Lip, Dip, Paint

Kate Moore's The Radium Girls focuses on the young women who worked from WWI until the 1920s in factories that used paint made from radium for the element's useful glow-in-the-dark effect. (Radium was one of the things discovered by Marie Curie, the Nobel prize-winning science textbook hero who died early from radioactive exposure; you see where this story might lead.)

As Moore expresses it, the world was fascinated by radium's otherworldly glow — its luminescence captivated people, and doctors even used it to promote healthy living. It was in high demand during the war for, among other things, radium-based paint for glow-in-the-dark watch dial faces. With so many men off to war, the usual gender roles were disrupted and many young women entered the workforce. This was true for the watch dial-painting industry, and the newly, upwardly mobile women enjoyed well-paying and relatively high-status jobs. The job itself, requiring some skill, was viewed as an almost artistic vocation. Part of what made a watch painter skillful was honing a very fine point on her paintbrush. The easiest way to do this was to lick the tip of the brush, then dip it in the paint, paint the watch dial and repeat over and over
(known to the practitioners as "lip, dip, paint"). Which is how these women poisoned themselves with radium.

Radium, they eventually discovered, not only has a very long half-life but also collects in the bones of human beings, meaning that over time the women's bones would become brittle and actually disintegrate — that (which is horrifying) but then also with the devastating consequences of having radiation trapped in one's body: various cancers and whatever else. Basically terrible, horrible and (after some digging) happening with the approval/negligence of those in charge, making what started as a tragedy that much worse.

The story of what happened is not unknown — it was big news as it was happening, and the story passed down — but in The Radium Girls the author Moore set out to really look at the lives of the women, putting faces to stories. She set out to do this, she explains in the Author's Note, after Googling "great plays for women" and finding a play about a group of the women that she decided to direct. Then she decided to write a book about it, and in the way she did, because when one is telling someone's story "you have a responsibility to do justice to those whose story it is," emphasis hers.

Clearly that's correct — do justice to those whose story it is. In other words, Moore specifically zeroes in on the victims, to a somewhat lesser extent the wider story (though the case is revealed) and to a much lesser extent the wider import of this specific workplace health scandal. The only thing is that you read the book, and read and read, and at some point it's not especially clear why you care about the actual people who endured this horrible fate: even in the telling, they're notable because they're just like any other young, fresh-faced person. It's tragic, and horrible, and unfortunately their stories aren't particularly interesting, or at least are only relevant because they happened.

A small word about objectification: I understand underscoring the striking, salient detail that these young, energetic sometimes beautiful women became shockingly disfigured and physically devastated by this powerful element but at some point it starts to wear thin and you almost see her treating the women as objects that lose their beauty. It's a cumulative effect, and it's "true" but somehow it starts to fatigue you and you wonder if the author (or even "we") would see a different group, class or ethnicity in a similar way. I could be imagining it (my expectations, hurrumph) but flipping through just now, it's there — page 19, for example: "She was an extremely attractive woman with large gray eyes and long dark hair; she considered her pretty teeth her best feature." One of the earlier signs of radium poisoning was that the women lost their teeth. I'm not complaining about this tack — it's certainly salient — but as the stories pile up, it starts to become rather noticeable.

Radium Girls stays interesting because it is an interesting episode in history but the book also reads a lot like the interpretive text for a museum or memorial. And the author is explicit about this: she sets out to tell their stories. She also sacrifices a lot in doing so — if you're only vaguely aware of this story you might not know that these cases changed workplace safety laws. They also contributed in big ways to how we understand the effects of radiation. These things are brought up in the epilogue; had they been there in the introduction you might have been more invested. Knowing that at least some of the women who survived the poisoning were self-sacrificing and even heroic by continuing to be tested and studied over the course of their lives actually solves the earlier problem with seeing the women as interchangeable victims. In other words — and it sounds terrible when someone sets out to write something so justice-seeking — the epilogue was more compelling than the story as it unfolded in real time; it doesn't take long and you don't need much detail to understand that 1) radium was deadly, 2) these women had no idea it would kill them and 3) the people in charge conspired to keep the truth from hitting the light. By telling the full, true, big, lifelike stories of the women at the core of Radium Girls, the author almost perseverates on this pathetic (in the true sense of the word: arousing pity) lens; every page reminds you that these youthful women are dying in the worst ways. It's relentless (in the not good sense of that word).

A wider observation: it seems like there's a move toward storytelling at this human "granular" level. You can always find examples of someone but there's that whole forest-trees conundrum. The way current news topics play out fall into this trap — thousands of stories of people losing health coverage or being summoned to a hearing or getting hit by a drunk driver. Those stories seem like they're more often designed to pull an emotional string than contribute to an understanding of a policy proposal or something similarly wide-scoped. And it's mostly bad. Similarly, and as it relates to Radium, it may feel good and right to right wrongs and tell stories but it doesn't necessarily make for a compelling book.

Posted: June 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: ,

Deep Blue Something Or Other . . .

The one time in my life I've bought a new car — or at least a pre-owned vehicle but actually purchased from a dealership — we sat in a small, squat, glassed building in the sprawling lot and waited for whatever requisite paperwork had to be conjured up and assembled. The dealership was classy and anticipated needs, so they thoughtfully had a bank of flat-screen TVs (I'm actually assuming they were flat-screen TVs instead of actually remembering that fact, since that would be a touch they clearly had to fulfill) playing music videos.

I suppose someone somewhere must be on the hook for curating what music videos get played in the sales area of a car dealership; I don't think I'd want to be responsible for this. It's obviously a tricky task: nothing too edgy, for sure, but something would be called for that would encourage one to buy — or at least something upholding the virtue of car ownership or lease holding. I remember not much about what was played other than it was the same five or six videos played over and over and over and over. And of those I remember only one: Deep Blue Something's "Breakfast At Tiffany's."

To paraphrase the song, I think I remember the tune!

The song is kind of simple — the persona in the lyric is marking the dissolution of a relationship and remarking that even though they're seeing things differently and things are apparently over the two actually liked Breakfast at Tiffany's — or at least the counterpart of the relationship "remembers the film" and, well, that's one thing they've got.

It's a little bit of a bank shot — in the sense that we're supposed to pencil in a lot of stuff (or presumably) from this one detail — and then a little one-note in the sense that the entire fucking goddamn song is this one fucking tiny observation, but whatever: it's catchy.

And I don't totally understand how it's meant to reiterate the positive benefits of car ownership but whatever: interest rates for car loans are pretty low, and over the course of a five-year loan you're only spending another couple hundred bucks if you luck into a one-percent APR so cue up that '90s heyday and feel empowered . . . you deserve this . . . and now it's suddenly time to consider an extended warranty.

So in the video the lead singer is holding the book. Now about that book . . .

I actually couldn't remember if I had read the book before. In the end, I'm pretty sure that I did but I don't really have a firm memory of reading it. I blame the movie for this, of course. It's not really Audrey Hepburn's fault, but rather the machine that makes Audrey Hepburn. She made that role transcend the role, which is deft, obviously, but about that role . . .

Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's is an odd novella — seeming romantic but rug-pulling like the worst Springsteen excesses. Which is to say, knowing what we know now about Audrey Hepburn's big sunglasses, it's hard to square the "Moon River" la-de-la-de-la of the film with the character in Capote's book, who comes off as kind of a cross between Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and, I don't know, maybe this lady or something.

Which is also to say, Did you realize what an unbecoming piece of shit Holly Golightly really was? The book is basically her maligning random races and ethnicities through the eyes of a somewhat sympathetic narrator, who people then go on to assume is a homosexual because of 1) Truman Capote and 2) the two characters' chaste relationship. To go back to her unbecomingness, Capote does a nice job creating this character who is not just unmoored from society (in an quasi romantic way) but also a stupid fucking hayseed of an idiot who is at turns racist and then goes and prostitutes herself to prolong a runaway's lifestyle in the big city.

In other words, she is nowhere near Audrey Hepburn, and the dissonance a reader experiences in encountering this character is not the fault of the writer but rather the Hollywood-Industrial-Complex that glosses over and makes anodyne complicated real characters.Americ

In the book, Holly Golightly is gross. In the movie, she's unflappable romantic, who would only deign to name a pet when she feels at home. In the book, she's a nasty narcissistic animal abuser who neglects her cat and then ditches the thing somewhere in Harlem before leaving the country. "Golightly" indeed, you fucking Eric Harris wannabe.

Why does this matter? It matters because of the outsized impression Audrey Hepburn makes on America — through no fault of her own, mind you — when the source material is so 180-degrees opposite. You can be excused for feeling confused reading the character in Capote's book with that fun-loving adorable manic pixie prototype in the film in mind. And you shouldn't need to square the blithely racist commentary of that character with her 1960s expression thereof.

I don't know (and don't really have time to Google) Truman Capote's response to how the moviemakers interpreted that story — in some ways, it's impressive that they did what they did. But they did a huge disservice to the book. And that's not even getting into Mickey Rooney's cheap, gratuitous laugh lines, which are legendary in their own right.

The book is a wartime-era dystopian view of American society, bent on criticizing the obvious deficiencies of the America of the time. Think about it: choosing to set a story during WWII and focusing on laze-abouts and various ne'er-do-wells is wonderfully transgressive. The movie picks up this thread and basically makes it the final season of Girls. And then you wonder how you get Mickey Rooney.

Another word about interpretation: I feel like people were making something of the main character's alleged sexual orientation, which in their minds hewed to Truman Capote's orientation. This seems a) facile, and b) not in line with the point of the story, which was that the main character wasn't that taken with Ms. Horry Gorightry as were others. Which is also to say, less Deep Blue Something and more "You Got It (Keep It Out of My Face)":

Posted: June 24th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags:

Oh, So That Happened . . .

I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that Donald Trump — or as he is now known, the 45th President of the United States of America — has invaded mental spaces like few other public figures. Book Club was not immune to this moment, and so we found ourselves reading Wayne Barrett's Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, The Downfall, The Reinvention.

Barrett's work about Trump obviously gained some currency after 2016 and is a good jumping off point for understanding some of the hijinks of Trump's early career. Some of the more unbecoming biographical details that came up in the campaign are covered here (and are maybe even the source?): the less-than-hands-on approach to fatherhood, the lawyering up, for example. But the source material loses a little bit of punch when his post-2015 persona or caricature is so villainous and/or cretin-like. Something interesting that didn't escape anyone who read Trump was how little it really highlighted his boorishness, specifically toward women. In fact, it doesn't really come up at all until the waning pages of the book — like page 441 out of 445 waning. Some posited that it could have been because Barrett is (more accurately "was," since he just passed away) "another old white guy" — i.e., someone for whom sexism and misogyny is not particularly salient. Honestly, that seems like a stretch: as an 80s tabloid kind of person he just seems sort of basically tabloid, of the era.

"Of the era" comes up a lot, at least for me. Barrett himself suggests that as an organizing principle for the book itself: the "why it matters" when it comes to Trump — at least to a reader in the early 1990s, when Trump: The Deals and the Downfall (i.e., the original title of the book) was first published, that Trump's story was the lens to view an entire era of bad deals, bubbly real estate markets and incompetent-negligent banking practices. Which is to say — somewhat to say — that the seediness of Trump's rise and fall necessarily includes mobbed-up entities (who else is building casinos in Atlantic City or pouring concrete in Midtown Manhattan?), corrupt and quasi-corrupt elected officials and whatever other unsavory figures (Roy Cohn, Roger Stone) operated in the New York-New Jersey area between the 1970s and 1990s. It's too easy to point to all of it and instinctively want to turn away. (It's also probably why American Democracy persists in elevating these Eliot Ness prosecutor types to higher office: Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Fucking Cuomo, etc., etc., etc.; sometimes it seems the easiest thing in the world to do is leverage crime fighting to higher office.) So I think you can be forgiven reading Trump and kind of shrugging: as my grandmother used to say, they're all crooks.

In fact, the kind of brilliance of Trump the candidate is exactly this: America is safer — and probably on more solid economic footing — if Donald Trump is not busy overleveraging hometown banks, buying off local councilmembers and clogging up an already overburdened legal system with lawsuits. Instead, we need to deploy his special talents to troll North Korea, bug the crap out of Iran and generally annoying all the bad hombre regimes who don't deserve our best intentions in the first place. Take him out of our mental space and send them to theirs. If you need a one-for-one guide while reading Trump, substitute Iran for the Ed Koch administration, ISIS for unethical tenants' rights lawyers and North Korea for the USFL.

As far as a reading experience, Greatest Show on Earth is, honestly ("honestly" is such a great word to throw around when discussing Trump), a bit of a slog. The tone and scope conjures Robert Caro's The Power Broker, and as such often pulls you deep into the weeds with the subject matter. It's a valiant endeavor: someone somewhere needs to tell the full story of what happens (what happens generally, I suppose) but it's ultimately quixotic. After 300-some-odd pages about the smallest details in the ins and outs of New York-New Jersey crony capitalism, a chapter about Trump's USFL days starts out really promising (the story became a tidy, entertaining 30 For 30) but again loses itself in the weeds of various New York State agencies and authorities. It's not untrue but it's just deadly to get through. (Andrew Cuomo gets a lot of attention in this part, and merits a special mention in Barrett's acknowledgements — in this case, some distress on the author's part that he nailed the future governor's "influence peddling" — perhaps this will come up again should Cuomo decide to challenge the book's subject in 2020.)

One thing I do want to add — and it's only because the publisher brought it up — is that for how many colons the title has, there's very little — really nothing — about "The Reinvention" that was promised in the title. It's an odd feeling to come down to the final pages and still expect to hear something about it. Not blaming Barrett: he spent far too long doing the heavy lifting reporting on someone so mind-numbingly soulless (this 1980s version of Trump); this guy's no Robert Moses even. So he paid his dues. I just expected a tiny bit more than nothing. (An Amazon review I just saw notes this and adds that the "updated introduction" featured prominently on the cover of Trump actually exists in the Kindle version. Not the same.)

In the end, it's interesting — Trump seems both bad and less bad than you think — which is a mind-bending kind of almost maybe post-modern rule of post-Obama America (i.e., the Trump Administration). Reading Trump helps you make more sense of him as an executive: his interviewing Mitt Romney for Secretary of State and appointing John Huntsman to be Russian ambassador (both stalwart anti-Trumpers during the campaign) is directly out of the Trump playbook according to Barrett — over and over Trump would battle enemies and then hire them on.

But ultimately there's this odd feeling you get over the course of reading Trump with this magical dramatic irony you understand (if Barrett had suggested by the end of the book, written in the 1990s, that Trump could in any way be in line to be president only three presidents later, it would be absurd. And yet obviously that's what happened. So to go back and read it to find meaning in part what you alight on is that Donald Trump right now may be in the job best suited to him: DC politics and the two-party system at the federal level seems more than ever to only be about one side or the other winning (and suffice it to say, "winning" is not about "good policy"). Donald Trump more than anything else seems devoted to winning; he'll probably succeed at what he does, as opposed to the politicians who work to maintain the fiction of public service as a thin veneer over the desire to win. If you find this excessively cynical, please explain Andrew Cuomo to me, especially in his battle with Bill de Blasio. And maybe we'll learn something yet about ourselves.

Posted: March 28th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , ,