Vivian Maier: Street Photographer

A cache of photographs and negatives sold at auction in Chicago reveals the raw talent of Vivian Maier. Working as a nanny in New York and Chicago, her camera was ever-present, and she captured amazing street scenes, fashions, and human expressions. The book is worth perusing despite the cloying introduction which questions whether she was good because she was copying work she had seen (Arbus, Evans, Kertesz) and how no one knew she took photographs… “seems unfortunate, a symptom or side effect of the fact she never married or had children and apparently had no close friends.” Or perhaps she was simply a private person, Geoff Dyer. Many of the images in this collection can be seen on the website dedicated to her work.

Unaccustomed Earth

Short stories dealing with the lives of Bengalis who move to America and attend Ivy-League-ish colleges or move back to Bombay. Most characters involve relationships between non-Indians and Indians, the tensions of tradition and family up against the realities of American life. Several stories deal with the death of a parent, how the other parent moves on too quickly to bring another person into their lives. There are stories of overachievers dealing with alcoholic brothers, suitors calling to propose to a woman sight unseen, planting gardens, inviting a family to live with another family for months while they try to find a house nearby as they return from India. The second section of the book clusters stories about two particular people, how they knew each other as children from each of their perspectives, then their chance meeting in Rome where they become lovers and he urges her not to enter the arranged marriage that awaits in a few months. She refuses to give up her teaching life and he regrets letting her get away, but heads off to his new life in Hong Kong with a vacation stop in Thailand. Unfortunately, the tsunami hits, taking him away, and happily ever after. I sucked this down in a few entirely enjoyable hours.

The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places

Unforgettable journeys, maybe, but forgettable writing. I walked away from this book with a reminder that Pico Iyer is one of the only travel writers I can stand. Repackaged stories collected by the magazine and peppered with how-to’s for the city the writer just waxed about, this book is a half-hearted effort. Most of the pieces were uninspiring, with a common theme of comparing the West to the spot they were in, and oh look American culture has crept into all corners of the globe. I enjoyed the piece on Florida’s Everglades, having never considered a vacation there as a way to get away from the civilized world. Very skippable and skim-able.

Hunger

The tale of a proud Norwegian artist staving off starvation for as long as possible. The narrator is already hungry when we first encounter him in his rented room, having to sneak out because the rent is overdue, desiring a quiet spot in the park to work on an article he can sell to the newspapers but instead having a run-in with a beggar who asks him for money, which prompts the narrator to immediately pawn his waistcoat in order to obtain money for the beggar (and have a tiny bit left over for himself to buy bread). Manic after eating bread in a state of starvation, he leers at two passing women, telling them they are losing their book (no book is among them). He drops off an article to the editor and is told that he’ll hear back at his lodgings, which he’s had to abandon due to lack of funds. And so the story spirals, the writer becoming increasingly desperate but too proud to ask for help. When his luck changes and the store clerk assumes he’s already paid with a large coin, he spends the excess change on beef he cannot keep down, then feels overwhelming guilt and gives the dishonest money to a woman selling cakes. The woman he leered at begins to lurk near his lodgings (now above a stable), and eventually they have a disastrous date. He attempts to sell the buttons off his jacket. In the end his rescue comes as a sailor aboard a boat leaving port.

Bookswaps in SF

Starved for anything of slight cultural value, I’ve participated in a few book swaps in the area recently. The theme for Booksmith’s was “Home,” so I brought Anywhere but Here as a smirk towards my own feeling of being “home” in San Francisco after visiting the real world for several months. During the second round of the informal chats, a lady interrupted my description of the book to trumpet her own knowledge that Mona is Steve Jobs’ half sister, which yes, is a bit of trivia, but takes away from the importance of Mona’s work itself. I was unabashed in berating her interruption as completely irrelevant and the smug lady was duly chastened.
The full bookswap article is here.
Slightly related, my piece about the Tenement Museum in NYC.

Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value

I’ve been reading this slim book for several months now. It’s not the kind of work you greedily devour in one sitting, but necessitates a sip here, a sip there, with lots of mulling in between. Do not make the mistake many have made in reading the title as “Meaning of Life,” because that choice of preposition is crucial. The “of” question delves into trying to ascertain the mystery of life, while “in” implies that we create meaning (and thus answer the “of”). Singer dives into Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Plato, Tolstoy, Hegel, Camus, Santayana, Heidegger, Sartre, Shaw, Spinoza, Shakespeare; he evaluates what each of these heavy hitters has contributed and places it neatly in his framework for how to create meaning. Singer divides his work into five sections, exploring life, death, meaning, and lives of meaning/significance, then his conclusion. This is a book I dare not quote extensively from, at least not yet. It will probably remain in constant rotation with me as I endlessly re-read it to try and peel back the densely packed thoughts into something manageable by my own meager head.

Surely we may agree that human existence cannot be meaningful unless it is imaginative – which is to say, unless it surmounts the routine, repetitive, mechanical elements in life by using them for purposive activity that stimulates our thought with new perspectives, sharpens our sensations while also gratifying them, awakens our emotions to fresh possibilities of expression, and in general encourages the onward flow of consciousness to explore unknown capacities of our being. A life that is boring or without novelty is not meaningful for us.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

As I mull over the idea of writing a biography, I was pleased to pick up this tremendous example of what a bio should be: well-written, well-researched, good pacing and enough historical background to fill in the gaps but not overwhelm. JPK’s life was always an outsider struggle, the Irish-Catholic trying to break into the Boston Brahmins, the stock market jockey horsing around in Hollywood, the ambassador to Britain who refused to wear the required knee breeches at court (“Grown men do not appear in public in short pants.”) His fierce loyalty to family and friends is legendary, along with his work ethic, charm, hospitality, and penchant for having affairs. He created a fortune for his family by exploiting the stock market, then became SEC chairman to close the loopholes that he know about. His public relations team constantly tended to the Kennedy image, feeding puff stories to major news outlets to keep JPK in the press, and when his boys were poised to take over the political reins, to keep Joe Jr. and Jack in the press. And then the chaos of unending tragedy begins, with Rosemary’s botched lobotomy, then Joe Jr’s death in WW2, daughter Kick (Kathleen)’s plane crash, JFK’s assassination, and RFK’s assassination. The old man crushed in his mute post-stroke state seems to collapse into a pile of ashes, never to rise again.

One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Women’s Suffrage Movement

This anthology of essays serves as a companion piece to the documentary celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. The nineteen essays start from the early days of the republic (from Abigail Adam’s reminder to husband John to “Remember the Ladies” when writing the new code of laws, to New Jersey’s 1776 Constitution allowing women’s votes), to the famous Seneca Falls convention declaring women’s rights, uproar over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, through the 1920 ratification (thank you, Tennessee), and to present day activism. I was most intrigued by the division that happened post-Civil War as women were told they needed to wait because it was the black man’s hour. One section of the suffragists supported the new amendments (despite the first inclusion of the word “male” in the Fourteenth), while the other opposed the Fifteenth because they wanted universal suffrage, not just for black males. Stanton and Anthony welcomed the cash infusion from “harlequin and semi-lunatic” (and also racist) George Train; as Stanton explained, “If the Devil himself had come up and said ladies I will help you establish a paper I should have said Amen!”
No anthology would be complete without the black stain of Victoria Woodhull and her speeches about “free love,” which were ahead of their time and served to set the movement back a few decades; on the bright side, Woodhull was the first woman to announce a presidential candidacy, with Frederick Douglass as her vice president. Another area I was exposed to for the first time was the NWSA militant strategy pursued in the 1870s of claiming the right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment, blatantly ignoring the second section’s specification of “male” and focusing on the “all persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States and … no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens…” The ladies voted, were arrested, took it to the Supreme Court which ruled against this strategy (New Departure).
Other sections deal with how the Western states gradually allowed suffrage, black women’s participation in the suffrage movement, Jane Addams’ role, Francis Willard and the importance of the temperance activists, and the militancy of the early twentieth century activists like Alice Paul. It’s a comprehensive and well-researched glimpse into the various stages of the century-long struggle to attain the right to vote.

Penny from Heaven

I picked up this book at a recent book swap after a children’s librarian sang its praises. Eleven-year-old Penny deals with her first summer job delivering groceries with her cousin, digs for buried money on her grandmother’s land, hopes that her uncle (who lives in his car and wears slippers) will marry her widowed mother, investigates how her father died to varying success, is embarrassed by her grandfather in front of local boys, sneaks out to the pool and the beach despite dire warnings from her mother that she’ll get polio, and suffers a serious injury with a laundry wringer. Her mother begins dating the milkmen to Penny’s disgust, although she moves past this when he visits her in the hospital and they get to know each other. The author does a great job sneaking in bits of history like the anti-Italian sentiment during WW2 which inspired FDR’s signing of Proclamation 2527 designating 600k non-naturalized Italians as “enemy aliens” obliged to carry pink enemy id booklets and turn in weapons, radios, cameras, flashlights. Good read for adults and kids alike.

The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from History of Woman Suffrage, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association

The original History of Woman Suffrage is an enormous six-volume tome. The Buhles do us a great service by handpicking selections into a more palatable 450 page book. Made up of transcriptions of speeches and declarations at conventions and addresses to Congress, it is a trove of primary source material. Some memorable bits:
* Antoinette Brown attempted to speak at the World Temperance Convention in 1853. Horace Greeley’s inane comments in the Tribune encapsulate her attempt as “This convention has completed three of its four business sessions, and the results may be summed up as follows: First Day – Crowding a woman off the platform; Second Day – Gagging her; Third Day – Voting that she shall stay gagged. Having thus disposed of the main question, we presume the incidentals will be finished this morning.”
* Susan B Anthony’s guidance on how to address a mixed audience, “It is perfectly right for a gentleman to say ‘ladies and gentlemen,’ but a lady should say ‘gentlemen and ladies.’ You mention your friend’s name before you do your own.”
* The transcript of United States of America vs Susan B. Anthony, Circuit Court, Northern District of New York, June 17-18,1873. Arrested for voting in the 1872 election, the judge did not allow the jury to decide and simply handed down a guilty verdict. When asked if the prisoner had anything to say as to why the sentence should not be pronounced, Anthony makes an eloquent and impassioned plea. The judge tries to stop her, but she continues despite being ordered to sit down. “As then the slaves who got their freedom must take it over, or under, or through the unjust forms of law, precisely so now must women, to get their right to a voice in this Government, take it; and I have taken mine, and mean to take it at every possible opportunity.” After being fined $100, Anthony announces her refusal to pay, mentioning her $10,000 debt incurred by publishing her paper to educate women to “rebel against your man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison, and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation in the Government.” She closes with “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was tapped by Bertha Potter Palmer to design a mural for the Women’s Building of the 1893 Expo in Chicago, entitled Modern Woman. Cassatt was at the height of her renown in Paris but unknown in America, so she jumped on the chance for exposure. In this enormous triptych, the main panel is Young Women Plucking he Fruits of Knowledge or Science, which flips the classical interpretation of Genesis and Eve’s apple-picking to empower women and wriggle out from the “sinful” nature of such a quest. The left panel is Young Girls Pursuing Fame, sadly a groundbreaking idea that women had the potential to accomplish immortal feats. The right panel is Art, Music, Dancing where young women are playing music and dancing for their own amusement, not to entertain anyone else.
It’s my fault for being so interested in a topic that I over-research it and become hypercritical whenever an author misleads on a particular point. I thought I would enjoy a refresher on Webster’s views about Cassatt, suffrage, and the 1893 World Expo, since her lecture on the topic at the NYPL last month sent me spiraling to find more information. But her writing style, questionable sources, and lack of clear intent left me cold. Her parenthetical explanations are out of place in a scholarly exploration, and even worse, are irrelevant (see p 13 of the Introduction with her explanation of why she deems Cassatt an “emancipated woman”). On the source front, she quotes from Reid Badger’s The Great American Fair to say that “just as Columbus had once discovered America, the Columbian Exposition now discovered women.” Badger’s original statement qualifies this with “it was often remarked that…” The original quote is actually Bertha Potter Palmer, in her address during the dedication ceremonies that launched the fair: “Even more important than the discovery of Columbus, which we are gathered together to celebrate, is the fact that the General Government has just discovered woman.” (Source: Dedicatory and Opening Ceremonies of the World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893) A final rant is about Webster misstating facts in her lecture last month; a question from the audience about what happened to the Cassatt mural was brushed off by Webster saying it was lost after the Fair was over. In her book, however, she details that the mural was in Palmer’s mansion for eighteen years post-Fair and sustained a bit of water damage which was to be repaired once it found a permanent home, of which the University of Notre Dame was suggested. After that point, the trail goes cold on the Cassatt mural. (Webster boasts that she personally spent a year looking for it.) Webster also dissented to a question of if Cassatt met Bertha Potter Palmer in Paris, but contradicts herself in her own book. Moral of the story is not to give a lecture on a book you wrote a decade prior until you re-read the book?

Art: Conversations With Paul Gsell

One book begets another, continued. Research on Bertha Potter Palmer led me to peek inside her personal library, gifted to the Ringling Museum of Art, where I discovered Rodin’s thoughts on art. Reading this book on line for an art museum felt a bit too earnest, but I did it anyway.
Rodin speaks his mind to Gsell across many interviews. His great point is that our age (1910) is “one of engineers and manufacturers, not artists.”

In modern life, utility is what people want. We are forced to improve existence materially. Every day science invents new means of feeding, dressing, or transporting men. It manufactures bad products economically to give dubious pleasures to the greatest number… The spirit, thinking, dreaming are no longer issues. Art is dead.
Art is contemplation. It is the delight of the mind that penetrates nature and divines the spirit by which nature itself is animated. It is the joy of intelligence that sees clearly into the universe and creates the universe anew by endowing it with consciousness. Art is the most sublime mission of man since it is the exertion of the mind trying to understand the world and to make the world understood.
But today, humanity believes it can do without Art. It does not want to meditate, contemplate, dream. It wants to enjoy itself physically. It is indifferent to lofty and profound truths: it merely appeases its corporeal appetites. Mankind at present is bestial: it has no use for artists.

Rodin invites Gsell to his studio to see him work, where several nude models (men and women) move around or rest. They are paid to constantly move about with the freedom of life, which allows him to discover the expression of feelings in all parts of the body. Rodin leads Gsell through his ideas about modeling, movement, drawing and color.
“There is nothing ‘ugly’ in Art except that which is without ‘character,’ that is to say, that which offers neither outer nor inner truth. The ugly in Art is that which is false; that which is artificial…”

There is no rule that can stop a sculptor from creating a beautiful work in his own way. And what does it matter if this be sculpture or literature if the public finds in it reward and pleasure? Painting, sculpture, literature, music are closer to one another than is generally believed. They express all the feelings of the human soul in the presence of nature.