Rediscovering Female Authors: Barbara Trapido

I wish I could claim that I "discovered" Barbara Trapido on my own.  But, it seems the Lauren Goff and Maria Semple and Elizabeth Gilbert have beat me to it.  After reading three of her novels, I join the fan club -- Barbara Trapido is now firmly in my personal Canon.

Why?  Well, for one, wit and soul is hard to find, and Trapido offers it in spades.  In these days of self-consciously dark novels, Trapido offers us the gift of a happy ending.  And no, she doesn't skip over the sad, gut-wrenching mis-steps that lead to it.  

No surprise that Trapido is called a latter-day Jane Austen.  For once, that title is well-earned, Trapido gets to the core of Austen, which is her ability to define the changing, slippery shapes of happiness. The world's delicious, but it tastes different from what you expect.

Trapido's first novel, BROTHER OF THE MORE FAMOUS JACK, is a joy.  The heroine, Katherine, meets an eccentric family in whom, she senses, intellectual kinship. Austen fans are not surprised that the family has two attractive sons, and it goes without saying that, like Austen's Emma, Katherine picks the wrong one.  The romance is short, but painful -- and it leads to even more heartbreak.  Trapido could easily dump Katherine in that bleak pit; but that's not what she's about.  In her world, women climb out of pits, and make homes, families, even great art.

Another thing:  in Trapido, first loves and first hurts don't vanish.  First loves aren't about the man, Trapido knows, they are one version of our lives, our selves.  First loves remind us of past selves, and they hang around-- in a good life, we weave them into a new, imperfect reality.  Trapido has no illusions about the political or social imperfections.  Happy endings are not smooth, or predictable, because people aren't-- and Trapido's eager to capture the surprises in store.

Even better, Trapido follows her characters in subsequent novels.  I've already ordered them.


My Interview in The Leaving Years

Author Kathryn Kopple interviews me today for her new blog, The Leaving Years.  Kathryn asked intriguing questions, and I had fun answering them while I waa traveling and contemplating future departures in my life.

You can read the interview in her blog.

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.  
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