Sunday, March 29, 2009

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin

Marion Meade's Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin follows the amorous adventures and professional struggles of four iconic women writers of the 1920s: Edna Ferber, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Zelda Fitzgerald. The brisk, gossipy prose is perfectly fitting; as Meade writes in her acknowledgments, "The jittery rhythms seemed to suit the lives of my subjects."

Dottie Parker was the greatest wit of them all, but she was also chronically depressed, making several suicide attempts and telling perfect strangers at her favorite speakeasy all the lurid details of her spoiled love affairs. Zelda Fitzgerald was the prototypical flapper, a pampered Southern girl who gave her early stories to her husband to be published under his name. The responsible, hard-working, commercially successful Edna Ferber inevitably seems rather dull in comparison.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose work I'm most familiar with, comes off the least sympathetically of the four writers. According to the author, she slept with as many as three men (or women) a day and tossed her lovers aside like yesterday's undies, conned a small publisher into giving her a $500 advance for a novel she basically had no intention of writing, failed to return a typewriter that belonged to the Red Cross (which a former lover had only given her on loan)—the Red Cross, of all places!—and treated her sisters and mother with a great deal of callousness. Of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" and Millay's family's reaction to it, Meade writes:
The ballad depicted not just the outlines of Cora's struggle—certainly nothing was made explicit—but her ideas, her experiences, the essence of her being. It was piracy so surprising that she was incapable of replying for three months. Kay, always alert to shady motives in her sister, was aghast. "I cried when I got that poem," she said afterward, thinking Vincent had no right to use such painful family experiences and pass them off as her own. "Years of hard filthy labor on her part—and you get the Pulitzer Prize for such a pretty song you made of it."
Meade's account of Millay's life during the '20s paints the poet as a classic narcissist; one of her friends planned to write a piece of thinly-veiled fiction about a poet-genius with an "inability to love anybody or anything but the secret guarded image of herself." I'm not much for poetry, but I've read and admired Millay's for several years now, and until reading Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin I knew next to nothing about her life. This is an issue that occasionally troubles me. When you hear something distasteful about a writer's personal life, how does that affect your reading of their work? Is it at all relevant? I'm not talking product-of-their-times kind of flaws; I'm talking the sort of shenanigans that contribute to common stereotypes and misapprehensions about what it means to be a writer—the alcoholism, mental illness and suicide attempts, infidelity, promiscuity, general recklessness and outrageous selfishness. (And yet there are other details that are no doubt relevant to a writer's body of work—I find it odd that Meade never mentions any of Millay's many homosexual relationships. She mentions some nude photographs taken with the wife of Millay's longtime friend Arthur Ficke, but that's pretty much it.)

Another all-too-colorful character is F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose drunken buffoonery, emotional coldness, and financial abandon are thoroughly recounted here ("...he scribbled obscene words on the walls of an opera singer's villa and kicked over the tray of a woman selling trinkets outside the casino.") He generally regarded his daughter, Scottie, as a nuisance (though Zelda wasn't much better). Meade describes the early meetings of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in Paris, and how Hemingway was appalled by the elder writer's misbehavior. "Being around him for even a short time could make a person weep with frustration."

On the other hand, it's fascinating to read of all these literary friendships and associations, and how this motley cast of journalists, poets, playwrights, actors, novelists, publishers, and posers all impressed and influenced one another. The book is organized by year, not by writer, so you get a great sense of who's lunching (or sleeping) with whom while so-and-so's book has just been published to rave (or rotten) reviews, meanwhile the other one's hiding from the creditors in some broken-down villa on the French Riviera, and so on. Back then, a writer could wire her publisher asking for an advance on top of what she'd already received, and her editor would send the money with no questions asked. Those were the days, huh?

It's also interesting to note which titans of the day have long since fallen into obscurity (Elmer who?), and which widely-panned works are now considered classics (like The Great Gatsby). And I always find it amusing when these writers, who were then in their twenties and thirties, proclaim themselves (and each other) hopelessly 'over the hill.' Dottie Parker in particular was obsessed with writing about death and dying:
It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
"Aha, my little dear," I say,
"Your clan will pay me back one day."
(Titled "Thought for a Sunshiny Morning.")
For better and for worse, these writers shaped what it means to be a modern woman, and a modern woman writer. Reading about their lives, loves, and work makes me feel a certain longing: for an artistic circle (backbiters and all), an unlimited supply of bootleg scotch, and an apartment in the Village for fifty bucks a month.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fine weather, part two

We spent last weekend in Carrick. It was Mother's Day on Sunday, and Brendan's nephew's birthday, and I also spoke to a creative writing workshop on Saturday morning. This particular workshop uses the Amherst Writers and Artists methodology, which makes for a more supportive environment. (I skimmed parts of Pat Schneider's excellent book, Writing Alone and With Others, and will soon be picking up a copy of my own. More on this in a future post.)

Here's the title page of a slightly older book in the O'Brien family library:

Cool, huh?

On Saturday evening we went to Kilkieran Cottage, an adorable restaurant with this lovely view (I took this picture from the car park):

Within that graveyard are the Kilkieran high crosses, which I must visit in daylight the next time I get down there. Kilkieran is just over the border in Kilkenny, a 15-minute drive from Carrick on Suir. I'll be writing up Kilkieran Cottage in the second edition—the food (I had the mushroom and asparagus risotto and the rhubarb crumble) was delish and the service was very good. (You can see the cottage in the background of the top photograph on the Megalithic Ireland page I linked to above.) I have a soft spot for gourmet restaurants in the so-called middle of nowhere...makes a good meal feel that much more special, don't you think?

On Sunday we took a walk through Seskin Wood, on a hill overlooking town, river, and pasture.

Gorse bushes may be common enough, but the sight of all those cheery yellow buds always makes me happy.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fine Weather

Look what lovely weather we had last week!

The Spanish Arch/Claddagh area gets pretty crowded on sunny afternoons.

I wish I could tuck my head under my wing and glide along in calm water on a warm day...what a way to take a nap.

More photos tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Wow, is it a gorgeous day in Galway! Spring is here at last. Everybody was out walking the prom this afternoon, wearing big goofy green hats and tri-color feather boas and eating ice cream. I sat on the strand at very low tide and wiggled my bare toes in the wet sand. Forgot how good that feels!

Here's how else I celebrated Paddy's Day:

These are socks for a Ravelry contest—the Irish-themed project with the most 'love' clicks wins a huge stash of yarn (including a kilo of Kilcarra, which is one of my favorites). Tá áthas orm means "There is joy upon me" in Irish (so I guess these socks just say "joy upon me"). They're my reminder to count my blessings in these uncertain times.

I used sock yarn I picked up in Munich in December—Wolle Rödel, really inexpensive, a great value—and knit these socks using bits I remembered from other patterns. I cast on 60 stitches, did a purl ridge twice during the extra-long ribbing, and increased to 64 stitches for the colorwork at the ankle. Decreasing back to 60 stitches before the heel flap, I just knit a 'vanilla sock' until 8 or so rounds before the toe decreases should start. I had charted the words in an Excel spreadsheet, and that worked out well. I did a checkerboard pattern around the back to carry the yarn, trapping the second strand where necessary, and started the dark-green toe earlier on the right sock since the letters weren't as tall. It was quite an easy project, considering I was more or less designing them on the fly!

Ravelry link (with more photos) here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tick Tock

How many more novels do you think I can write in just under fifty-one years?

You know what's kind of (additionally) creepy about this? One summer in high school my mom took Kate, me, and a few of our friends to New Hope, where we had our fortunes read. The palm reader asked me if I wanted to know how old I'd be when I died, and naturally I said yes, and guess what number she gave me?


Guess how old I'll be in 2060.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Best Ghost Story I've Ever Read

One of the best, for sure. It's "The Affair at Grover Station" by Willa Cather, and you can read it here. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

I found this story in The Virago Book of Victorian Ghost Stories, which is certainly worth seeking out. Another deliciously eerie story in the collection, Rosa Mulholland's "Not to be Taken at Bed-time" (find it here, PDF link at the bottom of the page), contains some very compelling descriptions of Connemara. The plot is loaded with witchcraft, love-charms made from corpse-flesh, and pacts with the devil, yet none of that is quite so haunting as the sea and landscape:
The sashes were open, and nothing was visible but water; the night Atlantic, with the full moon riding high above a bank of clouds, making silvery tracks outward towards the distance of infinite mystery dividing two worlds.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Granny Weatherwax knickers

My new novel is about witches (and spies), and while I was writing it I read either WWII/occult research or fun witchy fiction. Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad are my two favorite Discworld novels so far—Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are terrific fun.

When I saw the Witches' Britches pattern in Knit2Together, I wanted to knit a black-and-red-striped version I could see Granny Weatherwax wearing. (The Flickr link above is Kat Coyle's striped version, which is my favorite on Ravelry.) The perfect lounge pants!

Here's my swatch:

Knit Picks Swish DK in bordeaux and coal, US 6 needles, 6 stitches/8 rows per inch.

I'm definitely going to go with the thinner stripes. I didn't get gauge, nowhere near it, so I'll have to tinker with the numbers. I'll most likely end up using size 5 needles, so I need to knit a second swatch.

- - -
‘Baths is unhygienic,’ Granny declared. ‘You know I’ve never agreed with baths. Sittin’ around in your own dirt like that.’

‘What do you do, then?’ said Magrat.

‘I just washes,’ said Granny. ‘All the bits. You know. As and when they becomes available.’

—Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad