A Difficult Woman

DifficultWomanA Difficult Woman
Alice Kessler-Harris
Kindle Edition  $13.35, Amazon Hardcover Bargain Price $12.00, Amazon Paperback  $14.05
448 pages, Bloomsbury Press (April 30, 2012)

Author Alice Kessler-Harris states at the very beginning of this book that it was not intended as a biography of Lillian Hellman. She acknowledges the existing biographies and refers the reader there if that is what they are seeking. Her undertaking here, she says, is an analysis of Hellman’s life and work from a feminist perspective.

Certainly Hellman, as one of the foremost writers and activists of the twentieth century, is deserving of such an analysis. And a fascinating and multi-faceted individual Hellman was. I believe Kessler-Harris hits the nail on the head when she says, “critics, reviewers, political friends and enemies collectively formulated a life that reshaped Lillian Hellman, turning her into something of a Rorschach test.” What one thinks of Hellman is a reflection of one’s own political and social views.

The book is arranged thematically with chapters on Hellman as a woman, an activist, a playwright, a manager of her own finances, and a perhaps sometime Communist. Generally the chapters cover those themes throughout her life. As such, we read a lot about Hellman’s intense sexual appetite in an early chapter and see almost nothing about it through the rest of the book.

Kessler-Harris, while obviously an admirer of Hellman is by no means an apologist. She acknowledges the numerous fictions in her autobiographical writing (most notably the piece “Julia” in the book Pentimento, in which she claims to have delivered $50,000 to a friend in the Austrian resistance). At the same time Kessler-Harris points to the extensive research and detail Hellman put into her plays.

At 448 pages there is a lot of Hellman here, and in the later chapters I found myself wishing for a little less detail. Nonetheless, I believe this book makes an important contribution in helping us to understand who this important and complex woman was.


I have long avoided Walmart for a number of reasons. They have a history of paying their employees poorly, and they squeeze everything they can out of their suppliers. On the other hand, they are undertaking a significant investment in solar energy, and they are engaged in an initiative to sell organic produce, which could give a boost to organic farmers and bring down prices for consumers.

And when one receives notice of a job layoff one reassess one’s priorities. Especially when one’s favorite allegedly upscale regional grocery chain is not known for its low prices and when the store isn’t really offering anything special.

Last week Terry and I swallowed our pride last week and went in to our local Walmart. It was good to have Terry along because she does a much better job of paying attention to prices than I do. On item after item Terry was impressed at how much lower their prices were than elsewhere. Our total bill was $36.30. Terry estimated that same purchase at our allegedly upscale regional grocery chain would be $50.00.

As Terry said, “I guess we’re going to stop being snobs.”

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Sacred Music Friday: Lamentations

Tallis, Lamentations, the clerks of the Choir of New College, Oxford, under the Direction of Edward Higginbottom

how many commandments?

I have known this for a long while, but I saw an interesting article that did a nice job of clarifying the topic.

The ten commandments appear in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in neither place is there any reference to this being a list of commandments, nor to there being ten. In fact, the Jewish community talks about the “ten statements.” And if you break the passages down you can work it out to twelve statements.

So how do we get to ten?

  • For the Jews, “I am the Lord your God” is a separate statement, while Christians combine that with “You shall have no other gods before me.”
  • For Jews and Catholics, not worshipping other Gods and not making graven images are combined into a single statement, while for Protestants and Eastern Orthodox, it’s two.
  • Coveting another’s wife and property is one statement for Jews, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox, while it’s two for Catholics.

The Bible is not as specific, cut, and dried as some people would like to believe.

on not being tied to the canon

One of the downsides of the online world in general and social media in particular is the proliferation of must-read lists of books. (Similar lists, of course, exist for movies, music, and television programs.) There is a place for identifying a literary canon, and I really enjoyed the Western Literary Canon lecture series from The Great Courses. Still, I think the must-read list thing is over done.

At the end of Why I Read, Wendy Lesser lists “A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure.” She makes the point that “This is not a literary canon, and there will be no final exam— for any of us.” In a similar vein Janet Potter writes about “28 Books You Should Read If You Want To.” A few of her suggestions:


You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.

You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re crying.

You should read books about historical events you don’t know anything about.

You should read books about things you already know a little about.

You should read prize-winners, bestsellers, beach reads, book club picks, and classics, when you want to.

I like her approach. You might want to check out the whole piece.

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our heterogeneous kitchen

I said I was done writing about refrigerators and I am. But with our replacement refrigerator, I have the inclination to write about our kitchen as a whole.

When we did our remodel in 2007, we decided to go with GE for our major appliances. The exception was the dishwasher, which was a KitchenAid that was working perfectly fine. We went to our local full-service Western Appliance store (the Gilroy location sadly no longer being there) and got some excellent help from the salesperson there. They even stored the appliances until we were ready for them. We bought a refrigerator, a stove and a microwave. As it turned out, the microwave started peeling inside and had to be replaced. Our esteemed contractor failed to properly anchor the dishwasher and it had to be replaced. (Not to mention that it was replaced by a Bosch, which was a disaster, followed by an LG, which also did not function properly. We’re now on a Frigidaire which, knock on wood, is functioning well.) You know the latest story about the GE fridge.

So, of all the major appliances we bought only the stove dates from the remodel. (There’s the U-Line wine chiller, but that’s in the dining area, and it’s not used in the food cooking and dish cleaning cycle, so I’m not counting it. But we greatly appreciate its constancy.) That doesn’t seem quite right. But the current heterogeneous collection looks just fine, and we expect this existing set to perform well for a very long time to come.

yes, it can

That is, yes it can happen to me. I was never under any illusion that it couldn’t. Getting laid off that is.

I was notified on Friday. I can’t complain. I’ve dodged the bullet many times. This time I didn’t. To change metaphors, I’ve said for years that it’s like the children’s game of musical chairs. It’s all about where you happen to find yourself when the music stops.

That doesn’t make it any easier when it actually happens. As I wrote of Facebook, “Did you know that it is possible to cycle through denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance multiple times in a single hour?” That’s what Friday afternoon was like.

So I move ahead. I trust that this is the beginning of something bigger and better.