The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

by Leigh Bardugo

Reading a fantasy novel in French translation poses some interesting problems. When you don’t know a word, is that because it’s a written in an imaginary language, because it’s an invented word describing alien concepts or science, a specialized word from sailing, trading or from underworld slang, or simply an everyday word that you don’t know? You can spend a lot of time discovering that druskelle is not to be found in your French dictionary, and just as much time learning French words for thief, burglar, brigand, thug, sniper, card-sharp, and con man which, while useful for getting through this enjoyable caper, and perhaps not essential vocabulary for reading about the intellectual history of literary computing — the goal of this mad enterprise.

Yet, here we are, reaching the end of this delightful new take on The Hidden Fortress in a barber shop without internet. This might yet work.

by Ellen Tovatt Leary

This is a strange project: a 2020 novel, presumably partly autobiographical, about a young Broadway actress in the 1970s. This is a strange version of the 1970s — self-conscious about its lack of cell phones (though sometimes you have to be: not being able to call people whenever you wanted was a real problem!) but omitting Studio 54 and Elaine’s, Vietnam, AIDS, Stonewall, and the Women’s Movement.

The bulk of the book sets out to dramatize every Broadway clichém and does a fine job of it, only occasionally indulging in buckets of exposition. Perhaps because the author is not yet focused on romance, the protagonist, Nina Landau, is nicely drawn as a 1970s woman who is entirely comfortable in her body, a woman who had no need to read Erica Jong’s 1973 Fear Of Flying because her fucks are already zipless aside from the her boyfriends’ occasional hangups. People actually say, “Away we go!” Someone actually says, “the show must go on,” in a context where it’s a sensible thing to say. It’s that kind of movie.

For some reason, the book ends with a romantic coda involving a move to Los Angeles, marriage, and a shift in aspirations from Broadway to the Taper Forum. The marriage plot is unconvincing, as it hinges on our heroine’s paralyzing guilt about having been date-raped while doing a summer stock revival on the Cape and her suspicion that this constitutes infidelity. We say very little about what she cannot have missed: that the work is also something she loves, and if she’s completely devoted to her man she’s unfaithful to the work.

Her beloved, a Hollywood heartthrob and soap star, might have strayed once in the course of a separation of many months, and this, too, tears Nina apart. This might be true to the author’s experience, but I do think a Smith College graduate, Broadway star and lifetime New York girl might have reflected just a bit more on the sexual politics of the whole mess. But that’s beside the point. Fifty years have passed: what do we think of all that, now?

by Chloé Korman

Once when she was a girl, Chloé’s friend Denise urged her to pull her wavy hair back into as pony tail. Chloé thought this uncomfortable. Denise, more fashionable, argued that discomfort was that lot of women: “you look like a Jew.” I doubt poor Denise knew that Chloé was, in fact, a Jew. Chloé didn’t say anything.

This is a meditation on contemporary racism in France, mediated by the memories of the Occupation. Those memories are fascinating.

by Paulina Bren

In 1949 or 1950, my mother won the Mademoiselle Magazine Essay contest. With 14 other “guest editors” from colleges across the country, Patsy flew to New York (from Colorado College) to spend a month at the offices of Mademoiselle. All the guest editors stayed at the Barbizon Hotel For Women, 63rd and Lexington. A few years later, Sylvia Plath would be a guest editor, too: when she wrote about the experience, she called it the Amazon. A few years later, Ali McGraw was a guest editor, and made the cover.

This is an intriguing institutional biography, a study of a hotel and a magazine. The program was a clever idea: Mademoiselle could have its pick of promising young writers as interns and cheap models as well as — crucially — and annual focus group to keep the permanent staff in touch with their ideal readers. Mademoiselle was always led by women, and the program gave them a pipeline to some of the best.

Some other institutions intersect: the Katie Gibbs secretarial school rented several floors of the hotel for decades, the Powers Agency urged its models to stay there, and some of the young women who moved into the hotel in the 1930s as a way station to romance found that the world had other plans and would still be there, thanks to rent control and persistence, at the end of the century.

This is a good book. Occasionally, Bren’s word choices are imprecise. Occasionally, she repeats anecdotes. Bren is fascinated by Sylvia Plath, and I think her focus on Plath gets a bit out of hand: you've got lots of other fascinating women, some of whom stuck around long enough for interviews. (The girl who had the room next to Sylvia’s that Plath had saved her life: now, if she killed herself, she’d always be the other girl from ’53 who committed suicide.) I’m not entirely sure that this wouldn't work better as fiction, and it might have worked better as a thesis book. But this is what we have, and it’s great to have it.

May 21 10 2021

Foundation

by Isaac Asimov

Revisited after many years as part of my study of the prehistory of hypertext. This exploration of the end of the Roman Empire through the lens of science fiction remains intriguing and readable, even if the dialogue sometimes limps. It is striking and embarrassing, however, that a book of Foundation’s breadth could have been imagined almost entirely without women. Though Asimov thought a lot about artificial intelligence, he doesn't do that here: there are no robots, no positronic brains, scarcely any electronics, and people still worry about changing tubes after they blow out.