Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York

Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York

Reading about the Mary Tyler Moore show, I was curious to read Gail Parent’s first novel, Parent a writer for the show. Fortunately, a copy of the book existed in the stacks of the library. Unfortunately, I read it. It seems like a strong concept– single gal in NYC troubled by her inability to find the right apartment, job, or marriage. The jokes come at you from the side, and frequently aren’t that funny. In the end, the narrator, Sheila, decides to kill herself and like a good Jewish daughter, arranges to buy her own grave and tombstone. She finally finds a guy who she likes sleeping with, but he’s into her suicide pact and encourages it, along with whining for her to send him pot while he’s in jail avoiding alimony charges. Meh, hands thrown in the air.

Blue of Noon

Hmm. A reminder that not all that is shouted about by others turns into gold-plated reading material. Bataille is beloved by many, including Chris Kraus, but I found this “erotic” novel rather humdrum and bland. Written in 1935 on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War, there are odd scenes of Henri Troppmann carousing with his girlfriend, “Dirty” (Dorothea), ignoring his wife and his mother-in-law, tooting about with prostitutes and raving like a madman. Thankfully slim at under 150 pages, I could consume without guilt and toss aside shaking head wondering what the big deal is.

The Far Cry

The Far Cry

Just when I was about to give up hope of enjoying another Persephone title, I sank into Emma Smith’s The Far Cry. I’ve not enjoyed several of the last of the grey covers read and even tossed away a few without reading past the first pages. Smith’s book comes like a lightning bolt, sudden and unexpected, thrilling, magnificent.

Published in 1949, it’s in 5 parts: Departure, The Boat, India, Ruth, and Teresa. We start in England, the comic picture of a sixty-year-old man rushing into the house of his sister in a flummoxed frenzy to yank his fourteen-year-old daughter out of school and escape with her to India to prevent her mother from recapturing her. Aunt May puts Mr. Digby (her brother) in his place firmly, “of course you’re being absurd. Of course Lilian [his ex wife] isn’t chasing after you. Look at yourself in the mirror if you don’t believe me… You’re an old man, you might as well admit it, and a shabby old man too, you silly fellow, and with no money to speak of. Lilian must have six times as much money as you, or more.”

With that, Digby and Teresa are on the boat to India, which is a delightful section, dreamy and in-between, as Teresa herself is in-between worlds/existences. Digby reveals himself to be an ass, saying things like a woman with a brain is poison, “a woman ought to be beautiful and she ought to be sympathetic. That’s quite enough. I’ve always found that quite enough in a woman. Anything more is too much.” Digby finds a quiet tea planter, Mr Littleton that he attaches himself to for the duration of the journey. Teresa cultivates a friendship with an old spinster, Miss Spooner, who nurses her through heatstroke and gives her a hat:

“But dully she regretted the loss of Miss Spooner, who, Teresa having no further need of her, had withdrawn, as it were, one step. They saw each other now and again, as sharing a cabin they were bound to do, in the mornings and going to bed at night, but contact between them, other than mere politeness, seemed to have been broken. Miss Spooner was not by any means cold: she was detached. Nor was she impersonal She would not, however, extend her personality. She was like a flourishing little island set aside from the main trade routes and perfectly satisfied that no ships should call. Why should she wish them to call? they could only be a nuisance. On her island was all she wanted. Mr. Digby, bucketing by at a great distance, had mistaken this small kingdom for nothing more fertile than rock and gravel. Teresa, canoeing closer through delirium, had seen the vegetation there and suspected hidden orchids.”

The two sleep outside on the deck one night, foreshadowing another night in Calcutta they sleep outside a template after watching festival celebrations because curfew doesn’t allow travel between 10p and 4a. Once the boat lands in India, Teresa is transfixed, taken aback by the swirl of colors, dust, people, begging, oddities. After a few days in Bombay, the four of them end up on the same train to Calcutta. After the magical night of Kali Puja, Teresa thinks of Miss Spooner again:

“She was thinking, as she watched, of Miss Spooner, thinking of her, as she always did, in the form of questions, wondering what sort of education she had had in her odd fifty or sixty years to make her so courageous now. For it seemed to her an act of courage in an old English lady to sleep on the wet grass outside an Indian monastery… She asked herself if it was possible for her to be equally brave at Miss Spooner’s age, equally calm and decided, and what one had to do now to reach that state of emancipation from the fear of evil. For she had thought—she had looked at her father and thought—that one weakened as one grew older, one grew more and more afraid, one’s courage went as the years increased. But it might, she saw, be otherwise.”

They finally arrive at Teresa’s half-sister, Ruth,’s house. Ruth is a doozy, having cultivated a perfect outer shell with nothing inside. Her husband feels that she is wasted tucked away in their off-the-beaten-path bungalow, but he’s a tea planter and he likes the jungle. “There is a difference, and a profound one, between trying to be good because goodness is a virtue, and trying to be good so that people may think you good. Ruth revolved in a world of mirrors, for every person she met was her looking-glass in front of which she arranged herself, blind to everything but her own image reflected in faces that were, on their own account, of no interest to her whatsoever.”

The drama amps up, Ruth had fled her home in tears when she heard her father was arriving, but Edwin, her husband, fetched her back when they showed up. Teresa falls in love with India, sees market day, has picnics along the river, climbs a mountain and never wants to leave. Mr Digby dies from a heart attack when changing a flat tire on his way to visit Mr Littleton. Ruth decides to take Teresa back to England, gets stuck in Calcutta where she finds she is pregnant, telegrams Edwin to come get her, is hit by a taxi and dies. Edwin finds Teresa being entertained by Miss Spooner (still in Calcutta), asks her what she wants to do and Teresa says she wants to go back into the jungle with him, taking Miss Spooner with them. Happily ever after with a few deaths thrown in willy-nilly at the end!

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics)

Someone once expressed to me a very negative opinion about Joan Didion’s writing and I accepted it without thinking or without reading her much. I’ve now reconsidered and enjoyed this book of essays from the late 1960s. Apparently I read this three and a half years ago and was dismissive, but Didion grows on me. One of my favorites in this reading was the first essay—Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream—about a woman convicted of setting her husband on fire in their VW and running up and down the highway for an hour trying to summon help. The titular essay, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is also solid, giving a detailed peek into 1967 Haight Street hippies and concerts in the Panhandle. This time around I enjoyed the New York piece (Goodbye to All That), myself being gripped less by the thrall of NYC and understanding the waves of feeling toward it that crash and recede.

A House in the Country

A House in the Country

Another mediocre Persephone title. I wonder if I’ve reached that middling ground where the quality peters out and you’re just left with books that are better off not being revived? Another wartime story during WWII, Cressida a beautiful widow who runs a boarding house out of a gorgeous old country mansion. Characters are introduced then whisked off stage before anything of note comes of them (Felicity Brent, the red headed troublemaker whose rudeness seems to portend of something greater, but she simply vanishes off to the war and jilts her fiance). An aunt comes to stay, harrumphs about her niece Cressida toiling away in the kitchen but Cressida will not hear of employing servants, even after the war. This is a common theme of all these Persephone books– the breaking off of the ways with servants and making do on one’s own. Throughout the book, we also follow the progress of Charles Valery whose boat is sunk and who spends two weeks drifting around the Atlantic before being rescued. A head-shaking hodgepodge of a story.

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic

I suppose it would have made more sense to have actually seen a few episodes of the TV show I was reading a book about. Midway through the book I was able to watch the first few episodes of the first season and had a deeper appreciation for what I was reading. A hilarious glimpse in the 2nd episode of Rhoda’s introduction of herself as “another person in the room” to Howard Arnell (played by Valerie Harper’s real life hubby Dick Schaal) when he only has eyes for Mary. The line was Treva Silverman’s and she went on to produce comedy gold for the show for many seasons before bumming around Europe for awhile to see the world.

The book isn’t well written, wooden sentences clunking together like a poorly built engine. I recognize the challenge the author faced from having conducted many interviews and having to let people’s words shine through your own writing. Like the women who wanted to be sure it came out that they didn’t mind being the only woman in the room, either as a writer or executive, because it “made them feel special.” The author gives us this without comment, missing her chance to point out some obvious pitfalls of women who aren’t woke.

It does provide a detailed picture of the television landscape in the early 1970s, how networks jumped on the Women’s Lib bandwagon to capture viewers and how they quickly abandoned this tact in the latter half of the decade when inflation was hitting and people wanted to lose themselves in fantasy puff pieces instead.

One thing that comes across is the rare environment the team experienced on the show– having a friendly, warm, safe space for the women writers was unusual and something they’d always struggle to recreate in future projects.

Other odds & ends: Betty White was pals with MTM and when asked to be on the show was a bit hesitant to cross the friend/work line. Betty Ford appeared on the show drunk from the White House. One woman executive had to leave her high heels outside the exec bathroom as a signal that she was in there because there was no lock on the door nor any women’s bathroom.

Hostages to Fortune

A mediocre Persephone title by Elizabeth Cambridge, written in 1933, dealing with the dreary wartime stiff upper lips (WW1), a doctor’s wife who’s a bit dreamy who gives up her writing to take care of a drafty huge country home and raise three inexplicable children. I suppose I’m addicted to these grey-covered Persephones but they do start to muddle together when they’re all in that tweener period between the wars and you’re always waiting for the husband to do something dumb.

Sophie Calle: Did you see me?: M’as Tu Vue?

Sophie Calle: Did you see me?: M'as Tu Vue? - Did You See Me? by Sophie Calle (2003-11-05)

Eccentric book provides the perfect format for Sophie Calle’s work, snippets from her lifetime. Those who are not familiar with her art can start with this collection, as it dabs you into the major themes and pushes you into the swirl of text and photos. Thin pink paper separates sections, photographs flutter within the pages, some photos/text printed on thicker paper, some printed on the glossy paper you’d expect. Only brief mention is given of the Address Book, my first conscious exposure to Calle’s work (although I think saw her at SFMOMA years ago); in this she finds an address book and begins to sketch a picture of the owner by calling up his friends and meeting them. In The Sleepers, she invites people to come sleep in her bed and be photographed. Because of this, a man in San Francisco years later asks her if he can sleep in his bed to get over a heartbreak; she ships him her bed instead (Josh Greene). Exquisite Pain is also in here, something I’d recently come across, record of a countdown to heartbreak (69 days until heartbreak) when she’s abandoned by her lover who was supposed to show up in India.

Greenery Street

Greenery Street

Another Persephone title, but this one a bit humdrum compared to the tight packages of delight I’ve been devouring. “A bit uneven” as my least favorite critical phrase would attest, but I can think of nothing closer to say. Perhaps the discord is because this is written by a man? Parts are great, clever and witty, but then parts inflate and drag and the narrator becomes the Voice of God as if in a movie, telling Felicity that yes, Oxford was a rather silly place after all. The story is mainly about Greenery Street, a quiet London street with identical townhomes that newly marrieds move into and bust out of when they start having children and don’t fit anymore. The street itself is sentient, approving or disapproving of specific tenants.

We follow a couple, Felicity and Ian, who fall into the loving arms of Greenery Street and thus can proceed with their marriage, Felicity spending too much money and Ian not earning enough. The improvements made to the home cost them a pretty penny and they went into debt, Felicity sells her grandmother’s pearls to put a dent into it and Ian sells his father’s watch. They have servant troubles, of course, and Felicity’s sister almost runs off with another man except her husband. Ian and Felicity go away for the weekend and intend to dismiss their maid for drinking their whisky, via letter, while they’re gone. Ian’s letter “was defamatory, inaccurate, impolite, reckless, actionable, ungrammatical and vitriolic, all to the last possible degree. Occasionally a spurt of vicious humour gave an added tang to its philippic periods. It did not stop short of repetition, which, as the greatest masters have taught us, is one of the most powerful forms of emphasis. It employed both the alternative spellings of the word ‘whisky.'”

Stories by Katherine Mansfield

Stories (Vintage Classics)

I was curious about Prelude, the story hand printed and stitched by VW on the Hogarth Press in 1918. It nestles up nicely to At the Bay (1922), where the story is continued, and which is one of my favorite KM stories. Prelude deals with the family moving from town to the countryside, mother Linda languid and not caring too much about the whereabouts or activities of her daughters. In fact, at the beginning, she jokes of jettisoning them, leaving them behind, because there’s not room in the cart for the two youngest. “A strange little laugh flew from her lips, she leaned back against the buttoned leather cushions and shut her eyes, her lips trembling with laughter.” This fits nicely with her attitude toward her infant son in At the Bay where she tells him coldly, “I don’t like babies.”

In Prelude Linda reveals her delicacy, that she may die at any moment, “I have had three great lumps of children already…” And she wavers between love and hatred of her husband: “For all her love and respect and admiration she hated him… It had never been so plain to her as it was at this moment. There were all her feelings for him, sharp and defined, one as true as the other. And there was this other, this hatred, just as real as the rest. She could have done her feelings up in packets and given them to Stanley. She longed to hand him that last one, for a surprise. She could see his eyes as he opened that… She hugged her folded arms and began to laugh silently. How absurd life was– it was laughable, simply laughable. And why this mania of hers to keep alive at all? For it really was a mania, she though, mocking and laughing.”

True Stories

True Stories: Hasselbald Award 2010

Another interesting dip into Sophie Calle’s work, this one part of the Hasselblad Award from 2010. She layers her photos with text, or vice versa. I find the words more interesting than the photos, but as she says, everything originated with photos; she was living in a photographer’s house in Northern California and decided to take up photography, returned to Paris to take a class, showed up once and then never to another class after the teacher took them up to the Eiffel Tower to shoot, Calle realizing she didn’t need this type of teaching.

The autobiography she wrote for Victor Hasselblad is just a few sentences but she conveys the complexity of being single and without children, the freedom and absolute delight in not having them. “I sigh, ‘Poor things…’ ” as a couple with child walk by. This is fitting because Victor was able to fund the award she got since he had no heirs.

Natural History: A Selection

Natural History: A Selection (Penguin Classics)

Pliny the Elder has some interesting observations about the world in first century AD. This is a simplified version of his work, and I bopped around to various sections finding bits of interest instead of reading cover to cover.

Re: wine in Book XIV. Here we find proof that wine was combined with water.

  • Homer states that Maronean wine was mixed with water in the proportion of 1:20 (Iliad, XI 639 and Odyssey, X, 235).
  • Mucianus discovered on a recent visit to Thrace that it is the practice to mix this wine with water in the proportion of 1:8, and that it is dark in colour, has a bouquet, and improves with age.

Women were not allowed to drink wine; a husband was acquitted of murdering his wife for drinking from a large jar of wine. Overindulging in wine leads to all sorts of trouble, like telling the truth (in vino veritas).

There’s a whole section on hangovers: “Even in the most favorable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life;’ but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows.”

Book XX is about drugs obtained from the garden. He suggests that onions provide a cure for poor vision through tears caused by their smell; “even more effective is the application of some onion-juice to the eyes.” Hmm, no thanks. The praises of cabbage are sung briefly. There are several other sections on medicines made from plants and trees, magic, incantations, benefits of sex and asses’ milk. Oysters “are extremely good for bad colds.”

Across the Commons

Another Elizabeth Berridge book delivered up from ILL (thanks University of Oregon!), this one published in 1964 and thus streaked with modern horrors such as pharmaceuticals and televisions. Louise leaves her husband, Max, and storms off with a suitcase to her elderly aunts’ home where she grew up. There she finds them unsurprised to see her and she’s welcomed into the fold of Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina along with their faithful housekeeper, Gibby.

It’s rather a stupid tale. Louise is summoned to the solicitor’s office in London where she finds an unexpected income of £750 from oil shares her father left, along with a letter that was scheduled to reach her at age 30. In the letter, she learns that her grandfather committed suicide, and she starts to pick apart at the ancient mystery. Turns out that he shot himself a few months after a young woman was found murdered nearby, mostly because he was ashamed of having seen it via telescope? Another more capable aunt arrives, albeit in a wheelchair, and takes control of the house, installs a TV. Max comes and scoops her up after the aunts call him for the rescue.

It Won’t Be Flowers

Elizabeth Berridge’s 1949 war novel has minor victories of capturing perfectly the grind and terror of entering the work force for the first time. She follows three girls, Laura, Fiona, and Helen, on their first day working for the Bank of England. Helen bursts into tears at the dreary prospect of what awaits her for years and years. She ends up escaping first, giving notice after only a year’s service, to move in with a man and start working as a journalist.

Fiona is the artist who also struggles to deal with the staid reality of life at the bank, especially when they’re evacuated to the countryside and must live in huts with other employees, the bank work being deemed “essential” to the war effort. She spends her money on canvases and oil, and escapes the dull work of the bank through sketching. She eventually vaults out the window and runs away, intending to head to America where her father and stepmother await, but she winds up back at the bank after a week of wandering, resolute to save her money and be able to depart for real some day.

Laura is wooed by John but finds him cold hearted when she expects sympathy after her parents die in a London bombing. Instead she finds comfort in his friend Max’s arms, and marries the schoolmaster, producing daughter Ursula. There’s no great wind-up to the tale, just that Fiona’s gone, Helen’s somewhat happy, and Laura is a bit bored as a housewife in the country.

Got the book via ILL, thank you Minneapolis Public Library!

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

I like Maggie Nelson’s work. This is her 2007 memoir about 2005 the cold case murder trial for her aunt Jane’s 1969 killing. She spent five years working on a book of poems about her aunt’s murder, all while a detective in Michigan was working on the cold case, unbeknownst to her. This memoir is an exploration of grief, understanding violence against women, uncovering things deeply buried.

“How does one measure the loss of anyone? Is measurement a necessary part of grief? Is a life less grievable if its prospects for the future… don’t appear bright?”

During the trial, she has drinks with an old friend and walks home to the rented home her mom waits in after a stop by the railroad tracks to lay down and listen to the quiet world. “For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating… To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive. It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. Many still try. You’ve been told a million times that to be alone and female and in public late at night is to court disaster, so it’s impossible to know if you’re being bold and free or stupid and self-destructive.”

She finds comfort in the arms of the same lovers I do: Schopenhauer, Winnicott, and various literary lions. Winnicott’s quote, “Fear of breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced,” was solace for Nelson (shoe’s already dropped!) until she realized that it’s not that breakdowns don’t recur but that the fear of the past may cause its repetition.