…is the attention grabbing colour of the covers of two books I just read: inside, they are also juicy, nourishing, slightly tart.
Last night I read Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington (Knopf). Like almost everyone else I was fascinated by the 2009 documentary The September Issue the film about the behind-the-scenes drama that follows editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and her staff during the production of the September 2007 issue of American Vogue magazine. The film catapulted fashion-world-legend creative director Grace Coddington into the greater public eye – even if fashion magazines are not your thing, the relationship between smooth-bobbed Wintour and flame-haired Coddington, who are such different personalities, is so interesting – they absolutely need each other to push against, to produce their best work. Coddington at 71 is still the most creative, clever and thoughtful stylist around – as she explains in the book, she doesn’t do any writing about fashion (she sketches all the runway shows, she doesn’t make notes), all her thinking and her expression of that thinking is visual.
I don’t even know if she is that interested in fashion, it – the fashion machine of designers, the magazine, advertisers, the readers – just allows her, like a many-armed Hindu goddess, to constantly create and destroy beautiful, ephemeral worlds. All you have left of all this energy and money is photographs – but they can be as breathtaking as any heart-stopping piece of art.
The memoir is very honest, sprinkled with her clever witty drawings, and an excellent selection of photos of her – in the back there is a selection of her own favourite work from her remarkable oeuvre. There are details of her childhood in Wales, her modelling career, curtailed by a bad car crash, her loves, marriages and friendships, and her working life as a fashion editor at British Vogue, then Calvin Klein, before joining US Vogue the same day as Anna Wintour took the helm, over 20 years ago.She positively rejoices in her creative collaborations with the models, make-up artists, designers and photographers, and she gives them due praise.
It is an easy but not silly read, well written, with the slight air of a romp (she is very funny about the annoyance she felt about the film being made), leavened with honesty, good-humour, a surprising lack of ego, and perhaps the odd fey or reserved moment about moments of great sadness. I liked her, but don’t feel that I know her particularly, which I quite like, that sense of an edge of mystery. Really, yes, her life has been, is, terribly interesting but I think she is more interested in being judged on those fleeting glimpses of the other worlds she creates, in those outstanding photographs.
At the weekend I also finally read Pulphead : Notes from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan (Vintage) which was published earlier this year. Sullivan is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the southern editor of The Paris Review. He also writes for GQ, Harper’s Magazine, and Oxford American.
This is a collection of his essays from such publications. They range from his trip to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the straggling refugees of MTV’s “Real World”; to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina. I really like them – even the ones about things I have never had an interest in were beguiling, clever and fascinating.
I thought his essay on Michael Jackson was just amazing. I haven’t really read much about the late singer and cultural icon but this seemed to ring true, it was wise, compassionate and honest, like the essay about the year or so Sullivan spent living in the house of his elderly literary mentor. I like how in all the pieces Sullivan appears to be writing from inside the group, the place, the person – he isn’t just observing from the outside and reporting to the rest of us, he is able to reveal himself in a quiet elliptical way that enhances his reportage. There is an essay near the end of the book about the pre-1940s black blues singers who wandered the south performing and occasionally recording now rare-as-hen’s-teeth ‘sides’ and the small group of white guys that revere, collect and preserve these ghostly traces of a vanished art form – it is moving,astute and quite inspiring – just spectacular writing, do try and get your hands on a copy…..