Sharp: The women who made an art of having an opinion

I had high expectations for this book which led to disappointment. Dean’s intent is to tell the story of 20th century NYC intellectual life  through the lens of all the important ladies, with connections between them all that she claimed had never been explored before. Each chapter attempts to daisy-chain into the next, a sort of handshake between the women, from Dorothy Parker to Rebecca West (with tiny digression to Zora Neale Hurston) to Hannah Arendt to Mary McCarthy to Susan Sontag to Pauline Kael to Joan Didion to Nora Ephron to Renata Adler to Janet Malcolm. At some point it devolves into a gossipy tone and drones on about the various in-fighting, squabbling at other authors via print, pointed letters, etc. (One good bit of gossip was in McCarthy’s letter to Arendt about Saul Bellow requiring his London audience to remain seated for 10 minutes after he finished so no one would ask for his autograph.)

I began this book with an appreciation for a handful of the women (Sontag, Adler, Parker, and Ephron) and generally enjoyed their chapters. A better book would have been able to engage me with the rest, to tease me into wanting to give their works another try (my god I’ve attempted Rebecca West at least 8 times now).

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

Great idea for a book but poorly executed by Ehrenreich in a very meandering disjointed way. Chapters have no connection to each other, although a few of them stand out as solid on their own (and perhaps would better live as standalone essays). Naturally, she shines in her scathing comments about the idiocy of Silicon Valley where bros create a problem (addiction to screens & attention issues) and then solve it with meditation apps.

I like what I thought was going to be her main focus of the book, a walking away from all the tests, pokes, and prodding of modern medicine; once she realizes that she’s “old enough to die,” she’s “no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to [her].” Very few people seem brave enough to voice this idea that time is better spent doing what you love in the little remaining time you have, rather than in waiting rooms of doctor’s offices for endless tests just looking for issues to jump on. I like the idea that some doctors have adopted of tattooing DNR or NO CODE on themselves so they don’t have to suffer the drastic end of life measures they proscribe to their own patients.

Ehrenreich has spent decades reporting about interesting societal issues and she weaves snippets of class and feminism in here. She mentions a friend’s reaction when doctors were getting huffy with ladies beginning to examine themselves for the first time in the 1970s complaining that the speculums were probably un-sterilized: her pal said “yes, of course, anything that enters the vagina should first be boiled for at least ten minutes.”

At the very least, I got leads for some other potentially good books on aging, such as Betty Friedan’s The Fountain of Age (incorrectly listed in this poorly fact-checked book as The Fountain of Aging) and Lynne Segal’s Out of Time.

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

I wonder if you get health benefits simply from reading this book. Florence Williams covers a lot of scientific ground in her exploration of how humans react to nature in ways that reduce stress and make us more sane and healthy. The senses are scrutinized individually: smell (aromatherapy benefits of tree exhalations), sound, sight. Brain waves are measured with EEG machines in the field. Surveys are meticulously taken. Fists are shaken at the omnipresent planes flying over her house in DC with negative comparisons to her previously idyllic life in Colorado.

I began to weary a bit of the attempt by science to pry out the mystery of why nature helps us and was happy when stumbling on Williams’s own misgivings: “I find the intellectual compulsion to break apart the pieces of nature and examine them one by one both interesting and troubling. I understand it’s the way science works… [but the] poets would find this is nonsense.” All of her encounters with virtual reality simulations of nature in the experiments seemed to be a bust, nothing can compare to the sensations of being outside. She travels around the world, citing pithy quotes from Edward Abbey to Frederick Olmsted to Ellen Meloy to Wordsworth (Bill AND Dorothy!) to Thoreau to Emerson and Whitman (why no Annie Dillard?), forest bathes in Japan, desert hikes for 3 days with a group of university students, whitewater rafts for a week with women veterans recovering from PTSD, and much more.

Tidbits:

  • There’s evidence that “more introverted or neurotic people are more annoyed by loud noises” than other people are. Fantastic.
  • Our brains are similar to birds in the parts that hear, process, and make language. “Humans share more genes governing speech with songbirds than we do with other primates.” This may help explain why we have a “primal affiliation” with bird sounds that soothe us (if you don’t hear birds, something might be wrong).
  • Fight for proximity to a window wherever you are: hospital, office, etc. Even Florence Nightingale’s 19th century nursing textbook showed the importance of light second only to fresh air.
  • Five hours a month in nature bare minimum for sanity. “Just 15-45 minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise, were enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration.”
  • Alone or with friends? Psychologist Wohlwill wrote that “natural environments experienced in solitude seemed especially restorative to people who are mentally fatigued or socially stressed.” But research suggests that if you’re depressed or anxious, social walking in nature helps if you’re with people you like. It’s better to be alone if you want to boost creativity, self-reflect, or solve problems in your life.
  • Exercise of any sort is beneficial; physical activity changes the brain to improve memory, slow aging, improve mood, lower anxiety, help depression.
  • To combat self-wallowing, get out into nature to see that the universe is bigger than you.
  • Psychologist Searles in 1960: “The nonhuman environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence… Over recent decades we have come from dwelling in another world in which the living works of nature either predominated or were near at hand, to dwelling in an environment dominated by a technology which is wondrously powerful and yet nonetheless dead.”

 

The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump’s First Year

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.

A Boy at the Hogarth Press

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.

The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoir

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.

 

 

Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing

I became curious about Bryan Garner after reading DFW’s long piece in Consider the Lobster about usage of the English language wherein he reveres Garner as a genius. Apparently the two met twice in real life but carried on an epistolary friendship along with scattered phone calls. The second real life meetings was the one captured in this book— Garner interviewed him in LA for an hour about writing and language. (The first meeting DFW brought his mom—a huge Garner fan—and his dad along, but Garner never even bothers to call DFW’s mother by name in his intro, all while mentioning James—his dad—as a philosophy professor. ARGH.) The conversation recorded here proves DFW’s charm and humor and smarts, conveying words of writerly wisdom while making my heart hurt from our loss of him. (Garner includes a weird bit about being disturbed by the way DFW signed books, crossing out his printed name with an editing mark, which apparently signaled a suicidal mind in the handwriting analysis books he read as a kid.)

I love that Wallace considered himself a journeyman of writing, someone skilled at a craft from having worked his way day-in and day-out, honing, struggling, showing up. He revealed that his process for writing the long form non-fiction essays took him about six months with obsessive notes and several drafts before he figured out what it was he wanted to say.

Random thoughts on writing:

  • “The reader cannot read your mind.”
  • Learn to pay attention in different ways, such as the exercise where you take a book you like, read a page 3 or 4 times, put it down, try to imitate it word for word to feel your own muscles trying to achieve the effects of the text. It will be in your failure to duplicate it that you learn what’s going on.
  • “The writing writing that I do is longhand… the first 2 or 3 drafts… I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.”
  • “One of the things that the college drummed into me is, ‘Welcome to the adult world. It doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.'”
  • How to write effectively is more a matter of spirit than of intellect or verbal facility. “The spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
  • “The average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.”
  • Bryan asked him what writers he admired. “You mean writers I think are models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose? William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich… here’s a weird one, though: one of my very favorites is Cormac McCarthy.”
  • “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—[it] becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.”
  • “And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day… Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
  • Necessary tools: OED, Roget thesaurus, and a usage dictionary like Garner’s Modern American Usage. “It’s like if all of English is a treasure and this is the chest that it’s in.”
  • “A good opener fails to repel… it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes.”
  • “The general rule of thing is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation…[and] there’s this thing called ‘elegant variation.’ You have to be able… In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

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.

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

What can you say about DFW that hasn’t already been moaned before? I love his essays, his incisive bite, his bulging vocabulary that precisely pinpoints the exact word necessary to bowl you over. Reading him in 2018 you get almost nauseated with sadness, the gaping hole where his skewering of the McDonald Tr*mp era would have fit nicely. There are glimpses of what his take would have been, like in the footnote in Big Red Son where he’s describing adult film star Scotty Schwartz’s recounting of praise he’s gotten (and gnashing of teeth over the fact that rival Corey Feldman’s career survived rehab):

“Russ comes over to me and goes, ‘Scotty, I been watching you. I like your style. I’m a good judge of people, and Scotty, you’re good people. I never heard one person say one bad thing about you.'” [Keep in mind that this is Scotty telling the story. Note how verbatim he gets Hampshire’s dialogue. Note the altered timbre and perfectly timed delivery. Note the way it never even occurs to Schwartz that a normal US citizen might be bored or repelled by Scotty’s lengthy recitation of someone else’s praise of him. Schwartz knows only that this interchange occurred and that it signified that a big fish approves of him and that it redounds to Scotty’s credit and that he wants it widely, widely known.]… What is the socially appropriate response to an anecdote like this—a contextless anecdote, apropos nothing, with its smugly unsubtle (and yet not unmoving, finally, in its naked insecurity) agenda of getting you to admire the teller?

Consider the Lobster is brimming with delights. A lengthy tour of the Vegas-hosted adult video awards where an industry journalist makes the prescient quote that “Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.” DFW’s complete body slam of John Updike brought a huge smile to my face along with his coining of the Great Male Narcissist label for Mailer, Updike & Roth, and the perfect ending to the piece: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” The epic essay on American English Usage, drowning in footnotes and sidebars and interpolations. A raw recounting of experiencing 9/11 with a group of ladies from his church in Bloomington, Indiana, and the aftermath of flags that popped up the next day, leading him on a futile search that ended in breaking down in a gas station, comforted by the Pakistani owner over cups of styrofoam tea. His incisive and bitter review of tennis phenom Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten memoir where he wonders why she bothered to have someone ghostwrite such terrible things like “I immediately knee what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” His 80 page article for Rolling Stone covering McCain’s 2000 run, hilarious and more entertaining than HS Thompson’s classic from the campaign trail. His questioning of the ethics of eating meat after attending the Maine Lobster Festival wherein these creatures are boiled alive (including a great footnote about tourists, see below). His quick glimpse at Frank’s epic bio of Dostoevsky which I’ve added Vol 4 to my to-read list since C&P has been sitting beside me for months in a please read me again attempt; also includes some tirades against translation which I enjoyed (more below). And finally, a really long piece (Host) that is nearly unreadable in the way it’s laid out on the page with boxes and arrows overlaying the main thrust of the article about a certain AM talk radio host; of interest in this piece is the early discussion of the fragmentation of news controlled by a handful of companies, creating “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.”

On tourists:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

On translation. DFW is not a fan of Constance Garnett’s “excruciatingly Victorianish translations” but he also has problems with the overly popular P&V translations. “Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinarily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old, Dostoevsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly.”

 

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

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?

Just the Funny Parts… And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club

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.”

Suite for Barbara Loden

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.

Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment

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.

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

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.

Andy Goldsworthy: Projects

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.