Whenever these three great articles were -- imagined? assigned? written? spawned? -- could writer or editor have imagined them materializing on one Thanksgiving weekend screaming for a coda of peaceful and gratifying reading?
This is exactly what happened to this reader, after a lovely run of children, spouses, grandchildren and friends. I settled down for a quiet morning of going through The Times and the New Yorker and came away with enough depressing news, well handled, but also found three lengthy articles that demanded full attention.
All three articles are written by women, about singular women, whose work has captivated me over the years.
(I recognize not everybody can get over the paywall of these two great publications, but many can qualify for X number of freebies per month. I urge you to try. Meantime, here is my enthusiastic summation.)
Everybody Knows Flo From Progressive. Who is Stephanie Courtney? By Caity Weaver in the NYT Sunday Magazine
I was a Flo fan the first time she emerged on the television, wearing her white outfit and a knowing smile, maybe even a wink. She was selling Progressive Insurance – I tend to forget brand names from commercials – but she was also selling herself. I’m in control. I know stuff.
Some of her best work was done in the presence of men and motorcycles. (obviously to appeal to motorcycle drivers, which I am not, but I admire people who va-room on the open road.)
Flo (I have to be reminded that her name is Stephanie Courtney) reminded me of one of the great bits in the movie “Something Wild,” when bad-girl Melanie Griffith utters something lewd to a motorcycle cop (the writer-director-actor, John Sayles.)
Okay, Flo caught my “attention,” and I became a fan of the commercials, including the three sidekicks (mentioned in the NYT but not named) – a goofy guy, a whiny woman, and a stable brother. They mostly play off Flo, as she makes snarky comments off in a corner, and all are welcome in a world of annoying commercials.
Writer Caity Weaver goes light on biographical material but provides heartwarming description of how this comedy-club also-ran improvised her way into what seems to be a fortune. (check out the caviar anecdote.)
For anybody curious about how films/commercials are done, Weaver also provides lavish info on a shoot in a frequently-used home in the LA region – lights and electric cords and snacks for the workers. I have a friend who rents her house near the beach for TV shoots. I know more than I did about this world. But basically, I also know more about the now-rich woman with the knowing smile who can materialize on my screen any time she wants.
The New Yorker materializes in most weeks, and also pops up on the Web, with experts and timely reporting from hideous parts of the world (Hamas, Trump, climate, etc.) The magazine has morphed from a fey weekly to a daily e-necessity, under the guidance of David Remnick, a friend from sportswriting days (tapas in Barcelona during the 1992 Olympics), later a reporter in Moscow, and now a most obviously un-Ross, un-Shawn editor of the New Yorker. Congratulations, David.
The Nov. 27 issue materialized with the cover depicting eight folks around an urban apartment dining room (view of the Empire State Building behind the celebrants) eight glittering color screens amid the remains of turkey, wine, candles.
“That’s me!” blurted our grand-daughter, Anjali, who on Thanksgiving took part in a memorable dinner for 17 – 17! – prepared by two adults with very demanding jobs. The elder table had a lot of talking. The younger table materialized into the New Yorker cover of one of the best editions, ever, if you ask me (Zadie Smith! David Sedaris! Roz Chast!)
One captivating article “Ghost, Writer,” was by Leslie Jamison, a writer who was asked by her dying friend, Rebecca Godfrey, to complete a copious fictional biography of the art doyenne, Peggy Guggenheim. Godfrey leaving left specific instructions and references for Jamison, challenging her to convert them, including a Rosebud cluster of final words.
The book aside, Jamison surely immortalizes her dead friend, also giving a sketch of a real biographer at full tilt.
Just before the Jamison article is:
Joyce Carol Oates’s Relentless, Prolific Search for a Self by Rachel Aviv
I knew I would be fascinated by the article because I once was fascinated by Joyce Carol Oates herself, in a brunch interview (me, of her.)
Oates had just issued a book about boxing and I was writing a sports column for the NYT (remember sports columns in the NYT? This is what they were like.)
Oates was fascinated by boxing. I love boxers…but I hate boxing, what it does to people’s brains.
We sparred over coffee and bagels, or whatever, and I was sorry when the interview ended.
Since then, I have toyed with the NYT book review staple in which writers are asked what three writers they would invite for dinner. A lot of writers, being writers, mooch a fourth guest.
Nobody is ever going to ask me that question for the Book Review but I have my answer prepared: William Shakespeare (what about that painting in the National Portrait Gallery?), Jesus Christ (not a writer, perhaps, but a Jewish preacher), Thomas Wolfe (who taught me to read, and think, and care) and Joyce Carol Oates because…well, because.
Oates was complicated, and she remains complicated in the lengthy “Personal Statement” by Rachel Aviv in the current New Yorker. I’m not even going to try to summarize. I just know I read every word, and urge others to do the same.
Note: I just glanced again at the New Yorker’s table of contents. Barbra Streisand’s book, by Rachel Syme. A book review by Thomas Mallon. An essay by Hilton Als. A review of the Bernstein movie, by Anthony Lane.
Still a few hours left for reading at the end of the Thanksgiving holiday.