Velvet was the Night

A friend read Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s previous book, and complained that, while it was good, she wanted more Mexican culture. Not necessarily less gothic, just more of what the country feels like.

Well, Velvet was the Night has that. But it’s not the tourist-friendly Mexico. It’s the 1970s CIA-funded anti-communist groups fighting the student radicals who are protesting government corruption. The CIA is implicated from the top of the book. It’s clear that the situation is ugly and it’s the Americans’ fault.

This is the background to a classic thriller – there is undeveloped film that everyone is after. We’re following two of them: Elvis, a low-level agent known as a Hawk, one of the CIA funded groups, and Maite, a legal secretary who has been asked to take care of a neighbor’s cat and ends up mixed up with the student radicals when the neighbor doesn’t return. These two are wonderfully drawn characters. Elvis has a heart of gold and loves old movies and music. Maite is lonely and loves romance novels and records. You want to know what happens to them, from the beginning.

The plot is a little slower to get started. But the story takes off once everyone is pursuing the neighbor and her photos, which everyone seems to think will blow the roof off the current government. Will Elvis find the film? Will Maite ever get to give up taking care of the cat? Where is the neighbor anyway? You want to know what happens in the story, and more importantly, you want to know what happens to Elvis and Maite.

Velvet was the Night is a wonderful book, all noir and thriller, without ever being cold-hearted.

Madame de Staël

Madame de Staël is a biography of my perennial favorite, Germaine de Staël. This one is a much more high-level overview of her life than Mistress to an Age was. It doesn’t talk as much about her philosophy or her writing or her politics, but it does give you a good idea of where she was and who she was with. In fact, where Mistress to an Age sometimes confused me with too much detail, especially when she was traveling through Germany, this book had a lighter touch and was able to give me a much-needed 10,000 foot view. This would have been a good first book on her to have read.

Mediocre

Mediocre was not what I expected. What did I expect? A lot of the ways that white men have screwed up: specifically pointing out their flaws and the things they’ve made worse in the world. Instead, it’s a book chronicling all the ways white men keep women and people of color out of the places of power and undermine the work they do, including, but not limited to:

  • The SAT being created by a literal eugenicist to give universities an excuse to stay white and male;
  • The language (that is being corrected, slowly) about how the American continent was “empty” before Europeans arrived;
  • The early (think Susan B Anthony era) male feminists who decided they should support women’s rights so that men wouldn’t have to support them and they could be layabouts who could sleep with whoever they wanted;
  • How women were forced out of the workforce after WWII because the men needed their jobs back; and
  • The entire history of the NFL.

It can be a depressing and hard-to-read book at times. However, it did give me a yearning to read a Shirley Chisholm biography – her awesomeness was a highlight. I would recommend Mediocre, especially as a way to educate yourself more about how America works and was built.

Tuesday Shorts

  • A Kidnapping Gone Very Wrong. There is so much in here: the bizarreness of the 1970s; Nixon being an ass; a woman trying to do the right thing; a white man who should have been put in jail for years but wasn’t because his race gave him the benefit of the doubt.
  • Why “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” Hits Different in 2021. My child was always a big Taylor Swift fan, while I wasn’t. I found the things she wrote about cliche, and quite frankly, I was a mother and moms have different taste than kids do. But then I was forced to listen to “Red” A LOT. And it’s got some good songs on it. And then I genuinely ended up liking “1989”. I’m still not super-interested in her earlier stuff, probably because of some prejudice still lingering, though I tell myself there’s also just too much media overall to consume (also true). But this article makes me maybe want to revisit my decision to not revisit early Taylor Swift.
  • Would you like a better country or not? There is so much to say, but I’m not sure I have the words for it. Yes, I want everyone to have good schools, yes, I want everyone to be able to afford to live in the Bay Area. I don’t know that I want to start going to city planning meetings, but maybe I need to. Or maybe there’s another way for me to do my work, given how much I hate conflict and how much anxiety talking to people can give me. But still: there is work to be done.
  • What is infrastructure? It’s a gender issue, for starters. I read something somewhere that claimed the original definition of infrastructure was anything that made society better, not just physical things. In that way, yes, child care is infrastructure. It is a crime that child care is so hard to get and the pandemic has shown that American society doesn’t work without it.
  • When COVID hit, I started walking 20,000 steps per day. It’s changed my life. My daily goal is lower – 10,000 – but I’ve been hitting it more often since the pandemonium started. Daily walks are a salvation, and sometimes, I’m even just walking around my house, though outside is better. (It should be said that my child is a teenager so childcare while I’m out an about isn’t an issue.)
  • White women co-opted pandemic yoga. Now, South Asian instructors are taking it back. Yoga is my other go-to exercise, and I’m doing it much more regularly because of the pandemic as well. But it’s been years since I’ve been in a studio – and even though I live in a majority Asian-American part of the country (and Indians are a significant part of the population) I’ve never been to a class that was taught by an Indian? That seems odd. (I was lucky enough to take a regular class from someone who would start with a spiritual reading, but he was white.) There’s something to fix once yoga studios are open again.

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.

Trick Mirror

A hand holding a hardcover copy of Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino.
I wasn’t trying to make some artistic statement with the terrible lighting – there just wasn’t enough of it.

Trick Mirror is Jia Tolentino’s much commented on set of essays published in 2019, blissfully pre-pandemic, but sadly still during the Trump presidency. She has been much praised for her insights into internet culture and brought out her feminist voice – and there has been the predictable backlash.

The strongest part of the book, for me, was her discussion of the internet, its now seemingly inevitable focus on the individual, and how that plays into the “forever hustling” culture. It helped me understand the takeover of the personality as fame-generator and monetizer. It was a movement that started before the internet really took over everyone’s lives – Martha Stewart Living was founded in 1997, the height of the pre-social internet boom – and I can remember being a college student in the mid-90s and being told to follow your passion, to make sure that you were always motivated to care about your work. Without those seeds in the culture, I’m not sure social media takes off as strongly as it does, at least in terms of people monetizing themselves.

The feminist parts, while strong and passionately argued, were less revelatory. Don’t get me wrong: in a society that still doesn’t take violence against women seriously, we need as many voices as we can talking about rape. But I felt like I’d read those parts before.

Trick Mirror is absolutely worth the read, especially for the first half of the book.

Lavinia

Lavinia is a minor character in the Aeneid – even though she ends the poem as Aeneis’ wife. She never even gets to speak. Lavinia is her story.

A quick recap of the Aeneid. Aeneis was a Trojan who was in the city of Troy when the Greeks snuck in via the famous wooden horse. His house was burned down, but he and his father and his son escaped during the ensuing battle (the Trojans lost). Aeneis sails around the Mediterranean similarly to Odysseus in the Odyssey. Eventually, he ends up in Italy, where he founds the ancient city of Rome, thus giving the Romans a bit of classical shine. At least this is the story that Ovid would have us believe.

Lavinia is a chief’s daughter in ancient Italy, of a small but successful tribe. Aeneis and his men end up, kind of against their will, in battle with them. Lavinia is the prize that Aeneis wins, but according to this story, anyway, they love each other and it works out. She is a practical person.

Lavinia is entertaining if you’re in the mood – like I often am – for some ancient European content that actually centers women. (It doesn’t exist, at least not much, so we have to create it.)

The Awakening

The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.

But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.

Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.

Parisian Lives

I was so happy to see that Parisian Lives was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I really enjoyed this book, to the point that I now want to read her biographies, so I was glad to see it get recognized.

Deirdre Bair is a biographer and a mother and an academic and a wife and works her ass off to have it all on the East Coast and in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. That’s the color of the book; it’s always happening in the background. The meat of the book is her research and meetings while she was writing her biographies on Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. The color of their personalities comes through in this book, and I’m interested to learn more (including reading the biographies that Bair wrote).

In short: I enjoyed Parisian Lives, and if you’re at all interested in any of what I wrote above (Paris, existentialism, feminism), I would recommend it.