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Senora DeFarge

arpillera protest 2I went to Chile hoping to see textiles in action, to visit women who spun wool and practiced traditional weaving and carved their own crochet hooks. This I found, but also something more.

The world’s most famous knitter is probably Madame DeFarge, of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Via her stitch code recording wrongs perpetrated by the autocracy during the French Revolution, many an innocent (if irregular-looking) scarf doomed someone to the guillotine. Portrayed largely unsympathetically until the end of the novel, she is herself a victim of the crimes she records.

In the aftermath of Pinochet’s Military Coup in Chile, Senora DeFarge emerged. Several Latin American cultures have a tradition of arpilleras. These are a combination of applique and embroidery depicting a typical scene from everyday life. In order to understand how they became a central fixture of a protest movement, you need to know that in 1973 Pinochet took the country by military coup from Allende (who in 1970 became the world’s first socialist party president to be democratically elected—and you can imagine how scary that was during the Cold War).

I encourage you to look up the English translation of the speech Allende gave when he knew not only death, but also revocation of his reforms to date, was imminent. His moving final address applies to a wider situation than his immediate one.chile protest

Pinochet’s promises mutated into repression. People began disappearing. Many left voluntarily after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Some received “if you’re still here next week” messages and took the hint; more than 200,000 “voluntary” exiles left between 1973 and 1988. About 3,000 people disappeared into camps–as in no one ever found the bodies–with another 40,000 detained and released.

Freedom of the press ended; unions for miners and transport workers were emasculated; and food shortages grew. The Chilean exiles talked non-stop about their homeland being taken apart, but since they were from a “Communist country” (America in particular did not like Allende) not everyone listened—at first. Inside Chile, mostly poor men and students were disappearing, so who cared?donde estan

Enter the arpillera-makers. Sad as it is to admit, attracting international attention to injustice can be hard. There’s just so much of the stuff going around, who gets attention can literally depend on how well you sell the message. Women in prison smuggled out embroidered scenes, made from threads pulled from their own clothes and wood splinter needles, showing the horrors. Outside the camps, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives began marching, but not about the political issues; instead they made famous the question “Donde Estan?” (Where are they?) shouted from arpillera banners as they silently walked.

chile arpillera protestFrom as small as 10×12 inches, to bigger than five feet square, the arpilleras also went up on walls, got smuggled out of (and into) the country, and caught the interest of television stations.

It’s amazing how loud a silent art form can be. Pinochet was peacefully voted from power in 1988 after international sanctions showed him that he’d run through his foreign friends. The “Mothers of the Disappeared” protests didn’t just help get Pinochet out with no shots fired in the change-over, they also helped locate and close the camps no one wanted to admit were out there. Never underestimate a woman’s love, plus needle and thread.

reconciliationBut the arpillera legacy continued. When the Chileans who’d left came home to a different country, when their children who’d matured elsewhere couldn’t identify as Chileans, when those who stayed scorned those who fled for abandoning a country that needed them, again the arpilleras came out, this time as an act of reconciliation. Scenes depicted returnees welcomed, Chile united, hands reaching across water.reconciliation 2

Stitching up wounds, women’s true colors show.

 

 

making them

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The Monday Book: PEACE MEALS by Anna Badkhen

This book drifted into our shop and I read it on and off throughout our recent Chilean travels. It was a great choice for travel reading because it is easy to dip into, chapter by chapter. Badkhen writes in newspaper articles, each chapter complete in itself and pretty self-contained. People looking for a start-to-finish story may not enjoy that so much.

I liked that it was basically a series of short stories themed around food: how hard it can be to get it in war zones; how different getting it is depending on your nationality, ethnicity, and place of eating at the time; how differently mindful of food people are in different countries; how good or bad it tastes depending on why you’re eating it, with whom. Psychology meets food in her thoughtful writing, but she is rarely sentimental. There’s a chapter in which she fights with herself after lambasting her son for wasting food growing in their garden, trying to decide how much of the world she wants him to understand at a young age, trying to figure out whether other people’s food needs influencing her behavior really makes a difference, or is just a feel-good sop.

Recipes accompany each chapter, but I’m not a cook and skipped them. If you enjoy trying to make different types of food, the recipes include where in the US you can get hard-to-find ingredients, or good substitutes for them, which I imagine real cooks would appreciate. Me, I stick to devouring words and ideas, and this book is replete with both. It’s not just that she wrote about her pizza in Iraq, or the hospitality of those with nothing handing out half of it to guests (her favorite meal of all time was a handful of dusty green raisins shared with a man who poured half of his supper into her palm). It’s that between those descriptions she does some thoughtful investigation of her own mind and comparison to other experiences.

In other words, this is an insightful and often analytical book about the emotions and experiences that surround food, in places ranging from overstocked to seriously shortaged. If that sounds interesting to you, you’ll love this book.

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The Monday Book: TIME WAS SOFT THERE by Jeremy Mercer

“In a place like Paris, the air is so thick with dreams they clog the streets and take all the good tables at the cafés. Poets and writers, models and designers, painters and sculptors, actors and directors, lovers and escapists, they flock to the City of Lights. That night at Polly’s, the table spilled over with the rapture of pilgrims who have found their temple. That night, among new friends and safe at Shakespeare and Company, I felt it too. Hope is a most beautiful drug.”

mercerJack and I got the idea for using shopsitters at our place – people who receive free room and board in return for living there – from Shakespeare and Co. This is a famous bookstore across from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

On a listserv of bookshop owners, talk turned to books about bookstores. (I received ego strokes, and then we went on.) Mercer stayed at the shop for some time, watching the ebb and flow of people who ranged from down and outs to up and comings. He also spent significant time with George, the shop owner (although not its founder – Sylvia Beach did that) and some of the regulars.

Mercer’s book is in many ways journalistic, showing his roots as a true crime writer. Yet he portrays the under humanity so simply with his “this is what happened” prose. One of the blurbs on the back calls the book a romanticized version of the bum’s life, but I don’t agree. The book is far less romantic than wistful.

Among the things Mercer does is get George’s daughter to visit, and ultimately secure the shop’s future. It has a fascinating history: closed during the Nazi Era, considered a hothouse of sedition in the 1960s student riots, monitored by the CIA in the 1990s if George is to be believed.

There are a couple of startling moments: an ethnic hate crime results in murder and Mercer is less concerned about the murder than the police sniffing around a bookstore full of people with improper visas to be in France. He seems more concerned when the 84-year-old George gets engaged to 20-year-old shop worker Eva. That kind of thing. It all just sails past, along with the adorable moments of scorn for “30 minute tourists” who just want to stick their head in the door because the place is famous, having no understanding of or interest in its true ethos.

And there’s a very funny cynicism to the scheme three residents come up with, to sit and write in front of the tourists and sell the pages, story by short story. The description of this was, quite frankly, laugh out loud funny.

This isn’t a story about books, but about the bookstore itself, its inhabitants, and its purpose. Mercer’s final paragraph is a good summation: “In the end, yes, it is a famous bookstore and, yes, it is of no small literary importance. But more than anything, Shakespeare and Company is a refuge, like the church across the river. A place where the owner allows everyone to take what they need and give what they can.”  

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Shopsitter Jennifer says Hi

jenniferDear Tales of the Lonesome Pine,

I hope you’re doing well. I’ve heard so much about you. I read Wendy’s book, and I look at all the kitty pictures that you post to Facebook. I love cats, and you seem to be full of them, so we should get along fine.

I just wanted say hello, because I’m going to be staying with you for a while. I know you might be feeling a bit of apprehension about Jack and Wendy leaving for a whole month. I understand. I would be feeling a little apprehensive too if I was a bookstore and I was going to be left in the who-knows-if-they’re-capable-or-not hands of a complete stranger. You might be thinking, does this individual know anything at all about running a bookstore? Can she tell the difference between a trade paperback and a mass market? Can she alphabetize? What’s her favorite book? Does she have a favorite book!? DOES SHE EVEN READ!?!? Well, I’m writing to assure you that I know what I’m doing. Really.

I’ve worked in two bookstores over the years, and not a single book has been harmed or mangled under my watch. Because of my excellent customer service skills, I’ve never had to tackle a single shoplifter, and every book signing I’ve ever planned has been well attended. Well, there have technically been attendees present at every book signing I’ve ever planned. Two count, right?

As for animal care, no problems there. I’ve had the same cat since I was thirteen. His official name is Picasso, but we just call him Kitty. Whenever I sit on the sofa, he sits next to me, and stares intently at my neck. I get the feeling he’s thinking about the last bath I gave him, but I’m hoping it’s just because he likes me a whole lot. We do have a special bond. He let’s me brush him each day for a whole minute and a half before he bites me with his only remaining tooth. I’m pretty sure it’s a love bite.

See? Everything’s going to be just fine.

Your Humble Shopsitter,
Jennifer

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The Monday Book: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV by Chaim Potok

I discovered Potok in high school, and entered a world very different from my own. (And isn’t that part of why we read, to find the places where things are so very different, yet common threads run through them?) Hasidic Judaism and big cities are neither one familiar to me, and yet the points on which this story turns are accessible because they’re based on human connections. What I read as lovely background, people from other communities and cities would read as familiarity; perhaps Potok’s genius lies in depicting a world so well, people from both sides of the window can see it without distortion.

Potok has a lovely way of just telling his story, and letting you think what you will. He almost writes like a literary television: here is the scene. What, you don’t understand the facial expression on the protagonist? Well, figure it out.

I really, really like writing that gives the reader his/her own sovereignty. Asher Lev is about a brilliant kid who, if you want to put it in simple terms, was kind of born into the wrong family. Except he wasn’t. They love him, but he’s… wrong for their way of life. He’s a very gifted artist in a family that doesn’t even have pictures in the house because of strict beliefs. His genius leads him to create a division in his family that causes all sorts of things, including a betrayal of his religious identity and, ultimately, his parents. He betrays his father by painting his mother, while his whole life is one long, slow betrayal of her, as she stood between the two of them and helped her son achieve greatness. In doing so, she gave him the tools to cut his father to the core. It’s an amazing story.

But the whole story is told from Asher’s point of view, much of it as a child, so it flows past in the background while he concentrates on making art. He’s something between a straight shooter and an unreliable narrator. When his parents won’t buy him paint, he takes him mother’s coffee and cigarette ashes and uses them with pencil to create a color effect, without recognizing what his father sees, watching him do that. Did you see the scene in the film Billy Elliot, where the dad–opposed to his son’s dancing all this time–watches him break into dance in their kitchen, and gives up?

Asher is a sickly kid, but his mom is pursuing a PhD at the behest of the Reb, and his father is deeply involved in politics and even some clandestine missions on behalf of the community. None of which this child cares about. He’s painting. It makes an interesting read, and a conflicting experience as to whether Asher is a heroic protagonist or not.

The story reminds me a little bit of an essay called “The Monster,” about what a horrible person Wagner was and how incredible his music is. Asher Lev is a book sort of like Vanity Fair, one of my other favorites. It has many heroes and none.

 

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The Monday Book: FREE GIFT WITH PURCHASE by Jean Godfrey-June

godfreyPublished in 2006, Free Gift with Purchase: my improbable career in magazines and makeup sat on our shelves in the shop awhile. One day I picked it up, realized it was a memoir that had been misfiled in fiction, and headed across the shop floor. But I opened it and read a random section–

–and started laughing. I don’t wear make-up, or move in fashionista circles, but the book drew me in. The fun of reading is living someone else’s life for awhile.

Godfrey has a wicked sense of humor, balanced by a strong grounding in the fact that her life is about something halfway between silly and essential. I loved her opening explanation establishing why beauty is important–war zones doing a roaring trade in black market cosmetics, e.g.–and that everyone has some sort of beauty regime, whether it involves “product” or not. She seems to have a healthy respect for the the American consumer, pointing out that about half of “advice” is really “sales pitch” and it’s up to the purchaser to discern the difference.

Then she just starts telling stories, interspersed with advice. Most of the advice sailed over my head, but I devoured her funny, wise stories, like how networks (and careers) are formed and lost by a single ill-timed giggle. How those glam parties full of celebs are really the trading floor, everyone working hard without daring to sweat into silk OR admit they’re working. (If you look like you’re networking, you’re doing it wrong.) How you need to know yourself before you let anyone at a makeup counter touch you, or you wind up looking like a man in drag, and the woman behind the counter may revel in this because you didn’t buy anything.

This isn’t a cohesive story with a narrative arc, and I liked it for that reason, dipping in of an evening to relax before bed. This is a sweet, alluring book, with a little more depth than expected, if one comes to it with a healthy disrespect for the lines between which Godfrey-June colors. Underneath her writing runs a sense of “we’re not curing cancer, but we’ve made women with cancer feel better by giving them prettiness.”

Spots of name-dropping and elbow-rubbing with the insider crowd decorate her prose (like glitter in eye shadow? teehee) but aren’t the focus. Those with journalism backgrounds might particularly like the “vapid meets intensity” moments when people who write for a living have to come up with something meaningful to say about perfume that doesn’t involve “sweet” or “fruity.”

Not setting the world on fire, but adding a bit of color, this fun, cheerful book.

 

 

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The Monday Book: THE SILVER TATTOO by Laura Treacy Bentley

tattooDark literary thrillers are not my thing; I got this book in the post from the author who requested consideration for the Monday Book. We like to support regional authors (and she’s in WV) so while prepared to be optimistic, I worried I’d not have much to say about it.

But I totally loved Bentley’s writing. She has a great way with details and scene-setting. Her characters are not driving the plot; the plot drives the plot, specifically the psychotic weirdness of the stalker after her protagonist Leah. Bentley paints the slow, steady suspenseful rise with increasing depictions of violence or madness that pretty much verge on poetic. In the background hover tributes to Irish folklore that add nice atmosphere.

Bentley’s writing reminds me of two fantasy authorities: Ray Bradbury (one of her writing heroes, so it stands to reason) and Stephen King. She has that playful sense of poetry that Bradbury has, and like King she eschews explanation and too-obvious depictions of what’s going on inside the person’s head– a la King’s “he did it because he did it” writing.

This is a scene-by-scene book, and some of the scenes are quite intense. If you like plots that are less twist-and-turn than finely drawn, if you like to figure out for yourself why someone is behaving as they are,  or if you like Irish mythology, you’re going to love The Silver Tattoo.

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