New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, 245 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by: Farah Jasmine Griffin
Following Maya Angelou’s death in May 2014, sales of her always-popular first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), soared. That book and those that followed introduced readers to a talented writer who, as a young girl named Marguerite Johnson, had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend, became mute as a result of the abuse, and developed an intense and intricate interior life fueled by her voracious appetite for books. Marguerite grew up to be Maya Angelou, Renaissance woman: a formidable storyteller who used language to create herself anew. As much Angelou’s subsequent memoirs (there are eight in total) tell the story of a life, they also embody the act of self-creation. During her lifetime, Angelou also published several volumes of poetry, essays, and aphorisms. She wrote screenplays and plays, and penned inspirational greeting card messages. However, all of these exist in the shadow of the memoirs, which presents a challenge to any would-be biographer who attempts to chronicle a life so well documented by the person who lived it.
A conventional biography requires the writer to establish distance between her project and the memoirs. In fact, the biographer needs to view autobiographical writings with a bit of skepticism, seeing them as but one source, and possibly an untrustworthy one, among many. This kind of project requires extensive investigation of the subject’s archives as well as the archives of those who knew and worked with her. If there are members of this latter group who are still alive, the biographer needs to conduct lengthy interviews with them. Armed with this material, she must then separate the myths of the memoir from the flawed, if gifted, subject of her research. Because Maya Angelou looms so very large, and because the myths of her life are her own creations, such a biography, necessarily years in the making, is warranted. Linda Wagner-Martin’s Maya Angelou is not that biography.
The first book-length treatment of Angelou’s life and work to appear since her death, Wagner-Martin’s text is instead an in-depth literary study of Maya Angelou’s body of work. In her Preface, Wagner-Martin writes:
How does the author of an academic book capture the radiant and effulgent mind, attitude and sound that was Maya Angelou?... [H]ow does an author capture the far-reaching effects of Maya Angelou’s eight memoirs and as many poetry collections, as well as her countless essays, letters, interviews, and even more personal writings?
The subject here is not Maya Angelou’s life per se, but her mind: her ideas and how she expressed them in writing. The subject is the oeuvre. The greatest contribution of Maya Angelou is the seriousness with which it takes Angelou as a writer. Wagner-Martin is the author of a number of books about writers, including Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison, which belong to the genre of literary scholarship whereby the author illuminates aspects of her subject’s life based on her body of work.
Wagner-Martin performs a great service to Angelou’s legacy by including her among the subjects to whom she has devoted her keen analytical abilities, for Angelou’s reputation as a writer is often dwarfed by her reputation as inspirational public figure and a cosmopolitan woman of the world. Some of this is a consequence of the snobbishness of academic literary criticism and some a response to Angelou’s own choices. The popularity of her writing, the anthem-like nature of some of her poems—the most famous of which are recited at graduations, beauty pageants, rites of passage, and funerals—make many academic critics suspicious of their literary merit. Angelou’s books of catchy aphorisms and verses on Hallmark greeting cards also contribute to the overall devaluation of her writing project. Wagner-Martin notes these challenges, asserting, “In both her poetry and her memoir, then, Angelou forged her own directions—and as a result her aesthetic achievements were sometimes unappreciated or overlooked.” She reminds us that Angelou first came to public attention as an original literary voice, telling a story that had not been told: that of an impoverished, brainy black girl in a world that did not wish to see poverty and saw no value in the life of a black girl child.
Wagner-Martin’s contextualization and explication of that first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is extraordinary. By now the book is so ubiquitous it is difficult to remember a time before its existence. As with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (published a year after Caged Bird, in 1970), it became a kind of founding text for the outpouring of work by black women writers in the 1970s and 1980s. Like Morrison’s work, it is often credited with breaking the silence about the intraracial sexual abuse of black girls, while at the same time chronicling, in beautiful prose, the inner lives of young subjects thought to have none.
Wagner-Martin recreates the sense of excitement that Caged Bird generated, and she explains its distinctiveness. Although some readers have placed it in the context of writings by black men such as Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X, or of white women such as Erica Jong and Marilyn French, Wagner-Martin suggests that Lillian Hellman’s serial autobiographies may be better comparisons for Angelou. However, unlike Hellman, who by the time her books were published was already a widely regarded literary figure, Angelou was unknown outside of an elite circle of black writers, artists, and activists. Caged Bird served as her calling card to a broader public. Once they discovered her, readers felt a sense of empathy and a longing to know more:
[Maya Angelou] had no celebrity status, though she had appeared on stage and in clubs: the heart of her memoir writing was, in fact, the commonality of her life…She also wrote, without apology, about the bleak events in the early years of her life—and she did so without blaming mainstream culture—that is, white culture—for those events. I Know why the Caged Bird Sings was an unanticipated kind of book. Its politics [were] comparatively mild; its energy was devoted to expressing the family love that had saved Maya and her brother; its narrative patterning alternated the serious, and the chilling, with the tranquil and exuberant.
This concise description is an apt one, which delineates elements that Angelou’s book shared with a generation of black women writers. However, rather than letting white people and white supremacy off the hook for black suffering, these women’s books instead devoted themselves to demonstrating the existence of black complexity, humanity, dignity, and love under the conditions of white supremacy. They are not outward looking, directed at white men in anger; they allow for interiority, for anxiety, and for psychological depth. This is a political project, though one that is perhaps not apparent to mainstream readers.
While Wagner-Martin’s readings of Angelou’s writings are indeed valuable and give us a way to better appreciate the work, particularly the poetry, the book falls short in its failure to explore the veracity of some of Angelou’s claims. Wagner-Martin seems to take the memoirs at face value—or perhaps, as a literary critic, she assumes the fictional nature of the autobiographical project. She suggests that Angelou’s memoirs may be more accurately described as “autobiographical novels,” but she does not develop this provocative and interesting assertion. Perhaps her critical methodology does not require a search for truth but instead an illumination of craft. If this is the case, however, she ought to have given greater attention to the inconsistent quality of the later works. Was it a consequence of market pressures? Did Angelou grow bored with the character she had created?
Wagner-Martin engages with a number of other analysts of African American women’s fiction to build the critical framework with which she reads Angelou’s work. That a number of these scholars are black feminist or womanist theorists creates an intellectually rich and nuanced context for her discussion. While we learn no new details of Angelou’s life, Wagner-Martin gives us a way of reading that life. Her final chapter focuses on Angelou as a “spirit leader,” which seems a most apt description of the role she plays in the lives of many readers, including that of her most famous admirer, Maya Angelou herself.
All in all, Maya Angelou: Adventurous Spirit is an important early contribution to studies of Angelou’s life and writing. By focusing on the literary Angelou, it reminds us that she first came to our attention as a writer of compelling prose and a gifted storyteller who wrote her way into existence.
Farah Jasmine Griffin is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia University. Her most recent book is: Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (2013).
By Peter L. Laurence
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Renée Loth
When US Senator Patty Murray was a thirty-something citizen-activist in Washington state, a legislative opponent dismissed her as “just a mom in tennis shoes.” Murray wielded the insult to her advantage throughout her political career, showing up to campaign events in tennis shoes, using them as props at rallies—and winning every time.
A similar mythology has followed the famed urbanist Jane Jacobs; opponents in her time dismissed her, often to their grief, as just a mom with a typewriter. Her prescription for vibrant urban life, epitomized in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was so straightforward and free of cant that it’s easy to believe she sprang full-grown from a Greenwich Village sidewalk, an American Primitive of urban planning. No less a figure than the developer Robert Moses burnished this myth, when he complained at a public hearing about the resistance Jacobs had organized to his plan to blast a roadway through Washington Square Park in the late 1950s. As Jacobs herself remembered it years later, he sputtered before a municipal committee in disbelief, “There is nobody against this…Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!”
In Becoming Jane Jacobs, the architectural historian Peter Laurence aims to counter the notion that Jacobs was just a spunky naif who stumbled onto her theories about city planning and urban renewal. Instead, he argues, her views were shaped by years of careful study working as a writer and editor at publications such as Architectural Forum, and by her encounters with great thinkers of the field such as Lewis Mumford and William H. Whyte. “If it seems improbable that a canonical book like The Death and Life of American Cities emerged spontaneously from the typewriter of a housewife who had previously written nothing but a few captions, that is because it is improbable,” Laurence writes in his introduction. Critics of Jacobs’s politics and ideas, he writes, “quickly stereotyped her as someone with little prior experience, let alone credentials, in her subject matter, and they dismissed her important contributions, in often gendered terms, as obvious or naïve.”
As a corrective, Laurence traces in minute detail the development of Jacob’s thinking, from her arrival in New York City at age eighteen through the publication of Death and Life, which is perhaps the most important (and certainly the most readable) book on urban planning ever written. She did not come upon her fierce defense of organic, complex urban vibrancy—what she called “the sidewalk ballet” of cities—just by gazing out her brownstone window, he says, but though a combination of careful observation, writing, and “interacting with the architectural press, academy, and profession.”
Laurence shows Jacobs fully engaged in the roiling intellectual arguments of her time—New Empiricism, New Palladianism, functionalism, modernism, and other isms—debating not just urban theory but the ideas of prominent philosophers (Karl Popper) and economists (F.A. Hayek). Her career coincided with a golden age of magazines, when publishing giants such as Henry R. Luce—the founder of Time, Inc., and editor of Architectural Forum—were remaking American journalism. Luce and his editorial team were determined to forge a new kind of architectural criticism and willing to attack building projects and their designers by name—a practice long avoided because of developers’ propensity for libel suits.
Jacobs, whose centenary was observed earlier this year, in May 2016, wrote presciently about the issues that architects, planners, and city officials grapple with today: suburban sprawl, environmental degradation, racially segregated housing, the benefits of density and mixed-use neighborhoods, and—prefiguring Sherry Turkle’s critique of distancing technology by fifty years —the importance of unmediated personal interactions. In an article for Architectural Forum about New York City’s office boom in 1957, Jacobs wrote that there is “no substitute for face to face, for the peek at figures not to be broadcast, the shared Martini, the subtle sizing up, the chance to bring the full weight of personality to bear.” Although Jacobs was steeped in the era’s debates about urban planning, ultimately she had little patience for any critical theory that lacked a conscience or a beating heart.
Laurence traces Jacobs’s lifelong suspicion of authority and planning orthodoxy to an early tangle with the government, in 1948. Despite having written propaganda for the Office of War Information during World War II, she was investigated by the FBI and the Loyalty Security Board for possible Communist sympathies. Her case, Laurence says, was personally overseen by J. Edgar Hoover, because she and her husband had once applied for a visa to the Soviet Union. (At the time the USSR was still an ally of the United States, but never mind!) Jacobs, he writes “opposed top-down, paternalistic, utopian, and statistically driven social and economic planning” at least partly in reaction to the excesses of state control she had experienced first-hand.
It is a fascinating idea, but overall Laurence does little psychoanalyzing of Jacobs in what he calls “an intellectual biography” of the urban planner. His focus is more on the great book than on the author herself. Time and again, Laurence connects the dots for the reader, showing Jacobs meeting the people, reporting on the developments, and “rehearsing passages” that will later appear in the volume. If a book can be said to have a biographer, Peter Laurence is the Boswell of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, Jane Butzner showed an early aptitude for writing, publishing her first works at age eleven in the local newspaper. The eldest daughter of a doctor and school teacher, she abjured college for a quick course in stenography, which she hoped would be her ticket to a life in the big city. In Depression-era New York, however, jobs were hard to find, and she supplemented her mostly part-time wages with freelance writing assignments that took her deep into the city’s many diverse neighborhoods. Her keenly observed portraits of workers in the leather, flower and diamond districts—published in Vogue, of all places—were some of her first experiences as what she later called “an urban naturalist.” Laurence writes admiringly of these early essays, which were unusual because “there was no hint of condescension in her discussion of the ethnic, working-class districts, which others saw as the home of the unwashed masses.”
When she was 28, Jane married Robert Jacobs, an architect—and it would be unfair to both of them not to recognize his contribution to her education. They shared a close relationship as colleagues, parents, and activists. Bob Jacobs taught Jane how to read architectural drawings and introduced her to many of those who would become her mentors and champions.
Importantly, Laurence shows that Jacobs was not always a fierce opponent of urban renewal schemes, for which she is now best known. Like most of her contemporaries, she was initially swept up in postwar enthusiasms for technical, almost scientific, solutions to urban problems. Although she rejected the “garden city” concept emblemized by suburban development and its attendant sprawl, she did think that inner-city slums could benefit from new housing developments, with their promise of self-contained parks, sunlight, and healthful recreation.
Perhaps because of her orientation as a journalist, however, rather than as an academic or theorist, she soon observed where these utopian ideas went wrong. She began to grow wary of urban renewal while reporting on redevelopment projects in East Harlem. Laurence quotes from a letter she wrote to a close friend, explaining the evolution of her thinking: “I saw that many people in East Harlem were of true importance in their circles and had the dignity that comes of having some influence and mastery, however little, on their environment.” In contrast, urban renewal schemes usually wiped out a community’s self-determination and replaced it with a “buffer principle” designed to keep both uses of buildings and classes of people apart.
Although Laurence doesn’t draw the reference, Jacobs came to abhor the “Tobacco Road” mentality of urban renewal, where, as in the song, the solution to a blighted neighborhood was to “blow it up and start all over again.” Her genius was to recognize the value in the messy, noisy, informal social structures of city neighborhoods and the civic glue provided by their institutions.
In the same letter, Jacobs lamented the development of Charles River Park, the walled community that followed the razing of Boston’s teeming West End, because its designers believed it would be “unsafe unless the strangers are kept out.” On the contrary, as she noted in Death and Life, it is precisely the close interactions among a city’s inhabitants and the self-policing “eyes on the street” that keep it safe.
Laurence recounts all this dutifully, with sometimes plodding prose. The book is deeply researched and helpfully illustrated, but it is not a jargon-free zone. Describing the debates that engulfed an international group of modernist architects and critics calling themselves Team 10, for example, he writes: “Team 10 members and others advanced the metabolist and megastructural movements of the 1960s and 1970s with a persisting ambition for ‘total architecture.’” Happily, the book includes ample passages by Jacobs herself, where the language is vivid, the pace picks up, and the book breathes.
Because it is mostly about the formative period leading up to the publication of Death and Life, Laurence’s biography gives relatively short shrift to the years just after, when Jacobs reached the peak of her fame and influence over the city she loved. There is little focus on her epic battles with Robert Moses, which pitted the builder against the preserver. For that, one has to read other accounts, such as The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (2010) by fellow urbanist Roberta Brandes Gratz; Wrestling with Moses (2009), by the former Boston Globe reporter Anthony Flint; or perhaps Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, by Robert Kanigel, forthcoming in September.
Even Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Moses, The Power Broker (1974), scants the relationship with Jacobs. Years after its publication, Caro admitted that chapters about Jacobs ended up on the cutting-room floor, an editing decision he came to regret. As well he should. “The great virtue of the city, the thing that helps make up for all its disadvantages, is that it is interesting,” Jacobs said in a 1957 speech. By fighting to keep it that way, Jacobs and her ideas were at least as influential in shaping urban America as the most powerful men in wingtips. Becoming Jane Jacobs provides a crucial rebalancing of the public record.
Renée Loth is editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine, the quarterly “ideas” publication of the Boston Society of Architects, and a former senior editor at the Boston Globe.
By Andi Zeisler
New York: PublicAffairs, 2016, 304 pp., $26.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Paula Kamen
In her new book, We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler is as adept as one can get in capturing—and contrasting—specific moments in pop culture. In one chapter she looks back at the landmark 1977 international women’s conference in Houston. “The brainchild of Bella Abzug and Patsy Mink” and funded by the US government “to the tune of $5 million,” writes Zeisler, it drew between 15,000 and 20,000 attendees. The keynote was by Texas Congressional Representative Barbara Jordan, and the conference’s resulting political action plan focused on such substantive issues as sex discrimination, wage inequality, childcare, abortion, and the rights of minority women.
Then she fast-forwards to describe what such an event would like today: “I’d like to think it can have the same galvanizing spirit,” Zeisler writes,
but I’m also 99.9 percent sure it wouldn’t be funded by the government, but by a slate of multinational corporate sponsors: Verizon, Estee Lauder, Gucci. It would be held not at a convention center but at an extremely posh spa, all the better to pop out for a quick seaweed detox wrap if needed. Paparazzi would be camped out to get snaps of celebrity attendees Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Amal Clooney.
Zeisler goes on to imagine that the event would feature a “special conversation between Hayek and Jolie that adds $175 to the conference ticket price but does include a gift bag containing chia-seed energy bars, a luxury skin mask, and a coupon for Activia yogurt.”
Zeisler’s fantasy reveals the mixed blessings—and strange bedfellows—created by today’s “bizarro world” of “marketplace feminism”: the intersection of capitalism and feminism. “It’s decontextualized,” she writes. “It’s depoliticized. And it’s probably feminism’s most popular iteration ever.” With wit and imagination, she traces the evolution of marketplace feminism during the past twenty years, and its assimilation into mainstream society, for better and for worse.
Zeisler writes for both an academic audience and the rest of us; all may appreciate her big-picture perspective, as she connects the dots across decades and political movements, while she provides critical tools to enable even the most dedicated Entertainment Weekly subscriber to navigate the perplexingly mixed media messages that surround us. After reading this book, no reader will ever hear the words “empower” or “choice” the way she did before.
As a co-founder of the widely respected Bitch magazine (its tagline, “feminist response to pop culture”), Zeisler has long been at the forefront of delivering brainy and entertaining cultural critique. Bitch, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary in 2016, has accomplished the impossible, surviving as an indie publication with minimal advertising. It has even expanded: the magazine is now a part of Bitch Media, which includes online-only content, a blog, and the Bitch on Campus partnership. This year, for the first time, Bitch Media offered fellowships to four diverse writers from across the globe.
Zeisler’s book reflects a major engaging feature of the magazine: a healthy dose of informed irony. You can see it right away in magazine headlines like “When the Dove Tries: The Latest ‘Real Beauty’ Gimmick” (about a Dove soap ad campaign) and “Of Woman Borg” (about female robots). Humor is almost unavoidable in analyses of the contradictions in today’s pop culture—such as in Zeisler’s discussion of the promotion of Spanx “shapewear” as “empowering” to women.
In its media focus, this book is in many ways the successor to the nerve-hitting 1991 blockbuster Backlash, by Susan Faludi (1991), which exposed often subtle media attacks on women’s progress. Even some of these books’ content overlaps: both cite notorious media instances of blaming feminism for the woes of single women—such as in the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, in which Michael Douglas is stalked by the homicidal, bunny-boiling Glenn Close; and in the 1986 Newsweek report, “The Marriage Crunch,” which warned young, single women that their odds of marrying dropped to minuscule the older they got, so that by the time they were 35, it claimed, they were more likely to be attacked by terrorists. “This narrative not only had legs, it had control-top hose and running shoes,” Zeisler says, describing how wildly popular and quoted the article became.
But Zeisler’s book has key differences from Faludi’s, notably, what Zeisler calls a “constant game of Good News/Bad News.” Her book both celebrates progress and notes setbacks, often within a single sentence. This is so fundamental to Zeisler’s worldview that her book is organized into two parts: the first, The Embrace, about advances; and the second, The Same Old Normal, about gains yet to be made. This rhythm is useful for describing today’s complexities, such as Nike’s 1995 advertising campaign, “If You Let Me Play,” which took feminism for granted, instead of seeing it as a novel trend. Beauty industry ads are especially full of contradictions: “A key feature of marketplace feminism is its earnest dialogue about broadening beauty standards,” writes Zeisler. She cites as an example Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” in which depictions of “real women” of various body sizes were posted in splashy venues, including on a billboard in Times Square. But, “Oh yeah,” Zeisler reminds us, “those beaming women on Dove’s groundbreaking billboards were shilling a line of lotions and creams meant to smooth out cellulite.”
She observes other drags on apparent progress. News outlets widely covered the actor Emma Watson’s November 2014 speech to the United Nations on gender equality, which helped to demystify feminism to a new audience. Yet Zeisler finds bias in the angle of the coverage. Headlines commended Watson’s “bravery” in identifying as a feminist, as they often do when celebrities take a stand. But this moves the focus away from the issues to the stars’ supposed “revelatory lack of fear and disgust about aligning themselves with the word [feminist].”
We Were Feminists covers the major media development since the publication of Backlash: the Internet, and its feminist blogs, websites, and “listicles.” Zeisler herself has a blogger’s sensibility and casual voice, as she makes reference to both high and low culture. She sets the pattern on page one, describing “Twitter feeds that mashed up Judith Butler and the Incredible Hulk.” Doing something like that herself, she follows her description of a lingerie ad as “batshit nonsensical” with a cogent critique of neoliberalism and gender essentialism that employs such words as “reify” and “ineluctable.”
Pop culture may be light, but to analyze it, Zeisler relies upon a deep understanding of global social issues and the diversity of feminist activism. Reflecting the cumulative result of decades of consciousness raising, We Were Feminists (more than Backlash) focuses on international, racial, generational, and transgender issues.
Zeisler’s wide point of view informs one of her most original contributions: her analysis of the evolution of the word “empower.” She traces its emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s to grassroots campaigns for women’s self-sufficiency in the global South and in US minority communities. Barbara Bryant Solomon’s Black Empowerment: Social World in Oppressed Communities (1976) was apparently the first book to use the word in its title. It was widely embraced in the 1990s by Third Wave feminists, reflecting the movement’s “expansive goals,” such as in Rosalind Wiseman’s 1992 Empower antibullying program.
Then came what Zeisler coins “empowertising.” Corporate America began using the word everywhere; it appeared perhaps most egregiously in Walmart’s 2011 Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative, which Zeisler describes as “an ass-covering PR campaign,” as the company faced the largest-ever sex-discrimination suit against a private company. By 2012, even Forbes was calling the word “the most condescending transitive verb ever.”
While Zeisler reports on generations of feminists, her work will have a special appeal to perennially media attention-starved, Generation X readers (like me!). Bitch magazine (along with the more celebrity-oriented Bust, founded three years earlier, in 1993) was a major “gateway feminist” source for us, raising our consciousnesses about our particular cultural influences. For Zeisler herself, the galvanizing event, when she was in college, was Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to Congress, during the confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas:
If there was one event that was poised to refute the lie of postfeminism, it was the televised hearings that found Hill recalling her treatment by Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It’s hard to overstate how groundbreaking the hearings were in the understanding of sexual harassment: they marked the first time many viewers—myself included—realized there was a name of behavior that we were expected to laugh off or be flattered by in our school and work environments.
We Were Feminists rejects mainstream feminism as it is popularly defined: as women making choices. Instead, it dares to assert that some choices are better than others:
As an ideology, feminism…holds that some things—say, social and political equality and physical autonomy—are better than other things, like inequality, domestic and sexual violence, and subservience based on gender. It makes no sense to argue that all choices are equally good as long as individual women choose them. And it’s equally illogical to put a neoliberal frame around that argument and suggest that a woman’s choices affect that woman and only that woman.
Zeisler’s call to high ideals is most evident in her last chapter, “The End of Feel-Good Feminism.” In it, she challenges consumers to not forget the “unfun” and “uncommercial” parts of feminism:
The problem is—the problem has always been—that feminism is not fun. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable. The root issues that feminism confronts—wage inequality, gendered divisions of labor, institutional racism and sexism—are deeply unsexy.
Feminism is a demand for social change. Some of her critics, such as two recent New York Times reviewers (who were generally positive), have said this means she is ideologically rigid. But I opine that, in the end, she provides a much-needed, independent voice—countering a much better funded corporate one.
Paula Kamen is the author of four books, including Feminist Fatale: Voices from the ‘Twentysomething Generation’ Explore the Future of the Women’s Movement”, which was noted as the first post-boomer feminist book when it was published in 1991. She is the author of the play, Jane: Abortion and the Underground, which has been a popular fundraiser on college campuses. Her website is paulakamen.com.
by Cathleen Schine
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 304 pages, $29.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Valerie Miner
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do…..”
—From “This Be the Verse”
By Philip Larkin
Eighty-six-year old Joy Bergman, the spirited protagonist of Cathleen Schine’s tenth book, substitutes “son and daughter” for “mum and dad” in Larkin’s sardonic poem. Joy is the dynamic materfamilias in this tender, hair-raising, funny novel about three generations of an Upper East Side Manhattan clan.
Joy and Aaron have enjoyed six decades of marriage. “They were as one,” writes Schine.
They held hands when they walked down the street, they fed each other tidbits like lovebirds. It was embarrassing for the children, having such lovey-dovey parents. And reassuring. Like the trumpeters and singers in the Bible they were as one.
But now, as the book opens, Joy struggles to balance a demanding job and a taxing husband whose dementia is so severe he keeps tearing off his colostomy bag in the middle of the night.
When loving, sentimental and fiscally hopeless Aaron plummeted the family into bankruptcy, Joy got a job, earned a PhD, and became a conservation consultant at a small Jewish museum. She usually enjoys her work; lately, however, home and office demands are overwhelming. (If this seems far-fetched, remember that the number of older workers in the US is rising. According to the Pew Research Center and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, within the next five years, more than thirty percent of people aged 65-74 will be employed. And after that the percentages keep rising.)
Everyone offers her advice. Joy’s college sorority sisters, still her best friends, urge her to send Aaron to a senior day care center. Her daughter Molly and son Daniel recommend in-home help. Yet who knows Aaron as well as she? He’s lucid, sometimes; even funny. They walk to Central Park together. He relishes chats with his friend Karl.
Schine celebrates the devotion that graces a long, good marriage:
He called her darling, asked what the hell the colostomy pouch was, apologized for it, thanked her for putting up with it and him. Then they fell asleep. That was how it went most nights. Sometimes when she lay down on the bed with Aaron, her faced pressed against the back of his head, she would cry.
Although Aaron is the frailer of the two, it’s Joy who lands in the hospital with a minor stroke and a serious intestinal infection. When she comes home, an army of hired helpers invades, destroying any hope of continued intimacy with Aaron:
The apartment was full of voices, all timbres, tones and accents. It was like an orchestra. The cushions of the sofa cradled her aching body. She listened to the voices: a deep, male, harsh African musicality; the free-for-all vowels of Portuguese English; the clatter of female Spanish. And Aaron, his intermittent wailing reaching back to the Middle Eastern chanting in its cadences, as if all his ancestors were crying out at once.
Schine portrays old age with dignity and idiosyncrasy. Meanwhile, her description of well-meaning but patronizing younger relatives is drawn with sympathetic humor.
Daniel visits from the Lower East Side, and Molly flies in from Los Angeles; both are eager to help. Their energy, ideas, and resources, though, are no match for Joy’s force-of-nature independence. And middle-aged Molly and Daniel have their own fraught families. They are alternately frustrated and relieved when their help is declined.
Schine adroitly depicts the city of New York—on chilly afternoons in Central Park, in posh restaurants with sterling silverware and pressed pink tablecloths, and at tawdry bodegas. Joy leans on a shopping cart in “the kind of grocery store in which half the children were probably not vaccinated against measles.” Schine evokes the sounds, odors, and tastes of Manhattan, even in the briefest moments: “Daniel emerged from the subway and smelled the overripe fruit from the fruit stand.”
Although Aaron’s death is expected, the loss wracks his family with heartache and alarm. Frantic Molly and Daniel offer endless suggestions to make Joy more comfortable, safer, happier. Molly brings her to California, where Molly and her partner Freddie offer ceaseless, exhausting diversions, which heighten Joy’s anxiety. The breaking point is their surprise present to Joy of an adult tricycle.
“It’s red,” she said. She did not know what else to say.
“You can ride on the boardwalk. It’s great exercise.”
“You can do errands.” Freddie added.”
Clearly it’s time to return to New York. The one gift Joy carries back from painfully sunny Los Angeles is a small dog named Gatto, who becomes the most reliable of companions.
Molly phones regularly. Daniel drops by each evening. But Joy’s children have their own predicaments. Who knows how elaborate and expensive Daniel’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah will be? Molly’s distracted son Ben is cited for public urination. Molly is also helping Freddie navigate her own crazy family and their father’s dementia.
Joy finds solace and cheer in a renewed acquaintance with Karl, Aaron’s Central Park friend and, as it happens, her old college flame. The children grow suspicious. They argue about whether Karl can come to the Bat Mitzvah. They want Joy to be happy, but …
We need more literary characters like Joy: smart, quirky, strong older people. While the family worries about her fragility, they still rely on their mother and grandmother. Joy even winds up facing the police citation, changing “Ben” to “Bea” in court.
Cathleen Schine’s novel—sad, painful, heartening and hilarious by turns—is a dazzling tapestry about an ordinary family with an extraordinary matriarch. Like all wise weavers, Schine leaves a few threads hanging. Will the “kids” force Joy into an assisted living center? Will she have a future with Karl? Will she be convicted of Ben’s faulty bladder/judgment?
Valerie Miner is the author of fourteen books including the novel Traveling with Spirits (2013) and the family memoir The Low Road (2002). She teaches at Stanford University. Visit her website at www.valerieminer.com.