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Monday, July 14, 2014

CRAFTS WITH ANASTASIA--GUEST CRAFTER AND AUTHOR BARBARA FASS LEAVY

Barbara Fass Leavy, a retired professor of English Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York, retains her honorary position in the DeWitt Wallace Institute for the History of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Cornell University Medical College. After retirement she wrote The Fiction of Ruth Rendell: Ancient Tragedy and the Modern Family, a revised edition of which was published by Poisoned Pen Press (2012). Since then, she has been posting essays in criticism of crime novels on the Forum of her website. She still knits and crochets her own sweaters when she has time. And still hopes to complete a needlepoint canvas her mother never began. Learn more about Barbara at her website.

My Mother, The Mystery Addict and Needleworker
My mother, Marion Widom, passed on to me her addictive reading of mysteries. For almost eighty years of her life, she would walk to her local library, return home with armfuls of crime novels, read them, return them, and borrow several more. In her lifetime, she read countless numbers of mysteries.

As addictions go, this was a harmless enough one to pass on to me. I was therefore astonished when, the night before she died and I told her my study of Ruth Rendell, then in progress, would be dedicated to her, she apologized to me for influencing my own extensive reading of mysteries. We had been told that just before the end of her life, she would have a spurt of energy, and this was our last and lively conversation. I reminded her that she had taught me to read even before I started kindergarten and introduced me to folk and fairy tales, the subject of three of my published scholarly books and parts of two others. “That’s different,” she replied. Mysteries immerse readers in a world of crime and evil and putting me there was not, she insisted, a very motherly thing to do.

Over the years, the mysteries we read diverged widely. I will return to this difference shortly because it touches on questions concerning the mystery genres, who reads them, and their widespread appeal.

My mother also taught me how to knit, crochet, needlepoint, and embroider. My embroidery was never nearly as good as hers. In my home and that of my children and grandchildren, there are framed pieces of her meticulous work. We have embroidered placemats and napkins we are reluctant to use and soil. After she died, I completed her projects only partially finished, or projects she intended to work on, and both our initials are to be found on these for future generations to recognize our connectedness.

My mother would work on canvases already printed, including a very large needlepoint picturing the four seasons. Or she would use the diagrams in the many books she collected. Two of her six great-granddaughters knit, but I fear what she did may be a lost art in our family, for young women out of ambition and necessity have busy careers that consume their time, especially if they are balancing these with families. I too am busy but also impatient and one of the projects she never began was converted by me from needlepoint to what is sometimes called needle painting, which proceeds very quickly, as does bargello, which I enjoyed working on.

Probably the most impressive work she did is known as counted thread embroidery. I wish she had left more pieces of that, for the work is awesome. I never attempted anything like it. The intricate pieces are of museum quality.

To return to her apology for my own mystery reading addiction. I became a professor of literary studies, which was a source of pride for her. When I began to teach crime fiction courses, I focused on what are called literary mysteries, works of fiction that are reread even when the reader remembers whodunit. Such mysteries are often deeply psychological, dark stories about the most painful sides of life. They were continuations of the classic poems and books I read, taught, and published studies of.

They were not the books my mother read. She loved puzzles (she was good at crosswords), mysteries in which the investigators were involved with cooking, catering, gardening, quilting bees, and other crafts. Crimes were committed and the perpetrators had to be caught and punished but evil as usually understood were not their subjects. She had read some Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) books but after a few chose not to read any more, nor any books like them. Their subjects, she once explained to me, were exactly what she read mysteries to get away from. She wanted to laugh not cry when she read.

My mother was one of the smartest women I ever knew. Her intellect was as fine as her embroidery. Her choice of mysteries had to do with a healthy form of escapism. I was therefore outraged when I read one of the most famous essays on mysteries ever written, Raymond Chandler’s “Simple Art of Murder.” In promoting the hardboiled genre of crime fiction, he satirized another group of readers, among whom he would have placed my mother. “Old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with such a title as The Triple Petunia Murder Case or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue.

My mother and I respected each other’s reading choices but they were different. The first writing I ever did for the Poisoned Pen Press blog, addressed the question of mystery genres and who prefers which. Its title is “Invidious Distinctions” and I praise both mysteries as entertaining puzzles and mysteries as literary art. Here is the link for those who may be interested. 

The Fiction of Ruth Rendell: Ancient Tragedy and the Modern Family
Aside from Ruth Rendell’s brilliance as a fiction writer, and her appeal to mystery lovers, her books portray a compelling, universal experience that her readers can immediately relate to, the intra-familial stresses generated by the nuclear family. Even those who experience the joys as well as pains of family life will find in Rendell the conflicts that beset all who must navigate their way through the conflicts that beset members of the closest families.

Barbara Fass Leavy analyzes the multi-leveled treatment of these themes that contributes to Rendell’s standing as a major contemporary novelist. Rendell, who also writes as Barbara Vine, draws on ancient Greek narratives, and on the psychological theories Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung derived from them, to portray the disturbed family relationships found throughout her work.

Leavy’s analysis considers what distinguishes mysteries as popular entertainment from crime fiction as literary art. The potential for rereading even when the reader remembers “whodunit” will be the basis for this distinction. Leavy also looks closely at the Oedipus and Electra complexes and how they illuminate Rendell’s portrayals of the different pairings within the nuclear family (for example, mother and daughter) and considers the importance of gender differences. In addition, Leavy corrects a widespread error, that Freud formulated the Electra complex, when in fact the formulation was Jung’s as he challenged Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus story as the essential paradigm for human psychological development.

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21 comments:

Tina said...

Thank you for sharing your story (and the gorgeous craft work is a bonus). I'm glad you and your mother could respect each other's tastes and see the value of the diversity in the genre.

Jeffrey Siger said...

Once again you tell it like it is, Barbara, and in so doing elevate us all...especially your mother.

J.M. Hayes said...

Your mother taught you well and left you some extraordinary art work. Thanks for sharing the pictures and the story.

Mary R said...

A beautiful tribute to your mother,
Barbara. I do admire those who are clever at crafts such as knitting and needlework. I began a sideboard runner in my youth and it is still half finished though no longer in my possession -- one of my siblings has
it now so perhaps they will complete it "one of these days".

Donis Casey said...

For good or ill, our mother's influence sets us on a path and direction direction that most of us follow all of our lives. Sounds like your mother set you off in a good one. My much beloved mother wasn't very "motherly" in the traditional sense, but her mother was very much so, and my house is still filled with my grandmother's crochet and quilting. I love the fabric arts, especially needlepoint, but once I start a project I become obsessed and can't bring myself to do anything else until it's finished. Not good for finishing novels.

Warren C. Easley said...

A moving tribute to your mother, Barbara. Certainly the fruit did not fall far from the tree. My dad was the reader in my family. He liked true adventure stories and so do I. When I didn't have anyone to hit me fly balls or catch my pitches, my mom would come and play ball with me. She could really smack a baseball, too. And she was a master crocheter. We have gorgeous tablecloth she spent several years on...

Angela Adams said...

Beautiful work...you have a talent that I truly admire.

Abby Widom said...

This was such a moving blog post, it needs to be printed and kept forever! It was so nice to read about your conversations with Grandma Marion, I'm proud to be a third generation mystery reader!

Celia Gittelson said...

A beautiful, moving, and generous piece of writing about mothers, murder, reading, knitting, embroidery, needlepoint, fairy tales, folklore... I don't know how you do it but you do--and wonderfully, wonderfully well!

Gary Lehman said...

Grandma Marion's immersion into these various mystery genres informed her understanding of the fabric of human life - with its manifold trials,triumphs, relationships, assignations, tribulations, vicissitudes, corrupt and noble impulses, and general ways and means. bottom line of all that was you couldn't pull a fast one on her. she was several steps ahead of you. i fear my mother-in-law is similarly equipped. (and the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) no "mystery" there ! with love to all who sojourn here, gary

Steve Widom said...

My grandmother (Barbara is my mother) was, indeed, a special person. As a little boy I would listen to her shout out all the answers to "College Bowl" and "Jeopardy" with conviction (and correctness I might add). I believe my mother and sister have held onto all of her relics and I am glad they are in good hands. My grandmother's sister, Annie, also was a prolific crocheter and I have two of her knitted piggy banks (funny characters that wrap around a coffee can) sitting on my dresser that I look at every day. My grandmother's greatest legacy was her children - two of the most brilliant people in the world. How that came to be should, in itself, be a study. She must have been very proud, although because of her humble demeanor she never made a peep about it.

Julie L. said...

I think about grandma marion every day. I always like to hear stories about her. I wish I started knitting when I was younger and could have learned from her. Better late than never. I'm sure she would be happy to know that I knit or crochet almost every day of my life.

Mandy said...

@Julie, every time I see you post pictures of your knitting pieces, I truly think of Grandma Marion every single time, and how proud she is looking down at you! This is such a beautiful tribute to Grandma Marion, and I agree with Abby; it should be printed and saved forever. I am so fortunate and blessed to come from such a wonderful family, where stories and our family legacy will live on forever, and will certainly never be forgotten. I know Grandma Marion is smiling down at my cousins and sisters and I, and are proud of the women we have become.

Barbara Leavy said...

Thank you Angela. My mother did do beautiful work. To my fellow authors at Poisoned Pen Press, I appreciate your reading this tribute and for sharing your own stories, which are your tributes to mothers and grandmothers. To my mother's grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she would be so happy to see this continuity from her to all of you.

Jennifer said...

I am so lucky to have had such strong women role models in my life. It's safe to say that all 6 grandchildren think about grandma marion every day. Thank you for sharing this post. I agree with Abby, we need to print this and save it forever!

Anonymous said...

Barbara, you wrote a great blog that truly captured some of the gifts that Grandma Marion left us with. She was a remarkable lady particularly for her time. Grandma was loved by all and is missed by all that knew her. Well stated~

Pam Widom said...

Barbara, you wrote a great blog that truly captured some of the gifts that Grandma Marion left us with. She was a remarkable lady particularly for her time. Grandma was loved by all and is missed by all that knew her. Well stated~

Shelley said...

I know I speak for everyone in the family when I say we love you both so much. I am so proud when I hear of the woman Grandma Marion was and I am so grateful to her for molding you into the person you are, Grandma!

Barbara Leavy said...

This is posted by me for my daughter Linda Lehman, who is one of Marion Widom's granddaughters. Here is what Linda has written:

Count me as one who, like my grandmother, enjoys reading the "who done it" mysteries. She and I shared many interesting and fun times. The recent 50th anniversary celebration of the New York World's Fair reminds me that she and I spent many days there, just the two of us. We would arrive when the gates opened and leave after the fireworks. To a young girl it was a magical time. My grandmother also taught me needlework, crocheting, and some knitting. But it was mostly needlework that we worked together--on the same canvas. I am fortunate to have many samples of her work in my home and hope some day to pass them down to my three daughters as heirlooms. I can never match the intricacy and perfection of my grandmother's needlework but she left me with a lasting appreciation for this nearly lost art. I am also very fortunate that my grandmother helped raise my daughters and that they themselves grew up appreciating her very many special qualities. I know that we all miss her very much.

Barbara Leavy said...

This is posted by me for my granddaughter Jessica, who cannot at the moment respond herself. She was very attached to her great-grandmother and is one of those who perhaps comes closest to real-life mysteries, because her career path involves criminal law. Jessica is also one of the great-granddaughters who knits, when she has the time.

Barbara Leavy said...

•As Barbara's mother's son-in-law (mystery writers will have no difficulty with that -- I'm Barbara's husband), I'm not sure whether I was more of an outsider looking into the family, or an insider looking around, but from either perspective it was always an active scene. Barbara's mother was a sagacious, compassionate and loving harbor of refuge, ready when asked for it to offer understanding and pragmatic advice. I've never asked about "Grandma's" formal education -- few women of her generation ever went beyond high school, and she was so young when Barbara was born that even a high school diploma might well have been an unrealized ambition. That notwithstanding, I've met few women, if any, who had my mother-in-law’s fund of knowledge about a dazzling range of topics. Her grandson Steve talked about her uncanny ability to provide the answers to questions posed to the contestants on Jeopardy. I also observed in awe that while the contestants on the TV show puzzled and pondered their answers, Marion had already responded aloud with the correct bit of information. (Those who read Barbara’s blogs will recognize in her that familial ability to retain and recall significant details, for Barbara specifically of the books she’s read, uncovering subtle but significant patterns that often underlie an author’s writings.) In my mother-in-law’s retirement, mostly to stay active, she came to work in the bookkeeping department of my manufacturing business. In short order, she discovered a financial scam a customer had been pursuing and getting away with for years that had gone completely unnoticed by others in my office. She was, in her lifetime, a woman to be respected and admired. Since then, as is clear from the many responses to Barbara’s posting, a woman whose memory we cherish.