Off to New York, New York

“So I went to New York City to be born again”

Kurt Vonnegut

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My apologies for being absent on the blog recently. I have had a really busy couple of months with my partner being in Europe and me being home alone with the children. He has now returned, and in two weeks it will be my turn! I am really excited to be going on a trip to New York City in a fortnight. My aim is to see many of the museums: The Met, the Moma, the Guggenheim. But also lots of fun stuff like the Empire State Building and the Staten Island Ferry. Be still my beating heart!

I will return to the blog after my trip, and will write a travel post or two about it. For anyone interested in the meantime, I will be posting about my trip on my Instagram account.

Wishing everyone a great September.

 

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

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“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

This would have to be one of the most enjoyable and beautiful books I have read in some time. It is primarily the story of Francie Nolan, who grows up in pre-World War I Brooklyn, in extreme material poverty, but never a poverty of spirit.

She is 11 years old when the book begins, living with her hardworking and steely mother, and her handsome and charming, well-meaning but addicted to drink father. Katie and Johnny, Francie’s mother and father married early at 18 and suffered the consequences. Having two children just one year apart, Katie is terrified of what their future will be. Her mother’s advice, who was an uneducated German immigrant: get two books, one of Shakespeare, another the Bible, and read a page to the children every night. Once they have learned to read, get the children to read it themselves.

Betty Smith wrote this book in 1943, and it is remarkable in its honesty about grinding poverty, and its liberal views about sexuality and women’s rights. It doesn’t even gloss over the fact that Katie, the mother loves her younger boy child Neely more than Francie, something she acknowledges, but can’t help and is always at pains to atone.

“Katie lost all of her tenderness although she gained in what people called character. She loved her little girl because she felt sorry for her. It was pity and obligation towards her she felt rather than love. Francie felt the way her mother thought about her. She grew an answering hardness against her mother and this hardness, paradoxically enough, brought them a little closer together because it made them more alike.”

This should be such a sad heart wrenching story: Katie, the mother, a pretty and slight woman is reduced to the hard backbreaking work of a janitor in various buildings to keep the family afloat. The father, Johnny, a charming Irishman is a dreamer, a wonderful singer who is reduced to occasional work as a singing waiter, in between drinking. But he adores his children, and they adore him, specially Francie, his favourite. The children are often hungry, and every penny counts against starvation.

The novel spans a number of years, and goes back in time to explore Katie and Johnny’s beginnings as well as extended family, but the heart of it is Francie’s story. She is an intelligent, alert, compassionate and imaginative child. She sees everything and questions it, including a belief in God. It is heartbreaking when her teacher gives her a C in an essay composition because her subject  matter of alcoholism and despair is ‘sordid’.

“Sordid, filthy. Filthy? She thought of her father wearing a fresh collar every day of his life and shining his worn shoes as often as twice a day. … She remembered a hundred and one little tendernesses and acts of thoughtfulness on the part of her father. She remembered how everyone had loved him so. Her face got hot. She turned on Miss Garnder, her face twisted with fury. ‘Don’t you ever dare use that word about us!'”

There’s much cruelty in the story. At one stage, a rapist is on the loose in the neighbourhood, at another time a young mother with a baby born out-of-wedlock is abused and even physically attacked by other women for breaking the rules, that is daring to show the child in public without shame. Francie’s father is sacked and goes on a drinking bender which eventually leads to his death. Francie sees everything, and grows with it.

This book would be immensely sad and depressing, were it not for the knowledge imparted by the narrator, who shows us repeatedly the strength of Francie and her mother, specially after the death, only at thirty-four, of the father from pneumonia.

“She (Katie) had taken on an extra job in this week before Christmas. She got up earlier and worked faster at her flat cleaning. She rushed down to Gorling’s, the department store at the Polish end of Grand Street, where she worked from four to seven serving coffee and sandwiches to the salesgirls. Her family desperately needed that seventy-five cents that she earned each day.”

The reader knows that Francie, like the hardy Brooklyn tree, growing out of cement, will survive and and she will leave for college at the novel’s end.

Below: Betty Smith

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Betty Smith, the author, lived the life of Francie in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn in the early twentieth century, and like Francie escaped to Michigan to attend college, studying journalism, literature and drama, and then going on to study a three year course at Yale Drama School. This bestselling novel was a huge hit with the public in ther midst of World War II, so much so that an Armed Forces edition came out almost immediately that would fit in soldiers’ rucksacks. Smith received many letters specially from young girls and soldiers, and invariably they would address her as Francie.

This was a profound book, so true in its laying bare the privations of poverty and what it means to be human. The New York Public Library rightly selected it as one of the Books of the Century. I would give it 4.5⭐️. As the foreword by Anne Quindlen says “It is not a showy book from a literary point of view. Its pages are not larded with metaphor. Its glory is in the clear-eyed descriptions of its scenes and people:

“When money gave out and food ran low, Katie and the children pretended they were explorers discovering the North Pole and had been trapped by a blizzard in a cave with just a little food. They had to make it last till help came. Mama divided up what food there was in the cupboard and called it rations and when the children were still hungry after a meal, she’d say, ‘Courage, my men, help will come soon.’ When some money came in and Mama bought a lot of groceries, she bought a little cake as celebration, and she’d stick a penny flag in it and say, ‘We made it, men. We got to the North Pole.’ One day after one of the ‘rescues’ Francie asked Mama: ‘When explorers get hungry and suffer like that, it’s for a reason . Something big comes out of it. They discover the North Pole. But what big thing comes out of us being hungry like that?’ Katie looked tired all of a sudden. She said something Francie didn’t understand at the time. She said, ‘You found the catch in it.”

 

 

 

Autumn

by Ali Smith

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“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won.”

“Autumn” is set in the Autumn of 2016 as the United Kingdom is in pieces about to decide on the Brexit vote. The novel is centred on two characters, Elisabeth, a 32 year old university student and tutor, and Daniel, her great friend and mentor who is nearing 100 and in a coma, near death in a nursing home.

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Above: Ali Smith

This book was published in October 2016, following the Brexit vote, and it’s a deeply original and philosophical work, meditating on the fluidity of time, history and art. It constantly flits between past and present, and nothing much actually happens in it, except life which in fact is everything. Much of the drama happens in people’s minds, and some of it is actually quite funny, as is the bureaucracy involved when Elisabeth goes to the post office to renew her passport.

The friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel  is beautiful and very moving. They first meet when Elisabeth is 8 years old, a precocious misfit, and Daniel is already an old man, the queer arty neighbour.

“The lifelong friends, he said, sometimes we wait a lifetime for them.”

Even though the England portrayed appears grim and devoid of hope, the close friendship of these two disparate people is a hopeful thing.

“We have to hope that the people who love us and know us a little bit, in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters.”

The narrative changes back and forth between Elisabeth’s concerns for herself and her country and Daniel’s flashbacks to the past and all he has endured, being a refugee and seeing the horrors of World War II.

In the midst of her post Brexit anxieties, Elisabeth is confronted with the prospect of Daniel’s death. She comes to talk to him every day, regardless of his unconscious state.

“I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful.”

There are many subtle references to great literature of the past, Shakespeare, Keats and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and the importance of ‘reading’ both at a literal and figurative level is highlighted.

“Hello, he said. What are you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.”

Smith writes in a very dense manner, and part of the book is in a stream of consciousness style, but it very quickly starts to make sense. Her language is so inventive as when Daniel talks about words:
“Language is like poppies. It just takes something to churn the earth up around them, and when it does, up come the sleeping words, bright red, fresh, blowing about. Then the seedheads rattle, the seeds fall out. Then there’s even more language waiting come up.”  
 

Parts of this novel filled me with great sadness. It was both funny and very sad, and it was about our crazy world and its borders which are growing ever more exclusive and anti-other.

But it’s also about the power of art and stories. And the seasons go on, despite what humans do. Loved this book. 5 ⭐️

 

Listening to My Soul

 

“I have been a seeker and still am

but I stopped asking the books and the stars.

I started listening to the teaching of my soul.”

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Apologies for being absent on the blog this week. I am going through a lot of changes in my life at the moment.

My partner is in Europe on a cycling tour for five weeks (not the Tour de France, ha ha), so my days are even busier with the children, being totally on my own to look after them. I am also undertaking an online course which runs all year called “Year of You: Creative Rehab”.

Having been a stay at home mum for some years I am trying to work out what I should do next, i.e: what do I really deeply desire to do?

For a year or so I regularly posted on Instagram about books and art, but started to find that very restrictive, as my photography skills aren’t that brilliant, and to me the caption was always more important.  ‘Bookstagram’, as that niche of Instagram is known, after a while just became boring really, everyone congratulating each other’s choice of book, with posts mainly all about beautiful images of books staged with flowers, coffee or on location such as the seaside. Don’t get me wrong, I played the game too for a while and enjoyed it, but as my life got ever busier, I started asking why am I doing this? I realised it wasn’t working for me, so disabled my account.

For the moment, the blog and my on-line course is enough for me. I love writing about books and art still, but I want to try more creative writing too, so I will start doing some on the blog soon.

The on-line course I am doing is very confronting and intense, but in a good way. It asks basic questions that are  quite fundamental like:

What do you want?

What do you need?

What is keeping you suspended over the void of what you no longer are, and what you need to become?

If you knew you would die tonight, what would you regret the most?

These are questions I am on my way to answering this year. I am considering doing a course on visual arts next year. I have read widely about all sorts of artists, and am constantly amazed at how many women artists there have been throughout history, yet  totally underrated or unknown. I would like to highlight some of these in my blog over the coming months.

A genre that has always helped me as a form of bibliotherapy is poetry. One poet that is still immensely relevant today is Rumi, a Persian mystic born in the 13th century. But even though the word mystic might imply “weirdo” these days, his work is strongly grounded in the here and now: it’s direct, powerful and abundant in tolerance and compassion.

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“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian,

stone, ground, mountain, river,

each has a secret way of being with the mystery,

unique and not to be judged” 

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He had so much to say, on everything from love, to religion, to life and death, and everything in between, and he sounds startlingly modern.

“Forget safety

Live where you fear to live

Destroy your reputation

Be notorious”

~

“Don’t be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others,

Unfold your own myth.”

He speaks to us unhindered by time and cultural difference, and his words have an elemental force that remains undiminished across centuries. He certainly speaks to me as I journey through a year of great change.

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All quotations from “Rumi, Selected Poems” published by Penguin, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.

 

 

 

 

Eleanor of Aquitaine

By Alison Weir

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“Prologue: 18 May 1152

In the Romanesque cathedral of Poitiers, a man and a woman stood before the high altar, exchanging wedding vows. It was a simple ceremony. the young man, aged nineteen, was stocky, with red hair, and restless with pent-up energy, knowing he was doing a daring thing. The woman, eleven years his senior and with long auburn locks, was exceptionally beautiful, very sophisticated and a willing accomplice in this furtive ceremony.

Few would have guessed, from the lack of pomp and splendour, that the marriage of this couple was to change the face of Europe.”

I really enjoyed re-reading this biography, which I pulled off my shelf while taking a break from my TBR.

Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, was born in a court where troubadours flourished and courtly love was all the rage. She was not a meek wallflower by any means. She was first married to Louis VII of France, that union later being conveniently annulled. While married to the French king, she was shocked and appalled by the cold winters of Paris, having come from the warm South, and introduced what were then innovations at court: wooden shutters to keep out draughts, and fireplaces! Her second marriage to Henry, Duke of Anjou and later King of England was one of love, rare for medieval times. Henry was a forceful personality, intelligent and hyperactive, but Eleanor was more than a match for him with her sophistication and learning.

Opinions about her were divided: One chronicler noted that “by reason of her excessive beauty, she destroyed or injured nations”, while another stated that she “surpassed all the queens of the world”. I think it could certainly be argued  that the family of Eleanor and Henry was amongst the most dysfunctional in British history. While originally in love, the couple’s happiness was not lasting, and both spent the later part of their lives undermining each other, with Eleanor eventually backing one of her sons in treason. Her sons are well known to history: Richard the Lionheart and John who said of his mother that she was an “unhappy and shameless woman”.

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Above: Tombs of Eleanor and Henry, Fontevrault Abbey, Anjou, France

Eleanor was an extraordinary if controversial personality, and held considerable influence if not actual power, given the constraints on women of that time. This was a fascinating read, for anyone interested in history and one woman’s role in it. I would give it 4 ⭐️.

 

 

Poetry Thursday: Robert Frost

 

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‘Love at the lips was touch

As sweet as I could bear;

And once that seemed too much;

I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,

The flow of – was it musk

From hidden grapevine springs

Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache

From sprays of honeysuckle

That when they’re gathered shake

Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those

Seemed strong when I was young;

The petal of the rose

It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not dashed with pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred

I take away my hand

From leaning on it hard

In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:

I long for weight and strength

To feel the earth as rough

To all my length.’

“To Earthward” by Robert Frost

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Robert Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963. He had a long life, but it was plagued by grief and loss. His father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only 11, his younger sister had to be committed to a mental hospital, and his wife suffered bouts of depression, and died relatively young of heart disease. Of six children, only two outlived their father.

He always wanted to be a poet, and his first poem was published when he was only 19. To earn a living he worked in mills, as a teacher and then a farmer in New Hampshire and Massachusetts .

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Above: Frost as a young man.

Although he is usually thought of as a rural poet, writing about life and nature in New England, Frost is much more than that. His simple language and conversational tone, belies the often dark mediations on universal themes of love and loss.

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‘Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

to say that for destruction ice

Is also great

and would suffice.’

“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

His poetry is so calming and beautiful, but it must have been a hard won beauty for him personally. Despite the pain, his poetry lives on.

Book & Exhibition Review – 1.Vincent Van Gogh & The Seasons: Exhibition at NGV Melbourne 2. Van Gogh: The Life (Naifeh & Smith)

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Above: Olive grove with  two olive pickers, 1889, Saint-Remy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum, Otterlo.

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“Art is to console those who are broken by life” Van Gogh 

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I think it is fair to say that most people have heard of Vincent Van Gogh, even ones that don’t know much about art, and most people have an idea of him as the archetype of the tortured artist genius, which he was, but there is so much more to him than that. Everyone knows of course that he cut off part of his ear, and he definitely had a mental illness, the likelihood being manic depression.

I have been delving into his life and work recently by reading the brilliant biography shown above, and seeing a groundbreaking exhibition of his work.

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L: The garden of the asylum at Saint-Rémy, 1889, Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

R: Self Portrait, 1887, Paris, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

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“Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Vincent Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother, Theo.

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The NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) Melbourne has done a brilliant job at staging “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.  It is a beautifully curated exhibition, the chief curator being Sjraar van Heugten from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, showing in great detail the relationship that Van Gogh had with each of the seasons.

Van Gogh came from a religious Dutch Protestant family, and his father was a minister, but their religion was sober and practical. Poor Vincent was always the odd one among his siblings, preferring to read and be alone in nature. His father frequently accused him of being too serious, too intense and too sensitive; he was always too much of everything really. It was this sensitivity and intensity to both nature and human suffering, that ultimately contributed to the making of his greatest art.

“Today it was a real Spring day, and the fields of young wheat and the lilac hills in the distance are so beautiful, and the almond trees are beginning to blossom everywhere” Van Gogh in a letter to his mother, February 1890.

Vincent tried widely different professions, and was initially apprenticed to an art dealer uncle, which is deeply ironic, as he was able to only sell one or two paintings in his lifetime. This did not suit him, he was a loner and unable to form lasting social connections. Then he worked as a bookstore clerk, which was short-lived. He actually lived in a number of cities during his attempts at making meaning of his life: Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Brussels, and lastly Paris. When working for his uncle failed, he decided to become a preacher. As with everything he did, he threw himself fully into the venture, but it wasn’t to be. Incredibly he was sacked from his position for being too zealous. In everything he did, he was obsessive to the point of destroying his health, both physical and mental. He ultimately found that art was his way to God and the eternal.

Vincent had been very religious in a traditional matter when young, but as his life and art progressed, his relationship with nature became pantheistic. As an artist, I think he was unique in how much and how deeply he read, prior to doing any painting, only taking up painting seriously at the age of 27. He read the Bible, philosophers such as Thomas Carlyle, and writers such as Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë and Goethe. He was intensely drawn to the suffering of others, to his own detriment. He also wrote a lot – reams of letters, specially to his brother Theo. In these letters he passionately articulates how much his art meant to him, and how important it was to his literal salvation.

As he took up painting seriously, he only had ten years left to live, but what he did in that time was remarkable. Of the ten years up to his death in 1890, only the last four were spent in France, and it was there that he created nearly all of the paintings for which he is famous. “Wheatfield” below is a great example of his late style, where the painting is thickly encrusted, when you see it up close it’s almost 3-D, and you can feel the heat of summer in the thick impasto yellow.

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Wheatfield, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, P. and N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam

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The Green Vineyard, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

Similarly, in “The Green Vineyard” above, the vines with huge grapes almost leap out of the picture, and the sky is again thickly layered, like frosting on a cake. In these works, we can see the beginning of modern painting, as exact depiction of reality is no longer important, but the critical thing becomes the vision and feeling of the artist.

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For anyone interested in Van Gogh, the biography by Naifeh and Smith is the definitive work. It reads almost like a novel, with Vincent as the tragic troubled character, and it sheds new light on his romantic life, his mental anguish  and his early death at 37.

Below are a few more examples of Van Gogh’s work . All photos of Van Gogh’s paintings were taken by me on iPhone SE, at the NGV exhibition, “Van Gogh and the Seasons”.

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Farmhouse in Provence, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Orchard bordered by cypresses, 1888, Arles, oil on canvas, Kröller -Müller Museum,Otterlo.

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A wheat field, with cypresses, 1889, Saint Rémy, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

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Further information on this exhibition: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/van-gogh-and-the-seasons/

Further Reading: Van Gogh’s Letters are wide-ranging, and hugely recommended. He writes very well and with great fervour about all sorts of subjects. This Penguin edition is the one I have been reading.

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The last word should go to Vincent, who definitely showed the world by his art, what he had in his heart, and that is what draws so many people to his work to this day:

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”