Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier: Quaker Living, Quilts and Intertextuality

A group of escaped slaves, 1862-1865, South Carolina, 
US. The main character in The Last Runaway helps escaped
 slaves  and struggles with contemporary racism. Photograph: 
Corbis  (as featured on The Guardian)
I'm so glad that I was given a proof copy of The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier to review. I have previously read and greatly enjoyed Girl with a Pearl Earring, and I found this novel equally enjoyable.

Both books contain good-willed females living simple lives, and each protagonist faces a similar corruption of innocence. In each book, Chevalier demonstrates her talent at depicting relationships whilst retaining the strong identity of the individual. However, the settings of the novels are vastly different, and it wouldn't be right to base the novel's success on its similarities to Chevalier's other texts.

The Last Runaway is a fascinating book, and a novel that coincidentally matches so many elements of my own experience and history. For instance, the novel's protagonist, Honor, and the characters close to her, are predominantly Quaker, as many of my mother's ancestors were. Also, whilst the novel is set largely in Ohio, we are privy to Honor's reflections of her life in Bristol and the surrounding South West of England. I began reading the novel whilst on my train home for the weekend, and Exeter was mentioned just as I was leaving it. Such mentions made my reading of the novel so much more personal, and indeed exciting.

Here's a description of the novel:

When modest Quaker Honor Bright sails from Bristol, she is fleeing heartache for a new life in America. But tragedy leaves her alone and vulnerable, torn between two worlds and dependent on the kindness of strangers. Life in 1850s Ohio is precarious and unsentimental. The sun is too hot, the thunderstorms too violent, the snow too deep. The roads are spattered with mud and spit. The woods are home to skunks and porcupines and raccoons. They also shelter slaves escaping north to freedom. Should Honor hide runaways from the ruthless men who hunt them down? The Quaker community she has joined may oppose slavery in principle, but does it have the courage to help her defy the law? As she struggles to find her place and her voice, Honor must decide what she is willing to risk for her beliefs. Set in the tangled forests and sunlit cornfields of Ohio, Tracy Chevalier's vivid novel is the story of bad men and spirited women, surprising marriages and unlikely friendships, and the remarkable power of defiance.

A quilt like those described in The Last Runaway
I loved the colours and patterns of the quilts described
in the novel
There is a fantastic visual layering throughout the book, largely created through the theme of quilting. Honor is, well, extremely talented with a needle and thread, often to the envy of her in-laws and neighbours. Although the novel has a third-person omniscient narrative with the occasional letter embedded, the narrator allows us extensive descriptions of the quilts Honor has made, is making, and wants to make. As a result, the narrative gains descriptions of colour, texture and embellishment that it wouldn't have otherwise. I'm sure that many people will be visiting fabric suppliers after reading this novel!

I'm studying a transatlantic literature module at the moment for university, so this text came at a great time. The exchange of American and English culture, and the English outsider familiarising herself with America, was very interesting to me. Something particularly striking was the protagonist's name itself, Honor. I'm not sure if the name is ever used with the English spelling 'Honour', but the American usage here seems to imply a form of transatlantic exchange, or alternatively that Honor has inherently American characteristics. It must be noted that the last section of the Declaration of Independence, ratified in 1776, contains the following lines:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Yes, the last word of the Declaration is 'Honor', capitalised to match the protagonist's name exactly. Very clever, Chevalier.

An honest, cutting portrayal of slavery is at the centre of the narrative. Perhaps this is inevitable, considering the setting of the novel in the 1850s and Honor's perspective as an Englishwoman (slavery was abolished in England in 1833). The travelling of the protagonist from England to America very much reminded me of Charles Dickens' American Notes (see my post here), in which the author is similarly appalled by the continuation of slavery in some southern states. Dickens travelled to America in 1842, and so the time scales of his account and Chevalier's story aren't so dissimilar. Another reason why I found Chevalier's novel to be loosely inspired by American Notes was the mention of spitting tobacco. Dickens and Honor respond similarly with shock, both towards the disgusting nature of the act, and the nonchalance of the person committing it. Surely, I thought, Chevalier has read Dickens' text. Upon flicking towards Chevalier's acknowledgements, I came across the following mention:

For nineteenth-century English views on Americans, you can't do better than Domestic Manners of the Americans by Francis Trollope (1832) and American Notes by Charles Dickens (1842); although they are both highly critical of the United States, many of their observations still hold true today.

This parallel gives so much depth to the novel, I believe. In a perhaps mandatory way, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) is also mentioned as a relevant text from the period.Within the text, literary readers will be pleased to see that Honor and her Sister bring, alongside the Bible, Mansfied Park, The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit for their journey by sea. I could ramble about the symbolism of British books being taken across the Atlantic, but I simply like great books being mentioned in novels!

Sometimes I found the build-up to major plot events a little sudden and incoherent, but as my copy is a proof copy, I cannot be sure that this will not change. All in all, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected. I didn't realise that it would have so many layers of meaning, such well-researched themes, and such interesting characters. The novel provides a rest from my reading of dense classics, but The Last Runaway is by all means an intelligent, provoking read.

The novel will be released here in the UK on March 14 2013, and you can pre-order the book from The Book Depository - let me know if you read and enjoy it!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas - Gertrude Stein

I spent last weekend with my boyfriend, in his hometown of Liverpool. I've posted many times about it, I'm sure, but it must be my favourite city. Just before I left I had my literature seminar on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I've never read anything by Stein before, and I'm not convinced that I'll read another of her books anytime soon. However, I did enjoy parts of the book, and it was certainly interesting to study. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on the book too, if you've read it. 
The premise of the book is Alice B. Toklas's autobiography, although it's not that simple (possible spoiler coming up).  It is revealed at the end of the book that the "autobiography" is written entirely by Stein, who attempts to convey Toklas's perspective of their life together. 

This is also mentioned on the blurb on my Penguin edition:

For Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas, life in Paris was based upon the rue de Fleurus and the Saturday evenings, and ‘it was like a kaleidoscope slowly turning’. Picasso was there with ‘his high whinnying spanish giggle’, as were Cezanne and Matisse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. As Toklas put it – ‘The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me’. A light-hearted entertainment, this is in fact Gertrude Stein's own autobiography and a roll-call of all the extraordinary painters and writers she met between 1903 and 1932. Audacious, sardonic and characteristically self-confident, this is a definitive account by the American in Paris.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein,
1906. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New
York. Image from Wikipedia.
This characteristic "self-confidence" of Stein nearly drove me mad. Within the first few pages we hear about the "three geniuses" that Toklas had the pleasure to meet within her lifetime: Picasso, Alfred Whitehead and Gertrude Stein. Yes, Stein, writing from the perspective of her partner Alice Toklas, endlessly reminds the reader that she is in fact a genius. And more. I'm sure that she was a very influential woman, but this self-aggrandising narrative style isn't for everyone. The narrator refers to Gertrude Stein, never simply Gertrude, on most pages throughout the book, and Alice B. Toklas seemed to me always confined to a backseat position. I would love to have read a real autobiography by Alice B. Toklas. I'm sure it would be considerably more honest and genuine, and I'd be interested to see how Alice really felt about Stein.

However, perhaps it would not be as interesting as Stein's "autobiography". What really drives this book is the mention of the artists and intellectuals that Stein and Toklas socialise with, most noticeably Picasso, Matisse, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Naively, I've never thought of these artists and authors as actual people who socialised and had drinks with friends. Therefore, I found Stein's portrayal of these artists in social situations inherently interesting! As a great admirer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, here's one of my favourite quotes:

Gertrude Stein had been very much impressed by This Side of Paradise. She read it when it came out and before she knew any of the young American writers. She said of it that it was a book that really created for the public the new generation. She has never really changed her opinion about this. She thinks this equally true of The Great Gatsby. She thinks Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten. Fitzgerald aways says that he thinks Gertrude Stein says these things just to annoy him by making him think that she means them, and he adds in his favourite way, and her doing it is the cruellest thing I ever heard. 

Readers must question whether this is a feminist, or alternatively radical, text. My opinion would probably be that it is not, although I'm extremely biased by reading it in our contemporary society. Also, Stein's narration contains very blasé attitudes of "radical" topics and activities, which makes them easily overlooked. Stein spends most of her time around men, she learns to drive and later makes trips in her car to pick up wounded French soldiers, she is a lesbian, and she frequently travels with other females across the Atlantic and through Europe. Nowadays this would be entirely normal, but in the 1920s? Perhaps not. I may not appreciate the character of Gertrude Stein, but I love how forward-thinking, and moreover nonchalant about it all, she was.

As a result, I would recommend this book to others, but I will emphasise that the narrative style may well lead to angry outbursts and irritation. I speak from experience.

On an unrelated note, I lately bought this set of postcards from Waterstones. I have a bit of an obsession with postcards - my bedroom noticeboards are covered in them. These new ones are literary ones, and I think they're great. I particularly like the red Great Gatsby one. 

As clockwise from bottom left: The Great Gatsby, Alice's
Adventures in Wonderland, Sherlock Holmes, Moby Dick
and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Bibliotherapy: Mood-Boosting and Gloomy Books For Depression

Bibliotherapy for depression - Penguin deckchairs
Bibliotherapy for low mood (at the seaside). Image from
For depression it's always best to contact your GP and discuss the possibility of therapy and/or medication.

There's been a lot in the media lately about using books to assist good mental health, largely because of the NHS decision to start "prescribing" self-help material for mental health issues.

As part of the "Books on Prescription" scheme, patients could be recommended one of 30 medical volumes dealing with specific conditions by their GP. These will be available to borrow from libraries, and not restricted to those "prescribed" them. Alternatively, the "Mood-boosting Books" scheme is a national promotion of uplifting novels, non-fiction and poetry selected by readers, which includes writers such as Jo Brand, Bill Bryson and Terry Jones. Ms McKearney, director of The Reading Agency, has said: “It will encourage people to use the other reading aspects from libraries to help them feel better: novels, poetry and reading groups.” Here's the link to the 2012 list of mood-boosting books by The Reading Agency. 

As I began my blog with the intention of blogging about books that have helped, or are helping, my own mental health, this is really exciting news. I believe that the "Books on Prescription" scheme could provide useful complimentary support, whilst the "Mood-boosting Books" project can work to sustain good mental health, particular after therapy and courses of medication.

Recent news articles have also ascertained that the encouraged books do not have to be of the uplifting, funny and summery variety. One such piece by The Telegraph is entitled "Depressing books could be just what the doctor ordered". I don't think that the miserable alternative approach would work best for me; I had to have several breaks from McCarthy's The Road because it was making me feel so low. I'm lucky enough not to have suffered low mood recently, however. A few years ago I had some really unhappy patches, but in hindsight they must have been highly related to undiagnosed PTSD. Nowadays, having things to look forward to, being positive, and, of course, reading good books helps.

Below are two lists of suggested reading material for if you're in need of a boost. One is for those in search of comfort and a laugh, whilst the other is for readers who want reminding that they could have it so much worse. I'm more of an advocate of the first list for when I'm feeling low, but the latter contains so many great pieces of literature regardless.

Uplifting books (most of the time) for low mood:

More gloomy books that you may (or may not) relate to:

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Sunday, 3 February 2013

Logotherapy & Stoicism in Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning

J.M.W. Turner Raby Castle
Raby Castle, the Seat of the Earl of Darlington (1817) - J.M.W. Turner 
Image from Wikipedia
I first read Man's Search For Meaning a few months ago, but I've only just felt ready to write about it. It's such an immensely provoking piece to read, and as a reader you feel quite unsettled after reading some sections. However, it is powerfully moral and philosophical, to say the least, and it must be one of the most obviously bibliotherapeutic (I'll declare that a word) books I can think of.

Goodreads provides the following summary:

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl's theory - known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos ("meaning") - holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.

Logotherapy is something that I can deeply relate to, yet also something that I've done most of my life without ever giving it a name (rather like bibliotherapy). When I surround myself with meaningful relationships, experiences and activities, my mental health is considerably better than if not.  I'm sure that a lot of you will have similar attitudes. Art is so important to me - particularly literature, as you may expect from my blog, but also the visual arts and music - and I couldn't imagine a life devoid of it. A few years after my parents' divorce I'd listen to music that both helped and hindered my state of mind: some songs allowed me to re-live negative memories, whilst others gave me the willpower required to distance myself from the event. More recently I've become able to realise this distinction, and therefore favour the latter trait in music and literature. But primarily, I've intentionally made an effort to pursue meaning and beauty. Doing this can aid almost any type of suffering, as Frankl demonstrates in this quote:

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor--or maybe because of it--we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long.  

When writing about surviving life in a concentration camp, echoes of stoicism seems inevitable. Frankl quotes Dostoevsky's declaration that man is a being who can get used to everything, and later states the following:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.

Retreating into a "life of inner riches and spiritual freedom" greatly resounds with Marcus Aurelius's teachings, a philosopher whom I seem to perpetually discuss on my blog. The extent of the trauma described in Frankl's text is unimaginable to most of us, as is his survival of the experience and his ability to write about it. Nonetheless, this "inner retreat" can be utilised in so many situations in order to ease anxiety, low mood and the experience of difficult situations. We can pay attention to nature around us, recall pleasant memories, or create imagined places and experiences. To remind me to do this, I particularly like the following quote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Although Man's Search For Meaning is full of philosophical guidance, here are the three concepts that I've primarily dealt with in this blog post.

  1. Life needs meaning - whether love, art, nature, or something else profound - for survival and mental health. 
  2. Regardless of the situation, your emotions cannot be removed from your control. 
  3. Similarly, you can retreat into a "life of inner riches and spiritual freedom" at any time.

Frankl's book is such an inspirational account of life in a concentration camp, and we can all find relevant guidance to apply to our own lives, no matter what circumstances we face. It can be challenging to read, and at first glance quite depressing, but I would encourage you to persevere and recognise the greatness of the text.