The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

A stunning memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston published in 1975 which I’m ashamed to have missed reading before. It was brought up in Zinsser’s memoir book and sounded interesting, so I added it to the pile. It is by far the best memoir of the handful I’ve taste-tested this month from a list compiled from his book.

The Woman Warrior is made up of perfectly formed pearls, stories that you had to shut the book after reading to roll them around in your mouth and savor. Normally I’m chomping through books like a hungry hippo, but I was smart enough to close the book after each tidbit. White Tigers was the story that stunned me into silence—the story of a swordswoman who wanders away from her village as a young girl and is trained up by a couple of immortal gods to eventually go back and avenge the pillaging of her family and community by leading an army.

Shaman is the tale where we learn of the medical training of her mother. Marrying her father, he then immigrated to NYC to make money, sending it home to his wife to care for their two children, who eventually die. The mother still continues to collect money from America and decides to go to medical school. She’s a big success with the villagers once she’s done, having attained nearly magical powers. Then she migrates to America to join her husband (where they later have Maxine), finds herself working long hours in a laundromat. In the story, Maxine is visiting her old mother and concerned about her health.

[Her mother] coughed deeply. “See what I mean? I have worked too much. Human beings don’t work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we’re too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all. I can’t sleep in this country because it doesn’t shut down for the night. Factories, canneries, restaurants, always somebody somewhere working through the night. It never gets done all at once here. Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here; one evening so long, you could visit your women friends, drink tea, and play cards at each house, and it would still be twilight. It even got boring, nothing to do but fan ourselves. Here midnight comes and the floor’s not swept, the ironing’s not ready, the money’s not made. I would still be young if we lived in China.”

And in A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, great detail about how Maxine feigns undesirability so that she won’t get married off, so she can still pursue her studies:

As my parents and the FOB sat talking at the kitchen table, I dropped two dishes. I found my walking stick and limped across the floor. I twisted my mouth and caught my hand in the knots of my hair. I spilled soup on the FOB when I handed him his bowl. “She can sew, though,” I heard my mother say, “and sweep.” I raised dust swirls sweeping around and under the FOB’s chair—very bad luck because spirits live inside the broom. I put on my shoes with the open flaps and flapped about like a Wino Ghost.

Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation

I picked up this book from 1995 as an anodyne to feeling icky from attempting to read Nabokov’s Speak Memory which derailed rather quickly for me on page 2 when he “mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists.” That one pinprick of nauseating sexism set my mind wholly against continuing, although I gave a few more pages a desultory turn or two. Luckily, I had this collection of feminist essays from 1995 on hand to wipe away all traces of the egotism and overconfidence of a white male writer.

This contains 28 essays, ranging from burning-hot amazing to shrug-worthy. Mostly I was excited to fill the gaps in my knowledge between the 1970s and current feminist texts. Essays I loved:

  • Ruminations of a Feminist Aerobics Instructor by Alisa L. Valdés; I sighed when I came across this bit, which is so applicable 21 years later: “What could honestly be more frightening to men than a room full of capable, professional women moving together, in sync, unaware of anything but themselves and each other? Only Hillary Rodham Clinton and a truly lesbian orgy, perhaps.”
  • Your Life As a Girl by Curtis Sittenfeld. Brilliant description of tom-girl playing baseball morphing into the girl society wants her to be. I enjoyed her modernized version of Pride and Prejudice: Eligible. She wrote this essay while a student at Vassar.
  • You’re Not the Type by Laurel Gilbert. The struggle of being a pregnant teenager.
  • Bloodlove by Christine Doza. High school from the perspective of a woke teenager who makes a zine, Upslut, that her teacher threatens to sue her for libel until he realizes she won’t back down from her true assertions of his harassment.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir

An excellent graphic memoir by Roz Chast that I was turned onto by her current exhibition at the Jewseum. Instead of reading the panels one by one on the walls, elbowing other spectators aside so I could get a closer look, I borrowed the memoir in book-form from the library. I’ve been coincidentally reading a lot about death after hearing Ann Neumann on the radio recently, and this memoir is a wonderful addition to the topic. Chast tackles the difficult subject of watching her parents decline rapidly once they pass age 90, but they refuse to discuss basic things like living wills or how they’d like to go off into the sunset. After her dominant mother falls one too many times in their dusty and grime-encased Brooklyn apartment, she manages to pull them into a assisted living facility in Connecticut near her family. Her dad has been sinking into dementia for years and her mother never regains strength after a few weeks in the hospital. Their decline continues, achingly slowly, and expensively. Chast watches as the bills mount and silently thanks her parents for squirreling away what tiny amount they could, but even that pile is melting quickly. I particularly appreciate the honesty she shows in dealing with her feelings —she’s never been particularly close to her mother and does not have a change of heart at the end.

The Edible Woman

Was this Atwood’s first novel? It was pub’d in 1969 and various sources claim that it established her as a serious writer. It’s an interesting read—you can tell it’s an early work because bits are too stolid, like Marian’s overt reference to returning to first-person in Part 3. I was jarred by the return, not really having noticed the switch from first- to third-person between parts 1 & 2.

Marian works at a survey research firm (much like the one that Atwood worked at in Toronto before writing the book), editing questionnaires and sampling products (like pudding flavors). She puts up with her boyfriend, Peter, carefully trying not to make him think that she wants to marry him. In fact, she runs away during an outing with another couple, drunk but clear in her mind about what she wants. When Peter finds her, he pops the question. She’s living with Ainsley, a psych-major taking temporary jobs and permanently focused on the idea of having a baby (eventually luring Marian’s friend Len into the equation on the optimal day to have a Springtime baby). They rent an apartment in an old mansion and avoid the furious stares of their landlady who suspect them up to something. On one Saturday, she heads out with a questionnaire to ascertain the effectiveness of a beer jingle and meets Duncan, an eccentric grad student who loves ironing as a release from stress (she later runs into him at the laundromat).

Part 2 switches to third-person for Marian, as she reluctantly plods towards marriage, losing her appetite for meat and then for basically every other food item. When work finds out that she’s engaged, her boss firmly says that she won’t be working there after the wedding. She has an affair with Duncan. Peter throws a party and Marian rashly invites Duncan and his roommates, as well as Ainsley, last minute. At that party, she gets drunk, realizes that her life would be hell with Peter, and escapes to find Duncan. They consummate their affair in a seedy hotel room and she resolves to tell Peter it’s over. She does this by baking a sponge cake in the shape of a woman, and when Peter rages over to confront her about disappearing from the party, she says that he’s been trying to consume her, that she made this other woman which would do much better for him.

Part 3, Marian back to first-person, in control of her life, cleaning the apartment, picking up the threads of her life. Duncan comes over for tea, eats the rest of the cake, says it was he who was trying to consume her, not Peter.

Scene from the office Christmas party, segregated by department:

She looked around the room at all the women there, at the mouths opening and shutting, to talk or to eat. Here, sitting like any other group of women at an afternoon feast, they no longer had the varnish of officialdom that separated them, during regular office hours, from the vast anonymous ocean of housewives whose minds they were employed to explore. They could have been wearing housecoats and curlers.

Coming home from a hair appointment that transformed her into a creature she couldn’t recognize, she stumbled onto a group of women watching a demonstration of a vegetable grater:

Marian stopped for a minute on the outer fringe of the group. The little man made a radish-rose with yet another attachment. Several of the women turned and glanced at her in an appraising way, summing her up. Anyone with a hair-style like that, they must have been thinking, would be far too trivial to be seriously interested in graters. How long did it take to acquire that patina of lower-middle income domesticity, that weathered surface of slightly mangy fur, cloth worn thin at the cuff-edges and around buttons, scuffed leather of handbags; the tight slant of the mouth, the gauging eyes; and above all that invisible colour that was like a smell, the underpainting of musty upholstery and worn linoleum that made them in this bargain basement authentic in a way that she was not?

Pretending Is Lying

A beautiful graphic novel from Belgian artist Dominique Goblet. The images are haunting, bizarre, perfect, and follow her as she introduces her four-year-old daughter Nikita to her father, who’s been sober for 4 years. Her dad is shacked up with an eerily ghost-like creature, named Blandine, but pronounced by Nikita “Bleeding.” We also flash back to Dom’s childhood, bored on a rainy day and cruelly tied up in the attic by her mother for accidentally splashing paint on the freshly laundered and ironed shirts her mom has been slaving over while her dad watches car racing in the other room. She also endures heartbreak when a man she loves can’t quite quit the woman he was seeing before – you can see him haunted by her ghost-like form below:

Including these as examples of the astonishing layering and style she uses. Lovely overall, big thumbs up.

I can’t resist raging against dumb tech ideas about reading

As I’m sipping my coffee and perusing this morning’s SF Chronicle, I nearly spit out my drink after reaching this article on page 1 of the business section.

I’m a huge Melville fan, and every fiber in my body rejected the mangling of the headline. Maybe Thadani thought she was being clever by upgrading “Call me Ishmael” to “text me, Ishmael” but synapses in my brain roared in protest. Most egregious is the incorrect upgrade of “call me” to “text me.” In the book, Ishmael is inviting readers to call him by that name, not to phone him on a non-existent 1850s-era telephone. And why add a comma into this pseudo-modernized phrase? ARGH!

They had my attention, albeit with veins pulsating out of my forehead with distaste. Continuing to read the article, I think that perhaps I’ll be pacified, that this duo really is concerned with reading:

Seeing children grow up with phones in their hands, Prerna Gupta and husband Parag Chordia were worried that Generation Z — the “Snapchat generation,” as they call it — was missing out on the novelty of a good book.

Yes, I agree! This attention-starved generation must be eroding their ability to consume an old fashioned book when their focus is eviscerated with competing screens and bloops and beeps from their phones. Ah, but what’s this?

But instead of trying to persuade the younger generation to read paperbacks, they instead decided to bring stories to them on the medium they know best: texting. In December, the couple released Hooked, an app that presents stories in the form of text messages.

What the actual hell? This is by far one of the worst ideas for engaging people in the meaningful effort of reading that I’ve ever encountered. For one thing, I’m highly suspicious that using Chat to move a story forward through dialog is feasible. Can you imagine being on the receiving end of a text from Mr. Micawber?

Mr. Micawber, one of my favorite Dickens characters, gets the text treatment

The larger issue is that the books being spoon-fed through chat are obviously not high quality. No one is taking the time to carve up the classics into tiny morsels that fit into a text screen. Instead, they’re patting themselves on the back for getting teens to read this kind of “book”:

Slap me silly and burn my library card, I guess I’ll just give up reading printed books and start reading terrible YA fiction on my phone! But seriously, don’t Twitterbots take care of this already? Here’s one you can follow to have Joyce’s Ulysses tweeted at you. This account tweeted out Alice in Wonderland and Moby Dick. (This account randomizes text from Moby Dick if you’re more into serendipity.)

Here’s an idea for an app, feel free to steal it—an app that sends electric shocks into the hands of the phone-holder if they spend more than 10 minutes a day cradling it, cooing over it, completely losing the ability to interact with the real world. Get a library card, read a book.

 

Never Married Women (Women in the Political Economy series)

I stumbled onto this book from 1987 while researching friendship, and one of my JSTOR sources mentioned this in relation to the question of how singles deal with friendship differently than marrieds. Being a vehement pro-single woman myself, I couldn’t resist dipping into the full work, and it was well worth the time.

Barbara Levy Simon interviewed fifty “rebels” as she calls them, women born between 1884 and 1918 who never married, rebels because they were brought up in a society that didn’t offer much of a choice except to marry and have children. “They have swum upstream, selecting their own stroke and pace, enduring the economic hardships and social stigma that women without men face.”

Despite loving their independence and living alone, most women found it necessary to couple up with another woman for the waning years of life, to share expenses and to inject their lives with social time that was missing after retiring from work. Most rejected marriage in their early years because they did not want to give up their independence and become someone’s property, and several batted away endless offers of betrothal. All this while weathering the storm of the Depression.

Great research and an invaluable tool for future study, filled with completely readable and interesting bits. I doubt any of the ladies profiled in this book from 40 years ago are still alive, but I give them a standing ovation for their contrary attitudes.

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

Originally released in the 1980s and then revised in the 90s, there are wisps of this book that are still interesting today, but some of it does not survive becoming clunky and dusty in the early 21st century. My favorite parts were her journalistic reporting—I Was a Playboy Bunny, College Reunion, Campaigning—and also her section on five women: Marilyn Monroe (who helped get Ella Fitzgerald booked at a club in LA that refused to hire her because of race), Jackie Kennedy (who dared to live her own life and work in publishing post-Onassis death), Alice Walker (written on the cusp of her stardom from Color Purple), Linda Lovelace (porn star in Deep Throat who apparently was a captive slave of her “husband” who produced the movie), and Patricia Nixon (prim interview revealing not much except a tiny flare of indignation against people who haven’t worked hard). Equally fascinating was the idea that women grow more rebellious with age whereas men are the opposite—rebellious in youth and become more conservative—this comes up in her essay Why Young Women are More Conservative. “Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age.”

I Was a Playboy Bunny gave a diary account of that famous infiltration into the NYC club. I was horrified to hear about the state of her feet, swollen permanently to a half size larger, after only a few days of tottering around on 4 inch heels for 16 hours a day fetching drinks and avoiding pinches. Campaigning talked in a similar diary-like way about when she first met the unprepossessing George McGovern as they shared a ride up to a weekend in Vermont in 1965 all the way through the 1972 campaigning for him after McCarthy left her cold.

The epigraph is from the bible: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft” (I Samuel 15:23).

Jackie Kennedy worked as an editor on Remember the Ladies, a book of 18th century women’s history, and Steinem says she “pored over an eighteen-century sex manual with information about a root that women chewed to induce abortion.”

 

The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America

Ann Neumann’s great journalistic look at the current state of end of life, from the legal right to stop eating and drinking, to the prolongation of life through machines well beyond what is viable and human. I learned a lot as she explores the states that have legalized death with dignity, and the states that have not. POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) forms get taped to refrigerators so that emergency workers know where to look and are used in 26 states.

Neumann got interested in the topic after seeing her father die in pain, having to go against his wishes to die at home and transfer him to a hospice facility that had stronger drugs to treat his agony. She then goes on a whirl-wind chase around the world (Japan, Africa) to deal with her grief and to avoid the divorce papers and lack of job that awaits her at home. She becomes a volunteer for hospice patients and details her visits to a handful of them. Neumann also goes into the debate from disabled people who fear that they will be pressured to end their lives and want to fight the movement to allow assisted suicide as much as possible.

Jahi McMath, the Oakland teenager who is braindead yet kept “alive” at home, is covered (and another reminder that Christopher Dolan is a greedy lawyer, looking to bring a lawsuit against the hospital for declaring her dead). Also, Terry Schiavo, a poster child for the fight for and against assisted death; I had forgotten that she was on a feeding tube and vegetative for FIFTEEN YEARS.

I Know I Am, But What Are You?

I love Samantha Bee’s humor, ferocity, and wit, and some of those were on display in this 2010 collection of memories and stories about childhood and adulthood. She describes her early exposure to raunch, transferred on to her Barbies and other dolls. Also, escaping the horny hands of thirty-somethings as a 13-year-old with braces pretending to be 18 but looking more like 9, constantly lured by the promise of free pizza. And camping excursions with her dad and stepmom that involved months of detailed lists, leaving at 4 in the morning for no good reason, and 8pm curfews at the campsite. The variety of jobs she’s held is astounding, from frame shop clerk to penis dysfunction receptionist to video store logger of homemade porn to clothes retail. A light frothy beach read for those not able to concentrate on more substantial intake.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Wow wow wow. Arlie Russell Hochschild leads the pack of authors helping to explain the unexplainable—namely, why those poor folks on the Right who are directly impacted by pollution and income equality are supporting candidates looking out for big business and small government. I’ve been reading a lot of sociologists lately for their take on this issue, but Hochschild is the clear winner. From my safe perch in San Francisco, she can actually make me scale the empathy wall and, if I squint, see things from the perspective of the other side, mired in sink holes in the Louisiana swamp she spends five years studying. At no point does she pander to them or to us, her readers. In fact, the book is a marvel in terms of balanced, respectful writing—if she gave every one of her interview subjects a copy of it, none should be offended.

One thing that struck me early as I was reading was the connection between money and religion. Both of these concepts make people feel comfortable; with money, you buy leisure, with religion, you buy afterlife. Several of the folks she interviews belong to a Pentecostal church—the type that believe in The Rapture and speaking in tongues. With this in mind, their carelessness about the environment makes perfect sense. They actually believe themselves to be living in End Times (and who knows! maybe we are! sure feels like it), so the earth will purge itself for 1,000 years and then come back a paradise. “The earth will burn with fervent heat,” is one quote from the book of Revelation.

The marriage of the 1% ultra rich Republicans who run for office with religion was super smart. This is one aspect that these people will not compromise on. “We vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs,” says one.

The people scoff at environmental regulations and simply endure pollution. The Louisiana Dept of Health printed instructions on how to prepare contaminated fish to eat. I found a copy online (image below from page 24). “You got a problem? Get used to it.” & “Sometimes you had to endure bad news for a higher good, like jobs in oil.” & worst of all: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”

Fox News comes in for scrutiny, and Hochschild rightly takes them to task for fear-mongering. One of the ladies says she listens to Fox throughout the day. “Fox is like family to me. Bill O’Reilly is like a steady reliable dad…” (albeit one that sexually harasses ladies.)

The part of the book that struck me most was her exploration of everyone’s “deep story”—everyone’s waiting in line for the American Dream and they are patiently waiting, it’s hot out, the sun is beating down, and the line’s not moving. Sometimes it seems they’re going backwards. And then, a group of people cut in line (e.g. woman, blacks, immigrants). And it seems like Obama is encouraging them to cut in line, and isn’t he a line cutter also? (How else did he get into Harvard).

“The year when the Dream stopped working for the 90 percent was 1950. If you were born before 1950, on average, the older you got, the more your income rose. If you were born after 1950, it did not.”

But this craving to earn lots of money lingers, and there is worship of successful businessmen. With lots of the men Hochschild spoke with, “the repeated term ‘millionaire’ floated around conversations like a ghost.” Identifying with the 1% was a source of pride for Tea Partiers, showing that you were optimistic, that you tried.

On the problem of Toxic T (our Cheeto in Chief), Hochschild wrote this before he was elected, but she sees all the signs that led to his selection. He released the crowds from the obligation to care about anyone but themselves, no longer required to be p.c., able to trashtalk women/minorities/disabled and feel good about it. “While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest—a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.”

The Tea Party has a long history of electing people who do exactly what they say, shrink government, and ravage the land. They don’t like the results, so they vote him (usually a him) out, and elect a Democrat who hikes taxes and then start to complain about that, with a short memory of the terrible things that happened without government spending.

This is probably the first book where I’ve eagerly devoured the Appendices. Appendix B contains fascinating data which interrelated political choice, attitudes about the environment, with actual risk of toxic releases. Most interesting: “as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement People worry too much about human progress harming the environment. So the higher the exposure to environmental pollution, the less worried the individual was about it—and the more likely that person was to define himself as a strong Republican.”

We blue states benefit from this attitude. We get less pollution but still reap the benefits of the products coming out of red states.

This is a tremendous book. Highly recommended.

Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

Fierce and merciless, much like Andrea Dworkin’s writing which Crispin rightfully defends. She is vehemently anti-“Universal feminism”, the type that has become hip, emblazoned on t-shirts and simply another accoutrement of culture. Buy this object to show the world that you’re a cool feminist, but don’t really think too hard about what feminism is, and what you’re fighting for.

I admit, I was a bit nervous cracking the spine on this. What would lurk inside to chastise me from my radical feminism? Instead, utter delight, as Crispin goes full throttle from page one to sweep aside the pseudo-feminists (hell-bent on what Crispin calls their “psychotic marketing campaign” to blandify feminism) and to paint the ideal world we should all be striving for. In the intro: “If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you that I am not angry, that I pose no threat, then feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat.”

Naturally I went crazy and dog-eared nearly every page:

  • “Asking for a system that was build for the express purpose of oppression to ‘um, please stop oppressing me?’ is nonsense work. The only task worth doing is fully dismantling and replacing that system.”
  • “Now that we have removed all meaning from the word feminism, our ranks have swelled. We automagically (presto chango) have created an egalitarian society, right? Things have improved all the way around, not just for women but for all people, right?”
  • “The workplace and capitalistic society has become increasingly hostile. Not only to women, but to men, too.”
  • We know better, yet we’re too comfortable to make changes that make a difference. “We know—god, WE KNOW, shut up already—that that cute top was sewn by children, in a factory with such lax safety standards that at almost any moment the whole thing could go, taking hundreds of lives with it. But fuck it, we want that top.”
  • “There is a way a woman can deflect the worst effects of patriarchal control, and that is through money. Make enough of it and you can escape the patriarchy’s most obvious trappings…That’s what many of us have decided to do: buy our way out of the patriarchy.”
  • “This idea that women will ‘change the culture’ of any given industry is an easy lie to buy into. Even if women go in with good intentions, good intentions are nothing against the system. The system is older than you. It has absorbed more venom than you can ever hope to emit. You will not even slow it down.”
  • Cautionary tale: “No one talks about toxic femininity, but certainly if we look at certain feminine modes in contemporary culture, it exists. But we would prefer to think of toxic masculinity as innate, and any problems with women’s behavior as being socially created. It’s convenient.”
  • By short changing men, we’re actually short changing ourselves. “Through this act of projection, we are not only refusing to see the full humanity of men, we are refusing to see the full humanity of ourselves. We are not fully human if we only accept our good bits….look, it’s funny, and it probably even feels like a public service, deflating the male ego… And yet it seems to me if we really were better than them, we wouldn’t simply pick up all of their bad habits. We could find some value in ourselves without demeaning the value of men.”
  • Ultimately, it’s our culture of greed that fuels the horror of modern life. “We cannot create a safe world by dealing with misogyny on an individual basis. It is our entire culture, the way it runs on money, rewards inhumanity, encourages disconnection and isolation, causes great inequality and suffering, that’s the enemy. That is the only enemy worth fighting.”

 

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

Jill Filipovic does the world a service with this book, an excellent compendium of all the issues that confront a feminist life, with particular care to be inclusive and mention intersectionality wherever relevant. She interviews women across class, race, and geography (U.S. only) to show that the pursuit of happiness is simply out of reach for many women who are just trying to survive. Perhaps not as useful for people already deep in the cause, but this offers a great 360 view touching on everything from giving up one’s name upon marriage (personal pet peeve!), sex, marriage, parenting, women’s friendships, food, and work.

Her chapter titles are a nod to other books by women, like chapter 4’s “Life Among the Savages: Finding Pleasure in Parenting,” based on Shirley Jackson’s wonderful work; ch 6’s Bossypants (from Tina Fey), ch 1’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Gloria Steinem); ch 3’s Playing in the Dark (Toni Morrison), etc. I love this secret book list and have taken a few titles as suggestions of things to read.

The book is wonderfully easy to read, and I’m glad Jill inserts herself into the story. I knew I was going to like reading it when I encountered this on page 2:

The story doesn’t end with me leaning in harder and opening my own firm, or leaning all the way out and moving to Bali to do yoga, or meeting someone handsome who works with his hands and moving to a farmhouse where I find purpose making artisanal jams. It doesn’t end at all, and definitely not with a self-help book or some sort of manifesto about how to find personal happiness. The book in your hands is, thankfully, not about another young lawyer who quit her job and found herself.

She layers in commentary from a huge variety of articles and books, the notes section a thick resource for future digging. Of the books, she quotes one of my favorites—Gone Girl—wherein the Cool Girl “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2”. One of the articles she mentions is Alexandra Petri’s piece on getting her own humor column at the WaPo, which has this bit of chilling commentary:

Back then, I was super excited to be in a roomful of guys. The one thing I wish I could go back and tell younger me is that if you’re in a room of all guys, it doesn’t mean there’s something special about you. It means there’s something wrong with the room.

Something I’ve been wondering about a lot lately is the transformation of friendships when people get married/have kids. Jill sums this up nicely, saying that marriage is a sort of Rubicon for many women, “a point at which they increase their focus on their home, on their partner, and often on having children and building out their families… ‘Couple friends’ replace old girlfriends… ‘mom friends’ take over [after they have kids]… But, when you don’t get married at twenty-five and when you do spend more than a decade cultivating a life in which rich female relationships are at the foundation, it can be especially jarring to have those building blocks disintegrate. It can be jarring to realize you’ve shifted your own foundation, and it now rests largely on a man.”

On the parenting tip, this quote from Kim Brook’s New York magazine piece crystallizes the conflict between mothering and artisting, which she poses to a mother-friend:

I pressed her again on the question I’d been turning over in my mind:  Why is it that writing (or really any creative pursuit) seems to be in such conflict with parenting?

She answered calmly, hardly raising her voice. “Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”

… Hippocrates tells us “Art is a revolt.” People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.

Another beautiful book by Eve Babitz, a love letter to LA. The woman can flat-out write. Normally I’m bored by coke-fueled tales dotted with celebrities and other LA nonsense, but Babitz lures you, seduces you, brings you into her world and makes you taste the dust on a Bakersfield road, see the smog-enhanced sunsets over LA, and almost (!) join her in hatred of the dreaded NorCal foe, San Francisco.

It’s a hypnotic combination of intellectualism and hedonism. Eve yearns to turn to her virgin copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays instead of entertaining a friend to prevent the friend from getting a migraine. Henry James, Proust, are all name-dropped more than actual celebrities.

The book is a collection of memories/stories and each episode is introduced with a personal note to the man she wrote the book for, her lover Shawn, the sometimes gay designer who she falls head-over-heels for after one last disastrous relationship in SF. The inscriptions pre-chapter she claims are to serve as markers for Shawn to know which chapters of this book to read and which to skip (like “You won’t like this piece because you don’t like baseball so you can just skip it.”) But the intro that she wrote him for Sirocco is too sweet to miss:

God what a night. I was so glad you were home, standing up in all that wind while everyone else was blowing across the streets like tumbleweeds. I wonder if you wish you hadn’t been there, with the future looming up in such utter chaos before us. And meanwhile, the night was old and you were beautiful.

She’s a creature of comfort and doesn’t like to venture too far afield, but then will get a wild hair to tear around the state. I completely agree with her comment: “The idea of trying to ‘find yourself’ in some kind of geographical illusion is enough to make me so disgusted and bored that I am likely to get nasty.”

I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it’s held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you’re talking about.

Simply perfect writing. Engaging delightful tales of life in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles.

Possible inspiration to There’s Something About Mary in The Garden of Allah story?

“There’s just something about Mary,” a guy told me once. “She’s too pure. She’s almost like a nun.” But Mary was much better than nuns. They only came in black and white, while Mary was all the colors.

Middlemarch

Mary Anne Evans (Marian Evans), writing as George Eliot, deserves the praise that has been echoing since she started speaking her mind through written words. Middlemarch came out in 1871-2, and if I read it before I remembered nothing of it, convincing me that it’s a necessity to read and re-read the classic works throughout your life, as they make different and stronger impressions as your own well of experience has grown.

Dorothea Brooke/Casaubon/Ladislaw is the shining angel of the story and is compared to the Virgin Mary multiple times throughout. We first meet her as an unmarried lass, strictly determined to focus on the important things in life and if possible marry a great man (someone of Milton’s stature) to help with his life’s work. Unfortunately, she chooses the dry and crumbly Casaubon, 30 years her senior, who at least has the good graces to be rich as well as pious. More fortunately, he’s only on the scene for a few years before kicking the bucket from ill-health. But the jealous old man puts a kicker in his will, that Dorothea is to lose his property should she marry his cousin Will Ladislaw, with whom she has only the barest of friendships. At this point, I screamed at the book that she should give her money to Ladislaw first, and then marry him, to get around this ridiculous clause. Instead, they strain at their innocent and budding relationship until Dorothea realizes she’s in love because of her jealous reaction to seeing Rosamund tête-à-tête and mistakes his intentions. Eventually, she throws away her fortune and joins forces with Will.

There are other couples as well, including the foolish Rosamond, married to Lydgate the doctor. And foolish Rosamond’s foolish brother Fred, who gets into debt and seems to be one of the usual layabout gents without a fortune, redeems himself to capture Mary Garth. There’s scandal aplenty, with Bulstrode the banker covering up his disreputable past, slightly murdering Raffles the wag who could spread the truth about him, and involving Lydgate in the scent of bribery.

Eliot was brutal in her description of Casaubon, making it no problem for the reader to hate this small-souled man. The description post-honeymoon captures this perfectly:

Mr and Mrs Casaubon, returning from their wedding journey, arrived at Lowick Manor in the middle of January. A light snow was falling as they descended at the door, and in the morning, when Dorothea passed from her dressing-room into the blue-green boudoir that we know of, she saw the long avenue of limes lifting their trunks from a white earth, and spreading white branches against the dun and motionless sky. The distant flat shrank in uniform whiteness and low-hanging uniformity of cloud. The very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before: the stag in the tapestry looked more like a ghost in his ghostly blue-green world; the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase looked more like immovable imitations of books. The bright fire of dry oakboughs burning on the dogs seemed an incongruous renewal of life and glow – like the figure of Dorothea herself as she entered carrying the red-leather cases containing the cameos for Celia.

As for the man himself:

And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.)… For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Her thoughts on politics mesh well with today’s:

It was a time, according to a noticeable article in the ‘Pioneer,’ when the crying needs of the country might well counteract a reluctance to public action on the part of men whose minds had from long experience acquired a breadth as well as concentration, decision of judgement as well as tolerance, dispassionateness as well as energy—in fact, all those qualities which in the melancholy experience of mankind have been least disposed to share lodgings.

Some other odds & ends I enjoyed:

  • “Has any one eve pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?”
  • “But Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clocks ticked slowly in the winter evenings.”