Summer Reading Suggestions

Hopefully, some of you have read all of these books and all of you have read some of these books.  A re-read is never out of the question, especially if it is a summer read.  Summer reads can be picked up and put down, read at the beach/pool and on any sort of transportation to/from your summer activity.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Not only is this book an essential American classic, but Twain is an essential American figure — and you might as well begin your reading life by reading the work of one of the most interesting minds available. Plus, can’t go wrong with Huck Finn — it’s adventure and social commentary and a stellar yarn all in one.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Everybody should read Shakespeare. Boring, you say? Not Hamlet — there’s murder, revenge, a ghost, a suicide, and much madness.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

Holden Caulfield has ushered many a teenager into the world of reading, and to be honest, you may not get the full force of this novel as an adult — even an adult generally unfamiliar with fiction. That said, the book is such an entrenched part of the collective American consciousness that it’s worth knowing about at any age. And if you’ve ever been a discontent adolescent, you’ll probably like it at least a little.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Don’t be scared — this book looks serious, and it is, but it’s also super short. This is the most disquieting, illusionary campfire tale you will ever hear, but luckily, you can hear it in the safety of your own home.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Not only is this book short and straightforwardly written (if not particularly straightforward), but it’s an American touchstone, the book that is probably most often cited as the Great American Novel. A must.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Part of beginning a reading life is exploring your options and figuring out what kind of books you like. The classics are all very well and good (and probably necessary), but maybe you like sci-fi, and there’s only one way to find out. Plus, there’s the fact that this book will keep anyone (especially anyone who enjoyed Catching Fire) engaged from first page to last.

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Or maybe it’s fantasy that gets your reading motor going? Start at the top with this wonderful book.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Another American classic, Lee’s book features the best dad any girl could ever hope for, plus a fascinating historical perspective and some damn fine writing. Everyone you know has read this book, and for good reason.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s masterpiece has been widely heralded as one of the best books in recent history, and indeed, it is much beloved (ha, ha) by readers and critics alike. This despite the fact that it is not a feel-good book, but rather a harrowing account of an escaped slave trying to save her children from her own fate.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Now, this is a little more advanced, it’s true. But if you’re an adventurous type, you won’t be disappointed with Woolf’s incredible, stream-of-consciousness novel. You might have to read it twice, but you should definitely read it.

Dance Is Like Thought – Self Help

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” A stirring encounter at the pinnacle of the human spirit.

From Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings, which gave us that wonderful daisy chain of encounters between Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Helen Keller, comes another moving meeting of great spirits, this time between Helen Keller, iconic choreographer Martha Graham, and legendary dancer Merce Cunningham.

At seventy-two, already admired far and wide for her extraordinary story of unhinging disability from destiny, Keller meets the Grand Dame of modern dance. Brown writes:

Graham is immediately taken by what she calls Helen’s ‘gracious embrace of life’, and is impressed by what appears to be her photographic memory. They become friends. Before long, Helen starts paying regular visits to the dance studio. She seems to focus on the dancers’ feet, and can somehow tell the direction in which they are moving. Martha Graham is intrigued. ‘She could not see the dance but was able to allow its vibrations to leave the floor and enter her body.’

On one of her visits, Helen says, ‘Martha, what is jumping? I don’t understand.’

Graham is touched by this simple question. She asks a member of her company, Merce Cunningham, to stand at the barre. She approaches him from behind, says, ‘Merce, be very careful, I’m putting Helen’s hands on your body,’ and places Helen Keller’s hands on his waist.

Cunningham cannot see Keller, but feels her two hands around his waist, ‘like bird wings, so soft’. Everyone in the studio stands quite still, focusing on what is happening. Cunningham jumps in the air while Keller’s hands rise up with his body. ‘Her hands rose and fell as Merce did,’ recalls Martha Graham, in extreme old age.

‘Her expression changed from curiosity to one of joy. You could see the enthusiasm rise in her face as she threw her arms in the air.’

Cunningham continues to perform small leaps, with very straight legs. He suddenly feels Keller’s fingers, still touching his waist, begin to move slightly, ‘as though fluttering’. For the first time in her life, she is experiencing dance. ‘Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is!’ she exclaims when he stops.

In this short excerpt from the 1954 documentary The Unconquered: Helen Keller in Her Story, Keller pays a visit to Graham’s dance studio — to watch this is to witness a true triumph of the human spirit:

The rest of Hello Goodbye Hello, a kind of real-life Circles of Influence culled from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera, strings together similar vignettes of little-known true encounters between cultural icons — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more.

The Bulk of all Human Utterances is Plagiarism

In 1892, deafblind author Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after a short story of hers, named “The Frost King,” was identified as being extremely similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” An investigation followed, as did a tribunal in which she was eventually acquitted. Amazingly, Keller was just 12 years of age at the time.

A decade later, her friend, Mark Twain, learned of the episode after reading Keller’s autobiography. He then wrote her the fascinating letter of support seen below.



St. Patrick’s Day, ’03

Dear Helen,—

I must steal half a moment from my work to say how glad I am to have your book, and how highly I value it, both for its own sake and as a remembrance of an affectionate friendship which has subsisted between us for nine years without a break, and without a single act of violence that I can call to mind. I suppose there is nothing like it in heaven; and not likely to be, until we get there and show off. I often think of it with longing, and how they’ll say, “There they come—sit down in front!” I am practicing with a tin halo. You do the same. I was at Henry Roger’s last night, and of course we talked of you. He is not at all well;—you will not like to hear that; but like you and me, he is just as lovely as ever.

I am charmed with your book—enchanted. You are a wonderful creature, the most wonderful in the world—you and your other half together—Miss Sullivan, I mean, for it took the pair of you to make a complete and perfect whole. How she stands out in her letters! her brilliancy, penetration, originality, wisdom, character, and the fine literary competencies of her pen—they are all there.

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Then why don’t we unwittingly reproduce the phrasing of a story, as well as the story itself? It can hardly happen—to the extent of fifty words except in the case of a child; its memory-tablet is not lumbered with impressions, and the actual language can have graving-room there, and preserve the language a year or two, but a grown person’s memory-tablet is a palimpsest, with hardly a bare space upon which to engrave a phrase. It must be a very rare thing that a whole page gets so sharply printed on a man’s mind, by a single reading, that it will stay long enough to turn up some time or other to be mistaken by him for his own. No doubt we are constantly littering our literature with disconnected sentences borrowed from books at some unremembered time and now imagined to be our own, but that is about the most we can do. In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with. Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass—no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;” and so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.”

To think of those solemn donkeys breaking a little child’s heart with their ignorant rubbish about plagiarism! I couldn’t sleep for blaspheming about it last night. Why, their whole lives, their whole histories, all their learning, all their thoughts, all their opinions were one solid rock of plagiarism, and they didn’t know it and never suspected it. A gang of dull and hoary pirates piously setting themselves the task of disciplining and purifying a kitten that they think they’ve caught filching a chop! Oh, dam—

But you finish it, dear, I am running short of vocabulary today.

Every lovingly your friend


Banned Books That Shaped America: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Library of Congress created an exhibit, “Books that Shaped America,” that explores books that “have had a profound effect on American life.” Many of the books in the exhibit have been banned/challenged.  Give yourself the gift of a beautiful story and read one and them imagine what your life would be like if you were never given that gift.

Fight censorship.

I love my kindle, but this book should be read in used paperback form, so people know you are reading it.  Buy a used copy, read it, and leave it in a coffee shop.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884

The first ban of Mark Twain’s American classic in Concord, MA in 1885 called it “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Objections to the book have evolved, but only marginally. Twain’s book is one of the most-challenged of all time and is frequently challenged even today because of its frequent use of the word “nigger.” Otherwise it is alleged the book is “racially insensitive,” “oppressive,” and “perpetuates racism.”

Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn opens by familiarizing us with the events of the novel that preceded it, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Both novels are set in the town of St. Petersburg, Missouri, which lies on the banks of the Mississippi River. At the end of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, a poor boy with a drunken bum for a father, and his friend Tom Sawyer, a middle-class boy with an imagination too active for his own good, found a robber’s stash of gold. As a result of his adventure, Huck gained quite a bit of money, which the bank held for him in trust. Huck was adopted by the Widow Douglas, a kind but stifling woman who lives with her sister, the self-righteous Miss Watson.

As Huckleberry Finn opens, Huck is none too thrilled with his new life of cleanliness, manners, church, and school. However, he sticks it out at the bequest of Tom Sawyer, who tells him that in order to take part in Tom’s new “robbers’ gang,” Huck must stay “respectable.” All is well and good until Huck’s brutish, drunken father, Pap, reappears in town and demands Huck’s money. The local judge, Judge Thatcher, and the Widow try to get legal custody of Huck, but another well-intentioned new judge in town believes in the rights of Huck’s natural father and even takes the old drunk into his own home in an attempt to reform him. This effort fails miserably, and Pap soon returns to his old ways. He hangs around town for several months, harassing his son, who in the meantime has learned to read and to tolerate the Widow’s attempts to improve him. Finally, outraged when the Widow Douglas warns him to stay away from her house, Pap kidnaps Huck and holds him in a cabin across the river from St. Petersburg.

Whenever Pap goes out, he locks Huck in the cabin, and when he returns home drunk, he beats the boy. Tired of his confinement and fearing the beatings will worsen, Huck escapes from Pap by faking his own death, killing a pig and spreading its blood all over the cabin. Hiding on Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River, Huck watches the townspeople search the river for his body. After a few days on the island, he encounters Jim, one of Miss Watson’s slaves. Jim has run away from Miss Watson after hearing her talk about selling him to a plantation down the river, where he would be treated horribly and separated from his wife and children. Huck and Jim team up, despite Huck’s uncertainty about the legality or morality of helping a runaway slave. While they camp out on the island, a great storm causes the Mississippi to flood. Huck and Jim spy a log raft and a house floating past the island. They capture the raft and loot the house, finding in it the body of a man who has been shot. Jim refuses to let Huck see the dead man’s face.

Although the island is blissful, Huck and Jim are forced to leave after Huck learns from a woman onshore that her husband has seen smoke coming from the island and believes that Jim is hiding out there. Huck also learns that a reward has been offered for Jim’s capture. Huck and Jim start downriver on the raft, intending to leave it at the mouth of the Ohio River and proceed up that river by steamboat to the free states, where slavery is prohibited. Several days’ travel takes them past St. Louis, and they have a close encounter with a gang of robbers on a wrecked steamboat. They manage to escape with the robbers’ loot.

During a night of thick fog, Huck and Jim miss the mouth of the Ohio and encounter a group of men looking for escaped slaves. Huck has a brief moral crisis about concealing stolen “property”—Jim, after all, belongs to Miss Watson—but then lies to the men and tells them that his father is on the raft suffering from smallpox. Terrified of the disease, the men give Huck money and hurry away. Unable to backtrack to the mouth of the Ohio, Huck and Jim continue downriver. The next night, a steamboat slams into their raft, and Huck and Jim are separated.

Huck ends up in the home of the kindly Grangerfords, a family of Southern aristocrats locked in a bitter and silly feud with a neighboring clan, the Shepherdsons. The elopement of a Grangerford daughter with a Shepherdson son leads to a gun battle in which many in the families are killed. While Huck is caught up in the feud, Jim shows up with the repaired raft. Huck hurries to Jim’s hiding place, and they take off down the river.

A few days later, Huck and Jim rescue a pair of men who are being pursued by armed bandits. The men, clearly con artists, claim to be a displaced English duke (the duke) and the long-lost heir to the French throne (the dauphin). Powerless to tell two white adults to leave, Huck and Jim continue down the river with the pair of “aristocrats.” The duke and the dauphin pull several scams in the small towns along the river. Coming into one town, they hear the story of a man, Peter Wilks, who has recently died and left much of his inheritance to his two brothers, who should be arriving from England any day. The duke and the dauphin enter the town pretending to be Wilks’s brothers. Wilks’s three nieces welcome the con men and quickly set about liquidating the estate. A few townspeople become skeptical, and Huck, who grows to admire the Wilks sisters, decides to thwart the scam. He steals the dead Peter Wilks’s gold from the duke and the dauphin but is forced to stash it in Wilks’s coffin. Huck then reveals all to the eldest Wilks sister, Mary Jane. Huck’s plan for exposing the duke and the dauphin is about to unfold when Wilks’s real brothers arrive from England. The angry townspeople hold both sets of Wilks claimants, and the duke and the dauphin just barely escape in the ensuing confusion. Fortunately for the sisters, the gold is found. Unfortunately for Huck and Jim, the duke and the dauphin make it back to the raft just as Huck and Jim are pushing off.

After a few more small scams, the duke and dauphin commit their worst crime yet: they sell Jim to a local farmer, telling him Jim is a runaway for whom a large reward is being offered. Huck finds out where Jim is being held and resolves to free him. At the house where Jim is a prisoner, a woman greets Huck excitedly and calls him “Tom.” As Huck quickly discovers, the people holding Jim are none other than Tom Sawyer’s aunt and uncle, Silas and Sally Phelps. The Phelpses mistake Huck for Tom, who is due to arrive for a visit, and Huck goes along with their mistake. He intercepts Tom between the Phelps house and the steamboat dock, and Tom pretends to be his own younger brother, Sid.

Tom hatches a wild plan to free Jim, adding all sorts of unnecessary obstacles even though Jim is only lightly secured. Huck is sure Tom’s plan will get them all killed, but he complies nonetheless. After a seeming eternity of pointless preparation, during which the boys ransack the Phelps’s house and make Aunt Sally miserable, they put the plan into action. Jim is freed, but a pursuer shoots Tom in the leg. Huck is forced to get a doctor, and Jim sacrifices his freedom to nurse Tom. All are returned to the Phelps’s house, where Jim ends up back in chains.

When Tom wakes the next morning, he reveals that Jim has actually been a free man all along, as Miss Watson, who made a provision in her will to free Jim, died two months earlier. Tom had planned the entire escape idea all as a game and had intended to pay Jim for his troubles. Tom’s Aunt Polly then shows up, identifying “Tom” and “Sid” as Huck and Tom. Jim tells Huck, who fears for his future—particularly that his father might reappear—that the body they found on the floating house off Jackson’s Island had been Pap’s. Aunt Sally then steps in and offers to adopt Huck, but Huck, who has had enough “sivilizing,” announces his plan to set out for the West.

Fight internet censorship.

Fight internet censorship.

3rd (Self Help) Day of Xmas – Helen

Seriously?  When Helen Keller communicates, everyone should pay attention.  It is a wonderful letter about the importance of helping others.

It is true, we are only as good as our treatment of the less fortunate.  Everyone needs some sort of help.

helen keller

In March of 1906, unable to preside over a public meeting of the Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind, deafblind activist and author Helen Keller instead sent the following stirring letter to her good friend, Mark Twain. On the day of the event, Twain, who was chairing the meeting in Keller’s absence, read her stunning letter aloud to all attendees and later included it in his autobiography, predicting that it would “pass into our literature as a classic and remain so.”

It’s very easy to see why.

Wrentham, Mass., March 27, 1906

My dear Mr. Clemens:

It is a great disappointment to me not to be with you and the other friends who have joined their strength to uplift the blind. The meeting in New York will be the greatest occasion in the movement which has so long engaged my heart: and I regret keenly not to be present and feel the inspiration of living contact with such an assembly of wit, wisdom and philanthropy. I shall be happy if I could have spelled into my hand the words as they fall from your lips, and receive, even as it is uttered, the eloquence of our Newest Ambassador to the blind. We have not had such advocates before. My disappointment is softened by the thought that never at any meeting was the right word so sure to be spoken. But, superfluous as all other appeals must seem after you and Mr. Choate have spoken, nevertheless, as I am a woman, I cannot be silent, and I ask you to read this letter, knowing that it will be lifted to eloquence by your kindly voice.

To know what the blind man needs, you who can see must imagine what it would be not to see, and you can imagine it more vividly if you remember that before your journey’s end you may have to go the dark way yourself. Try to realize what blindness means to those whose joyous activity is stricken to inaction.

It is to live long, long days, and life is made up of days. It is to live immured, baffled, impotent, all God’s world shut out. It is to sit helpless, defrauded, while your spirit strains and tugs at its fetters, and your shoulders ache for the burden they are denied, the rightful burden of labor.

The seeing man goes about his business confident and self-dependent. He does his share of the work of the world in mine, in quarry, in factory, in counting room, asking of others no boon, save the opportunity to do a man’s part and to receive the laborer’s guerdon. In an instant accident blinds him. The day is blotted out. Night envelops all the visible world. The feet which once bore him to his task with firm and confident stride stumble and halt and fear the forward step. He is forced to a new habit of idleness, which like a canker consumes the mind and destroys its beautiful faculties. Memory confronts him with his lighted past. Amid the tangible ruins of his life as it promised to be he gropes his pitiful way. You have met him on your busy thoroughfares with faltering feet and outstretched hands, patiently “dredging” the universal dark, holding out for sale his petty wares, or his cap for your pennies; and this was a man with ambitions and capabilities.

It is because we know that these ambitions and capabilities can be fulfilled that we are working to improve the condition of the adult blind. You cannot bring back the light of the vacant eyes; but you can give a helping hand to the sightless along their dark pilgrimage. You can teach them new skill. For work they once did with the aid of their eyes you can substitute work that they can do with their hands. They ask only opportunity, and opportunity is a torch in the darkness. They crave no charity, no pension, but the satisfaction that comes from lucrative toil, and this satisfaction is the right of every human being.

At your meeting New York will speak its word for the blind, and when New York speaks, the world listens. The true message of New York is not the commercial ticking of busy telegraphs, but the mightier utterances of such gatherings as yours. Of late our periodicals have been filled with depressing revelations of great social evils. Querulous critics have pointed to every flaw in our civic structure. We have listened long enough to the pessimists. You once told me you were a pessimist, Mr. Clemens, but great men are usually mistaken about themselves. You are an optimist. If you were not, you would not preside at the meeting. For it is an answer to pessimism. It proclaims that the heart and the wisdom of a great city are devoted to the good of mankind, that in this, busiest city in the world, no cry of distress goes up but receives a compassionate and generous answer. Rejoice that the cause of the blind has been heard in New York, for the day after it shall be heard around the world.

Yours sincerely,

Helen Keller

via Letters of Note: We have listened long enough to the pessimists.

Go Ask Alice…

For some reason, the film version of this book popped into my head last night.  I remember seeing it around the same time I read the book.  I am pretty sure it had no influence on me doing or not doing drugs, although she did a lot of acid or PCP or Angel Dust.  Whatever happened to Angel Dust?  It was the scariest drug that I had ever heard of, you would hear news reports of people needing to be restrained by six state troopers because they were on it.  It’s probably just called something else now.

Go Ask Alice

While some people believe that Go Ask Alice is not a true diary after all, but the wholly or partly fictional work of Beatrice Sparks (one of the book’s editors and the author of several fictional teen “diaries”), the diary indisputably evokes the drug and sex-saturated atmosphere of the late 1960s. After several underground and some mainstream movements—think of Elvis Presley, James Dean, and the Beat writers—punctured the conformist bubble of the 1950s, the baby-boomers of the 1960s were ready to join the revolution. Easier access to drugs and birth control and an unpopular war in Vietnam only solidified their desires as they followed the mantra of mad scientist Timothy Leary to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Society was divided along generational lines between the powerful establishment of old, white men and the insurgent counterculture.

Alice is caught in the midst of the societal struggle, and her diary reflects her experiences and feelings. She harbors conventional bourgeois aspirations, such as marriage, and also disdains the hypocrisy of the establishment that makes it easier for minors to acquire illegal drugs than alcohol. She grows long, straight hippie-style hair and uses the informal language of the counterculture (e.g. “Dig, man?”) Her experiments with drugs—including marijuana, the one she has heard so much about, and LSD—are the substances that privileged white teens had newfound access to in the 60s, and her sexual exploits exhibit the new Sexual Revolution. Still, the book is oddly sealed off from the rest of 60s culture. Alice hardly mentions listening to music, not once naming artists like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, or even The Beatles as contributors to societal or personal protest and experimentation. More glaring is the omission if the Vietnam war, discussed only briefly between Alice and her father; Alice’s most political act is attending an unspecified rally where she does drugs. While this may simply have been Alice’s route, many supposed rebels in the counterculture did little more than jump on the bandwagon and use revolutionary politics as an excuse for hedonism.

Go Ask Alice is also an epistolary work, a narrative constructed by letters (in this case, diary entries). Many of the earliest novels in the English language were epistolary—Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, for instance—and Go Ask Alice adapts the style for its modern needs. Assuming the book is a real diary, Alice is presented to us as she really was, with observations and experiences both dramatic and insignificant, as her life unfolds naturally. If the book is fictional, or a fictionalized diary, the author still allows Alice to speak in her own highly plausible language, with a first-person account that makes her experiences, foreign to some readers, sympathetic and realistic. In the tradition of other first-person coming-of-age novels, such as Mark Twain‘s ##Huckleberry Finn# J.D. Salinger‘s ##The Catcher in the Rye# and Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone, Alice speaks directly to the reader. As is Salinger’s underlying intent of having the alienated Holden Caulfield connect most deeply with his reader, Alice (or Beatrice Sparks—and it doesn’t really matter in the end) fulfills her goal of becoming a social worker through her first-person direct address. *from*





Girls That Wear Glasses. ATMs. Scales. Places.

Today is the birthday of the woman who said, “People are more fun than anybody” and “I don’t care what is written about me so long as it isn’t true”: Dorothy Parker, born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey (1893). She most famously wrote this:

News Item

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

Yes, that was her.

SPA’s Helpful Hint #5467: Weight Management.

If you slip off your flip flops and drop your towel before stepping on the gym scale, let’s be real, you already know you didn’t lose any weight. We all know it and now you’re naked on the gym scale. Look at you, look at your life!

What else do I have for you today? This weekend is Hempfest in Seattle. I’m guessing the Great Dorito Drought of 2010 is soon to follow. I was behind a guy at the ATM who had clearly been at Hempfest. He kept pressing ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’. I finally just walked him through it. He tried to convince me he needed stamps. Funny. I told him I was going to tell his mom. All of Belltown is full of Hempfest zombies, but instead of brains, they crave pizza rolls.

Coffee at Bauhaus and now watching R get his hair cut.

I have this strong desire to incorrectly use Facebook places. Like I will always be at a nearby church or something. I just figure if I am rarely interested in where anyone is, they are probably not interested in where I am.

Here is the rest about Dorothy Parker:



[Commissioned by “Vanity Fair” for the DP centenary — not published when Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” bombed that year.  Later adapted (1995) for “Forbes FYI” under the title THE TWO DOROTHYS]

Everyone’s wondering what Dorothy Parker would say if she knew that her face was on a postage stamp — something about being “licked,” probably, or “sold in sheets,” or “swapped by collectors. “ In her heyday, it was said of Mrs. Parker that “the men were in and out of her apartment like the mail” — she would not have wanted for jokes about the United States Postal Service’s Philatelic Fulfillment Center in Kansas City, Missouri, which handles national distribution of special stamps and where hers is moving briskly. Mrs. Parker actually went to Missouri once (or was it Colorado?) and found it “delightful — fifty-five dollars a month for a furnished house, and five cents for a watermelon.” In 1936 she wired a friend that the next time she crossed the country it would be “in a coffin covered with the American flag,” but this didn’t mean she wasn’t a patriot. She just wasn’t “a personal friend of the multitudes.”

“I’m a feminist,” said Mrs. Parker, “and God knows I’m loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when New York was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women.” She’s the only woman in America to whom a whole volume of the Viking Portable Library is devoted, and she sells like hotcakes (8th in line by official count) next to Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Jung, Thoreau, Emerson, Poe and Joyce. It’s not bad for a woman who liked to describe herself as “just a little Jewish girl trying to be cute.”

The Post Office gets 30,000 letters a year asking that one or another celebrated American be honored with a stamp, but it chooses, on average, only 25 or 30 subjects. Special issues don’t circulate long, so, by the time you read this, the Dorothy Parker 29-center, 10th in a series of “Literary Arts” commemoratives, will be off the shelves and back in the warehouse, available only by special order. That would not surprise her. One of her uncles went down with the Titanic, and her view of the world, even in her rosy moments, was frankly suicidal:

I never see that prettiest thing –
A cherry bough gone white with Spring –
But what I think, “How gay `twould be
To hang me from a flowering tree.”

“I’m always this way in the Spring,” Mrs. Parker confessed. “Sunk in Springtime: or Take Away Those Violets.” Not that any other season was easier to bear. “YOU COME RIGHT OVER HERE AND EXPLAIN WHY THEY ARE HAVING ANOTHER YEAR,” she cabled Robert Benchley one December 31st.

On August 20, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, a weekend celebration of Dorothy Parker’s life and career is scheduled to kick off at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, where the Round Table was born in 1919 and where Mrs. Parker is still remembered as the cleverest (and most lethal) of its writers and wits. Four of her short stories have been dramatized to music for a cabaret performance, and while the staff at the Algonquin seemed uncertain at press time just how far the festivities might go, there are sure to be readings, and tributes, and plenty of booze.

“Three highballs,” Mrs. Parker once said, “and I’m St. Francis of Assisi.” As a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s, she irritated Samuel Goldwyn with her stream of caustic remarks.

“Wisecracks,” Goldwyn complained. “I told you there’s no money in wisecracks. People want a happy ending.”

“I know this will come as a shock to you, Mr. Goldwyn,” said Mrs. Parker, “but in all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one ever had a happy ending.” And with that she left the room, leaving Goldwyn, for a moment, to ponder her words.

“Does anybody in here know what the hell that woman was talking about?” he said.

Oh life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong,
And I am Marie of Roumania.

Mrs. Parker would be a century old on August 22, a hundred years and legends away from her birthplace at West End, New Jersey. Her father, J. Henry Rothschild, was a prosperous, Jewish, “dearly loathed” captain of the garment industry in Manhattan; her mother was “English-American” — what they used to call WASP — a former schoolteacher who died when Dorothy was seven and left her confused, to say the least, about religion and race. If she ever wrote her autobiography, she said, she’d call it Mongrel. No matter: rather than tell her life story she’d cut her throat with a dull knife.

“All those writers who write about their childhood!” Mrs. Parker exclaimed. “Gentle God, if I wrote about mine you wouldn’t sit in the same room with me.”

“What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?” an interviewer asked.

“Need of money, dear.” She sprang fully armed from the Upper West Side to the pages of Vogue, where, starting in 1916, she wrote ad copy, captions and whimsical verse (“When she was good she was very very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, trimmed with frothy Valenciennes lace”), and from Vogue to Vanity Fair, where she succeeded P. G. Wodehouse as drama critic and first made her mark as the wittiest woman in New York. It was at Condé Nast that Mrs. Parker developed her matchless philosophy of life (“I hate men. They irritate me”), and here, too, reflecting on bitter experience, that she dreamed up what is arguably the most famous couplet of the 20th century (she called it “News Item”):

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

Frank Crowninshield, editor of Vanity Fair, had understood “the need for more cheerfulness” in American life after World War I, “for hiding a solemn face, for a fair measure of pluck, and for great good humor.” But he didn’t count on Dorothy Parker, who brought a new standard of impiety to magazine writing and whose literary style — personal, prejudiced, plaintive and quick — came to epitomize the irreverent decade of the 1920s. Mrs. Parker was something new in the history of criticism: a lady with a loaded gun. She was the enfant terrible of the lost generation, the “What-the-Hell Girl” of Madison Avenue and a few blocks west.

“Sometimes I think it can’t be true,” she protested one day in her theatre column. “There can’t be plays as bad as these. In the first place, no one would write them, and in the second place, no one would produce them.” She swore up and down that she loved a success — “You don’t know what it means to me to be able to say a few kind words about something” — but she was lying, and was grateful for the epidemic of Spanish `flu in 1918, which periodically closed the theatres and “gave the managers something to blame things on.” Mrs. Parker was always better at knocking down than building up:

And though to good I never come –
Inseparable my nose and thumb!

She was a tiny, dainty figure, with enormous green eyes and an odd passion for dirndls, ribbons, and bows on her shoes. “She wore a feather boa that was always getting into other people’s plates or was being set afire by other people’s cigarettes,” says John Keats in You Might As Well Live (1974), the first full biography of Mrs. Parker — it was thought to be “the only boa that ever molted.” Under Prohibition, with many other writers, Mrs. Parker could be found at the fashionable speakeasies — Tony Soma’s, Texas Guinan’s, or Jack and Charlie’s (“21″) — where she drank in the day as well as at night and delivered the ne plus ultra of lame excuses when an editor challenged her over a missed deadline.

“Someone else was using the pencil,” she said. Editors were “idiots,” and the staff at Vanity Fair, in Mrs. Parker’s view, were “four young men who go to pieces easily. Even when they’re in the best of health, you have to stand on their insteps to keep them from flying away.” When she left the magazine in 1920, after “a long succession of thin evenings” at the theatre, it was reputedly under pressure from Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke, the reigning king and queen of Broadway, who were miffed at her blasphemous tone. Mrs. Parker was already becoming famous around the country as one of the charter members of the Algonquin Round Table, where, with Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams and a number of other lunchtime regulars, she sat day after day, year after year till the `20s waned, drinking like a trooper and honing her reputation for homicidal repartee.

“She would simply sit,” said Frank Case, the owner of the Algonquin on West 44th Street, “now and then saying something at which the others would laugh, and that was the end of it.” Not for Mrs. Parker. “Why, it got so bad,” she said, “that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth.” She was married at the time to the socially prominent but perennially absent Edwin Pond Parker II, a Hartford dandy and Wall Street broker whom she was rumored to keep in a closet (in more ways than one) and who became, in her hands, one of the funniest characters ever to sit in the literary wings. Her “little husband” was accident-prone, Mrs. Parker explained — forever falling down manholes, sliding under a bus, or breaking his arm while sharpening pencils.

“I married him to change my name,” she insisted, but there were those who said that she loved Parker and regretted their eventual divorce (“in Connecticut, where you can get it for roller-skating”). Between marriages, she revealed a penchant for pretty-boy models and angry young men — “I require three things of a man,” said Mrs. Parker. “He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid” — and no comprehension whatever of a later age’s “correctness.”

“We were gallant, hardriding and careless of life,” she recollected. “We were little black ewes that had gone astray.” Once in Hollywood, while dating a playwright with a perfect tan, she remarked behind his back, “He has the hue of availability.” It might have been this same boyfriend, grouchy with drink, who rose from the table at a party one night and mumbled, “I gotta piss.”

“He’s shy,” Mrs. Parker explained. “He really has to use the telephone, but he’s too embarrassed to say so.” At parties, for years, “fresh young gents” followed her around to demand that she say something funny. Frequently she complied, as when, one night, a drunk kept pawing at her to tell her how talented he was.

“Look at him,” she agreed, “a rhinestone in the rough.” She was “`the verray parfit, gentil knight’ of the squelch,” said the New York Times. Her mastery of the put-down has never been equaled:

You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.

That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say No in any of them.

I should have stayed home for dinner. I could have had something on a tray. The head of John the Baptist or something.

[On a book she was reviewing]: It was written without fear and without research.

[On her second husband, Alan Campbell]: Don’t worry about Alan. Alan will always land on somebody’s feet.

[The same]: I don’t know where Alan is; he just pulled two boards up out of the floor and went to the post office.

[On meeting the daughters of Jimmy and Dinah Sheean, aged 3 and 6, shy and dressed for company]: A pity they never married.

[On pundit Dorothy Thompson, with whom she was frequently confused]: Well, of course, she realizes that she doesn’t know as much as God; but I suppose she does feel that she knows as much as God knew when He was her age.

[Staring intently at a gentleman’s fly]: Which side does it open on?

[On Elmer Rice]: Without question the worst fuck I ever had.

Her speech was awash with four-letter words, which she pronounced in a sweet, sugary, breathless voice, her eyes as round as tea-time saucers, her air of innocence undisturbed by a string of profanity. “She talked like a woman who as a little girl had attended a very good singing school,” said one of her friends. “That was what made her use of the words `fuck ‘and `shit’ so amusing, because you simply did not expect it.” Many of Mrs. Parker’s sharpest lines have been lost forever in the general modesty, but, among those that survive, an awful lot are about sex.

“One more drink and I’d have been under the host,” she quipped, remarking further about a hunky paramour who had dumped her, “His body went to his head.” (Another died of tuberculosis: “I don’t see what else he could have done.”) She kept a parrot called Onan (“because he spilled his seed upon the ground”) and once returned from a transatlantic crossing to say that the seas had been so rough the only thing she could keep on her stomach was the first mate. Not just people, but dogs were the object of her libidinous humor. She worshipped dogs, and when one of hers — it might have been “Amy,” or “Woodrow Wilson,” or “Poupée Parker” — came down with mange, she whispered to her friends, “He said he got it from a lamppost.” All dogs were “he” in Mrs. Parker’s eyes: “It don’t do to notice everything.” There was a Hollywood producer of her acquaintance who didn’t have “sense enough to bore assholes in wooden hobbyhorses;” a drunken maid whom she called “a tower of Jell-O;” a group of wealthy friends on Long Island whose “pooled emotions wouldn’t fill a teaspoon;” and, of course, Clare Boothe Luce, whose triple-decker name sounded to Mrs. Parker “like the motto of a girls’ school.” She had heard that Mrs. Luce was “an outspoken hostess.”

“Outspoken by whom?” she wondered. The famous story of their encounter in a doorway at the Algonquin (although Mrs. Luce denied it to the grave) has won a permanent place in American legend.

“Age before beauty,” Mrs. Luce proposed.

“Pearls before swine,” Mrs. Parker replied. So many lines attached to her in passing that she had a hard time herself remembering which were hers and which were not.

“She never in her life repeated her own witticisms,” said Lillian Hellman, her best friend and literary executor, “perhaps sure that other people would do it for her.” Late in her life, tired and embittered, Mrs. Parker denied “almost everything” attributed to her, but it’s certain that she said of Calvin Coolidge, when she heard he had died, “How can they tell?” and that Uta Hagen received a telegram before a New York premiere: “A HAND ON YOUR OPENING AND MAY YOUR PARTS GET BIGGER.” Mrs. Parker was especially clever when pulverizing divas of the stage and screen. Fanny Brice, a well-known convert to plastic surgery, had “cut off her nose to spite her race.” Marion Davies, the under-talented mistress of William Randolph Hearst, had only “two expressions, joy and indigestion.” Katharine Hepburn, appearing in The Lake, “ran the whole gamut” of emotions, “from A to B.” (“I’m happy to be the cause of laughter,” Miss Hepburn replied when I asked her how it felt to be the butt of such a famous joke, “even at my expense. Just laugh. That’s important.”)

In 1934, Mrs. Parker went to Hollywood with her second husband, the writer Alan Campbell — they were working on a new “screen epic,” she said, Lassie Get Down — and discovered how difficult it was to keep a sense of humor in a town where the flowers smelled like “old dollar bills” and she felt “like the Little Colonel, only crosser.”

“I can’t talk about Hollywood,” she later declared. “It was a horror to me when I was there and it’s a horror to look back on. I can’t imagine how I did it. When I got away from it I couldn’t even refer to the place by name. `Out there,’ I called it.” In 1937, she and Alan Campbell were nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of A Star Is Born, and altogether they worked on more than twenty scripts in Hollywood (including Hitchcock’s Saboteur, in which Mrs. Parker made a cameo appearance). But her heart was never in Los Angeles, “this lotus-laden shore,/ This Isle of Do-What’s-Done-Before.” She was dumb with admiration in 1941, when Budd Schulberg published his satire on the studio system, What Makes Sammy Run? and “hit the hammer with the nail,” as Goldwyn might have said.

“I never thought anyone could put Hollywood — the true shittiness of it — between covers,” Mrs. Parker explained. The story is told of her leaning out a window at M-G-M — “Metro-Goldwyn-Merde” — and shouting at the passersby, “I’m as sane as you are!” She was desperate, in the end, to be remembered for something substantial. In 1937 she went to Spain to report for The New Masses on the fight against Franco. She was a committed if vaguely defined Socialist, and for most of her life, despite her reputation as an “Algonquin wit,” she identified with leftist causes. Mrs. Parker was a founder, in Hollywood, of the Screen Writers Guild and the Anti-Nazi League, and when she was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, she commented, “Well, well, well, that’s the way it is…. I haven’t the faintest idea about the politics of Hollywood, and you make me laugh when you speak of them.”

“I’m not being a smart-cracker,” she told the Paris Review in 1957, a little the worse for drink. “You know I’m not when you meet me — don’t you, honey?” Her political activism, while undoubtedly naive, was sincere, and she had suffered enough in her private life to speak with authority on the sand-traps of the heart. Alan Campbell was homosexual (“queer as a goat,” Mrs. Parker said cruelly, “Betty Boop going down for the last time”), and though this in itself can’t account for the breadth of her eventual complete frustration, it can’t have helped her any, either:

By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying –
Lady make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

But even here she felt slighted, and wondered if history would judge her as a serious poet. At a reading in New York, Dame Edith Sitwell recognized her in the audience one night and took the opportunity to salute “your grett Ameddican pwettess, Miss Doddothy Wadden.”

“`Wadden’! for Christ’s sake!” Mrs. Parker complained. “Why, that goddam limey — !” She wrote her verses in classical mode — ballads, sonnets, Horatian odes — but with a sharp and rueful edge, a twist of cynicism and a pound of disappointment that distinguished her for all time from her contemporaries. When she turned her hand to fiction, as she did more and more in the post-Algonquin years, she devised two or three masterful short stories — little miracles of paranoia — that will live forever in American literature: “Big Blonde” (which won the O. Henry Prize in 1929), “A Telephone Call,” and “Glory in the Daytime,” the account of a star-struck clubwoman who affects to be intimate with a faded, alcoholic actress. Mrs. Parker was compared many times to Ernest Hemingway, her all-time idol — in her ear for dialogue, in the terseness and precision of her prose, but also, significantly, in her sentimentality. Like Hemingway, she never got over a certain romantic discontentment, a longing for the Beautiful, the True and the Real, which she nevertheless attempted to undercut at every turn with open contempt for her emotions. Her weepy women, her lying men, her smart and sour view of a useless jockeying for position — these are the things, apart from wit, that Dorothy Parker is remembered for.

“In her stories,” says John Updike, “she captures the voice, above all, of neediness.” In her later years, divorced, remarried, then separated from Alan Campbell, she wrote beautiful, lyrical, un-producible plays — The Coast of Illyria and Ladies of the Corridor — taught literature (after a fashion) at California State College, reviewed books for Esquire, and collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur and Lillian Hellman on the original script of Candide. Asked what she did “for fun,” she replied, “Everything that isn’t writing is fun.” She had “enough problems,” she once said, “without getting my forehead all over lines with dithering over the English language.” In the late 1960s Gloria Vanderbilt’s husband, Wyatt Cooper, tried to get her to work on her memoirs, but Mrs. Parker wasn’t up to it.

“Through long, difficult and often dreadful years,” said one of her friends, “in case anyone in or out of the charmed circle does not know, the events leading up to the end were swamped in drinking, liquor, alcohol and booze.” She died in New York in 1967, and, in a final stab at militancy, left her entire estate to Martin Luther King, from where it passed, on Dr. King’s death, to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Today, Mrs. Parker’s ashes lie in the Dorothy Parker Memorial Garden at NAACP headquarters in Baltimore, beneath a plaque she could scarcely have envisioned:


“You can’t take it with you,” Mrs. Parker remarked, “and if you did it would probably melt.”


I asked a number of women writers, all of them currently in media flower, what the name of Dorothy Parker means to them now, on the eve of her centenary. Gloria Steinem, who interviewed Mrs. Parker for The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1965, remembers her as “a great truth-teller,” and adds that she was “generous to an unknown writer” — Steinem — at a time when neither of them wanted to be associated with women’s magazines. Helen Gurley Brown, on the other hand, who met Mrs. Parker in 1962 after the phenomenally successful publication of Sex and the Single Girl, thinks she was “an early Cosmo Girl, in her way, because she took everything she had and made the most of it.” (“She also had affairs,” says Mrs. Brown, who is known to recommend them.) And Anna Quindlen of The New York Times — who has stated more than once in her prize-winning column that her heroines, growing up, were “the two Dorothys, Parker and Thompson” — says she finds it “hard to believe there was ever a smart, ambitious girl” of her generation in America “who couldn’t recite some of Dorothy Parker’s most wonderful lines.” For Quindlen, “she epitomized that sophistication I wanted so desperately.”

So why have all her biographers concluded that her life was a disaster, a waste, and a tragedy pure and simple? Quindlen talks about an awful “sadness at the center of it,” while Nora Ephron, echoing the judgment of our know-it-all age, writes in Crazy Salad that Dorothy Parker “misspent her life and her talent.” Ephron had “nothing to add” to this, either, when I called — it’s a terrible time to be a literary legend in America. The most recent and best biography, Marion Meade’s Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? (1988), takes its hilarious title from Mrs. Parker’s habitual response when the telephone rang (“It wasn’t funny,” said Jimmy Sheean; “she meant it”), but Meade is squarely in the line of the psychic deconstructionists, portraying Mrs. Parker as a weepy, raunchy, “in-denial” pain in the ass, her humor born of shame and self-loathing, her internalized anti-Semitism – oh, never mind: It’s not the first thing her friends remember, and it’s not the message of her life.

“There must be courage,” Mrs. Parker observed when she talked about writing humor; “there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard for your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it.” Alcoholism? Lousy love affairs? Suicide attempts? There were four in all, and after one of them, in 1925, Mrs. Parker tied huge black ribbons to her bandaged wrists and asked if she could have a flag for her oxygen tent. The various epitaphs she composed for her gravestone — “Excuse My Dust,” “This Is On Me,” and “If You Can Read This, You’ve Come Too Close” — are as famous now as her sex-talk was, but how many people know that she also wanted to be buried “in a shroud made of unpaid bills from Valentina?” And why is humor regarded as a minor achievement in the arts?

“The only funny person Americans agree to take seriously is Mark Twain,” says Fran Lebowitz, the author of Metropolitan Life and other tales of comic distress that make her comparison with Mrs. Parker inevitable. Lebowitz grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, where Dorothy Parker went to finishing school (if you can believe it); she had read the entire Portable Parker by the time she was eleven, and “couldn’t believe how good it was.”

“That’s never changed for me,” says Lebowitz. “It wasn’t like my discovery of MAD magazine, which was really my introduction to satire. Eventually I got beyond MAD. But I never got beyond Dorothy Parker, because — because you can’t. Does anyone know how hard it is to be that funny? It’s the easiest thing in the world to get people crying. All you have you do is say `Boo!’ and there are floods of tears.” Recently Lebowitz wrote the introduction to a short biography of Mrs. Parker in Italy, Gaia de Beaumont’s Scusate le ceneri, which translates literally as “Forgive My Ashes” but means “Excuse My Dust.” Italians quote Dorothy Parker all the time, as do Frenchmen, and hairdressers, and taxi-drivers, and sales clerks. Hers was no small existence. This is no minor legacy.

“Read her book reviews,” Lebowitz says. “Read them now and see how good they are. What could be more insubstantial than a popular novel of fifty years ago? And yet you can read one of Dorothy Parker’s reviews in Esquire or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair and they’re just so funny. They are so smart! It is so hard to do that!”

In Fredericksburg, Virginia, Florence King, whose fortnightly column in The National Review, “The Misanthrope’s Corner,” carries on bravely in the Parker tradition, adds for the record that “you can pretend to be serious, but you can’t pretend to be witty, and if you need that explained to you you’ve missed the point.” King is the author of Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye, Lump It or Leave It and the marvelous Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. She’s a ferocious conservative, too, the only hope, I’d say, for the Republican right wing, and she excluded Dorothy Parker from her recent history of misanthropy, With Charity Toward None, on the grounds that Mrs. Parker was “a romantic masquerading as a cynic” and that she even, for a time, contemplated having a baby. A classical humorist, King insists, never mind a misanthrope, “doesn’t like children” and isn’t “silly about men.” Plainly, King has evolved very far from that point, but she wouldn’t mind being on a postage stamp herself, and when she dies, she says, she’s going to leave her money “to David Duke.”

So there you are — wisecracks. Happy birthday, Mrs. Parker, and don’t let them get you down. It’s the laughter we live for.