June 01, 2004

Local Girls Made Global

I finally finished James Fox's paen to his grandmother and her sisters, Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, last night. The sisters - who include the archetypical Gibson Girl and Lady Nancy Astor, the first female MP in the British Parliament - spent much of their youth at and adulthood spinning myths about Mirador , the ugly estate their father bought in their youth. I grew up about ten minutes away, and even as the twentieth century closed, the echoes of these Langhorne sisters lingered in the air long after they and their children ceased returning to their family fold.

The title is something of a misnomer - Lizzie, the eldest and most traditional of the sisters is treated glancingly (although her daughters make frequent appearances in the book to inform the depictions of Lizzie's four sisters), and Nora (she put the mad in madcap) and Irene (archetypical southern belle in the NY social scene and wife of the artist Charles Dana Gibson) both fade into the periphery of this book, emerging only for Phyllis Brand (the author's grandmother, and wife of a British power broker) and Lady Nancy Astor to try and control, manipulate, fret about, snipe at, and fight with.

Something was definitely screwy at Mirador, but it is hard to identify just what in this modern version of that favorite family pastime: Redefining History. Fox lays out the flaws and mistakes but never connects the dots; he describes with one hand and excuses with the other, but he never explains what caused the sisters to react so extremely to emotion and to love and to the control of that. The most electric moments in the books come from the letters widely quoted within; there you feel emotion and circular despair and hurt, there are the knives and the manipulation, there are the willful blindness and misunderstanding, and always the reshaping of world, family, and relationships for the letter writer's aggrandizement.

For someone who knew most of the significant players in the novel, Fox depicts them like cardboard, and shorthands the bits that should be explicated. Nancy's second husband, Waldorf Astor, is always slightly out of focus and frame, while Fox turns the spotlight on his grandfather, Bob Brand, making him into a nebbish Cassandra, more prescient than other powermongers Nancy collected around her, more capable of handling Nancy than almost everyone else, and ultimately sadder than the rest. Nora's husbands are an enigma, and Gibson - who defined the styles for the world is barely mentioned.

Posted by julia at 03:09 PM

May 12, 2004

Jane Austen Book Club

Several people have recommended Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club , the reviews have been good, and the blurbs practically swoon in adoration. I, on the other hand, am not impressed. Alice Sebold may want to eat this novel, but I have no desire to even see it again.

I did like bits and pieces of it - the concept of "personal Austens" is interesting but too quickly dealt with; occasional turns of phrase were charming, but I think I was supposed to be more charmed throughout. The dialogue flattened out, and the plot was thinly clad. Some semi-primary characters are sketched into place without a sense for their personal animus (she short-hands much of her characterization).

Invoking Jane Austen is dangerous when you set yourself up for the inevitable comparisons; I would have expected to put this book down and want to pick up Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice, but she didn't even put me in the mood for Austen.

Posted by julia at 05:23 PM

March 10, 2004

Little Literary Epiphanies

I love it when the literary circle closes; I'd been hearing variations on this phrase for years:

"Sometimes Gertrude was witty without even lying."

I found the original (I think, I assume) in Randall Jarell's Pictures from an Institution tonight. A door closed, a bell rung, an answer appeared serendipitously. I feel a little bit of sunshine, even in the middle of the night.

Posted by julia at 04:28 AM

December 12, 2003

Rural Studio

I first read about Samuel Mockbee several years ago in the New York Times. He was an professor of Architecture at Auburn who was a founding light behind the Rural Studio - a hands-on studio for his students. His students designed and built houses in Hale County, Alabama using low-cost and atypical materials for some of the poorest folk in America. I've been fascinated since the first time I saw one of the houses made of tires.

I recently ordered Andrea Dean Oppenheimer's Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and The Architecture of Decency; it is a lush book, filled with pictures and interviews with architecture students, homeowners, state and county services folks, and architects. These houses are warm and comfortable, interesting and inviting, and a boon to the people who live there. The community centers and churches are monumental in their own way, as inviting as the houses.

Innovation here comes from the design, the materials, and the impact of the architecture on the community.

This work is at once more moving, more interesting, and more important than any of the cold glass and steel exercises in theory intended for the rich patron that currently pass for architectural high watermarks.

Mockbee - who had just received a MacArthur grant - died of Leukemia in 2001, but the studio lives on. They do several buildings a year, educating their students in practical innovation and quality architecture, providing warm and comfortable accomodation to the community, and making a positive difference.

Posted by julia at 02:57 PM

April 09, 2003


I can't believe I haven't come accross Nella Larsen's Passing before. Aside from being a ground-breaking novel(la), even in the midst of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance, it's a strong example of early 20th century women's writing, and one of the earliest novels to focus on black women (and not a common stereotype of black women). Larsen's clear-eyed view of racial issues within and without the black communities, and the ways in which race and color influence those relations inform her already vivid writing style.

The story is that of two women: The childhood friends who encounter each other again as adults while they are passing.

One (Clare) is permanantly passing as a white woman; she is married to a racist who calls her "Nig" (because she couldn't possibly be one); the other (Irene) passes for goods and services she can't get (easily) as a black woman. Her husband and sons can not pass, and she has chosen to live as a Race Woman, working for the uplift of the race. This is a marvellously written novel about how their lives touch and collide. It's engrossing; you get caught up in Irene's world and her world view, and as the novel rushes from meeting to meeting of the two women, you can practically taste Irene's emotions.

This is a book about race and gender, anger and deception, fear and sex, regret and guilt, and ultimately about the meaning of all of these things. It roils with doubt and emotions tamped down; it burbles with these women's needs and desires and fears.

Posted by julia at 03:46 PM

April 05, 2003

Lost in a Good Book

Jasper Fforde's followup to The Jane Eyre Affair was worth the wait. Like its predecessor, Lost in a Good Book is set in alternative 1980s - where the Crimean War lasted for over a hundred years, the technologies are all different, and literature is a living, breathing thing. Our heroine, Thursday Next, is a state detective in literary crime, with some rare abilities, including the ability to jump into books and live
in that world.

She's being sued in a literature court for impacting the ending of
Jane Eyre (her actions in the last book led to a happy ending), being blackmailed by a mega-evil-corporation, and trying to authenticate a new-found lost Shakespeare play - all while trying to pay the rent and figure out why a rash of coincidences always seems to lead to an attempt on her life. It's a burbling fun literary escapist treat, filled with puns and word play and odd references.

Posted by julia at 03:07 PM

February 24, 2003

Bachelor Girls

Betsey Israel's Bachelor Girls looks at the single girl in America over the past 150 years, finding fear and loathing in the cultural and societal takes on the spinster, old maid, flapper, shop and factory girl, single girl, and more. She deconstructs the icons and catalogues the shifting cultural perspective. Unfortunately, her perspective is as narrow as her chosen sources, and this book should be better described as Bachelor Girls in NYC.

She relies heavily on the journalism of the past and the advertising iconography, and is able to examine and excavate it, but this tunnel vision (a frailty which she chastizes one of her sources for late in the book) harms her overall tale. Her unwillingness to go outside the city borders for more than four pages total in the book undercuts her theses, and ultimately reduces the book to far less than its parts.

Posted by julia at 07:17 PM

February 18, 2003

Sweet Hell Inside

Edward Ball's The Sweet Hell Inside is, like his first National Book Award non-fiction book, a careful combination of familial history and smart research; it is also highly readable and involving. This is the story of a white South Carolinian slave owner (William Harleston) and his slave-paramour Kate (whose relationship continued until his death long after the war), and of their descendents. Ball is blessed by the memories and stories of his cousin Gussie - Edwina Harleston Whitlock, the great grandaughter of that pair, who is the force behind the story.

Ball interweaves a story of personal and professional struggles expertly, using both sides of the story to inform our view of key players in his tale (and making welcome side journeys into the early world of Jazz, Funereal Science, and the Art World) - Captain Harleston who founded a funeral home and competed with his cousin; his son Edwin, an important painter who ran the funeral home because he couldn't live off his art; his daughter Ella who married the preacher she had an illigitimate daughter with (but could never acknowledge the daughter as her own, even after "adoption"); that preacher whose Orphanage for Black Boys made him rich and famous - and the legendary Jenkins Orphanage Bands that produced a stream of critical early Jazz musicians; the preacher's son who studied in Europe and was tempted away from the classical, high-status music he was composing in London into the riotous jazz nightlife of Paris; and finally Gussie's own tale (raised by her Aunt Ella after her uncle and adopted father Edwin died) of coming of age in the twentieth century. Recommended.

Posted by julia at 07:47 PM

February 03, 2003

No Way To Treat a First Lady

Christopher Buckley is back on form with this hilarious skewing of politics, the law, and media. The story of a First Lady on trial for murdering the President ( he was a philandering former POW; she was a former lawyer who managed to get serious things done as First Lady) skewers just about every overblown ego you'd find in Washington DC or on your TV. He has a particularly good sense of the ridiculous image-making and pundit prattle. I laughed out loud (and long) several times at his take on the media covering the "Trial of the Millenium"

Posted by julia at 05:29 PM

February 02, 2003

Company, The

Robert Littell has written a whole bunch of spy-centric books, and I've read about half of them, and not one of them is anywhere as good as The Company, which is an epic look at spygames at the CIA over a fifty year span. Many real life figures and events are mixed in with the fiction, and Littell populates Angleton's Fifth Man theory. The book actually keeps your attention throughout (not so true with the others I read afterwards), and although a few cheap characterization decisions are made and a few necessary coincidences are foisted onto the narrative, it makes for a good read.

Posted by julia at 06:32 PM

January 30, 2003

Poet and the Murderer, The

Simon Worrell's novel is really about Mark Hofman, the notorious literary forger who killed to keep hhis secret; he now resides in jail and his forgeries dot the landscape like wildflowers. He tells the story using the forged Dickinson poem purchased at Sotheby's auction 2 years after Hoffman went to jail, and returned several months later as a forgery, (and in the process highlights disturbing cracks caused by greed and dishonesty in the ephemera/document market, and at Sotheby's in particular).

Hofman was the pre-eminant literary forger of his day, and not enough time is spent on how he did it - and how he did it so quickly. One of his earliest and most interesting forgeries involved falsifying Mormon documents and antiques designed to undermine the Church, but that is treated abruptly in a book that spends too much time scattershoot to put together a smoothly flowing narrative that looks deeper than facts and figures.

Posted by julia at 06:44 PM

December 15, 2002

Lord of the Rings Trilogy

I couldn't get through the Lord of the Rings trilogy in book form; I got bored and never went back. Peter Jackson's filmed versions, however, have been spectacular; I leave wanting to see the next movie. He makes Middle Earth and its people live and breathe and die, and it is engrossing - even the battle-heavy second movie. I suspect the depiction of the Flooding of One Tower will echo in movies for years to come. The movies are visually rich and interesting to watch.

Posted by julia at 03:10 AM

December 13, 2002

Highsmith, Patricia

Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels have been on my To Read list for well over two years now (recommended especially by my aunt and by L.), and I am only now getting to them. I read the Collected Stories last week and really liked them - readable and interesting and(sometimes more than) slightly misanthropic. The Ripley novels, however, are doing nothing for me. I can't even get halfway through one before flipping to the back, read the last few chapters, and put the book down.

Posted by julia at 08:33 PM

December 12, 2002

Harry Potter franchise

This series must be a props/costume/art direction dream. Light, fluffy, and enjoyable, but I wish they spent more time on the ephemeral aspects of the stories. They didn't need to spend that extra ten minutes making the snake spearing more dramatic in the second film than it was in the book; they could have showed us more of the classes and the odd bits of culture.

Posted by julia at 03:10 AM

December 10, 2002

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper

Harriet Scott Chessman's Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper is a light little novel built around five paintings Mary Cassatt made of her sister in the years before Lydia Cassat succombed to Bright's Disease. It is part imagined memoir, part fictionalized biography. It is written brightly and occassionally superficially, and Chessman invokes the perspective of Lydia so well that the book itself feels limited, shielded, and indirect. I'd borrow it from the library (and I did), but I probably wouldn't buy this book.

Posted by julia at 07:30 PM

December 04, 2002

Millay, Edna St. Vincent - What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

I finished Epstein's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed in a marathon of reading (it had been requested by someone else at the library).

As a biography, it's very readable and very engaging. It's far more approachable than the Milford biography (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay) that I read last month - Daniel Mark Epstein, the author, synthesizes her life well and conveys that to the reader. With Milford, you felt tied to the chronology; the reader experience was to plod through every day of her life. The larger picture was underplayed (why did Millay act as she did, why did she love who she did, why was the morphine addiction was bound to happen) and the themes largely lay there for the reader to pick up and knit together.

Epstein, on the other hand, worships Millay, and although he tries to restrain himself, it is clear in the biography. He goes out of his way to mititgate and apologize for things he can leave alone, and plays the white knight in defending her poetical reputation. He is outraged at her omission from anthologies and seeks to place her as one of the great American poets of the people. And, whereas Milford kept placing herself into the story as if she were unravelling the the tale of her discovery of Millay's life, Epstein tries to keep himself (as the adoring acolyte) out.

I'm quite fond of the Unravelling of the Mystery device used in many non-fiction books - it can be both exciting and rivetting if done correctly; in biographies, however, it rarely works. Instead it usually feels presumptuous or intrusive, diverts attention from the subject, and generally leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

The second half of the book focuses more on Millay's love life, identifying unknown lovers, excavating her romantic life, and judging whether or not the people she took as lovers were worthy of being her lover (and believe me, some are judged not worthy - some for being lesser poets, some for being lesser human beings). Her husband is viewed through some hazy romanticism for much of the biography, and given a pass when a question should be raised. Epstein veers between being an astute analyst and someone who inexplicably glosses over the strange and the eyebrow-raising to hoist his ladies colors. It's annoying, because otherwise, this would be a great, accessible biography. Bah.

Posted by julia at 08:09 PM