Sunday, January 26, 2020

Things That Are Making Me Happy





A good friend died last week, which kept me away from FFB.
On a brighter note, a gathering on Saturday night saluted Phil and Arnold. Both had belonged to the same men's group and it was nice to hear the kind things said about both men. My doctor came and picked me up, which is one way of getting a house call.
Saw the fifth season of LINE OF DUTY and it is right at the top of the list for best cop shows ever. It is so complex though, you really need to give it your full attention.  I am fading out again on THE OUTSIDER, which seems too woo woo for my tastes.
LES MISERABLES, a French cop movie, was pretty amazing. Awfully dark view of pretty much everyone and a fatalistic look at society today.
Went to hear Kevin play guitar and this time is was punk music. My ears are still ringing.
Still reading THE CHESTNUT MAN. The short chapters, many a page or two, makes me put it down too often.
What about you?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Grandmother of My Grandmother


 This is all true. Or if it isn't true, I'm remembering incorrectly. Or someone told it to me wrong. You get the idea. I am not sure this will interest anyone besides my brother and me, but here it goes.

My great, great maternal grandmother Ellen Jane Stewart was born in Londonderry, NI in 1847. Escaping the constant mid-nineteenth century potato famines, she came to the US. circa 1870 where she earned a modest living as a lace-maker. The idea was that at some later date, her two younger brothers would follow her overseas. (And I understand they did and opened a tavern somewhere in New Jersey eventually.)  

Between 1871 and 1891, 55,690 Irish women emigrated to the U.S. compared to 55,215 men for the same time period. Immigrants coming from other countries were overwhelmingly male. This female-dominated migration stream was unique to the Irish and reflected their cultural values and the impact of the years of famine. Fewer than 50% of Irish women were able to find husbands after the potato famines and marriage was their only avenue out of poverty. (There are several good books and articles about this phenomena).

Soon after her arrival, Ellen married Thomas Alexander Morrison (1846), a coal miner, who came to the US from either Ireland or Wales. The sole story passed down about Ellen is that the first time she saw a streetcar, she fainted at the sight. Or ran after it. One or the other. (The first streetcars in the region, running on steel rails and pulled by horses, began operating on the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railway Company on January 20, 1858). They didn't appear in NI until the 1890s.

The young couple had three children: Margaret (1876), John Alexander (1878) and Thomas Wilson (1881). Sadly in 1886, Thomas died from black lung disease, leaving his widow with three children to raise. 

And now we come to the story of Girard College and its impact on the life of my great grandfather, Tom Morrison. Stephen Girard (1750 –1831) was a Philadelphia philanthropist. Using, his fortune, Stephen Girard personally saved the U.S. government from financial collapse during the War of 1812, and became one of the wealthiest people in America, estimated to have been the fourth richest American of all time, based on the ratio of his fortune to contemporary GDP. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. He was a virulent atheist. He worked hard nursing people who contracted yellow fever in 1793, fearlessly staying to help when he could easily have fled.

He bequeathed nearly his entire fortune to charitable and municipal institutions of Philadelphia and New Orleans, including an endowment for establishing a boarding school for "poor, male, white orphans" in Philadelphia, primarily those who were the children of coal miners. Girard College (130 acres) opened in 1848. It took that long to build it according to his detailed instructions. His will dictated everything from the school’s curriculum to its precise architecture, and even the lunches provided for students and staff. If accepted at Girard College, boys would spend their school years getting a first-rate education, being clothed, fed, and taken care of at the school. Discipline was strict. At one time over 1800 boys lived at the school. 

Ellen Jane Morrison was only able to visit her boys on Sunday afternoons (currently boys go home for the weekend) and a huge wall sequestered the boys from city distractions. No clergy man would be permitted to enter the premises as Girard believed them to be a weakening influence. Ellen's boys were eight and five when their father died. I am not sure if they went to live at Girard College immediately, but the school took first graders. Of course, Margaret, the older daughter, was excluded. And it wasn't until the 1960s, that black students were admitted. Today almost all of the students are black, reflecting the current population. 

Tom Morrison completed his education there and was admitted to Temple University and then Temple Law School. He had a successful career as an attorney, eventually working as Deputy City Controller for the city of Philadelphia. In 1932, just as the Depression began, he opened a diner with a Mr. Struhm called the Morrison and Struhm Diner, which still exists in Philly today as the Mayfair Diner. He died in 1933, age 52, probably a victim of the downturn.

Pics are a painting of Stephen Girard and his male orphans, the ten-foot walls that surround Girard College, Ellen Jane Stewart and her daughter, Margaret, and my grandmother, Dorothy Morrison with her brothers Tom and John and her parents, Edith and Tom.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Things That Are Making Me Happy




Rewatched THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988) and was knocked out by the sophisticated movies Hollywood was putting out thirty years ago. Sensual, political, artistic, full of feeling. This film would only come out of Europe now.

Also saw the National Theater's streamed play ALL MY SONS with Bill Pullman, Sally Field and other fine actors. You probably have access to this series in your neighborhood.. Next up PRESENT LAUGHTER (Noel Coward) with the Hot Priest (Andrew Scott) for those who love Fleabag. 

Also saw the Agnes Varda doc at our Detroit Film Theater. Bit of a snooze. She is too full of herself for my taste. Caught a photography exhibit of the Great Lakes before the show.


Tomorrow would be my 53rd anniversary. Is it still my anniversary now or does that go away in widowhood? Nine months a widow.

Reading THE ACORN MAN, which is very good if very dark.

Finally got a snowfall of significance. Could do without it. 

What about you?

Friday, January 17, 2020

DARE ME on BUILD

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYf0tk6PMyc

FFB-BILOXI, Mary Miller

This was just published in May so it is more a neglected book than a forgotten one. I enjoyed it and found the protagonist a familiar character among people I know. Men of a certain age seem more cast in stone than either women or younger men. In his early sixties, Louis has lost his wife, his father, quit his job, and is teetering on estrangement from his daughter and granddaughter. He is waiting to find out what his inheritance from his father will be, believing the money will rescue him from his stasis, when a dog is thrust upon him.

For a dog to change a life, you'd expect to see some super-dog behavior, but Layla is just an ordinary dog. What she does succeed in doing for Louis is to give him someone to care for, to wonder about, to draw him out of his shell. The world seldom allows someone with a dog on a leash to pass by without comment.

Louis can be frustrating as a character. For instance, I never really understood his issues with his daughter. But we will not always understand either people in our life or people in a good book. Miller never leans too hard on the idea of a dog rescuing this man and that light touch and the excellent writing is what made this novel work for me.

Recommended for those who enjoy superb character studies with not a lot of action. Which is me.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

More of my life

Just now I  googled the name of my childhood nemesis. His name is unusual enough that when an obit came up, I was sure it was Louis. Plus the picture bears more than a slight resemblance to the boy I knew in second grade. He grew up in Philly, served in Vietnam, and the weight he already carried at seven, grew. If I go to the website on Facebook for my elementary school, his name is treated with awe and shock. Read Jean Sheppard for the story of similar bullies in Indiana.

My elementary school, Samuel Pennypacker, was a good one.  My teachers were fine women, who a generation later, would be lawyers, doctors, accountants, professors. Coming from the generation before mine (at least) my teachers were secondary school teachers. They assumed we needed to know how to diagram a sentence, read novels like David Copperfield, and understand how to calculate distance, and interest and such.

In second grade, my teacher was Mrs. Birch. She was a fearsome woman who needed a few students to torture in class. Louis M. put me in that category by terrorizing me. Not too far into the semester, I began to suffer the insomnia that still plagues me today. His antics were dull, witless but effective. Following me home from school, letting doors slam in my face, tripping me, stealing my books were part of his game. I never understood why.

The school psychologist (and aren't you surprised they had one in 1955) suggested I read poetry. My parents dutifully bought a book of Poems for Children and I read them before trying to go to sleep each night. Still Mom and Dad would find me perched at the top of the steps when they climbed up. A second visit to the shrink netted the idea I would tell myself a story and this idea worked better than the first.  Perhaps it even made my years as a fiction writer possible.

After second grade, Louis and I parted ways. My fears would change to stray dogs, nuclear war, heights, girls who made fun of me for various reasons. But few of these things would ever have the power over me that Louis M. had. I wonder if he realized the power he wielded.

Was there a bully in your childhood? 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Things That Are Making Me Happy


 1917 was more notable (to me) for its technical achievement than for its story telling, but that technical achievement was amazing. It very much seemed like the entire film was one long take with constant movement through the trenches of World War 1. A very fine lead performance too.
Also went to the DSO in the neighborhood program where Steling Elliott (above) played a cello piece by Lali. Also the music of Bizet's Carmen and Franck. I am ambivalent about this program, which was foisted onto the musicians after their last strike. But the very aging crowd at the synagogue that hosted them would have trouble getting downtown in January, I think.
Am enjoying the very strange novel, BILOXI by Mary Miller, which is mostly about a man and a dog.
After rewatching MY BRILLIAN CAREER, from the eighties, I caught up with Judy Davis on MYSTERY ROAD, on Acorn. It seems very stretched out and I believe it was a movie first. But seeing Australia not in the throes of fires was nice.
The weather here is odd. I am not sure the ground have yet been fully frozen and it's mid-January. Troubling.
What's happening with you?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Notes on my life-Daddy



As a girl, I was probably more interested in my mother's childhood than my father's. I wanted to know if she shared my love of dolls (no) and candy (no). Additionally, my dad wasn't around as much. He worked long hours at a low-paying job, and when he was home he was often occupied with household tasks, grocery shopping (he did this chore for some reason), church, etc. But certainly he was not as reticent as my mother about his past. Although his memories tended to focus on areas of deprivation.
He was the sixteenth of nineteen children. His oldest brother, Vincent served and died in World War 1 and my father in the second World War. His mother, Laura Nase, died when he was twelve.

Ralph E. Nase started selling pretzels after school at six (could this be true?) and a series of jobs followed that one. The Nases (in a town filled with Nases and Naces-you wouldn't believe the phone book. This was no uncommon:Herbert S. Nace was born and reared in Sellersville. He married in 1891, Addie M. Nase, daughter of Peter and .. ) lived in a three-bedroom house. The boys, of which only four survived war, birth or early childhood illness, slept in the attic. The girls, I believe there were eight or nine surviving childhood, shared two bedrooms. 
They grew most of their own food. Pigs were slaughtered in their cellar, in fact. 

Herman Nase supported his family working in a cigar family. In the second half of the 19th century, cigar, textile, and other industries established companies in Sellersville. Cigar-making seemed to dominate the small country town.

My father was athletic and played sports, especially tennis. He loved to skate and sled. His great hobby was raising and racing homing pigeons. He inherited this hobby from an older brother. (The only other pigeon raiser, I can think of was Rocky). It is hard for me to picture Dad with his pigeons because he couldn't stand to have his hands dirty. 

Approximately once a year, we would journey to Sellersville, which seemed like a long trip then but was only 25 miles, for a family reunion. We were the outsiders amidst a group that spent their free time fishing and hunting. My father fit in little better than my mother who especially dreaded these days. The reunions always numbered more than one-hundred people and I have vague memories of three-legged races, but that may have been our church picnic. Once in a great while, my uncle Nick (born Noah) would turn up in Philly, with pants too short, white socks, poor grammar and lots of gold teeth. My mother was on pins and needles during his visit. It would seem that she had the upper hand with this kindly, timid man, but it didn't seem to calm her. Stories about poor Nick to come later.

Dad went to a two-year business college (following the example of Uncle Nick) and began his career as an office manager in the mid-thirties. He worked at Oak Terrace Country Club where he met my mother.

Hereafter I am going to try to relate incidents rather than biographical information. I think it will be more fun to write and to read.

Friday, January 10, 2020

FFB-Max Perkins

 From the archives.
 
Richard S. Wheeler was the author of more than sixty-nine contracted or published novels that largely deal with the American West. These include historical novels, biographical novels, and traditional western fiction. In recent years he's been writing mysteries, including some set in the upper Midwest, under the pseudonym Axel Brand. He also wrote numerous short stories.

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg

I've finished rereading Scott Berg's great biography of Maxwell Perkins, which won the National Book Award in 1978. It is a massive book and took a week to get through. I've often wondered why it is my favorite book, and why I return to it with renewed thirst and joy, every little while.

For a long time, I thought it was because I had been a book editor and found common ground with Perkins. Or perhaps it was because my family is rooted in New England, though I grew up in the Midwest. There was something in Max Perkins' shy, awkward, introspective nature that rang bells in me.

The truth of it is that I have no idea why that book stands above all others in that place of the heart where I build altars. It is largely a description of the way Perkins, a Scribners editor, nurtured several wayward authors and the result was the most sublime period in American literary history. The list of those he encouraged and published is too long for this posting, but they include Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ring Lardner, Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson, John P. Marquand, S. S. Van Dine, Taylor Caldwell, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Alan Paton, and James Jones. No other editor has even come close to discovering and publishing a list like that.

Scott Berg writes tenderly. He had his hands full, because of the acrimony, the disappointments, the bitterness, the craziness, the hurt, that he was chronicling. Somehow Perkins managed to nurture each of his authors, supplied the specific criticisms that lifted their books to new heights, all the while trying to remain anonymous because he felt that editors should not take credit or be known to the public. He often said that a book belongs to the author, and it is the editor's task simply to bring out the best in the author and the book.

This great work by Berg shaped me. It deeply affected how I think about literature. It changed what I aspire to in my writing. I am not the same person I was before this book entered the place of honor on my shelf. I lost my father, whom I loved and admired, when I was young. All those authors he nurtured lost a father when Max Perkins died.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Notes on My Life-a rough beginning


In Fierce Attachments, Vivian Gornick writes that she was the repository for the stories of her mother's life. I am not sure how common this is. Do most mothers (or fathers) relate the events of their childhood to their children so fully that the kids become their diarists? But it was not to happen in mine. Many years later, I have some ideas on why this was the case, but before April 2018, it was a great mystery. 

Why didn't my mother talk about herself? Why no stories of growing up in Albany, Syracuse, Manhattan, and Philly. Why no tales of vacations, grandparents, hobbies, the depression, friends, school, books she read as a child, what she did in the hot Philadelphia summer or the cold Syracuse winter. Did she go to camp? Did she sing in the choir? Was she a girl scout? Did she have boyfriends before my father? Did she ever break a bone? Was she sickly? And on and on. Perhaps I was abnormally incurious and never pushed her to tell, but I think that's not the case because I can tell you a lot about my grandmother's childhood.

What little I know about my mother, I know from photographs or my grandmother. But my mother often only figures as background material in my grandmother's stories. She was similar to the unnamed young woman who serves as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper in the novel, Rebecca. In the photographs, her hair is often cut like a boy's. Her clothes are always practical and eyeglasses dominate her face. She rarely looks directly into the lens. Her parents were more glamorous. I still think of them as Scott and Zelda, and my mother seems a bit like their probably neglected daughter, Scottie. 

But let's put their personalities aside and stick with Mom. Because this is precisely how it went when I tried to find out anything about my mother. The subject would soon turn toward her parents. It was easier to talk about them. Although even that was rare.

This is what I know. Janet Dorothy Grieb was born in 1923, ten months after her parents married. She took dancing lessons, ballet and tap, and was a graceful ballroom dancer. She had acne in the days when there was little to be done for it. She thought of herself as a fat teenager although the photographs don't confirm her impression. In high school, where she finally got to finish four years in one school, she took the business course because her father thought girls would marry and waste a college education. She had four close friends who to some degree remained her friends for the rest of her life. Two of them died within months of her death in 2009. Olney High School in Philly taught Latin and French to all of the students so she studied that along with the business courses. I have no idea if she was a good student, if she even wanted to go to college. She was quiet, passive, polite. When she stayed out too late on her graduation night, her father treated her harshly. She met and married my father at 18. And that is about all I know about my mother before her marriage. (to be cont.) 

top pic Mom with her parents and baby cousin, Letty.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Things That Are Making Me Happy


The Fuhrer is making our lives the thing of nightmares but we will try to find joy. These last years is an example of how much harm can be done in very little time if power is concentrated and people are lied to.

Read 80% of Briar Patch and had no desire to finish it. Very disappointed because I believe I liked Ross Thomas in the seventies and eighties. Eighty percent through and I knew almost nothing about the sister who died and brought the protagonist back home. A series of meetings with various players stood in for plot. Tell me I am wrong. Now I have started a memoir of Vivian Gornick. Megan has the idea I can jump start my writing by doing a memoir. Hard to find any voice much less my own.

Three movies UNCUT GEMS (again), SYNONYMS (Israeli-French), and BOMBSHELL. BOMBSHELL wasn't bad but I did find it hard mustering up sympathy for Fox News women. Wrong, but there it is. Why are they shocked that men who work at Fox would hit on women? Still the acting was fine and the story told well enough.

Celebrated by birthday quietly. The weather is eerily good for January.
Finding nothing much on TV to watch. Other than DARE ME, of course.

What are you up to?

Friday, January 03, 2020

FFB




PRIVATE DEMONS, THE LIFE OF SHIRLEY JACKSON, Judy Oppenheimer

I read this book in December, 1987, being a big fan of Shirley Jackson all my life. I once had a nice fat collection of Jackson's work, which was damaged by ice that broke through our ceiling, soaking everything beneath. I have never replaced most of it unfortunately. But I think I've probably read most of the collected pieces of fiction she wrote and all of the novels, enjoying the domestic stories as much as the very dark ones.
Her bifurcated writing interests seem like two sides of a very familiar coin.

This book, and there may be a newer one by now, tries and succeeds in explaining much about Jackson's life. Raised by an abusive mother, married to a man (esteemed literary critic, Stanley Hyman) who recognized her brilliance but didn't let that interfere with his affairs, Jackson managed to write some of the most original stories of her era. She feared anonymity after death; feared the public would not understand the meaning of her stories. Jackson's accounts of family life (RAISING DEMONS, LIFE AMONG THE SAVAGES) are as much fun to read as her darker novels and stories. Oppenheimer is very skilled at tying incidents in Jackson's life to stories she wrote at the time. She uses interviews and anecdotes to great effect. If you want to understand where stories like THE LOTTERY came from, this book will help.

A movie about Shirley Jackson is scheduled for release in 2020. 



Thursday, January 02, 2020

My Favorite Movies of the Decade

1. Calvary (Irish)
2. Moonlight (US)
3. 45 Years (UK)
4. Phantom Thread (US)
5. Roma (Mexico)
6. First Reformed (US)
7. Carol (US)
8. Phoenix ( German)
9 Social Network (US)
10 A Separation ( Iran)
11. Great Beauty ( Italian)
12. Before Midnight (US)
3 Under the Skin (US)
14. Ladybird (US) 1
15 Inside Llewyn Davis (US)
16 Certified Copy ( multiple countries)
17 Amour (French)
18 A War (Danish)
19 Lady MacBeth (UK)
20. American Honey (US)
21 Force Majeure (multiple countries),
22 Weekend (UK)
23 Locke (UK)
24 Gone Girl (US)
25 Get Out (US)

My Favorite Movies of the Decade

My favorite 25 movies of the decade.

1. Calvary (Irish)
2. Moonlight (US)
3. 45 Years (UK)
4. Phantom Thread (US)
5. Roma (Mexico)
6. First Reformed (US)
7. Carol (US)
8. Phoenix ( German)
9  Social Network (US)
10 A Separation ( Iran)
11. Great Beauty ( Italian)
12. Before Midnight (US)
13 Under the Skin (US)
14. Ladybird (US) 1
15 Inside Llewyn Davis (US)
16 Certified Copy ( multiple countries)
17 Amour (French)
18 A War (Danish)
19 Lady MacBeth (UK)
20. American Honey (US)
21 Force Majeure (multiple countries),
22 Weekend (UK)
23 Locke (UK)
24 Gone Girl (US)
25 Get Out (US)