Miss Grief and Other Stories

Miss Grief and Other Stories

I first came across Constance Fenimore Woolson in one of the Aunt Lute anthologies, a fact I recognized when re-reading one of her stories in this collection (Miss Grief). She supported herself and her mother through writing, and once her mother died, she was free to live as an artist in Europe, palling around with Henry James and eventually dying in Italy after falling/jumping out of a window. The stories collected here are all top notch and demonstrate her range, from the idyllic poling around the Great Lakes into rivulets and tiny patches of land to the cousins traipsing about coal country in Ohio inspiring the artistic miner and his sulfur-water wife, from a Union soldier injured in the Civil War then sent to man the national cemetery in the South to the unknown woman writer begging an audience with the famous young writer who doesn’t have her genius but who has fortune and a publisher. Strong writing, highly recommended.

The Truth About Lorin Jones

The Truth About Lorin Jones

It’s rare that I’ll read an entire terrible book, but I was driven by a perverse desire to see how bad the bundle of trash disguised as a book could be. Lurie is an amateur hack, yet has several titles to her name, so maybe I’ve misjudged? I’ll give her another shot with Foreign Affairs, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I cannot trust any book recommendations from the women at Lenny.

It has a promising start, a first line that I glanced at before saying Hell yeah! and tottering off to the self-checkout at the library: “Polly Alter used to like men, but she didn’t trust them anymore, or have very much to do with them.” Unfortunately, this isn’t a particularly graceful sentence and it’s the best thing in the book. This is how we meet Polly, a woman writing the biography about the great forgotten (fictional) woman painter Lorin Jones while on leave from her job at the Met and while her own artistic dreams simmer underground. She’s divorced with a teenage son Stevie who shuttled between NYC and Denver, and flirts with her good friend Jeanne before giving up women completely and falling for a guy in Key West, the last boyfriend of Lorin Jones before she died. The nightmare of a book ends with this piece of rock candy, “She stared at the harmless-looking wall telephone for a second, took a final deep breath, and picked up the receiver.” In other words, she reaches out to the Key West guy to end the book.

So what was so bad about it? The worst was the stilted dialogue choking every page. Besides that were descriptions of Polly’s day to day life that were just flat and uninteresting. She’s working on a book about her idol, and yet she fights with nearly every interviewee she reaches out to. Here’s some mind-numbing language for you:

Polly’s immediate impulse was to tell Lennie to go to hell and walk out. But she checked herself; she had to get on with him, because among other things he held the copyright to Lorin Jones’ work. He knows it too, she thought furiously.

Her rage boils over on nearly every page, and while that might seem interesting to feminists, it gets old before a few pages are out. It’s an unproductive rage, she works against her own purposes and seems like the tantrum-throwing child she later describes because her father walked out on her and her mother early in life. Ugh, enough. I want to forget this book ever crossed my threshold.

An Old-Fashioned Girl

An Old-Fashioned Girl

Another solid tween book from Alcott, liberally sprinkling in the ideas of independent woman alongside the virtuous deeds of respecting elders, helping each other, doing charity work, not minding poverty. I do wish she didn’t lean so hard on the happily-ever-after wrap up always ending in marriage…. it wasn’t the path she chose for her own life so why perpetuate the myth for other ladies?

Polly is a simple, pleasant, respectful girl from the country who stays for a month at the rich Boston home of her friend Fanny Shaw, becoming a bosom member of the family by palling around with brother Tom, sister Maud, the grandmother, and meeting Mr. Shaw on his way home from work each night. Mrs. Shaw is a weak woman who suffers from nerves and has little say in the story. We skip ahead six years and Polly returns to town to set up shop as a music teacher, living in a rented room and sending her brother Will to college. There are some tidy scenes of the cozy house Polly makes in her small room, serving tea to Will each Sunday and Maud tagging along. The usual crossed-wire romances occur, where Polly loves Tom who’s engaged to Trixie, and Syndey loves Polly but Fanny loves Sydney. All’s well that ends well, although Alcott does save Maud from the maudlin ending by NOT marrying her off to Will.

Strongest chapter is the one where Polly introduces Fanny to her friends, women artists and writers, a sculptor, an engraver, an author. They picnic on shared goodies on a makeshift table in their studio and ogle the statue of Ideal Woman that Becky is shaping.

I should really go ahead and re-read Little Women since I seem to be making my way through her collected works.

The Tremor of Forgery

A somewhat disappointing book merits a somewhat disappointing and lackluster review. I falsely thought that any words dripped from the pen of Highsmith were bound to be gold, but this was more of a bronze-tinge. Howard Ingham is a semi-successful author who goes to Tunisia on assignment to write a screenplay. When we meet him, he’s impatient to get letters from the chap he’s supposed to work with, John Castlewood, and from his girl back in NYC, Ina. Neither write to him for days, and eventually he finds out that Castlewood had declared his love for Ina then killed himself in Ingham’s apartment. Bizarre and yet you feel somewhat nothing for these facts. Scrapping the movie idea, he begins work on a third? fourth? novel that he names The Tremor of Forgery, working in the morning and evening when it’s not too hot, typing away on his typewriter that he later hurls at an Arab sneaking into his room to steal something and kills(?) him. This whole story is one big question mark, and perhaps that’s Highsmith’s intention.

Ingham befriends a few ex-pats, Francis Adams (aka OWL for ‘our way of life’ which he constantly spews) – an elderly widower who broadcasts secret anti-US radio shows and is paid by Russia; also Jensen, a gay Danish painter.

He picks up and discards people easily, even calling out a quote from Norman Douglas’ 1912 Fountains in the Sand:

He had travelled far in the Old and New Worlds; in him I recognized once again that simple mind of the sailor or wanderer who learns, as he goes along, to talk and think decently; who, instead of gathering fresh encumbrances on Life’s journey, wisely discards even those he set out with.

Ingham finds himself lost in his character, Dennison, feeling adrift in a foreign land:

His face was darker and thinner, different. He was at these moments conscious (as he had been when suffering the gripes at the bungalow) of being alone, without friends, or a job, or any connection with anybody, unable to understand or to speak the main language of the country. Then, being more than half Dennison at theses moments, he experienced something like the unconscious flash of a question: ‘Who am I, anyway? Does one exist, or to what extent does one exist as an individual without friends, family, anybody to whom one can relate, to whom one’s existence is of the least importance?’ It was strangely like a religious experience. It was like becoming nothing and realizing that one was nothing anyway, ever. It was a basic truth.

Ina comes to visit about halfway through the book, Ingham soars on waves of happiness, wants to get married, then retreats, sends her on her way, is ecstatic at receiving a much-forwarded letter from his ex-wife who he plans to try to get back together with in New York.

Travels with Myself and Another

Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir

By far some of the best travel writing I’ve read. Vivid descriptions of China in the early 1940s, Africa in the 1960s, Moscow in the 1970s. Martha Gellhorn was a journalist, a war correspondent, an avid traveler, someone who appreciated solitude and could only handle 1:1 conversations with friends, and third wife of Hemingway. I have almost softened in my opinion of old Hem based on his association with Gellhorn, my new idol. This collection of stories was first published in 1978 and should have been more widely distributed. There is pure gold in here.

She sets the tone in the preface, noting people’s eyes glaze over when you wax rhapsodic over your recent trip, that “The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster.” After briefly setting forth her credentials (fifty-three countries with repeated trips to twenty-four of those, including every state in the U.S. except Alaska), she reveals her sources–old letters, diaries, scraps of paper–since her memory is unreliable (“I think I was born with a weak memory as one can be born with a weak heart or weak ankles”). Then she lets loose with stories about her biggest travel disasters.

Mr. Ma’s Tigers is the tale of her trip to China in search of a story for Collier’s magazine, dragging Hem along with her, named “U.C.” or “Unwilling Companion” in the story. They set out in Feb 1941 from San Francisco to Honolulu by boat then flying to Hong Kong on PanAm’s flying boats: “We flew all day in roomy comfort, eating and drinking like pigs… dozing, reading, and in the late afternoon the plane landed on the water at an island. The passengers had time for a swim, a shower, dinner, and slept in beds.” She dumps Hem in Hong Kong in quest of her story, flying with the China National Aviation Company via Chungking and Kunming to Lashio (Burma end of Burma Road) then back, harrowing journey since the airline only took off in bad weather to avoid Japanese fighters, in an unheated and unpressurized cabin. While she was gallivanting about with danger, Hem was cozy back in the city yukking it up with generals, finding boxing partners, and just generally being the man’s man that we all know him as. He loved watching the city:

Local customs charmed him, for instance ear-cleaning. Salesmen with trays of thin sticks, topped by tiny coloured pom-poms, roamed the streets; these sticks were ear cleaners. Customers would pause, in the middle of those bustling crowds, to prod away at their ears with the detached expression, U.C. said, of people peeing in a swimming pool. The Chinese passion for firecrackers also delighted him… He found someone to box with and went to the races, saying the dye sweated off the horses and cunning Oriental fraud prevailed. From the first he was much better at the glamorous East than I was, flexible and undismayed.

They head into the countryside with a somewhat useless translator, Mr. Ma. “What trees are those?” “Ordinary trees.” ” ‘Watchumacallit’ served as Mr. Ma’s all-purpose word.” It rains nearly every day, and they’re cold, dirty, and out of whisky due to the popularity of the drink with the Chinese generals they visit. Gellhorn gets into a tiff with Madame Chiang Kai Shek when Gellhorn suggests that the ruling class could do a bit more for the peasantry. Madame retorted that “China had a great culture when your ancestors were living in trees and painting themselves blue.” She seems Hem off at the airport with her oozing infected hand and then continues on without him to Singapore, Batavia.

Messing About in Boats details her 1942 journey by 34 foot potato boat through the Carribean, again on Collier’s expense account, after interviewing shipwreck survivors in Puerto Rico. Everyone was worried about hurricanes the whole time, less so about submarine attacks. From St. Thomas to Tortola, Virgin Gorda to Anguilla, St. Martin to St. Barts to Saba, then Antigua to Surinam.

Into Africa is the longest story, recounting the pleasure trip she took (not on assignment), paying her own way to cross from west to east across Africa beginning in January 1962. She meets various people along the way, including an instantaneous friendship with C. the Frenchman in Yaounde (Cameroon) who invites her to stay with him and they set off to visit Czech pharmacy friends in the jungle. From C: “in Africa you have to know how to play bridge, a life saver; there is no conversation and since one cannot always read, one must find some means of being with others painlessly.” A week later, she’s driving alone across Cameroon and came across ten Kirdi women, asking them how old they are. One who looks fifteen says “Three.” An older woman is aged nine. “How restful to have no idea of time, nor your own place in it. At a certain age, nature indicates that you are ready for marriage. At a certain age you can no longer bear children. Then you are old and in due course you die. No more detailed timetable is needed.”

The most hilarious part of this story is after she gets to Nairobi and hires a car and a driver–Joshua–who a local friend said was reliable (e.g. won’t rape or rob her). “Instinct, which I regularly ignore, told me that Joshua was not the man for the job.” As they hit the road, Joshua refuses to drive the Landrover, and Gellhorn is left struggling with the machine across Kenya while dainty Joshua grips the seat and is terrified for his life. At Lake Nakuru Park, he refuses to get out of the car while she hikes in, afraid of lions and the mud. At one of their stopping points, she enjoys a walk on the terrace:

Inside, you hardly knew you were in Africa; outside the night sky told you exactly where you were… It was cold but that wasn’t why I hastened back to my snug room and drawn curtains. This was not the velvet embracing desert sky at El Geneina; this was infinite space. The idea of no boundaries, no end, is terrifying in the abstract and much worse if you’re looking at it… The machinery that keeps me going is not geared to cope with infinity and eternity as so clearly displayed in that sky.

She drags Joshua to Uganda, where she notes the terrible sign “No dogs or natives allowed” at the entrance to the English club. Independence was seven months away for the natives, and all the foreigners were resigned to their expected fate of having their throats cut. She sees all sorts of wonderful animal and bird life, bemoaning the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, the removal of zebras and giraffes to zoos. “The superb wild four-footed creatures of Africa haven’t a hope. We will preserve sad jailed animals in zoos, for our children. I know this will happen, and it is unbearable to think of the loss. We are really a terrible species; the greediest predators.”

One Look at Mother Russia is a hilarious tale of Moscow in the 1970s when she visits a Russian author who has become her penpal (named only Mrs. M in the book, but I think it must be Nadezhda Mandelstam whose 1970 Hope Against Hope was available in the west right before Gellhorn’s 1972 trip). Among the squalor and hunger of Moscow, we get good bits like “I regard the getting and keeping (and the upkeeping) of possessions as a waste of life. No one can be wholly free but one can be freer, and the easiest trap to open is the possessions trap” and “I feel angry. Every minute about everything.”

What Bores Whom? is a quick glimpse at her 1971 trip to Israel where she interviews a bunch of hippies to try and understand them. “Great, gee it’s great, they murmured. Three words sufficed for the experience of travel: great, beautiful, heavy… I couldn’t imagine any of them ten years hence, having never known such shapeless people.” She ends with “Yes indeed, what bores whom? The threshold of boredom must be like the threshold of pain, different in all of us.”

***

Apparently died by swallowing cyanide capsule while suffering from ovarian cancer, aged 89.

The Bluest Eye

By Toni Morrison - The Bluest Eye (11/28/93)

How is it possible not to have read this before now? A masterpiece by Morrison, her clattering and running-together sentences from the Dick and Jane primer setting the surrealistic stage for the tale Claudia will tell of her childhood experience in Ohio with sister Frieda and neighbor Pecola, pregnant with her father (Cholly)’s child “Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt.”

The book is sectioned off into seasons, beginning in Autumn in the aftermath of Pecola’s problems. Claudia has an early rant against dolls and how much she hated getting them as gifts, knowing she was supposed to pretend to be pleased and then sleep with it and pretend to be its mother. “I was physically revolted by and secretly frightened of those round moronic eyes, the pancake face, and orangeworms hair… If, in sleep, I turned, the bone-cold head collided with my own. It was a most uncomfortable, patently aggressive sleeping companion… To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” She would then take the doll apart, break its fingers, pop off the head, remove its eyeball.

Meanwhile Pecola’s greatest wish is to have blue eyes, and she prays fervently for this, even going to Soaphead Church, a psychic, to get him to bestow these blue eyes on her impossibly black person. In the afterword, Morrison says that this wish was conveyed to her by one of her friends growing up, causing a shock when she realized there was such a thing as racial self-loathing.

In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development

Revolutionary in 1982 and still necessary and relevant today, Gilligan points out massive flaws in psychological study which has focused solely on the male experience/lens for much of its 20th century existence. Women have been critiqued as being morally inferior since they don’t have the same cut-and-dry logic bound way of making judgements; however, Gilligan demonstrates through interviews with children of both sexes how girls reason their way to a decision with reliance on the network and making sure the most people are cared for while boys apply cold reasoning that strips away meaningfulness in relationships. What I was looking for, but missed, in this book was a deeper dive on the whys of what she was bringing up—are girls more nurturing due to the sociological pressures that are attendant from early ages to become so? Dolls thrust into their hands to care for while boys clomp and argue among themselves outside.

The crux of her argument is set forth in the 1993 Letter to Readers at the beginning of the book:

…the relational crisis which men typically experience in early childhood occurs for women in adolescence, that this relational crisis in boys and girls involves a disconnection from women which is essential to the perpetuation of patriarchal societies, and that women’s psychological development is potentially revolutionary not only because of women’s situation but also because of girls’ resistance. Girls struggle against losing voice and against creating an inner division or split, so that large parts of themselves are kept out of relationship. Because girls’ resistance to culturally mandated separations occurs at a later time in their psychological development than that of boys, girls’ resistance is more articulate and robust, more deeply voiced and therefore more resonant; it resonates with women’s and men’s desires for relationships, reopening old psychological wounds, raising new questions, news possibilities of relationships, new ways of living. As girls become the carriers of unvoiced desires and unrealized possibilities, they are inevitably placed at considerable risk and even in danger.

 

On Photography

On Photography

One of the pleasures of getting older is re-reading books that were inspirational to you when you were younger. Only now I find that I’m more ornery, less likely to be dazzled by Sontag’s philosophical meanderings and highfalutin $5 words (“agon”? Just say “conflict” already). I was curious to see how Sontag’s 1977 collection of essays holds up in the context of today’s hyper-photographed world. Could she have imagined a world wherein we all have computers that take high-resolution photos in our pocket and the inherent pressure to feed content into the hungry maw of social media?

The essay most relevant to today’s disturbing phenomenon is In Plato’s Cave, mentioning the first use of photos as surveillance tools by Parisian cops in 1871, and saying that photography “has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation.” She notes that photography is a “defense against anxiety” and delves into the problem of tourists, “photographs will offer indisputable evidence… that fun was had.” Contrasting Mallarmé’s assertion that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book, Sontag concludes that “today everything exists to end in a photograph.”

This essay made me wonder how much influence Sontag’s thinking had on Liebovitz’s recent display of photos, Women: New Portraits, at the Presidio. In this abandoned warehouse, I was surprised to see only a few prints hung on a cluster of walls, with generous seating for people to flop in and watch a slideshow of images float by on huge screens. The tyranny of the digital, the need to always take advantage of the latest technology? Sontag suggests that books aren’t the best way to present photos because the sequence is proposed by the order of pages but “nothing holds readers to the recommended order or indicates the amount of time to be spent on each photograph.” Enter the video slideshow, which in my mind provides a terrible experience for the viewer, jerked from photo to photo at the whim of the projection, unable to gawk and focus and ogle any particular one in the mix.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly is the 2nd essay, touching on Whitman, Stieglitz, but mostly about Diane Arbus (who I did not realize committed suicide… “the fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold.”).

Melancholy Objects tries to settle the age-old question of whether or not photography is art, comparing it to painting, poetry. Here we have more tourists: “Faced with the awesome spread and alienness of a newly settled continent, people wielded cameras as a way of taking possession of the places they visited. Kodak put signs at the entrance of many towns listing what to photograph. Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras.”  How much do we change the meaning and reality of a photograph by focusing only on capturing what it is that we want to see? Beautifying poverty, making ugly and weird seem photogenic.

The Heroism of Vision delves deeper into the investigation about whether photos lie, and the impact of the words paired with the photo. As Godard and Gorin point out, photos talk “through the mouth of the text written beneath it.” Captions highly influence our perception of what we are viewing. We are also distanced by the subject at the same time we are brought close to it. “The aestheticizing tendency of photography is such that the medium which conveys distress ends by neutralizing it.”

Photographic Evangels puts photographers on the defensive, “Like other steadily aggrandizing enterprises, photography has inspired its leading practitioners with a need to explain, again and again, what they are doing and why it is valuable.” Because it is so easy to take photos, the professionals insist that they have magic in their hands, that it is not an accident that they take great pictures. And yet, “most photographers have always had–with good reason–an almost superstitious confidence in the lucky accident.” Sontag asserts that there is virtually zero discernible difference in photos made by these professionals. “Many of the published photographs by photography’s greatest names seem like work that could have been done by another gifted professional of their period.” What about museums? “Photograph’s adoption by the museum only accelerates that process which time will bring about anyway: making all work valuable.”

The last essay, The Image-World, circles back to the original ideas in the first chapter, which made it more interesting to me than the somewhat irrelevant ranting about whether photos are lies or art. Reality is more and more like what cameras show us, people now insisting their experience of a violent event “seemed like a movie,” this being the best way to explain how real it felt. “To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to reexperience the unreality and remoteness of the real.”

A society becomes ‘modern’ when one of its chief activities is producing and consuming images, when images that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensable to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.

She notes Melville’s Pierre’s snobbishness around the fact that photos are now available to the Everyman: “Besides, when every body has his portrait published, true distinction lies in not having yours published at all.”

Cameras “provide an instantly retroactive view of experience” thus further distancing ourselves from the reality of now. Photography offers “both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others–allowing us to participate, while confirming alienation.” People are disappointed by seeing the real thing in life when they have already seen the idealized image of the thing in a photo. We’re also vulnerable to disturbing events shown via photos that we’re immune to when experiencing them in real life. “That vulnerability is part of the distinctive passivity of someone who is a spectator twice over, spectator of events already shaped, first by the participants and second by the image maker.

Sontag notes that cameras have begun to offer “self-surveillance,” something absolutely true in today’s age where anyone on Facebook is essentially a narc.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the works o f an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images. The freedom to consume a plurality of images and goods is equated with freedom itself The narrowing of free political choice to free economic consumption requires the unlimited production and consumption of images.

Interview with History

Oriana Fallaci was a fearless, powerhouse Italian journalist who somehow finagled interviews with the most powerful men and women of the 1970s. This 1976 collection includes fourteen of those interviews, translated by John Shepley into English, dedicated to her mother and to all those who do not like power. In her preface, she explains how hard it was to get her requests for appointments met, having to wait months for half an hour, but she realized after several of these meetings that powerful people are not better than us, “they are neither more intelligent nor stronger nor more enlightened than ourselves. If anything, they are more enterprising, more ambitious.” Later she states that she has always looked on “disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born… on the silence of those who do not react as the real death of a woman or a man.”

Before relating the interview, she gives us a few intro pages to set the stage. This I found to be her most compelling writing, although the fierce questions were also terrific. The first interview included in the book is in Nov 1972 with Henry Kissinger, whom she scores time with because he read her interview with General Giap in Hanoi in February 1969. She is led into the room and promptly ignored by Kissinger, which gives her time to study him before he studies her… “he wasn’t attractive at all, so short and thickset and weighed down by a large head like a sheep…” The biggest fallout from the interview was Nixon’s pouting that Kissinger didn’t give him credit in any way for his rise. “I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. American like the cowboy…” said Kissinger. He also is frank about his love affair with power: “When you have power in your hands and have held it for a long period of time, you end up thinking of it as something that’s due you.”

The next two chapters are interviews with the heads of warring Vietnamese sides, Nguyen Van Thieu of the south, General Giap of the north. Both of these men are immediately painted (as was Kissinger) as short–barely 5’3″–but Giap’s interview is much more interesting and prescient as to the ultimate outcome of the war.

There are a few powerful women she includes in the book, interviews with Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel (whose interview tapes were stolen when unattended for a few minutes in a Rome hotel room that Fallaci returned to), and Indira Ghandi. Golda’s interview ends by saying her only fear is to live too long, to lose her agility and lucidity and become senile. “I want to die with my mind clear.” Amen. Indira’s interview was blander, less memorable, perhaps tinged by the introduction where Fallaci outs her as a dictator who overthrew democracy when she didn’t get her way.

Heaps of scorn are tossed onto Yasir Arafat, nothing about him hinting at authority, his short height (again! 5’3″), his small hands, feet, huge hips and “swollen, obese stomach,” all topped by a small head, no cheeks or forehead, large mouth with red fleshy lips and an aggressive nose, two bulging eyes. Wow. Fallaci hints several times that he was gay, with his slightly feminine voice and handsome bodyguard: “What a bodyguard! The most gorgeous piece of male flesh I had ever seen. Tall, slender, elegant: the type who wears camouflage coveralls as though they were black tie and tails, with the chiseled features of a Western lady-killer… perhaps something more than a bodyguard.” His lack of charm made for a dud of an interview, Fallaci claimed. “If a person has talent, you can ask him or her the most banal thing in the world: she will always find the way to answer you brilliantly or profoundly… with Arafat I found myself empty-handed. He almost always reacted with indirect or evasive discourses, turns of phrase that contained nothing beyond his rhetorical intransigence, his constant fear of not persuading me.”

In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution

This is the best book I’ve read on the Second Wave. Brownmiller sews the disparate pieces of the movement into a cohesive quilt, tucks you inside nice and cozy, then tells you her first-hand experiences of the revolution of Women’s Liberation, from the heady days of the late 1960s through the powerful and tumultuous 1970s, petering out in the dismal 1980s. I’m semi-obsessed with this era, hoovering up all the classics written during that time (Sexual Politics, Dialectic of Sex, SCUM Manifesto, etc.), getting blown away by the insight and revolutionary ideas inside. Brownmiller sets the stage for the arrival of each of those works, but gives you much more, an insider’s look at the very beginning of the movement, the warring factions, the price of fame, the juxtaposition of other historical elements. None of this happened in a vacuum, with Kent State, RFK, MLK, Chicago conventions all burning around it. I’d read about most of the Women’s Liberation events before, but Brownmiller’s exposition weaves things together from many sources in a convenient one-stop shop for anyone curious about this incredible and important revolution. The insider viewpoint on the Ladies’ Home Journal takeover is worth the price of the book alone.

So many pages marked for re-read and note taking! This is a trove of sign-posts for future reading and research.

  • 1965 memo by Mary King and Casey Hayden, “A Kind of Memo,” aimed at exposing sexism in the leftist movement, one of the first documents of the women’s movement.
  • Anne Forer’s naming of “consciousness raising” because in her leftist upbringing, it was said that the workers didn’t know they were oppressed and so the leftists had to raise their consciousness. The phrase was popularized by Kathie Sarachild (Amatniek).
  • Brownmiller’s uncharitable description of Valerie Solanas as an “unstable hanger-on in Andy Warhol’s circle… the SCUM Manifesto was the fulmination of a sadly disturbed woman who had somehow arrived at the truth that men held all of society’s power.”
  • The myth of bra-burning at the Miss America protest; the group didn’t have a permit to burn things so just tossed girdles, high heels, bras, falsies, eyelash curlers, tweezers, etc. into a trash can. (Kate Millet was there cheering them on, two years away from publishing Sexual Politics)
  • Proliferation of newspapers run by women – the takeover of Rat in NYC by women (and the fantastic screed “Goodbye to All That” by Robin Morgan, And Ain’t I a Woman? and Lilith in Seattle, Everywoman in LA, Tooth and Nail then It Ain’t Me Babe in Berkeley (started by Laura X who founded the Women’s Herstory Archives), Up from Under and Aphra in NYC, KNOW, Inc. in Pittsburgh, her-self (Ann Arbor), Sojourner (Boston), Big Mama Rag (Denver), Plexus (San Francisco), The Feminist Voice (Chicago), Women’s Press (Eugene), off our backs (DC… and was still around until 2008 when their website clunked off).
  • It was pure fluke that Joyce Ravitz joined the infiltrators at the abortion hearing in NYC in 1969, she had been on her way to another demonstration when she ran into the Redstockings and was convinced to join. Ravitz gave an impassioned speech and more women jumped up in the room to support her.
  • Again and again Brownmiller asserts that the original revolutionary founders felt slighted when their cause became more mainstream and popular. “The phenomenon of pushing a new issue forward and watching the vision play out pragmatically was a dilemma for them, and would remain one for many of the early leaders.”

Little Tales of Misogyny

The best thing about this book is the cover, so I hunted for a good image of it (without being overly stickered by a library). This is actually a pretty terrible thing to say about a book, especially so early-on in my love affair with Highsmith’s writing. But I found little of comfort in the seemingly hastily cobbled together stories that she churned out in this collection. It seems this was first published in German, translated by Richartz, in 1975, which seems odd until you read the stories and think that perhaps she just shat this book out knowing that her words would be chiseled away into Deutsch by someone else. As the Guardian review notes:

The book was first published in 1975 in German, under the title Kleine Geschichte für Weiberfeinde, appearing in English two years later. I should have looked closer at that German title: it means, literally, “little tales for misogynists”. This is not a book to teach the misogynists a lesson: it’s something you might give a misogynist on his birthday.

Which is probably why I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the book. I did recognize one of the stories—The Fully-Licensed Whore, or The Wife—from the Aunt Lute Anthology (Vol 2) which was probably one of the stronger stories.

Homage to Catalonia

Orwell’s account of the Spanish Civil War, written in a frenzy a few months after he left the front lines to recover from being shot in the throat. If you like detailed books about war, you may enjoy this, but I didn’t find it as interesting as his other books, tops in my mind being 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London. Blair/Orwell volunteers to fight for the revolutionaries against the fascists and finds things chaotic and understaffed, to say the least. Not enough guns or ammunition, pseudo-training of the young boys by marching them around the square double-time but no real training of how to shoot a weapon or throw a bomb. The primary concern of folks at the front was firewood, food, cigarettes, candles, and the enemy, in that order. His pal Kopp says, “This is not a war, it is a comic opera with an occasional death,” and Orwell grants that his life was probably saved many times over by the “Spanish standard of marksmanship,” i.e. to miss wildly. The real weapon on the front was the megaphone, as each side would taunt the other, the revolutionaries mentioning (falsely) the delicious buttered toast they were eating and for the other side to hurry up and defect already to get their hands on some.

Beyond his detailed account of the boredom and cold on the front, Orwell heroically tries to explain all the various factions that were theoretically on the same side fighting against Franco, but that were all infighting as well. The POUM (the division Orwell was with) believed that the only alternative to fascism was worker control. The PSUC (which eventually won control) was pushed by the Stalinist line from the USSR to set up a parliamentary democracy first and revolution later (or hopefully never, but they lured recruits by dangling the revolution mañana). He says that the best strategic opportunity of the war (liberating Morocco) was thrown away “in the vain hope of placating French and British capitalism.” Orwell lucked out to find himself embedded with the most revolutionary part of the Spanish defenders, people truly treating each other equally with no rank. This group was soon overthrown (and hundreds imprisoned) when the Right-wing Communists made their move; yes, right-wing. It was a weird amalgamation of groups that banded together to fight fascism.

While on leave from the front, Orwell finds himself dragged into the fighting that breaks out in the streets of Barcelona. His wife (Eileen Blair) is living in Barcelona and attempting to help out as a nurse after her main job of delivering cigars and other English necessities was accomplished. I yearn for an account of what she experienced during those frantic days of street fighting, which was then quelled when 6,000 police got shipped in from Valencia. “The Civil Guards and the Carabineros, who were not intended for the front at all, were better armed and far better clad than ourselves. I suspect it is the same in all wars—always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line.”

Orwell has some harsh words for the journalists writing about the war from the safety of their homes hundreds or thousands of miles away from the front. “It’s the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hold in him.”

This is viewed by some as the best account of the Spanish Civil War, although Orwell credits The Spanish Cockpit by Franz Borkenau as the “ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war.”

Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States

Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States

Gayle Fischer’s hyper-academic look at the rise and fall of the bloomer, the freedom dress, the pantaloon, the Turkish trouser in the nineteenth century. I’ve been slightly obsessed with this topic since reading Mary Walker’s 1871 piece on dress reform republished in the invaluable Aunt Lute anthology which reminded me that women could actually be arrested for wearing pants. Fanny Fern took up the topic even earlier in the 1850s and 60s, writing about sneaking out in her husband’s clothing to enjoy an unrestrained walk about town without the heavy cloth of skirts becoming sodden and muddied by rain. The nonsense continued through the 20th century as well, Lois Rabinowitz thrown out of traffic court for wearing pants in 1960. Unfortunately, my thirst for information wasn’t quenched by this chalky academic tome that focuses solely on the 19th century.

The most interesting chapter (judging from my dog-eared pages—I know, I’m terrible) was Pantaloons in Public: Woman’s Rights and Freedom Dresses, detailing the crest of dress reform in 1851 as prominent suffragists strode around Seneca Falls in pants, bringing “pantaloons and women’s struggle for power together for the first time in U.S. history.” The pants were called “freedom dress” by women’s rights advocates but the press dubbed them Bloomers when Amelia Jenks Bloomer flaunted them, and in the end she held out longer than the rest of her comrades. She weighted the hem of her short skirt with shot to keep it from flying over her head in the winds of Iowa, which ended up just bruising her instead. “Lightweight” wire hoop skirts replaced petticoats around the same time, and she abandoned ship. Other feminists stopped wearing them earlier because they found that audiences failed to listen to them if they were fixated on their clothing. Susan B. Anthony noted that both causes (dress reform and suffrage) “are injured, as the average mind can grasp but one idea at a time.” So the women donned skirts again to give priority to the greater cause of votes.

One interesting idea I’ve known but that was reinforced is that we seem to be in a perpetual state of change, ever since industrialization. “The antebellum period seemed to be marked by rapid changes and the loss of a sense of identity, control, and values around which to understand life. As one historian described it, the ‘specter of social breakdown’ haunted most antebellum Americans.” How true these words are when applied to today’s world as well.

Edith’s Diary

Stunningly good work by Patricia Highsmith—I finally found a book she’s written that hasn’t been turned into a movie so I could fully enjoy her words without the polluting influence of Hollywood’s interpretation floating before my eyes. Dreamy, creepy, yet jarringly real story of a housewife moved from NYC to the Pennsylvania countryside to raise her (disappointing) son and eventually separate and divorced by her husband in favor of a younger woman. Edith’s diary enters the scene in the first sentence, as appropriate for a main actor, as she is packing up their West Village apartment for the move to Brunswick Corner, PA. She has sporadically jotted things into the heavy leather-bound volume since receiving it as a gift from a man who’d been wooing her while at Bryn Mawr, most recently moods and thoughts like “Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?” In this early chapter we get the foundation for her son, Cliffie,’s character, not doing well in school, day-dreaming in front of the TV, and nearly killing the cat by suffocating it.

Also early on the family is saddled with caring for an ailing elderly uncle of her husband’s, uncle George, who ends up spending 12 or 13 years at their home before being helped into a permanent sleep by Cliffie and medicine. Edith cares for George in her house for YEARS after Brett abandons her, not helping her get him into a nursing home, and later sniffing around to see if there was foul play in the death. Years and years of bedpans and rubber sheets and preparing trays of food and tea to take up to him. Compare and contrast to Edith’s aunt Melanie, the same age or older than George, spry and fit and cheerful and gallivanting about, excitedly visiting Edith whenever she gets a chance. Melanie dies of a stroke a few weeks before Cliffie sends George packing.

Edith writes articles and editorials for the local paper she helped create, but begins to go off the rails and make the community uncomfortable, eventually losing her part-time job in a gift shop. As her life spirals out of control, she finds refuge in her diary, spinning up a completely fabricated life of success for her son whom she marries off with children and an important job in the Middle East. The line begins to blur between reality and her dream life, she prepares a champagne lunch one spring day and pretends Cliffie and his wife are there, when in reality it’s just fat, lazy, boozy Cliffie who still lives at home with her and sometimes works at a local bar or delivering groceries. At age 24 he falls in love (unrequited) for the first time, and spends years trying to forget her.

Eventually the psychiatrists are sent in, storming the fortress, always asking to see her workroom where she’s begun sculpting. She created busts of her son and aunt… along with busts of the two children she dreamed up for her son. She’s carrying the heavy bust of her son downstairs to show one of the doctors when she trips, falls, and dies. Cliffie lives on, rescues her diary and swears never to read it.

Books sometimes establish credibility by flashing titles of other books as credentials, and Highsmith invokes Orwell’s 1984 and Homage to Catalonia early on to gain our trust.

Original Letters from India

Meandering through the shelves at the library for a different book, I stumbled on these letters by Eliza Fay, written at the end of the 18th century during the year it took her to get from England to Bengal, and with a second section including letters from her subsequent voyages to and from India. Her first voyage in 1779 is in the company of her husband,  “foolish and unreliable fop of an Irish lawyer named Anthony Fay, bound for service in the court in Calcutta,” as noted by Simon Winchester in the introduction to this volume. We can thank E.M. Forster for keeping her words alive—he discovered her 1817 volume in a 1908 reprint when he was researching Passage to India and persuaded the Woolfs to publish a Hogarth Press edition in 1925.

One thing that stuck out for me was the importance of letters of introduction, yet another custom gone extinct. These precious papers were clutched to their person even in the most dire of circumstances, since they would open doors and create opportunity for people who were strangers in a strange land.

During the voyage out in 1779, they stop in Paris and caught a glimpse of Marie Antoinette:

She is delicately fair and has certainly the sweetest blue eyes that ever were seen; but there is a little redness, a kind of tendency to inflammation around them, and she is likewise slightly marked with the small pox; both which trifling blemishes were then imperceptible, and she appeared perfectly beautiful.

A few days later, stopping in Fontainbleau, she rails against Christina, Queen of Sweden:

I cannot bear that woman. She abdicated her crown from sheer vanity but retained that passion for despotism which shewed what kind of feelings she had cherished, while seated on the throne… Christina may have been an accomplished female; but she can never be called great, even by her admirers.

Yikes, Eliza! I have a more tender spot in my heart for Christina who decided she didn’t want to marry, thus chucked the throne back at her family,  focused on her books and moved to Rome.

Eliza loves writing about food, and is even taunted a bit by E.M. Forster in the liner notes that people who write long letters often have an unhealthy obsession with food. She, her husband, and a male companion cross overland from Paris through the Alps to Italy, and raves about the asparagus in Lyons, “I think [Lyons] ought to be [known] for its asparagus which is the finest I ever tasted; and remarkably cheap. Being a vegetable I am very fond of, and having found it at all time beneficial to my constitutions, I wished to eat it freely; but was almost disgusted by the manner in which it was constantly brought to the table at the Inn, covered with a thick sauce composed of eggs, butter, oil and vinegar.” She sent for the chef and asked for it to be simply boiled.

In Italy, they get on a boat and in about a month end up in Egypt. In Cairo she describes a wedding:

… a gay and amusing spectacle, from the procession which accompanies that Bride in all her movements, drums, haut-boys and every other kind of noise and parade they can make, seem indispensable: but the circumstance of completely veiling not only the face but the whole figure of the woman, in the enveloping mantle of black silk, before described, gives an air of melancholy to these exhibitions. To show the face is considered here an act of downright indecency; a terrible fashion for one like me, to whom free air seems the great requisite for existence.

Six more weeks at sea, hoping to reach Calcutta in a few days, she writes again to give detail of the people with whom she’s been cooped up for weeks. No one is spared her poison pen but special venom is used for John Hare, ravaging his appearance and ridiculing his pomposity. The other passengers are not particularly well-treated either, including the captain who seems bent on starving his ship. Eliza soon learns to elbow her way to the grub on the table:

I soon learnt our genteel maxim was ‘catch as catch can,’ —the longest arm fared best; and you cannot imagine what a good scrambler I am become,—a dish once seized, it is in my care, to make use of my good fortune: and now provisions running very short, we are grown quite savages; two or three of us perhaps fighting for a bone; for there is no respect of persons.

Soon after landing in Calcutta, she and her husband are imprisoned for nearly three months by Hyder Ali, the king of Mysore once he realizes the ship is mainly British interests although flying under a Dutch flag. Once freed, they head to Bengal and her husband gets set up with lawyering at the bar, but Eliza is concerned that he’s not doing enough to further his career by ignoring social invitations and snubbing important people. They eventually separate and she lives with friends, then renews her perpetual wandering.