Category Archives: Art

Savage Girl at the Bookstore

It’s funny. As an author you work and work on a new book, you write, revise, get copyedited, read galleys, proofread again and again. You see the finished product, it arrives at your doorstep in a box of 20 advance copies for you to do with what you will. On publication day you know the book is out in the world. And yet until you walk until a store and see it with your own eyes you don’t know it for real.

books

So I had a little time to kill in Pleasantville, New York before going to see The Wind Rises, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. My favorite local indie outfit, The Village Bookstore, lies just across the street.

You go first, I said to Gil. See if it’s there.

Then I thought that was lame. Screw your courage to the sticking place, I told myself, and ventured in. There my book lay, and it was displayed in good neighborly company, alongside Donna Tartt, Sue Monk Kidd, Anna Quindlen and Isabel Allende.

I mildly asked the store clerk if he’d like me to sign some copies while I was there. He seemed delighted, found me a pen, and when I said I hoped people would be interested in Savage Girl he had an answer that made me blush, glow, beam.

Well, he said, I think so. All those people who learned to love your writing in The Orphanmaster.

Now that’s what I call a night at the movies.

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I Brake for Knit Projects

If I had to choose between these knitted winners, it would have to be the animal heads.

animal-heads

No, the full-body suit.

knitted suit

No, the meat. Definitely the meat.

knittedmeat

After this short commercial break, we bring you back to the Oscars, live.

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The Dressmaker’s Studio

I pay a visit to the dressmaker. Not just any dressmaker. A time machine artist. A bespoke 21st century fashion designer with the soul of a Victorian seamstress. Cynthia Ivey Abitz is her name, and the clothes she designs are magical.

Gil knew I wanted one of her garments, a sweeping, floating coat called the Hambledon duster. He knew because I begged for one, having been tipped off to Ivey Abitz’s existence by an artistic friend. He had no choice, he gave me a gift certificate for Christmas, and I saved up the getting of it like a stocking candy that was too good to eat right away.

ivey abitz dress 1

I decided to visit the Ivey Abitz studio, which she keeps on a cross street in the shadow of St. John the Divine, just above Manhattan’s Central Park. I wanted to feel the leather, as they say in the car-selling business, before deciding on the fabric of my coat. For every one of the hundreds of designs available, the client chooses the material.

swatches

A fluffy quartet of small cats and dogs share the cozy, sun-filled place, which is crowded with the eccentrically beautiful clothing that has earned her a reputation among the eccentrically beautiful. “Antique inspired garments relevant for everyday modern life,” is how Ivey Abitz describes her designs. I would say they have a patina you can’t find on the Macy’s sales rack, where I am usually  inclined to find my wardrobe.

On the Ivey Abitz web site there is a more elaborate manifesto: The collection “gives a nod to the past and present… It’s anti-generic garb. It’s an aesthetic. It embraces certain classic and vintage design elements and gives them life in the present. It’s a celebration of life by getting dressed in something rare and special every day. It’s a state of mind. It’s regalia for everyday life.”

ivey abitz dress 2

Cynthia, Cynthia, you had me at “nod to the past and present.”

On my visit, the designer bustles around, smoothing, fluffing, brushing away loose threads. I will come home and find loose threads all over me. The hazards of visiting the dressmaker, poor me.

Cyn w frock

How did she arrive at this unique aesthetic? Ivey Abitz remembers a family friend’s collection of antique clothing she happened to see when she was a kid of around eight, dressed in her summer attire of shorts and tee shirt, and saying to herself, Why doesn’t everybody dress like that? She grew up in Michigan farm country and spent her summers on Lake Huron, where she still has a cottage with her husband Josh Ivey Abitz, her partner in the business.

Cynthia and Joshua

The two partnered as magazine photographers before they went into fashion but the outfits she designed and wore to shoots attracted more attention than the pictures. The couple have been coming to New York since 2001, and moved to the city full-time in 2008 to be closer to their beloved seamstresses and fabric makers.

Pretty pretty pretty. Everything here is pretty. A pretty way of displaying fabric swatches.

wood shoes

Yellow checks on a dress – we call them frocks here, though — that seem so simple yet are so lovely.

plaid

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? floats into my mind, the sad last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Yes, well, what is the matter with pretty thinking? Here in the dressmaker’s studio are silken coats that make you want to go up and nestle your face in them.

beaut shirt

The garments come with stories. A shirt I am infatuated with, featuring a delicate flutter about its raw edges, was inspired by Ivey Abitz’s grandmother, who encouraged her to be a dreamer. Another piece took its inspiration from a favorite childhood dog.

Everything is hand tailored and in some cases is handwoven. Ivey Abitz shows me a jacket fresh in from the tailor, not yet blocked, made of a deep rust-colored hand-loomed wool thread. Luscious.

When I ask her if she has a favorite garment she gently rebuffs me, saying that would be like choosing a favorite child. What she does suggest is that when people get to mix and match the designs and fabrics they prefer, they fall in love with their clothes. “They garden, play with children and grandchildren, go to the symphony, sleep in them… everything,” the dressmaker tells me.

I know that when I put on my duster of black and white checked taffeta, I’m never going to take it off.

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Parisian Time Machine

Here is an amazing story that concerns the Nazi invasion of Paris, a fleeing woman and the apartment she left behind. Not opened for 70 years, when the door was cracked it revealed a person and a style of life in a time capsule you have to see to believe. I think I’ll just hand over the link and let you do the rest.

time-capsule-living-room

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Charles Marville’s Old Paris

It was a day of Old Paris in New York. The Metropolitan Museum had an exhibit, Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, showcasing a Frenchman who was one of the first people to turn a photographic lens on the world, starting in the 1850s. I think the word “evocative” might have been coined to describe Marville’s glass-negative images, with their rain-wet cobblestones and ancient, crumbling Parisian walls. “When good Americans die,” said Oscar Wilde, “they go to Paris.” I was feeling pretty good.

12. Rue de Constantine  1866

I prepared myself to see the show with a cup of chicken velouté, properly French and exactly creamy enough. Julia Child’s pronouncement about velouté in The Way to Cook goes as follows: “Soups may be creamed in a number of ways, including great lashings of cream itself – an ambrosial item I shall soft-pedal here in favor of the velouté system
 with its flour-butter roux… which looks, feels, and tastes for all the world like a creamy soup but can contain as low as zero fat.” The Metropolitan Museum cafeteria is a place where you can eat hoity-toity French soup and eavesdrop as the people around you have erudite conversations about high art. Those speaking English in any case, which was the minority on this polyglot afternoon. The rest of the diners around me, for all I knew, could be discussing race cars or Swahilian TV stars or the price of eggs in Hong Kong.

We crowded into the elevator with a handsome, voluble French family who looked like they would be saved from every one of life’s hardships by the cut of their clothes.

Charles Marville began his career as an illustrator, coming to photography later in life (and early in the life of the medium, as it had only been invented eleven years before he picked up a camera). His early work displayed country scenes and self portraits, like the one of Marville on the bank of the Rhine, hand held up poetically to brow. The cathedrals at Chartres and Rheims offered fertile subjects for his developing eye. I liked the treasures he showed in a tableau at the latter, complete with a mysterious mummified cat. He also did cloud studies, incredibly difficult in an era when everything shot needed a different exposure.

Then Marville found his artistic voice. He began depicting the narrow, winding alleyways and lanes of Paris just as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann was transforming it with new, grand boulevards and public buildings at the behest of Napolean III. The government encouraged him, too, appointing him the official photographer of the city, with a surprising sense that all this would be going away forever. It was now his job to capture the rapidly disappearing, incredibly textured urban micro-landscapes of the mid-century City of Light. The streets glisten, both with rainwater and the sewage that runs down every gutter.

Impasse de la Bouteille, vue prise de la rue Montorgueil. Paris (IIËme arr.), 1865-1868. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 35,90 X 27,70 cm Dimensions de la vue

It was a time that was somewhat appalled to see itself speeding pell mell into the future. Le Temps commented about “grand roads vomiting and absorbing torrents of pedestrians and vehicles” on some of the new perfectly paved roads. It is that very contrast that makes this work so poignant, of course.

Marville frequently used the motif of a “window” or opening at the back of the picture to lead your eye back.

Passage St Benoit. Paris (VIËme arr.), 1865-1868. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 36,50 X 27,60 cm Dimensions de la vue

After documenting the streets slated for urban renewal, Marville was assigned to capture for posterity some of the newfangled improvements Haussman had installed. These included two features that were futuristic at the time. Lamposts. There now stood some 20,000 gas street lamps where before there were none. Marville photographed dozens of them.

gas lamp

And urinals.

Urinoir (SystËme Jennings). Plateau de l'Ambigu. Boulevard Saint-Martin.   Paris (XËme arr.), 1858-1878. Photographie de Charles Marville (1816-1879). Paris, musÈe Carnavalet. Dimensions : 27,10 X 36,40 cm Dimensions du tirage

Called vespasiennes, the name derived from that of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, who supposedly imposed a tax on urine, these represented the ultimate novelty, private (relatively) and sanitary (relatively) and lit by those same spiffy gas lamps. The vespasiennes seemed antiquated when they were decommissioned at the end of the 20th century, but in 1860 it was like a spaceship-pissoir had touched down.

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson. At the exhibit I saw a photo with a heavy brown velvet flap hung down over the front due to the image’s sensitivity to light. There was a line of people crowding up at any one time to lift the curtain and see the magic underneath. It was a nice picture. But I felt that the magic was equally contained in each of the poetic photos around the gallery, impervious to time.

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The Voice on the Page

I’ve been thinking about voice. Not the voice of Miley Cyrus, or Roseanne Cash, or even the Russian-born soprano, Anna Netrebko, who belted out the Olympic anthem at Sochi last night. She really shook the rafters.

No, I am trying to get a handle on voice in fiction. Writing a new novel about a girl who lives in New York City during the Revolutionary War, I want to make sure I get her right. And it forces me to deal with some difficult issues.

Can I show her best in the first person or the third? That’s probably the biggest question going in, because while writing “as” my protagonist gives me access to all kinds of emotional complexity, it is also limiting. It’s writing in handcuffs. You the reader can only see what my character sees, and by its nature that is not everything. I can see a very interesting house but I can’t necessarily go into that house. If I bring my character into the house it rejiggers the plot in all kinds of ways.

I’ve determined to go down the first-person path if it kills me.

Probably the most famous use of the first-person protagonist is in Dickens’ David Copperfield, with its wonderful first line:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

The myriad of other first-person first lines include Call me Ishmael in Moby Dick.

There is Notes From Underground: I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.

For a long time, I went to bed early, in Proust’s Swann’s Way.

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. From Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Considering the first lines of books turns out to be incredibly interesting.

Other issues you have to address as the plot unfolds: how much does my protagonist know about the world, how sophisticated is she? My character is a teenager, but is mature beyond her years, as kids of that era were. What kind of language would she use? Should I eradicate all adverbs from the narrative? How smart-alecky is she, how wise, how snarky?

How much historically appropriate language can you get away with using without a page sinking under the weight of Ye Olde? On the other hand, is a word you’re using wrong because it was invented yesterday, and she can’t possibly have known it? I looked up “goofy” today and found that “giddy” would suit the 1776 world of my character’s speech much better.

Is she addressing someone? Hugo in Savage Girl addresses his story to his lawyers. Is my character relaying the history of her life to someone, say a great granddaughter? Is it an epistolary novel, like The Sun Also Rises? Or is the text simply in her head? Is she “talking to the air,” as Gil and I put it when we discuss these questions.

All these and more are the thorns you must cross through in order to reach the fruit when you are writing a novel. Sometimes it helps to have an image as you work, a picture that reminds you of your heroine. I have adopted this 1750 painting by Pietro Rotari, Girl with a Book, which inspires me to find my character’s voice and do it justice. What draws me is not the cap nor the jewels, charming as they may be, but the wry, lovely expresssion in her eyes.

1750 pietro-antonio-rotari-girl-with-a-book-1337982962_b

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Big Ol’ Brick of Books

A brick of books. Author copies. Twenty-eight, to be exact, sitting where UPS dumped the box, in the fresh, deep pile of snow at the head of the driveway. The cardboard was soaked around the edges.

But the books were dry, miraculously. That novel is watertight.

open

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