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Posts Tagged ‘books’

09 OCTOBER, 2012

Coppernickel Goes Mondrian: A Picture-Book Homage to the Iconic Artist

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A vibrant story of curiosity and optimism by Dutch illustrator Wouter van Reek.

Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) began as a landscape artist, but eventually arrived at the bleeding edge of abstraction. Shortly after his death, during the 1950s and 1960s, his work went on to influence everything from graphic design to architecture to fashion, and is even said to have inspired this classic 1934 dust jacket of Ulysses. And, now, it can shape the way little ones think about the future, life, and the boundless limits of the possible.

Coppernickel Goes Mondrian (public library) by Dutch artist Wouter van Reek is an absolute treasure from my friends at Enchanted Lion Books, who previously gave us Albertine’s Little Bird, Blexbolex’s gems, and the charming Bear Despair. The story introduces Van Reek’s famous Coppernickel character — a quirky and endearing flightless bird in a red cape — and his dog Tungsten to Mr. Quickstep and his dog Foxtrot. Together, they embark upon a quest for the future, navigating Mondrian’s signature grids of primary colors as they make sense of the portal from reality to abstraction and back again, teaching young readers — and reminding those of us who have grown out of believing — that the road between what we dream up to what we actually experience is paved with nothing more and nothing less than self-transformation.

The story of Van Reek’s creative journey is itself utterly fascinating, a case study of cross-disciplinary influence and combinatorial creativity at work:

As a kid Wouter loved Chinese landscape scrolls of mountains and lakes disappearing into the mist, which were sometimes as long as 50 feet. When he let his eye move slowly over them, he felt as though he was in those landscapes, and he wondered if the scrolls were the ancient Chinese way of making movies. When Wouter discovered that Mondrian had written a piece about modern art in the shape of a walk from the country to the city, he knew what he had to do. This book is his way of making an ancient Chinese-style movie about going into the future in the 1940s.

Coppernickel Goes Mondrian is the second in Enchanted Lion’s Coppernickel series, on the heels of the 2008 gem Coppernickel: The Invention, and the first in the Artist Tribute series, paying homage to iconic artists in picture-book form.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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09 OCTOBER, 2012

The Wisdom of the Heart: Henry Miller on the Art of Living

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“On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”

Henry Miller (1891-1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — spent a good portion of his career freelancing for various literary periodicals. In April of 1939, Modern Mystic magazine commissioned him to write a piece about the work of psychoanalyst E. Graham Howe. Two years later, the essay was republished in the eponymous volume The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) — a collection of Miller’s short stories, profiles, and literary essays.

In the piece, like in all memorable profile writing, Miller uses the synthesis and critique of his subject’s ethos as a springboard for his own and, ultimately, for broader commentary on the culture of the time and the universality of the human condition.

He begins with a riff on Howe’s book War Dance:

The art of living is based on rhythm — on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life,’ metamorphosis. One can dance to sorrow or to joy; one can even dance abstractly. … But the point is that, by the mere act of dancing, the elements which compose it are transformed; the dance is an end in itself, just like life. The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer has to learn. It is also the first thing a patient has to learn when he confronts the analyst. It is the first thing any one has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender, full surrender.

[…]

Life, as we all know, is conflict, and man, being part of life, is himself an expression of conflict. If he recognizes the fact and accepts it, he is apt, despite the conflict, to know peace and to enjoy it. But to arrive at this end, which is only a beginning (for we haven’t begun to live yet!), a man has got to learn the doctrine of acceptance, that is, of unconditional surrender, which is love.

Later, Miller turns to the illusory nature of what stands between us and this complete surrender:

‘Normality,’ says Howe, ‘is the paradise of escapologists, for it is a fixation concept, pure and simple.’ ‘It is better, if we can,’ he asserts, ‘to stand alone and to feel quite normal about our abnormality, doing nothing whatever about it, except what needs to be done in order to be oneself.’

It is just this ability to stand alone, and not feel guilty or harassed about it, of which the average person is incapable. The desire for a lasting external security is uppermost, revealing itself in the endless pursuit of health, happiness, possessions an so on, defense of what has been acquired being the obsessive idea, and yet no real defense being possible, because one cannot defend what is undefendable. All that can be defended are imaginary, illusory, protective devices.

Miller zooms in on the “key words in howe’s doctrine of wholeness” — balance, discipline, illumination:

For the awakened individual, however, life begins now, at any and every moment; it begins at the moment when he realizes that he is part of a great whole, and in the realization becomes himself whole. In the knowledge of limits and relationships he discovers the eternal self, thenceforth to move with obedience and discipline in full freedom.

Writing at the time surround WWII, Miller reflects on a cultural era not at all dissimilar to our own today, a transitional period he calls “an equinoctial solstice of the soul”:

There is an illusion of ‘end,’ a stasis seemingly like death. But it is only an illusion. Everything, at this crucial point, lies in the attitude which we assume towards the moment.

In an argument reminiscent of Joan Didion’s definition of character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life,” Miller turns from the personal to the political, a direction consistent with his then-lover Anaïs Nin’s contention that understanding the individual is the key to understanding mass movements:

Those who are trying to put the onus of responsibility for the dangers which threaten on the shoulders of the ‘dictators’ might well examine their own hearts and see whether their allegiance is really ‘free’ or a mere attachment to some other form of authority, possibly unrecognized. … Those who are preaching revolution are also defenders of the status quo — their status quo. Any solution to the world’s ills must embrance all mankind. We have got to relinquish our precious theories, our buttresses and supports, to say nothing of our defenses and possessions. We have got to become more inclusive, not more exclusive. What is not acknowledged and assimilated through experience piles up in the form of guilt and creates a real Hell, the literal meaning of which is — where the unburnt must be burnt!

Returning to our relationship with the present moment, Miller summarizes Howe’s proposition:

An attempt, in short, to arrive at a total grasp of the universe, and thus keep man anchored in the moving stream of life, which embraces known and unknown. Any and every moment, from this viewpoint, is therefore good or right, the best for whoever it be, for on how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.

He brings it all back to love:

Real love is never perplexed, never qualifies, never rejects, never demands. It replenishes, by grace of restoring unlimited circulation. It burns, because it knows the true meaning of sacrifice. It is life illuminated.

The Wisdom of the Heart is a beautiful read in its entirety — highly recommended.

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08 OCTOBER, 2012

Hello Goodbye Hello: Rudyard Kipling Meets Mark Twain Meets Helen Keller

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“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.’”

Given my Circles of Influence collaboration and my fascination with first-hand accounts of famous encounters, it’s of little surprise I find myself mesmerized by Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — an enchanting daisy chain of true encounters spanning more than a century of cultural heroes (and some villains) — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more, culled by British writer Craig Brown from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera. Martha Graham strikes fear and awe in a young Madonna. Marilyn Monroe asks Frank Lloyd Wright to design “an elaborate house with which to impress the world.” Walt Disney edits Igor Stravinsky and sparks his creative indignation.

But my favorite intersections revolve around the inimitable Mark Twain.

In 1889, a 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling sets out to meet and interview his hero, Mark Twain. Determined, he dashes from Buffalo to Toronto to Boston on a wild-goose chase that eventually takes him Elmira, where he is told by a local policeman that Twain or “someone who looks like him” (a surprisingly unhelpful description at the time) lives nearby, at East Hill. Brown writes of the encounter:

He is led into a big, dark drawing room. There, in a huge chair, he finds the fifty-three-year-old author of Tom Sawyer with ’a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong, square hand shaking mine and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world … I was shaking his hand. I was smoking his cigar, and I was hearing him talk — this man I had learned to love and admire 14,000 miles away.’

Kipling is transfixed. ’That was a moment to be remembered; the landing of a twelve-pound salmon was nothing to it. I had hooked Mark Twain, and he was treating me as though under certain circumstances I might be an equal.’

The two men discuss the difficulties of copyright before moving on to Twain’s work. ’Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher’s daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man.’

Twain gets up, fills his pipe, and paces the room in his bedroom slippers. ’I haven’t decided. I have a notion of writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two ways. In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him. Then the friends and enemies of the book could take their choice.’

Kipling raises a voice of protest: to him, Tom Sawyer is real.

We now know that Tom Sawyer was real, in the most literal sense, but Twain’s response bespeaks, metaphorically, the magic of suspending disbelief:

’Oh, he is real. He’s all the boys that I have known or recollect; but that would be a good way of ending the book, because, when you come to think of it, neither religion, training, nor education avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man. Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an angel.’

’Do you believe that, then?’

’I think so; isn’t it what you call kismet?’

’Yes; but don’t give him two joggles and show the result, because he isn’t your property any more. He belongs to us.’

And yet, Twain shares his own fascination with fact over fiction:

Twain talks of the books he likes to read. ’I never cared for fiction or story-books. What I like to read about are facts and statistics of any kind. If they are only facts about the raising of radishes, they interest me. Just now for instance, before you came in, I was reading an article about mathematics. Perfectly pure mathematics. My own knowledge of mathematics stops at “twelve times twelve” but I enjoyed that article immensely. I didn’t understand a word of it; but facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful.’

After two hours, the interview comes to an end. The great man, who never minds talking, assures his disciple that he has not interrupted him in the least.

But the most magical part of all, as is the case with many of the encounters in the book, is the way in which influence and admiration come full-circle:

Seventeen years on, Rudyard Kipling is world famous. Twain grows nostalgic for the time he spent in his company. ’I believe that he knew more than any person I had met before, and he knew I knew less than any person he had met before … When he was gone, Mr Langdon wanted to know about my visitor. I said, “He is a stranger to me but is a most remarkable man — and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”’

Twain, now aged seventy, is addicted to Kipling’s works. He rereads Kim every year, ’and in this way I go back to India without fatigue … I am not acquainted with my own books but I know Kipling’s books. They never grow pale to me; they keep their colour; they are always fresh.’

The worshipped has become the worshipper.

A decade later, in 1909, Twain gets a visit from Helen Keller, whom he has befriended fifteen years earlier and with whom he has forged a unique relationship of intellectual and creative camaraderie. Brown writes:

For his part, Twain is in awe. ’She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.’ Shortly after their first meeting, Twain formed a circle to fund her education at Radcliffe College, which led to her publishing an autobiography at the age of twenty-two, which in turn led her to become almost as celebrated as Twain himself.

But the intervening years have struck Twain some heavy blows. One of his daughters has died of meningitis, 7 another of an epileptic fit in a bathtub, and his wife Livy has died of heart disease. Throughout Helen’s stay he acts his familiar bluff, entertaining old self, but she senses the deep sadness within.

’There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly. Whenever I touched his face, his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind — a gesture of the soul rather than of the face.’

In a vignette perfectly prototypical of his character, Keller recounts seeing card on the mantelpiece instructing burglars where the valuables of the house were located. There had recently been a burglary and, Twain’s rationale went, the note would prevent future burglars from bothering him once they break in.

Keller, like Kipling, is transfixed by Twain’s billowing voice:

’He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”’

The closing scene of that encounter gives you the kind of chills that grip you, often by surprise, frequently throughout the rest of Hello Goodbye Hello:

As she says goodbye, Helen wonders if they will ever meet again. Once more, her intuition proves right. Twain dies the following year. Some time later, Helen returns to where the old house once stood; it has burnt down, with only a charred chimney still standing. She turns her unseeing eyes to the view he once described to her, and at that moment feels someone coming towards her. ’I reached out, and a red geranium blossom met my touch. The leaves of the plant were covered with ashes, and even the sturdy stalk had been partly broken off by a chip of falling plaster. But there was the bright flower smiling at me out of the ashes. I thought it said to me, “Please don’t grieve.”’

She plants the geranium in a sunny corner of her garden. ’It always seems to say the same thing to me, “Please don’t grieve.” But I grieve, nevertheless.’

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