‘Tuesday Nights in 1980’ by Molly Prentiss or open your eyes if you want your life to have art!

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Prepare for all of your senses to sing, thanks to this kaleidoscopic journey through the NY art scene…

I first came across mention of ‘Tuesday Nights in 1980’ on good old Instagram, where a thriving bookish community shares images and thoughts about books under hashtags such as #bookstagram and #instabooks. Curiosity piqued (as you should be if you like to hear of new titles to read), I searched for a copy and decided it was the sort of intriguing title that I would surely enjoy. However, I don’t seem to be seeing it and hearing about it widely, on either social media or in bookshops-online or real life. Hopefully this is not going to be a ‘quiet’title, as it really is deserving of a read- it certainly does not seem to be pulling the attention of other recent/ upcoming releases such as Jessie Burton’s ‘The Muse’ or even ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave. I hope to readdress this by sharing my love for this clever story and sharing my views with you all (in the hope it will encourage some of you to read it).

Within the pages of ‘Tuesday Nights in 1980’, Molly Prentiss has achieved something quite extraordinary. Not only does she vividly paint the lives of her central protagonists and their supporting characters in some kind of glorious technicolour (largely in thanks to the merging senses of James the synasthesic Art- Critic) but she also somehow manages to cleverly structure this novel as some great homage to art, by relating it to art theorems and approaches at every stage. While I accept that enjoyment of this novel, will as ever be about the viewpoint from which you read it from (which is of course informed by who you are and the experiences you bring to the text) I am certain that at the very least you will enjoy the very different points of views and very differing characters she highlights, as she deliver and converges their very human stories. I was certainly left pondering the relationship between life and art- how they inform and reflect one another (which is certainly part of the overall message this story delivers).

Perspective aside, this is also a story full of heart. It is full of mistakes and some very human imperfections. As a reader, you cannot help but be reminded that the best of art draws from the raw feelings that arise from painful experience. Here we get a close ups of how art is created or realised, how it is inspired and how it is appreciated: they are not exclusive concepts and they do overlap (just like the lives of the characters that represent these ideas). We are painfully reminded that while the art we may enjoy remains largely static, the lives that surround them are constantly evolving for better or worse . I think it was this that resonated the most with me- we bring our experiences thus far to what we can see, hear, sense and feel. Art can elevate and inspire- it can lift desolation and despondency, but yet still that life is also art in motion.

While all of this clever structural interplay could be irritating and cliched (framing the story with the story of Raul’s sister- ultimate creator as mother at one end and the other containing the unifying and healing power of her son being one clear example) somehow all of the elements draw together and this approach acts like a giant canvas on which all of their stories combine to create a work of beauty. Prentiss really understand human motivations and carefully considers how certain characters are motivated and respond. She sensitively explores how people hurt themselves and those they care for, allowing us to appreciate characters that are flawed and imperfect, without completely despising them. Ultimately redemptive, you hope that their attempts to learn from their mistakes and to try and adapt/ make changes to difficult circumstances (even if they arise from their inability to see clearly) are successful.

Throughout all of this, the New York art scene arises like a beautiful sunset. It becomes a character all of its own: somewhere you wish you could occupy and certainly somewhere you enjoy escaping to thanks to the energy expressed through the pages of this book. Love and pain entwine with creativity and expression. Truth remains everything, even at great cost (and with the explicit reminder that the value of art remains not what it costs but what it offers). The overriding feeling left, once the book ends is that there is always hope and this is what all great art should offer us. In these terms this story is a great success, I just hope it reaches as many people as possible. It deserves to be noisy!

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‘Frenchman’s Creek’ by Daphne Du Maurier or get me out of here I’m sick of domesticity…

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Freedom and escape are not all they promise?

Following on with the notion of making quiet books ‘noisy’, I thought I would turn my attention to my favourite Du Maurier work, who is in some ways a ‘quiet writer’, in that she was seen as a popular writer (which kind of detracts from her talent). Popular is often synonymous with generic, lightweight writing- as if voraciously writing a mass of work somehow diminishes your writing ability. It is a shame we cannot disassociate these concepts, in the public domain, as sometimes there is a reason a piece of writing is popular. Books have merit in their pages no matter if the writer is a heavyweight, writes quickly and frequently or is relatively unheard of. In any case, I think the idea behind ‘quiet books’ is that for whatever reason they are not currently topical, or perhaps did not receive wider acclaim or readership when published or are just not current titles. Promoting such books is about ensuring such books are read/heard and enriching the recommendations we all have at our disposal. It is about sharing books we have loved from our past reading repertoires. For this reason and because it is Daphne Du Maurier’s birthday, I thought it would be fitting to turn to the slightly overshadowed ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, because ‘Rebecca’ gets all the press  and accolade (I do love this title too).

While it is several years since I read this novel, it is fitting that I read it whilst pregnant- at a time when domesticity felt oppressive. While many women embrace pregnancy, I found it challenging. Mobility was restricted, blood pressure was up. Bed rest was necessary, yet impossible with the demands of school run and a young child to take care of. Everything felt difficult and restrictive. My solace came, as it often does, in the written form. Reading was my escape. Imagine the synchronicity of discovering the world of Dona St Columb- who although not pregnant seemed to mirror my dismay and dare I say it offer a cathartic escape from the drudgery of my daily life. Through Dona my fantasies could be realised vicariously! Who wouldn’t rather be escaping with a handsome and dangerous pirate, than cooking bland dinners and sticking to a religious regimen. There is not much room for spontaneity when you are laid up after a 10 minute walk, in agony.

While the daily monotony, waiting for the pregnancy to end and life to get easier again was stifling -‘Frenchman’s Creek’ offered an altogether more alluring and exciting domain. The landscape was rich and inviting- the elements combining to conjure some magical haven (much like the healing waters of  ‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’) where the senses are envigorated and problems washed away. I wished I had a Cornish retreat to escape my own drudgery from, like Dona, who escapes her boring husband by holidaying at the family pile Navron, far from the Restoration Court she must endure in her daily life. Oh to shake those shackles off, like Dona. Yet while we felt restricted for different reasons (she for having to put a societal mask on and not be able to show her true feelings, or relax and be her own person, not what was expected of her due to her societal standing- me for health reasons) the release I felt at immersing in her own stand against her pressures was immensely healing for me. It allowed me to release some of my fear and to gain some perspective.

Jean Aubrey, dashing pirate that he is, becomes a symbol of abandon, a ‘life of continual escape’. In some ways his danger heightens the excitement felt at the potential for escape (although I am not so sure about the kidnapping part). The overwhelming desire for adventure somehow outweighs many glaring inadequacies, in the part of her ‘saviour’. Calling his behaviour colourful, would be polite to say the least. Yet the malaise released via Du Maurier’s writing is easily forgotten as we enjoy Dona’s freedom when she ventures out to sea. Restrictions are lifted and mirrored in its vast expanse, and that of the pirate lover. Their solitude equals abandon- the shedding of responsibility without reprisal or judgement. The space to be yourself and be free of duty. I suspect this need speaks to every one of us at some time, or for some reason or another. Why do any of us read, after all, but to escape to other lives and see other worlds? I suspect it also explains why so many of us are drawn towards the idea of a swashbuckling pirate (the original bad-boys).

Yet no escape is forever, and it is this reality that ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ eventually embraces. We do have responsibilities as adults. Difficult times do end (as did my pregnancy). The clear message, to me anyway, was that you have to find ways to honour your own spirit and wishes within the structures you have encased yourself in, in the life you have built. Duty should not mean you lose yourself. Find a balance, as Dona does by choosing to end her adventure as clearly as the coming day showed them that it ‘had a whiteness and cold clarity about it they had never known before’ , but not to return to the restriction of Court as before. So remember your adventures. Envelope them in rich mental pictures, that soak up their surroundings and engage all the senses like Du Maurier’s prose does. Cherish them as each story ends and find a way of your own to honour them safely, in the life you have chosen. Like Dona, your frustration may be misdirected and easily eased if you tackle the right issues.

‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel or are we all mediums?Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Since joining in with the online book community (via WordPress, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram) a whole new world of bookish inspiration has opened up to me. Not only do my feeds draw my attention to a much wider pool of potential reads than my previous haphazard methods allowed (because stumbling upon a title or hearing about it from someone you know only takes you so far) but they also introduce genius new ideas about how to share your bookish love. I am enjoying #tuvalusbookschallenge on Instagram because of the interesting places it takes me in my own reading repertoire (and of others) thus forging new bookish connection on lots of levels. I have been inspired by @georgia_bowers, @Cyn_Murphy and @ChelleyToy on Twitter to revisit my own teen reading, namely Christopher Pike, due to their enthusiasm and exploration of the Point Horror series (such an interesting prompt due to the reflection it provokes about how we and our taste/ understanding of books evolve throughout our lives). Yet it is my latest WordPress discovery that has completely fired me up, via two of the blogs I follow: Alifeinbooks and From First Page to Last.

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If your eyes are open, you may be surprised at what you see. Selective occlusion benefits no one.

Here a movement seems to be forming based around the notion that certain novels are ‘quiet’ and that for whatever reason escape wider readership. Maybe due to less airspace or share of their publishers’ limited marketing budgets and maybe because they then haven’t been noticed by readers much like myself, that have bumbled around in a haphazard manner inefficiently discovering books I may like to read (check out the brilliant ‘Under the Reader’s Radar- celebrating the quiet novel’or ‘Blasts from the Past:So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor’ on these respective blogs for my precise inspiration). Either way, what an interesting idea. I for one am all in. Sharing books/writers of note from our shelves is something I will totally be endorsing.

Which brings us nicely to ‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel. While ‘Wolf Hall’ gets all the Booker praise, it is this Mantel tome that I nervously hold a candle up for (it is ‘Beyond Black’ after all). To me it overshadows its more favoured brother, in more ways than one. It exists in the dark, murky hinterlands of both our society and our consciousnesses. It remind us that we ignore much of what goes on around us- whether of the horrors lurking in grey, urban anonymous spaces or in the reasons behind people’s behaviour that we choose not to consider. It challenges us not to retreat into our own warm, santised havens and to instead be brave and look at such peripheral, uncomfortable matters more closely so that we may understand and then confront our fears for the benefit of all. This novel is acutely aware of all of the hidden layers that exist all around us that intersect our interactions. Masks come out. Personas are delivered. What we see is sometimes only very limited and certainly not the full picture. While I understand that this is perhaps necessary- connecting with such ‘blackness’ all the time would be exhausting, it is precisely because Hilary Mantel chooses to lift up this veil and direct us readers into such a world, and then engage wth such thought processes that I admire this work so ardently. We do all need to open our eyes, even if it is only to allow us more direct access to our humanity: to become more compassionate and understanding when we are confronted with something uncomfortable or ugly.

The vessel through which  Mantel chooses to disseminate these important ideas, is the thing that lifts this novel from merely preaching (which would switch anyone off) to engaged contemplation. It also showcases just how versatile and skilled she is as a writer. While there is much to appreciate in terms of literary ability- both in the prose and the characterisation- it is the plot execution that I admire the most. She  not only understands the perfect way to explore these personal and societal darkness eps (as demonstrated in the story concept- Alison Hart, shady medium, is plagued by ghosts from her past and the other side) but she also knows how to tightly order events in order to maximise the stories’ effect on us as readers. If she didn’t the novel would remain a blackly comic exploration of mediumship and the big-business world of making contact with departed loved ones for comfort, which in itself would be enough to enjoy this book! Sending up the likes of Derek Acorah, camp- pantomime ‘medium’ from the shambolic ‘Most Haunted’ (emphasis on sham) is genius, it tempers some of the darkness making it much easier to stomach. Relenting darkness is too much for most palettes. Like Shakespeare, Mantel clearly grasps this fact- if you want your audience to ruminate on difficult questions, some added humour is an effective lubricant. Having a flawed central characte fulfil this role just adds to the complexity of this novel- mirroring the complexity of thought required to consider the uncomfortable issues it seeks to address.

While I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Beyond Black’ it must be acknowledged that it is equally horrifying and scary. Any comfort drawn from thinking the dead or unknown cannot harm you, is soon blown out of the water. That there is no rest or comfort to be found anywhere is both bleak and necessary- for some place offer none and certain people cannot obtain any from the ghosts that haunt them (real or imaginary). Yet the really inspiring aspect of this novel is that Alison does begin to attempt to tackle hers- offering hope to us all. Perhaps we can all get a lid on the things that haunt us?  Perhaps we can find a comfortable place where we can at least fight the lid down on our internal monsters and get some peace. Even if we are all medium-not noticed, too mundane, not bright and sparkly and perfect enough to grab attention.

I urge you to grab this ‘blast from the past’, ‘this quiet novel’ and make its voice loud. Hilary Mantel is now a much deserved literary giant- she may well be on peoples’ radar- but I suspect it is ‘Wolf Hall’ that people reach for. Reach for this rich psychological exploration instead and learn something meaningful about the way we and our society avoid the difficulty and uncomfortable aspects it contains. Be brave! Slay your own Maurice.

Shakespeare and me or why I love the Bard and I cannot lie..

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The Bard- still electrifying after 400 years

 

My first encounter with Shakespeare must have been when I was around age 6, when I was given a picture book of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In theory it should have engaged me and captured my interest, with its comic strip approach and the option to select different outcomes (choose your own story books were popular at the time) but I just couldn’t understand why two young people would want to kill themselves or why their families were so mean- but I guess that was kind of the point! Without realising, I had grasped the key to any reading of Shakespeare: injustice, unfairness and the devastation that can follow as a result of prejudice or corruption. I did enjoy being able to select different courses and seeing how choices could influence different outcomes ( again this puts us in the shoes of director- whose interpretations influence the meaning a particular performance imparts to its viewers) which again must have planted an understanding of one of the key strengths of Shakespeare’s works: their ambiguity and adaptability.

Fast forward to my 14th year on this earth: that painful teen period that we have all gone through. All angst, full of hormones and struggling to work out who you are and your place in the world you see before you. A shining light was my GCSE English class. Here a deep love of books and a burgeoning realisation that analysis could unlock untold meaning and understanding was fluttering into existence. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ had already tapped into our collective taste for the unjust and unfair. ‘Macbeth’ swiftly followed and capitalised on this enthusiasm and our secret desire to put right our own injustices and to triumph, in the midst of all our unspoken and unshared insecurities. What better introduction to Shakespeare than a power-driven couple on a path to self-destruction. Corrupt, bloody, murderous, dark and brooding. Here we had writ large, the consequences of choices and actions driven by such senses of unfairness and injustice that we ourselves were feeling. Macbeth encouraged us to look beyond our own feelings and consider those of others- that reflection had to outweigh any desires or drives we had to put things right. Essentially that there was a right way to go about things: that you don’t have to kill people that get in your way (that last part is a joke, for those that don’t know me). Along the way, we learnt about irony and insanity, the power of language to convey a whole host of meaning if the right words are selected and not to be afraid of archaic language. We learnt that we could each interpret a passage or phrase in slightly differing ways and that listening to each other could allow us to reach even greater insights, or see things our own experiences had not yet brought to us. We loved the eerie spell cast over the play by the malign influence of the witches; how their passages were much more lyrical than that of other characters and held us in sway much like the effect that they roused in terms of the plot (thus introducing us to the concept of layers of meaning). We were absorbed by the psychology abundant in the text- discussion on motivations were electrifying. Hallucinations became outward manifestations of conscience: ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ and ‘out damned spot’ being two key phrases that grabbed us. We wondered how Shakespeare could have understood such psychological symptoms so long ago, before the advent of modern psychology- thus holding him in a new sense of respect and reverence removed from our initial disdain. No longer was he a fusty, archaic figure but one who fired us up and excited us. In fairness, our teacher must have been some genius/director managing to orchestrate all of this. Her knowledge, insight and passion for her subject was passed on to all of us lucky recipients. It could have been very different if we had studied ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at this point: she knew that we needed the gore, drama and horror of ‘that Scottish play’ to get the point of Shakespeare. She knew her audience and she knew her writers! Thanks Mrs Hiskens, wherever you are.

Having had an English teacher such as Mrs H, it will come as no surprise that I signed up for A Level English! Rebellion and indifference were key facets of my outward expression to the world, yet in books I was allowed access to a rich and fertile plain: here I could see beyond my own experiences into the thoughts and experiences of others. This is something that those who are not keen readers may miss out on and it remains an ardent belief of mine, that to give others the gift of reading gives them to key to understanding themselves and the world that they live in. Books help us to understand that we are not imprisoned: feelings and situations can be changed. Studying Shakespeare, again, was a master-key that helped me unlock my own personal propensity for reflection: ‘Hamlet’ being the game changer. He is the ultimate, disaffected youth struggling with his grief and behaviour from responsible adults that he does not yet understand. He is plagued by his Mothers’ speedy remarriage to his Uncle Claudius, after the death of his beloved father also Hamlet (deceased King). I am sure a lot of teens can relate to his depressed melancholy, and indeed having to adapt to new family situations that they are not happy with. What was surprising, to me anyway, was the consideration that it had always been thus: the modern family may not be so modern after all (again drawing my burgeoning understanding and appreciation of the big Bard to who is universality- speaking to all across time and experience). Here I learnt the appreciation of staging and a carefully timed plot device- what more dramatic start can there be than a ghost luring soldiers across a cold, isolated battlement on a starless night? It gives me chills just thinking about it! This eerie portent, not only focuses its audiences attention by heightening their senses but by also causing us to question why a ghost might need to appear? All is clearly not right and we are set firmly to question all events put before us. My teen eyes alighned me squarely with Hamlet’s sense of indignation and allowed me to gloss over his own selfish actions- he shuns poor Ophelia who is then driven mad to end up floating face-down in a pool of flowers. It is not until much later ( a re-reading at university) that I grasped the true art of Shakespeare’s multi-faceted writing: Hamlet too was an orchestrator of destruction because he only thinks of himself (stereotypical selfish-teen behaviour). So here we have a tragedy filled with flawed characters that will speak to different members of its audience in different ways, at different points in their lives AND in different eras: mind blown. No wonder the plays hold such universal and enduring appeal. No wonder directors can draw such different things out of them. No wonder he still holds court 400 years later.

But then, he has always held court. While he deserves to be revered for his linguistic and literary mastery: for his beautiful prose and dramatic ability, he also should be recognised as an extremely savvy pioneer- or as one Lecturer facetiously referred to him as ‘a Brummie on the make’! A bit like a Richard Branson of his day, he recognised an opportunity to make money and he seized it- setting up a collective to perform plays outside the boundaries of the city, to circumvent strict censorship- culminating in the founding of ‘The Globe’ theatre. Opinions of Shakespeare continue to ebb and flow, evolving to their contextual perameters. To me he is a brilliant, subversive pioneer full of insight and word play and wit- something I only truly comprehended once I began honing my analysis at undergraduate level. Here contextual understandings added a new layer of meaning to my interpretations. I appreciated Shakespeare’s comedies all the more, because I saw that they allowed greater subversion of extant social mores, thus enabling audiences to question the structures within which they existed. The Fool in ‘King Lear’ becomes wise, when considered this way. The cross-dressing confusion and displacement in ‘Twelfth Night’ allows us to question the identity and position of those in society: does their position mean we should blindly accept them and follow their word without question? Here Malvolio (my favourite comic character) postulates round like some self-important social climber misenterpreting a letter from his mistress to be encoded to express her secret love for him, causing him to proclaim; ‘some of us are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em’ to no doubt raucous effect on the audience of the time! It’s bawdy thrusting would have implied a sexual element to his meaning, further undermining his ardent declarations. All of the layers of humour, draw the audience into a conspiratorial understanding of the true meaning behind the words- that we shouldn’t feel limited by the position in society, from which we are born into. Like Shakespeare, we can overcome the cultural imperialism that still abounds today (look at the ridiculous insistence that the Department of Education has today that Primary children MUST know parts of speech, such as subordinate clauses, or they will not meet the required grade or are somehow lesser because they don’t- like that is a measure of your ability to write or communicate) we can use our initiative, work hard, be creative, NOT conform. We can have a goal and find our own way there. What this phrase conveys to this audience (or any audience) is the ridiculousness of these perameters, within which we are judged and constrained. We all need to bust loose.

This complexity, and ability to frame ideas in such a clever and probing way, is precisely why I love the great Bard in the sky above all over writers. I could tell you about the many things I have learnt from studying his plays and sonnets over the years- but this would detract from the overall point. Don’t listen to people who assuage him as a boring, irrelevant, fusty, archaic relic (Google theories of his dark lady or gay lover). Don’t let a bad first experience of his work put you off- you may have been put off by being introduced to a particular play at the wrong time in your life, or by someone who was not the masterful director I was fortunate to have. No, get out there and WATCH a performance or DVD of one of his works, because after all they were written to be performed and this is how you will understand them best. Don’t delay, you are missing out on Magic. He is a paragon of Englishness- but not in the way the real fusty, stuffy, archaic ‘members’ of our society would like to impart. He is a rebel, an innovator, a creative genius and someone that allows us all to open our minds and to question. All this 400 years later. William Shakespeare, I salute you.