Prizes of Janet Frame

The Reservoir, short stories by Janet Frame (1963) Angel

I got interested in New Zealand writer Janet Frame after watching the film, An Angel at My Table (1990), based on her memoirs. Very loosely based, as some critics will have it, but it’s still a good film. Poverty, shyness, creative interests and possibly other issues marginalize Frame as much as her location far from the cultural mainstreams of the 1950s. I recently picked up one of her short story collections, The Reservoir (1963), and though I’ve not finished it, I was especially taken by the story, “Prizes.”

Life is hell, but at least there are prizes. Or so one thought.

These words open the story, and are Frame’s most frequently quotes lines. A lifetime is packed into these seven pages, so much of innocence and its misunderstandings, of desire and disappointment and unanswered needs, but also how easily, especially in childhood, the most precious things we have, even what we are, can be sullied by the remarks and silent judgments of other people. Children may not understand what they see, but they know what they feel, often with more clarity than adults. “I did not realize that people’s actions are mysteries that are so seldom solved” our narrator says, yet the reader has no trouble parsing much that the child cannot.

The story begins in the eyes of a little girl and the style seems as simple and straightforward as a child’s essay, but the visual imagery—bright poppies, wheeling crows, a burnished dock leaf, curdled milk, boys like rabbits—creates a poetic overlay. Colors are vivid with meaning: all that is rosy, red and orange, is good and full of life; white, while clean, milky and welcome, is aggressive and unreliable; black is shame and death; and all the rest of the world is drab gray and dirty brown. As the child gets older, life seems bleaker; the hierarchy of the world and its dismal end are increasingly oppressive as she is distanced from the people around her. And still she doesn’t understand.

Poverty is the water she swims in, like a fish, without seeing it, but her poverty goes deeper, generations deep, drowning in neglect, emptied of all but a striving and observant mind. Over and over, the brightness fades and dims, she sees it, she strives for all that’s polished, gold, best, but prizes aren’t enough. It makes you wonder: Is anything?

I love Frame’s spare, poetic style, while being intrigued by a certain oddness in her vision of life in the world. This year, I’ll definitely be reading as many of her books as I can find.

62 Books

  1. Sinclair Lewis, The Trail of the Hawk (1914)tree_of_knowledge_BW
  2. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street, (1920)
  3. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)
  4. Sinclair Lewis, The Job (1915)
  5. Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art (1985)
  6. John Berger, About Looking (1990)
  7. Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
  8. Sinclair Lewis, The Innocents (1917)
  9. Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853)
  10. Sinclair Lewis, Free Air (1919)
  11. Margot Livesy, Eva Moves the Furniture (2001)
  12. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
  13. Walter Crane, Line and Form (1900)
  14. Ralph Adams Cram, Toward the Great Peace (1922)
  15. Ken Ilgunas, Walden on Wheels (2013)
  16. Mike Mignola, The Amazing Screw-On Head (2010)
  17. Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy (1992)
  18. Carol Armstrong, Cezanne in the Studio (2004)
  19. Ramiel Nagel, Cure Tooth Decay (2011)
  20. Richard Thomson, Edgard Degas: Waiting (1995)
  21. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1839)
  22. Frederick Buechner, Brendan (1987)
  23. Michel Daguet, Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (2004)
  24. Barry Unsworth, Morality Play (1995)
  25. Elizabeth Cropper, Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier (1997)
  26. Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition (1914)
  27. Masterpieces of the Getty, Illuminated Manuscripts (1997)
  28. Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickelby (1839)
  29. Edmund Sullivan, Line: An Art Study (1922)
  30. Goldner and L. Hendrix, European Drawings 2 (1992)
  31. Bruce Perry, Fitness for Geeks (2012)
  32. M-M Gauthier and G. Francois, Medieval Enamels (1981)
  33. Patricia Anderson, Images of Charity, Conflict and Kingship (1981)
  34. Kristen Kimball, The Dirty Life (2010)
  35. Elizabeth Teviotdale, The Stammheim Missal (2001)
  36. Manga Study Society, How to Draw Manga, Vol. 3 (2000)
  37. J. Holmes, Notes on the Science of Picture-Making (1920)
  38. Charles Maginnis, Pen Drawing: An Illustrated Treatise (1903)
  39. John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)
  40. Andrew Loomis, The Eye of the Painter (1961)
  41. Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters (2004)
  42. Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half (2013)
  43. Arthur Guptill, Why Architects Still Draw (2014)
  44. Paolo Belardi, Lectures on the Science of Human Life (1849)
  45. John Caspar Lavatar, Aphorisms on Man (1724)
  46. Veronika Sekules, Medieval Art (2001)
  47. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1998)
  48. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1999)
  49. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (1993)
  50. R. Poore, Pictorial Composition (1903)
  51. Rudyard Kipling, Stalky & Co. (1899)
  52. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
  53. Henry James, Picture and Text (1893)
  54. Henry James, Washington Square (1880)
  55. James Hillman, The Soul’s Code (1996)
  56. Jay McInnerny, A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006)
  57. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential (2000)
  58. MFK Fisher, Musings on Wine and Other Libations (2012)
  59. Kenneth Patchen, But Even So (1968)
  60. Theodule Ribot, Essay of the Creative Imagination (1906)
  61. MFK Fisher, A Cordiall Water (1961)
  62. Auberon Waugh, Will This Do? (1991)

Behold the prodigious reading of the past year… A few of these books I’ve written about already and I’m sure a few themes are obvious….drawing instruction books from the early 1900s… comics… art historical books (long ago college major)…six novels by Sinclair Lewis, five by Dickens…dabbled a bit more with Henry James (his novel What Maisie Knew, 1897, I read last year; it was a favorite)… and toward the end of the year, books on cooking and wine.

Little, Big was a book that came to me as a recommendation. The first part was some of the most pleasurable fiction I’ve ever read, fantastically imaginative in the way the first 200 pages of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale was; the middle painful, poignant, but perfect in its breath-stopping way; but the end was such a disappointment that I can’t in good faith recommend it. When it was right, it was as inevitably perfect as an elegant mathematical equation, but its failures felt like failures of vision, perhaps a desire in Crowley to make an end to the gigantic task he’d set out upon. Yet I will re-read it one day, hoping that the magic at the start is not tainted by my knowledge of the unconvincing end.

My choices were varied this year, drifting back as far as the 18th century and as contemporary as 2013’s Walden on Wheels by Ken Ilgunas and Allie Brosh’s very funny comics on depression Hyperbole and a Half. I truly, deeply loved the Ilgunas book, which would be no surprise to those who know me, fondly I hope, as a bit of a tightwad. Ilgunas was buying freedom with his frugality and so am I. A great read about a very determined (and smart) young man. Brosh is best when she writes about dogs; she also draws them exceptionally well, not so much in a da Vinci sort of way, but more that her pictures capture the souls of dogs. Her style can be pretty goofy, but effective just the same.The other smart man I was excited to discover was  Paul Graham. His essays are profoundly insightful: he has a way of finding a new perspective on controversial ideas and curious phenomena, leading you through his thought process in his lucidly constructed arguments. God, I love smart people! I now read everything he writes as soon as it’s posted.

The “bests” though were the early Sinclair Lewis novels, Trail of the Hawk being the favorite of the ones I read this year (Our Mr Wrenn, another favorite, I read late last year.) There’s something about the sense of life you find in the writing in the early 19th century that I can’t get enough of. It’s a picture of youth and optimism, of chasing dreams and holding onto ideals, and when it’s important, going your own way. Maybe it’s the belief in progress and limitless horizons, a conviction in the goodness of living, that seems so utterly alien to the world we live in now. Reading these books is a refreshing, hip-pocket vacation. But it was apparently no easier for these writers to hold to these values than it is for the rest of us. Past 1920, it’s gone from Lewis: I found Main Street a depressing inversion of his previous values, though oddly, for a dystopian-future novel, It Can’t Happen Here was not so bad. Same goes for James Branch Cabell, another favorite writer, but it took a bit longer for cynicism to overrun his work. I feel I have an essay in me about the writers of this period, but I’m not done ruminating on it yet. Meantime, these books will be part of my regular, re-reading rotation.

Reading is a real adventure for me. I don’t travel much or do much that’s daring, except in my head. I never know where I’ll end up when I start reading or even what sort of thing will appeal, and while I do try to complete certain programs of study, half the joy is the serendipity of finding a kindred spirit in the pages of the book. Some of the best people I’ve known live in them….and always will.

 

Hard Luck Boys: Oliver Twist (1839) and The Butcher Boy (1992)

twist3 butcher-boy-patrick-mccabe-paperback-cover-art

I read these books in sequence, not intentionally, but they made an interesting juxtaposition. Oliver Twist was new to me—I’ve been working through the Dickens novels all year—but The Butcher Boy was a re-read. As Dickens goes, Oliver was not one of my favorites. The initial escapes and ordeals held my attention, but as they repeated, my patience flagged. Not again? Dickens was writing a serial, so dangers and reversals at every turn kept his readers on the hook, week by week.

My other problem was with the beatific goodness of Oliver himself and his role as Victim. He never stood up for himself, planned escapes or fought back; nothing affected him for better or worse. I felt sorry for the kid, but I didn’t like him. Dickens had latched onto the growing notion of his times that childhood was a special province of innocence and purity that needed protection, not simply a stage in which future adults were shorter in size and skill. Oliver is the embodiment of this glowing ideal. I’m not sure how true Oliver reads to modern eyes; I’m sufficiently jaded to think him unreal. The child that lit up the book, however, was the Artful Dodger. Corrupted young, he still had the pluck, energy and enthusiasms of youth, qualities the vulnerable Oliver notable lacked. Someone protect the sweet thing! The text seemed to lament. I’d rather have more of the resourceful Dodger any day.

Which brings us to self-styled man of adventure, Francie Brady. Fueled by comic book heroes, movie idols and the family stories of his romantic (if failed) parents, Francie thinks he’s moving through a simple boy’s tale, but then, he thinks a lot of things that aren’t quite so. Like Oliver, he’s a victim, but of a very different kind of neglect, but unlike Oliver, Francie reacts. He’s frightened, angry and extreme, but even something as ordinary as running away from home, has devastating consequences. Both of these boys live lives of uncommon hardship. Oliver, in spite of all, remains serenely innocent and good. So does Francie Brady, to a degree. Innocent, he is, perhaps, protected by his crazy self-conceits, but good he cannot remain. Francie seems never to really know what hit him; or rather, he knows what hit him—the Nugents—but he seems incapable of understanding the chain of events their arrival unleashes. Some essential innocence remains with him; otherwise, it’s doubtful readers could remain sympathetic. The extraordinary first-person voice of the book goes a long way here. Francie often relates things he clearly misunderstands, though adult readers can draw more accurate conclusions. In fact, Francie can’t seem to escape from his aborted childhood, even as his friends grow up and move on; he has trapped himself in the only vision of life he knew as good. And yet, Francie makes a certain peace with life, in the end; Oliver is merely rescued at last by kindly adults.

Both Dickens and McCabe manage to show how terrifying and difficult childhood can be: children often don’t understand what’s happening, have little self-control, almost no idea of how they affect life around them and have no real way to escape any of it. Dickens, reformer that he is, admonishes adults to care more for the tender young spirits, to save them from the world, rallying us to change; while McCabe suggests that maybe the world can’t touch what is most innocent in us and that, in spite of every horror, self-created and otherwise, we can make peace with life. The world is the world, big and messy; best see to yourself.

Good advice, lest you become, or create, another Francie Brady.

Composition

Dow

Reading: Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition (1914)

“In a word, first cultivate the mind, set the thoughts in order, utilize the power within; then the eye and the hand can be trained effectively, with a definite end in view. The usual way, in our systems of art‐instruction, is to put drill first, leaving thought and appreciation out of account.”–Arthur Wesley Dow

I finished this book a few days ago and it is without a doubt one of the best art instruction books I’ve ever read. Composition has always been a weak point for me, and since I tend to love books of this era, I gave it a try. Only after I was well into it did I discover that it was Dow’s teachings that O’Keeffe credited as a major influence in the development of her famous style. Makes sense once you’ve been through this book.

I did most of the exercises as I went along and will do them again because they really are effective. It’s rare for me to jump into the doing quite so readily; my way of learning is by reading, but the ideas this time made sense and sounded fun. They built from simple to complex and got your mind thinking and seeing in patterns rather than fussing with the technical aspects of drawing. I can see this working well for younger students or for anyone who wants to do art but gets frustrated when they can’t “draw well.” This book still won’t give them that–only time and practice will–but it might help in the creation of powerful images with the skills they already have, just the way children do. Most artists envy the sure genius of kids–this books can help you find your way back there, with smart instruction, not with commands to trust your intuition. It works.

 

Wild Animals I Have Known

animalsEver read an animal biography? Written in 1898, the sympathy for other lives in Ernest Thomas Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known seems very contemporary. Naturally, wild lives are short and often end violently, but these stories make you think about what human civilizations does, and could, mean.

The book is out of copyright and can be downloaded in numerous places on the web. Find an illustrated version–drawn by the author, the numerous ink wash and line drawings are well-observed, sympathetic and witty.

Reading on Writing

 eulandReadinglikeawriter 9780062736390

A brief note today on a few writing books I’ve been reading lately…

Brenda Euland’s If You Want to Write (1938) is a re-read. Her upbeat and encouraging voice was just what I needed when I read it in 2001,a few years after I began to write seriously. Euland believes that we all have a creative gift and that we often stand in our own way by trying to force our ideas into the mold of what we are told is saleable, popular and current. On this reading, however, I found the author a bit on the Pollyanna side., which I suppose means that her message has sunken in and I now have the courage to write freely by my own lights. Hopefully.

I had seen such great reviews of Francine Prose’s Read Like a Writer (2006) that I was excited to get a copy in my hands. I may have set my expectations too high. The book felt only half-perfected, as if a professor was still honing her lectures and approach to the craft to writing, which seems to be an accurate picture from the classroom examples she gives. I want more from a book than that. Certainly, the long excerpts from novels and short stories that she includes as examples of Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue, Details and Gesture were worth the admission price (many are now on my Must-Read list), but her waffling commentary is annoying. If she admits she doesn’t know what to tell students about writing and knowingly contradicts herself constantly, why is she writing a book? Note: Chapter 8 / Details was a let-down for me, but only because I’d read it as a stand-alone essay in The Eleventh Draft (ed. Frank Conroy, 1999). It had a strong impact the first time I read it, but a perfect re-tread with no additions? Boring.

The Right Words

Tufte

Even if you don’t care about participial phrases or the flexibility of a well-placed gerund, if you like to write, you will find much to enjoy in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences. The book  is packed with quotes from every type of book, essay and article, famous and not so, sentences that illustrate the strengths of certain constructions, and many that are simply perfections of language.

 

“Whereas the truth was, as he alone knew, that the heavens were a glorious blazing golden limitless cathedral of unending and eternal light…” –John Knowles, Indian Summer, 27

No commas, stacked adjectives tumbling over each other, the rush of words that lift…rapturous! Or–

“At a distance he can see the tall line of a dozen or more aqueduct arches, commencing suddenly, suddenly ending; coming now from nowhere, now going nowhere.”–James Gould Cozzens, Morning Noon and Night, last page

I can see those arches, feel what they mean.

At my best, I consider myself workmanly with words, not especially inspired, rarely rising to the artisanal, never to the realm of masterworks. But, nonetheless, I find comfort and aspiration in exquisite language. Thought, structure, wisdom, insight into the human condition, metaphor, symbol, humor, emotion, imagination, all of these drive me to write, hook me in reading a story. Yet it all begins in the infant’s babble, the bricks and mortar,  the words themselves, wrapped, woven, strung together, the medium, the message. Les mots justes.