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Archive for March, 2012

I ruthlessly weed my closet and replace black jeans with other black jeans.

Paint it black.  “No colors anymore /I want them to turn black.”  It’s good enough for Mick Jagger; it’s good enough for Vanessa Carlton’s cover; it’s good enough for us.

Consumer self-esteem doesn’t rank high in the fashion world.  The designers aren’t considering our figures when they concoct one-shoulder animal print tops or skin-tight beet-purple jeans.  We are not on American Idol.  We are not on Dancing with the Stars.  We haven’t worn a Size 8 since we were 26.

I want to tell my fellow over-Size 12 shoppers as they gently drift into the mall, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.  That isn’t the best look for you.”

My mother loves clothes and has a different philosophy.  “Maybe the bigger women want to wear the new styles, too.”

She has a point.  People love fashion.  But I also think thin women should forgo one-shoulder animal print tops and beet-purple skinny jeans.

My mother loves clothes and hung onto everything for decades: soft cashmere sweaters and satin-lined wool skirts, brown and white saddle high heels, shirtdresses, linen dresses, pillbox hats, pant-dresses and culottes, stretch pants with stirrups, odd polyester garments, elegant beaded clutch purses, huge medallion necklaces,  suede jackets with shoulder pads, faux fur coats.  I raided her ’50s and ‘-60s wardrobe when I was young.

But I really couldn’t be bothered to shop for myself.  She and I couldn’t be more different.  “You were adopted,”  my husband frequently suggested.

Strange items of clothing have surfaced over the years.  A few years ago she gave me my First Communion dress, packed in tissue in the original Armstrong’s box.  I looked at it, said thank you, took it home and parked it absent-mindedly on the floor of my closet. I didn’t quite know what to do with it.

I was weeding my closet the other day.  Once again, I have no idea what to do with the First Communion dress.   I can’t imagine anyone wanting yellowing white tulle at Goodwill.  But eventually it will have to go there or into the trash.

As a girl who spent most of her time riding a bike, holding mysterious “witch club” meetings in the back yard (“Boil and bubble, boil and brew, now I cast a spell on you”), and playing with dolls and trolls, I wasn’t overly concerned with fashion.  But the dress was very cute, in its day, and I remember the special shopping trip to Armstrong’s Department Store in Cedar Rapids, a city fueled by the good grain smell of the Quaker Oats factory.  It was the first dress I ever picked out.  I was very insistent about the tulle.  A friend had to make do with cotton, poor girl!  My white tulle dress had puffed sleeves, a sash with appliqued flowers, a satin slip, and a matching veil attached to a floral headband.

I was allowed to wear the dress to church for several Sundays after the First Communion until I outgrew it.  Then she packed it away.

Looking at it makes me think of my wedding dress.  White tulle?  No!

On the morning of our wedding day, I had to work.  I was required to attend the graduation ceremony at the school where I taught.    Sitting in the bleachers in my tan teaching dress with blue pinstripes and puffed sleeves, I kept one eye on my watch while the students crossed the stage to receive their prizes and diplomas.   Rushing back home, I helped my fiance finish loading the Ryder truck, and then we hopped on the bus and rode to the County Courthouse to get married.

Yes, I got married in the pinstripe dress.  I still have it.

We drove the Ryder truck for a few hours–we were moving to another city where he had a job–and stopped to spend the night in a motel in Hagerstown, Maryland.  We watched Silver Streak on cable TV.

Romantic, huh?  It’s not that I wanted any of the white-wedding crap, but Hagerstown!

If I’d worn black or white, my guess is the night would have been more glamorous.  We might have made it to Baltimore.

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I’ve been catching up on my reading of Penelope Lively.  I have loved her books since I read the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger in 1987, and I faithfully read all of them as they were published until I somehow missed out on two in the last decade.

I recently read Lively’s Family Album, and found it beautifully-written, gripping, a masterly series of picture-perfect scenes in an imperfect family life.

Family Album is the story of Allersmead, a huge Edwardian house where Alison and Charles Harper raise their six children in the latter part of the 20th century with the help of Ingrid, a Swedish “au pair” who stays for decades. The life of Alison, an earth mother who has never wanted anything but to be a homemaker, revolves around the children even after they grow up, though she does teach cooking classes and something called “Mothercraft.”  Alison is so bent on nurturing children that outsiders often find her histrionic.  With her fecundity and hospitality, Alison is like Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, another magnetic character who is not always regarded sympathetically by outsiders.  Alison’s husband, Charles, a withdrawn writer who hides in his study while she and Ingrid take care of the household and children, is as detached and abrupt as Mr. Ramsay, another writer with poor social skills.

Indeed, the family setup reminds me slightly of that in To the Lighthouse, though the structure of the novel is different, and Lively’s brisk, precise, compelling prose is unlike Woolf’s lyrical running style.  (And I should have reread To the Lighthouse before I made this comparison, but…)

Family Album is a non-chronological family album:  the narrative jumps back and forth in time, highlighting significant scenes of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood from different points of view.

The children do not regard the family as happy.  All rebelled against the pressure of perfect family life, but feel guilty about their loving mother.   The oldest son, Paul, a drinker and drug abuser who works at dead-end jobs, frequently comes home to live when he is desperate; Gina, a TV journalist who covers international wars and disasters, is in a serious relationship with Philip, a producer, and committed to staying childless;  Sandra, a former fashion writer who has invested in a boutique in Italy and begun to buy and renovate apartments, has had two abortions, and also intends to stay childless; Kitty is in the U.S. married to a senator; Roger is a doctor in Canada; and Clare, the youngest, is a dancer.  (Roger, all agree, is the best bet to have children.)

Lively boldly explores the lives of adults who don’t have children.  There is still enormous pressure on women to become mothers, and women’s novels too often wrap up with saccharine scenes of marriage and family.  One would think in the 21st century not having children would be heroic (the population bomb:  isn’t it almost Earth Day?), but the emphasis in popular novels and TV shows is on desperate fertility procedures and even surrogate mothers.  I appreciate Lively’s honest portrait of an unconventional family.

The psychological heart of the novel is a family secret that Alison is determined none will know, and which the children figured out long ago:  Clare is the child of Ingrid and Charles, not of Alison and Charles.  How the children deal with this knowledge does not necessarily damage them, but it makes them look at family differently.

The narratives of Gina and Paul are more vivid than the others. Paul, the oldest, is the most flamboyant.  He took drugs, got arrested, and went through rehab.  He has not been able to settle at anything.  One of his memories is of his mother saying, “You’re my favorite.”  But he never asked to be her favorite, and this has also put pressure on him. In middle age he has a low-level job at a gardening center, and confides in Gina on the phone about his fears of the future as he proposes a joking CV that includes his drug use and arrests.

Gina, the second child, is now 39.  She left home when she was 16 and still wants to keep her distance.  When she brings her boyfriend Philip home for a weekend, she can’t wait to get away, though he sees nothing wrong with them.  She remembers her mother saying, “You were never my favorite child,” when she left home to attend a good school against Alison’s wishes.  Alison wanted to repress and control her.  Gina, on the other hand, was always difficult, questioned the status quo, and was determined to find what she considered the truth.  As a young radio reporter,  she discovered the freedom of asking hard questions. She no longer is coerced to preserve a pretty picture of family life.

It is not just the children who have problems.  When they are young, Charles writes a popular anthropological book about child-rearing in different societies.  He condemns the style of child-rearing his wife practices.

Right now, he is thinking of societies of which he has read in which the care and supervision of children is a more or less collective affair.  The kibbutz has always seemed to him an eminently sensible arrangement, which reminds him that he needs to do more research on kibbutzim and their views.  And then there are those African tribal groups in which all women keep an eye on all children, and the men get on with whatever it is that they do, which again looks like a healthy system.  Whereas the centuries-old Western practice whereby children are hived off into individual family units looks both impractical…and potentially lethal.”

At the end of the novel, during a family emergency, we see a portrait of the family through e-mail.  Paul is the only sibling who doesn’t have e-mail.  His messages are preceded by “Paul says,” and presumably are spoken over the phone.

This is a brilliant novel, I absolutely loved it, and I would like to read it again.

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A casual party in the ’80s is thronged with teachers, freelance writers, a novelist, a comic book writer, librarians, editors, and engineers.

There’s beer and wine.  Maybe chips.  People stand and talk for hours.

Nobody will go away unless you lock yourself in your bedroom.

In retrospect, you can’t imagine why you didn’t run away with the flirtatious bookstore owner, but you barely noticed him.  You comfort a sobbing friend  who caught her husband on the fire escape kissing another man.

There are always such flirtations and fluctuations in relationships at parties.

But it was a party in the Midwest, and it was not at all like the glittering New Year’s Eve party in 1979 in London at the beginning of Margaret Drabble’s novel, The Radiant Way, given by Liz Headleand, a successful psychoanalyst, and her husband Charles, a rich TV executive.  Yet the Headleands’ party, too, is characterized by sexual confusion and breakups.  Liz discovers that her husband is having an affair with Lady Henrietta, a socialite they made fun of and whom she has never considered a threat.  Charles wants to marry Lady Henrietta.  And the Headleands’  divorce heralds the 1980s, a foreshadowing of the many social upheavals that characterize the decade.

The Radiant Way, published in 1987, is the  first of a trilogy, and its brilliant sequels are  A Natural Curiosity (1989) and The Gates of Ivory (1991).

Drabble’s trilogy is a neglected masterpiece of the 20th century.  And it isn’t even in print anymore.

The Radiant Way focuses on three women friends in middle age who met at Cambridge:  Liz, after 21 years of marriage and raising three stepsons and two daughters, must adjust to single life and move from the big house on Harley Street ; Alix Bowen, who studied English at Cambridge, teaches part-time at a women’s prison and is married to Brian, a teacher at an adult education college; and Esther Breuer, an eccentric art historian, is even more marginal than Alix where employment is concerned.  Alix, Brian, and Esther will all end up scrambling for jobs in the ’80s.  Of the three, only Liz will have a stable job:  the liberal arts, God bless them (hear, hear!  I’m a lib arts grad), can’t keep Alix, Brian, and Esther lucratively employed now that the budget has been cut and their degrees undervalued.

But the novel is not just about the characters’ relationships and work: it is also about politics.  Drabble documents the vicissitudes of the 1980s in England under a conservative government, the intersections of different classes and kinship networks, demonstrates the urgent need for adult education at both at colleges and prisons, highlights Thatcher’s budget cuts and analyzes their effects on unemployment and mental health, charts the downward mobility of  the post-industrial society and the growing violence in London.

The title of the novel, The Radiant Way, comes to us twice removed.  It is originally the title of the primer from which Liz’s ex-, Charles Headleand, learned to read when he was four.  And it is the name Charles gives his influential film about the education system, made when he was young.   Drabble explains that The Radiant Way was “A series that demonstrated eloquently, movingly, the evils that flow from a divisive class system, from early selection from Britain’s unfortunate heritage of public schools and philistinism.”

One can envision  the rays of light shining out in all directions as a result of the primer, the film, and reading Drabble’s The Radiant Way.

Drabble is a thorough, intellectual researcher.  She has obviously read the history, political science, and sociology.  Not to mention, she has had  rich experiences.  She obviously knows so many kinds of people.  Her characters discuss leftist politics, but they also understand the arcane commodities of symbols, subtexts, and motifs.  Drabble plays with the word “head,”:  there are the Headleands; then a serial killer roams London and severs the heads of victims; Esther  dreams of a severed head and then they chat about Mr. Dick’s monomania with King Charles’ head in David Copperfield;  Esther studies paintings of headless John the Baptist…and there is more.

There is so much in this.  I hope it comes back into print.

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I’m not a fashion writer.  I could probably fake it.  That little phone interview with the designer of your choice?   Could be arranged.  I wouldn’t have to change out of my jeans.  My designer jeans, I mean.  And I probably mean Lee.

But I decided to continue posting on fashion today, because Nancy Hale, an out-of-print novelist and memoirist I’m reading, was a fashion writer for a while.  She wrote for Vogue before she wrote for The New York Times and The New Yorker.

One of my favorite pieces by Hale, “The Black Cape,” is about Nancy’s ambivalence toward her mother’s approach to fashion.  This humorous essay appears in her masterpiece, The Life in the Studio, a memoir of her parents, painters Lilian Westcott Hale and Philip L. Hale.  After her mother’s death, when Nancy cleaned out the studio, she was inspired to write this memoir by relics that reminded her of the past.  And her mother’s black cape was one of them.

Mothers and daughters notoriously differ on fashion.  In 1928 Lilian wore the black cape, then new, to Nancy’s wedding to protect her wedding outfit, and Nancy despised it.  Nancy felt that “if one was not wearing Chanel pearls, a felt helmet and a knee-length coat clutched together at the hip, one might as well be dead.”   (I am actually very intrigued by this fashion, and wonder if the Chanel pearls and coat would go with my jeans and boyfriend sweater.)

Lilian saved garments forever.  She sometimes arranged them for her paintings, or made patchwork quilts, but mostly wore them.  Nancy tried to change her mother’s ways.  She had learned from an editor at Vogue “that no woman should have more than three outfits in a wardrobe at a time–one on her back, one in the closet, and one at the cleaners.”

But the attitudes of Vogue and Lilian weren’t compatible.  Lilian hung on to her clothes and watched them go in and out of fashion.  She bought clothes “whenever they appealed to her taste” from a variety of places, a tailor in Brookline, a shop that sold unadventurous classic clothes, or even from Sears.  Usually she took them home and remade them.  Nancy writes, “She was always a good seamstress, and made over any garment she bought to suit her fanatical standards of good fit.”  (Nancy didn’t have this talent.)

Eventually, Nancy came to appreciate her mother’s individualistic taste, and even the black cape.  She begins the essay:

When my mother died, I inherited along with my great-grandmother’s Flight-designed Royal Worcester tea set and a few preferred stocks, a fringed cape of soft black tweed that came from the once-famous Boston branch of an Edinburgh woolen concern–Romanes and Paterson.  The tea set is an heirloom, the stocks an investment, but the cape is both an heirloom and an investment.”

A charming essay, and certainly all of us who have been daughters have experienced something like it.

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The Bookish Look

As I idly perused the latest Paris fashions (not actually in Paris, but at The New York Times), I didn’t see quite what I needed for the reading life.

It occurred to me that very little is designed for bibliophiles’ jaunts.

Elegant Stella McCartney jumpsuit.

Think of the perils of the bookish life.  I would love to wear an elegant Stella McCartney jumpsuit or even a distressed pair of Ralph Lauren boyfriend pants (which look suspiciously like old jeans),  but even supposing I could afford them, or that they came in my size, the bookish jaunts would ruin them.  There is major mud when you’re bicycling to the bookstore (and that is the environmentally preferred transportation), and there are more pitfalls ahead.  Whether you’re crawling around in the dust to look at the piles of unshelved books at a used bookstore, or battling book scouts at a sale for that  grimy first editon of Nancy Mitford, knee pads and gloves are more practical than gorgeous clothes.  It is best to dress like a guerilla librarian, or at the very least to wear denim or twill.

Ah, denim.

Jeans last for years.  And if you’re a reader, with very little to spend on fashion after your monthly book bill, you get up in the morning and don something denim.  After all, Dostoevsky doesn’t care.  He’s dead.

But the denim does get dull, doesn’t it?

So why aren’t the designers helping us out here?

There’s the all-black look.  We’ve been wearing black for years.  And we’re in fashion if we don’t mind wearing dog or cat hair on that little black cardigan.

Perhaps the Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” is the best look for bibliophiles.  She wears a lot of black, sans cat hair.

Of course no one could possibly look that great.  But we certainly prefer Meg Ryan’s classic style in the ’90s bookstore comedy “You’ve Got Mail” to Pamela Anderson’s embarrassing bosom-hanging-out 21st century turn in “Stacked,” a short-lived TV comedy about a Christian bookstore that we were lucky enough never to see.

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Nancy Hale’s Dear Beast

Nancy Hale

I was apprehensive when I picked up a copy of Nancy Hale’s Dear Beast.  Would it be appropriate spring break reading?  The kind of thing one reads on the beach, or pretends one is reading on a beach if one does not actually go to the beach?  Would it be a beautifully-written comedy, like her memoir A New England Girlhood? Or a melancholy,  fascinating, but fatiguing  novel about bad relationships and worse marriages, like her 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Women?

Dear Beast, set in the South and New York,  is a graceful, lively, realistic comedy about a woman’s creation of literature to escape from a bad marriage.  Published in 1959, it is a literary Southern version of D. E. Stevenson’s light romance, Miss Buncle’s Book.

In Miss Buncle’s Book, the heroine, Barbara Buncle, a spinster with very little income, writes an anonymous novel about the people in her village.  The villagers are all agog, trying to figure out who wrote it.  They are furious.

In Dear Beast, the heroine, Abby Daniel, the Yankee wife of a well-educated, caustic Virginia bookseller, writes a best-selling anonymous novel about life in a small town very like Starkeyville, where they live. The difference is that he Starkeyvillians admire it, wondering who wrote it.

Dear Beast begins at a tea party at the home of Mrs. B. D. Starkey, often known as Miss Grace.  All the important women of Starkeyville are present, including Abby, who is kept busy serving the guests and organizing the kitchen.

Little Abby Daniel, whom Mrs. Starkey counted on to help out at parties since, having no children, she had nothing better to do, abstracted the teacups that had been left by two departing ladies and slipped with them out into the kitchen. Her voice could be heard through the swinging door, asking Mattie, the cook, for more Sally Lunn.  In a moment more she had slipped back into the dining room and into her place at the table, smiling.”

There are many women at the party who are more flamboyant than Abby and apparently have something “better to do.” Some seem more likely to be a novelist than “little Abby Daniel.” Abby is an outsider from Vermont, a mousy Cinderella.  But that’s really the point.   Anyone with talent can be a writer, not necessarily the prettiest or the most vivacious.

The women are all worked-up because Life is sending a photographer to shoot pictures of their typical Southern small town for a piece about the best-selling novel, The Rose That Died.

When Mrs. Starkey is called away for an emergency and cannot guide the New York photographer around Starkeyville, she asks Abby to step in.  And in the course of Abby’s delightful conversation with Tommy, who is more candid than Southerners, she cannot resist admitting she is the author of The Rose That Died.  Her husband, Boogher (pronounced “Booker”), didn’t want her name on the book.  (Obviously, he was jealous:  one in a long line of Hale’s men characters who don’t like their women to succeed.)

"Nancy and the Map of Europe" by Lillian Westcott Hale (Nancy's mother)

When the news of her authorship is published in Life, Abby waits for recognition in Starkeyville.  They practically ignore her.  Mrs. Starkey tells everyone in town not to embarrass Abby with the attention, since she published it anonymously originally.   And Abby becomes more and more indignant, as she continues to be treated as a maid.

It is really Boogher’s fury that drives her away from Starkeyville to New York, where she stays with Tommy and his wife, and drives them slowly crazy with her need for recognition–they organize countless parties for her–and confessions of marital problems.  In the South people talk about kinship and the past; in New York about art, psychology, and the Christian-Judaic tradition.  Abby doesn’t quite understand the reserve under the open manners, and they dislike her personal talk about Boogher.  In New York she feels most at home when she visits the self-contained camels at the zoo.

So will she stay or will she go?

This clever, witty novel is almost experimental in parts, a patchwork of lively Southern dialogue, New York party dialogue, and excerpts from letters, Abby’s diary, and The Rose That Died.  But it is much more serious than Miss Buncle’s Book:  parts are funny, but the parts about Abby’s marriage to Boogher are painful to read.  Hale explores Abby’s observant musings about the South and Boogher’s long-winded Southern oral narratives.  They mesh at several points.

Nancy Hale, the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to The New Yorker, had illustrious ancestors.  She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country, the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers), and a descendant of Nathan Hale.

She is an underrated American writer, and Dear Beast is blessedly short and a better introduction to her work than The Prodigal Women.

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I’m still here.

Did you think I wasn’t?

And I’m still reading.

Tomorrow I will blog about Nancy Hale’s novel Dear Beast, a fascinating Southern version of D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book.

But today I’m simply going to tell you about the bugs.

I stopped at a coffeehouse for a bicycling break.  I was settled in for the afternoon with a delicious coffee and a scone, and I pulled out my copy of  Nancy Hale’s memoir, The Life in the Studio.   Suddenly a teeny tiny bug crawled out of my book.

There I was, dressed in black identically to everyone else in the coffeehouse (so the mud wouldn’t show from bicycling), unobtrusively reading and certainly not expecting to sprout bugs.  It was like the scene in Alien when Sigourney Weaver is finally ready to nap, the last survivor, the capsule launched from the spaceship, and the alien jumps out again.

Were the bugs mine?  Perhaps they were the corporate coffeehouse’s.  I doubted it, though.  Then two more tiny ants appeared and I knew.  Either my paperback or my bag was infested!

I’m inclined to think it was my bag, which I carelessly flung down on the ground the other day.  So I hurried out of the coffeehouse, bicycled home, and practically boiled the bag in hot water in the washing machine.

The circa-’80s Gap bag is a little worse for wear, but the bugs are gone.

This is not at all like the time I returned from Mexico as a student when, at a Holiday Inn in Dallas (or maybe Houston), a Mexican cockroach crawled out of the suitcase. I stared at the bug in horror, but my boyfriend laughed and said,  “F— the corporation!”

The bugs didn’t get away this time.

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