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Jane Bites Back: Review

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Jane Bites Back
by Michael Thomas Ford
Ballantine Books

Whew! Am I relieved! As I read the last page of Jane Bites Back, my heart rapidly sank—there were still a few ends left untied, one of them pretty significant. Then I turned to the back and discovered a sequel’s in the works. My spirits were immediately revived: I cannot wait to read Jane Goes Batty, “coming soon” from Ballantine Books. I wonder what “soon” means—the publishing biz can be maddeningly slow. Guess I’ll just have to ask the author. (Full disclosure: I know Michael Ford slightly.)

Following Ford and his twisted mind on this roller-coaster ride made for a rollicking good read—or should I say the rollicking read made for a roller-coaster ride? Either way, I had a blast, and it made me wonder why I’ve shied away from the vampire genre. Actually, JBB doesn’t fall into any genre, fang-related or otherwise. It’s a novel/romance/satire and even mystery all rolled into one. Ford pokes his knife-edged pen at all things romantic, generic, novelistic, and vampiristic, and does a side-splitting number on a pair of talk show hosts named Comfort and Joy. I especially loved his delicious satire of the publishing game.

Jane, by the way, is Ms. Austen, undead in a remote little town in upstate NY, where she’s carved out a fairly normal life, except for her proclivity to inflict in-depth hickeys on the townsfolk every now and then.  Prim and proper Jane hates having to do it, but she’s hunger-driven, having been turned 200-something years ago by none other than Lord Byron.  As Jane Fairfax, she runs her own bookstore and hangs out with the locals, writing a novel in her spare time. When it’s published, her little world bursts wide open, bringing more excitement and danger than the poor girl’s had in, oh, 150 years or so. Can she handle it?

How could she not? when the guy pulling her strings has a mind more imaginative than that of any writer I’ve encountered in a pretty long time (I’m thinking here of Katherine Dunn, author of the outrageous Geek Love). Ford is wickedly funny: I cackled my way through half the book, especially the vampire stuff. Still, I’m a writer reading a writer writing about writing, so the parts I related to best were of Jane as the Austenmeister. For instance, “She herself had become somewhat resentful of newly published books—much as childless women sometimes regarded new mothers and their infants with a mixture of jealousy and despair…” Talk about schadenfreude!

Ironically, a book as much fun as JBB is a good cure for schadenfreude. How can I possibly resent my friend’s success when it’s bringing me pleasure? I don’t—and I eagerly await Jane Goes Batty. Hm…I just remembered…Batty. Bats. Vampires. Ford hints towards the end that Jane needs to spend more time with “her own kind.” Methinks we’ll be meeting some of those creatures in the sequel.

Second Annual Culture List

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Since I did a list last year, I might as well burden myself by turning it into a tradition. Unlike “Ten Bests,” mine’s just a compilation of most of what I’ve read, watched and listened to during the year, with best, worst and everything in between thrown about haphazardly. I must confess, I barely remember some of these books and movies. True, my memory isn’t what it used to be–but I think that if something is that un-memorable, it must’ve sucked—or at least I didn’t much like it.

Naturally, not everything here came out in ‘09, especially the movies.


Books (Fiction and Nonfiction)

True Compass. I took in Senator Ted Kennedy’s autobiography through my ears, and had to return the CD set to the library two discs short of finishing; I’ll probably take it out again someday. At times I was inspired; at other times beat myself up for doing so little in my life compared to Teddy’s huge accomplishments. My personal hangups aside, TC is an absorbing account of one of the most dramatic and fascinating lives in American politics. The assassinations, the big sprawling family he carried on his brotherless shoulders, the commitment, the scandals, joys, and sorrows beyond sorrow—all were so much larger than life. Surprisingly, the personal was more interesting then the political in this account, though some details were  glossed over—like the invisible life of sister Rosemary. On the other hand, Kennedy’s treatment of the Mary Jo Kopechne incident was surprisingly thorough, and I believe that it went down the way he says it did. He didn’t justify his behavior, but expressed regret, and apparently spent his life atoning for the incident. Too many people discount the great things this great man did because of that mistake; I wonder if they would’ve done any better under the same circumstances. I wish Teddy had lived to participate in the Great Health Insurance Sellout: things might’ve gone differently with the Liberal Lion leading the charge. ****

Indignation: The older Philip Roth gets, the faster he seems to write. In Indignation he offers up sociological observation as only he can do it, this time on the Midwestern college as experienced by a working-class urban Jew. The story goes along at a good clip, but about 50 pages before the end Roth drops a bomb: the narrator, it turns out, has been speaking from the grave all along. Not too long after this revelation he leap-frogs from college into the Korean War and his death, and it feels like Roth just got bored with the story. So did I.**

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler. Another book I experienced through my ears, except I remember almost nothing about this one. It was, I think, about an ordinary marriage. I used to adore Anne Tyler; anyone interested in her work should read one of her earlier novels, e.g., Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant, instead of this latest.*

Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness by Ariel Gore. Reviewed here. *****


The Position by Meg Wolitzer. Reviewed here.**


Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period by Michelle Mercer. Reviewed here.*****


My Baby Rides the Short Bus.  Edited by Yantra Bertelli, Jennifer Silverman, and Sarah Talbot. Full disclosure: I have two essays in this collection. See description here.

The Yankee Years by Joe Torre with Tom Verducci.You might have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate the gossip and glory in this book. I am and I did. ****

The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant. Another novel experienced through my ears, this was actually the best book I read in 2009. A rich historical tale, it weaves together the desperate lives of an eclectic group of characters living in on-its-last-legs Dogtown; it’s based on a real place that existed in Massachussetts in the 1800s. This is a town where people scratch out livings in sometimes devious ways, and do ugly things to one another to make it through their hardscrabble lives. If you liked Diamant’s The Red Tent, you’ll love this one.*****


The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper. I’m still reading this story of upper-class Liberians forced by revolution to leave their country. Liberia has an unusual history: it was partly populated by newly freed African-American slaves after the Civil War, with blessings and assistance from the U.S. government. I’d read an excerpt in the New Yorker a few years back, and found it mesmerizing. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the best, possibly the only good part of the book. The narrator is a pre-pubescent girl, and the voice is immature, a common pitfall that occurs when using younger people as narrators. I may not even finish reading this—life’s too short to read bad books. **

Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford. Full disclosure: Mike’s a friend, if you consider someone you met just once a friend, which I do. We’ve been communicating for maybe a dozen years, first via email and now on Facebook. I adore his wicked humor and full-throated imagination, both on ample display in this just published novel. He gives us Jane Austen as a vampire, living 200-something years and forced to witness post-modern Austen mania. I’ve read no vampire novels with the exception of Dracula as a kid, so I couldn’t swear that everything in here runs true to vampire lore—but it sounds authentic. Similarly, I haven’t read any of the Jane Austen wanna-be’s, so I couldn’t swear Ford’s satirical jabs are on target—but I’d bet my Austen collection   they are. Going along with Mike’s sharp and twisted mind on this roller-coaster read makes for a rollicking good ride. Or the ride makes a rollicking read? Either way, it’s a pretty wonderful book, and I’m not just saying that because Mike paid me to. (Joke, joke!) *****



Up in the Air. Loved the story, loved George Clooney (forever), loved the young trainee, awed by the girlfriend’s balls. *****

Avatar When I was younger I had zero interest in ‘special effects,’ and would never forgive a weak plot in favor of fancy tricks. I loathed Star Wars. I suspect I still would today…yet I was blown away by Avatar…and that’s without even seeing it in 3D!  If the story is weak and clichéd, as the critics say—who cares? Avatar is a feast for the senses and transcendent for the soul.  In fact, the story, though familiar, isn’t that bad, it’s even sort of sweet. Sigourney Weaver, still a hot babe after all these years, gives a standout performance as a chain-smoking scientist. I’m soooo glad I didn’t reflexively dismiss Avatar. I can’t wait to see it again, and in 3D this time.*****

Me and Orson Welles. A small, arty film that might get lost in the holiday shuffle. Absolutely delightful. ****

Grey Gardens: Based on the life story of the mother / daughter duo of Edith Bouvier Beale aka “Big and Little Edie,” the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie O. They were once Park Avenue débutantes but left New York society to live in seclusion at their Long Island summer home, and as they became poorer and more isolated, they lost their their grip on reality. Drew Barrymore, who’s fast becoming my favorite actress, gives an outstanding performance as Edie the Younger. Jessica Lange’s not half bad either. Rent it.****

Sugar: The true story of a Latino baseball player. See my review here.****

Burn Before Reading: I remember absolutely nothing about this movie. How is that possible?*

Pirate Radio: See my review here. ****

Cadillac Records: Another rock n roll movie, a genre I obviously adore. ****

Sunshine Cleaning. In order to raise the tuition to send her son to private school, a single mother starts a biohazard removal/crime scene clean-up service with her flaky sister. Mildly amusing. ***

Older (rentals):

Across the Universe. Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. The love story of Lucy and Jude is intertwined with the social movements and young people’s lives of the 1960s. Beatles’ songs are artfully woven into the plot; my favorite moment is when a strange girl climbs into the apartment via the bathroom window, and someone asks how she got in. With this music, what could be bad?*****

Music and Lyrics. Again, Drew Barrymore! And here she plays opposite the adorable Hugh Grant. He’s a recycled ’60s singer from a Loggins & Messina-type act, she’s a plant caretaker who comes over with her watering can and stays to help him write songs. The music is surprisingly good, the romance delicious, the plot quite clever. I saw this twice in one year. *****

Memento: This crazy-making movie is an enigma wrapped in a mystery etcetera. I’ve taken it on as a Zen koan to work at for the rest of my life. Google it and you’ll find a plethora of discussions and analysis; here’s one I particularly like (it’s #10 on his list).  It’s probably considered a cult film, so I suppose that makes me a cultist.****

The Ballad of Narayama (1983). I saw this movie something like two dozen years ago, and some of the images in it have haunted me all these years. I wasn’t disappointed by my second viewing of this story about a small Japanese village where, when a person turns 70, they must go to the mountain top to die. If anyone should refuse, he/she would disgrace their family. Orin is 69, and this winter is her time. Totally fascinating, visually transcendent.*****

Update January 1st, 2010: I saw my favorite movie of 2009 yesterday. It’s Complicated is (a) hilarious, (b) a great story, (c) has fantastic actors acting fantastically, (d) that rarest of Hollywood products, a sexy story about old(er) people, (e) all of the above. Alec Baldwin is a revelation. Meryl Streep is, as always, flawless. I laughed more than I remember doing at any movie since The Wedding Crashers. This points out the utter folly of “Best” lists–comparing It’s Complicated to Avatar is like comparing strawberries to bananas. For me, though, a great story and acting will always matter more than the most special of special effects.


The Playlist

All the music listed here is five stars or I wouldn’t be listening to it. This year I realized that music might be the only art form that hasn’t diminished in bringing me pleasure. Movies are getting predictable, it’s harder and harder to concentrate on books—but my joy in music has actually intensified, and the ever-changing delivery platforms add novelty. I love playing with Genius on iTunes, or making themed lists, sending CDs to friends–I made one on the occasion of Obama’s election, for instance. I am so in love with my iPod that, to paraphrase Charlton Heston, if anyone ever tried to take it away, they’d have to rip it out of my cold dead hands!






Peter Paul & Mary on PBS: Like many people my age, I love the old PPM songs—Puff, Flowers, Hammer, etcetera. Only serious folkies, though, stuck with them through the years. Then, in the wake of Mary Travers’ death this year, PBS did a special on them, and suddenly I heard all these songs I’d never heard before. “Light One Candle” brings on the goosebumps. PPM rules!

Joan Baez and the history of her political journey from 17-year-old idealist to 60-something respected activist also got a fresh look from PBS. With her long hair flowing over her guitar strings, she looked like a beautiful waif–but she’s even more beautiful today. Her voice too: unlike some women singers whose voices lose vocal range, Joan’s has remained as clear and beautiful as ever.

Old Man Mellencamp: John Mellencamp’s latest album is a serious elegy about aging and what’s a-comin’ down the pike, namely, the Grim Reaper. Songs like “Ain’t Gonna Need This Body” are validating to those of us who feel alone with such thoughts–but they’re not for the faint of heart.

Leonard Cohen revisited by a new generation: I rented I’m Your Man, a film tribute, and fell in love with some of the performers, like Rufus Wainwright and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons. Distinctive voices, great music; of course, when it comes to Leonard Cohen, nobody does it better than LC himself.

Gil Scott-Heron: The first hip hop artist (c. 1978) and still relevant.



NEW to me

(Music I got turned on to through radio or podcast or the ether)

Cold Play

Alex Cuba


Negative is the New Positive Part II

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Recent letter to Mick LaSalle, Movie Critic for the SF Chronicle:


Dear Mick: Pirate Radio is not a preview of what old-age nostalgia is going to look like for Boomers. It is old-age nostalgia for Boomers in their 60s. I make this point as a comforting reminder that, as younger Boomers, we’re not quite there yet.—Jim Ronningen, Albany


Dear Jim: Point taken. There’s a big difference between older Boomers (sad, drug-drenched hippies, mumbling about Woodstock) and younger Boomers (radiant, high-functioning epicures, who still own copies of Frampton Comes Alive.). Young folks can’t tell the difference, but we can spot each other with one glance.

Lest it not be obvious, I am of the older Boomer subset, and that exchange of letters explains a lot.

As mentioned in Part I of this thesis, a recent Australian study of personality types gives grumps like me the edge over shiny happy people: “While cheerfulness fosters creativity, gloominess breeds attentiveness and careful thinking, Professor Joe Forgas told Australian Science Magazine.” A mildly negative mood, the study found, promotes an improved communication style, particularly in “stating their case through written arguments.” Hah! That just happens to be my forte! Forgas has also done studies on the effects of weather, and says that dreary days sharpen memory, while bright sunny spells make people forgetful. I’m storing that tidbit away for my next thesis, in which I compare New Yorkers to Californians.

I also mentioned in Part I a new book by Ariel Gore, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. The book makes no case for either extreme of negative or positive; rather, it’s a luxurious meandering exploration of the subject as stated in the title.  (Full disclosure: I was one of the women who responded to Gore’s survey, and at least one of my answers pops up; an article I wrote for hipmama is also quoted.)

I’ve been following Gore’s career since she first launched hipmama, a zine for mothers living outside the paradigm of suburbia / 2.4 children / husband /  mini-van. The zine has since been passed to a new generation, even as Gore gave birth to her second child as her first one entered college. None of this has stopped her from writing interesting, unusual books, of which Bluebird is the latest. Always on the lookout for what isn’t being told by mainstream media, she noticed that in the burgeoning field of happiness  psychology, most of those in Happy Land were male, and, even more alarming, the women who opted for traditional stay-at-home roles were the happy ones.

She sent a questionnaire out to 100 women, asked a smaller group to keep diaries, attended a meeting of “happiness experts,” and in general spent her time studying, ruminating, meditating and cogitating on the subject. Like most books of this type, Bluebird has something for everyone. Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

“My mother,” Gore quips, “considered it a sin of dishonesty to let any negative emotion go unexpressed.”

Naturally, when addressing women’s happiness, the topic of motherhood is central, and this is Gore’s specialty. She has a keen understanding of the difference between motherhood as a fact of our lives, and motherhood as a social and political institution, and she never confuses the oppression of one for the other.

Gore even comes up with a few answers to the questions raised by her mental meanderings. But the most significant aspect of this gem of a book, to my mind, is the fact that negativity, or rather reality in its darker manifestations, is not ignored, spurned or judged. That’s my beef with all the happiness cults—the demand for eternal positive thinking and behavior, and the denial of anything remotely unpleasant.

Because journalists are reviewing Barbara Ehrenreich‘s book Blind-Sided, mentioned in Part I of this rant, there’s a lot of chatter in the media these days about the misguidedness of “positive thinking.” One I particularly like is Why Fake Optimism Is the Worst Way to Deal With Life’s Problems by Liz Langley, posted on AlterNet. In it, Langley interviews four authors for their advice on how to respond to the tragedies and crises in friends’ lives. I can only hope this will mean no more dismissing of real problems with some version of “Buck up!”

Lately I’m really zeroing in on California culture, and why it doesn’t suit me. I’ve lived here for over 22 years, and I’m still a stranger in a strange land. I haven’t lost my New York accent—if anything, it’s gotten more pronounced. I’ve become progressively more negative, more cynical, and more of a hermit. For a long time I believed my isolationist tendencies were generic, that I’d be this way even if I were on the East Coast, but I’m starting to see that the reason I don’t like to socialize anymore is that I simply can’t relate to Californians: I feel inadequate and uncomfortable around them.

Clearly I’m being tested by my circumstances. For complicated reasons, I absolutely cannot move back to New York, so I have to face up to the situation and make peace with it.  I seem to be making some progress. A few weeks ago I was reading a memoir in which the author said her life works best when she’s open to new experience, that she creates the conditions that will allow her life to flow in a positive direction. For some reason this resonated for me. I recalled with sudden insight all the times I’ve sabotaged myself by shutting out the new and scary. I glimpsed the deeper meaning behind all the positive chatter. It was a humbling moment. Ironically, it came at a time when everyone else seems to be tuning in to the darker side—or what I call reality.

Good grief! I can just see it now: as everyone decides to get real, I’ll be in positive thinking mode. I’ll run around smiling like an idiot, drawing happy faces and chirping Have a nice day, but I’ll get only scowls in return. People will lecture me about the falsity of my new persona. They’ll explain negativity to me as if I’d never heard the word or known a thing about it…and I’ll just smile and repeat, “Have a nice day.”

Will You Take Me As I Am: Book Review

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Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer

Will You Take Me As I Am

After enjoying Girls Like Us so much, I began looking around for other books about the most interesting of its three subjects, Joni Mitchell. Lucky for me, bios of Joni seem to be on the way to becoming a cottage industry. Will You Take Me As I Am is described by its author, Michelle Mercer, as an investigation into what she calls Mitchell’s “Blue Period,” encompassing the albums Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, and Hejira.


The release of each one of these albums, with the exception of Hejira, coincided with a different man in my life, and each reflected perfectly the flavor of its corresponding relationship. That is, of course, par for the course among women of a certain age during a certain era in history: Mitchell’s expression of the universal in the personal is the primary reason she caught fire among us. As Mercer notes, “She doesn’t strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself.”


In my opinion Hejira doesn’t belong in this grouping, and not because I didn’t have a man to go with it. Mercer almost completely ignores The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which came after Court and Spark and, to my mind, belongs here more than the later Hejira, with its disjointed melodies; more important, the lyrics seem almost intentionally obscure and distancing compared to the preceding albums. At the time I worried that Mitchell was going in a direction I’d be unable to follow, but four albums later she seduced me anew with Wild Things Run Fast. I’ve come to view Hejira as a bridge to her expansion into jazz and other musical genres, a herky-jerky first attempt that paved the way for the vastly underrated Mingus and WTRF’s seamless fusion of jazz and rock.

Joni sexyBut although the author’s premise doesn’t hang together for me all that well, it hardly matters: the book is a loving assemblage of revelations about the life and work of one of our greatest living singer songwriters. It was delightful to pick up and impossible to put down. Unlike other books written about her, Joni participated in this one’s creation. It’s been said that she wasn’t happy about Girls Like Us, at least in principle; it isn’t hard to imagine her being miffed by the comparison with Carly Simon and Carole King. Speaking musically, who can blame her? I adore Carly Simon’s bouncy songs and heartfelt ballads, but I don’t put her in the same category. As Mercer says, Simon’s songs contain “little of the investigation that turns over relationship woes for insights into human behavior.”

Ostensibly glad for a book of her own, Joni gave generously to Mercer withxbsn interviews, opinions, pithy quotes, and even a tagged-on list of her favorite things. These include, as everyone who follows her knows, smoking cigarettes. As a smoker myself, I so appreciate Joni’s refusal to surrender her rights, her pride, and her self-esteem to those who malign her for this.  Uncowed by the PC anti-smoking fascism of our times, she maintains without apology that it’s “a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.” Hell, if all it took was tobacco to get everyone as focused as Joni Mitchell, I’d second that emotion.

Joni on tourThis book confirmed something else I’ve long suspected about Mitchell: she’s a man’s woman, the kind of gal who prefers hanging out with men. She’s been a tomboy since childhood and plays pool like a hustler. The only female musician she mentions with any degree of respect is the late Laura Nyro.  As for male influences, she clearly points to Dylan and Neil Young.  She still seems to respect and like Graham Nash. About Leonard Cohen she’s a bit more equivocal: though he did influence her music and her thinking when she was younger, she’s come to regard him as somewhat superficial. He cannot, she says, being only partly facetious, write a song without putting the phrase naked body into it. But she shows no humor or equivocation when it comes to Jackson Browne—she loathes him. With all these men except for Dylan (about whom I’ve no idea), Joni had love affairs of some sort, but only Browne seems to have left her foaming at the mouth. As Mercer says, “Don’t get her started on Jackson Browne, the Catholic Church, or modern medicine.”

I know there are lots of women—and men too—who, like me, love, worship and adore Joni Mitchell, both as a musician and a woman. To all I recommend this book, and give it five fat juicy golden stars. She is stardust, she is golden…

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation/Book Review

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Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation/
By Sheila Weller

When woven together, the strands of their three separate lives, identities and songs tell the rich composite story of a whole generation of women born middle class in the early to middle 1940s and coming of age in the middle to late 1960s.

I rarely read celebrity bio’s, but this one was irresistible. I’m a long-time Joni Mitchell

worshipper—you know, one of those women who hung on her every word to find out what was really happening deep within my psyche. It began with her first album and the song “Marcie” –the spelling’s different, but the sentiments, even “Marcie’s” circumstances, rang uncannily true. This went on year after year, decade after decade, with a hiatus between Hejira and Wild Things Run Fast, during which Joni experimented with jazz and other musical styles, letting the personal lyrics get lost in the mix.

At first I was a little put off by Weller’s categorizing these musicians together: Joni Mitchell is far and away the best of the trio—the best of her generation, right up there with Bob Dylan and the Beatles. In terms of Weller’s book, however, and the sociological point she’s making, it doesn’t matter: Carly and Carole have had at least as much of a cultural influence. Pre-Joni, Carole King’s songs provided the backdrop to my furtive groping in cars—only I didn’t know they were Carole King’s, since they were sung by
The Shirelles, The Drifters,
and every other doo-wop group played by Alan Freed and Murray the K. And “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon’s profound anti-marriage ballad, hit the airwaves at the exact moment that I was struggling to break free of my marriage and suburbia; I’ve been loving her sexy songs ever since. Thus, when I saw Girls Like Us, connecting these three as representative of my generation of women, I was blown away.

Ditto when I read that King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? was about a girl puttin’ out for her boyfriend, hoping he’d still respect her in the morning. I was thirteen when that song came out, still a few years from catching its real meaning, and during all this time it still never dawned on me. This was just one of many delicious tidbits I learned about songs I’ve been hearing and singing all my life. Even juicier is all the dish on their relationships, and the incestuousness of their interactions with others in the music world. You’d have to call it celebrity gossip, and I’m as guilty as anyone of eating it up. In my defense, these women, the men who surrounded them, their music, and their lives have been of crucial importance to me. They’ve accompanied me all my life, whether on 45’s, LP’s, tapes, disks, and, now, my iPod. The dish on them is more than just dish: reading this book deepened and enriched my appreciation of their music.

James Taylor, another of my musical favorites, plays almost as big a role in this book as the women: he was romantically involved with all three, while they themselves barely know one another. As Weller says, “the tortured boy was the only one worth having,” and man, was JT tortured. He only got off heroin for good in the eighties, and I’m sorry to have discovered that he wasn’t as nice a guy as his high-minded, often spiritual lyrics would suggest. He was cold, emotionally withholding, barely present as a father (of Carly’s kids) and even, on occasion, downright cruel. But hell, the guy was a dyed-in-the-wool junkie who only got off the stuff after divorcing Carly, a point the author deems significant—but he was a junkie for years before they even met.

The “You’re So Vain” mystery is settled once and for all: its subject is neither Warren Beatty nor Mick Jagger, but a composite of men, including those two, that Carly slept with during a particularly busy season. I was going to say “promiscuous” rather than “busy,” but it would ring false in the context of the book and the era it chronicles. These women slept with the best and the brightest, some of them, like JT, overlapping, especially between Carly and Joni. By contrast, the girl who worried musically if respect flew out the window once she gave herself away, married half the men she took to bed, starting at seventeen with Gerry Goffin, her writing partner, ultimately racking up four or five husbands. (I lost track. Also, these ladies, now well into their sixties, are still doin’ it. Rebels and role models to the death.)

But that’s Weller’s point—that King, Mitchell, and Simon were products of their time, as well as role models who led the way for the rest of us. In the sexual arena, sure—but, more significantly, by wanting, and pursuing, their own ambitions, and paying the cost as the first generation of women to stare down the conflicts inherent in female rebellion. For Joni, the cost was steep: she suffered long and deeply for giving up her daughter for adoption (“Little Green”), with whom she is now reconciled. For Carly, a hopeless romantic who read Anna Karenina ten times, the cost came in her relationship with James Taylor, an all-consuming obsession that drained and devoured her. Carole married men with whom she felt she had to minimize her accomplishments, diminishing herself to keep their fragile egos intact (these Peter Pans continually failed despite her sacrifices; one husband even killed himself.)

Was the cost worth it? Were Joni’s years of guilt, the loss of so many years with her daughter, worth it for the masterpiece that is Blue? Was Carole’s abuse at the hands of men a small price to pay for Tapestry, one of the most successful albums of all time? Was Carly’s bleeding heart no big thing in view of “Life is Eternal,” “You’re so Vain” and dozens of other songs? Easy for me to say it was. I owe these gals a great big thank you. Also thank you Sheila Weller for your book. My gratitude is vast.

Sex Wars: Book Review

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Sex Wars: A Novel of Gilded Age New York
By Marge Piercy

In Sex Wars Marge Piercy takes on another historical era, once again making me wish they’d teach history this way in school. The time is post-Civil War up to 1915, the place, New York City, and three of the four main characters are real people—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Anthony Comstock. The fourth character, fictional, is Freydeh Levin, a Jewish-Russian immigrant from “The Pale.” (Yes, that’s the origin of the expression beyond The Pale.) In case you’re wondering about the book’s unfortunate title, Stanton and Woodhull were women’s rights advocates, working primarily for female suffrage, and Comstock was the head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, a fanatical crusader who destroyed lives and livelihoods trashing bookstores, saloons, and even condom manufacturing. The Comstock Laws are still on the books in New York.

Several other historical figures appear in Sex Wars: Madame Restell, New York’s premier abortionist of the time, Cornelius Vanderbilt, benefactor to Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and her siblings—all drawn with meticulous attention to historical accuracy. Several times I found myself propelled by curiosity to Wikipedia to find out what was real and what was fictional, and found the stories hewing closely to truth. What Piercy makes up, of course, is their inner lives—their thoughts, motivations and feelings as they live through the events unearthed in her research. I wasn’t surprised: Piercy is an avid researcher, and on her website she says she dug up far too much information to include in the novel, and has created a Power Point lecture available for group presentations.

This isn’t the first novel in which Piercy uses historical figures as characters. In City of Darkness, City of Light she took the same approach to the story of the French Revolution. In previous books she often utilized the style of telling stories from various characters’ points of view, most notably in Gone to Soldiers. While I loved both these novels, I was sometimes disappointed when the narrative switched its point of view, as I preferred that of a different character. In Sex Wars this never happened: every character is as compelling as the last, so I was perfectly happy throughout, no matter whose voice predominated—proof that Piercy has attained mastery over this style of storytelling. Other writers who use this method in fiction don’t quite carry it off: Louise Erdrich did it in The Beet Queen, but the voice is the same for every character. In Sex Wars every character is immediately identifiable by speech pattern or sentence structure or techniques I probably can’t even discern.

The era portrayed here bears uncanny similarities to our own time, and Piercy says that’s why she chose to explore it:

“I was attracted to the era after the Civil War because I found it had so many of the same divisions and conflicts as our own time. The role of women in the public sphere and in the family, the degree to which free sexual expression was valuable, permissible, tolerated or condemned, whether Church and State should continue to be separated or whether Christianity should be the official religion…. debates about sexual freedom…censorship and whether the fear that children might view writing, art or entertainment intended for adults that would damage them irreparably was justified or was sufficient reason to ban such adult content. There were similar debates about immigration and whether immigrants from certain countries were dangerous or might contaminate the body politic. There were deep social and political divisions that played out in the media of the time, in elections, in violence in the streets…. There were strong differences of opinion on contraception and abortion—widely practiced but often officially and publicly condemned. The gap between the very rich and the poor was widening, as it is today, and the poor were blamed for being poor, poverty being considered a moral failing – as there is more than a hint of in current rhetoric.”

The event that really blew my mind with its parallel to the present was the Presidential race in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes stole the election from Democrat Samuel Tilden, with the help of several Supreme Court judges. This passage, of course, sent me scampering to Wikipedia; sure enough, Marge told it true. So how come we didn’t hear about it during the hijacked election of 2000? Or did I just miss it?

I’ve missed so much, and haven’t we all? Some of our woefully lacking education can be blamed on public school methods, with their relentless recitation of history as a series of wars and treaties, crap that bored the hell out of me so much I tuned it out. Piercy, on the other hand, brings (forgive me) her story to these pages, including small and large details of domestic life: the food they cooked and how, the clothes they wore and the tools used to wash and iron them. These details not only fill a gap in American education, they also add spark and color to the narrative.

On its website Harper Collins posts a Sex Wars “reading guide,” of the kind so fashionable in book groups today. One question asks readers their favorite character. My immediate answer was, without hesitation, Victoria Woodhull. All I knew of this women’s rights’ advocate was her name. In Sex Wars I learned she was a sex radical who espoused some of the same beliefs as Carol Queen or Susie Bright; that she and her sister were the first female brokers on Wall Street; and that she was the first woman to address Congress and the first woman to run for President—before women were even granted the vote. Several times in her life (yes, I checked Piercy’s facts) she was broken, spiritually and financially—once when Comstock threw her into prison for writing about sexual issues—but each time she rose up like Lazarus. As the Elizabeth Cady Stanton character says near the end, “Victoria had been forced to retreat from her more radical positions because she actually lived them.”

There are flaws; there are always flaws in a Marge Piercy novel. Too much is repetitive, and some characters feel exaggerated, particularly Anthony Comstock, who comes off like an extreme version of Jerry Falwell (then again, he probably was). As she gallops to a conclusion the writing becomes more news reportage than storytelling, and the end is a bit too neat, with each character’s life summed up tidily. But such minor flaws are tolerable in an otherwise compelling page-turner of such wide perspective. Another era beautifully Pierced! (Sorry, as with her story, I just couldn’t resist.)

Book Review: Main Street

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Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, 1920

I thought I had a pretty good education; I know it was superior to what the poor puppies get in public school today. Hell, I even went to college. So how come I’m spending my adulthood reading the so-called classics? Are there just too many for school to cover them all? In a way I’m lucky, reading books like Main Street at an age when I can fully appreciate them.

Maybe I wasn’t taught Main Street because it’s so completely subversive, particularly if you lived on it. Anyone who’s resided in a small town or its modern incarnation, suburbia, will recognize the American Homeland in these pages, despite it being set almost a hundred years ago. Gopher Prairie is a small town full of small minds, small ideas and small ambitions. Carol Blodgett, a vivacious young woman who works in a St. Paul library and dreams big dreams, falls in love and marries Dr. Will Kennicott, and follows him to his beloved home town.

Carol’s is a familiar life story: woman leaves city to follow man she loves to a place she is in no way suited to, and ends up feeling trapped among people she despises. She tries to change the town, she tries to change herself, and when all else fails she tries to have an affair. When none of these tactics produce the desired results, Carol finally leaves Gopher Prairie, child in tow. Unlike most women, and only because Will Kennicott is unusual in his level of husbandly tolerance, Carol eventually returns–but not until she’s learned more about the world and herself, enabling her to live in Gopher Prairie impervious to the tyranny of Main Street.

The picture Lewis portrays of Midwesterners isn’t pretty—in fact, it’s downright misanthropic. These are myopic people who walk through their lives half asleep, frightened of anything new, whether brightly colored dresses or “communism” in the form of a workers’ union. The writing is rich and detailed: each character springs from the page to life, with personality revealed by the tiniest of mannerisms. The way they talk to one another, the jokes they tell, the things they consider important (primarily money and appearances) come through in every sentence and paragraph. The style is smooth and natural, never calling attention to itself, never detracting from the story.

The themes of Main Street are eternal–that’s what makes it a classic–and not only has Lewis provided a historical perspective on America, but his portrait still resonates today. Though some issues may have changed—like bright dresses–the people of Gopher Prairie are scarily familiar.

I don’t know if Lewis meant to convey city living as far superior to small towns—he may have chosen the latter as a locale only in order to illuminate America’s most extreme conservatism—but, given my experiences, that’s a big piece of what I got from Main Street. I lived in suburbia for twelve years, and in a country town for fifteen. By now I’ve spent more of my life in cities than in small towns, for which I am extraordinarily grateful. Every time I lived anywhere other than a city I hungered. I wasn’t so different from Carol Blodgett: when I got married and moved from one suburban town to an even smaller one, I tried to rouse the citizenry to build a public library. All of twenty-two, I was shocked at the hatred my campaign, and I, attracted: people in Rocky Point were as determined as the good citizens of Gopher Prairie not to part with their money, especially if it was to serve the teeming, stinking masses.

Grand Central Station, New York:

Even in Woodstock, New York, a hippie-artists colony, I felt claustrophobic, and now, on Oakland’s lovely suburban-ish streets, I long for the gridlock of New York, the freedom of comfortable anonymity, where ideas and culture swarm everywhere–on the bus, in the street, in cafes.

Sinclair Lewis was the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1930, and Main Street was the book that first won him recognition. The next classic I delve into is going to be his Babbitt, which I hear is just as good. Long live the American novelist.


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