On Books

Georgia: The first of two books of the month.

Travelling for fifteen weeks from the mid-western USA to Bolivia meant that, although I loaded my Kindle before we left New Zealand, I had a lot less time and energy for reading than usual. Nights were for sleeping—a lot; especially at high altitude. Anything above 2500 metres and I needed ten or more hours a night. It was a shock to have to spend so much time asleep; a physical need I’m pleased to have recovered from.

Since returning home I’ve re-established my usual habits—now, at least some of the night is for reading. And what a feast I’ve had. Any one of the books I’ve read this month would feature here in a normal reading month. Two will get a particular mention.

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The first is  Georgia, a novel of Georgia O’Keeffe by Dawn Tripp.  I’d wanted to get my hands on a copy since Claire at Word By Word reviewed an advance copy back in March. (Another blogger first introduced me to Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings: Yvette over at PriorHouse Blog. Even with the limitations of a computer screen, I was struck by the way life seems to leap from the images Yvette posted.)

Although  Georgia was a National Bestseller in the USA, I couldn’t get the book down here in New Zealand at the time, and neither was it available on Kindle. Oh, the frustration of longing to read an unattainable book.

If Barnes and Noble in Bismark, North Dakota had a copy when I passed through in June, during the early part of our journey, I’d have bought it. Even a hardback copy. With twelve more weeks lugging my backpack  across the continent it’s a decision I may well have rued; only until I had Georgia home safely on my bookshelf. Then I’d have been pleased and proud to own it. In Bismark they could tell me Georgia was available (hardback only) but not from their store. They could order it for me, they said. But with one hour remaining of my one day in the city that wasn’t a practical solution. Unusually for me, I only visited one other bookshop while we were away—it was in Granada, Nicaragua. They had a few English language books in stock, Lonely Planets mostly and one or two  Graham Greene novels, I forget which. Georgia wasn’t on the shelves.

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The big sky over Bismark,North Dakota; and Barnes and Noble.

Within twenty-four hours of our return to New Zealand, I could be heard crowing to John “Lucky, lucky me, Georgia’s out on Kindle.”

I wasn’t disappointed. Dawn Tripp‘s fictional interpretation of O’Keeffe’s life details the tensions between the pursuit of art, the social expectations of the day, and the compromises required to maintain a relationship. In doing so Tripp draws heavily from biographical material. She brings to life a dynamic which exists in so many intimate relationships, the urge of the one to define the other. Which, in this case, is magnified by O’Keeffe’s artistic drive and her husband’s certainty that he knew what was best for her and her art. Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband, a renowned photographer and gallery owner, and older than her by twenty-five years never fully understands his wife’s resistance to her art being defined by her gender, or by him. He sees himself as motivated by what is good for her. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Tripp writes from the POV of O’Keeffe,  providing the reader the opportunity to experience what life might have been like for O’Keeffe, grappling, struggling with the simple right to be herself, to express herself how she sees fit.

This will be my answer to the men who are always setting out to make the Great American Novel of the Great American Photograph. This will be my joke on them. Lines of red, white, and blue, and that mythic, imperfect cow skull—that piece of country—floating there through the centre, the stripped cold strength of that bone that lasts and lasts, rising out of the blue like some crazy American dream .

…When I finish the painting, I study it. It isn’t pretty, but it’s what I want it to be.

Tripp handles the material with intelligence, sensitivity, and an astute understanding of the issues at play. In short she brings Georgia O’Keeffe alive, so alive she leapt off the page   and into my mind’s eye. Highly recommended.

What book have you longed  to read, recently? Did it live up to your expectations?

Coming soon: my thoughts on Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

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