Beto and Pete: A Tale of Two Articles

As Beto O’Rourke’s candidacy has just abruptly ended, I decided to reblog my post from April 2019.

Gabriella West

In this election season, good journalism is important. But what happens when “good journalism” comes up against people’s uncritical adoration of a candidate?

7446 Janet Malcolm around the time the book came out.

We all know the stereotype of the “hit piece.” In Janet Malcolm‘s 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, she writes this about the professional journalist:

He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the…

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Loma Prieta Memory: Reading Pinter by Candlelight

(Note: I lived through Loma Prieta in 1989, which is now, incredibly, 30 years ago. The first section of this essay was written in 1999, on the 10th anniversary of the earthquake.)

old white apartment building collapsed

Big old apartment buildings collapsed in the Marina District, San Francisco, in 1989.

I’d been in San Francisco for a little over a year, having moved here from Ireland in July of 1988 right after college. At 22, I was a grad student in Creative Writing at SFSU, shy and isolated. I was living alone in an old four-story apartment building on Scott Street between Fell and Oak, illegally subletting an apartment from an eccentric writer who had left for pastures new in Washington, D.C. (A few months later I would be thrown out of this apartment by the yuppie landlord who’d purchased the building.) Most of the things in the apartment were his—the dusty books, the big leafy plants perched on shelves, the bed—even the phone and the answering machine. None of my friends lived in the un-hip Western Addition and my neighbors were older, antisocial types who seemed to be retired, nursing various sorts of addictions, or on disability.

So there I was, sitting on the bed at around 5 pm that Wednesday afternoon in October. I had decided, luckily as it turned out, not to go to my lesbian and gay film class at City College. Taking the K streetcar would be too much of a drag this evening, I mused, especially when I would have to wait for it in the dark and fog after class got out. I was just resting, then, or more accurately moping, as I often did in those rootless first years in the City. Suddenly the building began to shake. Even worse, it began to groan and creak. The creaking sound as it rocked from side to side was indescribable. “Oh God!” I remember saying, rooted to the bed in panic. Should I run for the doorway? It seemed to last forever. I was sure in that moment that the house was going to go down, that I was going to die. My mother, who’d lived in Southern California as a teen and young woman, had always told me to run for the doorway in an earthquake. So I stumbled belatedly to the doorway. Around the time I got there the shaking stopped.

I had no idea how serious it was, of course. Nor had anybody else in the building. My phone was dead, the electricity down. As I wandered around the darkening living room, I noted that plants and books had fallen off the shelves, a few cracked plates in the kitchen. I was still stunned—but at least it was over.

One of the downstairs neighbors, a gay man, came up to turn off my gas. Even a natural disaster didn’t bring my oddball neighbors together, though. We all drifted back gloomily to our silent, dark apartments. I lit a candle and lay on the bed. I was reading everything I could by the English playwright Harold Pinter at the time, so I picked up a collection of his grim plays to read as I waited, in limbo. I felt terribly vulnerable—afraid to go out, cut off from the world. When my phone did come back on I called my friend Elgy, a flamboyant Irish journalist in her forties who lived in the Mission. Sounding almost defiantly exhilarated, she described what a fun time she, her boyfriend, and their roommates were having, the party atmosphere in their house. “I didn’t mind it a bit!” she said.

This seemed to be true of every couple I spoke to about their experience of the quake. It made me even sadder in the days ahead, that no one admitted to any feelings of fear, like the terror I’d felt of dying alone in a creaky old apartment building in a new city, far from family and loved ones. I seemed to be the only one among my acquaintance who had experienced anything negative. My friend Denise, another journalist, had sped off to the Marina to document the burning houses. She had seen a writer friend of ours riding by on her motorcycle; apparently, they’d shouted gleeful hellos to each other. Another writer friend described cuddling with his girlfriend in the aftermath of the quake. If I’d had a lover, I thought, it would have been so different.

But all I had was the strangeness of being woken up at 5 am the next morning by my stepfather, Nathaniel, calling from Ireland. I didn’t, of course, know yet about the Bay Bridge collapse and the seriousness of the Marina destruction, nor could I see the gruesome images of the Cypress Freeway that people around the world were viewing on television.

“Are you all right?” my stepfather demanded.

“Yes… why are you calling me so early?” I replied groggily.

“To see whether you’re OK, you eejit!” he snapped. Like most of the few expressions of love in our family, this one went unappreciated by me at the time. It’s only now, 10 years later, and years since we’ve been in contact, that I’m touched that he rang.

***

And in another sort of earthquake, the family that I left behind in Ireland in 1988 has splintered and disintegrated. My stepfather dumped my mother in 1994 for a younger woman; she moved to another Irish town and died suddenly in 2002, of the breast cancer that she’d remained silent about—at least to me—for years. Although I was with her at the end, I never understood why she didn’t call me after the earthquake, or after the equally shattering experience of 9/11. The world has upended twice since I’ve been in Northern California; now with this global recession we appear to be facing an even more insidious and inevitable societal collapse and implosion. It requires great strength and resilience to keep moving forward. Even more so in the age of Trump.

I don’t know if the experience of these life-changing events toughens us or weakens us. Perhaps the people I knew back then who reacted to the earthquake with bravado carried their own scars, too. Now I’m old enough to know that they must have, because we all do.

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A Short Month, but an Exhausting One!

September was pretty exhausting! Due to a reshuffle at a magazine I work for, I was unexpectedly placed in a different role: copyediting rather than proofing. When I used to work for the Pacific Sun in San Rafael, I envied the copy editor’s position and wondered if I could do her job. Well, I can now see why she was so incredibly focused and absorbed in her work! I love learning new things: there are always one or two things that jump out at me in every issue, and I’m like, “Wow!” But the workflow moves so fast that my memory tends to be wiped after each issue is put to bed.

Talking about events moving fast, impeachment is now on the horizon! Thank God we’re getting somewhere. At the same time, there is a gravity to the situation that can’t be denied. This was a strange week of ultra-fast breaking news: reading the Whistleblower Complaint while simultaneously watching Acting DNI Maguire testify in front of Congress and then going downstairs to work on deadlines… I can no longer remember what exactly happened when, just that the president’s “men” are unraveling (Giuliani’s mental state is frightful to behold), and the whistleblower will soon be testifying in private session to the Intel Committee.

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Image by Chris Britt.

I signed up for a year of digital access to the Washington Post in a sort of angry reaction to the New York Times‘s blunder in revealing that the whistleblower is a C.I.A. officer, among other missteps. They have lost their way, but the huge amount of cancellations they apparently got this week should have sent them a sharp message. We’ll see. I like the idea of reading the paper of Woodward & Bernstein when this president’s time is finally up. Hillary Clinton this week pointedly called him “a corrupt human tornado.”

These are incredibly stressful times. Buckle up!

 

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A Thought for the Day (and the Days Ahead)

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Summer Has Started

It would have been Anthony Bourdain’s 63rd birthday today. Enjoy a listen to his inimitable voice. He manages to bring out the poetry in Waffle House. Today is a day to remember him with love.

In book promotion news, I’m participating in the upcoming Smashwords Summer/Winter sale (July 1-31). This monthlong event always livens up the summer gloom (because summer in San Francisco really is a kind of winter!). I will have one standalone book free (my first novel, The Leaving), and the two books in my LGBT historical fiction series will both be 50% off. I’ll pop back with links and things closer to the time. In the meantime, my Elsie Street Trilogy is heavily discounted for Pride Month on Smashwords, and this continues in July as well.

Politics: I’ll be avidly watching the two Democratic debates this week!

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Beto and Pete: A Tale of Two Articles

In this election season, good journalism is important. But what happens when “good journalism” comes up against people’s uncritical adoration of a candidate?

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Janet Malcolm around the time the book came out.

We all know the stereotype of the “hit piece.” In Janet Malcolm‘s 1990 book The Journalist and the Murderer, she writes this about the professional journalist:

He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

Malcolm’s provocative and disturbing thesis, that the journalist cozies up to and then inevitably betrays his/her subject, can be seen in action in two long magazine articles about up-and-coming Democratic presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttiegieg.

I liked O’Rourke back when he was running for Senate in Texas against Ted Cruz and bought into the hype to a certain extent. But this Vanity Fair article, written by Joe Hagan, quietly eviscerated O’Rourke. (The most damning thing, to my mind, was the revelation of the existence of O’Rourke’s wealthy Republican father-in-law, who had bankrolled his campaigns.) Suddenly O’Rourke’s own wealth did not seem so innocent.

Then there was the jarring image of a harried Beto in the car with his kids, braking sharply at a busy intersection and muttering: “Motherfuckers!” Or the picture that slowly formed of a man obsessed with his terrible relationship with his own father. Beto’s frankness about his problematic relationship with his gregarious but overbearing father, Pat, who died after being hit by a car, could have been portrayed differently by a sympathetic journalist, but in this article Beto’s own desire to run for high office seems to stem from some unhealthy compulsion/inner emptiness and competition with his dead father, whose own political career ended suddenly when a powder that was allegedly cocaine was found in the glove compartment of his car. The fact that his young kids and even the morose family dog (!) don’t appear to be 100 percent behind Beto in his quixotic quest is damning.

This piece, released and widely shared on Twitter on the day Beto announced his candidacy, undoubtedly jabbed a deep wound into his upward momentum. His standing in the polls has never recovered.

Pete Buttigieg is the nice, cautious millennial antidote to Beto’s troubled Gen-X persona. I really like Buttigieg, find his relationship with husband Chasten charming, and loved his book, Shortest Way Home. He has a good mind, a sly humor, and seems to be a man of strong integrity. But, proving Malcolm’s point, this Vogue piece by Nathan Heller subtly accentuates all the less appealing things. Mayor Pete somehow comes off as a control freak at home, a fuddy-duddy, and for the first time… rather slippery, refusing to answer or clarify the question of when he decided to run for president. Pete’s calculating and unwavering ambition is definitely his Achilles heel. One can see almost everything about him, including when he came out in 2015, as carefully timed. And get this: unlike Beto, he is an overly cautious, defensive driver!:

We get into his car, a Chevrolet sedan in a particularly subdued shade of gray. He drives at a controlled pace—partly, it seems, from caution (the mayor is an exceedingly defensive driver) but partly out of pride. “College Street, where I lived as a little kid, is up there,” he says, as we pass a stretch of tidy one-floor houses with small lawns. As a child, Buttigieg had dreamed of being an astronaut, but by high school his attentions turned.

Instead of civic pride, though, Buttigieg, seen through Heller’s eyes, gives off a whiff of smug egotism here. This is the damning paragraph, ending in an almost palpable note of gloom:

“When exactly he decided, in his own mind, he would seek the U.S. presidency is less clear. He announced his exploratory committee in January. In February, his elegantly written memoir, Shortest Way Home, appeared, introducing him to the nation (“a chance for me to tell my story before someone else does,” as he tells me), and soon began climbing The New York Times best-seller list. Books taking what they do in the way of time, this project of national self-presentation was clearly in the works more than two years ago. Did he have White House plans then? I keep asking him the question, in various phrasings, but he never replies head-on. Eventually it occurs to me that this is probably an answer in itself.”

The handful of excellent women candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar) should perhaps count themselves lucky that they have not yet been filleted in this way. Perhaps a female journalist will end up doing the honors!

Having said that, I read these two well-written pieces with fascination and think that they are, to some extent, necessary correctives. I’m reminded of Bill Clinton’s churlish, offhand comment in the 2008 campaign about Obama’s persona being a “fairy tale.” We never really got to see the dark side. Obama actually had a pretty easy road to power, partly due to his opponent John McCain’s decency. Maybe it’s better that some air be let out of the tires for these candidates in advance of the grueling slog that is the 2020 campaign.

UPDATE: Beto abruptly ended his candidacy yesterday (11/1), while Pete is now #2 in the Iowa polls. I found a good article about late-stage Beto (post-El Paso) and decided to share it. Ironically, this is what journalism can do well: present a sympathetic portrait of a flawed candidate when all hope is lost. Even if Beto doesn’t have a political future, I hope that something will present itself that he can turn his considerable talents to. Meanwhile, I’m all for Warren. While I started out liking Pete, his slickness and ambition have become a major turn-off. It’s been a fascinating and exhausting race.

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The Day That Notre Dame Burned

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Interior of Notre Dame. The firefighters’ helmets give them the look of medieval soldiers contemplating the cross.

It was Tax Day, and that’s bad enough, but it turns out that April 15, 2019, will go down as the day that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned almost completely. The two great towers are still standing, at least.

Hours ago, I turned to Twitter, as I always do now, for the latest updates. The unbelievable sight of the Gothic spire burning and collapsing while shocked Parisians screamed and cried out on the street was most upsetting. It seemed apocalyptic.

Like the destruction of anything else involving that great city, it just sent a spear through the heart. Paris has had so many tragedies in the last decade: Charlie Hebdo, the massacre at the Bataclan concert hall… At least this one may have been linked to a careless construction accident rather than arson.

My first immediate reaction was horror and disbelief. It comforted me to read the emotional responses to the disaster on Twitter. Most of those were by women, I noted, who had visited Notre Dame as tourists and been awed by it. Writer Steve Silberman told an anecdote that moved me deeply:

On my 1st morning in Paris when I was 21 or so, I went straight to Notre Dame. It was much darker inside than I had imagined, like a Paleolithic cave. I saw a man crawling on the floor toward the Virgin. Only later I learned there’d been a power failure. Indelible experience. (@stevesilberman)

Today was also the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

UPDATE: Not only was the medieval rose window apparently saved, but the 180,000 bees in three hives on top of Notre Dame’s sacristy roof apparently were as well!

 

 

 

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The Abstract-Impressionism of Berthe Morisot and Joan Mitchell

Luministe

 

 

Guest blogger Paula Butterfield’s novel about the life and work of impressionist artist Berthe Morisot, “La Luministe,” will be published by Regal House on March 15, 2019. She stops by to discuss the surprising similarities between Morisot and a much more modern female artist…

 

 

Picture1

WOMAN AT HER TOILETTE (1875-1880)

 

 The Abstract-Impressionism of Berthe Morisot and Joan Mitchell

As I researched Berthe Morisot for my historical novel, La Luministe, I saw elements of this Impressionist artist’s work that hinted at Joan Mitchell’s paintings, which would follow one hundred years later. (See the right side of Woman at Her Toilette, above.) The brushstrokes on Morisot’s unfinished canvases, in particular, look like the work of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. As art critic Sam Smee has written, “In the 1880s, Morisot experimented with unprimed canvases and a lack of finish that looks radical even today — closer at times to Joan Mitchell than Paul Cézanne.” (Washington Post, August 21, 2018)

In turn, painter Joan Mitchell was labeled an “Abstract Impressionist.” It was a term coined by Elaine de Kooning, who conflated the Impressionists’ interest in the optical effects of nature with the Abstract Expressionists’ interest in the visual representations of emotional or spiritual states. Mitchell was compared to Monet in her use of watery surfaces and reflections of the sky. During the 1970s, Mitchell even lived in a house next to Monet’s former home in Vetheuil.

At first glance, Morisot and Mitchell’s lives had much in common. Both lived in France, both came from well-off upper-class families, and both were involved in difficult relationships with well-known artists—Morisot with Edouard Manet and Mitchell with Jean-Paul Riopelle. And each artist had great feeling for landscape, especially trees. Morisot, as one of the founding Impressionists, painted en plein air. She felt sustained by trees. The Bois de Boulogne, “the lungs of the city”, was her refuge from modern Paris, and the forested park provided the setting for many of her paintings. Mitchell felt an affinity for trees, as well. When she was in the hospital recovering from hip surgery late in her life,

“…they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly…I saw two fir trees in a park…and I was so happy. It had to do with being alive, I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint.”

(interview with Yves Michaud for catalog, Joan Mitchell: New Paintings, 1986)

Green blotches traverse a neutral background in both canvases. Although Morisot’s painting is, technically, realist—a recognizable house and figures appear in the middle-ground. The figure on the right serves as an accent comparable to Mitchell’s perfect fuchsia-colored accent in roughly the same position in My Plant.

 

Morisot painting                                       Joan Mitchell painting

HARVEST À BOUGIVAL (Morisot, 1880s)           GIROLATA TRIPTYCH (Mitchell, 1964)

 

Do you see what I mean? Here’s another example. In the paintings below, there are similarities in composition (emphasis in lower-left corner), brush strokes (as scumbled and breezy as the wind at the English seaside), and palette (muted blue-grays with accents of red, green, and blue):

 

seascape by morisot                                         abstract by mitchell

ENGLISH SEASCAPE (Morisot, 1875)                         MONT ST. HILAIRE (Mitchell, 1956)

 

In 2014, an untitled work of Joan Mitchell’s brought $11.9 million at auction, the highest price garnered by a woman artist to date—supplanting the $10.9 million brought by Berthe Morisot’s After the Luncheon in 2013. It’s appropriate that Morisot and Mitchell top the list of most valued women artists. Separated by a century, these two women artists shared not only lives lived in France and devotion to their art, but also a way of seeing.

Author Paula Butterfield taught courses about women artists for twenty years before turning to writing novels about them. La Luministe, her debut novel, earned the Best Historical Fiction Chanticleer Award. Paula lives with her husband and daughter in Portland and on the Oregon coast. Still committed to sharing women’s stories, she is currently working on her next book about rival American artists. You can find her at http://www.paula-butterfield.com or @pbutterwriter.

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Dorothy Richardson, overlooked modernist writer

(Reblogging an older post, as “Dorothy Richardson: A Close Reading” is now available on Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.)

Gabriella West

DRichardson Richardson was a pioneering modernist writer.

When I was an ardent young intellectual in the early ’90s, I took a class on Modernist Women Writers with the poet Kathleen Fraser at SFSU. One of our assignments was to do “a close reading” of our writer of choice. I chose to write about English writer Dorothy M. Richardson.

Richardson (1873-1957) was an unusual writer with an unusual career. She published her first book, Pointed Roofs, in 1917, when she was over 40. It was called the first “imagist novel” and her work was taken seriously by critics. Soon Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, whose half brothers were Richardson’s publishers, joined the modernist “canon” and during the 1920s Richardson continued putting out volume after volume (there were eventually 13 seperate books in all) of her great novel sequence, Pilgrimage. But after her 12th book came out in the late…

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Upcoming in March: Read an E-Book Week, Followed by Guest Blogger Paula Butterfield

February has been shooting by, and I have not posted here, but let me remedy this before the month disappears completely into the rearview mirror!

8. spooky2019 - Read an Ebook WeekThe first week of March (March 3-9) is the time for Read an E-Book Week on Smashwords. I finally replaced the image on my blog from 2015 with one from this year–an improvement, I might add! Click the image at the right margin for a link to my book page on Smashwords.

Among many other bargains, I will have two books for sale in my LGBT romance Elsie Street series (Book 1 is free!). Both The Pull of Yesterday and Return to Carlsbad will be 50 percent off from 3/3-3/9.

A Goodreads reader called Jules from the U.K. gave Return to Carlsbad the kind of review that makes this author very happy:

Out of all the 3 books though, this is probably my favourite. There was at least some kind of relationship between two characters. There is at least, some kind of HEA. I think!!!!

It’s not that these characters are bad, it’s just they’re totally screwed up, by childhood abuse and self inflicted pain. They are all just messed up. AND…I COULD NOT STOP READING THIS BOOK. I could not put it down. It was like watching a train wreck, I was totally intrigued by what they would all do next and it was never what I was expecting. I also loved the author’s writing style, it flowed easily and I turned the pages pretty quickly. 

If you’re looking for something a little different and don’t mind poly relationships and possible cheating, then you’ll love this book.

Berthe Morisot book

Butterfield’s novel is now on pre-order and will be published in March.

Then in mid-March, Paula Butterfield has kindly agreed to stop by my blog with a guest post as part of the promotion for her deeply researched new novel about French impressionist artist Berthe Morisot, La Luministe.

A serious artist from a young age, Morisot fell in love with the married Edouard Manet, which I didn’t know. But Butterfield’s work also brings attention to Morisot’s groundbreaking work with light, which prefigured the work of the abstract expressionists. On this blog, she’ll write about the surprising links between Morisot and mid-twentieth-century painter Joan Mitchell.

I love 19th-century French art, and I love women who were ahead of, or outside, their times, so it’s a good fit!

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