Down and Out in Denver

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. V

Posted in books by Blake on May 14, 2011

In this edition of the Book Nook, we are going to explore three books that have received insane amounts of hype over the past couple years, much of it undeserved, in my humble opinion.  Let’s call this Blake’s Book Nook: The Overrated Edition.  I generally avoid reading books that everyone else is reading.  Because I’m a snob. Two of these books, however, I read in different book groups and one I read while trapped in a vacation home, having finished the book I had brought with me.  So those are my excuses.

Let’s start with the biggest of them all, a book that has already been made into a movie it was so popular. Eat, Pray, Love is the type of book I never read. Not only because it is insanely popular, which means I will be embarrassed to be seen with it in public, but because it’s about some sort of ill-defined spirituality, which I do not possess and have no desire to investigate. This is the one I read because there was nothing else around. And I have this to say: Elizabeth Gilbert is definitely very funny, and she writes well. She’s particularly good at describing other cultures, like a witty and self-deprecating anthropologist. But I just did not care about any of the life-transforming business and the inward-looking, God-finding, self-loving forgiveness and general warm-feelingness that is, in the end, the point. This is to say that I was highly amused by Italy, bored stiff by India, and generally ready for things to be over by the time we got to Indonesia.

It is not, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert’s fault that her book became such a sensation. And it’s completely understandable how and why that happened: there are lots of unhappy people in this world who want to change their lives. Eat, Pray, Love is like a literary version of a TV before-and-after weight-loss show (and she’s smart enough to realize this, it seems to me). But in the end all that hype may have done her the slightest disservice (not that she minds, I’m sure) because no book could possibly live up to the hype that surrounds this one. In a word: overrated.

Next on our list is The Help, which you have seen in every airplane you have been on in the last year. It’s a big favorite with book clubs and I even voted for it to be read in an impromptu vacation book club that I was a member of, so fascinated was I by all the hype. It’s compelling, no question. I read it quickly and I definitely wanted to find out what would happen. I also liked all the principal characters, whom I thought were reasonably well-crafted. But I have a couple complaints:

The writing is clunky at times. The foreshadowing can be painfully obvious. One is well aware that when some new element is introduced it is there for a reason and is going to factor importantly down the road.

The use of various moments in history — Kennedy’s assassination, Bob Dylan on the radio — never really fit in with the overall narrative and felt remarkably forced.

One character is written entirely in some sort of Southern black dialect. And yet the Southern white characters are not written in dialect. The politics of a white woman writer taking on this voice aside, the inconsistency was jarring. If we’re going back in time to 1960s Mississippi, the white people talked differently too, no?

In terms of the overwhelming popularity of the book, it seems to me that this is a novel that allows white people who haven’t given race much thought to feel good about themselves for being on the right side, that is, the anti-racist, pro-maid side. It also presents race and racism in pretty stark terms: the white ladies in this novel are — with the exception of the protagonist, Skeeter, and another employer, Celia — by and large pretty awful. In other words, there’s not a lot of nuance, and it’s relatively easy for white readers not to feel implicated (“I don’t have a black maid whom I mistreat on a regular basis, so I guess this race issue isn’t about me…”).

I read recently that the author’s brother’s maid, whose name is Ablene Cooper, has filed a lawsuit against Stockett for appropriating her name and image without permission (one of the protagonists is named Aibileen Clark).  As Cooper puts it,”Ain’t too many Ablenes.”  Indeed.

Finally, Just Kids, a book I very much expected to like, but didn’t.  There are some moments of real poignancy here and some very deft turns of phrase, but I was also just bored stiff for most of it. Clearly Smith has led a really interesting life, but she’s just not a great writer. The great bulk of the book was a long series of “Then this happened. Then that happened. Then Robert did this. Then I did that.” And while there is a lot of reflection about art, there is very little on the subject of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, supposedly the purpose of writing the book. How and why did she stick with him — as a lover — through his gay hustling? What did she feel about this? She is by turns squeamish about his homosexuality and also fully accepting of everything he does. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either reaction but I’d like to hear a little more about them.

Bottom line: had this not been Patti Smith writing about Robert Mapplethorpe, and had I not been in a book group where we were discussing the book, I would never have finished it.

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. IV

Posted in books by Blake on April 9, 2011

I am one of those people who suffers from an ailment called Mitfordiana.  I am obsessed with the Mitfords, and this volume of Blake’s Book Nook is devoted to the recently published autobiography of Deborah Mitford, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, called Wait for Me! … Memoirs.

For those not in the know, a brief word first on the Mitfords, six sisters and one brother born into an aristocratic English family (their father was the 2nd Baron Redesdale) between 1904 and 1920: Nancy, Pamela, Tom, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah. Perhaps best known now for the nominally fictitious and riotously funny portrayal of the family in eldest sister Nancy’s classic novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, the Mitfords were also famous in their own time, for these many reasons: Nancy was a successful novelist and biographer.  Diana, a great beauty, married and then divorced the heir to the Guinness fortune, leaving him for the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley (they were both imprisoned during World War II).  Unity became a devotee and friend of Hitler and shot herself in the head in a Munich park when England declared war on Germany (she lived for nine years afterwards). Jessica (called Decca by all), first eloped to the Spanish Civil War with her first husband (who later died in WW II), then became a Communist and moved to the United States, eventually writing the classic expose of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death.  Deborah, the youngest, married the second-in-line to the Dukedom of Devonshire; the first in line (married to Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister to JFK, et al) died in WW II and Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire when her father-in-law died. Pamela, often called “the rural Mitford,” married and divorced a bisexual millionaire scientist and eventually ended up sharing her life with an Italian horsewoman.  And Tom, dashing man about town in his youth, died tragically young, also in World War II.

The Mitford sisters and brother with their parents

So with all that you can imagine why I, and millions of others over the years, have been avid consumers of the novels and memoirs and autobiographies and collected letters and movies that can only be described as the Mitford Industry.  Four of six sisters wrote books and Mary Lovell published a great group biography, The Sisters, in 2002.  Their letters to one another are also collected in The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, which is edited by Diana’s daughter-in-law, Charlotte Mosley (and which is next on my list of Mitford lore to consume). Other Mitford epistles are collected in many other volumes.

The Mitford sisters (minus Deborah)

The latest is the memoir by Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, which she calls Wait for Me! because she was the youngest and always being left behind.  This needs to be said right off the bat: she doesn’t write as well as her sisters, at least Nancy and Decca, who did most of the writing.  She is best when she’s describing her upbringing, but even then she relies on the published words of those sisters from time to time.  By the final third of the book, it’s become a long list of events and celebrated people whom she’s entertained and it gets both a little confusing and a little boring. As Janet Maslin noted in her review in the Sunday Times in December, when you get to a paragraph that begins with “Poultry has been important to me since childhood,” you know you’ve reached the end. All that said, however, it’s fascinating to hear her take on her sisters and their famous disputes with one another, to understand how one family produced a Communist, a Fascist, and a Nazi-sympathizer, as well as a Duchess.  She’s also eloquent on the subject of English country houses, especially the ones that come with titles and what happens to such a house when the title and house pass from one generation to the next and the death duties of 80% of its value will bankrupt it entirely.  The answer (what she and her husband did with Chatsworth): sell and donate the greatest artistic treasures, open the house to the public, and run it like a business, writing charming books about it all the while.

In the end, while Wait for Me! is not the best of the volumes on the Mitfords (fiction or non), it’s still about the Mitfords and that’s good enough for me.  Novices should probably start with Nancy’s novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate (usually bound and sold together; they are sequels) or Decca’s memoir, Hons and Rebels.  And enjoy!

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. III

Posted in books, gays, politics by Blake on September 20, 2010

Following the positive review of her new book in the Sunday Times book review, yesterday I picked up a copy of Rebecca Traister’s Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women.  And I read the whole thing pretty much in one sitting last night. I did pause for dinner.

Traister’s book is an account of how gender politics played out in the 2008 election and what this meant for women then and means for them now and in future elections.  Traister covered the election for Salon and saw many of the candidates in action.  But more than what the candidates themselves said, this book is about how Americans — and the media especially — reacted to what they said, didn’t say, and what some believed they said even when they didn’t really.  It’s about how the media dealt with the issue of gender: with the fact of a woman running for president, the first woman in the history of the United States to win a primary election; with a Republican vice-presidential nominee who claimed to be a feminist but was rejected by most others who claim that name; with the potential of the first African American first lady who happened to be as accomplished as her husband.  It’s about sexism and sexist expectations for female politicians. And it’s a really good read.

Traister is open about her politics.  She is a progressive feminist who votes for Democrats.  At the beginning of the primary season she supported John Edwards, who, she rightly points out, had an agenda further to the left than either Clinton or Obama. As she also points out, he is a white guy, and could probably get away with being further to the left than the black guy or the white woman.  That said, Edwards could not garner enough votes and dropped out of the race. Traister ends up voting for Clinton in the Super Tuesday primary.  But she did so reluctantly, acknowledging that Obama and Clinton actually agreed on much but also that for almost all voters some form of identity politics was at play.  One of Traister’s greatest arguments is about the way that those who might not have supported Clinton initially — in part because of her decision on the Iraq war, her being a Clinton, and her increasing centrism — came to do so precisely because of how horribly everyone was treating her.  And on this count, Traister provides unassailable evidence.  It makes you mad all over again.

And so the book is not an homage to Clinton, who, like all politicians, Traister sees as flawed in certain ways; instead it is an exploration of how Clinton was treated by the media as well as by all kinds of supposedly progressive white men whose vitriol for her struck Traister as pretty misogynist. Hear, hear!  But Traister doesn’t stop there; she also looks at the reaction to Sarah Palin, a polarizing figure in all kinds of other ways.  And to Michelle Obama, who was required — in the tradition of First Lady HRC — to tone down her own individuality and play up her wife- and motherhood in order to meet with much acceptance. Traister is also interested in the role of women in pop culture: feminist bloggers, feminist activists, newscasters, comediennes. The book includes excerpts from her interviews with Gloria Steinem, Shelby Knox, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Samantha Bee, Amy Poehler, and many others.

I have one quibble with the book, or at least one that won’t be too much of a spoiler.  Traister writes about the people who tended to support the different candidates she discusses (by age, sex, race, etc.) and, as I noted, pays particular attention to the ire that many supposedly liberal white dudes had for HRC (also noted by others at the time, including our blogging gal pal Historiann, to whom I will be lending this book). Traister characterizes them, in passing, as straight, but doesn’t delve into that so much.  I would have liked to hear more about that, as it was always my impression at the time that many gay men were pretty enthusiastic about Hillary, even if they also had some of the misgivings that I have already mentioned (I’ll go on record, albeit pseudonymously, and put myself in this camp).  So what might this have to do with being a straight guy?  Why might some otherwise progressive straight dudes have found HRC so threatening, whereas their queer brethren did not? What might this have to do with the ways that straight men and gay men differently interact with (straight) women? I’ve got my theories but I would have loved to have heard Traister’s.

In sum, for those of us who are progressive and feminist, the book is pretty absorbing.  For those of us who hope to see the day when a woman sits in the Oval Office, particularly a feminist woman, it’s a must-read. Traister believes that the 2008 elections actually got us closer to that goal.  I sure hope she’s right.

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. II

Posted in books by Blake on August 24, 2010

Readers may remember that I inaugurated a new feature here at DOD last month: Blake’s Book Nook, in which I pretend that I run a book shop and recommend a (usually) recently published book to you.  Today we have our second installment: Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell. Caldwell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2001, is a book critic for the Boston Globe (formerly its chief critic) and the author of another memoir, A Strong West Wind.  This is the story of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp, and of Knapp’s death from lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 42. Knapp was also a writer and the author of a number of collections of essays as well as a memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, about her struggle with alcoholism.  That book, which is fantastic, is one of the reasons I read this one, that and the excellent review in the most recent Sunday Times Book Review.

I like stories about friendship, particularly ones that acknowledge the importance that it has in our lives.  Like Ann Patchett’s very moving Truth and Beauty — also the story of two writers, one of whom dies suddenly and tragically — this is the chronicle of a long friendship between two women, but there is much less drama to the actual friendship between Knapp and Caldwell than existed between Patchett and the poet Lucy Grealy.  The friendship between Knapp and Caldwell is arguably more central to both of their lives.  They meet when Knapp is in her late 30s and Caldwell is 9 years her senior.  Both have recently adopted dogs and are well nigh obsessed with training them properly (Knapp was also the author of Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, where Caldwell and her dog, Clementine, make a pseudonymous appearance).  Both are also recovering alcoholics.  Neither is married or involved with a man, though Knapp eventually reconciles with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and marries him the month before her death. Their friendship quickly escalates to the status of a primary relationship for both of them.  In a society where many people don’t marry, or wait many years before doing so, and many more leave marriages, Caldwell and Knapp shared their lives together as friends.  They talked, they competed, they swam and rowed (both exercise fanatics), they vacationed, they trained and walked their dogs together.  When Caldwell bought her first home, Knapp carried her over the threshold, laughing the whole time. Their friendship was deep and meaningful and important.

Of course no book is great just because it’s about something interesting and important.  And this is true of Caldwell’s.  It’s great because she writes beautifully, doing her utmost to describe what friendship means, how grief feels, and how loss manifests itself in our lives.  Caldwell begins:

It’s an old, old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died, and so we shared that, too.

Her writing is simple without being stark.  At times it is funny.  And often it is heartbreaking.  (I should say also that on the subject of grief, I far preferred this to Didion’s much fêted Year of Magical Thinking, which I found pretentious and without much new to say.) What works is how observant she is and how she is able to translate that to the page, to make us see what happened between her and Knapp, and why it mattered, why friendship matters. Caldwell recalls the moment when Knapp, a long-time smoker, is first diagnosed with lung cancer:

I remember two things from the rest of that day with glaring clarity.  One was Caroline crying as I wrapped my arms around her, after they had brought her back up to her room, when the first thing she said to me was “Are you mad at me?”  It was the voice of early terror, a primal response to bad news, and to this day I don’t know whether she meant because we had fought about the smoking or because she knew she was going to leave me.

And after her death:

For years, through the trials of writing or dog training or life’s ordinary bruises, Caroline and I had been the soothing, modulated voice in each other’s heads.  Now my thoughts were clanging around unnoticed and unheard, lonely music with too much bass.  For months, I kept wanting to call her, half assuming I could, to tell her what her dying had meant, what her death had done to my life.

These two excerpts simply do not do the book justice.  Suffice it to say that I read it all in one sitting, crying through the final third.

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. I

Posted in books, gays by Blake on July 21, 2010

So one of my perpetual complaints about Denver is that people don’t really seem to read.  Books. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever you like; just something other than magazines and newspapers and the interwebs.  I like to read.  A lot.  I’ve also always had a fantasy, if I weren’t doing what I do now, of opening up a little bookstore where I would stock the shelves with all the things that I like to read and develop a community of like-minded readers here in D-Town.  Maybe I’d even call it Blake’s Book Nook. In that spirit, I am inaugurating a new feature here at DOD.  Every once in a while I will post about a book that I think people might enjoy reading, just as I did in the very first weeks of DOD.

We begin this literary venture with the latest from Stephen McCauley, Insignificant Others. McCauley is the author of five previous novels, most famous among them The Object of My Affection, which was made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and the ever-dreamy Paul Rudd.  I first read McCauley when I was an undergrad and just coming to terms with the gay thing.  He writes novels that are quite funny but also often poignant. Combining these two elements isn’t always easy, but at his best McCauley makes it look so.  In my estimation his most recent two have not been as good as his early work, but he returns in fine form with Insignificant Others. It is the story of HR Director Richard Rossi, who is having a long-term affair with a straight married man but is also partnered with Conrad (who Richard has discovered is also having an affair of his own). Richard suffers few moral qualms about all this; he just doesn’t want to upset the precarious balance that has been established. The thing to know about McCauley is that you can’t take it all too seriously; his characters often do not.  The book is slightly implausible, but often ridiculously funny for being so. In addition McCauley is just so astute in his observations about people and life in general that the implausibility ceases to be a problem.  It’s also pretty clear that McCauley knows he’s writing some pretty absurd characters.  In sum, it is just hard to believe that people making such foolish choices could simultaneously also be this lucid or self-aware.  But it’s great fun for the reader that they are! I leave you with some gems from Insignificant Others.

This is a musing by Richard after being overheard by a small child:

From what I can tell, the chief distinguishing factor between children and adults is that children hear everything while appearing not to and adults hear nothing while pretending to listen.

This is the reaction of a female friend after Richard has lied to cover up his male friend’s own lie:

She frowned at me.  “I won’t hold it against you for trying to back up his lie, Richard.  It seems to be the main purpose of male friendships.”

“Versus women’s friendships,” Conrad said amiably.  “Which are all about discussing the lies the men in their lives tell them.”

About a personal trainer who has taken to spray tanning:

As people demand less and less be done to their food chemically, they seem to be insisting that more chemicals be applied directly onto or into their bodies; painted tans, injected lips, pharmaceutically elongated eyelashes.

And finally, in discussing golf:

It was all about letting loose your aggressions in a calculated way and then watching the effects on a helpless little ball, which perhaps explains the popularity of the sport among Republicans.

Add to all these witty observations a plot, and characters about whose fate you care, and it’s clear that Stephen McCauley is back in his element.  All the better for us!

Village Antique Mall

Posted in books, denver by Blake on April 19, 2010

After a leisurely brunch at Table 6 (post coming soon from Alastair), we — Alastair, our friend Gareth, and my Gentleman Friend (in town for the weekend), and I — strolled homewards.  We stopped along the way at the Village Antique Mall, located on Corona between 8th and 9th Avenues. I had seen the signs for the VAM, but never ventured in.  What a delight!  The Mall is divided into stalls, each one run by a different vendor and some specializing in particular kinds of antiques and not-so-antiques.  I’m not much of an antiquer myself, but this was a lot of fun.  And I got bargains!

Emily Post's Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage

One always has questions about social customs and one always wants to know the proper answers. Emily Post’s classic Etiquette has them!  Post explains on the cover that while the fundamentals remain untouched, “the problems of modern life demand certain changes in the forms of living.” This updated 1950 edition was only $6.  While I have long been a devotee of Miss Manners’ witty responses to readers’ questions on matters of etiquette (Dear Miss Manners: What am I supposed to say when I am introduced to a homosexual “couple”?  Gentle Reader: “How do you do?”  “How do you do?”), Emily Post is the classic and I’m delighted to add her to my library.

The Dionne Quintuplets

Long before the McCaughey septuplets and “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” there were the Dionne quintuplets, the original multiple birth celebrities.  Identical quintuplets Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Emilie, and Marie Dionne (in their birth order) were born May 28, 1934 in rural central Ontario, just south of Nipissing Bay near the village of Corbeil.  Four months after their birth they were made wards of the government and became celebrities.  For a number of years in grade school I was obsessed with the Dionne quintuplets and wrote a couple research “papers” on them.  So imagine my delight to come upon this framed souvenir photograph of the quints for only $14!  What a steal.

The Dionne quints lived for nine years as wards of the government of Ontario, starred in four Hollywood films, and were put on display in Quintland, the theme park whose revenue surpassed that of Niagara Falls and generated more tourist dollars for Ontario than any other attraction at the time.  When the McCaughey septuplets were born in 1997, the surviving Dionne sisters wrote their parents a letter beseeching them not to exploit their children and warning them of the dire consequences.  Imagine what they would say to Jon and Kate!

Emilie died at age 20 following an epileptic seizure.  Marie suffered a fatal blood clot at the age of 35. And Yvonne succumbed to cancer at age 67.  Now 75, Annette and Cécile live as anonymously as possible in a Montréal suburb.

Undine Spragg, I love you!

Posted in books by Blake on November 16, 2009

imagesIt’s cold and snowy here in Denver so I spent most of yesterday rereading one of my all-time favorite novels, The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton. Wharton is a genius, so far as I’m concerned, brilliant at documenting New York society at the turn of the century. Though she’s best known for Ethan Frome (a non-New York novel), The House of Mirth, and The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country is probably my favorite, if only because it’s just so nasty and funny.

It is the story of Undine Spragg, which must be one of the most hideous names in all of literature. Her parents named her for a hair-waver her father manufactured that came out the week she was born. As her mother, Leota B. Spragg, explains, “‘It’s from undoolay, you know, the French for crimping.” Undine and her nouveau riche parents move from Midwestern Apex City (yes, really) to the Big Apple in order to give her the chance of making it in society. Undine is, at least, beautiful, but she’s often seriously dumb and remarkably vain, which make the novel all the more fun. Early on in the novel she goes to a museum to “look at the pictures” because she had discovered at a dinner party the night before that this was something that fashionable people did. Wharton writes:

Presently her attention was drawn to a lady in black who was examining the pictures through a tortoise-shell eye-glass adorned with diamonds and hanging from a long pearl chain. Undine was instantly struck by the opportunities which this toy presented for graceful wrist movements and supercilious turns of the head. It seemed suddenly plebeian and promiscuous to look at the world with a naked eye and all her floating desires were merged in the wish for a jeweled eye-glass and chain. So violent was this wish that, drawn on in the wake of the owner of the eye-glass, she found herself inadvertently bumping against a stout tight-coated young man whose impact knocked her catalogue from her hand.

Undine is the social climber par excellence, giving Thackeray’s Becky Sharp a run for her money. And Wharton is fantastic at describing the ways that Undine learns the ways of New York society, makes mistakes and then learns from them, ditching friends (and husbands) along the way when they are no longer useful to her. By the end of the novel she has married four times, is a very wealthy woman, and yet always what she wants is just slightly beyond her grasp. She has designs on an ambassadorship for her fourth husband (also her first), Elmer Moffatt, but he informs her that it won’t be possible because ambassadors cannot be married to divorcées (which she is), and thus he will never be made an ambassador. As Wharton explains in the final paragraph of the novel, “She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor influence nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador’s wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part that she was really made for.”

Denver may have been cold and snowy but as long as I’ve got Undine to keep me company, you won’t hear me complain!