The beautiful mind of the creator of collage

Plus, camps for African witches, a doorstopper debut novel, the National Enquirer founders, the brilliant early work of Gay Talese and the backstory of the Catholic abuse scandal
The beautiful mind of the creator of collage
Mary Granville Pendarves Delany; National Portrait Gallery London; Illustration Taylor Shute

The beautiful mind of the creator of collageTHE PAPER GARDEN:MRS. DELANY BEGINS HER LIFE’S WORK AT 72
Molly Peacock

Mary Granville Pendarves Delany, aged 72, was in the throes of grief over the death of her husband when she casually picked up a pair of scissors and by dint of sheer curiosity invented the art form known as mixed-media collage. Noticing how a piece of coloured paper matched the fallen petal of a geranium, she meticulously cut the exact geranium petal shape from the paper. Then another, and another. She assembled the pieces, and when a friend walked into the room and could not tell the paper geranium and the organic version apart, an art form was born.

Delany was no 18th-century parlour dilettante: she approached her art with scholarly sensitivity, dissecting floral specimens in order to render her paper versions with botanical accuracy right down to the flower’s ovary, and then cutting and layering hundreds of delicate pieces. In the span of a decade, she produced about 1,000 of these exquisite, fragile works.

Author Molly Peacock opens with her own discovery of Delany’s art: “I saw my first flower mosaic at three o’clock on Saturday, Sept. 27, 1986, at the Morgan Library in New York City?.?.?.?” She builds her case that these are no grade-school craft projects: “I could not get over the dexterity, the eyesight, and the fine muscle coordination that had produced them. I was hooked, I was sunk.”
Ditto for the reader. Delany’s life and artistry would be compelling enough, but Peacock gives us so much more, and the details and precision of her text mirror the dogged, forensic approach Delany took with her work. Peacock wants us to see how the artist and the art are one.

Like collage itself, The Paper Garden is carefully layered—part fascinating biography, part history lesson about the English Georgian period, part gripping memoir, part paean, and part art appreciation accompanied by dozens of vivid photo reproductions. Beautifully written and rendered (the pages are printed on heavy glossy paper, the likes of which are rarely encountered in modern publishing), Peacock’s obsession for Delany’s art and life becomes ours, too.


The beautiful mind of the creator of collageSPELLBOUND: INSIDE WEST AFRICA’S WITCH CAMPS
Karen Palmer

To a westerner, the idea that women are—still, today—accused of witchcraft seems ridiculous. And the idea that banishing accused witches to isolated compounds is in their best interests sounds, well, crazy.

But after spending three months in the Gambaga witch camp in northern Ghana, Canadian journalist Karen Palmer found her disbelief in witchcraft softening, along with her disdain for segregating the accused. She even reached a point, she writes, when she desperately wanted to believe.

If only to fit in. Palmer interviewed dozens of Ghanaians—women in the camps, their families, and their advocates, many of whom were devoted Christians and Muslims—and only a handful unequivocally denied the existence of witchcraft. The couple who looked after Palmer in Gambaga—social worker Simon, who relentlessly sought to repatriate accused women to their home villages, and his wife Evelyn—were believers.

While the author observed, Evelyn allowed a witch doctor to cut into her breast with a razor and then hold a frog against the wound, all in the name of treating back pain. Even urban Ghanaians, friends who snickered at Palmer’s research, would turn around and warn the author to top up a taxi driver’s tip and never answer a cellphone displaying the numbers 967, lest she summon a curse.
But although she flirted with supernatural notions, Palmer views most accusations of witchcraft as fuelled primarily by jealousy (of a woman’s wealth, or her family’s) and fear. She denounces the ways a woman’s guilt is determined—whether a slaughtered chicken died on its back or on its beak, for example—as unjust.

Palmer seems mostly to blame poverty and underdevelopment for the hold witchcraft has in West Africa. Competition for resources can be cutthroat, and defences against disease and drought are feeble. Witchcraft offers both explanation and agency in the face of these threats, she explains, and people will continue to subscribe to it until something better comes along—modern medicine, for example. (The closest hospital to Gambaga is so strapped that it solicits donations of bedsheets, to be ripped up and used as bandages.)

In the meantime, Ghanaian witch camps—some of which are said to be guarded by spirits that keep the women in line—offer some measure of safety to the accused as well as some sense of security, however false, to those who believe in things that go bump in the night.


The beautiful mind of the creator of collageTHE INSTRUCTIONS
Adam Levin

When a debut novel arrives that is over 1,000 pages long, it’s impossible not to take notice.

Chicago-based writer and teacher Adam Levin’s first effort naturally carries the weight of expectation and anticipation, owing mainly to one simple question: does the book justify its length?
The answer, happily, is yes. The primary reason is Gurion ben-Judah Maccabee, a 10-year-old who writes and thinks leagues beyond his years, who has a nasty habit of getting expelled from schools for inciting and committing violent acts, and who falls in love with the slightly older, not quite bat mitzvah-aged Eliza June Watermark. Classmates idolize him, dubbing Gurion “Rabbi.” Real rabbis are split between declaring him a dangerous heretic and a would-be Messiah. And all the while, Gurion is writing down every bit of four momentous, revolutionary days in his own book of scripture (which shares its title with the novel’s).

Of course, those are only the bare bones of The Instructions. It’s really a compendium of all modern Jewish-American tropes, with nods to Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, and especially Philip Roth, Gurion’s favourite living novelist. Levin’s tale is clever and meta-referential (perfectly translated and re-translated into Hebrew and English, according to the fictional editor of Gurion’s magnum opus), and even includes word-based drawings of key locales, but is shot through with a strain of loneliness and frustration that ground Gurion as a boy in a crazy world that eludes his emotional grasp.

The Instructions demands patience, even though the fast-paced, accessibly written narrative makes it easy to get caught up in Gurion’s increasingly violent quest to right religious wrongs. It’s worth taking the time to get lost in Levin’s synthesis of dark comedy and Talmudic scope, and to see that the many questions raised by the book may well have their answer in the author’s future writings—which promise to build on the prodigious talent on display here.


Paul David Pope

Did you ever wonder what The Godfather would be like if Al Pacino specialized in gossip, not crime? Paul David Pope provides the answer by telling how his father, Generoso “Gene” Pope, used a loan from the Mob to buy a struggling New York newspaper and eventually turned it into the National Enquirer.

Deeds of My Fathers starts with the classic immigrant story of Pope’s grandfather Gene Sr., who got off the boat at Ellis Island and wound up as a power player in Italian-American media and politics. There’s even a scene in the book where Franklin Delano Roosevelt defers to Gene Sr., after being reminded that “there are five million Italian-Americans who vote.”

His son, Gene Jr., didn’t have the ear of presidents, but he managed to build a media empire that outdid his father’s. He tried to attract attention by printing salacious stories with headlines such as “Torture cult, sex orgies bared here”—so salacious, in fact, that many newsstands refused to display the paper. It was saved from collapse largely because Gene Jr. had a powerful friend: Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man Roy Cohn. The book ends with Gene Jr.’s death in 1988, by which time most newsstands in the country were carrying the Enquirer.

Pope chooses to tell this story novelistically, meaning that we don’t always get a clear sense of the historical record. There’s quite a bit of invented (or, as the author puts it, “recreated”) dialogue.
But we do get a sense of how changes in the Enquirer’s fortunes have reflected changes in America: as the country became less inhibited, the paper was integrated into the mainstream, shifting more toward celebrity gossip as the world became more star-obsessed. Most of all, the two Gene Popes together paint a picture of immigrants and media in America: from Gene Sr.’s niche media for Italians to Gene Jr.’s exclusive coverage of the death of Elvis.


The beautiful mind of the creator of collageTHE SILENT SEASON OF A HERO: THE SPORTS WRITING OF GAY TALESE
Edited by Michael Rosenwald

Long before Gay Talese was anointed the creator of “The New Journalism” by Tom Wolfe—and prior to writing the April 1966 Esquire piece, “Frank Sinatra has a cold,” widely regarded as one of the finest profiles ever written—he was a cub reporter, covering sports for his hometown paper, Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger. In a 1948 story, “Short Shots in Sundry Sections,” Talese writes about an “awkward” six-foot-seven freshman stepping on a basketball court for the first time. “He missed lots of passes and didn’t score, but he’s still learning, and willing.” Talese has always been more interested in the little-known characters—those on the sidelines, rather than the final score. So it’s fitting that this old newspaper clip, written when Talese was a teenager earning 10 cents per column inch, kicks off the latest collection of his work.

The first half of the book, which focuses on his early journalistic efforts, offers glimpses of the signature storytelling style that would make Talese a star of the non-fiction form. In one piece for the University of Alabama Crimson White in 1953, for instance, Talese describes the football team’s first spring scrimmage in a way no other beat reporter could muster: “Under hail, a cold wind [and] a 30-degree temperature Saturday afternoon, Coach Harold (Red) Drew gently tooted the whistle at 3:30 p.m. and 80 huge hunks of Alabama football scholarships began to smash and lash at one another.” It was vintage Talese, before anyone knew what that meant.

While The Silent Season has several little-read gems —including bylines from his stint with the New York Times—it also includes a few magazine classics, including profiles of boxers Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, as well as his stirring 1966 portrait of New York Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio in retirement. “DiMaggio sat down at a small table. He said nothing, just lit a cigarette and waited, legs crossed, his head held high and back so as to reveal the intricate construction of his nose, a fine sharp tip above the big nostrils and tiny bones built out from the bridge, a great nose.” Talese, the ultimate fly on the wall, notices everything.

The Silent Season gives long-time admirers a fuller understanding of his evolution as a writer, and new fans a nice introduction to a master of his craft.


Michael Higgins and Peter Kavanagh

Co-authors Higgins, one of the most prominent lay Roman Catholic intellectuals in Canada (past president of St. Jerome’s and St. Thomas Universities), and Kavanagh, a veteran CBC Radio journalist (Ideas, The Sunday Edition) have crafted an examination of their Church’s worldwide child sex abuse scandal that manages to excoriate both the leadership of the Church and the external reaction to the scandal, especially the media’s. No easy job, given the widespread revulsion and the absolute need not to sound in any way in denial, but the authors achieve it. They haven’t the slightest sympathy for bishops who, in country after country, proved themselves far more concerned with the reputation of the institution they serve than for the children within its care; for Higgins and Kavanagh, that their Church, and particularly its hierarchy, has been humiliated is only just.

But the authors are also angered by the media’s refusal, in Canada at least, to acknowledge that virtually all the cases that have newly come to light are (formerly hushed-up) old crimes. That’s evidence, they argue, that the child-protection policies put in place in the ’80s and ’90s have borne fruit. They also believe, not without cause, that a lot of other anti-clerical and even anti-Catholic hostility has surfaced in the abuse commentary, dragged in on the coattails of genuine and richly deserved rage. “The sexual abuse scandal is real,” Higgins and Kavanagh write, but “not everything about the sexual abuse scandal is really about the sexual abuse scandal.”

That is as true within the Church, the authors assert, as it is between the Church and outside critics. The scandal has become embroiled in the Church’s own culture war, fodder both for those Catholics who think the Church is reaping what it sowed with the liberalizing tendencies set in motion by Vatican II a half century ago (slack moral standards), and those who think reform did not go far enough (clerical celibacy remains compulsory).

Although the authors’ sympathies are easily discernible, they are scarcely interested in this ancient quarrel. They want serious change that can be accomplished now, on a local level, without embarking on a Church civil war: bishops may not be able to effect change in Rome, but “they are free enough to enact legislation” within their own dioceses, establishing rules and regulations that encourage “forthright honesty, not the avoidance of scandal.” What Suffer the Children demands is a Church that, in all its factions and structures, is dedicated to moving beyond humiliation into humility.