Books In Brief // Local

August 10, 2008|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

There's no one right way to write a life story. You can arrange it in chapters or as a series of vignettes. You can present it with or without illustrations. You can approach it from the outside looking in, as found in most biographies. Or you can tell it from an interior perspective, as in most memoirs. But whatever you decide, you must make the people, who are the subjects, come alive. To do that, you must provide a sense of place. In the case of these three books, that place is, to a large or small extent, Baltimore.

The Cone Sisters of Baltimore: Collecting at Full Tilt By Ellen B. Hirschland and Nancy Hirschland Ramage Northwestern University Press / 279 pages / $34.95

It's hard to imagine two spinsters with little art education investing large sums of money in the splashy pink and blue nudes of Henri Matisse long before they were considered art - let alone valuable. But Dr. Claribel Cone (1864-1929) and her sister Etta (1870-1949) did just that. Their art collection is now housed in the Baltimore Museum of Art - despite disparaging comments from their contemporaries like Hans Schuler, the well-known Baltimore sculptor who believed "modernists' canvases to be the cripples of the art world."

The Cone Sisters of Baltimore by Ellen B. Hirschland (deceased) and her daughter, Nancy Hirschland Ramage, the Cones' niece and great-niece, tells the insider's story of the sisters and their art. Daughters of German-Jewish grocers, who moved to Baltimore from Tennessee, the Cone sisters went to Western Female High School, with Claribel going to Women's Medical College and working in the pathology lab at Johns Hopkins. Etta stayed home to take care of her parents and began collecting art as a way to redecorate the family home. Accompanying her sister on research trips to Europe, Etta befriended Gertrude Stein, who influenced her aesthetic taste and introduced the sisters to Pablo Picasso, Matisse and other luminaries. This is a lavishly illustrated tribute to the two sisters and their vision.

A Persistent Peace: One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World By John Dear, S.J. Loyola Press / 400 pages / $22.95

In A Persistent Peace, John Dear, S.J., takes readers inside his life as a modern-day Don Quixote. Dear's story moves from his family home in Bethesda to Duke University, where he had the first of several conversion experiences; to Central and South America; the Middle East; Asia; Africa; and back to the U.S., where he ministered to a dying Philip Berrigan, a former activist priest from Baltimore. When in 1984, Dear joined the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order of priests, he wanted to follow Jesus Christ, which for him meant being a peace activist. But in the eyes of some of his Jesuit superiors, he was a troublemaker.

Undaunted, Dear spent close to 30 years serving in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and prisons. Along the way, he joined the Plowshares Movement, helped to organize campaigns of civil disobedience, attempted to destroy nuclear weapons, protested acts of war, prayed and meditated on the lives of luminaries like Robert Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa. As Dear sees it in this picaresque, rambling account, life isn't about the impossible dream of peace on Earth; it's about making that dream possible.

Friends, Writers, And Other Countrymen By Sidney Offit Thomas Dunne Books / 320 pages / $24.95

At times laugh-out-loud funny, Sidney Offit's Friends, Writers, And Other Countrymen is a collection of short reminiscences. Lacking a narrative structure, the book has an overall chronological progression. It begins in Baltimore, where Offit's nurturing parents supported his passion for literature, although they had little education. His relationship with his father, who was a bookie, was the focus of Offit's previous book, Memoir of the Bookie's Son (1996), for which Offit received glowing reviews. Now nearing 80, Offit met or interviewed nearly everyone who was anyone in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century - including H.L. Mencken, Russell Baker, Tina Brown, Mike Tyson, Harold Macmillan, Tom Wolfe, John Barth and Nathan Lane. Offit's encounters usually went awry and became adventures in what was supposed to happen versus what really happened: He interviewed Robert Frost and was so overwhelmed that he forgot to ask any questions. Ultimately, as Offit remembers his encounters with luminaries from the literary, political and sports worlds, he makes fun of himself and of literary pretensions. He also offers a few hard-won lessons on the value of serendipity.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming "Reading Lips, and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability."

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