Friday, March 24, 2017

THE SPRUCE GUM BOX, historical novel about a corner of history little recalled today or outside Maine



THE SPRUCE GUM BOX
ELIZABETH EGERTON WILDER

Red Dobie Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Addie loved to run along the river’s edge so the wind could blow through her long hair, released from the strict bun her father demanded. When Jed returned from the lumber harvest in the spring, she would fly into his arms, releasing her pent-up passion from its winter prison. Little did they know their forbidden love would set in motion a series of events that would forever change their lives and make Jed a fugitive.

With a bounty on his head and his infant son hidden beneath his coat, Jed turned to the only man he felt he could trust—the leader of a nearby Micmac settlement. The unlikely partnership that ensued defied all odds, overcoming bigotry, betrayal, and the unforgiving 1820s Maine wilderness, to stake a claim on the primitive New England landscape.

As the strife escalated between Great Britain and the United States over the border of Maine and the rights to its lucrative lumber industry, determination to survive and create a life for his young son drove Jed into uncharted territory and perilous adventure.

My Review: When a man falls in love with a pretty woman in our world, things take their course pretty much without drama most of the time. This makes this moment in history almost unique. The consideration of who the woman's father is, the idea that a woman is off-limits due to her family, is a bad and fading memory in Western culture. Unless you're a royal, of course, but there are very very few of them left.

Mercy me. The idea would have seemed like paradise to Jed, the hero of this tale. He and his "bastard" son are driven away, in a profane rage, by Adelaide Wingate's English father. His only recourse is to put them both at the mercy of the local Indian people, the Micmac. Guess what? The welcome mat is rolled out! Jed and Ben, his son, are made to understand they're family. Addie, by contrast, is sent back to their native England, leaving their lives forever.

Separating a mother from her child is a horrible act of cruelty and violence. To deprive a child of its mother is a lifelong wound inflicted on the spirit of a child. The saving grace is the acceptance and kindness of the native American people, believing as they do in the necessity of life's continuing in as much kindness as is possible.

But the glory of the book is its beautiful evocation of the County...Aroostook's old name in Maine...as it is the subject of boundary disputes between the fledgling US and Canada, as well as the setting for an economic boom of the logging industry in the old-growth forest.

For anyone who would like to read a story of a father and son relationship that is loving, respectful, and characterized by reciprocal loyalty, this is the only book I can think of to recommend to you. That alone makes it worth reading! I'd recommend any historical fiction fan dip in because of the geopolitical goings-on. And sexism gets a battering from every angle in this book. Good stuff, all!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

MY LIFE IN FRANCE, culinary goddess Julia Child tells enough to keep the pages turning...but not all



MY LIFE IN FRNACE
JULIA CHILD (with Alex Prud'homme)

Anchor Books
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Julia Child single handedly awakened America to the pleasures of good cooking with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, but as she reveals in this bestselling memoir, she didn't know the first thing about cooking when she landed in France. Indeed, when she first arrived in 1948 with her husband, Paul, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever. Julia's unforgettable story unfolds with the spirit so key to her success as a cook and teacher and writer, brilliantly capturing one of the most endearing American personalities of the last fifty years.

My Review: Truth in advertising had no greater champion than Julia Child. Her book is called exactly and precisely what it is: The narrative of her life in France. She begins her book on November 3, 1948, with the Child family landing at Le Havre, getting into their gigantic Buick station wagon, and motoring off across northern France towards Paris. They stop at thirty-six-year-old native Californian Mrs. Child's first French restaurant, La Couronne, where her husband Paul (already fluent in French from his first stint living there more than 20 years before) consults with M. Dorin, the maitre d', and decides the young marrieds (relatively speaking, as he's 46 by then) will have a sole meuniere with a glass of wine! I mean! A nice Republican-raised gal from Pasadena, California, drinking wine with lunch! Who heard of this?! Mais certainement not Mme. Child, nee McWilliams!

It was the beginning of a life-long love affair between Julia Child and la belle France, and Julia Child and la cuisine Francaise. It led to several books, several TV series, and a long, happy life spent teaching, teaching, teaching. Mme. Child had found her metier, at close to forty, in a day and time where living past sixty-five was ** considered to be ancient. In the process, the person she became changed the American, and possibly the world as a result, culture surrounding food. Yet Julia Child wrote this book with her husband's great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, who tells us in his brief Foreword that getting his garrulous old relative to open up about the feelings and secrets that make up the majority of any human life. His degree of success was formidable, given the generational and gender-induced reticence he fought against to extract the juicy bits from her.

Bravo, M. Prud'homme, et merci bien par tout le faire.

Julia Child was a fixture around our house when I was young. I got the TV-watching habits I carry with me to this good day at a tender age, and part of the formative process was The French Chef. My mother didn't like Mrs. Child much. She was a fan of M.F.K. Fisher's food work, which wasn't in sympathy with Mrs. Child's careful and precise measuring and nice and accurate timing. Mama was a feast-maker, not a dinner-preparer, and that's why she watched Julia Child programs.

I learned about enthusiastic appreciation of food from my mother and Mrs. Child. I was never a picky eater, and only rejected a few foods. (I still hate corn on the cob.) It always seemed like the ladies were having so much fun making these weird dishes! It made sense to me that it would be fun to eat them, and so it proved to be.

In reading this memoir, I immersed myself in the flow of Child's later-life awakening to the joy of food and the sheer exhilaration of preparing special and delicious and carefully thought-out meals for one's loved ones. While I understand the co-author's challenge in balancing the need to afford the famous personality privacy against the buying public's desire to know the dirt, I can only lament that Prud'homme either didn't or couldn't press Child on the topic of her childlessness. I suspect burying herself in research and in obsessive experimentation was a means of assuaging her sadness at not being a mother. She was, or at least she is painted in this book as being, a very nurturing person, and given the prevailing attitudes of the era, it is unlikely that this absence did not cause her pangs of regret. I would have liked to see some exploration of that, mostly because I think glittering surfaces (which this book limns in loving detail) are even more beautiful when seen with shadows. It's like sterling silver flatware: When dipped into a cleaning bath as opposed to hand-polished, it's true that all the tarnish comes off, but all the character does too, and the pattern is flat and blah for lack of a bit of dark contrast that is left by the more labor-intensive hand polishing method.

The delight of the book was in Child's almost orgasmic recollections of the foods and wines she and her dearly beloved husband Paul Child ate and drank across the years. In the course of learning to cook the haute bourgeoise cuisine that she made famous in her native land, Child came alive to the joys and thrills of sight, smell, and taste in a way that only truly delicious food can cause a person to become. It was the positive counterpoint to her manifold frustrations in collaborative cook-bookery. The travails of preparing the Magnum Opus that is Mastering the Art of French Cooking simply don't do enough to make the author come off the page and join me in my reading chair. I rate books based on this type of measure, this degree of ability to enfold and immerse me in the narrative and the emotional reality of the tale being told. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but I wasn't swept into it and away to France circa 1950, and that was what I came to the read expecting to happen. In fact, when I saw the film partially based on this book, Julie & Julia, I was completely swept away and eager to read the source material.

In the end, I got more out of watching Meryl Streep enact Julia Child than I did reading Julia Child reporting herself. I was disappointed.

And hungry.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

SUPERZELDA, an early canary in the Zelda resurgence mines



SUPERZELDA: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald
Tiziana LoPorto and Daniele Marotta

One Peace Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dancer, painter, writer, muse, passionate lover, and freethinker, Zelda Fitzgerald is one of the most iconic figures of the Jazz Age. Born in Alabama in 1900, she was only 18 when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald, an ambitious young writer who would turn into one the greatest American authors of all time. Beautiful, talented, irreverent, extravagant, and alcohol-driven, the newly married couple took New York's high society and the whole literary world by storm. They traveled to France, Italy, and Africa; hung out with Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Gertrude Stein; managed to both charm and enrage most of the people they were acquainted with; and ended up destroying their love and themselves-Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent more than a decade in psychiatric clinics, tragically dying at 48 in a fire. Superzelda is a thoroughly researched work based on period photographs and documents, as well as on Zelda and Scott's writing. It is a biography, a love story, and a travelogue all wrapped into one. The beautiful two-color illustrations bring to life one of the most fascinating women, as well as eras, of the early 20th century.

My Review: Twitter made me do it.

No, for real. I saw a tweet of a reviewlet for Superzelda and, well, I was too curious not to look into the book itself. Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the publication of Z, and now this! An embarrassment of riches in Fitzgeraldry. What can a comic book add to the merriment, I wondered, that something more meaty and textual couldn't do better?

Well now, given my overall lack of appreciation for comic books, the answer you're expecting now is either a grumbling "not a lot" or a shrieking "NOTHING!" Nanny nanny boo-boo! I liked this comic book condensed history of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald a good deal.

The illos are, well, they're what I'd expect. I think they're okay. The fact that they're printed on comic-book paper, uncoated and not very thick and pretty rough, added to the charm of the thing. It even smells the way I expect a comic book to smell! I like the two-color printing, black and various screens of a lovely slate-meets-turquoise blue. I like the choices of subjects to illustrate and the sense I get that Marotta, the illustrator, had about six zillion photos tacked up and piled on tables and propped against books in his studio and he alchemically schlurgled them around in his visual cortex and blew them out his hands in a fury of creation.

LoPorto's writing I can't comment on, because of necessity it's been translated and that means I have no idea how this compares to her original since I haven't read all of it. The story is already familiar to me, so I'm not reading to be informed, only entertained. I was, at least enough to finish the book.

Which leads me to the heart of the matter for me: What is the point of these things? They're not violent or prurient, previously the two reasons that comic books existed; they're not in-depth, they're not glitteringly witty or lushly lovely; they're sort of limbic creations, in a twilight zone of fact meeting imagination that just makes no sense to me. This is a book that resembles Zelda, Nancy Milford's excellent biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, the way Wikipedia resembles the Encyclopedia Britannica. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, in a browsing-the-porn-sites way; nothing much not to like, but nothing to get my teeth (!) into.

Plus it's too hard to read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

THE GLASS CASTLE, a neglected daughter's journey to forgiveness



THE GLASS CASTLE: A Memoir
JEANNETTE WALLS

Scribner
$30 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette's brilliant and charismatic father captured his children's imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn't want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing--a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

There will be a 2017 film whose release date isn't set just yet, so it seemed like a good time to revisit this influential, searingly honest, and personally relevant memoir.

My Review: Oh. My. God.

Walls has a non-fiction novel coming out this month, so I decided to re-read the book that started all the ruckus before I got to Half-Broke Horses. (NB I read that book, was disappointed, didn't review it.)

This memoir appealed to me as the youngest child (by a large margin) of two complete nutters. They were not like Walls' parents in that they never let us go hungry and we never lacked a roof over our heads. They were emotionally disturbed, though, and this passage sums up the sensation of being raised by a completely bizarre mother:
I wondered if the fire had been out to get me. I wondered if all fire was related, like Dad said all humans were related, if the fire that had burned me that day while I cooked hot dogs was somehow connected to the fire I had flushed down the toilet and the fire burning at the hotel. I didn't have the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes.
The fires were, in my house, verbal. As a result of the noisy unsafe minefield I grew up in, I hate to raise my voice. If I have to shout it means (to me) that I've lost, there's no chance of being heard. I'm a sucker, as a consequence, for a man whose emotions are tightly reined in, especially if he's losing his battle against letting them loose. I empathize strongly.

A little backstory: I was romantically involved with a man for some time while I lived in Austin, whom I met on a bus. I got on the bus, sat a few seats behind the cute, sandy-haired, rumpled guy with the prominent ears devouring a book that I spotted from the pay-stile, and sighed the happy sigh of one whose world contains all the things he needs: A job, a home, and all the men he can mentally undress and ravish.

I was mid-mental ravishment when Mr. Man (as I came to call him) upset the applecart by bursting into tears. As quietly as he could, of course, but tears. A stop later, still crying. Stop after that, still crying. I got up, moved into the seat next to him but across the aisle, and said, "What the hell're you reading? I wanna be sure I never set an eyeball on it." That got a laugh, and he held up The Glass Castle and said it was sort of the story of his life.

We talked for four hours that day. I gave him my email and number, and things progressed pretty smoothly until one day they didn't, but that's another story.

He'd just read Walls's tale of her father taking her pubescent self to a pool-hall and getting her within an inch of getting raped, just so he'd have beer money:
Mom asked me if I was okay. I shrugged and nodded. “Well, there you go,” she said. She said that sexual assault was a crime of perception. “If you don’t think you’re hurt, then you aren’t,” she said. “So many women make such a big deal out of these things. But you’re stronger then that,” she went back to her crossword puzzle.
It struck a chord, and the story of his own stepfather's abuses of Mr. Man, and his mother's indifference to them, came spewing out of him. I've read the book before just now, specifically so I could discuss it with Mr. Man, but I did so with an already numbed horror bone and a severed humor tendon.

Only now that I am several years beyond that initial encounter with the book can I see how very funny the tragic events in it are, and were to the author. I can see that it's gallows humor of a sort...but also that it's all perfect proof that life's a Zen joke:
Mom always said people worried too much about their children. Suffering when you're young is good for you, she said. It immunized your body and your soul, and that was why she ignored us kids when we cried. Fussing over children who cry only encouraged them, she told us. That's positive reinforcement for negative behavior.

If you can chuckle at Dolly Parton's aperçu, "You have no idea how much it costs to look this cheap," then Walls is the next step up the Sisyphean slope of learning how to laugh like the Dalai Lama. It's a hard life that etches grooves in the looking-glass, but it's a path worth taking if you can get to the place where "textured" is valued more than smooth. Read the book, you'll know what I mean.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

REMARKABLE CREATURES, two women of science in 19th century Dorset



REMARKABLE CREATURES
TRACY CHEVALIER

Penguin Books
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A voyage of discoveries, a meeting of two remarkable women, and extraordinary time and place enrich bestselling author Tracy Chevalier's enthralling new novel

From the moment she's struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear that Mary Anning is marked for greatness. On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, she learns that she has "the eye"—and finds what no one else can see. When Mary uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious fathers on edge, the townspeople to vicious gossip, and the scientific world alight. In an arena dominated by men, however, Mary is barred from the academic community; as a young woman with unusual interests she is suspected of sinful behavior. Nature is a threat, throwing bitter, cold storms and landslips at her. And when she falls in love, it is with an impossible man.

Luckily, Mary finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a recent exile from London, who also loves scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy. Ultimately, in the struggle to be recognized in the wider world, Mary and Elizabeth discover that friendship is their greatest ally. 

Remarkable Creatures is a stunning novel of how one woman's gift transcends class and social prejudice to lead to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century. Above all, is it a revealing portrait of the intricate and resilient nature of female friendship.


My Review: A middling book about interesting times and people. Not extraordinarily well, or poorly, written. Not unusual or original in plotting or in, frankly, any way I can think of. Like all of Chevalier's work, a solid, well-made entertainment, about a subject most of us have never given one instant's thought to.

Therein its charm. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot weren't the women of Jane Austen's novels, and they weren't subjected to the same constraints as those women were. They lived in poverty whether genteel or grinding, and they followed their own interests instead of doing what was thought to be necessary to get a husband. Chevalier points up the ways in which this freedom made the women best able to pursue the passions each might never have known had she been a mother and a wife.

We owe our knowledge of plesiosaurs and other aquatic beasts of the era to these remarkable women, who hunted for and preserved fossils along England's Dorset coast. That Mary Anning was the more productive of the two and that it was she who found the major finds does not minimize the better-off Miss Philpot's many contributions, both emotional and financial, to the process.

In the end, it is the usual suspect, jealousy, that ends the friendship across a generation and a class divide. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot fall in love with the same man. It leads to the eruption of their other jealousies, of course, and the many things we think but never say come out of each woman's mouth.

Years pass, and many events occur, but unlike theirs, endings are only rarely as good as beginnings. Anning and Philpot lived in a time when the role of a woman was to be of service. Neither had a man to serve, so they served Mankind with their old rock-boned beasts. Much of what we think today would have been harder and later in coming without them, their small but vital role in making modern science what it is.

Remarkable creatures indeed.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS, an oral memoir/lecture by a major Southern literary light



ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS
EUDORA WELTY

Harvard University Press
$19.50 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi. In a "continuous thread of revelation" she sketches her autobiography and tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing. Homely and commonplace sights, sounds, and objects resonate with the emotions of recollection: the striking clocks, the Victrola, her orphaned father's coverless little book saved since boyhood, the tall mountains of the West Virginia back country that become a metaphor for her mother's sturdy independence, Eudora's earliest box camera that suspended a moment forever and taught her that every feeling awaits a gesture. She has recreated this vanished world with the same subtlety and insight that mark her fiction.

Even if Eudora Welty were not a major writer, her description of growing up in the South--of the interplay between black and white, between town and countryside, between dedicated schoolteachers and the public they taught--would he notable. That she is a splendid writer of fiction gives her own experience a family likeness to others in the generation of young Southerners that produced a literary renaissance. Until publication of this book, she had discouraged biographical investigations. It undoubtedly was not easy for this shy and reticent lady to undertake her own literary biography, to relive her own memories (painful as well as pleasant), to go through letters and photographs of her parents and grandparents. But we are in her debt, for the distillation of experience she offers us is a rare pleasure for her admirers, a treat to everyone who loves good writing and anyone who is interested in the seeds of creativity.

My Review: The unassuming, delight-filled, unsparingly un-self-indulgent prose of Miss Eudora's fiction is surpassed in this expansion and revision of her Massey Lecture in the History of American Civilization, delivered at Harvard in 1983. For anyone unacquainted with Miss Eudora's literary output, I recommend starting with short fiction ("The Bride of the Innisfallen" is a good starter, followed by "Why I Live at the P.O."), moving on to her chef d'ouevre, the novel The Ponder Heart; this memoir, all 104pp of it, should come after one knows whether one is able to appreciate the particularities and glories of Miss Eudora's work. While I think she would appeal to any able-minded reader, I know from experience that her beautiful sentences sound like preciosity to some readers: eg, "Over a stronghold of a face, the blue hat of the lady in the raincoat was settled on like an Indian bonnet, or, rather, like an old hat, which it was." (from "The Bride of the Innisfallen")

This, to me, is equaled in English by Nabokov's terse clarity, and by little else; but it has been cited to me several times as unendurably cutesy or simply overwritten. I so completely disagree that it's hard to credit the opinion-havers with a shred of taste; however, there are tastes, and there are tastes, so I move on from my digression.

One Writer's Beginnings is told in a narrative voice much like her fiction; it is constructed like the linear tale that a life is when it is reflected on at leisure; and there are so many things in her history, from 1909 and her birth until her last entry in the lecture, a trip by train to New York during the Great Depression as a WPA junior publicity agent, that clearly formed a consciousness of time and place and rightness of things that she uses to such telling effect in her stories. An anecdote early in the book of her parents' morning routine of whistling and humming back and forth up and down the stairs phrases from "The Merry Widow Waltz" illuminates for me the means by which this shy, never-married lady "got" the signals of relationship that are so necessary to the parties in happiness. Another moment, the discovery of two nickels preserved in a hidden box, teaches me that Miss Eudora never felt any unmixed emotion (I won't tell that story, it must be read to be understood) and that is why The Ponder Heart is such a landmark in Southern ficiton.

The death of Miss Eudora's beloved father in 1931 is simply too painful for her to go into; she elides the details and leaves us to infer her pain. It fits with her lifelong lack of interest in talking about herself, but it leaves the reader without an anchor in what had to be a turbulent passage in her life. I can't fault the lady for her reticence, but in this as in several other areas, it would have behooved Miss Eudora to have let others guide her in preparing these talks so as to answer more questions:
It is our inward journey that leads us through time – forward or back, seldom in a straight line, most often spiraling. Each of us is moving, changing, with respect to others. As we discover, we remember; remembering, we discover; and most intensely do we experience this when our separate journeys converge. Our living experience at those meeting points is one of the charged dramatic fields of fiction.

Well, and therein the rub: It was the last thing she ever wanted to do, answer questions, and it's also why she wrote such marvelous stories, to answer them all unasked:
Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.

Miss Eudora Welty, thank you for all of it, and a safe journey into the future for your gifts to us who follow along behind you.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

NOTORIOUS, a major Hollywood star's life of being her own damn self in the unforgiving spotlight



NOTORIOUS: The Life of Ingrid Bergman
DONALD SPOTO

Da Capo Press
$22 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The life of Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) is as compelling as that of any of the women she portrayed in dozens of unforgettable movies and plays—a list that includes Casablanca, Intermezzo, Gaslight, The Bells of St. Mary's, Notorious, Anastasia, and Hedda Gabler. Hers is a story that begins with a tragic childhood in Sweden, then moves on to the nightmare of Germany under the Nazis and later to Hollywood in its golden age. From her position as America's most beautiful, admired, and loved actress, she was plunged into national disgrace and branded "an apostle of degradation" for her adulterous love affair with Roberto Rosellini in the late 1940s. But her independent spirit triumphed in the end, winning her honors and accolades even as she fought an eight-year battle with cancer. Donald Spoto, who knew Ingrid Bergman and had unprecedented access to her husbands, friends, lovers, directors, and costars, as well as to her papers, letters, and diaries, has written a biography that the San Francisco Chronicle called "mesmerizing" and "deeply moving"—the definitive account of a consummate actress who dared to live the truth.

My Review: The subtitle says it all. For those who might be unfamiliar with Planet Earth, Ingrid Bergman was a stunningly beautiful film and stage actress of the 1930s to the 1980s. Donald Spoto, the author, will celebrate his 76th birthday this year (2017); he was a monk, a teacher, and then a pop-culture apologist/celebrist/analyst with some 20-plus celebrity biographies to his credit, plus several books on Christian/mystical themes.

Preston Sturges. Alfred Hitchcock. Grace Kelly. Miss Bergman. Diana, Princess of Wales. All subjects of Spoto's apparently unstoppable urge to biographize, expressed over the past 35-plus years. So look at that list: Is this author gay? Oh my goodness, yes. Gladly and openly so.

I start out each book, then, with a very strong connection to the author. He's One Of Mine. Small moments that might slip past a non-gay reader are here, smirking at me. I *love* that sense of being in on the joke. And that right there? That's the reason people read celebrity bios. They're in the know, they're totally equipped with gossip material, they are Inquiring Minds that are now sated. It's fun. It's harmless. It's hugely profitable.

Well....

IS it fun? For readers of the better quality books about figures of their personal interest, yes...for the fussbudgetty writers, probably...for the cooperative subjects, maybe. At any point in that chain, whether it be a writer whose passion for organizing and categorizing gives out before the job is done, finishing this type of fact-checking nightmare of a book can be awful, and not to mention the bliss and heaven of a source recanting important testimony! Or a cooperative subject who turns uncooperative!

Harmless? Hardly. Harmful in the extreme. We The People do *not* have the right to know what, for example, Ingrid Bergman felt in her last days on this earth as she slowly and painfully died of metastatic breast cancer. That her friends and family cooperated with Spoto, as Bergman herself had in a different context (a series of interviews about Alfred Hitchcock gave birth to this bio of Bergman, because she was very forthcoming with the author), does not absolve the reader of such a book as this of a defensible charge of prurience, and passive or active participation in a cultural trend that leaves those who are not resolutely anonymous with no zone of privacy anywhere ever. Contemplate that for a few seconds. What a horrifying thought. So spend that $30 and feel entitled to ALL THE DIRT!! The dirtier, the better. Then imagine that it's *your* life under this scrutiny.

Profits are made in stacks, for sure and certain, because the books keep a-comin'. Spoto alone has published 29 books to date. The publishers aren't in the charity game, so they're minting the spondulix or there wouldn't be any more.

Okay, all that said...this book was a blast! It gossiped my ears off for two whole days and the pictures were so cool! I loved the evocation of some of my favorite actors and movies and learned interesting new stuff about them all.

I admit it: I am part of the problem. But I have a smile on my face!

Monday, March 13, 2017

IRREPRESSIBLE, Jessica Mitford's life as role model for today's privileged millennial girl



IRREPRESSIBLE: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford
LESLIE BRODY

Counterpoint Press
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Admirers and detractors use the same words to describe Jessica Mitford: subversive, mischief-maker, muckraker. J.K. Rowling calls her her “most influential writer.” Those who knew her best simply called her Decca. Born into one of Britain’s most famous aristocratic families, she eloped with Winston Churchill’s nephew as a teenager. Their marriage severed ties with her privilege, a rupture exacerbated by the life she lead for seventy-eight years.

After arriving in the United States in 1939, Decca became one of the New Deal’s most notorious bureaucrats. For her the personal was political, especially as a civil rights activist and journalist. She coined the term frenemies, and as a member of the American Communist Party, she made several, though not among the Cold War witch hunters. When she left the Communist Party in 1958 after fifteen years, she promised to be subversive whenever the opportunity arose. True to her word, late in life she hit her stride as a writer, publishing nine books before her death in 1996.

Yoked to every important event for nearly all of the twentieth century, Decca not only was defined by the history she witnessed, but by bearing witness, helped to define that history.

My Review: A chronological retelling of the strange life and exciting times of America's finest 20th-century muckraker, from her aristocratic Fascist upbringing to her time in the Communist Party USA, then her years of fame and glory after writing The American Way of Death, her most lasting contribution to literature. Her heartbreaking family life is presented with as many warts as can be expected; her relationships with her equally famous sisters Nancy Mitford, Lady Diana Mosley, Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire, and Unity Mitford the Nazi are discussed in some detail; her husbands and her children are woven through the story, perhaps less so than her birth family.

And yet...and still...Flat. Lacking fizz. Champagne the next day.

It felt to me like the book was the proposal for the book and not the whole enchilada. Taking on a larger-than-life personality like Mitford is always challenging. She's not a person whose dimensions are easy to grasp! This daughter of privilege was unquestionably sincere in her rejection of the world she was born into, and she was completely consistent in making her anger and disdain at the family she left behind clear. (I relate.)

But a biographer who dedicates a mere 344pp to this Force of Nature risks reporting the facts but leaving the feelings behind. I felt that it was too short, so the book was frustrating...I want to know more about *her* and yet I can't imagine a book more thorough than this one is factually.

So what happened? Jessica took the place of Decca (her family nickname)? Mmmaybeee...but no, not entirely. What I think happened is, the balance between Decca and Jessica shifts dramatically after Mitford's first husband Esmond Romilly dies in 1942. We get more Jessica and less Decca. And it ends up not being a satisfying trade-off.

So should you read this fact-stuffed tale of one of life's hellions, a scamp and an imp from the get-go? Yes. She's interesting enough to make familiarity with her life an overall good thing. But don't come in expecting your notions (if you had any) about her to change, they won't. She'll still appeal to you or not based on the well-known and hand-crafted image of a rebel and a scalawag already known.

Still and all, in today's political climate, I want lives like Mitford's to be exhumed and exhibited in front of the entire reading public. Once there were giants, once there were privileged little girls who grew into fierce, antagonistic, brave, *necessary* women who knew fuck-all about fear. Let's grow more of them!

Friday, March 10, 2017

NICKEL AND DIMED, still relevant, still trenchant, still tendentious



NICKEL AND DIMED: On (Not) Getting By in America
BARBARA EHRENREICH

Picador USA
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, and one day Barbara Ehrenreich decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that any job equals a better life. But how can anyone survive, let alone prosper, on $6 to $7 an hour? To find out, Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson. She soon discovered that even the "lowliest" occupations require exhausting mental and physical efforts. And one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nickel and Dimed reveals low-wage America in all its tenacity, anxiety, and surprising generosity -- a land of Big Boxes, fast food, and a thousand desperate strategies for survival. Instantly acclaimed for its insight, humor, and passion, this book is changing the way America perceives its working poor.

My Review: Let's get something out of the way right here and now: Ehrenreich has had a lot of snarky feedback about the fact that, in researching and writing this book, she's "playacting" and her privileged background as a PhD-having writer shows in every "condescending" moment of expressing surprise at how ground down her temporary colleagues are. She is the target of "ghetto tourism" accusations. And so on and so forth. I suppose for the stupider members of the audience the concept "investigative journalism" isn't familiar. She, a journalist, stepped out of her own life to investigate an important situation in American society. So we're clear: Her responses are part of the story. They are MEANT TO BE PART OF THE STORY, YA DIMWITS. Her privilege is showing because she's privileged and she's doing these crap jobs to see what it's like. Guess what? IT SUCKS. So she responds as anyone from her background would.

Not to mention her ancestors weren't middle class, they were the very people she's reporting on...with the important difference that their labor was rewarded adequately to support their families. How things change when the bidness bastards get their greedy mitts on the levers of power:
My aim here was much more straightforward and objective — just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I've had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know it's not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear.
I guess that passage whipped past the haters. Or they just decided it didn't matter for some arcane reason. Anyway, I consider that specious argument laid to rest. Allons-y!

As a nouveau poor person, I can tell you I've never come close to breaking even on any transaction of any sort. The reason:
There are no secret economies that nourish the poor; on the contrary, there are a host of special costs. If you can’t put up the two months’ rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can’t save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved in a convenience store.
You get fat when you're poor because the only food you can afford is shitty, processed, and low-quality store-brand offal. No apartment? No fridge. No fresh anything, even assuming you go pay a buck for an apple (do the math when you're in the produce section). No milk, only "creamer" (terrifying stuff, look at the label sometime) for your coffee, tea, cereal. I personally am incredibly lucky because my most recent roommate left me his fridge when he had to go to the nursing home. Imagine! Frozen veggies!! Luxury.

Ehrenreich brings us to the brink of a hideous cesspit of greed with this ongoing slimy, nauseating sludge of reality soup:
As Louis Uchitelle has reported in the New York Times, many employers will offer almost anything—free meals, subsidized transportation, store discounts—rather than raise wages. The reason for this, in the words of one employer, is that such extras “can be shed more easily” than wage increases when changes in the market seem to make them unnecessary. In the same spirit, automobile manufacturers would rather offer their customers cash rebates than reduced prices; the advantage of the rebate is that it seems like a gift and can be withdrawn without explanation.
Salary or wages become expectations, and can't have the hoi polloi expecting a decent living! After all, where will all those scumbag banksters get the extra zero on their bonus checks from if minimum wage is set at a livable level?

So Ehrenreich, an educated woman, has a thunderstruck moment of realization:
To draw for a moment from an entirely different corner of my life, that part of me still attached to the biological sciences, there is ample evidence that animals — rats and monkeys, for example — that are forced into a subordinate status within their social systems adapt their brain chemistry accordingly, becoming "depressed" in humanlike ways. Their behavior is anxious and withdrawn; the level of serotonin (the neurotransmitter boosted by some antidepressants) declines in their brains. And — what is especially relevant here — they avoid fighting even in self-defense ... My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers — the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being "reamed out" by managers — are part of what keeps wages low. If you're made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you're paid is what you are actually worth.
She realizes that her response is typical of people whose lives are lived at this depth of society. Imagine how someone less able than she is internalizes this hideous reality. To her credit, she thinks about this, even though her genetic privilege of intelligence prevents her from fully experiencing its soul-crushing impact. And it's the bored upper classes who guzzle antidepressants by the fistful. Something's very wrong with that....

Of course, the opiate of the masses is now TV not Jeebus. Even there the poor person is slapped and kicked and punched with the expectation that we're all one big middle-class world:
Maybe it's low-wage work in general that has the effect of making you feel like a pariah. When I watch TV over my dinner at night, I see a world in which almost everyone makes $15 an hour or more, and I'm not just thinking of the anchor folks. The sitcoms and dramas are about fashion designers or schoolteachers or lawyers, so it's easy for a fast-food worker or nurse's aide to conclude that she is an anomaly — the only one, or almost the only one, who hasn't been invited to the party. And in a sense she would be right: the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its daily entertainment. Even religion seems to have little to say about the plight of the poor, if that tent revival was a fair sample. The moneylenders have finally gotten Jesus out of the temple.
Really, what else needs be said? Can you watch your sitcom or your vampire show the same way after being awakened to the impact that its assumptions have on the maid who polishes your moss-covered three-handled family gradunza, the immigrant smiling as she hands over your greaseburger and fries with a molto grandissimo vat of fizzy death juice (which for gods' sweet sake STOP PUTTING IN YOUR BODY NOW!)?

I think the point of this book is best summed up here:
When someone works for less pay than she can live on — when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently — then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The 'working poor,' as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.
If this isn't enough to shame you into activism on behalf of the people who mow your, your neighbor's, and the local church's lawn for a lousy $40 or so; bring your lazy ass a pizza in her own car, paying $4 or so for a gallon of gas and insurance and then you tip her $2 or $3; or teaching your snot-nosed privileged peanut-allergied unvaccinated brats while her own kids are a constant worry because the school system doesn't provide daycare, then I have no hope for your soul.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

I AWAIT THE DEVIL'S COMING, turn of the 20th century adolescent feminist memoir



I AWAIT THE DEVIL'S COMING
MARY MacLANE
foreword by Jessa Crispin
The Neversink Library
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Mary MacLane’s I Await the Devil’s Coming is a shocking, brave and intellectually challenging diary of a 19-year-old girl living in Butte, Montana in 1902. Written in potent, raw prose that propelled the author to celebrity upon publication, the book has become almost completely forgotten.

In the early 20th century, MacLane’s name was synonymous with sexuality; she is widely hailed as being one of the earliest American feminist authors, and critics at the time praised her work for its daringly open and confessional style. In its first month of publication, the book sold 100,000 copies — a remarkable number for a debut author, and one that illustrates MacLane’s broad appeal.

Now, with a new foreword written by critic Jessa Crispin, I Await The Devil’s Coming stands poised to renew its reputation as one of America’s earliest and most powerful accounts of feminist thought and creativity.

THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED ME WITH A REVIEW COPY AT MY REQUEST. THANK YOU.

My Review: Adolescent female angst-o-rama...wouldn't get published today...but in 1902? YOWZA. Women weren't, in general, heard from in 1902. Girls weren't even supposed to exist publicly. And here's Mary MacLane talking about her girlish agonies in clear, concise, charming prose!
Nineteen years are as ages to you when you are nineteen. When you are nineteen, there is no experience to tell you that all things have an end. This aching pain has no end.
Ah, adolescence. That moment when maturity bites but perspective fails. Perspective doesn't even exist, there hasn't been time for it to develop, and that's always been the source of trouble for the perspectiveless young adult. Look what happened to Romeo and Juliet! A wiser pair of heads would've figured out the plan without resorting to oh-so-romantic but ever-so-permanent suicide. But Mary, well, she's not about to End It All for Luuuv. She's got her eyes on a different prize:
Surely there must be in a world of manifold beautiful things something among them for me. And always, while I am still young, there is that dim light, the Future. But it is indeed a dim, dim light, and ofttimes there's a treachery in it.
She is, in fact, correct. The future is a treacherous damned beast, as adults well know. I'm actually retroactively impressed that Mary knew this. I suppose she came by the feeling naturally, having experienced the grim horrors of a childhood spent knowing with all your being that you are Other in a world that loathes otherness:
I shall have to miss forever some beautiful, wonderful things because of that wretched, lonely childhood. There will always be a lacking, a wanting -- some dead branches that never grew leaves. It is not deaths and murders and plots and wars that make life tragedy. It is day after day, and year after year, and Nothing. It is a sunburned little hand reached out and Nothing put into it.
I recall this feeling with caustic bitter clarity. Poor thing! Montana *now* is not a place where it's safe or healthy to be Other, but 115 years ago...! The mind reels. The days of slogging through the quagmire to achieve nothing except survival live inside me as they did inside Mary:
It is day after day. It is week after week. It is month after month. It is year after year. It is only time going and going. There is no joy. There is no lightness of heart. It is only the passing of days. I am young and alone.
It's no wonder to me that Mary began to think in terms of The Devil, The Great Adversary. Her Otherness made these thoughts comforting. She looked around her and saw not even oceans...too few people in Montana...but brackish backwaters of unbearable averageness:
An idle brain is the Devil’s workshop, they say. It is an absurdly incongruous statement. If the Devil is at work in a brain it certainly is not idle. And when one considers how brilliant a personage the Devil is, and what very fine work he turns out, it becomes an open question whether he would have the slightest use for most of the idle brains that cumber the earth.
Heh. Yep, I relate, Mary. Awful to look around and see, in Mycroft Holmes's memorable phrase from the TV show Sherlock, "a world of goldfish." Her young heart clung to one thread of hope: ESCAPE!
As I stand among the barren gulches in these days and look away at the slow-awakening hills of Montana, I hear the high, swelling, half tired, half-hopeful song of the world. As I listen I know that there are things, other than the Virtue and the Truth and the Love, that are not for me. There is beyond me, like these, the unbreaking, undying bond of human fellowship—a thing that is earth-old.
Don't know how she saw that at nineteen, but it probably did as much as writing this book to save her from self-harm. Perspective might be lacking, perspicacity most certainly was not! And self-knowledge to a degree that impresses me. Mary clearly knew her own mind and came to her own conclusions about her place in this world:
From insipid sweet wine; from men who wear moustaches; from the sort of people that call legs "limbs"; from bedraggled white petticoats: Kind Devil, deliver me.
From the depths of the 21st century, Mary, an old man salutes you. What a pleasure it was to get to know you just a bit. I expect we'd've been friends.

Be aware, ye modern readers, that Mary's company is like that of any younger person to an oldster. She repeats herself quite without seeing the repetitions. She has stumbled on insights we take for granted. She doesn't get that others have trod the same damn grapes for millennia now, but she's got a great excuse in being a small-town girl from nowhere much. So put your sour face back in the box and read this with a smile for best results.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

JOAN MITCHELL: LADY PAINTER, though painter she was lady she most assuredly was not



JOAN MITCHELL: LADY PAINTER
PATRICIA ALBERS

Alfred A. Knopf
$21.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Pubisher Says: “Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead.” —New York art dealer to Joan Mitchell, the 1950s

She was a steel heiress from the Midwest—Chicago and Lake Forest (her grandfather built Chicago’s bridges and worked for Andrew Carnegie). She was a daughter of the American Revolution—Anglo-Saxon, Republican, Episcopalian.

She was tough, disciplined, courageous, dazzling, and went up against the masculine art world at its most entrenched, made her way in it, and disproved their notion that women couldn’t paint.

Joan Mitchell is the first full-scale biography of the abstract expressionist painter who came of age in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s; a portrait of an outrageous artist and her struggling artist world, painters making their way in the second part of America’s twentieth century.

As a young girl she was a champion figure skater, and though she lacked balance and coordination, accomplished one athletic triumph after another, until giving up competitive skating to become a painter.

Mitchell saw people and things in color; color and emotion were the same to her. She said, “I use the past to make my pic[tures] and I want all of it and even you and me in candlelight on the train and every ‘lover’ I’ve ever had—every friend—nothing closed out. It’s all part of me and I want to confront it and sleep with it—the dreams—and paint it.”

Her work had an unerring sense of formal rectitude, daring, and discipline, as well as delicacy, grace, and awkwardness.

Mitchell exuded a young, smoky, tough glamour and was thought of as “sexy as hell.”

Albers writes about how Mitchell married her girlhood pal, Barnet Rosset, Jr.—scion of a financier who was head of Chicago’s Metropolitan Trust and partner of Jimmy Roosevelt. Rosset went on to buy Grove Press in 1951, at Mitchell’s urging, and to publish Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, et al., making Grove into the great avant-garde publishing house of its time.

Mitchell’s life was messy and reckless: in New York and East Hampton carousing with de Kooning, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler, and others; going to clambakes, cocktail parties, softball games—and living an entirely different existence in Paris and Vétheuil.

Mitchell’s inner life embraced a world beyond her own craft, especially literature . . . her compositions were informed by imagined landscapes or feelings about places.

In Joan Mitchell, Patricia Albers brilliantly reconstructs the painter’s large and impassioned life: her growing prominence as an artist; her marriage and affairs; her friendships with poets and painters; her extraordinary work.

Joan Mitchell re-creates the times, the people, and her worlds from the 1920s through the 1990s and brings it all spectacularly to life.

My Review: This is a life, not a biography, in the sense that it offers more of a rounded picture of Joan Mitchell than a rigorous analysis of her milieu and her position and her place in history. Mitchell, a hard-drinking, hard-loving, hard broad, is famous if you know who she is, and invisible if you don't. I suspect that would make her really, really mad. Mitchell was a daughter of privilege, wealthy dermatologist father and novelist/poet/editor (Marion Sobel Mitchell) mother, who felt unloved and grew into a figure-skating champ, then an early Abstract Expressionist/Action painter, then the wife of serial monogamist/avant garde publisher Barney Rosset (an old friend of ours), whose life-work running Grove Press was all due to Joan telling him about her friend's failing little publishing company, and finally ending her days as an expatriated eminence grise of feminist art in America. How she hated that! The expatriating part she loved, living in a small French village where Monet had honed his Impressionist chops; the feminist part? Loathed it from the depths of her gin-soaked soul. She felt no kinship with Woman. She felt no unmixed feeling, frankly, on any subject. She was a difficult, dangerous friend and a worse enemy. She was deeply disagreeable, arguing to no great purpose about anything with anyone, and seldom offering any kind of apology for the havoc she caused in the lives and worlds of those around her.

She died of cancer at sixty-seven, after drinking, smoking, and boinking enough for three dozen misspent youths. Barney was sincerely distraught. I suspect he never got over her. He talked about her quite a lot...the other four wives, not so much, unless there was some child or grandchild related reason to do so. I don't imagine anyone else had an unmixed response.

Her work was...it remains...well...go here to see Field for Skyes, which she painted to release the grief of losing her beloved Skye terrier Bertie. It's an IMMENSE piece of art, but even in the inkydinky Internet form, it's lovely. In person, Mitchell paintings are all about paint...the effects of different techniques of putting paint onto a painting are crucially important to the visual experience of the painting. In photos, that's simply not possible to reproduce. But enough survives to give you a chance to experience Mitchell's passion. Like it or don't, and I don't much, Mitchell's work is strong and intense and accomplished. What it isn't, and what I suspect she knew it wasn't, is great.


Field for Skyes, Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution

Books about art are, unless they're big and all in color and lushly produced, like safe sex: enough of the real thing survives that you're inclined to continue, but it ain't like the real damn thing, and no amount of skill or wishing or forcing yourself to believe is gonna make it so.

Patricia Albers does a decent job conveying the chaos and the bleakness of Mitchell's life. She does a lot less well at giving any hint as to why the woman didn't kill herself in existential crisis...does ANYthing make Mitchell happy? I couldn't say...but the inevitable moment when Albers must speak to us, her readers, about paintings she cannot show us in a 400+-page mostly text book, points up this book's major failing. Here, from p249, is Albers describing Mitchell's painting Ladybug, painted per Albers very shortly after the death of Mitchell's beloved singer Billie Holiday in 1959:
"Luscious garden hues -- cadmium red, celadon, cobalt blue, ultramarine, slurry brown, carmine, ochre, acid raspberry -- splash and streak through this luminous nine-foot-wide oil. Some colors optically blend. Others pop from the picture plane, thanks in part to the painter's astute use of red-green and blue-ochre polarities. (The latter, along with Ladybug's architectural exactitude and play of colors against aerating whites, evoke the late work of Cezanne.) Mitchell's gloriously variegated brushstrokes push and tug and shimmer and float, like the edges of planes jostling in a shallow space or foliage lifted and twirled by a breeze, kissing the light, then heaving away." (There's more, but I'm tired of typing this stuff.)

This is Ladybug, on view at the Museum of Modern Art:


I've seen the painting with my own two baby greens and, to be frank, I would not picture anything like that painting from those words. And lest it be said that everyone's experience of art is subjective, I counter that I've seen a LOT of art and even a lot of Mitchells...I, an experienced and sophisticated viewer, should be able to recognize a painting I've actually seen from this kind of description.

So...would I recommend the book to you? No, not unless you're an art aficionado possessed of a strong and broad visual vocabulary. It wouldn't hurt to read the stuff about the world of the 1950s New York School of Abstract Expressionists in here, but that's frankly not enough to make it worth your while to pick the book up. Dare if you must. But keep Google Images open and use it freely and frequently if you're braving these waters without your own mental map. Shoals abound for the innocent and the unwary.

But for the initiate, this grimoire of grimness illuminates (how ironic) some dingy corners of an important passage in American and world art. In the end, I'm glad I read it, but I suspect many would not share my interest.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING, Susan Hill's life in the literary trenches



HOWARDS END IS ON THE LANDING: A Year of Reading from Home
SUSAN HILL

Profile Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Early one autumn afternoon in pursuit of an elusive book on her shelves, Susan Hill encountered dozens of others that she had never read, or forgotten she owned, or wanted to read for a second time. The discovery inspired her to embark on a year-long voyage through her books, forsaking new purchases in order to get to know her own collection again.

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. Wandering through her house that day, Hill's eyes were opened to how much of that life was stored in her home, neglected for years. Howard's End is on the Landing charts the journey of one of the nation's most accomplished authors as she revisits the conversations, libraries and bookshelves of the past that have informed a lifetime of reading and writing.


My Review: Haven't all of us who possess a lot of books done this? “I will not buy a new book until I have read x from my shelves!” Uh huh. “No seriously THIS year I mean it, I'm not buying a book! Not one! No!” Mmm hmmm “Really!! I WILL NOT!” Yes dear.

I have no idea how Ms. Hill fared in her commitment not to buy any new books for a year (I suspect poorly, but I'm a suspicious old bugger, I am). I read this lovely memoir of her her reading life with pleasure, because she told me enough about the books that sparked the memories she shares for me to capture my own memories of the books, or to latch on to her sense of them, their place in her life, and the overall effect is to offer her own context as well as the book's.

I like that idea. I like to read what other readers think about when they're reading or after they've finished or even before they've decided what to read next. (Makes sense, doesn't it, here on this site?) And when that reader has written some very, very popular books, published some very good books, and talked about books on radio, television, and stage, I mean! Go fight those odds. I had to read this book. And then re-read it. I loved the experience of both, and would never ask for those eyeblinks back.

There are two passages I've come to and come back to multiple times. One is from author David Cecil's book Library Looking Glass: A Personal Anthology, a tome and a writer absolutely unknown to my poorly educated little ol' Texan self; while Ms. Hill does a wee bit of Internet bashing at the beginning of this book, I found Mother Internet most helpful in digging up a potted biography on Wikipedia of this fourth child of a marquess and father of an actor, an historian, and a literary agent. He was a very old-school gent, and deeply deeply steeped in a bygone literary tradition, author of books on Tennyson and Max Beerbohm and Dorothy Osborne...ye gods how grisly it all sounds to my ear. But then Hill quotes this from his 1975 “Personal Anthology:”

It is often said that mankind needs a faith if the world is to be improved. In fact, unless the faith is vigilantly and regularly checked by a sense of man's fallibility, it is likely to make the world worse. From Torquemada to Robespierre and Hitler the men who have made mankind suffer the most have been inspired to do so have been inspired to do so by a strong faith; so strong that it led them to think their crimes were acts of virtue necessary to help them achieve their aim, which was to build some sort of an ideal kingdom on earth.

Oh yes indeed, Lord David. Oh yes indeed, and so well said. Hardly a surprise, I suppose, this gift he shows there with the gab, given the amount and the quality of the poetry he spent his life reading, analyzing, delving into, parsing, disassembling and reassembling and explicating to generations of young scholars. But how surprising, how very satisfying to find, in a book about someone else's readerly DNA, a hitherto uncatalogued strand of my own.

Hill meditates on the subject of what forms a person, on readerly DNA, later in the book. The passage is one I found calling out to me while I was reading other books, and I marked it for easy access. It has helped me understand the reasons that I read, and the reasons that I decide not to read, certain books or genres or authors.

Books help to form us. If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me? … But if the books I have read have helped to form me, then probably nobody else who ever lived has read exactly the same books, all the same books and only the same books, as me. So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read. I am my literary DNA.

It is the reason I am so interested in what others who, like me, crave the written story and the printed book, have to say about their reading, and their lives. We're all made of a unique set of genes, and a unique formula of books. It makes us deeply flawed, and deeply interesting.

Even as I turned the pages of the book again and sometimes two or three times, to re-read and re-savor some lovely or lively moment of memory or of sensory pleasure, even as I contemplated my own version of this book, I was aware of a sense of want, a lack of something I was expecting and not getting. It feels churlish to bring it up, but it's the reason I've given the book a half-star less than I would have otherwise. Please forgive the nosy American, Ms. Hill, but...so? And you are...? I'm asking for a wee little bit more of your CV, your activities in some...not a great deal, just some...more detail than you give. The small bits of personal information that are here are those that a very congenial acquaintance would provide, and I have the sense that is exactly and precisely what was intended to be offered.

But we're all readers here, ma'am. We're all in the club. A tell-all dishfest on le monde litteraire? No, not this book (though one of those would be lovely)...but a few more lines of whys and hows and whos would not have come amiss, nor would a sense of your place in life as the discoveries you limn for us have weighed down the narrative unduly.

A minor cavil. A delight of a book. My warmest personal thanks from England's 1644 colonial foundation on Long Island to the Long Barn.

Monday, March 6, 2017

FOLLOW THE RABBIT-PROOF FENCE, Aboriginal Australian girl-children with more grit than most adults


FOLLOW THE RABBIT-PROOF FENCE
DORIS PILKINGTON aka Nugi Garimara

University of Queensland Press
$17.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: This extraordinary story of courage and faith is based on the actual experiences of three girls who fled from the repressive life of Moore River Native Settlement, following along the rabbit-proof fence back to their homelands. Assimilationist policy dictated that these girls be taken from their kin and their homes in order to be made white. Settlement life was unbearable with its chains and padlocks, barred windows, hard cold beds, and horrible food. Solitary confinement was doled out as regular punishment. The girls were not even allowed to speak their language. Of all the journeys made since white people set foot on Australian soil, the journey made by these girls born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers speaks something to everyone.

My Review: Doris Pilkington's grandfather was a cowardly white man who failed to protect his three half-Aboriginal daughters from the colonial mentality espousing their forced removal from their parents. Their mother left the cad, good on her, and was still powerless to act against the white government to get her daughters out of their "residential school" where they were maltreated. The aim of their removal from Aboriginal society was to prevent them from passing on the values of their society, instead becoming darker-skinned white people. Oh, and not just that, but inferior servant-class white people.

Can't imagine where the Aussies got such a horrible idea. Nope. Just can't. Nor where the South Africans got the idea for apartheid. Nuh-uh. Imponderable. No relation to the American policies on Native peoples or former slaves. Dear me, no.

That sarcasm out of the way, I will remark that the story is presented as a novel despite the fact that Pilkington aka Garimara (1937-2014) was writing about her very own mother's story. It freed her to write about the details of the girls' experiences, ones she must have heard from her mother's own lips, without the burden of fact-checking or documenting things that were never written down or part of any official record in the first event.

The prose isn't stellar. In fact it's pretty clunky. I enjoyed the Aboriginal words used without explanation, since there was a handy-dandy glossary in the back of the book; I didn't want the author to lead me by my lily-white hand to the Promised Land of Otherness. I expect that my rating would've been a lot lower had she done that. I was simply dropped into the otherness, as Molly and her sisters were. It's a good technique, effectively putting the reader into the shoes of scared children.

In the end, the experience of reading the book was better than the book itself. What a weird sentence that is; I know I must sound like a raving loonie. But what I mean by that is that this is a truly important and continually relevant (depressingly) tale of oppression and victimization based on ethnic difference. It just isn't a particularly well-written one. And still it makes a strong impression on the reader, one that means something inside shifts a bit, hopefully in a positive direction. I'd suggest reading it to anyone who thinks the segregation of an ethnic minority is in any way a good idea.

The 2002 film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, is only $2.99 to rent at Amazon. It's got some areas where it's a bit better than the book, and some lovely cinematography. The book and the film are best enjoyed together. How unusual is that!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, entrepreneurship's dark side



HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA
MOHSIN HAMID

Riverhead Books
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: His first two novels established Mohsin Hamid as a radically inventive storyteller with his finger on the world’s pulse. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia meets that reputation and exceeds it. The astonishing and riveting tale of a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon, it steals its shape from the business self-help books devoured by ambitious youths all over “rising Asia.” It follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else: on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his, their paths crossing and recrossing, a lifelong affair sparked and snuffed and sparked again by the forces that careen their fates along.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change.

THE PUBLISHER PROVIDED ME WITH A REVIEW COPY OF THIS BOOK AT MY REQUEST. THANKS!

My Review: An internationally flavored mash-up of Death of a Salesman and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

I liked both of those stories, and this one too. I got tired of the second-person gag way early, and it took most of a month to read the book because of that.

THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS, a foundational myth in Bharati society



THE PALACE OF ILLUSIONS
CHITRA BANERJEE DIVAKARUNI

Doubleday
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of an amazing woman.

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.

The novel traces the princess Panchaali's life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands' most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.

My Review: I'd give it six stars if I could.

Peak reading experiences come all too seldom in life. I think one knows it's a peak when it's almost too painful to endure that the book is ending, but almost too painful to endure to put it down and turn out the light. Then the book comes to you in your dreams, the characters and the situations work their magical way into your receptive dream-mind, and make not only waking hours painfully happy with the reading or anticipation of reading but the sleeping hours more vivid and more real and more alive than ever.

That's what happened to me as I read The Palace of Illusions. I've dreamed of its characters, I've lived vicariously its plot and its many eventful twists for a month of nights, and I truly can't express to you how much pleasure it's given me to do so. I wish for everyone that experience, if not with this book then with another, and soon. It makes a whole new level of appreciation come, or come back, to you when you come across one of these books.

I have had the life-changing experience twice before, and I still treasure those memories. I will treasure this one equally. I suppose the idea of the book, retelling a classic Indian foundational myth called Mahabharat from the point-of-view of a female character, is in keeping with today's popular trend of reimagining myths from all angles and stances. I certainly am aware that telling any Indian myth from a female point of view is a departure from the cultural norms of that society, and to be applauded for that reason alone; but what Divakaruni wrought in doing this is nothing short of creating a new foundation myth on the stones of the old one.

I think a woman who has five husbands wished on her as she comes into this world from a fiery column is worth hearing more about; so did Divakaruni; and thus the tale told here. The myth mentions her, but there is much room for more development. A little like Eve's untold story in Christian myth, and the odd absence of Hera stories as separate from Zeus and his philandering. Extraordinary men need extraordinary women, and simply not telling me-the-reader about them doesn't make them not exist; it merely hides them in deep and scary shadows until a woman with the right eyes comes along, sees the real story, and sets about telling it.

We are all of us readers the richer for Divakaruni's gift of this book to us. I do not, however, recommend it to all readers; I don't think its power is in its broad appeal but in its complete appeal. I suspect that some whose reading preferences are more aimed at comfort and at the satisfactions of reinforcement and reassurance would find this an unpleasant book to read. But I truly wish for each of you that you give it a try, let it at least make a start on working its beautiful enchantment on you. I hope it will be able to speak its way into your dreams the way it did mine.

Friday, March 3, 2017

GHACHAR GHOCHAR, an unnerving look at how success corrupts the successful



GHACHAR GHOCHAR
VIVEK SHANBHAG
tr. Srinath Perur
Penguin Original Fiction/Penguin Books
$15 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A young man's close-knit family is nearly destitute when his uncle founds a successful spice company, changing their fortunes overnight. As they move from a cramped, ant-infested shack to a larger house on the other side of Bangalore, and try to adjust to a new way of life, the family dynamic begins to shift. Allegiances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background. Things become "ghachar ghochar"--a nonsense phrase uttered by one meaning something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can't be untied.

Elegantly written and punctuated by moments of unexpected warmth and humor, Ghachar Ghochar is a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings--and consequences--of financial gain in contemporary India.
Longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award
One of the BBC's "10 Books You Should Read in February"
One of Publishers Weekly's "Writers to Watch Spring 2017"
One of the NewYorker.com contributors' "Books We Loved in 2016"

My Review: India is an amazing country. Its many peoples are in constant creative ferment. Its immense democracy, largest in the world and most complex imaginable, is in turmoil at every moment and in every segment of a society that is ancient, intricate, and at odds with itself. That the country produces amazing literature is, given all these facts, unsurprising. That we as Americans are largely unaware of that literature is unsurprising, sadly. It's part of the US's long-standing resistance to reading translations at anything like the rate that other countries' readers do. I hope that trend will change as the millennials grow into their armchair-and-novel years.

I am a sucker for rags-to-riches stories. It's almost always interesting to see how changing fortunes reveal true character. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Revolutionary Road are classics for a reason. Our unnamed narrator is the son of a starchy, honorable man whose hard work has enabled the family to survive without hunger but also without luxury. Amma and Appa and Chikappa (Appa's younger brother), the three adults, are always frugal and sensible with their spending, and the children...sister Malati and the narrator...absorbed this quality without any need to formally teach it.

When Chikappa rises to the occasion of Appa's forced retirement from his job by proposing the family start a spice-packaging business, their fortunes change rapidly and upwards on the economic ladder. The result is a classic clash of expectations:
Appa enjoys our current prosperity with considerable hesitation, as if it were undeserved. He’s given to quoting a proverb that says wealth shouldn’t strike suddenly like a visitation, but instead grow gradually like a tree.
Appa's attitude is at variance from everyone else's. His deeply ingrained suspicion of luck is absent from the free-spending rest of the family. Well, Chikappa isn't profligate with anything except his time, which he lavishes on his business. He no doubt is motivated by memories of the old standard of living the family endured:
It didn’t seem like [the ants] were here to find food. Nor did they have the patience to bite anyone. Left to themselves, they’d quickly haul to particles of mud and built nests here and there in the house. You could try scuttling them with a broom, but they’d get into a mad frenzy and climb up the broom and on to your arm. Before you knew it, they’d be all over you, even under your clothes. For days on end there would be a terrific invasion, and then one day you would wake up to find them gone. There was no telling why they came, where they went. I sometimes saw them racing in lines along the window sills in the front room, where there was nothing to eat. Perhaps they were on a mission of some sort, only passing through our house in self-important columns. But not once did I see the trail of a column, an ant that had no other ants behind it.
That's a wonderful image, the column of invaders with no tail in sight. The endless demands of life for more when all that you have is fixed or shrinking:
We had no compunction toward our enemies [the ants] and took to increasingly desperate and violent means of dealing with them. If we noticed they'd laid siege to a snack, we might trap them in a circle drawn with water and take away whatever they were eating, then watch them scurry about in confusion before wiping them off the floor with a wet cloth. I took pleasure in seeing them shrivel into black points when burning coals were rolled over them. When they attacked an unwashed pan or cup they'd soon be mercilessly drowned. I suppose initially each of us did these things only when we were alone, but in time, we began to be openly cruel. We came around to Amma's view of them as demons come to swallow our home and became a family that took pleasure in their destruction. We might have changed houses since, but habits are harder to change.
When you have little, protecting it becomes justification for any act.

One of the many besetting issues in Indian culture today is violence against women. I'm always appalled at the notion of rape, and the act itself is heinous beyond belief. The scope of violence against women in the immense cultural landscape of India is so much wider than just rape that it causes a kind of paralysis in my thinking. Our unnamed narrator's arranged marriage is strange to me, given the absence of such a tradition in modern American culture; but it begins so well, so promisingly:
That single moment's intensity hasn't been matched in my life before or since. A woman I didn't know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind. Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of traditional marriage—a complete stranger is suddenly mine. And then, I am hers, too; I must offer her my all. I want her to wield her power over me as an acknowledgment of my love. The rush of those feelings all at once is too much to describe. Language communicates in terms of what is already known; it chokes up when asked to deal with the entirely unprecedented.
That's an entire experience I can't fathom, but Shanbhag's description enables me to get a handle on the positives that could ensue from such a contract. That Anita, the bride, comes to the family without a dowry is made explicitly a source of conflict. Amma announces to Anita's parents that their prosperity means the family will not be asking for a dowry; Anita's father, an academic and modern thinker, says he would not have given his daughter to them had they demanded a dowry.

That made me pause. "Give" his daughter to them? Yes, vastly superior to the notion of selling her for a dowry; but give her to them? Clearly I have a lot of learning to do. The concept...it's so foreign that I can't wrap my head around it. But it's this very subject that sets up the book's intense cliffhanger ending, which to this moment gives me heebie-jeebies. It's such a tightly written book that ending on a cliffhanger should be grounds for complaint from chronic ending-moaner me. Not so in this case. It's exactly the right note to strike, and it keeps the book resonating inside my skull.

I don't suppose that should surprise me, really, as the author offers this insight into the art and science of translation:
I believe the essence of translation lies in taking what is unsaid in a work from one language to another. Words have memories, a history of their own. There are no two words with exactly the same meaning. To recreate the unspoken in another language, one needs to understand what went into making the original; then one must dismantle it and rebuild it in the other language.
Someone who sees so very clearly the purpose of writing is someone who can be trusted to create a book's proper ending. I cannot wait for Shanbhag and Perur to finish his next English translation. I'll be first in line at the till, waiting only to get coffee and snacks before diving in to the next exploration of story and meaning.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

HAD SHE BUT KNOWN, an American predecessor to Agatha Christie as Queen of Mystery Fiction


HAD SHE BUT KNOWN: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart
CHARLOTTE MacLEOD

Open Road Media
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Before Agatha Christie, there was America’s Mistress of Mystery. This is the story of her life and creative legacy, from the butler who did it to Batman.

In the decades since her death in 1958, master storyteller Mary Roberts Rinehart has often been compared to Agatha Christie. But while Rinehart was once a household name, today she is largely forgotten. The woman who first proclaimed “the butler did it” was writing for publication years before Christie’s work saw the light of day. She also practiced nursing, became a war correspondent, and wrote a novel—The Bat—that inspired Bob Kane’s creation of Batman.

Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, before it was absorbed into Pittsburgh, and raised in a close-knit Presbyterian family, Mary Roberts was at once a girl of her time—dutiful, God-fearing, loyal—and a quietly rebellious spirit. For every hour she spent cooking, cleaning, or sewing at her mother’s behest while her “frail” younger sister had fun, Mary eked out her own moments of planning, dreaming, and writing. But becoming an author wasn’t on her radar . . . yet.

Bestselling mystery writer Charlotte MacLeod grew up on Rinehart’s artfully crafted novels, such as the enormously successful The Circular Staircase—“cozies” before the concept existed. After years of seeing Christie celebrated and Rinehart overlooked, MacLeod realized that it was time to delve into how this seemingly ordinary woman became a sensation whose work would grace print, stage, and screen. From Rinehart’s grueling training as a nurse and her wartime interviews with a young Winston Churchill and Queen Mary to her involvement with the Blackfoot Indians and her work as doctor’s wife, mother of three, playwright, serialist, and novelist, this is the unforgettable story of America’s Grande Dame of Mystery.

My Review: I don't suppose knowing who Mary Roberts Rinehart is is as common as it used to be. She was the American doyenne of mystery writers for about 40 years, her books were serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, she lived a glamourous Republican life and never ever stopped writing until age forced her to. She was seventy-seven when her last book was published!

This book, by fellow mystery writer Charlotte MacLeod, was published in 1994. Even then, twenty-plus years ago, MacLeod was amazed and impressed that Rinehart's mysteries were still being read. (Me too!) And they're even still being republished every so often. My local library system has most of the titles in it, and all but two of them were checked out last time I looked. (I then checked out the two that weren't already gone.) The plots and characters are simply timeless, which also means that they're not overly fresh; but hey! Neither are Dame Agatha's.

Most of the book's effort is spent on Mary's early years, as a daughter, wife, and mother. The reason is that another biographer took care of the widow and doyenne years in detail. This focus on the time that Mary spent as a student nurse, the Covenanter (a species of Presbyterian without the joie de vivre for which those folk are known) wife of an up-and-coming surgeon and tuberculosis expert, and then the primary breadwinner of the household after her husband developed crippling rheumatoid arthritis in his hands. With contracts for her serials running $50,000 and up in the 1920s, she was doin' them all proud.

Mary's life with her husband, Stanley Rinehart, was apparently a lot of fun. They traveled, they entertained, they made the lives of their three sons very happy...they were each strong personalities, so no doubt there were problems, but they were able to solve them and stay more or less happily married for thirty-six years. Impressive in any day and age, given their natures. Mary's travel articles show the fun side of the relationship clearly, They were collected into books, of course, as was Mary's WWI reportage, and all are really worth reading.

Charlotte MacLeod's chops were honed in the mystery tradition that Rinehart helped pioneer. She writes pleasingly and engagingly about her subject. And best of all, she makes one care about the life of this long-dead entertainer of a bygone era. It somehow matters to the reader that Mary's plays, with one notable exception in The Bat, were complete flops; that Mary suffered agonies of self-doubt about life's goodness to her; that her mother and father were so disappointingly inept.

All writers should have as biographers the writers they themselves inspire. It makes for a top-notch reading experience.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

IVY, The Life of I. Compton-Burnett is a dry dry dry book



IVY: THE LIFE OF I. COMPTON-BURNETT
HILARY SPURLING

Columbia University Press
$22.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: It is a real cause for celebration when the best and most subtle literary biography of our time comes back into print, and in a single volume instead of the original two. What Hilary Spurling does, in a beautifully-written book, is to relate the life of Ivy Compton-Burnett intimately to the work and show in fascinating details, and with wonderful perception, how her subjects characters mirror aspects of her own nature. The book sends one back to read or re-read the novels - unfashionable, toweringly original tragic-comedies - the most individual novels, it may be, of our time.

My Review: Why would I, a charter member of the “Eradicate Ivy Compton-Burnett” Society, have and read this book? It all started as a joke.

I once lived with someone whose dislike of Icky Crumpet-Burnoose matched or exceed my own. What better way to cause her pain than to cause her to see Icky's malevolent mug on her nightstand, with a note attached: “For relief of insomnia”?

Gratifying shrieks of outrage and stomps of fury from her bedroom assured me of the success of my evil plot. Subsequent hurling of this massive artifact at me (no mean feat! Must weigh 5lbs!) let me know that my humor was properly received and appreciated.

So why not just return the damned thing to the liberry and call it good, a prank well done? I got curious. So many bad things happen when I get curious that you'd think I'd've learned not to scratch that bump. Ha.

Turns out that Icky had a more interesting life than any portrayed in her fiction! (Not that this is a difficult feat.) The oldest child of a Victorian homeopath's second family, she was a bossy, albeit cheerful and fun older sister to her family, gradually losing all semblance of humor and kindness as her extremely weird mother made ever-increasing demands on her to run the family. Her eventual position as head of household was a disaster for her personally, resulting in the suicides of her two youngest sisters and her (far too) belovèd brother's alienation from her by marriage to a woman she didn't seem to like a whole lot. He then dies in WWI, and she drifts personally and professionally for a good long time. She has no money worries, so it's only on the emotional side that this matters.

So then she meets an older woman, more established than she as an independent professional writer and historian of furniture, called Margaret Jourdain. Their love affair lasted some 35 years, spent living together and traveling together and going to parties together. And, according to Spurling, not having sex. They said they didn't, protests Spurling! And yet, in other instances, the mere saying of something is determined by Spurling to be simple misdirection, Icky saying something to deflect or distract someone from learning details she didn't want to give. Other people said they weren't, corroborates Spurling! And yet, in other instances, eyewitness reports are discounted because the people involved were prejudiced or insufficiently informed or what-have-you.

Now, I don't belong to the school of readers who want salacious details of characters's lives, even subjects of biographies. I don't need to know what others do in their bedrooms, any others, unless in some way it expands my knowledge and appreciation of a character. And I am actively revolted by the idea of lesbian sex, unlike most males; I outgrew my juvenile need for female genitalia a long time ago and would prefer not to be reminded of them at all, thank you. I am also not one of those gay people who seeks spurious validation in claiming people from earlier times as members of the gay community before such an identity, let alone community, existed.

But if Ivy and Margaret weren't big ol' dykes, who on this earth is? And why should we for a moment believe that they never so much as kissed? Women, contrary to what most men and their female converts seem to think, have intense erotic urges that (in my experience, at least) they very very very badly want to satisfy. Most men are inept at doing so, sadly, so the myth goes on that these urges are nonexistent. Spurling does these women, raised in a homophobic and reticent culture, a disservice by denying them (posthumously) even a suggestion of a sex life. I think it's bosh, and I think it's dishonest, and Spurling and her ilk should be ashamed that their minds can't encompass the idea that two women in love could find satisfaction and pleasure in each others's bodies without wanting to make it a public display or even discuss it with others. There are anecdotes of Icky saying she'd never made love, and then going on to have quite thoroughly informed and detailed conversations with married women about sex and desire. This, says Icky's biographer, is a testament to the authoress's imaginitve powers.

Oh for God's sweet sake! Grow up, woman, and realize she wasn't that imaginitive!! NO ONE IS. You can't, even in today's world of instant and astoundingly diverse gratification, know what desire and its satisfactions are about until you've been there! Really now.

But oddly enough, I was interested enough in this life to keep reading about this writer whose tiny talents I disparage with vim and vigor at every opportunity. I wouldn't recommend it to any but her most ardent dupes, I mean fans, because it's simply too long to be useful to anyone only mildly curious. Spurling's style is clear, I suppose, though I can't say much more for it than that. It was no great pleasure to read, but it was a life lived on her own terms in a time and place where that was a very, very novel (!) and difficult achievement.