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In Brief 

This elegant novel was inspired by the lives of maverick painter Jackson Pollock and his artist wife, Lee Krasner. While Pollock died in his 50s in a tragic, drunken car crash, Krasner lived to be a very old woman, very much in the shadow of the legend surrounding Pollock's fierce, huge canvases and his indecorous behavior.

Toynton, an art historian, spent time with Krasner and was inspired to create the fictive Belle Prokoff, the last of a dying breed of painters for whom art was the best and only reason for being. The widow of Clay Madden, a revolutionary painter, Belle has lived in seclusion, protecting herself from Madden's crazed fans and fevered collectors, continuing in the meantime to pursue her own work.

The book begins with an interview prior to an exhibit of Belle's work and shows her discomfort as art mavens fawn over her. The omniscient narrator views and tells the story through Belle's eyes and perspective, though formalizing and distancing the action by using the third-person voice. Belle suffers no illusions -- the crowd is here to touch, to see, to breathe the same air as Clay Madden's widow:

"He took me seriously," she says. It isn't true of course; he wanted her for a nanny, a helpmeet, just as they suspect, but she has maintained this lie too long to start confiding in graduate students.

Belle, who suffers a stroke early in the book, is wry and painfully honest with herself while revealing as little as possible to the cast of caregivers, friends and fans who surround her. The unique perspective of an aged, dying woman who has lived a rich, exquisitely private life resounds throughout the book.

Packed with knowledge about art, the impulse to create and the protective shield that a life in art can provide, Modern Art moves forward at a smooth glide. Toynton is an economical writer who packs insight and an apparent love of knowledge into every sentence. Lee Martin, who teaches creative writing at the University of North Texas, has written a gentle, sensitive memoir about his upbringing by a tortured, brutal father.

When Martin was just a year old, his father, Roy, caught both of his arms in the rollers of a mechanical corn picker on their southern Illinois farm, and was so badly injured that doctors amputated both arms. We are ushered onto that farm and into that startling scene immediately upon opening From Our House, but we are also given clues early on that this is not to be a whining confessional or a grotesque true-life drama. Martin's compassion for his father, his intense knowledge of the place where he grew up and his sympathy for the limitations of his family give the book an elegaic tone, remembering always that we are but the sum of our life's experiences, good and bad:

With his belt, he whips my buttocks, my legs, my arms -- whatever part of me he can reach. ... And I love him because he's the only father I have to love, and I think I must surely deserve his whippings because I'm a wicked child, too irritable, too stuborn, too full of sass. I don't know, then, that the moment in the cornfield has already determined years and years of anger between my father and me, or that such tensions are common between fathers and son. Instead, I rejoice in the few moments of closeness we share. ...

From Our House begins in the Eisenhower '50s in rural Illinois and ends in suburbia, the late '60s when Lee is ready to leave home for college. In between are succinct chronicles of the passing of a way of life, the fits and starts in a family's small, tight existence, and the ability of a boy to make sense of his father's rage -- to see behind it the pained love of a parent who believes he has nothing to give.

  • Reviews of Modern Art by Evelyn Toynton and From Our House by Lee Martin

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