Tag Archives: Hugo House

Book Review: THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK by Jonathan Santlofer

THE WIDOWER’S NOTEBOOK

Jonathan Santlofer is a successful artist and novelist. I had the privilege of hearing him read recently as he shared the stage with two other distinguished writers, Neal Thompson and Wendy C. Ortiz, at a panel on memoir writing at Hugo House in Seattle. Later, in person, I asked Mr. Santlofer if he ever considered doing a graphic novel, given his facility with words and images, and he said he’d love to do it! He’s on my radar right now. His book, The Widower’s Notebook, is quite a page-turner. I went to the Tin Table for a late dinner and couldn’t put it down. The waitress even said I could stay as long as I wanted. After making some time for the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings, I kept reading the next day and finished in another sitting. What I got from this book is a riveting narrative covering a heart-wrenching time in the author’s life.

Mr. Santlofer has an uncanny observational style: you believe you’re with him. His writing is vivid and carries you along even when he’s writing about not feeling up to doing anything at all. It’s the mark of not only a good writer but an excellent writer to allow you into a life without you being aware of any of the effort involved. This is a story of a most significant loss, the death of one’s life partner. Santlofer achieves a level of the sublime by simply being in the moment. He does with his writing what he does with his drawings: evoke a sense of the hyperreal. You are really there with the author as he finds his wife, Joy, dying before his eyes, the subsequent rush to the hospital, and the frenetic tripping through memories.

We follow along as Santlofer reflects upon a grand life beginning with a young bohemian couple, just married, in Brooklyn, circa 1967. We progress in a stream of consciousness fashion from the birth of Dorie, his beloved daughter, to the recent death of Joy to the building up of a new life. The act of drawing helps with the act of mourning–drawings work when words seem to fail or seem to be not enough. There’s a touch of magic to art-making and it seems most explicit when examining an intimate and intricately crafted drawing. The excerpt below speaks to this process:

“I am able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can’t really draw something until you stop identifying it. You can’t think: this is an eye, or a nose, or lips, or you will not be able to draw them; an eye, a nose, lips are all the same, simply marks on a page.

Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she in no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I am not sitting in a dark room crying over a photo of my dead wife; I am at my drawing table, working.

Grief is chaotic; art is order. Ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion, when in fact the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others.”

A drawing is a complicated thing.

Santlofer’s book is about dying and about living. It is as much about mourning as it is about relationships, family, and the creative process. Indeed, art can save your life and Santlofer’s book eloquently and passionately speaks to perseverance and purpose.

The Widower’s Notebook is a 272-page paperback with illustrations, published by Penguin Random House.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Death, Death and Dying, Hugo House, Jonathan Santlofer, Memoir, New York City, Penguin Random House, Seattle, writers, writing

Seattle Focus: New Hugo House Opening Celebration

Hugo House reopens its doors in Seattle at 1634 Eleventh Avenue.

It was as if nothing had ever changed as a casual group of writers gathered outside for the reopening of the Hugo House literary arts center in Seattle on September 22, 2018. When someone would go up and ask if this was the line to get in, those already gathered would not even acknowledge something so conventional as a line. Such was the irreverent spirit of the evening. People were just there like they’d been many times over the years. Many recalled the original home for this arts center, a former funeral parlor, and had very happy memories of free-wheeling creativity.

Typewriters abound at Hugo House, a symbol of the creative spirit.

The new 10,000 square feet home for Hugo House is different from the old home in fundamental ways. I can tell you from my own experience with Hugo House that much has changed but, despite that, the old spirit is still there. If you know where to look, you can even find remnants of the old. Some of the original floorboards decorate a section behind a little bar area. It’s like anything else that once was, you retain some keepsake that many new folks won’t notice but that can trigger a whole other world for old-timers.

Many onlookers and participants at the grand opening.

That older world began with the founding of Hugo House in 1997 by Linda Jaech, Frances McCue, and Andrea Lewis. It was shortly after the opening of the original that I began to visit, make friends, and take classes. I fondly recall the passion of such beacons of light as Kirsten Atik and Charles Mudede. It was a different time and place. Anyone could literally walk right in, in the spirit of a community center, and wander through an art gallery, enjoy a spacious cafe, and perhaps contemplate taking in a show in one of two fully-euipped theaters. If they knew their way around, they could walk upstairs and use one of the open spaces to read, work, and just think.

A typical classroom space at Hugo House.

The new Hugo House must deal with the plight of overdevelopment and outrageously high prices for housing in Seattle. It has become fortified for the new times and is housed within a condominium. Long gone are the days when you could maintain such a a non-profit community writing center within a quaint but lovely and spacious ole Victorian with a long inviting series of steps. Architecture firm NBBJ created the new structure that houses the new Hugo House. The structure is made up of condos with the lower level used by Hugo House. With a million dollar grant and the help of plenty of donors, Hugo House declares this a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” and, most reassuring, Hugo House has managed to secure the space in perpetuity.

It was quite a gathering to come out and see what’s new. The festivities began with an open mic, the first one in the new Hugo House. One highlight of the night, undoubtedly, was a presentation by celebrated writer Maria Semple. She took the opportunity to speak about what Hugo House has meant to her over the years. The sense of good cheer was palpable. Many times over the place reached capacity and required crowd control. All in all, a good time was had by everyone. You could talk, drink, dance, and participate as much as you wanted.

Last night’s reception gives all of us in Seattle who cherish the literary arts much to be hopeful for. While the actual writing classes don’t come cheap, the selection is very impressive and worth every penny. There is still work to be done in the actual physical space. The area for the 150-seat auditorium remains an open space as of now. And, as I say, the actual structure looks like any other condo you will come across in Seattle, a bit imposing, but in this case, a lot of pure hearts are doing their very best to inspire and educate writers from all walks of life.

Visit Hugo House right here.

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Filed under Hugo House, Jennifer Daydreamer, Maria Semple, Richard Hugo House, Seattle, writers, writing