Case of the Prendergast Blues

Don't get me wrong.  I have nothing against artists, and nothing in particular against Maurice Predergast-- an artist I regard as harmless, and occasionally decorative.  But sometimes, I have to wonder.

This week, I had the ostensibly good fortune to attend The Philadelphia Museum of Art's, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.  The show is an unqualified success for the Museum.  On weekends, lines were long enough to take a half hour before patient museum-goers were rewarded with entry.  Crowds of people squeezed into every room, most of them with their audio-tour glued to their ears.  Seeing the paintings involved a tricky process of delicately peering over shoulders, or strategically waiting for a lull-- a short lull, to be sure, since the crowds were unending.  In short, a blockbuster show.

I imagine most of the show's visitors had come in from Philadelphia's suburbs -- and unsurpisingly, most of the crowd was female.  Unsurprisingly, because watercolors are a favorite of women -- and historically, women have excelled at this form.  In fact, several of America's great watercolorists were female.  It is one form where you do not have to look far to find women.

Except that you would never guess that fact from The Philadelphia Museum's watercolor exhibition.  Their pressing question for visitors was who was the greater?  Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent?  Talk about questions no one needs to answer.

Artist:  Marion Wachtel 
But stumbling, hot and tired, through the rooms, my friend and I were struck with how few female watercolorists were represented.  Two by the great Massachusetts artist, Fidelia Bridges, one apiece from the Bryn Mawr women (Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley) despite their importance to Philadelphia.  A lively colorful Alice Schille that immediately made me want to see more.  And of course, the requisite Georgia O'Keefe (who had almost no relationship to Homer or Sargent.)

Where, I thought, was Marion Wachtel?

She was born in 1873, the daughter of an artist.  She became a student of  William Merritt Chase, studied at the Art Institute, and later became a member of the New York Watercolor Society.  Her watercolor landscapes are luminous and beautiful.

But need I mention that no one remembers Watchtel.  On the other, Maurice Prendergast (born in 1858 in Canada) is a fixture in America's museums.  He had as many as four (perhaps five) watercolors in the Philadelphia show-- all of them unremarkable to my eyes.  I don't want to pose the question of who was the greater watercolorist, Marion Wachtel or  Maurice Prendergast?

I would simply ask museums to allow us to pose it.


Story for April Fool's Month: Leon's Experiment

For April Fool's Month, a comic tale that first appeared in 559 Quarterly. 

Leon’s Experiment
Carla Sarett

Everyone has a worst Christmas present story.  Usually, in my experience, it is the ugly red sweater that you thought only your worst enemy would foist upon you; but instead, it came from your mom, with a kiss.  But my pal Natalie Tinker (now, Dr. Natalie Tinker-Bruner—and a fine dermatologist, should you desire Botox) had the story that topped them all – the very worst gift ever, “in the history of presents, in the history of Mankind.”
Now, Natalie Tinker loved getting presents, and in fairness to her, her gifts were meticulously planned.  She was the type to send a singing pajama-gram on your birthday—yes, I got one.  So, for her first Christmas with her boyfriend, Dr. Leon Blum, the bar was high.  It was their first “holiday season” as a couple.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “you won’t forget this one.” 
Two days before Christmas Eve, Natalie’s wait ended.   “From Leon,” the messenger said in an official manner- and handed her a large, shoebox-like package, wrapped in silvery paper with tiny words on the outside. Natalie skipped the words—since who has time for that?  Inside was another box.  Then there was another, and another; each wrapped in shiny paper and each with words on it.  Finally, she came to a tiny box, wrapped in paper.  She opened it.  
It was empty.  Natalie turned it upside-down and shook it fiercely, for Natalie had quite a temper. Defeated, she re-assembled the boxes, folded the silvery paper, and dumped them in the recycling bin at the end of her hallway. 
She called me and everyone she’d ever known to tell the horror of her Christmas.   “I’m so done with Christmas,” she said.  “I cannot believe this happened.  He said I’d never forget it, and I won’t.” 
Even after she wed Bud Bruner (of Bruner, Bruner and Bruner,) Natalie repeated her tale of the empty box every chance she got.  In fact, to be honest, we all got tired of it. The odd thing was that Leon never called her again--not even a text.  “Men are seriously damaged,” said Natalie, and who could disagree? 
But years later, I heard the real ending from a new faculty member, Sarah.  Sarah, it must be said, was Natalie’s opposite in looks and temperament. Whereas Natalie was impulsive and skinny, Sarah was contemplative and plump.  Natalie raced through life, and Sarah liked to examine things from every angle.  At our Christmas faculty party, Sarah made a strange confession.  She said, “If it weren’t for Christmas, I wouldn’t be married.  It’s a strange story.”
“I’m all ears,” I said.
A few Christmases ago, Sarah was feeling low.  Her boyfriend had left town without a good-bye.  She had no plans except a stack of detective novels, and the prospect of Law and Order re-reruns. Plus, she had forgotten to buy wrapping paper, of all things.  Sarah came upon a happy solution:  use magazines and newspapers and make collages from them.  That would be unique, cost effective, not to mention environmentally sound.  Off she went to the recycling bin – and discovered a fabulous array of boxes and paper, on the very top of the bin.  Scooping them up, she felt triumphant (and virtuous) at having solved her problem.    
Sarah (being Sarah) carefully inspected her booty.  On the boxes, she found quotes from poems—Frost, Donne, Yeats.  The boxes fit together perfectly—and best of all, at the bottom of the innermost box were the words:  if you want your present, be at ___ (the note named a bar) at midnight, Leon.  Sarah threw on a dress and cowboy boots, and showed up at the bar at midnight.
She saw a young bearded man, sitting nervously.  He was wearing a black turtleneck, and looked lonely.  She waited to see if a woman arrived and then she marched over.  “You are Leon?” she said as she sat down. 
“I am Leon,” he said.  “Did Natalie send you?”
“Sorry, I don’t know Natalie,” said Sarah. 
“That’s not good,” he said, morosely. 
“My name is Sarah Holliday.  I guess you’re disappointed.”
“I won’t lie,” he said.  “I expected someone else. But experiments don’t always work out in the way we plan.”
“The ways of mice and men,” agreed Sarah, nodding sadly. 
“My design was overly complicated.  It’s my fault.  I over-think, and everything gets messed up, like this.”
“Well, you have to pick your subjects better.  Whoever threw it out – this Natalie-- wasn’t right for this particular experiment.  She wanted something easy, I think.” 
“Maybe,” he said.  “How did you find the boxes, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Recycling bin,” she confessed.
“Do you often sort through garbage?  Not that recycled goods are garbage, but…”
“Garbage is a harsh word,” she said.  “There’s great stuff there, and it’s free.  And why waste money on wrapping paper?  That is why they call it recycling, right?”
“And do you read other people’s mail?”
“Hmm, I guess you could call me nosey.  But if it’s in the bin, it’s fair game.  Bins are public.  It’s like digging in a quarry—that’s not snooping. It’s like science.”
“True,” he said. 
  “Anyway, people don’t throw out love letters. I never would, not in a million years, not for all the money in the world.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” he said.  “But how did you know that I’d be here?”
“Oh, easy,” she said.  “The package was on top of the bin. So, I figured the recipient had just thrown it out.  And only a romantic guy would do this, the type that waits around.  It was a logical deduction.”
 “Wow, my experiment worked,” said Leon. 
He handed her a tiny box, in which there was the ring he’d bought for Natalie—and the ring slid on Sarah’s finger as if made for her.  She tried to take it off, but Leon wouldn’t hear of it.  And finally, after some back and forth, they agreed: in exchange for the ring, Sarah would cook him a real Christmas dinner.  Sarah was an excellent cook.
“I make a killer chicken,” said Sarah Blum.  “And you know what they say, the way to a man’s heart…”
“All’s well that ends well,” I said as I opened Sarah’s gift to me—it was some sort of wine gadget that I’d never figure out in a million years.  “I’m glad this didn’t come from a garbage bin.”
“Garbage is a harsh word,” she said, laughing.    

Author Susan Weinstein talks about Paradise Gardens

Today, we have a guest post from novelist, Susan Weinstein, whose dystopian novel, PARADISE GARDENS, will be published in a new edition from Pelekinesis Publishing Group. This new edition contains wonderful illustrations by the author. You can read my review of on Goodreads, here. This novel is one of several new editions of Weinstein's work-- I interviewed her about THE ANARCHIST'S GIRLFRIEND on this blog (read the interview here.)

I'll let Susan take it from here.
Déjà vu our strange times.  In Nixon's 1969 America, a stranger leaped out of a car, took photos of me and my high school boyfriend and sped away. Afterward, I was called into the principal's office, and accused of being  a "ringleader" of a drug  ring.  My choice: give names or be expelled.  I gave facts.  My high school was conservative, mostly working class. Beer was the drug of choice and students  enlisted for Vietnam. Ten went to college.  One was me.  Fact: The drug ring never existed.

1969-70, I became an antiwar activist.  1980s, I began PARADISE GARDENS while working for a Wall Street publication for investors.  In that time, Reagan's religious right extolled corporate interests for the "elect.” Their destiny was to be rich.   In Manhattan, where I lived, this meant sky-high rents and asking prices. Rent-controlled apartments were preventing this preordained "destiny."  

SHE lowered her blinds, but it was too late. He had seen her.
2017 is again a time of deception and alarm.  Paranoia is a rational response to an insane society (to paraphrase Freud). In paranoid fiction, such as Philip Dick's 1968 "Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep," logic is non-linear.  Facades fall apart, and  truth is revealed in the chaos. 
PARADISE GARDENS begins in 2250, after government has dissolved amid environmental breakdown.  A real estate project underground  is sold  to the surviving corporate elite. Rather than Big Brother, a database runs this world and controls human destiny for the benefit of corporate planning-- even producing employees.  

Like most paranoid fiction, there’s a kind of clairvoyance in retrospect. Some elements that I wrote about, before there was an Internet, like  "Information Pirates" have already happened. But there is light and hope in PARADISE GARDENS.  I believe cautionary tales like this can bring us through our worst fears to a better  place.  We can sleep and imagine a more utopian future.
Find out more about PARADISE GARDENS below.

Susan Weinstein's BLOG
On Facebook:

Pre-order the book HERE 

Celebrate Women's Month: Read Shirley Jackson

More reasons to celebrate.  Finally -- and wow, this is overdue--Library of America has created an edition of Shirley Jackson's great novels and short stories.  I say, finally, because Jackson has had to wait in line after, say, Dashiell Hammett.  Huh.

Don't get me wrong.  Nothing wrong with giving Hammett his due.  I like (sort of) Hammett (well actually, I don't, but he can be part of the canon.)

But seriously?  If the mission of LOA is to honor America's great writers, where was Shirley Jackson?  She's a writer who gets into your bones and your head.  She is just a great writer.

Hers is the voice of everyday, familiar fears, the woman who crawls inside families, sisters, crazy houses made crazy by the people in them.  Jackson is the voice of everyday hatred turned into evil.  The world that is always about to turn dark, and unpredictable, the world teetering on itself.  There are just so many fine short stories and two truly unforgettable novels -- "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" and "The Haunting of Hill House."

So celebrate and read.  It's a good time to be scared.  

Celebrate Women's Day: Carson McCullers

So thrilled that Library of America (whose efforts deserve our support) has done the right thing and published the collected writings of several women authors-- overdue, perhaps, but welcome nevertheless.

So, in the spirit of celebrating women, consider reading Caron McCullers.  No question that McCuller remains an original, and among the Southern writers, the one who gets me everytime.

Maybe it was her early, failure in music, but there's a certain "something" -- what a critic has called a "universe of yearning" that is unmistakeably hers.  Her characters seem to come from the paintings of Edward Hopper:  McCuller is their champion.  She is the writer of loneliness, silences and the unrealized.  A writer who faces flaws, even cruelty, in people, and doesn't turn away, and never leaves the reader behind. And, at a time when most white writers didn't seem to know what to do (or what to say) about "Negro" characters, McCullers plunged right in.

You can start by reading (courtesy of LOA) one of her first short stories-- about a prodigy who realizes that she isn't destined for greatness in music  The irony (for the reader) is know that Carson McCullers would become, well, Carson McCullers.

And while you're at it, consider the wonderful boxed set.  I'll be buying it for myself, as a treat, as my personal celebration of Women's Day.

Forever Unread: Thoughts for Valentine's Day

This originally appeared in Lost in Romance, 2012. 

A batch of submissions sits on the editor’s desk at Forever Unread. Among them is a well-plotted short story in which a man and woman, after a number of mysterious events, sip brandy at the Algonquin Hotel. Alongside it is another story in which two men, after any number of disgusting events, curse at one another at a dirty diner.
The ever-so-educated literary magazine editor reads both of these – one with pronounced boredom, the other with genuine gusto. It’s the second piece that excites him. To the cursing scribe, he gushes, “It’s edgy and gritty. It takes us to new places.”
To the other author (who naturally is an authoress), he writes, “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, this is not for us. You might consider submitting this to a romance genre publication.”
The romance author, having surveyed the contents of Forever Unread, is philosophical. She has no plans to write about dirty diners, street fights or toilets. Most definitely she wishes to avoid toilets.
She meets her dear friend, Dr. Jill Evans, esteemed head of the literature department at a prestigious university. “Are vomit and pee-pee the new literary status symbols?” the author wants to know—for she is curious about the editorial fascination with bodily excretions.
“People need things to be real,” opines the professor, who herself edits a magazine called Literary Ammonia. “Vomit is real.”

“I want magic,” our author admits. “I like landscape paintings. I like Chopin and Faure. I like movies like Casablanca, books like Green Mansions.”

“Romance has sappy Hallmark card happy endings,” Jill sighs.

The author is annoyed, but only mildly. “Casablanca doesn’t have a sappy ending--neither does Green Mansions. A lot of romance is sad, it’s just not ugly.”
Jill opens a bottle of fine Cabernet. “Life’s dark.” (The author suspects that Jill’s sole contact with the Dark Side comes from HBO, but she remains wisely silent.)
“Sewers aren’t any more real than parks. Anyway, you don’t lead a gritty life,” the author replies, sipping wine and admiring the view. “Take Laurie Colwin—she writes about women I might know. She writes about women who have affairs, but not because they’re unhappy. They have affairs because their life lacks… magic.”
Jill immediately writes the name, Laurie Colwin (Find her books now). “Any other suggestions, I mean for just guilty pleasure reading?” she asks, rather eagerly.
The author lists her favorites with delight. Nancy Lemann, whose dizzy Southern girls long for loony men and sometimes get them, but only sometimes; the conjurer of all things Gallic, Dianne Johnson with her dazzling array of schemers, sophisticates and naives; Cathleen Schine whose heroines bump into love like Buster Keaton in a fast-paced chase scene; and recently romantic Allegra Goodman whose heroine in The Cookbook Collector charms without effort.

“They are stories of love – it’s sometimes flawed and it’s often brief – and they’re dreamers, even if the dreams don’t come true,” the author concludes. “Sure, promises get broken and kisses are fleeting, but without them, life’s pretty humdrum.”
Jill Evans looks out of her window and notices how beautiful Central Park is, when seen at twilight—and how quickly the light changes. “Dreams,” she repeats, and wonders where her girlhood copy of Green Mansions might be.
The next day finds Dr. Jill Evans immersed in the books of Laurie Colwin-- a writer who died as young as Jane Austen and whose spirit was as generous. Jill opens Goodbye without Leaving and swoons along with the heroine when Len first appears—and Jill feels a pit in her stomach when the two part—and a wish that the book would go on.
Soon Jill is seduced by Nancy Lemann’s Lives of the Saints. She finds herself yearning for the French Quarter in New Orleans, jazz, and hot drunken nights. She is heartsick to learn that many of Nancy Lemann novels are out of print but consoles herself by re-reading The Fiery Pantheon.
To the author’s amusement, Dr. Jill Evan’s undergraduate syllabus now includes Barbara Pym’s  A Glass of Blessings Grateful undergraduates have nominated Jill as Teacher of the Year—and many young women are seen, on park benches, reading and laughing at Pym’s Excellent Women.
The romance author cannot help but notice that the latest copy of Forever Unread sits on Jill’s desk – unopened and, yes, forever unread.
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