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“Ownership is an entirely human construct.”

high-tideIn Barbara Kingsolver’s collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson, the title piece refers to Buster the hermit crab, who hitched a ride to Arizona from the Bahamas and takes up residence in the desert. “He is in every way the perfect housemate,” Kingsolver writes, “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.” In “Making Peace,” javelinas invade Kingsolver’s home and garden, which leads to a discussion on private property versus territoriality. “Ownership,” she writes, “is an entirely human construct.” In “Confessions of a Reluctant Rock Goddess” she sings backup for Stephen King and Dave Barry in the Rock Bottom Remainders: “You have to picture the whole thing: in our jitters, the men have turned to alcohol and the women to makeup.”

“Postcards from the Imaginary Mom” is her account of a book tour. “Four days out,” she writes, “and I’m hard pressed to remember where I’ve been.” The tour ends with her locking herself out of her hotel room, dressed only in T-shirt and cowboy boots, and receiving aid from a dignified, silver-haired matron in the hallway, who then, of course, appears in the front row at that evening’s event.

atlasThe most haunting essay is “In the Belly of the Beast,” when she takes a tour of a decommissioned atomic missile silo. “For years I have wondered,” Kingsolver writes, “how anyone could willingly compete in a hundred-yard dash toward oblivion… Throughout the tour I kept looking…for what was missing in this picture: some evidence that the people who ran this outfit were aware of the potential effects of their 150-ton cause. A hint of reluctance, a suggestion of death. In the absence of this, it’s easy to get caught up in the internal logic of the fuel capacities, circuitry, and chemical reactions. One could even develop an itch to see if this amazing equipment really works, and to measure success in purely technical terms.”

Later? She goes to Hiroshima. “What they left out of the Titan Missile Museum was in plain sight in Hiroshima,” she writes. “I looked at things a human being can understand: …The pink dress of a girl named Egi-chan, whose blackened pocket held a train ticket out of the city. The charred apron of Mrs. Sato, who was nursing her baby.”

Alarming, amusing, always interesting and very well written, Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson sets the standard for the personal essay.

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It was, of course, all about the money.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the PresentWhen Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by Gail Collins

I was too young and also incredibly lucky to have been raised by a mother who never said “You can’t do that, honey, you’re a girl” to be paying enough attention to the women’s rights movement. So it’s lucky Collins wrote this definitive history, so I can read about Lois Rabinowitz getting thrown out of a NYC courtroom in 1960 because she’s wearing slacks, and about Tahita Jenkins, fired from her job as a New York City bus driver in 2007 because she wouldn’t wear pants.

The greatest irony of the celebration of forty years of suffrage was that it seemed that once women had gotten the right to vote, they never got anything else.

writes Collins, and takes us into the lives of women like Lorena Weeks who after an interminable, impoverishing legal battle forced Southern Bell to stop being a company where the lowest-paid man made more than the highest-paid woman, and other women who were fired and laid off for working while female, or ignored because they were female and black. It was, of course, all about the money.

After the war [WWII], the economy didn’t just improve. It exploded. Americans were producing half the world’s goods in the mid-’50s, even though they made up only 6 percent of the world’s population…In the 1960s, as the economy was constantly creating employment, two-thirds of those new jobs went to women…That year [1966] President Johnson urged employers to consider hiring women (along with teenagers, the handicapped, and immigrants) to fill their openings. Large firms such as IBM and Texas Instruments targeted stay-at-home moms in recruiting campaigns…The fact that the percentage of married women in the workforce kept quietly going up was really the key to women’s liberation.

and

The nation’s ability to direct most of its college-trained women into the single career of teaching was the foundation upon which the national public school system was built and a major reason American tax rates were kept low.

I can say, wow, I didn’t know that, and then I remember Laura Ingalls’ first teaching job, which paid twenty dollars a month and board.

and

Young unmarried women did not have widespread access to the Pill until the early 1970s–which not coincidentally was the same time they began to apply to medical, law, dental, and business schools in large numbers.

And still are. The ability to have children in one’s own time, or not to have them at all, is a hard-fought right of American women and one to be cherished and protected, and it’s never more clearly explained than in this book.

One of the most eye-opening stories is that of Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-women’s rights activist who nearly singlehandedly caused the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan told her to her face, I must say with some justification, because, Collins writes, quoting Robin Morgan, in private Schlafly

readily admitted that without the doors opened by the women’s movement, she would never have been able to achieve so much. “But she would never repeat that in public,” Morgan said.

Toward the end Collins illustrates where we are now with a matter-of-fact narrative of the 2008 election, using Hilary Clinton and Sarah Palin as her models, with the best defense of Palin’s vice-presidential candidacy I’ve yet seen:

…the failure of her candidacy [Palin’s] was not a failure for women. At the very minimum, it was a triumph that voters did not seem to regard her floundering as a commentary on anything but Palin herself. On a more positive note, she won over many voters who had tended in the past to be hostile to the whole concept of a woman in the White House. She had a special affinity with younger working-class men. They liked the way she talked about hunting and hockey, and introduced her husband as first dude…Younger men with no college education were the people who had always been most threatened by women in the workplace and often the ones most resistant to any idea of being bossed by a woman anywhere. In a somewhat roundabout way, Palin made many of them converts to a new way of thinking. “They bear us children, they risk their lives to give us birth, so maybe it’s time we let a woman lead us,” a former truck driver told a reporter during a Palin rally in North Carolina.

A book that should be required reading in every American high school history class, along with its prequel, Collins’ America’s Women. Both highly recommended.

Click here to read all my Goodreads reviews

Old Sam and Murray Morgan

This is one of those happy instances of the law of unintended writing consequences.

On page 271 of Though Not Dead, Old Sam tells Pappardelle, “I served in the Aleutians during the war. There wasn’t a lot to do, so every now and then to keep the enlisted out of trouble the brass would get the big idea to have educational talks by anyone they could sucker out of the ranks…One night this Signal Corps guy from Tacoma — what was his name? Morgan, that was it. Anyway, Morgan was some kind of writer or professor or something in real life and he gave us a talk about how the last shot fired in the American Civil War was fired in the Aleutians.

Murray Morgan was a real person, and lo and behold, I log on to my website one morning to find this message from Murray Morgan’s daughter, Lane:

A friend just told me that my dad, Murray Morgan, is a minor character (or a referenced person) person in Though Not Dead. Very cool. He was indeed in the ASC in the Aleutians at the same time as Dashiell Hammett. I look forward to reading the book and wish Murray were still around to see the reference.

It turns out Morgan wrote long letters home from the Aleutians and Lane has been posting them on line here.

This guy just lived and breathed good writing. I met him through his book, Confederate Raider in the North Pacific, which tells the story of the last shot fired in the Civil War, fired, yes, by Confederate Navy Captain James Waddell who was disrupting the enemy’s economy by sinking Yankee whaling ships in the North Pacific. It is full of delightful prose and terrific little word pictures of the characters involved. One example from page 14:

Richard Wright was not the type of man usually involved in conspiracy. A Liverpool merchant, prosperous and proud of his family, he had a burgher’s respect for safety and six per cent.

Another from page 26:

Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister to Great Britain, was more a precision instrument than a human being. A brilliant, polished New Englander, the son and grandson of presidents, compressed to the hardness of a diamond by the accumulated weight of family tradition, he served as the cutting edge of American diplomacy.

And this about Captain Waddell from page 38:

Waddell was startled by the dissension. A romantic, a believer in the glory of war, he could not understand men who were untempted by adventure.

There are many more similarly wonderful prose portraits, especially of Waddell and his crew, who are parfit, gentil knyghts without sacrificing any attention to their mission, which they fulfill to admiration while murdering no man nor outraging any woman. One of my favorite stories is the whaler which is under the command of the captain’s wife, the captain having died on the voyage. She has preserved his body in a barrel of whiskey so she can take him home and bury him in the family plot. Waddell sinks her ship, but he sees the lady and her pickled husband both landed safely on shore afterward. Marvelous stuff.

Due to what I’m beginning to believe is the almost suicidal shortsightedness of American publishing, Morgan’s book is no longer in print, but fear not because there are used copies galore available on Bookfinder.com. This is the best book written on this subject, and it is well worth the extra effort to acquire. Accept no substitute.

Book porn.

For me, anyway. You judge for yourself.

Head of Zeus (my British publisher) assistant editor Sophie writes

Attached is our final jacket for Silk and Song. The foil detail is going to look extraordinary!

 

HoZ Silk and Song cover-front

I’ll be signing it in person at the Poisoned Pen at 2pm on Saturday, December 2nd.

Click here to pre-order your copy now.