Saturday, July 22, 2017
a divine work of art
Oh, it is a fine morning indeed. It is one of those mornings I believe with all my heart that life is a splendid adventure. I am feeling this way for many reasons, but the one I will mention here is this: I just discovered that Mark Helprin's new novel is imminent. Paris in the Present Tense. Publication date October 3rd, 2017. The Overlook Press. Advance reading copies are roaming free in the world as we speak, and as usual I am torn between tracking one down right now or living with the delicious feeling of anticipation until publication day. Am leaning toward the latter. Worth waiting for:
He isn't everyone's cup of tea, I know. His themes are romantic and immense and emotional and his writing is lush. But he is one of the few authors whose words I will always read. I've carried on about his work for years, here and elsewhere, and hope to continue to do so far into the future. Even though I must say that the publisher's description of this novel rings an alarm bell, for me - it mentions that the hero (a seventy-four-year-old widower) falls in love with a woman a third his age. Hmmm. Not my favorite plot twist, by any means, but I am willing to proceed with trust. Because the author is Mark Helprin. And his fiction is redemptive and loving, and is never about just one thing. Spoiler: it's about everything.
This recent essay, "Falling into Eternity" - from the journal First Things - is a fine example of his style and writerly fearlessness. A sample:
"Let us say that you ride in a train from Paris to Rome. With one glance out the window, you take in such an enormous amount of visual information that in mechanical terms, it would be expressed in terabytes. Wherever you are now, look ahead, and then close your eyes. You can reproduce only the most skeletal detail. After you have watched the passing terrain for ten hours, what you have seen, down to blades of grass and millions of sparkles on a river flowing toward low sun, would, if reproduced in coded form, fill all the libraries in the world a thousand times over."
Another, describing one of his near-death experiences:
"Falling into the crevasse, I saw, as if for an eternity but in no more than seconds, galaxies of sun-sparkling particles that followed me after I had smashed through a deceptive crust of hardened snow, the latter phrase a perfect metaphor for what is here asserted. Weightless among a thousand golden stars, I felt neither fear nor regret, but rather the assurance that everything made sense, everything was ultimately just, and all would be redeemed in a perfect, timeless universe, a divine work of art."
This is his writing, in a nutshell. A journey he invites you to take, and at first you simply gaze and gaze at the beauty he describes, as if through glass. Then somewhere along the way you cross over and travel with him, as a willing companion, believing in the divine order of things, even (and especially!) in the face of much evidence to the contrary. He revels in exquisite details yet never loses sight of what all this detail signifies, and points to. His work is metaphor-rich and a delight to those of us who are starving for that very thing. What? Enough praise? Wait until I actually read the book, you say? Okay, okay. ;O)
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Summer? Fogged in, here on the coast of Maine, so I'm taking the opportunity to write about life and books. Busy doesn't begin to describe the recent weeks. So much of everything. Highlights and lowlights, in no particular order. My painting show opened and closed, my sisters and I scattered my father's ashes in the ocean, visitors came here to see my studio, and I spent several weeks on nearby islands, painting, as summer finally came to stay. This season feels so short, and to be honest I am a bit panicky about it being mid-July already! Books are taking a backseat to the great outdoors, at the moment, while I make the most of the good weather. That hasn't stopped me from amassing stacks of good stuff to read someday, and even making my way through a few recent publications. Still having a terrible time concentrating on much besides politics, though. I do something, read something, then check the news, do something else, check the news again, take care of some chores, news again, work a bit, more news, onward throughout the day. And so onward throughout day after day of this nauseating administration. I try to believe (and I do! I do believe!) that truth and justice and the rule of law will prevail, so I don't tear myself to shreds from anxiety. I keep writing to congresspeople, of all parties. I keep looking for inspiration and solace in nature, in painting, in books. And I'm glad to say I often find it. But oh, what a time. I know I keep saying that, but it keeps being true.
My summer reading list looks much like my winter reading list did. Because many of the very same books have been on it since then. Including a few wonderful things I couldn't wait to read, or so I thought months ago, because here it is months later and I still haven't read them:
Dashing for the Post: The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray 2016)
Keeping On Keeping On - Alan Bennett (Faber & Faber 2016; contains more of his diaries!)
I mean, I cannot believe I haven't read these yet. I ordered them from the U.K. right when they were published last fall, that's how badly I wanted to read them! But then the election happened and my joy drained away, for a long time. I postponed them again and again, and that's still where I am today. Several other worthy volumes I also want very much to read, but lack the impetus to pick up and start:
Quicksands: A Memoir - Sybille Bedford (Counterpoint 2005)
The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food - Judith Jones (Anchor 2008)
Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table - edited by Amanda Hesser (Norton 2009)
Family Piles - Nigel Colborn (Cassell 1990; about owning British country houses: "Learn to anticipate and enjoy disaster.")
Tracing Paradise: Two Years in Harmony with John Milton / A Reader's Memoir - Dawn Potter (University of Massachusetts Press 2009; reading and transcribing Paradise Lost, in the small town of Harmony, Maine!)
These sit in a pile in the book room, waiting for me. But, it's not all bad news, in my reading life. A few books that I did manage to finish this winter sent me off looking for more, from their various categories. Bruce Springsteen's fabulous autobiography Born to Run (Simon & Schuster 2016; I am not a huge Springsteen fan by any means, but WOW what a great book) convinced me to attempt a few other celebrity - for lack of a better word - musicians' memoirs, and thus I find myself face to face with the following:
Boys in the Trees: A Memoir - Carly Simon (Flatiron Books 2015)
Life - Keith Richards (Little, Brown 2010).
But they wait too. I used to read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of Hollywood people - filmmakers, actors. And a renewed interest (Russia, Russia, Russia...) in the works of John le Carré means that my to-be-read stack now contains the diaries of the actor who portrayed his George Smiley so perfectly:
My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor - Alec Guinness (Viking 1996; his diary from 1995-1996)
A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-98 - Alec Guinness (Viking 1999)
Again, they wait. Those I will get to, soon, I think. Diaries and politics also come together in this next book, which I have read the first 150 pages of, and am now stalled out on, even though the entries are compelling and are teaching me a lot about British politics:
Mrs. Thatcher's Minister: The Private Diaries of Alan Clark (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1993; I was so happy to stumble across a copy of this in a local bookshop - I've heard about it for years - one of the great contemporary diaries.)
So, those are a whole bunch of books I haven't read (or finished) yet. How about what I actually have read lately? For the first time:
De Profundis - Oscar Wilde (The Unicorn Press n.d.; I now need a complete version, since this early edition was heavily cut, I presume to protect living persons, and one in particular, to whom this long letter from prison was addressed.)
Utterly heartbreaking. I wept for him, as I read. "All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death..." (p.110)
It hit me so hard that it took me a while to figure out what to follow that up with, and I didn't read much at all for a short (me being me, it was short) while. I went from the sublime to the ridiculous - but actually not, if you think about it:
The Andy Cohen Diaries: A Deep Look at a Shallow Year (Henry Holt 2014)
Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture - Andy Cohen (Henry Holt 2012)
He kept me so entertained for so long (days and days!) that I immediately sought out his most recent:
Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries (Henry Holt 2016; currently on page 190, with 160+ pages to go - I am reading slowly because I don't really want to finish.)
I will admit I only picked up The Andy Cohen Diaries because I came across it at a used book emporium and glanced at the introduction, and in so doing discovered that this Andy loves The Andy Warhol Diaries (as do I; Warner Books 1989) and wanted to start keeping his own version of them. Being as he is a New York (and elsewhere...) partygoer, a celebrity with celebrity friends, the host and producer of various tv shows, and all-around Chatty Cathy. His diaries are current - he's watching youtube videos, hosting his shows, texting, kvetching about his parents, sharing his life with his dog, since he has no steady life partner or husband. All that plus buckets of celebrity gossip - his books are continuous spates of name-dropping. In fact, in the introduction to The Andy Cohen Diaries he says he "...literally almost called this book Diary of a Name-dropper." (p.2) He also says, and this encapsulates exactly why I am enjoying his books so much, that "Sometimes - like life itself - these chronicles are funny, sometimes dishy, and sometimes even a little sad. And sometimes they are really, really shallow. Because sometimes life is shallow. I understand that and have accepted it. I hope you will too." (ibid) Warhol did the same, and his diaries are a similar combination of the ups and downs of real life, even if you happen to have shaped your real life into a very famous one.
Speaking of famous people, and celebrities. The last book I will mention today was just published and I immediately bought it and immediately read it:
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens - Eddie Izzard (Blue Rider Press 2017).
What is it with me reading all these new books?? So unlike my typical behavior. Usually I am reading some eighteenth-century letters or a memoir from the fifties. And current publications or bestsellers I might get to eventually. Some years after they are published. But. I love all things Eddie and gladly set aside everything else to READ THIS BOOK again I say IMMEDIATELY. Comedian, dramatic actor, marathon runner, political activist, transgender human being, citizen of the world, he describes his life as he speaks his comedy routines - in circuitous, footnoted detail, using a metaphorical world map with many detours, all worth exploring. He apparently doesn't think he's all that interesting, though:
"Real life is actually a lot of boring things with occasional spikes of interest.... My life is lots of boring bits with occasional spikes of interestingness.... My life story got a nomination for trying to be interesting, even though I know the truth." (p.3; he is referring to the Emmy nomination for the documentary Believe, made by Sarah Townsend about his life.)
His book is mainly about belief in oneself, about having dreams and not allowing reality to take them from you. Making your dreams reality, in fact, and cultivating the stamina to do so. A brief clip of him speaking about Believe Me convinced me to buy the unabridged audio edition, not just the hardcover book itself, because I love his voice, and hearing him tell his story in his own voice will be a joy. As much of a joy as his comedy. And frankly even better, because the book isn't all that funny - it begins with the primary tragedy of his life, and he goes on from there, into great detail about his struggles to find his place in the world. This is a brave and beautiful book. Just by being, he helps me believe. He spells it out, regarding both the documentary and memoir:
"I'd already thought that it would be good to do a film about my weird life, despite the fact that wanting to make a documentary about yourself means your ego has obviously run amok. (Footnote: *Not to mention when you decide to write a book about yourself.) In my defense, the reason I agreed was: I felt I was doing things in a slightly different way from the norm and I thought maybe that difference would (or might) be interesting or helpful to people who were having trouble believing in themselves enough to get their things going." (p.275)
Oh, it is helpful! It is one of the primary reasons I read at all, especially memoirs and diaries - how do other people figure it out? Life...? May I borrow some of your courage and bravery, to figure it out for myself? As much as it can be figured out...? I'm trying!
Eddie Izzard spoke about Believe Me and read excerpts from it in Boston last month, on his book tour, and what was I doing that day? Where was I? If it had been any other time, I would have been there, no question. But the date fell during the week I always go to this one tiny island in Penobscot Bay, to paint, all alone. I was there again this year, and stretched out my week to nine days. This is my tenth year on the island - a milestone. I have been making a body of work about this island and my experiences there - paintings, a diary, maybe it will all be a book someday. I have to be there! I have to believe in myself and my projects! But oh, if it had been any other time, I would have been in Boston, rapt, a quiet fangirl sitting in the darkness somewhere out beyond Eddie Izzard's footlights. Believing. In myself, and in all of us.