Recommended Reading: Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, by Sally Mann

photo (44)Reading Sally Mann’s new memoir, Hold Still*, was a real treat for me. I came to the book with no expectations at all–here I’ll betray my cultural ignorance by telling you that I really didn’t know who Sally Mann was–and was delighted to find a fascinating, non-linear portrait of an artist, a place, and a family.

The Artist

Sally Mann is, I learned, most famous for a project that included a series of portraits of her children, entitled Immediate Family. It was the subject of debate during the early- to mid-90s culture wars, and Ms. Mann is quite candid about the anguish and self-doubt the controversy caused her, especially as a parent, but stands by her work. Later in the book, she writes, “Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art” (283).

The Immediate Family project is just one aspect of Ms. Mann’s career that the memoir covers. She discusses her later and current projects, her relationship with friend and mentor Cy Twombly, and some of her favorite subjects, as well as how she became a photographer. I should say here that I know absolutely nothing about the practice or aesthetics of photography, and I found her descriptions of the complicated process of getting the right image (illustrated with photographs that were judged lacking) engrossing. This is a long book, but since it’s liberally peppered with pictures (even the rough images in the galley I read are interesting viewing, and some are downright gorgeous), it moves quickly, and I found myself flying through chapters, unable to put the book down.

Ms. Mann is an excellent writer, a keen observer (as one might expect) of others and herself. She’s hard on the girl she was, judging herself harshly for lapses in judgement and reckless, less than empathetic behavior, but it’s clear that she was an intelligent, interested person from the very beginning.

Here’s a passage I found illuminating, in the context of a discussion of Ms. Mann’s recent work documenting, or making art, that shows her beloved husband’s muscular dystrophy:

To be able to take my pictures I have to look, all the time, at the people and places I care about. And I must do so with both warm ardor and cool appraisal, with passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart there must be a splinter of ice. […] And it is because of the work, and the love, that these pictures I took don’t disturb Larry. Like our kids, he believes in the work we do and in confronting the truth and challenging convention. We’ve all agreed for years now that a little discomfort is a small price to pay for that. (144-45)

The Place

The setting for most of Sally Mann’s work is the south, and in particular her family home, on sprawling, heat- and humidity-drenched land in Rockbridge County, Virginia. The farm and the land, which is also where she grew up, are almost characters in and of themselves, so lovingly does she depict it in words and pictures.

Ms. Mann loves the south and its characters, but she doesn’t shy away from its violent, tragic history of slavery of racism, and her own family’s participation in institutionalized and unthinking racism, both historically and during her own childhood. She was effectively raised by the family housekeeper, whom she called Gee-Gee, clearly with great reciprocity of affection. A formidable woman, and a widow, Virginia worked for the Manns six days a week, and managed to send all six of her own children to excellent schools and colleges. How did she do it, asks Ms. Mann.

By working twelve hours a day and by taking in linens to iron at night, linens stuffed into white sacks crowding her front door when my father took her home after all day on her feet at our house. What did he think when he saw those bags? What were any of us thinking? Why did we never ask the questions? That’s the mystery of it—our blindness and our silence. (259)

The Family

Part of what makes this memoir so successful (this coming from someone who generally reads them very selectively) is Ms. Mann’s wide view. She’s exploring her own origins, of course, but reaches far back into the family archives (both her own and her husband’s) to uncover a panoply of information that would keep a writer of Southern gothic novels occupied for years. There’s murder, mayhem, adultery, drugs, great wealth, great sorrow, and dreams set aside for practical realities, and Ms. Mann looks at it all, making connections, asking questions. To learn about her is to be immersed in her family and its past.

I came away with from Hold Still with new insights about art and family and big questions, too. I’m very glad I had the opportunity to fall into this book. Highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

Charlotte Boulay’s “Watson and the Shark” from Foxes on the Trampoline

photo (100)Charlotte Boulay is Ecco’s first addition to its roster of poets since 2008 (a roster that includes contemporary poetry heavyweights Robert Hass and Jorie Graham, among others). Having read Ms. Boulay’s debut collection, Foxes on the Trampoline*, I see why Ecco is excited to be publishing her work.

Ms. Boulay is attentive to the power of individual words; poems like “Calenture” and “Changeling” consider the experiences these words conjure up, as well as their connotations, with startling immediacy.

The collection as a whole is grounded in its speaker’s wide range experience, reflecting Ms. Boulay’s travels in France and India. In “Pallikoodam” (which means “school”) the speaker recalls, “We lived with animals: small lizards / darting up the walls, lines of tiny / imperious ants” before going on to remember the ways she found comfort after watching (on television) the towers fall on September 11, and how she and her companion “woke in the mornings / to hear someone singing, softly / as she swept the yard clean.” This combination — of otherness and familiarity, radical change and the routines of ordinary life — resonates deeply in Foxes on the Trampoline.

You can read a selection of Charlotte Boulay’s poems on the Boston Review site, including our poem of the week, “Watson and the Shark.” In this poem, the speaker remembers a childhood encounter with the famous John Singleton Copley painting of the same name (the copy he made of his original version), which is on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (we just visited the MFA this past weekend, so this poem jumped out at me. The last stanza is amazing.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Early Read: The Antigone Poems*, by Marie Slaight; Drawings by Terrence Tasker

The Antigone PoemsThe Antigone Poems is a collaboration between poet Marie Slaight and artist Terrence Tasker, produced in the 1970s but forthcoming, in print-only form, in early 2014 from Altaire, a small press.

The slim volume is divided into five chapters, which are accompanied by Mr. Tasker’s charcoal drawings, which, as you can see from the cover, are strong, assured, and, at times, rather alarming. Like the poems, they’re evocative of the complexities of Sophocles’s play. I’ve taught the play several times, and I wish I’d had access to this book to share with my students.

The poems (all free verse) are surprisingly intimate, given that they often feel like screams of rage. The voice throughout appears to be Antigone’s, as she considers death, life, family, sexuality, punishment, and rebellion. The poems are simple, some fragmentary, but they’re smoldering and haunting. Some reviewers may take issue with the repetitive nature of the imagery, but I found it to be an appropriate stylistic echo of Greek tragedy.

I recommend finding a copy of The Antigone Poems when it comes out next year; try the library first.

* I received an ARC of this book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I was in no way compensated for this review.

Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.