Wednesday Shorts

The Barbizon

A photo of the book "The Barbizon" by Paulina Bren on my very, very messy desk.

The Barbizon is a chronicle of a particular time and place in America. The time is after the first wave feminists have won women the right to vote, but before Federal policies designed to move (white) people out to the suburbs decimated urban America in the 1970s. The place is The Barbizon Hotel, an upscale women-only boarding house not quite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Only some meals were included, but housekeeping always was, to allow you to pursue your dreams.

The hotel was meant to be a safe space for attractive, white, middle and upper-middle class young unmarried women. A place for them to come to New York City, to get a career, usually as a model, actress, writer, or a secretary. A place for them to stay that was safe, where their parents wouldn’t worry about them. Grace Kelley stayed there, and so did Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.

And it largely worked: it gave women a space to come to New York City, to be adventurous within a restrictive society’s boundaries, to explore who they wanted to be, at least if you were of a certain type. There is some mention of the restrictiveness of who was allowed to stay there; the final chapter, about the hotel as NYC fell into the 1970s and the future, could examine more about how The Barbizon was a product of its time and it was no longer its time.

I really enjoyed the book. The Barbizon Hotel has a certain imprint on movies and books – if you’ve read The Bell Jar, you’ve read a depiction of the hotel – and it was good to get a grounding on what it really was, how it worked, how it allowed freedom for some and what that freedom really looked like.

Recollections of My Nonexistence

Recollections of My Nonexistence is a series of essays about growing up in the West, about becoming a writer, about being a woman who wants to do things in a society that doesn’t want women to do things. It’s also a story about a San Francisco that I worry doesn’t exist anymore, now that there has been so much money and so many tech people moving in and so many other people have been forced out.

But by and large, there is a thread of sexism and violence against women that runs through the book – these being the ways that women are kept in roles they don’t necessarily want. These are the ways that society tries to pretend women don’t exist, by silencing them in so many ways, including killing them.

Women, you, me, all of us, have a right to exist and to be heard, just as much as men do. These essays are the story of how Rebecca Solnit learned what that means for her and how she moves through the world.

Rule of Wolves

Rule of Wolves cover displayed on a kindle.

Rule of Wolves is the latest book in the Grisha/Nikolai/Six of Crows series of YA books by Leigh Bardugo. It’s the second of the Nikolai books and if you haven’t read the first one, King of Scars, you’ll be lost. But you also won’t understand a whole lot of it if you haven’t read the three Grisha books either. The Six of Crows books are a little more tangential – those are nice-to-have-read, instead of you-won’t-understand-chunks-of-the-action.

All that said, the main challenge with these two books has been “how do you take a beloved side character – one who benefits from a bit of mystery – and turn him into a main character without lose that glamour that the mystery gives you?” The first book didn’t do too bad a job at that, but it’s this book that really turns Nikolai from that very charming side character and brings him into his own. The last book was trying to fit him into a mold of something that his character wasn’t – and maybe that was the point. He was trying to fit himself into something he wasn’t, not really.

This was an adventure-filled book with a decidedly feminist twist in it as well, which I won’t spoil. But, if you have read the rest of these books, Rule of Wolves is a fun addition to the story.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Well, that was devastating.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a wonderful book with so much love in it that is nonetheless about how structural racism can ultimately affect that love. Tish and Fonny are a young couple in love, and how they became a couple is told in flashbacks to the main story, where Fonny has been jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, and their struggle to free him.

It’s James Baldwin, so the language is marvelous; it’s James Baldwin, so the racism is cuttingly accurate. But what really struck me was all of the ways that love is shown in the story – the romantic love between Tish and Fonny, but also the friendship between Fonny and Daniel and the sisterly relationship between Tish and Ernestine and the parent-child relationship between Fonny and his father as well as Tish and her parents. The story is bleak, but the relationships and the caring that exists between people in the book was what made it worth reading to me.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday Shorts

  • The Americans Who Knitted Their Own Safety Net. I work at a non-profit, and it’s very easy to get caught up in mission statements and process and “professionalism” (a term I despise). I take a lot of inspiration from Mutual Aid Networks that are all about getting what’s needed to who needs it as quickly as possible.
  • Empathy Beyond Therapy. The boundaries between how friends help each other and how a therapist helps a client are blurry as hell, and something I’m always interested in exploring. I don’t know if it’s a difference between the West Coast (where I live) and the Midwest (where I grew up), but the boundary here is different. Is it a location thing? Is it just a different time than when I was young? I don’t know. Who you rely on and how you rely on them is different, and I don’t always understand how.
  • Jessica McClintock passed away last week and her obituary was more eventful than I would have expected.
  • Long Live the Girl Detective. A short story, one that I quite enjoyed.