Wednesday, October 14, 2015


fall into some good books

For the past several weeks I've been reading everything except the Letters of Horace Walpole, so I think my sojourn in his works is finally finished, at least for the time being.  I want to write more - a lot more - about what it's been like to spend so much time with him, months really, but I don't know when I'll be able to do it.  Because I'm about to go be an artist-in-residence and I don't think I'll be taking a screen of any kind with me, so we may not speak again here for several weeks.  Until then, a bit of housekeeping.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I've been contemplating whether or not to continue with it.  Before anyone panics (not that anyone will...), I'll just say that I'll continue to write when I'm able to, and when I feel like it, since I love writing in my diary, and this blog has always been just a refinement of that handwritten record, slanting necessarily toward the bookish.  I mean, I don't foresee running out of books to talk about, anytime soon!  Great stuff keeps right on being published, especially this time of year.  I remember the excitement I used to feel, when I worked as a buyer in a new-book store, when the fall season got going and all the new books would pour in.  I mean real excitement - seeing books come into the store from the guys in receiving, and getting to handle them before we put them out for sale.  There was always such a good crop.  This year is no exception.  I really cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Patti Smith's new memoir M Train (Knopf 2015); ditto photographer Sally Mann's memoir Hold Still (Little, Brown 2015), and I've heard so much about Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau 2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates that I've put that on my list too.  Great books!  They keep right on being written!  I love this.

But that's all in the immediate future, or rather post-residency, since all I'll be doing for the next few weeks is painting, eating, and sleeping.  So, what I've actually read lately - so much, all written by women, after spending all that time in Walpole's world.  I wish I had time to write more in depth about each of these, but for now, a few mini-reviews must suffice. 

First, I tore through Susan Branch's lovely illustrated diary of her early years as a married-then-divorced woman, just beginning to find her way as an artist.  The Fairy Tale Girl (Spring Street Publishing 2015) - I read it twice in one week!  Then browsed through a third time, lingering over my favorite sections.  A true story of love, divorce, feminism, art, and self-discovery.  It's delicious to read about a friend suggesting that she write a book, since:

"People do it all the time."  To which,  "I gave her the 'You're crazy' look - I never saw 'people do it all the time.' I never saw anyone do it."  And, "  Write a book? Regular people didn't write books in 1979.  Margaret Mitchell wrote books, Jane Austen, Julia Child, Harper Lee.  Brilliant people, not normal people.  Whenever it crossed my mind, which was rare, I was quick to rule it out as an option by reminding myself that I wasn't Louisa May Alcott or John Steinbeck, and that's who wrote books." (pp.150-151)

Needless to say (thank you fate, and Susan Branch), she went on to write and illustrate what now comprises a huge stack of books.  Do yourself a favor and pick up this latest charmer.  Its sequel is already written and will be published in the spring of 2016.  Cannot.  Wait.  (Must.  Hate that.) 

Then, I read Elizabeth Gilbert's new book about creativity, Big Magic (Riverhead Books 2015), which is so very quotable - here are a few, relating to the making of art, in whatever medium you choose:

"I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days.  It's such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.  So say it.  Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy."  (pp.118-119)     

" soul.  I ask it, "And what is it that you want, dear one?'
  The answer is always the same: 'More wonder, please.'"  (pp.250-251)

"What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?" (p.259)

She often has a goofy way with words and I find her work so appealing, in part because she's my age, so this is my language she's speaking, generationally.  It's familiar and heartening.  The book as a whole is too short, I thought, but it's not my book, is it.  Worth reading and re-reading, I think.

I also just finished reading Under the Tuscan Sun (Chronicle 1996) by Frances Mayes, and With Malice Toward Some (Simon and Schuster 1938) by Margaret Halsey.  I had never read either of these before, despite their both being massive bestsellers (Mayes, on the New York Times bestseller list for years with this book; Halsey, winning an early National Book Award and selling 600,000 copies of hers).  Both are based on diaries - Mayes compiles her book based on the diary she kept when she and her husband bought and renovated their home in Italy, and Halsey writes her book up as a diary, at the suggestion of her brother-in-law, the Simon of Simon and Schuster, after he received her amusing letters about her and her husband's move to England.  I didn't commit to reading Under the Tuscan Sun in its entirety until I read the following:

"To bury the grape tendril in such a way that it shoots out new growth I recognize easily as a metaphor for the way life must change from time to time if we are to go forward in our thinking.  (p.2)

I won't continue with a review of the entire book, since I've already been going on at such length, and everyone in the world has already read this book anyway!  I will mention that Margaret Halsey's book, however, may no longer be so well known, but is so, so worth seeking out.  She writes in a style that reminds me of Helene Hanff, or Dorothy Parker, or the fictional Mrs. Miniver, or my very favorite, the fictional Mrs. Appleyard - a snappy, kind, intelligent, wry, funny, observant woman.  In this case, observing the English, with a few side trips to Paris and around Scandinavia.

In reading all these books I feel like I've pretty much covered (by accident) the history of women's creativity from the present time back to the 1930s.  Halsey reminds me of the grandmother I never knew, who died before I was born; Mayes reminds me of the women of my mother's generation; Gilbert the women of my own generation; Branch perhaps the secret heart of all of us.

I'll have to leave it there for now, although I could continue.  Because I'm also in the middle of The North Haven Journal, 1974-1979 (North Haven Library 2015) by poet Elizabeth Bishop.  There are worthy lines and scraps of wonderful imagery throughout, but soon I have to pack up and go in search of my own imagery.  The bravery and √©lan of all of these women (and of Horace Walpole too, come to think of it) will help me to no end in the courage department as I head off to this residency.  Thank the gods and goddesses for great books, where would we be without them!

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