TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN

Two Girls, Fat and Thin
by Mary Gaitskill

You may remember a previous post about some books I’ve been carrying around for the past twenty years, the contents of which I could not recall. Let’s refer to these books as my “amnesia series.” On my second go-around, the following excerpt leapt out at me from the pages of Two Girls, Fat and Thin:

“ … for every imperfect entity, be it human or material, there exists a perfect counterpart; a lovely princess for every pimply shop girl. This perfection was not an annulment of the shop girl, but an ideal for her to aspire to … That is why advertising is deeply moral; its smiling billboards are neat openings into the air-brushed world of perfect beauty that we can all strive for and attain, to one degree or another, depending on our individual components.”

It’s been more than a week since the finale and I’m still thinking about Mad Men, the best novel I’ve ever watched. (If you haven’t seen the show and/or the series finale yet but plan to, you may consider some of the following a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and don’t plan to, I suggest reconsidering.)

Joan

Photos courtesy of AMC

There are so many things we could discuss about Mad Men, but the thought that lingers for me was how, somewhat to my surprise, Don turned out to be more cipher than hero or villain. This man who looked like a prince but acted like a pimple had an entire decade to reconcile his inner demons and emerge the better for it. But he couldn’t. He gained self-awareness, but not self-actualization. He just got better at being the same old Don.

Joan and Peggy’s demons, on the other hand, were external and while they each chose very different ways of handling those demons, both triumphed in the end. So while Don was our protagonist, the women were our heroes. They didn’t just “keep moving forward” as Don loved to say, they survived by learning and growing, ultimately realizing their full potential.

Peggy

The quote above describes exactly why we love duality in storytelling (and duality is a huge theme in Mad Men). Deep down, most people think of themselves as the pimply shop girl though they long to be the princess. Don understood that psychology as well as anyone, which is what made him the perfect ad man. It’s also why Bert Cooper, Ayn Rand devotee, loved Don so much – he knew how to feed the capitalist utopia.

So is this Mary Gaitskill book anything like Mad Men? That would be a no. There are some interesting coincidental parallels: a duality theme, a subplot involving a fictional version of Ayn Rand, some backstory about growing up a (very tortured) girl in the 1960s, but that’s where the similarities end.

And yet I kept the book all these years out of a form of nostalgia. Like a lot of things from the past, it was reassuring to read the book again and recognize that I hadn’t remembered it because I didn’t need to. I was okay without it. In one of Mad Men’s most iconic episodes, The Wheel, Don tells a room of Kodak execs that the word “nostalgia” means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. I suppose we’re nostalgic for the things we’re still trying to sort out in our minds. Really good stories give us a lot to sift through.

Mad-Men-finale-690

This is my last post for a few weeks, I’ll be on sabbatical for a while. Read something good while I’m gone or re-watch Mad Menyou pick up a lot the second time around.

WHERE YOU GO IS NOT WHO YOU’LL BE

SafariWhere You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be:
An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
by Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s start with the anxiety around college admissions. What’s it all about? Why is it so much worse now than it used to be?

One reason is the mythology around “brand name” schools, the idea that entrance to a highly selective and well-known college validates a student’s worth and will automatically set them on a path to success. Additionally, the rise of college rankings has created a cycle in which schools that already have 10 times the number of applicants they can accept go to great lengths to recruit even more applicants, thereby driving down their acceptance rate while simultaneously driving up their ranking. And then there is the special consideration afforded to athletes, legacy students, current/potential donors, children of the famous and those of faculty, all of whom, in addition to an increasing pool of international students, decreases other applicants’ chances.

Not to mention all the trouble I personally am causing. Like I said, Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. According to Frank, I am part of the nefarious cabal known as Private Consultants who strip unwitting families of their last dollars while “prepping and packaging students … festooning them with all the right ribbons and all the prettiest bows.” There is oh so much I could say in response to this depiction, but before I get too snarky or defensive, let me explain why I became a college essay coach and why I think helping students with their college essays is not in fact the problem, but rather part of the solution.

A while back, I started volunteering as a writer coach in the Berkeley schools, where I worked (and still do) one-on-one with the same students all year as they navigated their various English assignments. I found that the relationships I developed with the students were surprisingly meaningful and in particular, I enjoyed the assignments that required the students to write about themselves. From my own experiences, I knew how empowering it was to write one’s own story and I loved being able to share that excitement by encouraging kids to tell their individual stories as only they could. It made me want to do more encouraging, more coaching. And what bigger milestone is there in a young person’s life than the transition from high school to college?

As one of the experts in Bruni’s book puts it, “[College is] supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and can use that information as your mooring and compass in a tumultuous, unpredictable world.” When I read those words, they spoke to me because, on a smaller scale, writing one’s college essays (and really the whole college application process) should entail the same goals.

Despite Frank’s one-dimensional generalizations about private college counselors, I’m going to let him off the hook because he has an important point to make, one that I wish more people would take to heart. What one does is a lot more important than where one does it. Checking off boxes and accumulating status symbols only gets you so far. But to be an engaged, aware and actualized human being will allow you to soar no matter where you launch.

Thank you to Mary Boyer, patron of the arts and many a liberal arts college, for sending this one my way.

Safari 2

Fly like an eagle

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME

SOANN

I love these books but this cover is so random

The Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante

Have you ever had a friend—someone you’ve known for a long time–whose life, for better or for worse, has diverged dramatically from your own and you’ve thought: that could have been me? If only I’d done one thing differently, maybe I would have ended up like her. Or maybe you’ve been in a relationship where it seemed as though every time one of you succeeded it doomed the other, like there was only enough in the well of good fortune for one of you.

In the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name, the two protagonists, Elena and Lila, enter their late adolescence and early adulthood with lives, once so similar, on very different paths. (Warning: The rest of this post has some spoilers from the first book in the series, but not this one) At 16, Lila marries one of the neighborhood’s wealthier men, the local grocer. Without the education that her friend Elena continues to receive, it appears that the marriage is Lila’s best option for escaping her family’s poverty and abuse. That theory is quickly dismantled. Meanwhile, although she has struggles of her own, Elena goes on to achieve academically and garner an education far beyond that of anyone else in her community.

Both women have their moments of soaring joy and plummeting disappointment, but never at the same time. The universe seems to have only enough good will for one girl at a time. Or is there more free will, maybe even ill will, at work? Though never verbalized, the girls have always harbored a strong sense of competition and as much as they wish for each other’s happiness, they wish for their own more. As her situation devolves further, Lila’s actions become more irrational to the point of pathological, but there’s so much desperation behind her behavior that one can understand how it is hard to be generous when one has so little to give.

In the first of these books, we see Italy’s economic growth of the 1950s and 60s trickle into the girls’ poor neighborhood and we watch how this affects its residents. In this book, each of the two girls seems to represent a version of the changing country. Although Lila is the first to benefit from the amenities of an advanced, wealthier Italy, ultimately her traditional choices keep her tied to an old way of life. Yet Elena, more rational and pragmatic, blossoms into a representation of a new, more modern version of Italy.

I want both characters to succeed, even if one is a little harder to love. I can’t help but feel for the rougher Lila and I found myself circling back to a moment from the first book that seemed to change everything for her. It is at the end of the fifth grade, when both girls are invited to take the admissions exam for middle school, an unusual step within their community. After some debate, Elena’s parents agree to let her take the test and Lila’s do not. From there, their trajectories seem to be set on divergent paths that read like a feminist tragedy.

It’s stomach churning to consider: if this one decision by Lila’s parents did change the course of her life, how tenuous life is. I’m not convinced that this is what Ferrante is trying to say, especially given some of the promise that fills the final pages of this book, but thus far her heroines seem to be having trouble sharing the glory.