Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Madonnas of Leningrad

On September 7th, The BHPL First Friday of the Month Book Group will be discussing Debra Dean's The Madonnas of Leningrad (click on the title for a discussion guide.) Look at this National Public Radio webpage for an excerpt from the book. The Madonnas of Leningrad, Dean's first novel won critical acclaim and several awards including the Quill Award for 2006, and ALA Notable Book of the Year 2006. The book will appeal to readers interested in psychological fiction, historical fiction, art history, World War II and Russian history.

Set during the 900 day Siege of Leningrad, (1940 - 1944) Marina, a docent at the Hermitage Museum, lives in the vast museum basement with her family and hundreds of other starving citizens of the city during the Nazi bombings. Increasingly frail and malnourished, she stands watch nightly on the huge roof of the museum buildings spotting enemy aircraft.

The World War II scenes are interwoven with the present-day story of Marina as an old woman living in Seattle, Washington attending a grand-daughter's wedding. Suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Marina's mind floats freely between the clear memories of her past and her confused experience of the present. During the siege, to distract herself from hunger pains, Marina had memorized much of the huge collection of art treasures, creating a "memory mansion" of paintings and sculptures of the great masters of Western European art. The art lives on very clearly in her disease-riddled brain many decades later giving her the pleasure of viewing the art again as she "walks" through the miles of galleries in her mind.

Visit the State Hermitage Museum website to see panoramas from the roof overlooking St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) perhaps showing views that Marina looked at every night. Click on the various collection links to see the art and to see the splendor of the buildings themselves, including the main staircase that Marina describes in the book. Click here to see the timeline of the museum from the design and construction of the Winter Palace by architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1754-1762) to last year's Rembrandt Exhibit featuring works described in the book. The madonnas by Raphael, daVinci and others are also featured on the website.
Pictured: Raphael (1483-1520) Madonna Conestabile, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Read this piece in Wikipedia about Method of Loci or Memory Palace as a classical method of memorizing.

No comments: