Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"A Mind Full of Fabulations"

Flapper truly is a madcap chronicle of just about everything Jazz Age! Not simply a story of sex and the “new woman,” though the sub-title might suggest otherwise, Joshua Zeitz’s latest work of non-fiction takes a thorough and comprehensive look into history. Popular culture from the turn of the 20th century to pre-WWII; from Muncie, Indiana to Hollywood to Harlem: Zeitz has covered it.

Zeitz begins by introducing us to the quintessential flapper herself, Zelda Fitzgerald. He crowns her and her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald as the royal couple of the Jazz Age. Though the story is dedicated to the emergence of a “new woman:” one who throws off the tenets of her traditional upbringing in order to support herself in America’s cities; who rejects the corset and opts instead for the loose, modern garb of the suffragettes; a daring, attractive, open-minded, self-aware, and adventurous (albeit, sometimes dangerous) young woman, Zeitz continually brings the story back to the era’s most melodramatic couple. By pairing the trajectory of the Fitzgeralds' rise and fall with the changes taking place nationwide, the reader gets a big-pictures story of the 20’s, mirrored by the personal lives of two of its greatest characters.

Literature, music and the personalities of the Roaring 20’s have always fascinated me so I really enjoyed that this book offers so many interesting and hilarious details. This is an entertaining study of how cultural, social and economic shifts reshaped the nation and made room for this new generation of girls.

A few interesting points:

The evolution of urban societies in the 20’s:
"The mass entry of women into the workforce was part of a longer trend toward industrialization and urbanization, a process that reached its crescendo in 1920, when the Census Bureau announced that the United States was no longer a nation of small farmers. For the first time ever, more Americans (51 percent) lived in cities than in the countryside. Though the Census Bureau counted any municipality with more than 2,500 residents as “urban,” most of the country’s new urban majority lived in cities with more than 100,000 residents. In real numbers, the change is staggering. Between 1880 and 1920, the number of people living in cities with a population of at least 8,000 jumped from 6.2 million to 54.3 million"!

New social trends:
Flapper describes the dramatic increase of patents each year (“It took more than 100 years for the U.S. patent office to issue its millionth patent in 1911; within 15 years, it had issued its two-millionth.”), the decline in the national birth rate (from 7.04 in 1800 to 3.17 in 1920), and the money for “non-essentials” that flooded the market throughout a period of steady economic prosperity.

Consumerism and a new, modern self-image:
Through this prosperity and the beginnings of what would become an enthusiastic culture of consumerism, came department stores. These stores distributed catalogues to every rural family so that they, too, could enjoy the novelty of modern appliances, canned produce, European fashion trends, and participate in the nation-wide whole-life make-over. Advertising companies began to sprout up, eager for the opportunity to “appeal to the anxieties of urban Americans who lived in proximity to one another and experienced the daily angst of anonymity and public scrutiny.” As an example, after a company came up with the idea of halitosis as the technical term for bad breath (it didn’t originally come from the AMA) and invented mouth wash, they saw sales of Listerine – formerly only used on cuts and scrapes – “skyrocket by 33 percent after just one month of the add campaign.” Here is the campaign:

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride….Edna’s case was a really pathetic one. Like every woman her primary ambition was to marry….Most of the other girls of her set were….And as her birthdays crept gradually toward the tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed further and further away….Listerine.

And so it went with all sorts of new disorders: “dandruff, athlete’s foot, body odor, face wrinkles, dry or oily hair, acne, rough skin. Beneath every imperfection lurked a disastrous end – a lost job, a lost love, a missed opportunity. And for every danger there was a cure….”

I loved reading about the details of the emergence of not just a new generation of rowdy and sexually-charged young women, but a new identity as a nation. The elements that shaped young people’s lives were not simply about a new generation but about fundamental shifts toward modern life and a new century. It’s all very exciting and the flapper, sexy and loud all night drink and dance-machine that she is, was only a part of the excitement.

Finally, Zeitz’s depiction of the stock market crash, like the Fitgeralds’ celebrity coming to its terribly un-glamorous end, is thoughtful without being onerous or patronizing. Although one can certainly find the short-sightedness and excess of the era, there has also been so much enduring beauty, sophistication and fun from the 20’s: Jazz, 52nd Street and the Charleston; The New Yorker, Lois Long and Harold Ross; the Rose Room and its literary critics at the famous Algonquin “Round Table;” the automobile; Madison Avenue, the reinvention of women’s fashion (with the help of Coco Chanel), Conde Nast; Hollywood, movies and celebrity; Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and innovations in dance; hundreds of patents for amusement parks alone! Zeitz brings all of these historical details together easily and exuberantly.

Interestingly, Flapper opens with a quote from Willa Cather: “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts….” Although it isn’t exactly clear if Ms Cather thinks that the dramatic reinventions of the early 20th century are for better or worse, it is, at least, remarkable! One thing that is made clear is Zeitz's feelings on the matter: “The flapper was, in effect, the first thoroughly modern American.”

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Known World

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, is a book about slavery in the antebellum south, which is, admittedly, not a new topic—it’s been done before, and done well. But I can tell you, this is not like anything you have read before. It’s not a conventional depiction and indictment of slavery, although it is both a depiction and an indictment—it’s just not conventional. Not in any way. It’s mind-blowing. So amazing I don’t even know where to begin talking about it. You know what, don’t even bother reading this post, just go get the book. Go now, in fact. Go to wherever you get books and head straight for the J’s. You have to read this book. Everyone has to read it. Seriously.

Well then, sisters, if you’re still here, you must be asking what is so amazing. I guess a place to start is the place itself: a plantation in Manchester County, Va., owned by Henry Townsend, who was bought out of slavery by his father Augustus only to become a slave-owner himself, to his parents’ horror. The book begins as Henry lies on his deathbed at the age of 31. Jones then takes us back to the boy's youth as a groom and slave to William Robbins, a white slave owner who runs his plantation (and the county, really) with a hardnosed business sense and also is deeply in love with his black mistress. From there the story moves on to what happens after Henry dies, and I won’t give away any more plot.

The crux of the book, the point that is driven home again and again, is that slavery poisons and contaminates everyone who participates in it, and it perverts the notions of justice, humanity, morality, law, love, family, God—basically everything. Even those who don’t participate directly are tainted by it, still often complicit in it. Most are compromised, one way or another; I say most because there are a couple of beautiful beautiful characters who transcend the inevitable horrors and humiliations, whose goodness, in the end, outshines the terrible injustice. Anyway this is a book that, to quote one reviewer, takes the measure of slavery's punishments.

So what is so amazing?

Wonderful details. Jones is said to have done little or no research, just worked off what was in his head (apparently a voracious reader), but you get a very clear sense of what day-to-day life was like for slaves and their masters alike. The details he includes are extremely affecting. As well there are these almost mythical, supernatural scenes that will blow your mind (the opening scene with Moses in the forest, a transformative scene with Stamford and the crows), and what makes these scenes so phenomenal is the amazing details. (Yes, I will continue to use the word "amazing" until you are so sick of it you beg me to find a thesaurus. Because this book is

Incredible emotional impact. The author’s voice is modest and unassuming, his sentences usually economical and restrained, yet smoldering under the surface of his understated words is a quiet indignation. What’s amazing (you see? I can't help myself) is how even though his style is so unobtrusive, he packs a huge emotional punch, page after page. I cried like a baby at the end, no kidding—like a baby who is heartbroken and amazed and moved beyond words by the profound beauty of this book.

Staggering technical skill. The narrative form is highly tangential and the point of view is sort of a kaleidoscopic omniscience—focusing closely on one character or scene, exploring the myriad effects and implications, and then moving on to another in the same way. It reminded me of a tree, actually, each character with his own set of branches. And each character does get a set of branches, not just one branch, because their stories include not just their presents, but also their histories and their lives to come, their deaths, and their legacies that extend to today. This provides an extraordinarily complete context in which to view the characters and judge their actions during the moments of the book's plot, and somehow, impressively, the digressions and asides never confuse or detract from the story.

Marvelously complex characters. There is very little absolute good or evil in this book; instead each character is drawn in one of the many shades in between black and white (I mean this, of course, in terms of morality and ethics.) And unlike some of the other great antebellum lit (think of the long-suffering saint/martyr Uncle Tom and vicious slave-owner Simon Legree), Jones gives the same complexity to black and white alike. Take, for example, the sheriff, John Skiffington. Here is a man who doesn’t believe in owning slaves, but is sworn to protect the investments of those who do. So even though he is someone who wants to do the right thing, someone who believes it wrong to own another human being, someone who wants to believe he can protect everyone equally, he’s still caught in this terrible thing. His livelihood depends on his ability to keep the plantation owners happy, and in the end, despite his commendable aspirations, he does something really really horrible. It’s so sad; but the amazing thing is watching him struggle between the impulses, many good, that compel him in different directions.

Another example: Henry Townsend. The irony of his position is so obvious to the reader, and to his parents and to his slaves (“It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that indeed a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made.”), but if Henry is aware of it, he manages to mask it well. He too has what he supposes are good intentions. (“Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known,” Jones writes. “He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.”) Even though he wants to be a good master, there are inevitable moments of brutality in that role, as when one of his slaves, Elias, escapes. So in Henry you see this remarkable mélange of genuine affection and sickening cruelty. And every character has similar internal conflicts and complexity; every last one is a fully realized person, never a stereotype or cliché. The author has such compassion for all the people he’s created, even the most brutal of the sheriff’s patrollers have life-altering moments where they just can’t take any more or know they’ve gone too far. The book is, as another reviewer put it, a “stunning portrait of moral confusion.”

Last amazing quality I will list: beautiful sentences. Simple yet intricate in what they imply. Deeply felt sentences, resonant with detail and rhythm. Listen, friends:

Someone down in the fields, a woman, was singing. She soon realized that the woman was Celeste. It was not a sad song Celeste was singing and it was not a happy song, just melodious words to fill the silence that would otherwise be claimed by the songs of the birds. The room had been dark when she first opened her eyes, but as the sun rose and rose, it took Celeste’s song and carried it with the light to every corner of the room, and little by little the stiffness of sleep went out of Caldonia and she stretched and yawned and wondered what in the end she would do about Moses.
So beautiful, that part about the song being carried on the light into her room. You see, without him having to say, the life of ease Caldonia (Henry’s widow) enjoys on the backs of her slaves, and there is so much conveyed in that last phrase about Moses, a slave she’s just slept with—her consciousness of her role and his, her detachment as she thinks about him not as a lover but as a problem.

Here is another passage, which I share because it’s heart-stopping. (Note that in this scene Augustus is dead—the after-death scenes in this book are SO extraordinary as the author continues to follow the character that has just died):

Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time, certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to the bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.

The kiss went through the breast, through skin and bone and came to the cage that protected the heart. Now the kiss, like so many kisses, had all manner of keys, but it, like so many kisses, was forgetful, and it could not find the right key to the cage. So in the end, frustrated, desperate, the kiss squeezed through the bars and kissed Mildred’s heart. She woke immediately and she knew her husband was gone forever. All breath went and she was seized with such a pain that she had to come to her feet. But the room and the house were not big enough to contain her pain and she stumbled out of the room, out and down the stairs, out through the door that Augustus, as usual, had left open. The dog watched her from the hearth. Only in the yard could she begin to breathe again. And breath brought tears. She fell to her knees, out in the open yard, in her nightclothes, something Augustus would not have approved of.

Augustus died on Wednesday.
I love the poetry in that passage, a rare moment in this book, but so beautiful. And how the poetry is offset by simple, concrete details like the dog at the hearth. The rhythm and the repetition, too, in the sentence that begins “But the room and the house...” So wonderful.

Okay I will stop now. Only want to say, again: seriously, this book is amazing. Immensely moving, painfully wise. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius—really. Please read it. If not now, then one day. You really must read it.

Monday, August 07, 2006


The Pendragon Series: Journal of an Adventure Through Time and Space: By D.J. MacHale!!

Dang these books are soo cool!! A reader comment on the book says she thinks they're better than Harry Potter...but even these sweet books couldn't be better than Harry Potter! Man! They are FANTASTIC though. Cheri, I think your kids would love them! So the premise is (i don't know if premise is the right word..) the main character Bobby Pendragon is on his way out the door of his house to play in the big basketball game of the season. He's the star of the team but he never makes it there. Right before he leaves his Uncle Press comes to his house and tells him he's a Traveler. A Traveler is someone who goes through the flumes (tunnels that magically and kind of unexplainably take the travelers to other "territories" or planets) to all the territories (there are 10 which include 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Earth. 2nd earth is right now, 1st is in the 1920's or so, and 3rd is in the distant future). Each territory will have a "turning point". A time when the future of the territory will change drastically either for the better or the worse. But there is a bad guy. His name is Saint Dane and he is trying to make the turning points turn the wrong way so he can rule "Halla" (everything, everyone, and every time that ever was and will be). It also makes it worse that Saint Dane can change his appearance to anyone so that the travelers never know who he is. So off they go to the territories. In the first (The Merchant of Death) they go to Denduron which is in medievil times with knights and everything. There Bobby meets Osa and Loor the travelers from Zadaa (which is like Africa). In the second (The Lost City of Faar) they go to Cloral which is a world entirely of water. The people there live on huge-mongous boat/islands that have whole cities and farms and everything on them. The traveler from Cloral is Spader (he's my fave : D). In the third (the Never War) Bobby goes to the first and third earths (but the turning point is on first) and meets the traveler Gunny. In the fourth (the Reality Bug) he goes to Veelox which is normal in appearance and the people are humans and all, but there's this thing called Lifelite that you go into and live in your fantasies. So everyone, except the people that run the machines, is asleep and in Lifelite. The traveler from Veelox is Aja Killian. In the fifth (Black Water) they go to Eelong, where the "civilized" beings are large talking jungle cats. The humans are basically their slaves so that makes things a bit difficult for Bobby to be there. The traveler there is named Kasha. In the 6th (the Rivers of Zadaa) he obviously goes to Zadaa where the black people live above land which is desert but they have rivers until the white people who live underground take all the water underground with them, starting a nice big war. In the newest book, the seventh (the Quillan Games) Bobby goes to Quillan where the people are basically zombies and they have to gamble on games in order to get food and clothes and such. If they lose bad stuff happens. So it's pretty wacked out. Anyway that was a short but not so short summary of it all. That was like the very minimum I could've told you. Just take my word for it these books are Sweet with a capital S! I can't wait for the 8th one (Pendragon the Great) which should come out next summer. So there'll probably be Harry Potter 7 and Pendragon 8!! WOOHOO!!! Check them out at this website:

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Shopgirl is Steve Martin’s novella about the complex relationships of bored / depressed / profoundly vulnerable sales girl and aspiring artist, Mirabelle. She works the glove counter at Neiman’s (“When you work in the glove department you are selling things that nobody buys any more.”) so most of her days are spent wishing for someone to talk to. She is just lonely enough to get involved with aimless slacker Jeremy, whom she meets at a laundromat. They have a brief thing, and then about the time Jeremy sets off on a months-long road trip as a rock band's roady, Mirabelle meets Ray Porter: 50-something, rich, charming, equal parts well-intentioned and self-deluding. She hands herself over to him, piece by piece, and in return he gives her money (pays off her credit card, student loan): “These gifts, though he doesn’t know it, are given so that she will be all right after he leaves her.” Ray is with her because he needs to be near someone while he waits for the right person to come along; Mirabelle believes he will return her love.

So together they exist, for a while, in a “temporary but poorly constructed heaven.” Ray showers her with kindness, and even helps her through a paralyzing bout of depression (usually kept at bay with pharmaceuticals), but still wants only “a square inch of her and not all of her.” Then one day he decides to tell her he has slept with someone else:

He had debated with himself for two hours while flying to Los Angeles. Tell
her, or not? But she had asked him to tell her. She must have meant it. Plus it
wasn’t love; it was a f--k. Plus, she had asked him to tell her. He thought this
was a new feminism thing that he is honor bound to oblige; that if he doesn’t,
he’s a pig. That he will actually come off well by telling her.... But whatever his thought process was, whatever he told himself was the right thing to do, was false. Because his logic was not based in any understanding of her heart, and he continues to misread her.
This brings the relationship to an messy end, though they stay in touch and actually remain friends: “He sees, finally, that as much as he believed he was imposing his will on her, she was also imposing her need on him, and their two dispositions interlocked. And the consequence was a mutual education.”

Meanwhile, on the road, Jeremy listens to self-help tapes on relating to women and finally starts to cross the threshold into adulthood. When he comes back, he and Mirabelle hook up again:

Mirabelle takes months to accept Jeremy, and Jeremy patiently waits…. Where his insight comes from as he courts her, even he doesn’t know…. But unlike Ray Porter, his love is fearless and without reservation. As Jeremy offers her more of his heart, she offers equal parts of herself in return. One night, sooner than she would have liked, which made it irresistible, they make love for the second time in two years. But this time, Jeremy holds her for a long while, and they connect in a deep and profound way. At this point, Jeremy surpasses Mr. Ray Porter as a lover of Mirabelle, because as clumsy as he is, what he offers her is tender and true.
The gist of this little book is that “it’s pain that changes our lives,” and that whatever happens, and whatever is felt along the way—the despair and neediness and vulnerability, the hope and warmth and tenderness—it’s all part of the school of life.

Martin’s wisdom and insight, his perceptive observations, are so pleasing—and surprising, especially if you’re just looking for comedy. What’s good about this book is its mood—quiet and melancholy with a twist of disarming. Also its pace—careful and deliberate. As well, he uses an uncommonly omniscient narrator to get into everyone’s heads, detailing out the mutual incomprehension that defines Mirabelle’s early encounter with Jeremy and then with Ray Porter.

The movie (good, by the way) was wrongly billed as a romantic comedy—it’s too sad and sweet and true to be very funny, though there are moments of wry, ironic humor—but both book and movie are sweet little gems which I recommend (though perhaps not highly).