“The Madonnas of Leningrad,” by Debra Dean, is an amazing book that combines art, history, mother-daughter relationships and the family heartbreak of Alzheimer’s. My American Association of University Women book club read it this month. It’s about a woman who is struggling with remembering the daily routine of her life but can recall in every detail her work as a guide at the State Hermitage Museum in what was then Leningrad (now back to St. Petersburg) during World War II. If you’re like me and only know a tiny bit about the 900-day German siege of Leningrad and less than that about the Hermitage, read this book and be stunned – once again — at tales of human resiliency. But there’s also a gently compelling story embedded in the history and art lessons, a story that explores the question, “Who are we if not the sum of our memories?” Dean writes deliberately yet subtly — she lets you meander around on your own until you realize the book’s done and she’s brought every seemingly unrelated plot line together elegantly and succinctly. That’s one of the best things about book clubs: Other people point out the things you missed. I love it! It enables my lazy reading — I just sort of wander through without noticing the finer details. Plus, at the AAUW meeting, a few of the women had actually visited the Hermitage. It was fascinating to learn more about this apparently unbelievable palace-turned-art-museum. Here’s the link: http://www.hermitagemuseum.org Be sure to click on the English-language option! As always after having my mind opened, I’m shocked by how much I do not know about the world. It’s embarrassing.
Part of the book and so part of our book-club discussion was about memorization. Characters in the book use a mnemonic technique to build a room and furnish it with the things they wanted to remember — “placing” the items you want to remember as you would place furniture and architectural details in an empty space. Turns out that’s an actual memorization method developed by the ancient Greeks. Fascinating! Here’s a link to an essay, http://www.philipcoppens.com/artmemory.html There’s also a book, “The Art of Memory,” by Frances A. Yates, at online booksellers. Why didn’t I know this 30 years ago when I was cramming for exams at 2 a.m.??? Why doesn’t anybody tell me these things?????
Since my middle-aged body is as equally flabby as my middle-aged mind, I try to workout every day — the sweat equivalent of reading. Today’s DVD was a new one, Ellen Barrett’s “Slim Sculpt.” Barrett is primarily a Pilates and yoga teacher who recently branched out on her own with her own studio — called, simply enough, The Studio. I have some of her earlier DVDs with Crunch, the fitness studio known for packing tons of energy into short amounts of time. Barrett’s new DVDS seem to be more of her own style — smooth and slow. But not easy. No, no, no. When I first started Pilates DVDs, I’d just zip right through them without paying much attention. But Barrett explains why holding your core still and solid is so important and why even the smallest movement — or non-movement — is so vital to getting the most out of your workout. The setting is peaceful, too. It looks like a renovated school auditorium. In fact, it reminds me of the old fellowship hall at our former church, Keith United Methodist, in Athens, Tenn. This DVD concentrates on upper body. Here’s Barrett’s Web site: http://www.ellenbarrett.com. I love her tag line — “Sweat glamorously.” If only!!!!