Saturday, September 15, 2012

Falling into Books

My weekend reading

The reader's dilemma: what's next?  Sometimes, I just got nothing. I click through my laptop's bookmarks, browse my reliable stash of French decorating magazines (gorgeously photographed  escapism) or flip through mail order catologues. (My last Pottery Barn purchase, three burlap-covered lampshades, was around 2006,  yet their faith in my continued patronage continues unabated.) Other times, the mental to-read list is long and a new book sits shining on the coffee table, waiting for the house to quiet down at night so we can settle in together.

This fall I am happily in the latter position. There is a giant bunch of newly released novels by huge heavy weight authors, including Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Junot Diaz.  (See this story in The New York Times.) I've  enjoyed all these writers in the past, especially Diaz's Pulitizer Prize-winning The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao. But right now,  I think Chabon's Telegraph Avenue will be my first pick from the stack. The setting, Oakland and Berkeley,  and the theme of unwanted change being thrust upon characters,  two record store owners who confront a hip megastore moving into the area as well as family strife,  both appeal to me. Coping as old and new convergence of is such a theme of our times. (I say this as an iPhone-owning collector of vintage typewriters.)

But very first on my list is Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, a TV writer (Arrested Development) and novelist with a wicked sense of humor. The book, about a midlife L.A. lady losing her identity after a move to Seattle, has been getting favorable reviews. So last weekend I scanned the first page at my local book store. It's the report card of the protagonist Bernadette's daughter, Bee, who attends a pretentious private school.


Any parent (or person) who has had to parse  the double-talk educational jargon at a back-to-school night or instantaneously assume a perfect poker face as an acquaintance corners them with the breathless news of their intellectually gifted child's recent academic accomplishments will lap up Semple. The child's report card and the book's first sentence begins with the fictional school's mission statement.  (If you have been laboring under the misbegotten assumption that any grade school's mission is to  teach reading and writing and 'rithmatic, you're more agoraphobic than Bernadette.)  It says, "Galer Street School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet." Then the grades are explained

S   Surpasses Excellence
A  Achieves Excellence
W  Working towards Excellence

I plan to start the book tonight, but earlier this week was treated to a hilarious preview when the author read at The Grove's Barnes and Noble here in Los Angeles. She also answered questions from the audience and signed books.   A contingent of her comrades from TV, including her boyfriend, former Simpsons uber-writer George Meyer,  and Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer Simpson and half the other characters on the show. Meyer was sweetly snapping photos of Semple signing books.  New Yorker magazine writer and author Susan Orlean stood in back, wearing a cute dress.

Semple explained that she ultimately sees her book as a mother-daughter love story. (Semple and Meyer live in Seattle with their daughter, Poppy,)  but it is also a classic fish-out-of-water tale drawn on Semple's own experience of leaving L.A. for Seattle and trying to fit into the culture of earnest volunteerism at her child's private school.

Stuff kept tripping her up. One troubling thing was called the Wonder Wall. It was a place in her child's classroom where children posed questions beginning with "I wonder why. . . " One darling asked "I wonder why all the moms but one volunteer in the class." Of course, the slacker was Semple. "I don't have a very big imagination," she joked about mining such material as inspiration for her book.  "I just took everything from real life." As she was trying to cope she had phone sessions with her L.A. shrink, who finally told the frustrated artist that she needed to create something or she would destroy the world. Hence the novel.  As she explained this, she scanned the room to see if said shrink was present. "No, he didn't come," she said, adding a perfectly timed, "Fuck him." The audience roared.

She spoke honestly about playing her pain for laughs. "It's really funny that people laugh," she said, "because I just see blood on the page."

 I can't wait. What do you want to read next?

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Mystery of Jane Austen's Ring

 Jane Austen's gold and turquoise ring sold by Sotheby's London this month.

The Mystery of Jane Austen's Ring


Earlier this month this exquisite thing sold at  Sotheby's, the venerable London auction house, for 152,450 pounds, which works out to about $240,000 or what could get you a small house in some places. The thrilling detail that jacked the price 10,000 times over what may have been the turquoise and gold ring's intrinsic value?  It once belonged to Jane Austen and has been making its way through the top bureau drawers and safe deposit boxes of her female heirs for nearly 200 years until a final anonymous shoot on the family tree decided to cash in on the author's enduring and bankable popularity. It was previously and deliciously unknown to Austen scholars.

The buyer, also anonymous and one of eight contenders, bid by phone.  (The ring had been given a very low estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 pounds.)  Three first editions, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and  a combined volume of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, also changed hands. A copy of Emma failed to make the reserve price. All books bore the bookmark of one Bridget Mary McEwen.
This first edition of Pride and Prejudice sold for 22,500 pounds at Sotheby's As the auction's catalogue noted "Twenty million copies of Pride and Prejudice have been sold worldwide since publication, and it continues to inspire multiple dramatic, cinematic and other adaptations."

Although the ring's auction and sale were duly noted in newspapers and websites, for Janeites (and I count myself a humble amateur among them)  news of the ring brought equal parts thrills and questions. Like Elizabeth Bennet looking for Mr. Wickham at the Netherfield ball, I searched in vain through the farthest reaches of the internet for the identity of either buyer or seller or any tiny shred of information on the gorgeous piece. Nothing substantial surfaced, although if the last know owner, Winifred Jenkyns followed the tradition of ownership set by her ancestors, the seller would be one of Jenkyns's female relations. More on that below.

 But still. It thrills. It was Jane Austen's ring. She wore it on her talented  fingers. Did she love it? Hate it? Wear it everyday? When she wrote? Or only on special occasions?  Balls? Concerts in Bath? Church?  Where did she get it?

Kiera Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet in the recent film adaption of Pride and Prejudice.

It was auctioned in what Sotheby's called "a contemporary box," which looked like brown leather box with a cute little metal latch.  Inside the lid in beautiful, curlicue Regency style letters is the jeweler's imprint, "T. West / Goldsmith/Ludgate Street/ Near St. Paul's." Can you imagine owning such a thing? In The Guardian, Sotheby's expert Gabriel Heaton is quoted surmising that the box is a clue that Jane's brother Henry purchased the ring. "The ring is in a box fashioned by a goldsmith in the City of London, and Henry worked as a banker there so would have been in the right place and had the money to buy it," he said. Hmm. If Henry bought it, was it a gift or something she asked him to get for her?

The very most romantic among us may want to believe it was a present from Tom Lefroy, so sexily portrayed by actor James McAvoy in the loosely based on reality biopic Becoming Jane and the young man about whom she admits to well, quite liking. In an oft-quoted letter to her older sister and confidant, Cassandra, Jane famously wrote of dancing and flirting with him at a ball and said, "imagine everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together." But Lefroy was a young law student who met up with a young Austen while visiting  a branch of his family in the country. The family expected him to continue studying law and marry an heiress, which he did. Theirs was a brief flirtation. Even if one wants to entertain the idea that the ring came from him, there is no record to support the idea.

Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy as Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy in Becoming Jane.

Yet as Janeites know. Cassandra torched a bunch of Jane's letters after she died. Could the history of the ring have gone up in smoke?  Does the unnamed family member who auctioned off the ring have a choice tidbit she is keeping to herself? For now, she is letting the ring, the box it came in and accompanying letters tell the tale.

Provenance is auction speak for the ownership trail. The letter (pictured with the ring above) was written in 1863 by Eleanor Austen, who was the second wife of Jane's brother Henry. According to Sotheby's there is also an address on the back and a seal. In the letter she gives the ring to her niece Caroline.  Eleanor Austen wrote,  "My dear Caroline. The enclosed Ring once belonged to your Aunt Jane. It was given to me by your Aunt Cassandra as soon as she knew that I was engaged to your Uncle. I bequeath it to you. God bless you."  Wow! Sotheby's says there are also "three further notes by Mary Dorothy Austen-Leigh" detailing the ring's later stewards, from 1935-1962 as it was handed down ending with a woman named Winifred Jenkyns. If Jenkyns followed the recorded tradition, it seems she would have passed it on to a younger female relation.

As to who will be adding their name to this privileged list of owners?  Software pioneer and Austenophile Sandy Lerner is one suspect. She has the money. She bought Chawton House Library, the manor house  once owned by Jane's brother Edward and made it into a museum of early women writers in an effort to better understand the climate in which Austen created.  She has said the Japanese are huge collectors. Could the buyer by someone from Tokyo? Or could it be a suddenly flush Chinese industrialist? An American movie star? Who knows?

Closeup of the ring from Sotheby's.

Even surrounded by all these questions, the ring does speak to us about the much scrutinized author. She was slim. It's a British size K 1/2, which corresponds to an American size 5 1/2,  a little smaller than the average size 6 ring. It also has a sizing band across the back to make it even smaller, for her or a later owner.

The stone is turquoise, which was exciting for me and other Janeites as well. (See Diana Birchall's post here on the excellent Austen Authors website.)  Like Miss Austen and Miss Birchall, I was also born in December and turquoise is our birthstone.   I often wear it often. Now whether or not this is why Austen had a turquoise ring is also a question. The tradition of birthstones dates theoretically to ancient times but according to gemstone history was experiencing something of a rival in 18th century Poland. Had this fad reached England by the Regency period?

Two of my favorite pairs of turquoise earrings.

Startlingly contemporary in its simple design, Austen's ring looks like something you would find in boutique jewelry store, carrying handmade things, confirming that in both jewelry and prose Miss Austen's unerring taste endures.

The ring is one new tidbit about the author who 195 years after her death continues to inspire (Nora Ephron was working on an American version of the British Lost In Austen series when she died.)  The other is this cunning and controversial picture, known as the Rice Portrait, which Austen's descendants have long held to be the 13-year-old Jane and the omnipotent British National Gallery has long held not to be Jane. (Read about the whole story on the Rice family's blog here.) However, lately swayed by new evidence - photos of the painting taken before some restorations occurred in the early part of the last century which obscured the name of the artist, Ozias Humphrey, and his subject, Jane Austen - art experts are siding with the family.


Isn't she adorable? What would that wonderfully intelligent, impish teen do with iMovie, Twitter and Instagram today? Cassandra was also painted in a companion portrait. According to the Rice's website that painting might be somewhere in France. Wouldn't you love to see Jane and Cassandra together some day in a museum? Smiling out at us, so many secrets intact.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Nora Knew Me

Nora in Beverly Hills from The Los Angeles Times

Since Nora Ephron’s untimely death two weeks ago the loving tributes have poured out and justifiably so. We ladies, especially of a certain-ish age, felt like we knew her and she knew us. As the oldest of four girls, she owned the role of the perfect older sister, someone smart and funny and free with important advice. Prominent younger  writers have shared their lovely personal stories of being taken under – as Meghan Daum put it so aptly in the L.A. Times  -Nora’s "cashmere-clad" wing.  Nora would meet these up-and-comers for lunch and hand out tips, phone numbers and email addresses. Nora dispatched Daum, an Angeleno,  to have coffee with a writer recently transplanted from New York to our bouganvilleaed jungles. Girls’ creator Lena Dunham got talkings to on boyfriends, doctors, contractors and “good white paint” for her apartment, as well as the exact right Patagonia jacket to wear on film sets.

This according to the Twittersphere this is Nora's go-to on-set jacket.

Damn, I thought reading after about this. I for one could have used some of this. When I moved to L.A. I called a writer-acquaintance and suggested coffee. She said, “No one here really has coffee.” And I can’t help thinking that with Nora in my life, I probably wouldn’t have made the tragic mistaken of hemming my living room curtains three inches too short instead of leaving them long enough to chicly air kiss the floorboards.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lunch with Bèbè

Did you read this?

 I did.  The author, Pamela Druckerman, an American raising three small children in Paris, has some good ideas, especially on how the French systematically teach their babies to eat healthy food and behave while they’re doing it. (In England the book is called French Kids Don't Throw Food.) Hint: parents start very early, offer lots of different tastes and don’t sit around waiting for their kids to grow out of bland food or into good food. Unfortunately, by contrasting the thin, well-behaved and omnivorous French enfants with the chubby, plain pasta (ONLY) and goldfish chomping hellions of the States, Druckerman set herself up for righteous indignation and got put into the same crazy mother memoirist box as last year’s Tiger Mom, Amy Chua, It’s a pity.  With our obesity rate (one in three U.S. kids is overweight or obese) we need help wherever we can get it. And while not everyone will go to Harvard or play Carnegie Hall, everyone eats.

Druckerman covers other child-rearing topics,  but for me, her dissection of the French approach to feeding kids was the most interesting. It's a hot topic: another North American, Canadian professor Karen Le Billon (she is married to a Frenchie and splits her time between Canada and France) has written a whole book about it, called French Kids Eat Everything. 

 In excerpts and on her blog,  Le Billon comes across as more measured though slightly less amusing than the kooky Druckerman (who once wrote an article about arranging a threesome for her husband’s 40th and appeared in all her American TV interviews wearing a dopey beret.)  Just like Druckerman, Le Billon experiences the culture shock of bringing (in her case two) picky North American children to France. She was blown away by the polite garçons et filles eating the exact same meals as their parents without complaining. Her book offers instructions on how to stage your own Gallic makeover without leaving home. Here is Le Billon in The New York Times.

One part of the equation - totally inapplicable to us - is the government's support provided by France in the form of healthy, delicious school meals made for children from the time they enter state-sponsored day care-nursery school school all the way through high school. Le Billon has a blog dedicated to school menus from around France.  Druckerman absolutely rhapsodizes about her children’s crèche and brings readers on a visit to the Commission Menus in Paris, where the crèche menus are meticulously planned.  The chefs there fret over repeating items or tastes and brag of triumphs like getting the kids to eat things like sardine mousse.

Eating is an integral part of French education, not an afterthought stuffed with pink slime. Depending on your political bent, you are either unbelievably envious of this or think it is socialism at its worst. I’m in the envy camp. My son was a notoriously picky eater, with food allergies to boot. Any kind of support would have been heavenly.

What truly puzzles me is how people in our country got so far way from healthy eating.
No, we don’t have the gastronomical lineage of France, but we were not always fat people who snacked throughout the day. My mother was a plain, but reliable cook. My parents come from Irish- Germanic stock in the Midwest. Pork roast figured large, but it was cooked from scratch and our portions modest.  Hamburgers, fresh sliced tomatoes and celery spread with peanut butter were the staples of my childhood table. My two brothers and I passed through the usual swim and ballet lessons, hockey and baseball games, yet snacks happened only once a day: after school. The only activity which routinely included a snack was Brownies and only because it occurred  right after school when we all marched over to Mrs. Evan's house and she gave us Kool-Aid and graham crackers.  Candy was dispensed on Valentine’s Day and Halloween, not for getting an A on a spelling test.

Contrast this to my kids’ experience: no sporting event, school ritual or happy moment passes without an accompanying snack and often the most horrid available: really gross supermarket cookies or cupcakes.  I rarely hear parents uttering the familiar refrain of our youth: ‘don’t eat that now! You’ll spoil your dinner.”

The French, who prize variety,  would never approve: every school day, since preschool, my 14-year-old son has had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. (The coffee is mine.)

While the debate rages over the cause of our overweight nation (Suburbs! Big agriculture! Sedentary lifestyles!) it seems to me that one under-analyzed part of the equation is that our country is totally schitzo about food. We are divided between  people who cook and care - on the extreme you have home canners and Mark Zuckerberg butchering his own meat - and people who could care less,  eat pretty much everything and consider the kitchen a foreign country.  "I think cooking is a total waste of time," an educated, well-heeled former colleague, admitted recently. Until we give the growing, preparing and eating of nutritious food its due, we're left with the consequences. And they're not pretty.

Here is the completed American lunch and a snack for my 14-year-old. His school day includes a two-hour swim practice and not nearly enough vegetables. Terrible? No. Room for improvement? Yes.  My kids attend public school in Los Angeles. They do not have much love for Cafe L.A. - the school food service.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Patti Smith: Unplugged

I never tire of girl-moves-to-New York City stories. I recently inhaled Just Kids, poet-rocker-artist Patti Smith's memoir of her early days in the city and her romance-cum- friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith's prose is spare and beautiful; her restraint a surprise.  She was involved with Mapplethorpe, renowned for pushing buttons and boundaries with his shocking photographs, yet she is discrete, almost prudish, in her revelations. For instance, she describes their first time together with the Victorian phrase "our first intimacy."

Smith's story moves softly through the bold names and places of New York in the late '60s and early '70s. She encountered Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, had an affair with Sam Shepherd, lived in the Chelsea Hotel and hung out at legendary nightclub Max's Kansas City.

Yet, her very earliest times in New York intrigued me the most.  She left college, New Jersey and a factory job. She had no money and sleeps on the street and in parks. She barely ate.

This skinny girl, who idolized the poet Rimbaud, first saw Mapplethorpe when he walked into Bretano's bookstore, where she was clerking. Later he serendipitously materialized in Tompkin's Square Park and saved her from a horrid date. Soon they were living together in Brooklyn.  He was ostensibly a student at Pratt Art Institute. Holed up in together, they dreamed of artistic accomplishments, sketched, wrote and listened to music. Dinner was splitting a grilled cheese sandwich at a diner. A day in Manhattan was one person going in to museum, the other waiting outside and then describing his or her experience to the other. They could not pay for two.

The portrait of their home life in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone, pre- electronic age is an astounding period piece. Take away their electricity, and they might as well have been the Brontës creating into the void of the desolate moors. Their apartment had no TV, radio or phone. Some evenings they played a game called "Night of the Record" and drew while playing the same record over and over. Its album cover would be displayed on their mantel.

Last week I watched my nine-year-old daughter iChat for the first time. My 14-year-old son is always texting or scrolling through Facebook or You Tube. The contrast is incredible. What is it like to live an unplugged life?  How does a plugged-in person capture enough quietude to develop as an artist, a writer, an anythinger these days? What feeds the creative soul better: instantaneous online recognition or silent isolation?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Half That Makes the Artist Whole

While my friends Scotch taped pictures of David Cassidy, Michael Jackson or Elton John to their bedroom walls, my teenybopper longings went in a different direction. I loved Bob Dylan.

The first album I ever bought was Desire. (It was so long ago I bought it in the record section of the long-defunct Jordan Marsh department store.) It was a bad pressing. The first two tracks skipped, but I loved it and the homemade cassette tape of Blood on the Tracks that I found on the street. The trippy tangle of words strung together into fantastic stories was unlike anything else I heard on WRCO, Boston’s top pop station. I loved the poetry. I loved the melodies. I loved Bob Dylan.

Eventually, he returned my love. On the first date I had with my now-husband, loving Dylan was one of our first bonding points. The fact that we were walking through the same East Village streets he once roamed made the conversation all the sweeter.

A few years ago when Dylan’s famously silent girlfriend Suze Rotolo published a memoir, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, her straight-forward remembrance of the Village when the folk music and protest scenes were fomenting and she was living with Bob, I gobbled it up and loved her too. First, having had my own romance with life in New York, I’m a sucker for young-woman-in-the Big City tales. As a Dylan fan, I had wondered about the Boho glamour girl strolling arm and arm with the musician down a snowy street on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album cover. And, finally, as the wife (of an artist!) I am fascinated by the whole dynamic of muse-dom and couples and the half that makes anyone, but especially the artist, whole.

Suze Rotolo (pronounced Rote-o-lo) didn’t inspire by just sitting in a corner looking beautiful – although it looks as though she could do that very well -she educated and guided. In her book and a subsequent press interview, she comes across as a grounded New York girl, serious and smart, not silly, but a bit dreamy. The working-class daughter of Italian-American Communists, she was schooled equally in social justice, opera and the arts. She started taking the subway from Queens to Harlem to volunteer for the civil rights group CORE while still in high school. Dylan, a relative bumpkin from Minnesota, learned a lot from her.

“I listen to Dylan’s songs spread over his early albums and I remember how it was; it’s like reading a diary,” she says in A Freewheelin’ Time. “A private smile because no one knows about that, a laugh because that was really funny, or a tear because it was so hard.” When her book came out, she told The New York Times that she and Dylan “created a private world” and that “We were searching for poetry, and we saw that in each other. We were so ultrasensitive, both of us. That’s why it was a good relationship but also why it was difficult.”

She also gives some tantalizing details of everyday vignettes that were transmuted into lyrics: in one she reminisces about walking home from nightclubs or parties in the early morning. They sometimes passed a Thompson Street butcher that stocked live chickens. On the deserted dawn street, they could hear the roosters crowing. “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright,” a song widely believed to be about her (even if she doesn’t admit it,) has the line “When the rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone.”

As a lover of New York and student of Bohemia, I thrilled to her descriptions of the village in the early ‘60s: cheap rents, apartments filled with books and records from secondhand stores and clothes she made or found in thrift stores. She describes one apartment as an “empty canvas” which she filled with free-hand designs painted on the wall, richly colored burlap curtains she made herself and bookcases made from fruit crates.

Rotolo died of lung cancer last week at home in the Village not far from where that iconic portrait Freewheelin’ portrait was taken on Jones Street. (Unfortunately Chesterfields and hand-rolled cigarettes also make an appearance in her book.) In 1961 when she met Bob, he was 20 and she 17. They were together for three years. An artist, activist and Village resident for the rest of her life, she married, had a son and, by all accounts, was happy mostly ignoring “the elephant in the room of my life,” until publishing her book in ’08.

Dylan is known for being opaque, yet Rotolo, whose endeavors as a visual artist never met the audience his work has, in some ways, had the last word. Refusing to be reduced to the girl who inspired one song or the other, Rotolo says she doesn’t “lay claim” to any one piece having been written about her, but that Dylan himself said certain ones would not have existed without her. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean a particular song,” she explains in a Freewheelin’ Time, “It means I served as a muse during our time together and that I don’t mind claiming.”

For that time, she was the half that made the whole. Did he ever thank her?