Where were you when you learned that President Kennedy was shot?

What does a memoirist really remember? Mortifying to confess, I remember where I was when I heard the news of the event in relation to my love life. That was the main event when I was twenty-two.

In November 1963 I was living in Paris, and teaching American English in a ée for girls. The night I heard the news on the radio, I was waiting in my maid’s room for a man I had just started dating to arrive. When he did, we went out to an Irish bar to watch the news on television. I reported the French coverage in a letter to my parents the next day.

handwriting     I hadn’t had time to send my letter when the news of Kennedy’s assassination came over the radio. I was able to follow the reports from the first “flash” to the confirmation of his death. Today the radio has not ceased to talk, speculate, and lament. Even the vegetable sellers are upset and talking about it.
     I myself was completely overwhelmed and I shudder to think of what will happen in the next elections. Please keep all documentation that appears on the subject.

 

I continued a few days later in my girl-reporter mode.

     There was complete (radio, tv, newspaper) coverage here. People were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone seemed to have admired, and more, liked Kennedy, finding him “jeune et sympathique.” We talked about it in my lycée classes, and my kids seemed quite impressed. Different people came and expressed their sympathy and shock to me. Over here the main questions were: how could the protection of a president be so inefficient? And, what was going on in the Dallas police force (i.e. police and Ruby? police and FBI?) I and everyone here were especially disgusted by the violence of the whole thing, and could not understand how such important things could get so out of hand. There still is no explanation and I wonder if there ever will be.

KennedyI had been living in Paris for three years without going home, and working very hard on becoming an expatriate. The fact that I was on the verge of falling in love with an American expatriate made that dream even more irresistible. The man, whom I was to marry two years later, was Irish American. As a nice Jewish girl from Manhattan I knew that an Irish American Catholic from Boston was not what my parents would consider husband material. Even I had my doubts at the beginning. Looking back it now seems to me that the prestige and glamour of Kennedy in France―with his Irish and Boston Irish origins―insidiously made my choice more acceptable, less foreign, in my eyes, at least, if not theirs. Still, in the second letter about the assassination, I introduced them on paper to the person I now call Jim Donovan.

It’s hard, if not impossible for me to separate in memory what I felt about the event from the French fascination with Kennedy (and Jackie) in which I experienced it; it’s even harder for me to sever the connection between my incipient love story, the failure of the marriage to which it led, and the shock of what seemed unthinkable. In my mind, the two tracks of memory are intimately linked.

The replays of the moment on television bring everyone back there, even those by definition too young to remember. The spectacle of the shooting and other now iconic images of the scene, not least Jackie Kennedy’s bloodied pink suit, John John’s salute, and Caroline’s little blue-coated, blonde girl adorableness become instantly familiar, instantly part of collective memory. All of us will connect learning of the event with some aspect of their personal life―hence the “where were you when?” In that sense, my memories are no more significant than belated ones, despite the fact that this happened in my lifetime. That’s how, I think, we remember, where we were when. In more than one way, political memory is always also personal.

Difficult Women

Say a woman is “difficult,” and chances are that she will not get the job, the promotion, or the invitation to join the club. The adjective guarantees pariahdom. And yet as the New York Times Book Review launches a new feature of its redesign, “The Shortlist,” it groups four books about so-called “difficult women” framed by a collage of women’s cut-up faces and bright-red lips. True, if you reconstructed the fragments, the faces would be beautiful, but in their cubist presentation they also look vaguely evil. Why burden very different books with the label of negative gender stereotypes?

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As in the recent NYTBR’s “Memoirs by Women,” “Difficult Women” is a hodge-podge of novels with vastly different styles and subjects: Terry McMillan’s new novel, Who Asked You, Chelsea Cain’s detective novel Let Me Go, Nicole Galland’s historical excursion, Godiva, and Kate Manning’s biographical novel, cast as a memoir, My Notorious Life. While Cain’s heroine sounds seriously, not to say, serially dangerous– capable of decapitation and disembowelment–the female figures of the three other novels are merely heroic or powerful.

Is it churlish not to see a silver lining here? After all, it’s four books by women writers, reviewed (somewhat condescendingly) by a woman writer, and four is better than one or none, if we’re doing it by the numbers. Still, what really is gained by lumping together books that have nothing in common beyond the gender of their authors and the assumption that their characters are best avoided?

To be fair, in the description of the new feature, the women are described as “defiant.”
So why not make that the heading?

Defiant is cool.

Memoirs by Men, or why bother?

Of course, not. What editor worth his salt would choose to group reviews of memoirs written by men under that title? No one. But Memoirs by Women, now that makes a lot of sense. Memoirs are by definition by men, so Memoirs by Men would be redundant. Memoirs by women, on the other hand, are, well, memoirs by women. You know, we women have so much in common. And look, the reviewer is a woman! We belong to that group of writers who live, as Meg Wolitzer, showed convincingly, on the “second shelf.”

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review column “Chronicle” groups brief reviews of four Memoirs by Women. What do they have in common? Let’s see: Blue Plate Special (Kate Christensen) is “a paean to cooking and food”; Nine Years Under (Sheri Booker) is the story of a girl’s summer job working in “funeral home in a poor, urban setting”; Mother Daughter Me (Katie Hafner) is the account of a “yearlong experiment in mutigenerational living”; My Animals and Other Family (Clare Balding) is a book about the author’s “deep affection for the creatures…that populated her childhood.” Try as one might, it is difficult to perceive what connects these memoirs except that they have indeed been written by women, and therefore, apparently, deserve no more than one paragraph in an omnibus review. (Compared, say, to the full–if only half page–review of a memoir by a thirteen year-old autistic Japanese boy.)

shirinThe pointlessness of the grouping becomes more striking by contrast with the one book that is not so much reviewed as summarized, but accompanied by a stunning photograph by Shirin Neshat, a well-known Iranian photographer, videographer, and filmmaker.

She Who Tells A Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World, edited by Kristen Gresh. This is not a memoir by a woman, rather a collection of essays that accompany the images, images taken by women. To review this collection as by women would have had a certain political sense and interest. But that’s not what happened.

One can only guess at the editorial “reasoning” behind the grouping: here are four books no one will read so let’s give them a break by putting them together under the fabulous photograph taken by an Iranian artist?

But perhaps it’s a mistake to look for the reasons behind the second-shelf treatment women writers contend against. Literary misogyny does not require reasons. All it requires is continuing resistance.

“New-Wave Feminists,” starring Jane Austen

I’ve long been enamored of new-wave movies since they changed my life, and so it was a treat to see feminists referred to as “new wavers” in a spirit of excitement. A lot has been going on this summer by activists of feminism’s fourth wave. For one thing, due to campaigning by feminist activists, the Bank of England announced that the face of Jane Austen would appear on the next ten-pound note. No small achievement.

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And crossing the channel for a moment, it was reported a couple of weeks ago that the Femen leader was to be the face of France’s iconic Marianne: a new postage stamp designed to mark François Hollande’s presidency.

But, back to England, and not just stamps.

I’m not sure how many lions it takes to make a pride, but there’s a pride of feminist journalists reporting in the Guardian and a great deal of attention to feminist issues, from the mass rally in Hyde Park to mark the 100th anniversary of the suffragettes’ action in 1913 to the Jane Austen story, to the battle against the display of what’s called “lads’ mags” in a large grocery chain. (A typical title: “Nuts and Zoo”).

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, the avowedly feminist triumph of getting Jane Austen’s face on the ten-pound note produced an unpleasant, and even violent series of misogynist reactions posted on social media.

Elizabeth Criado-Perez, the brave young activist who led the campaign to have Austen’s face on the note, was attacked and threatened with rape on Twitter. Various conversations about an effective response have ensued guaranteeing that this individual case will not go the way of anecdote. Rather, this specific attack has led to a widespread conversation about the kind of harassmentthat has repeatedly been taking place across the Internet.

Even the distinguished classicist Mary Beard has entered the fray, “naming and shaming” an Internet “troll” who mocked her on Twitter. This feels like the beginning of a serious debate here about what’s been dubbed “anti-social media.

janeaustenI almost forgot. Jane Austen is also making news because of the recent installation of a larger than life Mr. Darcy (a k a Colin Firth) emerging from the Serpentine in a wet shirt as a publicity stunt to promote a new tv channel’s production of yet another film version of Pride and Prejudice. It seems that the lake scene is the scene from the novel (or would that be the movie?) most Austen fans like best.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hadley Freeman’s primer for how “not to be a dick on the internet,” belated advice to Anthony Weiner, pro-actively, how to fight back against internet abuse.

I know I’m given to idealizing places where I do not live, and god knows there’s plenty of sexism and misogyny alive and well in the UK, but I confess it is a restorative experience to read a newspaper column that refers to “fourth-wave” feminism as if it were something real, interesting, and potentially effective.

What will I do when I’m back with the Times?

Girls Write Now

This past Saturday, I took myself down to the journalism workshop at Girls Write Now. This month’s topic was travel writing. Since I like to travel and report about my adventures abroad, I thought I might get some tips from an expert. In this case the craft talk was given by Heidi Mitchell, a journalist and editor based in New York, who, as her bio puts it, is “on a plane once a month.” I hope that some of what I learned will help me focus my travel writing–or rather, the travel writing part of my blogs and memoir.

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In the discussion period, a question was asked about the differences between memoir and journalism. How does each genre balance the role of self and setting? In memoir, Kate Trebuss, a mentor suggested, the setting functions as a lens for the self, in journalism, the self provides the lens or frame for the setting. I found that an extremely apt distinction, and also an excellent description of what I try to do in my Paris memoir, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris, where the city recomposes the character who is myself in unexpected ways.