Dangerous Ages

Rarely do you close a book after reading its last lines and hear the echo of a standing ovation, “Bravo!” thrown across a century since its publication, having been completely unaware of the author’s existence. Such was the case with this, my first exposure to Rose Macaulay, whom I learned about via Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth a few weeks ago. Excuse the picture being pulled in for this entry– of course Amazon does not have this book, but I found this other Rose Macaulay cover instead and will probably put it on my list to gobble up next.
In the beginning, I was frightened. Too many adjectives. I thought Rose would turn out to be a half-talent, “sharp joy,” “shivered ecstatically,” “restless bitterness.” (Also the unforgivable “like nothing in the world except a cuckoo clock, a cuckoo shouted foolishly in the lowest boughs of the great elm across the silver lawn.”) We begin on Neville’s 43rd birthday, where she wakes, makes tea & bread & jam, then heads out for a pre-dawn swim before being accosted by her two children (in their early 20s). It’s a lovely family, and Neville’s own brothers and sisters are of high intellectual bent (minus her poor faking mother who pretends to have read books much to the agony of her children). This is July 1920, and talk is of the 1M extra women due to WW1 casualties. “Penelope’s baby’s come, by the way. A girl. Another surplus woman.”
Neville’s sister Nan is a independent writer, never married, free as the wind. While Neville struggles to figure out her purpose now that her children are gone (attempting to resume her studies to become a medical doctor but finding them too tedious to an atrophied brain), Nan struggles to figure out how to achieve contentedness, and discovers that her sisters are rooted to other people, decides to marry her friend Barry after all. Only, sad trombones, Barry has stopped waiting for Nan and fallen for Neville’s daughter Gerda (the foreshadowing of which pricks at you through all the early pages, your stomach sinks because you know what’s coming). On the coastal bicycling trip where Nan decides she’ll let Barry know that she’ll marry him after all, she invites Gerta & brother Kay, discovers that Barry’s in love with Gerda, and begins leading the foursome on wild daredevil adventures that nearly get them killed (drowning) and which Gerta feels obligated to keep up with (flying her off a cliff and breaking several bones, where Barry at last declares himself). Nan heads to Italy to avoid any witness of this duo’s love.
Meanwhile, Nan & Neville’s mother finds herself at age 63 at wits end, no projects, bored. She takes up psychoanalysis greedily, pouring out her boring tales at expensive hourly rates. There’s also the cunning character of the daughter in law, Rosalind, a psychoanalyst herself whom the family barely tolerates and she loves goading them on. Problems arise when Gerda won’t back off her conviction that marriage is a farce, that she and Barry can live in an open relationship forever.
Nan’s mother to her psychoanalyst:
“May I ask your daughter’s age?” “Nan is thirty-three.” “A dangerous age.” “All Nan’s ages,” said Mrs. Hilary, “have been dangerous. Nan is like that.” “As to that,” said Mr. Cradock, “we may say that all ages are dangerous to all people, in this dangerous life we live.”
Mrs. Hilary goes to Rome to “save” Nan from the gossips. They fight about nearly everything:

Nan was determined to keep the emotional pressure low for the rest of the day, and she was fairly competent at this when she tried. As Mrs. Hilary had equal gifts at keeping it high, it was a well-matched contest. When she left the Forum for a tea shop, both were tired out. The Forum is tiring; emotion is tiring; tears are tiring; quarreling is tiring; traveling through to Rome is tiring; all five together are annihilating.

Back at the seaside, three generations have varying ideas about time:

The rain beat steadily on wet asphalt roads; the edge of the cold sea tumbled and moaned; the noise of the fire flickering was like unsteady breathing, or the soft fluttering of wings.
“Time is so long,” thought Mrs. Hilary. “I can’t bear it.”
“Time gets on that quick,” thought May {the maid}. “I can’t keep up with it.”
“Time is dead,” thought Grandmamma. “What next?”

Kokoro

Mentioned as a classic work in Kate Beaton’s Step Aside Pops, I was intrigued by this book I’d never heard of. It’s structured in two parts, one through the eyes of a young student chasing after knowledge from a man he calls Sensei (whom he stalks at a beach resort then visits frequently in Tokyo), the second part through a long (slightly tedious) letter from Sensei to the student to explain his past before he kills himself. Sensei is mysterious in the first part, we understand something horribly tragic has happened to him to turn him away from all human society except his wife and the student. Only in the letter, we find out it’s the usual money & love trouble– inheritance stolen by an uncle, and some strange teeth-gnashing over falling in love with his future wife, but his friend K also falls in love with her, and K kills himself when he learns that Sensei is going to marry her. Yawn.
Great introduction by Meredith McKinney, setting the context for the story (pub’d in 1914) as after the tumultuous changes undergone in Japan, “such rapid change inevitably comes at a psychological cost” makes me think of what’s happening to San Francisco these days, but I digress. The author, Natsume Soseki, displays a catalog of women-hating phrases throughout:
* Upon first meeting Sensei’s wife, the student can only mention her beauty. Later, “She was not one of those modern women who takes a certain pride in calling attention to the fat that she is intelligent.”
* The student gives some clothes to Sensei’s wife to mend, and when she mentions having broken 2 needles already because they were quite difficult to sew, “For all her complaints, however, she did not seem to resent the work.” Oh, really.
* The student’s father lies dying at home. Everyone’s gathered around his bed, reminiscing. His mother “told the tale of how he had beaten her on the back with a broomstick. My brother and I had heard the story many times before…”
Words are more than vibrations:

I believe that a commonplace idea stated with passionate conviction carries more living truth than some novel observation expressed with cool indifference. It is the force of blood that drives the body, after all. Words are not just vibrations in the air, they work more powerfully than that, and on more powerful objects.

Refund

If I had purchased this book, I might actually have requested a refund, mostly for the sheer joy of getting a refund for Refund, but also to mitigate the tinge of disappointment. Karen Bender’s book was shortlisted for the National Book Award, along with A Little Life and The Turner House, both of which I enjoyed more than this collection of short stories. I’m hard-pressed to say exactly what it is about the stories that misses the mark for me– maybe it’s the overdose of nihilism that sours the effect of crisp writing. Someone starts shooting at a class reunion, another story has a kindergarten suffer through lockdown with a gunman on the loose, another has a couple renting out their TriBeCa loft to try to make some money right before 9/11. An old lady with dementia goes on a cruise to end her life. An elderly couple finally visits their daughter to see where she lives and get tired of her obsessing over every detail.

California- The Land of the Sun

The copy I procured from the library of Mary Hunter Austin’s lyrical prose-m, California- The Land of the Sun (read it online) was the second 1914 edition, sadly with most of its pictures torn out, the empty pages noted with precise librarian handwriting that “picture missing!”, and as you go through the book encountering yet another empty illustration page your heart droops just a little bit. Other readers added their own commentary to the empty pages, “The ingratitude of some person!” I guess it’s not a great sign for the text itself if I spend more time talking about the physicality of the book. As mentioned, this was pub’d in 1914, and the pages are super thick, so thick that I could not bear to dog-ear any pages b/c it would be like bending a tree branch.
To quote her section on San Francisco at length (emphasis mine):

And round about the foot of city and mountain the waters of the bay are blue, the hills are bluer. The hills melt down to greenness in the spring, the water runs to liquid emerald, flashing amber; the hills are tawny after rains, the waters tone to the turbid, clayey river-floods ; land and sea they pursue one another as lovers through changing moods of colour ; they have mists for mystery between revealing suns. Unless these things count for something, San Francisco is the very worst site in the world for a city. You take your heart in your mouth every time you go out to afternoon tea in the tram-cars that dip and swing like cockles at sea. They cut across streets so steep that grass grows between the cobbles where no traffic ever passes, to plunge down lanes of dwellings perched precariously as sea-birds’ nests on the bare bones of hills that for true hilliness shame Rome’s imperial seven. The bay side of the peninsula is mud, the Pacific side is sand. There great wasteful dunes blow up, they shift and pile, they take the contours of the wind-lashed waters — the very worst site in the world for a great city’s pleasure-ground, and yet somehow it is there.

For this city is one of those which have souls; it is a spirit sitting on a height, taking to itself form and the offices of civilisation.
This is a thing that we know, because we have seen the land shake it as a terrier shakes a rat, until the form of the city was broken ; it dissolved in smoke and flame. And then as a polyp of the sea draws out of the fluent water form and perpetuity for itself, we saw our city draw back its shapes of wood and stone, and statelier, more befitting a spirit that has endured so much. Nobody knows really what a city is except that it is something more than a collocation of houses. From Telegraph Hill, where the old semaphore stood, which signalled the far-between arrivals of ships around the Horn, you can see the trade of the world pass and repass the pillars of the Gate, the wall-sided warships. But none of these things really explain how San Francisco came to be clinging there to the leeward of a windy spit of land, like a great, grey sea-bird with palpitating wings.
True to her situation, San Francisco is nothing if not dramatic. One recalls that the earliest foundation was dedicated to Our Lady of Dolors, Nuestro Senora de Dolores ; the Indians fought here as they did nowhere else against Christian dominion. There were more burials than baptisms, and in the old cemetery of Yerba Buena the dead were so abandoned of all grace that the sand refused to hold them. One who spent his boyhood in the shifting purlieus of the old Laguna told me how in the hollows where the scrub oaks shrugged off the wind and the sand waved like water, the nameless coffins were covered and uncovered between a night and day. But if the dead could not hold their tenancy, the living succeeded. They did it by the very force of that dramatic instinct awakened by the plot and counterplot of natural forces.
No Greek tragedy moved to more relentless measures than the moral upheaval of ’56, when the whole city, in solemn funeral train behind the victim of one of those wild outbursts of lawlessness peculiar to the “gold rush,” saw the lifeless bodies of the perpetrators hanging from the upper windows of the Vigilance Committee. Fifty years later came a wilder rout, down streets searched out by fire, snatching at humour as they ran, as so many points of contact for the city’s rebuilding.
The very worst location in the world, as I have remarked, is this windy promontory past which the grey tides race, but so long as a city can dramatise itself, one situation will do as well as another in
which to render itself immortal.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Enjoyable book about Louie Zamperini’s tragic involvement in the Pacific theater of WWII. Louie’s a track star who competes in the Berlin 1936 Olympics (and Tokyo was slated for 1940 but bowed out… how did Axis countries corner the Olympic market during that time? Or was there something about the pomp and pageantry that particularly fit well with Germany and Japan during that time?). WWII breaks out, and Louie enlists. Eventually his plane goes down in the Pacific, and he and two other men battle sun, starvation and thirst in liferafts for almost three months before being captured (although one of the men dies on the raft). Japanese POW camp horrors described in great detail. Eventual liberation post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki, then Louie struggles with alcoholism and plotting to kill the psychotic camp commander, Bird, who nearly drove him insane.
Page 40, we see the crossover between this and Hillenbrand’s previous book: “The only runner who could beat him, the coach said, was Seabiscuit. ”

The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future

I thought I heard mythical California rain on the roof of the bookstore where I sat last night as I listened to the editors and contributors read portions of this book. And indeed, minuscule droplets of a watery variety greeted me as I left the packed room, rushing to catch the train, when the reading was over. The sudden burst of water was as unexpected as the delightful energy and wisdom of the 20-something-year-old writers (mostly) who shared their tales inside. Today I swung by the library, where my copy of the book was freshly arrived, and sat down to read this evening. The collection is a mixed bag, or in the fashionable yet overused parlance of NYTimes theater critics, “uneven.” I love the editors’ vision: imagine a world where we’re beyond all this bullshit, where misogyny isn’t so common that we barely notice it (“Misogyny tastes like air, feels like gravity.”) This allows us to move outside our usual mode of defense, and go on offense, create the world we want to live in. The collected works inside range from amazing to curiously bland, but thankfully each is so brief that when you’re blindsided by the bland and can shake your head to recover, moving on quickly.
At last night’s reading, most entertaining was poet and actor Sarah Matthes, who read her piece “A list of thirty-three beautiful things to wear on your breasts” in response to a terrible Buzzfeed article about 51 impossibly beautiful bras for girls with small breasts. I also enjoyed Tyler Cohen’s explanation of her visual contributions, gender-neutral t-shirts and playgrounds for kids. Not at last night’s event, but one of my favorites from the collection was Hannah Giorgis’ “Not on my block: Envisioning a world without Street Harassment”. There were a few contributions from the rare male feminists, including one I appreciated by Daniel José Older, “Beyond Badass: Toward a Feminist, Antiracist Literature,” which touched on my pet peeve of naming women “badass” and calling it a day (“our slush pile was full of women characters that were either passive and in need of saving or simply badass and nothing else.”)

Mid-October reading

Kate Beaton’s best-selling Step Aside, Pops is hilarious and inimitable. Straw feminists lurking in kids’ closets to give them nightmares, or pouncing on them as they shop for their first training bra. A version of Lois Lane who kicks ass and is tired of blockheaded Clark Kent always getting in her way. Danton, Robespierre, Shelley, Byron, Nancy Drew, Hermione & Harry Potter, Napoleon, Wuthering Heights, bad ass women on early bicycles, Ida B. Wells, Kokoro, the founding fathers, I mean COME ON! Beaton is amazing and unstoppable.
Two great samples from the book:
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101615_chopin

I got bogged down in Ivy Compton-Burnett’s typically dialog-laden work of More Women Than Men. There’s some great, sly stuff in there. You’re bopping along and all of a sudden a forty year old man is sitting in an older man’s lap. It’s a tale of a large girls’ school run by Josephine Napier, packed with intrigue and drama, but the tricky bits lap at you from between the lines.
After finally making my own zine a few months ago (what took me so long?!), I picked up Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism, an intellectual exploration of how zines transcend the usual capitalist and sexist power structures to publicize women’s stories and struggles. There’s some great samples included within, and I’m left shaking my head that I completely missed the Riot Grrl movement in the 90s.
Finally, this collection of bizarre comics caught my eye at local bookstores around the city, The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History . Great snarky commentary along with a sample cover and sometimes a more in-depth look at these goofballs.
102015_miracles 102015_jigsaw

Testament of Youth

Hands down the best book I’ve ever read about World War I, detailing life pre-during-post war, all from the perspective of a non-soldier (All Quiet on the Western Front is so far the soldier’s view I most liked, and I think Vera Brittain’s book beats it by a landslide). She weaves in snippets from her diary and letters to and from her brother, her lover, and their friends–all of whom are killed during the lengthy conflict. Also included are poems both she and Roland (her fiancé) wrote, along with quotations she copied into her diary. With this rich primary source data, she penned a nearly 700 page tale of what life was like before, during, and after the war.
I now see the tangible benefits of having my own library, since I can look up what Virginia Woolf thought about this book in Vol 4 of her diaries. Oddly enough, I, too, am neglecting the very same Miss C. Burnett book (More Women Than Men, pub 1933) that VW put aside to read this:

I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Britain [sic], called The Testament of Youth. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in real life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, & how she lost lover & brother, & dabbled her hands in entrails, & was forever seeing the dead, & eating scraps, & sitting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly across my eyes. A very good book of its sort. The new sort, the hard anguished sort, that the young write; that I could never write. Nor has anyone written that kind of book before. Why now? What urgency is there on them to stand bare in public? She feels that these facts must be made known, in order to help–what? herself partly I suppose. And she has the social conscience. I have still to read how she married the infinitely dreary Catlin & found beauty & triumph in poor, gaping Holtby. But I give her credit for having lit up a long passage to me at least. I read & read & read & neglect Turgenev & Miss C. Burnett. (Sept 2, 1933)

But back to Vera. Knowing their letters would be read by the military, she and her brother and friends come up with code words. Roland says “hinc illae lacrimae” (hence these tears) as an indicator that they are about to be deployed into battle. Brother Edward alerts her to his impending deployment with “the celery is ripe.” The days are nail-biters, not sure if the boys are still alive in their various battles. Brittain is almost relieved (as well as devastated) when Roland dies, because she no longer has to wonder. Working as a nurse in England, then in Malta, then in France, Brittain sees her fair share of terrible mangled gangrenous limbs and death death death. She’s able to shield her parents from some of the stress by writing calmly about her brother, “The whole of my generation seems always to have worn, for the benefit of its parents, a personality not quite its own, and I often wonder if, in days to come, my own son and daughter will assume for me the same alien disguise.” Some top secret events are covered, apparently there was a local mutiny (“Battle of Étaples”) in France that the medical establishment was not allowed to mention in letters and which was mostly omitted from history.
After a stressful crossing and months of dismal misery nursing in England, she muses at the beginning of her chapter on arriving in sunny Mediterranean Malta about the “enlarged vitality” that war creates:

But I know that those things [in Malta] will never come back. I may see the rocks again, and smell the flowers, and watch the dawn sunshine chase the shadows from the old sulfur-consciousness of wartime, the glory seen by the enraptured ingenuous eyes of twenty-two, will be upon them no more. I am a girl no longer, and the world, for all its excitements of chosen work and individualistic play, has grown tame in comparison with Malta during those years of our anguish.
It it, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem–a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honor is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-‘o-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality.

When the war ends, she limps back into civilian life, re-enters Oxford but finds a chasm between her and other students:

Obviously it wasn’t a popular thing to have been close to the War; patriots, especially of the female variety, were as much discredited in 1919 as in 1914 they had been honored, I reflected, making no effort to shut out the series of pictures that passed insistently through my mind–the dark, blurred spire of a Camberwell church at midnight–the Britannic lurching drunkenly through the golden, treacherous Archipelago–sun-drenched rocks and a telegram on a gorgeous May morning–Syracuse harbour and the plaintive notes of the “Last Post” testifying to heaven of the ravage of a harmless little “enemy” dying in the sticky morass of his own blood–the Great Push and a gassed procession of burned, gruesome faces–the long stone corridor of St. Jude’s where walked a ghost too dazed to feel the full fury of her own resentment–Millbank and the shattering guns announcing the Armistice. On the whole the “experience” of those four years didn’t seem exactly conducive to the development of a sense of humour– but perhaps I was prejudiced. No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism has “nothing to it,” and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidding into thinking it had. The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.

Life post war (1922-3), with regards to women voters:

During both General Elections, a good deal of space was given by nearly all newspapers to the demands of the recently enfranchised woman voter. Women, as such, had always possessed for the Press a peculiar fascination in which the opposite sex seemed inexplicably lacking, and though their publicity stock had fallen during the wartime preoccupation with “heroes,” it rose again directly after the War owing to the fact that, unlike men, they had inconsiderately failed to die in large numbers. The reason universally given for limiting the vote to women over thirty was that the complete enfranchisement of adult women would have meant a preponderant feminine vote.
This excessive female population was habitually described, none too flatteringly, as “superfluous,” although the teachers, nurses, doctors and Civil Servants of whom it was largely composed were far more socially valuable than many childless wives and numerous irresponsible married mothers. An agitation over the mere existence of so many unmated women began with the census revelations in the late summer of 1921, and during the “Silly Season” of that year their position became a favourite topic with the stunt Press, which publisheed innumerable articles on Equal Pay, Marriage versus Career, and the RIght to Motherhood

******
Rec’d by Linnea

Outline

Outline: A Novel

I’m considering a month of only reading books that are shortlisted for prizes, especially after getting delightfully pummeled by Rachel Cusk’s work last night. Outline is on the shortlist for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize out of Canada, along with the always amazing Heather O’Neill. This novel is a series of conversations held with the narrator, a newly-divorced London mother of two who travels to Athens for a week to give writing instruction. She chats with her plane seat-mate who details his regrets and failed marriages (later confessing to a third failed marriage while they are tooling around in his boat), a fellow writing instructor–Ryan–who simply blathers one-sidedly, meet-ups with various friends she knows in Athens, and the woman who’s come to stay in the apartment the narrator is also staying in. Fabulous writing and intriguing structure.

Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate

I heard Aleta George speak at the Mechanics’ Institute Library and during the Q&A one audience member proclaimed the book to be one of the best she’d read about early California history. I can echo that sentiment, with the caveat that George’s prose was a bit blocky at times. Superbly researched over a decade by diving into the Bancroft archives where Coolbridge’s letters reside, we get a much fuller picture of Ina (“EYE-na”) than previous biographies. After tramping overland to California with the rest of the Mormon settlers, her family lives in San Francisco before heading to Los Angeles where as an 18 year old, Ina marries a man who later pulls a gun on her and turns out to be worthlessly violent (they divorce after he shoots and misses and her step-father shoots him in the hand which has to be amputated). She sweeps her mother and step-brothers under her arm and heads to San Francisco where she continues publishing poetry and begins to mingle with the other literati (Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller). She’s the head librarian of the Oakland library during the time when Jack London & Isadora Duncan visit and are influenced by her; sadly no evidence that Gertrude Stein & Coolbridge crossed paths, although Stein was living in Oakland during this same time.
Joaquin Miller dumps his daughter into Ina’s lap to raise along with supporting her niece, nephew and step brothers. Miller’s daughter, Calla Shasta turns out to be a bit of a hell-raiser, although she does leave this mournful clue about people suffering under patriarchy in the last century, “I am sadly disappointed for not being a boy.” Ina struggles to support a large household by slaving 70 hour weeks in the library, and her poetry dries to a trickle. After 20 years at the library, she’s forced out by the board and faces poverty made more dire by the 1906 earthquake and fire wiping out the manuscript she’d almost completed of A History of California Literature, along with all of her other possessions. Homeless, and having slept on the ground at Fort Mason for a few nights, she’s rescued by friends who fund-raise to grant her help. This pattern continues on and off for the remainder of her life, her friends sending money that she funneled into Carl Seyfforth’s greedy hands, a young parasite who Ina fell in love with as an old woman. She outlives all of her old friends, either dead by suicide (cyanide was a popular choice:

According to Elsie Martinez, Jack London was among a group of writers and artists who carried cyanide in their pockets. The group included her husband, George and Carrie Sterling, Ambrose Bierce, and Nora May French. Carleton Bierce, Ambrose’s nephew worked in the chemical division of the US Mint and supplied it to the group. Nora May French used hers in 1907. When Ambrose Bierce went to Mexico and vanished, his friends suspected cyanide. Sterling labeled the cyanide he carried in his pocket “peace.”

She spent 4 winters living in a hotel in New York City eating one meal a day and churning out poetry. She returned to San Francisco in the summer to escape the heat, cheaper than paying for a resort on the East Coast. Upon her final return to the Bay Area: “I do not like Berkeley… It is shrubs and shingles, and cold. Ugh! It is cold!”

That Summer in Paris

If you’re looking for a smug, self-important memoir by a rightfully forgotten Canadian writer who name drops his way through Paris, you’ve come to the right place. Usually my interest is piqued whenever stumbling on an author to whom history has not been kind, but I’d rather Morley Callaghan remains in the dusty forgotten basement of the library. The physical library card in the book assures me that it was only checked out 8 times in 37 years, maybe longer, depending on when the Oakland library abandoned stamping checkout dates.
We begin by seeing the precocious young Morley bursting his way into a Toronto newsroom and commandeering a writing gig, with two years of college remaining. His path crosses Hemingway’s and for some reason old Hem takes him under his wing and encourages Morley’s story writing. This leads inevitably to Morley and wife heading to Paris, told to look up Scott Fitzgerald by a mutual pal and not needing a formal letter of introduction. He begins boxing with Hemingway, recounts an eerie story where Hem spit blood all over Morley’s shirt as a way of intimidating him. Hem tells him not to bother trying to meet James Joyce, but the Morleys get invited to dine with Jimmy Joyce by McAlmon. Here the idiot Morley can’t keep his eyes off of Nora Joyce’s breasts, “No matter what was being said, I remained aware of the deep-bosomed Nora Joyce.” Later, they visit the Joyce apartment and idiot Morley is disappointed by the drab brown wallpapered interior:

The Joyce apartment, at least the living room in which we sat, upset me. Nothing looked right. In the whole world there wasn’t a more original writer than Joyce, the exotic in the English language. In the work he had on hand he was exploring the language of the dream world. In this room where he led his daily life I must have expected to see some of the marks of his wild imagination. Yet the place was conservatively respectable.

Morley and his wife then show up uninvited to the Scott Fitzgeralds, stalking them from their apartment building lobby and lurking in the shadows to pounce on them when they arrived. Naturally this leads to a friendship, and quelle surprise Morley is anti-Zelda. Scott reads aloud a passage from Farewell to Arms and demands everyone to agree that it’s beautiful, but Morley braves an honest opinion that the phrase is too deliberate, determined. Zelda chimes in, and Morley paints her as a frivolous object without agency:

“If you ask me, it sounds pretty damned Biblical,” Zelda said firmly. Perhaps she had heard the passage read to her many times. Anyway, she seemed to be relieved to have someone else on her side. “If you’re not impressed, it’s all right, Morely,” Scott assured me. With an injured air he paused, pondered, came to some firm decision, closed the book, put it aside and sat listening as Zelda became talkative about prose generally. But even on that first night I became aware that Scott kept an eye on her. He let her talk on, saying little himself, just listening; then abruptly, to our surprise, he told her that she was tired. She did look tired. She should go to bed, he said firmly. Turning to us, he explained she was taking ballet lessons and had to get up early; he hoped we would understand. We didn’t quite understand; she left either too meekly or too willingly.

Before they leave, Scott supposedly does a handstand for them, trying to impress Morley. The four of them go out to dinner, Scott promising to seat them at the table that Joyce uses, Morley smugly noting that Scott went to the wrong table because Morley himself had had dinner with Joyce at a different table. More misogynistic condescension for Zelda:

Even now I seem to hear Zelda’s voice coming at us suddenly. “I write prose. It’s good prose.” Her strange intensity, the boldness of her insistence that she too be regarded as a talent, was surprising. She was leaning across the table, almost challenging me. What could I say except, “I’m sure it is”? She had had a story in Scribner’s magazine which I had read. It was a story in a careful, determined style with a flash of metaphor.

Once again, Zelda is whisked away by Scott after she suggests going roller skating, his tyranny over her witnessed by the Morleys but shrugged off:

Suddenly he grabbed Zelda by the wrist. “I’m putting you in a taxi. You go home now and go to bed,” he said. His peremptory tone on the shadowed street startled us. If I had grabbed my own wife by the wrist and told her I was putting her in a taxi, her eyes would have flashed; there would have been some kind of a struggle. Zelda’s face was half hidden, yet her whole manner changed; it was if she knew he had command over her; she agreed meekly…
“Zelda has to get up early in the morning. She’s taking those ballet lessons,” and he pointed out that girls as a rule started studying ballet when they were about twelve! Zelda had started when we was over thirty and it was hard for her; it was all very tiring. I asked him why she wanted to take up ballet dancing at her age. It was quite understandable, Scott said; she wanted to have something for herself, be something herself. I recalled her sudden aggressive assertion at dinner that she too was a good writer. Was she bent on competing with Scott for the limelight? Of course, that was it. How unlucky for Scott. And I remember taking Loretto’s arm and looking at her, hoping she would never feel driven to jockey with me publicly for attention.

We all know that Scott pillaged Zelda’s writing for things to pass off as his own. Morley describes how desperate Scott was for details by going into ecstasies over Morley’s wife’s drying handkerchiefs on the windowsill. Finally, Morley puts on his big boy pants in order to show what a genius he is by insulting Gertrude Stein, the final nail in the coffin for him:

Had I seen Gertrude Stein yet? he wanted to know. No, and I no longer had any curiosity about the grand lady. If Scott was interested in Miss Stein, he could have her. For my part, she had written one book, Three Lives. Having waded through The Making of Americans, and those stories of hers like “As a Wife as a Cow, A Love Story,” I had done a little brooding over her. Abstract prose was nonsense. The shrewd lady had found a trick, just as the naughty Dadaists had once found a trick. The plain truth, was, as a I saw it, Gertrude Stein now had nothing whatever to say. But she was shrewd and intelligent enough to know it. As for her deluded coterie, well, I had no interest in finding one of them who would lead me shyly to her den.

The plain truth, as I see it, is that Morley Callawhateverhisnameis is a block-headed third-rate hack whose works have not stood the test of time. Suck on that, Morley.

The Essential Ellen Willis

A collection of Ellen Willis’ writings, curated by her daughter to show the breadth of Willis’ interests, to pull her out of the label of music critic to a broader social critic. Broken into sections for each decade, you’re continually bowled over, pick yourself up, and bowled over again. She eviscerates politics and culture, slamming the left for its weak-kneed capitulation over the last 40+ years. By the time I reached the 90s and 2000s chapters, I could barely keep reading, having to be reminded all over again of things I witnessed like the Lewinsky/Starr/Tripp entrapment, OJ Simpson verdict, the rush to war post 9-11. She captures the decline of journalism, specifically in Village Voice’s office but echoed throughout the country. Not having been alive or thinking during much of these decades, I learned about the 1975 bankrupcy of New York City and Jimmy Carter’s anti-feminist stance among psychological dissections of an evolving culture. Her defense of daytime talk shows as the only means available for the underclass to have their voice heard. Having lived during the heyday of the 1960s, she is well placed to give us a full lament of what has been lost. You better believe that I dog-eared a caboodle of pages. Emphasis in the below is mine.
From Up from Radicalism, published in 1969 in US Magazine:

1968, November… New women keep coming in, women who are just discovering their oppression… For a while I feel that now I understand and love all other women. It’s a great high until I realize that it’s mostly a defense against the fear and antagonism of a lifetime, a compound of superiority (“Oh, I’d rather be friends with men, they’re much more stimulating!” Translation: I’m not like them, I’ve made it out of the ghetto) and sexual competitiveness. Revise: I’m starting to be interested in other women. To feel warmth and sympathy. To recognize a new loyalty. To realize other women are not the enemy. To understand as a gut reality the phenomenon of rulers setting the ruled against each other.
1969, April: consciousness-raising has one terrible result. It makes you more conscious. I can’t walk in the street anymore. I used to be fairly oblivious to the barrage of comments from men on my anatomy and what they’d like to do with it. I didn’t even realize that I generally stare straight ahead because if I catch the wrong man’s eye he’ll think I’m encouraging him… most men who ogle us on the street, especially the ones who feel the need to say something, or even touch, aren’t digging us. They’re showing hatred and contempt… Think of a Black man in a southern town. A white man makes a jocular, insulting comment and he can’t answer back. A white woman passes and he knows he’d better point his eyes elsewhere. Straight ahead, and stay out of trouble. That’s powerlessness…. I stop to buy a hot dog and the counterman talks baby talk to me… calls me “dear” (cf. “boy”). I conceive an experiment in self-liberation… “you don’t have to talk to me as if I”m five years old.” The counterman is enraged. He raves, not to me, but to the other (male) customers… I feel like an idiot. A certified crank. No sense of humor. Another discovery: a lot of men, especially working-class men, won’t get out of the way for a woman on the street. They walk in a straight line and expect you to move. I develop a policy of confrontation. I walk straight too and bump into them. They don’t quite understand what’s happening and mutter something like “Lady, watch where you’re going.”

From Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?, published March and April 1979 Village Voice, one comment from Ken Kesey that turns him into Ken Queasy in my mind, forever marring my respect for his writing:

Years ago, in an interview with Paul Krassner in The Realist, Ken Kesey declared himself against abortion. When Krassner asked if his objection applied to victims of rape, Kesey replied– I may not be remembering the exact words, but I will never forget the substance– “Just because another man planted the seed, that’s no reason to destroy the crop.” To this day I have not heard a more eloquent or chilling metaphor for the essential premise of the right-to-life movement: that a woman’s excuse for being is her womb.
Actual Kesey quotation: “You don’t plow under the corn because the seed was planted with the neighbor’s shovel.”

From The Family, published September 1979 Village Voice:

Capitalists have an obvious stake in encouraging dependence on the family and upholding its mythology. If people stopped looking to the family for security, they might start looking to full employment and expanded public services. If enough parents or communal households were determined to share child rearing, they might insist that working hours and conditions be adapted to their domestic needs. If enough women refused to work for no pay in the home and demanded genuine parity on the job, our economy would be in deep trouble. There is a direct link between the conservative trend of American capitalism and the backlash on so-called cultural issues. During the past decade, the loss of the Vietnam War, the general decline in American influence, and the growing power of the oil industry have led to an intensive corporate drive to increase profits by reducing social services, raising prices faster than wages, and convincing the public to have “lower expectations”; in the same period blatant family chauvinism has become official government policy. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that most people are less inclined to demand change–with all the risk and uncertain such demands entail–than to cling to what they have and defend it against attack. These days “my family first” is only a slightly less insular version of the “me first” psychology the insecurity of capitalism provokes. Both are based on the dismaying knowledge that if you and your family are not first, they are all too likely to be last. People who are clinging are never eager to share their branch, nor do they look kindly on anyone who insists it’s rotten wood.

From that same issue, the martyrdom of parenting:

Children are a twenty-four-hour-a-day responsibility, yet parents have legitimate needs for personal freedom, privacy, and spontaneity in their lives… Child rearing is too big a job for one or even two people to handle without an unnatural degree of self-sacrifice, destructive for both generations.

Selections from Willis’ 2000 book, Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial:

High on my list of petty urban irritations are those signs posted by smug possessors of driveways: “Don’t Even Think About Parking Here.” I fantasize about plastering their premises with superglued bumper stickers that say “Down with the Thought Police” or “Don’t Even Think About Telling Me What To Think.”

Willis goes on to say that despite the roaring economy, there’s a problem looming, “call it the euphoria gap.” Because this bubble will be a’sagging. So how to pacify the public? She suggests reissuing Samuelson’s The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995.

Americans are unhappy, Samuelson argues, not because we’re really doing badly, but because we’re hooked on unrealistic expectations. The post-World War II economic boom led us to envision a utopian future of ever rising incomes, stable jobs, personal freedom and fulfillment, and government solutions to all social problems… Samuelson has a point about the naivete of American optimism. The extraordinary affluence of the postwar years and the liberal social compact that allowed most people to share it were the product of a unique set of circumstances. Not only did the United States emerge from World War II an economic superpower, but business, labor, and government were resolved, in the wake of depression and war, to save capitalism both from its own tendency to crisis and from the socialist threat represented most concretely by the Soviet Union. The translation of phenomenal economic growth into high wages, job security, and social benefits was a formula for buying people’s loyalty to the system, neutralizing potential radicalism, making genuine economic equality seem unnecessary. For capitalists, who relinquished some of their profits but never their power, collaboration with labor and the welfare state was strictly a temporary marriage of convenience. For most Americans, it was a historical shortcut to the pursuit of happiness. As with our abuse of the environment in the name of growth, and our abuse of antibiotics in the quest to “conquer disease,” the bill for that complacency is now coming due.

More from this book, the Villains and Victims chapter:

One of the great successes of the antifeminist reaction is that there is now no socially acceptable public language in which women, particularly young women, can directly and explicitly express anger at the “mundane kinds of sexism,” or what I’ve called the sexism of everyday life–that is, men’s ubiquitous, culturally sanctioned, “normal” expressions of dominance. To be sure, such expressions are documented in a large body of pop-psychological/sociological literature; but, as in Deborah Tannen’s best-selling You Just Don’t Understand, they are presented as neutral cultural differences that hinder communication between the sexes– not as strategies, however reflexive or unconscious, for preserving male power.

And finally, Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity:

Since the early ’70s, the symbiosis has been working in reverse: a steady decline in Americans’ standards of living has fed political and cultural conservatism, and vice versa. Just as the widespread affluence of the post-World War II era was the product of deliberate social policy–an alliance of business, labor, and government aimed at stabilizing the economy and building a solid, patriotic middle class as a bulwark against Soviet Communism and domestic radicalism–the waning of affluence has reflected the resolve of capital to break away from this constraining alliance. In 1973, as the United States was losing both the Vietnam War and our position of unquestioned economic dominance in the world, the formation of OPEC and the resulting “energy crisis” signaled the coming of a new economic order in which getting Americans to accept less would be a priority of the emerging multinational corporate and financial elite. By then the reaction against the culture and politics of the ’60s was already in progress. With the end of cheap, freely flowing gasoline–the quintessential emblem of American prosperity, mobility, and power–the supposed need for austerity began to rival law and order as a central conservative theme.

From Ending Poor People As We Know Them, December 1994 Village Voice, where Willis talks about the welfare debate in Newt Gingrich-era Congress, how people want to give money to poor children but punish their parents (“The Orphanage: Is it Time to Bring it Back?” cover story on Newsweek):

[The discussion of welfare is] less a debate in any meaningful sense than an argument among undertakers about how to dispose of the body. At bottom, the logic of the attack on welfare mothers… is that the poor should stop breeding altogether, and solve the problem of the underclass by disappearing… Nonetheless, most people, whatever their class, have a powerful desire to reproduce, and communities are unlikely to assent to their own annihilation on moral grounds. What happens when we cut the poor off welfare and they still won’t go away?

From Bring in the Noise, published in The Nation, April 1996:

… our problem is not the excesses of talk shows but the brutality and emptiness of our political culture. Pop bashing is the humanism of fools: in the name of defending people’s dignity it attacks their pleasures and their meager store of power. On talk shows, whatever their drawbacks, the proles get to talk. The rest of the time they’re told in a thousand ways to shut up.

From Dissent, Fall 2005, Ghosts, Fantasies, and Hope:

How did the sixties happen in the first place? I’d argue that a confluence of events stimulated desire while temporarily muting anxiety. There was widespread prosperity that made young people feel secure, able to challenge authority and experiment with their lives. There was a vibrant mass-mediated culture that, far from damping down the imagination, transmitted the summons to freedom and pleasure far more broadly than a mere political movement could do… There was a critical mass of educated women who could not abide the contradiction between the expanding opportunities they enjoyed as middle-class Americans and the arbitrary restrictions on their sex. There was the advent of psychedelics, which allowed millions of people to sample utopia as a state of mind.
Those were different times. Today, anxiety is a first principle of social life, and the right knows how to exploit it. Capital foments the insecurity that impels people to submit to its demands.

The Road To Wigan Pier

The Road to Wigan Pier

Published in 1937 after Orwell was commissioned to write it by the Left Book Club (whose purpose was to get people united against fascism), this book dives deeper into the poverty and misery he first explores in Down & Out in Paris and London. Orwell spends time in the industrial centers of North and South England, acting as a canary in their coal mines to warn us about the dangers of industrial capitalism with rampant unemployment causing people to resign themselves to a lifetime of living on the dole. Leaky roofs, cracked walls, bugs, inadequate space, windows that don’t open because the houses shift from all the excavation nearby– these are commonplace in the homes Orwell lodges in or visits. He honestly lays out his own middle class preconceptions, taught to view the underclass as something to loathe as a way to retain his tenuous grip on an upper class rung when his income nears the boundaries of the lower class. He complains of overflowing chamber pots left unattended under the dining room table and claims that these lower class people just plain smell bad (along with losing all their teeth). Class differences and having to get over prejudices are main obstacles to Orwell’s dream of socialism. He also tongue-in-cheek claims that socialism attracts the outcasts and cranks: vegetarians, pacifists, feminists, etc.
At first I found this offensive, then chuckled as I imagined women conspiring to make this myth take hold in order to not have to get up in the middle of the night to feed breakfast to departing miners:

Apparently the old superstition that it is bad luck to see a woman before going to work on the morning shift is not quite extinct. In the old days, it is said, a miner who happened to meet a woman in the early morning would often turn back and do no work that day.

So much of what Orwell writes is still very relevant today, including:

This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the salve of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that “they” will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.

Orwell notes that a shift has taken place over the last eight years, now that *everyone* is unemployed, it is no longer shameful:

To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the industrial areas… It is only when you lodge in streets where nobody has a job, where getting a job seems about as probable as owning an aeroplane and much less probable than winning fifty pounds in the Football Pool, that you begin to grasp the changes that are being worked in our civilisation. For a change is taking place, there is no doubt about that. The attitude of the submerged working class is profoundly different from what it was seven or eight years ago… The people have at any rate grasped that unemployment is a thing they cannot help… It makes a great deal of difference when things are the same for everybody.

Cheap luxuries as the opiate of the masses. I also appreciate his comment that the ruling class wasn’t savvy enough to have come up with this on their own, that it’s merely the effect of the market:

Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are sometimes told that the whole thing is an astute maneuver by the governing classes–a sort of “bread and circuses” business–to hold the unemployed down. What I have seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an unconscious process– the quite natural interaction between the manufacturer’s need for a market and the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.

Orwell definitely has a thing against canned food:

If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed. But the process must have begun earlier than that, and it must be due ultimately to unhealthy ways of living, i.e. to industrialism. I don’t mean the habit of living in towns–probably the town is healthier than the country, in many ways–but the modern industrial technique which provides you with cheap substitutes for everything. We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.

Again railing against tinned food, but so much more. Fun to imagine Orwell’s reaction to how we live today.

The sensitive person’s hostility to the machine is in one sense unrealistic, because of the obvious fact that the machine has come to stay. But as an attitude of mind there is a great deal to be said for it. The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug–that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes. You have only to look about you at this moment to realise with what sinister speed the machine is getting us into its power.
To begin with, there is the frightful debauchery of taste that has already been effected by a century of mechanisation… as a single instance, take taste in its narrowest sense–the taste for decent food. In the highly mechanised countries, thanks to tinned food, cold storage, synthetic flavouring matters, etc., the palate is almost a dead organ… Wherever you look you will see some slick machine-made article triumphing over the old-fashioned article that still tastes of something other than sawdust. And what applies to food applies also to furniture, houses, clothes, books, amusements and everything else that makes up our environment. There are now millions of people, and they are increasing every year, to whom the blaring of a radio is not only a more acceptable but a more normal background to their thoughts than the lowing of cattle or the song of birds.