February 16, 2013

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Much has been written about this famous book, which I'd heard about all my life but never read. Lucille recommended it, and I thought it was amazing, most particularly for its style, and also for its illumination of the beatnik subculture of the late 40s that I had never understood.

On the Road is autobiographical, describing Kerouac and his buddies (who include Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs) on their travels across the U.S. as part of the Beat Generation (a term Kerouac coined). Kerouac changes the names; he himself as the narrator is Sal Paradise and the other main character is Dean Moriarty, based on the real-life Neal Cassady.

To illustrate Kerouac's style, I'll quote from a wild scene at a jazz club in San Francisco:

The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!" and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging the tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor. A six-foor skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell and he just jabbed it at her, "Ee! ee! ee!"

Kerouac himself made a comparison between his writing style and the style of Impressionist painters who tried to create art through direct observation. In1950 he wrote in the "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" about the form he was developing that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz.

The book is about jazz, enjoying everything, sex, drugs, and finding meaning in life. Kerouac once said "It was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him."

I had to read this book fast as it couldn't be renewed, but my thought is I will buy it so I can re-read the best parts whenever I want to. And there's a 2012 Francis Ford Coppola movie that I can't wait to see.

February 4, 2013

The Paper Garden by Molly Peacock

This wonderful book is subtitled Mrs. Delany [begins her life's work] at 72. It's the true story of an upper-class woman of the 1700s who at age 72 invented an art form that we now know as collage or mixed-media art.

One day Mary Delany watched as a geranium petal fell beside her onto a table, near a piece of paper of the exact same colour. She picked up her scissors, began to snip petals out of the paper, pasted them down with flour and water glue, and so began a project that absorbed her for the next 10 years until her eyesight failed. In all she made 985 exquisite collages of hundreds of different flowers, all from real life, and grew quite famous with them. The whole collection is at the National Gallery in London.

This is a beautifully, densely written story which kept me completely absorbed. Peacock, who is a poet, writes the book in prose but with many poetic turns of phrase and surprises. She weaves her own story throughout with the story of Mrs. Delany and also the stories of some of the ancestors who preserved Mrs. Delany's work. She deftly shapes the chapters around 14 of the collages from which she gleans life themes and stitches in historical details.

The book is beautiful to hold - a thick, compact 5"x8" volume with graphics from three of the collages on black on the cover. All the pages are smooth and glossy, and the book contains 14 colour collage pages along with a detail picture for each one later in the chapter, and several portraits of the key characters. The pages are gorgeously laid out with lots of space between the lines, wide margins, and pretty details like page numbers in the lower outside margins and funky subtitles in parentheses.

Peacock illustrates so skilfully from start to finish how all the things Mrs. Delany experienced in life, including a strict upbringing, posture boards, insistence on perfection in school, a terrible marriage, wealth, relative poverty at times, free time, a love for flowers, the endless stitchery that was part of 18th century life for women, added up quite unexpectedly to a whole new art form. Another theme she stresses at the end is that Mrs. Delany had two supporters - her husband and her best friend - without whose encouragement she likely could never have done the extraordinary art that she did.

It makes me think about how we encourage each other to create, and how we receive that encouragement. Also of course the book reminded me that you're not necessarily on a big downhill slide just because you've turned 60. Altogether a marvelous and inspiring book.