The Things I Should Read, and the Things I Do

Genres

 

A series mystery, a memoir, and a memento mori walk into a library. Only two of the books make it onto the “Exciting New Reads’ shelf.

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I am lounging in the library as my son browses the films and the graphic novels.  I have dozens of books to read at home, so there is no point at all in browsing the New Books.

But what the heck: none of the periodicals call to me today. Why don’t I just look?

Ten minutes later, I have checked out two books and I am sitting at a table, looking through Jennifer Weiner’s Hungry Heart. I just read a very positive review of it, and of the other book, Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour.

Jim  comes, beaming, from the circulation desk with a triumphant stack of DVD’s and a couple of graphic novels, and we bundle things into canvas bags and head home.

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Hungry Heart is a memoir, sort of, a largely linear tale of Weiner’s life, interspersed with a couple of interesting essay-chapters on subjects related to writing.  I like the narrative voice right from the start–it is sassy but self-deprecating, casual but very, very smart.

I learn that Weiner was a chubby kid whose parents divorced, whose father (a psychiatrist) developed some pretty serious issues himself, and whose mother embraced her true gender identity after the split. The dad mostly disappeared, surfacing, to submit his kids to bizarre public behavior and to ask for money, only rarely.

But the rest of the nuclear family–Mom (Fran), Jennifer, her sister, and two brothers,–stayed tight. Weiner’s stories reveal a close and loving family bond cemented by humor.

Hungry Heart tells the stories of Weiner’s successes and her quests—her yearning to be thin, her weight reduction surgery, her romances, failed and fruitful. I learn that she is a smart and serious scholar of English literature, one who easily got into Princeton, worked hard and graduated into a series of progressively more important jobs at a variety of newspapers. She married a very nice man and has two daughters; they divorced, but remain friends and co-parents. And she married Bill, who knew her when and who, at the right time and in the right place, is ready to commit to the next, shared adventure.

She buried her father, who died in sad straits, fallen far from his once highly respected status.

She writes, Weiner does, about raising her daughters, about weaving her mother’s partners into family life, and about the foibles and accomplishments of her siblings. She writes about BFF’s, and she writes about dogs. She tells us what it was like, having her second book made into a wonderful movie.

I haven’t read any of Weiner’s books, but I did watch In Her Shoes on DVD after reading a review that said it was smart and touching and very well-written. Great acting, too.

I loved that movie–such fun.

And I have to say this: I haven’t read Weiner’s books because they were labelled ‘romance,’ dubbed chick lit,and I don’t normally read that kind of literature.

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Eeeeeeuw. How snooty. How…English teacher-y. As if I’m too…smart, sophisticated, intellectual for something labelled ROMANCE.

That snobbishness is a subject Weiner tackles in a chapter called “Twitter, Reconsidered.”  She talks about the stuck-up response of critics and pundits to work than can be considered chick lit. And as chick lit developed into a genre, Weiner recalls, the in-the-know-y kinds of people began to discard books so labelled; they pinced those books in two wary fingers, dropping them with that look on their faces that says, “What IS that awful odor?”

“Chick lit,” Weiner writes, “thundered an (anonymous, of course) editor, was ‘hurting America.’ It was driving real literature off the shelf, forcing high-end writers to turn their framed MFA toward the wall and insert gratuitous scenes of giggly brunches and drunken sexcapades into their serious works of fiction.”

I caught the disdain virus; I never even picked up a copy of a Weiner book, although I’d read how popular she was. Too…light, I thought, smugly.

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So I finished Hungry Heart with that thought on my mind, and I went looking for a nice palate-cleansing kind of read: something just for fun before I tackled the Roiphe book, which is a collection of reflections on great writers–Susan Sontag, Maurice Sendak, Dylan Thomas, among others–facing their own deaths. Weiner’s book had left me with a great deal to think about–about what constitutes great writing, about how images of beauty shape our values and perceptions, and about whether or not all writers have been lonely children.

I needed something compelling and distracting and FUN as my subconscious digested all those wrestly kinds of topic.

I found a Dorothy Gilman mystery, The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax, on the most recent stack of treasures I’d rescued from the used book store clearance rack. I have been looking for a fun, engrossing mystery series. Mrs. Pollifax was a 1970’s era grandmotherly type who loved hats, her garden club, volunteering at the local hospital once a week…and doing the odd job for the CIA.

This episode took her to Istanbul and to dangerous nether regions in Turkey, pitted her against sneaky, nefarious villains, but it also armed her with her own wiles and karate skills, and gave her unlikely and worthy companions. The book is not completely saccharine–a nice man dies in the endeavor to rescue a double agent–but the good guys win in the end,and Mrs. Pollifax, unassuming and easy to dismiss, is in all ways a hero.

It was a delightful book and I read it right through in the nooks and crannies of one busy day, feeling just a little bereft when it was done.

I think it qualifies as chick-lit.

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So. Palate cleansed, I picked up The Violet Hour. And let me say this: Roiphe writes beautifully–I found that her prose lilted and shone. (“I learned how they faced or did not face, embraced or evaded, made peace with or raged against death, sometimes all at once,” she writes of the authors she studies in her preface, for example.)

Halfway through the first section, the part about Susan Sontag’s death from leukemia in her seventies, I put the book down and closed it for good. Well-written or not, the reading coincides with the final illness days of my wonderful friend Kim, herself a writer, herself concerned with ‘making a good death.’

Some words, no matter how beautifully written, cut sharp and deep, too close to the bone.

And some things must be lived through in the moment, and not, in that moment,  read about.

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Those three books, layered on each other, made me think about what we consider “worthy reading.”

I thought about Weiner, a Princeton grad writing books about ordinary women and promoting what she calls ‘body positivity.’

I thought about Dorothy Gilman, who attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania and Art Student League, who started writing at age 9, and who ultimately wrote 14 books in the Mrs. Pollifax series, among others. In her New York Times obituary, the writer noted, “Reviewers sometimes quibbled about the improbability of the novels’ basic premise.” But the obit also noted that Mrs. Pollifax was “…an irresistible, early feminist heroine.”

Weiner’s female characters could wear that mantle, too, and I intend to read her works (twelve novels, she has, now, to her credit, along with her memoir and the first in a YA trilogy.)

I will go back and read the Roiphe book when it doesn’t mirror my dear friend’s situation, when I  can read those words in an objective, reflective mood.

And I will stop labeling books before I read them.

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I attended college in the 1970’s, when literati were arguing about ‘the canon,’ and about admitting women’s voices to that rarified group, along with voices from other cultures and from under-represented groups and viewpoints. For a long time, as a result, I refused to read anything but books written by women.

Shame on me for being so judgmental.

Because here’s what I think: we should read whatever speaks to us in the moment. It’s good to make ourselves stretch, reading things that challenge and enlarge our world view, our scope of consideration. It’s good, too, to read things that comfort and connect, that reinforce our dearly held beliefs.

We read both to grow and to affirm.

We shouldn’t limit ourselves because our society considers some genres ‘lowbrow.’ Wasn’t Dickens, after all, once considered a hack who cranked out stories for money? Time will test our current writers. In the meantime, we should enjoy what we enjoy.

So here’s what I’m thinking. I’m going back to the way I chose books as a child, poring through stacks, reading the book flaps, checking out a book based on how interesting it sounded. I didn’t read reviews back then, and I may just eschew them now, meeting each new work without preconceptions, and wading in to hear its voice.

A Fine and Fearful Family History

American Trilogy

 

I grew up wondering about my grandparents, who were all dead before I was born. Grandmas, I observed longingly from watching the lives of my friends, were people who rewarded good grades with hugs and dollar bills and hot fudge sundaes. Grandpas tossed footballs in lazy backyard arcs, genially agreed to hold one end of the jump rope, picked kids up after school in their big old Grandpa-boat cars.

Kids spent weekends at the homes of their grandparents. There, they were allowed to watch the TV shows THEY wanted to watch. The grandma made cookies for them. Sometimes, the grandparents took kids out to a restaurant to eat.

If my grandparents were alive, I used to wonder, would I receive all of those wonderful bennies?

And what about the missing aunts and uncles? My father was one of fourteen siblings, my mother one of seven, yet we only saw a couple of our aunts and uncles on even an irregular basis.

Why? I asked my father, who turned glum and changed the subject.

Why? I asked my mother, who told me I was better off not knowing.

I believed, early on,  that any family history was better than huge empty gaps in knowing. Later, I grew warier–perhaps it WAS best just to bury any questions and appreciate life in the present and anticipate the future.

Perhaps there was freedom in not having those family dictates, those expectations, to define me or to rebel against.

But still. I marveled at people who could rattle off their family histories, who talked about the yearly reunion at the lake, who could tell passed-down stories about funny things that happened to great grandma when she was walking to her one-room school house.

So reading Jane Smiley’s American trilogy–Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age,–was a fascinating adventure.

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Smiley starts us off with the marriage of Walter Langdon and Rosanna Vogel, in 1920’s Iowa, and she takes us, year by year, through one century of their family’s life. Time rolls relentlessly on; politics happen, progress happens, war happens,–famines and weather calamities befall; despots and dictators and charming, skillful leaders rule and let go of their power. Other faces emerge on national and international stages.

All of this, of course, affects the Langdons, but the American trilogy is very much a history told through the stories of the fictional characters who lived it.

We see farm life through the eyes of a baby who grows up living it. We see the yearnings of those who want to stay and farm, and those who can’t wait to shake off Iowa’s dust and hit the city. We see how hard it can be to parent, and we see how hard it can be to live under a parent’s strict rules.

We see young men go off to war, and we see young women fall in love and make momentous decisions in a ten-second span. We go from babyhood to adulthood with characters, and we age with Frank and Rosanna. We see love; we see settling. We see what happens to a bookish boy on a midwestern farm who discovers he yearns, not for the embrace of a woman, but for the love of other men.

We sneak behind the scenes in government intelligence agencies, 1960’s cults, and marriages of convenience and passion.

It is a fascinating study. Imagine being able to say, “In 1953, here’s what happened in my family.”  Smiley creates that possibility for her fictional folks.

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This makes me curious about Smiley, so I look her up, and I read an article about her and the American trilogy, “A Family’s Century.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/books/jane-smileys-some-luck-is-the-first-in-a-trilogy.html?_r=0) It is dated 10/17/2014; it is in the New York Times; it is written by Charles McGrath; it coincides with the release of Some Luck, the first book. Smiley, McGrath notes, has, in typical fashion, already (at that point), written the other two volumes.

The article reports that Smiley went to college in Iowa in 1972, signing up for a master’s in medieval lit as a backdoor to enter the University of Iowa’s MFA in writing program. (This worked for her. Amazing to think that today’s Smiley, prolific, respected, and bearing the Pulitzer Prize, was ever rejected admission to any rank of writers.) She lived a thirty minute drive from the college, and she observed Iowa life as she drove back and forth from classes. The seeds of an American family saga were sown.

McGrath tells me, too, that Smiley admires Charles Dickens, and she is just as productive.  She has written in a range of genres, McGrath notes, and each adventure into a different sort of writing yielded success.

Perhaps irrelevantly–but interestingly,–the article also discloses that Smiley is 6’2″, and has been married four times. Some Luck is dedicated to all of her husbands, including the current holder of that title.

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My family were never, in any of my knowledge, farmers. My forebears, it is said, sailed the oceans, marched in armies, worked in factories, landed in jail. Truth and rumor are hard to separate, but it is not hard, whatever the family history, to relate to Smiley’s characters, to the genesis of a family on a farm, and the endless possibilities of where the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, might end up.

Like my family, some of the Langdons fought–with each other, and in wars. Some looked at each other in wonder, unable to conceive of anyone making THOSE particular choices. Some were true, and some betrayed. Some took stupid risks and lived to tell the tale, and some died young. Some found great love, and some never stopped searching.  A few gave up and simmered in bitter, lifelong disappointment.

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I read Smiley’s books in a half year arc, shoe-horning other tales, fiction and non-fiction, in-between, coming back when the need for a good story, a strong narrative, immersion into a compelling tale, reared its head.  I finished Golden Age last month, finished it with regret that some loose-ends would never get resolved, that some sinners never repented, that I would never know the end stories of the children just launching in 2019. But despite the sadness and the failure of some to reach potential, the family story rang true–an American trilogy convincingly told, a story of the American dream achieved and maintained.

When I closed the book,  the word ‘triumph’ was firmly in my mind.

The Out-Sized Comfort of The French Chef

julia

 

When I was very young and feeling flu-y, my mother would tuck me up on the living room couch. She’d bring me a glass of ginger ale with ice cubes and a handful of saltines, and she’d turn the TV on. There wasn’t too much on daytime TV back then, and sometimes Mom would settle on a funny cooking show.  The lady on the show was tall and had a squawky, excited voice, and I remember watching, through a fevery, plugged-sinus haze, her throwing her head back to laugh delightedly.

She was different from the tightly corseted, red-lipsticked, glamor girls on other stations, that cooking lady was. She was comforting and large and very, very real. I would drop off to sleep as she brandished some kitchen tool or other, and I’d wake hours later, refreshed and fuzzy-headed, to a TV screen gone dark, and to the bustle of my brothers coming in from school.

Decades later, I would discover Julia Child’s cookbooks, and just thinking about her brought back that comforting, nourishing feeling.

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I got very serious about cooking in my mid-thirties, home with a little one and stretching dollars to cover a one-income budget. I was determined that food could be both economical and splendid, and I haunted the local library for cookbooks as well as leisure reading.  And it seemed that every cookbook I read somehow pointed back to one common source: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I borrowed that book many, many times from the library’s shelves. Finally, I ordered it and its companion volume, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two.

Mastering became my go-to book for a really tasty–or “flavorsome,” as Child wrote– roasted chicken. And I decided to learn to make my own sauces–it’s crazy, I told myself, to pay hard money for someone else’s bottled version of what I could make, fresh, at home. Mastering was my primer.

And sometimes I would read it just to read it–just because that wonderful, lusty voice was present there. “If you are interested in price alone,” Child wrote in ‘Chapter Six: Poultry,’ “you will often wind up with something that tastes like the stuffing inside a teddy bear…”

And in the sauces chapter, Child inspired: “Sauces are the splendor and glory of French cooking, yet there is nothing secret or mysterious about making them.”

Her words made me smile, gave me confidence, hearkened me back to that cozy, sick-day comfort of long years ago. So I began to wonder about the woman herself.

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I was pleased to discover there were many, many books by and about Julia Child–even before the advent of Julie and Julia brought her, once again, into mainstream conversation.

So I read about her wholesome California childhood in a sporty, outdoorsy family. She was a tall girl, Julia was: she topped out at 6’2″, but she seemed to have friends and suitors and to not be terribly worried about her height. She and her equally tall sister, Dort, were busy and popular all through school. And Julia went on to an east coast college (she went to Smith, and  she liked it, too). But after college, she seemed hard put to settle in; she was restless and bored and nothing seemed to quite click.

And then,–World War Two, and Julia winds up doing war work in Washington, where she’s selected to go overseas, to the exotic East, where she meets  Paul, where life changes utterly and completely.

What a wonderful real life romance, the tall, gawky girl becoming the well-loved woman. She was well-loved by a man who opened new vistas for her, new worlds of books and art and music. She gave Paul security and devotion; together they made a daring, intrepid team.

After the War, Paul’s work took them to Paris, where Julia, again, floundered. She dabbled in this and that–painting, hat-making–until finally, fortunately (for her and for us), she enrolled in a French cooking class. You know what they say about the rest.

The French Chef in America tells the after-story–after Mastering became a best-seller, a staple in every cook’s kitchen; after Julia became, because of her poorly paid but very visible television appearances, a celebrity. Paul, who had always been the dominant partner became–quite happily it seems–his famous wife’s help-meet.  He painted; he helped on the set; he photographed and sketched her culinary creations. They traveled, always, together.

They were, she insisted, a team, and so they remained, through bad health and turbulent times, through fame and changing relationships and new friends and losses and houses in Cambridge and France. They were, Paul and Julia, an intensely creative pair.

Julia outlived Paul by many years, and she died, still vibrant and vital and working, just a sliver shy of her 92nd birthday.

This part of her story is written by her grandnephew, Paul Prud’homme. He co-authored My Life in France with Julia, and he wrote the rest of the story solo. The French Chef in America reads like a novel; it shines with Prud’homme’s affection for his aunt.

And it makes me realize, at this stage in time, just what an impact that squawky-voiced lady had on our culture. She opened the door, Julia did, for chefs like Alice Waters and Jacques Pepin to make their impact on American cuisine. I believe her television show, The French Chef, created a whole new genre–Guy Fieri, say, owes his paycheck to the pioneering work of Julia Child. She even inspired bubbly comedy. Prud’homme writes that she and Paul kept a videotape of Dan Ackroyd’s ‘Julia’ skit next to their TV. When visitors came, they would ask, eagerly, “Did you see Julia on Saturday Night Live?” and they’d play the clip and laugh uproariously.

It was Julia, Prud’homme contends, who inspired the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show.

And, of course, she helped United States citizens evolve the way we cook. She tugged us gently and relentlessly away from Spam and cream of mushroom soup; she dragged us into patisseries and boulangeries and she made us go to the farmers’ market and taste lettuces picked fresh that morning. Oh, we still like our comforts and conveniences, of course, we do; but Americans have developed a palate and a taste for fresh, honest, wholesome food.

Fresh, honest, and wholesome: that’s the kind of food Julia Child inspired us to eat, and that’s how I picture her out-sized personality. Head back, laughing, no apologies for height or blunders, she led us, collectively, down a whole new path. She taught us the joy and verve and finesse of cooking. And she laughed when we dropped the chicken, and she crowed when our soufflés rose and crested. She encouraged and cajoled and nourished us, that gawky girl from California. She found her passion and she followed it, and she shared it with the world.

Eva Saulitis: Into Great Silence

Originally published on Blogger’s World, January 17, 2017.

into-great-silence

Image taken from greenandgold.uaa.alaska.edu

It was a wonderful holiday break–two weeks of relaxed days, of visits and calls and family time. I spent long evenings reading in front of the fireplace in the living room, my sock feet aimed at the fireplace, the snapping warmth of the flames toasting my soles. I had a small stack of books I’d been longing to read, and I charged right through them, savoring, enjoying. I worked my way down to a couple of copies of The Sun, a favorite magazine, and one that requires care and attention in the reading.

I opened The Sun, started the first article about a woman who talked to whales, and I met Eva Saulitis.

Eva Saulitis was a marine biologist and a creative writer. She started tracking orcas in 1988, the year before the Exxon Valdez spilled its load of oil into the Alaska seas; she started tracking a certain pod of transient whales in pristine waters and in environments brimming with wildlife. By the time she returned the following year, wildlife populations were devastated, coated with oil, unable to survive, and many of those that did, unable to propagate. Saulitis’s work became not the study of a thriving orca group, but the chronicling of their demise. Saulitis and her partner, Craig Matkin, watched the transient whales for thirty-five years. They watched them dwindle, they watched them die; they knew they were audience to a species becoming extinct.

And Saulitis, in her forties, learned that she had breast cancer. “I came to believe,” she writes in Into Great Silence, “that the place and the whales played a part in rescuing me. Not in some mystical sense, but simply by existing, with or without me. They saved me, though I can’t save them.”

She fought through that bout of cancer, but the disease lay in wait, and it returned with a vengeance. Last year, that cancer ended Saulitis’s life. She was 52 years old.

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Reading The Sun, I discovered that Eva Saulitis grew up in a village six miles from mine. She was born in 1963, when I was eight years old, and it is quite possible that we played on the same beaches and ate ice cream cones from the same soft-serve stands. The Sun included an essay by Saulitis; I learned that she picked grapes as a child, earning what seemed like riches for each crate filled.  And breathing in, she noted, whatever kind of noxious spray was considered the best for de-bugging fruit back in that day.

I picked grapes in those fields, too, eating them right off the vines, filling the plastic crates and toting them to the end of the row for the flirtatious boys to pick up on their way to the barn. Those were days of innocence and champagne air and crisp autumnal potential. Saulitis, a scientist at heart, speculates about the seeds of her cancer being sown in those halcyon times.

She went to the same undergrad school as I did before she transferred to Syracuse, and then, when she graduated, she headed to Alaska with her biology degree. She found work in a fish hatchery, and she found a home and a calling.

Saulitis would go on to earn a Master of Science degree from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks; she would realize, as she came to know the orca troop she documented, that she could not be just an objective observer. She began to write about her feelings as well as her findings. She went back to the University and earned a second master’s, an MFA.

She and Craig settled in Homer, Alaska, and she became a teacher of composition and creative writing as well as a watcher of whales.

And she wrote. She chronicled her days by writing creative non-fiction and she dealt with her illness head-on in her poetry. Her words are crisp and bright and spare; they earned her the Alaska Governors’s Award in Humanities for Arts and Letters.

In her obituary, Saulitis is remembered as an outstanding person, a dedicated scientist…and as a woman who made everything she did, every place she visited, fun.

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I needed to hear the voice of a woman who grew up so near to my own childhood place, who shared many of the experiences of being a part of that land, and who then chose an intrepid and unique path. I found a Barnes and Noble gift card nestled in the toe of my stocking; I found a 20 per cent off coupon in my email, and I got online and ordered Into Great Silence.

The book is a wonderful read, the story of a girl becoming a woman, the story of an environment being poisoned, the story of a person finding a voice. It is a story filled with sadness and joy and beauty and personal loss.  And it is achingly well-told.

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Thank goodness for those moments in time that let us discover new voices. I will track down Saulitis’s more recent memoir, Becoming Earth, when I finish Into Great Silence. I will collect her poetry. I will savor hearing the clear, true voice of a hero, an adventurer, a pioneer, and a prophet. Her words are music, and they are warning. She tells us a story; she shows us our misuse of this earth.

Her years were too few; thank goodness she left us the gift of her words.

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Reading a Witness to History: Adela Rogers St. John

honeycomb

Janelle’s emails were siren songs:

There are remaindered books in the back room at the library. Today’s books are American literature. Please come and help yourself.

I won’t go, I vowed. I do not need any more books. I swear I am not going to go…

…Wait. I am across campus with an empty canvas bag swinging from my arm.

Well. In that case: maybe I’ll just look.

I slinked into the library, waved sheepishly to my peeps, and plunged into the back room. There were treasures there too precious to ignore and too wonderful to leave behind.

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I just read The Honeycomb, plunder from that day, an autobiography by Adela Rogers St. John. Her name was familiar, but I had never read her work; when I picked up the volume, stroked the spine, opened the cover to look at  the pages of pictures, I was hooked. This was a groundbreaking woman: a journalist when few women wore that mantle, and a witness and a chronicler of some of the most fascinating history of the first half of the twentieth century.

St. John was born in 1894; her father was a renowned defense attorney. Her mother was absentee. Adela, known as Nora as a child, grew up in a world created and defined by her father. Her familiars included detectives and madams, boxers and reporters.

It’s interesting that she frames her life story in the context of Pilgrim’s Progress.  She flails through controversy, painstakingly records history, courts scandal and notoriety, and ends her life as an ordained minister.

young-adela

St. John was one of the first well-known women journalists. She declined to go to college; her father told her she’d better have a trade then, and he connected her with William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was an innovator and a prophet; he took a chance on a female writer, and he benefited from her unique way of expressing herself. From her first job with the San Francisco Examiner, readers loved her voice and style.

St. John would bound back and forth between kinds of writing during her career. As, even when married, the main support of her family, she found ways to bring home the bacon even when she couldn’t work a 9 to 5 job. So she wrote in-depth features, and she did interviews with Hollywood stars that earned her the title of Mother Confessor. She wrote movie scripts–pretty well-known ones, well-acclaimed ones, like the script for A Star is Born. She wrote short stories to pay the rent; she notes that her Hollywood features were sanitized, but, in the stories, she could disguise and present the truth. She wrote books of fiction and she wrote the story of her father’s life and of her own.

And along the way, she was witness and chronicler of some of the most amazing history of the first half of the twentieth century. St. John did a stint as a sports feature writer–Hearst wanted someone who didn’t understand the games to write for an audience that, unlike today’s, was often unfamiliar with football or basketball or boxing. So she covered the Dempsey-Tunney long count fight.

She went undercover as a poor women and wrote about the real life plight of single, unemployed women during the Depression.

She had a front row seat at the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the alleged killer-kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby. She befriended Huey Long; she was in Washington when he was assassinated. She covered the long, sad story of Edward the VII’s abdication to marry twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. She was there at the Democratic National Convention of 1940, when FDR was tapped to run for a fourth term.

arsj-and-cg

She befriended Marion Davies, WR Hearst’s long-time lady love, but she gave fair footage to Hearst’s wife, as well. She was rumored to have borne Clark Gable’s baby. She traveled in exotic circles, dropping names like Mabel Normand and  Louis Bromfield and Rudee Vallee and Rudolph Valentino. She became a subject of controversy when she went to court for custody of her children, and when she went to court to commit her aging, ailing father to a home.

St. John married and divorced three times; she adopted a child as a single woman, after her last divorce. She lived on the east coast and on the west coast. She came out of retirement in 1976 to cover Patty Hearst’s bank robbery, trial, and conviction–reporting on the granddaughter of the man she revered, and who launched and supported her career. And, in her latter years, although she doesn’t discuss this in the book, she found religion and became a minister. A fitting ending, though, to a pilgrim’s progress.

She claims to have known dark secrets. She was honest about the people she met, admitting that she didn’t much care for Wallis Simpson, and that Huey Long was a careening, unsteady man. She respected strong women, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Eleanor Roosevelt. She lost a son and a baby brother in World War II.

adela_rogers_st_johns

I finished her book with questions and doubts, but I am glad to have read it, and I look forward to reading Final Verdict, St. John’s story of her father’s life as the top defense lawyer in the United States…and his battles with his own demons.

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She is funny and thoughtful and cagey and open in her writing, is Adela Rogers St. John. The Honeycomb was thoroughly engrossing. And reading her book is a reminder that there are amazing authors out there to be discovered, that rich and rewarding books remain hidden, waiting to be found.

My eyes are open; I’m scanning the horizon. I wonder who I’ll meet next.

 

(All photos from open-source internet sites.)

A Cozy Bit of Time Travel with Katharine Neville

the-eight
It was a holiday season that seemed perfect for a little time travel. The weather was sloppy; real travel was limited. We searched for classic Christmas movies, and I found a treasure–a copy of The Gathering (circa 1977) on DVD. I’d watched The Gathering on television 40 years ago–loved the adaptation of the classic Scrooge tale: a grumbling, repentant Ed Asner. A wounded but lovingly loyal Maureen Stapleton. The reluctant but inevitable return, one by one, of their adult children, for a final family Christmas.

This time, I watched the film with a new ping of recognition–the town where The Gathering was filmed, Chagrin Falls, is an Ohio town, home to a favorite indie bookstore. Chagrin Falls was not a place I knew when first I watched the movie. And the clothes and the politics and the runaway draft-dodger son–all that took me back to the 1970’s.  With this comfortable 40-year perspective, the time travel was fun.

So I decided to open a book my friend Elinor, a wise and far-reaching reader, had recommended. It was The Eight, by Katharine Neville. Published in 1988, the book was set in 1972…and in the 1790’s. Elinor had recommended it, saying there was a sudden resurgence of interest. I had a scrap left on an Amazon gift card, and that shard was enough to bring me a nicely used hardcover copy.

Our classic movie fest over, we opened up the fireplace and cranked up the gas fire on a holiday break evening.  The dog eased herself over in front of the fire, and I pulled the old round ottoman close to my reading chair. I sank into the chair, and I sank in to the book. Snow fell outside; the firelight flickered and soothed. The dog snored. And I time-traveled once again.

Cat, Neville’s protagonist, is an early days computer expert. Her work took me back to days of registering for classes by gathering punch cards from tables–here was the English table, and, hallelujah, there was still a card left for the 10:00 section of Novels and Tales. A women’s history course at 11, right next door. The necessary though dreaded section of math. Some of the classes I wanted yielded empty boxes, and then I had to go searching for a suitable substitute–a needed but interesting class, with a reportedly tolerable professor. When I was done, I would take my  stack of four or five class cards to the table by the door, and fill in the pertinent info–name and major, address and phone. A student worker would sort through the cards and insure I hadn’t created any time conflicts for myself, and then she’d put them in a long, long box with thousands of other students’ punch cards. A staff member from the bursar’s office would take my check, and I would walk out into the sunlight of the quad.

A week or so later, my schedule for the next semester would arrive in the mail at my parents’ house. And I would marvel at the quickness of the process–a process that took a month in my freshman year because all was done by hand.

Those computers, we said; those are wonderful things.

That was the kind of work Cat was doing in The Eight–programming room-sized computers, navigating piles of punch cards to get her programs to work.

Here is another wonderful thing: realizing just how far we have come in what is not really a big chunk of time.

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The Eight is anchored in chess, a game I have never been able to wrap my head around. Neville presents the play and the pursuit so alluringly, though, that I think perhaps I’ll get a book and read at least enough to understand the goals and the strategies.

But The Eight is as much about a particular chess set as it is about the game’s play. This chess set was a gift to Charlemagne, and its precious, finely crafted pieces carry an infamous, seductive curse.  The Eight winds back and forth between the emergence of the set from hiding in the late 1700’s–stowed in a nunnery in the mountains of France, endangered by the licentious anti-religious zealotry of the French Revolution, and then appearing again in modern times to embroil Cat in an international game of cat and mouse, a romance, and a mystery.

It’s a satisfying fireside read, The Eight is. The story is good, and the book explores relations between the United States and the USSR, and between the Middle East and the whole world. It’s a reminder that the struggles of today have deep, deep roots. The book is hefty at 550 pages, but it zips along.

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I went to a newer, faster computer to find out more about Katharine Neville, and I discovered she maintains a webpage at http://www.katharineneville.com. She has four fat books in print; The Fire (2008) is the sequel to The Eight, and features the children of The Eight’s main characters as protagonists. I write that down in my note book, add it to my “Find These Books” list.

The other books are The Magic Circle (1998) and A Calculated Risk (1992).

Neville says quest is the theme of all her writing. “Whether our quest is an adventure of the mind or spirit, or a voyage by sea, air or land–it’s often the journey itself that changes us in surprising and alchemical ways,” she writes. Certainly, The Eight has a journey theme, with treacherous mountain hikes, and ships bounced about about stormy seas, airplane travel into dangerous lands…and travel from youth into maturity, from girl into deeply loving, boldly daring, woman.

I find, on the website, that Neville’s work was called, by Publishers’ Weekly, “a feminist answer to Indiana Jones.” I find, too, that the book is becoming a film, due out, I think, this spring–no doubt the reason for the resurgence of interest Elinor noted.

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I’ll go see the film. I’ll track down The Fire. I may dabble in the play of chess and see if, forty years later, my mind has stretched to encompass the kind of thinking necessary to embark on that journey.

And I’ll shelve The Eight. It’s the kind of book to share with a friend, the kind of book that makes a good re-read a few years hence, when the wind howls and there is, again, a fire in the grate.

It’s been nice, this winter, to revisit the time of my youth, and to travel to exotic places I’ve never seen. I shelf The Eight and I turn to a little weightier reading, some history and some memoir; refreshed by adventure, I’m ready now to return to the present, and to read myself a challenge.

Drowning in the Moonlight (Mourning Carrie Fisher)

Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit–so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.
Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

wishful_drinking_book-738026

We were driving to the library, James and I, when both of our phones pinged.  It was Jim’s dad, my husband Mark, texting. He was letting us know that Carrie Fisher had just died.

“No way!” said Jim. “No way!”

Carrie Fisher had recently been a presence in our minds, and not just because of that last shimmering scene in Rogue One. (I thought that was CGI, but one of my young techie colleagues informed me that, no, that was a real actor, a Norwegian artist named Ingvild Deila. There was a little CGI involved, I guess–hence the shimmer,–but mostly it was amazing resemblance, great make-up, and good acting.)

I had been reading reviews of Fisher’s new book, The Princess Diarist, a lot, lately, too. The reviews were all positive–positive about her writing, admiring of her honesty. This new book is where Fisher talks about her affair, during Star Wars, with Harrison Ford. And I realized, for the first time–I’d never considered her age before–that she was only 19 when she burst into fame as Leia. (She was, in fact, less than a year younger than I am.)

And of course, the news that Fisher’d had a heart attack brought us up short, too, but we were glad to read reports, originating with Debbie Reynolds, that she was resting comfortably and on the mend.

So we were shocked, of course–everyone must have been,–by the news that Carrie Fisher was dead. We pulled up to the library, Jim and me, and we just sat for a bit, and then we opened the car doors, stepped out, went inside. I looked ‘Carrie Fisher’ up in the card catalog, and I found two of her books. I found them, and I brought them home. One is a novel, The Best Awful. I set that aside and opened the memoir, Wishful Drinking (copyright 2008).

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Wishful Drinking is slim and wry and infinitely readable. The Carrie Fisher I meet there is someone worth getting to know. She has had a tough life; she has had a privileged life. She’s aware of both the challenges and the privilege. She approaches both with a self-deprecating humor that never once shirks responsibility.

I learn about her childhood, daughter of America’s sweethearts–she compares Eddie and Debbie to Brad and Jennifer; Liz-the-home-wrecker, to Angelina. That was how upset folks were, she says. And of course, the split and the absence of her father (who, she says, smokes four joints a day. She calls Eddie Fisher ‘Puff Daddy’) was a painful part of growing up.

She is dancing in a chorus for one of Debbie’s shows by the time she is thirteen. She is drinking and smoking pot by then, too.

She is in rehab, in a twelve step program, by the time she’s thirty. (One of the realities of the disease that is addiction, says a colleague of mine who runs residential facilities for addicts in recovery, is relapse. Celebrate the sober times, and deal with the relapse times, he recommends. Fisher notes that she, true to the course of the disease, has had her victories and her relapses.)

“You know,” she quips, “how they say that religion is the opiate of the masses? Well, I took masses of opiates religiously.”

I learn about Fisher’s mental illness, an illness her drug and alcohol dependencies masked until she’d gotten those under control. Fisher was bipolar; she talks about her highs and her lows. She writes that what made life bearable for her was electroshock therapy.

“…ECT,” she writes, “has forced me to rediscover what amounts to the sum total of my life. I find that a lot of it fills me with a kind of giddy gratitude.” She finds, too, that the treatment that restored her to function also stole many of her memories.

It is, she thinks, a worthwhile, trade.

Be careful, she writes, mocking common wisdom: be careful, because mental illness might be catchy. “So what do I do, because I’m a good hostess (except for the Greg thing)–I provide my guests with bibs. So they don’t get my crazy juice all over their nice clothes.”

(I bet visiting her was fun. She is, in her writing, an honest, bitterly funny, advocate for the mentally ill.)

I learn about her marriages, to Paul Simon, and to Bryan Lourd, who later realized he was gay. But, in the interim of their marriage, they created a beloved daughter, Billie.

I am six months older than Carrie Fisher; you know I think she was way too young to go. And Billie, who must be in her twenties now, is much too young to lose her mother.

Fisher was close to her own mother, Debbie Reynolds; in fact, Reynolds bought a house next door to her daughter, and they were woven into each other’s daily lives. One can hope that Reynolds and Billie are tremendous comforts to each other. Between the lines of her writing, I read clearly that Fisher adored them both, was vastly proud of them both.

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And of course, she writes about Star Wars. Star Wars, which informed the childhood of both of our boys, 14 years apart in this blended family. We saw the originals in the theater; we splurged on the boxed set of VHS tapes when we finally got a VCR. We watched those many, many times. We graduate to DVD’s, and then to the digitally re-mastered DVD’s.

We argued about the worth of episodes 1,2, and 3. We agreed on episode seven–all of us loved it. As we did Rogue One, and that shimmery appearance of Leia at the end.

Nineteen, Fisher was when Star Wars started. I think she tells more of that story in her new book, which I am determined now to track down. She mentions here, in Wishful Drinking, that Harrison Ford brought her the pot that made her quit smoking pot…it dragged her into dark and troubled places, and she began a search for her new drug of choice. And she writes about the experience of working with Ford and Mark Hamill.

Remember the trash compacter scene? She tells a wonderful story about doing takes knee deep in clean water floating with garbage rendered in rubber. The monster that swarms up to suffocate Luke is a Dianoga, although I don’t know that its name is ever mentioned in the film.

Between takes, she writes, Hamill was playing with a piece of rubber garbage when inspiration struck. He proffered it toward George Lucas, singing, “Pardon me, George! Is this a Dianoga poo-poo?”

They all, she said, collapsed in laughter. But she acknowledges that you might have needed to be there to see all of the riveting humor.

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There’s more, of course; this slim and compelling book is packed with encounters and bon mots and Fisher’s wicked, self-deprecating humor.  Some of that humor is black; she writes, more than once, of her own death.

“Speaking of graves,” she says, “I tell my young friends that one day they’ll be at a bar playing pool and they’ll look up at the television and there will be a picture of Princess Leia with two dates underneath, and they’ll say, ‘awww–she said that would happen.’ And then they’ll go back to playing pool.”

And she’s right in a way, and she’s wrong in a way. She’s right that life goes on–that most insulting truth of death is that the waters close in almost instantaneously, so it’s hard to find the space where that vibrant presence had been just a precious moment ago.

But she’s wrong in thinking people won’t be changed. Her words and her images, her forthright honesty, and her unflinching self-disclosures, have all made an impact. Princess Leia lives on, iconic, reaching out to meet a new generation. And Carrie Fisher, the actor and the woman who created Leia, lives on, too.

Both of them were leaders, in my view. Both of them fought successful battles. And both of them are heroes.

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All quotes in this review are from Wishful Drinking. Wishful Drinking image taken from fustians.blogspot.com