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

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

Pretending Is Lying

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

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

Never Married Women (Women in the Political Economy series)

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

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

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

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

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions

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

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

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

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

 

The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America

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

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

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

I Know I Am, But What Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a tremendous book. Highly recommended.

Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto

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

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

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

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

 

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

In the aftermath of the kerfuffle over NYC’s Public Theater’s staging of Julius Caesar, I decided to spend the afternoon reading the play. The levels of ridiculousness increase exponentially as the alt-right fans flames of furor over this depiction of our Toxic Cheeto as Julius Caesar, who—spoiler alert!—gets murdered in the 3rd act. The play was written in 1599, and that it continues to be relevant and provide entertaining parallels to today’s political climate is just peachy.

Most of Bill’s research for the play came from the Sir Thomas North translation of Plutarch’s Life of Brutus, Life of Antonius, and Life of Caesar. circa first century AD. Bill added the unforgettable speech of Antony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”) along with the gory detail of the conspirators washing their hands in Caesar’s blood, but otherwise stayed close to Plutarch’s version of events.

As Marcus Brutus broods on whether it’s justified to kill Caesar for his ambition to rule Rome:

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Decius Brutus tells Cassius that he’ll be able to bend Caesar’s mood to fit their needs and lure him to the Senate despite bad omens. (The bit about flattery is perfect on this day that Toxic Cheeto made his cabinet go around the room praising him.)

Never fear that. If he be so resolved
I can o’ersway him. For he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betrayed with trees
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers —
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.

“Speak, strike, redress.” Indeed.

The Silent Passage

Gail Sheehy’s book about menopause is a classic guide in desperate need of updating—I think there’s been a lot more research about the impact of HRT, but she sells it as the easiest way to drop a Get Out of Jail card to avoid the peskiest of effects.

George Sand wrote a letter to her editor in 1853 that mentions her state:

“I am as well as I can be, given the crisis of my age. So far everything has taken place without grave consequence, but with sweats that I find overwhelming, and which are laughable because they are imaginary. I experience the phenomenon of believing that I am sweating 15 or 20 times a day and night… I have both the heat and the fatigue. I wipe my face with a white handkerchief and it is laughable because I am not sweating at all. However, that makes me very tired.”

Natural remedies for perimenopausal symptoms:

  • Dong quai
  • Black cohosh
  • Vitamin E and licorice
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Tofu & soy milk

Also, birth control pills can help mitigate some of the symptoms during peri-pause. “The body still manufactures its own estrogen, erratically, now and then, causing an excess of the hormone. The way around it is to give a dose of estrogen high enough to suppress the body from making its own, such as that contained in oral contraceptive pills.”

Apparently weight plays a big difference in how you experience the pause, with plump ladies having fewer effects usually. Other ways your diet can help you through this:

  • Decrease fat intake
  • Increase calcium intake
  • Increase tofu
  • Eat yams (source of natural plant estrogen, lots of beta carotene that’s an antioxidant)

Let’s not forget that heart disease is the number one killer of ladies over 50 though. To that end:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Cut down on animal fat/trans-fat. Diet for midlife women: low in fat/dairy products, high in phytoestrogens (soy milk!), high in veggies/fruit, esp those with Vitamin E & folic acid, high in fiber, small portions (frequent small meals)
  • Exercise – rapid walking!
  • Reduce stress

What about bones?!

  • Calcium supplmements
  • Brisk walking
  • Tai Chi!

Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt’s memoir won the Pulitzer in 1997 for autobiography but I completely missed it at the time, although I remember seeing it in every bookstore. Definitely worth reading, well-written, descriptive, evoking the desperate poverty brought on by a dad who drank away his paycheck and a Catholic mom who kept popping out babies who couldn’t be fed. Born in America, the family migrates back to Ireland to live with Angela’s family when the dad couldn’t keep a job in Brooklyn and after the death of their only daughter. A few more kids die, a few more arrive. Frank goes to school, takes on various jobs, sails away for America at the end. The last chapter is great, a single word “‘Tis”  in response to the end of the previous chapter’s rhetorical question “this is a great country, isn’t it?”

The scenes of poverty are heartbreaking, fleas, lice, excrement, starvation, and yet the childhood somehow seems happy. McCourt taught school for decades and finally got to work on this book post-retirement.

The Liars’ Club

[Well, that was too good to be true. Amazon plugins feeding book cover images into my posts has gone kaplooie, and these are the types of needling painpoints that make me wonder why I continue to battle the blog bugs. Then I realize that these posts are what keep the fraying strands of my memory alive, and remember how many times I frantically search my archives for whether I’ve read a certain book, or what I thought of something, or even for juicy quotes that I barely remember. Thus, I persist. Only without images.]

Speaking of memory, I’m in awe of Mary Karr’s detailed remembrances poured forth in this memoir that’s largely hailed as bringing back a revival of the form (although I’m not sure it ever went out of style). And her retelling of her mother’s experience seeing Einstein lecture at Bell Labs was fabulous. He needed some simple law of mechanics explained to him and replied, “I never bother to remember anything I can look up.” Her mother loved the idea of a genius who couldn’t do basic things but who could order the entire universe inside his head. “He bowed his head between questions like he was praying, then raised it up to give answers like those mechanical swamis wearing turbans that guessed your future for a quarter at Coney Island. At the crowded reception after the lecture, she claimed that nobody even tried to talk to him. He sat in a straight chair in the corner by himself looking like somebody’s daffy uncle.”

She grew up in Texas in a fraught family with older sister Lecia, adoring her daddy and frightened as her mother began to drink more and more. There’s a stint in Colorado when her mother starts spending her inheritance on horses and a cabin, divorces Karr, takes up with another drunk, buys a bar, almost shoots her next husband which sends her young daughters flying back to Texas accidentally by way of Mexico City where they were chaperoned by a drunk from her mom’s bar. Her mom comes back to their father after he punches out her current husband. It’s a rich, beautiful tale that was hard to put down. The best bits are the stories told by the liars’ club that her daddy leads, each man telling whoppers and drinking sips of Jack Daniels.

Break of Day

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Reading Eve Babitz’s book, I was reminded of the existence of Colette, thus picked this from the shelves. Parts of this are excellent, mostly the snippets from her mother’s letters and musings on aging. The section that stuck most in my craw was the ill-advised affair with her lapdog, Vial, a handsome youth whom Colette tries to interest in another younger woman but who only has eyes for Madame Colette. But the descriptions of the hot, dusty summer in Provence, gathering together for impromptu dinners with friends, sleeping outside under the stars, all these make it worth a read.

My favorite bit from her mother’s letter is when she’s raging about wanting to sleep in her own house alone, without caring about potential burglars or tramps:

“Give me a dog if you want. Yes, a dog, I’ll agree to that. But don’t compel me to be shut up with someone at night! I’ve reached the point where I can’t bear to have a human being sleeping in my house… It’s the final return to single life when you refuse to have any longer in your house, specially if it’s a small one, an unmade bed, a pail of slops, an individual—man or woman—walking about in a nightshirt. Ugh! No, no, no more company at night, no more strangers breathing, no more of that humiliation of waking up simultaneously! I prefer to die, it’s more seemly.”

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers

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Alana Massey’s book was a dumbed down version of Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck. I had high hopes at the beginning, really enjoying the essay comparing Winona Ryder’s substance with Gwyneth Paltrow’s lack thereof. Even the Britney Spears essay isn’t terrible, giving us glimpses into how hard she must work to attain that level of perfect body. Other pieces cover Sylvia Plath, Fiona Apple, Lil’ Kim, Courtney Love, Scarlett Johansson, the Olsen twins, and Princess Diana. Fairly vapid and forgettable stuff, especially when compared with the intelligent insights of Doyle’s much better work.