Farewell, Dorothy Parker

9780399159077_p0_v1_s260x420The joy of being able to deliver a zinger when needed does not always come at the appropriate moment – unless you are Dorothy Parker.  Ellen Meister reincarnates this caustic critic, known for her quick wit and timely repartee in her romantic comedy  – Farewell, Dorothy Parker.

Violet, a movie critic with her own range of critical commentary, has trouble translating her unleashed literary verve into her personal life.   In the midst of being taken advantage of by her boyfriend, her dead sister’s in-laws, and a young aspiring editorial assistant, Violet inadvertently releases the ghost of Dorothy Parker from the famous Algonquin Round Table guest book.

When the book is open, Ms. Parker appears in all her glory – smoking, drinking gin, and lobbing one-liners.  As the story progresses, Meister fills in much of Parker’s biography – fun to renew if you are a fan of the famous nineteen twenties writer, a revelation if you only knew Dorothy Parker as the person who said: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”

Eventually, Parker resolves her own fear of “going into the light,” and leaves Violet with renewed spunk to refreshingly live out her own life.  The story has melodramatic moments but it was a quick read on a Kindle that left me laughing and yearning to find some of Dorothy Parker’s short stories and poems (and wanting to lunch at the Algonquin).

One of my favorite Dorothy Parker poems:

“Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.”

For A Taste of Dorothy Parker:

National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists

Algonquin Round Table Members

Celebrated wit and writer, Dorothy Parker, and her Algonquin Round Table live on in the National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974 at the famous site in New York City where Parker, with contemporaries Alexander Woollcott, Edna Ferber, Roberty Benchley, Harpo Marx and other artists met in the 1920s over lunch to share ideas and critique their contemporaries.   The current group of freelance writers and critics continues the conversation and creates an annual award list of fiction, nonfiction, biography, poetry, criticism, and authobiography.

For me – another source of good books to read.

Last year’s winners included Sarah Blakewell’s How to Live: Or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer – one of my favorite biographies (read my review – here).

This year’s fiction finalists are:

  • Open City by Teju Cole (about a Nigerian graduate student in New York City)
  • The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (reviewed here)
  • The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (reviewed here)
  • Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (collection of short stories)
  • Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (about the relationship between siblings)

War seemed to dominate the nonfiction finalists:

  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War 
  • To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
  • Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War

Rules of Civility

When you see a car accident that you missed by minutes, or bump into someone because you decided to turn right instead of left, do you think fate? serendipity? Katey Kontent hops into the back seat of a car instead of the front, and her action changes the direction of her life in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility.

Katey flashes back to her life as a twenty-five year old from Brooklyn trying for a career, a husband, a life, in New York City in the late 1930s, when she sees a picture of Tinker Grey in an art gallery thirty years later.  Back then, she was trying to reinvent her life as the daughter of immigrant Russians, when she and her boardinghouse roommate, Eve, from Indiana, meet handsome and wealthy Tinker Grey on New Year’s Eve.  Although the threesome pal around together, Katey defers to Eve in pursuit of the rich prospect; Tinker, however, seems drawn to Katey.  In a bizarre twist, a car accident injures Eve, and Tinker’s guilt drives him to compensate by focusing attention and money to care for her. As Eve slowly recovers but remains scarred, it’s clear that Katey is now the third wheel.

The title is based on the historical document transcribed by George Washington as his guide for behavior; the 110 rules of etiquette included recommendations for proper dress and public behavior, but also address moral and decency issues.  Tinker has a worn copy that at first seems whimsical but later provides Katey with the clues to who he really is, when she discovers his background and source of income.  Towles includes the listing in an Appendix; number 11o suggests the theme for the story:

110th –  Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

Facing the possibility of a dull career in the secretarial pool, as Tinker and Eve abandon her to fly off to warmer climes or party with Tinker’s wealthy friends, Katey bravely quits her dull job, and finesses her way into Conde Nast.  Through Tinker’s connections, Katey continues to taste the good life, partying with Dickie and Bitsey and Wallace, New York’s wealthy elite, who live behind a social veneer that Katey eventually cracks open.  Of course, their lives are not what Katey supposes they are.  With the witty observations of a Dorothy Parker, Towles examines Katey’s climb to the executive suite and her new society friends in a carefree New York City as she tries to follow the rules.  And rules are everywhere…

“…be careful when choosing what you’re proud of…because the world has every intention of using it against you…”

“…right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

More than an historical romance, Rules of Civility has the flavor of an old black and white movie. The scenes from New York City may remind you of Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell in smart outfits and sharp banter, in the time after the Depression and before World War II when “girls” left small towns to room at the Barbizon or boarding houses in Greenwich Village, and rich socialites gave parties and escaped to the Hamptons.

Life is – oh, so very civilized – but “it {doesn’t} come without a price.”

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Parker

from the Ascensios painting of the Circle

Today is Dorothy Parker’s birthday.  Famous for her biting wit, Parker wrote for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, before making her mark as a screenwriter (A Star is Born).  You can still see her infamous Round Table at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where she held court with Robert Benchley and Harpo Marx, among other writers of the twenties, and established it as New York City’s eternal literary flame.

Her short stories are online, and her quotes still float into conversation.  Some of my favorites:

The best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant – and let the air out of the tires.

I don’t care what is written about me as long as it isn’t true.

She won the O’Henry Award for Big Blond, but her classic, The Telephone Call, reminds me of high school.

Related Article:  Serving Stars But Never Gossip

Caroline Kennedy – She Walks in Beauty

Curiosity about the author led me to Caroline Kennedy’s anthology, She Walks in Beauty.  Organized in thirteen chapters that follow “a woman’s journey” from “falling in love” to learning “how to live,” the book includes poetry from the well-known to the obscure, from traditional to modern poets.

Kennedy begins each chapter with a personal introduction to the theme she is exploring, and, at times, provides glimpses into the famous Kennedy family, with references to Grandma Rose’s attention to her granddaughter’s clothing, cousin Maria Shriver’s practical jokes, or her mother’s favorite poem (Ithaka by Constantine Cavafy).  But she directs most of her comments to her own relationship with poetry as a way to communicate, meditate, and sometimes just sooth.  She offers her observations about only a few selected poems within each section; she leaves the rest up to the reader.

I did read through all the poems, and found a few verses to jot down for future reference…like the cynical Dorothy Parker’s Unforgettable Coincidence

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.

Marge Piercy’s What’s That Smell in the Kitchen? – “Burning dinner is not incompetence but war” could be on a plaque.

Father’s day is coming, and Ralph Waldo Emerson offered advice – From A Letter to His Daughter

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities
no doubt have crept in;
forget them as soon as you can.
Tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with 
your old nonsense.
This day is all that is
good and fair.
It is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on yesterdays.

Caroline Kennedy exposes a little of herself in her selections.  The last section of the book – “How to Live” – includes poems that have become her private mantras, and she writes that “the poems in this section are the reward for making it through the rest of the book.”  I liked this section best, and it might have been better to start with these.  More than the other sections, this one seemed less forced to fit under the section heading.

I’m returning the book to the library but I did enjoy a few pleasant afternoons mulling Kennedy’s selections.  Poetry is personal; we all get what we need from reading it, and Kennedy’s book sparked a renewed appreciation for taking a break from prose with poetry – as well as the chance to reread some old favorites and find new ones.