Careers for Women

51Zl+TlJY2L._AC_US218_  Any story culminating in the fate of the World Trade Center in New York City already carries a pall of anxiety, but Joanna Scott focuses on the stories of women only peripherally connected yet forever affected by those towers.  The story bounces across decades, from the inception of the architecture to it final demise, with a stream of consciousness narrative that can be hard to follow.

Back in the nineteen fifties, women executives were rare and Lee, know as Mrs. J to her staff, is a formidable force in public relations for the Port Authority, selling the idea and managing the opposition of small businesses who will be displaced by the new two towers World Trade Center.  Other women include Maggie, an ambitious young assistant on Mrs. J’s staff and the story’s narrator; Pauline, whose perils never seem to end; and Kay, the erstwhile wife of the philandering manager of the aluminum plant supplying the materials for the project.  Their lives interconnect as they struggle to survive both professionally and personally.

Several story lines bind the streaming structure – a corpse appears in the woods, the aluminum plant poisons the adjacent farmland and water table, and the plant mysteriously explodes.  And, despite the intricate architecture of the narrative, following the lives of the women is satisfying.  Although their lives slowly build over the years, none are in the Trade Center on that fateful day.

Maggie’s voice sometimes sounds like a documentary, with a news broadcaster’s cold observations.  At times, Scott purposely drops in cryptic images that pop up again later in the book; more than once, I thought I should reread a section with the reference – if only I could find it.  At one point in the novel, Scott has one of her characters state: ” {she} compared the experience to rereading the kind of book in which the end invites you to go back to the beginning and read again, with new attention…” and I imagined she was reassuring me, the reader, when I found myself unbalanced and confused in the miasma of the images floating back and forth from decade to decade.

Reading Careers for Women is a complicated venture, but worthwhile.

Related Review: Joanna Scott’s DePotter’s Grand Tour



Wendy Wasserstein – A Finished Note

Wendy and the Lost Boys was a slow read for me – not because it was difficult. Reading about Wendy Wasserstein’s life was more like a very long article in New York magazine or Vogue – with enough name-dropping to make it gossipy but with the added value of historical context and life-changing decisions. As Salamon marches through Wasserstein’s home life, college, and post-college angst, she clearly connects the early formative years to later success. If everyone you meet in life has some influence on how you see the world, Wendy’s cast of family and friends was the ultimate confirmation of this. Those around her were stored in her brain for retrieval as characters in her plays. In return, they often had the misfortune to recognize themselves on stage.

Nevertheless, her charged humor was successful not just because she “wrote what she knew.” If her characters seemed stereotyped, it was only because she had the models in her life: the nagging mother, who wants her daughter to be thin and marry a rich guy; the competitive brother who could not be beat; the gay friends she fell in love with but would never marry (Wasserstein wrote the screenplay for “The Object of My Affection”).

More than any of these, it was the professor who saw her possibilities; the colleagues who made her feel smart; the friends who bolstered her ego; her “husbands” who supported her – if you are lucky, you had at least one of each in your life. But don’t be fooled into thinking you have something in common with her; Wendy Wasserstein was unique.

So – the slow read…Salaman traces recent history in Wendy’s life: John F. Kennedy, Kent State, the Pentagon Papers, the Clinton Presidency, the attack on the World Trade Center. Familiar names of actors, directors, and writers line the narrative – the people and the times who made her who she was, and gave her the material to write. By the end, you may think you know her too.

Tenth Anniversary of 9/11

This year marks the tenth anniversary of New York City’s 9/11 terrorist attack. Where were you when it happened? Like other moments in history, depending on your age, you have a clear answer to questions that mark your place and your reaction – your story. Over 30 novels have been written fictionalizing incidents and lives about that day.

Maira Kalman’s picture book – Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey – tells the true story of an old restored fireboat called back into service on 9/11 when “…the water pipes were broken…fire trucks could not pump water…{and} firefighters attached hoses to the Harvey…”   With some history of New York City before that infamous day, Kalman frames the information about the attack around Harvey’s heroic efforts, fighting the fires …for four days and nights…”   Her pictures use colors and lines to illustrate chaos, while calmly giving the information – an easy way to record the history for inquiring children.

But before the towers fell, a man walked between the towers on a cable – high above the crowds. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin uses Phillip Petit’s famous highwire walk to tell a modern Canterbury Tales of New York City in 1974 – with ten people who witnessed or were affected by the act. Read my review – and consider reading the book if you haven’t yet.

McCann “uses a common occurrence in an airport to connect the last pieces of the story and rush it forward from the seventies to present day. Phillipe Petit’s famous walk across the wire connecting the two towers was the catalyst that connected loves and life stories that are ongoing.”

Read the review of Let the Great World Spin here