Stop Press: I am now famous

That’s right, everyone. You used to think I was an ordinary person, just like you, doing the 9 to 5, drifting along, dealing with the little peaks and troughs that come with every day life, and occassionally blogging about books. Nothing groundbreaking, just living my little life.

However, I’m about to disappoint you all. I am not an ordinary person after all. I have been fooling you with my apparent normality all along – I am actually a celebrity. Yes! It’s true!

I am in a book. It might just be my hand that’s in a book, but it’s MY hand in a PROPER BOOK, nonetheless. A full colour photograph OF MY HAND is now adorning the pages of this beautiful book that I do insist you buy, even if it is just to see my hand.

You can also buy it to see the quilt that I’m making, pictured below, that I’m holding with said hand in the several photographs within which I feature. This lovely book has been published in conjunction with the V&A Quilts exhibition, and it’s absolutely beautiful, packed with easy patchwork projects, beautiful colour photographs, and a nice bit of background about patchwork itself. Perfect for a little pick-me-up treat – the pretty colours have already made me feel like Spring is well and truly on its way!

Rest assured – my brush with celebrity hasn’t changed me. Fame is a fickle friend; I am no fool on that account. While I am proud of what my hand has achieved, my life continues in much the same way, and normal service here on Book Snob will resume once I am 1) no longer too excited about my fame to think straight 2) finished moving house.

Jam and Jerusalem

Last night I went to my first meeting of the newly inaugurated V&A WI. We didn’t make any jam and we didn’t sing Jerusalem; the stereotype of the WI certainly doesn’t apply to us. We are mostly young, urban women with careers and busy lives that make it difficult for us to take time out for ourselves, to learn new skills or make new friends. Many of us have joined because we want to learn traditional new skills, such as crafts; we are the generation who grew up without being taught how to make our own clothes, knit socks, or crochet blankets; we want to be able to create our own treasured items with our fair hands rather than buying them from faceless chainstores. Many of us also want to learn more about other things, such as cooking, photography, DIY, bookbinding…and there will be plenty of opportunities for us to do so as we plan on inviting plenty of external speakers to come and talk to us and give us hands on sessions.

Some of the women who came last night said they wanted to be involved in the campaigning that the WI does; as the largest women’s organisation in the UK, it has a powerful voice and can affect policy. Did you know that it was the WI who introduced bottle banks to the UK, and started the Keep Britain Tidy campaign? I am looking forward to becoming more politically active and supporting the work of the WI in this area; one of their main areas of current interest is stopping domestic violence against women, and, in keeping with their rural roots, the WI are also currently involved in the campaign to save Britain’s dying bee population; I am sensing a visit to Fortnum and Mason’s to view their rooftop beehives may be in order to help educate us about this increasingly important issue!

However, most of us have joined for the companionship, and to feel part of something. Living in London makes it difficult to feel part of a community, and also, if you have moved here from another part of the country, or from a different country altogether, making friends can be a struggle. Even making friends at work can be nigh on impossible in an organisation as big as ours where hardly anyone leaves their own office. So, in my opinion, one of the most wonderful things about the WI is the friendships and support networks that develop as a consequence. I attended a London wide meeting last week and was astounded by the warmth, generosity and affection in the room, despite the fact that many of the women had never even met before. Women loving, supporting and encouraging each other to become the best women they can be is a wonderful sight to behold, and is such a welcome contrast to the increasing anonymity and individualism of our daily lives.

I am excited to be part of an organisation that empowers women to become who they want to be, no matter their age, location, skill set or beliefs. There is so much more to the WI than jam and cake making, summer fetes, and musty village halls.  Most of these traditions are lovely, and I look forward to being a part of them, but as more and more younger women are joining, and more and more WIs are springing up in cities, the more these stereotypical notions of the WI are being flung out of the nearest window and replaced by the interests and desires of a modern generation of women who are eager to make the WI relevant to the way they live now. Telling my friends about my WI membership has been an eye opener; many have responded with rolled eyes and yawns, thinking I am going to be spending my evenings knitting scarfs for orphans, drinking tea and making small talk with old ladies. Not so! I am part of a dynamic, inspiring, exciting, energetic, wonderful organisation that acknowledges the importance of women in society; their skills, their opinions, and their incredible capacity for friendship and compassion, and enables them to channel these  into making a difference to the quality of their own lives, as well as those of their friends, family members and wider communities. What more could a woman want?! So watch this space for updates on all the new skills I’ll be learning…I’ll be a jam making, jumper knitting, positive and encouraging political force to be reckoned with before the year is out!

And, if any woman reading this would like to join a WI, please do check the website for your nearest one…and if there isn’t one near you, read this about setting up your own!

Where Life Meets Art

Literary biographies are fascinating, in that they explore not just the life of the writer, but the life behind the writing. Whether an author writes explicitly autobiographically or not, their life is still bound up within the words they have written. What they write cannot help but express their fears, their hopes, their dreams; what they like and appreciate, what they abhor and avoid. Descriptions in literature can reveal how much an author notices details in his or her daily life; whether they stop to smell the heady scent of roses growing along the path or whether they crush the unheeded roses under their feet in their hurry to get to where they are going. So much about a person can be gleaned from what they write; and also what they don’t. Reading really is the most wonderful sort of detective work.

At university, when of course, one has time to debate such matters, we often used to discuss the importance of having a knowledge of a writer’s life history, and whether their life should be borne in mind when reading their books or not. Some were staunchly against it, and considered it akin to holding an author to ransom based on facts that may never have influenced their characterisation or plots at all.  Was it fair, for example, to read Virginia Woolf’s novels and analyse them through the lense of her brief spouts of mental illness? If we didn’t know about the precarious state of her mental health, or that she drowned herself, would we read her novels in the same way? Would we come to the same conclusions about her characters? Would we be able to tell that she suffered from depression through reading her writing if we didn’t know already? Important questions. I was always in the other camp; I don’t think the writer’s life can ever be separated from their work, and I wouldn’t want it to be. Writing is an expression of life, as lived, by the individual writing the words on the page, and knowing more about an author’s life experiences cannot help but add a richness to the reader’s understanding of their work.

Undoubtedly, there are some authors whose lives eclipse their work, and their writing becomes dwarfed by the legend of their private lives, making it difficult for their words to stand alone. Virginia Woolf, for example, is known more for her life than her novels these days, and who can read anything she wrote without the shadow of her last lonely walk along the riverbank hovering ominously overhead, darkening everything they read with its inevitable sadness? Is this projection of an author’s future over a body of work written without the author’s knowledge of those things to come useful? Is it right? Does it blind us from seeing other aspects of their writing, because we are so focused on a biographical interpretation that doesn’t leave room for an alternative view?

I think all of these questions have highly subjective answers, and there are no rights or wrongs. Personally, I find having a knowledge of an author’s life helps me to better appreciate and understand their writing. I am always wary of making direct biographical parallels unless the author has stated such and such a character represents their mother and should be read in such a way, but I do think that, often subconsciously, writers can saturate their work with their life experiences, and understanding more about them as people cannot help but unlock a new appreciation of their writing.

This is so with Richard Yates. I am a third of the way through the wonderful, illuminating, and highly readable biography of Yates by Blake Bailey, and I am already buzzing with excitement and a desire to reread all of the books I’ve already read in the light of what I’ve learned. Yates was a far more biographical writer than most; he used the people he knew, the experiences he had, his thoughts and feelings and failures, to create the worlds in his novels and short stories. Many characters’ names are only letters apart from their real life correspondents, and Yates made many a friend or old acquaintance livid by his blatantly obvious depictions of them in his work.

A lot of what I’ve read so far is about stories I haven’t read yet, but I have learned that Revolutionary Road was dedicated to Yates’ long suffering first wife Sheila, as an apology for the way he treated her. His apology came in the form of depicting her in the character of April Wheeler. Yates never was a tactful man, apparently. Unsurprisingly Sheila wrote to Yates after its publication to tell him she was so upset  by her similarity to April that she couldn’t finish the novel, and she claims to this day she has never read it all the way through. Bailey notes that Sheila told him that she never even realised Yates had dedicated the book to her until her daughter Monica, her and Yates’ youngest daughter, showed it to her in the reissued Vintage paperback in 2000.

Sheila’s parents were, like April’s, largely absent during her childhood; her father was a handsome and moderately famous English actor; her mother a striking beauty more interested in men and her career than her children. After an unsettled childhood, Sheila met the handsome Yates when she was 19 and he was barely older; entranced by his good looks and intelligence, she married him a year later, but their plans of living a bohemian life in the city were soon scuppered by the arrival of their first daughter, Sharon. Interestingly, the young Yates’ did move to Europe; first to France, then on to London, but it wasn’t the Utopia they dreamed of and Sheila left without Yates for New York, and so began the first of their many separations. Their marriage was volatile, punctuated by brief periods of bliss (sound familiar?) and as a family they were constantly on the move, in search of the perfect life Yates believed could be achieved if they just lived somewhere different, or just made this new friend, or if he just got this story published. There are definitely shades of Yates and Sheila in Michael and Lucy Davenport, too, though Yates said himself that he was a heavier drinking version of Frank Wheeler.

It seems that Yates felt Sheila was incapable of love; Sheila said that she was never sure what love really was. They remained affectionate about one another for the rest of Yates’ life; they did have two daughters, and Yates was an excellent father, but they were never quite able to form a functioning relationship. They were very much two individuals, married to one another, and their different ways of coping with life were incomprehensible to the other. I thought it was actually very brave of Yates to be so open about his failures on paper, though I can understand Sheila’s hurt at his depiction of her. However, Yates does not treat April cruelly; she is capable of love and affection; her last act before she aborts her child proves that she cared for Frank enough to not want to hurt him unnecessarily, and I think that was Yates’ way of trying to compliment Sheila, to show that he understood, at least in part, the complexities of her personality. She couldn’t love him in the way he wanted to be loved, but neither could he love her in the way she needed to be loved; the breakdown of their marriage was, in the end, no more one’s fault than the other’s.

So far, I’m enthralled, and I can’t wait to find out more about this remarkable man. Stubborn to the last, he died of emphysema, still smoking while living on oxygen from a tank. His daughter’s worried insistence that he couldn’t smoke with oxygen tanks because of their flammability got nowhere with him – “Media hype” he simply replied. Saying he was a ‘character’ would be quite the understatement!

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Well.

I needed to take a few days after finishing Revolutionary Road before I wrote a review. Reading Yates is an emotionally draining experience, and so is thinking about the implications of his writing; how it makes me feel, how it effects me, and why. What I love about his work is that it is unsparing, unsentimental, and unafraid. Reading his books evokes the feeling of being naked in public; of being exposed, vulnerable, small, and ashamed. His words are whispers of my secret fears and at times they make my blood run cold. Why am I really here? Is it worth all of this pain, all of this frustration, all of this worry, if really, I’m never going to find this ‘something’ I’ve been searching for anyway?

Frank and April Wheeler are idealists; they believe there is a golden world of Elysium out there for them to find, a different plane of a higher existence they can reach, if only they could escape from the confines of their drab lives. They have convinced themselves that they are superior to the people around them, that they are special, and deserve, are entitled to, something better than their humdrum day to day lives in a pastel coloured suburban town. April had dreams of being an actress; Frank has some sort of undefined talent that he believes sets him apart. One thing they both know; they were made for more than they have settled for.

The book opens with the first night performance of The Laurel Players; the dramatic society that has recently been formed by local people looking for some culture outside of the ‘city’. It transpires that April has ‘reluctantly’ been drawn in to take part, on account of her dramatic training, and what was supposed to be a triumphant evening for her, and the Players, ends in embarrassment and shame when the cast fall apart under the pressure. April’s dream of being an actress is shattered yet again, and a violent argument breaks out between her and Frank on the way home from the play. This fight serves as a microcosm of their marriage; blame, hate, frustration, disappointment, fear and loathing bubble to the surface as they rip apart the carcass of their relationship on the side of the new highway lined with the bright and breezy strip malls selling the American Dream.

A couple of days later, Frank returns home, expecting the hostile silence he has become used to from the wife he is never secure of, and instead finds a repentant, beautiful April, who has prepared a birthday celebration for him. She has recovered her happiness; she has made a new plan for their lives, a plan that will give them the dream existence they long for. They are going to move to Paris; April will work, and Frank will be free to discover his true vocation. All seems perfect for a while, and the Wheelers experience a contentment in their marriage that hasn’t been present since its earliest days as they talk about their plans and imagine the beauty of their new lives. However, Frank’s nagging fear that he doesn’t really have any spectacular talent to discover makes him reluctant to fully commit to the plan, and  it isn’t long before Frank starts to have doubts; unexpected recognition, and promises of promotion, at the job he has always dismissed as dull begin to  make him think it might be better for them to stay behind. Then April’s unplanned pregnancy puts a stop to it all; a secret relief for Frank, but a devastating blow for April, that will change the course of their lives and demonstrate just how destructive unrealised dreams can be.

This was Yates’ first novel, and is considered his best by many. The story of the ill fated April and Frank, of their friends, who viewed them as admirable, aspirational revolutionaries, only to be disappointed in their inefficiency to live out their dreams, just like everyone else, and of the crazy son of their neighbours, driven mad by the inescapable, essential hopelessness of life, is astoundingly painful, haunting, depressing, and yet, somehow, beautiful. In amongst the despair, there are moments to be treasured, moments of joy, of love, of contentment, and peace, that make life worth living, worth trying for. There are no easy answers with Yates; there are no cosy endings, no platitudes, no comfort for the weary.  However, there is a bravery, a brazenness, in his declaration that life is not the romance novel we have made it into. Lives don’t all have happy endings; dreams don’t come true, hearts do get broken, and happiness is often hard to come by. Yates never shies away from this. His characters all scrabble around, trying to find the magic key to a more fulfilling existence; they never find it, but at least they believe it’s there; at least they try. That is what I find most compelling about Yates; amidst the despair and hopelessness, hope springs eternal. His characters have an inherent belief that life should be, is capable of being, greater, fuller, more beautiful. They dare to dream.

I am now reading Blake Bailey’s excellent biography; I will post about it as I go along as it has many fascinating insights into Yates’ work. At the moment I am just bowled over by how autobiographical his work was; sometimes he didn’t even bother to disguise the names of the people he wrote about. He was a remarkable man, with a tragic life, and I am slowly getting sucked into his world…

A Cry for Help!

Tonight I got home from work and had a brief  hour’s window of spare time before I had to go out again. In this hour I managed to get a fair bit accomplished; cooked and ate dinner, cleaned my kitchen, spoke to my best friend, who had the audacity to move to Cape Town for a year in January, on Skype, and read an Edith Wharton ghost story.

I’ve been wanting to get started on the Virago edition of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories for a while. I bought it during Simon’s Sensation Season back in 2009 (doesn’t that seem so long ago already?!) but as I don’t like to read short stories all in one go, and I didn’t want to make it a book I read on my commute, the only chance I would ever get to read the stories is just before bed, as I am never really at home in the evenings. I am not ashamed to say that the Point Horror books used to give me nightmares, and I slept with the light on after watching the lame BBC version of The Turn of The Screw at Christmas, so reading ghost stories before bed is not advisable for someone of my temperament. I have a highly overactive imagination, am a sensitive soul, and I sleep alone, so ghost stories are strictly for daytime reading only unless I want to have sleepless nights.

So, this evening, I grabbed the chance to read one of these stories as it was the first time in ages I had time to sit and read something in the early evening rather than just before bed – plenty of distance between reading time and bedtime, so no reason to have nightmares. I read the first story in the book – The Lady’s Maid’s Bell – a classic tale of a lady’s maid going into a strange house, whispers amongst the staff of all not being quite right, mysteriously locked rooms, suspicious footsteps, a menacing male presence. I won’t go into the plot, because it’s such a short story, and a ghost story to boot, that any attempt at explanation would ruin it. It was an excellent story, and very involving, but as I neared the end, I didn’t realise the last page was the last page, and I turned it over to find no more information, and ended up thoroughly confused. This isn’t the sort of story where everything is neatly explained, and despite rereading it, I have no idea how to interpret the events. It’s driving me absolutely mad!

It’s a fairly short story – it will only take about ten minutes to read. You can find it here. If anyone can spare the time to read it, and then come back and tell me what you think the story was about, I’d be most grateful! I have a vague suspicion…and would be interested to see if anyone thinks the same as me!