When Will Change Come

It’s only been a few days, but I think I’ve finally recovered from getting caught in the rain last week. I’m no longer carrying my umbrella with me everywhere – just in case – though maybe I should be, considering how many surprise showers we’ve had so far this spring. (In New York, at least.) When it does rain, I like nothing better than to listen to “rainy day music.” For me, rainy day music tends toward songs of the twee variety. I like to feel cozy when it’s raining out. But I also listen to songs that are lush and cinematic, spare and sad, and emotionally charged. Mostly songs that I’d like to soundtrack my life.

I made a playlist a long (long, long) time ago that I still find perfect for this in-between season. “Spring Rain” by The Go-Betweens is, as you might guess by the title, the most obvious song of the bunch. It also pops into my head just about any time someone says the words “spring” and “rain” in the same sentence, which happens roughly between five and 100 times a day, depending on the weather.

If you’d like to listen, here is the whole playlist. It features Broadcast, The Clientele, Camera Obscura, My Bloody Valentine, and a whole slew of others.

Friday Reads: Rich Girls

Friday Read: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “If I Were A Man,” a woman inhabits her husband’s body for an afternoon and uses her position to tell other men that women are just as smart, athletically talented, and employable as they are and as such, should not be judged for things like caring about fancy clothing or marrying the right person, because men have made it so that they have to do those things. Gilman, the author of oft-assigned short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), wrote frequently about women trapped by a patriarchal society. The heroines of her stories are emancipated by finding jobs, launching successful businesses, paying off their mortgages, falling in love with men who are interested in them rather than their domestic skills, and being rescued by cleverer women from the monotony of housewifery. Her writing can be heavy-handed, but her message is clear: women should be valued for who they are as people, rather than for their roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers. (Though if a woman is a natural caretaker and likes being that way, then it’s fine as long as she can make money off it, as one of her characters does when she starts a babysitting service.) Reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman now, over 100 years since she started publishing, I saw how little has changed in our society’s attitude toward women. I also recognized just how much has changed in that, as a woman (of a certain class and race) in the 21st century, I am able to work without question, to live on my own, to be as interested or disinterested in the domestic as I want to be. As a friend recently commented, it’s unlikely that we would be where we are now if women like Gilman hadn’t gotten angry and started writing or protesting. But it makes me sad when I think about how many women I know, myself included, feel far less entitled than their male counterparts, often without even realizing it.

Of the eight or so stories I read in the last week, I found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be the standout. This isn’t surprising, as it’s Gilman’s most famous story. But what stuck with me was not the prose or her ability to create tension, but the fact that the story is not at all optimistic. The narrator, a woman who has been prescribed a rest cure while suffering from what we now know as postpartum depression, descends into a psychotic state as she imagines that the wallpaper in the room where she spends most of her time is moving. At the end of the story, she is not saved, neither by herself nor anyone else. She is mentally ill and beholden to her husband, who dismissed all of her prior warnings that she was not getting better. Where Gilman’s other stories seem like fantasies about women finding ways to have full lives outside of home and family, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is – in an extreme way – honest about how most women were dismissed by men and suffered as a result. In fact, Gilman herself famously had postpartum psychosis. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was born of that experience.

 

***

 

What have I been reading otherwise? I liked this TNY piece on Chloe Sevigny at 40. She is, unsurprisingly, an all-time favorite of mine. (I was ecstatic to see her in the new Netflix series Bloodline, even though I thought her character was a little blah.) I also couldn’t help but read all about Lilly Pulitzer for Target. From the angry screeds on my Facebook timeline to coverage of disappointed Lilly fans to actual reviews of the Target line and the Lilly aesthetic itself, I reveled in the criticism of this brand that loomed large during my childhood and adolescence and that I myself have come to have a distaste for*. I found this Jezebel critique – ‘Wealth Accompanied by Rejection of Creativity': Bye, Lilly Pulitzer – especially delicious. However, I’m still fascinated by – and not in a mocking way! in a very real way! – the whole Palm Beach-y, ladies of leisure lifestyle that Lilly is associated with. And for that reason, I also decided to revisit this 2003 Vanity Fair interview with Lilly Pulitzer herself. On a not unrelated note, here is a Town & Country piece on Dorrian’s Red Hand, the ultimate Upper East Side preppy bar. I’ve only been there maybe three times and have run into people from past lives on each of those trips, so their first point is at least definitely true. I’ve also been working my way through the current issue of The Paris Review, by which I mean the interviews with Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis, and Elena Ferrante. (What a boon to be able to read these three in the same issue!) I’m still “reading” Stoner and I think I might just give up soon? I’m going away for the weekend and I didn’t even bring it with me. Instead, I have Kate Bolick’s Spinster in my bag.

 

*Full disclosure: Growing up, my wardrobe featured, if not a lot of Lilly Pulitzer clothing, a not insignificant number of pieces. Also, I have worn a Lilly Pulitzer dress within the last year. (But! It’s really plain – navy blue, no pastels or cute animals or martini glasses – and my mom bought it for me for my college graduation six years ago and it somehow looks brand new and, I think, it fits my current, very un-Lilly aesthetic just fine.)

Currently, Costume Dramas

I’ve written here before – many times – about my love of costume dramas, specifically of the British variety. I got hooked my senior year of college, in the early days of my Netflix subscription, when I returned hungover as fuck from spring break and burned through Cranford in the 24 hours before my roommates returned, crying my eyes out while watching little old ladies stir up mischief in an English market town on the brink of the industrial era. After that, I watched basically every other costume drama that was available on DVD or through Netflix’s streaming service. I now believe that I have watched…everything that falls into the costume drama category? Or most things, probably. I draw the line at some shittier or older productions. (For example, the 1995 miniseries event The Buccaneers, based on the Edith Wharton novel. I have tried and failed several times to make it past the first twenty minutes.)

Anyway, because I feel like I’ve watched everything, I am always happy when some new production based on classic literature or just set at some point in history is on TV. Right now, I’m watching Wolf Hall (a miniseries) and Call the Midwife (a series in its fourth season), both of which are airing on Sunday nights on PBS. (They are nothing at all alike, so I won’t try to compare them much, but they do share one actress. Jessica Raine, who plays Jane Rochford in Wolf Hall, starred in the first three seasons of Call the Midwife.)
Wolf Hall is based on two of my favorite novels of the past several years: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy based on the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. The miniseries has already aired in the UK, so if you’re interested in binge watching it, I’m certain there are ways to do this. I, however, am watching Sunday nights on Masterpiece Theater because I prefer watching things as they air if I can and also, I love the little commercials for Viking River Cruises that they always show. My impression three episodes into Wolf Hall is that…it’s good! I enjoy watching it. The acting is great. (Mark Rylance especially.) The sets are great. The costumes are great. But I do not enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed reading the books. There’s something that was lost in translation, which is probably not anyone’s fault. I don’t think any adaptation would do Mantel’s prose justice. I will continue watch it because I’m still drawn in by the drama – I’ve loved anything to do with the Tudor period since I was young – and also because I don’t totally remember everything that happened in the books. When Wolf Hall is over in a few weeks, I just may start a reread.
Call the Midwife is set in a different England entirely, that of 1950s and 1960s London. The show, based on the popular memoirs of Jennifer Worth, centers on the nuns and young midwives who live in Nonnatus House, a convent in a poor area on the outskirts of the city. Together they provide the district with nursing services and prenatal care. Then there are the actual births, which are constant. (I would not recommend this show if you’re bothered by childbirth scenes.) Each week, there is usually a dangerous birth and one that’s meant to highlight some sort of social issue at the time. But sometimes, a dangerous birth can also highlight a social issue! For instance, last week, a poor Irish woman forced to live in a really filthy boarding house because no one would rent to her family gave birth prematurely because she had contracted dysentery. The show can be preachy at times and isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to making points about how difficult life was and is for women, the poor, immigrants, the elderly, and any other disenfranchised or minority population. But I don’t mind so much, because it isn’t trying to be anything other than itself, a sentimental window into the past. Not unlike many of my favorite costume drama series, Call the Midwife is a comfort, which is sometimes all I need a television show to be.
I watch a lot of TV in groups or at least discuss shows with my friends, but these two are pretty much solitary experiences for me. So, tiny but loyal audience, are you watching Wolf Hall or Call the Midwife? And do you have any other historical/costumey shows you’re watching?

Downpour

This morning, I left the house without an umbrella, even though I spent time and money yesterday afternoon procuring a brand new umbrella – leopard print with maroon accents – at the Walgreens in Union Square. I left the house without an umbrella because at the moment I left the house, it wasn’t raining. Another reason that I left the house without an umbrella is that I left the umbrella that I purchased yesterday at the office in the bottom drawer of my desk, nestled between a half-eaten box of Kashi Go Lean cereal and a bottle of wine. I could have stolen an umbrella that’s hanging from the coat rack in the entryway of my apartment. But I didn’t. I thought it might be my roommate’s and I didn’t want to steal an umbrella that she needed later. And so, I left, hoping that the rain would hold off – according to my weather app, there was only a 30% chance – at least until I got to work.

i was not always so unprepared for the rain. here i am, age 2, ready for spring showers.

I was not always so unprepared for the rain. Here I am, age 2, ready for spring showers.

My hope was dissolved within the first block of my walk, when I started to feel fat rain drops fall on my already-wet hair. (Sometimes I’m just too lazy to dry my hair in the morning, as was the case this morning.) I started walking faster, my feet heavy in brand new Birkenstocks, which I hoped would not be damaged by the rain. I briefly considered turning back to steal the umbrella from the coat rack before letting optimism get the better of me. I told myself that the rain would surely stop soon. By the time I got to the first major intersection on my route, the rain had become a torrential downpour. I stood on the corner, umbrella-less with only a jean jacket to shield me, looking down as the rain filled up the comfortable footbeds of my sandals. Veruca Salt’s ‘Spiderman ’79’ played through my headphones.

I walked the next three blocks alongside other people who had umbrellas and one man in a hooded, waterproof raincoat. I felt like a dunce. When I arrived at the second major intersection, where my subway stop is, I waited to cross the street under the overhang of a deli called Lite-Bites with two other drenched dunces. The light changed and I ran across the street to enter the subway, my feet making a loud squishing sound with every step. As soon as I got through the turnstile, I took a small mirror out of my purse and examined my face. My mascara had smudged both above and below my eye. I fixed it as I walked down the platform, where all of the people waiting for the train looked very dry.

I remained conscious of looking as though I’d showered with my clothes on throughout my commute. Catching my reflection in the windows of the L, the G, and every store I passed once I got to (very sunny) Union Square, I saw my hair plastered to my head, the knees of my pants sagging, the dark spots that had formed on my sweater. When I stopped to get coffee, I thought the barista gave me a look like, Why do you look like that?, but that also could have just been the way he looks at every customer.

In the office, I stripped off my jean jacket and sweater, brushed my hair, and commenced drying off. This process took close to three hours. I later found out that many of my co-workers didn’t even know that it had rained.

Every Book I’ve Read So Far This Year (2015 Edition), Part One

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I read The Empathy Exams during my time off from work in late December and early January. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Leslie Jamison’s essays on how we experience the pain of others, not to mention our own pain. Whether writing about the personal – falling in love, drinking too much, getting an abortion – or subjects a bit further flung – Morgellons disease, an extreme endurance race – Jamison’s observations struck me over and over again as honest, intelligent, and enlightening.

***

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Tampa is a book about a female middle school teacher who uses her position to have sexual relationships with pubescent boys. I know that sounds fucked up but, guys, listen to me. It’s really good! I mean, it’s also fucked up. But it’s funny, suspenseful, and very well-written, and those things made for a very enjoyable reading experience.

***

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was the third time I’d read this book in the last three years, so it’s really hard for me to even try to talk about it objectively. (Not to suggest that this is a space where I would ever talk about anything objectively; it’s not.) I think I’ve written about this book on Emphatic Hands at least two times already, so I’m sorry, I guess, if you’re sick of hearing about it, but you’ll just have to bear with me. I reread How Should A Person Be? both knowing that I was going to see Sheila Heti’s play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, which is a not insignificant part of this autobiographical novel, and feeling that I needed its guidance. I was at the end of a short-lived but significant (to me) relationship, struggling with how to process a lot of things happening in my life, trying once again to figure out what kind of person I should be. Heti’s exploration of female friendship, relationships with men, art, and identity struck a chord with me once again. There is nothing better than revisiting a beloved book and finding that it still resonates.

***

Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women was an unusual pick for our book club in January. We had never before read a play. I don’t read plays often, but when I do, I usually wish I did so more. Three Tall Women examines the life of one woman at three different stages of her life. It was, at times, painful, and I almost certainly would have rathered see it performed on stage, but the subject matter was relevant to my interests as a reader and a writer, so I would say that I’m not worse off for having read it.

***

The Story Of A New Name by Elena Ferrante

Oh, boy. I loved this book so, so much. The Story Of A New Name is the second book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and I think it was my favorite of the three books that have been published. (I wrote about My Brilliant Friend here.) In this novel, the narrator, also named Elena, continues the story of her friendship with the ferocious Lila, whose wedding ended the previous installment. While Lila becomes a glamorous young wife in their Naples neighborhood, Elena forges ahead with her studies, eventually leaving the neighborhood and the city altogether. The urgency and beauty of this book stirred something up inside me. It made me want to experience more of life, to write more (and improve my writing), to be honest with myself and others. I suspect my strong reaction had a lot to do with the highly emotional state I was in for basically all of this winter, but I have yet to meet anyone who’s read these novels who hasn’t been affected by them.

***

Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Actually, that’s not true. My therapist told me that she read Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay and thought it was fine, but felt it was unfinished. I contend that she may have liked it more if she had read the first two books before reading this third one, the penultimate novel in the series. Elena and Lila are adults in this novel, living completely separate lives. Everything I said about The Story Of A New Name could apply to this novel. I read it even more quickly, but was slightly disappointed by some of the characters’ actions and found myself having to try hard to pay attention to passages about political philosophy.

***

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have recommended Station Eleven to almost everyone I know since I finished it. I firmly believe that anyone can find something to like in this book. (I think its overwhelming win in The Morning News Tournament of Books is proof of that, though I’m not sure I would have voted for it over All The Light We Cannot See.) Mandel brilliantly bridges the world as we know it today with that of a postapocalyptic future with that of a graphic novel written by one of the main characters. There are maybe a few things I could complain about, but I was in awe of the novel’s construction and it was just a really fun book to read.

***

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

I felt The Flamethrowers was a book that I had to read, but didn’t want to read. Naturally, I ended up really liking it. It’s narrated by Reno, a young artist who moves to New York City in the 1970s. She becomes an observer of the art world, a motorcycle racer, a lover of men. I related to her struggles to adjust to a world that is harsher than she had imagined, to figure out who she is as an artist, and define herself as an individual. I was saddened and disappointed by the men with whom she has relationships. By the end, I wanted more.

***

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

It turns out my first three months of reading this year were bookended by spectacular books of essays. The Unspeakable includes ten original personal essays in which Daum explores her mother’s death, her decision not to have children, embarrassing encounters with celebrities in Los Angeles, and other topics that she deems “unspeakable.” Some essays were more powerful than others and there was at least one (“Honorary Dyke”) that perplexed me, but I devoured this book over the course of two busy days. I admire Daum’s candor and humor and I aspire to one day write so well about my own life.