THE COUNTRY UNDER MY SKIN

Gioconda Belli

In a store the cover says this book costs $16.00. Imagine my delight when I found a copy in new condition at a library sale for a quarter. Having read a bit, I want my two-bits back. I’ll explain.

The book’s cover states, “A Memoir of Love and War.” It is a memoir, not an autobiography, a more serious effort to convey one’s life and put it into context. A memoir might include overly described incidences. Either autobiography or memoir, there is a beginning, a middle and an end, all advanced chronologically so the reader can easily understand the progress of the tale and the life. 

There are no memoirs with flashbacks or advances in time of twenty years. That sort of book comes from from science fantasy, or are by alcoholics and other drug users.

Chapter One announces, Cuba, 1979 – arriving at a shooting range, although the author is 30 years old and the describes the trip like a elementary school outing to see animals at the zoo. 

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“I see you liked the .50, didn’t you?” Fidel mused with a malicious grin when I saw him a few days later. He had come to visit the Sandinista delegation and we had been summoned to the Presidential Suite. I said nothing. I smiled at him. He turned back and continued talking to Tito and the other companros who had been invited to Havana for the Cuban Revolution’s twentieth-anniversary.

I sat back and watched them. It was inevitable that the sight of Fidel would stir a collage of memories in my mind. Fidel was the first revolutionary I had ever heard of….

Reader to author: You are writing a memoir. You are not telling of the memories of your mind. Tell what happened. The author is to put those thoughts and related actions into a cogent form, not as a distracting interruption to the text.

And what about extra words, which undoubtedly clutter the author’s mind and her text? It is, “ I watched,” not “I sat back and watched them,” like you are a princess where her view of the open room allows her to spy on everyone – Revolutionary Number Uno meets Revolutionary Number Quinto. Plus if an author is sitting back, watching, she is describing the scene and the people, not recalling Fidel from her earlier memories. Finally, does the author have an impression of Fidel in the room other than her prosaic memories? Is Fidel there truly because he likes the clapping of the 50?” “Does he ask anyone for a match to light his cigar?” “Is he there trolling for babes?”

Not once does the author mention Fidel is Fidel Castro. She should do a little name dropping, after all she married someone named Castro but afterward dumped that hubby for another. 

The description of Fidel reminds me of Fidel Gonzales from Paraguay. I always suspected that Fidel had Leftist tendencies, so being in Cuba in 1979 would not be out-of-sorts. Fidel Gonzales is a good guy. The blackmarket is his business – electronics, leather goods (South American are the best; don’t buy Chinese) and garments. Fidel is thinking about opening his own fashion house. I don’t believe all the trademarks and labels are legit, but if a gown survives a season, then falls apart and the price is right, who cares? Fidel makes a lot of money on fake clothes.

About 1000 words later at the beginning of Chapter Two the author flips to Santa Monica, California, 1998. So much for chronology; so much for Fidel; so much for love and war. There is much to be said about muddleness. The subtitle of Chapter Two is, Where I tell of certain bizarre connections between California, interoceanic canals, and my life. 

Can anyone tell me how I can get my twenty-five cents returned?

A LONELY LIFE

Betty Davis 1962

This autobiography is surprising for its unparalleled excellence and seeming honesty. Davis has represented her life in a well-written little book. She speaks well of everyone she worked with in film including industry rivals, Joan Crawford. She passes on providing long comments regarding Barbara Stanwyck.

Of course, the book tells about acting: stage, screen (silent – talkies), modeling, fame, being a glamour puss. Davis knew she was not the typical 1930s actress – beautiful, lanky or seductive but she was blonde. Davis suggests and I believe she rose on talent and merit alone. The more involved the part the better the performance – two years toward the beginning of her career, 1936 and 1939 Davis received Oscars for best actress. She was dedicated to excellent projects and to excellent performances. She ran into the buzz of the Warner Brothers demanding she do mediocre projects. That legal dispute ended in London before World War Two began for the Americans. Olivia de Havilland broke the studios’ system.

Her movies of the Forties and the early Fifties all had substance for her. She never mentions a western, but early on Bette Davis from New England was typecast as the Southern girl and the Southern lady. Motherhood, marriage and living reduced the number of films she was in. She was not always in Los Angeles but lived on the East Cost. She tells trying to be the best mother, when she wasn’t always around, her understanding of intimacy from work and from husbands, and the shortcomings in the men she encountered and those she eventually married. [The first was always at home but did not work at home and little out of it; the second died young; Gary Merrill, fellow actor, had work but did not like the comforts of a joint home.]

Bette Davis had help with children and with the house; she had capable assistants. Davis expresses gratitude. But she felt isolated from exchanging intimacy, touching, sensing another human being, and caring in full devotion. [Note in the text Davis describes these attributes as handled by a performing actor, but says they are not transitioned to or that acting did not fulfill the needs of a human being living in reality.] This distinction between acting and reality is how she conveys she was lonely, and hence the adjective in the book’s title.

Two remarkable chapters in the book are the first and the last. The first doubts whether anyone, including herself, should write an autobiography. Davis beats out the words in spades. The last chapter deals with the status of a successful woman, running into unsuitable men, earning more than most people, and handling fame, professionalism, being alone, and where all that leaves the woman: Her state of mind. It is an excellent description of explaining the world that might become more matriarchal. Sex alone changes nothing. Couples should be mates and their efforts should complement one another.

This is an excellent autobiography; it benefits from being short and well-thought out. Also, this autobiography became the first feminist tome of the modern era. The Feminine Mystique was published two years later in 1964. If Betty Friedan believed it was the problem that has no name, she was unacquainted with Bette Davis’ Autobiography.

HISTORY AND FICTION

bitch. cover

When I went to write Bitch. (iBookstore, michael ulin edwards), I was determined to make it autobiographical. I learned after three major drafts and a long process of 20 years, that autobiography was impossible. It would make a bad book. Some of the reasons can be found in Twentieth Century Journey, William L Shirer, vol. i, Preface; Autobiography of Mark Twain, U.C. Press, Berkeley, 2011, vol. 1, on writing memoirs/autobiography.

I was motivated to write the life and times of Berkeley, 1968-1973. While there I had forces coming at me. I determined they would best be represented by FIVE major characters, plus subsidiary characters folded into the stories of the FIVE. At that point the book could not be autobiographical; it could not be biographical. It could be history. Recount events as truthfully and accurately as I could, but the characters had to be representations. [Readers have commented that they know these characters.]

As much as I ran from place to place in Berkeley, observing and stuffing everything into my memory (which is not entirely why I almost flunked out my first year – I was also taking the wrong classes and my perspective on learning was horribly distorted), I could not tell the story of Berkeley with one character being everywhere at once: Peoples Park Riot Day, May 15, 1969 – in class on the north side of campus; in the riot itself; at the swimming pools in Strawberry Canyon; wandering around Dwinelle Hall. The FIVE characters and others were useful to convey what had to be said.

It is also impossible for a individual to tell his story when hormones, urges, the environment, economics are exerting influences affecting the person. What is the order? What is the priority? What is important? Those day to day, sometimes hour to hour or minute to minute considerations which may or do change affected human being senses – hear, see, smell, feel, taste – will shift the ground and upend any story.

If the reaction to life under those circumstances is the same, that makes for a dull human being. If the reaction to life under those circumstances whipsaws the human being into incapacity, he becomes confused and worthless. If the reaction causes the human being to take the brunt of it and react intelligently, predictably or making-do, that is the easier story to tell.

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In 200,000 words I came up with the FIVE characters, two guys and three women, living and telling their lives (some aspects of my life) in Berkeley from September 1968 through the summer of 1973. They lived through riots, demonstrations, classes, drugs, life, city and academic events and state and national actions, all told within this novel. [There are 450 notes and a bibliography.]

Also, I could not tell my own story for a personal reason. Who could be truthful about being psychological creepy and sociology awkward then, (probably eccentric today) in a terrifying place. That doesn’t describe the discomfort, the violence and the shock of watching crap on the streets being played out and the acceptance of it by everyone in Berkeley. About 20 years ago I talked to someone I knew as a student. He tried to fit in and spoke the language as a student. His evaluation of those times upon meeting him again was reduced to one word: “Strange.” He didn’t want to talk about what he thought or was doing as a student, which was likely “creepy” and “weird.”

It seemed I was the only person who considered everything going on was strange, weird and ill for society. I may have been suited for a college campus in the 1920s, but I was stuck at Berkeley. I did not want to be a statistic and a loser: Someone told me when I entered that the average stay of a student at Berkeley was four quarters. (The University is much more mellow today which is why it is not a place of excellence.)

While a student at Berkeley, I didn’t like and actually detested loud music, drugs, and the recklessness of students, their lives a step from the street. Everything seemed reenforced by the citizens of Berkeley. Condemning this gross, communal lifestyle is a theme of Bitch.. Indeed, I dislike any communal styles, community standards, something my generation embraced and never let go of, and something which has been passed onto to their children and grandchildren: The collective.

We are not raising children today to be individuals, to think on their own. They are accepting, too much of collective action, group-think, the so-called common good. They have been taught, It Takes a Village – Collective actions are the bases of all advancement. Those are  wet dreams rolling from the Left of the Sixties and from Radical Feminism. (See Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex.)

Finally, I did not want to be like any of the FIVE. I put a lot of distance between myself and Berkeley. Not in the novel is: at the end of my Berkeley studies, I wanted to be a composer, but I had injured my left hand and couldn’t play the piano. I was lost to the activities I was prepared for. Law school intervened, but within ten years I had turned to writing.

This post is the second using the cover and the diagram (outline) that I have made. The subject is different because the text differs.