Thursday, August 11, 2011

Clara & Mr. Tiffany - Susan Vreeland (Audio)

I have had a crazy good summer of reading.  Better, I think, than any other summer, with five stars flying everywhere.  Books that have just blown my mind.  But if I think back through the summer, and my reading life in general, there are very few books that inspire a fervor, an obsession, over a topic.  Like when Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" turned me loose on Medieval churches.  Or when "The Devil and the White City" by Erik Larson plunged me into a fascination of Chicago architecture and the 1893 World's Fair.  These experiences are almost magical.  And now it seems I have discovered another such book in "Clara & Mr. Tiffany".  The ironic thing was how this book generated no interest with me when it initially launched, and was "forced" upon me through the Heathrow Literary Society. 

Synopsis:  In turn-of-the-century New York, women were expected to get married, stay home, and have children.  They weren't supposed to have jobs, have an opinion, or change the landscape of the art world.  Enter Clara Driscoll, a widow with an attitude and a creative flair.  As the manager of the women's department and lead designer for Louis Comfort Tiffany's world-renowned stained glass windows, Clara was a modern woman even by our standards.  Clara yearned for the approval of her boss and recognition for her contributions to the art world.  One would think that Clara had achieved her goals when she designed and produced the first of many stained-glass lamp shades, Tiffany's ultimate claim to fame.  But maybe not.

This story is a testament to the life of a woman who was not allowed to marry if she wished to pursue her passion for stained glass.  A woman who battled the labor unions filled with men who were intimidated by her department's expertise.  A woman who longed for companionship but was unlucky in love.  A woman who fought for her employees, and took an interest in their personal plights.  A woman who was the center of the universe and role model at the boarding house where she lived, with her best friends being a group of gay artists.  A woman who observed and was passionate about capturing the essence of nature.  A woman whose undying loyalty was pledged to one creative, eccentric and unpredictable man.

My thoughts:  I was completely consumed by this story of a woman who I consider my soul sister.  Hell, I can't draw a straight line.  But I've worked in a man's world and done more than a few battles in my day for the rights of my "kids" in my department.  I really could identify with Clara, even though I knew my obstacles weren't even close to hers.  I knew in my bones that this woman, as many women for centuries to come, was going to get screwed.

Clara was an avid letter writer, and this allowed Vreeland to base her story on fact with some poetic license added for flavor.  And what a flavor it was.  The players seemed so real and so DEAR.  Oh, I loved them all so, every last one of them, even the uptight Tiffany number crunchers and the old-fashioned Tiffany women who weren't so keen on Clara's progressive views.  Throw in some of the most fascinating political and social dynamics in US history (especially the Suffragette movement), and some world-class prose, and you have a home run.

It was serendipitous then, when I found this incredible book at Barnes and Noble for $7 (in the last bin a book resides before burning), and included the history of Louis Comfort Tiffany, beautiful color pictures of many of the windows, Clara's unique lamps, and mosaics created over the years.  I found it highly interesting that Clara was only mentioned once (alas the screwing continues).  According to this book, Clara was said to be the highest paid woman in America at a time when women earned on average 60% less then men.  I found it terribly exciting to see Clara's lamps, described in detail in the book, come to life in these pictures.  But the best was yet to come.                    
Thoughts from the Heathrow Literary Society:  We had a small attendance for this particular meeting unfortunately, but of the five of us there, four of us loved this book.  The disliker could not get through the book, but admitted to being distracted by life and feeling that perhaps the book was maybe a little too feminist for him. 

We are blessed to live near Winter Park, home of the Morse Museum, which showcases the largest comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The Heathrow Literary Society will be taking a tour of the museum sometime in the next month or so, and we are all excited to behold some of Clara's most beautiful creations.  Stay tuned for a report on our field trip!   


18 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

I love books that are so good they make you want to research a whole new field. I can't imagine a book about lamps exciting me, but then well written books can really surprise. I'll make a note of this as I always appreciate a good audio. :-)

Frances said...

Fantastic to hear! I have been fascinated by the concept of this book and really want to read. Your stamp of approval is a bonus. Once worked in a museum with a large Tiffany collection and know that the beauty of these pieces is something that needs to be experienced firsthand. A picture is one thing but to get close to it... Just amazing craftsmanship.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like my kind of book! I love to read about women who had the guts and daring to break the mold like that!!

Trisha said...

It is a rare book that has you wanting to do more research in the field, but don't you just love them!?!? I was like that recently when I finished John Adams; I even lucked out and caught a show on The History Channel about the French Revolution, which is a large part of the latter half of the book when Adams is president.

The book does sound fascinating though. I like reading this kind of history.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Oh no way I could read this! I'd be out coveting all those gorgeous Tiffany lamps I see in some small specialized boutiques, and making up excuses why I HAD to have them!

reviewsbylola said...

I LOVE books that have me spirally out of control in researching other topics. In fact, I am reading just such a book now (The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb). This book caught my interest but your review has made me even more determined to read it!

Jenny said...

I've never heard of Louis Comfort Tiffany, lol. I wouldn't have been interested in this book by the synopsis but wow it sounds fantastic!!!

Zibilee said...

I also thought that this book would be a bit boring, but your reaction to it gives me pause and makes me think it might be a sleeper hit with me. I think it's also very cool that you will be touring the museum with the group, and I am hoping that they are not sticklers for picture taking. This was a wonderfully enticing review, and now I think I am off to see where this book can be had! Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for it with all of us!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I thought this one sounded wonderful when you mentioned it at lunch. I’m so glad it was good! I added to my library wait list and I can’t wait to get it.

Julie P. said...

I thought this one looked like a winner!

heidenkind said...

How can it be that I've never seen or heard of this book?!

Amy said...

I didn't know really what this book was about but thanks to your thrilling review I want to read Clara's story. What an inspirational woman! The section of the book about her letter-writing sounds fabulous, too. There seems to be so much in this book to enjoy! I love when books are as enthralling and absorbing as you found this one. It's amazing that you discovered that book at B&N with the Tiffany's lamps. And how aggravating that Clara is mentioned only one time!

Thank you, Sandy, your enthusiasm is wonderful and catching!

Jenners said...

Isn't it wonderful when a book you expected to dislike captures your heart? How neat to be able to go on a field trip with your book group. And I love that you found a kindred sister in Clara.

Marg said...

I have enjoyed quite a few of Susan Vreeland's books. I have borrowed this one from the library but had to return it unread. I need to get it out again.

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

I've been meaning to read this, maybe I should check on the audio!

Ti said...

You know, it just dawned on my who this author is. I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue quite ways back and liked it quite a bit.

Like you though, this book did nothing for me when it first came out. Your comments have me wanting to read it now (of course).

Iliana said...

I can't wait to read this one. I've loved several of Susan Vreeland's books and how she brings to life artists and their lives. So wonderful.

That's great that you've had so many 5 star books this summer. I'm a bit jealous :) I've read some good ones too though so no complaining.

Annie at PlumSiena said...

I just saw your post- I, too, loved this book.

I was lucky to stumble upon the audio book at the library right when it was released and enjoyed every moment. I even reviewed it on my blog.

Of course, I am a Susan Vreeland fan and admirer of Clara!