REVIEW catch up, Part II

As promised, or threatened, here are a couple more rapid (ish) reviews. I’m nearly caught up — for now.

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Sargent’s Women, Four Lives Behind the Canvas
 By Donna M Lucey
Out now from  WW Norton & Company, £24 hardcover

John Singer Sargent was a breathtakingly accomplished painter, and though he came to hate the work, it’s portraits for which he’s primarily remembered. Donna Lucey ushers four of his sitters off their canvases, recounting the lives of Elsie Palmer, Sally Fairchild, Elizabeth Chanler and Isabella Stewart Gardner. In truth, however, it’s not always the sitter but her family that holds the author’s interest, notably in the case of Sally Fairchild.

If you’ve ever looked at a painting and thought, “I wonder what they were like in real life?”, this is for you. The writing can be aggravatingly repetitive, but push past that, for the gossip’s good, the stories absorbing, and events often astonishing. All these women were enmeshed in high society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, an era Mark Twain dubbed The Gilded Age. Nevertheless, says Lucey, those years were “floating on a financial boom, revelling in unprecedented excess, heading for panic.”

The book’s organised by age, from teenaged Elsie to middle aged Isabella. Elsie Palmer’s 6’ tall portrait (below), depicting a still and severe-looking teenager, was first displayed in 1891. It was painted in England, where she lived with her mother — known as Queen — and siblings. Queen had a severe heart condition, and doctors told her the air in Colorado, where husband General William Palmer, a railroad baron, had established a base, was too thin to sustain her health. Leaving him behind, she fled to England.

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Queen ran her vast home on a lavish budget, keeping an open house for those affiliated with the arts. She was extremely close to her eldest, Elsie, often telling her “if anything happens, you’re in charge.” The relationship was clouded by doom.

Perhaps because of this closeness, and the sense that she was her mother’s keeper, Elsie spent most of her time with people much older than herself. She became friends with George Meredith, went to concerts with Sargent, and hung out with Ellen Terry.

By 1894 Elsie was embroiled in a “questionable” epistolary relationship with the husband of her mother’s best friend. Peter Harrison was an artist and considered a dilettante, and, writes Lucey, “primarily known today as the subject of a series of informal paintings by Sargent, some of them ‘hopelessly clever.’”

At the end of that year Queen died, and Elsie drew closer to Peter, though she returned with her father to Colorado to play hostess at his estate. They were visited by the eccentric mother and son pair Evelyn Tennant and Leo Myers. Leo, nine years younger than then-29-year-old Elsie, proposed, but she refused him.

By 1902 Peter and Elsie were reunited. They didn’t know that her younger sister, Marjory, instructed by another sister, known as Dos, was spying on them. Now things get complicated — suffice to say Peter was a nogoodnick. He took up with Dos, running both sisters on parallel tracks for a while. In the end, he plumped for Dos, leaving Elsie, now in her thirties high and dry.

She returned to Colorado. Her father was paralysed in a riding accident, and it seemed that once again Elsie’s life would be consumed by caring for an ailing parent. But she surprised everyone by running off with Leo. In January 1908 the couple wed — Elsie wearing “a long, brown wrap covered with huge metal buckles. Cords holding tiny bronze figures of animals of all kinds crisscrossed her outfit.” [Aside: I don’t know about you but this I want to see. Google’s not helpful. If anyone finds it, please tweet it to @randallwrites.]

The couple had children but the marriage was turbulent and they were often apart. Leo would write The Root and the Flower trilogy, and became a literary star. Sadly his mental health issues were pronounced, and in 1944 he ended his life. Elsie survived another ten years, dying in 1955, aged 82.

That’s an example of the kinds of stories you’ll find in Sargent’s Women. I  urge you to seek it out. Of the four chapters, the one devoted to Sally Fairchild (portrait below — my least favourite of the images but one of JSS’s personal favourites) is mostly to be about her sister, Lucia, an art student who followed Sargent around, taking notes on all he said about art and painting techniques.

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She achieved renown in the US, one of six female artists commissioned to paint murals for the Women’s building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She was 20. Another artist chosen was Mary Cassatt. Lucia changed tack, inspired by the need for income, as she had a waster husband and children to support, and became an expert miniaturist with a glittering client list.

Her story is shot through with sadness, from economic distress and a bad marriage, to multiple suicides (her brothers), family scandals, and debilitating bad health (what we now know was multiple sclerosis).

Elizabeth Chanler was 27 when Sargent painted her, and the portrait (below and used on the book jacket) was so cherished by sister Margaret that it became family ritual to move it twice yearly, in order that sister and portrait might always be together.

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Elizabeth’s life was also dogged by ill health. She was part of the Astor family, but lost a baby sister, her great-grandfather and her mother one after another, and by nine years of age, was the eldest daughter of ten surviving children, and the de facto woman of the house. The brood was deposited at the family estate in New York, surrounded by servants but not their father, who remained in Manhattan. “Elizabeth, a mere child, provided the emotional ballast.”

At eleven — having been shipped off to a British boarding school on the Isle of Wight, run by author and educator Elizabeth Sewell — her father died suddenly. She wasn’t permitted to go home or see her siblings. The Sewells looked after her kindly, but theirs were strict, moralistic ways, and the school “ a bastion of Victorian rectitude.”

To “cure” the illness that made it difficult for her to walk, a fleet of doctors decided Elizabeth should be strapped to a board for two years, completely immobilised. She was 14, alone, lonely, and for a while, denied even the chance to write letters. In 1882 and 3 she lost two of her younger brothers. In 1887 she came of age and into considerable wealth. A cousin, Daisy Rutherford (who’d helped launch Sargent in London), took her in hand. Sargent painter her in 1893, when she was 27, unmarried, and “dangerously close to being considered over the hill.”

Elizabeth also fell in love with a married man — her best friend’s husband, John Jay “Jack” Chapman. Never less than dramatic, as a university student, on discovering that a man he’d assaulted thinking that he’d flirted with Minna, his financé, Chapman thrust his hand into a roaring fire. It had to be amputated.

The affair discovered, Elizabeth was shipped off for exotic climes by her sister, but while they were in Calcutta they received a telegram that Minna Chapman had died. Jack had to remain in mourning for two years, but the clandestine couple burned up the postal service with their passionate letters. Eventually they married in 1889. Weeks before she was to give birth to their first child Jack — considered one of America’s “great intellects, a prolific literary critic, and a political gadfly” — had a mental and physical collapse. It was years before he recovered, but Elizabeth, no stranger to illness, called on her deep reserves of patience and stuck by him. He recovered eventually, but from here on in, though they remained a devoted couple, their lives were dogged by tragedy.

The final portrait in the book belongs to Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose life, Lucey writes, “seems to have the neat structure of a three-act play.” Raised to be a demure society wife, Isabella married a wealthy man, then proceeded to run wild, often scandalising society, though nothing she did seems odd by today’s standards.

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All must be forgiven, at any rate, for Gardner’s lasting legacy is one of the most marvellous museums.  Three floors of art, “and the placement of every single piece is fixed forever. . . If the curators move a piece of furniture or a canvas even a foot from its preordained spot, the entire collection will be put up to auction in Paris with the proceeds going to Harvard.”

Married by twenty to John Lowell Gardner Jr — from one of Boston’s wealthiest, most prominent families — Isabella, with her New York manners, was not embraced by  Boston society who considered her too flashy, a show off, and altogether rum.

Following the Civil War and the birth of a son, dogged by postnatal depression, Isabella packed her trunks and together with her quieter, duller husband, set off to see the world. They went everywhere, and “Bell sought out the most unusual experiences during their travels.” She watched sumo wrestling, ate boiled sea slugs in China, traversed the jungle (partly by elephant) to see Angkor Wat, and attended the installation of the nizam of Hyderabad. Along the way, especially in later years, she bought art.

Sargent’s 1888 portrait of Isabella was to prove as scandalous as its subject — from the pose to the arrangement of her jewels, and the depth (again, modest by today’s standards) of her décolletage. “Belle. . . wanted to expose herself and believed Sargent was the artist who could do it. She was married and she was not young, but the portrait celebrates her sexuality, her joy in her body. . . it was certainly a provocation.”

Her husband paid $3,000 for it, saying, “It looks like hell but it looks just like you.”

Isabella scooped up everything from paintings and antiquities to manuscripts, ceramics and glassware. She funded most of this with a massive $1.6 million inheritance from her father (in 1891 money!), which her husband agreed she could ring fence for this purpose. To further her ambitions she paired up with her old friend Bernard Berenson (misidentified as Bernhard in the book), whom she’d known since he was at university.

Jack Gardner’s death, in 1898, deposited another $2million into Isabella’s coffers, and she managed her fortune well, using it to build her museum and set it up precisely as she wished. In February of 1903 it opened to the general public  to immediate, rapturous reviews.

Setting out to view four lives, Donna Lucey winds up illuminating countless more. The result is a lively work rich in fascinating anecdotes that will please fans of biographies and anyone interested in the lives of little-known women.

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Ancestors in the Attic: My Great-Grandmother’s Book of Ferns / My Aunt’s Book of Silent Actors
By Michael Holroyd
Out now from Pimpernel Press Ltd. Two volumes, slipcased, £35 hardcover

Odd, haunting, and beautiful, this two volume set consists of memory books kept by Michael Holroyd’s great-grandmother and aunt, respectively. The former, living in north east India, collected ferns which she carefully sewed onto the pages, creating exquisite nature studies full of colour and texture. She had a genuine flair for composition. The latter is less artistic and compelling, consisting of black and white photographs of silent movie stars cut out of magazines. We learn that this photographic collection sits amid the bigger book of ferns, on pages left blank in the large volume because of his great-grandmother’s depression. The botanical plates have been annotated by Christopher Fraser-Jenkins, a world expert on Indian ferns.

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The scrapbooks had been abandoned in the attic of the family home, and Holroyd didn’t see them until he was much older, despite living in the house throughout WWII. They were rescued by subsequent owners of the house, who presented them to him as a gift.

In separate (but overlapping) essays, Holroyd sketches portraits of his family. They’re poignant tales of isolation, undiagnosed postnatal depression, and suicide. This is a nice wee companion piece to Holroyd’s two longer memoirs, Basil Street Blues and Mosaic, and with Christmas coming, this handsome boxed set would make a terrific gift for Holroyd fans (that’s everyone, right?).

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Women and Power, A Manifesto
By Mary Beard
Out now from Profile Books, £7.99 hardcover

Another great stocking stuffer comes from Britain’s favourite bluestocking, the renowned, redoubtable, remarkable Mary Beard. It’s a small book packed with big ideas, classical references, and photographs, addressing the gender agenda and putting it in historical context. Our basic template for “powerful” is male not female — but why should that be so and how did it happen?

The text is based on lectures Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, on the theme of “how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them. . . from the centres of power.” By going back to ancient times, Beard proves that “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”

Along the way  Beard reminds us that “public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender.” She points out that Elizabeth I’s famous speech at Tilbury probably never happened — at least not in those words — and debunks Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, with its Southern drawl cadences, pointing out that she came from the North and was brought up speaking Dutch. Further back in time, Amazon warriors were also a Greek male myth rather than a reality.

Beard explores the way women are silenced on social media, drawing on (but not dwelling there) her experiences with trolls. She notes that “unpopular, controversial or just plain different views, when voiced by a woman, are taken as indications of her stupidity. It’s not that you disagree, it’s that she is stupid.”

She admits that she hasn’t come up with a solution to these issues, but recommends that we go back to basics, revisiting our “rules” of rhetorical operations, to think about “the nature of spoken authority, about what constitutes it, and how we have learned to hear authority where we do.” She adds, “If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power that we need to redefine rather than women?”

A rousing wee book for these aggravating times. Recommended reading.

 

 

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RAPID FIRE BOOK REVIEWS Part I

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Dear Readers — If it’s not to arrogant to suppose you exist.

My apologies for not blogging for ages. My excuses include, but are not limited to:

•Massive amounts of prescribed reading for the McIlvanney Prize (judge); EIBF, Bloody Scotland, Wigtown Book Festival, Dundee Literary Festival …
•Ongoing pervasive melancholy
•Spending the past few months not knowing whether I was coming or going, mainly concentrating on being at a book festival on the right day at the right time with the right set of notes to hand
•All while finalising the programming of Granite Noir
•Turning 58 (what a dull, uninspiring number)
•Running back and forth to the post office thanks to the lovely people placing orders from my Etsy shop, PluckyCrocus
•And dealing with ongoing pervasive melancholy. Have I mentioned the melancholy?

None of this is as time or energy consuming as being a full time health care professional, a teacher, a firefighter, a parent, or — well you get the picture. It consumes me, though. C’est ma vie.

I have several different TBR piles. The one glaring daggers at me is recently acquired stuff, books I requested from publishers, books they sent me as lovely surprises, because they thought I’d enjoy them, and some that talented friends sent my way. I’m doing my best. There have been a few disappointments. Not naming any names, but also not reviewing those, as is my policy here.

In brief, are a few of the absorbing things I’ve read recently. Expect Part II soon:

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A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee. Out now from Chatto & Windus. £16.99 hardback

Not a review, because Neel and I are friends, and I don’t review my friends. Nevertheless I urge you to read this. Neel’s richly textured novels remind me of Tolstoy’s, with their attention to detail and their comprehensive — at times horrifying — introduction to a society most of us don’t properly understand. I’ve learned more about India from reading two of Neel’s novels than I did from paying a brief visit, or anything else I’ve read. This is a scathing portrait of a rigid and rigged society the likes of which you won’t see on a package holiday. His characters are complicated, their lives messy and circumscribed. Added bonus, the novel’s filled with mouth-watering descriptions of regional cooking that made me want to go out and try every dish he described.

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The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld. Out now from Orion as an eBook and an Export TPB, £12.99; out in hardback in January, £12.99

Fans of The Enchanted will love Rene Denfeld’s new novel, which is less shocking but no less stirring. She returns to the theme of damaged, dispossessed lives, revealing the resilience of the human spirit, and showing how beauty may persist even in horrific circumstances.

Naomi Cottle is a child finder, called in by desperate families, often long after a police investigation has stalled or ended. As the novel opens she’s meeting the Culvers. Three years earlier their five-year-old daughter Madison went missing. Her mother, especially, believes that she’s alive, and might be returned.

This story, part mystery, part quest, alternates with the slow unpacking of Naomi’s increasingly vivid memories of her own childhood abduction, her rescue, and subsequent life in foster care. She pushes against the rising tide of memories, frightened of horrors she might remember. But she’s equally frightened of the steadfast love on offer from a man who’s pure of heart.

Another strand of the novel is Madison’s own tale of captivity — for she is alive, albeit enduring a feral existence, imprisoned by one of Denfeld’s now-trademark complicated — yet ultimately compelling — villains. It’s intriguing, and surely no accident, that both her novels portray the “villain” as a man without a voice, someone returned to a primitive state, someone removed from society, who can’t believe in his own existence because his own abuser erased him so thoroughly.

Denfeld’s language is unadorned, and the story rooted in the real world, in the crunch of snow and the smell of blood coming from sprung traps, in the stench of bodies and the comforting aroma of home cooking. Though seasons pass in Madison’s thread, it’s a cold book, the chill coming not only from descriptions of the mountainous, wooded terrain, and the people who live there, but from events, as well.

In captivity, Madison evokes a private world, drawing on the walls of her subterranean prison. She creates an ongoing fairy tale, calling herself a snow girl; it’s part autobiography, part remembered bedtime stories. She hides in her fantasy world: “On the dirt floor she drew a large shape called MOM. She lay down inside it, pretending it was hers. She cupped her body there, sucking her thumb like a baby.”

My one concern is that Madison reads much older than her years, which span ages five to eight. Early on, when she’s presumably nearer five, Denfeld has her “feel her veins filling with nutrients as she ate, as if she were one of the trees outside, drinking in the milk of the melted snow.”

She is a strong child, remarkably adept at maintaining her identity and studying her captor. “Maybe he cannot read, she thought. This thought gave her pleasure. Maybe she knew something he did not.” Ultimately the reader (this reader) suspends disbelief about the girl’s vocabulary and thoughts. This, I’ve decided, is what happens in Denfeld’s novels, which conjure a sense of the magical. Think back to the horses sequence in The Enchanted. Go with her story and see where it takes you.

Eventually we understand that “B,” the abductor, is deaf. He no longer feels real to himself and believes Madison is magic. He is filled with rage. The story of how he became this way is, like Naomi’s, eked out — and devastating. It is why I put “villain” in quotes. He has done bad, more than once. But is he bad? These ambiguities are at the heart of everything Denfeld writes, and should be at the heart of all human interactions.

Interviewed by Michigan Quarterly, Denfeld said, “I want to explore how crime happens as part of our culture, not outside it, and how the victims are among us — they are us — just as the offenders are created, not born. I also wanted the story set in the natural world, part of the landscape where we find beauty as well as challenge. I wanted to turn over the tropes about so many people, from foster parents to sex abuse victims, and to demonstrate the immense power we all have to change lives for the better. I wanted to show the power of love.”

She succeeds beautifuly. Her humanity and empathy are never in doubt. No one is written off, no matter what, for behaviour is always contextualised. Hope is possible. Love is possible. Damage, while ineradicable, need not define us.

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You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks & Other Man-Made Women. By Carina Chocano. Out now from Virago. £14.99 paperback

American journalist Carina Chocano was a staff film and TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, and a staff writer for Salon. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Elle, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Aeon and elsewhere. She’s been anthologised in several humour collections, and is the author of Do You Love Me, or am I Just Paranoid.

This essay collection functions partly as memoir, partly as a history lesson for her daughter, its dedicatee. It is also part exposé of some of the ways that female identity has been — and still is — shaped by male popular culture and male ideas. And how women regularly buy into that, unthinkingly. Though Chocano’s younger than I am, much of what she recalls held true for me, coming of age about 10-15 years earlier, underscoring the painful truth that we haven’t come a long way, babies, not at all.

It’s an uneven anthology, but that’s the nature of these beasts. The best of these essays more than make up for more lightweight fare. She’s done her research, and pulls in fitting references from a range of feminist texts. She also links to fairy tales and other children’s stories, especially Alice in Wonderland, making them illustrate her bigger arguments about the role of women and our place in society. She uses pernicious messages in the stories we’re told told and absorb — received wisdom, or so it seems, to a kid — to contrast with the shock of awakening, sputtering to one’s senses, saying, “Hey wait just a minute!” (Which reminds me of the version of Sleeping Beauty in which she’s raped while deep in enchanted sleep, and has a baby.)

Favourite essays of mine include Bunnies, which talks about her grandfather, and the warped world of Playboy magazine, and Can This Marriage Be Saved, which looks at her parents’ marriage and the institution as a destination, taking in The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and the eponymous advice column that ran for years and years in Ladies’ Home Journal. It contains this sobering realisation: “In societies where women’s rights are no longer openly, blatantly denied — as they are not in most of the Western world — women are instead encouraged to deny them voluntarily.”

The Bronze Statue of the Virgin Slut Ice Queen Bitch Goddess is good on Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. What a Feeling tackles how, during puberty, “It’s not that you lose control of your body so much as that you lose control over the way your body is interpreted.” She looks at the differences between male and female coming of age stories — yes, through the prism of Flashdance, decoding its dark messages.

You Play The Girl is absorbing, anger-provoking and worth reading at any age. An excellent Christmas gift for young people, it will remind them to question all the storytelling conventions that keep women down and help perpetuate toxic masculinity.

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Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Out now from Pushkin Press. £7.99 paperback.

Are there two more delicious words than “slim volume?” This SV, a collection of shortish short stories which won the PO Enquist Literary Prize, comes beautifully packaged by Pushkin Press, who do everything with style. Dorthe Nors is the author of four novels, a novella, and this collection. She was the first Danish writer to have a story appear in The New Yorker, and has been shortlisted for the Booker prize (For Mirror, Shoulder, Signal).
To be honest, I’m still coming to grips with these sharp, funny, unsettling tales. It feels as if the reader’s dropped into the thick of things — entire worlds evoked in a few sentences — then plucked out jarred, but not fully absorbing what’s just happened.  These are not stories for a once-over, but stories to return to regularly, to argue about and ponder.

In one, the unexpected delivery of a four-pound tomato leads to an even more unexpected romance. Another seems to be about neighbours, their dogs and the deaths of these dogs. Blink or skip a word and you miss what’s really going on.

I’ll return to Nors’s work — I’ve two more on deck — and to these stories, and hope to speak more knowledgeably about them. Meanwhile, I recommend them to anyone who enjoys spare, rich prose, and stories whose intensity belies their brevity.

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Who Dat?

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Years ago, dining with a friend, I dropped my credit card on the table to cover my share of the bill. Glancing at the name it bore, she recoiled and hissed: “Who ARE you?”

Names have been on my mind since reading a flurry of tweets and opinion pieces about women who take their husbands’ names after marriage in this day and age. Strong opinions abound. There are suggestions of letting down the sisterhood. Questions of identity (and the politics of identity) arise.

My thoughts tumbled like a Pachinko ball, catching on pegs, bouncing from name to name, careening past nicknames, given names, and a chosen name, the fixed place where my identity rests, at last, in defiance of legalities. Jackpot!

I blame the parents. Eli, who had a middle initial but nothing behind it; Gloria, who hated that and her middle name, Phyllis, passionately.

They adhered to Ashkenazic conventions when naming their children, choosing either names or initials signifying recently dead relations. Mom wanted to name me Leah, in honour of the aunt she’d never met. The original, a doctor, was murdered by Nazis. Lined up against the hospital wall and shot, was how our family described it. Poppy, hearing Mom’s plan, rebelled. He said it would hurt too much, hearing his favourite sister’s name in constant use.

Then, the oft-repeated story goes, she decided to call me Andrea (pronounced AHNdreeuh) René. The A for my father’s father, Alex, the R for my maternal grandmother, Rebecca.

In Mom’s telling, her mother, Elsie, rushed into the hospital shortly after my arrival — while Mom lay flat on her back, high as a kite, because that’s how births were handled in 1959 — screeching, “You can’t name your child after a sunken ship! It’s bad luck.”

The SS Andrea Doria, an Italian vessel, had gone down off the coast of Nantucket in 1956, when it collided with the MS Stockholm. Though most on board were saved, it was deemed the worst maritime disaster in US waters since 1915, and generated lots of headlines.

Mommie Dearest chose two other names representing the letters A and R. I won’t say what they are, in case identity thieves try to buy a heroin plantation in my name. I will reveal that my birth surname begins with S, and yes, my little brother did once ask Mom why she didn’t cut to the chase, giving me the middle name Sally, to spell ASS. Little did we know that I’d settle in the UK, where ARS is exactly that, give or take a vowel.

My first name was not in common usage in those days, and the parents compounded my problems by choosing a damned peculiar spelling. Our surname’s vowel arrangement proved equally vexing for the general public. Every teacher, every school chum, every school chum’s parent, on down the line, mispronounced both my names, all the time. You get tired of correcting them after a while, and answer to any reasonable approximation.

It gets worse. At home I was Lysa. Which is Lisa, inflated with artistic pretensions and adapted from my first name’s spelling. This, too, was mispronounced by those flummoxed by the presence of a Y. Who can blame them? Then it was shortened by friends who called me “Lease”. I hated it. I am not for rent, I said.

There were other nicknames. My father, all too briefly, called me D’Artagnan. Mom called me Sarah Heartburn in recognition of my drama queen tendencies. One elementary school teacher who had me for math lessons (it was America, it was math) called me Little Green Onion, because he wilfully misheard my maternal grandparents’ surname as “shallot”. My sixth grade teacher — he of the tie-dyed curtains — called me Suzy Kumquat and no, I don’t remember why. (If any of you reading this who know me in real life try these food-related monikers on for size, you’re dead to me.)

A childhood friend and I signed letters Ziggy (me) and Jean Genie for years. Later I was Anti, because Brian and his partner adopted a dog and I was its aunt. Being in every way the antithesis of maternal and family-oriented, I christened myself in the spirit of Bette Davis in one of her vehement-with-a-cigarette roles.

A friend’s child called me Leebeegeebee. I loved that, but alas, he grew out of it. The redoubtable Duchess Goldblatt, of international Twitter renown, calls me Lee Lee. My now adult godson (and his siblings) has called me Louie since he was in diapers, and mysteriously found it easier to say than Lee.

Every now and then a beau, after a tutorial on correct pronunciation, says, “That’s a beautiful name” and calls me by my given. Disliking it, unmoved by romance, I will not answer. It’s said that a person’s name is the sweetest sound they can hear. I beg to differ.

I shouldn’t be obdurate. I’ve often observed (and done it myself) that women involved with guys using shortened names (Mike, Bob, Rich) employ the full magilla publicly to plant their flag and signal intimacy.

Off I trotted to university where I convinced everyone to call me Lee. It comprised and compressed the first syllable of Lysa. Required the least amount of effort. The fewest letters. It’s pronounceable, spell-able, un-fuck-up-able. Genderless. Odourless. Perfect.

Nearly. Believe it or not, Dad’s nickname throughout university (where he met Mom) and well into the marriage, was — you guessed it, Lee. I’d sort of forgotten that, because by 1977 my folks were barely speaking. Why a man called Eli needs a nickname is anyone’s guess. (Before they were married Mom also called him Mr Fire — cringe along with me — because their “meet cute” was that he would light her cigarettes in the college cafe before he knew her properly. Dad didn’t smoke; maybe it was his patented suave move with all the girls.)

Being lovely and proponents of self-determination, my parents accepted my name change, adopting it instantly. Only the first year was rough, when Dad and I both answered if someone called, “Lee”.

That moment, that choice, changed everything. I’d found myself in Lee. I’d named me and claimed me. If naming things is how we make sense of the universe, with that decision I began making sense of myself. Avrah KaDabra, I create as I speak.

Then I went further. About to publish something in an anthology, I adopted a new surname: my brother’s middle name. It’s also his family name, now, since he changed it legally. We joked that we’d want people to know we were related after we got famous (the hubris!), and knew the family name was no use for marquees, book spines, and other advertising. We wanted something that would roll off Johnny Carson’s tongue.

And so it is that whenever I tell people my name, I give them the name I selected — unless they’re a government agency, hospital or a bank. Even at The Scotsman they published Lee Randall (gave her an email address, business cards, the works) and paid another legal entity.

Having circled this house enough times to dig a moat, I can now explain that when I married my Scottish ex-husband I deliberately took his name, though many of my friends were aghast. I reasoned it this way: I wasn’t using my family name for anything that truly mattered to me; I wanted the authorities to accept that ours was a genuine marriage and not an immigration scam; I had no intention of being Mrs, and went with Ms even with this new surname; and finally, I never much used his name, though I still bear it on every legal document. When I divorced, I flirted with the idea of changing my name by deed poll, to coincide with my heartfelt identity, but frankly cannot be arsed to do the paperwork twice in a lifetime, and doubly so, since it would affect both names.

In this piece from The New Yorker, Adam Alter writes: “Beyond their meaning, words also differ according to how easy they are to pronounce. People generally prefer not to think more than necessary, and they tend to prefer objects, people, products, and words that are simple to pronounce and understand.” I wonder who I’d be now if I’d had different names then? Would I have been more popular, and grown up impregnated with self-confidence? Thus fortified, would I have achieved more?

In choosing my name I didn’t entirely reject my parents. It was they who gave my brother the middle name Randall. In keeping my ex’s name I do not cling to him, merely to convenience. It is generic, easy to say and spell when that’s necessary.

Where I live now is deep inside the name I created out of scraps of the family fabric, the name I’ve publicised and published. As I told my friend all those years ago in that restaurant, “I am who I say I am.” Lee.

 

 

 

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Seeing Red

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Seeing Red by Lina Meruane
Translated by Megan McDowell

Out 3 August from Atlantic Books
£12.99 hardback, and eBook

(In Edinburgh? Lina’s at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 26th August)

Writing this in tearing haste, as the saying goes, but with the strong recommendation that you read this energetic, gripping novel by one of the stars of Chilean literature, Lina Meruane. It’s been beautifully translated by Megan McDowell, into English that’s vivid, striking, urgent and occasionally stomach-churning.

Seeing Red begins with a long-anticipated catastrophe: at a party in New York, the narrator suffers a haemorrhage in her eye. “And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye.  . . . With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy . . . and even so I didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.”

Lina the narrator, like Lina the author, is a Chilean writer, living in New York while pursuing a PhD and working on a novel. She is diabetic. The novel’s Lina has recently moved in with her boyfriend, Ignacio. (The real Lina received a PhD in Latin American Literature from NYU, where she is Professor of World and Latin American Literature and Creative Writing.)

Ignacio cannot see what lies behind her eyes, but he’s swept up in the drama. Part of this story is an exploration of how illness can transform us into demanding, self-centred creatures, and diminish our ability to empathise. Thus when, late in the novel, Ignacio proposes marriage, Lina’s reaction is: “It depends, I tell you, in a moment of suspense filled with love and vileness; it depends on how much you love me, on how much more you’re willing to do for me.”

Lina borrows Ignacio’s sight in more ways than one, living through his descriptions, allowing him to navigate her through the streets and through their new flat, even stroking his eyeballs — and by the end, threatening to pluck them out as replacements for her broken eyes, so that she’ll no longer move around “like a disoriented bat,” so that she can read, instead of listen to audio books, so that she can write her own books again.

The specialist, Lekz, has been her doctor for years but cannot remember her name. He never forgets a retina or a cornea, though. The prognosis is iffy, and she has a month to wait before they can contemplate the possibility of surgical intervention. During that time Lina flies back to Santiago, while Ignacio goes to Buenos Aires on business, ahead of joining her at her family home. There is friction between Lina and her parents — both doctors, which is exacerbated by their concern for her health and her mother’s need to star in every family drama. Lina’s determined individualism ultimately wins the day. This is a family dynamic everyone will recognise, whatever their circumstances, and the frustrations of becoming an infantilised adult in the presence of people you adore and can’t stand are beautifully rendered.

Lina takes Ignacio sightseeing, navigating by memory. She predicts the weather by smelling the air. She’s rehearsing blindness. Because she cannot see, Lina projects visions and memories onto her mind’s eye, noting her father’s long femur, experiencing her mother as “A medusa, a jellyfish, an ocean flagellum, a gelatinous organism with tentacles that would cause a rash. There was no pulling my mother off of me.”

This is the sort of chewy prose to set the heart alight. But fair warning, there are equally vivid, visceral descriptions of her operation and bodily functions, which can be bracing if you’re the least bit squeamish. Her frustrations with the American healthcare system, notably the insurance requirements, are as funny as they are horrifying.

Meruane’s writing crackles with electricity (it reminded me of reading This Side of Paradise, which for all its flaws, crackles with life). She plays with syntax, ending sentences where they would in your head, if not on the page. For example: “. . . even their whispers were exaggerated, while I.” She describes Lekz running his hand through his hair “in search of his future baldness.” There are countless other felicitous moments, but you must discover them for yourselves. Trust me, you’ll enjoy this treasure hunt!

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fact of a Body

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The Fact of a Body
By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Out now from Macmillan
£20 hardback; £16.99 eBook

As a story, this is spellbinding. As a feat of engineering, it is a marvel that everyone who writes should study carefully. Comparisons abound. Here are two of mine: The Fact of a Body reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Rene Denfeld’s novel The Enchanted. I suspect it has commonalities with James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places, and Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts (neither of which I’ve read; the latter was recommended to me by Denise Mina via Twitter).

The Fact of a Body is a combined memoir / true crime story. What’s astonishing is that the crime in question involved other people in another place, and had nothing to do with Marzano-Lesnevich’s family or friends.

Yet straightaway we learn that the crime has everything to do with the author, who skilfully meshes her stories like halves of a zipper. Once the elements are engaged it’s nearly impossible to imagine them as separate entities. Even so, tease them apart again and each is distinct.

The Fact of a Body is about families and secrets, about sexual predators, about the way patterns repeat over generations. It’s about the myriad circumstances that contribute to one damaged person’s ability to thrive (eventually) versus another’s ultimate disintegration.

On one side of the tape is the murder of six-year-old Jeremy Guillory, and the story of his killer, pedophile Ricky Langley. The other side is a slow unpicking of the author’s family history, containing eerie parallels that explain why this case, in particular, would not let her rest when she was a law student. There’s a good interview in Vogue, explaining a lot of this.

Things Marzano-Lesnevich gets right:

Pacing: the tension is palpable and unrelenting. Every chapter ending will make you go, “Oh my god, what next?” and turn the page until there are no more to turn. (I inhaled this in a day.)

The account of her abuse — and her parents’ decision to sweep it under the carpet — is devastating, but her retelling never feels self-indulgent.

There are dozens of stories within stories, and each is compelling. Her curiosity and research have been comprehensive and thorough, but rather than sinking under the weight of this information, The Fact of a Body is buoyant.

It’s a stark reminder that even now, in the United States, people live in grinding poverty, which forces them to make terrifying compromises and endure the seemingly unimaginable.

Empathy abounds — for victims and criminals, making for a stirring read.

Wait, you’re thinking, she hasn’t described the story or offered a potted precis, as is typical in book reviews. Damn straight. It’s too complicated and sublime. Trust me, when I say rush to the library or your favourite bookstore and get hold of The Fact of a Body. Trust me when I tell you that this is one helluva story, incredibly well told.

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Deep Dish

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(These are not the dishes in question, but these dishes are for sale on my Etsy shop.)

For my fourth and final year of university I moved off campus into a flat. I was sharing with a pal I’d met my Freshman year, called Spaceman. (His ability to sleep through crashing heavy metal music, screaming hissy fits and much more prompted one of the guys in his dorm suite to marvel, “He’s like something from outer space.” Lo, a nickname was born. He claimed to despise it, but was often seen wearing a tee shirt proclaiming: “Space is the Place.”)

Anyway.

This flat was furnished, but I needed dishes, so Mom and I nipped over to the mall. I knew what I didn’t want, mainly nothing resembling any of the dishes we’d had at home, which included a hideous brown on brown drip pattern during the 1960s, or the particularly memorable turquoise and gold melamine horrors that replaced them.

In the shop I narrowed it down to a couple of appealing designs. The top contender had a white ground with a thin navy blue line running round the outside of each plate (inner rim of bowl, outer rim of cups), punctuated in places by a small lozenge of navy blue checks, like the ones on Checker taxis. Clean. Vaguely urban. Crisp.

“Maybe these,” I said.

“What do you mean ‘maybe,’” asked Mom.

“Depends how they feel,” I said.

Mom, who sent us to ordinary state schools, used to joke about Montessori kids and how they had to touch everything. Whenever my brother and I ran around touching things (which was often) she admonished us to stop behaving like Montessori kids. It wasn’t the worst thing she ever called us, but we knew it was pejorative.

As Donald Rumsfeld didn’t quite say, there are the known knowns and then there are things we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, but which we don’t know — and can’t explain — why we know them.

I knew I had to hold those plates; they had to feel right in my hands or I wouldn’t be able to live with them.

I picked up a plate. The underside curved softly and was as delicious to the touch as a peachy set of buttocks. Mmmm, I thought.

“These,” I told Mom. “Definitely these.”

Back home we found Dad sitting at the kitchen table. Goodness knows what he was doing there, he normally hid from us. He asked whether the trip had been successful.

“Want to see them?” I asked, holding up a bowl. He didn’t comment. I’ll never know what prompted me to give him one of the dinner plates. Curiosity, maybe. He held it in both hands for a few moments, without saying anything. Then, slowly, he smiled.

It seemed I was my father’s daughter.

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The Mythology of Loss?

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I’m not a loser. That is, I don’t lose things. Oh sure, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what became of much of my childhood detritus — toys, clothes, the contents of our dressing up box. Let’s blame Mom for some of those disappearances, my own enthusiasm for a mood-lifting purge for the rest.

No, I am not someone who has to replace a lost phone. Ever. Credit and debit cards don’t go missing. I can easily lay my hands on my marriage and divorce papers, on my birth certificate, and my British Citizenship documents. The only time I lost my wallet — 1981 — it was stolen. Loss is so infrequent that I am still pricked by angst recalling a crimson cut-velvet scarf I lost in a Manhattan nightclub, not to mention the circumstances that led me there, and the perhaps bigger loss — at the time —  of my heart to the man I went with to hear that band. (Bigger? Ha. It’s the scarf I miss now and will always mourn. That’s perspective for you.)

I interact with my belongings regularly. I have an above average visual memory. I boast of these traits to explain why I’m distraught that I cannot find one of my books.

It is not just any book. It is a book I’ve cherished since childhood, reading and rereading it so often that it’s a wonder it’s survived. It has survived, and I would not have jettisoned it, even if it was in shreds. It’s one of the books I shipped from the USA when I emigrated. And it’s the object that, when I vowed to return to the original premise of this blog — blithering about myself by examining what I own — seemed an ideal place to start.

Classical Myths That Live Today must have come into the house with my father, a professor of education. I know that because it’s not a book for readers, it’s a book for teachers. Here’s the abstract from an online library: “A textbook or reference work that includes illustrative selections from English poetry, review questions, projects, and suggestions for additional reading.”

This is what my edition looks like — small, orange, austere.

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The pages are slick, coated, like an art book. The authors are Frances Ellis Sabin and Ralph Van Deman Magoffin. The earliest edition was published in 1940 but mine must have been the 1958 edition, making it one year older than I am. I began reading this in the 1960s, as a girl, and never stopped, even though I’d memorised the stories of the Mount Olympus gods and goddesses.

There is a chapter for each of them, from Apollo to Vulcan. Next up, heroes, Bellerophon through Theseus. There are chapters about the Trojan War, The Adventures of Ulysses and the Wanderings of Aeneas. Useful appendices offer a who’s who, a summary of expressions, suggestions for ways to present the material that will have relevance to students’ everyday lives, picture credits, and a section of page references to other textbooks for additional reading.

Poetry and literature are quoted to illustrate not only the behaviour of these immortals, but to demonstrate the electrical current these legends shot through the creative juices of the world’s great writers. And not only writers. Though words are my livelihood and vitally important, what grabbed me as a child weren’t the verses, but the pictures. Throughout are engravings and photographs of classical works of art — Greek urns, temple friezes, statues, paintings. As happened with Madame X, via this book I made best friends with two of Bernini’s sculptures — The Rape of Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne. More than a dozen years later, as a university student, I managed to visit them in Rome’s Galleria Borghese. Eyes glistening with tears, mouth catching flies, I felt my heart open wide, felt it soar, deeply touched by this reunion. It was a homecoming, this communion with the companions of my childhood. I gasped at how Bernini rendered Pluto’s fingers digging into Proserpina’s thigh — it’s marble, why does it squish? — and at her splayed toes. They, more than anything, more than the horror in her face, convey the shocking speed of her abduction and her abject fear. (Bernini worked on it between 1621 and 1622 and was 23 when it was finished. Christ on a bike, that’s precocious! From there he went right to work, possibly with help, on Apollo and Daphne.)

Here (and throughout this post) are some images I looked at almost every day as a kid.

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I  can’t sit still and keep leaping up to re-check my shelves, my eye continually snagging on The Heart Has its Reasons, by the Duchess of Windsor, because it’s old, and it’s orange. This is desperation talking. I’ve run my hand behind books, checking for slippagae. I’ve been up on a ladder checking the high shelves where I know it would never be (I keep it accessible). I’ve been on hands and knees looking under furniture. I’ve snuck up on my shelves, exclaimed, “Ah ha!” — to no avail. I’ve asked myself, “Who’s been in this flat and out of the many hundreds to choose from, why would they ‘borrow’ that?” I know just where it should be but not where it is. I’m dying to suddenly see it after looking right at it for two days, dying to call myself names, say, “For fuck’s sake, you asshole, it was there all along.” I mean, how could it have vanished?

As much as it entertained me, Classical Myths that Live Today also informed me. Whenever I joke about my annoying inability to settle into childhood and my stupid rush to grow up, I say it’s because I sprang fully grown from my father’s forehead. (Note to self: Honey, it was a headache.)

I always remember — thank you Eos — that wishes must be worded to account for contingencies: when asking for the gift of eternal life, bolt on eternal youth because otherwise you’ll end up a desiccated cricket, like poor Tithonus. The story of Niobe warned of the dangers of bragging — anger the gods and they’ll kill what you love. In her case, eleven of her twelve children.

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I learned to carry a mirror (or other reflective surface) when out on a mission, because you never know when you’ll encounter a Medusa.

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And I always move my hands around when I’m washing something so I don’t miss a bit, as Thetis did.

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I google my book, find the cost of replacing my precise edition prohibitive given my current straits. Wonder how long I’ll resist adding it to my credit card debt anyway. I’m jonesing for my security blanket.

Though I understood this was a nonfiction book about fictions, that its stories weren’t reportage, I can’t shake the feeling, even now, that the Olympians were real. Well, real to me, and to generations of Greeks and Romans. If anyone wants a list of the books that made me, Classical Myths That Live Today is up near the top. It filled me with stories and infused me with an affinity for art. The potency of these stories and the way they continue living inside me — I’ve just realised how perfect the title is — makes it easier to understand those who believe in the Bible and the reality of those lives and that God. Would I believe if I’d found a bible on my parents’ shelves, instead of Sabin’s book? I doubt it. Certainly they’d have discouraged me. Anyway, back then, bibles didn’t come with lavish illustrations of the art and architecture that myth system engendered. For me that would all come later. Did I ever tell you I “collect” annunciations? Some other time, perhaps.

Damn. I came to capture a memory, not write a eulogy. I’ll continue tearing the flat apart. In the meantime, I might erect a shrine to Hermes. Unless he’s the one who stole it.

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Binge Reading: Leonora Carrington

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The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington
By Joanna Moorhead
Out now from Virago Press, £20 hardcover

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Down Below 
By Leonora Carrington
Out 18 May from New York Review Books Classics
£8.99 paperback

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The Hearing Trumpet
By Leonora Carrington
Exact Change Books
$15.95 paperback
(my edition is American, obviously you can source other options in the UK)

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The Milk of Dreams
By Leonora Carrington
Out 15th June from New York Review Children’s Collection
£11.99 hardcover

I play a game, sometimes, where I let the book I’m currently reading select the book I’ll read next. I’m also a completist and an obsessive. For example, if I love an actor (writer, musician), I’ll not only try to see all of their films (etc), but will also read as many biographies or tangential reference works, in order to know even more about them. This explains the “New Yorker Ghetto” of my bookshelves (devoted to works about the magazine and the writers who worked there), my collection of biographies, and the time I simultaneously read two Angie Bowie memoirs published twelve years apart, vetting her versions of identical events against one another.

The past week or so of my reading life has been devoted to Leonora Carrington, which is only fitting, since this is her centenary. She was born 6 April 1917. She was an artist, an author, a rebel, and altogether amazing. As this is not a book review post, I’ll not rehash chapter and verse of her life — you can find that in proper reviews elsewhere online. I do urge you not to stop there, but to go on and read The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington, and then, of course, to read Carrington herself. All the books pictured above are terrific and worthy of your time.

Moorhead’s father was Leonora’s cousin. She’d run away from the family in 1937, aged  twenty, and for all intents and purposes never returned. To most of the family she was a write off and an enigma. So in 2006, when a stranger told Moorhead that her distant relation was “probably the most famous artist alive in Mexico today”, her curiosity was piqued. She dug deeper. Her father told her Leonora — Prim, as she was known then — “disappeared off to Europe, got into all sorts of trouble there, and was a huge worry to everyone.” Soon Moorhead was on a plane to Mexico, notebook in hand. Her friendship with Leonora lasted until the artist’s death in 2011.

While not a hagiography, this is a loving biography, mainly focussed the first part of Carrington’s life. It chronicles her love affair with Max Ernst (much older and already a star of the Surrealist movement), their one idyllic summer in the south of France where they played host to a Who’s Who of art world celebrities, and their separation at the start of World War II, when Ernst was interred and Carrington forced to flee.

The most difficult section of the book describes Carrington’s own internment, in a sanitarium for the insane, during a prolonged psychotic episode. Carrington told the story herself in Down Below, and while the two accounts cover the same ground with a lot of overlap, they are not identical. If anything, Moorhead’s version is more emotional and shocking (but that might be because I read it first). Carrington’s version has a sense of remove about it, perhaps the only way she could commit such painful memories to the historical record. For she was brutalised at the clinic, left naked, strapped to her bed, covered in her own excrement. Her treatment included injections of a drug called Cardiazol, a precursor to electroconvulsive therapy, which induced an epileptic fit thought to “reset” the brain.

Leonora regained her sanity and made another escape, to Madrid this time, where she reconnected with a Mexican diplomat she’d met in France. They married so that she could escape Spain, and she followed him first to New York and then to Mexico. After a few years there they divorced, and she went onto marry Imre Emerico Weisz Schwartz — Chiki. He was a Hungarian who’d endured a hard childhood but in his teens, forged a close friendship with a boy who went on to become the renowned photographer Robert Capa. While Capa photographed the Civil War in Spain, Chiki remained in Paris, selling the images to magazines.

In 1969, during a period of political unrest marked by student riots, Leonora heard that she had been denounced to the authorities, and she fled alone to the USA. She spent the next 25 years there, returning to Mexico when Chiki’s health began to fail him in old age. There she remained, dying in 2011.

Moorhead’s well-written account is absorbing and I applaud her for telling this story. If I have a complaint, it’s that it tails off dramatically after Leonora is settled in Mexico with Chiki and their sons. To be sure, her entanglement with the Surrealists, her mental illness, and her flight from a Europe engulfed by war is an incredible tale, but Leonora remained vibrant and fascinating right to the end — and kept working, as well. We’re told she had affairs, but none of their details, that she visited a Buddhist retreat in Scotland several times, and her British relations rarely and unhappily, though she remained on good terms with her mother throughout. Whereas before, Moorhead offers many perspicacious insights about Leonora’s art, once she pitches up in the US it’s mentioned less and less. A quick internet search reveals that she created sculptures as well as paintings, but they’re barely mentioned and remain unexplored. I’d love it if Moorhead produced a second volume, amplifying details about the latter half of Leonora’s life.

The Milk of Dreams, out in June, consists of sketches and snippets of stories and poems Leonora told her sons. It’s a pretty little thing, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. According to the publishers it’s recommended “for the child age 5-9 with an odd sense of humour who finds Dick and Jane passé.”

Finally (though actually first in my reading queue), there is Leonora’s novel The Hearing Trumpet, the story of deaf as a post 92-year-old Marian Leatherby who is shipped off to an old folks’ home by her ungrateful son and his wife. Marian is a marvellous creature — stooped and ugly and heroic. Her irrepressible friend, Carmella Velasquez, who gives her the titular hearing trumpet, is based on Carrington’s real life friend Remedios Varos, a painter whose work I stumbled upon in a Mexico City museum and loved immediately. Together with Kati Horna, writes Moorhead, they “took Surrealism to a new place, a place where it was women-centred and instinctive.” The friendship with Varos was “one of the most precious of her life”. They pushed one another artistically, threw surreal dinner parties, and pulled pranks. Leonora was blindsided when Varos died unexpectedly, aged 55, in 1963.

In this novel, the inmates take over the asylum, wrestling control away from Dr Gambit, himself a parody version of the spiritualist Gurdjieff. I can’t begin to precis the story, which is hilarious and bonkers and wide-ranging, encompassing mythology and religion and murder. It celebrates old age with exuberance and without apologies. Though the oldies get up to all sorts, there’s nothing here of the modern tendency to portray them as cutesy or particularly heroic. Carrington’s old women are unrepentant, lively crones who have few regrets.

They are excellent role models. As was Carrington, who always, always maintained her autonomy and independence of spirit.

Get tucked in!

 

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BOOK REVIEW: Sarah Schmidt

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See What I Have Done
By Sarah Schmidt
Out 4 May from Tinder Press, £12.99 hardback

Unsolved mysteries stick in our collective memory like burrs, a constant irritant to our curiosity. Every so often someone comes along with a solution — often disproved, or at least hotly argued — a film, or a reimagining. The newest of these is Sarah Schmidt’s haunting debut novel, See What I Have Done, revisiting the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, long presumed to have been whacked to death with a hatchet by his daughter and her stepdaughter, Lizzie. She was arrested, tried, and in June of 1893, acquitted, living on until her 66th year, dying in 1927, of pneumonia.

That’s a jarring fact — that Lizzie Borden, who feels so Victorian in every depiction, persisted into the Twentieth century, through the first World War and nearly to the Depression.

It comes as an aftershock, though, for every page of See What I Have Done reeks with visceral disturbance. It is not a delicate novel for delicate constitutions, but a story of fevers and hot skin, oppressive miasmas and rancid food. People sweat and bleed and slurp and vomit; the murder at the story’s climax is gruesome, all splitting skulls, twitching corpses, and eyes loosed from their moorings.

The Borden family is no less corrupted, as rotten as the days-old mutton stew they eat to such ill effect. They seethe with fury and their inability to express themselves erupts into frequent violence. Mr Borden strikes Lizzie when she stands up to him, then murders her pigeons, one by one, with an axe. Emma strikes Lizzie when the younger girl accuses her of sinning. Mrs Borden strikes Lizzie, telling her she’s a disappointment to her father. And Mrs Borden strikes herself, repeatedly, as punishment for imagined inadequacies as a wife and woman.

Bridget, their servant, tries repeatedly to leave, and is thwarted each time. Mrs Borden manipulates her via emotional blackmail and then by confiscating her savings, trapping her in the household.

Though there is a guest room, the girls sleep in adjoining rooms — one is really supposed to be a closet — and it’s as claustrophobic as you’d imagine. There’s no getting away from each other, and that’s very much how Lizzie wants it. More than one family member fantasises about crawling inside a mother, sister, father, the better to understand them, and seek sanctuary there. Emma, who like Bridget, dreams of leaving this toxic home, is denied the escape of marriage. She understands that her father wants her near, to keep Lizzie in line.

There are hints of another, older family murder, of two babies. There’s a mysterious uncle, and a stranger who may be a hired killer.

Again and again we return to Lizzie, with justifiably morbid fascination. She presents as seriously unhinged, but also as a sad case of arrested development, a little girl who wanted to love and be loved by everyone, who grew into a woman consumed by hatred for those who denied her this emotional due.

Schmidt has an opinion about the murders, and gives us a perpetrator, making for a satisfying and unsettling ending. She is a bold writer, unafraid to depict this gruesome family in hellish detail. (The gritty, grubbiness of everyday biology, so graphically described, calls to mind the work of Ottessa Moshfegh.) Schmidt’s handling of different perspectives is assured, and she moves her story backwards and forwards in time with equal facility.

Based on this debut, it’s clear that Schmidt is one to watch. See What I Have Done is not an easy read, but it’s a memorable one — for all the right reasons.

 

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Apologetic Mode

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I know, I know, where have I been? Off trying to earn money, trying to unscramble my head, and reading a lot of books that I’m either reviewing for an unnameable client (and most of which are horrific) or stuff that I can’t review for a lot of other reasons. And I owe you more hilarious anecdotes at my parents’ expense.

To hold their place, here is a wee essay about John Crowley’s Little, Big, a love letter, in fact, to a book I have long adored. If you’re a book lover, do take note of Helen’s project, celebrating lesser known living authors. And be aware that she has a novel out now, too (which I have yet to read):

 

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And finally, if you’re a fan of  vintage, I’ve opened an Etsy shop called PluckyCrocus.

Be back soon!

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