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I was out having a great time with Jeanette Winterson last night. Ok, maybe not with her personally, but I was in the audience and had a great seat and she even looked directly at me once! Bookman came too and has never read any of her books. He didn’t even know what she looked like and when she walked out on stage he cracked me up when he leaned over and said, She has Margaret Atwood hair! Winterson’s hair is not gray like Atwood’s but both have the same kind of curls and wear their hair about the same length with a similar style. I love their hair and I sometimes wish my loose, corkscrew tending curls were more like theirs. But I digress!
Winterson was at the University of Minnesota to deliver the autumn Esther Freier Endowed Lecture in Literature. Freier was first a student and then a professor at the U but not in the literature department. Nope, she was a chemist. But she loved the arts and was well aware that funding was hard to come by so when she died she left an endowment to the literature department that allows them to have two lectures a year and make it open to the public. How awesome is that?
Winterson’s lecture was titled “Reading as an Act of Rebellion.” If you have read anything she has written you will know she is funny and smart. In person she is that too but add personable and engaging and you will understand why at the end Bookman and I both wanted to yell, please keep talking because an hour is not long enough!
She ranged far and wide from the historical to the personal. She declared reading an extreme sport because one pits oneself with and against the best in literature.
The act of reading has through much of history been rebellious. Who was and was not allowed to read was controlled. Women weren’t allowed to do it and slaves certainly weren’t allowed. The more people read, the more they could think for themselves and those in power did not want to give up their power. When a person reads, and reads widely and diversely, it makes them one of the most threatening things in the world. Books can change the way we think and feel. Books show us multiple points of view. And while someone can see you reading and what you are reading, they cannot know what is going on in your head while you are reading. This makes you and reading dangerous.
Just like we talk about valuing biodiversity in nature, we should value biodiversity in reading. And we need to not just give it lip service and say “yay for diverse books!” We have to read those books too. Books are not meant to comfort, though they can do that. Books should expand the world for us and yes, even make us feel uncomfortable. A book that makes you feel uncomfortable is giving you an opportunity to think and experience and learn something.
Truth and fact are not the same thing, Winterson remarked. Simplification is a lie. We have language to help us make sense of complexity. Reading is great training in both diversity and complexity. The more reading you do, the more language you have and language is power. Just ask Malala Yousafza, Salman Rushdie, and those who work at Charlie Hebdo.
For the most part, Winterson said, we don’t have to ban or burn books in the west these days because people are just too busy to read them. There is no reason to get worked up over what people are reading when no one is reading to begin with. Winterson is also not a fan of ebooks because if you can’t see the books, if they’re virtual, how do you know they exist? Give her the solid book on the bookshelf. That way nothing is hidden. Amazon can’t erase it from all the Kindles. Can you imagine, she asked, if Amazon came to your door and took your copy of 1984 instead of making it magically disappear from your ereader?
Creativity and imagination is the birthright of everybody. We don’t have to apologize for art and culture nor do we have to explain. The mind is not a luxury.
Such a fantastic lecture! I am so grateful I got to go. I left feeling buoyant and excited, ever so proud to be a reader and determined to be as rebellious as I possibly can.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Jeanette Winterson
Just a few bits and bobs today.
First the bits.
Did you catch the book cover gifs at Slate not long ago? Subtle and quite clever some of them.
Then at the Atlantic The Terror and Tedium of Living Like Thoreau. Only it strikes me that people tend to not get what living like Thoreau actually means. They think he was monk in the woods sitting around all day observing ants and the water reflecting on Walden Pond. But Thoreau frequently had visitors, especially Emerson. And he didn’t sit around all day. You can’t cultivate an acre of beans while sitting around. Thoreau was a very busy and purposeful fellow!
The thing that draws the author to the solitude and wilderness of Alaska is the desire to live life fully, purposefully and with awareness. She thinks of all sorts of big picture stuff that this means — traveling the world, being a writer — but discovers these big things require one live moment by moment in the small things:
So: How to live? Just filling a day, I learned in my little cabin, is a tricky but essential business. I could much sooner tell you the way I’d like to spend a life than the way I’d like to spend an hour. Lives are fun to play with: I’ll be a writer! An astronaut! A world traveler! It’s harder to make yourself into a noun in the span of a day. Days are about verbs. In the cabin, there were too many options, and none of them very exciting. Read, write, walk, run, split wood, bake bread, pick berries, call my mom, hunt the mosquitos that had snuck into the cabin? Most of what I did in that cabin was mundane. There aren’t many stories worth telling. There aren’t many moments I remember.
One does not need solitude in order to figure this out, but I suppose it helps and it makes a great story.
And now the bobs.
I just found out that Jeanette Winterson will be giving a lecture and reading at the University of Minnesota at the end of October. The event is free and open to the public. Bookman and I will be there even if we have to stand behind the back row. So excited!
Early in October Bookman and I will be going to the first ever NerdCon and today they posted the event schedule. It is a two day affair that focuses on storytelling. There are going to be all kinds of interesting panels to choose from like diversity, the moral responsibility of the storyteller, storytelling through song, truth in fiction, and more! Authors the likes of John Scalzi, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kimya Dawson, Patrick Rothfuss, Maggie Stiefvater and lots of others will be there. Fun! Of course I will take pictures and report back on the events.
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Tagged: Jeanette Winterson
By: Powell's Staff,
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In an age when everyone and their niece has written a tell-all book, when even fictional characters like Ron Burgundy are penning the stories of their lives, how does a memoir stand out among its peers? What qualities make it like nothing we've seen before? Sometimes truly extraordinary experiences can launch a memoir into uncharted [...]
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Book Reviews - Childrens and Young Adult
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A plethora of picture books about Christmas are published each year. Some are froth and bubble, as unsatisfying as cheap tinsel. Others are excellent, and should be shared with children and families in the lead-up to Christmas Day or join the collections of avid Christmas book collectors. Some standouts for 2014 that are already available […]
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We tend to think of reading as a cerebral endeavor, but every once in a while, it can spur action. The following books — ranging from inspiring biographies to evocative fiction to instructional guides — motivated us to step out of our comfort zones and make significant, lasting changes in our lives. ÷ ÷ ÷ [...]
Random House UK will partner with Hammer Films to create the new Hammer imprint. The new imprint plans to publish six titles annually starting in the Spring 2011 season. The types of books will fall under the following categories: “novelizations of new front list film releases, novelizations of backlist classics – to bring them to a whole new market with a modern and sophisticated twist – and new novellas by established authors whose oeuvre does not necessarily encompass the horror genre.”
Caroline Michel at the British literary agency Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group brokered the deal. Award-winning author Jeanette Winterson will pen the first Hammer horror novella.
On the film side, Booktrade reports: “Not in production since the 1980′s, Hammer’s brand is now being aggressively reinvigorated by Exclusive Media Group (Exclusive) through new investment in the development and production of films, television and digital-platform content. Hammer’s return will be marked this month by its first film release in over 30 years, director Matt Reeve‘s Let Me In starring Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Moretz (Kick Ass).”
New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.
“[U]nhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” — Jeanette Winterson (Thanks, J.)
By: By JOHN WILLIAMS,
Jeanette Winterson reviews a new book about Henry Miller's controversial novel "Tropic of Cancer."
By: By JOHN WILLIAMS,
Jeanette Winterson discusses her new memoir about her troubled, larger-than-life mother, "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?"
By: Mia Lipman,
In the 20 minutes that I was delighted to spend talking with Jeanette Winterson recently, she offered enough beautiful off-the-cuff insights to fill an essential volume on writing, reading, love, and what it means to "reinvent the past."
Lucky for us, she has just such a new book out: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, the poignantly titled story of the author's relationship with her adoptive and biological mothers, her intellectual and sexual coming of age, and how reading became her salvation.
To whet your appetite for this "cover version" of Winterson's life (please don't call it a memoir) and our taped chat below, here's a sampler of the wisdom that she packed into her brief stop at Amazon during a very busy book tour.
Jeanette Winterson on...
"I always think about the rougher energy of love, that love is unsettling. It's the one thing that stops us being selfish. It's the one thing that allows us to actually see another person."
"[Fiction and poetry] are medicines, they're doses, and they heal the rupture that reality makes on the imagination."
"Books and doors are the same thing. You open them, and you go through into another world."
"Reading's not a luxury, art's not a luxury. It's about your soul, and it's about yourself. And if reading is a luxury, being human is a luxury."
"Writers are not here to conform. We are here to challenge. We're not here to be comfortable—we're here, really, to shake things up. That's our job."
"It's a symbiotic process, writing. What I am makes the books—not part of me, all of me—and then the books themselves inform the sense of what I am. So the more I can be, the better the books will be."
"I always say to people who want to write: Live life! Don't stand on the rim, don't sit on the sidelines. Make mistakes, make a mess, get it wrong. Read everything, and get out and be in life."
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is one of the best literary memoirs I’ve read in a long time. Winterson’s matter-of-fact voice and honesty are hard-hitting. Yet, oddly, there is also a sense of distance, a feeling of disconnect as if Winterson is not writing about her horrific childhood but about the childhood of someone else named Jeanette Winterson with whom she is intimately familiar.
Given up for adoption at the age of six-months by a mother who wanted to her to have a better life than she felt she could give her as a single parent, she enters the Winterson household. She is already a disappointment and wrong because Mrs. Winterson had planned on adopting a boy, was going to have a boy, Paul, but it did not work out and she found herself with Jeanette instead.
Mrs. Winterson, as Jeanette calls her mother, was a strict Pentecostal Christian who regularly locked Jeanette out of the house, even as a small girl, to teach her a lesson. Mrs. Winterson was unhappy, hated life, and was merely waiting for the apocalypse. She did not believe in having any other book in the house except the Bible. Jeanette snuck to the library to read and when she was old enough to get a job she would buy paperback books and hide them under her mattress. Until one day her mother noticed that Jeanette’s bed was getting higher and discovered her paperback stash which she promptly took out to the yard and burned. Jeanette asked her once why they couldn’t have books in the house. Her mother replied, ” ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late.’ ” And indeed, books were very dangerous:
Yes, the stories are dangerous, she was right. A book is a magic carpet that flies you off elsewhere. A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?
Winterson writes a lot about books and what they did for her, how they gave her an education, helped her figure out life, who she was, that there was a bigger world than Mrs. Winterson let her know about and that she, Jeanette, was connected to it.
When Mrs. Winterson learned Jeanette had a crush on a girl at school, she had the church perform an exorcism on Jeanette to cast out the demon. At sixteen, Jeanette was kicked out of the house once and for all because she admitted to her mother that she liked girls and wasn’t going to change. Jeanette was rescued by her English teacher who was also instrumental in inspiring her and helping her get into Oxford.
There is a theme that runs through Why Be Happy. It is about storytelling and how stories shape who we are, can connect us to others and save us. Also throughout the book Winterson comments on her writing and the things in her life that have influenced how and what she writes:
My mother had to sever some part of herself to let me go. I have felt the wound ever since. Mrs. Winterson was such a mix of truth and fraud. She invented many bad mothers for me; fallen women, drug addicts, drinkers, men-chasers. The other mother had a lot to carry but I carried it for her, wanting to defend her and feeling ashamed of her all at the same time.
The hardest part was not knowing.
I have always been interested in stories of disguise and mistaken identity, of naming and knowing, How are you recognised? How do you recognize yourself?
In a moment of reading serendipity, I read an essay by E.L. Doctorow in the May 24th New York Review of Books (I am really behind in reading these but it was fortuitous) in which Doctorow remarks about Faulkner:
But it is possible that the way writers live can find its equivalent in their sense of composition, as if the technical daring of Faulkner’s greatest work has behind it the overreaching desire to hold together in one place the multifarious energies of real, unstorried life.
People I respect and love were insisting: Read Jeanette Winterson's memoir. Tell me if you like it.
There was rarely a why
attached to the insistence. There was only the fervor that arises from people who spend the bulk of their professional and personal time hunting for books that are extraordinary. We all read a lot, but how often do we find that book that keeps burning bright, days later? That book that we must
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
is, in fact, that kind of book. It's the story, at first, of Mrs. Winterson, Jeanette's apocalyptic, domineering, supremely lonely and lonesome-making adoptive mother. Mrs. Winterson is a big woman among small people in a north England industrial town. She is a death dreamer and Bible reader, a fearless deliverer of obscenely unkind punishments, a practiced hypocrite. She figures large. She wields not just a metaphoric big stick but an actual revolver. She sets traps and insists on irreversible consequences.
Jeanette grows up with this. She finds her way to books. She's scrappy and wild and falls in love with girls. She makes her way, miraculously, until things fall apart, and love proves elusive. Late in life—after great success as an artist, after breakdowns big and small—Jeanette sets out to find her birth mother. Jeanette would like to know what real love is, and if she herself is capable not just of giving it, but receiving it, too. Her journey won't be binary. Her discoveries will not be pat. Any attempt to summarize any of this goes straight up against the honest search of the book.
But. This is a memoir about becoming a woman. This is equally a memoir about becoming a writer. It is episodic, philosophical, bitingly true. It passes no judgment, finally. It absolves us all.
One quote, from toward the end, that left me breathless. I leave the rest for you to discover:
But I wanted to be claimed.
I had styled myself as the Lone Ranger not Lassie. What I had to understand is that you can be a loner and want to be claimed. We're back to the complexity of life that isn't this thing or that thing—the boring old binary oppositions—it's both, held in balance. So simple to write. So hard to do/be.
And the people I have hurt, the mistakes I have made, the damage to myself and others, wasn't poor judgement; it was the place where love had hardened into loss.
It helps to know that this new novella by Jeanette Winterson is published under the Hammer imprint and that their new series of books is intended “to bring horror back to the forefront of the market”. This is what it says on the Hammer website, but the blurb sent to reviewers is rather more up-market and says that the series “features original novellas which span the literary and the mass market, the esoteric and the commercial, by some of today’s most celebrated authors”.
This explains why Winterson has written a book which fits perfectly into the gothic horror genre. It explains, too, the black, often sickening content of The Daylight Gate, and why part of the publisher’s blurb reads like the start of a romantic suspense story: “A beautiful lady – fine clothes, long red hair and astride a white horse, is followed by a falcon. She is riding through Pendle Woods. It’s the Daylight Gate – that spot of time when daylight turns to night. And at the centre of the woods, watching and waiting, a group of feral, desperate women are gathering”.
Winterson’s novella is based on the Lancashire witch trials which took place in 1612. Twelve women and two men were charged with the murder of ten people by the use of witchcraft, and their trials were documented by the clerk-of-the-court, Thomas Potts, and published as The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancashire. Winterson fictionalizes the lives of the witches who were hanged and burned, and of the men (including Potts) who were responsible for bringing them to trial.
In short, abrupt sentences, and in short abrupt chapters, Winterson describes the women, their sordid lives, their treatment at the hands of the men who arrest, abuse and imprison them, and their belief in the powers of the Devil – the Dark Gentleman whose favours they seek through the filthy and disgusting practices of black magic.
Only Alice Nutter, a wealthy woman on whose land the witches live and on whose charity and protection they thrive, is not a witch. She is the red-haired woman with the tame hawk who rides through Pendle Woods in the publisher’s blurb. And even she, who learned her alchemical arts from Dr John Dee, practices magic and is very close to the dark side. Dee taught her skills which she used to create a highly desirable magenta dye. Thus she obtained her wealth. He also gave her an elixir which preserved her youth. And through him, she met her lover, Elizabeth Southern, who does sell her soul to the Devil and who becomes one of the accused witches.
Winterson says that the story of Alice Nutter and Elizabeth Southern is an invention of her own, not based on fact. But she makes ‘Elizabeth Southern’ the chosen pseudonym of ‘Old Demdike’ who, along with an Alice Nutter, was tried and condemned as one of the Lancashire witches. Apart from this, the facts of her story are historically correct and the place names are of places which did or do exist. Should you wish to visit the Well Dungeon in Lancaster Castle, for example, you can do so, but you will have to imagine the filth, the smells and the squalor which Winterson so graphically describes.
The only man in the book who is likeable, is Christopher Southworth, an escaped and hunted member of the Papist ‘Gunpowder Plot’ to blow up King James I and his parliament. Alice hides him in her home at Rough Lee and plans to escape with him to France. The lawyer, Potts, is brought unpleasantly to life as a fanatical witch hunter and accuser. William Shakespeare makes a cameo appearance to quote from Macbeth about “the instruments of darkness”, and John Dee is also briefly present, but all the other men in the book are, in varying degrees, nasty.
Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the abused witch-child in the book is named Jennet? After all, Jeanette Winterson’s imaginative writing is, itself, a form of magic. But there is little love in this book and this is not her usual inventive and fluent style. I just hope that she will now leave the gothic and use her magical arts to create light rather than darkness and horror.
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/