Sybille Bedford continues the fictionalized narrative of her childhood, picking up where A Legacy left off. She’s still a child, maybe nine years old, when her mother sends for her (she’ll never see her father alive again, he dies a few months later after an appendix operation). Thus begins life acting as the adult in the room, managing on her own when her mother deserts her for the weekend to run off with a lover. They are near Switzerland, then discover a small town in the south of France that ends up being their headquarters, Sybille running off to England to get schooled during the year. Fascinating tales of a young girl fending for herself in London on a tiny income that comes from her father’s estate, managed by some German firm until she turns 21. After a few years of being pawned off on friends of her mother’s, Sybille takes a bed-sit near her friend Rosie, wanders museums and teaches French to clerks for money. The summers are in the south of France, a meeting of the Aldous Huxleys is accomplished, her mother turns into a morphine addict after her young husband falls in love with someone else. At the end, she’s reverted back to using after an ineffectual cure, and her husband leaves her in Sybille’s hands to care for.
This is a book all Americans are guaranteed to hate. If, like me, you’re a reasonable person who doesn’t enjoy feeling slayed by the staggering amount of corruption spilling out of McDonald Tr*mp’s administration, you’ll hate being reminded in minute detail about every single infraction that has occurred since 11/9. If, like most soulless Republicans (redundant?), you don’t want to see a catalog of your hero’s worst hits mercilessly scroll out page by page over the year following 11/9, you’ll hate this meticulously created list of things that have been changing in our pseudo-democracy.
But I couldn’t finish it. It is, as Carol Anderson says, “a brutal, necessary mirror.” I could only read a week at a time and my blood pressure would spike. I made it to Week 17 and couldn’t continue the self-flagellation, the emotional cutting. Thank you, Amy Siskind, for doing this hard work and staying on top of all the things that I’d already forgotten. I cry mercy, uncle, whatever. My life feels shortened even by living in the months post-11/9 and the pace accelerates by reading each of these offenses. These are the pin pricks that drain life away. Perhaps I’ll return to this in happier times to plow through with a smirk of oh-my-god-I-forgot-about-that. Or maybe things will get worse and this volume (I’m assuming she’ll do a follow up for Year 2) will be a ray of Good-Old-Days. I hope not.
Richard Kennedy was 16 when he went to work at the Hogarth Press. This book is a pseudo-journal, recollections jotted down decades after the experience, describing the more mundane side of Leonard and Virginia and peppered with Kennedy’s own drawings.
Kennedy was a friend of the family it seems; his aunt’s parents had rented out Talland House to Julie and Leslie Stephen in St. Ives, the home VW used for To The Lighthouse. After Kennedy is kicked out of school for not being able to pass on to higher learning, he’s relaxing with his uncle in St. Ives when he learns of the opportunity to work for the press. Kennedy mentions that he would prefer to become an artist, and his uncle “replied that it was a positive duty on the part of any responsible person to discourage a young man or woman from taking up the arts: if they were any good they would do so anyway.”
This book is mostly valuable for giving us an honest portrayal of the Woolves from the perspective of a non-Bloombury-ite. Virginia is seen handing over tickets to lectures she can’t attend, sometimes chattering happily if she’s been to a party or “been walking round London, which she often does.”
Despite mispronouncing Proust, he elicits this opinion from her (who’s been called the “English Proust”): “she laughed and said she couldn’t do French cooking, but it was very delicious.”
Other details: VW handrolled her own shag (loose tobacco) cigarettes, talked about enjoying to learn foxtrot steps and kicking up her heels, is described as “beautifully dressed” throughout, said that the Hogarth Press was like keeping a grocer’s shop, and works in a studio in the basement (large windowless room) with boxes of books all around: “sitting in her little space by the gas fire.. she looks at us over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, her grey hair hanging over her forehead and a shag cigarette hanging from her lips. She wears a hatchet-blue overall and sits hunched in a wicker armchair with a pad on her knees and a small typewriter beside her.”
This shows Leonard’s temper in action when confronted with the petty cash book not adding up correctly.
This classic work from Betty Smith should be a must-read for anyone with command of the English language. Her brilliant portrayal of Brooklyn around the turn of the 20th century is vivid, detailed, and somehow uplifting in its poverty. Frannie’s mother cleans homes to keep the family afloat while her charismatic father occasionally picks up singing waiter gigs and spends his tips on drink; the family plays a game they call North Pole Explorer where they have to subsist on whatever is in the cabinets for days, sometimes approaching utter starvation. Frannie and brother Neely collect junk and carefully count their pennies. The mom (who prefers Neely over Frannie) has an idea that education will get them out of poverty, so she makes the two of them read pages from Shakespeare and from the Bible every night, starting over again once they finish. Frannie says she prefers eating a raw potato to a raw apple?!
After the dad (Johnny) dies, Frannie must leave school to bring in money to help the family, including her pregnant mother. First employed in a factory making artificial flower stems, when that work dries up she lands a gig at a press clippings agency and later as a telegraph operator. There’s heartbreak and squalor and soaring spirits and everything in between, like Frannie’s life lessons of becoming a woman and her writing that sustains her (despite a teacher calling her stories “sordid” because the poverty was too realistic). Everything happy-endings as you would expect, with Frannie’s pretty mother remarrying an upstanding wealthy citizen and Frannie happily-ever-aftering herself into college at Univ of Michigan.
Books get shuffled off to the library archives when they’re no longer being requested, and I probably should have refrained from dipping into this one based on that knowledge. This is not a writer’s memoir, this is a hodgepodge of reminiscing about Bryher’s childhood (why does that part invariably end up being excruciatingly boring?) growing up in Kent and London; her extremely privileged early years traveling with her parents to Paris, Italy, Greece, Egypt; some time at school; stumbling onto H.D.’s world (which I think is why we’re still curious about Bryher, her being H.D.’s long time lover); plus the swirl of between the wars life in Paris (Gertrude Stein, Hem, Joyce, Sylvia from Shakespeare & Co… the usual). She rakes William Carlos Williams’s Autobiography over the coals (where I originally heard of her), noting several derogatory statements he made and wanting to file a lawsuit against him but cautioned not to so as not to increase interest in the book.
However tedious and poorly shaped/written this was, there were at least a few bits worth noting; for example, her adoration of Stein. Visiting Gertrude’s house,
the atmosphere seemed full of gold. There was a table piled with books and beyond this a high chair where Gertrude sat, surrounded by a group of young men. At first there was little general conversation, then she would pick up a phrase and develop it, ranging through a process of continuous association until we seemed to have ascended through the seven Persian heavens and in the process to have turned our personalities inside out. Make no mistake, however, it was not an ego selfishly seizing the stage, it was rhetoric, spare and uncolored by emotion. She offered us the world, took it away again in the following sentence, only to demonstrate in a third that it was something that we could not want because it had never existed. How bitterly I regret that there were no tape recorders then available to preserve her disputations.
Also of interest are her descriptions of travel in 1900.
How can I make people understand what the trip was like fifty years ago [in 1901]? There were no motorcars, we traveled by steamer, train or horse-drawn carriage, sometimes we rode. There were no passports, I had my first one in 1919, nobody spoke English but French was a lingua franca everywhere and, if necessary, in remote districts, we drew pictures of what we needed. The trains were dusty and unheated, occasionally porters brought round “foot warmers,” long metal cylinders filled with hot water, but my legs were too short to reach them so I was wrapped in a rug. There were no dining cars at first (I resented them when they arrived, it was much more fun to picnic in the compartment) and no baths nor running water taps in the hotels though enamel tubs were brought to us with cans of steaming water… we wore tiny muslin bags full of insect repellent sewn into our stockings and vests.
Occasionally good but not worth losing your mind over. Wolitzer excels at packing a novel full of characters you want to know more about, whose threads you eagerly follow to the end of the book. Fascinating to see your own response to the twists, like when Greer is handed a letter by her friend Zee to Faith Frank but she doesn’t want to give it to Faith because Greer is just starting at the foundation and wants to swim on her own without the weight of her friend tagging along (but would Zee do that in real life? I’m unconvinced). Or when Cory (Greer’s boyfriend) gets shipped to Asia for a consulting job, you completely expect things to fall apart, but not in the way it happens (Cory’s brother gets killed by his mom running him over accidentally, Cory abandons job and tends to distraught mom).
This beautiful book is a miracle. To be able to write a compelling and well-researched book about recovery—a subject everyone’s else glaze over when you bring up—is extremely hard. Leslie Jamison does an astonishing job at making this interesting, weaving her own story in among the many tales she picks up at AA meetings in her constant struggle to remain sober. Interspersed among this are literary nuggets as she tries to demystify the notion that writers must be drunks to get gold to gush from their pens, holding up Raymond Carver as a shining example of one who was able to write in sobriety (ending her book with a pilgrimage to his grave). David Foster Wallace is among the pages and she credits reading Infinite Jest as a crucial support system during her early months of sobriety. He called booze “the interior jigsaw’s missing piece.” Brutally honest about her own depths of depravity, she shows us the ugliness of her scheming to drink whenever her boyfriend is away from home, how solo cups filled with whiskey prevent her from making progress on a book she’s supposed to be writing about the Sandinistas, the dirty tour of despair through Iowa City and New Haven on the road to recovery.
How dreadful to be known as a revolutionary poet and yet write a tedious and boring autobiography.
I’ve been thinking about reading WCW’s poetry but first decided to check his autobiography for any cautionary tales. And yes, they are legion—sexually harassing young girls with his college pal Ezra Pound, slinking along with various “streetwalkers,” ogling the nurses in his hospital (“well-made” with “powerful legs”). But there are bits of interest as well, such as words of wisdom from people who told him to keep studying medicine so that he could get an income while he worked on his writing (an abundance of plays and poems). Instead of enlisting in the military for WWI, he opts to remain home offering his services as a doctor, which were needed in the 1918 flu pandemic. He has the obligatory post-WWI jaunt through Paris and Europe, hobnobbing with Joyce, Pound, “Hem,” Ford Madox Ford, the usual tripe. On a return visit, he’s invited to tea at Gertrude Stein’s, and the toxic waste of his friends’ dismissal of her work bubbles to his lips and he actually tells her he’d burn her notebooks if he were her. (Later he comes to admire her work, so he does redeem himself slightly in my eyes).
Mostly I kept reading for the all too rare tidbits about writing which, looking back, all seem to be clustered in the Foreword.
There is a great virtue in such an isolation. It permits a fair interval for thought. That is, what I call thinking, which is mainly scribbling. It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfactions.
When and where did I or could I write? Time meant nothing to me. I might be in the middle of some flu epidemic, the phone ringing day and night, madly, not a moment free. That made no difference. If the fit was on me… I would be like a woman at term; no matter what else was up, that demand had to be met.
Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found. I had my typewriter in my office desk. All I needed to do was to pull up the leaf to which it fastened and I was ready to go. I worked at top speed. My head developed a technique: something growing inside of me demanded reaping. It had to be attended to. Finally, after eleven at night, when the last patient had been put to bed, I could always find the time to bang out ten or twelve pages. In fact, I couldn’t rest until I had freed my mind from the obsessions which had been tormenting me all day. Cleansed of that torment, having scribbled, I could rest.
Once he got bitten by the theater bug in college, he wanted to write plays and wanted to see every available play that came through but had no money.
But it was money that finally decided me. I would continue medicine, for I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to. I would live: that first, and write, by God, as I wanted to if it took me all eternity to accomplish my design. My furious wish was to be normal, undrunk, balanced in everything.
Besides meeting Ezra Pound at University of Pennsylvania, he also befriended the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). Williams’ relationship with Ezra was complicated—he describes Ezra coming over to his house and playing the piano. “Everything, you might say, resulted except music… It was part of his confidence in himself. My sister-in-law was a concert pianist. Ez never liked her.” There was a particularly horrifying scene wherein Ezra brings WCW along to stalk a “particularly lovely thing in her early teens…. The poor child was all but paralyzed with fear, panting to the point of speechlessness as she just managed to say in a husky voice, ‘Go away! Please go away! Please! Please!”
The 1913 Armory Show seemed to be a pivotal moment for the group: “There had been a break somewhere, we were streaming through, each thinking his own thoughts, driving his own designs toward his self’s objectives. Whether the Armory Show in painting did it or whether that also was no more than a facet—the poetic line, the way the image was to lie on the page was our immediate concern. For myself all that implied, in the materials, respecting the place I knew best, was finding a local assertion—to my everlasting relief. I had never in my life before felt that way. I was tremendously stirred.”
Then the war came. “I decided that I would write something every day, without missing one day, for a year. I’d write nothing planned but take up a pencil, put the paper before me, and write anything that came into my head. Be it nine in the evening or three in the morning, returning from some delivery on Guinea Hill, I’d write it down.”
John Herrmann was a pal of his who bought a farm, grew his own vegetables, and wrote. Occasionally he’d float into the city and go into a bar with a copy of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans which he’d read aloud. “He’d have them spellbound. It wasn’t a gag. He knew it was interesting stuff and if people could get to it they’d like it.”
One of the more idiotic tidbits to drop from WCW’s pen was this: “Spanish is not, in the sense to which I refer, a literary language.” Had he not been exposed to Don Quixote?
I need to stop reading books that are popular with the masses, I guess. And yet I couldn’t stop. There were just enough good bits to pull me through the terribly obvious plot as it plodded along. My first clue that this was not going to be good was the overabundance of descriptive period details, like the exact model of some 1930s car or all of the geegaws in the family’s apartment. Over-specific means you’re covering for a lack of something else… soul, perhaps? War work gave Anna something interesting to hang her hat on, measuring widgets then strangely becoming a diver to fix ships underwater. Her dad disappears midway through, leading her into Dexter Style’s arms to find answers. Sex and a baby that is almost aborted but Anna changes her mind just as the chloroform is hitting?! The dad wasn’t dead but ends up alive fighting in WWII and has a lost at sea episode then arrives to re-establish a relationship with Anna in California. Jesus, this book turned a bad corner and never recovered. Avoid.
Who the hell is Nell Scovell anyway? This is how she structures her memoir, along the forms of that old joke about the stages of life in a Hollywood writer: Stage 1 – Who is Nell? Stage 2 – Get me Nell! Stage 3 – Get me a younger, cheaper Nell! Stage 4 – Who is Nell?
Her memoir is entertaining with a dash of practical advice for writers. She shows you her process, explains what goes into the writing of a show, either solo or in a writer’s room. She tackles the thorny issue of being the only woman in several comedy rooms and the underlying current of sexism that flows through them. Her early days included episodes for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Newhart, The Simpsons, an uncomfortable few months at Late Night with David Letterman. She moved up the ranks as a producer on Coach and Murphy Brown and still kept writing scripts, including one for Space Ghost with her buddy Joel Hodgson (of MST3 fame). Sabrina was her creation from start to finish although she left after the first season. In later years, she got wowed by Sheryl Sandberg and helped write Lean In. She also wrote some of Obama’s jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner for several years. And her author’s bio ends with “Despite Blue Öyster Cult’s well-reasoned arguments, she still fears the reaper.”
The best way to sink into a rainy weekend is to watch Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda, then read Nathalie Léger’s book that attempts to chase down the ghost of Loden, fill in the gaps, explain some of the heart-piercing gut-punching feeling you’ve just experienced by watching the film. If you’re lucky, the copy of the film you watched came with bonus features of Loden’s appearance on the Mike Douglas show hosted by Yoko Ono and John Lennon. You can safely ignore Douglas’s simpering smirk when he asks questions about her husband (Elia Kazan) helping her make this film (he didn’t) and Lennon’s comment about the perils of having a famous husband.
This article by Bérénice Reynaud contains a quote from Kazan that perfectly illustrates the challenge Loden faced. “When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan, 1988, 794). This perfectly echoes the words Wanda’s husband uses in the movie when he’s trying to obtain a divorce.
But to the book itself, Nathalie Léger is supposedly working on a short entry for a film encyclopedia about Wanda. Instead, she produces this 125 page exploration to give more space to this slippery topic. It’s “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Biographical details on Loden are sketchy at best. Léger meets with the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman and tells him her difficulty in trying to piece together Barbara’s life. Wiseman’s advice? “Make it up. All you have to do is make it up.” Well, no. Instead, Léger carefully shades in her own recollections, her mother’s experience, the universal woman’s retreat into numbness to avoid the brutality of men.
Léger is at times quite funny, such as in her recounting the answer Hemingway gave to a journalist who asked what the best early training is for a writer. Léger has him answer “‘An unhappy childhood.’ How he must have sniggered as he helped himself to another Scotch.”
Léger perfectly captures what it is to be a woman. “How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?” Juxtaposed against this, she quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One find day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” Against this, an impression of Léger’s mother layered on Loden driving around in the film: “she sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.”
Tracking down the film locations in Pennsylvania, Léger gets a tour of Holy Land from a young man. This is perfection:
We meet in the hall of the Silas Bronson Library. He is a young man. I don’t like young men, I don’t like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinize them, but I don’t like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it’s nice, it’s boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man.
I’m not sure if this part was true, but Léger says she meets Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton to get his impressions of Barbara Loden, whom he knew from the Copacabana where she had danced. Mantle begins to reference Proust, Melville, and Hemingway, and Léger writes: “I mentally go through my notes again: Mickey Mantle, hero of the New York Yankees, a typical American hunk, with regular features, a slightly vacant expression in his eyes, a dimpled smile, an impoverished childhood, sent down into the mines at the age of twelve, an astonishing batman, famous for hitting 530 home runs—his body swinging backward then throwing itself forward in a devastating swing—a hard drinker, a skirt-chaser, a clapped-out liver, a real American tough guy—Mickey Mantle is talking to me about Proust.”
Prescription for a melancholy day: one viewing of Wanda + one reading of this book. Repeat as often as necessary.
It seems appropriate to read this right before the March For Our Lives rallies start taking over towns across America. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz does a fantastic job laying out her argument, piece by piece, about the historical context of the 2nd Amendment.
She starts with a little personal history, about her getting caught up in a gun-buying/shooting frenzy in 1970 when her New Orleans women’s group was infiltrated by a spy who made up reports about their intentions. The group decided they needed guns to protect themselves, went on a buying spree, learned to shoot them, and discovered there were zero laws against guns in New Orleans. After giving you her bona fides, she then jumps back in time and confronts our ugly historical roots one by one.
First up, the terrorists known as the colonists, pre-Revolution Days. In fact, the Stamp Act of 1765 (the one that brought that catchy rallying cry: no taxation without representation!) was England’s way of trying to raise enough funds to cover the cost of soldiers to keep the colonists from taking more territory from the indigenous people. The 1764 Treaty of Paris signaled peace between England & France, and not long after this, King George III issued a proclamation that prohibited settlement west of the Allegheny-Appalachian mountains. To enforce this law, they needed cash and soldiers, paid for out of the Stamp Act. Fun! So our initial itch to throw off English rule came out of their trying to keep us from pillaging land further from the natives!
The 2nd Amendment is inextricably bound to the concept of militias. And what were those militias used for? Protecting colonists from attacks from Indians and later morphed into slave patrols.
This quote sums things up nicely: “The United States was founded as a capitalist state and an empire on conquered land, with capital in teh form of slaves… this was exception in the world and has remained exceptional. The capitalist firearms industry was among the first successful modern corporations. Gun proliferation and gun violence today are among its legacies.”
Dunbar-Ortiz gets into mass shootings later in the book and of course once the book gets published it’s immediately out of date, since these events happen with more and more frequency. But she does manage to put the Vegas massacre into context with Pulse nightclub, VA Tech, etc.
Brilliant book of essays wherein various authors open their kimonos to show specifics about how much they make and what they do to pay the bills. Overwhelmingly helpful advice from the women and somewhat cagey non-disclosure from the men (Austin Kleon, Jonathan Franzen, I’m looking at you). An inspirational read that has several frank essays which gave me hope, clarity, strength, and bread crumbs to other writers I want to read (Porochista Khakpour, Leslie Jamison, Emily Gould, Meaghan O’Connell, Sarah Smarsh).
Manjula Martin not only does an excellent job curating and editing, she contributes a great essay and several interviews (favorites of which were: Roxane Gay, Richard Rodriguez, Cheryl Strayed). Actually, the Rodriguez interview was with Caille Millner, and she mentioned that he lived in the most expensive city in the country (San Francisco) and was starting to write essays about technology and the new tech billionaires. Rodriguez: “I don’t know why more writers don’t. This is the most interesting shift happening in the country right now.” But it’s not a reasonable city to live in as a writer? “Not if you don’t have rent control already. But I find it really interesting to be in a city where no one is interested in me. It’s really interesting to be in a city where no one reads. [Ed: not true!]… if nobody’s paying attention to you, the world is yours. You can go anywhere you want, observe anything you want. You’re free.”
Hmm. After some digging, I found an interview Rodriguez did in 2014 that has some troubling vibes:
BOOM: A lot of people seem very concerned about the change that those Google buses signal in San Francisco. Do you share those concerns?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No, because I’ve always loved wealth. I’ve loved being around it. If I knew you were wealthy, I would have made friends with you in grammar school.
I fell in love with Goldsworthy again after seeing the latest documentary about his work and so lugged this 7 lb. book home from the library to ogle the projects in slower, greater detail. So many favorites, but I think the one on the cover stands out as the one that gave me the chills when I saw it unfold (Passage, 2015, in I think Kensington, New Hampshire, commissioned by the Lewis Family Foundation, possibly at Alnoba?). Also great: the chalk stones in Sussex, the very temporary white walls in NYC gallery that flaked off the wall over a few week period (performance art!), the Coppice Room in Scotland, the Alderney Stones on an island in the English Channel (that deteriorate over time and disgorge their contents all relating to their environment). Of course I also have a preference for the works I see on a regular basis (Spire and Wood Line in the Presidio), and this weekend we popped in to see Tree Fall again (the tree wedged into the gunpowder room from the Civil War, covered in clay). Also of interest, the Boulder House in New Hampshire, also a Lewis Family Foundation commission, where a house was built around an enormous boulder. Similar to this is Stone House, at Jupiter Artland in Scotland, where a large piece of bedrock shapes the floor and the rest of the house was built to surround it. Ohio apparently has a ton of Goldsworthy projects: Torn Tree Shelter, Road, Contour 950, and Red Hill, all commissioned by Scott Mueller. The book starts with an in-depth interview with Andy, best read after you gorge yourself on the 350+ pages of photos.
A book written 20-ish years ago about fear is mostly valid but contains some quaint bits, like wanting to “kill” the person who is taking too long on the pay phone ahead of you, or somehow predicting ride-shares back in 1997 (but erroneously destined for 2050) as a way of showing how much we can trust strangers.
Basically, the book is about trusting your intuition and paying attention to small things that add up to warning signs (or even big, obvious things).
He’s pretty down on the Unabomber in this, saying that Ted did it for attention (um, no), the same sin he assigns Valerie Solanas (um, double no) who he claims got her 90 minutes of fame with the movie about her life that was released. He loves quoting Ernest Becker (de Becker loves Becker for some reason)’s Denial of Death which I couldn’t get through for all the penis-envy Freudian love he gave it.
On the plus side, learned about this 1986 hijacking of a USAir plane by a disgruntled employee who shot his boss on the flight and then crashed the plane. Besides accidentally killing the president of Chevron (oops!), it also took out 3 top officials of PacBell, causing the much quoted rule that companies not allow their execs to travel together.