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.

***

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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Five Things I Liked This Week

I feel like I can’t remember anything I’ve done during the past month-ish. It’s all a blur. I was mentally making a list of all of the things I liked during that time, but I seem to have forgotten it. So. Here we are.

I think these are five things I liked this week. Some of these are not new? I don’t know.

 

1. Dirtbag Anne of Green Gables (The Toast)

Mallory Ortberg is a perfect human and so are all of her teenage dirtbags.

 

2. “2 On” – Tinashe ft. Schoolboy Q

 

 

3. “Seeing The ‘Game of Thrones’ Cast As Normal Humans Is Still Completely Mesmerizing” and “25 Things They Altered For TV In ‘Game of Thrones’ That Will Change the Way You Watch It” (Buzzfeed)

 

4. FACT mix 430: Slowdive

A lot of good reminders on here of songs and artists I’ve loved (and still love).

 

 

5. “Back in the Day” by John Jeremiah Sullivan (GQ)

I was reminded not once but twice  this week of this essay on Michael Jackson, which is so wonderful. (I’m honestly considering rereading Pulphead today.)

76 Names Found in Luc Sante’s Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, In No Particular Order

Hon. Fernando Wood, N.Y - NARA - 529874

  1. Sadakichi Hartmann
  2. Fernando Wood
  3. Junius Brutus Booth
  4. Edward C.Z. “Buntline” Judson
  5. Diamond Jim Brady
  6. Baby-Face Willie
  7. Colly Cibber
  8. Laloo the East Indian Enigma
  9. Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy
  10. Gallus Mag
  11. Owney Geoghegan
  12. Charles Solomon aka Silver Dollar Smith
  13. Slippery Johnny Leipzinger
  14. Cross-Eyed Murphy
  15. Mustache Ike Witkoski
  16. Big Feet Louie Gorden
  17. Stitch McCarthy aka Samuel Rothberg
  18. Blonde Madge Davenport
  19. Big Mame
  20. Swipes the Newsboy
  21. Scotchy Lavelle
  22. Chinatown Nellie
  23. Gin Buck
  24. Eddie the Plague
  25. Johnny Basketball
  26. Commodore Dutch
  27. Louie (the Lump) Piaggi
  28. Chick Tricker
  29. Harry Hamburger
  30. Monk Eastman
  31. Johnny Spanish
  32. John “Old Smoke” Morrissey
  33. Christ Tracy
  34. Larry the Lug
  35. Limehouse Chappie
  36. Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal
  37. Gyp the Blood
  38. Red Light Lizzie
  39. Hester Jane Haskins aka Jane the Grabber
  40. Shang Allen
  41. Hell-Cat Maggie
  42. Slobbery Jim
  43. Patsy the Barber
  44. Sow Madden
  45. Cowlegged Sam McCarthy
  46. Skinner Meehan
  47. Hop-Along Peter
  48. Kid Shanahan
  49. Kid Twist
  50. Kid Jigger
  51. Kid Twist
  52. Kid Glove Rosey
  53. Pugsey Hurley
  54. Wreck Donovan
  55. Tom the Mick
  56. Beany Kane
  57. Piggy Noles
  58. Wild Bill Lovett
  59. Banjo Pete Emerson
  60. Ephraim “Old” Snow
  61. George Washington Dixon
  62. George Washington Plunkitt
  63. Marm Mandelbaum
  64. Dr. Jakob Rosenzweig aka the Hackensack Mad Monster
  65. Annie Walden the Man-Killing Race-Track Girl
  66. Hoggy Walsh
  67. Slops Connolly
  68. Googy Corcoran
  69. Goo Goo Knox
  70. Baboon Dooley
  71. Red Rocks Farrell
  72. Pretty Kitty McGown
  73. Eat-’em-up Jack McManus
  74. Stumpy Malarkey
  75. Rubber Shaw
  76. One Lung Curran

[Top: Photo of Fernando Wood; Image Credit: Wikipedia]

Reading The Go-Between

Unknown man; Jean de Menasce; Leslie Poles ('L...

Unknown man; Jean de Menasce; Leslie Poles (‘L.P.’) Hartley; Sylvester Govett Gates; Hon. Robert Gathorne-Hardy, by Lady Ottoline Morrell (died 1938). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve recently become interested in astrology. But only because one of my friends likes reading astrology charts and I like hearing things that I’m supposed to identify with and deciding whether or not I do. Would I be a great private investigator? I don’t know, chaosastrology.net, but I’d like to think so. (I like Veronica Mars.)

I bring this up because I just finished The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (pictured above, in a time and place I would have liked to experience) and there’s a lot of stuff about the Zodiac in there. I would even go so far as to say that the Zodiac is a theme. OK, the main character and narrator’s name is Leo – my sign! – so it’s definitely a theme.

Anyway, I liked this book. A lot. Which is why I’m writing about it here. It has all of my favorite things ever: a child narrator, commentary on the declining British aristocracy at the turn of the 20th century, classism, a doomed love affair, fake spells, deadly nightshade, and people speaking French without any English translation. I feel like my heart and brain are exploding after writing all of that out.

And I hadn’t even heard of this book until a few weeks ago when I freakishly went through the entire catalog of books published by NYRB and listed out all of the ones I want to read. (There are approximately one million books on that list.) I ended up buying it at The Strand shortly thereafter – and only because it was one of the books that didn’t require me scrambling up a ladder to reach. Though I probably wouldn’t have scrambled because I don’t like putting myself in situations where I could be physically harmed. I actually was very close to buying the other L.P. Hartley book on the shelves, Eustace and Hilda, a novel written in three parts. One of the parts is called The Shrimp and the Anemone and if you know anything about me, you know how much that title would appeal to me. But I ended up buying The Go-Between because it seemed like a more significant and famous work and also the back cover had a quote from Ian McEwan and talked about how the book was made into a movie starring Julie Christie, whom I admire.

It really made perfect sense for there to be an Ian McEwan quote on the back cover because it turns out that the story of The Go-Between is kind of exactly the same as Atonement except told in a much less modern, less dramatic manner. (Except for the deadly nightshade! The presence of deadly nightshade is always so dramatic!) I like/love Atonement (except for the middle part, I hate the middle) and I think that my level of like/love for The Go-Between is the same. I was sort of bored at times with all of the beautiful prose. That’s OK to admit, right? Sometimes perfectly lovely prose makes me just want to skip entire paragraphs so that I can get to the part that tells me what the point is.

So then, what’s the point of the book? I think – I’m hesitant to even give my opinion on what the point is because I got an 80 on a paper in the last college English class that I ever took and haven’t been confident in my analysis skills ever since – that the novel is about childhood, remembrance, and the profound experiences that not only color our memories, but also mark our passage from one stage of life into the next. So, the same things that Atonement is about. (Now I’m wishing that I had written a college English paper comparing these two books.) And the same things that I’m interested in exploring in my own fiction.

As a writer, I try to get something out of every book I read and reading The Go-Between gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own writing. I’ve been trying to write a short story, set sometime in the early twentieth century, from a child’s perspective and have struggled a lot since I wrote the first draft. I’ve gotten really hung up on some of the details because it’s based on my own family history. I’m still developing as a fiction writer and I’m trying to get to the point I’m able to infuse my stories with manipulated versions of real life events and histories without feeling any kind of attachment to them, but it’s been difficult. However, after reading The Go-Between I feel compelled to try my luck again with my own story because I think it’s a good one. I just need to work at it.