- 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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
California Against the Sea. Even if a miracle occurs and we manage to get climate change under control by 2040, global warming and its effects are already happening. And people are neither willing nor ready to deal with it.
On a much lighter note: JFK Jr and Carolyn showed us the right way to be famous for being famous. Elegant refusal is going to be my new motto.
Men Know It’s Better to Carry Nothing. I actually have A LOT of thoughts about this, but they boil down to: yes, women, especially moms, are the pack animals of the family and IT SUCKS. But I enjoy my small-ish cross-body bag – I can’t stick a book in my back pocket, but I can in my purse.
I Wanted to Know what White Men Thought about Their Privilege. So I Asked. So, so frustrating.
Modern Media is a DDoS Attack on Your Free Will. It is the attention economy; as I sit here, the laundry needs to be tended to and the beds need to be made. But instead of taking care of my chores, I am catching up on my internet reading. It’s taking me out of my everyday reality onto web pages where the companies want my attention so they can make money. But it’s also not that simple. I’m reading more about issues that will and do affect my life: climate change is going to f*** up my retirement and my child’s life; theoretically all people are created equal, and society falls SO SHORT of that reality and that affects me and my friends. How do we fix these things? Is reading more really going to change anything? What can I do to fix these issues? Not to mention funding places that are doing important work investigating the state of the world. But I still need to get clean sheets on the beds.
Destination Casablanca is about Operation Torch, the Allied operation in 1942 to invade French Morocco and Algeria; this allowed the Allies to gain an operational toe-hold in Africa to fight the Nazis from another side.
France held a weird position during WWII. The official French government was headed by Petain and collaborated with the Nazis: France was our enemy. But there were a LOT of dissenters – the decision to surrender to Germany in order to maintain a semblance of self-control was not unified by any means. A lot of army officers who didn’t necessarily agree with that decision were posted to France’s colonies – including Algeria and French Morocco. Which meant that a fair number of the officers in these two colonies were sympathetic to the Allied cause. A major part of Operation Torch was figuring out who they could trust and how much.
I also got to learn about Josephine Baker’s espionage career, which was a delight. She would smuggle messages on sheet music.
I would recommend Destination Casablanca, but be forewarned that the actual chapters on the battle sometimes get bogged down in detail.
A Woman of No Importance is the biography of Virginia Hall, a young American socialite who falls in love with France as a girl. After college, she moves to Europe and gets a series of jobs with the US State Department; because it’s the 1930s they want her to be a secretary and she is not satisfied with that option. As a result, she moves around from place to place, trying to get a better job. During the 1930s, while she’s in Turkey, she accidentally shoots herself in the foot and loses her left leg below the knee.
When WWII breaks out, she feels the burning desire to help, to do something. She starts as an ambulance driver in France; when France falls to the Germans, she makes her way to Britain and gets a job with the SOE, also known as Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Under her cover of being an American journalist, she moves to Lyon, starts coordinating efforts amongst the resistance – turning it from pockets of people into a coordinated movement.
Virginia Hall turns out to be incredibly good at this. She inspires loyalty in people and eventually is coordinating the efforts of and distributing supplies to hundreds of people.
But she gets burnt. In 1942, a German double agent infiltrates her circle, and she barely escapes. To escape, she walks across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. In the winter. On her wooden leg. Because that’s what she does and that’s who she is.
Britain won’t send her back into the field after this incident – too many Germans know who she is and they really, really don’t like her. So Virginia switches to work for the US’ OSS. The OSS does send her back into the field, under heavy disguise, into a different part of France, to coordinate with the maquis to lay the groundwork for D Day. They’re initially resistant to taking orders from a woman, but Virginia has by this time become battle hardened and knowledgeable and takes no shit from anyone. She figures out who she can work with, discards the people she can’t, and moves on ahead.
After WWII, she finds work with the CIA, who, with the US back on its patriarchal BS after WWII, doesn’t use her nearly as effectively as they could or should.
I LOVED A Woman of No Importance. Virginia Hall is amazing, her story is well-told, and the history is compelling. Like, I finally understand why James Bond is so damn popular. I am not surprised one bit that JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has bought the rights for the movie, nor that Daisy Ridley is attached to play Virginia Hall. I hope it doesn’t sit in development for too long.