Narcie and Avery Smith, Wedding Day, 1921. My Great Grandparents.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
On Friday, I’ll be posting our Song & Story of the Month for fan club folks! Actually, this month I’ve decided to post two songs, a little audio snippet, and a story. It must be that I am still feeling Valentine-y. Both songs are ones we didn’t write – “Lulu Wall” which was popularized by the Carter Family and “Pretty Saro” which has been around since the 1700s! On "Lulu Wall," I make a rare recording studio appearance on my John Hollandsworth Birdseye Maple autoharp.
If you’d like to have these songs for your Jeni & Billy song collection, just head on over to the Fan Club. You can join for $1 a month, so that’s less than the cost of a CD for a whole year of Jeni & Billy rarities and ephemera! It's my aim to make the fan club affordable for everyone, so we can all enjoy it together.
This photo comes from our February 2007 recording sessions at Oceanway Nashville where we were getting ready to record “Lulu Wall.” I miss those tennis shoes, I think I wore them out. Time to go check my closet!
Monday, February 22, 2016
Report from Nashville, Tennessee, where Billy is mixing songs upstairs and I am mixing words and cloth downstairs; our work on the new record and CD packaging continues. I wrote this a week or so ago when it snowed:
Yesterday afternoon, I was walking around in our house, trying to get some exercise because it was bitterly cold outside and snowing a little. Sometimes, I sing old ballads while doing my indoor walking. Sometimes, I listen to music or call Mawmaw. But yesterday, after I sang a few ballads, I got to thinking about a song that I’m writing. I am in the tinkering stage. Most of the time, I write a whole lyric all at once. I really feel annoyed if I write a verse and nothing else. I am a bit compulsive about getting down at least two verses and a chorus, otherwise I’ll probably never come back to that writing fragment. It’s just a personal tick. I don’t have a rational explanation for it.
But once I have those two verses and a chorus, I can convince myself the song is finished and I feel accomplished . . . for a night or a day or two. Then I tiptoe back over to my piece of paper and acknowledge all of the little things that don’t satisfy me. I start to identify the tin words and irritating parts, the jagged un-singable things, the obvious cliched blunders.
You may have noticed that I’ve been sewing a lot lately. Sewing, like songwriting, is a compulsion of mine, too. I am thankful to be making some income from it because I feel I have to sew and, if I don’t sew for a few days, I feel very strange and slightly sick. I am like this about writing and singing, too. It’s a good thing all of this is part of my job or I’d be very cranky at my work as an astronaut or a book editor.
While I was walking around our furniture, I was thinking how my sewing works quite a lot like my songwriting. When making a patchwork piece I start with this bag of scraps which is like my vocabulary and the storehouse of all that I’ve read and heard. I start the patchwork with a central piece, usually pictorial, like the idea of my song – an image, a title, a phrase, a rhyme. Then I start building blocks of color around my pictorial center. Before I sew a strip or block of color, I test it against what I’ve already sewn, like testing words against each other. Some fabrics just seem to jump and pulse with resonance when put next to each other, just like words that seem to fit so rightly into my meter and rhyme. Some fabrics are quiet and give the eye a rest, just like quiet words, little important joining words. Some fabrics are beautiful, but all wrong for that particular spot in the patchwork and I have to set them aside. Words are like that, too; so gorgeous, but jarring in the song.
I can see how these two of my favorite things to do are both puzzle-like, but also full of freedom and possibilities. They aren’t like puzzles that are already solved, broken, and then my work is to put them back together (I like those, too, sometimes). Patchwork and song poems are the kinds of puzzles I make and solve at the same time. I am the author, the rule-maker, the rule-bender, and for a little while, as I sew or write, the queen of my own colorful labyrinth.
Friday, February 19, 2016
Thursday, February 18, 2016
Monday, February 15, 2016
Thursday, February 11, 2016
“The only realistic ambition is to live in the present. And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy. Time, which was often squandered, must now be given over to the actual, the possible, and perhaps to that evanescent hope of a good outcome which never deserts one, and which should never be abandoned.” – Anita Brookner, “Leaving Home”
After mentioning Anita Brookner in my last two reviews, I thought there was something in me that wanted to read a Brookner Book, so I have just finished “Leaving Home.” I put “Brookner Book” in capital letters because her books certainly belong in their own genre. They are generally about a person to whom not much happens on the surface, but quite a lot happens in their heads and their cautiously buried hearts. If you find books that have almost no dialogue and no action difficult, then reading a Brookner Book will take a great exercise of will on your part. But, that being said, I am consistently surprised at how, even when I get impatient with all of the mental hand-wringing and inertia of her characters, I start to become increasingly worried for them as Brookner subtly shifts them into a crisis. You must take the word “crisis” with a grain of salt here because in a Brookner Book there will be no headstrong girl jumping off a wall (Austen’s “Mansfield Park”) or a girl with a near fatal fever (Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility”) to turn the plot on its head.
Brookner’s crises are more apt to come in the form of a dinner invitation that is unwelcome, but impossible to refuse. You might be seated next to an elderly man whose bread flies off the table and into your lap, unnoticed by everyone including the old man. You might realized, like Alex in E.M. Delafield’s “Consequences,” that you are completely unprepared for adult life, you find yourself looking for that one event that will signal your arrival onto the adult stage, only to find “it” has really never “happened.”
Brookner’s Emma, the protagonist of “Leaving Home,” is a classic Brookner character – a loner who sees other people doing the things of life – buying flats, getting married, having children, working – and can't really see how they go about getting all of that done or how they know how to do it. Emma tries to make a start on these things by leaving home, researching to write a book, even buying a flat. But she seems to be trying these activities on like you would a sweater that looks nice, but is incredibly itchy to wear.
When considering Brookner’s Emma, I think of a movie that really stars her best friend in the book, Franciose, and Emma is a side character – the nondescript friend. So what Brookner has done is to tell us the back story of that nondescript friend instead of the story of the dynamic star who falls in and out of love and is obligated to marry a wealthy family friend to save her ancestral home. It’s as though Brookner knows we’ve seen that movie of the dynamic star a hundred times, but asks “What about the woman who makes a fourth person at dinner, who will pretend she didn’t hear arguing downstairs, who doesn’t have many demands, who lets the star borrow her Paris flat, who lets bread fly into her lap, who says almost nothing at all? What is her life like?”
In “Leaving Home,” I think Brookner, like E.M. Delafiled, in “Consequences,” confronts one of the most important and potentially paralyzing questions of human life: “When are we grown up?” Whereas Delafield approaches the question with a lot of sturm un drang, Brookner approaches it very stealthily through a character who seems very boring and somewhat irritating, but who manages to reveal an almost mystical truth about always reaching toward an unknown mythical future of grown ups.
Brookner is now 87, and published her first novel at the age of 53 after she had already amassed accolades as a distinguished professor of art history at Cambridge and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She wrote an novel every year between 1981 and 2003 and she continues to write, for which her readers thank her. “Leaving Home” is one of her most recent novels.
Here is one of Brookner’s best quotes about her books, “I'm not very popular, because they're bleak and they're mournful and all the rest of it and I get censorious reviews. But I'm only writing fiction. I'm not making munitions, so I think it's acceptable.”
The painting by Harold Gilman is “Madeleine Knox” from the archives of the Tate Britain. Digital Copyright Tate Britain. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gilman-madeleine-knox-t13024
Leaving Home is in print and available from discerning bookshops. If they don't have it, how about asking them to order it just for you?
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Review of "Consequences" by E.M. Delafield: It’s funny that I mentioned Anita Brookner in my review of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Shuttle” because I have just read E.M. Delafield’s “Consequences” and I was often reminded of Brookner’s novels. Delafield was born nearly 40 years before Brookner, but her protagonist in “Consequences,” Alex, reminded me of a classic Brookner character who lives very much in her own head feeling tremendously misunderstood, and who is often squashed by outside forces. Delafield’s Alex wonders when she will start feeling “grown-up,” when life will begin, when she will feel part of things, when she will “arrive.” But like many of Brookner’s characters, she never reaches that future that she seems certain is out there waiting for her.
This book really puts the reader through an emotional wringer. I read nothing about the book beforehand except that it was reprinted by my favorite book people at Persephone Books, and I read only the barest facts about the author after I finished the book because I didn’t want to color my review with the impressions or analysis of others. But one thing I did learn was that “Consequences” was Delafield’s favorite of her own books. I wonder if that’s because it is so honest. I was reminded at times of Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” (which Wharton wrote about 14 years ahead of “Consequences”) when reading this book because the protagonist seems to be entirely unfit for her position in society, goes to extremes disappointing everyone around her in order to assert her personality, feels morbid about her choices afterward, and comes to a very sad end. And not a single person around her seems to make an effort to understand her at all.
As I began “Consequences,” I thought, this is going to go very badly for Alex. Maybe it was watching so much “Days of Our Lives” with Mawmaw Smith when I was a kid, but I can tell within the first two pages when things are going to go south. I almost chucked the idea of reading the novel, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read something so tragic, but I decided to see what I could learn from Delafield.
At the end of the book, I asked myself why an author would put her reader through such an ordeal? You can ask this about a lot of books – Anna Karenina, for instance, which I loved. I regularly ask myself this when writing my own songs. Will there be any hope in this song or are we going to forge ahead and lay bare the cold hard facts? When I reflect on “Consequences,” I think the answer to why Delafield decided to put her reader through an ordeal and why she loved this book so much is because she had a deep empathy for young women brought up in the late Victorian era who had no hope of financial stability except making a brilliant match. The pressure to make this match in one or two “seasons” for an emotional, shy, fiercely loving, and very impractical girl was unbearable and, ultimately, fatal.
I felt very thankful to be a woman of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, after reading this book. Even though I love Jane Austen novels and a book that ends with a wedding, I am glad that I now have this other sort of story in my pocket about life in a highly tiered, socially stratified, corseted life.
If any other fans of Anita Brookner’s work, or readers of “The House of Mirth,” read this novel, I would be glad to know if you felt the resonance with “Consequences,” too.
A very sad, but revealing story about growing up in society at the end of the Victorian era. Recommended, but with a caution that if you love your protagonists, even if they are a bit unbearable, like I do, you’ll feel gutted – to use a British expression – by the end.
This book is available in Britain from the marvelous people at Persephone Books: http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk/consequences.html
You can also read it for free as an ebook thanks to the studious folks at Project Gutenberg: http://gutenberg.org/ebooks/34935.mobile
Or you can find a used copy to hold in your hands at abebooks.com
“Girl Resting at Piano” by Frank Huddlestone Potter can be found in the Tate Digital Library, Digital Copyright Tate London, 2014. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/potter-girl-resting-at-a-piano-n04617
We would love for you to join us, Jeni & Billy, and our special guest Abby Parks on Friday, February 5, for a concert to benefit NAMI Huntsville. Doors 6:30, Concert 7, Tickets $20 at the door. United Church of Huntsville, 7906 Whitesburg Dr, Huntsville, Alabama.
NAMI works 24/7, 365 days a year, to support individuals with mental illness and their families and friends. One in five people in the USA have experienced mental illness, and 1 in 25 people live every day of their lives with a serious mental illness. Mental healthcare is one of the most grossly underfunded and ignored public health crises in America which leads, in many cases, to estrangement from family, homelessness, addiction, and incarceration. We have an opportunity to help by supporting NAMI. We invite you to join us and stand up for the mentally ill.
Thank you to Bettianne for the great photo!