The Enchanted April

Another lovely tale of escape from Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Elizabeth. In this story, an Italian castle is rented out for the month of April and two youngish women having problems with their husbands meet and decide to take it as a rare treat to themselves. They recruit two other women, one an impossibly gorgeous blue blood with pots of money and the other a stiff old woman (also with pots of money) who is unbearable in her insistence on name-dropping all the literary celebrities she knew in her lifetime. Lotty (one of the wives) changes overnight in the fresh Italian spring air, blossoming and insisting on inviting her disapproving husband immediately. He shows up and is actually decent because he plots to recruit the rich ladies as clients for his business. The other wife, Ruth, moons about hopelessly about her memoir-writing husband who’s been living an alternative life in London away from her, decides to invite him at the last minute, and he shows up in pursuit of Lady Caroline not having received Ruth’s letter. The castle’s owner shows up and falls for Caroline and in the end it’s happily ever after with couples abounding.

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 Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This classic work from Betty Smith should be a must-read for anyone with command of the English language. Her brilliant portrayal of Brooklyn around the turn of the 20th century is vivid, detailed, and somehow uplifting in its poverty. Frannie’s mother cleans homes to keep the family afloat while her charismatic father occasionally picks up singing waiter gigs and spends his tips on drink; the family plays a game they call North Pole Explorer where they have to subsist on whatever is in the cabinets for days, sometimes approaching utter starvation. Frannie and brother Neely collect junk and carefully count their pennies. The mom (who prefers Neely over Frannie) has an idea that education will get them out of poverty, so she makes the two of them read pages from Shakespeare and from the Bible every night, starting over again once they finish. Frannie says she prefers eating a raw potato to a raw apple?!

After the dad (Johnny) dies, Frannie must leave school to bring in money to help the family, including her pregnant mother. First employed in a factory making artificial flower stems, when that work dries up she lands a gig at a press clippings agency and later as a telegraph operator. There’s heartbreak and squalor and soaring spirits and everything in between, like Frannie’s life lessons of becoming a woman and her writing that sustains her (despite a teacher calling her stories “sordid” because the poverty was too realistic). Everything happy-endings as you would expect, with Frannie’s pretty mother remarrying an upstanding wealthy citizen and Frannie happily-ever-aftering herself into college at Univ of Michigan.

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.

 

 

The Female Persuasion

Occasionally good but not worth losing your mind over. Wolitzer excels at packing a novel full of characters you want to know more about, whose threads you eagerly follow to the end of the book. Fascinating to see your own response to the twists, like when Greer is handed a letter by her friend Zee to Faith Frank but she doesn’t want to give it to Faith because Greer is just starting at the foundation and wants to swim on her own without the weight of her friend tagging along (but would Zee do that in real life? I’m unconvinced). Or when Cory (Greer’s boyfriend) gets shipped to Asia for a consulting job, you completely expect things to fall apart, but not in the way it happens (Cory’s brother gets killed by his mom running him over accidentally, Cory abandons job and tends to distraught mom).

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.

A Note of Explanation: An Undiscovered Story from Queen Mary’s Dollhouse

The story of this book is longer and slightly more enchanting than the book itself. It was a previously forgotten story that was recently rediscovered in the miniature library of Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle, written in the 1920s. The dollhouse was a marvel with a working elevator, running water, a tiny Rolls-Royce, jars of marmalade. The best artists of the day decorated its walls, and the popular authors contributed their words to a library of tiny leather-bound books. Vita Sackville-West contributed this story (no bigger than a postage stamp!) wherein the dollhouse is haunted by a ghost-not-ghost who traveled through time and had been a pal to Scheherazade, flown to China to hear the Emperor’s famous nightingale, and generally mucked around in the past before settling in this dollhouse. She got stuck in the elevator, created dirty dishes, left the lights on, and when the guardians of the dollhouse arrived every morning they couldn’t figure out what was going on in the house. The ghost-not-ghost left this note of explanation in the miniature library to explain the enigma, although it would all have disappeared if they’d just hired a maid to clean up after her.

Queen Mary’s Dollhouse library

Manhattan Beach

I need to stop reading books that are popular with the masses, I guess. And yet I couldn’t stop. There were just enough good bits to pull me through the terribly obvious plot as it plodded along. My first clue that this was not going to be good was the overabundance of descriptive period details, like the exact model of some 1930s car or all of the geegaws in the family’s apartment. Over-specific means you’re covering for a lack of something else… soul, perhaps? War work gave Anna something interesting to hang her hat on, measuring widgets then strangely becoming a diver to fix ships underwater. Her dad disappears midway through, leading her into Dexter Style’s arms to find answers. Sex and a baby that is almost aborted but Anna changes her mind just as the chloroform is hitting?! The dad wasn’t dead but ends up alive fighting in WWII and has a lost at sea episode then arrives to re-establish a relationship with Anna in California. Jesus, this book turned a bad corner and never recovered. Avoid.

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.

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books

I was transported back in time with Maud Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy, and Tib series, back to my nine-year-old self devouring these books with impish Betsy who aspires to be a writer, shy Tacy, and Tib the dancer. The girls make paper dolls out of catalogs that come to their Minnesota homes, dye sand to put in bottles for sale, go hiking and pretend to be beggars when they get hungry. To pick this collection of books up again after many decades and still squeeze goodness out of it is pure delight. I think I only read the first two books as a wee one, but enjoyed Over the Big Hill and Go Downtown as well, with new characters bursting onto the scene in the form of Betsy’s actor uncle, the kindly Mrs Poppy who invites Betsy to have hot chocolate in her hotel after being caught in a snowstorm, and a fourth girl—Winona—the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. Hooray for Betsy and Tacy forever!

The Blue Castle

What a fantastic novel from the author of the inimitable Anne of Green Gables series! I had no idea this book existed until it surface on a thread of recommendations. One woman said she liked this better than the Green Gables series and I have to agree—the out-loud laughs (snorts? guffaws) at Valancy’s actions to her family once she awakens from her 29 year lethargy.

When we first meet Valancy, she’s dreary and sad and tiptoes around her imperious relatives who make fun of her for being a spinster, continually bringing up transgressions she did when she was a kid (apparently she ate jam out of a jar without permission). She feels like she might have heart trouble, goes to the doctor who rushes off when he gets a phone call about his son being in an accident but who later writes her a letter saying that she only has a year to live. With this benediction, Valancy flips the table and hulks out on her family, sort of. She stops being polite and tending to their wishes, stops doing her dutiful daughter act, stops being a punchline. The dinner scene at which her family realizes something is “wrong” with her is priceless. She gives it back to them as good as she gets it, and they are shocked. When her uncle suggests that she’s forgotten the 5th commandment, she taunts him with the 9th (I had to look these up—5th is obey parents & 9th is don’t gossip about neighbors).

She hires herself out as a housekeeper to a man and his dying daughter, then proposes marriage to a supposedly evil man, Barney, who the town thinks is variously a thief, a murderer, an escaped convict. She finally begins to live, and loves life on his island in the woods. Of course he’s the author that she also loves, writing under a pseudonym; you pick that up as soon as he turns his nose up at John Foster’s book. Turns out that he’s also a millionaire! Confetti! Nothing like a happy ending with a wealthy husband.

Happy All the Time

A snackable treat from Laurie Colwin discovered by way of a Twitter thread asking for books that help to cocoon you from the world. Ostensibly about a pair of wealthy cousins, Guido and Vincent, it’s actually filled with extremely interesting women. Guido marries Holly, a woman who must go away by herself to think about his marriage proposal and later to a monastic retreat when she gets preggers. Vincent floats through life having various affairs he cares nothing for until he meets Misty, the linguist at his work. She has a job she values, has the audacity to ask her boss for a raise, and manages not to lose her head over Vincent. Ultimately it ends up as a happily ever after sap-fest but still a delightful trip for a few hours.