What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series. This post should be called “What I’m Hurrying Through Before Amazon Claws Back My Library Loan.” Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First groans under the weight of its intent. He has emptied the larder, then decided cook it all at once and load up that table he urges newlyweds to purchase before looking for a couch or other furniture.

Gopnik covers the ancient and modern world, literally and figuratively, discussing spices that no one alive in the last centuries has tasted, Australian wines, and the birth of the restaurant following the French revolution.

He slips in a Calvin Trillin-esq approach to his children and food. They and he discover the joys of foraging for edible plants in New York but sneak into a deli at lunchtime in lieu of eating their haul. Reading about gathering at curbside in Manhattan, all I could think was lead! road salt! dog pee! The kids gather but refuse to hunt. No pigeon or squirrel. Nothing the gray category, they declare.

Among the best parts are his emails to Elizabeth Pennell who published Diary of a Greedy Woman in 1896. Gopnik is charmed by a woman who would call herself greedy and drinks wine wiith breakfast.

He weaves literary and culinary critique into a seamless whole: “Eating Gunter Grass’s flounder was actually like reading one of his novels: nutritious, but a little pale and starchy.” And there are telling metaphors as well. In writing about the use of food in literature, he points to Anthony Trollope’s novels with their indistinguishable parade of “chops or steaks or mutton.” “The dishes are the foam peanuts in the packaging of classic narrative.”

His sense of humor appears on almost every page. As his luncheon companions slug down many drinks and devour large portions of meat and dessert, he observes two lions of the publishing industry. “…Tina Brown and Helen Gurley Brown dined on water and lettuce…” He describes his beloved Ms. Pennell as “comfortably dead.”

He runs through many culinary successes – and one spectacular failure. It is an attempt at a dish recommended by Ms. Pennell called pommes soufflés. It sounds like potatoes that resemble little pooris and is made by slicing them thin and then frying them twice. Gopnik’s version failed to soufflé, except for one which he fed to the dog.

With its wide-ranging survey of literature, Gopnik should have called his work The Table and the Bookcase Come First.

Minimal Post

Beat up at therapy today. It’s 50 degrees and raining. Arthritis has set in. That little torture chamber is rubbing my knuckle raw. Typing is painful, and I keep hitting the CAPS LOCK KEY.

Better tomorrow?

My Parachute

One of the veterans in the workshop suggested writing about what experiences had brought people to where they are today. Most folks gave catalog of experiences – marriage, military, school, and so forth.

We will be doing a rewrite this week to narrow the focus.

Here’s my contribution.

One small event changed my life forever. It was a workshop based on What Color Is Your Parachute? Without that guidance I would not have returned to Connecticut where I met Larry, returned to writing, nor would I be conducting the workshop, which enriches my life and expands my horizons.

Women in Transition in Philadelphia sponsored the workshop in which women and men explored options for changing careers. The instructors (former teachers) offered a workbook and seminars that allowed us to explore our skills, interests, aptitudes, geographic preferences, and so forth. It built a road map for figuring out where we wanted to go.

Interesting that of the eight people in my group, four of us were lawyers. One of the best aspects of the group was the support we gave each other.

What I learned was that I had walked away from journalism, the profession where my aptitude and skills and interests coalesced, into one that did not suit my temperament. The friends who filled out worksheets assessing their perception of me supported that insight.

Even though I wasn’t aware of it, Connecticut was a much better geographic fit than Pennsylvania. Yes, I had read Puritan Boston and Quaker PhiladelphiaBut in modern times, the similarities outweighed the differences. Plus, Digby Baltzell was writing about the ruling classes, not the masses. Now that I’m back in my home state I do appreciate the (somewhat) lower humidity and (somewhat) cooler temperatures. And except for a few blips such as our former governor Con John, the government here is squeaky clean compared to “Pennsyltucky.”

By the time I had finished the workshop, I had found a job – in journalism, once again at The Middletown Press – and had pretty much packed my bags for Connecticut.

As a testament to its power, What Color Is Your Parachute? has remained in print all these years, with a new edition out in 2017. (Yes, that’s the cover from two years ago). I was saddened to learn that author Richard Bolles died this year. May his legacy continue.

Friday Follies

All work stopped when ebook loans dropped I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats. Francesco Marciuliano claims in his author bio that it took him thirty years to learn to spell his name. Don’t believe the hype. Rather thrill in the voices of felines at play and in angst. Also laugh over the photographs, especially the three-week-old who hasn’t learned to understand human yet.

Here are the words in the voices of felines  owned by the Petry family. Noble Mr. Toby declaims, “O Christmas Tree,” which concludes: “The tree looks better on its side/O I really do think so.”

Cute/punk Leo recites “Cat Proverb”: “They say there are/Twenty-four hours in a day/But I’m only up for three of them/And two I consider overtime.”

Isis embodies “Nine Lives”: “The first is for running.” Then comes staring, climbing, tearing, then sleeping, sleeping, sleeping, sleeping. “The ninth is for writing my memoirs.”

A spirit lift on a dreary Friday.

What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series. James Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns turned out to contain far more psychology and far less linguistic esoterica. It’s a fascinating and original view on the uses of language.

The theory: a connection exists between a writer’s use of certain ordinary words – what he calls function words — such as “I,” “an,” “the,” etc. and personality traits. Pennebaker reveals that in the “beautifully crafted” Gettysburg Address those function words appear far more often than the mega words (my term) of “battlefield,” “living,” and “freedom.”

One of the benefits of the book is access to the exercises that he and his colleagues used to draw their conclusions about love, lies, and leadership. The “analyzer” determines the writer’s need for achievement, power, and affiliation.

Secret Life  came out in 2011. If they haven’t already, Pennebaker et al. need to run Trump’s tweets and “speeches” through the analyzer. High need for power and zero for the others, maybe? They were prophetic about how regional function word analysis tracked the 2016 election map so Trumpalizer  could represent a public service.

Altogether, the book  is worth the sometimes slow going.

What I’m Watching Now

Helen Mirren launches  Woman in Gold into the stratosphere. It is based on the true story of a Jewish woman who fled Austria as a little girl just ahead of the worst of the Nazi terror. When the film opens Maria Altmann is an eightysomething widow and owner of a high-end dress shop in Los Angeles. She begins a campaign for the return of a looted painting of her aunt by Gustav Klimt. Aside from being considered an artistic masterpiece, its value is enhanced by gold leaf Klimt applied to the canvas.

The Austrians refuse to acknowledge Altmann’s claim and remain headblind about their complicity in the atrocities. She engages the services of Randy Schoenberg, a young and inexperienced lawyer played by Ryan Reynolds, to fight for the return of her family’s property.  Mirren is by turns steely and vulnerable, angry and mournful. He is at first adamant and then overwhelmed. She makes her point early in the film. At the Austria border, the guard sees her papers. He says, Oh, you speak German. She replies, “I prefer not to.”

The scenes of the days preceding the arrival of the Nazis are appealing – Altmann’s family was wealthy and cultured. Their contributions to society make one wonder at the advances that would have occurred without the arrival of the thugs.

Woman in Gold also raises the question why Altmann and Schoenberg thought they could prevail against a regime that remains locked in denial about its past. The film answers in the triumph of right.

A minor note: I want the wardrobe the designers created for Helen Mirren.

What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series. Margo Jefferson’s Negroland should have been an “Oh, me too” experience. Instead I kept exclaiming, “Some of us actually lived like that?!” Unlike Finding Martha’s Vineyard, which included people from across the socio-economic spectrum, Negroland skews emphatically upper class. Her father had a cabin cruiser, after all. This nugget is buried in the middle of a piece about family members who crossed the color line but returned to visit. It almost overwhelmed the sad and moving account of the grandmother who disowns her own son and denies her grandchildren the knowledge of their African heritage.

Since she grew up in Chicago, Ms. Jefferson’s circle of black friends was much larger than mine, which consisted of the children of my parents’ New York friends. Given her political views, there’s no way my mother would have enrolled me in Jack and Jill even if there had been one in the area, nor would she have allowed me to join a sorority.

No one ever said, “Children were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.” And my parents never regarded themselves as a third race, as she terms it, “poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.” We were never anything but “Negro”/black/African-American.

Of course there is some familiar terrain here. Ms. Jefferson and I both were cast as maids in school plays, though my role was much more fun. It was a Jules Feiffer satire, and I got to be militant. She was a “warm and loving Negro American maid” in a musical.

Her mention Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books – green, blue, etc. brought back memories of the same works perched on our shelves.

Just as her father taught her black history, my parents did the same by introducing their friends – Dr. Frost Wilkinson, composer and entrepreneur Frances Kraft Reckling, labor organizer and government official Dolly Lowther Robinson, college professor Charlotte Watkins.

Overall, Ms. Jefferson offers a satisfying look at privileged black history, in which the denizens still confronted segregation and prejudice.

What I’m Reading and Watching Now

Another in the series. This post  took a long time to type, but it was worth it. Please forgive typos.

The only question about Five Came Back is what took so long to tell the story? In print and film, Mark Harris has produced an account of five award-winning movie directors who interrupted their careers to serve in the military and use their talents in aid of the Allied cause. It is an endeavor worthy of the geniuses he portrays.

At 528 pages, the book is a massive work but reads like a fast-paced novel. The film turns the best of those pages into a three-hour Netflix original documentary. It is more than worth the time.

Before I read the synopsis about the book, I wrote in my journal that they changed the war, and it changed them in profound ways.

There is the hard-drinking John Ford (Grapes of Wrath) whose fame grew with The Battle of Midway for which he filmed on a platform as the Japanese planes flew overhead dropping bombs.

The Jewish William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver) offers the most pathos as he struggles to return to his home in Alsace, where he finds nothing but empty buildings. The Nazis had exterminated the entire population.

John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) was part of the film dynasty (father Walter, daughter Anjelica whom he directed in Prizzi’s Honor). He and Wyler stood up to HUAC.

The most enigmatic of the group is Frank Capra, who at one point admired Mussolini and couldn’t always decide on what message he wanted his films to convey. He also shouldered the massive task of the Why We Fight series to convince the American public of the need to go to war.

George Stevens (Woman of the Year) offers the greatest contrast in his movie making. Before the war, he was known for fluffy comedies. He arrived at Dachau with the liberators. What he saw horrified him so much it shut him down for a time. He did have an advantage over his fellow soldiers: He turned his camera on the devastation. What he shot became evidence at the Nuremberg trials. After the war, Stevens never made another comedy and later became known for the film adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Five Came Back contains some of the most vivid accounts of the segregated military; and it has footage of a long-suppressed documentary about the attempts to help returning servicemen deal with what we now call PTSD.

There are a couple of annoyances. Harris says, “War would come,” or so-and-so “would got on to direct…” One or two of those are fine, but the whole work sounds conditional.

Even though his focus is the directors, it would be helpful to have more information the moguls. With the exception of the Warner brothers, they hesitated until the very last to cut ties with Germany. Was there more to their decisions than just money?

Come Join Us

My friend Hanna Perlstein Marcus and I will be speaking at the Naugatuck Valley Community College’s New England Memoirists Writer’s Conference.

Hanna memoir, Sidonia’s Thread, is a deeply moving search for her roots. Even though she grew up as a little Jewish girl in Springfield, Massachusetts, and I was a little black girl in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, we share many bonds.

My talk, “The James Family in Connecticut: African Americans Who Triumphed Over Adversity,” will go beyond memoir to  explore the influence of family on Ann Petry and her writings. I’ll conclude with a video clip that previews the documentary.

Hanna will be speaking at 9; I’m on at noon.

We’d love to see you.

What I’m Reading Now

Another in the series.

Blog is returning for brief posts until my hand regains some strength. Typing remains fatiguing so I take frequent breaks. The benefit continues to be that I’m reading many excellent books and watching lots of movies.

Right now Jill Nelson’s Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island is making me crave a return to the island. I visited a couple of times years ago before the elevated mega-mansions invaded. I share her feelings that once one arrives, there is complete  sense of letting go and of deep relaxation.

Ms. Nelson brings a unique perspective to her subject since she is a member of the exclusive group of upscale black folks who have summered on the island since the early 1900s. The book combines a detailed history of the island from the arrival of white (and black) settlers up through voyages with her own family into the current century. Among the most engaging are the interviews with older folks, especially some of the small number of year-round residents.

The least surprising aspects: police harassment of young African Americans and the  lack of facilities that accepted black patronage on the road from New York to Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The former occurred in the last few years; Ms. Nelson experienced the latter as a child.