Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: The Red Leather Diary by Lily Koppel

 The Red Leather Diary - Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, by Lily Koppel

I still have all of my diaries that I have kept over the years, the first one being from when I was 10 years old if I am not mistaken. Over the years I see changes in handwriting, developing ideas, crushes and heartbreak, drawings, sadness, happiness. Some of the journals are full, others conclude halfway through with a sentence along the lines of "this is the end of this part of my life and therefore a new journal is to be commenced". I still keep a journal, at 34, but today it is more of a scrapbook than just writing, snippets of sentences created by emotions and visions, photos, drawings, concert tickets, notes from friends, lists and so on. I love rereading entries from years ago, but I doubt they really would be of any interest to anyone else. Except of course if I become a world famous author, because then, after my death, scholars will devour my teenage thoughts to try to figure out who I was, just like I did when I was writing my thesis on Sylvia Plath.(Yes, yes, one can dream).

I love reading the journals of famous artists. Not because I want to actually determine who so and so actually is, but because they always contain a deeper view into feelings and thoughts and emotions, and also because they often contain some of the best writing. One writes a journal with the knowledge that it is not going to be read by anyone else, so therefore one allows oneself to be more free and open. That's the way I see it anyway. For example, Sylvia Plath's unabridged journals may contain some of the darkest prose that she had ever written, in my opinion it also contained some of the best.

What would you do if you were a budding journalist and one day came across a five year journal, started by a 14 year old living in Manhattan in the 1920's? You would probably read it, and then see if you could get it published in some way or form. Lily Koppel went a few steps further than that: she read it, went on a search for the author, and once she found her, rewrote those five years in her own words, interspersing the prose with snippets from the journal itself. Early in her career with the New York Times, Koppel was leaving her apartment building one morning when she came across a dumpster containing trunks dating back to the previous century. The building management had decided to get rid of content that previous residents had left in the basement and never come back to collect. Can you imagine getting a chance to go through such treasures? Old photos and clothes and books and letters and ornaments and hats and cards and maps! I would have had a field day! The red leather journal was found in one of those trunks and belonged to a young lady called Florence Wolfson.

Florence was a smart, fashionable, precocious teenager, with many interests, mainly in the usual pursuits of the young, love, sex, friendship, as well as the world of Art that the city of New York had to offer at the time. She wrote of books, plays, actors and actresses, poems, paintings, and focused a lot of her own time on writing and drawing, as well as going to performances and other activities such as tennis, fashion and parties. Her journal portrays a woman of her time, as well as a glowing Manhattan of the late 20's and early 30's (including mentions of the more darker times after the Wall Street Crash of 1929). I was first drawn to the book after reading the cover because I wanted to delve into the life of a teenager in the city during the 20's, but once I started to read the book it was Koppel's wonderful writing that really drew me in. Koppel has the ability to recreate a life lived so long ago into a story of such tenderness and beauty that I was brought to tears in several different parts. For a time I felt like I was actually living right by Florence, and imagined my own teenage life side by side with hers. The beauty of this book is that Koppel added a part of herself into Florence's life, giving us readers the chance to do the same.

Inspiring, to say the least.

More information on the book and the author HERE

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