Spectacular book from 1924 about a woman whose talents are concentrated on raising three children and housekeeping for a husband who barely makes enough money. Her tension makes the whole family sick and irritable. Husband gets fired from his job and decides to kill himself for insurance money, but must make it look like an accident. He sets a fire, attempts to put it out and slips off the roof, paralyzes himself instead of killing himself. But it’s enough! The wife goes to his employer, who happens to be on the lookout for a store manager, and she gets hired to work in sales, then works her way up to eventually managing the store. Some bits at the end were prolonged, everyone was nervous that the hubby would be cured and that would mean an end to the paradise that ensued. But the doc lies and says he can’t ever walk again without crutches. We created so much stress and strain with our gender roles for work!
Dorothy Whipple’s first book, pub’d in 1927, so of course we can make a few excuses about the tender shoots of talent that show through the general muddling. Anne is precocious, raised by a stern father who (just like Whipple) sends her to a convent to study, then she discovers she needs to work when her father dies and the family is broken up. Her maid, Emily, sticks with her through a rough patch of living with her psychotic Aunt (caught, gratifyingly, grabbing Emily’s hair when the Vicar arrives unexpectedly during the middle of one of her violent fit). Anne borrows money from Emily to learn typing, gets a job in an office and falls for the boss, Richard, who asks her to marry him. Meanwhile there’s a passion from young ages with the slightly underclass George Yates who eventually grows into a respectable citizen with “prospects.” She takes up with George after he returns from the war and when Richard refuses to attend social events and dances. Eventually she decides to stick it out with Richard, the end.
Another interesting art book by Sophie Calle. The first part is photos/description of the 92 days before her heartbreak. She receives a grant to travel to NYC but decides to go to Japan instead, and takes the train from Paris through Moscow through China. She hates it, but looks forward to meeting up with her lover in India at the end of it all. The day before they’re to meet, he says he’ll see her there; when she gets to the airport, a message that he’s been in an accident. The accident was an infected finger which was just a way of him saying he’d met another woman. The last half of the book is her recovery from that heartbreak, the text gradually fading on the black paper, and juxtaposed against other people’s sorrowful tales, mostly about death.
Another Persephone title, this one penned by Betty Miller, pub’d in 1941. Unfortunately, a bit too humdrum, but I finished it. Main character Alec Berman struggles with being a Jew in England, throws off his family but finds he’s unable to escape his Jewishness. Becomes a successful film director and marries a shiksa (non-Jew) who seems up to the “mixed” marriage, but can’t handle Alec’s extreme sensitivity to his Jewishness. The final blow comes when they have a son and she doesn’t want him exposed to Alec’s worries and fretting and Jewishness. In the end, Alec returns home, the prodigal son, returned to his dying mother who seems to rally at the sight of him, returned to the familiar sights and sounds and smells of Brighton and family. Structure of the book attempts somewhat to be like a film? But doesn’t really carry it all the way through.
It is books like these that make me wish I were less lazy, more committed to writing. May Sarton is wonderful, as always. I need to attack her oeuvre like I have Dorothy Whipple’s, absolutely and totally consumed.
Structured in four parts, the book is set on the coast of Maine about a poet, Hilary Stevens, her relationship to a young neighbor (Mal), and her interview with two intellectuals from New York. It’s foolish to say that “Part I: Hilary” is all about the poet, when the entire work dives into her past and work and thoughts and inner monologue. But there it is, it’s where we find the aging poet, 70 years old, combating her elderly body with her youthful mind, battling to find time to sit down at her desk and work instead of meandering about with the daily chores. We also meet Mal here, the skulking college-aged student who’s taking time off to recover from his meltdown over a boy.
In the interlude, we meet the two who will interview her, Peter and Jenny, driving from the airport and gobsmacked by the scenery while they discuss the problem of woman writer, which will come up in great depth in their conversation with Hilary. “Part II: The Interview” is just that, but more, with Hilary wandering off to grapple with ancient memories that the questions have unleashed. Then the “Epilogue: Mar” ends the book, where Mar comes back to shamefacedly admit to having slept with a sailor who stole his wallet, and Hilary trying to breathe life into him without quashing his spirit.
Some quotable bits:
- As she entertains the interviewers, she admits that when you live alone, you have to have rules (no liquor before quarter to six). When prompted, other rules are: “up at seven, some work at my desk every day, come hell or high water, no self-indulgence.”
- She mentions that “women do not thrive in cities,” something I’m coming to terms with myself.
- Of course she has fantastic things to say about solitude. “There is a difference between solitude and loneliness, and people who live alone come to know them both intimately… loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self.”
- On her mother’s death, she reflects on the “price of parents! All that guilt!… I see now that as long as she lived I kept fleeing to Europe, and in this sense her death was a liberation. At last I was able to come home and rest my eyes on the sea. Solitude was, for a time, an intoxication; I had been cracked open, and the source was there again.”
Average quality, quick read tale by Marcy Dermansky about a woman in crisis, a married writer who doesn’t love her husband (they’re both writers and she hates his loud music, sometimes escapes to her parents’ house in Jersey to write) who gets an email from an ex-co-worker to tell her that Judy, her old boss, has been killed in a car wreck. Judy has left Leah (the writer) her red car, the one that killed her, along with a painting and a bit of money. Her old co-worker Diego buys her a first-class ticket back to San Francisco with a 2 week return date, and Leah escapes New York after being strangled by her husband Hans. Some crappy “let’s go see the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf” scenes in SF and random hookups with lesbians who live in the house where she used to live 10 years ago (and miraculously there are 3 boxes of her stuff still in the closet?) and with Diego on his bathroom floor. A weird swirl of stuff that doesn’t go down as well as the more buttoned up mid-century British fiction I’ve been devouring lately. What is the difference? Why do “modern” books all involve sex/drugs/violence? Is the breaking down of the moral code of conduct a necessary thing to demonstrate? Anyway, I liked this barely enough to finish reading.
Some other thoughts: perhaps the lack comes from the woodenness of the characters. Her husband, Hans, is violent—breaking a house plant and then strangling her; she married him so he could get a visa; she muses constantly about all the things she’s paid for over the years; he keeps sending her emails asking for her editing help with his writing. He’s an asshole mooch that she’s gotten used to. There’s no difficult dilemma here about what to do. She didn’t really need Judy’s money in order to escape.
Also, a lot of random characters. The hotel clerk at the inn in Big Sur. The lesbian writer she has a brief afternoon fling with. The Grateful Dead mechanic. Her pals at Stanford in their pink kitten shirts. The rich dude from college who loves her still. These all seem thrown in to see what will happen.
Francine Prose writes a quality tale with several layers of weirdness, all swirling around the children’s book turned off-off-off-off Broadway musical, Mister Monkey. Each chapter holds the hand of the next, swinging from one character’s vine to the next. Margot takes the first chapter, the actor portraying the lawyer who defends Mister Monkey from ridiculous pickpocketing charges. She receives a mysterious unsigned envelope with lines from Chekhov to Gorky, that we later find out was written by Roger, the director, intending to give to Lakshmi, the costume designer. We swing into the next chapter and go deep on Adam, the young kid playing the actual monkey on stage, closely managed by his hovering mother Giselle who also home-schools him. Adam’s main problem is coming to grips with his raging hormones that make him in love (& engorged) with Margot.
The third chapter is one of the more interesting, as Prose dips into the character of the grandfather who was in the audience asked loudly by his young grandson if he was interested in the play, during a long silent pause. The grandfather is a retired museum curator whose wife has died and whose only joy comes from excursions with his grandson. Chapter 4 goes off the rails a bit, necessarily, as it follows the grandson, Edward, whose kindergarten breaks up after a fight between Edward’s dad and the director, and who finds himself starting public kindergarten in Brooklyn three disastrous weeks after everyone else, and so the outcast. The next chapter is about Edward’s new kindergarten teacher, Sonya, who has gotten in trouble when the topic of evolution came up during Edward’s show and tell of the Mister Monkey play program. She’s a frazzled Teach for America product who depends too much on sleeping pills to get through the night, and who has forgotten she has a date that night, but shows up on time looking very frumpy and school-teacher-y. The date doesn’t go well, and the wine plus food starts to make her feel nauseous so she heads to the bathroom where she finds her phone buzzing from texts her date is drunkenly sending to her instead of his friend, rating her a 4 out of 10.
Chapter 6 picks up the story of the man who was sitting beside Sonya and her terrible date, who happens to be Ray, the guy who wrote the original Mister Monkey book. He’s in a limo, on his way to pick up his girlfriend, Lauren, who’s half his age. We get a different perspective on the horrible Sonya data from their table. Ray, as is his usual custom, slides tickets to the Mister Monkey play, to his waiter Mario, whose story we pick up in the next chapter. Mario goes to confession before hitting up the play, and further elucidates on the terrible Sonya date. Then he hits up the show and falls in love with Margot. Confusion ensues because Mario is also a Chekov lover and Margot will eventually think that he’s the one who gave her the envelope. But first he follows Margot after the play is over, has dinner across the restaurant from her, and plots ways to approach her. Eventually he goes to the subway and spots Lakshmi, the costume designer, who’s wearing her police costume from the play on the subway. Next chapter is Lakshmi’s, which is boring, and which barely connects to the next, about Eleanor the actor who plays the bitch who in real life is a nurse. Eleanor tries to convince Adam to tone down his antics on stage and then heads to work, where she encounters the grandfather from chapter 3. Then there’s a weird Mister Monkey as God chapter, thankfully short, before we end with Roger the director, where we discover he’s the one who wrote the note for Margot.
Susan Glaspell is my latest addition to the long and exhausting list of talented women writers who have been completely forgotten. Ruth Holland is the main character, a “fallen” woman who falls in love with a married man (Stuart) whose frigid wife hasn’t loved him for years. She torments herself for a few years then runs off with him to Arizona for his tuberculosis. Her pal, Deane Franklin, stands behind her and against the town’s complete rejection of her. He gets over his love for Ruth, becomes a doctor, marries Amy—a woman who fits right into the town society and gets haughty about his defense of Ruth, who’s back in town caring for her dying father. Eventually Amy leaves Deane because she just can’t handle his disdain for “society” nor understand his relationship with Ruth. Back in Colorado, Ruth & Stuart finally find he’s been divorced (only 11 years after the fact), due to Ruth’s brother Ted stopping by the wronged wife to ask her if she’s had enough fun yet. In the end, Ruth heads off on her own to NYC, discovers on the train that Deane is headed to Europe as a doctor in the war (WWI).
I came across this special report by way of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling and found a copy online that I ordered up. It arrived, a pristine, un-thumbed-through copy of this 1969 report on the “white majority” that I looked to for insights into how my country is so wrong-headed in 2016.
A 47-year-old magazine is a wonderful thing. The ads alone are amazing, maybe because America was building some sexy cars for the 1970s. The ads are also horribly sexist, but more on that later. In the meat of the magazine itself, I was jolted by so many parallels to what I’m experiencing today. For one, the continual push to abolish the electoral college. The 1969 Senate was trying to send a bill to get rid of the electoral college and authorize popular election of the President. Oh for a time machine.
The Troubled American: A Special Report on the White Majority
This troubling essay is punctuated with scary pull quotes like “You better watch out—the common man is standing up” and photos of grumpy old white men in front of American flags. Women live for their kids. “A treat is dinner at the Burger King, or a movie. Family fun is a Sunday drive, a backyard hamburger barbecue, or watching TV. Television is more than ever the national narcotic for the financially immobilized. That’s one reason the spirit of the neighborliness is dying.” Ah, that old chestnut, the decline of manners and friendliness pinned on the screen, the devil’s portal, TV. How far have we come almost 50 years later, a screen in every pocket, eyes glued constantly.
There’s some nice snark about Nixon: “He is doing the best he can with the ability he has, which I don’t think is too much.”
There’s some eye-opening racism.
There’s a nice photo essay of Pittsburgh, supposed epicenter of this white majority who’s kicking about having to deal with integration of their unions, dealing with inflation, and generally grousing and being racist. 69% of the city’s poor are white, but 79% of anti-poverty funds go to non-whites.
We meet some of the families. I can sympathize about the pace of life, but 50 years later, it’s exponentially worse. Mr Huff says, “Everything is getting uglier and uglier. You can go 30 miles into the country and get away from it. But then it costs too much to commute. It’s having an effect. People get irritated now over things they would have laughed at years ago. There’s a lack of friendliness. No closeness. Half the time you don’t even know who your neighbor is, unless there’s a fight. Something seems to have gone out of people. Life is getting faster and furious-er. Sometimes you feel like throwing up your hands and saying to hell with it and going so far back in the hills they’ll have to pipe sunshine in. We’ve only got a few more years to contend with it. That’s why we rent, so when we’re ready, all we have to do is pack and tell the kids good-by. Then mamma and I will bum around out West until we find a place. There’s still a lot of beautiful country.”
Did I mention racism? Here’s another extra-large helping of it, served up as steaming shit. Weird how Newsweek bleeps out “f——” but not the n-word. “Paint your face black and you can get a new Cadillac… We should have a Hitler here to get rid of the troublemakers the way they did with the Jews in Germany.” Lovely Texas assholes!
Guns and obese men who don’t wear shirts. How much has really changed in 50 years? This guy got a seat on the Newark city council after setting up patrol to protect white neighborhoods. Thankfully, he’s dead now, and the NYT obit says he began preaching armed white self-defense in 1967, at one point warning that “when the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting.”
The rest of the October 6, 1969 Newsweek
Pontificating about the future of the Democratic party in the 1970s. Will they orient away from center and toward “beard and sandal rather than toward crew cut and bowling shoe”??
One thing that jumped out at me in this age of Toxic T, the president-elect who we suspect to have extreme difficulty in reading/being literate: “Politicians are not only articulate, they are literate. They can read…” So funny these days!
The public service announcements
Zip codes! Who knew that these were kind of new in 1969?! Apparently the Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP!) was introduced in 1963.
A scotch ad with an illustration of old white men drinking, the tag line telling you to “ask the men who drink it.” Japan Air Lines boasting their hostesses’ training goes back centuries to provide “an almost telepathic ability to anticipate your needs” (booze, foot rub, happy ending? it’s not difficult to guess these needs). An IBM ad that assumes a businessman dictating to his woman secretary. World Airways two-page spread about the world’s most beautiful stewardess, “this bright, delicate University of Georgia graduate loves art, people, and ‘living each day by itself.’ Girls like Becky have helped us prove that service on charter flights can be just as attractive as the price.”
And then there’s this gem. Western Union includes two telegrams, with two unwitting HR violations. The first mentions a report that was finally located “under a stack of Playboys in Cohen’s office.” The second brags about signing a cookbook author whose local town is naming a school after her “despite opposition from local society of weight watchers. She also agrees to do five commercials for us. If only she looked as good as she cooks, we’d have no problem.”
Ever since the disaster of Election 2016, I’ve been dipping my toe into books about the French Revolution, scanning through stacks to find anything readable and helpful. The first book I found worth finishing was Seven Ages of Paris, and after much digging, I discovered William Doyle’s Oxford History of the French Revolution as another good source of information. The book is 400+ pages packed full of detail, well-written, and comprehensive. Sometimes a bit too comprehensive for what I wanted, but it worked.
Overall, the revolution was a mess. Not only in the sense of the thousands of people who died either in early skirmishes, in the senseless wars against neighbors the nation endured (and called “the regenerative power of war”), or in the chopped heads from the guillotine. But once a group attained power, in-fighting and bickering and power-grabs arose. No real way of managing tax revenues and their collection was organized. And the people, the PEOPLE, just wanted bread they could afford, which was frequently not forthcoming due to unusually cold weather creating poor harvesting conditions, or other meddling in the market.
It seems like a constant ever since “work” was invented is that there’s never enough of it to go around. In 1772, “misery has thrown into the towns people who overburden them with their uselessness and who find nothing to do because there is not enough for the people who live there,” said one magistrate in Rennes that year.
The Age of Enlightenment paved the way for many of the ideals that drove the revolution, that all men are equal. America was an example, with the 1776 overthrowing of British rule with the help of the French. “America appealed to a general restlessness and desire for change,” said one of the leading 1789 French revolutionaries.
Doyle notes that “belief in plots and conspiracies was yet another sign of the credulity of the times. The same cast of mind also tended to seek simple, universal formulae to resolve any problem, no matter how complex. Its limitation would be tragically exposed in the storm that was about to break.” How can I read this sentence without a deep foreboding of how the U.S. 2017-2021 will be seen???
One of the turning points of the revolution was the requirement in 1790-1 that the Catholic clergy take an oath to be faithful to the nation and uphold the constitution. This forced people to publicly declare being for or against the new order. Doyle calls this oath the Assembly’s “most serious mistake.” This also gave the counter-revolutionaries the cover of religious support.
The Terror (1793-4) was something I’d never fully grasped before. This is when there were mass executions of enemies of the revolution. Of all the deaths, only 9% were nobles, less than 7% clergy. So most of those dying were “ordinary people caught up in tragic circumstance not of their own making, who made wrong choices in lethal times, when indifference itself counted as a crime.” Let’s all take that to heart in these current times.
Who benefited from the revolution? Not the people, certainly. Mostly landowners, bureaucrats, soldiers and the bourgeoisie. And Protestants, who were welcomed in with equal rights that had previously been denied them in the ultra-Catholic country.
Another tasty tale by Dorothy Whipple to remove me from the nightmare of real life, where self-driving cars are unleashed to run red lights near unsuspecting pedestrians of this city and jaw-dropping Cabinet picks are made by the president-elect. Thanks to Interlibrary Loan, I got this volume sent here from Omaha, Nebraska, where it appears to be in such pristine condition that I suspect no one has ever touched it there.
First sentence(s) gold: “Mrs Lockwood decided to invite Mrs Hunter and her children to Oakfield for New Year’s Eve. It would be one way of getting the food eaten up.” In this first burst, the smug self-congratulatory donation of charity from Lockwood to Hunter is laid out, the rich neighbor taking pity on the widow who’d been torn from her own wealth when her husband died and left their affairs in a sorry state. It turns out that Mr Lockwood swindled the widow Hunter out of some property when he lied about a debt not having been repaid to him. Of course this all comes out later, and contributes to the Lockwood’s necessary downfall. But first, we see the poverty of the Hunters, oldest daughter Molly put out to pasture as a governess which she hates, son Martin installed in a poor-paying position at a bank, and youngest daughter Thea boldly making her own way, pushing herself into France as a teacher but then being sent home in pseudo-disgrace after being caught kissing a French man in a field. Oliver Reade is a self-made man who loves Thea and who rescues her sister Molly from teaching, putting her in a bakery where she thrives. Reade starts producing the headache powders that Mrs Hunter had the recipe for, hiring Thea to do office work as an escape from her supposed downfall. Of course Thea eventually sees that she loves Oliver, and of course the Lockwoods tumble down in their own disgrace. Thea rescues Mr Lockwood from suicide, strangely, perhaps as a way to prolong their downfall.
Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is referenced, and rightfully so, because the French teaching story line is obviously influenced highly from that book.
This was a weird book. Carolyn Merchant writes this as a way of explaining the origin of the Audubon Society through a lens of gender divisions of that era, and most of the book is Grinnell’s writings, collected here for the modern reader instead of locked away in the handful of libraries that still holds issues of the first The Audubon Magazine.
Part 1 is Merchant’s discussion of Grinnell’s life in NYC, growing up on the Audubon estate and taking lessons from Lucy Audubon, John James’ wife. Part 2 encompasses Grinnell’s biographical writings, of Audubon and of Alexander Wilson, the competing avian artist. Part 3 is a reproduction of the birds that Grinnell featured in each issue of the magazine. As for the gender lens, the focus was mostly on the fact that birds were sacrificed to make women’s hats until conservationists shamed the industry and women. Men hunted, women wore hats. Women were also involved in the conservation movement, but the men who saved forests, mountains, and big game had more prestige than the women who saved birds and flowers. “Political Hermaphrodites” was a turn-of-the-century term used to denigrate men who joined forces with women in reform movements.
Of interest in the book were the passages highlighting the tension between Audubon and Wilson; Wilson is painted as one jealous of Audubon’s talents and who doesn’t even mention A. in his volume of American Ornithology. Grinnell cites Charles Wilkins Webber’s comments about Wilson, “We will not add to the gloom which followed the illustrious life of poor Wilson to his grave by any officious comments upon the tenor of this short narrative. I will add, though, that it should be remembered, in forming any judgement of that strange moody man, that he had bitter woes enough to content with, not only in his friendless early days, but in the harsh isolation of his weary wanderings and unappreciated after-life, to have grown a gall beneath an angel’s wing.”
While in Kentucky, Audubon got a chance to hunt with Daniel Boone who showed of his skill in “barking off” squirrels.
And… the 36 names that people were using for the Northern Flicker/Golden-Winged Woodpecker. Yucker might be my favorite:
Heard of Carolyn Merchant by way of Suzi Gablik’s Conversations Before the End of Time.
Monica Dickens, great-granddaughter of Charles, worked as a cook for two years, having worked in 20 different homes by the time she was 23 years old. A publisher she met by chance gave her a contract to write a book about being a cook-general, and then she was off to the races, publishing more than 30 books in all.
In Mariana, we meet Mary taking a long weekend with her dog, away in the country to escape people’s invitations to keep her mind off her husband’s absence in the war. A storm hits, her telephone line knocked out, but she hears a BBC report that a naval ship is sunk. Without any way to get word that night about the fate of her husband, she resigns herself to thinking about the past, and so we launch into Mary’s childhood love of cousin Denys. Then she decides to follow her uncle’s thespian footsteps and studies acting until she’s thrown out of the school. She learns dressmaking in Paris and meets a rich attractive Parisian who asks her to marry him. On a holiday home to England, she sees her mother struggling with money problems in the dress shop she runs, decides she’ll marry Pierre to save her mother. When Pierre comes to England to visit, her mother confides that her money problems have disappeared with the loan of £1,000, and Mary breaks it off with Pierre. A few years later she meets Sam as she’s suffering from a burst appendix, and they fall in love, marry. It’s Sam who’s off at war, and once we’re all caught up to present day, Mary rushes into the village to make a phone call, to find that someone has been trying to reach her all night; it was Sam, with his characteristic “for the love of mud” exclamation.
I just finished a creative writing class based on the idea that “method writing” is just as valid as “method acting.” This idea is not new, and definitely didn’t originate with Jack Grapes (his real name!) whose book we used for the course: Jack Grapes’ Method Writing. This idea is found in Shirley Jackson’s 1950s/60s writing about writing, “The thing I am talking about is best identified by reference to a theory of acting that has always seemed to me very profound, and certainly useful to the writer: Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.”
So anyway, Jack Grapes self-published a book riddled with typos and with minimal care to the details of book design that would help ease the strain of reading this. The basics come down to:
- Write like you talk.
- Find a transformation line (one containing “I” or “me”) and massage it until you uncover the deepest truth about what your purpose or meaning in life is.
- Create image moments by bracketing description between two actions or lines of dialogue.
What I got most out of the class was the pressure to write every day, to churn things out focusing only on PROCESS and not on PRODUCT. And image/moment is a magic trick that seems too trite to be believed, but actually works.
The other book I’ve been reading, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method by Gerard Genette, is a doozy and one I’ll want to revisit once I’m reading Proust again. Essentially Genette creates a systematic theory of narrative solely by dissecting A la recherche du temps perdu. He goes through the elements of narrative in great detail: Order, duration, frequency, mood, voice. There’s tons of great guidance here, including quotes from Balzac: “Step into the action first. Grab your subject sometimes sideways, sometimes from the rear; finally, vary your plans, so as never to be the same.”
Torpor is an apt name for the book, describing the lack of energy I felt in reading this prequel to the fascinating I Love Dick. In Torpor, Chris Kraus has dropped the practice of using her and her husband’s names for the characters. Instead, they are Sylvie Green and Jerome Shafir, but they’re still locked in a prison of despair as their marriage slowly unravels. Perhaps it was this distancing through 3rd person characters that removes some of the interest, perhaps it was the lack of reaching for any type of depth. The story follows Chris and her husband, I mean Sylvie and Jerome, to Berlin and Romania in hopes of adopting a child, to their upstate New York home, to the city, to LA, all ripped ribbons of travel that add up to nothing.