Thursday, November 15, 2012

Literary Bite: The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall

I’ve probably mentioned my “library” before. Basically, SpeedyKate and I have a lovely wall o’books between our living room and kitchen. It was the first thing we built when we move in and it is by far my favorite thing about our apartment. When I need something to read and have nothing in my mental queue, I just meander through our "stacks" (a total of 3 bookshelves) and pick something at random. Sometimes I consult my co-librarian (Kate, obviously) for recommendations too. This is how I came to read Half a Yellow Sun, The Language of Flowers, The Tiger’s Wife, and The Art of Fielding – all total apartment library wins!

Our library, days/weeks before we had beds or tables or a couch.

This is also how I found my most recent read: The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall. It’s the story of a tattoo artist from the north coast of England who moves to Coney Island, NY in the 1920s. I expected it to be a bit fluffy, but the narrative was actually really rich and intense.

Let me explain what I mean: Hall describes the inner workings of Coney Island and the people who lived/worked there in its heyday between (WWI and WWII) incredibly thoroughly. The writing style is very descriptive, uses great figurative language, and flows well. The plot points are big – abortion, murder, deception, romance – but at the same time weirdly understated. There are sometimes pages of description leading up to a brief one-paragraph actual action. When this works it builds suspense…but when it doesn’t I just get bored. It’s a fine line.
  • “He was notorious. But in his rooms he could embroider the human body with beauty and he was glorious. His reputation for it brought men and women in from as far afield as Belfast and Nottingham, Stirling and Glasgow, by appointment in the winter and in the summer months they queued up outside his door. The brighter part of the man kept them coming back so that he could dress them in new, perfect, custom-fitting clothing. Give them their lasting souvenirs. Give them their natural markings. Give them a picture of and for themselves.”
Cy Parks (the “electric Michelangelo ), is an expert tattoo artist is interesting person. He is haunted by the demons of his mother and his teacher, and eventually falls into a weird love with one of the other Coney Islanders.
  • "He had a sense that he liked her, very much, and not so far away from that prospect was the notion that he could love her, perhaps… He could love her. Couldn’t he? There was the potential. There was the rub… It felt like another strangely exotic moment in his life, the pairing of Grace and love, not dissimilar to the day he had agreed to be Riley’s lad… That feeling of being befallen, of something preordained and unavoidable and uncontrollable at work, like the diaphanous flutter of Fate’s lungs, the sluicing of its digestive system, its marrowy brewing of new blood."
Some of the most interesting passages were Cy’s musings on the art of tattooing and the tattoos people choose.
  • "It’s an unselfish trade is ours. I’ll tell you what it is, it’s personal socialism, lad. Everyone’s included, everyone gets to look in to a person and share them… a tattoo says more of a fellow looking at it that it can do of the man who’s got it on his back."
  • “People went through life like well handled jugs, collecting chips and scrapes and stains from wear and tear, from holding and pouring life.”
At the beginning I wasn’t so sure about this book, but then it really grew on me. The subject is new (to me) and interesting and it’s well-written. Definitely worth the read!