Friday Reads: Some Progress

Friday Read: The Group by Mary McCarthy

Some mysterious force led me to read Mary McCarthy’s The Group this week. I didn’t know anything about it, though I’m familiar with its author, and the only time I can remember seeing anyone reading it was on an episode of Gilmore Girls. (Rory reads it while waiting to buy tickets for the Chilton formal in the season one episode, “The Dance.”) But I saw it on the shelf when I was browsing at my local bookstore on Monday, looking for something engrossing to distract me from the awful cold I’ve been battling, and felt like I had to pick it up. This was my method for choosing books until about age 16, looking up and down the shelves of the bookstore or library until I felt a tingle looking at a spine or reading the jacket copy. Since then, I mostly know what I’m looking for when I go to pick up a book. The description on The Group‘s back cover was fairly simple: Basically, a group of eight Vassar graduates take on adulthood in the time between the World Wars. I didn’t know if it would be the consuming read I was looking for, but I took it down from the shelf and carried it with me as I continued to look around. The only other book that I considered buying was Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, but ultimately decided that it was darker than I was feeling. So, I bought The Group and hoped for the best.

I finished it within roughly 30 hours. It begins as seven members of the group watch the eighth, Kay Strong, get married in St. George’s Church in Stuyvesant Square, just weeks after their Vassar graduation in 1933. They don’t know the man she is marrying, Harald Petersen, and many of them are not even sure that they particularly like Kay. But, they were a group in college and are therefore obligated to be there. This feeling, a sense of obligation to keep up friendships that may not exactly be right for you, was the first of many that I identified with as a young adult. As the book continued – the following chapters, for the most part, focused intimately on one or two of the women – I found that I recognized myself in each woman as she confronted the realms of sex and relationships, career, friendship, and family. (Of course, my white, privileged, East Coast upbringing had a lot to do with my basic identification with these characters, who were all white and privileged and, if they weren’t from the East Coast, very much embraced an East Coast mindset, which was probably much more of a thing in the 1930s than it is now.) In the later chapters, several of the characters become mothers, which is not something I know anything about yet, but I was able to imagine that I would be just as terrified as Priss Hartshorn Crockett – incidentally, one of my favorite character names ever – was of caring for a newborn. During the moments when I wasn’t reading The Group, I kept thinking about how very similar the lives of women – of a certain class – are 80 years later, even though so much “progress” has been made.

The big differences I spotted mostly had to do with attitudes toward sex and careers. If The Group took place today, I don’t think Dottie Renfrew would hastily get engaged to near-stranger out of shame and regret for losing her virginity to a roguish man to whom she develops an attachment. And I don’t think Polly Andrews would have had to settle for a career as a medical technician, where she didn’t have much chance for advancement. In fact, I think all of the women would have a much wider array of career options, though they still might face pressure from their families and romantic partners to pursue certain lines of work. They would certainly still have to deal with sexism in the workplace, though it might not be so obvious today as it was then. One of the characters, Libby MacAusland, is told that she should become a literary agent rather than an editor, because editing is a man’s job. And so she becomes a successful literary agent. If that same scenario were to happen now, it would be more likely that a woman would be told that her character or attitude was not right for the job, and that would be that.

What I loved most about The Group, though, were the character studies and the social history. The women are all easy-to-recognize types, just like the main characters in The Group‘s successor, Sex and the City. But that doesn’t mean that their inner lives aren’t interesting or surprising. And while they grapple with the same problems that women do today, though from a different place in society, their vocabulary and frame of reference for those issues are completely different. I paused often as I was reading to look up literary references, historical events and figures, and even food that was mentioned. That experience alone would have made this an enriching read for me. Luckily, The Group had much more for me to chew on.

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Otherwise…

I finally finished Dombey and Son and was very happy to find the phrase “dank weed” in the text.

And now I’m just getting into Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titanas well as Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism By a Living Female Rock Critic.

What else should I be reading? I’m taking suggestions.

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Friday Reads: Too Much Code

Friday Read: “What Is Code?” by Paul Ford (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Well, I read all* 38,000 words of this piece and I think I understand computer programming now! Or, at least, better than I did. Check this out for the knowledge, but also the writing and the great design work. And if you finish it, you’ll get a very cool Certificate of Achievement. Mine features me looking angrily at my monitor because I forgot that my computer camera is on my actual computer, which sits at an (unflattering) angle on my desk. You also might have a dream where people say “Python” and “Ruby on Rails” over and over again, which is something I experienced this morning.

certificate-of-participation

*Most. Sometimes my eyes just looked at the words in some paragraphs and nothing really registered, but I did make a very big effort to read and comprehend this whole thing.

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What else?

I don’t know. I kind of hated everything I read this week! I literally have nothing to recommend other than this list of “99 Things All Yuccies Love” – even though it also made me feel bad about myself – and this New Yorker piece about reproduction, marriage, and the Constitution.

I’ve been ending these things with songs lately, so here is “Broken Necks” by Eskimeaux.

Friday Reads: Folk Tales

Friday Read: The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

I’m still (still!) reading Dombey and Son, so I thought I would recommend another book to you that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately: The Children’s Book. Loosely based on the life of E. Nesbit, the novel focuses on the family of Olive Wellwood, a writer of children’s fairy tales in late nineteenth and early twentieth century England. I like and have returned to this book many times since I read it six years ago for two main reasons: its portrayal of the intersection of art, politics, and the domestic realm – the Wellwoods are Fabians – and its successes (and failures) in telling the stories of an incredibly large cast of characters. Also, Byatt is really the best at interpreting folklore and applying it to her own fiction, and reading her characters’ grappling with the tellings and retellings of fairy tales fills me with a weird kind of joy that I’m finding difficult to put into words. The Children’s Book isn’t considered one of Byatt’s best, but I think I learned more from it – as a writer, storyteller, and history student – than I did from her best-known and -loved novel, Possession. If you’re in the mood for the opposite of a beach read, this might be worth tackling.

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And here are some other things I read this week:

“The Tampon: A History” (The Atlantic)

Anne Helen Petersen on Stitch Fix and fashion tech (BuzzFeed)

“What Silicon Valley Can Learn From Seoul” (NYT)

Why being happy at work might not be such a great thing (Science of Us)

Laura Snapes’ takedown of Mark Kozelek (The Guardian)

Sean Fennessey on Chance the Rapper and A$AP Rocky (Grantland)

A country festival comes to New York City (SPIN)

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Also, Jean Ritchie, Appalachian folk singer, died this week at the age of 92. She had one of my favorite voices of all-time. If you’ve never heard her before, here are two of my favorite recordings:

“O Johnny’s On the Water”

“Barbara Allen”

A little melancholy for a Friday afternoon, but I think they’re beautiful.

Friday Reads: All of the Profiles

Friday Reads: “Outside In” by Kathryn Schulz (on Nell Zink) & “Meaning Machines” by Calvin Tomkins (on Charles Ray) (The New Yorker) 

I go through phases with The New Yorker. Sometimes, I try to “catch up” on the pile that sits on an armchair in my bedroom. Other times, I throw away any issue that is older than two weeks, its presence an awful reminder of all the time I spent watching The Shahs of Sunset instead of reading. I’m going through a catching up phase right now and am happy to report that I am only a few weeks behind. Anyway, my relationship with The New Yorker is not really the thing I want to tell you about. (Well, I sort of do, obviously, because that’s what I started talking about in the first place, but never mind.) Rather, I wanted to tell you about profiles that I read about two different artists, both of which I’ve been thinking about a lot this week.

The first is Kathryn Schulz’s profile of Nell Zink, the author of The Wallcreeper and now Mislaid, which came out this month. She is notable for her age (51), residence (Bad Belzig, Germany), and not giving a fuck about American publishing or really America in general. (She is American.) The thing I found the most interesting about Zink is that since she was a child, she has felt inferior and incapable of writing that would measure up to novels she considers great. She wrote only for herself or small audiences until The Wallcreeper was published last year. I related to her on that level, not feeling like your work is worth sharing. Otherwise, I simply enjoyed reading about her surprising life and interests.

I also read Calvin Tomkins’ profile of the sculptor Charles Ray, which very much made me want to see the exhibition of his work that opened at the Art Institute of Chicago this month. Ray’s mid-to-late career work pushes the boundaries of modern sculpture while employing techniques from the past. And no piece speaks to this more than his “Huck and Jim,” a life-size, nude representation of the characters from from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that was first proposed for the plaza outside the new Whitney Museum and ultimately rejected. (It’s on display for the first time at the Art Institute.)  The behind-the-scenes look at how Ray creates sculptures like “Huck and Jim,” as well as the quiet story of how he became a great artist, made this profile unputdownable for me.

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And here’s what I was reading elsewhere…

This inside look at Lilly Pulitzer’s headquarters in King of Prussia, PA and the apology Lilly Pulitzer had to issue after someone noticed – and alerted the internet to – fat-shaming cartoons that were pinned up inside one employee’s cubicle. (New York Magazine; BuzzFeed)

Everything that Gawker published about the Duggars, the Quiverfull movement, and the Advanced Training Institute method of homeschooling.

Frank Bruni on Catholics and same-sex marriage. (NYT)

The Frugal Traveler’s “$1,000 Day in Paris for $100.” (NYT)

Brit Bennett’s beautiful “Addy Walker, American Girl.” (The Paris Review)

And another profile, this one on the hard-to-define country music star Kacey Musgraves. (The Fader)

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Finally, here is the video for Lil Mama’s “Sausage,” which has been overwhelming me since I watched it for the first time earlier today. Have a great weekend!

Friday Reads: Very Long

Friday Read: Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

I’ve long been a fan of Charles Dickens, but starting a new Dickens novel is always intimidating to me, as I know it will be about a six week commitment. That’s why Dombey and Son has been sitting on my shelf since I bought it for $6 at a Borders that was going out of business in 2011. I just started it earlier this week, picking it off of my shelf because I had an urge to read a long novel with lots of characters that wasn’t a recent iteration of the “VLN.” (Also, I figured I should read it before I reread Bleak House, which is something I want to do soon.) I’m only about an eighth of the way through and hoping it doesn’t go too deep into the shipping industry or nautical instruments because then I might have to put it down. As usual, I’m delighted by Dickens’ character names and descriptions, which is making reading Dombey and Son more than worth it so far. (Favorite character names: Miss Lucretia Tox and Polly Toodle; Favorite description: “But the Major, with his complexion like a Stilton cheese, and his eyes like a prawn’s…”)

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Other stuff?

Well, I linked to this above, but here’s something on “The Year of the Very Long Novel.” (Vulture)

I read “An Interview With @SoSadToday” last week and this week found out her identity. (The Awl; Rolling Stone)

This profile on Judy Blume made me nostalgic for my days as an adolescent bookworm and made me feel like I should just write the damn book I’ve been thinking about for so long. (NYT)

Jami Attenberg’s essay on viral fame reminded me that internet fame does not sell books. (BuzzFeed)

Pete Wells made me smile during a brutally boring day with his review of Javelina. (NYT)

This piece on the making of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” brought back memories of many a summer road trip with my dad, who is very fond of that song. (WSJ)

I will read anything about New York City’s affordable and public housing situations. “The Plan to Save Public Housing” is new and good. (The Awl)

I usually save music for Mondays, but “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” was officially released this week and I can’t stop listening to it.

On a related note, I read two pieces on Jamie xx and his new album, In Color, this week:

“Taking Shelter in Loud Places” (Pitchfork)

“One Last Rave” (TNY)

And if you read “One Last Rave,” here’s Mark Leckey’s “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore” (which I had never seen before, so!):