Recent Books I’ve Read

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

“Why are religion or justice or art so sacred? People who do nothing but fall in love are perhaps more serious and saintly than those who sacrifice their love and their hearts to an idea. Be that as it may, in order to write a book, do a deed, make a picture with some life in it, one has to be alive oneself… Enjoy yourself as much as you can, and remember that what people demand in art nowadays is something very much alive, with strong colour and great intensity. So intensify your own health and strength, and life, that’s the best study.”

A mixture of heartfelt letters to his brother and his friends, biographical passages, and sketches, this is an insightful collection of the famous artist’s tortured mind. Van Gogh is famous for his beautiful swirling paintings, but also for being crazy. This compilation helps to show why he felt how he felt, and why he acted as he did.

From his family fights to his idealistic dreams of an artist collective, the letters show Van Gogh as a sensitive man confused by the cultural expectations of his time and his own heart’s desires. He struggles with his need for love (often found either in the form of desolate women who need help or prostitutes) with his need to work. His love for his brother Theo is shown in their extensive correspondence throughout their entire lives.

One of Van Gogh’s famous crazy acts is the one in which he would eat yellow paint, because he believed the color yellow contained happiness and he wanted the happiness within him. The book sheds light on his obsessions of color. He writes so much of his love for colors, and his wishes to be able to express shades of color perfectly as related to humans. “To express the love of two lovers by the marriage of two complemnetary colours, their blending, and their contrast, the mysterious vibrations of related tones… that’s certainly no realistic trompe l’oeil, but something that really exists, isn’t it?”

Van Gogh was my first introduction to art history. His paintings are so emotional, seen in the colors he chose and his brushstrokes. His own journey around Europe seeking acceptance and love from his family, friends, and fellow artists can be followed in his paintings, from the Parisian late night cafes to the wheat fields outside his asylum. I am thankful for this collection of letters/biographical passages to shed more light onto one of my favorite artists.

The Audacity of Hope

Obama’s second book has been on my list for a long time, and in the beginning, I was slightly disappointed.

I felt that he was writing more of political speech rather than an actual biography with his values and opinions. Every topic he wrote about, which stemmed from values to our constitution to family to race, seemed to be grandiose compromises. The Audacity of Hope was written in 2006 when he was gaining limelight as a senator, so it makes sense that he had to write less candidly.

However, as I continued reading, I thought about the polarizing political world we live in now, where the two political parties are so opposed that it seems no compromise could ever be made. Perhaps what we need is somebody who makes those compromises, who writes about both sides of the issue.

For example, he writes that community based institutions, such as the church, have historically helped families and individuals. There is little doubt of their value. However, he recognizes the “wall of separation” needed between church and state. He therefore comes to the conclusion that faith should be taken seriously not just has a religious right, but as a method of engaging all persons of faith (and no faith!) in the larger project of renewal.

In addition, I realized that his writings on race, especially as being one of the few African Americans to be in the Senate, must humble him. His childhood explorations in Indonesia gave him a worldly view. His single parent childhood showed him grace.

In this crazy political climate, it was a comfort to read such self-aware words from a former president.

Thanks, Obama.

Nine Stories

JD Salinger, famous for The Catcher in the Rye, also wrote numerous short stories, which he would submit to magazines like the New Yorker. These nine stories by him show his fun way of putting words together, his constant theme of precocious innocent youth, and his preoccupation with his own war experience.

His characters always include beautiful empty-headed women, whom he tends to describe quite wonderfully: “She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty (A Perfect Day for Bananafish),” and smart kids who have yet to be corrupted by adulthood, such as Teddy, who says odd wise things like “After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all acquintances. I may be an orange peel (Teddy).”

I enjoy knowing the artist’s personal history, and seeing how those experiences are reflected in their work. With JD Salinger’s emotions affected by his war experiences and his somewhat messed-up relationships with famous beautiful women, his stories usually contain themes of innocence, beauty, and betrayal. His Nine Stories reflect these themes, both hilariously and profoundly.