The Happy Reader

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I was very excited to receive my copy of the first edition of The Happy Reader in the post recently. The magazine is a joint enterprise between Penguin and Fantastic Man to celebrate the luxuries embodied by print and the art of reading itself. They promise that each issue with feature a lengthy interview with a famous reader, whether they are primarily known for reading or not, followed by an in depth exploration of a classic book, in this case The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. They have had a very strong start with an interview with actor and Booker prize judge Dan Stevens which meanders over studying literature, reading to children and not least starring in a range of literary adaptations. This is all accompanied by black and white photos of the man himself to make the experience even more luxurious. At times it felt that unnecessary amounts of detail were reported in the interview, such as discussions with a waitress regarding a glass of water, but overall it was very interesting to read about how Stevens approached reading around 140 books when judging the Booker prize whilst still being on set for Downton Abbey – apparently his Kindle was never far from his hand. The interview ended with several recommendations from Stevens and it has prompted me to search out Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog which sounds fascinating and heartbreaking.

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The Woman in White is a book which I have read many times and so know the twists and turns of the Victorian Gothic plot inside out. The opening scene where Walter Hartright glimpses a woman dressed solely in white in the dead of night on Hampstead Heath sets the tone for unexplained and unnerving events throughout the book which does not let up or disappoint. It involves an evil count, one frail invalid with a fiercely devoted sister and a dastardly plot to steal an inheritance which Hartright stumbles upon when he takes a new job as a drawing master. The Happy Reader takes this intricate tale of love, betrayal and deception and produces fashion pages, recipes and recommendations for walks alongside reminiscing around the book itself and pieces on its history and genre. I particularly enjoyed the article on the links between the colour of a character’s clothes and their identity in film and literature. Emily King suggests that single-coloured outfits pigeon-hole women as either saint, whore or crazy while men are allowed to reveal more of their identity through their clothes.

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There is a great feel to the The Happy Reader and it really does make its reader appreciate the print form, with its thick pages and accompanying book marks. It also has lovely wide margins which are occasionally filled with an informative or whimsical side note, ranging from the timetable of a Brooklyn Ferry to information about Peter Capaldi or fan fiction. The magazine plans to produce a new issue every quarter and they have already announced that the next book to be featured is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. I’m already looking forward to the next issue and will definitely track down a copy of The Book of Tea to ensure I am ready for The Happy Reader‘s arrival. I’ll also be looking out to see if I can spot any other readers preparing and reading the book! At the moment they are doing some great deals on their subscriptions so if you’re likely to be interested I’d definitely recommend investigating the opportunities as The Happy Reader is likely to become popular fast.

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Grayson Perry

The current exhibition by Grayson Perry entitled Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery is one that I have already returned to several times and thought about a great deal. Perry has created fourteen pieces of art to reflect the people that he met while making a TV programme for the BBC which shares the exhibition’s title. The works include tapestry, pottery and silk along with other mediums and so there is a completely new experience with each piece. This is also encouraged by placing the objects alongside the gallery’s permanent collections. There is a feeling of being a treasure hunter as you follow Perry’s map to discover each new object, unsure of what it could be made of and how easily it might blend into the background of older paintings featuring established personalities. I am still tempted to drop in again as the layout ensures that it is easy to view a section or two without a huge time commitment.

Each object within the exhibition is accompanied by a small plaque which explained a little about the person who inspired it and why Perry represented them as he did. There are couples, fathers and celebrities involved as well as friends and soldiers. Perry acknowledges that the identities which he is attempting to reproduce in three dimensional forms are multifaceted and can change due to circumstances such as hardship, illness or necessity. The description alongside his pot for Chris Huhne, the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP, explained that Perry had smashed the carefully patterned pot before reassembling it using gold, an ancient Chinese technique. He felt that the recent destructive events had actually improved Huhne’s identity by forcing a greater degree of individuality into his life therefore making it easier to now sympathise with him. The pot was indeed enhanced by the addition of gold and I thought this was an interesting interpretation of such a well known public drama. However, I would be interested to see what Huhne himself has to say about this representation of his life.

This is the first exhibition by Grayson Perry which I have had the chance to go to and I was excited to see his work, due to already knowing so much about his public persona. However, I quickly realised that although his transvestite alter ego Clare has become as famous as him this became immaterial when facing the artwork. It is clear from the exhibition that Perry enjoys producing art through a variety of media and his choice of crazy and exuberant dresses are another method for him to demonstrate how porous the art world can be. He asks in Playing to the Gallery (more on this later) whether it is not possible to be both loved by the public and a serious artist and Perry’s numerous television and public appearances are encouraging these boundaries to blur.

One of my favourite pieces was The Ashford Hijab, a beautiful silk hijab scarf which also depicted the life of a white girl in Ashford who had converted to Islam and was now married with children. Perry explores why the religion might have attracted her and why she chooses to wear the hijab, something which Western cultures often cannot understand. In the scarf she turns her back on the constant demands of a Western consumerist society and instead reaches out for the solidarity and sisterhood provided by other Muslim women. A sense of community emerges which cannot be matched by the culture she has left behind. I found it fascinating that Perry could present such a sympathetic portrayal on what is a very controversial topic and also create a very beautiful, and possibly useful, object.

Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery provides an insider’s viewpoint on the art world to explain the decisions and conversations that happen behind closed doors. Alongside Perry’s engaging prose are also many amusing drawings which refuse to allow the art world to be too serious and question some of the established assumptions. I found it an easy and enjoyable read that nevertheless challenged my automatic construction of what constitutes art. Perry believes that anything can be art but that does not mean that everything should be called art. While I disagree with some of the reasoning he gave behind this I would argue that it is important to be able to keep art distinct so that it can be critiqued differently from objects which are meant for more commonplace uses. I would definitely recommend the book both for those who are well versed in the art world and for complete newcomers as I think it will provide valuable points of view for all in its assessment of how the worth of art is valued and how it is accepted into society.

If you want some further thoughts on the exhibition check out this blog by Emily, who I went with and who gave me Playing to the Gallery, here. Otherwise you have until 15th March 2015 to go to the National Potrait Gallery as many times as you like – it’s free and easy to dip into. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/graysonperry/display.php

Maus – Art Spiegelman

Maus tells the story of Art Spiegelman’s family’s experience of the Holocaust through depicting the memories of his father, Vladek. Famously the characters involved are drawn as animals, with their species depending on their nationality or religion. The Nazis become cats while the Jewish people involved are mice terrorised by this cats as dogs, pigs and other animals stand on the sidelines. Although I had heard many great things about the graphic novel I found it difficult to believe that this anthropomorphism would not trivialise its subject. Instead, it makes this global narrative of grief personal and individual to Spiegelman’s description and therefore, perhaps, even more devastating because it presents such a fresh account. Almost every page is filled with Vladek’s idiosyncratic turns of English speech and this quickly allows his character to come to life within the portrayal as a mouse. This peculiar phrasing also draws attention to the separation that exists between the lives of father and son.

The narrative swerves between Vladek’s recollections, Art’s interpretation of these events and some of their everyday conversations as they navigate a relationship fraught with difficulties and cultural differences. Art is a post-war child born in America, and cannot understand his father’s compulsive need to be so frugal with everything from paper to cereal and roof insulation. Art’s frustration demonstrates the difficultly that post-war culture experienced in processing the long term effects of the Holocaust when the easiest response was to try and forget the destruction previous generations had experienced. Although Art’s mother Anja survived Auschwitz she is absent throughout the entire graphic novel due to committing suicide after living for years in America. The shadow of the Holocaust, across even Art’s life, becomes more substantial and solidifies until the present and future cannot compete.

Spiegelman constantly references the process behind Maus, as he struggles to keep Vladek on track in their recorded conversations. His idea of how the graphic novel should be shaped is different to the real experiences and there are not always conclusions to the questions that are raised. So many people disappear into concentration camps, ghettos and violence that they can only be mentioned with a question mark over their fate. The anthropomorphic concept is also demonstrated to be limiting as it cannot reflect the multiple facets of individual personalities, as people convert to Judaism or claim they are German rather than Jewish. The futile nature of attempting to divide every character into one attribute also highlights the arbitrary nature of Hitler’s policies on eugenics. There is also an increasing awareness of how Spiegelman’s work adapts in response to the critical acclaim that the first half receives. He is overwhelmed by the attention which is paid and the demands that are made to promote and diversify the work. As his own reaction becomes a part of the graphic novel Spiegelman reaffirms his connection to the trauma of the previous generation even as he becomes aware how separate he will remain.

The Holocaust cannot remain solely in history books and lessons but should be kept as part of society’s culture, however difficult an admission this may be. Maus is a book that will continue to shock people into accepting that the events of the twentieth century will continue to disrupt and destroy lives that did not even exist when the Nazis’ held Europe in their grasp and so I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

Goodbye, Lenin! (2003)

Following all the commemorations around the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall Goodbye Lenin! was an excellent film to watch. Directed by Wolfgang Becker the film charts the difficulties of assimilating the two cultures which had developed on either side of the wall. Decades of Soviet rule created different brands, fashions and ambitions, let alone the two opposing forms of government. Alex Kerner (Daniel Brühl) has grown up in a staunchly socialist family with a mother who takes part in every aspect of Soviet Berlin after his father defects to the West. However, this devotion to the GDR causes problems when Alex’s mother, Christiane, has a heart attack after watching Alex protest and lies in a coma for eight months as political turmoil overwhelms the lives of all those around her.

This most extreme version of media black out by Christiane causes Alex problems when he is told that she cannot suffer even a light shock without a great risk to her health. He therefore begins an all consuming effort to keep the world as she would remember it visible from the bed she is confined to, even if this means fighting the increasing presence of capitalist influences and the enthusiasm of his fellow East Berliners to leave their past behind. This even involves decanting food so that it appears in a correctly branded container, since the East German brands Christiane requests have already fallen out of favour with supermarkets. However, it soon appears that Alex is not solely preserving the quirks of the GDR for his mother as they become equally important for him. He is dismayed at the lack of loyalty people show as they rush to exchange their money for West German marks and adopt the habits and fashions of their more affluent peers.

Nevertheless, while this might seem like quite a heavy subject matter the film also contains some charming and light moments. Alex meets and falls in love with a girl, Lara, who has been nursing his mother in the hospital and together they experience the new freedoms which reunification brings to Berlin as they explore the houses which have been left empty by those who flee the East. The family dynamic, not only between Alex and Christiane, but also with his sister, Ariane, and her young daughter bring a happy note to the film which would otherwise focus only on family disintegration. Instead, the addition of Lara to their family group along with Ariane’s new boyfriend from West Berlin show how families can grow and blend along with the wider society. Finally, the soundtrack by Yann Tiersen matches the film well and is similar to his exquisite creation for Amélie. It manages to match the range of emotions that the film creates even though these can switch within a scene from comedic to heartbreaking.

When I watched Goodbye, Lenin! I immediately recognised places in Berlin and continued to do so throughout the film despite only going for the first time this year. The film provides an excellent depiction of what Berlin feels like both at this pivotal point in its history and now, 25 years after reunification. Therefore, it’s a good watch for both those who love Berlin and those who know nothing about it!