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Whenever I was not reading Mistress of Modernism: The life of Peggy Guggenheim I really wanted to be. I kept thinking about the book and getting back to Peggy's story. Although I was the loyal and dedicated friend for many hours this weekend, I yearned to hear the rest of the story. The tricky thing is that I borrowed a copy of an earlier biography from a friend. And, I haven't read that one. I'm not sure that I want to, now. Dearborn's biography of Guggenheim was quite good. She pointed out how other biographer's done Peggy wrong. They relied too much upon gossip and the lies of those who wished to disparage Peggy's legacy. Guggenheim is revealed as an all-too-human woman who endured psychical and mental violence at the hands of various husbands. Yes, it's difficult to have sympathy for someone who repeats the same bad relationship patterns who also had money enough to globetrot. Without having read anything about Peggy prior to this, the book struck me as fairly neutral. Dearborn stuck to the facts but also acknowledged Peggy's lust for life in it's many guises. Another thing that Dearborn does is recognize Peggy for the profound affect she had upon modern American art, especially abstract expressionism. Apparently nobody likes to give Peggy credit for what she accomplished. Dearborn writes that in books aimed at an art audience, she is given her due, but in general anecdotal books for general consumption
Peggy's role in art history has been curiously downplayed, she has often been denigrated personally, and her taste in art has been questioned.
Tragically, many artists who have her to thank for their early careers never mention her role in bringing their work to an audience. Plus, they liked to tell nasty stories about her. Male artists were especially reluctant to note Peggy's influence in their careers. Dearborn says this:
Peggy was a powerful person during her five years in New York: as one of America's leading art impresarios, she could make careers. Some observers are uncomfortable with a woman wielding so much power: such a woman must not only be retrospectively erased, she must be eviscerated. American culture has seldom been receptive to the spectacle of a woman with frank sexual desires--especially one whose activity does not flag in middle age or even beyond. Some people are particularly threatened by erotic energy in a woman of power and influence.
I was predisposed to the Guggenheim bio. Earlier this year I read another of Dearborn's biographies, the one about Lousie Bryant, and so I understood her approach to subjects and appreciated her writing skills.
And now, I'm reading nothing at all. But no doubt will be soon.
A bout of the flu allowed me to catch up on some reading and in the past few days I finished February house and read four other books. Again, it was brilliantly written and I was sad it ended. Then too, I grew weary of reading about Auden. My favorite person of all was Gypsy Rose Lee. She lived in the house perhaps the shortest time of any of the artists and performers. She was a book lover from an early age and had small space for few books in her traveling trunk so that with each book she bought, she had to get rid of a favorite. She wrote two mysteries, the first of which, The G-string murders, waits in my office upon my return.
Somehow I was put on to Teacher: the one who made a difference. A fifty-something year-old man writes a tribute to a philosophy teacher he had his senior year of high school. It took him decades to realize what an effect Mr. Lears had upon him; Lears changed the course of his life. I wanted to learn the magic thing Lears did basically to discover whether any teacher of mine played that large a role in my life. It may take a few more decades for me to figure out that one. The memoir is interesting. I learned how important an outlet football can be for a boy. Edmundson shared lots of memories and anecdotes. They were mostly pleasant. His writing wasn’t straightforward. He’d begin and move toward the conclusion of his anecdote except that he’d veer off into the past. One thing reminded him of another and so on. Eventually he returned to the original topic and focused upon finishing, and while I enjoyed the context he provided for the bit, it grew annoying. I kept thinking “when will he get back on track?” Otherwise it was pleasant and important because so many teachers don’t receive the tribute they deserve. Another thing about Edmundson is that he never read. The books his other teachers assigned him turned him against reading. The autobiography of Malcolm X was the first book he read outside of school for pleasure, and the first book he read at home. Long quote coming up:
The Buddhists believe that when you are reincarnated, you forget all your past lives. But when you are young, every book you truly fall in love with is a life of yours, one that you have, as it were, lived in the past and now can remember in full. It is a blessing of remarkable proportion, for through books one is incarnated many times—not only, say, as a questing sailor aboard a whaling ship, a mortally ill heiress, a woman taken in adultery, but also as the mind who conceives and renders these things and experiences the world in a certain manner. Those aghast at having only one life on earth are drawn inexorably to books, and in them find the deep and true illusion of living not just their own too short life but of inhabiting many existences, many modes of being, and so of cheating fate a little. (255)
Then what else? Edmundson talks about how Malcolm X was a reader and that his conviction was through knowledge you could get a better life and help your community. He read a lot in prison. Malcolm showed Edmundson that one can shift destiny by acquiring knowledge and by reading and learning things.
Then I read Somewhere in America: Under the radar
with chicken warriors, left-wing patriots, angry nudists, and others.
The essays are from the author’s New Yorker column “U.S.
Journal.” Singer travels across the nation in search of interesting or
odd happenings. Then he writes about it. Each essay was entertaining in its
own way. I cannot decide which was my favorite though Singer writes about god
and football in Asheville, NC; the therapeutic radon mines of Montana;
Timothy McVeigh’s execution; the historic Joe’s Diner of Lee,
Mass.; School prayer in Madison, Wisc.; and other
tales. There was something interesting. One of the essays, “A Year of
“lobbied the city to pass a human rights ordinance that included protection against discrimination on the basis of, among other factors, HIV status, sexual orientation, or ‘Appalachian regional origin’.”
So I knew that Appalachian regional origin was a
problem in the
I cannot recall ever seeing any of Claire
Bloom’s performances and so I had nothing to draw from while reading
her memoir Leaving a doll’s house.
I decided to read it after reading an article about memoir, but I cannot
recall which article it was. Anyhow, it mentioned how scathing her book was
toward her third husband, the writer Philip Roth. Having
never read Roth’s work I was interested to learn more about him since
his book’s are generally lauded as masterpieces. But, too, I may not
have read his work because somewhere along the way I picked up the fact that
his female characters are lacking and that he’s an unredeemable
misogynist. Then too, it seems I heard part of an interview he did with Terry
Gross not long ago. The bulk of Bloom’s memoir focuses on her seventeen
year relationship with Roth. Before that the reader learns of her childhood
during World War One and her early years as a stage actor. Prominent among
the men in her life is Richard Burton with whom she had a five year
relationship; he was married to his first wife, Sybil. At some point I
remembered reading The secret life of a school girl
which chronicled Rosemary Kingsland’s under-aged relationship with
Earlier today I finished The ice chorus. It’s a
beautifully written story of Liselle who leaves her
husband of twenty years for a Welsh painter called Charlie. She and Charlie
meet while staying with the same host in
The terrible thing, or sad thing rather, is that I haven't been reading as much as usual. Normally October is my favorite month, but I've felt incredibly put upon by work and my inability to sleep intensifies the feeling put upon at work and so this is not my favorite month this year. Then too, I hoped to win the lottery and put an end to this whole notion of nine to five work. What a joy it would be to devote all my time to my "Craft;" whatever it is this week.
I read Aimee Bender's latest collection of stories Willful creatures per Lydia's recommendation. At first the stories disturbed me. Her tone and approach is clinical. They were odd, nonsensical. What I liked least about them is that the narration and characters are mostly impersonal. The reader rarely learns character's names. It was "this boy" or "that boy" or "the pumpkin heads." Naturally this made it difficult to connect with the characters. Without recalling the titles of the stories they were about a woman who finds potatoes in a cast iron skillet on her stove each morning. No matter how creative she is with destroying them, they reappear the next day and grow larger and larger. Then there is the boy born with keys on nine of his fingers. He spends his life searching for doors to unlock. The pumpkin head family includes the parents and several other pumpkin head children, but then one boy child is born with an iron head. He gathered all the irons in a circle around him at the appliance store until the manager called the cops and they made him move along. The more I think about the stories, the more I like them. I may have to buy a copy. In 2002 there was an aborted attempt to read Bender's Invisible sign of my own. Perhaps I'll try again.
A few chapters into February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America and I'm not thrilled to be reading about Auden. I got it mostly to read about McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee, except that after reading a bit about McCullers, I'm not terribly impressed with her. Her drinking is boring. And since there are several alcoholics in my family, I don't find anything entertaining about having to put up with drunks. Call me a prude. Nor do I suffer fools gladly, and most drunks I find, are fools. It also helps that I've never read her work. Don't know what it helps. Helps me not have a strong opinion of her either way. GRL hasn't entered the picture yet. Despite all those things, the writing is spectacular. Somewhere I read this book described as a "serial biography," and I like the approach. It's all about approach these days. The subject of a communal artist colony in the heart of Brooklyn at the onset of WW II fascinated me. The communal and the artistic appeal to me alone, but together... watch out. Of course, the problem could be with the poetry. This Auden chapter has dribs and drabs of his work thrown in. I don't get poetry. Someday I hope it is explained to me. In my elementary school approach to poetry, I think it should rhyme. And in my high school days all I read was Emily, Sylvia, and Anne (and occasionally a little e.e. cummings) so also I think poets should asphyxiate themselves. Despite not being terribly interested in the parts I'm reading, I haven't wanted to put the book down. But work and sleep got in the way. Alas, I had to put it down. The other thing I love about this book is all the references to other people and cultural events of the time. I wish I owned this book (another library one) so that I might underline and circle things in pencil. Already my bookmark is covered by notations and names and I'm not yet sixty pages into it.
Other than that, I have at least five other library books roosting on my bedside table. I bought another five or six at Malaprop's Saturday while on my way to the 58th annual Southern Highlands Craft Guild fair. There were another ten titles I didn't buy that I jotted on the last page of my little black book so that I might remember them. And I browsed a gorgeous oversized Richard Avedon book, too: Woman in the mirror: 1945-2004. And then having nothing to do with anything, it so happens that a book I reviewed for LJ a few years ago (Retratos 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits) is featured in the October issue of Smithsonian.
Is it just Canada, or do American publishers loose money on fiction? The bothersome part of this article on the future of Canadian publishing houses posits that fiction being adversely effected by globalization.
"The deeper truth is more disturbing. Increasingly attuned to the fickle winds of global cultural trends, there is reason to believe that new generations are not excited about a type of writing that resists easy packaging and relies heavily on the dynamics of communities rooted in specific times and places. As the proposed publishing houses dramatically demonstrate, even Cancon is going placeless and faceless."
Somehow this translates that nobody wants to read short stories set in one place. Stories without setting? Fiction of no place? Oh, Canada! Somehow I remain hopeful. After all, libraries are not financially viable and they're still welcoming readers.
Then, National Book Award nominees were announced. And I haven't read a single title on their lists.
It's not just the American authors who want you to support independent booksellers. British streets feel dreary after their independent book shops close, too. My last wretched experience with amazon has put me off the company.
For once, I'm not reading anything. I've spent my last few evenings with cross-stitch. Can't read and cross-stitch at the same time. But, if I really had four eyes, imagine all the multitasking I could do.
October 12, 2005
Joan Crawford had freckles, but most folks didn't know because she covered them with makeup. I learned that and other interesting tidbits about Hollywood's glamour queens of the thirties from The power of glamour: The women who defined the magic of stardom. Crawford was a knitter as well. The book is a collection of well-written and researched biographies of eleven stars. There are photos, too. It's one of those heavy, glossy-paged books; but manageable. It is regular-sized. I had heard of most of the women, but wasn't familiar with Kay Francis or Constance Bennett.
The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century was a lot of reading, 473 pages. I read a review that described it as overlong. The author, a NYTimes foreign affairs columnist, traces the ten big things that made the world flatter, i.e., that made Americans compete for jobs with Indians and Chinese instead of other Americans. Things like the fall of the Berlin wall, Netscape going public, 9/11, and Wal-mart's horizontal supply-line structure. It's great for explaining how changes in businesses wrought change upon the world. I knew a little about most of the things Friedman details: open-sourcing, outsourcing, offshoring, supply-chaining, insourcing, and in-forming. The author says that the recent convergence of technology is fabulous because it acts a the great equalizer; bringing more people across the world into the middle-class, giving more people access to information and the tools to change their world. Basically, it gives them more entrepreneurial tools, empowers them to act big. He's a great proponent of free markets, free trade, and capitalism. Despite his persuasive arguments, I remain unconvinced. Americans lost their ambition and stopped tending to their special sauce. Yeah, special sauce. Linking what makes Americans unique to a burger condiment creates associations that I don't care for. But all is not lost, for Americans have imagination and freedom of thought, two things that other countries lack. I haven't decided what to think of this book.
Friday, October 7,
Wow. There's furor from the chefs who wrote blurbs for the back of Seasoning of a chef, Doug Psaltis's memoir of his "auspicious ascent in the culinary world." They want to retract their blurbs, something almost unheard of in the publishing industry. They didn't read the whole book. Jacques Pepin only read the first chapter before deeming it a "well-written tale of many kitchens by a committed, dedicated young chef."
Bless Kurt Vonnegut's heart. He said this about libraries: "The America I loved," he writes, "still exists in the front desks of public libraries." I may have to read him again. Was is Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's cradle that I read fifteen years ago? Damn, he's prescient: "Automation has made labor worthless, so the losers are in awful trouble, and have no power whatsoever. They used to be able to withhold labor." His new book is A Man Without a Country. I'll have to read it. (thanks, Jerry.)
The Nobel prize in literature is late for a very important date. The announcement of the winner is delayed. Folks speculate there's contention about who the academy members give the honor and $1.3 million to. Only ten women were selected as winners in literature since the prize began in 1901. That's one woman per decade. They are Selma Lagerhof (1901 Sweden), Grazia Deledda (Italy 1926), Sigrid Undset (Norway 1928), Pearl Buck (U.S. 1938), Gabriela Mistral (Chile 1945), Nelly Sachs (Sweden 1966), Nadine Gordimer (South Africa 1991), Toni Morrison (U.S. 1993), Wislawa Szymborska (Poland 1996), and Elfriede Jelinek (Austria 2004). There's a definite white European bias there.
My plan for reading was simple: Read a library book then read a book I owned. Repeat. That way my books get the attention they deserve. Glass castle is mine and next in line was the library book Stand facing the stove : the story of the women who gave America the Joy of cooking. It's really thick and I didn't have a chance to start it while minding the reference desk yesterday. Instead I revised an entry I wrote on Frida Kahlo for Latinos and Latinas in US History and Culture: An Encyclopedia (forthcoming from ME Sharpe). Yesterday afternoon I wandered into B&N and found a book in their continually diminishing travel section. It was Japanland: A year in search of Wa. I'm a sucker for the lovely book cover and this one features a geisha, maybe. The cover's texture is not slick, which is a departure from the norm as well. It felt wonderful in my hands. I read the front and back jacket flaps and learned that besides being a Peace Corps volunteer (always a plus in my book), Muller lives in Raleigh. That almost makes her southern. She could be a transplant though and thus far she doesn't delve into her childhood and origins, thus I remain clueless on this account. Mostly her book about where judo takes you. She studied judo for many years and felt as though her life was missing something. Through Judo she finds a host family in a city about an hour outside Tokyo. She stays with them several months so that she can find Wa, or harmony. I have less than fifty pages left to read and I don't want it to end. Her voice is solid as is her writing. She documents her travels to cities and rural areas and prefers the pace of life and culture of the countryside over the city. Oh, and part of the premise of her trip is filming a documentary, thus she's never without a camera. Muller learns the intricacies of Japanese culture, samples the cuisine, befriends a sword-maker, visits with sumo wrestlers, scrubs herself at the public baths, treks with religious pilgrims, and swims naked with men in a village festival. Her book offers insight into Japanese culture from a Western perspective. The difference too, is that her interests are not restricted to the feminine. Other books of this sort I've read by women travelers to Japan focus on fashion, flower arranging, and tea ceremony; I enjoy those, but it's perspective is limiting. Muller's book fills a void in the genre and expands our understanding of Japanese people. I'm sure there are parts that she missed, but she went to great lengths to locate obscure practices, write about them, and share her experiences with readers.
October 5, 2005
According to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Franzen poses a threat to experimental fiction. I don't care, one way or another. I'm not a huge fan of experimental forms, but also didn't care for what I read of Franzen's argument.
Then there's more about the threat of used books flooding the marketplace. According to a "landmark study" whose results were released a few months ago, the rise of the Internet is to blame for falling sales of new books.
My impatience forced me to buy Julie and Julia: 365 days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment kitchen. I requested that it be ordered as one of the lease books at my library. And that was six or eight weeks ago. I grew tired of waiting for it to arrive. Instead, all sorts of random bestseller mystery-type books arrived ad nauseam. I bought the book two Saturdays ago and the following Tuesday it's ready at my library for check out. It never fails. But before buying the book I read a few pages to decide whether to own it. The writing was witty and lively. I bought it. At first I was put off by the author's glibness. And her cursing. Yikes. But I really enjoyed her recounting of her quest to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Childs's standard cookbook Mastering the art of French cooking, volume one. Interspersed in her cooking adventures are her life adventures which include scouting the butcher shops for offal and marrow bones, fending off Republicans in her workplace, and dealing with her friend's relationships. Overall it was very pleasant to read, once I got used to the author's strong personality. What I liked best was this: Julie wrangles a (dead) pig that she's about to cook and removes its skin. She brings the skin into the living room to show her husband and says "It puts the lotion on its skin or it gets the hose again." Her husband never saw Silence of the Lambs and did not get her pop culture reference. This resonated with me because it's a bit of a continuing joke with Ian and our friends.
What else? I read Practice of deceit. It was engrossing, but cliched. Dr. Lavender is a psychotherapist womanizer who meets a woman his age with an eleven month old daughter. They become involved, she gets pregnant, they marry, she convinces him to move his practice to Scarsdale. Their lives are great until there is a professional conflict of interest between them. His wife is a divorce lawyer, but she downplays this by says that she does family law and an occasional divorce case. Her client is divorcing his client. Lawyer wife tells psychotherapist husband to stop seeing his client. Then he tells her that she should excuse herself from the case because she has a conflict of interest. She refuses because she's all about making money. He starts investigating curious things about her past and suddenly he's behind bars. The writing was very good and the book had a hint of literary-ness about it, but seemed more in the vein of those...well, what genre are they? Those kinds of books. Mass market paperbacks, maybe? I don't read the genre, so I don't know how to describe it. Oh, those legal thrillers. It was a curious book.
Glass castle appealed to me on several levels. First, I liked the book's cover. After reading it's inside cover I was sold because the author grew up in West Virginia. There's a dearth of Appalachian memoir, and so this captured my attention from the beginning. What struck me about the book was the narrator's spunky voice and attitude. At age three, while boiling hot dogs over the stove, her ballerina tutu catches fire and she's severely burned. After spending six weeks in the hospital her father rescues her in one of his notorious skedaddles to avoid paying the hospital bill. Her father is from West Virginia and her mother is from Texas. Jeannette has three other living siblings and was told that she was the replacement baby for her older sister who died. The father is an electrician and miner, a jack of all trades, really, and a major alcoholic. The mother has a teaching certificate but prefers to pursue her art and refuses to work. The children go hungry often. They move frequently. They sleep in their cars or camp out under the open sky. When holidays arrive the father tells them to pick out a star from the sky, that is their gift. The parents see everything as an adventure and do all within their power to toughen up the kids so that they are completely self-reliant. Jeannette wrote that by age four
"I was pretty good with Dad's pistol, a big black six-shot revolver, and could hit five out of six beer bottles at thirty paces."
The author writes about her love of nature and exploring, her inability to make friends because she stank, and how she and her siblings got beat up my other kids almost everyday. Her mother inherits a house in Phoenix and they live there for a few years until familial dysfunction forces them to move to Welch, West Virginia. Then in West Virginia the family moves into a shack. When it rained outside, it rained in the kitchen through the hole in the roof. They ended up using a window to climb in and out of the house instead of using the door for some reason. There was very little heat and icicles formed in the kitchen and the rest of the house. The town they live in is the one JFK visited in the sixties to personally hand out the first of the nation's food stamps. Surely the book validates many stereotypes about Appalachia and West Virginia. Like the poverty, the squalor, race relations, incest, and other lovely topics. The book was engrossing. All the characters were sympathetic and the writing was matter-of-fact, straight reporting. The author is a journalist. What bothered me about the book is that there was no analysis, no excuses. No afterword with any kind of reflection. It goes both ways, that could be good, or it could be bad. But I felt as though there was very little context for the story. There are no pop culture references (other than a playmate's living room decorated in orange and brown which suggests the seventies) which adds to the memoir's universality because it could happen anytime, anywhere. I wondered whether her parents were hippies, only they were too hard-edged for that. It was a childhood of... it was no childhood at all. Then too, there's the book's appeal as the latest in the tradition of rags-to-riches, American Dream, up from the bootstraps; stories that attest to the bounty of opportunities for hard workers in our country. Jeannette leaves home for NYC where she joined her older sister, Lori. She works various jobs before attending Barnard because Columbia didn't accept women students until 1983. She and her sister sent for their brother and sister who came to live in NYC with them. Then her parents arrived and bounced between being homeless and being squatters. As a gossip columnist, she shed all indicators of her pervious life and passed for middle class for years until deciding to share her incredible story.