Alternately purring and spitting

Yes, the title could refer to a kitten, like little Jarito (I don’t name them!), the current foster kitten in residence.

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Jarito. I call him JJ.

 

But what I was thinking of with the words “alternately purring and spitting” was Southern writer Eudora Welty and Southern women in American literature. That so aptly describes Southern women to me.

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Eudora Welty (1909-2001)

 

I had heard of Eudora Welty.  GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) tend to look out for Southern writers.

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Even though I’ve lived most of my life in California, I spent my childhood years in Atlanta, Georgia and was raised by proud Southern women. Yes, there are a myriad of social justice and human rights issues to discuss when one brings up the Southern United States, but there is also a unique and sometimes beautiful culture that I wax nostalgic over, even though I didn’t necessarily experience it.

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But what led me to Eudora Welty and a fascination with her was hearing actress Stockard Channing read Welty’s short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” (written in 1941) on Selected Shorts, one of my favorite NPR podcasts.

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Actress Stockard Channing.

The story is hilarious and poignant and so very Southern. The characters have names like Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo, and Stella-Rondo. The narrator is Sister. When I heard the story read aloud, I felt right at home! The story was published in her book A Curtain of Green and Other Stories. Despite its quirky, humorous overtones and absurd (or not, you decide) characters, there is an undertone of isolation and bitterness in Sister’s narration of the 4th of July holiday in small town Mississippi. The P.O. refers to the post office; Sister is the town’s postmistress.

 

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You can read the story here or listen here, if the links work. It’s well worth the $2.99 to buy your own download if the audio link doesn’t work. I tried, but sometimes I fail!

Welty herself was born and died in Jackson, Mississippi. In addition to being a writer, she was also a talented photographer, capturing the lives of the rural poor for the Works Progress Administration during the Depression of the 1930s.

 

Her photographic work is being shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the exhibition Looking South: Photographs by Eudora Welty, on display until September 3, 2017. Art critic John Szarkowski wrote:

“Like those of [Helen] Levitt, Welty’s photographs do not show us the only truths of her subjects’ lives; perhaps they show us only the rarest and most evanescent truths, in which case we are the more grateful for these proofs of their existence.” 

Best known for her short stories, she also published 5 novels. She never married or had children, and kept her life mostly private. Her stories focus on individual lives and stories, using local color and humor to convey sometimes stifling environments and families.

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Illustration by Ryan Sheffield for The Eudora Welty Portrait Reader.

 

As described on the website The Bitter Southerner:

Why Welty? For a lot of us who grew up in the South and liked words, Welty represented not only what we knew, capturing the characters and cadences of our region, but also the range of what was possible — telling honest stories about a place that continues to struggle and progress.

As President Jimmy Carter put it when he presented Welty the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980: “Eudora Welty’s fiction, with its strong sense of place and triumphant comic spirit, illuminates the human condition. Her photographs of the South during the Depression reveal a rare artistic sensibility. Her critical essays explore mind and heart, literary and oral tradition, language and life with unsurpassed beauty. Through photography, essays, and fiction, Eudora Welty has enriched our lives and shown us the wonder of the human experience.”

 

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One can visit Eudora Welty’s home and amazing garden in Jackson. The garden was created by Welty’s mother, Chestina Welty, in 1925 and carefully restored by garden restoration consultant Susan Haltom.

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Eudora Welty’s mother, Chestina tends her roses.
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Eudora Welty’s garden.

Welty’s home is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Eudora lived there from 1925, when she was 16 years old, until her death in 2001. It is located at 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson. She gifted the home to the State of Mississippi and it is a museum of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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1119 Pinehurst Street, Jackson, Mississippi.

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I myself am not a gardener. I love the IDEA of gardening, but the REALITY of gardening is another story.

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If you are at all intrigued by the life and work of Eudora Welty, please check out the Eudora Welty Foundation. You don’t have to be one of us GRITS to appreciate her writing or photography. Or of any of the others who I would add to the pantheon of great Southern women writers. Clockwise from upper left: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Kate Chopin, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. There are many more; these are just a very few.

 

Hopefully you feel inspired to read, write, or take some photographs. Or dig in your garden. Or whatever makes you happy, be it painting, cooking, sewing, etc. They can all be therapeutic activities, good for your mental health and sense of well-being. Even observing creativity is good for you–reading, listening to music, or going to a museum. According to the lifestyle website Verily, such activities:

  • Relieve stress
  • Increase and renew brain function
  • Help prevent Alzheimer’s
  • Improve mood
  • Cultivate your social life

So instead of going to the gym, I think I’ll go read a book. In the garden. With some music. Getting healthy!

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Painting by Niels Frederik Schiøttz-Jensen (1855–1941)

 

 

 

Herding Cats and Other Species Who Don’t Want to be Herded

I am in beautiful Monterey at the Hyatt Regency Hotel and Spa for the semi-annual residential conference of Saybrook University.

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I’m sure the area is gorgeous but it’s been pouring down rain and we’ve been in conference sessions all day everday so I haven’t left the hotel grounds!

 

This is the start of my 5th semester in my PhD program (how did that happen?) and struggling with focusing my research toward a dissertation. The more I learn, the more interests I find and the more I want to do. So in one sense, my brain is one of the fractious array of cats to be herded referred to in the title.

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My brain.

 

If you’ve ever been around cats at all, you know they don’t really follow any rules of group dynamics or recognize much in the way of authority but their own.

 

Much like the amazingly intelligent, mostly outspoken, and dynamic group of people who want to make the world a better place meeting here at the Saybrook conference. Being here reminds me of the wonderful short story by John Sayles, The Anarchists’ Convention.

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Writer, director, and actor John Sayles

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I became aware of this story from listening to the Public Radio International (PRI) show, Selected Shorts.

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The story was read by comedian Jerry Stiller. If you ask me, he is the perfect voice for the story.

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Jerry Stiller
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The late Isaiah Sheffer, host of the show, working with Jerry Stiller.

 

I won’t elaborate too much, but suffice to say that there isn’t much structure or order at an anarchists’ convention, and not a lot is achieved. But it makes a great story, and I love a great story. Maybe I’ll write my version when this conference is done. One thing we do all seem to agree on is that systems are broken and change is needed. The big question is how do we make that change?

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Meanwhile, back to the cat ranch!

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Peace and hugs. Meow!

 

The Best Montclair Book Club

It was a year ago this month that the Best Montclair Book Club had its first meeting. None of us had ever met. Judy started things off on the NextDoor app, looking for book club recommendations, to which several of us replied for her to let us know when she found one in our area. I forget who suggested we form our own club, but we did! Now that a year has gone by, our number has thinned a bit (but we would welcome more, hint hint). We have read 11 books (we took July off as everyone was traveling), but a few of us met at the movies to see Inside Out, which we thoroughly enjoyed. While I think I have a physical resemblance to Sadness, and sometimes an attitudinal one, I really try to be more like Joy (only if Joy was a little bit shy and bookish).

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Draw glasses on my picture, you’ll see.

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Here is our year in books! (opinions expressed are solely those of the blogger, not the group.)

  1. We started off with Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, the story of the real life Grimké sisters told in tandem with that of slave Hetty.

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The metaphor of wings and learning to fly applies to spirited Hetty in her search for freedom and to the Grimké sisters, Sarah in particular, as they forge their way against oppression as women and abolitionists. The interweaving of the women’s stories is an effective tool in illustrating how oppression works at all levels, some blatant and some quite subtle. On a side note, Sarah Grimké describes her sister Angelina as quite a beauty. Here are their portraits that you can find online. Not so sure about that.

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2.  The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (translated by Lucia Graves)

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I love this book. I had read it once before and was very happy to read it again. I think the general feeling of the group was that it was “dark”, which it is. Zafón creates a moody, spooky atmosphere in post-war Barcelona. There are stories within stories, twists and turns, and the wonderfully labyrinthian Cemetery of Lost Books. The evil and twisted Inspector Fumero will have you cringing. If there is ever a deal to make a movie out of this, I want to know!

3. The Greatest Gift, Philip Van Doren Stern

This was our holiday reading pick, and it being a short story made it that much more of a gift of time! This is the story that the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life was based on.

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The story itself is quite short but the publication includes an afterword written by the author’s daughter describing how he couldn’t find a publisher for the story, so he printed 200 copies himself and sent them as Christmas cards in 1943. The story was embellished for the 1946 film, which was made after RKO Pictures bought the rights to make a film starring Cary Grant. The rights were eventually sold to Frank Capra’s production company. Though the final credits don’t mention her name, Dorothy Parker was one of the many writers who worked on the screenplay.

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4.  We started out 2015 with Robin Black’s Life Drawing.

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Unfortunately, I was sick the night of our club meeting so I don’t know how the rest of the group felt about the book! I quite enjoyed it. It’s not a happy book, by any means, as it revolves around marital infidelity. There is also some suspense, and an underlying story of artist Gus (Augusta) and her struggles with a painting of young WWI soldiers she works on throughout the story, having found some compelling photographs inside the walls of the old country house she shares with her husband Owen. It was a perfect read for being sick at home with a cup of tea and a cat in my lap.

5. Next up, a little change of pace with The Rosie Project, the debut novel by Australian writer and information systems consultant Graeme Simsion, who has since published a second book, The Rosie Effect.

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I found the book to be charming and lighthearted, but there are some real issues about Asperger’s Syndrome and family relationships in genetics professor Don Tillman’s search for the theoretically perfect wife. There is a movie in the works; Jennifer Lawrence is supposedly set to play Rosie, and last I hear, director Richard Linklater was a possibility.

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6. A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I absolutely adore Anne Tyler and have read every one of her books, so maybe I am a little biased on this one! Other members of the group lamented that “nothing happens” but I find it to be a lovely reflection on love and family and disappointment and the importance of home.

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The usual Anne Tyler elements are all there: multi generations of the same middle-class family; the slightly ditzy mother Abby; the grown children with mid-life problems; the black sheep son Denny; the illusion of ordinary happiness. Dysfunctional families in literature can become clichéd, yet I always find Tyler’s characters to be engaging and sad and heartwarming all at the same time.

7. Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

This was my pick, partly because it’s not very long and partly because it had been sitting on my bedside table for a long time and I decided it was a good way to get me to finally read it. I don’t know what took me so long, because I love hearing Neil Gaiman talk and I love hearing his stories read on NPR Selected Shorts. If you can find a recording of Jane Curtin reading “Chivalry” please take the time to listen.

o-OCEAN-AT-THE-END-OF-THE-LANE-facebook Neil-Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane can be described as many things: fantasy, allegory, ghost story, a reflection on the disconnect between childhood and adulthood. It’s a very visual read, and brings up those childhood feelings of warmth and comfort as well as fear and anxiety. Another one I’d love to see as a film.

8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Book 1 in the Neapolitan Novels)

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This one reminded me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Cats Eye in its story of two girlhood friends and the nature of friendship.

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I enjoyed the book, but I am not convinced I will go on to read books 2 and 3 in the series. Some in the group loved it; I was not quite there. I put Cat’s Eye in my then Top Ten when I read it a few years ago, so I’d pick Margaret Atwood over Elena Ferrante (sorry).

9. Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

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Wow. Talk about a thriller! I was sucked in and couldn’t put it down. There are the inevitable comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, with unreliable narrators and “girl” in the title.

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But it’s definitely its own book with lots of red herrings and characters who make you crazy. If you are looking for a thrilling page-turner, this is it! No one complained that nothings happens in this one.

10.  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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I posted how much I loved this book when I was reading it this summer in Norway. I can’t say enough. It is so beautifully written that it can be painful at times to read as Marie-Laure and Werner are separately and then together unalterably changed by World War II. There’s a creepy, Lord of the Flies quality to Werner’s time in training for the Hitler Youth, and an insight into the poverty and desperation that got him there. This is in my current Top Ten. A must read.

11. Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

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Disclaimer: I only just started this one and am going to have to scramble to finish it for the club meeting in 2 days. This is also not the type of book that I am typically drawn to, but part of belonging to a book club is to try new things and get out of my comfort zone a little. What I am learning: high finance is ruthless, watch your back, and I made the right choice going into the arts and not business.

Just today, a suggestion was made that our next book be Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity. I did not love The Corrections, but I did like Freedom. I find Jonathan Franzen to be a very interesting person in interviews and am ready to jump into this one.

Purity Corrections Freedom Franzen

If you live in the vicinity of Montclair in Oakland, California or in the East Bay and don’t mind making your way to Montclair, and want to join us, you can find us on GoodReads. If you love books and talking about books (and pets, most of us have pets so when we meet at our various houses the dogs and cats tend to be a part of things too), then look us up: The Best Montclair Book Club!

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