Garments Against Women

I love Anne Boyer’s poetic prose, or prosetry, or lyric prose, or whatever you call it. “I have done so much to be ordinary and made a record of this: first I was born, next I was a child, then I learned things and did things and loved and had those who loved me and often felt alone. My body was sometimes well, then sometimes unwell. I got nearer to death, as did you.”

“…. late art was an embrace of late capital now late poetry was an embrace of late art / We’re good—cheering content providers, boring despots—with a notebook in which to record the history of our stockpile of foods: history dwindles.”

The Widows of Malabar Hill (A Mystery of 1920s India)

Entertaining books do not need to be literary gems. I got more enjoyment out of this moderately-written one than many of the high falutin’ tomes I’ve digested lately. Massey covers the effects of colonialism and feminism in 1920s India in this mystery. Amanda Nelson described it as “a sneaky feminist masterpiece wrapped up in a cozy whodunnit.” Murder, near murder, Muslim widows in seclusion and morning, Bombay’s first woman lawyer, a romance turned sour and horrid in-laws whose religious practices forced the bride to sequester herself in a stinky cell for 8 days during her menstruation (apparently still a thing with Parsi hard liners!). The story is well paced, the mystery clues dropped delicately in the cracks of the story. The push for Indian independence is hinted at, but you see the white English juxtaposed against the Hindi and Muslims.

The End of the End of the Earth: Essays

I was fully prepared to give Franzen a fresh start, to overlook his deep-seated sexism which kept me from reading Purity (The Guardian’s review mentions “tedious stereotypes embodied by the female characters” which applies across all his work), to hold my breath against saying something bad about this champion of birds, a man who prefers the quiet life of Santa Cruz to one of immersing himself in technology and social media. And yet. The words started to ricochet in my head as I kept turning the pages: Shut up, shut up, shut up.

It’s my fault, really, for giving him my attention, my eyes. Once committed, I had to skim to the end to see what topics he covered (mostly globe trotting trips to acquire fresh birds for his life list). It’s one long brag session that remains clueless about how he appears to the outside world, a white man’s barbaric yawp at a time when we realize that we are sick to death of pretending that we’re interested in what those privileged men have to say.

  • A $78,000 check arrives, money he doesn’t need and hasn’t been counting on, an inheritance from one of his forgotten relatives, then blown on a trip to Antarctica just so he can see it before it melts.
  • Breezily sneaking in a critique of Clinton’s “sloppy handling of her emails”, “poorly messaged campaign”, and “decision not to campaign harder in Michigan and Pennsylvania,” before an off-hand remark about being in Ghana on Election Day.
  • His deathly fear of black people and Harlem in NYC in the 1980s which he thinks he redeems by saying his biggest mistake was not realizing they might be more afraid than he was.
  • His frantic search for suitcase at JFK when he stole that of the man behind him at the coffee counter (a “young Latino” described as such three times, this man offering his own receipt for Franzen to expense his $6 coffee, for which Franzen “thanked him warmly and repaid his kindness by walking away with his rollerboard suitcase”). Warm thanks from the multimillionaire white man who just stole your suitcase.
  • A somewhat pointless story about his one-time friendship with Bill Vollmann that ended when Franzen became a “more crystalline version of” himself, unless the point was to work up to the request that Vollmann made to go camping with Franzen and DFW on the Salton Sea, to which invitation Wallace responded with “pained silence” and which Franzen later regrets not insisting on, wishing that he could step into an alternate universe where he camped there with his genius pals because by the time he writes this, Wallace is dead and he’s no longer speaking to Vollmann.

The 10 rules for novelists have been ceaselessly mocked elsewhere (basically 10 rules for writing like Franzen). The single useful bit I got from this waste of a morning were the two lessons Franzen learned from Henry Finder at The New Yorker: “Every essay, even a think piece, tells a story.” and “There are only two ways to organize material: Like goes with like, This followed that.”

The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln

Coming off the high of Fante Bukowski, I’m attempting to overdose on Noah Van Sciver. I much prefer his zany Bukowski character to this historical fiction centering on a mopey Abraham Lincoln who reluctantly marries Mary Todd after spending several weeks in a lonely psychosis (after originally breaking it off due to pressure from her family to prevent the marriage and also his own second thoughts.) Oh well, can’t win ’em all.

Fervent And Full Of Gifts: The Life Of Althea Warren

If you ever find yourself in need of an example of a horrible biography of what seems to have been a wonderful person, read this. Althea Warren was an exuberant librarian of the early 20th century and yet this dud from Martha Boaz does a disservice to Warren’s life. How dreary to follow the pattern of achingly detailing the early precocious years of Warren’s Illinois upbringing. The year in Europe post-college was the spiciest, but then she soon returns stateside and becomes a librarian in Chicago before off to California, first San Diego then LA, rising in the ranks to make libraries more accessible to the downtrodden and needy. In Chicago, she works at the Sears Roebuck branch of the Chicago Public Library which was “maintained for the education and pleasure of the employees of the store. The Chicago Public Library supplied books and Sears gave money for supplementary materials.” Can you imagine this largesse in today’s world?

Perhaps the only reason to read this sleep-inducing book is for the inclusion of “Read Without Weeping”, a 1935 talk she gave to a Portland library association meeting wherein she encourages librarians to read, read, read, for the love of god, read! As I mentioned in the Library Book write-up, she says to “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.”

Fante Bukowski Three: A Perfect Failure

Heaven is having the new Fante Bukowski to soak up on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. Noah Van Sciver ratchets up the hilarity with Columbus, OH local poet Fante Bukowski passing out his glitter-laden poetry zines, avoiding his clown-makeup-wearing landlord, palling around with Norma (who seems to have black magic talents that end up maiming anyone she turns them on). We get the first of the Fante backstory here, flashbacks to him as a young emo singer turned poet, the raccoons in his parents’ attic that were his only friends, the boxes of books donated to him by a drunk who was going to kill himself, the origin of his name. There’s performance art and the usual tongue-in-cheek snarkiness about writers and their craft. Delightful.

Careers for Women: A Novel

Ugh, this cover. I was alerted to this book by way of my Virginia Woolf listserve, wherein a professor mentioned an interview that Scott had given, saying that she got the title of her novel from Woolf: “I learned that Virginia Woolf once planned a book, and she called it Professions for Women. She wanted to think just about this. She had given a talk to a
group of women who were working, and she was thinking about how the identity of women would change as gender equality–she said something about how we can’t really know what women can do until they have access to every field available, open to human skill. She never wrote that book, Professions for Women. So in some ways I wanted to pick up where she left off, if that’s possible, if that’s allowed.”

This was a great book, until it went off the rails as so many tightly-wound, perfectly-crafted beginnings of books go wrong. The book is based primarily on Lee K. Jaffe, the woman who envisioned the Twin Towers, a real person whose life is embellished by Scott. There’s also a disaster at an upstate NY aluminum plant (resulting in the death of the plant director and his wife, hmm), an illegitimate child born to a teenager who escapes to NYC who ends up blackmailing the father (that aluminum plant director), plus the daily work of the NY  Port Authority taking over blocks of downtown Manhattan in order to put up those damn towers. The towers loom over everything, their mere mention a menace, you know that they tumble.

The book starts to fall apart for me when the narrator (Maggie?), who is taking care of the disabled child Sonia (her mother missing, murdered, the blackmailer), refuses to tell the doctor she was dating why she can’t see him (b/c she’s now taking care of this kid). It makes little sense. I think I started to skim at this point. Completely off the rails was the solving of the mystery of what happened at the aluminum plant—the cheated-on wife throws her life away with her husband’s to save him? Again, makes no sense.

Functions of Painting

Fernand Léger’s essays (translated from the French by Alexandra Anderson) were first published in 1965. His many trips to the U.S. helped him see and experience New York in a way that most Frenchmen were blind to. While I was hipped to this book by way of my current research on history of window displays, I found the other essays intriguing as well: his obsession about color, protestations that the Renaissance was the worst thing to happen to art, insistence that hierarchy has killed art, and general observation about NYC mid-century.

On window dressing: he and a friend watch an artisan working in a display window, spending 11 minutes on each item in the display (they timed him). “When I think of the carelessness and lack of discipline in the work of certain artists, well-known painters, whose pictures are sold for so much money, we should deeply admire this worthy craftsman, forging his own work with difficulty and conscientiousness, which is more valuable than those expensive canvases; they are going to disappear, but he will have to renew his work in a few days with the same care and the same keenness. Men like this, such artisans, incontestably have a concept of art–one closely tied to commercial purposes, but one that is a plastic achievement of a new order and the equivalent of existing artistic manifestations, whatever they may be.” (1924, in The Machine Aesthetic)

In his 1928 essay “The Street: Objects, Spectacles,” he wonders if the street should be considered as one of the fine arts. Yes, yes, yes.

His 1931 “New York” is worth reading in full. “The most colossal spectacle in the world.” He talks about letters thrown into mail chutes on the 50th floor that get hot from friction and burst into flames by the time they reach the ground, so the mail chutes are chilled. He loves walking around the streets, describing what he sees, including store windows: “Windows where a bicycle is suspended above a dozen eggs stuck in rows in green sand… plucked chickens hung in a half light, displayed against a black background–a danse macabre!”

The Library Book

I love libraries more than most things on this planet. Their endless supply of material to stuff into the cracks of my curiosity; the conveyor belt of poetry, fiction, art books, history, biography, essays straight into my hungry belly; the ability to get my hands on almost any book I’ve ever asked for, free of charge, within a week. Stunning. As a library nerd I was definitely interested in reading Susan Orlean’s book about the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles main library which damaged 700k books and destroyed 400k. The fire’s start remains unsolved, although they did arrest Harry Peak, a habitual liar and actor whose varying accounts of his involvement with the fire ranged from innocence to bragging that he did it, only to have him released without sufficient evidence for a criminal trial.

Orlean’s book uses the current fashion of shoving a new focus into each chapter before careening back to the main topic (the fire); I wonder if we attention deficient moderns are even able to read in any other manner. Despite whiplash from jerking to and fro between her love of libraries (agree!) to Harry’s biography to the origin story of the LA library to the parade of library directors, it’s a good story. I love the use of random (yet pertinent) card catalog entries at the beginning of each chapter.

Fun facts learned along the way:

California had a slave law passed in 1850 that wasn’t entirely repealed until 1937 that allowed “white people to buy Native American children as ‘apprentices’ and to ‘bid’ on Native Americans who were declared ‘vagrant’ and oblige them to work off the cost of the bid.” Yikes.

Althea Warren became city librarian in 1933 and I would love to read an entire biography about her, “probably the most avid reader who ever ran the library.” Her speech to a 1935 library association said librarians should “read as a drunkard drinks or as a bird sings or a cat sleeps or a dog responds to an invitation to go walking, not from conscience or training, but because they’d rather do it than anything else in the world.” She encouraged people to find time to read and approved of fibbing if it gave you the time you needed. Her tip sheet, “Althea’s Ways to Achieve Reading,” included this gem: “The night you promised to go to dinner with the best friend of your foster aunt, just telephone that you have such a bad cold you’re afraid she’ll catch it. Stay at home and read instead and gobble Lucy Gayheart in one gulp like a boa constrictor.” (Willa Cather wrote Lucy Gayheart).

LA’s library had a reference phone number to call at night (9pm to 1am) from 1973 to 1976

Vital Mummies: Performance Design and the Store-Window Mannequin

Why yes, I am still knee deep in my research about window displays! This by Sara Schneider in 1995 was the most complete deep dive I’ve yet read, giving the full treatment to the 1939 Dali-riding-a-bathtub-through-the-window story among other details. “Narcissus White” at Bonwit Teller in 1939 was a collaboration of Dali with Tom Lee, featuring a claw-foot bathtub covered in white fur, 100 mannequin hands rising up from the tub with mirrors, an old mannequin with tears of blood and long blonde hair crawling with beetles only wearing a negligee. Bathtub filled with dirty water and the display apparently offended people to the point where store management altered it, infuriating Dali who tried to destroy it and accidentally crashed through the window, then being arrested.

Another artist to add to the list: James Rosenquist worked as a freelancer under Gene Moore. Also freelancing for Moore, Jasper Johns & Bob Rauschenberg who shared a joint pseudonym, Matson Jones (from their mothers’ maiden names), because didn’t want their commercial work confused with their “real” art. Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 had misogynist treatment of mannequins. “Man Ray, Joan Miro, Kurl Seligmann, Salvador Dali, Andre Masson, Maurice Henry, Marcel Duchamp, Oscar Dominguez, and Max Ernst made department store mannequins into objects of decay and depravity by covering them with snails, matting their hair, painting colossal tears on their cheeks, enclosing their heads in bird cages.”

She includes a lengthy discussion of Lynn Hershman’s 1976 Bonwit Teller “Bonnie” windows (25 Windows: A Portrait/Project). Also Diane Everett’s live robot routine, and Colette’s 1978 performance in the Whitney Museum window (“The Last Stitch”) faking a suicide.

In the Who Knew? department:

  • For years in New York, women were prohibited from working past 10 PM, effectively keeping them out of the window display industry where most of the work takes place at night.
  • In many parts of the country it was illegal to undress or dress a mannequin in front of spectators. In the 1950s in NYC you could get a ticket for undressing a mannequin in the window.

The American Store Window

This 1978 book by Leonard S. Marcus is primarily useful for the large catalog of photographs at the end. Includes short biographical profiles of the major window display artists of the 20th century.

André Breton collaboration with Marcel Duchamp (1944) at Gotham Book Mart, NYC:

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns window for Bonwit Teller, 1950 (working with Gene Moore):

Andy Warhol’s Bonwit Teller in 1957 (also working with Gene Moore):

Dali, Bonwit Teller, early 1940s:

Tom Lee, 1938 or 1939, Bonwit Teller:

Evidence that crowds would gather for the Christmas windows; Macy’s 1884:

Discovered that Gump’s (soon to be gone in San Francisco) was known for its windows in the 1950s & 60s.

Buildings and Society: Essays on the Social Development of the Built Environment

A slightly interesting collection of random essays about buildings, obtained primarily for Robert Thorne’s essay Places of refreshment in the nineteenth-century city. Ladies, of course, were barred from going anywhere unaccompanied by a male escort, but there began to sprout up various tea rooms and pastry shops where their rumbling bellies could be fed. Restaurants popped up in London in the early 19th century though Paris had them since 1760s. Public houses (shortened to “pubs”) and taverns also served food, mostly to men, (the part of the pub called the tap room was where food brought in by customers could be cooked and eaten), and everyone was wild to keep the classes from intermingling. Compartments were rampant, either curtained boxes or in the case of the Goat in Boots public house (1889), bar compartments around a central serving area that gave a maximum of privacy for those ashamed to be drinking in public. Drinkers in one compartment were completely hidden from others.

Another decent essay was about the apartment house in urban America, with the rise of palatial apartments for the obscenely wealthy, luxury apartments for the affluent, and efficiency apartments for everyone else. In 1924 Mrs E.F. Hutton agreed to having her townhouse on 5th Avenue razed in order to construct a massive apartment building, provided that she get the top three floors build to an exact replica of the home that was destroyed (54 room apartment).

Ravages

Lightly fictionalized account that’s also covered by La Batarde (and is much more readable there, loads less dialog that makes Ravages a clunky read).

Skimmed through this quickly, just wanted to note that this is a weaker, first attempt at what comes out more perfectly formed in her autobiography.

Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture

ARGH. I just spent an hour crafting a post about this book and it’s gone. Instead, all I have energy for is to just copy/paste some of the text that I found interesting. William Leach’s book covers the beginning of consumer culture, 1880-1930, with specific interest in window displays and the artistic merit therein.

 

Max Weber’s Chicago experience:

Writers, including Henry James, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, and Dreiser, on shop windows:

Frank Baum’s trade journal about window dressing:

Hired window gawkers!

Covered windows in Sunday:

Department stores, not museums, patronized modern art:

Joseph Urban, Austrian immigrant:

Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Bel Geddes, Boardman Robinson:

Lelia: The Life Of George Sand

While reading Grace Hartigan’s journals wherein she swoons over reading this biography of George Sand, I realized I knew shamefully little about this foremother, this literary giant. I resolved to remedy that by going to the source that Hartigan was clutching in the 1950s, this by Maurois. Hundreds of pages later, I’m not certain I know George (Aurore Dupin -> Madame Dudevant -> George Sand) any better. Certainly her life was filled with passion, as Maurois describes her lurching from one love affair to the next, separating from her husband and desperately seeking a romantic attachment that fulfilled her.

She had fierce friendships that went down in flames, such as that of Lizst’s pretty girlfriend Marie d’Agoult, the entire breakup letter printed here in full. She provided Chopin with a loving home for several years and he chose the side of her daughter Solange against George. (Maurois claims that without Sand’s support and encouragement, Chopin may never have written his best work). She knew everyone: Flaubert, Balzac, Hugo, the Dumas family. Some of them remained loyal to the end.

There are some hilarious bits, such as her written up contract to try and bring her husband around to providing her what she needed (eight formal “Articles” that mostly laid out how he needed to educate himself, read books and provide her with his opinions of them).

Maurois’ prose is quite eloquent: “The passage of time and the accidents of life wash ceaselessly about our feet many strangers, some of whom, thus wrecked upon the coast of our own lies, remain there. New deposits of friendship take the place of those sucked backward by the ebb.”