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Through the Garden of Delights; The Cycle of Life

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Through the Garden of Delights
Perhaps it is our electronic age that has led us back nostalgically to great paintings. Millions line up to see museum shows, Broadway had a Seurat painting come to life with "Sunday in the Park with George," Kurosawa's film "Dreams" allowed us to hike through a Van Gogh landscape, and theologian Henri Nouwen devoted an entire volume to Rembrandt's "The Prodigal Son." Now, Terry Tempest Williams in her book "Leap" (Pantheon Books, $25) writes of her spiritual pilgrimage through "The Garden of Delights," a fantastic triptych by the 15th-century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch. Williams' earlier works also focused on spiritual discovery. "Pieces of White Shell" explored Navaho ritual and "Refuge" took us to Utah's Great Salt Lake and her Mormon heritage.

In "Leap," the author sits day after day in Madrid's Prado Museum, meticulously studying and then entering Bosch's landscape of strange creatures, wildly postured humans and grotesque architecture. The three sections of the painting, paradise, hell and the central panel on the Garden of Delights, provide the structure of the book, and a full-color foldout of the painting allows us to follow the author's journey. A final chapter, "Restoration," describes the painting's recent restoration and becomes a parable on art, nature and body as places of healing. The author's struggle to find a way of restoring the imaginative vision of her Mormon heritage, as well as her environmentalist struggle to save America's wilderness, are movingly personal and thought-provoking, though her attempts at a sort of incantation poetry may sometimes be a bit pretentious and in need of a touch of Bosch's own carnival humor.

— Cliff Edwards

The Cycle of Life
In "MotherKind,"(Knopf, $25), Jayne Anne Phillips writes of Kate, a thirtysomething new mother having a very tough year. The novel takes us from the autumn that Kate learns both that she is pregnant with her first child and that her mother is dying of cancer, through a full year to the following November when her mother dies. As the seasons roll past in the background, Kate deals with the obvious things like preparing for the birth, eventually marrying the father of her baby and becoming a stepmother to his young sons, and of course, caring for her weakening mother. There are also less obvious issues for Kate. Through a series of subtly interspersed flashbacks, we get to know a younger, unburdened Kate, who travels to Nepal to prove she is a free spirit and who comes close to staying there for good. We sense that much of her life will be spent reconciling that Kate with her new life. We also see the child Kate, who became her mother's confidante early when her parents divorced, but who managed to maintain a solid, if distant, relationship with her father.

The entire novel has a sort of slow-motion, underwater quality that new parents and bereaved children will probably recognize. Kate is living on two levels. She is caretaker for two generations, and finds joy in many of the special moments that role affords. Yet she is constantly aware of her profound situation — she is the mother and the child. Her own daily experiences as a new mother, and the sight of her dying mother caring for the baby, call up memories of childhood and sharpen the awareness of the loss that lies ahead. Phillips confronts motherhood at its most intense, at both ends of life's spectrum, and the result is a quietly moving and bittersweet book.

- Mary Lloyd Parks

Richmonders are Reading
Marcel Cornis-Pope, chairman of the English department at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been reading Thomas Pynchon's "Mason and Dixon." He has been reading it both for leisure and study. He started reading it out of curiosity and ended it up studying it. It is an interesting historical novel, a little less difficult to read than Pynchon's earlier books, a good cultural comedy.
Mary Tyler McClenahan has been rereading "Thurber." This is a collection of James Thurber's writings, his cartoons and his sketches of well-known people. The book is fun because it has a great variety. We tend to remember his humorous things, but we don't remember that he was a world reporter and lived in Paris and wrote about the life there after the war. His work is sensitive and appreciative but always with a light touch.
Kelly Pickerell, trust officer at First Union, is a member of a book club, "The Book Ends." The group has just finished reading "Blind Eye," by James B. Stewart. The story of a physician who was a serial murderer and who went on killing while, the author claims, the profession turned a blind eye. Pickerell says it is "very scary how [Swango] was allowed to get away with, literally, murder."

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