The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom; ed. Daniel Jones, 2004

An assortment of essays, mostly quite good, about commitment & relationships. It’s sort of a sequel to The Bitch in the House, which I haven’t read, and similarly marketed as “representatives of the opposite sex reveal the TRUTH about how they feel.” As I say, these are good essays, some even brilliant, but if they strike you as containing any earth-shattering revelations, you haven’t been paying enough attention to the aforesaid opposite sex as people, instead of stereotypes.

Which leads to the most striking passage (to me), in the foreward, where Cathi Hanauer (editor of Bitch in the House) describes the reactions people had to the concept for this book:

I was told, “It’ll never work.” “Men don’t think.” “Men have no interest in self-exploration or revelation.” “Men don’t feel things.” “Men won’t say anything negative about their wives.” “Men have no interior lives.” “Men just want to watch TV and read the paper.” I didn’t believe it. Okay, I believed some of it. But not all of it, not really.

Now take those sentences & replace “men” with “women,” “blacks,” “Asians,” “gays,” or any other group, and add whatever negative stereotypes you think of. (Although it’s kind of tough to imagine something more sweepingly insulting than “don’t think” and “don’t feel things!”) Can you see the new paragraph appearing as-is in a book issued by a major publisher, with no more emphatic commentary than the last bit?

I can’t say I’m surprised by this, unfortunately, but it bothers me a lot. It’s a symptom of why on the whole I prefer to identify myself as an egalitarian (all humans deserve the same rights and access to opportunities) rather than a feminist (since that focuses specifically on women’s rights, although I don’t discount the importance of the feminist movement in the 20th century). Would the world be a better place if it were run by women? I doubt it; I think it would be bad in different ways (just like when any previously-oppressed group comes to power). We’re all human beings, after all, basically monkeys with language and culture, and we struggle with similar problems and tensions.

Nevertheless, certainly in American culture there are some generalizations that can be made about the roles of men and women (keeping in mind that no generalization should be used to predict an individual’s behavior or attitudes). Over the past 40 or 50 years, there’s been an enormous change in the expectations–both women’s and men’s–of how a man could and should act. The essays in Bastard on the Couch don’t shed any blinding light on this topic, but they do offer some interesting, poignant, and thought-provoking flashlight beams on a few areas.

The twenty-seven essays are divided into four sections: “Hunting and Gathering” (sex/monogamy/adultery), “Can’t Be Trusted With Simple Tasks” (household responsibilities in marriage), “Bicycles for Fish,” (a grab-bag, but mostly about role reversals), and “All I Need,”(sad endings). They’re all interesting the way any honest self-revelations are (except Anthony “Jarhead” Swofford’s essay, which feels narcissistic and fake).

Daniel Jones says in “Chivalry on Ice:”

The gestures of chivalry may have been inherently patronizing and obsolete, but my liberation from having to perform them had the side effect of dulling my caretaking instincts, of turning me into someone who would cheer my wife on in one breath (“You can do it yourself!”) only to brush her off in the next (“You can do it yourself’).

This touches on a problem many of these essays dance around: in the absense of traditional gender roles, it’s easy to flail around instead of doing the work of figuring out how to be kind and helpful and supportive to each other based on what each individual needs and wants.

Funny but fundamentally very sad (how do relationships evolve into this awful dynamic?) is Christopher Russell’s “My List of Chores,” where he shares his wife’s daily harangues and general distrust of his competence, which he passively resists, causing her to go even more over the top.

In “Ward and June R Us,” Rob Spillman describes how he and his wife put an end to constant bickering over chores by switching traditional roles each week, so that they take turns being “June” (in charge of all parenting and domestic duties) and “Ward” (come home, relax, and play with the kids guilt-free).

Robert Skates shows the fallout from divorces around him (his own marriage long over) in “The Hole in the Window: A View of Divorce.” At the end, he generously allows his son and his son’s ex-stepfather to hang out together, commiserating over the shock of that second divorce which has split them apart.

Other standouts are Steve Friedman’s “A Bachelor’s Fears,” funny and finally touching; Rob Jackson’s heartwarming “My Life as a Housewife;” and Trey Ellis, “Father of the Year,” funny and poignant.

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian, 1977.

The fourth in the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series, and great in yet a different way. The book opens with Aubrey at home in Hampshire, now married to Sophie and finding that domestic living is not all that he had hoped.

This cottage, though picturesque among its ash trees and even romantic, ideally suited for two in the early days of his marriage, was neither large nor comfortable; it had always been low-ceilinged, pokey and inconvenient, but now that it also contained two babies, a niece, a ruined mother-in-law, some large pieces of furniture … and a couple of servants, it was something like the Black Hole of Calcutta, except that whereas the Hole was hot, dry and airless, Ashgrove Cottage let in draughts from all sides, while the damp rising from the floor joined the leaks in the roof to form pools in many of the rooms.

It’s a comic beginning; O’Brian describes the infant twin girls thus: “They had pale, globular faces, and in the middle of each face a surprisingly long and pointed nose called the turnip to an impartial observer’s mind.” But very soon Maturin has arranged what both Jack and Sophie want most, Aubrey’s return to a sailing ship.

Aubrey is appointed temporary Commodore in charge of retaking the island of Mauritius from the French. One of the things I’ve liked about this series from the start is the insights into work relationships. Aubrey is now supervising not just a crew, at which he’s an expert, but other captains, and that’s a whole new set of problems and sensitivities. The showy, competitive Lord Clonfert, who measures himself against Aubrey and resents his success, is a particularly well-drawn tragic character. O’Brian is masterful at allusions (often subtle) which capture the truth of the situation. Here’s Maturin reflecting on what ultimately happens to Clonfert’s rivalry with Aubrey:

Stephen … looked at Jack with his pale, expressionless eyes, looking objectively at his friend, tall, sanguine, almost beefy, full of health, rich, and under his kindly though moderate concern happy and even triumphant. He thought, ‘You cannot blame the bull because the frog burst: the bull has no comprehension of the affair…’

The complex political games and jockeying for position in the Navy and the government at large are also highlighted in this volume. Maturin’s role as a valuable spy for the British gives him the power to turn the wheels to Aubrey’s advantage, another plot thread neatly worked out. Since there are 16 volumes yet to come, and Aubrey is already into middle age and rising fast in the ranks, I wonder what’s in store for him. There are hints that Maturin is seriously depressed; in the first volume I found O’Brian’s opaqueness frustrating, but now it’s part of the charm that leads one on to the next book.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, by Ann Patchett, 2004.

An unforgettable memoir of Patchett’s friendship with writer Lucy Grealy. Of course it’s beautifully-written, as one would expect from the author of Bel Canto, and of course it’s sad, since Grealy died young and suffered physically and emotionally all her life. It’s also an honest, funny, evocative, involving story that is impossible to put down, whose central character is neither Ann nor Lucy but the friendship itself.

Patchett uses the metaphor of the ant and the grasshopper throughout the book; she the ant, valuing stability and middle-class values, Grealy the improvident grasshopper, cavalier about money and obligations.

And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips. What the story didn’t tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard, fed him on his tenderest store of grass all winter.

Patchett brilliantly shows the evolution of this friendship, where each found in the other something she craved, and the contrast between their characters.

Twelve years of Catholic school had taught me that I would be held accountable not only for what I did, but for everything I considered doing. Twelve years of beating cancer had taught Lucy that she was invincible and that nothing, none of it, was ever going to catch up with her.

Truth & Beauty brings the charming, exasperating Grealy fully back to life; her bottomless loneliness and neediness, her enormous charisma and endearing quirks (like her love of being carried), her zest and zaniness, all make her an unforgettable character. Most of us have probably known someone like her in tone if not in volume. She was the author of Autobiography of a Face, which I read a long time ago and don’t remember much about except that it was good; it’s about her disfiguring bout with cancer as a child that resulted in loss of much of her jaw. Patchett heart-breakingly chronicles Grealy’s many failed surgeries in the quest for a mouth that would work properly.

Patchett herself seems like a rarer find–her unstinting generosity to her friend (primarily emotional, but financial too) is remarkable. She’s creative about it; Grealy avoids her mail by tossing it all in a Hefty bag, and Patchett finally convinces her to ship it to Nashville so that Patchett can deal with it for her. Not long before she dies, Grealy says: “But at least I can make you feel like a saint. That’s what you’ve always wanted.” Patchett responds, “That’s a terrible thing to say,” but it crystallized for me something I’d been feeling through the book; Patchett is such a good friend, such a tower of strength and patience, that I can’t help realizing how in the same situation I would probably fall short of the standard she sets. But by way of explanation, she says early on:

I decided that night I would take all the hours of my life that could so easily be spent worrying and instead I would try to help her. I had been raised by Catholic nuns who told us in no uncertain terms that work was the path to God, and that while it was a fine thing to feel loyalty and devotion in your heart, it would be much better for everyone involved if you could find the physical manifestations of your good thoughts and see them put into action. The world is saved through deeds, not prayer, because what is prayer but a kind of worry? I decided then that my love for Lucy would have to manifest in deeds.

A philosophy to live by, no matter what your belief system. It’s a very thought-provoking book, full of beautifully expressed insights and anecdotes small and large, and I copied down a dozen passages I’m tempted to quote.

Ultimately the ant couldn’t save the grasshopper, who felt the ant life was a stifling one. In the last section, Grealy’s early death starts to feel inevitable. We join Patchett in her grief. After reading Bel Canto (in which dozens of people with no common language rely on a translator), this passage was especially meaningful:

Even when Lucy was devastated or difficult, she was the person I knew best in the world, the person I was the most comfortable with. Whenever I saw her, I felt like I had been living in another country, doing moderately well in another language, and then she showed up speaking English and suddenly I could speak with all the complexity and nuance that I hadn’t even realized was gone. With Lucy I was a native speaker.

It’s also a fascinating window into the literary writing world, including the round of writing colonies and fellowships. One of the best books I’ve read this year!

Mr. S: My Life With Frank Sinatra, by George Jacobs and William Stadiem, 2003

More interesting than the usual run of celebrity tell-alls, but ultimately somewhat depressing. I don’t know a ton about Sinatra; I respect his singing more than I like it, but he’s fascinating as an iconic showbiz figure.

Like many children of my generation (I was born in 1964), I watched early Warner Brothers cartoons which caricatured famous Hollywood people without having a clue who they were until much later. But the Frank Sinatra chicken in Swooner Crooner made an impression on me. As a teen I laughed at Joe Piscopo’s impression of Frank singing “Under My Thumb” (his only funny skit, as I recall). Many years later, I took care of a lady with Alzheimer’s whose happiest moments were spent listening to Tommy Dorsey records, and so I heard many early Sinatra classics over and over again. I read The Way You Wear Your Hat when it came to the library (don’t remember much about it) because of the wonderful title and cover. The shadow of Sinatra is still everywhere in American culture; from the Ocean’s 11 and Manchurian Candidate remakes to the resurgence of 50s cool (granted, that’s old already, but I’m sure there are better examples), his presence is inescapable. So a book by his valet is a natural draw.

The opening is killer: “Summer 1968. The only man in America who was less interested than me in sleeping with Mia Farrow was her husband and my boss, Frank Sinatra.” Dancing with Mia at a club (& subsequent rumors of an affair) led to Sinatra cutting off Jacobs overnight, as Jacobs had seen him to do so many other people. Then we go to the standard chronological narrative; a brief overview of Jacobs’ life, his employment with Swifty Lazar, and then the day that Sinatra wooed him away in 1953. Until the blow-up in 1968, Jacobs accompanied Sinatra around the world, cooked his favorite food, baby-sat his lovers, ran his errands, put up with awful practical jokes, cleaned up after his tantrums, and befriended his family.

“No man is a hero to his valet,” and yet Jacobs effectively communicates how much he loved “Mr. S.” Frank Sinatra comes across as a guy with many good qualities (generous, thoughtful, humble, basically unbigoted) spoiled by success. Jacobs bore with his temper, insecurity, crude sense of humor, and occasional cruelty for the sake of the “vulnerable, real” person he saw underneath, and of course for the amazing perks and prestige that went with being right-hand man to the Chairman of the Board. Getting fired was a crushing blow for Jacobs, and it’s easy to believe that it was a terrible mistake for the increasingly lonely and isolated Sinatra to get rid of someone who saw him for who he was and yet loved him.

The most interesting part of the book is the inside view of the structure and social distinctions of Hollywood, Mafia, and political circles, and the connections between them. I knew Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father) was unsavory, but Jacobs says of him: “Mr. Ambassador, if anyone had the guts to spit in his face, a bravery that my boss sadly lacked, should have been called Mr. Asshole.” (Just noticed the rather strange sentence construction there–this is mostly a well-written book, but there are some flaws). He backs it up with first-hand observations, and shows that “Joe was mobbed up to his fancy collar pins.” Blech. Jacobs liked JFK himself, but all the future President wanted to talk about was sex.

“What do you want? Jack?” I asked. [JFK had just insisted that Jacobs call him Jack.]

“I want to fuck every woman in Hollywood,” he said with a big leering grin.

The book is stuffed with gossipy tidbits about the many famous people Sinatra knew–Marilyn Monroe, Garbo & Dietrich, the Lawfords, Billie Holliday, Noel Coward & Cole Porter, Lawrence Harvey, Judy Garland, Bogart & Bacall, and lots more. Jacobs shows the long-suffering first Mrs. Sinatra, alluring Ava Gardner (whom he describes as the true love of Frank’s life), and manipulative, ambitious Mia Farrow. It doesn’t feel like Jacobs is dishing dirt in a titillating way, but it ultimately leaves a bad taste. Most of the stars come off like Sinatra–people who might have been decent once upon a time, or if things had gone differently, but whose bad impulses have been allowed to predominate by constant catering-to.

This book straddles the fence in a strange way: it’s too thoughtful and observant to be quite a light-hearted juicy gossip fest, but too emotionally flat and non-judgemental to be as thought-provoking and involving as it could be. I’d like more perspective on why George Jacobs would let Frank Sinatra become his life, to the extent that the “after Frank” section of the book feels hollow. Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable read and a must for people who like Sinatra and/or Hollywood stories.