Hey! So! While I was on summer vacation I had great reading mojo (aka not so great weather). I read a lot of good things, and I wanted to write about them in more depth than I’ve managed lately. But I’ve still got jetlag, so I’m starting easy with the non-fiction I can’t really review in depth (because one I passed to my parents and one was audio).
Random (blurry) vacation photo: French tall ship Hermione enters Lunenburg, Nova Scotia harbour. This was quite the event and we just happened to be there for it. The smoke is from her 21-gun salute.
Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72
I read this book–a hybrid biography of an 18th-century woman, memoir of poet Peacock, and reflection on creativity and/in old age–because of Rohan’s wonderful review, which I pretty much agree with. I had forgotten about the book until I happened upon it in a 50% off closing sale. Mary Delany created almost 1000 incredibly detailed and accurate portraits of flowers from cut paper. Peacock’s book reproduces several (it’s a beautiful object itself) and you can see a few at the British Museum site. Delany’s life is fascinating; I was less interested in Peacock’s, but I did like the way she talked about looking for role models–both for making art and for living–and what kind of model she found in Mrs. Delany. At times I felt she was over-reaching in her “readings” of the flower portraits and the connections she made to Mrs. Delany’s life, but I was willing to go along with her, in part because I saw that as a poet’s way of thinking.
Here are the two passages I copied into my journal:
Is being burnt a requisite for the making of art? Personally I don’t think it is. But art is poultice for a burn. It is a privilege to have, somewhere within you, a capacity for making something speak from your own seared experience.
Craft is engaging. It results in a product. The mind works in a state of meditation in craft, almost the way we half-meditate in heavy physical exercise. There is a marvelously obsessive nature to craft that allows a person to dive down through the ocean of everyday life to a seafloor of meditative making. It is an antidote to what ails you.
I used to feel that way practicing music. I think any reader who is a serious crafter could appreciate this book and Peacock’s respect for this kind of feminine artistic production.
Mrs. Delany’s life might interest romance readers, too. She has an unhappy first marriage to a much older man, one she’s basically forced into by her family because it’s advantageous. Then she has a period of happy widowhood, filling her life with close female friendships. (During which she also tries, unsuccessfully, to get a place at court). And in her early forties, she makes a happy second marriage to a man who’s somewhat beneath her socially, but who admires and supports her creative endeavors. The flower collages come after a period of mourning and depression following his death, and eventually win her the admiration of royalty–among others–in her old age.
I really wish we saw more characters like Mary Delany in historical romance; her many interests and talents, and her serious devotion to her accomplishments (music, painting, dress design, I think we could count her voluminous letter-writing) show up most romance “bluestockings” as shallow constructions. And she has real intimate friendships and close ties to family and still room to fall in love. I’d love to read a romance with a heroine as interesting and vividly drawn as Peacock’s Mrs. Delany.
Barton Swaim, The Speechwriter (read by Jonathan Yen)
I read Swaim’s memoir of his years working for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (yes, the one who claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was visiting his lover in Argentina) because this review, tweeted by Emma Barry as a plot bunny, made it sound hilarious, and then it popped up on the Audible homepage when I was looking for vacation listening. My teenage son, who loves to laugh at American politics, and I both enjoyed it. And yes, I would read a romance with a hero–or heroine–this wry, funny, and basically decent stuck in an awful, frustrating job.
The book’s title is sort of a misnomer: Swaim did write speeches, but also letters (including letters to the editor they’d draft for supporters to sign), op-eds, and “verbiage” or talking points on all kinds of subjects. It’s as much a picture of office life as political life, particularly about what it’s like to work for a demanding and uncharismatic boss. If, like me, you pick it up partly because of a fondness for Sam Seaborn, you’re going to get the stuffing kicked out of your idealism–which is appropriate, because that’s more or less what happens to Swaim.
I think Swaim manages never to be entirely cynical, which is pretty remarkable, as he was there for the implosion of Sanford’s career and is clear-eyed both about how badly the governor handled the crisis and how much damage it did to the people around him. (Somehow, it never occurred to me before that a politician in a scandal takes a lot of innocent people’s careers down with his own.) Swaim isn’t polemical and he doesn’t talk much about his own beliefs, but, you know, he’s working for a conservative once talked of as a potential Obama opponent; his accounts of Sanford’s opposition to the economic stimulus and of the birth of the Tea Party didn’t change my mind, but they did make me see things from another angle.
But what this book is really about is language. You can get a feel for Swaim’s voice and for his thoughts on political language in his columns for the Wall Street Journal, among other places. Sarah Lyall’s review for the New York Times is also good on this aspect of the book. Swaim’s defense of vapid, obscurantist talking points (“language” or “verbiage” in the parlance of his workplace) was especially interesting. He points out that politicians are constantly asked for opinions on all kinds of subjects (way too often, in his view), many of which are still developing or about which they quite reasonably know little. So they need placeholder language that won’t commit them to a position before they really understand the issue (“we’re waiting for the investigation to unfold” etc.) and vague stock responses for when they’re put on the spot.
Swaim’s book is often hilarious, but the humor is mostly pretty black. What kept it from being utterly depressing is that amidst all the bad faith, bad actions, and bad verbiage he hangs on to at least some clear-sightedness and decency, and he shows that he’s not the only one who does. No one in the office, not even Sanford, is completely venal, cynical or stupid. And that’s a good thing for all of us.