Reading week 1: Caroline Preston & Leanne Shapton

Reading Week is a semi-regular reflection on stuff I’ve read and how it feeds into the writing and research process.  (Plus, there’s a bonus creative writing exercise to try out yourself!).  This week, two fictional books with intriguing methods of storytelling.

Caroline Preston (2011) The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. HarperCollins.

When I was in my early teens my Gran bought me an anthology that had a title such as Adventure Stories for Girls.  This was a collection from the mid 20th Century that featured the sort of resourceful young women, young women who were not afraid of scraped knees or spiders, young women who knew their way around a penknife, and young women who got back in time to assist with some domestic activity.  My memory is hazy but I remember preferring these girls to ones portrayed in Narnia, wishing that Susan had used that knife…  Anyway.  Frances “Frankie” Pratt is the adventurous heroine of this colourful “scrapbook” novel.  Her biography, hopes, dreams, and stories are told through typewritten text, images and historical ephemera covering Frankie’s formative years from schoolgirl in small town America to Vassar College scholar and then on to vibrant, romantic European adventures.  Part epistolary, part graphic novel, the full colour scraps of image and text form a sort of diary where idealistic, feisty, and clever Frankie reflects upon her family, friendships, dreams and romantic rejections.  It’s an upbeat, time machine, of a book with a sprightly finale, however, Preston has been a canny enough author to leave you questioning whether this happy ending is real or a creative construction by an unreliable narrator.  As a contemporary reader you do bring your own understanding of the 1920s; there are times in the book that feel a little too knowing where Preston foreshadows the Depression, war, and second wave feminism.  It is a fascinating collection of vintage memorabilia and an imaginative interpretation of these items.  (Plus it’s a beautiful book and you can’t help but root for Frankie.)

Leanne Shapton (2009), Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. Bloomsbury.

“At least this village full of abandoned and salvaged objects drew one’s attention, through them, to the ordered murmurs of a hundred past or possible villages, and by means of these imbricated traces one began to dream of countless combinations of existences.” Michel de Certeau (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.

The “abandoned and salvaged objects” of Important Artifacts… are those of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris and set out like an auction catalogue.  These artefacts – a combination of seemingly mundane photographs of everyday chintz and short textual descriptions – tell the story of the rise and fall of a “shouda, coulda, woulda” relationship in the early 21st Century.  Shapton is an artist so is a bit of a pun in the title: the photographs and formal register form “arty facts” that are utilised to tell a story.  The items, as well as the sober “auctionese” language, assist in unfolding the story of Harold and Lenore.  On the surface that could be it, however, this is the sort of book where you have to do a bit of work “to dream of countless combinations of existences”; there is definitely more than one story here and a bit of detective work on some of the objects rewards you (I looked up a few of the music tracks and drug company references).  As a reader you sift through the archaeological remains of a doomed relationship and the personalities involved (there are other characters as well as the titular couple – as well as a doomed relationship. There is an element of voyeurism as you shuffle through each lot description of mundane and eclectic images which leads on to other questions about the nature of our role as a reader and perhaps our own relationship with “stuff”.  After I finished reading this, it made me think of the ongoing fascination that some have for celebrity lives, there’s definitely that feeling of having poked through someone else’s sock drawer!

How do these books help understanding of place/s?

While there is a focus on everyday life in both books, as well as exploring human relationships both of books evoke a sense of time and place.  Preston uses tickets, postcards, iconic images to evoke place (Vassar ephemera such as headed letters, graded papers, and the college flag; pictures of the Eiffel Tower; photographs of Shakespeare & Company and other 1920s Parisian bohemian haunts).  Shapton’s book features menus, venues, emails from different timezones, and products such as Yorkshire Tea which bring with them specific identities of place.  Using these images to evoke place as much as the narrative of the central characters.  In these two books, Caroline Preston and Leanne Shapton are curators as well as writers; the images are as important as the text.  These experimental narratives help explore notions of human existence through montage, mosaic, curation, and the use of page space, this brings innovative multilayered, or perhaps multivocal, ways of storytelling.


Try this! A Writing Exercise.

The items we hoard tell us something about who we are.  I’ve mentioned this in previous blogs that I’ve been keeping a field diary of visits to Rochdale.  These are rough notes that span subjects from tram journeys, personal thoughts, sketches, the weather, snippets of overheard conversation and brief descriptions of places at certain moments of time. During this time, like Franke Pratt, I’ve been collecting various objects found at different juncture: postcards, maps, a golf ball, the Plaza’s Gracie Fields double bill, that kind of thing and have a sort-of scrapbook emerging.

Your task is to collect items that individually tell a story (postcards, photographs, chocolate wrappers, menus, bus tickets, etc.).  If you already  have a collection (stamps, coins, china dolls, rocks, cats, anything) and want to use this then try to see them differently, see them “anew”.  You can buy scrapbooks from craft shops (these can be super expensive) but you could also do your own DIY scrapbooking: glue stick, paper, biros/felt tips/paint/glitter/pencils, a couple of bits of cardboard to help bind and protect your work.

  • Look at your assembled items – what are they?  Make notes on each one, what it is, looks/feels/smells/sounds like, what each object could mean.
  • Imagine where the objects came from, what they’re made of, who made them, why they were made, who were they for originally?  Make some notes on this.
  • Who would own this collection – what does this say about their personality, about their background (think: race, class, gender, sexuality, belief system, taste in music/fashion/politics/etc., place of birth, current place where they live, era they live in).  Make some notes about this too.
  • (You can repeat the above if you have more than one collection.)
  • See if you can link the collection to a different narrative (who could own these items, what purpose do they serve, do they say anything about personality), tell different stories with the collection.

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