Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reading Notes: When Everything Changed, Part 2

While Part One of Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed described what life was like for women in 1960 before liberation, Part Two is aptly titled “When Everything Changed.” This was a really long section, filled with TONNNNNNS of information.

Change was swift. Collins points out that in the election of 1960, despite growing discontent, the majority of women still voted with the men—”on the basis of class, ethnicity, or regional loyalties.” However, women were slowly forcing their way into Washington administration, and they finally organized behind the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee equal rights for women under federal, state, and local law. What followed were several organizations that formed to help pass and ratify the ERA—the National Organization of Women (NOW), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Women’s Bureau (as well as the organizations founded as part of the Civil Rights Movement, many of which were led by women). However, the men in Washington didn’t take the women too seriously. One of the best anecdotes in this book so far, and one that proved to have quite an impact, came from a hearing on sexism in the hiring of flight attendants (who were hired based on looks, size, and marital status). A New York representative asked the flight attendant to “stand up, so we can see the dimensions of the problem.” As the airline industry defended their standards, one woman House representative demanded, “What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”

Side note: Isn’t it ironic how women fought against these objectifying uniforms,
yet now girls wear them as Halloween costumes?

In Part One, Collins determined that economics put women into this place of complacency after WWII. And partly, it was economics that gave them a new sense of freedom during the 1960s—more specifically, a changing economic model. With a booming economy and growing companies, women’s skills were valued more than in the past. Think of something like customer service; companies were finding women better at the job than men, and women started to fill these positions. On top of that, there was the higher standard of living (60% of families reached middle class in the 1950s) and higher incomes (42% growth in the 1950s and 38% in the 1960s), and people got used to that. Then when the economy began to drop in the 70s and 80s, and women had to work to maintain this high standard of living.

But when you think of the 60s and 70s, chances are you’re not thinking of economics; you’re thinking of Go-Go boots, free love, and radical women’s lib. And I’ll give you one guess as to the most revolutionary development for women to date. I hope you got this one. It’s pretty big.

Birth control.

Or, as The Economist defined it in 1999, “…[the] one invention that historians a thousand years in the future will look back on and say, ‘That defined the twentieth century.'”

Suddenly, babies wouldn’t pull a women out of the workforce, and she could potentially have as satisfying of a sex life as a man without worrying about getting pregnant. Well, hellooooo freedom! While women still wanted marriage and motherhood, they figured out they could have a career too. It was quite a morality boost for women, one that put them on an equal playing field as men. They took control from the men and proved they could set the standard and have just as much sex if they wanted (a 1972 survey of eight colleges found that less than a quarter of women in their junior year were still virgins). Further, women began to focus on their own health and bodies (with the famous Our Bodies, Ourselves) and focus on appearance for their own self-image, not to impress a man.

And beyond the sexual revolution, it was just a time of expansion and freedom. The cost of living was very low, so people weren’t trapped by a day job. Travel was cheap. Young people had the means and the drive to reinvent the world. One thrift-store shopping hippie determined the whole purpose behind the creativity was to avoid “looking like our parents.” Messages from the post-war era were reversed; a message against Vietnam urged “Girls say yes to boys who say no!” and “society [had] begun to make it as rough for virgins…as it once did for those who had affairs before marrying.” A new wave of feminists (with Gloria Steinem as their mascot) were more radical, more loudly heard, and viewed that first wave that included Betty Freiden as “timid and passe.”

The major theme I’ve picked up from this history lesson so far—and one that is so universal—is that everything has a cause and an effect. First, there’s a backlash to tradition. Then, there’s a backlash to this feminist/social revolution (which I haven’t really gotten to in this book yet; I just know it’s coming). Collins summarizes this national sentiment in what I’ve found to be the most underline-worthy passage of the book:

“The civil rights battles of the 1960s went to the core of the nation’s identity, forcing the country to grapple with the fact that it had never lived up to the standards it set for itself in the Declaration of Independence…As a result, young people became more skeptical about the wisdom of traditional cultural rules. Americans grew extremely sensitive to questions of fairness, and that opened the way for other discriminated-against groups, including women, to demand their rights.”

So there it is. Economics and a mental shift, among the many factors, created “the perfect storm” for social change. It’s so easy to see and understand all of this now, in reflection. I have to wonder what was running through an average individual’s mind during all of this.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Out of Sheer Rage

I picked up Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence because of a) a discussion a friend and I had about Geoff Dyer – he simply stated that he was reading Jeff in Venice… – and b) because of this Millions article. I’m a fan of blended genres, and it is true, as the Millions article states, ‘the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography’. Moreover, perhaps in my view it conveys Lawrence better than any biography that I would want to read. Mostly because it’s about anything but being a biography of DH Lawrence. Or is it?

Generally I find biographies or memoirs to be terribly dull, even when they are well told and well written. Either they’re too laden with detail (like Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton), or the brush strokes are too grand to make anyone care (like Edith Wharton’s autobiography). It’s hard to strike a happy medium, and even if you do, you’re still going to have detractors.

Bringing it back to Lawrence, in all of the English courses I took at university, the only book that I ever decided not to read was The Rainbow by Lawrence; after reading about 100 pages I knew that I wasn’t going to be interested in the narrative. Too many characters; I don’t really like stories that span generations. When we discussed it in class, it was the day I chose to sit in the back, where the professor couldn’t see my indifference to this novel that felt more Victorian than Modern.

Anyway Geoff Dyer’s novel-memoir/memoir-novel details how the narrator is having trouble writing his biography or study of DH Lawrence. It seems that the narrator has the best intentions every day to write something about Lawrence – he travels all over the world to where Lawrence lived and wrote, he reads all of Lawrence’s letters to get a sense of the man and to find more respect for the author’s strong opinions – but something always seems to come up to distract him. Either he gets into an accident, or he believes that by reading all of the Lawrence letters that he couldn’t add anything to the discussion, that somehow by reading the letters the study doesn’t need to be done, the letters themselves being hermetic. Each page becomes a tirade on why the study can’t be written, won’t be written. At least not by this narrator.

The book can really be summed up by one of the three epigraphs. Dyer chooses Gustave Flaubert’s comment on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables to partially introduce the reader into what he’s about to embark upon: ‘Endless explanations of irrelevancies, and none whatever of things indispensable to the subject’. As the Millions article states, ‘By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence.’

The narrator, as you can well imagine, is fascinating in that he can procrastinate better than the best, but he’s also terribly obnoxious: you just want to tell him to write already, that if only he focused all this rage against writing the book to actually writing the book, we’d have a totally different product before us. Then again, would we be interested in reading another straightforward book on DH Lawrence?…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reading Notes: When Everything Changed, Part 1

It’s been a while since I’ve read any nonfiction, and Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present has been sitting on my shelf for months. Finally, its call was just too loud to ignore, so I picked it up and dove right in. However, fifty years of revolutionary history is just too big on which to write one, single 300-500 word post, so my review of this work is going to be split up into sections of notes, just as it is in the book and just as I’ve actually been taking them (I don’t think that has happened since college!).

Part One of Collins’ research is titled “1960,” and it sets the stage of the women’s movement. Through anecdotes, statistics, and first-hand quotes, Collins puts the reader in 1960 and attempts to paint a thorough picture of just what day-to-day life was like for most women. A lot of the facts confirm the stereotypes that we now believe, fifty years later, but Collins takes it further than that; she puts the facts in historical context and explores why things were the way they were.
The image most of us have as a post-war woman is that of a housewife—the woman perpetually wearing a dress, entranced by new home appliances, and playing a supporting role to the husband on TV shows like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Today, can you imagine a world in which:
  • Women accounted for only 6% of American doctors, 3% of lawyers, and less than 1% of engineers?
  • Wives’ names were not even included on a house deed and a woman could not lease an apartment unless it was co-signed by a man?
  • Women were banned from certain executive flights, bars, golf courses, and lunch counters because it was believed “men needed faster service than women because they have important business to do?”
  • A man made twice as much at the same job as a woman because men “had families to support?”
  • (and the clincher…) A woman was thrown out of traffic court for wearing a pair of slacks?
Easily Excited Housewife
That’s pretty much how things were in 1960. Women’s assumed place was in the home and, if they did choose to work, it was in a career traditionally occupied by women: teacher/nurse/secretary. But during WWII, if you recall, women joined the workforce while the men were off at war. Rosie the Riveter gave women power! So what happened to that power between 1945 and 1960?
In short, economics. After the war, everyone just wanted everything to return to normal, which included women leaving the workforce and returning home. And because of the huge post-war economic boom and an unprecedented standard of living, many families could survive and prosper with only one source of income. Though just as many women were still working in 1960 as had been during the peak of WWII, it was assumed to be better if the woman could stay at home where her only duties were domestic. Society’s standards had not yet seemed to catch up to a reality where women worked outside the home, and most young women, despite having working mothers, assumed they would still be stay-at-home.
42-20040347The opening line of chapter two states, “The previous chapter made American women circa 1960 sound very badly treated. But at the time, most of them would not have seen things that way.” Its much easier to put yourself in another’s position retrospectively, but you have to understand that viewpoints were very different while it was happening; I’m sure many women never considered anything wrong with their way of life. And this is where Collins’ research fascinates me. She traces the changing mentality of both women and society as a whole as the nation prepared for a sudden explosion of women’s liberation. Why did women suddenly fight for equality and rebel against tradition? Collins slowly dissects the mentality of all sorts of women—urban, suburban, rural, white, black, educated, uneducated, middle-class, lower-class. We see through the examples of individuals how women were educated side-by-side the men in university, but then filtered into gender-appropriate careers and expected to quit once they walked down the aisle. But as Betty Frieden posed in her famous discourse The Feminine Mystique, once the kids had flown the nest, what was left for the mother to do?
I love the style of this book—short sections within each chapter that focus on one anecdote or piece of evidence. It breaks up what could otherwise be a very heavy, boring narrative full of facts and figures (and it’s perfect for public transportation reading!). It’s inspiring me to Google search all the people and places that Collins briefly mentions for more information. I am urging my mom to read this and discuss with me, since she was a young woman in the 1960s—the key generation affected by the women’s liberation movement; I think her first-hand account would be fascinating.
I promise (maybe) that my commentary on Part Two won’t be such a history lesson, but this background was just fascinating to me. It’s particularly interesting to hear the everyday stories and understand how several factors and a general feeling of discontent quickly led to such a poignant revolution.
Just a heads up, a review copy was provided to me by the publisher.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Review: The Old Man and Me

There were two reasons Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me immediately appealed to me. One, it’s an NYRB Classic, and I totally dig that publisher. Two, I totally dug the cover. And I’m not gonna lie, the cover was really the main reason.

Also, the premise didn’t sound too bad.

“Honey Flood” (and by using quotes, I am hinting that is not her real name) is a young American woman living in London in the early sixties—before the Beatles and the Stones and before London was the exciting tourist destination it is now. You initially think Honey is just a broke ex-Pat living an adventure overseas, but Dundy slowly reveals that Honey is on a mission. She’s lost her inheritance after a chain of marriages and deaths, and she’s aiming to get it back from a middle-aged English intellectual named C.D. McKee. And if his death is the only way she can get her money…well then Honey will just do what she has to do.

Let me tell you…Dundy is a witty writer. Some of the scenarios are far-fetched enough to illicit a a cry of, “She’s a loon!” but the humor instilled into the writing serves as a balance. Crazy or not, Honey still captures the curiosity of the reader with her quick wit and unorthodox behavior. She’s very much the modern woman with a lifestyle that very much contrasts the proper, high-class one of C.D. And that’s not the only contrast found in the plot…

Also infused in the narrative is the culture clash between America and Britain during a time when one enjoyed enormous post-war prosperity and the other struggled to regain power. This dynamic backdrop bumps the novel up a few notches in terms of cultural awareness and sets the scene perfectly well. Dundy did an excellent job of creating a bohemian tone in a time and place that wouldn’t typically be considered “bohemian.” I think the interesting setting was the most satisfying aspect of the novel for me. I really wanted to hop back in time and experience post-war London while reading this.

The Old Man and Me didn’t quite live up to my somewhat unreasonably high expectations (that’s the problem with judging books by the covers, right?), but it was fun and did not disappoint. It deserves a second reading. I’m anxious to read her other famous novel, The Dud Avocado—another NYRB title, which takes place in Paris in the fifties.

This review is part of the Spotlight Series tour for NYRB Classics. Today is the last day of the tour, so be sure to check the list and discover all the other wonderful titles that have already been reviewed!

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Obligatory BEA Week Planning Post

I’m just gonna hop on the bandwagon and throw a quick note out there about next week’s exciting book adventures in the Big Apple. It’s BEA and Book Blogger Con…yayyyy!

As a resident New Yorker, I haven’t been anticipating next week as a major event since I don’t have to go anywhere or really plan anything…and I also still have to work all next week, limiting my time at BEA (one, I thankfully work for a company that has a booth and I will get to attend at some point during the day; two, never fear, I did take a personal day for BBCon). Also, my attendance at the BBCon reception is completely dependent on if I happen to already be at the Javits Center during BEA hours on Thursday. However, there are still lots of fun activities outside of my working hours and beyond official BEA events that I will be attending.
The two big ones:
  • HarperCollins’ Celebration of Book Bloggers at the Algonquin Hotel on Wednesday night (the 26th), 7—9 pm.
  • Goodreads’ New York City Literary Pub Crawl on Thursday night (the 27th), starting at 7pm. This one starts at Housing Works Bookstore in Soho with a cocktail hour and readings by Amy King, Colson Whitehead, and Emily St. John Mandel; then heads on to Botanica, Tom & Jerry’s, and KGB Bar. Can’t make any promises as to how far I’ll crawl, but I’m aiming for at least half.
For some excellent compilations of signings, conferences, events at BEA, check out the lists Jen has posted at Devourer of Books.
I’d love to meet as many fellow booknerds as I can, so feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email and I’ll keep my eye out for you! And if you have a hankering to explore the rest of the city and have questions about anything NYC related, please ask!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: 2 Years Ago..

My post-graduation European vacation had just begun. Now I sit at a desk in front of a computer everyday. Yay to growing up!


For more Wordless Wednesday, go here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: When bad guys go good

I told you a review of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Singer’s Gun was coming…wait no more!

Anton Waker has always been surrounded by shady business. He grew up with parents that made a living off selling stolen goods; his cousin Aria trained him to shoplift at an early age; and eventually, Aria led Anton down his own path of illegal business—selling fake passports and social security cards. They’ve forged a successful business—and Anton calls it the easier job he’s ever had—but for the past several years, Anton has distanced himself from the illegal business market and built a life he doesn’t have to lie about, complete with office job, apartment, and fiancée.

All of that comes to a crashing halt when Aria blackmails Anton into helping her with one last transaction—one that ends up jeopardizing the lifestyle he’s worked hard to attain and leaves him on the island of Ischia for months…just waiting to complete the transaction so he can move on with his life.

When I went to the book’s launch party a couple weeks ago, the author described her novels as “contemporary noir” and that is a very good description that I hadn’t even considered. The whole tone of The Singer’s Gun is a little bit mysterious and a little bit dark as the story slowly and carefully unfolds. (To give you an idea of the tone, the voice reading this in my head was that of a detective from 1940s noir, with his feet on the desk, a drink in hand, and a cigarette lisp.) You always get the feeling that there is some little unknown detail that would make everything fall into place, and it’s satisfying when these details are gradually revealed. Anton is a likable character and complex enough to keep you wanting to know what decisions he’ll make and how it will all end. A supporting cast with depth contributes to the draw, though upon finishing the book, I was a little disappointed that the story of some characters had no real conclusion.
One thing is very clear: Mandel writes with layers. She seamlessly (and seemingly effortlessly!) jumps back and forth in time to reveal details of the story’s full context. It’s an intelligent, well-crafted thriller with characters that are complex enough to hook the reader.
Review copy provided by the publisher (Unbridled Books).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: Du lait, s’il vous plait.

After reading a few comments and reviews of Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir French Milk, I had some serious doubts as to how much I would actually enjoy it. I thought I would just find it self-centered and full of insignificant details. (Do I really care what she bought or what she ate while on vacation in Paris?) Yet, I was drawn to it anyway, and I ended up really enjoying it.

A brief synopsis: Lucy and her mom spend several weeks living in a quaint (and slightly bizarre) apartment in Paris’ fifth arrondissement. Lucy’s mom is celebrating her 50th birthday and Lucy is, well, not really celebrating anything. She’s about to graduate from college, applying to grad programs for cartooning, and having a general freak-out about life. Her drawings serve as a travelogue of their stay—illustrating they places they visited, the food they ate, the people they met, and the things they bought—and a bit as diary of her own thoughts.
First off, whoever wrote the synopsis for the back of this book was way off. Aside from the nit-picky fact that she did not, in fact, spend six weeks in Paris (December 24—January 25 is not six weeks, right????), the blurb describes this as “moving, personal look at a mother-daughter relationship.” If anything, this was a story of a girl struggling to deal with growing up and entering the real world. Aside from the mere mention that both Lucy and her mother were on this trip, there was nothing significant that could classify this as a moving mother-daughter story. Nothing. So don’t read this expecting one.
Scan from One Swede Read.
I did really enjoy Lucy’s cartoon style. She’s great with using facial and body expressions to convey a mood. And this memoir sure gave her a lot of practice drawing food. Her style reminds me a lot of Craig Thompson (Blankets). I also liked her narrative of the pre-graduation freak-out. I can certainly relate (my own final semester of Senior year was full of anxiety and panic attacks), and verbalizing those feelings really really really really helps. I actually enjoyed her drawings so much that I’ve continued to explore her career, and I’m glad to see that she’s been pretty successful—she maintains a pretty fabulous blog and a very thorough website.
This one’s a fun read that just inspired me to discover more graphic novels. Also, she references (and draws!) Arrested Development, which automatically makes you a much cooler person.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not-so-Wordless Wednesday: España

If you’ve been reading this blog in a reader for the past couple of days, visit the website and you’ll see a lovely new blog theme! I took a simpler route in terms of page layout and designed a nice little logo of sorts (props for the awesome logo concept go to my boo, Colin). The header image used is actually one from my own collection (or maybe a friend’s), because I didn’t want to use a random image from Flickr without the photog’s permission. [I wish there was at least one dude in it, though.] So this image is going to be the theme of my not-so-wordless Wednesday.

Here’s the original version of the header image:
It’s of my friends and I somewhere in Cordoba, Spain, during the Spring Break of our Sophomore year—the semester we studied abroad in London (Spring 2006). In front of us was a river that had a broken baby carriage washed ashore. To our left was a Jesus parade (it was Easter weekend). When I browse through the pictures from this trip, it appears as though we were having the time of our lives. But this is one of those situations where the scenes behind the pictures were oh-so-different.
We’re eating breakfast at an outdoor table. CLICK! A gypsy was stealing my roommate’s purse (and that was only one of two robberies, my wallet being the other—aghh, Spain you got us!).
Group shot on quaint Spanish street outside restaurant. CLICK! The verbal arguments about restaurant choice and splitting the bill ensue.
Shot of friends walking down the street. CLICK! Really it’s more of a “storming off in anger” than a leisurely stroll.
Shockingly, we made it out alive, friendships intact, but it was touch and go there for a while. [And according to the pictures, we seemed to have read a lot. Like on the beach in Valencia. Or on the roof of our hostel. It probably just kept us from having to talk to one another.]
But isn’t it funny that browsing photographs can sometimes be like looking at a memory through rose-colored glasses? I reminisce on that whole semester with a smile, and details about it are so completely engrained in my memory that when I returned to London after graduation in 2008, it was so familiar it seemed like I’d never left. But really, I’d probably never been more annoyed in my life. Oh well, c’est la vie. And that’s what books are for.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: The many faces of love

The Secret Lives of People in Love—the very title of this book drew me to it. It’s the first short story collection of author Simon Van Booy. His stories all have one thing in common, and in case you couldn’t figure it out by the title, yes, it’s love. He writes about love between friends, between strangers, between couples, between parent and child. And the stories are set all over the place—New York, Paris, Kentucky (random choice, I agree).

I don’t read too many story collections; I think the only others I have read lately have been by Jill McCorkle (and you know my love for her). As far as this one goes, I found the stories to be either hit or miss. A couple of them really stuck with me, and some of them I can’t even remember now. “As Much Below as Up Above” was the most memorable to me. It’s about an ex-serviceman in the Russian Navy who, by the luck of the draw, avoided the tragic accident that took the lives of his crewmen. Another favorite is titled “Where They Hide is a Mystery” and about a boy who finds consolation from a stranger in Central Park after his mother’s death. I kept waiting for the happy love story that ends happily ever after about the passionate couple that can’t live without each other. But, it never came.

It’s not that Van Booy’s stories are dark; they just always have a catch—something that causes a little pain and spoils the perfect ending (with the exception of maybe one or two). In this regard, I guess they’re very real, and I never felt like the stories were repeating themselves. The author created a lot of unique scenarios. [Though, I caught him using the phrase “saddest-happiest day” in more than one story!] Van Booy writes a lot of those one-liners that beg to be underlined while reading because they’re poignant and perfectly describe the emotion. Phrases like:

“…I would randomly take pictures of nothing in particular. How else could you record life as it happens.” —Little Birds, p. 2

“It had bent slightly by supporting her. It was crooked with the weight of her love.” —Where They Hide is a Mystery, p. 31

“I’ve lived so long without the pain of language. My life is a letter with no address.” — Distant Ships, p. 67

My advice to you: don’t rush through these. [I tried not to but when you’re stuck indoors avoiding a monsoon of pollen and have only one book to read, it’s hard to resist turning pages.] After a while, the poetic language takes a turn towards trite, and I think these stories are intended to be moments beautifully captured, enjoyed individually and over and over again. Take your time and you’ll get a lot more out of it.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Friday, May 7, 2010

NEW BOOK! Review: Two sides of tragedy

Some writers ease the reader into their story, but Nancy Pickard dives right in with The Scent of Rain and Lightning. By page six, she has set up the framework of her novel and by the end of the first chapter, the reader is hooked on a tale of murder, mystery, family and love.

Jody Linder is infamous in the town of Rose, Kansas. On a dark and stormy night 23 years earlier, someone shot and killed Jody’s father; her mother disappeared and is presumably dead. From that night on, three-year-old Jody Linder was a girl with a story. Now Jody’s three uncles have upsetting news: Billy Crosby, the man convicted of killing her parents, has been released from prison and granted a new trial, thanks to the effort of Billy’s lawyer son, Collin. After years of comfortably living with justice—knowing the man who killed her parents is behind bars—Jody’s world crumbles as everything she has believed is thrown into question.

If anyone can understand the notoriety surrounding Jody, it’s Collin. The same town that coddled Jody treated Collin like a pariah as the two grew up side by side. Despite avoiding each other for their entire lives, Jody and Collin have a connection, and with this new case, Jody begins to see that hers was not the only life affected by this tragedy.

Against the backdrop of a small town like Rose, the reader understands how one event can define both a town and its people’s history. The standout feature of this novel is Pickard’s creation of complex characters that are deeply tied to history and setting. The characters are flawed, possessing feelings that aren’t resolved and struggling with the idea of accepting a new version of the truth. Pickard constructs a puzzle of interlocking events into which, as the story progresses, we slowly see how each character fits. The Scent of Rain and Lightning grabs you from the beginning, and Pickard holds you until the end, keeping you guessing the whole way through.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning was released May 4th by Ballantine.
Review as originally featured on BookPage online. Review copy provided by publication.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Chunkster: The Age of Edith Wharton

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but a lot of the past few weeks has been devoted to the wildly thorough and very entrancing biography of Edith Wharton by Oxford professor Hermione Lee. Lee, whose previous biography was that of Virginia Woolf (one that, though I am a big Woolf fan, I haven’t managed to get through just yet), is quite interested in biography, or in her and Woolf’s words, life-writing. She actually has a book of essays on the topic. But enough about Professor Lee’s own biography.

This narrative about one of New York’s and America’s greatest writers at the turn of the century isn’t interested in the bare facts. That wouldn’t be Lee’s style, who is writing in the veins of Woolf and Coetzee and others who have turned their back against the traditional bare facts way of telling a life story. Instead, Lee sees several different themes of Wharton’s life – her affair with Morton Fullerton; her success with The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence; her issues with modernism and ‘jazz’ writers; her interest in interior and exterior house and gardens design – and lumps what she can into chapters devoted on such topics. If one doesn’t mind creating one’s own timeline for Ms Wharton’s life, then one will find this to be a terrific vision of a writer’s life.

Through this biography, we get transplated to the Gilded Age of America (though I don’t think the term was used in this work), to see Edith grow up in a wealthy household. At a young age, she was not interested in entertaining friends; in fact she would walk around her home with a book in hand (it could have been upside down too) and told her mother that she was ‘making up’ and that it would be best if she [her mother] would entertain the friends. Wharton, who is never formally educated, finds her way to an unhappy marriage to Teddy Wharton, who becomes more like Camille Raquin, phlegmatic and detestable, not interested in bettering himself physically or mentally. There are questions as to whether he abused her in any way. But he did philander, which is how they later got a divorce.

That’s not to say that Ms Wharton didn’t have sexual issues of her own. She fell in love, hard, for Morton Fullerton. And for someone who was terribly conscious of what others were saying about her, who was interested in the utmost secrecy and had her friends burn her letters after she died, who wouldn’t be able to handle being in the gossip columns of tabloids, she had to work to make sure that people weren’t suspicious. Of course close friends knew of the affair – her first collaborator, Ogden Codman, an eccentric man who helped write The Decoration of Houses with her; and Henry James, the writer, the ‘Master’, whose writing hers would always be compared to, whose friendship is legendary at this point.

Lee takes us into her convoluted relationships with her publishers – from those serialising her work to Charles Scribner (of Scribner fame). She writes about Wharton’s interest in Scott Fitzgerald, who she wishes would control himself in The Beautiful and Damned, who should have given Jay Gatsby a more tangible back history in The Great Gatsby. She tried to keep abreast of contemporary writing, but it seemed that she was usually contemptuous to it, disregarding Hemingway and Faulkner, Joyce and Woolf.

As you can imagine, there’s way too much to discuss here, but Lee does a terrific job of looking at the life and works of Wharton (she does a terrific job at looking at The Age of Innocence, and it’s worth just sampling that chapter). I feel like I’ve received quite enough information about this woman, received in an entertaining manner. I’m not even terribly enthusiastic about Wharton. But now I’m planning on relooking at some of the novels of hers I read back in high school. And some of the novels that I now feel are necessary reads.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Last night in…Greenpoint

Last night I went to WORD in Greenpoint (which is a pretty great indie bookstore I’d never been to!) for the launch party of Emily St. John Mandel‘s new book, The Singer’s Gun. You may remember Ms. Mandel from her previous (and first) novel, Last Night in Montreal, that was all the rage in the book blog community last summer. The Singer’s Gun just hit shelves yesterday, but it’s already getting rave reviews and is the #1 Indie Next Pick for May. I’m about a third of the way through it, and I’m loving it so far. She is BRILLIANT with how well she layers the story and reveals more information—brilliant to the point where it probably demands a second read to fully realize all of the brilliance [I realized a bit of it last night when she read aloud an excerpt I’ve already read and more details clicked into place now that I’ve read beyond that passage].

Anyway, after Emily did a brief reading, she answered a few audience questions [did you know she went to university for dancing and somehow ended up a writer?], administered a contest for WORD giftcards [with these cute little passports made by Emily herself], and signed some books.
I had a great time and was so excited to meet such a talented new(ish) author. You can check out the other stops on her book tour here. And just a heads up to those attending BEA: Emily will be there.
Review coming on this one soon!
Also, I met another newly published author, Joseph Wallace, whose debut novel Diamond Ruby was released by Simon & Schuster yesterday as well. It’s another New York-centric book, so I’m prettttty excited to get my hands on it.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Blog Tour: The Queen of Palmyra

Minrose Gwin (which, can I start out by saying how awesome of a name that is??) takes the reader to a dark place with The Queen of Palmyra, a chronicle of the summer of 1963 in small-town Mississippi from the perspective of 11-year-old Florence Forrest. The white residents of Millwood, Mississippi, have little to do with the black side of town, or “Shake Rag” as it’s come to be called. In a town split by black and white, Florence can’t figure out what belongs where.
Florence lives in a house built on secrets. Her daddy, Win, is a burial insurance salesman—the first job he’s been able to hold in over a year—with secrets that Florence is too young to understand. Her mother sure understands them, though…and disapproves—this much is clear to Florence. Martha has established herself as the town cake-lady, baking cakes for the respectable white women while visiting the Negro bootlegger on the sly. With tension running rampant in the Forrest household, Florence spends a lot of her time at her grandparents house and with their black housekeeper, Zenie, and her husband Ray. When Zenie’s college-aged niece Eva comes to live in Shake Rag and sell burial insurance to its residents, one resulting incident brings race relations in Millwood to a boiling point and begins to open Florence’s eyes to the truth of the situation around her.
Gwin opens this book with this line: “I need you to understand how ordinary it all was,” and to a naive Florence, everything was as she was used to. Florence is a product of her environment, and the author does a beautiful job of extracting a story from a very specific time and place. Each character plays a defined role in the life Gwin has crafted for Florence; and Florence is the one who gets to take a step back, almost as if she’s pressing a ‘pause’ button and viewing her environment as it is rather than as she’s told it should be. This story is more than anything an awakening of Florence as she starts to understand who her parents really are and how racism really affects both sides.
One thing you need to understand: Florence is telling this from her 11-year-old perspective…forty years later. She’s reflecting on what she saw that fateful summer and how her limited knowledge can twist experiences and memories into an untruth. At one point, adult Florence states, “…to be an architect [of words and sentences], you have to understand context.” Gwin uses brilliant metaphors about language and storytelling to illustrate how memories may be a lie because they aren’t fully understood, and Florence is an incredibly strong voice that never seems to be dragged down by the abuse and ignorance in her life.
I’ve read several comments by people that compare this to The Help. If we’re talking about books centered around race relations in the 1960s South, then yes, they are similar. But the tone of each is completely different. Gwin has written an honest and unflinching portrait of a time that is heart-wrenchingly horrifying but, at the same time, grips the reader with a thin thread of hope as you follow Florence’s path to truth and enlightenment. I found it more Bastard Out of Carolina than The Help, but if you like Southern fiction—or just gritty, compelling fiction in general!—I highly recommend it.
Tune in to Blog Talk Radio with Book Club Girl on Monday, May 17th at 4PM EST as she discusses this book with author Minrose Gwin!
This is the first stop for The Queen of Palmyra on its TLC Book Tour! For the list of other stops throughout the month of May, visit here.
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A serious note on Nashville flooding

Bellevue - @andreakleid
Photo from Flickr.

It’s weird when you watch CBS Nightly News and see your beloved hometown that rarely makes national headlines on the Breaking News segment. I’d heard that rain had been pounding Nashville all weekend, but I had no idea so much flooding was even possible. To see places I know and frequent(ed) completely underwater is absolutely unreal. The Cumberland River, which runs right beside downtown Nashville, has flooded up to a 50 ft water level and completely submerged riverside streets and parks and flooded downtown buildings. More than 11,000 residents are without power. Interstates are completely closed. Neighborhoods are completely submerged. Thousands of people are displaced or left homeless. And 11 people have died.

This video is of I-24. It’s an interstate, completely underwater and with a building floating down it.

Despite the mention on last night’s CBS Nightly News and a feature on CNN’s homepage, the rest of the media world doesn’t seem to find this important enough for major coverage. But luckily, we have social media to illustrate just how serious this is and how many people it has affected. To see more pictures of the damage, you can check out here and here. For updates on flood damage, you can check out a great blog called Nashvillest or our newspaper’s website, The Tennessean. And to help out, you can always donate to the Red Cross Middle Tennessee Chapter or the Metro Nashville Disaster Relief Fund, or if you’re in the Middle Tennessee area, volunteer with Hands on Nashville.

Music Always - @prodigaljohn
Photo from Flickr.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

MAY Book Events: New York

5/3, Monday

  • “Island Beneath the Sea” Isabel Allende, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “Alone With You” Marisa Silver, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Mother” Bryan Batt, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
5/4, Tuesday
  • “Dead in the Family” Charlaine Harris, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “I’ll Mature When I’m Dead” Dave Barry, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for “The Singer’s Gun” Emily St. John Mandel, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
5/5, Wednesday
  • “Private Life” Jane Smiley, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “My Empire of Dirt” Manny Howard, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “Innocent” Scott Turow, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
5/6, Thursday
  • “American Subversive” David Goodwillie, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for “And the Heart Says Whatever” Emily Gould, WORD Brooklyn, 7:00 pm
5/7, Friday
  • “Hank Zipzer: The Brand New Me!” Henry Winkler, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 4:30 pm
  • “Glorious” Bernice L. McFadden, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
5/11, Tuesday
  • “The Cardturner” Louis Sachar, B&N 86th & Lex, 1:00 pm
  • “No Wonder My Parents Drank” Jay Mohr, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “The Singer’s Gun” Emily St. John Mandel, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “War” Sebastian Junger, B&N Union Square, 7:30 pm
5/12, Wednesday
  • “Hand of Fate” Lis Wiehl, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Heart of the Matter” Emily Giffin, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles” Kira Henehan, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “Special Agent Pendergast: Fever Dream” Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
5/13, Thursday
  • “It’s Not Summer Without You” Jenny Han, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 4:30 pm
  • “Ruby’s Spoon” Anna Lawrence Pietroni, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • Launch Party for “Falling is Like This” Kate Rockland, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
  • “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of Little Bighorn” Nathaniel Philbrick, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
5/14, Friday
  • Debut Novelist Night Heidi S. Durrow, Michelle Young-Stone, WORD Brooklyn, 7:30 pm
5/17, Monday
  • “I Loved, I Lost, and I Made Spaghetti” Giulia Melucci, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “The Last Ember” Daniel Levin, B&N Park Slope, 7:30 pm
5/18, Tuesday
  • “The Seven Year Bitch” Jennifer Belle, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Slow Love” Dominique Browning, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
  • “61 Hours” Lee Child, B&N Lincoln Triangle, 7:30 pm
5/19, Wednesday
  • “My Fair Lazy” Jen Lancaster, B&N Union Square, 7:00 pm
  • “My Name is Mary Sutter” Robin Oliveira, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “Talk Softly” Cynthea O’Neil, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
5/26, Wednesday
  • “Falling Is Like This” Kate Rockland, B&N Tribeca, 7:00 pm
  • “Peep Show” Joshua Braff, B&N 82nd & Broadway, 7:00 pm
5/27, Thursday
  • “Vanishing Point” Ander Monson, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm
5/28, Friday
  • “The Beautiful Between” Alyssa Sheinmel, B&N 86th & Lex, 7:00 pm
  • “For the Win” Cory Doctorow, McNally Jackson, 7:00 pm