Saturday, July 10, 2010

John the Revelator and his Irish Friends

My experiment has ended. I have determined that I cannot go back and read the types of books that filled my bookshelves in high school, college and early 20's. There's something sad about that finding, though. Perhaps I was just so burnt from dissecting classics, that Victoria Holt and her many pseudonyms became a source of solace. No symbols to interpret. Some obvious foreshadowing so I didn't have to worry too much about the ultimate fate of the heroine, and of course, the proper colored horse to differentiate the good from the bad...and no papers to write extolling the virtues (or lack of)! They were books and days of total escape. I guess any time you leave something behind, there is sadness...even if it is a pile of questionably valuable books.

So, now, back to reading the good stuff! An ARC of John the Revelator made it to the top of the pile. Honestly, I decided to read it for two reason. First, it is by an Irish author. I enjoy those working class characters with dirt under their nails, holes in the jeans, and a lilting tune for every occasion. Reason #2...the author's picture. He just looks like a writer should. Dark. Brooding.

This book grabbed me from page one, and pulled me screaming, laughing, and shaking my head in empathy, wonder, shock, and annoyance to the very end. It's a coming of age story, but John is no rich, whiny Holden Caulfield. Nope. This kid has a terrifying life beginning with a zealot, chain-smoking mother and a nosy neighbor who looks for any opportunity to instruct John and his mother on the eventual repercussions of their evil ways. John, himself, has a fascination with intestinal parasites, a symbol that did not slip past me.

Enter Jamie Corboy, a worldly bloke dedicated to Rimbaud's poetry, and John's life changes dramatically. I haven't decided if the changes were for the better, but he did find his spirit in the process.
Murphy's clean, no frills style reminded me of J.P. Donleavy, another Irish writer - sort of. Donleavy was born to Irish immigrants in New York, sharing his April 23rd birth date with William Shakespeare and Shirley Temple. What a combo. He now lives in Ireland, raising chickens. When I was in college, a friend serving in VietNam wrote, with great enthusiasm, saying he had finally read a book and was sure I would like it. It was Donleavy's The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. - quite a daunting read for someone who claimed to have maneuvered through school without cracking a single novel. But, he was right - that I would enjoy it, that is. Like "John" it has shades of The Catcher in the Rye, but with deeper characters who have more legit issues than Holden. Are you getting the feeling here that I have little sympathy for American lit's most revered anti-hero?

Balthazar, a fancy pants French boy, is sent off to a British boarding school, where he meets Beefy. The name says it all, doesn't it? Beefy reminds me of Larry Mondello with a bit of Ozzy thrown in to add some danger. He knows his way around, and amuses himself by playing the mentor to his porcelain French friend. Before the novel ends, Balthazar has learned far too much, I laughed way too loudly. Donleavy is a naughty writer, whose first attempts at publishing were rejected. He was labeled a "risky" author. The lusty "Beatitudes" brilliantly lives up to that standard.

I guess that's the closest I'll get to Irish writers...those two lads, and Maeve Binchy. James Joyce is just too cerebral for me, and except for a few stories in The Dubliners, I can't understand a darn work he writes. I will leave him and Faulkner to the Mensa members among you.

My book group is reading The Passion of Artemesia by Susan Vreeland. Artemesia, a post-Renaissance artist, was sold out by her father, raped by her tutor, and betrayed by her husband. Her talent aroused jealously among the leading male artists, vying for commissions throughout Florence. Her suffering spills onto her canvases in the faces of her women characters. There's a Golden Globe nominated film about about this artist called "Artemisia." French subtitles.

Vreeland sweeps me away with her lush prose. Her vivid descriptions of the landscape, the sights, the smells, the textures of everyday life make be think she lived side by side with Artemesia. He knowledge and love of the masters is evident as she references them throughout - both the major and the minor artists, with minute, carefully painted verbal portraits of their works. At times she get heavy handed with the metaphors, bogging down the flow, and surly not needed with a prose style as lyrical as hers.

The heart, mind and soul of the artist become the themes driving the plot of this book, and, let me tell you, with each page turn, I have marveled at and envied both the inner and outer worlds of the artist. How I would love to have a single talent, no matter how meagre. Oh well, if I can't write, I will read. If I can't sing, I will listen, and if I can't paint, I will look. That's still a pretty good deal, right?

The past week, I caught up on some movie watching. Catch "The Duchess" if you can. Beware - I enjoy costume dramas, so if you're into contemporary pieces, skip this one. Kira Knightly is awesome.

I also saw a documentary called "Carnies." This was powerful stuff. The filmmaker followed four carnival workers through a year of set ups and tear downs. The nomadic life was painfully unappealing to me, but as individual stories unfolded, I saw how this life of unexpected turns, and mix and match faces, became not only a constant source of excitement, but also - in a way I could never fully understand or appreciate - a stability. On one level. it's not so different from the theatre work we do around here. We periodically pull together a group of clowns, set up our tent, do a couple tricks, and the move on. It's a nice life. What we do for fun, the carnies do for real. I hope the carnies are as happy as they say they are.
We've got "Rumplestiltskin" coming up in August at UW-Manitowoc. I'll keep you posted.
Thanks for stopping by.

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