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new england literary news

‘Blue’ adds history and culture to the color

Pieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrate the evolution of the color blue through the ages.
Pieces from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, illustrate the evolution of the color blue through the ages.Photos by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Blue on blue

Blue-plate special, blue jeans, blues music: Today the color blue is associated with a down-to-earth sensibility. But it was not always so. In ancient Egypt blue was a sacred color, expensive and rare.

The story of blue’s shifting fortunes through the ages and around the world is told in a new book that showcases more than 200 works of art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “Blue: Cobalt to Cerulean in Art and Culture” (Chronicle) is a lushly illustrated book that features paintings, pottery, prints, and other artworks, many in delightful juxtapositions: An English teapot sits opposite a Winslow Homer painting featuring a blue canoe.

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Among the subjects addressed in 10 essays written by curators and other arts professionals at the MFA are blue in European ceramics over the past 500 years, the blues of Hokusai’s prints depicting Mount Fuji, and the history of indigo, the dye Levi Strauss used to color the denim jeans he began making in 1873.

In ancient Egypt, blue was associated with the heavens and the life-giving waters of the Nile, but blue pigments weren’t easy to use or deep in hue. That changed in the 12th century, when Europe began importing an intensely blue pigment made from a semiprecious stone found in Afghanistan and Persia. Blue became a favorite color of royalty. Yet because of its expense, blue remained a luxury item for painters. Advances in Germany and France in the 18th and 19th centuries gave painters such as Monet, Renoir, and van Gogh a range of affordable blues. “Blue” makes it clear that the art of every age is inextricably tied to business and technology, discoveries and inventions, supply and demand.

N.E. Book Award winners

Poet Mary Oliver, Dr. Atul Gawande, and the creators of a graphic novel about a witch’s assistant are the winners of the 2015 New England Book Awards, presented by the New England Independent Booksellers Association. The awards committee selected five finalists in each of three categories; the winners were determined by a vote of the association’s members.

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“Blue Horses: Poems” (Penguin) by Mary Oliver is this year’s fiction winner. That category may sound like a strange fit for a poetry book, but as association director Steve Fischer explains, The New York Times includes poetry books on its list of fiction bestsellers. Oliver, who lived in Provincetown for 50 years, is now a resident of Florida.

The nonfiction prize goes to “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” (Metropolitan) by Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The book examines ways in which doctors can provide more humane care near the end of life.

In children’s winner “Baba Yaga’s Assistant” (Candlewick), Russian folklore icon Baba Yaga mentors a teen apprentice in the ways of witches. The graphic novel is illustrated by Emily Carroll and written by Marika McCoola, who finds herself in high demand around Halloween. She’ll be one of four authors of spooky books featured at Halloween Spooktavaganza on Oct. 18 at Tres Gatos in Jamaica Plain.

Coming out

■  “Sea Lovers: Selected Stories” by Valerie Martin (Doubleday)

■  “The Murderer’s Daughter” by Jonathan Kellerman (Ballantine)

■  “We Never Asked for Wings” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Ballantine)

Pick of the week

Barry Hoberman of Wellesley Books in Wellesley recommends “Sometimes an Art: Essays on History” by Bernard Bailyn (Knopf): “What will you be doing when you’re 92? Bailyn, 92 years young, is still at Harvard, expanding his incomparable store of knowledge. His latest book is a meaty and well-conceived collection of essays that taught me more about doing comparative history than I learned in two years of grad school.”

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Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com.