‘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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‘Hex’ by Thomas Olde Heuvelt or curses are just a matter of perspective…

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After provoking her so, I had to find some way to contain her!

After so thoroughly enjoying ‘My Best Friends Exorcism’, I didn’t think it possible that any other recent entrant into the horror canon could possibly measure up. Admittedly, I am a hard customer to please. The ability of such books to scare, has been somewhat blunted by persistent exposure. That withstanding the excellence of MBFE, I thought, would completely overshadow any competitors. Little did I know that it would be me that would be overshadowed. By dark and menacing images. And unsettling thoughts. The kind that stop you sleeping….

If, like me, you frequent Twitter and Instagram to connect with fellow bookworms then ‘Hex’ will already have been planted in your subconscious mind. Thanks to some very clever marketing (hands up who doesn’t wish they had been graced with the proof copy, resplendent with needle and thread) and a savvy author that knows how to connect with his audience, this book will have been on the literary radar of many, for quite some time. I admit that this hype swept me along and I also admit wondering whether said hype would result in disappointment (as sometimes it does). Luckily, ‘Hex’: exceeds all expectation and supplants itself ominently in the minds eye of sacrificial readers, like myself.

Hex begins innocently enough. Our sympathies fully aligned with the teens of Black Spring ( once we untwist our minds from the confusing introductory paragraphs that force us to reread and resettle our understanding over). In an act of great mental distortion, the Black Spring Witch is introduced as a character being run over by an antique Dutch barrel organ. While this disturbing image assaults us, we are forced to confront illusion and question what reality is right from the outset. I should have paid more attention, as important clues were there to see, right from the first page. Instead my confusion barrelled me forward from this sensory assault, aligning me with the emerging distrust of the youth- despite it manifesting as an ugly outpouring via their secretive (and ironic) OPEN YOUR EYES social media project.
The story continues, riddled with injustices and sadness. Probing actions and consequences. All the while our fears are heightened and exploited. Imagine being confined to life in Black Spring forever more (horror). Imagine a decaying, malevolent, eyes stitched shut, resurrected witch appearing and hovering at will wherever she feels like. Even the thought of that, in the corner of your bedroom, is enough terror for anyone to endure. No dishcloth can cover that indelible stain! Not knowing what she is thinking, or planning, or muttering is unbearable. No wonder Tyler and his merry band of mischief makers wish to provoke and explore the restrictive boundaries she holds over their lives..

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There is no escape from the opening of her eyes…

Yet, at what cost? For one Owls and Peacocks are now infused with malevolence. Woods are not serene and peaceful. Books can contain untold menace. The Internet, cameras and social media are poor imitators of order and control. Some things are beyond control. We are not safe. Our behaviours have untold consequences. Especially when we do no consider the motivations or influences of others.

Don’t read this book, take up sewing instead!

I have said too much.

Rest forever disturbed, it is my duty to pass this curse on to you: I hope you are ready for the malign influences of Katherine van Wyler….

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.

‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing’ by Mark Mulholland or is all fair in love and war?

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I came to this novel full of curiosity and a sense of longing, having read the blurb and seeing that it featured a young and bookish Irish man, full of passion yet hiding a dark other side in which he masquerades as an IRA sniper. While such contrasts of course are of great interest to me as a reader (I am fascinated by what motivates people and how they end up where they do) it was actually the tentative glimpse towards  my long dead grandfather, that certain aspects of this novel seemed to cover that really intrigued me. While I am not suggesting he was an IRA sniper, I do know that he was a very quiet, bookish man who passed away when my mother was a young girl- thus remaining mysterious and enigmatic as we try to piece together our understanding of a man that died over 50 years ago. Clearly he was An Irish emigre, and clearly he came from an era in which the troubles Ireland have faced must have influenced his decision to move to the UK? What did he experience? What were his opinions? While I know that a book cannot possibly speak for a person, I do know that they can offer snap shots and pointers: something I was interested to explore in this novel. This, then was the particular baggage that I brought to the reading of this text.

And what a text! It is complex and rich. It explores uncomfortable questions and leaves you to examine all of the viewpoints it puts forth; to reach your own conclusions about the decisions that Johnny Connolly makes and the representation they put forth regarding Irish troubles (and really the troubles that occupation and war bring in any nation). This novel is full of scars, that are ripped wide open so that you may explore their painful and horrifying realities: no matter how uncomfortable. Although the subject matter differs wildly, to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it shares it’s clever approach to its dark subject matter in that it places judgement firmly within the readers hands. That and that it is a love story (Johnny and Cora, and towards Ireland). This is a brave and clever choice, something that allows us to move beyond black and white into the complexities of grey. If we are to understand and learn from Johnny’s experiences (or indeed from any young, angry person that wishes to avenge oppression, brutality or occupation) then we must pay close attention. Though the reasoning may differ, the motivations must have a universality to them.

Interestingly, Mulholland does have the foresight to locate Johnny’s personal struggles against historic ones- namely Nazi Germany. How could such horrors happen?  Ask the teachers, doctors, solicitors etc. Indeed, it is his old teacher that I remain most horrified with- responsible for recruiting and corrupting a vulnerable and impressionable 12 year old boy. Makes you really think about similar corruptions going on in other struggles and how the weak manipulate those who have not yet matured and lack true insight into carrying out their bidding, without true understanding of consequences.

There are many bleak moments in this novel, they come early and come fast- unlike ‘One Day’ by Nicholls our trauma at tragedy is just the beginning. Instead we get to truly see what happens next and how much further Johnny can spiral. It is an emotional, gut wrenching read. The love he feels for Cora and for his Ireland are palpable. You can feel them too, in all their glory. I feel that this novel helped me understand the beauty of this country, so linked to me yet not fully understood. I also got to understand the complexities of Johnny’s choices- alarmingly, I found that I really liked him and could perhaps negate some of the horrific violence he propagates. Johnny is kind to his family, so he can’t be a bad person. Yet he does bad things. Perhaps this was the writers point. This is how easily people turn a blind eye. It certainly made me sit up and think more deeply and realise that people are as complex as their reasoning is illogical, at times.

To me, though, the biggest gift of this novel was in both the beauty of its crafting and it’s ability to weave metaphors throughout the heart of this story (and heart is what it all boils down to). It is worth reading just for the mountain metaphor alone, in the great wisdom it imparts. We all begin at the bottom, and we must climb its arduous path overcoming obstacle, despite not knowing what we may reach. We must find ropes (or guiding lights) in the form of inspiring/ encouraging people or ideas. We must always do everything with heart. In this way we can see Johnny’s struggles as representing Ireland’s struggles and you hope that it has reached the top of the mountain (and that others struggling may do so too).

So while I sought some understanding of my grandfather, instead I gained some understanding of how and why people struggle with dark decisions. How they can justify violence, in the name of some warring cause. While it may not be my path, it is a path that keeps being trodden. It is a complex one that involves interplay between different sides. It is not black (like the portentous fox that foreshadows the first trouble) or white, but complex grey. So thank you, Mark Mulholland, for tackling such an important subject and giving me pause. I hope that others are given pause, too and instead consider how such a situation/ action is born before reducing it into unhelpful judgements. If they only realised, novels can hold the key to unlocking deeper understanding of such matters.