Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Virginia, Orlando, Vita -- A Sense of One's Self

First, a little context:  I've just read a new biography of Vita Sackville-West, by Matthew Denison, which was interesting enough (this was for the Historical Novel Society Review, and will appear in print in a few months), but it prompted me to actually read one of Sackville-West's novels. The library had only one, "All Passion Spent", a book which is referred to by critics as the "fictional response" to Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." 

And there, very close by on the library shelf, was Virginia Woolf's "Orlando" -- her tribute to Sackville-West's strange and amusing self-concept of being both male and female, and spending a good deal of her life dressed as a man and having affairs with women (Virginia included). Library serendipity showed me the way, and I checked out both books.

Okay, let's look at "All Passion Spent": Published in 1931 and 'contemporary' to the times, we find Lady Slane, now in her early eighties, with five children well into their sixties, and herself bereft of her larger-than-life, statesman husband after sixty years of dutiful Victorian marriage. Contrary to the narrow-minded and condescending expectations of her children, she strikes out on her own, moves to a small house on Hampstead Heath, and bans all children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren from visiting her. Instead, she takes up with a few odd but amusing characters in her new life, and embarks on a quiet and satisfying reflection of just exactly what her life has consisted in all these many years. 

After having read the biography of Sackville-West, which is bursting with rebellious bohemianism, love affairs, dramatic fights in the streets (seriously!) and lawsuits of varying degrees of sordidness, I wasn't prepared for the tame ruminations of an elderly lady, but the writing was lively and lovely, the reflections on life were sound and thought-provoking, and altogether it was a thoroughly enjoyable novel. Sackville-West put a lot of herself in her novels, quite clearly, and it seemed to me an interesting way of providing one's self with therapy, parallel lives, and projections into the future (or the past) in order to experience more of everything: life, love, drama, happiness, dreams.

Now, for "Orlando": I had seen the movie version, starring Tilda Swinton, and after reading the book, I'm eager to see the movie again--because now I get it. I think reading the biography of Sackville-West was very helpful, especially as it gave me the major clue

of "A Sense of One's Self" as the moving principle behind the structure and meaning of "Orlando." The man-woman Orlando lives for hundreds of years, and experiences time and change, war and peace, love, death, marriage, childbirth, poverty and riches. Woolf makes a very good case for any individual being to find the way to live dozens of lives through imagination, daring, eccentricity and iconoclasm--a tall order for any one human person.

Woolf's language is, as always, sublime and delicious, sensual, provoking. There were passages that reminded me of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, such as this passage:

But wait! but wait! we are not going, this time, visiting the blind land. Blue, like a match struck right in the ball of the innermost eye, he flys, burns, bursts the seal of sleep; the kingfisher; so that now floods back refluent like a tide, the red, thick stream of life again; bubbling, dripping; and we rise, and our eyes (for how handy a rhyme is to pass us safe over the awkward transition from death to life) fall on---(here the barrel-organ stops playing abruptly).

Compare this to Ferlinghetti:

Yes the world is the best place of all
                                                    for a lot of such things as
     making the fun scene
                                             and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
                                    and singing low songs and having inspirations
    and walking around
                                   looking at everything
                                                                     and smelling flowers
     and goosing statues
                                     and even thinking
                                                                and kissing people and
            making babies and wearing pants
                                                              and waving hats and
                                                          and going swimming in rivers
                                          on picnics
                                                      in the middle of the summer
                 and just generally
                                            'living it up'

  but then right in the middle of it
                                                    comes the smiling


There is a similar psyche at work here, a similar flow of language and thought (Woolf being one of the initiating 'stream of consciousness' writers, of course), a way of looking at the world that is both detached and emotional, amused and grim. 

Ultimately (at this point) what "Orlando" means to me is the celebration of the eternal creation of the human mind and spirit -- we are boundless in our imagination, in our thoughts, if only we dare to travel through the chains of time and space and convention, and see all the other sides.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - What a Ride!

I just this minute finished reading David Shafer's debut novel (darn him!), Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (W...T....F...), as an e-book on my Nook.  I've pretty much read it NON-STOP for the last 36 (waking) hours. This author is talented, funny (it's so hard to write funny), smart, entertaining, witty, well-educated and just plain good.  My husband read it first and said, "You might like it, give it a try" -- as it wasn't my 'usual' historical novel or literary fiction.  Sort of a cyber-techie-spy-world conspiracy-new intelligentsia kind of story. Very funny. Very wry. Loads of dark humor and idealistic flashes of save-the-world-isms--after all, a good deal of the story takes place in and near Portland, Oregon. Fell in love with ALL the characters. Didn't want it to stop. Literary & philosophical allusions were scattered like gems throughout, bravo!, and not in a condescending or show-offy way. Shafer is a really talented writer (did I say that already?).

HIGHLY recommended.  You won't be able to stop reading til the end. I hope there's more coming soon, Mr. Shafer!!

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Letter Home -- New/Old Neil Young: A Fine Feast

I have loved Neil Young from the first moment I heard him sing, and yes, he's a little whiny, and his range has compressed over the years--but the emotion has deepened and the guitar and piano still evoke the acoustic magic of the late sixties and the early seventies. Neil's latest effort is called A Letter Home -- and I just today received my VINYL record in the mail -- and I just this minute finished listening to both sides on our turntable in the living room. 

A couple of interesting things about this album is not only how it was recorded but also the fact that none of the songs were written by Neil--they are the songs that influenced him, the songs he holds dear in his musical heart--as he says it:   "an unheard collection of rediscovered songs from the past recorded on ancient electro-mechanical technology [which] captures and unleashes the essence of something that could have been gone forever."  The album was recorded live inside of an old-time recording booth--(like the photo booths that would deliver that strip of four black & white photos of you and your best friend making goofy faces, remember that?)--only this allowed you to record your voice and send it to someone. Well, in this case, Neil sat in the booth and played his guitar and sang--and the result is phenomenal--like hearing a folksinger's recording from the 1930's--the "old-timey" music that speaks to the heart of what this country once was. 

Here's a clip from Three Man Records in Nashville, who produced the album:

The songs are by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Gordon Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, Tim Hardin, and others. To hear them in Neil's old and scratchy voice, with just his guitar (or a piano pulled up to the 'door' of the recording booth, and played  by Jack White) is to re-experience the poignant, heart-breaking lyrics all over again with songs like, "If you could read my mind, love" and "My Hometown" and "Girl from the North Country."

There's a CD available, of course, but if you can, get the vinyl--it's a step back to a slower, more graceful time (imho), and you'll thank yourself for the gift. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Bellman & Black - Terrific!

Bellman & BlackBellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished Bellman & Black yesterday - read it in ONE day - so compelling, such speaking, magical language, so much mystery, tragedy and wonder in the single life of a (mostly) ordinary man with a special gift--and a flaw so accidental to his nature that it's closer to 'our' inheritance of Original Sin than any conscious act of wrongdoing. The occasional page devoted to the mystical lore of Corvids--rooks, ravens, crows--are like icons, windows into an eternity that holds all of time in its careful hands, nothing ever lost, if only Thought and Memory are allowed to play (like rooks) in our minds, swooping, laughing, reckless and daring. A beautiful, deeply thoughtful story. Thanks, Diane! An even more worthy book than the Thirteenth Tale, which I also loved.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: The Fountain of St. James Court

The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Sena Jeter Naslund, (HarperCollins Publishers: William Morrow, 2013), 447 pp., 

Writing two novels in one, Naslund juxtaposes chapters set up as “Fountain” or “Portrait” to chronicle two artistic women—Kathryn Callahan, a 69-year-old successful novelist living in present-day Louisville, Kentucky, and Elizabeth LeBrun, a late 18th century artist about whom Kathryn has just finished writing a novel, with the “Portrait” title. Homage to Virginia Woolf aside, the narrative self-consciously presents us with a modern Mrs. Dalloway as we follow Kathryn from midnight to midnight of one single day. By contrast, the chapters presenting LeBrun span her entire life, opening when she is seventy, walking in the woods in France, and looking back on her life, particularly during the French Revolution. Both women muse on the meaning of various things—love, husbands, children, nature, inspiration, the creative process—but LeBrun’s sections are far and away more interesting and more thoughtful than Kathryn’s. The openly stated comparison to Mrs. Dalloway invites disappointment—Kathryn lacks Clarissa’s simple dignity and concentrated sense of the just and the true. The similarities between the two are thin, consisting more in Kathryn’s endless enthusing over autumn leaves or watching light play on the fountain rather than any inherently intelligent observations on life and purpose. She lacks the deep human relation to people and life that shines so clearly in Mrs. Dalloway’s character. Though meant, I believe, to be a sympathetic character, especially to women of a certain age (of which I am one), Kathryn as a person is shallow, needy and self-centered, and the “courage” she musters at the end of the story to face a particular fear seems contrived and empty. LeBrun, as a portrait artist of the French aristocracy, lives through uniquely dangerous times and personal tragedies that inform her character and understanding with honor, love and a brave optimism. As much as I have loved Naslund’s previous books (especially Ahab's Wife, which was spectacular), this one falls short, or at least, half of it does.

This review first appeared in the Historical Novel Society's "Review" journal of February, 2013.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Poetry by Request from a Boulder Street Poet

While visiting with family in Colorado, a bunch of us went up to Boulder for the afternoon, and wandered up and down the delightful pedestrian-only main street, replete with bars and cafes, bookstores and interesting shops, and a street musician or performer of some kind every 100 feet or so. 

I stopped by a tall, thin young man who sat stooped over a rather old portable typewriter, with a sign declaring he would write a poem upon request. He asked me a few questions about what I had in mind; I said things like: autumn, birch trees, or aspen trees, with all those bright golden leaves falling on the bare ground, a grove quiet and eternal, as if you were the first person to walk there in a few hundred years. And this is what he wrote, and I've tried to duplicate his line breaks and spacing:

 and aspen and birch grove in autumn

       yellowed leaves
    fall like
       ashes scattered
    to the ground

       by an old preacher
    humbled and
       sweetened by his
    years of

       no longer holding
    on to his
       robes to justify

       doing an ancient
    job with
       wrinkled hands
    and ageless

       ready to fall
       regret into
    the roots 
         of next year's

--allan andre     boulder, co    5/18/13

Monday, May 13, 2013

Frances and Bernard: A 20th Century Epistolary Novel

Frances and BernardFrances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished Frances and Bernard last night, staying up past midnight to read it. Although not fond of epistolary novels, Bauer is such a great writer that the letters just flew by and were a delight to read. I should also say, there was much to slow down for and savor. I have always loved the stories of Flannery O'Connor (the model for Frances) but have never read any Robert Lowell ("Bernard") poetry (I will now). This short book was a wonderful journey into the minds of two exquisitely intelligent people. Bauer captured great depth and nuance in the correspondence between them, and with a few select friends as well. It made me long for those halcyon days of pre-computerized communications known as written letters - I wrote many myself, and have a collection of letters from friends and family from the 1960's and early 70's. This is a stunning, memorable book, and should be read by everyone who is or intends to be a fiction writer.

The other completely fascinating element of this book is the discussion of religion, mainly being Catholic. Bernard is a recent convert from nominal Protestantism, Frances an Irish cradle-Catholic. They debate the existence and meaning of God, sin, faith, the Holy Spirit and "spirituality". Frances is adamant in her practical, unsentimental approach to the spiritual, frequently deflating Bernard's flights of religious fancy. As a Catholic myself, I found it intriguing and thought-provoking.

One amazing sentence from the book remains in my mind, written by Bernard in dire circumstances in a mental institution: "I sleep the way some people commit suicide."

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