Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Nellcott is My Darling
by Golda Fried
Coach House, May 2005, 181 pages, $14.95 [US]; $17.95 [Can] [Paperback]

Ignore the fact that it has been nearly a year since Nellcott is My Darling first unbowed from a Canadian small press: this is a book that has slowly garnered tons of positive acclaim in the Great White North and picked up one very significant award nomination, making it more relevant than ever. Few people, however, seem to have read Nellcott. Don’t be one of them. This is a gorgeous, heartwarming, and heartbreaking novel. It is a feminine bildungsroman, a spiritual cousin to Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a 17-Year-Old Girl”. And, one hopes, a novel that hipsters and readers of all stripes should be talking about in the years to come.

Surface-wise, the story is an inverse of one of the oldest archetypes in the book: virginal first-year university student Alice meets and falls in love with bad-ass record store clerk Nellcott in early ’90s Montreal. Though the girl-meets-boy story is deceptively simple, it is almost pitch perfect. Fried has a knack for the small detail, both of the city she lovingly writes about and of human relationships, the butterflies of falling in puppy love. Early on in the novel, Fried intimates, “Alice opened the top drawer of her wooden dresser and checked out her underwear. She had about ten cotton pairs that her mom had bought her in bulk. She got out a pair of scissors and cut the little bows off all of them.” Precious.

One could make small quibbles about the characters: Nellcott, for one, doesn’t come across as a wrong-side-of-the-tracks kind of guy until the plot calls on him to act that way. Strangely, that’s also the beauty of this book. One really truly does see the world through the eyes of Alice and her idiosyncrasies. In a way, the reader grows up with her as a person, and makes certain revelations at the precise same time that she does. That’s stunning. In fact, through Alice, the adult-child protagonist, Nellcott seems to be all about growing up too slowly in a society when everyone seems to be all grown up too soon.

Nellcott was recently nominated for a Canadian Governor General’s Award for English Fiction, which is one of the highest honors a Canuck writer can land. (Fried now lives and teaches English writing at two community colleges in Greensboro, North Carolina.) While Nellcott didn’t win the so-called GG, keep in mind that this is a debut novel from a very young author now only in her Christ year of 33. Fried was up against established writers like Charlotte Gill and veteran journalist/novelist David Gilmour, the latter of whom won.

Why a major American publisher has yet to scoop up this book or its authoress is a bit unclear. Nellcott, given the Montreal setting, is the literary world’s equivalent of an Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade record. Nellcott is a darling, it is literary gold. Both Nellcott and Nellcott are something both you and Alice need in your life right now, as hard-to-find either might be in this sometimes crazy, mixed-up world.

Zachary Houle Amazon

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The Glass Castle
by Jeannette Walls
Scribner, January 2006, 304 pages, $14 [Paperback]

While steady employment, self-sufficiency, and the achievement of a maturity beyond one’s years aren’t ordinarily the stuff of teenage rebellion, Jeannette Walls lashed out against her parents’ values simply by taking up residence in a structure that didn’t involve cardboard or a dirt floor. Recently published in paperback, The Glass Castle reveals a history Walls carefully kept secret for most of her adult life, and shows why her accomplishments as a columnist and her image as a Park Avenue snob were probably the last things her parents would have wanted for her.

Without a doubt, Jeannette Walls had an amazing and often horrifying childhood with the brilliantly twisted Rex and Rose Mary for parents. Rose Mary, who believed homelessness was an adventure but maintained that chewing gum was a disgusting habit of the lower classes, was a fine artist with an addiction to reading and a serious sweet tooth. The romantic Rex was an odd-jobber who instructed Jeannette and her siblings on which parts of a polar bear’s anatomy not to eat, all the while extensively researching his own body’s capacity to metabolize alcohol. From one makeshift homestead to the next, the Walls children eked out their survival by fighting off river rats and BB gun toting hoodlums and eating an occasional can of cat food to supplement their already meager diet. When they found themselves lacking during their school’s lunch hour, they simply took out a book and read until they saw the garbage cans filling with finicky-eaters’ cast-offs, then helped themselves to a hearty meal with enough to save for later.

While the suffering dealt to the Walls children at the hands of their parents will become both real and memorable as you read of it in Walls’ book, what will remain with you after reading is that, throughout all of the hunger and uprooting and chaos, Jeannette felt deeply loved by her parents and never questioned that she was treasured greatly and cared for expertly by Rex and Rose Mary. Walls writes from the perspective of her young self and, as only a child can, presents as totally normal some of the least normal events that served as her developmental landmarks: dad’s making Christmas extra-festive by setting the ornament-heavy tree on fire, her parents’ knife fight, spending the night in an Oldsmobile with taped up garbage bags for windows, pinching her nose closed to force down beans in various stages of rot. Without a hint of angst or condemnation, the memoir delivers an account that is free of nostalgic remembrances and sentimental reflections while simultaneously summoning the profound understanding that, at the end of the day, we are capable of overcoming adversity and achieving greatness more than we might imagine.

Melissa Fischer Amazon

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Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles
by Francine Prose
HarperCollins Eminent Lives Series, October 2005, 160 pages, $21.95

For Italian 16th/17th century artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the life of suffering and the art he created under bad conditions were inseparable. Francine Prose’s forceful and definitive biography celebrates Caravaggio’s art and the life out of which grew the themes and nuances of his uncompromising art.

Caravaggio’s life as a professional artist was disjointed, to say the least. Bar room fights, alleyway brawls, and quarrels with fellow artists were the tip of the iceberg. He served jail time for libel against a fellow artist, suffered from the swings of appreciation from his patrons, and was renowned for a foul temperament. Ultimately, an accusation of murder he could not escape exiled him from Rome. But under these extraordinary conditions of duress, he was able to create masterpieces that include “Boy With a Basket of Fruit”, “The Calling of Saint Matthew”, and “David with the Head of Goliath”. The art depicts emotionally riveting scenes of miracles, deaths, and burials in a radical way for the time; free of the saccharine angels and blue heavens. Caravaggio saw the sacred in the ordinary in these miraculous moments.

The turning point in his artistic vision was painting the walls of the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. Prose recognizes at this point a vision of “something distressing and new, a vision glimpsed from the abyss”. His view on art and human nature changed after this contract. The true cast of life in early 17th century Italy — “violent and intemperate, suffused by the specter of disaster and the spectacle of merciless death, trafficking in empty promises of salvation without hope” — was what he painted, as seen through the prism of the religious miracles.

Prose’s succinct art critiques are acute and powerful. She finds an artist ahead of the moral concerns of his patrons and society. She describes how the painter elevated the role of ordinary people — prostitutes, laborers, observers — in art and the wide-ranging impact this shift in perspective had on generations of painters after Caravaggio. More than this, it is the way Caravaggio did not waver in his interpretation of truth that most impresses Prose:

Caravaggio insisted on his freedom to defy categorization, his right to make art according to his convictions and out of whatever engaged his intellect and his soul, as well as his creative, religious, and erotic impulses … He believed that the sacred could often be found in the profane, in the broad shoulders of the gravedigger and the executioner, and perhaps even in the smooth skin and alluring smile of the preadolescent boy.

Prose sifts through court transcripts, early biographies, and journals for the book. Her academic suits the topic. Prose has a profound feel for Caravaggio’s artworks, and this is shown in the direct attention she pays about half a dozen pieces.

The book is immediately relevant as, today, artists are under similar pressures as Caravaggio: how to maintain financial stability while staying true to one’s vision. Caravaggio’s aesthetic never wavered as he endured financial and social hardships most of us would curl under. Through greater and lesser works, he fought through his many defects as a person and created masterworks that have stood the test of time, and stand as testaments to the true meaning of artistic vision, a vision Prose both defends and venerates.

C.W. Thomspon Amazon