Last Night

Terrible book, although you can derive some pleasure from laughing in your sleeve at the book blurb that proclaims “from a writer whose every book is a literary event, a superbly accomplished work of fiction.” It’s amusing yet depressing to read Salter’s women – he claims such supremacy in painting their addled pictures, women who scream and taunt and tease, and the idiot men who fall into the arms of their mistresses (or gay lovers) after they’ve delivered a fatal syringe to help the wife ease her way into death. (That one doesn’t end well– the wife stumbles downstairs the next morning to find the entangled pair, the syringe didn’t work.) After he thinks he mercy-kills his wife, the most mind-numbing, musta-been-written-by-a-dude lines emerge (my comments in parentheses):
He led her (the mistress), in a short skirt and blouse, to a room to one side of the front door and made her sit on the bed. She was taking slow breaths. – Susanna. – Yes. – I need you. She more or less heard him. Her head was thrown back like that of a woman longing for God. – I shouldn’t have drunk so much, she murmured. He began to unbutton her blouse (sidenote– only men write “blouse” anymore and I think it’s only for the effect of being able to unbutton it). – No, she said, trying to rebutton it. He was unfastening her brassiere (Ditto). Her gorgeous breasts emerged. (Really?) He could not take his eyes from then. He kissed them passionately. (sigh) She felt herself moved to the side as he pulled down the cover of the white sheets. She tried to speak again, but he put his hand over her mouth and pushed her down (lovely). He devoured her… (blah blah, pornography).
An achingly awful book that you should avoid, don’t be lured in by the siren song of Susan Sontag promising that she looks forward to each and every one of Salter’s books as if they are straight from god.

The Modern World of Neith Boyce: Autobiography and Diaries

Yet another bundle of memories about a turn of 20th century woman, this time via a somewhat poorly-executed collection of Neith Boyce’s works. From the included autobiography and diaries, you get hints that this was an extraordinary woman who was experimenting with the rest of the modernist movement, writing plays, novels, short stories, poetry. Largely remembered now as part of a Greenwich Village literary couple (Mrs. Hutchins Hapgood), she was published in “all the literary standard-bearers of her time” – national magazines and small California works. She made her living through writing but disappeared from the world’s stage after 1920. Born in Indiana in 1872, all her siblings die of diphtheria in 1880 yet she survives, moves with her mother and father to Los Angeles where her father co-founded the LA Times. They move again to Boston, then to New York where Neith starts publishing stories for Vogue and becomes a reporter for Commercial Advertiser in 1897. At this last publication her coworker Hapgood starts pursing her, but she doesn’t want to get married and give up her writing or autonomy. Spoiler alert, she ends up marrying him and having 4 children. They live in New York, Chicago, Florence (Italy), finally settling in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In Italy she becomes friends with Gertrude Stein and helps her get her first book (Three Lives, 1909) published. She’s also pals with Dos Passos & Hemingway.
This book itself is a terrible way to introduce yourself to Neith’s writing. Her autobiography is written with made up names and contains very little in the way of interesting or likeable writing. Ditto for Italy Diary. Only parts I enjoyed were related to Gertrude Stein, due to my current obsession with her. I need to find a collection of Neith’s other writing to give it a chance.

Italy, 1903 July:
We enjoyed Gertrude’s visit, though she rather got on my nerves at times by her habit of not bathing and wearing the same clothes all the time. She talks amusingly… Most astonishing thing about Gertrude is that she sits out on the hillside at midday in the full sun, without a hat, sits there for an hour or more and comes in literally streaming with sweat, can’t see how she does it, even Italians fear the midday sun. She doesn’t like baths in the tub, perhaps that’s her way of bathing!

Italy, 1903 June:
Gertrude Stein came in the afternoon and we all went to walk in the Cascine. It was hot but the river, trees and all were lovely. Gertrude dined with us – we had a separate table and a bad dinner, as we were very late. After dinner went to Cascine again, to hear nightingales, which didn’t materialize – then drove down to Gambrinus’ and had coffee and ices. Gertrude smoked – not usual in public! A pleasant evening – she is intelligent and easy.

Italy, 1903 July:
Gertrude Stein appeared unexpectedly after dinner… She comes from Rome, where the people are much amused by the death of the Pope she says…. She says what amuses the Italians is that he was elected Pope because he seemed likely to die at any moment but he lived 25 years! She gave me some valuable pointers on pneumonia and food for infants. Some jolly walks in afternoons with Gertrude. One day to Lugliano which seemed more beautiful at second sight. Even Gertrude enthusiastic. Discussion about atmosphere in Italy and the picturesque and the beautiful. G said there was no paintable atmosphere in Italy as compared with France or England, which were picturesque with low skies, etc. while Italy was just beautiful.

The Starched Blue Sky of Spain

I’m overdosing on memoirs by women who lived during the turn of the 20th century and details about their respective lives are starting to commingle in my head. Josephine Herbst was born in Iowa in 1892, made her way to college at UC Berkeley then to New York then Berlin and Paris in the 1920s. Back to New York with husband John Herrmann with whom she breaks in 1935 after a jaunt to Russia in 1930. Spain’s civil war draws her in 1937. Pals with Katherine Anne Porter, Hemingway. Childhood journey from Iowa to Oregon via train with no dining car but with a train car with upright stove with two burners and a woman making fried eggs. She has luxurious descriptions of hunkering down in the winter in a farmhouse in Connecticut, both stoves going full blast and snow blocking the window inch by inch, they would write during the day and read aloud to each other at night:

The setting of that room is so vivid, I can see it all, and myself lying on the bed with red slippers dangling from my feet and my head propped upon one hand. I can hear the soft plop of snow on the window and see how the pear-colored light fell on the reader’s hands. There were times, when we came to a work I already knew, when I let the words flow over me like water, hearing and not hearing, while some other self burrowed in the dark, sorting out those thoughts that were so manifold and evanescent, or reviewed the past, yesterday or the year before, or speculated on the present. Everything fused, fleetingly, in a flux and a ferment, fired by a spark from the words being spoken while you waited, expectant, for the passage that jubilantly intoxicates the heart.

Hide and Seek

Meh. Jessamyn West has popped up on my reading radar a few times in the last year and I finally settled in to read this one, a memoir of her childhood and an encomium on solitude. She’s perched on the edge of the Colorado river for a few months of solitary writing, living alone in a trailer once hubby Max flies back to take care of some work. Her reading list includes Thoreau (frequent references to him throughout the text make it seem like they’re roommies), Hazlitt, Belloc, Sir Thomas Browne, Christy Brown, Eudora Welty, William Stafford, Josephine Johnson. She recounts a journey with her family across country, headed back East where she must put on a skirt and ditch her Western pants to be taken seriously. The family has a collapsible oven, portable stove, and does all their cooking on the road:

The big meal took place at night when travel for the day was over. Before it was dark, we stopped in some quiet spot off the road: schoolyard or churchyard or graveyard. Or riverbank. Or woods-lot clearing. Or abandoned barn. We had no tents. While the men cranked up the beds and made them, Mama and I cooked. We ate on tombstones or stumps or the steps of schoolhouses.

Ah solitude:

Alone, alone! For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino. The prohibition against drink was a sometime thing. The prohibition against solitude is forever… It is not easy to be solitary unless you are also born ruthless. Every solitary repudiates someone… Female solitaries suffer more than their male counterparts… When a woman asks to be alone, not alone like Garbo, who asked only for a little privacy out of sight of her fans, but alone, alone, truly alone, separated from mother and father, husband and children, woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike. Men, in this instance (as in most), consider themselves on the side of the Lord God.

On admitting that you get more pleasure from someone leaving than arriving:

Has a person arriving ever given me the pleasure of a person leaving? A door opening, the joy of a door closing? These are terrible questions to be asking yourself at age twelve.

Slightly interesting rant about housekeeping:

I do not understand why there are so many more books about cooking than housekeeping. Is taste more primary than what is visual and tactile? do the recipes appeal to the technologist in a technological age? The alchemist? IS the recipe a formula? Do you combine this and that, apply heat, and chemistry takes over? There are no formulas for housekeeping.


Starting to dive deep into Stein’s oeuvre, I wanted to understand more about her relationship with Picasso, like how much they influenced each other, did Stein start experimenting with language before or during their friendship, did they goad each other on, how valuable were Stein’s salons to his creative process, etc. Some bits are revealed in the book, that Pablo was a literary man and chose writers for friends instead of painters:

His friends in Paris were writers rather than painters, why have painters for friends when he could paint as he could paint.
It was obvious that he did not need to have painters in his daily life and this was true all his life.
He needed ideas, anybody does, but not ideas for painting, no, he had to know those who were interested in ideas, but as to knowing how to paint he was born knowing all of that.

She met Picasso in 1905 after she purchased one of his paintings (The Girl with a Basket of Flowers), and he asked her to pose for a portrait. She posed for him 80 times during the winter but left for Spain before painting her head, which he did from memory when he returned. He was again in Spain in 1909, and returned to Paris with the beginnings of cubism in some landscapes he’d done.

At this time (1908-1909) he liked to say and later too he used to repeat it, there are so few people who understand and later when every one admires you there are still the same few who understand, just as few as before.

At the beginning of the war (WWI), they spotted a camouflaged truck going by and Picasso was amazed, saying “yes, it is we who made that– that is cubism.” It was by way of Matisse that Picasso got into African sculpture, aside from which “no one had ever tried to express things seen not as one knows them but as they are when one sees them without remembering having looked at them.” The cubism of Picasso was an “effort to make a picture of these visible things and the result was disconcerting for him and for the others, but what else could he do, a creator can only do one thing, he can only continue, that is all he can do.”
When “the academy” compares Picasso to Raphael, Picasso complains, “They say I can draw better than Raphael and probably they are right, perhaps I do draw better but if I can draw as well as Raphael I have at least the right to choose my way and they should recognize it, that right, but no, they say no.”
As he starts to use more and more pasted paper in his pictures, Picasso said “paper lasts quite as well as paint and after all if it all ages together, why not, and he said further, after all, later, no one will see the picture, they will see the legend of the picture, the legend that the picture has created, then it makes no difference if the picture lasts or does not last. Later they will restore it, a picture lives by its legend, not by anything else.”
Stein details his progression from Toulouse-Lautrec period through Blue period, Rose period, Cubism, Surrealism and beyond. Picasso becomes famous, “So success had begun, not a great success, but enough success.” Hilarious story that at this point Picasso’s house is robbed and burglars took all his linen:

It made me think of the days when all of them were unknown and when Picasso said that it would be marvellous if a real thief came and stole his pictures or his drawings. Friends, to be sure, took some of them, stole them if you like from time to time, pilfered if you like, but a real professional burglar, a burglar by profession, when Picasso was not completely unknown, came and preferred to take the linen.

You can hear echoes of herself in this statement about genius:

Picasso only sees something else, another reality. Complications are always easy but another vision than that of all the world is very rare. That is why geniuses are rare, to complicate things in a new way that is easy, but to see the things in a new way that is really difficult, everything prevents one, habits, schools, daily life, reason, necessities of daily life, indolence, everything prevents one, in fact there are very few geniuses in the world.

The Peregrine

More aptly titled The Peregrines, since he followed at least three different peregrines as he tracked them through the winter. Is there such a thing as misogyny toward birds? His descriptions of the falcon always seemed to denigrate her while the tiercel is a swooping majesty (“sleepy, lethargic, eyes had a brown ceramic glaze” for the female hawk vs. “crisp, golden, muscular undulations” for the male). I know, ridiculous. This 1967 book by an Englishman determined to follow the progress of these magnificent creatures, now threatened to extinction by pesticides. He seems a bit clumsy, flushing birds and creeping ever so closely to the hawks to test their limits, even intruding on their post-kill dinners. Yet he is persistent, always there, and feels that the birds grow used to his presence. Quite an enjoyable book for anyone who loves nature, especially birders. His descriptions are pure poetry: “an hour of drenching rain extinguished the day. The valley was a sopping brown sponge, misty and dun.” Or his exposition on mud:

Mud was deep in the lanes and along the sea-wall; thick ochre mud, like paint; oozing glutinous mud that seemed to sprout on the marsh, like fungus; octopus mud that clutched and clung and squelched and sucked; slippery mud, smooth and treacherous as oil; mud stagnant; mud evil; mud in the clothes, in the hair, in the eyes; mud to the bone. On the east coast in winter above or below the tide-line, man walks in water or in mud; there is no dry land. Mud is another element. One comes to love it, to be like a wading bird, happy only at the edges of the world where land and water meet, where there is no shade and nowhere for fear to hide.

The feeling while out in nature, returning to reality, to real time:

Time is measured by a clock of blood. When one is active, close to the hawk, pursuing, the pulse races, time goes faster; when one is still, waiting, the pulse quietens, time is slow. Always, as one hunts for the hawk, one has an oppressive sense of time contracting inwards like a tightening spring. One hates the movement of the sun, the steady alteration of the light, the increase of hunger, the maddening metronome of the heart-beat. When one says ‘ten-o-clock’ or ‘three-o-clock,’ this is not the grey and shrunken time of towns; it is the memory of a certain fulmination or declension of light that was unique to that time and that place on that day, a memory so vivid to the hunter as burning magnesium.

On trying to blend into the environment:

As so often on spring evenings, no birds sing near me, while all the distant trees and bushes ring with song. Like all human beings, I seem to walk within a hoop of red-hot iron, a hundred yards across, that sears away all life. When I stand still, it cools, and slowly disappears.

The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff

This book had to be retrieved from the 3rd floor page desk of the library, and the clerk clutched it to his chest, proclaiming, “It’s over 100 years old! We shouldn’t be circulating it.” Um, yep. I promised I’d take good care of the 1890 edition of Marie Bashkirtseff’s journals and zipped away before he could stop me. Oddly, I also picked up Van Gogh’s Dear Theo autobiography in the same trip, so found myself curled up with two vastly different introspections from nineteenth-century artists. Bashkirtseff (In The Studio, and The Meeting are two of her most well-known pieces) starts her journal from age 12 (scandal later hit when revealed that her birth date–1860? no, 1858– had been fudged by a few years to make her seem more of a prodigy) and undulates with tiresome teenage love drama. Thus I skimmed it with interest, and can’t really chalk it up into the “read” column, but want to record some of the bits.
Highly aware of her life and legacy, she writes a preface to the journals (sidenote– she dies of consumption at age 24/26):

When I am dead people will read my life, which to me seems very remarkable. Were it not so it would be the climax of misery… To live, to have so much ambition, to suffer, weep, struggle – and then oblivion! … oblivion… as if I had never been. Should I not live long enough to become famous, this Journal will be of interest to naturalists; for the life of a woman must always be curious, told thus day by day, without any attempt at posing; as if no one in the world would ever read it, yet written with the intention of being read…

After pages and pages of talking about how pretty she is:

It’s perhaps silly to praise myself so much; but authors always describe their heroine, and I am my own heroine. And it would be ridiculous to humble and abase myself owing to a false modesty. We may abase ourselves in speaking when we are sure of being lifted up; but in writing, everybody will think I am speaking the truth, and so they would think me plain and stupid – too absurd.

Perhaps I snapped the covers shut on this too soon because I’m also a journal-keeper, and her truth exposes my own weaknesses as well.

This Journal contains my whole life, my quietest moments are those when I am writing… I believe that there’s no photograph as yet of a woman’s entire existence, of all her thoughts, yes, all, all. It will be interesting.

I skipped ahead 400 pages to get a sense of her life in Paris as a painter. She’s battling sickness and hearing loss:

It is raining; it is cold, a sharp biting cold; it is dark. What is more, I feel like the weather, and cough incessantly.
Ah! what misery and what an atrocious existence! At half-past three it is no longer light enough to paint, and if I read at night my eyes are tired for painting in the morning. The few people whom I might see I avoid for fear of not hearing what they say. On some days I can hear very well, and not on others, and then it is a torment I cannot describe.

Her solitary ways flow into viewing art as well, something I wholeheartedly agree with:

I went to the Louvre. I always go there alone, knowing I shall not meet any acquaintances there on Sunday morning. One only sees properly when alone.

And that’s it. There’s 700 pages of this stuff, and I don’t have the stomach for it. Frankly, Van Gogh’s letters to Theo are drawing my attention right now, very hard to compare this against that. Not due to quality of art produced (i.e. fame) but more for the sentiment expressed in VG that seems hard to come by in Marie’s journal.
Discovered via Jane Marcus’s essay Art & Anger via Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains

Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who penned this tale through several letters to her sister during her 1873 travels back from the Hawaiian Islands through San Francisco to Sacramento (“very repulsive city”) to Lake Tahoe and Truckee (strange retelling of the Donner Party wherein only 2 of the party die), through Utah, Cheyenne, finally to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. She arrives in the full heat of September, black flies and bugs aplenty. From Fort Collins she hires a buggy driven “by a profoundly melancholy young man” who got lost several times but finally deposited her in a canyon at the house of Mr. Chalmers whose hard and sad-looking wife said they would take her for five dollars a week if she’d make herself agreeable. Bird decides to stay on in the wretched accommodations – an unfinished cabin in which a fox or skunk intrudes at night, snakes, sleeping on the floor.

This is “a life in which nothing happens.” When the buggy disappeared, I felt as if I had cut the bridge behind me. I sat down and knitted for some time – my usual resource under discouraging circumstances. I really did not know how I should get on. There was no table, no bed, no basin, no towel, no glass, no window, no fastening on the door. The roof was in holes, the logs were unchinked, and one end of the cabin was partially removed! Life was reduced to its simplest elements.

Somehow she escapes from the Chalmers after a failed attempt to lead her to Estes Park despite Chalmers bragging that he could lead her there blindfolded. She buys a horse from him and makes it to Estes Park from Longmount with the help of two young men headed that way. Her first encounter with the desperado “Mountain Jim” has him retelling the recent exploit where a grizzly bear ripped his eye out. She finds him a decent man, treats him with as much respect as he treats her, and he leads her up to Long’s Peak and various other spots throughout the park. The accommodations aren’t much better in Estes Park, as winter sets in snow covers her bed frequently, the men hold her ink pot near the fire so it doesn’t freeze, food becomes scarce. A “shallow, arrogant youth” appears at their doorstep and greedily consumes more than his share of the rations – although there is a funny story about her mistakenly using cayenne pepper instead of ginger in a cake that the boy eats in the middle of the night – choking, coughing, groaning. It’s so cold that eggs have to be kept on the coolest part of the stove to keep them fluid, a few of the calves freeze to death. On the verge of catching cold, the men suggest a trapper’s remedy of hot water with a pinch of cayenne pepper – “a rapid cure.”
She’s pretty much a bad ass, riding 600 miles alone through intensely wintery and snowy conditions, managing to survive in sub-zero temperatures, helping rustle up the cattle along with the dudes. There are hints that she loves Jim, but ultimately she leaves him and he’s killed a few months later by another of the men.

In our sunless, misty climate you do not know the influence which persistent fine weather exercises on the spirits. I have been ten months in almost perpetual sunshine, and now a single cloudy day makes me feel quite depressed.

Discovered by B @ The Green Arcade

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf

Another classic from the Second-Wave, this choreopoem was first performed in December 1974 at Bacchanal, a woman’s bar near Berkeley, CA. Poetry in bars was a San Francisco thing– from Spec’s to Minnie’s Can-Do Club (in the Haight). Ntozake Shange bustled from Sonoma State where she was studying in the Women’s Studies program down to San Francisco to learn dance, discovering both parts of her identity– woman and African. The twenty poems are performed by seven women in different colors of the rainbow, interspersed with dancing, singing. Topics range from graduation, love, pregnancy, abortion, rape, discovery of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Brilliant look about what real life is like as a struggling poor person in America, scattering the cockroaches with piercing daylight. One minor slip up or ticket or car towed and boom! you’re jobless/homeless. She makes great points that you can only save money if you have money – all those ideas of saving money by buying in bulk only work if you have the upfront cash to do so. And forgive her the one indulgence – smoking – it gives her necessary energy after 10 hour shifts on her way to her next job. The inhumanity of scheduling two jobs, trying to balance that plus school plus family, if a car breaks down, if someone gets sick, always being a thread away from out on the streets. Having to work shitty jobs where you have a script you can’t deviate from, no braincells required, forgive the zombie-attitudes of the retail or fast-food workers– they are simply trying to survive. One by one she eviscerates the myths– no one is having welfare-babies, it’s impossible to eat healthy when you’re snatching meals from the various restaurants/bars you wait tables at, health care in this country is still way too expensive. She shares one playground story where her daughter skins her knee and Tirado kisses it then sends her back to play, another woman asked if she wanted to borrow her antiseptic but Tirado dismissed her, the woman wishes she could be so nonchalant about her baby being hurt… “my brain started demanding I cross the vast gulf between ‘not making a big fuss over a skinned knee’ and ‘nonchalant about my child being hurt.’ They’re different things.”
Tirado starts by breaking down the definitions:

Poverty is when a quarter is a fucking miracle. Poor is when a dollar is a miracle. Broke is when five bucks is a miracle. Working class is being broke, but doing so in a place that might not be so run-down. Middle class is being able to own some toys and to live in a nice place – and by “nice,” I don’t mean fancy; I mean that you can afford to buy your own furniture and not lease it and that while you still worry about bills, you aren’t constantly worried about homelessness. And rich is anything above that.

She has major dental issues as a the result of a car wreck years ago:

I don’t allow people to take my picture anymore because nobody can ever just take a picture. Everyone wants you to grin like an insane person. They will cajole and wheedle and bring the whole group photo to a screeching halt until you finally, shamefully, admit that you can’t, that you don’t want a picture of you like this to exist.

The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy wrote a dandy of a book that’s been tossed insensibly into the dustbin of history. Hilarious, tart, wry, cynical and romantic all rolled up into one big carpet and danced upon. Sally Jay Gorce, American in Paris living for 2 years off her rich uncle’s largess, delivers deadpan jokes and drama throughout this late 1950s novel (pub’d 1958). We first encounter Gorce wearing an evening dress in broad daylight, altered with a large red leather belt to make less conspicuous, waiting for her laundry to be done, forgetting her appointment to meet her lover Teddy at the Sorbonne once she runs into someone she knows from home: Larry. They grab a drink at a cafe:

Suddenly, without quite knowing why, I found I was very glad to have run into him. And this was odd, because two Americans re-encountering each other after a certain time in a foreign land are supposed to clamber up their nearest lampposts and wait tremblingly for it all to blow over….
“I like it here, don’t you?” said Larry, indicating the cafe with a turn of his head.
I had to admit I’d never been there before.
He smiled quizzically. “You should come more often,” he said. “It’s practically the only nontourist trap to survive on the Left Bank. It’s real,” he added.
Real, I thought… whatever that meant. I looked at the Sorbonne students surging around us, the tables fairly rocking under their pounding fists and thumping elbows. The whole vast panoramic carpet seemed to be woven out of old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair.

She breaks up with Teddy that night, bored with his wife and other mistress and now in love with Larry. She devours the plays of Williams, Saroyan, Shaw in order to get a part in the one-act plays Larry is directing. Her neighbor at the hotel she’s living in, Judy, introduces her to the Hard Core, a group of artists and individuals who sit at the foot of the Ancient in cafes:

A rowdy bunch on the whole, they were most of them so violently individualistic as to be practically interchangeable. For instance, there was a pair of identical blue-bereted brown beards, and although each of them had markedly different personalities – one boring and pompous, the other gay and positively skittish – Beard Boring and Beard Bubbly, in fact – I found myself avoiding them both, as I was never sure which was which.

This rowdy band of marauders goes from cafe to cafe to club to bar, one night winding up in jail. Jokes fly furiously: “I’m going to start a Left Bank Magazine and call it Anything Gauche.” One of the painters, Jim, asks her to be his model, begins to sketch her. They end up in a somewhat domestic relationship and being invited to dinner at other couples’ homes. Jim reciprocates with an invitation to his home and Sally is upset because she doesn’t know how to cook:

“Marion de Wald cooks,” he said grimly. “She does all the cooking and looks after two kids as well.”
I tried to remember one minute the whole weekend when Marion and I weren’t either feeding people, or clearing up from doing it, or preparing to do it again. And presumably she never stopped doing it. But I couldn’t quite see why just because she did, I should. I mean, here I was practically fresh out of the egg, everything was so new to me, and here was everybody telling me to stop drifting, and start living in this world; telling me to start cooking, and sewing, and cleaning, and I don’t know what. Taking care of my grandchildren.

The final part, she’s whisked off to the Basque coast as part of a merry four-some with Larry, his girlfriend, and Bax. They discover a movie being filmed, get parts as extras (except Bax, who is cast as friend of the star). Sally slips away, terrified of Larry, knowing he sold her passport to the girlfriend of Crazy Eyes, meets up with Stefan and Max in Paris. At dinner, Stefan orders an avocado, compares it to the typical American girl – “hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing… so green, so eternally green.” Sally says she’s a dead avocado, not going to burst into bloom. Stefan mis-hears, “a dud one?” and Max raises his glass to “the dud avocado.” Later, she runs away to NYC to be a librarian, bumps into Max, whirlwind romance ending in marriage (BLAH) then to Japan for honeymoon.

My Brilliant Friend

Praise for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy echoes around the reading world these days, and I’ll add my few claps of applause to the din. The book follows two girls, Elena Greco and Lina Cerullo, living in an up-and-coming Naples neighborhood, from early childhood through age sixteen. Lina is the fearless, fierce one who sprouts into an unintentional beauty, Elena is the glasses-wearing studious one who keeps excelling in school but realizes that she pales in comparison to Lina’s innate smarts and writing talent. Vivid descriptions of adolescent pawing and the imminent threat of violence in the neighborhood should someone’s honor be besmirched. Lina, the daughter of a cobbler, convinces her father and brother to start making their own shoes, instead of just fixing them. She helps create the first pair, painstakingly over a few years, is disturbed by the greed she’s unleashed in her brother Rino. Her fiance, Stephano, buys the pair and convinces her father to go into business with him. At the end of the book, we spot the shoes on the feet of Lina’s tormentor, Marcello, who’d been refused by Lina despite gifts such as a television, jewelry.
The book is great in its depiction of the strong bonds of friendship between Lina and Elena. Most of the book comes from Elena’s perspective, and we see how important Lina is to her, how subjects dull if Lina is uninterested, how she co-opts Lina’s passions as her own. Lina gets library cards for each of her family members and uses them to check out books for herself. At the end of the year, the library recognizes it’s most frequent patrons, awarding the top 4 prizes to the members of the Cerullo family (although it’s only Lina who does the reading). At the end of this book, we leave Elena on the cusp of breaking up with Antonio (whom she doesn’t love) so that she can chase after Nino Sarratore. There’s also a great moment of realization she has riding with her friends to Lina’s wedding reception:

It was during that journey to Via Orazio that I began to be made unhappy by my own alienness. I had grown up with those boys, I considered their behavior normal, their violent language was mine. But for six years now I had also been following daily a path that they were completely ignorant of and in the end I had confronted it brilliantly. With them I couldn’t use any of what I learned every day, I had to suppress myself, in some way diminish myself. What I was in school I was there obliged to put aside or use treacherously, to intimidate them. I asked myself what I was doing in that car. They were my friends, of course, my boyfriend was there, we were going to Lila’s wedding celebration. But that very celebration confirmed that Lila, the only person I still felt was essential even though our lives had diverged, no longer belonged to us and, without her, every intermediary between me and those youths, that car racing through the streets, was gone.

The book begins with a frantic call from Lina’s son (also Rino), reporting her missing. Lila has had issues with “dissolving margins” since a night atop a roof watching fireworks, seeing her brother as a monster instead of friend. I assume books 2, etc will dip further into her disappearing act. “Brilliant friend” is a quote from Lina about Elena although throughout the book we’re assuming it’s Elena’s reference to Lina; it comes towards the end, as oddly a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately have derived their titles from end chapters.
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Corinne, or Italy

Madame de Staël (born Anne Louise Germaine Necker, major opponent of Napoleon & sent into exile by him) is a force to be reckoned with. Corinne was published in 1807 in French and immediately translated into English for a wider audience to gape and tremble at the powerful description of a creative woman celebrated throughout Italy for her talents yet stifled by English society. The book is a feminist classic, owned and referred to by all the nineteenth and twentieth-century greats. The story is of Corrine, an Englishwoman who flees her country to return to the home of her mother, Italy, in order to express herself fully, becoming a renowned poet and writer. She meets Oswald, Lord Nevil, a mournful Scotsman who can’t seem to shake the grief from his father’s death the year prior. Naturally he falls head over heels for Corrine, but why she reciprocates and loses her mind over him, I’m not sure. They gadabout all over Italy, the book becomes quite an Italian guidebook at this point, Naples, Florence, Rome, Venice, detailed descriptions of day-trips to see the local wonders. Oswald must leave to rejoin his regiment, he ventures back to England where the power of Corrine’s letters wanes and he falls under the spell of her half-sister, Lucile (it’s always a half-sister!), the blonde innocent fifteen year old whose freshness is in stark contrast to Corrine’s aged worldliness. But hark! Oswald’s dad has left explicit instructions that he NOT marry Corrine and that he should marry Lucile. Oswald struggles against this proclamation from the grave but only gives into the charm of Lucile once Corrine sends him back her ring with a note that he is free. Corrine has traveled to England then Scotland, only to witness the growing charms of Lucile, and sets Oswald free. She returns to Italy and declines in health, later dying dramatically after teaching Lucile and Oswald’s daughter how to play music and sing.

Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco

This is terrible to say, but I read this book concerned the whole time that I was getting bedbug bites. Clearly this book is of interest to the (again, terrible:) unwashed masses who congregate at the Main Library, evident in the water stains and general decrepitude of the book. The book contents are part exploration of homeless life and part sociological thesis statement, “To put it simply, Lee mostly saw homelessness as an outcome of his unchangeable orientation toward “shady places” and life’s “candy,” whereas Charlie’s tendency was to blame a hostile, fiercely unequal society that left him few alternatives. These profoundly dissonant perspectives, which I call sin-talk and system-talk, dominated the sidewalks and encampments of homeless in San Francisco.” The best bits were when she was recapping her dialoging with the men, retelling their stories. Precarious existence, forced out of sleeping in certain parts of the city, congregating in the Dogpatch area, but for how long now that development is happening apace there as well. The professional recyclers, robo-can, eking out a meager existence by finding scraps in the garbage of others, but having pride in their work, liking the feeling of doing an honest day’s work when nothing else is available to them. Prison culture spilling onto the streets, making people more violent when they’re in shelters or halfway homes. Written by a white Englishwoman, she focuses her study on the men on the streets, writing off women with an airy, “oh all the city services go to women and children first as they’re more likely victimized,” noting that the one woman she spotted wasn’t dumpster diving because “that’s man’s work, no woman should have to do that.” ???
There is no solution presented, only a blow-by-blow account of the build-up then break-down of city services available to these folks. Many of them don’t get food at soup kitchens because it consumes too much of the day to wait around. There is nowhere they are allowed to linger, to rest their weary bones, without being prodded by a police baton.

Cousin To Human

This 1960 book by Jane Mayhall is astounding for quality of writing and being completely forgotten. Rescued from oblivion by Tillie Olsen’s Silences, I scored a copy through the Link + system from the Fresno State library. Lacy Cole is a fifteen year old girl bopping about Louisville, KY, riding bikes with her pal Valeda, precociously learning piano by having watched her brother William through his years of lessons (there is no money for her lessons). Turns out, she’s a prodigy, a whiz at sight-reading, and can’t stand playing the Souza march without improvising and throwing in her own bits during the graduation ceremony. Her mother, Cleanth, was raised on a farm in eastern Kentucky and scrapes together the meager finances brought in by her foolish husband Norman, saving up to buy a dress for Lacy’s amateur talent show performance (this gets stolen by hubby and spent on a ridiculous sailing ship model), saving up to put William through pharmacy school, saving up to get Lacy to music school in the summer in Boston. Hubby spends all their money on a new car at Christmas, and after taking the family out for a ride, Cleanth demands that he take it back.
Valeda starts to run wild, drinking, hanging out with boys, and Lacy defends her honor from Mildred’s gossipy mouth by fighting her. Later, Valeda reveals that she and Mildred are in love. Lacy is smitten with her music teacher, Mr. Jackson, who pulls the usual stunt of “oh let’s go for a ride” but somehow pulls back after a sloppily applied kiss, goes no further. Out of guilt, he connects Lacy to the wealthy Mrs. Crocker, who has a party to introduce all the folks who will be in Boston for the summer. Here she meets Madame Zuleika, the center of attention, yet kind-hearted singer, and Dr. Sprichett, a fat, disheveled “genius” whose pawing of her hand reminds Lacy of the pawing of her hand at the talent show door.
Cleanth suffers an attack and is taken to the hospital, demanding that no one call Lacy at the Crocker party. Lacy arrives home to chaos, her mother is hospitalized for weeks, and then home to die. Her mother recognizes Lacy’s strength, a model of herself, millions of times stronger than brother William. Realizing death is near, Cleanth puts $5 in Lacy’s hand, the last of the money she’s scraped together. A neighbor comes to the door to tell Lacy that Valeda was killed in a car crash. Later, Cleanth dies. William’s wife Tessie immediately begins stripping the place clean, looking for things to take, including all of Cleanth’s jewelry. A terrible scene between William and Lacy where he tells her that it’s her fault Cleanth died, she wouldn’t spend the money on a doctor because she was saving it up for Lacy. In the end, she’s on a bus headed to Boston, cut off from every bit of her old life.