Sunday, August 22, 2010

It Happened in History: Dorothy Parker

On August 22, 1893, an extraordinary event exploded across the universe.  On that day, the indomitable, wise-cracking Dorothy Rothschild Parker decided to join the party.

Parker was born and raised in West End, New Jersey, to a Jewish father and a Scottish mother who died when her daughter was only five.  The loss initially devastated her, although in time she grew to rely more heavily on her father, who had amassed a small fortune in the garment industry.  Father and daughter soon developed a tenuous bond, and Parker shared with him all of the secrets and joys that only a young child can know.  Two years later, he married a strict Roman Catholic woman, and trouble loomed in paradise.

Parker disliked her step-mother intensely, and the feeling was mutual.  As a young girl, she was enrolled at a Catholic school for girls in Manhattan, later transferring to Miss Dana's Boarding School.  Her father told school authorities that she was Episcopalian, although her dark Jewishness marked her as an outsider.  She maintained that image of herself--dark, brooding, alone--and in the face of early alienation and disappointment, she developed a biting and irreverent sense of humor to help her cope with her loneliness.  Late in life, she described herself as "one of those awful children who wrote verses."

Despite her earliest literary inclinations, Parker left school suddenly at the age of fourteen, never to return, to take care of her ill father, who had once again become a widower. 

When her father died in 1913, Parker moved to New York City to seek a better life.  She wrote by day and earned money playing the piano at the Manhattan School of Dance by night.  Few people who knew her then would have guessed that she would work herself up to become a legendary figure in New York's literary scene, as well as one of the most talked about, revered, and feared critics in literary history.
Parker began selling poetry to the prestigious Vogue magazine at the age of 19 and soon accepted an editorial position there.  From 1917 to 1920, she also worked as a freelance critic for Vanity Fair and formed, along with Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood, the nucleus of a group they dubbed the Algonquin Round Table, an informal luncheon clique held at New York City's Algonquin Hotel on Forty-Fourth Street.  Other Round Table members included writers Ring Lardner, James Thurber, and Harold Ross, who created the New Yorker magazine.  

Ross said later that he borrowed the tone of voice for his magazine--irreverent, witty, and sarcastic--from those early meetings.  Parker was the only female member of the club and often the only woman in attendance.

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania. - from Comment

Parker began her literary career shortly after World War I during an era when slick magazines were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the country.  The best writers of the day relied heavily on sarcasm, adopting a sophisticated, wise-cracking tone of voice.  Parker soon proved that she could be just as sassy as any man.

An enigma of the day, she stood barely four feet-eleven inches tall.  She loved to drink, she loved to dance, she loved to smoke, she loved to swear.  And she loved to fall in love with men who didn't love her back.  Drama critic Alexander Woollcott described her as "A blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."  Parker replied, "[I'm] just a little Jewish girl, trying to be cute." 

In 1920, Parker was fired from Vanity Fair because her drama reviews had become too harsh and heartless, so she decided to put her cutting-edge cynicism to work in her first book of poems, Enough Rope, which became a national bestseller when it hit the shelves in 1926.  Perfectly suited to the role of the Queen of the Flappers, she bobbed her hair, endured several extra-marital affairs, suffered frequent bouts with alcoholism, and attempted suicide on three (or possibly four, but who was counting?) occasions.  Through it all, she somehow managed to maintain the high quality of her writing. 

She managed, too, despite her cynicism, to take a lifelong if intermittent interest in political activism.  One of those projects would affect her for the remainder of her life.  It was her "pet" project, or so she called it--a demand for the release of two Italian immigrants who had been arrested for murder.  She brought the project to the Algonquin where she engaged the other members of the club in heated debate.  She felt strongly that long-time political anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been set up to take the rap for a crime they didn't commit, and she worked diligently at getting their death sentence overturned.  She enticed several other celebrities into joining her, and she was arrested while marching with Robert Benchley and Heywood Broun for the Italians' release.

It was only one of her political crusades that included going to Spain to work against Franco in the Spanish Civil War (the "proudest thing" she ever did), organizing Hollywood screenwriters into a protective guild, and getting blacklisted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee for her leftist social views.

But Parker the Activist had to reconcile herself to Parker the working girl; and, in 1927, she joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine where she wrote book reviews under the pen name, Constant Reader.  While she was there, she became famous for her two-line quip,

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

Independent and feisty, Parker--by now an established author--followed up her first book with Sunset Guns (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931), which were collected in Collected Poems: Not So Deep as a Well (1936).  Her works in verse were sardonic, dry, and elegantly written commentaries on lost love or on the shallowness of modern life.

Why is it no one sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah, no, it's always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Parker's short stories, which were collected in After Such Pleasures (1932) and Here Lies (1939), illuminated her deep knowledge and understanding of human nature.  Among her best-known tales are A Big Blonde and A Telephone Call.

During the 1930s, Parker moved with her second husband, Alan Campbell, to Hollywood where she worked as a screenwriter on A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, and Adolphe Menjou. She received An Academy Award for the screenplay, along  with Campbell and Robert Carson.  She also collaborated with Peter Vierter and Joan Harrison on Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1940).

But her success in Hollywood failed to quench her thirst for sardonic wit, much to the chagrin of many big-name celebrities of the day.  Once, after meeting Joan Crawford, who was married at the time to Franchot Tone, Parker said, "You can take a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."  Of the acting talents of Katherine Hepburn, she wrote, "She ran the whole gamut of emotions, from A to B."

When Parker turned 70, she said, "If I had any decency, I'd be dead.  Most of my friends are."  She also said, "Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words."

Much of Parker's best writing was collected in the Portable Dorothy Parker, which has been in print since 1944.  Of the first ten Portables published by Viking, only the Portable Shakespeare and the Portable Bible have sold as well and as steadily. 

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live. - from Resume
 
Besides her witty limericks, Parker contributed several words and phrases to America's pop vernacular, including bobbed (hairstyle: 1915), queer (homosexual: 1929), bundle of nerves (1915), it's a small world (1915), and what the hell (colloquial: 1923), not to mention the ubiquitous high society, one-night stand, and, appropriately enough, wisecrack.

Dorothy Parker, who once said, "I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true" and "People are more fun than anybody," penned her last sardonic quip on June 7, 1967.  She died alone and broken in the New York hotel she had helped to make famous and that had become her final home.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Book Draws USA Today Wrath

Mark your calendars. On Tuesday, the economic downturn ends.

Why? you ask. That's when self-help priestess Rhonda Byrne returns with The Power and a novel solution to everyone's money woes.

It's not a faltering economy or Wall Street that are at fault, according to the author. It's our feelings. "It's the attractive force of love that moves all the money in the world, and whoever is giving love by feeling good is a magnet for money," Byrne writes.

So stop worrying about that foreclosure notice or the 29% interest rate on your credit card and perk up, people! "You can tell how you feel about money, because if you don't have all you need, then you don't feel good about money," she writes.

But before you snicker and Google that P.T. Barnum quote about suckers, remember that Byrne's previous opus, 2006's The Secret, sold more than 19 million copies in 46 languages. Oprah Winfrey, among others, embraced the Australian TV producer's revelations about the "law of attraction." Boiled down, the idea is to open yourself up to life's goodies — big house, wonderful relationships, fabulous health, all-round happiness — and you'll get them.

The weirdest thing, according to USA Today, is that the author may actually believe herself. Her own narrative is pretty startling. A struggling mom of two reads Wallace Wattles' 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich and ends up as an enormously wealthy media superstar, thanks to her Secret DVD and books.

Her latest tome advises people to be positive and upbeat, believe in themselves, remain open to life's possibilities, and be grateful. Then add the magic ingredient: love.

The problem isn't the self-help genre, the reviewer argues, it's applying the law of attraction to your checkbook. "Byrne is no Suze Orman.

"Another creepy element is the way Byrne digs into the world's religions to pluck out quotes bolstering her crackpot theories about finance. Mother Teresa and St. Augustine are quoted in the money chapter. Quotes from 'Jesus, founder of Christianity,' pop up amid gems such as 'dollar bills want you.'

"With The Secret, Byrne made a fortune off the delusional bliss of magical thinking. Let's not give her any more power."

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Monday, August 09, 2010

Amish Novels Continue Their Growth

It's plain and simple: The Amish inspirational is one of the fastest-growing genres in romance publishing.

For many readers today, it's all about the bonnet. In our sex-soaked society, nothing seems to inflame the imagination quite like the chaste.

In popular series such as Beverly Lewis' Seasons of Grace, Wanda Brunstetter's Indiana Cousins and Cindy Woodsmall's Sisters of the Quilt,the Amish fall in love while grappling with religious taboos and forbidden temptations.

And it all happens in ├╝ber-quaint settings brimming with hand-sewn quilts, horse-drawn buggies and made-from-scratch Pennsylvania Dutch specialties such as shoofly pie.

"It's a huge, huge, huge trend," says romance blogger Sarah Wendell, co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels.

Who are the Amish? In a 21st-century world, the strictest among them live a 19th-century lifestyle. They are a religious, Christian-based farming community that shuns most modern conveniences such as phones and TVs, and they travel by horse and buggy. They marry among their own faith; the women wear bonnets and modest, drab clothing, the men wear brimmed hats and grow their beards. Children are taught in one-room schoolhouses, and education ends in the eighth grade. Traditional courtship rituals include "Sunday evening singing" group gatherings, where boys and girls can meet. Premarital sex is verboten.

So what is their appeal to modern readers? Remember when Kelly McGillis' modest Amish beauty enraptured Harrison Ford's homicide detective in the 1985 hit Witness? His tough contemporary cop, who pretended to be Amish to protect the widow Rachel Lapp and her young son, saw a whole new world when he lived amid the closed community of barn-raisers and farmers.

With Amish inspirationals, which are shelved under "religious fiction" in bookstores like Barnes & Noble, "readers get to peer inside the Amish community, and it is not like our own community," says McDaniel College English professor Pamela Regis, author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel. "Simplicity is a hallmark of that community, and simplicity is powerful."
USA Today

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Monday, August 02, 2010

It Happened in History: James Baldwin

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, in New York's Harlem, the illegitimate son of a domestic worker. When he was three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard, cruel man who was also a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname of his stepfather, who died in a mental hospital in 1943.

Throughout his childhood, Baldwin was a voracious reader. When he was 12, his first story appeared in a church newspaper.

At the age of 14, Baldwin discovered relief from his poor surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted and served in the church as a minister for the next three years. It was his experience in delivering sermons that inspired his famous 1953 work, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a young minister named John Grimes. At the age of 17, Baldwin left home. After being graduated from high school, he worked in several low-level jobs while beginning his literary apprenticeship.

In middle school, Baldwin had taken French classes from poet Countee Cullen, who was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948, where he wrote the famous essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955). He lived there for a decade before traveling to London and Istanbul in order to escape the racism he experienced in the United States. He finally returned to America in 1957 to get involved in the southern school desegregation struggle, speaking passionately in support of civil rights and organizing protests. He warned that, until white America changed its attitudes toward blacks, violence would rain across the land. His activities made him a target of FBI investigations, ultimately leading the organization to compile a 1,750-page dossier on the author.

In his second novel, the semi-autobiographical Giovanni's Room (1956), Baldwin exposed a man's struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator, tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American who falls in love with Giovanni, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella, his would-be wife.

"But people can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts," Baldwin wrote, "their lovers and friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life."

Nobody Knows My Name (1962), a collections of essays, explored black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner's views on segregation, and Richard Wright's work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin when he was an aspiring writer, although the two never became close.

Although music often played a pivotal role in Baldwin's life, the author had not moved it to the forefront of his writings until Just above My Head (1979), his sixth and longest novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends who began preaching and singing in Harlem churches. In the book, Hall Montana tells the story of the decline of the gospel-singing career of his brother Arthur.

His next book, Evidence of Things Seen (1983), is an account of the unsolved murders of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. Although the ambitious work was written mostly as an assignment for Playboy, critics panned it when it appeared as a book, calling it superficial--a charge that Baldwin was forced to deal with throughout his literary life.

In 1983, Baldwin accepted a position as a college professor in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Shortly thereafter, he moved to St. Paul de Venice on the French Riviera, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987.

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