Friday, March 31, 2017

FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT, belated light on a valorous unsung woman hero


Texas Tech University Press
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: More than eleven hundred women pilots flew military aircraft for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. These pioneering female aviators were known first as WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and eventually as WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Thirty-eight of them died while serving their country.

Dorothy Scott was one of the thirty-eight. She died in a mid-air crash at the age of twenty-three.

Born in 1920, Scott was a member of the first group of women selected to fly as ferry pilots for the Army Air Forces. Her story would have been lost had her twin brother not donated her wartime letters home to the WASP Archives. Dorothy's extraordinary voice, as heard through her lively letters, tells of her initial decision to serve, and then of her training and service, first as a part of the WAFS and then the WASP. The letters offer a window into the mind of a young, patriotic, funny, and ambitious young woman who was determined to use her piloting skills to help the US war effort. The letters also offer archival records of the day-to-day barracks life for the first women to fly military aircraft. The WASP received some long overdue recognition in 2010 when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal-the highest honor that Congress can bestow on civilians.


My Review: It's amazing the depth and breadth of my ignorance about women's roles in military history. As World War II cranked up, the need for planes to get from where they were built to the place they were needed grew critical. Men had been ferrying the planes for the Army Air Force before open hostilities broke out. Naturally enough, these men were needed as combat pilots after Pearl Harbor was attacked, since they had the proper gentialia to be fighters. That left a vacuum for women to fill, much like wartime exigencies made in so many industries and walks of life.

That much I'd sort of assumed. I had no notion of the roots or the branches of the womens' role in this vital area of military endeavor. We've probably all heard of Amelia Earhart because she died on that round-the-world flight. But the world she came out of, the raw, rough early flying days, had plenty of women piloting these primitive fabric-and-wood crates in air circuses and barnstorming shows and everywhere there was flying to be done. Unsurprisingly, these were the women who filled the ranks of experienced flyers training raw recruits as the Army Air Force lunged to the limits of physics getting planes built, trained in, flown, and all around the town to coin a phrase.

I, to my surprise, was surprised. Logically the use of the women whose aerobatics were skilled from surviving the flying entertainment industry is no leap, but I just didn't know such a thing had existed. So score one for Author Rickman, a dedicated scholar of the WASP and WAFS, in the educate a man column. Score another one for making a couple thousand words bringing the whole readership up to speed so efficiently without missing a chance to entertain us with anecdotes from the era. I was sure, then, from the earliest pages of this book, that I was going to enjoy learning about Dorothy Scott and her world.

She was brought into the world by weird parents; her mother was well past thirty when she married her father, a man slightly her junior who was what we would now call a serial entrepreneur. For the early, World War I, days of their marriage, the Scotts lived on a fishing boat sailing between Alaska and Seattle. G.M. Scott bought the boat to make his fortune. Then sold it because he made his wife pregnant a second time, and the mere idea of two adults, a baby, and a three-year-old on a working boat made me claustrophobic 100 years later. It turned out to be an extra-good idea because the baby was twins, Dorothy and her brother Ed.

The boat morphed into a Ford dealership in rural Washington State. (I'm still chuckling over a man known as "G.M." to all and sundry selling Fords.) The three Scott siblings were shown the value of turning your hand to anything that needs doing; their family survived the Depression well enough for all three to discover a shared love of flying that led all of them to enter the Army Air Force or its equivalent, the WAFS, as soon as WWII started. What failed was the parental Scotts' marriage, as Mrs. Scott left rural Washington to settle in Los Angeles to be near a sister, apparently preferring this to being near a husband who "had a well-recognized temper."

Dorothy Scott was a lovely young woman, as the ample illustrations in the book demonstrate. She was as conventional as her parents: until she was accepted for WAFS training she was a flight instructor after not-quite graduating from college. Her father, concerned for the future of his clearly unusual daughter, had wanted her to enter the business world. That was out when her one, and I get the feeling from what's not said half-hearted, stab at it failed to pan out. Reading this passage from one of Dorothy's letters home to him, I think G.M. probably realized that the best solution to a problem is, sometimes, the least ordinary one:
Then we climbed in BTs [Basic Training planes]...To do it up right, we made a formation take off between smudge pots lining the runways. Remember, it was night! Oh pop, I'll never in all my life forget that ride! There we were nearly touching the next plane and guided only by small lights [on each plane] and the flare of the exhaust.

I was so busy watching the next plane that for a moment I forgot to look around, but soon I did, and the rapidly fading field looked like a million small fires.

We cruised in close formation for quite a ways, then we separated some. All of a sudden—swish, and we were in a snap-roll! I'd tightened my belt but did it even more, and from there to Memphis I had trouble telling when we were right side up and when we weren't. Loops, slow rolls, Immelmans, and everything else kept me plenty on the jump. I've never had such a ride. It was a very clear night but dark so the stars above looked a lot like the small clearing fires below and I had to check the instruments to believe anything.
The young woman penning those lines was never, ever going to be a stewardess or a housewife or a secretary. She was not built for those things, she was built to fly airplanes and be in the sky away from ordinary life.

And so it is, perhaps, for the best that a transition from the exciting and important flying life that Dorothy led until 3 December 1943 was unnecessary. Dorothy died in a terrible, pointless training accident as she was beginning a new flying skill: Pursuit aircraft, the powerful fighter planes that feature so heavily in war movies! How she would have loved that phase of her career. How incredibly poignant that, while she was taking her first steps on that path, an error in a control tower where she knew no one yet cost her, her trainer, and another pilot their lives.

Not to mention three mothers. Three fathers. Unknown numbers of siblings, spouses, cousins, aunts...death doesn't stop taking. It is so very unfair.

Now, listen carefully: Author Rickman made me care enough about this long-gone lady, that enthusiastic and engaged and excited young woman on her way up in her career and her life, that I sniffled a little when reading about her death. In a biographer, that level of nice and accurate rendering of the subject is a gift. Since this is not the first WASP biography from her, I suppose the author's skills in reanimating this long-gone world and its already collected stakes are in fine fettle from use and experience. But still, this was more than I expected when I saw this title while researching possible Women's History Month review subjects.

I've read other books published by Texas Tech University Press, and have liked each of them. A collection of short fiction largely set in the part of South Texas I'm from; a novel of the Plains Indians; a story of the settling of the part of Central Texas I grew up in. Each one was an excellent reading experience, and I'm very pleased to add FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT to their ranks.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

THE OTHER EINSTEIN, the reconstructed life of the first Mrs. Einstein


Sourcebooks Landmark
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.


My Review: Marie Benedict, I salute you. The decision to tell the story of Albert Einstein's first wife, physicist Mileva Marić, and her intense intellectual beginnings fading into parental tragedy, emotional aridity, and ultimately humiliating drudgery, was bold beyond belief. There was quite simply no way on this wide green earth to make everyone with an interest in the story happy. Many would be satisfied with nothing less than a jargon-laden, drily scientific reconstruction of the potential/probable debates the couple most likely had. Others would faint from terror at the mere mention of names like Boltzmann, Mach, Drude, et alii. The line Benedict chose to tread was weighted in favor of broad strokes on all fronts. Imagine a Eastern European woman...arriving at one of the world centers of scientific inquiry at all, at a time in history when women had no vote to cast, no right to own property, and the very real risk of dying in socially mandatory childbirth across the entire world.

That was Mileva. Really, that is all that must be said of her. She was so exceptional that she arrived in this place at all, held her own academically, and but for meeting a charming rogue who wiled her out of her virginity and thus her rightful place in the world, might well have been as much a name to conjure with as Madame Marie Curie. Benedict does this by whisking us through the social life of Mileva's bluestocking buddies as they have musicales and climb local beauty spots, the whirl of cafe society among Mileva's male colleagues as they discuss and dispute their subject's roil and ferment over coffee, introducing us to the extraordinarily supportive Serbian father whose dreams and fears for Mileva come through his comparatively few actual lines. All in barely a hundred pages.

It is the fate of any author telling a private person's personal story to be an inventor. Dialogue can't be anything but invented. Letters, especially in the Belle Epoque, can (if Clio so wills it) be found and either quoted or digested, but Life isn't a novel and so doesn't offer the precise words needed for dramatic purposes. After all, fiction is a bunch of lies that, properly stuck together, make the truth undeniably visible to all. Benedict has very clearly made her way through a great deal of research material and has selected from the piles, stacks, boxes, shelves those moments and matters and words that best fit her plot.

The saddest part of the above, to me, is that she wasn't required to do very much discarding or eliding to make Albert Einstein into a proper shit of a man. The daughter he never saw, born out of wedlock because his harpy of a mother wouldn't countenance Mileva as a wife for her unemployed wastrel of a darling, was only the beginning of a life-long pattern of verbal abuse...there exists a letter from him to Mileva listing an appalling, humiliating list of conditions she must follow to be allowed to remain with the Great Man...and emotional neglect that extended to his two sons from their marriage. Not that he was any too cuddlesome to his cousin Elsa, aka Mrs. Einstein the Second: He proposed to her younger, prettier daughter after finally wearing Mileva down into agreeing to a divorce. Wise lady said no; her mama married Einstein anyway, knowing what was what.

Mileva's later Einsteinless life was one of economic deprivation, despite the eventual arrival of the Nobel Prize money promised to her in the divorce settlement. (Her own family's economic comfort evaporated with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Great War.) One of her sons was schizophrenic. Investing in a Swiss boarding house didn't work out well. Mileva was born under an unlucky star, and was so very clearly an intelligent, decent human being who deserved better than she settled for in life.

She was a tragic pioneer of women's rights to a place at the table in the sciences. She was a fascinating character. She deserves to be discussed, celebrated, lauded along side her famous ex-husband, and Marie Benedict has made a sold stride in that direction by writing The Other Einstein. September is National Science Club Month, and if I were in a science club, I'd demand we read this book. There is so very much to discuss in these pages, discussions that will last well beyond the club meeting itself.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

WHAT BECOMES US, abusive relationship escapee lands in fascinating trouble


$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A modern-day pioneer in search of a new life, pregnant Evie leaves her abusive husband and lands in a close-knit community divided by local colonial history a story that goes deep to the roots of the American conscience. Following a near fatal accident, Evie, a mild-mannered, pregnant school teacher, abandons her controlling husband and flees Santa Cruz, California for the wilds of western New York. She rents a farm house on a dead end road in a seemingly ideal, multi-cultural community. When she begins teaching at the local high school, she becomes obsessed with an assigned book, The Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson. This early American classic is the first book written by a woman in the Americas and details Rowlandson's harrowing captivity during King Philip's War in the seventeenth century. As Mary Rowlandson's insatiable hunger begins to fill Evie's dreams, Evie wonders if she may actually be haunted. At the same time, Evie becomes obsessed with her neighbor, a married Chilean immigrant. As she grows more pregnant, her desires/hunger grows out of control, and threaten to destroy her adopted community.


My Review: Micah Perks has some big brass ones. It's not every novelist, even one whose previous novel received a lot of praise, who would choose to narrate her novel of a woman's decision to take her own power back from a controlling and very unempathetic man from the point of view of the couple's unborn twins.

I do believe we have a new narrative option for future writers: Multiple third-person unborn.

Add into this the author's tale within the novel, a factual historical account written by the captured and enslaved Mary Rowlandson (a white woman) during King Philip's War. A tale that's apparently also a portal, kind of a non-Potterverse Horcrux, as Evie (our uterus-bearer) travels (?--the "dreams" Evie has are, well, you decide when you read the book) into the time Mary Rowlandson suffers the torments of being prisoner to the Wampanoag people's powerful Queen Weetamoo.

But Evie isn't a stranger to the feeling of being a prisoner. Her husband, so strong, so handsome, so omnicompetent, had her completely under his iron sway. He is Right; she is wrong, incompetent, weak. She can't even wipe a kitchen counter properly. It started as a willing submission on Evie's part, a sense of being coddled and protected and, in the agricultural sense, husbanded. As is so often the case, relationships founder on the rocks once used as foundations. Evie realizes she and her unborn children must not live as her husband's captives...though in all honesty, I suspect an unpregnant Evie would simply have stayed. Just my thought on the matter since the text offers no speculation on the subject.

Running away from home in a scene that's a comic parody of the classic shin-down-the-tree trope, Evie leaves the beautiful anti-Paradise of Santa Cruz and lights out for the territory. In this case the territory is upstate New York, an obscure corner of same, populated by crazies, eccentrics, and people who probably shouldn't be given the vote. It's perfect for Evie. She even stumbles across the perfect house in the first minutes of her presence in Lonely Rincon Road:
She shuts the door and examines it, no lock, loose in the frame. She rests her hand on the crack between the door and the wall and feels that cool, moist, radon-breath on her palm. This basement is the only part of the house she dislikes. Californians don't have basements. She doesn't like the idea of the ground underneath a house hollowed out, destabilizing the whole structure. She duct tapes stiff old sponges she finds under the sink across the crack between the basement door and the floor in hopes of sopping up the radon before it enters the house. Then she pulls a strip of the duct tape across the door to the wall.
Perfect! Across the street from an unsettlingly handsome Chilean immigrant, his felonious war-protester wife (this is set in the first Bush administration), their headstrong young daughter, his super-Christian brother and that family of wackos (the normal one ran away to New York City so they pretend she's dead), his wife's ne'er-do-well brother and sons (Juniper, their mom, is Not All There and wisps through the narrative like really good hash smoke); well, you get the drift. And the house, radon-filled basement and all, is Evie's dream. Her husband is a continent away and unlikely to think of looking for her where she is; she's left no clues she can avoid leaving to lead him there.

Add in Evie's job at the local high school and the elements are there for a darn fine life.

Stories wither and shrivel without conflict. The conflict on Lonely Rincon Road centers on Narrative of the captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Evie encounters the book for the first time as she prepares to teach high school history in place of a fired Evangelical friend of her nutty Christian neighbors. His take on the book was, shall we say, not to community standards. Evie has a much more disturbing relationship to the book.

She's possessed by Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. They're dreams, thinks Evie, who has developed perinatal somnambulism. They're dreams so vivid they come to life in her mind in ways the book she's reading and teaching cannot possibly record:
Then it's grey morning, and Sarah has disappeared.

Mother rises up. She feels light, light in her body, light-headed, achingly stiff and run through with panic. She rushes hither and thither, asking everyone what have they done with her child, her papoose. Sarah, her baby? She rocks her arms to show who she means.

Finally, someone points to the ridge above the village and mother climbs up there and finds the grave. She places her hands on the fresh dirt. She thinks, Don't leave me here alone. She will dig Sarah up, and she even pulls up a fistful of dirt to begin, but then she stops.

When Mother rises this time, she is a hollow thing, a ghost thing, a thing filled with air. She can imagine herself a dandelio gone to fluff, blown by her little girl's last breath, dissolving into a thousand separate seeds each with its own wing to fly off the ridge and away.
Remembering that the book is narrated by Evie's unborn twins explains the use of "Mother" and remembering that the dream being narrated is accompanied by sleepwalking and remembering...hell, don't remember anything, just read that passage and tell me you don't *get* in the depths of your guts the horror of a parent losing a child. That Evie is given this vision or transported to this moment in history, or however you choose to construct it in your reading, while pregnant with twins, tells the true story here. Evie is a terrified emotional cracked vessel. Evie, whose waking time teaching the teenagers of her neighbors is fraught with the usual angst and rage teens bring; whose nights are spent unkowingly wandering, possibly stealing but certainly taking others' belongings; whose undivorced ex looms in every thought she has about the men in her world; whose sanity just might be slipping away from her, is kept at just the right distance from the reader by the unborn twin narrators:
Holding her belly with one hand she hurries down the stairs in her long nightgown, through the living room, bangs painfully into the table with her hip, pulls open the door, and rushes into the spindly woods. She stumble-runs for a while, then finally stops, leans against a smooth grey beech tree, trying to catch her ragged breath. She leans her head against the slim trunk. She can see a bit of moon through the trees. She presses into her belly again, and again she feels us, something that is not her inside her. She can't stop smiling and poking at us. It's a wild, satisfied animal smile. She thinks, How good not to be caught in Joan's bedroom, how good here in the woods. How good my babies are both alive, and they lived under my ribs. She begins to walk again, humming one of those songs she'd taught to her students in California. This land is your land, this land is my land, it was made for you and me. She sings off key, and fiercely.
Like all the best ghost stories, this one is rife with funny moments...a Passover seder that's a hoot, a wardrobe malfunction whose hilarity leads to a sad and poignant moment with the religious family's denial and prudery; and the spooky but (to me, anyway) really hilarious ending of the novel, all meet in one moment which demonstrates that Micah Perks has big, big brass ones like I told you up top. Nothing is resolved, like in life, just gears shifted and four-wheel-drive mode engaged as all Perks' characters experience massive, painful, life-altering transformations in the circle of a fire on a beautiful night.

Welcome to the world, y'all. It doesn't get less screwed up outside Mother's womb. But y'all are in a world enviably rich and passionately alive. Most poor suckers don't get in a lifetime even half the fun of just y'all's gestational residence in Evie!

Buy, read, laugh; think; cry; you won't be sorry.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

AGNES MARTIN, overlooked for pop-fame but not for artistic recognition of her genius

AGNES MARTIN: Her Life and Art

Thames and Hudson
$39.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Over the course of a career that spanned fifty years, Agnes Martin s austere, serene work anticipated and helped to define Minimalism, even as she battled psychological crises and carved out a solitary existence in the American Southwest. Martin identified with the Abstract Expressionists but her commitment to linear geometry caused her to be associated in turn with Minimalist, feminist, and even outsider artists. She moved through some of the liveliest art communities of her time while maintaining a legendary reserve. I paint with my back to the world, she says both at the beginning and at the conclusion of a documentary filmed when she was in her late eighties. When she died at ninety-two, in Taos, New Mexico, it is said she had not read a newspaper in half a century. No substantial critical monograph exists on this acclaimed artist the recipient of two career retrospectives as well as the National Medal of the Arts who was championed by critics as diverse in their approaches as Lucy Lippard, Lawrence Alloway, and Rosalind Krauss. Furthermore, no attempt has been made to describe her extraordinary life. The whole engrossing story, told here for the first time, Agnes Martin is essential reading for anyone interested in abstract art or the history of women artists in America."


My Review: Agnes Martin's life began in complexity, proceeded in complexity, and ended in complexity. She wasn't from a happy family, evidence suggesting her father's existence added little to her mother's happiness or material success; his life appears to have diverged from his family's before Agnes could possibly have known anything of him, as early as 1914 (she was born in 1912) when her mother assumed ownership of the Saskatchewan land where he brought them to homestead. The famously close-mouthed Martin spent most of her youth on Canada's West Coast, not the Saskatchewan prairie; yet it was that prairie, vast and limitless vistas defined by the unique quality of unmodulated light, that ever and always lived in her eye.

Author Princenthal's unenviable task in biographizing Martin was set early on, in that closed-mouthedness and its close relative "is this real or is it Memorex?" Can the few recorded utterances of a quiet, and often quietly under the heavy burden of mental illness...symptoms recorded by friends suggest schizophrenia dogged Martin's life, undiagnosed and gratefully not severe enough to cause outside rationalized into a single narrative, or is it even important and relevant to make this attempt?

I myownself say no to that. I think what survives in the way of others' memories of Martin and her life and her utterances are best read, viewed, absorbed as simply as possible, representative of Martin's preferred presentation of self. Let us leave the private and inner world of the artists to the artist, accept what she said at a given moment as her truth, and recognize that her truth evolved with her spirit and her magnificent, mathematical, ultimately and beautifully spiritual artwork.
Martin's retrospective evaluation of the artwork she made during her initial years in New Mexico was categorical: "At Taos I wasn't satisfied with my paintings and at the end of every year I'd have a big fire and burn them all." ... The ouevre begins modestly, with several small watercolor landscapes strongly reminiscent of John Marin; they could be among those of which she said, "I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like anthills." This is not necessarily a failure of representation. The clarity of the atmosphere in New Mexico (see above for reference to unmodulated light) does make distant mountains look deceptively close, hence oddly small, and Martin's depictions are sprightly and fresh, capturing the regal blue sky and hurrying clouds so characteristic of the high desert.
This 1947 image of Taos' mountainous amazing landscape is a rare survivor of Martin's tendency to destroy her works, a female Cronus (Crone-a? heh), when they weren't up to her demanding standards. Princenthal on this specific piece:
...a confident sketch of deeply shadowed mountains in bright sunlight, rendered with quick, precise strokes.
This is precisely how the image hits my eyes and the words could have come from my own brain; this is the moment when I began to trust Author Princenthal to lead me, not simply to inform me of facts, but lead my eyes to moments and places I would have gone to had I the erudition and the visual vocabulary to know of them. In reading a book about an artist, this sense is (for me) irreplaceable; it is akin to the feeling I get when, as a recent and deep disappointment with Edward Hoagland's latest novel demonstrated on the downside, an editor and/or author demonstrates a solid and deep grasp of detail.

Martin's early and unsatisfactory landscapes, journeyman works no doubt but fine ones indeed, gave way in her middle age...she was forty in the Abstract Expressionist-ish work of her second round of schooling at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. The heady art atmosphere of 1950s New York could not possibly have passed Martin by, though Author Princenthal makes plain the comparatively more conservative art culture of the college. I suppose that's inevitable in an academic setting where preparing a person for a career in art instruction is the purpose. This image is, in my eyes, one of the most Agnes Martin-ly images she produced in that time, superior in its emotional affect on me to several more derivative Abstract Expressionist canvases:
Martin spent much of her life...well into her 50s...either in poverty or damned close to it. Not so very unusual for an artist, I suppose, but I can't help but feel when I look at this huge 48" x 72" work that the cost to her for the materials must have been ruinous; and to my eye, the painting itself should have sold for Jackson Pollock money. Princenthal has this to say about the work:
More robustly narrative, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, tentatively dated 1953, is, at 4 by 6 feet, a very large painting by Martin's standards at the time.... It is executed in oil on board, and in feeling is decidedly graphic, with delicate contours, executed in finely drawn, ink-black lines, and vaporous washes of color. The biblical narrative is given a sharp twist into what clearly seems, not the exodus of two mortals fallen from a state of grace, but the escape of a terrified woman from a powerful if irresolute man. Adam's head, outlined in profile, faces up, howling; a star shoots across the sky above him. Though reaching forward, he seems immobilized, perhaps by the horseshoe-like shapes that link his slightly bent knees. His upright form spans the surface, an anchoring column. Eve, by contrast, is in chaotic flight. Facing us, her arms wide in appeal, she is lifted up by a graceful, bounding leg, and also by a spinning, propeller-shaped foot; she appears as well to be supported by wings. Windswept green leaves adorn her back. The colors, thinly applied, are mostly pale shades of pink, blue, and white, though a bright red form scythes across Adam's midsection; flying toward his chest is what seems to be a disembodied breast. For all the inscrutability of its symbolism, the composition is powerfully integrated; its emotional register is of baffled panic, as in a dream from which the sleeper desperately tries, without success, to scream herself awake.

This 1958 work is unusual and deeply interesting to me. Martin's creation of it is structural as well as painterly. It fits my idea of Martin as an artist of space and time. The author has this insight to offer:
Without question she would come to resist, in the most vigorous terms, any suggestion that her work represented landscape, water, weather, light, or any other natural conditions or forms. But the natural allusions in titles persist for some time...what is arguably clearest, in these works of the late 1950s and early '60s, is the difficulty of giving up such references to landscape and water, of turning away from the kind of natural beauty to which she was so clearly alive, and which offered so much in the way of painterly, and emotional, resources. ...Martin was experimenting with reliefs and fully three-dimensional constructions made from materials found around the [New York] seaport. The Laws, 1958...consists of a tall, narrow wooden board (it is 93-1/2 by 18 by 2 inches) that is painted grey below and black on top; a gridded pattern of boat spikes is driven into the black field. ... "The life of the work depends upon the observer," [Martin] wrote. And, "if we can know our response, see in ourselves what we have received from a work, that is the way to the understanding of truth and all beauty."
So for all Martin's strenuous rejection of Nature as Muse, Martin the artist knew and said in words that the viewer perceives the work and derives from it the meaning and beauty that she can, and will. So while the intent was not to re-create the world on canvas or board, the perception of the viewer inarguably takes precedence over the intent of the artist. Constructions like The Laws can be seen as attempts to reject Nature but end up, at least to this viewer, evoking the very seaside that provided their materials. I don't think Martin was done with the natural world.

Martin's many years in New Mexico were a wildly mixed bag, monetarily speaking; her art never stopped its endless refining process. Sometimes it's only in deprivation that a spiritual seeker can find a way to speak her truth. Martin's explicit rejection of Nature as her muse will always ring hollow to me. She herself said, "Almost everyone believes that art is from the of the artist meaning the intellectually grasped experience. ... I want to repeat: there are no valid thoughts about art. If your sensibilities are awake you will respond."
This 1992 untitled image presents the Agnes Martin I suspect most people are familiar with. Her color planes and smooth geometry and gorgeously realized symmetry create a calm mood, a lot like looking at a Taos springtime landscape or a visit to a sunrise seashore. Agnes Martin's limitless vistas and perfectly tuned spaces, colors, shapes, and ideas are timeless...literally outside of time. Her art, in that sense, truly does reject nature as a muse. It's impossible to paint a landscape or a still life that is outside of time. Light forbids it.

Agnes Martin's endless journey into the symmetry and beauty of shape, form, geometry, and color's softest subtlest corners, really constitute a biography told in awakened images. The work absolutely perfectly reflects this summation by Author Princenthal:
The way Martin lived, the way she dressed and ate, socialized ans spent her private time, the way she furnished her homes and traveled, conformed to no one's notions of high style. She didn't wear black, she wasn't svelte or soignée. While she never owned a television (or a computer), neither did she live off the grid...She loved fancy cars and ocean liners. She liked being honored. She valued humility above all else. She was at once a consummate insider and a lifelong outsider, a devoted student of Zen and Christian mysticism, ans a sworn skeptic. She was of sound mind (and to the extent that such a state can be defined), and at times she was not. Her most reliable testimony remains her majestic work.

NOTICE All Agnes Martin artworks are copyrighted. For information on reproduction rights, contact Agnes Martin/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

CLOSING THE BOOK, essays proving the urgency of women being at the cultural table

CLOSING THE BOOK: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature

$20 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: CLOSING THE BOOK: TRAVELS IN LIFE, LOSS, AND LITERATURE explores the intersection of literature and life in personal essays about traveling, teaching, reading, writing, living, and dying. Each essay's narrative arc is formed and informed by the act of reading literature that makes a reader feel like the book she's reading was somehow written specifically for her to read in that exact moment. Renstrom relies on science fiction as a catalyst for grief, as well as a means of pushing past grim realities to begin envisioning life reconstructed and to embrace the idea that "there's nothing wrong with rebuilding forever."

My Review: Joelle Renstrom, like most of us in adulthood, has lost loved ones to death. Her father died of cancer at the disturbingly young age of sixty-three (given that I'm within hailing distance of that landmark and possessed of siblings well beyond it, this perturbs my emotional orbit), her world then darkens bit by bit as more and more adult griefs mark her passage through time.

Passing through time and space is a long-term interest of Renstrom's. Her blog, Could This Happen?, is dedicated to the topic of science intersecting with science fiction. Her ruminations on the near-miraculous reach of modern technology with the humdrum existence of thee and me are well worth your eyeblinks and earhairs. As one would expect of an MFA recipient, her ruminations are fueled by reading widely and voraciously. The methodology of her processing the pain of losing her dad is also, and unsurprisingly, based on the books she has read. The processing begins with an unsurprising lens: White Noise.

A Sense of Homecoming (Don DeLillo—White Noise) rather unsurprisingly deals with an academic and his wife who fear, with irrational intensity, death. The idea of it, the fact of it, the sheer unknowable scope of death causes Jack and Babette to run from the void and directly into the unknown scientific ameliorations of death's traumas pre-mortem. Or, in other words, into the void of the unknown but outlined by the comprehensible present:
Before Dad got sick, visiting Kalamazoo and the icons of my childhood was gratifying and indulgent—it stoked my appreciation for the people and places that shaped me. Now it feels as though I've gone back to my childhood home only to find it full of crumbling plaster and frayed wires; yet my only option is to stay there, trapped between desperate nostalgia and the rapidly darkening future.
As Peter Weller famously said in "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai," "after all, no matter where you go, there you are." We bring with us all the associations of happier or sadder times to every physical place we inhabit no matter how temporarily. When we're at our least profound passages we're still moving towards death and consuming the life we've got in making sure death is held at bay:
The supermarket is a recurring location in White Noise. All those people pushing carts, contemplating trying to right the squeaky wheel that keeps veering left, buying things they think will keep them alive. All those people I think are nothing like me until we shuffle together under the bright white lights, cheekbones sinking, chests caving.
It is a place brimful of life's supports, lit like a hospital delivery room, and there is no place on earth less life-affirming to be. Renstrom makes her shopping choices, not her usual ones, and in her change of life's habits in this stark shining anteroom to the inevitable dark grave, comes to terms with the scope of her problem: Jack and Babette's terror of the end.

Making Luck (Kurt Vonnegut—Sirens of Titan) starts young Joelle's early adulthood with a double-barreled shock: As she unpacks her boxes in a tiny Manhattan space, there is an indescribable noise as planes hit the Twin Towers. From her roof, Joelle watches a shaky rump of consensus collapse in fire and dust and death; coming back into her room, her beloved cat has, in panic, vanished from the premises. Her new job evaporates. Her friends are as shocked as she is, offer nothing real, satisfying, even logical to the hurting grieving lass? Her bookcase offers help, how shocking, as The Sirens of Titan with its chrono-synclastic infundibulum fitting together antithetical truths, its seemingly persecuted Malachi Constant batted willy-nilly about the Solar System at the malign will of Winston Niles Rumfoord as he surfs the infundibulum's Universe-spanning spirals after escaping a Martian-ruled Earth pacified by the Rumfoordian invention, The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Intervention, explanation, causation arrive from (unsurprisingly, to those familiar with Vonnegut) Tralfamadore in the form of a missing but minor bit of Tralfamadorian technology called the UWTB: the Universal Will To Become.
As I skimmed through, Vonnegut seemed to pat my knee and tell me nothing was my fault. Like Malachi Constant, my present circumstance was created by a series of accidents, dice rolls, short straws. Bad luck. Initially, I found the idea comforting—what was [a friend]'s flippant psychobabble next too the infinite wisdom of Kurt Vonnegut?

If luck is the force that moves the world, not everything is about me, or you, or anyone—perhaps not much is. As I stood, my hand pressed to the book as though it were a Bible, I realized that accepting my luck, or the sheer arbitrariness of my situation, was tantamount to admitting that there was nothing I could do, now or ever. While there's a certain comfort in powerlessness and in the idea that all we can do is keep going, I found it problematically passive.
Remembering Malachi Constant in the time before Joelle finds her cat and her post-9/11 footing after the attacks recalls her deep questioning of the comforts of pain's trivialization by the tempting path of predestination. Her father's stage IV cancer is part of the plan. We make our own destiny, it's part of the cosmic plan, it's illusory freedom within an iron cage of karma.
Perhaps it's reductive, but I can't shake the notion that someone's behind the curtain. Luck, even if random, is a force with energy and movement. It has to come from somewhere—every force has a genesis. Is luck born like a thunderclap when certain conditions exist? What or who is luck? Karma raises the same question—if karma is a reaction, who or what is reacting? Who or what determines the poetic justice that will extend over multiple lifetimes? Karma is a system, which suggests that it needs to be managed. Luck seems to be a system, too, though I can't discern what rules or ruler governs it. If luck operates on a scale or system, why can't the outcomes be programmed or predicted?
All the questions everyone who went to college with a philosophy major, or a theology student, spent at least one smoky night discussing. But after 9/11 the issues became more urgent for us all again, and for the author the possession of a well-stocked bookshelf offered up the perfect companion on another midnight ramble down the Path of Least Resistance on our way to the Treadmill of Futility. Vonnegut, in his wise indifference, allowed Joelle to take the control she could of the things she could reach and affect. A lesson that her later self would need to have buried deep in her mental foundations as she comes to terms with her beloved dad's unfair, unearned, undeserved, yet inevitable death.

Letters to Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing and The Martian Chronicles) is the author, a teacher and a daughter and a writer, struggling to get up each morning, step on the annihilating landmine of reality, and spend her day, her life, reassembling the atomized bits into a self.
[My dad and I] were supposed to go to Sweden together—we'd talked about the trip for ages. Now, I had in my bag a glass jar filled with his ashes. The last day of my trip I would spread them over Hedemora, where my grandfather's grandparents had lived. I got up every morning and had to figure out how I would say goodbye that day. Each footfall was a goodbye. Every blink, every yawn, every drop of rain.
This experience of loss is the experience of mindfulness. Every action, performed mindfully, is a connection to all that is and all that was and all that ever will be. Eternity is the experience of now. It's easy to dismiss this insight as facile or puerile. It's harder to find someone who, once the now has fully entered them, snorts or curls a lip at the reality of its immense power to change us.

The Progress of Souls (Walt Whitman—Leaves of Grass Song of Myself #81) takes Joelle on her tireless tour of Scandinavia, allowing us to bridge her grieving self and her healing self in anecdotes personal yet curiously universal, like the post-death sex that most of us have, that animal coupling devoid of connection or commitment that simply affirms the continued vitality of the animal; then the more healing sex of a compatriot, a being whose existence is real to us before, during, and after the encounter.

Whitman's the perfect book-companion for this part of the journey of healing. His verse was very like intimacy, its lines like the smell of your lover's ears or the feel of his ball-sack in your palm. Joelle's men aren't men, they're theraputic appliances, and there's no reason for that to be a bad thing. She needs healing, they need whatever brings them to her side, and both parties are ready, willing, and able to perform their appointed parts in the acts to come. (You should forgive.)

Fighting the Sunday Blues with Albert Camus (Albert Camus—The Stranger) pulls Joelle into her chosen role as teacher, where her students serve as surrogate selves in her search for the edges of her grief. What better way to explore the idea of grieving than to go into Camus' absurd rejection of meaning in The Stranger. Meaning can't be ascribed to any of Meursault's actions, he says so himself, and Camus clearly agrees with him:
Despite their feelings of discomfort regarding Meursault I suggest to my students that because Meursault remains true to himself and to his belefs, and because he thwarts society's attempt to impose its values onto him, he's a hero—at least, in Camus' eyes. This makes the class squirm. They ask how a murderer can be a hero. It's a question so reasonable that it seems almost rhetorical. But more importantly, it's an opening; the best teaching moments come from flipping the obvious, subverting the expected.
So how can grief have meaning? How can the author's Sunday blues have meaning? There's no meaning to find because it isn't there.

Strong meat for a teen. Stronger perhaps for the cicerone charged with explaining the system to the perspectiveless adolescents who, sadly, are often trapped by the idea of meaninglessness and its corollary, the eternal unchanging now, and take a final solution to a problem that's really just a matter of faulty perspective: Why worry about meaning? Life isn't the question, as in "why are we alive?" Life is the answer, as in "In a Universe of absurd, improbable things, how can we not be alive?"

How I Spent My Free Will (Kazuo Ishiguro—Never Let Me Go) explores the adolescent class under Joelle's tutelage responding to the purpose-driven life, the existence filled to the brim with meaning and predestination.

It's chilling and horrible, though, isn't it, the existence these beings are born into, that's designed for them, that's inevitable from cradle to grave? (And, not coincidentally given the last essay in Renstrom's book, this novel won the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award.) Can anyone who has read this book ever look at a purpose-driven life with the same blithe certainty that it's a good thing? I certainly didn't; I don't think Joelle or her kids did, either. A corrective to the absolute freedom of Camus? Merely identifying the poles between which the metaphysical gravity flows?
Absence of hope takes many shapes. It's not the quiet and muted scarcity of something wonderful and luxurious, like chocolates or soft sheets. The absence of hope is the absence of something utterly essential. The absence of hope crumples your chest like cellophane. How ugly the world becomes when the clouds hang hopeless, how suffocating and stagnant. Nothing will ever move or change again. The clouds sag lower and lower until they bind you up like a beetle in a spider's web, unable even to contemplate the possibility of escape. You walk through days as though you're in a CGI movie; some grey shadow has filled your soul, digitally grafted over your image so that you look and feel sooty, dirty, damaged.
Purpose, then, excises free will? Free will obviates purpose? Surely the truth is in the middle!

Isn't it. Isn't it?

Finding Fathers (Barack Obama—Dreams from My Father) takes us with Joelle as the amazing, beautiful moment of Barack Obama's election to the presidency hits the whole country like the sledgehammer that it truly represented. Shattering the ancient white privilege...though not the more ancient male privilege...that dominated US politics was the moment when she looked up at the sky and asked her dead father, "Are you seeing this?"

Never before a believer in an afterlife, by her own report, she reached into immensity and sought a return touch from the source of her life and her hope for purpose. I think it's the act that makes the result.

Closing the Book (Gabriel García Márquez—Love in a Time of Cholera) was the author's somewhat odd choice of reading material for the days of her father's final bouts of chemotherapy. After his death, the book remained on each night table she had for four years. Finishing the book would, I suppose, feel like finishing her journey through grief. Anyone who has been through a profound grieving can tell you that the grief itself becomes a way to feel the beloved's presence. It's as necessary to us, the bereft, as the beloved was in life.

Four years after his death, living in Boston, teaching her teenagers about the landscape of literature and the how the emotional map is not the country, Joelle picks up this deeply fraught read and finishes it. She does so in the unearthly beauty of Mount Auburn Cemetery. But at last she brings into her heart and mind the beautiful and sad tale of time's best, cruelest trick: passing, passing, passing:
Now, as the act of reading Love in a Time of Cholera catalyzes...memories, I feel as though I'm remembering a horrible movie I once saw. Maybe I'm preventing myself from fully accessing those moments, making sure I stay outside them. I have flashes of rememberinghow very real those moments are. Yet a few minutes later I read over the words curiously, thinking, oh yeah, that's right—that happened. Even though I lived it, I still cannot fathom this happening. All I know is that I wouldn't go through it again for anything.
And yet, in the inevitable course of life lived with love, you will. And you will be glad that you did.

The Stars Are Not For Man (Arthur Clarke—Childhood's End) draws on the author's stint teaching a course at her father's university, where he taught for decades, called "The Evolution of Science Fiction." As with all truly well-thought-out courses of action, this one had unanticipated side effects: an intergenerational friendship that blooms in the garden of Joelle's gym. Her friend is an older man whose scientific interests have led him down paths fictional and metaphysical, and the discussions the two of them have are deep, profound, moving; they include the unknowable nature of dark matter and the inscrutable nature of cancer and the sixty-four-year-old miracle that is Childhood's End. Arthur C. Clarke, whose resume includes many fine works of fiction and much wonderful scientific origination...his practical research and analysis made satellite communication possible...wrote of the Overlords and their unasked-for gift of evolution to Humankind in terms that echo the journey Joelle and her friend are on:
"How little we really know about ourselves," [my friend] said. "Regardless of my boundless lack of understanding, I have faith in the way things work. I have faith that they do work," he said. ... "After all, what's the likelihood of you and me becoming friends?" he asked.
What's the likelihood of anything at all existing? What's the likelihood of there having been an imbalance of matter and antimatter in the vanishingly tiny fractions of time following whatever it was that banged in the Big Bang, resulting in the minuscule variations in radiation levels (aka heat) that we've seen and named "the cosmic microwave background" and that underpins the very existence of the universe we so impatiently, demandingly prod and poke and shout, "WHY?!" at with our every breath.

"There lay the Overmind, whatever it might be, bearing the same relation to man as man bore to amoeba...Now it had drawn into its being everything the human race had ever achieved. This was not tragedy, but fulfillment."

And so a daughter lays to rest her father's being inside a structure so vast there is no superlative for it: Herself.

Friday, March 24, 2017

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


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 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

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


$12.99 ebook editions, 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


Penguin Books
$17.00 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


Scribner (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, 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

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.


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

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!