Tag Archives: good reads

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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To American readers, there is something delightfully appealing, captivating and perhaps nostalgic in an English story. The lively dialects and slightly foreign expressions, even when unfamiliar, attract us. It is an old infatuation that remains fresh with each new encounter. Tessa Hadley, one of the best story-writers we have today, makes this reading experience all the more pleasurable, as she crafts the story of a young woman and builds these episodes over a period of time, so that as readers our sense of time changes and the tale ends much sooner than we’d like.

There is to be a June wedding and a dress needs to be made. Ann Gallagher is young and talented. She is an astute seamstress with a genius for style and fashion-design. Uniformly, Hadley stays true to the continuity of clothing, appearance, fabrics and textures throughout the tale, weaving in, as it were, a tactile setting of fluid lighting and palpable drapery, furnishings and landscape.

Now her scissors bit in with finality, growling against the

wood surface of the table, the cloth falling cleanly away from the blades.

The atmosphere of metaphor begins here and resurfaces in exquisite fragments indulging the reader with portent. At this point in the story, Ann is still young and single, a brilliant dressmaker on her way up with bright dreams of one day soon making it in London couture. Yet, the scissors growl a foreboding, even as the studio brims with light and promise:

Morning light waited, importantly empty, in the cheval glass. 

Ann’s business partner, Kit, dashes in and out with flair and sparkle, a joie de vivre. Though, she couldn’t design for toffee or cut a pattern, Kit had style and could sew well and work hard for the right clients. Kit was raised in Paris, not the English suburbs, like Ann. So, alas, Kit is a snob. Yet she is wild, untamable and chic, with mad exuberance. Kit is a loveable character, as frivolous, superficial characters often are.

Nola, for whom the wedding dress is being fashioned, is the complete antithesis of Ann and Kit. Nola did grow up in the suburbs like Ann, but, as appearances go, Ann is the one who broke from the mold of provincial Fishponds. Nola is a nurse, wearing the same set of clothes every day:

Nola Higgins stood with military straightness, shoulders squared; she was buttoned up into some sort of navy-blue uniform, unflatteringly tight over her heavy bust.

Ann invites Nola in for an impromptu fitting. “I’ll put some coffee on to perk.” It would seem that Ann finds Nola a bit austere and too plain, yet Nola turns out to be sweet with a soft disposition and quite malleable in the expert hands of Ann and Kit, whose attentions improve when they learn that Nola is to marry a wealthy, young man whose estate goes back many generations. Nola suddenly takes on a new significance, like a newly discovered treasure in an attic full of unwanted cast-off materials. Despite Nola’s simple, almost dowdy appearance, Ann has a personal philosophy:

Ann really was convinced that if you could only find the right clothes you could become whatever you wanted, you could transform yourself.

Ann applies her credo to Nola, who really did have lovely, matte pink skin, and Nola entrusts the dressmakers completely, as they tug and smooth the fabric around her large waistline.

And, the light falls in patches on Ann’s cutting table.

Whether Ann’s credo ultimately affects the desired outcome for her own life is a question. Yes, she has a magical way of transforming cloth into a beautiful garment, but for all of her capability and finesse, does she become what she wanted, after all? When Donny Ross is introduced into the story, the narrative is wary, as if the narrator is suggesting that Ann could have heeded these precautions. Donny Ross is apparently a jazz pianist. He is a medic with cavernous cheeks, and thin as a whip. He is mostly saturnine and judgmental. Indeed, most of the descriptions of Donny Ross are unflattering. So, why does an intelligent girl like Ann end up taking such a rude, arrogant and untalkative man for a husband? It seems there was an unexplainable attraction. Though Donny Ross comes prowling seductively into her life, he exhibits no interest in what’s important to her but withdraws into his own inner world, tapping out tunes on her sewing table and humming to himself.

And yet, Ann is unreasonably attracted: She carried on steadily, concentrating on her work, feeling as if some new excitement were waiting folded up inside her, not even tried on yet.

Donny’s pursuit of Ann is as intent and intense as a cat’s, when the three couples spend the afternoon at Nola’s fiancé’s estate in Thwait Park. Ann’s perspective on the day, with regards to Donny Ross, becomes shadowy and yet sparkling, as when she describes her impressions upon entering the Park.

A few skinny lambs scampered under the ancient oaks, where new leaves were just beginning to spring out, implausibly, from gray crusty limbs.

With Hadley, transformation takes place moment by moment. The spring newness of nature or of a great house is ultimately transient, the newness fading into the old, as it becomes ancient with mineral crusts and decayed, peeling wallpaper. Ann and Donny Ross lay side by side, close together but not touching, in the long grass under a tall ginkgo tree of this beautiful, old estate. They’re in a sultry liminal zone, where the future is open with hope and desire, yet Hadley shifts to the reality of fate, ominously.

The light faded in the sky to a deep turquoise and the peacocks came to roost in the tree above them, clotted lumps of darkness, with their long tails hanging down like bellpulls.

The final two columns of the story change perspective to that of Ann’s daughter Sally, years later. At sixteen, Sally Ross knows the story of the silk brocade meant to be used for a wedding that was never realized. This presumptive wedding becomes the perfect example of the ideal marriage, that is to say, a marriage that never actually happens but is only planned for, dreamed of, with genuine longing. The dream is immortal along with the love. Indeed, it is preferable to a marriage wherein the husband goes errant for an entire summer with another woman, as Donny Ross does.

Ann’s philosophy of renewing oneself may help her survive her marriage. She and Sally invent projects of transformation together: of makeovers, outings, dieting and redecorating, but ultimately these will never change the choices Ann made. Still, there is the hope of regeneration. Sally represents the present and also the future when she happens upon the old Thwait mansion wearing a jacket that Ann made from Nola’s silk brocade. Sally stands at the same spot where Nola stood when she was a hopeful bride, making egg sandwiches at the old Belfast sink. Now sally has the wide continuum of hopes and dreams before her.

The silk brocade jacket links the past, the present and the future. Tessa Hadley has a way of turning the usually mono-chronological thought of time sequence inside out, weaving in possibility, shedding light, and discarding with the old to reconstruct the new. After all, the past and the present are really simply jumbled together.

Tessa Hadley’s Silk Brocade appeared in The New Yorker, July 27, 2015.

Tessa Hadley’s “Silk Brocade”

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Reading The Goldfinch

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

Donna Tartt Image via BBC

With her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt captivates, charms and mesmerizes with potent characters, richly textured settings, and turns-of-plot: from New York City to the strange, alien-like, suburbs of Las Vegas and its star-filled, drug addled nights, then back again. Tartt begins at the end – in an Amsterdam hotel room during Christmastime when Theo Decker is twenty-seven,

It was Christmas, lights twinkling on the canal bridges at night; red-cheeked dames en heren, scarves flying in the icy wind, clattered down the cobblestones with Christmas trees lashed to the backs of their bicycles.

then swings the story back around to the beginning, to Theo at thirteen, at the turning point just before the explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A dying elderly man pushes a priceless, seventeenth-century Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, into Theo’s hands, the very painting by Carel Fabritius that Theo’s mom had been softly lecturing about, moments before the explosion,

“He was Rembrandt’s pupil, Vermeer’s teacher,” my mother said. “And this one little painting is really the missing link between the two of them – that clear pure daylight, you can see where Vermeer got his quality of light from,”

Feeling horrifically sorry for the dying man, Theo takes the painting out of a sense of duty – in dazed obedience – and the painting of the tethered bird follows Theo like an albatross, or a good luck charm, for the remainder of the story. For the truth is: the dying old man, Welty, pointed Theo in the direction of his future.

Published in 2013, the book takes place in our present day, post-911 world of home-grown terrorists, high security, iPhones and texting as the preferred mode of communication. The ethereal scenes where Theo exits the ruined, white-dust and ash-covered museum read like a movie; thus, movie proposals were in the offing as the presses were still churning. Theo climbs through the blinding debris, as if ascending certain realms of Purgatorio, into a rebirth – into chaos.

Counselors, teachers, and even the eccentric, Park Avenue Barbour family fails to get to the core of Theo. Enter Hobie: the one stabilizing, unlikely anchor of Theo’s life. As if coming home to a loving grandparent, a bit musty and given to “maunder on” – wistful yet eloquent, somehow refined, Hobie becomes the only person who can coax Theo into eating some food, for example, and to have a “normal conversation.” The initial meeting of Theo and Hobie in Hobie’s curiosity shop in the Village, like so much of Tartt’s prose, transfixes the reader with anticipation and resonates with such an underlying sadness – then swings around with a mirthful quip or observation.

The Las Vegas chapters are suffused with Boris, one of the most interesting and likable characters in the book. A boy who has traveled, Boris speaks Russian with an oddly incongruous, Australian accent. He is the Artful Dodger to Theo’s Oliver Twist. Boris, not surprisingly, admires Theo’s flashy yet untrustworthy dad, but anyone’s dad would be better than Boris’. Both Mr. Decker and his little firecracker, waitress girlfriend, Xandra, topple in and out of the house like an itinerant circus act – absent-minded, vacant, yet always entertaining. Still, Theo is often alone in the house when he is not ravaging himself on drugs with Boris.

I sat downstairs rigidly for an hour or so with War of The Worlds on but the sound off, listening to the crash of the icemaker and the rattle of wind in the patio umbrella.

Theo retains an habitual love of classic movies – another endearing thread that keeps him connected with his mother. He reads Poe and a lot of Russian literature, including The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Boris, still somewhat naive to American culture, echoes Theo’s obsession as if all American teenagers should love watching old movies and reading Russian novels.

The adolescent bond has been established and made genuine by a female writer who seems to have lived as a teenage boy in some other life. The terse dialogue, the philosophical rants, companionable silences, flashes of insight, fraternal punch-outs, sexual blurriness, they seem to love each other most when spitting the words fuck you!

When Theo returns to New York City, the streets are more Dickensian than ever, especially in the chapter where Theo glimpses Mr. Barbour ranting to himself in the gloaming, rush-hour mayhem near Central Park. Tartt’s cast-of-characters emerge and reappear out of the past. The grown-up Theo, in his twenties, replaces the teenage boy. If he carries a burden of self-absorption, as he carries the explosion “in his body,” then learning of the Barbours’ family tragedy brings Theo out of himself. He cares about Mrs. Barbour, though something of an ice-queen, she is at least steadfast, reliably cultured and ultimately human.

In the process of being whisked away to Amsterdam by Boris and drawn into the underworld of stolen, precious art, Theo has what he calls his Conversion. Much is resolved in Tartt’s generous, riveting prose, even though both Theo and Boris have been rendered colossal drug addicts.

Pippa, the girl who represents a connection to life when it had some semblance of normalcy, remains undeniably, the love of Theo’s life. What has been labeled obsessive and not possible is love: Theo’s pure love for Pippa. This is the wonderful force upon which all hope hinges. Because, though life is short and mostly a miserable chaos, more Of Human Bondage than The Catcher in the Rye, love and art have sustained this protagonist in strange and mystifying ways.

A Goldfinch Illustration

Image via New York TimesImage via Vanity Fair

Dickens Mourning The Girl Who Loved Camellias

Book Cover

Book Cover

“For several days all questions political, artistic, commercial have been abandoned by the papers,” a bemused Charles Dickens wrote to a friend from Paris. “Everything is erased in the face of an incident which is far more important, the romantic death of one of the glories of the demimonde, the beautiful, the famous Marie Duplessis.” – Charles Dickens, 1847

When I read this Dickens quotation in the introduction to The Girl Who Loved Camellias, I wondered if Charles Dickens, one of my literary heroes, ever had an affair with this famous, or infamous, courtesan, Marie Duplessis. I read on and discovered something unexpected, and I’m probably the last to know, that Dickens did have a serious love involvement, not with Marie but with an eighteen year old actress, Ellen Ternan – an involvement that was kept secret.

Although, the attachment of the forty-five-year-old Dickens and the young actress did impress Marie Duplessis and gave her encouragement to pursue a love interest of her own with Alexandre Dumas (pere), the older, celebrated author of such works as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. So, even then, Dickens was an inspiration to young women! Still, it seems he did not get any closer to Marie than a distant admiration, though they did orbit around one another in the same elite circles.

The author, Julie Kavanagh, offers captivating minutiae about where Dickens stayed in Paris at the time of Marie’s death and what he said about her – he was very frank, though he never dishonors the beguiling courtesan. Indeed, Dickens wanted very much to write a book about Marie, “feeling that her short life contained a powerfully moralistic story.” Now, that sounds like the Dickens I know. I can imagine his novel being in the same vain as Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist – about the life of a young, coquettish courtesan who’d had a perilous childhood.

Dickens was obviously fascinated with Marie’s life, as many people were, and he felt compelled to report to his friends near and far the widespread reaction to Marie’s death. He describes the somber mood of the extraordinary crowds at an auction of Marie’s belongings: “One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d’Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness.” Hence, Dickens certainly did some general reporting about Marie but whether or not he was one of her lovers is uncertain.

Kavanagh chooses an interesting subject in Marie Duplessis and does an outstanding job of bringing her back to life. The story flows with rich details of Paris scenery, famous landmarks and characters, while mingling the life-style of a precocious Parisian girl with a bit of history in the time of Louis Philippee, the last king to rule France. The book depicts the drastic difference in social classes and how Alphonsine Duplessis straddles that chasm and becomes the lady, Marie Duplessis. Indeed, the story captures the reader’s curiosity. I find it compelling to learn about a contemporary of Charles Dickens and to see him woven into this historical rendering.

Marie Duplessis

Marie Duplessis

{Quotations from The Girl Who Loved Camellias by Julie Kavanagh}

The Romance and Comic Genius of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, 1812 – 1870

When Charles Dickens published Little Dorrit , the 826-page novel originally appeared in Dickens’ own, widely popular, monthly periodical in a series of installments, short pieces, or “teaspoons” as Dickens himself called them, from 1855 to 1856, including illustrations by Phiz.

A rags-to-riches tale, the first half of the book introduces the eccentric, intriguing Dorrit family, their heart-rending plight and a carnival of delightfully Dickensian characters – those dubious people who march through the life of the fallen William Dorrit inside the Marshalsea, the same debtors prison in which Dickens’ own father paid time for debt. The laggards, leeches and extortionists, the hapless, foolish, the large-hearted and everlastingly colorful characters are lovingly portrayed in the darkness and light of nineteenth-century London.

William Dorrit’s daughter, Amy, “Little Dorrit,” is the innocent but worldly girl who watches this pageant of people, loving some of them and fearing others. Soft-spoken and petite – indeed, so petite that she appears to be a child at first, Amy is hardly aggressive, though she is certainly industrious, in providing for herself and her father as a seamstress outside the prison, and assertive in her undying desire to comfort people, especially her father for whom she shows an extraordinary compassion and care; and in her benevolence for humankind in general and the deep love she feels for Aurthur. She does assert these interests but in a clearly humble way. Amy is utterly poetic.

As the tender relationship between Arthur Clennam and Amy Dorrit becomes the hoped-for, romantic denouement of the love-story portion of the novel, Dickens tantalizes us to the very end. It seems that they are meant for each other: Arthur’s childhood was one of harshness inside the dark house of his unaffectionate parents, while Amy was born in the Marshalsea Prison and grew up there never knowing any other kind of life until her father is able to claim his fortune, with the help of Arthur, as it turns out. Thus, Amy and Arthur are two tattered yet good-hearted souls isolated in a scheming world. Dickens has great fun devising numerous sub-plots that connect and interweave their story.

Amy writes a few bittersweet letters to Arthur when she is away with the Dorrit clan traveling the European continent where she sees, “misery and magnificence wrestling with each other;” these letters are forthcoming, poignant and touching, as they reveal Amy’s loneliness and ultimate difficulty in adjusting to the Dorrits’ new, opulent way of life – traveling through the sublime scenery of Venice and Rome; still, Arthur may never have known the exact nature of Amy’s love for him had it not been for a go-between, the devoted John Chivery, (Little John), who also serves as another supreme example of Dickens’ brilliant skills of characterization.

Fanny and Amy Dorrit, two sisters were never so un-alike.

Other exceptional characters become well known and fond personalities: Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s sister, a selfish and pretentious opportunist who can also be likeable if only for her entertaining dialog; Afry Flintwinch, Arthur’s childhood nurse who is continually throwing her apron over her face to save herself from witnessing the sordid things taking place in that infamous house; Flora Finching, the annoying but loveable young widow who has designs on Arthur and whose delightful monologues add high comedy; Monsieur Rigaud, that evil, ubiquitous presence who becomes the irresistible mystery of the tale, as continually, “his mustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his mustache;” and many others with curious and witty names; Mr. Tite Barnacle, Mr. Sparkler, John Baptist Cavalletto, Mr. Merdle, a white collar crook (not unlike Rupert Merdoch, the 21st century swindler), The Meagles, “Tip” and “Pet”.

Dickens’ descriptions and dialogs are profoundly hilarious, as is the Circumlocution Office, an impossible bureaucracy of tangled red tape, its only function being that of a satire on government and society.

But William Dorrit is the most humourous and tragic of characters. Dorrit was probably just as silly and pompous before he went into the prison as he was after coming out twenty years later a much wealthier man, just as his mental infirmness probably began inside the prison walls and became more and more apparent as he forced himself to adjust to his new way of life, which is really only a new kind of prison in which he and the false characters with whom he associates prance around in desperate displays of status.

It seems a wonder that William Dorrit produced such a loving and selfless daughter as Amy Dorrit, his one daughter who was born inside the Marshalsea. This father-daughter relationship, in part, resembles that of the mad King Lear and his best daughter, Cordelia, the daughter who really loved him most. Like Cordelia, Amy Dorrit is admonished, though lovingly, by her sister and ludicrously blamed by her own father simply because it isn’t in Amy to act the part of a privileged princess. Instead, Amy, in her genuine humbleness, only reminds her father of his past by being who she is.

‘Amy,’ he returned, turning shot upon her. ‘You-ha-habitually hurt me.’

‘Hurt you, father! I!’

‘There is a–hum-a topic,’ said Mr Dorrit, looking all about the ceiling of the room, and never at the attentive, uncomplainingly shocked face, ‘a painful topic, a series of events which I wish–ha-altogether to obliterate . This is understood by your sister, who has already remonstrated with you in my presence; it is understood by your brother; it is understood by-ha hum-by every one of delicacy and sensitiveness, except yourself-ha-I am sorry to say, except yourself. You, Amy-hum-you alone and only you-constantly revive the topic, though not in words.’

Thus Amy becomes the scapegoat for people of ambiguous morality and strictly guarded family secrets.

After reading Little Dorrit, the question lingers: in order for the world to produce a person as loving and selfless as Amy Dorrit, must she be raised in an oppressive environment where most of the creature-comforts in life are absent and she must create her own comfort and happiness based on the only natural love received in early childhood.

The Irresistible Short Stories of Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin, (sho-pan), was a master short story writer. She was a natural who, like most women of her time, had no formal training in the craft of writing. Equipped with just a French, Catholic school education in St. Louis and many interesting experiences in French Louisiana, Chopin taught herself to write with only her natural talent and the influences of Guy de Maupassant, Emile Zola and Walt Whitman, her favorite contemporary writers.

But Chopin developed an alluring style all her own. Indeed, the shortest of her numerous stories seem to end too quickly; many of these shorter works are about three pages long in hardcover – ending often with the milieu of a very personal, spiritual revelation. Thus, the reader wants more of the story and more of the characters; they linger, like music, creating a delicious surround-sound of Chopin’s writing-voice.

Her characters are vivid with life and personality, namely that of the Cajun and Creole people of French populated Louisiana; although, this locale is not always obvious. An Egyptian Cigarette, told in the first person, is a tale, which could take place almost anywhere, about a woman who smokes an exotic cigarette given to her by an architect friend who travels. Chopin renders sweet, sumptuous details – as in the very box containing the cigarettes: covered with glazed, yellow paper – you want to touch the paper and feel its crinkly texture – and to hold between your fingers the tobacco of the same golden color.

The woman gets high from the cigarette and has a disturbing “dream” told in intricate, burning detail. Her induced vision seems to reveal the promise of more hidden encounters, yet she snatches up the remaining cigarettes.

I walked to the window and spread my palms wide. The light breeze caught up the golden threads and bore them writhing and dancing far out among the maple leaves.

Chopin is not bogged down by scene-changes; she shifts from one event, or timeframe, to the next as easily as gliding out of a room. Plots and characters vary, so that one story will be verdant with Southern vernacular while the next will ring with Ivy-League pomp and English suspense.

When you meet Pauline this morning she will be charming; she will be quite the most attractive woman in the room and the only one worthy of your attention…

So begins, A Mental Suggestion, a short, suspenseful love-story – about nine pages long in hardcover. The main character is a young professor of psychology, Don Graham, whose primary, scientific interest is in mental suggestion. Chopin’s setting is rife with lush maple trees, green lawns and sprawling tennis clubs. Graham decides to test his mental suggestion theories on two of his friends who have no interest in each other, and the professor’s experiment works brilliantly, causing the couple to fall in love and thereby giving Graham a huge ego boost. But, when his friends decide to get married, the professor worries and obsesses over how long his ‘spell’ will last. So he resolves to break the spell in order to test their love.

This is where Chopin’s skills of suspense come in. Like an all-powerful god or Cupid, Graham works his counter-mental suggestions in the cozy living room of his friend, Faverham, the newly wed husband – as rain dashes the window outside.

…the two forces, love, and the imperative suggestion had waged a short, fierce conflict within the man’s subconsciousness, and love had triumphed.

Hence, for once, Chopin allows love to overcome the dark intimation of doubt.

Desiree’s Baby might be the most well known of Chopin’s short stories, having been in the literary canon of most high school and college English curriculums. It is a brief, exquisitely told tale concerning the country’s racial past, particularly in the South. Beauty pervades Chopin’s story in these lush, Southern surroundings and in the lovely, innocent Desiree. However, the ugliness of racism becomes the driving theme, and the final loathsome truth of slavery and deep seeded racism arrives at the very end of the story.

The Storm is one of Chopin’s more erotic short stories. Like her novel, The Awakening, which was criticized and rejected by society at the time, The Storm is filled with the secret desires of married women and men who are in a turmoil of feelings that can’t be expressed verbally. These stories are delightfully rich with a colorful mixture of people and languages: the Patios, a fusion of either Spanish or French plus the dialect of the region; Creole people who were born in Louisiana but were of French or French-Canadian ancestry; the blacks and Indians of Louisiana and always the presence of children.