Sunday, September 17, 2017

RIP Kate Millett

RIP Kate Millett, leading second wave feminist, brilliant scholar, writer, activist, and artist. Millett died Sept. 6, 2017, in Paris, where she and her wife had gone to celebrate Millett’s upcoming 83rd birthday. Her “Sexual Politics” (1970) was a groundbreaking book on feminism that made a huge impact. It was based on her dissertation at Oxford, and blended literary analysis, history, politics, and philosophy. Millett wrote ten books, on topics such as her bisexuality, her mental illness, and the lives of various other women. She also created much visual art. Her life was not easy, but she never gave up on trying to make a difference for women and others. Gloria Steinem (as quoted in the New York Times) remembers her as follows: “She wrote about the politics of male dominance, of owning women’s bodies as the means of reproduction, and made readers see this as basic to hierarchies of race and class.” It is hard to say strongly enough how influential Millett’s work was, especially “Sexual Politics,” and how it was a critical part of the heady days of second wave feminism. Steinem also notes that Andrew Dworkin said that Millett "woke us up." I remember those days well, and I still have on my bookshelf a somewhat worn copy of “Sexual Politics,” which indeed, along with other feminist classic books, woke this lifelong feminist up. I also read several of her other books. Here I want to offer my heartfelt tribute to Kate Millett and to thank her for her powerful and original writing and her fearless activism.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"The Customer is Always Wrong," by Mimi Pond

I hadn’t read a graphic novel for a while, but have just read Mimi Pond’s “The Customer is Always Wrong” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2017). This was enjoyable to read, although (because?) very similar to her 2014 graphic novel, “Over Easy” (about which I posted here on 5/11/14). Both books are semi-fictionalized versions of the author/artist’s time working in a restaurant in Oakland, California, back in the late seventies and early eighties, and the characters and story lines are quite similar, although this seems to be a sequel to the earlier novel. It could easily be titled something like “More Stories of My Crazy Days in the Restaurant” or some such. The main character, Madge, is a little older and a little less naive than she was at the beginning of “Over Easy,” and since she has had some comics published, she has her ambitions to move to New York and make a career as a comics/graphics writer; she is saving money toward that, but that stash of money keeps getting diverted. Meanwhile she continues to be a server at the restaurant, and tells the stories of the various fellow workers there as well as of some of the “regulars.” There are still a lot of drugs, and there is still a lot of sex. And lots of drama, in this case even including some rather scary criminals (although this storyline ends up softened, eventually…). And some sadness. The manager of the restaurant, Lazlo, is probably the most interesting character: a poet, a confidant to Madge and others, tough but kind. The drawings are still in green ink. The facial expressions of the characters are, again, a highlight.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

"Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage," by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro has written a lovely, thoughtful, sad, inspiring, and thought-provoking memoir about marriage (and life…). “Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” (Knopf, 2017) is Shapiro’s fourth memoir, so does not claim to be an all-inclusive take on her life, but instead focuses on the 18 years of her (third) marriage, to the man she here calls “M.” Before their marriage, M. was a foreign correspondent all over the world, including in many dangerous war-torn countries. He is now a writer, notably a screenwriter. Shapiro herself is a longtime writer. The couple married when she was 35 and he was 41. They are now in their fifties, with a sixteen-year-old son, and live in Connecticut. This memoir appears to be remarkably candid, yet at the same time Shapiro is respectful of the feelings of her husband; this is a true balancing act. They seem to be deeply in love, yet have had to deal with difficult pressures and questions and events, as almost all married couples do. Both the author and M., individually and together, wonder about the roads not taken in the past, and worry about the future. Shapiro faces head-on the fact that all married couples know (if they allow themselves to think about it): no matter how much they love each other, and no matter how long they have been together, they never truly know each other completely, and they can never be completely sure about what the future will bring to their marriage and their lives. Shapiro’s writing is insightful, beautiful, full of vivid examples, and always inconclusive, just like life. Marriage is both made of specific events, feelings, and phases, on the one hand, and completely mysterious, on the other hand. And it is sometimes heartbreaking, as Shapiro clearly shows. She effectively draws on literary sources. She gracefully moves back and forth between the immediate and the longterm, between the specific and the general. Intertwined with the topic of marriage are, as the title indicates, the topics of time and memory. This is a beautiful, evocative little (145 pages) book that I recommend to anyone who is or has been or plans to be married, or in a similar relationship. I know that while and after reading “Hourglass,” I did some thinking about and made some connections with my own longish (OK, 38 years long) marriage. Here I want to give tribute to my very recently widowed friend B. and her late husband S., the latter of whom died last week, and their 67-year marriage. They have had their share of ups and downs regarding life circumstances, but they have had one of the most solid, joyful, and inspiring marriages I know, along with being two of the kindest, best people I know.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

"Isn't That Rich?" Life Among the 1%," by Richard Kirshenbaum

Because of my scholarly interest in social class issues (I have spoken about these matters at academic conferences and published about them in academic journals and as chapters in books), I am always on the lookout for related books, whether scholarly or popular. “Isn’t That Rich? Life Among the 1%” (Open Road, 2015), by Richard Kirshenbaum, is decidedly of the latter type (popular). Kirschenbaum is in Advertising and is also an author; the essays in this book are taken from his New York Observer column about the lives of the rich and famous in New York City. He appears to mingle freely with many of these, and writes with what appears to be inside knowledge and authority, as well as with humor. He (wisely!) mostly doesn’t name names, but uses aliases for his examples and informants, such as Master of the Universe, Chic Brunette Heiress, International Playboy Posse, and Our Lady of the East River. His tone is diplomatic, fond, and bemused (but very aware) rather than sharply critical or mocking. In fact, he takes a sort of faux-anthropological perspective on the New York one percent. His writing is lively and his examples are entertaining (although sometimes it is hard to deal with the excessive behavior that goes with excessive wealth in some cases). His topics include marriages of rich people, divorces, nannies and drivers, exclusive private schools, art collecting, “paid friends,” restaurants and food, charity events and other parties, the Hamptons, the Upper East Side, international travel to the most fashionable places in Europe and elsewhere, “social climb-overs” (using one rich friend to meet a new, probably even richer, friend), and “the reverse brag.” Although the world of the richest New Yorkers isn’t directly connected with my academic topic (wealthy and well-traveled international students in the United States, and the implications of having many such students at U.S. universities), this book contributes overall context. And, I must admit, it is fun to read, if somewhat horrifying at times; it definitely sets off alarms and offends my political/social belief in more equality and a much smaller gap between the rich and the poor. So I read it not knowing if I should feel guilty when I was amused and entertained. It is a good thing that I can (honestly) tell you (readers of this blog) that my excuse for reading the book is that it informs my academic research!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

"Morningstar: Growing Up with Books," by Ann Hood

As does the book “My Life with Bob,” by Pamela Paul (posted about here on 6/27/17), “Morningstar: Growing Up with Books” (Norton, 2017), by Ann Hood, tells of the author’s passionate reading history as she was growing up. Hood’s title refers, as some readers will guess, to the book “Marjorie Morningstar,” by Herman Wouk, a hugely popular book when it was published in 1955, and one that Hood – like so many other bookish young women, including me – related to for decades after. This is the book featured in the first chapter in Hood’s current book. Hood, like Paul, and like me and probably a number of you, was the classic eager young reader who felt that all of life was to be found in books. She writes that it is “hard to describe the magic that books held for me then” and speaks of how books made her so happy. In her introduction, she writes of the powerful hold that the book “Little Women” had on her (and I can relate to that!). The rest of the book is organized around specific books that were important to and meaningful to her as she was growing up. There are ten chapters, each labeled as “lessons” and each title beginning with “How to…” – “Lesson 1: How to Dream,” and so on. Some of the books she discusses are “The Bell Jar,” by Sylvia Plath (“it seemed to be written just for me”); “Love Story,” by Erich Segal; “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck; and “Rabbit, Run,” by John Updike. I have read every one of the ten books she lists, some of which I have long forgotten (e.g., “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” by Rod McKuen; “The Harrad Experiment,” by Robert H. Rimmer) but which came back to me as I read Hood’s descriptions. I love that Hood includes some books that are now generally considered to be not particularly well written, because she shows that at the time she read them, they taught her something, or made her feel less alone, or in some way touched her. These are the books that bookish young woman of her and my generation would and did read. In any case, she captures very well the yearning, the connection, the reassurance, the epiphanies, the opening up the world that a certain type of young person (yes, me, and probably you!) feels when entering the world of books. As an aside, a small related story: I remember reading Ann Hood’s first book, a novel titled “Somewhere off the Coast of Maine,” when it was published in 1987. I can still distinctly see, in my mind’s eye, this book as part of a pile of books I took to my parents’ summer lakeside cottage in Michigan that summer of 1987. As I have written before, for me one of the great pleasures of a vacation, especially a leisurely vacation of 2-3 weeks, has always been planning what to read, and storing up a pile of books appropriate for such vacations. During my time at the cottage, I would gradually work my way through the pile, sometimes sitting down by the lake, sometimes in the evenings after dinner, and reading those novels added to the pure joy of the vacation, the time with family, the beauty of the lake and surroundings, and the freedom of those weeks.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"A House Among the Trees" and "Goodbye, Vitamin"

I apologize for the little break there…This past week has been particularly busy (highlights: my mother’s 91st birthday party; my finishing and submitting the manuscript of my book to my publisher; the beginning of the Fall semester at my university). But I have kept reading throughout, as I always do, no matter what! Here I will just list and briefly annotate the last two books I have read, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. 1. “A House Among the Trees” (Pantheon, 2017), by Julia Glass. I read Glass’s first novel, “Three Junes,” and was pretty much hooked by her work from then on. She is such a great storyteller. This latest novel, a substantial one (349 pages), is the story of a famous author of children’s books, Mort Lear (a writer at the level of and possibly partly modeled on Maurice Sendak), along with several other characters, including his longtime assistant and the actor who is going to portray Lear in a movie. Lear dies in an accident very early in the book, and everyone else tries to pick up the pieces and carry on, meanwhile finding out more and more about aspects of his background, going back to his childhood, that he had not revealed when he was alive. This is a rich, full book, with many characters and story lines; it goes back and forth in time. It is psychologically rich and complex as well. 2. Rachel Khong’s novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” (Henry Holt, 2017) a much slimmer volume (194 smallish pages) but almost as engaging, is narrated by the daughter of a well-known professor father who is in the early-to-middle stages of memory loss and dementia. Ruth is at loose ends, coming out of a broken engagement and not settled into any career, so she goes home to think, take a break, and help her mother during this difficult time with her father. Ruth is dismayed at her father’s situation, but also has some lovely moments of connection with him. She reconnects with old friends as well, and starts to become involved with some local people and activities, including some of her father’s graduate students. She also comes to understand some issues between her mother and father. Ruth narrates the story in diary form, which works well in this book. While not downplaying the terrible damage and pain caused by dementia, both to the person himself and his loved ones and others in his life, the novel is surprisingly positive and even uplifting (but not in a sentimental or self-help sort of way), and very engaging. The fact that there is a fair amount of humor and even whimsy in the book as well is a bright spot. (Oh, and I am proud to say that Khong is yet another gifted San Francisco writer!)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

"In Other Words," by Jhumpa Lahiri

Those of you who have been reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful fiction over the years, as I have, may know that she has now done something quite radical. She decided that she wanted to learn Italian, and to write and publish in Italian. So she and her family moved to Rome for over a year to facilitate this immersion in Italian. Writing at all, let alone literary works, in a new language is a staggeringly difficult thing to do. First, learning the language well is very hard in itself, as anyone who has tried to learn a second or third language as an adult knows. Then to learn it well enough to write and publish a literary book, with the added pressure of her audience’s high expectations for her writing, is truly impressive. Yes, other writers have written in new languages (e.g., Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Eva Hoffman, Samuel Beckett, Milan Kundera), some out of necessity and some because they felt drawn to challenging themselves in this way. But no one has said it was easy. I have just finished reading Lahiri’s book about her decision to learn and write in Italian, “In Other Words” (Vintage, 2017, originally published 2015). The book has the Italian version on the lefthand page and the English translation by the noted translator Ann Goldstein on the righthand page. (As an aside, seeing this layout gave me a flashback to a graduate seminar I took many years ago on Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with a similar layout of the text; although neither I nor most of the other students knew Italian, our professor had us read the Italian poetry silently and aloud to experience and appreciate its sound and its grandeur.) Lahiri seems modest, and writes earnestly and candidly about her struggles and doubts, and yet she is determined to meet this challenge she has set herself. It is never entirely clear why, although she speaks of her varying and ambivalent feelings about her “mother tongue,” Bengali, and the language she grew up with and has written in, English, and the different relationships she has with each. She does say that unlike her mother, who moved to the United States but always kept her habits and behaviors from Calcutta, she (Lahiri) felt an insistence to transform herself. The first story she wrote in Italian began “There was a woman…who wanted to be another person.” She goes on to say, in this current book (p. 169) that “All my life I’ve tried to get away from the void of my origin….That’s why I was never happy with myself. Change seemed the only solution.” She is mysteriously drawn to Italian, yes, but it also seems she feels the need to set herself this very difficult task, almost to test herself against it. She writes of lessons, of dreams, of progress, of setbacks, of discouragement, of fears. At the end of the book, she says that although she is not satisfied with the book, she feels it is an accomplishment. She is not sure what will happen next, when she returns to the United States, and whether she will continue to write in Italian or go back to English, knowing that each choice would have serious and perhaps permanent implications for her writing.
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