(As remembered in Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vasquez)
At the end of last year or the beginning of this, before my focus and attention were hijacked by the circus that is American politics, The New York Times did a piece on what books people had read the previous year. There were about fifty panelists, mostly writers, but mixed with a sampling of actors, scientists, business people, and politicians. What I could not help but notice is that every third person or so listed two books by Rebecca Solnit. Not the same two books, but two books. No one, it seemed read one Rebecca Solnit book; they had always gone on to a second or a third.
I had done the same a few years earlier. A friend had lent me a copy of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Solnit’s whimsical collection of “should-be” maps of San Francisco neighborhoods, which had, of course, immediately led me to another title Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; as the blurb says, it is a history of walking as a political and cultural activity. (Solnit has also done atlases of New York and New Orleans.)
But then I moved on to other books, to other writers, although I did not forget about her. One couldn’t; she was everywhere: her essays appearing in journals, her pieces in major newspapers, her name cited in political commentary, her books brought up in serious conversation.
This year, after reading the NYTimes piece, I realized it had been a while since I last read her, so I bought and read A Field Guide to Getting Lost in January. However, I did not immediately read another. Instead, I fell down a rabbit hole of books about walking and cities and travel: Flanneuse by Lauren Elkin, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Scillonian, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli and Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. This is what a good book can do.
So now in early autumn I return to Solnit once more.
Men Explain Things to Me is a collection of seven essays, mostly first-published on the web-site TomDispatch, that focus on the reality and the dangers (and some of the absurdity) found in the patriarchy of modern civilization, dangers that include murder, violence, and rape, as well as condescension and subordination.
The opening essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” begins with the humorous anecdote where at a party a man says he heard she was a writer and asks her what she has written. She mentions the last book she has written–a study of Eadweard Muybridge and the technology of the west–and he says what a shame that it was published the same year that another book on the same subject came out. He then goes on to explain the substance of this “other book.” As he continues with his description of the book that she should read, Solnit recognizes that he is talking about her book.
Talk about mansplaining!
In an article for The Guardian this past August, Solnit wrote:
There are no signs that mansplaining is going away. An acquaintance recently told me, “A man once asked me if I knew of the Bracero program [for Mexican farmworkers in the US], and when I said, ‘Why yes, I wrote my undergrad thesis about it,’ he replied, ‘Well, I’ll tell you about it.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll tell you, fucker!’ And then the dinner party got weird.”
But the humor of such situations is more than tempered by the grisly facts that anchor these essays. For instance, in the U.S. more women have been killed by domestic violence between 9/11 and the year 2012 than the total number of people who died in the towers AND in the two wars fought afterwards
We have a war on terror…but it seems we’re concentrating on the wrong terror.
And if domestic homocide is rampant, rape is epidemic and systematic. (Just read this month’s headlines.) There is a reported rape in the United States once every 6.2 minutes.
In one essay, Solnit reports the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape. (He, the French head of the International Monetary Fund; she the African immigrant maid at the luxury hotel he was staying in.) It was more than just rape, Solnit states. It was a political analogy come to life. As she writes:
Her name was Africa. His was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted with a high hand in resolving her affairs…Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth.
For Solnit, the Strauss-Kahn rape was more than a rape of a single woman. It was indicative of an entire system built on intimidation, colonization, and entitlement.
The final essay, “#YesAllWomen,” anticipates the current trending hashtag #MeToo that has grown out of the Harvey Weinstein episode, while her essay, “Cassandra among the Creeps,” indicts a world where countless women report abuse, assault, and violence only to have those reports too often fall on deaf ears. Again, it is the very situation that allowed the Weinstein abuses to go on for so long.
In a world where intellectual thought has become rare–where it’s very opposite is the norm–Rebeccca Solnit is an American treasure. Her breadth of interests seems inexhaustible and her thinking is clear and logical (another sadly missing aspect of our current times.) Her writing is both entertaining and provocative, and in many cases unforgettable.
I would recommend for all to pick up any one of her books. You will be enthralled and enchanted and awed. And you will certainly learn something that you didn’t know you didn’t know.
And I encourage all men to read Men Explain Things to Me. In the end, we are all in this together.
To be truthful, I am one of a few that has not loved Noah Baumbach’s movies. (I once famously said that after Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which he wrote the screenplay, we would never hear of George Clooney again! I was wrong.) But somehow I still go to every Baumbach film, thinking that ultimately I will find what everyone else has been talking about.
And with The Meyerowitz Stories, I have found it. The Meyerowitz Stories is a wonderful ensemble piece filled with both wrenching poignancy and a comic spirit that ranges from dead-pan to slapstick.
In his mind, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is one of the most important sculptors of the past fifty years. (He has a piece in the Whitney, but it has been long placed in storage.) That he has not received the acclaim that has come to his contemporaries and friends, he credits to his not selling out, his remaining pure in his artistic vision–unlike his peers.
This, of course, is purely delusional.
Harold’s other dysfunction is his personal life. He has been married four times–though he says “only three” because the first was annulled–and who has pretty much abandoned his first two children (to his second wife) for his son with his third. (His fourth wife when the film opens is Maureen, a drunken, late-hippy, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson.)
Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son whom he dotes on, lives in L.A., so it is up to his other two children, Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) to care for their father in New York City as he increasingly slips into angry dotage while finessing the drunkenness of his newest wife, his increasing delusion of his importance in the New York art world, and his general self-centeredness.
In fact, rarely has their been such a self-centered character in all of filmdom.
Now, if this seems like some sort of Bergman-esque psycho-drama, you are wrong. It is a funny, thoughtful ensemble piece that gives ample room for its many talented actors to shine.
Hoffman, as the cantankerous Harold Meyerowitz, has been preparing for this role his entire life. Actually, I found much of his Ratso Rizzo in this character. Perhaps the voice is not as whiny, but still it is there, the complaining, set-upon kvetch. (There is a subtle allusion to Midnight Cowboy and Hoffman’s character, when Meyerowitz’s son Danny is chasing after his dad in mid-town New York, hobbled with a very bad limp. At one point, as he is hobbling across the street, one expects for a taxi to drive too close and for Sandler to start yelling, “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)
Nevertheless, Hoffman is a joy to watch.
But one expects that from Hoffman. It is the others who amaze. When was the last time, one has walked out of an Adam Sandler movie talking about his acting. As Meyerowitz’s
son, Danny, who’d been abandoned by the father he idolized, he has every intention not to make the same mistakes with his own daughter (Grace Van Patten) who is off to college to begin her own artistic journey. And their relationship is sweet and beautiful and everything that his own relationship with his father was not.
The sister Jean is even worse off than Danny, having been completely ignored for most of her life by her father.
And doted upon Matthew, who is the golden boy from L.A., successful in the world of mergers and acquisitions, is full of more buried hatred than the other two.
So the film deals ultimately with a time when they are all together in New York. Ostensibly for a group show–which Danny and Jean organized at the college where Harold taught–and for other family matters. Everyone needs to look a little closer at the truth of things.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) is much fun, is thoughtful and revealing, and is a real treat for people who love movies (there are several cameos and fun allusions). For me, the film had been flying under the radar, but, without a doubt it is the best film I have seen in a very long while.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Stephen King, On Writing
“Poetry, after all, milks the unconscious.”
Plague is the new black
“Oh my goodness,” the dean said, looking stricken. Her office shelves were filled mostly with books about the Black Death, her walls decorated with old looking-illustrations of people suffering from boils or lesions or being piled into wheelbarrows, dead. Laura had not thought any wall art was more insufferable.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
I guess the plague is in vogue this summer. The above mentioned dean in Nathan Hill’s The Nix rose to her position by “knowing everything there was to know about…literature written during the plague, about the plague.”
And Jeff Baena’s new film, The Little Hours, is based on Boccaccio’s Decamaron, a series of one hundred tales written in the early 1300s and told by ten characters who have left Florence to try to escape the Black Death that is ravaging the city.
Actually, Baena’s film is an amalgamation of just three of Boccaccio’s hundred tales.
On the third day of the Decamaron, the first story is about a man who feigns to be a mute and is hired as a gardener for a convent of nuns, many of whom rush “to lie with him.” The second story of the day is about a servant who sleeps with the wife of a king. When the king discovers the affair, he cuts the servant’s hair when he sleeps so he’ll recognize him in the light of day. The servant foils the king’s plans by cutting the hair of all his fellow servants.
These two tales are combined and make up the main plot of The Little Hours, with Dave Franco as the shorn servant who then becomes the “mute” gardener to escape from the angry nobleman. And the convent he lands in is a roiling and randy world populated by Sister Alessandra, Sister Ginerva , and Sister Fernanda (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza respectively) and led by Father Tommasseo (John C. Reiley) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).
Towards the end of the Decameron, on the ninth day, there is a tale of an abbess who is roused from her bed, with the intention of catching a nun in bed with her lover. In the dark, however, instead of her veil, she puts on the pants of her own lover, which deflates much of her authority.
This scene is nodded at towards the end of the film, and when Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) comes out of her cell to find out what is going on, she is indeed wearing her lover’s pants on her head. But there is whole lot more going on than merely a lovers’ tryst.
The Little Hours is broad in its comedy–much as Boccaccio and, later, Chaucer had presented. Primarily the presence of nuns who incongruously swear more lustily than Anthony Scaramucci and who are riddled with all kinds of lusts and desires provides the major thrust of the humor. But it seems slight and repetitive.
John C. Reilly as the priest who serves the convent is marvelous, and Fred Armisen’s turn as Bishop Bartolemeo towards the end of the film who must try to corral these wild colts into order is full of incredulous, eye-popping, double-takes. There are also amusing minor roles filled in by by Paul Reiser, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke and Lauren Weedman.
But the entire piece feels thin–almost like an extended SNL skit. And to be fair, after all, its intent is to capture only about 23% of Boccaccio’s masterpiece.
But–to its credit–The Little Hours has caused me to pull the Decameron off my shelf again.
Sometime in late March, I jotted down the names of three books that I was interested in. “Jotted” down was the wrong word–I “entered” them onto the “NOTES” feature on my iPhone. The three were Himself by Jess Kidd, Eggshells by Caitriona Lally and Slipping by John Toomey.
In late May, I went on AMAZON to order the first book, Himself, and AMAZON suggested that I might also be interested in two other books. They were the two other titles that I had written down on my phone. Now, I know it’s easy being paranoid in these technologically, dystopic times–but nevertheless it was eerie.
However, AMAZON was right. All three satisfied my reading needs.
Toomey’s Slipping is part of the Irish Literary Series published by the Dalkey Press (from
whom one can usually find a gem) and it is masterful in its plotting, its narration, and its style.
Albert Johnson is a middle-aged, high-school English teacher in a small village. He is dissatisfied with the path his life has taken, disgusted with the students who sit in front of him, and disparaging of most of the colleagues who teach with him. He also blames his wife for most of this.
And he saw a way out.
When the novel begins, Albert Johnson is in a psychiatric hospital for having killed his wife. Through his psychiatrist, Johnson hires Charles Vaughan, a local writer, to write his story, initially giving him a tape that explains what he did.
Obviously, this isn’t a murder mystery; we know who did it. Rather, it is an examination of storytelling itself, with multiple narrators and shifting points of view.
To research the story, Charlie Vaughan has the tapes Johnson has provided, (against the advice of his psychiatrist), the testimony of colleagues, of the arresting officer, and a problematic student who stumbled upon the scene. He also interviews Johnson’s adult daughter. A son wants nothing to do with Johnson or Vaughan.
The story Vaughan cobbles together, however, is sketchy and unsatisfying, despite Johnson’s own philosophical ruminations about what drove him to murder. Vaughan believes there is something missing, something that is not being said.
It is in the final section where some of these gaps are filled in, where the make-up of Johnson’s mind is more clearly illuminated.
Riveting is too clichéd a word, but it fits here. The novel moves quickly, moving us through Albert Johnson’s workday, through his fantasy life, through his years of married life. We see his dissatisfaction and his delusions. And we see his deliberateness.
Toomey, who has written two previous novels, Sleepwalker and Huddleston Road, is an English teacher in Dublin and his account of a day in the life of Albert Johnson is
humorously realistic and frighteningly real. But this single school day serves as only a backdrop to the destructive thoughts that have been swirling in Johnson’s mind for years…and which lead to his horrific outburst.