Review: Tales of Endearment

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In 2017, style blogs are a dime a dozen.

This is merely fact, neither a good nor bad thing until interpreted by those in the fashion community. (Bad news to the magazine industry, good news for brands looking for free advertising.)

In a city such as this one, you’ll find folks everywhere who have their own blog. The writer of this article has one, for example.

And out of all the blogs and YouTube channels and personal branding has come an influx of deserved and undeserved book deals. This has often been the way for many a franchise: conquer one medium, find another.

In 2010, however, this was not the norm, as Natalie Joos points out in an introduction to her book, Tales of Endearment: Modern Vintage Lovers and Their Extraordinary Wardrobes. That year, Joos created her blog of the same name, a vintage-focused tour through the lives and passions of friends and strangers. The site launched in the pre-blogging-blowout years and became hugely successful. Now, seven years later, Joos has compiled stories of some of the most captivating vintage-lovers she has come across in her travels.

The book itself is beautiful, which is something I would expect from Joos based on her website design and her eye for photography alone. The photographs accompanying each story capture their subjects in their homes, outside, formally and candidly. Joos shoots areas of their home, beloved pieces from their wardrobe and other things that can be more intimate and revealing about a person than any answer they can give to a question. And many of those wardrobe pieces (I’m thinking of the completely mind-blowing closet of stylist Catherine Baba) are just to-die-for. If I’m ever feeling a bit down, looking at beautiful vintage clothes is a pretty easy way to cheer myself up. If you’re the same way, this is an ideal coffee table book to have on hand.

Joos writing style is that of the blogger: casual, anecdotal and familiar, like a friend recounting an encounter to you over Eggs Benedict, instead of something you’re reading from a book penned by a stranger. Part of Joos’s charm comes from her ability to take these larger-than-life characters and make them more relatable.

And these characters are strange. They are international, diverse, unrelated except for their collective love of vintage clothing. It makes me wonder how Joos finds everyone she features, and above all I commend her for featuring the style secrets of Dee Hilfiger, Maxine Ashley, and Greg Banks in the same book. Seeing their stories back-to-back is fascinating and provides endless style inspiration for whatever persona you are inhabiting in that moment.

I believe this to be one of Joos’s strongest points, and my favourite part of the book. Within its pages, she tells the stories of an incredibly varied cast of characters, each one as endlessly fascinating as the last. It’s the people who populate Tales of Endearment that make it great. While Joos’s writing and photography convey their stories in a pleasant way, something also needs to be said for finding so many different perspectives on the same topic and giving each perspective space to come across genuinely.

Reading the book has turned me into a fan of the blog, which I did not read regularly before. It’s a bit of a wonder, isn’t it, that publishers turn to books as their next conquest after finding success on the Internet. But people like books, the same way the stars of Tales of Endearment like vintage clothing. It has a weight to it, a meaning and intent that isn’t found in its faster, modern counterparts. These days, it feels like a choice.

I’m going to recommend this one to every vintage lover, fashion lover, anyone who likes a good short story, and anyone who likes meeting new and interesting people. Like me, I think you’ll find yourself endeared.

Tales of Endearment will be available in Canada starting November 21st. You can visit the blog here and follow Natalie Joos on Instagram here.

Novel Ideas: Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Twenty years after her first novel, Arundhati Roy returns to fiction with The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. In 1997, she published The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize and marked her as an internationally acclaimed author. For the following two decades, Roy worked as a political activist, speaking out against Hindu nationalism in India, advocating for the independence of Kashmir, critiquing capitalism, and protesting against environmental degradations. Indeed, any reader of Roy’s new novel can see the heavy, intermingling threads of activism running through it. It is a demanding book that, thanks to its outspoken political nature, challenges the rigid ways in which we often see and define the novel: as an exclusive genre that adheres to its rules of plot, dialogue, form, and style. But Roy’s novel resists this, integrating political thought with narratives, poetics, and languages.

The reader first meets Anjum (described as a hijra, a Hindu term referring to those who are hermaphrodites, transgendered, or third gendered) living “like a tree in the graveyard”. She is born with both male and female sex organs, and is raised as a boy named Aftab. The reader joins Anjum when she, as Aftab, sees “a slim-hipped woman wearing bright lipstick” and realizes she “want[s] to be her” – and continues with Anjum as she faces the consequences that follow her choice to live as a woman. Anjum’s identity and its complexities are shown within and in relation to the political ongoings of India: for instance, the war surrounding the Line of Control in Kashmir and the murder of Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, both stemming from the centuries-old conflict between Hindus and Muslims. The novel probes how a hijra is seen, treated, and heard in such situations, working with both the personal and the political. It zooms into the individual and then the collective, introducing a range of characters who are all somehow connected to Anjum, to the tree in the graveyard.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness author Arundhati Roy

Many reviewers have suggested that the novel tries to weave too much of Roy’s activism into one book: the number of characters can be overwhelming, the number of political turmoils explored can be difficult to follow, the plot and dialogue — the supposed holy grails of fiction — can fall behind the political settings. Indeed, all that can be said justly about the novel. But, as Roy herself explains, approaching and writing fiction often involves questions of experiment, of whether you can “make the foreground into the background,” of whether you can center and decenter things. As such, Roy’s decision to center the personal at a given time or the political at another time, irrespective of time and chronology, not only challenges the ways in which themes are explored in novels — integrated and often in the background of a plot – but asks what the ultimate role of a novel is. Can there ever be one set role? Or should we expect it to evolve and change? Expect ourselves, in fact, to critique and evaluate it?

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a difficult, long book, requiring a second read from many. But its nuances and complexities, its poetic language and narratives are remarkable. Because of its exploration of the connection between the personal and the political, it showcases the human faces of the collective — the human faces of not just individuals from a given community, often easily accomplished in novels, but of the mass —, of those whose narratives are often shown simply as political upheavals and disruptions, rather than the human force that exists behind them. As a result, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, with all its merits and flaws, insists on centering on humanity.

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Novel Idea: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul

V. S. Naipaul’s In a Free Statepublished in 1971, is composed of two short stories and a novella, rounded out by a framing narrative of a man’s trip to Egypt. It begins with the prologue, ‘The Tramp at Piraeus,’ wherein an English tramp is bullied by two Lebanese businessmen and an Austrian on a ship from Greece. It continues with Santosh, an Indian servant in Washington D.C. in ‘One out of Many,’ and a West Indian in London in ‘Tell Me Who to Kill. A gay English bureaucrat, Bobby, and an English ‘compound wife,’ Linda, go on a road trip from the capital to a compound in an unnamed, recently liberated African country in the throes of revolution and civil-war in ‘In a Free State’. In the epilogue, ‘The Circus at Luxor,’ the narrator of the prologue is once again in Egypt and goes sightseeing. Far away from home, these exiles and expatriates feel the full weight of dislocation, of postcolonial homelessness; the world turned as murky and troubled as the water left behind by a ship leaving harbor, carrying diasporas.

There’s much to admire in In a Free State. It is well known that Naipaul is a master of the English language and the book, especially the framing narratives and the descriptions in ‘In a Free State’attest to it (though at points in ‘Tell Me Who to Kill’ the West Indian’s mastery of the language fluctuates). The descriptions of the road and the scenery in the latter point to the inescapable reality of the landscape that exists side by side yet beyond the abstractions of politics, the rhetoric, the war, and Bobby and Linda’s colonial identity crisis. Meanwhile, at petrol stations, at crumbling resort towns, at police check points, violence abounds — and everyone partakes in its abundance.

The observational quality of the prose and, perhaps, even Naipaul’s stance on issues central to the world he portrays, make liberal — and the cultural stances commonly associated with it — distaste toward the book easy: Naipaul writes, as Conrad did, of the natives as one who observes from the outside, detached, and ultimately disinterested in the life and history of the people being described. However, as Joan Didion points out in her essay regarding Naipaul’s The Return of Eva Perón with The Killings in Trinidad in the New York Review of Books, the history and social makeup of the land, the processes in which one group colonized and benefited from the land, are not the focal points of the narrative. Naipaul’s focus is on the experience the land offers. And it is a violent land, an unkind land, much of it opaque to even those who propose to understand it and wish for its success. In ‘In a Free State,’ the president of the African country and his tribesmen slowly move down a highway, burning villages belonging to the opposing tribe; on similar roads elsewhere in the same country, white colonists move South towards South Africa.

In the context of postcolonial thought, dislocation, a sense of homelessness, is a condition not limited to the aspiring colonized in the West, but is also felt by the colonist in the colonized land. The archetypal colored student in the Western metropolis — the likes of the unnamed narrator in Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North or Shakespeare’s Taliban in the Tempest — share with the archetypal colonist in the colonies — Kipling’s or many Conradian narrators — the capacity for an outsider’s perspective; new languages, new landscapes, new foods, new temperatures alter their native ones. Returning home, the student finds himself disconnected; the colonist, comfortable in his new settler identity, is reluctant to leave, to yield to decolonization, disintegration. They are torn between the two worlds. And it is this common ground between the colonized and the colonist that links the disparate characters of the book together.

Naipaul, born in Trinidad — a land originally developed as a plantation colony, belonging neither to the Caribbean nor South America — of Indian heritage in 1932, educated in Oxford in the ’50s, curiously embodies the seemingly irreconcilable identities of the colonized and the colonist. The man who survived a racist London and wrote extensively and sympathetically on postcolonial issues, is also the man often derided and torn apart in literary circles as the ‘backwards’ voice who’s written derisively about the ‘primitive’ and ‘barbaric’ ways of tribes in Africa. The man behind the celebrated novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, is also the very same well-known for his disdain towards his native island. Naipaul grew up poor, struggled, and, once at Oxford then at London, struggled further. He won the Booker Prize in 1971, was knighted in 1990, and won the Nobel in 2001. He is no doubt a complicated man, whose identities, let alone views, are not always entirely whole.

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Novel Idea: Elizabeth Hardwick’s Seduction and Betrayal

Darryl Pinckney and Elizabeth Hardwick, photo by Dominique Nabokov

In her 1985 interview with the Paris Review, Elizabeth Hardwick said, “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Gossip and analyze character she does in her 1974 book of essays, Seduction and Betrayal with acuity, humor, and intellect one often does not find in everyday gossip. As Joan Didion points out in her introduction to the NYRB 2001 reprint of the essays, Hardwick seems to have seen no distinction between ‘the real and the literary’ and understood “that the women we invent have changed the course of our lives as surely as the women we are.” Hardwick’s essays on the Brontë Sisters, Sylvia Plath, or Zelda Fitzgerald are as much analysis of their works as explorations of writing as an act of transgression and actualization; they are, it becomes clear, characters in a broader history of women in literature as female characters in literature — Nora and Hedda of Ibsen, for instance — are reflections of women in history.

Hardwick writes of of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, “We may very well predict that [Nora] will soon be laughing and chattering again and eating her macaroons in peace, telling her friends – she is going back to her hometown — what a stick Helmer turned out to be. Otherwise her freedom is worth nothing.” She gives us not only an analysis of Nora as a character on stage, but what Nora is as a dramatized but recognizable extension of reality. Hardwick continues: “Nora’s liberation is not a transformation, but an acknowledgment of error, of having married the man. Her real problem is money — at the beginning and at the end. What will she live on? What kind of work will she do? Will she get her children back? Will she get a new husband? When the curtain goes down it is only the end of Volume One.” Through Hardwick, our concerns as readers of Ibsen are extended beyond the drama.

I can’t quite imagine, when thinking of a cliché image of gossips, Elizabeth Hardwick’s acutely original voice discussing suicide as performance in Plath’s poems; for this, I have in mind the Greek chorus. But I like to imagine how natural and, to a degree, fun it must have been for her to discuss such matters over, say, a light lunch in her Upper West Side apartment. Perhaps the facts that she was, with Robert Lowell and the late Bob Silvers, one of the founders of the esteemed New York Review of Books, was friends with Mary McCarthy, and was acquainted with Billie Holiday influence the way I read and review her essays.

But it is less my admiration for the author of Sleepless Nights and more for the quick and revealing sentences that carry her judgments and ideas — such as, “[Plath’s] fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible” — that make the essays stand out as examples of creative, original, and truly revelatory literary criticism.

Hardwick once wrote in her famous 1959 essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, published in Harper’s, “The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday ‘Book Pages.'” In Seduction and Betrayal, it’s easy to see what Hardwick meant by involvement, passion, character, and eccentricity; she has them all and more to offer her readers. Her scathing review of the Times is humorous but also frightening to one such as myself daring to add on to the conversation. All reviewers — or at least all that one should care to read — should fear adding on to ‘a puddle of treacle’ faced with Hardwick’s work. But good thing she also showed us what to aim for.

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Novel Ideas: Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human

The title for a New York Times review of Osamu Dazai’s last novel, No Longer Human, reads ‘Yozo’s Appointment in Samarra.’ Death is a destination in this confessional novel, one that beckons with a magnetic and alluring force. It is longed for and sought after and is, to Yozo’s misery, elusive.

Dazai, born in 1909 to a wealthy rural landowning family, lived through turbulent periods of Japanese history that spanned World War I, a major national financial crisis, rise of militarism, and World War II. In 1927, a short while before Dazai’s first attempt at suicide, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Japan’s preeminent modernist writer whom Dazai admired greatly, committed suicide by overdose. Prone to alcoholism, drug abuse, and prostitution yet unable to sustain himself financially, Dazai maintained a tenuous relationship with his family. His involvement with the then actively repressed Japanese Communist Party further alienated the author.

 Throughout his short life, Dazai attempted suicide four times and on his fifth in June of 1948, just a short while after the publication of No Longer Human, succeeded in committing a double suicide with his lover in the monsoon-swollen Tamagawa Canal. Their bodies were discovered six days later on June 19th, Dazai’s 39th birthday. Reminders of the fleeting and decaying nature of time, of death, surrounded Dazai’s life and death. And such are the elements at the center of his last novel.

The novel begins after a short preface with Yozo’a matter of fact assessment of his life: “Mine has been a life of much shame.” Soon we learn that the shame comes from Yozo’s incapacity to, despite many attempts since childhood, reconcile himself seamlessly with his society. Yozo observes and can imitate or exaggerate but cannot make his own the many contours, both light and dark, of daily life. As such, he becomes, in turn, a class clown, a pseudo-communist sympathizer, a cartoonist, and a husband both to hide himself and as sorry attempts at belonging. But though the farcicality of his often comic gimmicks as a child or alluringly despondent mannerisms as a young man are, Yozo claims, lost to those around him, it is doggedly close to Yozo’s consciousness — he forces himself to play the role of an image of Yozo without stop. No wonder by the end of the novel, he is left with this mantra: “Everything passes. That is the one and only thing I have thought resembled a truth in the society of human beings where I have dwelled up to now as in a burning hell.”

Much like his European contemporaries working in the confessional genre, Dazai’s novel explores an individual’s existence within and its meaning or the lack thereof in the vagaries of a society at large. However, unlike Camus, whose works and personal choices reflect a tenable, if not firm, belief in a working relationship between the personal and moral and the political, Dazai offers little of the kind to affirm values of individuality. With Yozo, we are thrown into an unfamiliar world to whom ours are even more frightening and estranged.

Yet, and despite the clear lack of sentimentality within the narrative, No Longer Human ends up not being a gratuitous exercise in irony or nihilism. The framing narrative of a man who finds a photo of Yozo and his notebooks give the readers a glimpse of who Yozo was to those around him. In a conversation between the man and a madam of a salon Yozo frequented, the madam says: “The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing, and only if he hadn’t drunk — no, even though he did drink — he was a good boy, an angel.”

It is not so much that the madam’s words redeem the despicable and ignoble man the novel offers, but that the discrepancy between Yozo’s and the madam’s short account allows the reader to doubt, to reimagine. And the continued flux of affection, love, forgiveness, and mercy throughout Yozo’s account become more apparent; that these are the ways in which Yozo’s world falls out of step with the real one. And in that misstep lies a certain a kind of grace.

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