Search This Blog

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Possession by A.S. Byatt

I first read Possession in the midst of law school finals, and it quite possibly saved my sanity. It is a gorgeous novel -- a literary mystery (but no murderous albino monks! No petty thugs working for unseen billionaires!), a romance (two, really), and a meditation on the power of literature. Writing exerts a strong force here, and Byatt nails not only the exhilaration words can inspire, but the obsession too. And so Roland steals a newly discovered letter because he can't bear to have others read it too, and he and Maud hide their research, trying to keep Ash's and Cristabel's secret as long as possible. Cropper devotes a lifetime and a fortune to acquiring every word written by Ash, every object he touched, every scrap with any connection to him. Beatrice spends decades editing Ellen's journals, because she is afraid to release them to the wilds of modern academia. Blackadder does all he can to make sure Ash's papers stay in England, because Americans don't have a right to him. And Leonore does not want to relinquish the view of Cristabel she and her "sister-feminists" have held all these years.

Earlier this week Alexa Alfer's and Amy J. Edwards de Campos's A.S. Byatt: Critical Storytelling, which includes an essay on Possession, crossed my desk, so of course I neglected my job long enough to read it. Page 103 contains a passage which, in turn, cites Chris Walsh's "Postmodern Reflections: A.S. Byatt's Possession" (from Richard Todd's and Luisa Flora's Theme Parks, Rainforests and Sprouting Wastelands: European Essays on Theory and Performance in Contemporary British Fiction), which describes the novel as "'a celebration of reading' and rejection of restrictive critical readings." The first phrase in particular describes exactly how I feel about Possession. It is a reminder that regardless of all the lit crit theories out there, a fundamental part of reading novels is the sheer pleasure we take in the words and story.

That pleasure was still there when I read it again. But this time I was also struck by the role of women in the novel. Byatt has stated time and again that she is opposed to Feminist Theory, yet she cannot help but notice the limitations placed on women deliberately or inadvertently, and it is reflected in the female characters. A theme running through the book is that of agency, of the traditional role for women as muse or helpmeet and the efforts by some to become something else. Ellen is the prototypical helpmeet, who devotes herself entirely to her husband to support him and his writing, and is dismissed by modern feminist critics as not being worthy of attention. It is Beatrice, a modern scholar dismissed by male critics for being female and by female critics for being frumpy and old-fashioned, who sees the wit in Ellen, the caginess, the subversion of people's expectations of her. Passages from Ellen's diaries and scenes told from her perspective show that she embraced her role, even if it was assumed for troubling reasons, and she took control of the way she would be perceived.

Cristabel, the obvious contrast to Ellen, rejects the path she took, and carefully cultivates a quiet life with a female companion that gives her the freedom to write. And then she meets Ash, who loves her not for her beauty or gentleness, but for her mind -- and even more, not for her understanding of his works or her ability to be his muse, but for her own writing, her status as a creator of art. Cristabel is wary, not just because Ash is married, but because she sees that even with a man who is so supportive, Victorian life and culture, and just the fact of being married, would tear her away from her writing and reduce it to a hobby. Cristabel would not allow herself to be sucked into Ash's life for more than a brief period, and made tremendous sacrifices to retain her freedom.

This tension is echoed in the lives of the modern characters. Maud keeps herself tightly closed and cool, figuratively and literally (she hides her blonde hair from the world), because she perceived as being too beautiful to be a scholar. Beatrice is all but irrelevant, invisible to the scholarly world around her. But it is Val who is worst off, and the most frustrating. She has had her own hopes dashed by living in Roland's shadow, by not being good enough to do what he does. She takes a series of unfulfilling temp jobs to pay the bills, and watches as the men around her gain some measure of success. And yet . . . it is the 1980s, and she no longer has to be like that. She can search for a career that would fulfill her. She can find satisfaction in her work for paying the bills, and find fulfillment elsewhere -- in art, books, writing. She can leave Roland, because whatever love she felt for him is long gone. But she stays, and she takes on the role of the female martyr (almost as if she enjoys the role), and allows bitterness to consume her. In this sense, she fails where Ellen and Cristabel succeeded -- they chose their roles, accepted the sacrifices and consequences, and found some genuine satisfaction in what they did. Which is not to say that their lives were not heavy with suffering and doubt, or that a more egalitarian culture would have allowed them more happiness, more choices. But they did what they could, and took responsibility for their lives. Maud, too, ends the book navigating a way for her to be both a woman and a scholar. Val, however, never displays any agency, and instead gets swept up in the life of another man (albeit one that makes her happy).

I've only touched a fraction of what's in Possession. The text itself is a literary feat, composed of different narrators, journals, letters, stories, and poems of almost every nineteenth-century style. It's a post-modern work that reads like a genre novel (no wonder I love it), it's a skeptical look at contemporary critical approaches, it's a parody of academic life. It's one of my most favorite books.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Neglected Necklace

I keep forgetting to blog about this:
I finished it last October, but blogging about other projects kept pushing this aside. The inspiration dates all the way back to late 2009, when Gordana on Project Runway made a gray dress with a detachable bib necklace that I loved. I wanted my own, so I began planning it out. I chose different black fabrics, because I am not a fan of gray, and added ginormous black rhinestones and shell pink pearls for an accent (I adore that combination of colors, shell or cameo pink and black -- it reminds me of lovely vintage lingerie).

The base was a crescent cut from black wool (and, uh, seamed in the center because I screwed up the first time):
In this picture, I've already added a rosette of sorts to hide the seam -- I cut a wide strip each of shantung silk and netting, layered them, ran a running stitch along one length, and gathered it into a circle.

I then made other fabric doodads from silk, netting, velvet, and satin:
gathered strips, yo-yos, ruching, and so on.
I then started sewing them on the foundation, in whatever placement seemed best. As you can see here, I also added fabric roses made from the silk -- the summer of 2010, I picked up the premiere issue of Jewelry Affaire, which had all sorts of bib necklaces, many with fabric roses (and showing that for once in my life I was actually "on trend").

Next came embellishment:
(this photo has the most accurate colors, by the way. I need a new camera.) In addition to the pink pearls and black rhinestones, I added black pearls and faceted, shiny seed beads (I forget the precise term for them) for a touch of glitter.

The last step was backing it with ultrasuede, which would be nice and soft on my skin. Getting the ultrasuede turned out to be quite a production. You'd think that stores in the world-renown fashion district of NYC would have heard of ultrasuede, but nope -- they kept trying to sell me real suede or sueded fabric that raveled (no seam allowances for me!). And of course mass market stores like Jo-Ann's and Michael's would not carry anything like it. I finally had to order it online, spending a fortune in shipping. But I got it, and hand-sewed it to the back of the wool base, inserting ribbon at the ends to serve as a tie.

I've worn it a couple of times since (it's not the sort of thing to wear to the local pizza joint, no matter how good that pizza is), and I have discovered two flaws -- the bow tied at the back of my neck is annoying (easily remedied with a ribbon-end clasp), and the weight of the necklace is lopsided, necessitating adjustments all night. I'm thinking of adding a bit of weighty chain to the back, to even it up.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Hawai'ian Quilting

Remember the hibiscus pattern I made inspired by The Aloha Quilt? I'm making progress:
Tradition dictates that you cut out the drawn wedge and place it on fabric folded in eighths, and cut out the fabric that way. But when I unfolded the pattern, I saw that either because I had not folded the paper tightly enough or because I used freezer paper which is thick (or both), the innermost (when folded) hibiscus ended up narrower than the others. Afraid that I'd make the same mistake with the fabric, I instead kept the pattern whole and ironed it on to the right side of the fabric, then traced around the whole thing with a white pencil (that's the beauty of freezer paper -- the shiny side sticks to fabric until you pull it off, and it leaves no residue).

The next step in traditional Hawai'ian applique would be to baste the entire pattern onto the background fabric an eighth of an inch from the line, and then cut the top fabric a quarter of an inch from the basting line. But this seemed unbearably tedious to me. That's when one of my quilt instructors came to the rescue. Her advice was to just lay the top fabric on the bottom, smoothe it out, and pin it in a few areas -- the weight of the top piece would keep it from shifting, obviating the need for basting. Then I just cut the fabric out as I applique. That technique is working out great for me; I was on trains for 15 hours this weekend, and as you can see I got more than half of the design appliqued.

The one problem is that I unwittingly came up with a design that has a lot of deep v's to applique, which are exceedingly tricky. Another quilter gave me the tip of snipping the fabric right to the inner point, dabbing on fray check glue to the v, and quickly folding under each side of the seam allowance until the glue sets. It's a good trick, and while some of my v's are still kinda sad, others have come out nicely. It helps that I've used batik fabrics -- in addition to their vibrancy and ability to read as a solid without being as flat as one, they are densely woven, which makes them hold a crease very well. On the other hand, that dense weave makes it harder to hide applique stitches (silk thread helps).

I'm very excited about this, and I can't wait to see it finished!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

It Is Finished

I stitched the last square Thursday night, just in time to finish the project one (liturgical) year after I started it:
Get it?

The whole thing:
Now I just have to figure out how to finish it, by which I mean stick it in a drawer while I focus on other projects and forget all about it until some time in 2013.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Donors Choose

It's that time of year again, and the wonderful Sarah Bunting of is running a contest throughout the month to raise $250,000 in donations to Donors Choose. What is Donors Choose? A place where public school teachers throughout the country put up requests for desperately needed supplies. A place where you can donate money (even just a dollar) for a specific project, allowing you to make a real, concrete difference in children's lives. The Tomato Nation Donors Choose page is here, where you can see eligible requests and the progress so far. What happens when the Tomato Nation goal is reached? Sarah Bunting will dress up in a tomato costume and personally deliver a frosty beverage to one lucky donor. Also, there will be other prizes awarded at the end of the month, and mini-prizes every day.

Unfortunately I'm not in a position to donate a lot of money this year, so instead I am donating my time and skills. Last year I made a pair of tomato earrings, this year it's tomato pendants:
The idea came from Indygo Junction's Yo-Yo Blooms pattern -- little stuffed yo-yos that have a tomatoey shape in my eyes. By using red silk and a bit of green wool felt, they became even more tomatoey. Donate to Donors Choose, and maybe you'll win one!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The inevitable cat

Because I've owned lots of cats in my time, I am contractually obligated to incorporate them into my crafting. So, in honor of my current two calico cats, and all previous ones (including the very first one, also a calico), an ur-cat, in calico fabric of course:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Squares 33 and 34

Looking over the whole thing, I realized I didn't have much blue (I'm not really crazy about it), so I decided to remedy that using my favorite bluish-indigo color. Delftware was the very loose inspiration.

The running stitch I used for the blue square made me think of sewing, so the next square has a sewing theme. I attached a little stork scissors charm and a spool charm I wrapped with a little thread (I used a touch of glue on the back to keep it from unraveling). I used a running stitch again to border the square, and ended the stitch with an embroidered "needle."

Two squares left! I know what I want the last one to be, so I just have to come up with an idea for square 35.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

This is a collection of short stories by one of my favorite writers. Hand generally writes a kind of urban fantasy, with elements of ancient mythology, horror, romanticism, and the Seventies punk/club scene, but her work can vary wildly. Of what I've read, two stand out in my mind. Waking the Moon is my favorite novel, told from the viewpoint of an annoyingly incurious woman who is only half aware of a great battle raging around her between an Illuminati-style secret organization and an ancient Goddess cult bent on destroying the world (to be fair, her focus is on protecting or just supporting the people she loves). Glimmering, on the other hand, was a dystopian novel set in the near future (and depressingly prescient), something I did not enjoy at all; but then, I hate reading dystopias.

The eight stories in Saffron and Brimstone cover these styles, and more. Thematically, they are divided in two, with the first four being stand-alone stories originally published elsewhere that superficially are quite different from each other. One of the title stories, "Cleopatra Brimstone," is a chilling tale about the way women can be subdued and pinned down; "The Least Trumps" is about opening oneself to life and the world via a couple of mysterious Tarot cards; "Pavane for a Prince of the Air" is a meditation on the rituals of death and the reactions loved ones have; and "Wonderwall" is about trying desperately to fit in, to find something to belong to. What connects them is Hand's style, and the use of intricate, vibrant imagery. Hand tends to return to the same types of characters (misfit women who struggle with college and the underground scene in Washington D.C. in the seventies; beautiful, intelligent, androgynous men who don't quite belong in the world; artists of all kinds), but her characters are affecting and well drawn.

The latter four stories contain these same elements, yet they are linked, stories Hand wrote that were inspired by a particular friendship and world events like September 11, with overt references to Greek mythology. And so "Calypso in Berlin" is about Calypso, who has learned her lesson and won't let a man leave, using him instead as her muse; "Kronia" is about all the ways two people may or may not have met; and "The Saffron Gatherers" connects San Francisco to the ancient island of Thera. Themes of loss, heartbreak, and creation run through them all.

But the absolute standout in the quartet, indeed in the entire collection, is "Echo," which moves the story of Echo and Narcissus to the near future. The narrator, completely isolated on an island off the coast of Maine after a series of unexplained apocalyptic events, has all but disappeared from the world -- all that remains are the words she writes for her former lover, which she sends off into the ether on the rare occasion she can pick up an internet connection. This story was stark and beautiful and bleak. It left me chilled and haunted. I can think of very few writers who can do that so beautifully.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Heartbreaking Project

A friend of the family was diagnosed with ALS in August; in late January he died. I made this for his wife:
The focus is a picture of them dancing at my wedding -- the look of sheer bliss on her face is beautiful. I printed the photos onto fabric ironed onto freezer paper for stability; the pictures are not as clear as I would have liked, and I wonder if there were printer settings I should have adjusted. The background is a patchwork technique from Fabric Art Collage, using fusible web to adhere different pieces of fabric to muslin. I ironed the embroidered photo fabric onto heavy duty fusible interface, for added dimension, and then sewed it onto the background with the machine. Bits of trim, painted lace, beads, and French vintage crosses finished the top, and then I sewed it onto wool felt. On the back is a prayer card for Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a candidate for sainthood and someone the family prayed to throughout this last half year. I'm mailing it today with a Mass card and my condolences.