Writing in an Age of Silence, Sara Paretsky, Verso, 2007, 138 pp
I am reading my way through Paretsky's V I Warshawski mystery novels. I have read four of the twelve so far and liked them all. This slim volume is a combination memoir and polemic on why she writes what she writes.
Ms Paretsky grew up in Kansas, where she and her siblings were kept isolated on the outskirts of town because her brilliant but dysfunctional parents were also Jewish and could not buy property in town. Drinking, fighting, violence and drudgery were the key elements of her childhood. But so was reading; she escaped, she got an education and the second wave of feminism came along just in time.
This author is clearly a liberal; championing underdogs of all types and adamantly opposed to corruption in big business and government. That is clear in her novels. She was also strongly anti-Bush, a hot topic in 2007 when the book was published, which sounds dated already in 2009. But her diatribes against the Patriot Act and Homeland Security are strident, as are her opinions on the anti-abortionists.
Women are usually accused of being strident when we speak up. The Old Testament prophets were also strident and mocked. Are our women of a certain age the new prophets? Possibly so. Barbara Kingsolver was labeled strident for things she had to say in her Small Wonder essays. I must read those someday.
I most enjoyed Paretsky's stories of becoming a writer. In fact, that is a story I never tire of reading and in the telling of it she is at her most eloquent. Jonatha Brooke, my second most favorite singer/songwriter after Joni Mitchell, wrote a song called "The Angel in the House" (recorded on an album of the same title in 1993 when she was still a member of the band The Story.) A line from that song has stuck with me always, "Even in my wildest heart, I cannot kill the angel in the house." Turns out it all goes back to Virginia Woolf and an essay she wrote entitled "Professions for Women" (available on line at Professions for Women and in the book Death of the Moth & Other Essays) in which Woolf takes on the phantom of the selfless sacrificial female ideal of the 19th century, whose sole purpose was to soothe, to flatter and to comfort the male. In a poem by Coventry Patmore, celebrating domestic bliss, this type of woman is named the Angel in the House. "Killing the angel in the house," wrote Virginia Woolf, "is part of the occupation of a woman writer."
Sara Paretsky had her own Angel in the House to overcome. She writes about how she did it, she mentions Jonatha Brooke and Virginia Woolf. I now have The Death of the Moth & Other Essays on order. One of the best things about reading is the way one thing leads to another in a continuous path of discovery and realization. Thank you Sara Paretsky for connecting those dots for me.
(The books mentioned here are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)