I’ve been busy reading the delightful, yet somewhat vexing Letters of Shirley Jackson (Random House, 672 pp., $14.99 on Kindle) and writing a long review of it!
Finding a home (irony alert, as Shirley was always focused on the physical and symbolic nature of her homes!) for the review has been difficult, but someone in the Binders group suggested The Internet Review of Books, which I’d never heard of. I looked it up, found that it does indeed exist, and successfully pitched the review. So when it appears there, I will link to it.
For a woman and a writer so temperamentally unlike me, I found myself getting rather attached to Shirley, rather interested in her. Since she was of my grandmothers’ generation (born 1916), I ended up seeing her through that lens: women who felt themselves to be “modern” when young but who ended up being throttled and thwarted by the culture around them, prematurely sidelined, stuck with husbands who were either weak or dominant (or both!).
It’s no coincidence, I fear, that when Shirley was the breadwinner in her marriage, earning enough from her novels and stories to support husband Stanley Edgar Hyman while he wrote his book (The Armed Vision, completely unread nowadays), the relationship flourished. But after rising to a peak in the early ’50s, when the couple felt economically stable for the first time, Shirley increasingly turned inward and became invisible to her husband, whose teaching (and romantic entanglements) at the local women’s college, Bennington, absorbed his time. The cruelty of the relationship is not uncommon even nowadays. Trapped between wealthy, superficial parents in California who had opposed her marriage and a claustrophobic, lonely life in Vermont, Shirley made the best of it.
Far from being a bore—a fear that she admits to in one of the bleakest letters, one that she addressed to her husband and left for posterity—Shirley seems like an immensely appealing woman who turned to crutches (food, drink, drugs) to cope that many people were using at the time… and still do. Her love of Morris Minor cars was one of the most charming and unexpected things I learned from the book. Riding in my Irish grandmother’s old black Morris Minor in the mid-1970s is a nostalgic childhood memory for me. I would have assumed those cars were never available in the U.S. Shirley somehow managed to buy a convertible!
I wrote about Shirley previously in my blog post The Downhill Slide, which to my surprise has become one of my most-read posts.
Update: My full review of The Letters of Shirley Jackson is scheduled to appear here on September 8. It’s up—check it out!!
Seems like a weird time we’re in right now. The delta variant is upon us, and even in San Francisco, cases are rising robustly. I continue to wear my mask and am relieved that so many of my fellow SFers are doing the same. I haven’t the slightest desire to go to a restaurant or bar, so I’m not tempted. It helps to be an introvert at times like these.
When I came to the city in 1988, the first person who befriended me in the Memoir class I was taking at SF State was a slender dark-haired young woman called Denise Minor, who had grown up in Idaho, and who was then a journalist writing mostly for the Noe Valley Voice. It turned out she lived nearby to me in the Inner Richmond. Denise was a dynamic woman who was majoring in Spanish. I never quite understood why she took a Creative Writing class—though I suppose it was her minor—but I’m lucky she did, because the next summer she started up a writing group and I was included. That writing group lasted through the ’90s and sustained me when I was working day jobs that dulled my creativity and sapped my energy.
But Denise left the city a few years later with her husband and two young sons. She headed off to UC Davis and then Chico, where she was an associate professor of Spanish linguistics. She died at the beginning of July of breast cancer, far too soon. Seeing a friend’s obituary on Facebook without being prepared for it has become a phenomenon that happens all too often. It’s hard to believe that this vibrant woman is gone, but my memories of the first year of our acquaintance, when we were closest, are with me still. How boring and unproductive my grad school years would have been without Denise and the circle of people around her. I’m grateful.
Here is her obit. She would have been proud of the way she is listed in the headline, though one word isn’t included anywhere in there that I would have used for her: feminist. However, it doesn’t surprise me to read that she was adored by her Latinx students, and mentored them. She was a natural mentor, always in movement, comfortable with change, spreading her energies far and wide into different communities. I still remember her zipping up 19th Avenue to S.F. State as she gave me a ride to class the first semester we knew each other, veering onto the median and laughing it off. I was shocked, but there was a confidence in her wildness.
And Denise’s 2017 bookNo Screaming Jelly Beans: Trying to Pursue a Career While Raising a Son with Autism, which I’ve just discovered, shows that she did write a memoir after all.
Another unexpected death hits home: an old friend of my ex’s whom I liked so much also, a man my own age who I met in my thirties and felt immediately accepted by. I could never say before that a friend my own age had died; I had that luxury. PatrickMore was an athlete, an ardent cyclist, an Aries. He was a devoted husband and father to twins, who are now nineteen. How long was he ill? What type of cancer did he die of? We don’t know yet, and in this strange new world where deaths are not given the public weight that they used to be, we may never know. Much loved, gone far too soon. He worked at both Hewlett-Packard and Stanford for many years. He and his wife loved to travel and took long, adventurous trips to Europe.
I know these two feisty fire signs are both at peace now.
Summer’s a good time for bargains, and here are a few!
First of all, the audiobook of Connecting the Dots: My Midlife Journey with Adult ADHD is on sale for just $1.99 thru the end of June over at BN‘s Nook, Apple, and Google Play!
Turning to my lesbian historical novel Time of Grace, the ebook is currently for sale on Smashwords through July 1. (50 percent off, regularly $4.99.)
But what’s even more exciting is that it is also available in serial format on Radish! It has been quite an education to upload my book in mini-episodes there. So far, I have 22 episodes queued to release through July 4. (Readers get the first three episodes for free, then pay with “coins” to continue.) I will be continuing to add episodes till I finish sometime next month. I’m not sure what happens then, being a newbie author to Radish, but I hope people who use the app will continue to find it. If all goes well, I’d like to continue to add my backlist of LGBTQ fiction to Radish. Props to Radish for having an #OwnVoices shelf.
Finally, the Summer/Winter sale starts next month at Smashwords and continues all through July. This would be the link to check out my bargains starting July 1, of which there are many, including my latest novel, Once You Are Mine, for only $1.99…
My interview has been wiped away by time (that’s OK), but I liked the little paragraph I wrote ten years ago on Bloomsday, so I decided to reblog it now. Today I was able to retweet a photo of James Joyce and Nora on their wedding day in 1931 (15 years after they met, with two children under their belt) and point out that Nora was wearing a cloche hat!
My friend Liz Adams, an artist who was born in England but is part Irish, and a resident of New Jersey for many years, wrote an interesting post on her blog Field and Fen about the significance of the day. She’s reading Ulysses on her Kindle. Apparently, it’s an annual ritual for her. She tells me she’s getting very close to the end… and thus has a treat ahead of her!
Being interviewed is a scary thing. The folks at 1st Author Interviews made it totally easy for me to answer some questions about my writing process and my recently published novel The Leaving. I think they did a great job. Take a look:
To all fans of Irish writing and Joyce… Happy Bloomsday. I still remember reading Ulysses for the first time, sitting in tall grass in a hot back yard in Sacramento, playing hooky from random classes at Sacramento City College during a long summer before returning to start college in Ireland. When I finally got to rereading Ulysses in college a couple years later, it wasn’t as much fun, even though our class did have Prof. David Norris, a flamboyant gay man and enthusiastic Joycean, interpreting it for us. The first time really swept me away.
Pride comes but once a year! This month we are emerging from a pandemic. It feels like we ought to be joyous and yet there is more anxiety in the air than joyousness, for the most part. (Although on June 1, when #PrideMonth started trending on Twitter, it felt great!)
To my dismay, I found out that a nice woman who particularly loved my lesbian historical novel set in Ireland, Time of Grace, and wrote to me about it a few years back, died of Covid last spring, along with her partner. She was a therapist in the Santa Cruz area and even a Facebook friend, but she slipped away without notice. This just seems incredibly wrong, somehow. I remembered that after our conversation I sent her a couple of signed copies of Time of Grace, and feel glad that I at least did that! I would not have discovered this had I not visited her page on her birthday, which just passed. A cousin of hers stopped by to let people know what had happened. There is no obituary, no trace of her on the internet. Her name was Ann Sisk.
On to happier matters. While I’m here, I wanted to mention a couple things in book news this month. First of all, the ebook version of Time of Grace is 50% off over at Smashwords for June, the only book sale I have going at the moment. (More to come in July with the Summer/Winter sale, of course.)
Meanwhile, Connecting the Dots: My Midlife Journey with Adult ADHD is on a monthlong promotion in audiobook format, so for the first time it is only $1.99 at three platforms: Google Play, Nook Audiobooks, and Apple Books! If you want to learn about women and inattentive ADD in a short audio, narrated by Daniela Acitelli, that only takes an hour… this is the time to do it!
It looks like we are fogged in here for the month of June in San Francisco. However, today the sun peeked out. Suddenly everything got a bit better!
Stay safe, everybody… and let’s hope we can ease back into “normal life” post-vaccines with a little more awareness. Perhaps we can even be nicer to each other.
You can’t keep a bad man down. That’s what sprang to mind when I read on Twitter yesterday that Blake Bailey’s infamous biography of Philip Roth, unpublished by Norton, had been picked up by Skyhorse Publishing and will be rushed to print in June. Apparently, the cover image is going to be the same.
But it’s really Bailey who proved himself to be infamous, not Roth. This contorted scandal had the literary world in knots last month. Shortly after reviewing the Roth biography and then learning about the scandal with what seemed like lightning speed, I wrote a piece that didn’t get published. (It’s somewhat self-revealing, as well… I think we’ve all had to examine our motives about this.) Bailey was someone from my generation, older than me of course, but due to my close and appreciative reading of his work I felt I knew him. However, as it turns out, I didn’t.
So here is what I wrote:
The Blake Bailey scandal whirled up out of nowhere last month. For me, that is. To the girls who he’d cozied up to at Lusher, the New Orleans magnet school where he taught in the 1990s, and then later harmed, Bailey had apparently been a subject of agonized interest for many years, as they followed his career while the memories of what he had done to them swirled inside their heads. And then there was Valentina Rice, the sweet-faced publishing executive he allegedly raped in 2015 while staying at the home of Times book critic Dwight Garner. He was the golden boy by then, writing Philip Roth’s biography, secure in his role. He must have thought he’d get away with it all. What I didn’t know, and what he carefully doesn’t divulge in his revealing, horrifying memoir The Splendid Things We Planned—which I read and loved back in 2014—is that Bailey is married to a psychologist. Perfect, I thought when I discovered that, just perfect. The perfect irony!
I’m an outsider to the scandal, but in a way I was Bailey’s ideal reader. I loved his big, early biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, because they told stories of literary fame and fortune, sexuality, and human wreckage in such an interesting, empathetic way. I didn’t love Farther and Wilder (2013) quite so much, though I bought it in hardback. It’s the story of a melancholy character called Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend in 1944, and was a severe alcoholic and (married) closeted gay man all his life. Having just re-read TheSplendid Things We Planned, supposedly the story of the downfall and death of Bailey’s alcoholic, mentally ill brother, Scott, I see with a shock that Bailey wrote his own youthful alcoholism into that story too. He just wasn’t crazy. He was clever, calculating, and sane.
In the memoir, his own father accuses him of being a serious alcoholic at one point, his stepmother turns away from him in disdain… Bailey covers all this with what seems like transparency. But he is the only “good son” that his mother has, and so he tries to protect her from Scott’s abuse—by the end of the book he’s become the rescuer, the protector, the survivor. The stable one, by default. He has played many roles, hasn’t he? Mentor, too. The 13-year-old girls he was writing loving mash notes to in the 1990s don’t appear in this memoir, though. He had moved on. He’d finished with the grooming part and he’d completed all the “seductions” (as I’m sure he thought of them) that he could. It still astonishes me to imagine Roth reading this wild family history toward the end of his life, as he must have, chuckling dryly.
The funny thing is, I always assumed that Bailey had a secret life, or rather it flitted in and out of my brain every time I read his work. But my assumption was that he was interested in men, since he tackled male bisexuality with such compulsive interest and seemed eager to analyze such relationships. But perhaps this was a cover, too. He grew up around gay men in 1970s Oklahoma, where his bored expatriate mother, Marlies, the daughter of a German psychiatrist (!), needed some cultured company and got it where she could. There’s nothing wrong with growing up around a group of gay men—it must have been nice—but it certainly might have given Bailey a skewed idea of what it was to be a man, particularly as his distant lawyer father wasn’t home much and seems to have had his own demons that he cleverly hid. I guess I always wondered if Bailey would “come out”—the irony! Well, it’s been an alarming outing, all right. Now we see the narcissist who plied his young female students with Lolita and flattery, and read their private journals. They loved him because he paid attention to them. And me? I loved his work because I thought his ironic sensibility and tolerance for damaged alcoholic literary figures was remarkable.
And then this obsessiveness on Bailey’s part collided with a man who was still very much alive and bent on shaping his own legacy—Philip Roth (Philip Roth: The Biography, W.W. Norton, 2021—copies no longer available from the publisher). And here we see Bailey making mistakes. Under cover of Roth’s strong personality, the real Bailey peeks out, the one who had been a frat boy at Tulane. He’s openly contemptuous of Roth’s first wife, Maggie Martinson, a divorced waitress, who died tragically; he’s quietly scathing about Roth’s famous second wife, actress Claire Bloom. He’s happy to narrate story after story of Roth’s womanizing. Could he have glossed over it? He could, but it seems to me that he wanted to chew over what Roth got away with—which was a lot!
There are tiny hints of Bailey’s trademark empathy even here. He treats Roth’s older brother Sandy rather tenderly: an anxious man who wanted to be an artist but never quite made it, and married a “plain” young woman he felt sorry for, who died later of ovarian cancer. He treats Maggie’s confused young daughter “Helen” gently too, at least giving her a pseudonym. He likes the underdog. Philip Roth claimed to, as well. Yet Roth’s angry sense of entitlement comes through all too clearly—as does Bailey’s, in the stories that his Lusher students tell about him. His neediness for their attention is all too clear. Later, when he taught writing at the college level in Virginia, his students and peers found him negative to a fault. Like many men, he went into teaching for the wrong reasons and should never have been one, but it’s easy to say this now.
I grew up among academics. This is probably why I fell for Bailey’s work. For the past couple weeks I’ve been conflicted over the negative stories, the alarming headlines, his two books with Norton being canceled and delisted from Amazon. For a writer, what a nightmare! It’s a horror when something like this happens to someone you like… and I’m not the kind of person who has many questionable male friends to whom I give the benefit of the doubt. I did think Blake Bailey was solid, for whatever reason. When I read Eve Crawford Peyton’s harrowing story, though, I realized that this is really the last word I need to read on the Bailey affair. (Note to Bailey: perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to rape your most brilliant former student a month before her wedding.) I’ve taken down my review of his Roth biography, which I wrote just before this scandal exploded, and I won’t buy any of his books again. I don’t know what his future holds: A divorce? A suicide? A stint in rehab? A long, drunken decline? In America, you fall fast and then bad things happen to you. I know from his memoir that he’s terribly concerned about his image, so this fall from grace must be absolute hell for him. And yet, here’s the kicker, the thought that he probably savors: he almost certainly won’t be brought to justice for the crimes he got away with, because in America in 2021, women’s lives and bodies still don’t matter that much.
When I was young, as a queer teen in conservative 1980s Ireland, I remember obsessively reading biographies of Oscar Wilde. After Wilde’s own career-destroying scandal broke in 1895, the Reverend John Mahaffy, the provost of Trinity College Dublin (both Wilde’s, and my own soon-to-be alma mater, as it happens) declared firmly, “We no longer speak, sir, of Mr. Oscar Wilde.” Chilling, I thought. That was the last straw, for him, a man who’d liked (indeed, mentored!) Wilde as a brilliant student and tried to help him, sending him on to Oxford to greater things. I thought it was awful, disgusting, that most of Wilde’s old friends and acquaintances distanced themselves from him, before and after prison. I was younger and more naive then. I understand now just a little bit of the horror they must have felt at this sudden glimpse into a sordid reality they did not want to contemplate.
Occasionally, I will pick up a library book (and I vow to do this more, post-pandemic). I wanted to review a striking, mostly forgotten novel by 20th-century English author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), whose long life spanned almost a century and who was a committed Communist, in addition to being a musicologist, a feminist, and a lesbian in a long relationship with another woman, Valentine Ackland. Unlike many “political writers,” Townsend Warner writes with great sophistication and elegance. Her work seems to owe a loose debt to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Joseph Conrad—and I believe she ought to be placed along with them rather than considered a minor novelist. (Penguin is reissuing new editions of all of her books in England, so perhaps this will happen.)
The Penguin UK cover of ‘Summer Will Show’ is very different from the NYRB American one, but equally valid!
Summer Will Show (1936), Warner’s historical novel of the French revolution of 1848 that transcends its genre, is split into four parts, and I found them very different as I went along. I struggled with the first part, where the unlikable young aristocrat Sophia Willoughby loses her two children to smallpox; then, once she gets to Paris, I started to become interested. Sophia’s estranged husband, Frederick, proves to be an astonishingly shallow and contemptible character, but at first one barely gleans this from the elegant, elliptical prose that seems to hide as much as it shows. I was reminded again and again of Henry James (and perhaps Joseph Conrad) by the indirect telling and “showing.”
Warner had a wild talent, but a cold view of human nature, so this book seems far more interested in the sights and smells of shabby mid-19th-century Paris than any kind of idealistic portrayal of comradeship or love. The revolt isn’t coherent, it’s a mess. Sophia’s relationship with Frederick’s older bisexual Jewish ex-lover, Minna, is also messy, but we’re to understand that it’s the only taste of real happiness she’s ever had. The final scenes are breathtakingly suspenseful and agonizing, as the women are torn apart at the barricades. I am not convinced by the very last scene, but I do believe that Sophia has found her place in the world.
By putting two women in love at the center of a novel ostensibly about political tumult, Warner was doing something revolutionary, and she must have known it.
I was thrilled to see on Smashwords that three of my ebooks had sold to the Sacramento Public Library via OverDrive. OverDrive has been around since at least 2014 and is a distributor for libraries to purchase ebooks. As far as I know, all you need to do if you can’t find one of my books in your library catalog is locate the ISBN on the book listing and request a librarian to make the purchase. They very often will! I recommended my lesbian historical novel Time of Grace to the San Francisco Public Library this way, via an online suggestion form, and they purchased it for the system. (You can also browse the Overdrive site itself, where all my books appear. You can plug in your local library and see if they have my books. And here are instructions on how to borrow right from OverDrive. It’s funny that as a devoted author and reader of ebooks, I’ve yet to actually borrow one.)
I decided to check the Sac Public Library site and here is their catalog page for me. The ebooks are available in either Kindle or epub format. Pretty cool. My latest book, Once You Are Mine, seems to be appearing in a few libraries right now! Perhaps that’s because it had a BookBub promo in April.
And audiobooks? I currently have two out there. Connecting the Dots: My Midlife Journey with Adult ADHD is my top-seller. It’s available widely, both in retail outlets like Chirp (only $5.99) and Google Play, and via Audible, where it can be purchased with your monthly credit. You can get it via Bibliotheca as well, or Scribd, to name a few. Or newer mobile outlets like Bookmate. Sadly, the audio version of Time of Grace is only available on Audible and Apple right now. I’d like to change that as time goes on!
Anyway, this longtime library-lover is very pleased to see her ebooks getting picked up by libraries here and there. Thanks to all the hardworking librarians out there, and to the readers who request and borrow my books!
This was what my kitchen looked like last month, with the fruit trees outside in the terraced back yard pressing in at the window. Things are greener now. The cedar waxwings are taking their last bites at the red berries on the toyon before flying off to parts north. I just wish it was less windy!
I have been very conflicted and upset by the Blake Bailey scandal, so much so that I wrote a short piece about it. It’ll either appear here or somewhere else. Because it’s so topical, I decided to submit it to a couple of places. Last week I thought about it every day. I removed my review of Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth that had briefly appeared here. It just felt right to do so, especially after reading Eve Crawford Peyton’s heartbreaking essay in Slate, “I Was 12 When We Met.”
Lastly, this caught my fancy today. Billie Eilish is featured in British Vogue and the accompanying article is really good! Just coming out of her teens, she makes some excellent points about how abusively teen girls are treated in our culture. One only has to think of Matt Gaetz’s and Blake Bailey’s recently revealed exploits to see that that is true. She’s highly intelligent, funny (I loved her “Ringo, what’s up?!” at the Grammys), and a true musical talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s queer as well, but that will unfold or not as time goes on. I like the way she simultaneously displays her intelligence and her sexuality in the photo shoot. (Plus, corsets are sexy.)