Monday, March 31, 2014

The Middle Place

The Middle Place
Kelly Corrigan (2008, Voice)

    I’m of two minds about The Middle Place, perhaps because it’s too easy to like. It’s a sweet memoir about motherhood, daughterhood, and breast cancer, and part of me thinks, ‘that’s cheating!’ – because what’s not to like, or at least admire? Kelly Corrigan was a thirty-something mother of two when, in 2004, she discovered a lump in her breast, treatment for which left her bald and weak.

    “Still needing a boost, I send out an e-mail, tinkering with every sentence. It has to be upbeat so people won’t worry too much and funny so they won’t be scared to write back. It’s a big job, being the first person your age to get cancer.” This performative spirit of spunk comes directly from Corrigan’s father, George, a preternaturally optimistic advertising salesman, with a sideline in lacrosse coaching.

    When George is diagnosed with bladder cancer (having already survived prostate cancer), Kelly feels stretched and terrified. “This is impossible–me in California slicing bananas for Georgia and Claire, my brothers at work, my parents in Philadelphia tracking down second opinions and insurance authorizations.” But this is the essence of the middle place: taking care of the generations before and after without going to pieces yourself.

    The Middle Place is a warts-and-all picture of the Corrigans. I find George’s booming positivity rather wearing; not everybody wants a nickname and a pep talk. But most people like him, his daughter says, “...because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed–by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake–guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him.”

    I also feel for Kelly’s incredibly patient husband, Edward. It’s really rather preposterous for her to resent Edward’s phone calls to his own parents, considering how much of a Daddy’s girl she is. She also seems just a bit greedy when she protests vociferously about not being able to have another baby; it’s the hardest part for her about having cancer, but these things are not guaranteed to anybody.

    On the whole, though, I like The Middle Place, and appreciate its honesty. Having cancer didn’t make Kelly Corrigan a saint or a savant, just a witness. “I feel like a newly discharged soldier, a kid who was drafted suddenly and shown things she can’t forget and then paraded around town on the back of shiny convertible waving to the crowd of admirers who don’t know the half of it.” We need witnesses like that.

Email edition, April 1, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Lost Carving

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making
David Esterly (2012, Penguin)

    David Esterly carves in limewood, like his hero of three centuries ago, Grinling Gibbons. Esterly taught himself, which seems a remarkable feat, but, at the time, he didn’t know any other living people who did it. The Lost Carving is the story of a year he spent apprenticed to Gibbons, replacing some decorative work that had been lost in a 1986 fire at London’s Hampton Court.

    Gibbons’s carvings are a riot of leaves, flowers, and fruit in deep relief, made possible by the unique qualities of his material, which is “[c]risp and firm, soft enough to be carved quickly but strong enough to be radically undercut, with a remarkable grain structure that can (with a little effort) be worked in any direction.” What it permits, it also demands, according to Esterly. The round fruits, curling leaves, and weaving stems are shaped to the full depth of the wood, even in places that would have been invisible to the viewer after the pieces were in place.

    The Lost Carving comes in layers, too. The year of the carving work was 1989-90; Esterly kept a journal, and based the main part of the story on them, writing twenty years later. He has also to carve in some of the peaks and valleys of Grinling Gibbons’s career, and of his own, both before and since that time. Both in 1671 and 1989, working in a royal environment means dealing with political functionaries, with all the attendant frustrations.

    For instance, the royal apartments at Hampton Court comprised a series of four rooms, each of which had symmetrical sets of carvings over the doors. Esterly discovered that some of the panels had, at some point, been hung out of place, or even upside down, but it was quite a challenge to get them rehung in the right places. He won that one, but his strong desire to show the limewood in its original pale color was too much of a stretch.

    There was deep satisfaction, though, in discovering a piece of lost botanical technology. Grinling Gibbons worked many decades before sandpaper was invented, yet the finished work bore signs of having been smoothed, and nobody knew by what. Except – the Natural History Museum came up with a cousin to the horsetail fern known as Dutch rush, or scouring grass, which picks up silica from the sandy soil it grows in. When the plant is dried, its surface can be used to roughen or smooth the limewood surface at the very end of the modeling process.

    All this arcana is delightful in its own right, but there are some deeper lessons. Not surprisingly, Esterly says that carving is a metaphor for everything. Most obviously, writing: “In front of you the same smooth vacant surface waits, and within you the same nervous mustering of resolve, the same sense that the first stroke is important and a bad start might be ruinous.” With its fine details set in the deep sweep of history, The Lost Carving is as intricate and multi-layered as the Hampton Court carvings.

    Consider, too, that the carving tools are driven with one hand, but guided and controlled by the other. “The propulsive hand always wins, or there is no carving. The chisel moves forward to do its work. But not before its primal energy has been reined in by the constraining hand, chastened and given a tincture of purposeful intelligence.” Dynamic tension as the meaning of life – you could do worse.