TOUGHER THAN IT LOOKS

I’ve heard that many of my old codger sisters from the ’60s are avoiding  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

            For a long time, I did, too. The title is meek, the photo is Gloria Steinem Lite and the message lacks the boldness of, you know, Our Day, when tens of thousands protested in the streets, wrote our manifestos and opened our PRO-CHOICE SIGNUP tables in every downtown in America, or so it seemed.

Lean In book cover

Lean In book cover

            True, we can’t claim huge victories four decades later — the ERA never passed, the military is practically a rape culture, abortion is even more despised and why we accept a Senate and House without 50% women is beyond me.

            But some things did change, thanks to antidiscrimination and anti-harassment laws that still make a difference. The glass ceiling is breaking  (thank you, Sheryl), and while many girls and women wouldn’t be caught dead calling themselves feminists, there are good reasons for that, as Sheryl points out (see below).

            Now here’s Sandberg encouraging women to make ourselves heard, but not in a massive way, mind you, not in a historic way, nor heaven knows an impolite way. Her much-praised advice is for each of us to “lean in” to whatever conversation is taking place and quietly, softly, say exactly what we mean.  That’s it.

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Sexualized Dress Revisited

Like Meryl Streep (see below), I could have sworn that one-time celebrities Arlene Francis and Dorothy Kilgallen wore women’s suits on the 1950s TV quiz show, What’s My LIne?

That’s why in the last post, I blithely (without checking) quoted Streep’s concern about societal pressures on today’s women to dress in sexually alluring clothes, even on a hard-news political program like Meet the Press. Streep’s point was that in a previous era, TV shows (and the media in general) allowed women greater modesty, as recalled from watching What’s My Line?

Yikes, was that wrong, and thank you, reader Ed Dravecky of Allen, Texas, for spotting the error:

“Meryl Streep lives in an interesting alternate timeline,” Dravecky writes. “Suits? On this Earth’s What’s My Line, the women on the panel wore dresses and the men wore suits in the early seasons, and formal evening wear (including tuxedos for the men) in the later ones. Just do a Google Image search for ‘What’s My Line Panelists’ and you’ll turn up dozens of images like this one from the New York Times.”

Picture of What's My Line panel

Dorothy Kilgallen, Steve Allen, Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf wear eye masks as they question the mystery guest on What’s My Line?

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SMALL REVELATIONS

A few things I think I’ll always remember from recent books:

The Hills are Alive … with the Sound of Nazis

Christopher Plummer The Sound of Music

Christopher Plummer

If the von Trapp family had continued in the direction they were headed at the end of The Sound of Music, they would have “inadvertently landed in the hornet’s nest” of Nazi strongholds, recalls Christopher Plummer in his memoir, In Spite of Myself  (Vintage; 656 pages; $17.95). Hiking toward Germany rather than Switzerland was the more picturesque escape route for the movie, he recalls.

     This detail-packed charmer of a book gives us many a delicious glimpse behind the scenes. For example, Plummer writes that he and Julie Andrews had to shoot the famous gazebo scene more than 30 times because whenever they started to kiss, an off-camera device sounded like someone emitting gas. This threw them into such fits of laughter that the director finally gave up and filmed their faces only in silhouette.

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NARCOPOLIS: LOVE HIM, HATE (THE ABSENCE OF) HER

I admire almost everything about Narcopolis, a strange and intriguingly offensive novel about opium addiction in India.  It was short-listed last year for the Mann Booker Prize and its author, Jeet Thayil is the first Indian writer to win the coveted ($50,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature .

         The first sentence alone runs for 7 mesmerizing pages that in lesser hands would have been a gimmicky imitation of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky) or Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).

         But here the beautifully poetic Prologue flows off the page like the smoke from an opium pipe. Soon we don’t read Narcopolis – we inhale it, get hooked on it, are haunted by its unsettling, dreamlike blur. The opiate-addicted characters may have “fallen” in society’s eyes, but there is no guilt in Narcopolis,  only the allure, the freedom, the obsession and the artistry of induced elation. Closing the book, we feel it’s been seeping into our pores.

Narcopolis

Narcopolis

    Narcopolis follows a half-dozen opium addicts across a span of 40 years, during which a luxuriously slow-moving Bombay morphs into the fast-paced, corporatized and increasingly violent Mumbai.

         Soon opium itself is transformed into a more marketable version of heroin called “The Chemical,” a drug so filled with rat poison that it blows your brains out while giving you a stupendous high.

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Random House Penguin and Amazon: Too Big and Too Fast

Every time I see that condescending actor from AT&T pretending to have fun with kids on TV, I want to strangle Random House — or no, Amazon — for pushing Bigness, Speed and MORE, MORE, MORE as the American ideal in the first place.

I know some people think the AT&T guy is cute and congenial with children, but most of the time he encourages kids to act out, then makes fun of them.

actor from A T & T with kids

actor from A T & T with kids

“It’s not complicated!” comes the steroidal AT&T announcer, and the awful message is clear: Be bigger, faster, and more hyperactive — you’ll go nuts a lot sooner than your parents. Continue reading

That Sexist Mister Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

You know why The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith wasn’t widely reviewed when it first came out?

Here’s my thought:

On page 15, Robin Ellacott, a “tall and curvacious” young secretary, is about to enter the office of a world-weary private investigator named Cormoran Strike for the first time. At that moment, Cormoran, a big guy around 210 pounds, rushes out the door and crashes into her.

Robin falls backward, dangerously close to the open stairwell behind her, but Cormoran “seize(s) a fistful of cloth and flesh” and, “with a wrench and a tussle,”  pulls her toward him to safety.

But wait. What is it he gets hold of to save her — an arm? a coat? a belt? No, “he saved her by grabbing a substantial part of her left breast.”

Oh. He — um, wait. He reaches out, grabs her breast through a few layers of clothes and hauls her in like a marlin? Robin must weigh over 100 pounds, right? Yet he saves her from falling into the stairwell only by his grip on her … Well, I don’t think that’s possible. His hand just couldn’t get enough purchase to …

Come, Mr. Galbraith: Do your homework. Do you think breasts so literally fit the term  ”knockers” that one simply grabs and pulls, as though closing a door by its doorknob? Continue reading

HIS FIRST MISTAKE

If you own a newspaper, try not to tell the staff you’re “committed to preserving quality journalism” and then say, “Don’t be boring.”

That’s what Jeff Bezos did at the Washington Post yesterday. I bet the 20 “hard-bitten” reporters in the room laughed (and groaned) inwardly at his amateur remark.

Jeff Bezos             Point: A journalist writing a story on, say,  changes in the tax code should never be burdened with an order like “Don’t be boring.” Continue reading

Remembering Bill Chleboun

I’ve never known anyone in the book industry who was as loved on both coasts as Bill Chleboun (pronounced clay-bone).

Bill was my former colleague in the book review department of the San Francisco Chronicle. When he died recently of heart failure at 81, a light went out in the book world, and I don’t mean b.c. (before collapse). He was reading books on an iPad two weeks before his death.

Bill was hired by the Chronicle in 1982 to sell advertising space for the floundering Sunday Book Review section that I had been editing for about six months.

His first step was to create an honest regional best seller list, quite a phenomenon at the time. I had long believed that the tastes of Bay Area readers were far more diverse and adventurous than the New York Times best seller list reflected, and here was a way to prove it.

Every Tuesday, Bill called fifteen Bay Area booksellers and asked them what was selling in Fiction, Nonfiction, Hardcover and Paperback categories. Later they would just fax their lists in, but Bill understood the single cohesive factor at the heart of the book trade — gossip — and spent much of the day talking about authors coming through town, surprise up-and-comers, big-budget flops, impulse buys and front-of-store merchandising.

Best-Seller-List-fixedOn Wednesday, Bill called the publishers whose books were going to appear on the best seller list that Sunday and told them the good news. No one took his calls at first — marketing directors and ad managers hated talking to newspaper sales reps — so Bill started with secretaries and assistants who were glad to hear gossip from the stores and to make the announcement to their bosses that one or two of the house’s books would be listed that Sunday on some West Coast newspaper’s list.
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A Single Book Makes All the Difference

Pardon me for writing this lengthy and heartfelt column about a long-ago published book (2008), but each time I hear about brutal interrogations (did they lead to or away from Osama bin Laden, for example), I think of my favorite nonfiction title of the last three years, aside from Facebook for Dummies (not kidding), My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $13.95).

If you wince at the word “Guantanamo” and think there’s nothing new to learn about the hellhole even Obama can’t shut down, wait until you meet the detainees from Afghanistan whom the author, an American law student who acted as translator for defense lawyers as early as 2006, came to know during more than 30 trips to and from the heavily barricaded cages that critics have called “our” Abu Ghraib.

We know from the outset we’re going to hear the by-now familiar stories of torture, hoods, stress positions and sexual humiliation; of screaming interrogators and dead-of-night batterings, of Orwellian tribunals, denial of due process and the whole, sad, shameful mess that has made Guantanamo a continuing nightmare.

But what we don’t expect in this book is humor – not gallows humor (the prisoners are already half-dead) or angry humor (they’re too resigned), but an affectionate, teasing kind of humor usually reserved for members of a close family.

Author Khan certainly didn’t expect anything light-hearted or emotionally moving when she first applied to the FBI for security clearance in 2005. An Afghan American who grew up in the United States speaking fluent Pashto with her immigrant family, Kahn was a law student in her 20s when she became concerned about the plight of prisoners from Afghanistan at Guantanamo.

Some detainees at the prison, especially those from Saudi Arabia, came from the kind of wealth that allowed their families to hire aggressive U.S. criminal defense lawyers even when the Bush administration denied them representation. But Afghanistan is such a poor country that prisoners languished for years at Guantanamo before the Supreme Court decision of 2004 gave them access to U.S. courts, and the first pro bono lawyers began setting up meetings.
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Thank You, Bankrupt Borders, for Triggering This Scene:

The public hearing in Capitola-by-the-Sea should have ended by dinnertime, but so many people crowded into the City Council chambers that speakers were lining up in the aisles long past 1 a.m.

Capitola-by-the-Sea

The year was 1999, and Capitola — a charming coastal village about four miles south of Santa Cruz, California — was about to decide whether Borders Books and Music would be permitted to build a “Titanic-sized” store (22,000 square feet) in the middle of downtown.

If the Council voted yes, as predicted, at least four local bookstores would be wiped out, and this was the reason that people kept getting up to take their place behind the two microphones in the aisles.

And boy, were they mad.

A Big Bag of Garbage

One woman walked up to the stage with her husband and dumped a big bag of garbage in front of shocked City Council members. “We’ll clean this up, but Borders won’t,” she declared, having gathered the trash from the parking lot of the nearest Borders store in Sand City, about 10 miles away.

An independent traffic consultant reported that parking needs for the proposed Borders had been grossly underestimated. The audience gasped at revelations that Capitola’s traffic engineers had used 15-year-old studies, published “long before megabox bookstores like Borders were around.”
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