I was born with a mind that is compromised by preternatural unhappiness, and I might have died very young or done very little. Instead, I made a career out of my emotions. And now I am just quarreling with normal.
Elizabeth Wurtzel has written a New York magazine article that looks back harshly at her social life and her writing career of nearly 20 years. The article has created a big buzz, both favorable and highly critical. "I start reading every Elizabeth Wurtzel essay with optimism, like maybe finally she put her talent to writing about something than herself, and by the end of paragraph three that optimism has fled" says Jessa Crispin at Bookslut. "A deliciously hathotic middle-aged whine" says Rod Dreher at the American Conservative. "I like this lady's style" says David Lat at Above The Law.
There are a lot of ways a book called Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World's Oldest Profession can go wrong. Fortunately, this brisk new study of the cultural history of prostitution by Tyler Stoddard Smith aims for big intellectual and sociopolitical connections, and finds quite a few.
"A small crowd gathered around the dumpster in the rain. Word filtered back that the girl was a teenage hitchhiker. I remember thinking that it could be me, because I was also a teenage hitchhiker."
That's Vanessa Veselka, up-and-coming novelist and Litkicks favorite, telling a harrowing true story about a past run-in with a serial killer in the pages of the latest (November 2012) GQ magazine. GQ doesn't seem to have the story online (have they heard that Newsweek is going all-digital? GQ may want to update its content strategy) but it's worth seeking out. We're glad Vanessa Veselka is being more careful (we think) about her personal safety today.
1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
1. "Detroit Housewife Writes Play". That's how Joyce Carol Oates says she was received as a young beginning writer as she reminisced during a special event Monday night at the Smithsonian Institution. I've heard this writer speak before and in fact enjoyed it enough to want to hear her again (even though, to be honest, I haven't read a whole novel of hers since Black Water in 1992). This gathering found Ms. Oates in sharp and snappy form. She spoke of her stark one-room schoolhouse childhood, cited Lewis Carroll as her earliest literary influence, and charmingly called her interviewer "naive" for suggesting that she might ever allow her characters to tell her about themselves ("how," she asks, "would a character tell me anything?"). On a roll, Ms. Oates also scolded a questioner from the audience who asked if she'd met famous people such as US Presidents, telling him "perhaps there are more important people in the world than male Presidents for me to meet". As always, Ms. Oates' willowy manner and Pre-Raphaelite affect has a breathtaking impact on audiences, and the folks at the Freer Gallery ate her up. She should be in the movies -- she could win an Oscar. I still don't know, though, if I'll find the time to read her latest novel, Little Bird of Heaven.
2. I think it's great that Oprah Winfrey has picked Uwem Akpan's Say You're One Of Them as her next influential Oprah's Book Club selection. She has made several brilliant choices over the years, and Say You're One Of Them (which was reviewed on LitKicks here) is a bleak, straightforward book with a strong and highly focused humanitarian message about political violence against children in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Gabon. I'm sure Oprah intends this book is to stand alongside Elie Wiesel's Night on the bookshelf. The author, a young Jesuit born in Nigeria who has traveled through Africa and the world, is as much an activist as an artist, and the book is short on ostentation and long on horrifying truth. A lot of people -- adults and children, often together, often huddling in their own homes -- get killed in this book, but the book is no thriller. Oprah has made an unusual and brave choice.
3. Somebody recently asked "Should literary blogs get political?" Yeah, well, I think we should. It's not like critical issues aren't at stake, like the health care debate, which I find myself following carefully these days. I strongly support a health care bill and a public option, I am 100% behind Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as they deal with this difficult challenge, and I really like Will Ferrell's latest commentary on the whole thing.
Mrs. Eileen Connulty, a prosperous widow who ran a local lodging house for traveling salesmen, Number 4 The Square, and who, as death came near, "feared she would now be obliged to join her husband and prayed she would not have to."
Who writes family stories like these anymore? Well, hmm, actually Joyce Carol Oates does, and I must be in an a receptive mood today, because Malena Watrous's brief on the love-and-murder triangle (or, actually, pentagon) at the center of Little Bird of Heaven makes me want to read this one too, even though I haven't picked up any of the twenty or thirty other books Oates has written this decade. Well, I'm looking forward to catching Joyce Carol Oates in a rare career-summary event at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC this Monday night, so maybe I'll decide then whether to dive into her new one or not.
And, hell, I have to admit that I've never read an entire novel by Margaret Atwood, though I've enjoyed listening to her at live events. Jeannette Winterson's cover article in the Book Review makes Atwood's new The Year of the Flood, a scary vision of our future, sound like a must read.
How am I going to find the time to read even one of these books? I don't see any lazy days coming up on my calendar soon. Hmmm ...
I don't think I'll linger long here today, anyway, but I would also like to mention a few good articles on history and public policy. Ira Berlin provides a fascinating summary of Deliver Us From Evil, a book about the American Civil War by Lacy K. Ford that actually manages to deliver something new: an analysis of the intense internal debate about slavery that went on in the Southern states before they became the Confederate nation.
I'm a bit taken aback by Irshad Manji's positive review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I have heard of the oppressions and crimes detailed in this book, but it's shocking to read that "gendercide" (a word I've never heard before) "steals more lives in any given decade 'than all the genocides of the 20th Century'". Is this true? If so, it's an absolutely shocking fact, because if you include Stalin's manufactured famines in the Ukraine and Mao's manufactured famines in China along with the familiar horrors of Eastern Europe, Turkey, Rwanda and Cambodia, you're talking about at least 50 million deaths. I have no reason to cast doubt on a subject I know nothing about, but if global gendercide kills 50 million women every 10 years, then this book should be on the cover of this weekend's Book Review, not buried somewhere in the middle. In fact it should be on the cover of the New York Times, not just today but everyday. But I'm not sure I'm understanding the facts correctly. Another book I'll have to read.
Finally, Ada Calhoun's capsule review of T. R. Reid's The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care is highly relevant today, and worth quoting in full:
With all the hysteria over health care and the public option, it’s high time for the facts behind buzzwords like "socialized medicine" and "death panels." Reid, a correspondent for The Washington Post, provides a lucid examination of health care around the world, and shows how the United States compares on coverage, cost, quality and choice. The results are humbling. In a humanizing twist, Reid details his own experiences as he tries to get treatment for a bum shoulder. At a $10 consultation in Versailles, he is told that he should have physical therapy but that he may choose surgery done by any doctor in France, on the national dime. In Japan he’s offered a vast range of treatments. When he asks about shoulder reconstruction, he is told: "Tomorrow would be a little difficult. But next week would probably work." So much for national health care inevitably resulting in a lack of choice or endless waits. But not all the statistics and fun facts in "The Healing of America" are equally persuasive. Reid writes, for example, that "British women tend to have their babies at home; Japanese women, in contrast, almost always give birth in the hospital." Actually, home births account for less than 3 percent of births in each country. Still, this doesn't detract from Reid’s conclusion that every advanced nation in the world has a cheaper and fairer health care system than we do. He deftly counters the notion that "American exceptionalism" prevents us from successfully adapting another country's system. Evidently, when it comes to health care, America is exceptional only in that it’s a rich country with a poor country's approach to taking care of people.
1. Here are the teenage classics covered in Lizzie Skurnick's delightful new reading memoir Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading that I've also read:
• From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler by E. L. Konigsburg
• Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
• Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
• Blubber by Judy Blume
• The Long Secret by Louise Fitzhugh
• Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume
• The Pigman by Paul Zindel
• Deenie by Judy Blume
• Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
• My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
• Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
• All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Lizzie Skurnick writes best about the books that excite her most, like From the Mixed-up Files, which she illuminates in surprising ways (I never actually thought about it, but the Michelangelo statue does seem to symbolize Claudia herself) and the two great Louise Fitzhugh novels, Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret. Skurnick gets extra points for recognizing that The Long Secret is every bit as good as Harriet the Spy, though very different (it also occurs to me, thinking of these books today, that a good friend of mine recently went through an experience very much like the climactic scene in Harriet the Spy).
(This is chapter 26 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
The day I began working at iVillage was the first day I ever found myself truly excited to meet the president of a company I worked for. But there has never been, and probably never will be again, a CEO like Candice Carpenter.
This wiry and fierce woman was one of the most controversial figures in the Internet industry in the early months of 1999. Her company's IPO was widely expected to succeed, despite the fact that many industry commentators considered her a bewitching fake. It was true that she could thrill a crowd (I had become inspired to join iVillage myself after hearing her speak), and she was obviously thrilling Wall Street as well, even though iVillage was the epitome of a money-losing, big-spending dot-com, with a highly uncertain financial future.
To those who wanted more substance in their dot-coms -- more e-commerce revenue, more advertising dollars, fewer press releases, fewer TV commercials -- iVillage represented the worst of hype-crazed Silicon Alley. I guess that's why I thought Candice Carpenter was so cool.
She would take the criticism and spit it back in their faces. On talk shows and newspaper or magazine interviews, Candice Carpenter would insist that iVillage had a great business model and true staying power (despite the current lack of revenue), and I never heard her back down or hedge this bet. She always spoke with style and verve, often while wearing skin-tight leather dresses, pink jungle-print mini-skirts or other truly strange outfits, and was known to say outrageously philosophical things about the true meaning of work, about why people are afraid to compete, about the business world as a character-building exercise. Most of the things she said made sense to me.
The photo above is me, reading Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor (appropriately titled Flannery), and my yawning dog. She's a tough critic. Anyway, I've been a fan of Flannery O'Connor since I first read her story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" back when I was in high school, and as I got older and read more of her work, my appreciation of her grew. In fact, on my personal list of Date Book-Talk Gone Wrong is the following snippet:
Him: What kind of books do you like?
Me: A lot of different kinds. I just read a short story by Flannery O'Connor this morning, actually. Do you like Flannery O'Connor?
Him: Oh, that Irish guy? He's really good.