The two books I started and finished (#tinytriumph) during March were complementary companion reads. Both were published on March 2. This was certainly not accidental timing, kicking off Women’s History Month. They focused on roughly the same narrow timeframe–the mid-20th century. And both books explored that timeframe primarily through the perspectives of mostly young, mostly white women.
Off the Ground
Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Ampresents as a slice of the Mad Men era. That’s a time period that fascinates me. I was technically around during the 1960’s, but I definitely didn’t experience “The 60s.” I took my first airline flight I was three months old, from New York to Miami and back again. I don’t remember that June 1964 trip, but I almost remember when airline travel felt special.
In the 1960s Pan American World Airways was America’s only airline to exclusively fly international routes. The company set a glamourous image for air travel with its flight crews. Passengers were attentively served by attractive, unmarried, college-educated women. And until feminism’s second wave rolled up in the 1970s, all of those criteria were strict job requirements. Julia Cooke’s account filters Pan Am’s “jet-set” era through the experiences of several stewardesses during changing times. Come Fly the World devotes a significant amount of the narrative to Pan Am’s service as a military charter airline during the Vietnam War. This turn surprised me; I hadn’t known about the role these civilians played in the war or their involvement in (probably well-intentioned and undoubtedly problematic) Operation Babylift.
A “Soft Landing” Place
Back in the USA, in New York City, the Barbizon Hotel for Women was also being changed by the times. For close to half a century, The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free provided a “soft landing” for young women getting a start in the city. Its single rooms and single-sex occupancy offered affordable and congenial accommodations. They housed office workers and writers, actresses and models, for a few weeks or for years. Some of them became notables later in life, and the hotel claimed them as part of its history.
Paulina Bren highlights some of those notables in her history of the hotel. She also connects it with two of the institutions that kept it going: the Katherine Gibbs Secretarial Schoo, which took two floors as a dorm, and Mademoiselle magazine. Mademoiselle housed its college-age Guest Editors at the Barbizon for six weeks every summer. The Mademoiselle contingent – the “Millies” – produced some of the Barbizon’s best-known residents. One of them fictionalized her time there in her only novel, and Bren brings that back around; her story of the Barbrizon is deeply linked with that of Sylvia Plath. I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate that terribly much, as I don’t especially appreciate Sylvia Plath.
Mid-20th-century historical accounts fascinate me. I feel that I just missed the buildup to what came to shape my worldview. I’m trying to catch up. (I know that’s part of what fascinated me about Mad Men .) These were great reads for Womens’ History Month, with their concentration on very specific slices of 20th-century American women’s lives. I preferred the airline story to the hotel one, personally, but I’m glad to have read them both.
Glamour, danger, liberation: in a Mad Men–era of commercial flight, Pan Am World Airways attracted the kind of young woman who wanted out, and wanted up
Required to have a college education, speak two languages, and possess the political savvy of a Foreign Service officer, ajet-age stewardess serving on iconic Pan Am between 1966 and 1975 also had to be between 5′3" and 5′9", between 105 and 140 pounds, and under 26 years of age at the time of hire.Cooke’s intimate storytelling weaves together the real-life stories of a memorable cast of characters, from small-town girl Lynne Totten, a science major who decided life in a lab was not for her, to Hazel Bowie, one of the relatively few Black stewardesses of the era, as they embraced the liberation of their new jet-set life. Cooke brings to light the story of Pan Am stewardesses’ role in the Vietnam War, as the airline added runs from Saigon to Hong Kong for planeloads of weary young soldiers straight from the battlefields, who were off for five days of R&R, and then flown back to war. Finally, with Operation Babylift—the dramatic evacuation of 2,000 children during the fall of Saigon—the book’s special cast of stewardesses unites to play an extraordinary role on the world stage.
From award-winning author Paulina Bren comes the first history of New York’s most famous residential hotel—The Barbizon—and the remarkable women who lived there. WELCOME TO NEW YORK’S LEGENDARY HOTEL FOR WOMEN
Liberated from home and hearth by World War I, politically enfranchised and ready to work, women arrived to take their place in the dazzling new skyscrapers of Manhattan. But they did not want to stay in uncomfortable boarding houses. They wanted what men already had—exclusive residential hotels with daily maid service, cultural programs, workout rooms, and private dining.
Built in 1927 at the height of the Roaring Twenties, the Barbizon Hotel was intended as a safe haven for the “Modern Woman” seeking a career in the arts. It became the place to stay for any ambitious young woman hoping for fame and fortune. Sylvia Plath fictionalized her time there in The Bell Jar, and, over the years, its almost 700 tiny rooms with matching floral curtains and bedspreads housed Titanic survivor Molly Brown; actresses Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Ali MacGraw, Jaclyn Smith, Phylicia Rashad, and Cybill Shepherd; writers Joan Didion, Diane Johnson, Gael Greene, and Meg Wolitzer; and many more. Mademoiselle magazine boarded its summer interns there, as did Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School its students and the Ford Modeling Agency its young models. Before the hotel’s residents were household names, they were young women arriving at the Barbizon with a suitcase and a dream.
Not everyone who passed through the Barbizon’s doors was destined for success—for some it was a story of dashed hopes—but until 1981, when men were finally let in, the Barbizon offered its residents a room of their own and a life without family obligations or expectations. It gave women a chance to remake themselves however they pleased; it was the hotel that set them free. No place had existed like it before or has since.
Beautifully written and impeccably researched, The Barbizon weaves together a tale that has, until now, never been told. It is both a vivid portrait of the lives of these young women who came to New York looking for something more, and an epic history of women’s ambition.
This blog and I both observed birthdays this month. They’re our second consecutive pandemic-era anniversaries, and it’s looking like maybe we will not three-pear. The 3 R’s Blog turned 14 onMarch 16. I have some hope that I can do better by it in its fifteenth year than I did in the one thatjust ended. And I marked another trip around the sun yesterday, March 29. I’m not going to divulge the number, but you’ll get a hint of it in Thursday’s post. And with that said…
“(I)t’s a whole new world. And not the kind Aladdin and Jasmine sang about. More like the “turned upside down” one referenced in Hamilton.
Are you sticking close to home…as if you really have much choice in the matter?
(And has your favorite store run out of toilet paper?)”
(I didn’t post here again until nine months later. I don’t really want to go back to THAT “normal” at all.)
In some ways, my “normal” looks pretty similar to what it was becoming a year ago. I rarely leave the house except for my one day a week in the office, grocery shopping, and dog-walking. I’ll be vaccine-eligible this week, and that news feels like a birthday gifft. But with that change on the way, I probably should be embarrassed to admit how much thhis “normal” has not bothered me. Right now, I’m more bothered by the prospect of giving it up before too lomg I think that may be something like “normal “these days too, though:
“Here’s where I remind you that we have endured nearly a year — a year! — of sustained, slow-motion collective trauma. Some days might not have felt recognizable as such, but our brains are very adept at flattening trauma, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, into something survivable. We have borne witness, in some way, to deaths in our close community, in our homes, in our online circles, in our kids’ schools — to half a million American deaths and 2.56 million deaths globally. We have lived with some level of fear, for ourselves and for those we cherish, for a year.”
On a more somber note, an anniversary was missed this month. My father died in an assisted-living home on the second day of 2021. He was 91, and would have turned 92 on March 23. He wasn’t a COVID casualty—that is, he didn’t have the virus when he died—but in a way, he was. And the fact that we remain unable to engage in the rituals of remembrance and comfort that usually follow such a loss compounds it.
This is a part of my “normal” that no vaccine or re-opening or lifting of restrictions will change.
And now for something much more like normal:
I have already finished 10 books this year. That’s a pace I’d love to keep up. It feels like an older “normal” that I’d be happy to make new again.
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When the lockdown began, my husband and I started sharing a work-from-home space. We still have the space, but since last October, only one of has used it for remote work. We know we’re fortunate to have my continued full-time employment and some savings, as the job hut has been disappointing so far. However, this time has given him the chance to flex his artistic muscles in new ways. He’s been creating some great designs for T-shirts, water bottles, phone cases and home products—you can find them all for sale at his Redbubble shop.
When nothing particularly notable happens to distinguish one day from the next, it’s easy to understand why blogs go quiet. I have learned that it’s all too easy to let a blog go from hiatus to hibernation. Waking it can be harder than getting a teenager out of bed in time for school. And since I really am trying to keep this one from dozing off again, here are
Five Random Things (February Edition)
My busiest times at work fall during the second and third weeks of each month. I officially have Presidents’ Day off, but will work a few hours on some reports that are due the day after. I don’t really begrudge working during a three-day weekend, though, since I don’t feel like I’m losing out on “weekend” itself. Assuming there’s even a difference between weekend and weekday anymore, that is…
I make that unfunny joke, but I do still have a full-time job with a pretty conventional schedule, so time does continue to have some meaning. I’m living with someone who doesn’t have that, though, and I know time feels different for him. (He is actively looking to put his talents as an experienced graphic designer/illustrator/photographer back to work and has updated his website to showcase them.)
I’m hoping to finish my current book this weekend– I’m about 80% finished with Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. I am also into my second audiobook of the year, The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Power was US Ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration. I’ve had her memoir in my Audible library for a few months. It felt like the right choice to follow up my listen to A Promised Land.
We are very late to jump on theSchitt’s Creek bandwagon, but we are so loving the ride! We’re already into Season 4 since we tend to watch at least three episodes at a time. It’s hilarious and smart and unexpectedly heartwarming.
You may recall that PATIENCE is my #OneWord for 2021. Six weeks later, I continue to reflect on it daily and work to practice it. Maybe it’s not the greatest thing to need to do that, but I think it reinforces that I picked the right word for this particular time of my life.
BONUS Random Thing!
I loved having pen pals when I was younger. I feel like many of the online friendships I’ve made are a variation on those text-based relationships. You can still make those connections the old-fashioned way, though. Email isn’t dead...and letter-writing to pen pals may add some life to old-school snail mail.
The Undocumented Americans is a tricky book to categorize and an enlightening, provocative book to read.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a Harvard graduate, a Yale grad student, and a writer. She is the daughter of undocumented Ecuadorian parents who brought her to America as a five-year-old. Her younger brother is American-born, while she lives under the precarious protection of DACA. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election made this life more perilous and uncertain than ever. It also made Cornejo Villavicencio want to examine her own story more deeply, and see how it fit in with the stories of other undocumented Americans.
In her introduction to the book, Cornejo Villavicencio calls The Undocumented Americans “creative nonfiction,” and that’s a fair assessment. The title sounds authoritative, scholarly–possibly a definitive work on the subject. And while it may turn out to be just that, its ambitions and execution are on a smaller scale.
This is a deeply personal book, but it’s not solely Cornejo Villavicencioo’s own story–therefore, it’s not memoir. The other stories she tells grow out of her embedded reporting, but she has changed her subjects’ names and details; it’s not journalism, either But I’m not sure it matters where you shelve this book. What’s important is taking it off that shelf and reading it.
I wasn’t aware that this book existed until last autumn when it started showing up on Best Books of 2020 lists, but I’m really glad it came to my attention. Cornejo Villavicencio is a powerful and passionate writer, invested in her material and attached to those whose stories she shares. TheUndocumented Americans is an eye-opening, unsettling, and important work of creative nonfiction.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she'd tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell. So she wrote her immigration lawyer's phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants--and to find the hidden key to her own.
Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented--and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the nation of singular, effervescent characters often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects.
In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival.
Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.
I’m making a serious effort to come back to blogging. (I hope you’ve noticed.) That means not just posting, but reading blogs too. And I’m noticing that my feed reader isn’t nearly as busy as it once was.
I’m excited to reconnect with bloggers I’ve followed for years, and happy to see how many are still keeping on after five or seven or more than ten years. (I am bound and determined to take note of my fourteenth anniversary as a blogger this March.) But many of the familiar headlines and bylines have disappeared, while others post less regularly. And some blogs don’t seem to have RSS feeds anymore. If you want to make sure you catch all their posts, you’ll need to sign up for email.
What once were blog posts are now Substacks
And lately, I’m seeing more and more people I first knew as bloggers going all -in on email—they’re starting Substacks newsletters.
I’ve subscribed to several Substacks over the last few months, and I can see its appeal, especially for old-school bloggers. It’s a place to write—where the writing is the focus—and a mechanism to share that writing. Simple and to the point. And it also provides community-building tools like comments and discussion threads. Frankly, if you’re looking for a way to reinvigorate your blogging life, a Substack is probably a lot easier than starting a podcast.
And if you find your email inbox is just getting too full of Substacks —I’m not there yet, but it’s not hard to foresee—you can read them all in a browser tab that might give you some nostalgic Google Reader vibes. And in a fine example of “what goes around comes around,” Substack Reader even lets you add RSS feeds.
(Full disclosure: I’ve also claimed the space to create a Substack of my own. I’m not posting a link. I don’t even know what I’ll do with it. But I’ll invite you to check it out once I have something there to share.)
I have my doubts email will ever die–it’s clearly not going down without a fight, anyway. Personally, I’m not sure it’s really how I want to read blog posts, but for the most part I’m pretty fond of it and wouldn’t want to be without it. I would definitely support killing voicemail, though.
Wednesday morning felt different after a restless, silent, very dark night.
We had lost power at 3 PM the day before as Southern California was slammed with extremely high winds, and we had no idea how long we’d be without it. It was obvious that I wouldn’t be working remotely that morning, though. As it happened, we were powerless for a total of roughly 21 hours. And we were without cable, internet, and WiFi for a couple of hours longer
You’d think we would be pretty accustomed to feeling isolated by now. California began its COVID lockdown ten months ago(!!). That said, the connections provided by technology have been taking the edge off that isolation. Being cut off from that takes it to a whole other miserable level.
But as winds of change blew on January 20th, I felt reconnected…and not so miserable.
I finished two books this week and continued my experiment with mini-reviews on Instagram. It’s been hard to shake the idea that I need to have 250-300 words to say about a book (Writing paid reviews for Shelf Awareness ingrained that.) Here’s the awful truth, though: sometimes I just don’t. And it’s kind of nice not to push for that when I’m not feeling it.
I broke one of the cardinal rules with The Queen’s Gambit–I watched the Netflix adaptation before reading the book. To be fair, I hadn’t even known it was a book first. It’s not a novel that would not have been on my radar when it was first published (1983). It isn’t one I’ve heard talked about much since. But I started reading the source material just days after watching the seven-hour TV series, and I read it pretty slowly, on purpose. I just wanted to stay in Beth Harmon’s world longer.
The novel is psychologically complex and surprisingly warm. Over the course of a decade, Beth Harmon goes from learning the basic game from the orphanage’s janitor to facing down the world champion at the Moscow Invitational tournament. Along the way, she makes some of the men she meets as competitors her strongest champions. And they’re always men – it’s the 1960s, and as she rises through the ranks of elite chess players, Beth is almost always the only woman in the room.
Book to Movie: Compare and Contrast
Books tend to be better than films at letting you into a character’s head, and that’s especially true here. Tevis seems more comfortable conveying what’s in Beth’s mind than in her heart, And yet, the story resonates emotionally and engages on that level too.
On the other hand, film does some things better than books. The adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit is largely faithful to the novel, but it does enhance it in places:
I know next to nothing about chess. The written descriptions of Beth’s matches engaged me despite that, but the dramatizations in the TV series were riveting.
Perhaps because the novel is relatively short and the language of film is different – a picture stands in for a lot of words – there’s some expansion to fill seven hours of television. For the most part, I think The Queen’s Gambit benefits from that, particularly in how it explores Beth’s relationships.
As Beth becomes an increasingly accomplished chess competitor, the clothes keep getting better. It’s not just an engaging story – the production design and costumes make this a great story to watch.
I’m glad that television led me to this book. And I’m glad this book came to television and brought Beth Harmon’s story to millions.
Engaging and fast-paced, this gripping coming-of-age novel of chess, feminism, and addiction speeds to a conclusion as elegant and satisfying as a mate in four. Now an acclaimed Netflix series.
Eight-year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is, until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she's competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as Beth hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.
The new year has really kicked off in style, hasn’t it? And it is NOT wearing it well. 2021 has made a very poor first impression and will have to work hard to turn it around.
I wrote most of what follows earlier this past week and have posted shorter versions of it to Facebook and Instagram.
Over the last few days, I’ve been discovering one way in which I may NOT be built for the pandemic life. There are times when even an introvert needs to be with people. The aftermath of loss is one of those times.
I am grateful to all of the family and friends who have responded to my sister’s and my Facebook and Instagram posts about our dad’s death on January 2 with kindness and sympathy. I’m so glad to live in a time when we have the connective powers of the internet. But we have rituals around death that involve the living coming together – to comfort, to remember, to celebrate a well-lived life that touched theirs. Those rituals are important and they are necessary…and thanks to the pandemic, we can’t have them right now.
And maybe it’s selfish, but I want them.
When my mother died, the family came together right away from all across the country. After my father-in-law passed, my mother-in-law had a full house for days. Now, I want to sit with people who know me – whether or not they knew Dad – and talk, or listen, or not. I need hugs and hand-holding and shared feelings.
While I am glad to be able to reach out online, I have to confess: it doesn’t give the comfort of presence.
I know my family isn’t unique during this Year of Out Coronavirus. Even when COVID-19 isn’t the cause of a death, it’s shaping what we do in its wake. We have taken care of the basic final arrangements for Dad. (I bought that “pre-need” cremation plan three days before it became a “need.”) But there’s no ceremony we can arrange just yet, and no clear sense of when that will be able to happen.
My introverted temperament did not come from my dad.
While age had quieted him a bit, Eddie Lantos was one of those people who never met a stranger and was always up for chitchat. He was well-known and well-liked in the senior apartment complex where he lived for his last 15 years. Dad was a regular at the local Senior Center until COVID closed it; he and his friend Tom met there for lunch nearly every day, and often attended the Friday-night dances there. (Once Dad started walking with a cane I worried a bit about the dancing.) He was involved with social groups at church—he really enjoyed those casino outings—and was the oldest member of his Knights of Columbus council.
In short, I’m sure he would have wanted a traditional wake and Catholic funeral Mass with a crowd to see him off. What Dad would have wanted is a version of what I want. We can’t give him that…and we can’t have it for ourselves, either.
(NOTE: This is the post I did not post on Sunday.)
I was going to pass up #OneWord for 2021 but Sheila sucked me into it. I still like the concept of the one-word resolution. But I didn’t have one in 2020, and odds are it wouldn’t have survived if I had (because…2020).
If you’re just a bit more ambitious about New Year’s Resolutions than I am, here are some suggestions about scaling them to something achievable. (Sorry about the NYT paywall, but I think they still offer a few free articles a month if you’re not a subscriber.)
I am not committing to any sort of regularly-scheduled programming for this space right now. I am hoping I’ll have the energy and inspiration to post weekly, but I’ve gotten no further than that. There’s a part of me that resists goal-setting and step-by-step planning; I’m too aware of how easily those can be blown up by things I don’t control. In that respect, 2020 really validated my worldview.
And this 2020 Bingo card is a good illustration of the utter disruption and abnormal “new normal” of the year we just closed To be honest, I’m perfectly fine with not having done these signature activities of The Year of Our Coronavirus, 2020:
Become a home-school teacher. (All respect to you parents who have had to take this on, but I’m grateful to have grown children)
Cut my own hair
Binge-watched Tiger King (although it did get added to the Netflix queue)
How would you score on 2020 Bingo? (Really, we all lost at it.)