Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.

Another beautiful book by Eve Babitz, a love letter to LA. The woman can flat-out write. Normally I’m bored by coke-fueled tales dotted with celebrities and other LA nonsense, but Babitz lures you, seduces you, brings you into her world and makes you taste the dust on a Bakersfield road, see the smog-enhanced sunsets over LA, and almost (!) join her in hatred of the dreaded NorCal foe, San Francisco.

It’s a hypnotic combination of intellectualism and hedonism. Eve yearns to turn to her virgin copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays instead of entertaining a friend to prevent the friend from getting a migraine. Henry James, Proust, are all name-dropped more than actual celebrities.

The book is a collection of memories/stories and each episode is introduced with a personal note to the man she wrote the book for, her lover Shawn, the sometimes gay designer who she falls head-over-heels for after one last disastrous relationship in SF. The inscriptions pre-chapter she claims are to serve as markers for Shawn to know which chapters of this book to read and which to skip (like “You won’t like this piece because you don’t like baseball so you can just skip it.”) But the intro that she wrote him for Sirocco is too sweet to miss:

God what a night. I was so glad you were home, standing up in all that wind while everyone else was blowing across the streets like tumbleweeds. I wonder if you wish you hadn’t been there, with the future looming up in such utter chaos before us. And meanwhile, the night was old and you were beautiful.

She’s a creature of comfort and doesn’t like to venture too far afield, but then will get a wild hair to tear around the state. I completely agree with her comment: “The idea of trying to ‘find yourself’ in some kind of geographical illusion is enough to make me so disgusted and bored that I am likely to get nasty.”

I did not become famous but I got near enough to smell the stench of success. It smelt like burnt cloth and rancid gardenias, and I realized that the truly awful thing about success is that it’s held up all those years as the thing that would make everything all right. And the only thing that makes things even slightly bearable is a friend who knows what you’re talking about.

Simply perfect writing. Engaging delightful tales of life in the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles.

Possible inspiration to There’s Something About Mary in The Garden of Allah story?

“There’s just something about Mary,” a guy told me once. “She’s too pure. She’s almost like a nun.” But Mary was much better than nuns. They only came in black and white, while Mary was all the colors.

Middlemarch

Mary Anne Evans (Marian Evans), writing as George Eliot, deserves the praise that has been echoing since she started speaking her mind through written words. Middlemarch came out in 1871-2, and if I read it before I remembered nothing of it, convincing me that it’s a necessity to read and re-read the classic works throughout your life, as they make different and stronger impressions as your own well of experience has grown.

Dorothea Brooke/Casaubon/Ladislaw is the shining angel of the story and is compared to the Virgin Mary multiple times throughout. We first meet her as an unmarried lass, strictly determined to focus on the important things in life and if possible marry a great man (someone of Milton’s stature) to help with his life’s work. Unfortunately, she chooses the dry and crumbly Casaubon, 30 years her senior, who at least has the good graces to be rich as well as pious. More fortunately, he’s only on the scene for a few years before kicking the bucket from ill-health. But the jealous old man puts a kicker in his will, that Dorothea is to lose his property should she marry his cousin Will Ladislaw, with whom she has only the barest of friendships. At this point, I screamed at the book that she should give her money to Ladislaw first, and then marry him, to get around this ridiculous clause. Instead, they strain at their innocent and budding relationship until Dorothea realizes she’s in love because of her jealous reaction to seeing Rosamund tête-à-tête and mistakes his intentions. Eventually, she throws away her fortune and joins forces with Will.

There are other couples as well, including the foolish Rosamond, married to Lydgate the doctor. And foolish Rosamond’s foolish brother Fred, who gets into debt and seems to be one of the usual layabout gents without a fortune, redeems himself to capture Mary Garth. There’s scandal aplenty, with Bulstrode the banker covering up his disreputable past, slightly murdering Raffles the wag who could spread the truth about him, and involving Lydgate in the scent of bribery.

Eliot was brutal in her description of Casaubon, making it no problem for the reader to hate this small-souled man. The description post-honeymoon captures this perfectly:

Mr and Mrs Casaubon, returning from their wedding journey, arrived at Lowick Manor in the middle of January. A light snow was falling as they descended at the door, and in the morning, when Dorothea passed from her dressing-room into the blue-green boudoir that we know of, she saw the long avenue of limes lifting their trunks from a white earth, and spreading white branches against the dun and motionless sky. The distant flat shrank in uniform whiteness and low-hanging uniformity of cloud. The very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before: the stag in the tapestry looked more like a ghost in his ghostly blue-green world; the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase looked more like immovable imitations of books. The bright fire of dry oakboughs burning on the dogs seemed an incongruous renewal of life and glow – like the figure of Dorothea herself as she entered carrying the red-leather cases containing the cameos for Celia.

As for the man himself:

And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.)… For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Her thoughts on politics mesh well with today’s:

It was a time, according to a noticeable article in the ‘Pioneer,’ when the crying needs of the country might well counteract a reluctance to public action on the part of men whose minds had from long experience acquired a breadth as well as concentration, decision of judgement as well as tolerance, dispassionateness as well as energy—in fact, all those qualities which in the melancholy experience of mankind have been least disposed to share lodgings.

Some other odds & ends I enjoyed:

  • “Has any one eve pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?”
  • “But Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clocks ticked slowly in the winter evenings.”

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!

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.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories

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Mariana Enriquez is an Argentinian Shirley Jackson. Her stories have a dash of creepy, ghost stories that are grounded in normal life. The decapitated street kid, the plot to bury sausages in the hotel beds to create an untraceable stink foiled by the appearance of ghosts from the police state, the girl without a left arm who disappears into a haunted house, women who burn themselves to disfigure their looks away from what men want. A fantastic collection, translated by Megan McDowell.

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.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

William Zinsser’s collection of authors speaking about their process of writing memoir comes from a series of their talks at the NYPL and is quite digestible. I’m left with a long list of memoirs to check out in further detail and a dose of bravery to inject myself with to get the words flowing from my own pen. This collection includes inspiration from Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Jill Ker Conway, Eileen Simpson, Frank McCourt, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A reminder of that great quote from Annie Dillard, which is in this.

You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

 

 

The Princess Diarist

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I’ve been on a long waiting list for this at the library and it finally popped up. Apparently everyone wanted to read this in the aftermath of Carrie Fisher’s too-soon death last year. Personally, I preferred Postcards from the Edge more than this one, although if you’re a huge Star Wars fan, this is probably your favorite. She divulges the fact that she and Harrison had a three-month long affair while filming the first one, hampered from it becoming a full-blown relationship by his marriage and lack of conversation ability. This includes snippets from the diaries she kept during the filming, and comes with the heavy dose of Carrie-snark which her writing is usually salted with.

Twilight Sleep

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For some reason I’ve never ventured past Edith Wharton’s prime time novels (House of Mirth, Age of Innocence), but Twilight Sleep was mentioned in a book I read last week so I figured I’d take it for a whirl. Pub’d in 1927, you’re immersed in the dazzling world of wealthy pre-Depression NYC, and immediately confronted by the complex character of Pauline Manford. This middle-aged matron has a schedule that does not stop: “7:30 Mental uplift. 7:45 Breakfast. 8 Psychoanalysis 8:15 See cook. 8:30 Silent meditation. 8:45 Facial massage. 9 Man with Persian miniatures 9:15 Correspondence. 9:30 Manicure. 9:45 Eurythmic exercises. 10 Hair waved. 10:15 Sit for bust. 10:30 Receive Mother’s Day deputation. 11 Dancing lesson. 11:30 Birth Control meeting…”

From this, you can see that she’s bursting with contradictions, praising motherhood and yet supporting birth control, attempting to find peace through meditation and yet cramming it into a hectic schedule. Later, she’ll start giving the speech she prepared for the Birth Control group to the mothers, only to catch herself in time and say that this is what “they” say about mothers. Pauline is a divorcee on friendly terms with her first husband, Wyant, from whom she has a son, Jim (who’s married to Lita). Pauline also has a daughter Nona by Manford.  Lita does her duty and pushes out a baby boy, with the help of drugs during the birthing process that render “Twilight Sleep”… “Of course there ought to be no Pain… nothing but Beauty… It ought to be one of the loveliest, most poetic things in the world to have a baby.” Jim adores the baby and “Lita hadn’t minded in the least.”

But there is trouble in paradise, amid the bustle. Pauline’s husband Manford has fallen in love with Lita, or at least it’s quite obviously hinted at throughout, not declared outright. There was something missing in this treatment of the “affair” – it just didn’t sit right. Manford describes himself as having a fatherly feeling about Lita, but gets enraged when he sees a risque picture of her in a magazine and squanders a large part of his wife’s fortune trying to keep a handsome ne’er do well from arriving to lure Lita to Hollywood.

Nona is in love with her married cousin, and it comes to naught. She also is accidentally shot by her father who finds a “burglar” in Lita’s room (was it a burglar? who knows). The book ends with her dreaming of joining a convent of atheists, soured on the unraveling marriages around her.

The Village

I’ve never wholeheartedly liked anything that Marghanita Laski wrote, including this novel, which is the only thing I’ve been able to finish of hers. Post-war destruction/erosion of the class system played out via the romance of an upper class yet poor as a church mouse woman and a hardy, hard-working, up-and-coming son of her old charwoman. They start seeing each other when they find themselves both stood up for movie dates on Friday night, Margaret with her girlfriend Jill and Roy with his ex-girlfriend. They carry on a clandestine relationship and once Roy finds them a place to live, break the news to Margaret’s parents who refuse to give consent to wed. Eventually, and by forcing the young couple to emigrate to Australia forgodsake, they agree.

West with the Night

Fantastic memoir by Beryl Markham about her childhood on a farm in East Africa (Kenya), becoming a horse trainer and then a freelance pilot across Africa. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (thus “West with the night” as the title), ending up with her plane nose-first in the mud on Cape Breton after it runs out of fuel. Incredibly well-written and entertaining, with equal parts adventure and understated philosophy.

“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting pig with the Nandi, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika and the waterless bush country between the Tana and the Athi Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and live there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”

In the wilds of Africa, the Brits set a lush tea table, prompting this recollection: “I have sometimes thought since of the Elkinton’s tea-table—round, capacious, and white, standing with sturdy legs against he green vines of the garden, a thousand miles of Africa receding from its edge. It was a mark of sanity, I suppose, less than of luxury. It was evidence of the double debt England still owes to ancient China for her two gifts that made expansion possible — tea and gunpowder.”

Upon coming across a man knee-deep in fixing his automobile on a dusty road, “In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love thy neighbor’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop—another time he may stop for you.”

After rescuing a hunting party trapped on a plateau by flooded rivers, she mulls her next step: “I wonder if I should have a change—a year in Europe this time—something new, something better, perhaps. A life was to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think… I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all…. I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends and a world without walls to live in. These things I still have, I remind myself – and shall have until I leave them.” Later, she picks up this theme again, “All this, and discontent too! Otherwise, why am I sitting here dreaming of England Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”

I’ll Tell You in Person

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Chloe Caldwell’s latest book serves as a cautionary tale to the publishing industry—do not bother printing the so-called writing or thoughts of anyone under the age of 30. She’s consumed with herself, a millennial on full display, proudly showcasing her lack of awareness and blithely blundering through her privilege. “It wasn’t my first trip to Europe. Maybe I just get depressed in Europe…” and “I didn’t have money for the Amtrak, and my mom generously bought my train tickets and gave me enough money to get my hair blown out…”

She loves name dropping, Cheryl Strayed is a BFF that she babysits for and has dinner with all the time, Maggie Estep, Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Gaby Hoffman. Surprisingly, she had an unnamed celebrity in Hungry Ghost (how on earth did she control herself??).

A few stories were mildly interesting but most of this was shockingly bad. She’s had 2 other books published? In an interview with LARB, she actually said, “nothing I do is usually intentional… I like to stay in a bubble of idiocy. It keeps me creative.”

Difficult Women

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Not the worst book, but not the greatest. I much prefer Roxane Gay’s non-fiction, if this collection of short stories is any indication. Seems like the most difficult part of the women was that they all enjoyed violent men and sadistic pleasures. Maybe the best story was the first, written in 1st person so you weren’t quite sure if the childhood kidnapping had actually happened to her and her sister. I suppose the next best would be the story of studying in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, falling in love with a logger and being the only woman grad student in the engineering lab. A bit of a letdown overall.

The Middlepause: On Life After Youth

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Blargh. A book about aging infused with the usual: literary reminisces, personal story, family life. Somehow this missed the mark, despite it looking quite appetizing. She’s a good writer, but got on my nerves a bit. Ultimately the only thing I got out of this is a handful of book recommendations (du Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, Wharton’s Twilight Sleep, Colette’s Break of Day). I think mostly I rejected this because it is far from my own experience, she blathering on about her closeness to her daughter, her missing her father after his death.