Friday, June 24, 2016

The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, by Katie Roiphe. The Dial Press, 2016




“The Violet Hour” examines five (six, actually, if you include the epilogue) writers and how they faced their impending deaths. The author not only examined biographies but source materials and when possible, interviewed friends and family members. Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak have their last years/months/days/hours examined. John Salter, in the epilogue, she actually interviews a while before he quite unexpectedly and suddenly dies- they talk of death and how to face it but of course he had no idea he was soon to die.

Susan Sontag, who had survived two bouts with cancer that were supposed to kill her seemed to think she could beat the third one, too. She tried everything, including a bone marrow transplant which was experimental in those days. She worked until the end, writing in her hospital bed.

Freud also worked until the end; he also, despite having extensive oral cancers, continued to smoke his cigars. To keep his head clear, he eschewed painkillers except for aspirin; when the pain finally becomes unbearable, he asked for terminal sedation. No in-between measures for him.

While all their deaths are different in both cause and course, and they didn’t all accept their dying to the same degree, they all worked right up until the end- although admittedly Dylan did as much drinking and having sex with people not his wife as he did working. These people all had the benefit of knowing that their work would live on after they died; they knew that they had not lived meaningless lives (not that you have to be an artist to have a meaningful life; it’s just that I know one of the questions dying people ask themselves is whether their lives have had meaning and if anyone will remember them). Did that make it easier for them to face death? Perhaps. Or did working keep their minds off their impending demises? It seems most likely that they just had so much more to say that they had to race and try and beat the clock.

It’s a very interesting book; I’ve read a number of books about the end of life but never one that focused on writers. I wonder if visual artists have the same irrepressible urge to create to the end as writers do, or if musicians do- although David Bowie’s recent death would seem to point to that. I have to think that this makes death a little easier. 


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This in no way influenced my review.  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The New Bohemians: Cool and Collected Homes, by Justina Blakeney. Abrams, 2015




When I read the title, I expected something like Stevie Nicks style, vardo wagon color combinations, print on print and stuff everywhere, with thrift store finds used in new ways and lots and lots of wicker and fringe. The problem was I was missing the ‘New’ part of the title. These are homes with thrift store finds and international textiles, but they are pared down and very nearly spare. The walls are mostly white, allowing the textiles and art (there is always art) to be focal spots rather than part of a tapestry.

The home owners are mostly artists, boutique owners, and others with ties to the artistic world. Most of them are world travelers. They utilize textiles, art, and d├ęcor from indigenous cultures around the world. Pretty much all of them have plants. Many work from their homes and so the home must be multifunctional. They have few rules, except that one must make one’s home one’s own, and everything in the world is up for use however you want.

I liked some of the homes- loved the one where a woman made a home in a parking lot- and others left me cold- about average for me with any decorating book, although I liked the majority of what I saw by a hair. I liked that rather than just a look book, she had DIY projects. And a Plant-a-pedia, because they are so important to the style. Four stars out of five. 


The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something from Amazon- anything- they'll give me a few cents. 

This in no way influenced my review.  

A Garden of Earthly Delights, by Joyce Carol Oates. Vanguard Press, 1966





While I’ve certainly not read all of Joyce Carol Oates’s work, I’d be willing to say that her work isn’t joyous. And this book takes the lack of joy- the lack to *any* form of happiness- to nose bleeding heights.

Clara is born into misery. Her parents are migrant fruit pickers in the Great Depression. They own nothing and live in shacks on the farms for a few weeks before moving on. They can never make enough to escape this life. Her father copes by drinking, fighting, beating his wife and kids (except for Clara), and committing adultery. Constant pregnancy eventually kills her mother. This doesn’t change much; Clara has been taking care of the younger siblings for years. One evening in ‘town’ she meets an unusual man- one who doesn’t want to have sex with her. She stays out late, and when she returns to her shack, her father brutally beats her. She runs away, and with this man’s help, starts a new life with a room of her own, a bed of her own, and a job at a dime store. This is luxury beyond anything she’s ever known.

Her life becomes one of securing her place in the world. In her quest she loses friends and is scorned by all, but gains financial security and doesn’t care a bit. All her life, she is defined by both men- her father, her boyfriend, her husband, her son- and by her lust for *things*; clothing, furniture, jewelry. In a humanizing touch, she is also an avid gardener, reveling in planting and weeding and pruning, even after she has enough money that she could afford to hire someone. It seems to be her single creative outlet or interest. She’s not a bad person, despite what the townspeople think; she’s just very driven to never be like her parents. She learns to read on her own, and watches other people to learn how to behave.

The prose, despite the grim subject especially in the first part of the book, is brilliant to read. The brutal lives the migrants are living comes vividly, frighteningly, alive. Clara is mostly a sympathetic character. Of course she makes mistakes, some of which have horrible consequences, but she does the best she can in a bad situation. This could have been a depressing read, but for the most part it’s not; it’s oddly uplifting to see Clara make a life for herself and her son.

Note: I read the original 1966 version, not the updated one.