Only a brown woman

The_history_of_white_people_bookcoverThis week I finished The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It is one for the freshman syllabus of the world.  A history of whiteness, really, and of how people have convinced themselves that other people were not human, in order to neglect, destroy, or exploit them. Race ideologies since the ancient world, for the most part, going on to include class and eugenics and immigration… I thought I knew a lot of this history. A quarter of the way through, I was in awe of the depth and breadth of her research. I would love to hear her talk for a few hours, she must be a library unto herself after all this. And a lively clear writer, able to distill centuries of material into illuminating stories, and string them all together across the ages.

Virginia (and Leonard) Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary is ongoing of course, I’m still indexing it for myself, and anyone else who ever wants a writer’s index for it (the original index is trash). I sat down to glance at her this morning before packing for my weekend writing retreat at Saltonstall.  When she talks about writing and reading and the natural world, she inspires me, always. When she talks about people she regards as less than herself, which seems to be most people, she’s horrible. April 1925: “All day I have heard that voice. I did not go to her help; but then every baker and flower seller did that. there was this woman in brown walking along the pavement–suddenly a red film car turns a somersault, lands on top of her, and one hears this oh, oh, oh…Nessa…made some effort to connect it with [her daughter’s] accident last spring. But I assured her it was only a passing brown woman; and so we went over the house composedly enough.”

Her shock is the important thing, her lingering impression of that voice. Not the woman herself, she distances her almost entirely. And this is just typical of her. But it was and is typical of anyone raised, or self-taught, to believe themselves genuinely better than most people. Earlier she wrote about how a friend wasn’t a good writer, but then his grandmother was the daughter of a grocer. Well, that explains it. As if all her genteel Oxbridge-educated friends of good family could all write. Beyond that: the masses, the hordes. The curious individual in the park. The badly dressed. Her scope of human sympathy only goes so far. The interior lives of most people repel her imagination like a reversed magnet, drive her toward abstractions, at best, bigotry at worst. It’s always like biting down on a piece of eggshell in the cake.

And echoes my struggle with Rilke in Paris this week. I have loved Rilke’s poetry and letters. They tempted me to learn German in my twenties. But again, he has that limited sympathy of the self-approving upper classes. This is a slender compilation of his letters and diaries, strung together by his translator, Maurice Betz, and first published in 1941. After wading through half of Betz’s introduction, I skimmed the rest of his passages as much as I could. France and French culture were key to Rilke’s development as an artist, he says, and so was the isolation of his life in Paris, alone in a crowd, enjoying the fresh outsider’s perspective in that stimulating, beautiful, and for him, somewhat frightening environment. Again, that perspective is very useful to an artist. The separation from the mundane, the focus on abstractions, on pure observation. But too much of it, combined with too much refinement, seems to encourage a lack of sympathy for the hordes, like insects, like–whatever icky swarming creature wells up in his anxious mind. And then the writing can become squeamish, heartless, afraid to come to grips with human life.

Betz has Rilke on a pedestal, and echoes his writing style, including his most operatic tones. Only, of course, he’s not Rilke. “An expressive ingredient for the precarious alchemy of his inwardness” is the sort of thing you’ll have to enjoy in order to love this book. Or, after Rodin rejects Rilke, “with a painful accent but not without dignity, the poet bade farewell to the artist whose bewitchment, in spite of everything, he continued to suffer.” To be fair, this is Rilke himself writing to Rodin on the same event: “So there you are, great master, become invisible to me, as if by some ascension carried off to the heavens which are yours.” It’s Rodin I feel for there.

I do love books like this for the first-person view of another time and place. It’s not the best of those I’ve read, but Rilke’s descriptions, and the insights into his writing process, made it worth the price of admission. Which was only my time, since I got it free from NetGalley. And it made me want to dip into Rilke again, without a middle man.


Women Warriors by Pamela Toler

Women WarriorsI looked forward to this book with anticipation, and anxiety that it would turn out to be more dry or scholarly or… something, than I hoped.

On the second page of chapter One, I laughed aloud for the first time, and began to entertain and annoy my family by reading bits to them. It is that kind of book. One crazy colorful story after another. Toler’s scholarship is evident, and she writes to entertain, in clear energetic prose, laced with a dry and moderately dark sense of humor.

This is not a topic I’d read about intensively before. I had not heard of even half of these women, in particular the many non-Europeans. I didn’t even know that 800,000 women served in the Red Army in WWII.

Toler writes that although each of these women has been treated as an exception to the feminine rule, they are not all that rare, in fact, she found so many that she had to leave out most of them. “I began with hundreds of examples. I ended with thousands.” The density of so many characters shoulder to shoulder made me slow down to read no more than a dozen pages at a time, rationing it over several days. I’m always on the lookout for books that I can read in short bursts, at those times when I know I’m not likely to get more than fifteen minutes to myself. This is an ideal book for that purpose. A lot is packed into each story, and it worked well for me to read one, or three, and chew them over before dipping in again.

I expected geographical or chronological organization, but instead she loosely sorts them into themed chapters: mothers, daughters, widows, ruling queens, Joan of Arc comparables, cross-dressers. These are interleaved with four “checkpoint” chapters that each feature one woman who for some reason sits outside the more usual narratives. If you do want to read all the Chinese stories (for example) together, there is an excellent index.

All this abundant material overflows into digressive footnotes, often three to a page, some brief humorous asides, some with entire extra stories. Readers who hate footnotes could get away with ignoring them. Those who enjoy them will be well rewarded.

In many cases, Toler found fiction and fact inextricably wound together in her sources. She tells you which is likely to be which. She breaks down the deep-set binary between mothers and warriors, and the demonstrably false ideas that “mothers are natural pacifists,” and ‘if women ran the world there would be no more war.’ She observes many interesting and irritating patterns in how stories of women warriors have been framed and told around the world and through human history, beginning with Tomyris, in 530 BCE (though there is archaeological evidence much older).

For me, these stories provoke an uncomfortable mixture of admiration for the nerve and power of these women, and revulsion at the atrocities and ordinary slaughter of battle. Toler is not a great fan of war itself, and does not gloss over the horrors. Many of her subjects are thoroughly ruthless, and a lot of them do not die in bed.

Full disclosure: I have never met the author, but we are Internet-acquainted from our days working for Shelf Awareness, and since then, on social media, thanks to our many overlapping interests.



The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

I looked up what others had said about this book before I read it, and expected something much more political, which is not right. It includes the political, interwoven with life as that is for all of us to varying degrees. Ross Gay is a black American man, his life involves his blackness, and includes regular experiences of and thoughts about racism. In addition, as for all of us, it includes other painful experiences of fear, loss,  shame, regret, and embarrassment. But this is a book of “essayettes” about joy, the light that darkness cannot overcome.

We are often told to practice gratitude, which sounds like work. Gay’s search for delight, every day for a year, is contagious. He found that the more he looked, the more he found, a truism too easy to forget.

It’s a pleasure to be in the company of his thoughts and observations, his alert upbeat sensual kind persona, a grown man in touch with his childlike self. The essays are brief, friendly and digressive.  There are lots of books, plenty of food and drink. He gardens, reads, bikes, does laundry, people-watches, considers philosophy, music, memories, famous people, and his own evolving responses to the world. He talks to friends, family, birds, animals and insects, sits in the sun with coffee, lists the most delightful architectural features (the breezeway, the breakfast nook). He pees in his car, twice. Once, he walks through an airport carrying a tomato seedling, which elicits a “shower of love.” The goofy vulnerable nature of delight is open for discussion too, how oblivious eccentric enthusiasm in others can make us feel embarrassed when we lack the same openness and inspiration ourselves. “Witnessing the absence of movement in ourselves by witnessing its abundance in another…can hurt. Until it becomes, if we are lucky, an opening.” This is a book of inspirations, a model, a good companion, perhaps to be read cover to cover, but then also dipped into at times when you need re-grounding and reassurance, a reminder to pay attention, get a grip, let go, find the delight.



(Full disclosure: I read this via NetGalley. And now I’m ordering a copy from my bookstore.)

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

riot daysI was never an activist, I just read about them.

The first few pages of Riot Days, by Maria Alyokina, a member of Pussy Riot, felt awfully young and green to me. But then her urgent impressionistic style caught me up in the excitement, idealism and even the affectations of youth, the contagious desire to attack the evil of the world with assertions of freedom. With art.

She and her friends spend a month at a time planning and rehearsing their theatrical “actions,” the guitar music, the costumes, the timing. One day she spends five hours making a “revolutionary t-shirt.” They know their country and its history, they understand the danger they are placing themselves in, of violence, jail, re-education. And they commit to it. They can’t accept the options of inaction, or exile.

After a few successful actions, they target a church, desecrated by its fealty to money and power.  “We scramble up the stairs towards the altar, dropping our backpacks by the Holy Gates. They symbolize the gates to heaven. Women are only allowed to stand on the green walkway before the gates–the soleas–if they are cleaning women. Or brides. In Russia, there are no women priests. In Russia, there is Pussy Riot.”

The police track them down after that. Alyokhina’s son was four years old when they first came to her door. She put them off, but the next day left him watching cartoons in their apartment. She told him she’d be back soon, and locked him in. “I came back two years later.”

It’s still the “fucking gulag” out there. I’ve read about the original gulag, as much as I could, grim as it was. This is a different story, though the conditions are much the same. Women prisoners sew military uniforms twelve hours a day in dangerous and filthy conditions for $3-$20 a month, if they’re paid at all. They are stripped naked and made to do squats, guards “search” their vaginas for documents. They are often drugged with antipsychotic. “Nothing has changed since the Soviet Era. If you hear someone talking about “humane” treatment in Russian prisons, block your ears and turn away. Even better, challenge it as the lie that it is.”  Alyokhina continues to protest, by hunger strikes, by talking to human rights advocates who visit her, and by writing articles smuggled out by her lawyers. Some of that leads to real improvements for all the women prisoners: more warm clothing, better sanitation, better food, more pay. But activism and life can never be about win or lose, only about persistence. They are in a constant battle with the guards, unpredictable day to day, with loved friends who support each other, and also make life harder as they suffer or are taken away.

But Alyokhina does not dwell on her own feelings, and she does not sentimentalize. This is an artist’s rendering of a prison experience, condensed, impressionistic, and slightly surreal, punctuated with quotations and illustrated with sketches that anyone could have drawn: the church, a giraffe, the inside of a prison door. She understands how the right details, simply stated and well timed, can create powerful dramatic effects. Dough balls that seal the cracks around the broken windows in winter.  A friend’s wave from the search room, just before she is transferred to Siberia.

Alyokhina is released, but the prison is still full. ¡No pasarán! she says. “Freedom doesn’t exist unless you fight for it every day.”

This book came out in September 2017, and is still available on NetGalley, where I found it. You could probably read it in one sitting.


“It is what it is.” Since before you were born.

I love it when a phrase that drives language prescriptionists crazy turns out to be older than their great-great-great-grandmas.

The oldest use of this one that William Safire could find, in a much-quoted 2006 column, was by J.E. Lawrence in the Nebraska State Journal in 1949 on frontier life: “It is what it is, without apology.”

But contributors on the board at the Straight Dope found it farther and farther back in time:

1873 (The Cornhill Magazine) “A paper is bought and read because it is what it is, and every contributor has a share in making it what it is.”

1836 (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke) “First, Essence may be taken of any thing, whereby it is what it is.”

1726 (Joseph Butler, 15 Sermons) “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.”

Established precedent may not make you like it, but it removes the blame from kids these days, who have enough inherited garbage to deal with.




Bill and Editta

“The lady has taste”

Shelf Awareness gave me Bill Cunningham’s memoir to review. I requested it because I’d seen the documentary on his later life as a cycling street fashion photographer for the Times. His book makes it clear that what drove everything he did, was the art. Taste, joy and creative expression were his guiding lights, and he railed against those who cultivate fashion only for status. “For me, the true creative road of design is one of continual struggle, both financially and morally…. Artists have tried desperately to blend creative life with modern comfortable living. I don’t think they go together.”

He wrote that in the early to mid 1960s. I think he’s still right.  The book world, the arts world, the fashion and music worlds all seem to be loaded heavily on the younger end. People hope to make middle class livings doing those things, and when they realize that’s not likely, they drop out.

I grew up around dedicated artists and musicians who were still at it over 40, all of them scraping by. I loved their self-created lives, aspired to be like them. Some had tried bigger cities for a while, then retreated to cheaper homes in smaller cities, towns or rural areas because their work mattered most. My oldest friend is another one. Organized, reliable, resourceful, charming, and winner of many grants, she has hustled for decades, and still sits on the poverty line, patching together a living from teaching, landladying, and the support of a community of friends who step up for each other, as needed.

My own arty mother qualified for food stamps when I was in high school and she was in grad school. As I headed off to get an expensive drama degree from NYU, my goals were to always know where my food and housing money were coming from each month, and if necessary, to own a reliable used car.

Part of that degree was an Introduction to the Profession course, featuring guest speakers who were all theater professionals in one way or another. I still have the notebook. Liz Swados, Ruth Malaczech, Philip Glass, Hal Prince, Spalding Gray.  But one of my most distinct memories from that class, was the internationally acclaimed experimental theater artist who said she had no idea when she started out that she would end up raising her kids on welfare.

I used to think that most people who went for careers in the arts grew up solidly middle class, at minimum, and had the comfort of a safety net behind them. Of course that isn’t always true. Bill Cunningham had a net. His friend and favorite model Editta Sherman absolutely did not. She was so poor, she had to send her five children to live in an orphanage for a while (they came home on weekends) so she could handle her photography business and dying husband. In time she photographed Henry Fonda and Leonard Bernstein, and hung out with Andy Warhol. And made this absolutely wonderful and not at all lucrative book with Bill Cunningham.

It’s a crazy arty project of Sherman modeling Cunningham’s antique clothing collection in front of appropriate old buildings in Manhattan, covering the colonial period to the 1970s. It’s called Facades, just the kind of title he would pick. I got my copy pretty recently online, and it seemed as if Sherman’s descendants have a stack they’re selling off.

The whole thing looks like so much fun, a crazy historic fashion nerd project by two friends who adored each other and made each other laugh.  A joint instagram account from the 1970s. The captions are so serious, in a voice that would suit 1950s Vogue, identifying the date, the address, and the garments, including invisible details. The photos themselves are sometimes dignified, but often not. Editta strikes pinup poses, takes a dance step, is caught mid-laugh, or flips her hoop skirt at the camera to show the bloomers underneath.

Here they are, still at it, decades later. When you get old, they say, you become a more extreme version of who you’ve been all along. Aren’t they lovely.