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A little adventure

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

I had a thing, some years ago, for armchair adventure books and I revisit this non-fiction genre periodically.  I think it started with someone giving me a copy of

The original cover

Annapurna: A Woman’s Place. Before a reading this book, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I would climb an insanely tall mountain…someday. It wasn’t a goal or anything, so yeah, probably not. But high peak mountaineering seemed like a possibility, however remote, until I read about the journey of 13 woman who were strong and adventurous and had a feminist agenda to boot.  By the time I finished this book, my perspective had completely changed – and not because only 11 woman made it down the mountain alive.

 No, the realization that I wasn’t going to climb anything “because it’s there” came to me earlier in the book, well before the triumphs and tragedies took place. The women were still hiking through the jungle, on their way to the mountain base – somewhere between starting out and setting up base camp – and, if I remember correctly, had already been pelted with stones by a dangerously grumpy bunch of monkeys – when one climber called for help from the brush she had gone behind to relieve herself. Other climbers ran to her aid, and the aid she needed was pulling a slew of aggressive leeches off her bare bum. Aggressive leeches.

The famous t-shirt that helped raise an unexpectedly large amount of money for the 1978 expedition

 I remember the clear realization that I would never do something like this. That I could admire these women and be fascinated by their story without having any part of the climbing life they’d chosen – it was like a revelation. I suppose it was a kind of loss of youthful possibilities or at least pretensions, but it felt freeing. Arlene Blum, the woman who conceived of and organized the expedition – and wrote the wonderful book recounting it, was inspirational, but she did not inspire me to climb, but rather to believe in oneself to take risks in whatever one is passionate about. I feel like I should break into song now….

 …but read the book and you’ll know what I mean.

Annapurna: A Woman's Story, the 20th Anniversary Edition

Naming Names in New Orleans

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

We have no problem with Dr. King, it’s just that he wasn’t a Greek muse.  -The Coliseum Square Association president explaining that Melpomene Street, named for the muse of tragedy, couldn’t be changed to honor MLK because it would spoil the series of parallel New Orleans streets named for muses.

Whenever I go to an unfamiliar place I want to study the buildings. I want to see the churches and high-rises and the self-conciously edgy museums. Mostly though, I want to see the houses. I want to see ramshackle duplexes  and well-worn cottages as much as the grand homes and custom originals. I think this is just an extension of my curiosity about people and how they live their lives.

Recently, my family and I travelled by train from our northern California home to New Orleans. This was not only my first visit to Louisiana, but the first visit to the south for this California child of a Brooklyn mother and a Midwestern father.  We got off the train in the quiet New Orleans station, squinting in the bright sunlight on a bitingly cold January day, were helped into a cab by a deep-voiced, welcoming valet, and whisked to our hotel by a very friendly cab driver. (Note: It seems that everyone who lives in New Orleans is welcoming and friendly.)

We dumped our luggage in our surprisingly comfortable suite at the Drury Hotel in the business district, and actually ran to meet up with a 5pm. historical walking tour of the French Quarter. This had to be the best way to orient ourselves in this interesting place as we were instantly immersed in the stories behind the street names and the buildings of this beautiful city.

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans

The first stop our tour guide made was in front of a strip joint on BourbonStreet which happened to be the former home of a Jewish lawyer who both fought with and ultimately became fast friends with Jefferson Davis. More on Judah Benjamin to come, but for now I just want to remember the rapt look on my ten-year-old’s face as she tried to take in the guady stripper signage and raucous music and imagine that this was once the home of a early New Orlean’s bigwig.

It doesn’t matter that Elena Kagan isn’t married…but it mattered to her mother

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

Another good biography sub-genre: the mother behind the successful woman.  

Elena Kagan when she was still the Harvard Law School Dean in 2004

 I set my heart on writing about Elena Kagan’s mother the minute I heard her mentioned when President Obama nominated her daughter for the Supreme Court. Obama talked about how proud Gloria Kagan must have been as she watched her daughter take advantage of the opportunities she herself never had. The influence that Goria Kagen, a college educated public school teacher, must have had on her daughter got me thinking.  

Christine de Pizan

 I once read that most women writers throughout history share one thing: fathers who regarded their daughters as bright and intelligent people, and educated them accordingly. For example, Christine de Pizan, the medieval European writer, poet and earnest champion of women, was encouraged by her father who happened to be in a great position to encourage her. de Pizan’s father was Charles V’s court physician and astrologer which gave him access to what I imagine to be one heck of a library. Christine’s mother, on the other hand, thought it better for her daughter to learn spinning.  

Later, Christine’s mother became one of Christine’s dependents after both of their husbands died. It seems that no matter how de Pizan’s mother felt about her daughter academic training and writing success, she was never in any position to help her daughter navigate in the outside world.  

It’s sad to think of how often in human history women could not spur their daughters on intellectually or academically because they lacked the power to do so– and how often mothers actually fought against educating their daughters, thinking to make them more marriageable and thus, safe and secure.  

By contrast, Elena Kagan’s mother was educated and became an educator herself. Elena Kagan’s first female role model did not rely solely on her husband for financial security, and teaching at what was apparently an elite public school suggests that Kagan’s mother had a rich intellectual life as well. No wonder Kagan has achieved so much, with such a mother to guide her and cheer her on, right?  

The plot thickened when I read Francine Russo’s Huffington Post piece. Russo grew up in the same apartment building as Kagan. Although Kagan had left home by this time, Russo got to know Kagan’s mother as a neighbor over the many years they lived in the same building. Russo always wondered what it would be like if her own college degree-less, stay-at-home-mom was more like Kagan’s independent, professional mother. Years later, the now adult Russo bumped into the elder Kagan in the lobby of their New York apartment building. Russo took the oppurtunity to congratulate Kagan on her daughter’s new job at the helm of Harvard Law School. In response, Gloria Kagan said something that sounding oddly like Russo’s own mom: “I just wish she’d get married.”

After Kagan’s mother’s death, Russo stopped by the Kagan apartment to offer her sympathy. She told Elena Kagan how proud Gloria Kagan had been of her accomplishments, not mentioning the scene in the lobby years before. But Elena Kagan knew her mom. “With an eye-roll and a tone so reminiscent of her mother, our newest nominee to the Supreme Court of the United States said dryly, ‘My mother only wanted me to get married.’”  


Joe Biden and the President congratulate Elena Kagan on her nomination to the Supreme Court. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images


Photo credit of Kagan at Harvard goes to Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office. 

 I found the lovely image of Christine de Pizan-scribbling away-at the Mommy Life blog at                                            …/2009/06/family_update_z.html   

The picture of the just-nominated Kagan was found at Richard Adam’s blog at 



A bungled life or a life of joy…which makes a better story?

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I love reading about people who achieve great success and manage to live happy, fulfilling lives. Conversely, people who give their all to their dream and succeed wildly but lead messy, sad personal lives, a la Elvis, are fascinating in a very different way. Even so, I don’t agree with the idea that the story of a badly-lived life is inherently more interesting than its opposite.

I stumbled on a good example of this when, looking to find out more about Christopher Buckley’s book about his parents, Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, I found myself reading his introduction to the Everyman’s Library handsome, hardcover edition of The Stories of Ray Bradbury. It’s a re-release of a collection published in the 80’s that seems to be the book to own if you only have one Ray Bradbury book in your library. It so happens that I don’t have any Bradbury books in my library, but I may have to change that after reading this from the introduction: “Ray Bradbury is a sunny, decent, loving, gregarious, generous man, both on the page (at least when he’s not scaring the bejeezus out of you) and in person.”

It turns out that Ray Bradbury’s life (which is a work in progress as he’s still very much alive – and writing – at 90) is a textbook example of achieving phenomenal career success alongside great personal happiness. This may largely be because, hanging out in Fowler Brothers Bookstore in downtown LA in 1946, Bradbury caught the eye of a bookstore employee named Maggie McClure. Maggie (who herself embodies another of my favorite biographical sub-categories – the interesting person close to a famous person) not only believed in Bradbury’s talent, but supported his early writing by bringing home the paycheck that kept them afloat. Maggie (who died in 2003) loved her four daughters, books, her cats and good wine – and her husband. You can read a wonderful tribute to Maggie Bradbury at the Bradbury website.

It looks like the biography to go to is The Bradbury Chronicles: the Life of Ray Bradbury, by Sam Weller, if only because Bradbury is quoted as saying – on the front cover of the book, no less – “…It’s as if Sam Weller slipped into my skin and my head and my heart. It’s all here!”

Sam Weller followed this up with Listen to the Echoes: the Ray Bradbury Interviews –due out in paper this June. Apparently there were a lot of interviews, done over ten years, so I’ll read this only if I’m still interested after reading the Weller bio and some of Bradbury’s actual stories. We’ll see.

Is it wrong to habitually read an author’s work after reading about his or her life?