Month: May 2011

Exploring Central Park

I love Central Park. I have now been in New York for every season, and despite the fact that Spring seemed to come and go in a day, it truly is beautiful at all times of year. In the Autumn, ablaze with gold and orange and red and full of crunchy leaves and dusky twilight, it is breathtaking. In the Winter, blanketed with sparkling snow, the branches like black lace against the dark skies, it is truly a wonderland. In the Spring, with the smell of fresh mown grass and the bright pinks of the cherry blossom trees, it is a feast for the eyes and a much needed signal that winter is over. In the Summer,  it is a green paradise, its paths canopied with trees, the sunlight dappled across lush meadows, the fountains bubbling, the air filled with the shouts of baseball players, the whoops of running children, and the chatter of New Yorkers as they stroll, picnic, lounge, sunbathe, walk their dogs, meet their friends, play with their children…it really is the pleasure ground of the city.

What is so different about London from New York is that New York is a compact city built with the needs of its residents in mind, whereas London evolved organically over centuries, was not specifically designed for modern city living, and is more a series of connected villages than a centralised hub. As a result, people are more neighbourhood centred, and go to the multitude of large suburban parks in their local areas, such as Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, Richmond Park, or Greenwich Park. The central London parks are formal places with flower beds and ‘keep off’ signs and fences and ornamental lakes, places where people go on their lunch break from work for a quick sit down and a sandwich rather than to play football on the weekend or top up their tans. They’re not really in residential areas and aren’t convenient for a weekend’s picnicking. If you live in Manhattan, however, unless you live way downtown, you’re never more than a thirty minute stroll away from an entrance to Central Park. In a city where the majority of people live in purpose built apartment blocks with no outside space, unlike in London, where it’s fairly unusual not to have any private outdoor space at your disposal, the park assumes an importance none in my home city can possibly rival.

I grew up in pleasant 1930′s London suburbia, and despite the fact that my back garden was more concrete than grass, and only sported a few measly daffodils that sprung up miraculously year after year, it was still a much appreciated space where my brother, sister and I could play outside for hours, where we could have big family BBQs, where we could have our birthday parties and dance under the sprinkler and lie on the cool grass spotting shapes in the clouds. When I moved into my first flat I realised how depressing it is not to have a garden, and now that it is pushing 90F outside and I am living in an apartment with no air conditioning, I am pining for a garden even more. Thankfully, this is where Central Park comes in. Stretching from 59th street to 110th street, and spanning from 5th Avenue to 7th Avenue, it’s a colossal rectangle of delight that offers everything from a reservoir to a boating lake, woods to meadows, baseball pitches to tennis courts, fountains to castles, formal flower gardens to wildflower rambles. I just can’t get enough of it, and it’s where I spent all weekend.

Every time I go to the park, I try and explore somewhere new. Living as far up the park as I do, I get to experience a section that is not as widely explored as the mid points where the Boating Lake, fountain and Sheep’s Meadow are. My nearest entrance is by the reservoir at 96th street, but it’s about equidistant to the Vanderbilt Gate at 105th street too, and this part of the park is absolutely stunning. On Sunday I packed myself a book and a little picnic and set off for some much needed alone time. I entered at 105th street and was surprised to find the formal Conservatory Gardens, a beautiful space, much like the gardens of an English stately home, with paths meandering around gorgeous fragrant flower beds filled with the heavy heads of peonies, roses, and lupins nodding in the heat. There are shady paths covered in green canopies, fountains, hedges, and wrought iron benches in hidden nooks. Harlem Meer stretches out, surrounded by little hillocks and mature willows and other beautiful trees I can’t name (I’m not great on nature – I blame growing up in a concrete jungle), and behind this are acres and acres of meadows, billowing out as far as the eye can see, punctuated with rocks and trees and stunning vistas that took my breath away.

As I settled down with my book in the shade, I found myself delighting in the mixture of people around me and the different ways in which they were using the park. I saw a large family celebrating a birthday; they had brought fold out tables and chairs and were having a meal together. I saw friends meeting for a picnic, chatting happily. I saw children playing football, fathers and sons playing baseball, children screeching with delight as they ran in and out of the spray created by a fountain, three couples getting married in the conservatory garden, two men torturing themselves doing their daily workout, plenty of people jogging and cycling, many a couple out for a romantic afternoon stroll, and lots of individuals who were just alone, taking the chance to read quietly or just have some time to themselves in a peaceful setting. Central Park is in many ways the heart of the city; a vital place that is used and appreciated in so many different ways by everyone who lives here. New York is an overwhelmingly busy, noisy, stressful place where privacy and peace are hard to come by. Being able to spend an afternoon sitting in a place where the traffic noise fades to a barely discernable distant hum, your eyes can see nothing but greenery and you can smell the fresh scents of grass and flowers rather than sewage, is truly priceless. I am eternally grateful for Central Park. I can tell I will be spending a LOT of time there this sweaty summer.

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block

I came up trumps on Librarything last month, winning this novel from the Early Reviewers programme. Stefan Merrill Block’s second novel is a part factual, part fictionalised telling of his grandparent’s lives, focusing on the period in the early 1960’s when his grandfather was admitted, against his will, to one of America’s most famous asylums, McLean Hospital, near Boston. Block writes about his grandfather’s imagined experiences within the asylum, and the repercussions this had on his grandparents’ marriage, future lives, and the lives of their four daughters, one of whom is Block’s mother. Block knew his grandmother, which gives the novel a real sense of authenticity in its characterisation, and it really is a remarkably good book. I wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did, and I have to say that despite the fact Stefan Merrill Block is one of those annoying super successful twenty something authors I hate because they throw my own mediocrity in my face, I cannot deny that he is an exceptionally talented writer. I couldn’t put this beautiful book down, and though I finished it early last week, Frederick and Katharine, Block’s grandparents, haunt me still.

Katharine and Frederick Merrill met and married in a whirlwind courtship during the war, and, barely knowing each other, found themselves, once it was over, living with a virtual stranger. Katharine had not noticed Frederick’s dependency on alcohol before; his violent mood swings; his tendency to be unfaithful. As their lives go on together, and Frederick’s ambitions get more thwarted, his behaviour becomes more and more erratic. While the pair are passionately in love with one another, the times when Frederick is able to function normally, to have fun, to show Katharine the carefree, joyful, spontaneous, fantastically imaginative man she fell in love with, become fewer and farther between. They have four daughters together, and live a quiet life in New Hampshire, their privileged lifestyle largely funded by Katharine’s wealthy father. Their friends and family can tolerate Frederick, can brush aside his often manic, incomprehensible, reckless behaviour, and Katharine is prepared to forgive him his frequent infidelities, secure that they mean nothing to him; but one fateful night, the night around which this novel hinges, Frederick takes things too far. Drunk, he thinks it will be a lark to run outside and flash passing motorists. Two women report him to the police, and fed up with the struggle of coping with his behaviour, Katharine follows the advice of the police, and her family, to have Frederick admitted to Mayflower, a phenomenally expensive asylum where the mad relatives of the great and good of New England are sent for a ‘rest’, presided over by the gentle and compassionate Dr Wallace.

At first it seems Frederick won’t be in Mayflower for long; he is respected by Dr Wallace, has convinced everyone that he’s not really insane, and enjoys a good rapport with the other patients, such as a fabricated version of the poet Robert Lowell, who has checked himself in and is free to leave at any time. Mayflower itself is an antiquated institution, where respect for the patients is paramount. Those suffering delusions, such as the split personalities of the wonderful, flamboyant Marvin, and the genius Professor Schultz, are largely let be. However, one night, there is a tragic suicide, the first in a number of years, and this is the catalyst for a change of management and a change of procedure. Dr Canon, a pioneering psychologist, who is determined to prove his radical theories through Mayflower’s patients, brings in strict new rules, and refuses to listen to Frederick’s insistences that he is not insane. As Frederick has been admitted through the police, he is not allowed to leave until Canon certifies him as sane, something he is not prepared to do. Katharine has no power to let the suffering Frederick out, and as the months drag on, Katharine struggles to make ends meet, is ostracised by her friends and family, and is racked with guilt at the knowledge that she allowed Frederick to be incarcerated when she is not convinced herself that he is genuinely mentally ill. In love with him still, but tired of the struggle to live with someone who is so unpredictable, Katharine cannot help but wonder whether her life would be better without him in it.

Mayflower and its inmates come alive through Block’s pen, as does the stifling world of Katharine’s husbandless home and her life of disappointed dreams. Both fascinating, exceptionally good looking, intelligent and ambitious people, somehow, their lives and all the hopes of greatness they had for themselves failed. They are wonderful characters; real, conflicted people, struggling to make sense of a life that should never have been theirs. Their love binds them together, but the pain and frustration of mental illness has torn them apart to the point where love really isn’t enough anymore. Frederick’s experiences in Mayflower are fantastically rendered, and the portraits of his fellow tortured inmates are almost unbearably tender and moving. Katharine’s regrets, her longing to reach back into the past and make things different, to be the woman she thought she would be, and has not become, were also incredibly powerful. It’s a novel laced with emotion, with regret, with sadness; but also beauty, and hope, and love. It’s beautifully – if a little over descriptively – written, and overall, I thought it was magnificent. It is released on June 21st – I hope many of you will get the chance to read it. I have a very scruffy galley copy I’m happy to send out if anyone wants it – it’s been floating around in my bag and is very dogeared as a result, but perfectly readable nonetheless – let me know in the comments and I’ll do a draw if there’s more than one. I’ll send anywhere!

Dark Hester by Anne Douglas Sedgwick

The lovely Heather sent me Dark Hester many moons ago when I first arrived in the good old U S of A. To my shame I have left it sitting for far too long, and I am very sorry to have done so, because it is an incredibly enjoyable read. Dark Hester is about the relationship between Monica Willmott, a 50 something widow, her son Clive, and his new wife, Hester. Monica’s husband died after just a couple of years of marriage, leaving her to bring up Clive alone. She never remarried or had another significant relationship, and as such, all of her love, affection, hopes and dreams have been placed on Clive throughout his childhood, teen years and young adulthood. The pair have always lived together, in bright sunny Kensington homes that Monica has worked hard to ensure Clive always had the security of. Both mother and son adore each other, and their relationship is one in which no secrets are necessary, and only warmth exists between them. They are the great joy of each others’ lives, and there is nothing they would not do to ensure the other’s happiness.

However, as the book opens, it is clear that Clive has a secret to keep from his mother. He is in love, with a woman he knows she will not approve of. Monica has a great friendship with a pretty, delicate, musical young woman, Celia, who has been Clive’s companion since their childhood. Monica has always expected the two to marry, and when Clive comes home from a weekend away with the news that he has proposed to a woman named Hester, Monica is shocked and devastated. However, determined to put a brave face on things for Clive, she tries to be enthusiastic about his marriage, and is excited to meet his fiancée. When she meets Hester, though, her excitement soon develops into a profound dislike.

Dark haired, intelligent, opinionated, fashionable, seemingly heartless and unmistakably ‘modern’, Hester is the total antithesis to the romantic, golden haired Celia, and Monica is completely unable to understand Clive’s attraction to her. Despite her misgivings, Hester and Clive marry, and produce a lovely little boy, Robin. In the meantime, Monica, unable to cope with the loss of her son to a woman she has nothing in common with and cannot stand, abandons the London life she had loved so much and escapes to the countryside in Essex to be near Celia, who lives in a small, picturesque village with a friend. Clive and Hester stay in Chelsea, hosting their glamorous soirees for Hester’s artistic friends, but convinced that Monica is lonely, Hester persuades Clive that they should move out of London and into a nearby cottage. Monica dreads having Hester near her, and takes any opportunity to find fault in her character and her choices in bringing up her adored little Robin. When an Uncle of Celia’s friend shows up to stay in the village, all hell breaks loose; Monica finds herself falling in love with this handsome stranger, much to Clive’s anger, but Hester and the Uncle appear to have had some sort of past, and the repercussions of his arrival will prove to be the ultimate battle between mother and daughter in law, with very surprising consequences.

If this all sounds rather melodramatic, that’s because it is, in places. However, this doesn’t diminish the quality of the writing or characterization, both of which are excellent. Dark Hester reminded me very much of a Dorothy Whipple novel, in its quiet depiction of sunny, chintz filled drawing rooms and middle class protagonists wrestling with hidden emotions. Rather like Louise in Someone at a Distance, Hester represents modernity and change, and a new generation whose ideals are vastly different from that of their predecessors. Monica cannot fathom Hester, or understand why Clive loves her. She is unwilling to embrace change and finds herself floundering in a life that no longer seems to have a purpose. Still only in her early fifties, Monica is intelligent, beautiful and perfectly capable of having a full and interesting life, and without realizing it, she has allowed Hester to become the reason for her unhappiness rather than confronting her own failure to take charge of her future. Hester is intriguing, complex and a wonderful portrayal of a ‘modern woman’, product of the first generation who were able to live independently, pursue an education and be involved in politics. The fundamental differences between these women seem insurmountable, but Douglas Sedgwick’s sympathetic painting of two characters drawn together by their love of the same man allows for a convincing and pleasing conclusion that I loved.

If you enjoy Persephone books, you will love this. Anne Douglas Sedgwick was a prolific author in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and her novels seem to broadly focus on very domestic, class based, female centred topics that echo the concerns of the time, namely the vast discrepancy in the values of the younger generations in post war Britain. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to discover her lovely writing, and I look forward to dabbling in many more of her novels in future. I hope some of you will want to give her a go – a few of her books are available to read for free on Project Gutenberg, so that should give you some incentive!

Finally, do you want to know what contemporary readers of Anne Douglas Sedgwick were also reading? Look at my post here for the answers!

Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader

My recent reading of Dark Hester, published in 1929, was pleasurable for more reasons than just the delightful story (review forthcoming). The beautiful art deco dustjacket is still perfectly intact, and printed on the inside and on the back are a catalogue of Grosset and Dunlap’s bestsellers of the time, under the title of ‘Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader’. This snapshot of what the average middle class person would have been reading in the late 1920′s and early 1930′s absolutely fascinated me. I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of most of the authors; I doubt many of the novels on today’s bestseller lists will be remembered in 80 years’ time, after all. However, what did shock me, after some preliminary research, was how distinguished and highly acclaimed many of these authors had been at the time of their heyday. Many had won the Pulitzer prize, and still, had fallen spectacularly out of favour. The vast majority of the books listed in the catalogue have been out of print for decades, and the remaining copies are probably languishing unloved and unnoticed on many a second hand book seller’s shelf. A sobering thought.

On the back of the dustjacket, most prominently placed, are a mixed list of most recommended authors and novels. This list particularly caught my eye, a blend, as it is, of novelists both known and unknown to me. Listed are Booth Tarkington, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons I so enjoyed a few months ago, Julia Peterkin, another Pulitzer Prize winner who I had never heard of before, Louis Bromfield, whose Mrs Parkington I randomly chose from the dollar bin at the Strand Bookstore, Jim Tully, once the most hated man in Hollywood and lauded by Ernest Hemingway no less, Upton Sinclair, Martha Ostenso, who apparently wrote beautifully about Minnesotan farm life, Phyllis Bottome, a prolific and brilliant Diplomat’s wife who taught Ian Fleming, Walter D Edmonds, a historical novelist of the same popularity as Margaret Mitchell in his time, Mazo de la Roche, Sinclair Lewis, Josephine Herbst, a radical, communist leaning feminist, Warwick Deeping, a British novelist best known for his novels of Edwardian England, Edna Ferber, who won the Pulitzer Prize and wrote the novel that became the musical Show Boat, Michael Arlen, whose The Green Hat was recently reprinted by Capuchin Classics, my beloved Dorothy Canfield, whose novels have been brought back to life by both Persephone and Virago, Philip Gibbs, one of only five official British reporters of WWI, and Elizabeth Von Arnim, whose beautiful novels are thankfully still in print courtesy of Virago.

A mixed bag, no? Some of these, such as Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, are considered canonical authors, and their books have never been out of print. Others have seen recent revivals thanks to feminist presses, or remain in print due to their ‘classic’ status, but have not seen the enduring success and wide readership of some of their contemporaries. Others have fallen out of favour and print altogether, and will perhaps never see the light of day again. However, at some point, they were all as widely read and respected by the reading public as the others. So what happened? Why did some endure and others fall by the wayside? What makes a book stand the test of time and makes another become so out of touch with the contemporary reading public that it is no longer considered of enough value to be read?

This dustjacket list of ‘Other Novels for the Discriminating Reader’ has made me wonder what I am missing. If I have read and enjoyed half of the authors Grosset and Dunlap are recommending to me on the back of Dark Hester, then it surely follows that I’d enjoy the rest. These novels may not be easy to get hold of, but I’m going to try and track them down, slowly but surely. Much like Danielle’s admirable Lost in the Stacks project aims to do, I want to revive some of these novels and keep them in circulation. I am excited at the thought of how many lost gems there could be out there, waiting for me to discover them. No longer will I discard a dusty old hardback because I have never heard of the author; I’m going to be a more adventurous reader from now on. For every reprinted novel, there must be thousands of equally worthy ones waiting to be picked up and enjoyed again. What a literary adventure I could embark upon!

Savage Beauty

This morning I got up super early and went to the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition at the Met. I am not a huge fashionista, but I love clothes as much as the next girl, and working at the V&A certainly gave me a much greater appreciation of couture fashion through their regular series of catwalk shows, ‘Fashion in Motion’. Before attending these shows, I’d never seen couture fashion worn up close before, and the beauty of the cut, construction and movement in these exquisitely designed – though not always practical – clothes, astounded me. Alexander McQueen has always been hailed as a visionary, and the opportunity to see his designs was something I could not miss out on.

In short, the exhibition is incredible. The exhibition design itself is stunning; the use of mirrors, stage-style design, film and sound all work together to create a slightly uncomfortable, tense atmosphere that works wonders with the often eerie, vicious beauty of the clothes on display. The clothes are arranged thematically by collection, and though I found a lot of his work uncomfortable – especially the sadomasochistic masks and accessories – it cannot be denied that the thinking behind them and the way they are constructed is nothing short of genius. McQueen got a lot of his inspiration from Victorian Gothic literature and imagery, citing the photography of Julia Margaret Cameron as one of his inspirations, alongside Edgar Allan Poe. I also found his collections ‘Highland Rape’ and ‘Widows of Culloden’ very interesting, as an exploration of the violence of Scottish history and its tense relations with England. His use of historical and traditional design and construction techniques with postmodern twists gives his clothes an otherworldly, fractured quality, like a reflection in a shattered mirror. They are truly stunning to look at, and I was in awe at the beauty of dresses constructed out of ripple after ripple of feathers, wreaths of dried flowers, and circles of exquisitely layered and draped organza.

The contrast between romance and savagery  in McQueen’s designs is open to a lot of criticism, and I did initially feel disturbed that he chose to find inspiration in genres and historical periods that are known for their fetishisation and permissiveness of violence against women. One of the dresses had its crotch ripped out, and others were spattered in blood. Many of the models in the catwalk shows would have worn his creations with leather masks on their faces, and the use of leather, chains and masculine tailoring techniques was evident throughout each of his collections. However, McQueen’s celebration of the beauty of the female form and his choice to be deliberately controversial and discuss the ways in which women have been and continue to be constructed, constricted and abused through fashion is also admirable, and by the end of the exhibition I didn’t come away feeling that he was a misogynist. Instead, I felt that he wanted to use his designs to open a dialogue, to push buttons, to cause controversy, to ask us to consider what femininity is, and what we are choosing to express when we dress ourselves. I was moved and awed by what I saw, and I certainly had my preconceptions of fashion as a rather vacuous enterprise challenged. McQueen’s was a brilliant talent, and I’m sorry it came to an end so tragically.

If you are in New York, or its vicinity, I strongly encourage you to go. The amount of people there at 9.30 this morning was ridiculous, and no one had a bad word to say; it’s a fantastic, beautiful and thought provoking exploration of one of the 21st century’s most iconic designers, and I could have stayed there all day marvelling at the magnificent, imaginative displays.

In other news of my week in New York, I went to see Adele at the Beacon Theatre on Thursday night. It was absolutely fantastic; Adele is brilliant live, and her warm, bubbly personality made everyone in the room feel like they were her best friend. Her mum and best friend were in the audience, and Adele sung a song for each of them, which was lovely, and added to the intimate atmosphere. We all enjoyed a good sing and dance and I was totally in awe of how powerful and beautiful Adele’s voice is. If you haven’t discovered her yet, go and buy her albums! She is perfect at expressing the feelings of the young and brokenhearted! I also loved her supporting act, a sort of Southern folk duo called The Civil Wars. I went straight online to buy their album the next morning and I strongly encourage you to do the same!

On Tuesday, something else very exciting happened – my sister gave birth to her third beautiful boy, and I am over the moon! Baby Albert weighed in at 7lb 14oz, and is absolutely gorgeous. I am the luckiest Aunty in the world to have three such brilliant boys to love, and I cannot wait to see them all for bumper kisses and cuddles when I go back in a couple of months.

Finally, after brunch in the Lower East Side today, I saw this hilarious ‘Wills and Kate’ mural, and couldn’t resist taking a photo!!