dress. Christian's "fierce" design, inspired by a Spanish Baroque portrait by Murillo, won the challenge, and I thought it was the best too. He's ridiculously talented and his time interning with Alexander McQueen in London shows. Sweet P's dress inspired by a Dutch Baroque painting of peacocks was pretty, but she was eliminated. Chris did a couture-ish gown inspired by an 18th century French portrait of a noblewoman (by Rattier? I can't remember the painter), and Gillian's creative outfit was inspired by a 15th century French scene of the Argonauts. Everybody but Sweet P got a pass to create a collection for Fashion Week, but Chris and Rami will have to duke it out for Spot 3 once their collections are finished. Christian and Gillian are definitely going to Fashion Week.

I actually saw Tim Gunn at the Met over a year ago. I was going through a Tiffany exhibition, when I heard a very familiar voice behind me. Tim!!

Image from Designer Chris takes pics in the Greek galleries. Behind him, one of my favorite vases, a Classical Athenian bell krater showing the return of Persephone to her mother Demeter.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The "Art Infusion Effect"

The stuff you find when you make typing "Gogh" into Google News part of your lunchtime routine. A new study coming out in the Journal of Marketing Research suggests that consumers are more likely to consider various items "luxurious" when they are promoted using art. The two researchers carried out a series of studies; in one of them, they posed as waiters in a restaurant and showed 100 patrons boxes of silverware. Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night appeared on the boxes of some of the silverware, while the rest of the boxes had a photograph of an outdoor cafe. The researchers found that the diners rated the silverware that came from the van Gogh-decorated box more "luxurious," even though it was the same as the utensils in the other boxes. The researchers determined that the "art infusion effect" works with all kinds of everyday items in terms of enhancing perceived prestige among consumers. Not surprising, really, but I love they went with van Gogh in their study, and with a painting that many people would recognize as being his.


Girl Power

Back in my day -- "my day" being the late 1980s-early 1990s in terms of undergrad days -- you had to look hard in an art history survey textbook to find any women artists. No longer true: in the current edition of Gardner's Art Through the Ages you find such talented painters as Sofonisba Anguissola, Rachel Ruysch, Judith Leyster, Mary Cassatt, etc., and that's not counting the 20th century artists like Frida Kahlo or Judy Chicago. This week my Survey 2 class will meet Caterina van Hemessen (shown) and next week, the courageous Artemisia Gentileschi.

My students are growing up in a world where women can do just about anything -- even run for president -- so they are surprised to learn that these painters weren't allowed to take art classes alongside male students or draw from male models. Surprised, too, to learn that art historians didn't care much about these painters until fairly recently. I see the girls sit up a little straighter in their seats when we talk about a woman painter, and I see how they react to the stories of how women artists overcame prejudice and obstacles to build successful careers. Makes us all feel proud!

Monday, February 11, 2008

More on the Missing Painting

The Zurich theft gave me a great excuse to come home and play in my van Gogh books instead of grading exams. "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" (F820, H747 for those keeping score in Faille and Hulsker) was painted early in Vincent's stay at Auvers-sur-Oise, either in the first few days, e.g. between May 20-25, 1890 (Faille) or early June (Hulsker). The May date advocated by Faille comes from mention in an early Auvers letter of four paintings; two of those are later said by Vincent to be studies of blossoming chestnut trees (street scenes). "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" may be in the same group. In any case, it's interesting to me that Vincent returned to the theme of blossoming trees when first arriving in Auvers -- he'd done the same in Arles in Feb-March 1888. Perhaps in Auvers, too, it was a way of affirming his desire for a new beginning. Especially poignant given that he went to Auvers hoping to find solace and recovery from the illness that had kept him in the asylum at Saint-Rémy for a year.

"Blossoming Chestnut Branches" entered the collection of Dr. Paul Ferdinand Gachet, Vincent's doctor in Auvers, and passed to Dr. Gachet's children, Paul and Marguerite. Paul Gachet fils sold the painting to a Paris art dealer in 1912: one of the first van Goghs from the Gachet collection to be sold (not the last). It is unclear why that particular painting was sold early on, whereas less noteworthy van Goghs were sold later or not at all. "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" is held by many to be one of the finest still lifes of the Auvers period.

For more on the Gachet collection, see Susan Alyson Stein's essay "The Gachet Donation in Context" in the 1999 exhibition catalogue, "From Cezanne to van Gogh: The Collection of Doctor Gachet." Interestingly, "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" was not included in the Gachet exhibition nor in the Met's 1989 show, "Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers." E. Buehrle acquired the painting in 1951, after it passed among a couple of private collectors in Germany and France.

Where'd They Gogh?

That pun was about as criminal as the Zurich theft. More details are emerging: the three thieves spoke German with a Slavic accent, and they escaped in a white car with the trunk open and the paintings visible. Police hope somebody saw them and can report a tag number or other information. The choice of the four paintings was made based on their location near the door; they were lined up together on one wall. The weight of framed paintings made it difficult for the three suspects to carry more.

The value of van Goghs means, of course, this is not the first theft. In December 1988, three van Goghs were stolen from the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, including an early version of the "Potato Eaters"; all were recovered. In April 1991, twenty paintings were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, including (horrors!) "The Potato Eaters," "Wheatfield with Crows," and the VGM's version of "Sunflowers." All were recovered about an hour later in the getaway car (a Volkswagen Passat), abandoned at the train station. Three suffered minor damage, including "Wheatfield with Crows," since repaired. Then in December 2002, the VGM was hit again and two paintings from the Dutch period were stolen, "View of the Sea at Scheveningen" and "Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen." These two have NOT been recovered, although two suspects were charged in the theft, based on DNA evidence left behind at the scene.

A couple of news articles today are calling the Zurich art heist the second largest in history (after the 1991 VGM theft), but wouldn't the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft be second? Those paintings still haven't been recovered, including one Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas. Perhaps they mean second largest in EUROPEAN history.


A gang of armed thieves overpowered museum personnel at the E.G. Buehrle Foundation in Zurich on Sunday, making off with four major works: van Gogh's "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" from the Auvers period (shown); Monet's "Poppy Field at Vetheuil"; Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and His Daughter"; and Cezanne's "Boy with a Red Waistcoat" (not to be confused with the "Boy with a Red Waistcoat" in the National Gallery, Washington). The four are estimated at $163.2 million, and a $91,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings.

The Buehrle Foundation is actually home to several van Goghs, including a version of the November 1888 "Sower" and a Paris period self-portrait. At least the thieves only got one of them.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

I Heart Apollo

This week in Mythology, we've been talking about my favorite Olympian, Apollo. I swear by the river Styx the following story is true.

Twelve years ago now, I made my first trip to Delphi. I've known about Apollo and Delphi since I was eight, so going there as a daytrip from Athens was more or less a pilgrimage. I opted to go alone via regular bus rather than do a group tour. Communing with the gods is not a matter for a group tour.

I arrive at the site just after 10 in the morning, a crisp November morning. I'm dazzled, I'm taking pictures left and right, nobody's around but me. I stop to take a break in front of the Athenian Treasury, when a stray cat jumps into my lap and demands a snack. I have no snack, but I have petting fingers, and kitty is happy. Suddenly, I hear a noise up the Sacred Way, and I look into the sun to find a man walking towards me: tall, gorgeous, blond hair cascading over his shoulders, shirtless, wearing sunglasses, jeans, and cowboy boots. No backpack, no camera to show he's a mere mortal. It's Apollo, stepped off a pedestal and into a pair of Levi's.

"Hi!" he says cheerfully. "Looks like you found a friend!" Yep, Apollo speaks English, and with a Southern-American accent like mine, no less. He sits next to me as I blurt out, "Uh, I like cats" and the cat jumps from my lap to his. (Smart girl.) Couldn't tell you how the conversation went after that except I remember he asked where else I'd traveled, and when I said Rome, he replied, "Rome's great! But I haven't been there in years." Not since the 4th century AD when they closed your temples, huh? I wanted to say. "Well, I've gotta go," he finally said and stood up to continue down the Sacred Way, coquettish cat trotting behind.

Dang, I think, why didn't I ask for something like the gift of prophecy when I had the chance. Or -- stupid, stupid, stupid -- a PICTURE???!!!!!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

David on the Move?

Say what? Apparently some culture officials in Florence are considering moving Michelangelo's David from the Accademia, where he has lived since 1873, to a cultural park planned for construction outside the city center. The move, if it took place, would not happen for a few years. The reason? Complaints about congestion in the city center, where gaggles of tourists traipse from the Uffizi to the Accademia and stand in long lines for a glimpse of Florence's artistic treasures.

I can see the concerns about tourist traffic--those narrow streets definitely clog up--but the idea of moving David to some site outside the centro storico is anathema from a symbolic point of view. Michelangelo would be horrified! The statue was created as a civic emblem and stood for centuries outside the Palazzo Signoria as an expression of Florentine pride. He does not belong in some suburban "cultural park" that requires a schlep. And what about context? Part of the experience of David is seeing him in concert with sculptures by Michelangelo and others of the time and being able to make comparisons.

I hope this idea quietly goes away.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Wee Bit Ironic

The Van Gogh Museum online shop sent out their latest email newsletter today (I don't know why I subscribe, it's just endless temptation) with a Valentine's Day theme. "Surprise your beloved with a gift from the Van Gogh Museum shop!" It goes on to advertise placemats and prints with one of van Gogh's Paris scenes of courting couples, an expensive handbag, candles for "dinner by candlelight," and a vase "especially for red roses."

Talk about irony. Even the excellent though short book "Van Gogh and Love" (also advertised) is all about how Vincent's luck was downright bad when it came to love. Poor Vincent would be eating that dinner by candlelight by himself, and that vase of red roses would be only for painting.

Purchases from the VGM shop benefit museum acquisitions, though, so order up for your sweetheart. If you have one.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

North of Ithaka

I'm a sucker for travel memoirs, and right now I'm reading Eleni N. Gage's North of Ithaka, which has been on my list for a while. It is superb. Gage is the granddaughter of the Eleni Gage memorialized in Nicholas Gage's book Eleni, who had been executed during the years of Greek civil war following World War II. Eleni the granddaughter returned to Lia, the Epirote village in northwestern Greece where her family lived, and rebuilt the family home, which had fallen into neglect. In so doing she sought to reconnect with her personal identity as a Greek-American as well as reclaim her family's past.

Gage's ancestral connection to Lia keeps North of Ithaka from being just another expat-builds-house-in-foreign-country book. The memoir reads like her personal odyssey, filled with everyday situations (and blunders, told with terrific humor) while keeping an eye to the big picture. Particularly interesting are Gage's observations on village customs and rituals. Her degree is in anthropology and folklore, and it shows. I've spent time in Greece, but mostly in Athens, so I feel like I'm learning a lot about the region known as Epiros and the way of life there. Gage's writing is fresh and a pleasure to read--a highly recommended book.