Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rita Lakin, mystery writer

I discovered Lakin's books at a book fair, and was intrigued by their fictional detective and location. Gladdy Gold is a 79-year-old retiree in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she lives in the Lanai Gardens senior apartments. She is so full of Yiddish sass that Lakin includes a glossary for those unfamiliar with the bits of that language that remain in some spoken vocabularies. Her crew of sleuths include her sister Evvie Markowitz and Ida Franz. These are not soft-spoken elderly ladies, which can be a problem when they encounter nearby residents like Hy Binder, "man of a thousand jokes, all of them tasteless" or his thought-deprived wife. The population also includes care takers, Holocaust survivors, leches, and Cubans in various roles. The humor is often Borscht belt as the ladies deal with finding killers. At the same time there is the underlying reality, the bittersweet reminders of daily troubles the elderly either triumph over or submit to in less satisfactory ways.

What is this series doing in this blog? Lakin is a longtime Californian who still resides here. She had a successful television career, both as a writer and eventually as a producer. She wrote many movies of the week, and has won a variety of awards, including the prestigious Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writers.

So you have a mother retired in Florida? Here's what to send as a mitzvah to give her a dose of the best medicine, lots of laughs. Ok, she may kvetch back, but just roll your eyes and keep quiet. Of course, read the book first for your own pleasure.

Rita Lakin also has a blog, and a new book about to come out, Growing Old is Tres Dangereux.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Barbara Rosenblum

A much-beloved woman in my music world is dying. We sang under her direction recently and she had difficulty completing the concert due to pain. Watching her these past weeks has brought in mind Barbara Rosenblum. She was the kind of friend I expected to grow old with. I imagined us, gray-haired, bad knees, laughing about the night she gave me some really bad-trip weed. Or how she would put on a Fats Waller record and we would dance around her Bush Street living room, the propeller on her beanie a-spin.

We met as novice sociologists at a woman's group. She had managed an unfortunately short-lived job at Stanford and lived in SF. Coming from the east, as I did, we were sympatico from the start. I was a single mom, and she lived with a sweet Japanese photographer, David, who taught me to surf fish. We both shared a fascination with photographs in sociology, and Barbara's first book was on professional photographers. Her home was a welcoming respite during some hard times for me, both for her intense intellectualism and her wild sense of fun.

We were less in touch when our personal lives shifted. She shifted into a gay life style, and I was unhappy with one of her choices for a partner. We had some fights, good ones, that we eventually got over. Then I remarried and she found Sandy, the kind of opposite that works so well in building a solid relationship. In her forties, Barbara was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer. She remarked that she guessed she would have to teach the rest of us about dying, which she did with abandon. She travelled, she continued her intellectual and teaching life. The last time I saw her, I took a portable microscope and tiny flowers for her to study. She was honest to the end, and kept all of her friends informed of her condition. I still miss her, over 25 years later, and regret we can't wonder over the latest political morass.

She and Sandy co-wrote one of the best books ever on intimates dealing with a fatal disease, Cancer in Two Voices. It won some awards, but I don't think it remains in print. Find a copy if you can.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Elinor Remick Warren, 1900-1991

Similar to the fine arts, music has been a field where women have not received the lasting notice deserved. On an impulse, I searched for a California woman composer and came up with this name. During infancy Warren's musical inclinations were evident, and she was composing by age five. Her musical parents nurtured her education in piano, voice, and composition. While still a high school student, Warren published her first work, "A Song of June," with noted publisher G. Schirmer. There followed one year at Mills College to study singing, but her teachers recognized her gifts in composition and convinced her parents to send her to New York. There she continued private studies in composing and accompaniment.

During the early 1920s she toured as an accompanist for the Metropolitan Opera, performed as a soloist with symphony orchestras, and published in her favorite format, the choral work. Moving to Los Angeles, she studied orchestration and wrote her first symphonic work, "The Harp Weaver," set to the poem of Edna Vincent Millay. Critics described the work as "melodious, picturesque, and imbued with appropriate feeling...effective tone-painting" and praised the composer's "genuine creative talent." The premiere of was conducted by Antonia Brico at Carnegie Hall in 1936. Warren found herself set among other neo-romanticists, such as Samuel Barber and Giancarlo Menotti.

Intensely private and comitted to her craft, she continued with numerous songs, choral pieces, and symphonic works, often referring to English poets for inspiration. This accompanied a full family life with a supportive husband, a professional singer, who kept the children away when she was working. Despite the rise of atonal music, she refused to shift her preferred style, and had the satisfaction of seeing her works performed throughout the country. Further evidence of her achievement was the commissioning of works, such as her "Symphony in One Movement."

To understand obstacles what she faced, consider this exchange, and note the recent date:

"I don't think compositions, whether they're large or small, have a gender, as far as the music goes, and I think it makes no difference to state `this is a woman composer,' `this is a man composer,'" Warren commented in a 1987 interview.

"I've had many people say to me `You play like a man,' or `Your music sounds as if it were written by a man.' I think they associate any kind of music that is rather strong or powerful with manliness."

When the interviewer observed, "Because the work is so big and we just don't expect that of a woman," Warren shot back, "I don't know why. Women have thoughts too!"

More than 200 of Warren's works remain available in publication form, and several major works in CD by leading artists. One of these was created when she was 86, when Cambria Records asked her to accompany singers on an album of her works. An organization

On a personal note, I wonder about my own stifled musical career. What if the orchestras I visited in my youth included women? What if my education had included the long line of noted women composers? And why did it require a web search to learn about Warren when I have been in choral groups all my life? After all, the repertoire of my current group includes Samuel Barber. I think I have some education to do with some local conductors....and send them to the Elinor Remick Warren Society.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Do Your Own History

The following comment is a reminder of how important it is for you to preserve information about women's groups in which you are active, whether political, civil rights, artistic, craft, domestic skills, and so forth. Don't toss. Donate to your local library if you can't write a history. What you do is worth saving.

I was particularly pleased to receive this information because I know the online collection mentioned in the previous blog does not cover fully the significance of lesbian women in Sonoma County's movement for rights.

Dear Eclectic Reader:
I read your notes with great interest.

I spent last Saturday at an event that was, indeed, as much a celebration of National Women's History Project as well as of the life of the late Mary Ruthsdotter. I had the pleasure of working with Mary on Jolly's project, one of the outgrowths of this is LASC - Lesbian Archives of Sonoma County. We are a small but active group who are recording, via video=taped interviews of groups which lesbians initiated or coordinated. We are working on a twenty five year period from 1965 to 1995 and have inventoried more than sixty organizations, founded or worked on in the lesbian community ranging from restaurants and music venues, to political action groups to a collective counseling center (still in operation). To date we have interviewed the following groups: Penngrove Women's Center ; LVAC (Lesbian Voters Action Caucus; Brown Bag Readers Theatre; Moonrise Cafe;
Chrysallis Counseling Center and Minerva Productions. In addition to social events, LSAC sponsored an afernoon's conversation with Sally Gearhart and Phyllis Lyon.

For further information or to be placed on LSAC's email events list, write to LASC(at)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sonoma County Women's History

Several years ago the late Mary Ruthsdotter, one of the founders of the National Women's History Project, conceived of a history of the feminist movement in Sonoma County, where it was very active from the first stirrings. Having been part of that history, I was interviewed by Professor Michelle Jolly of Sonoma State University. Ruthsdotter spurred Jolly to do oral histories as part of a class she was teaching. With the help of the California Humanities, Jolly was also able to post some of the findings on a website, Sonoma Womens HIstory

One unexpected source concerns an index of newspaper articles from the Press Democrat between 1969 and 1978. Clicking a box in the graphical display offers the headline and particular source information. The first two articles in 1969 exquisitely reflect the cusp of change. One concerns a Candlelight Ball, while the other announces a luncheon for war mothers, this being the era of Vietnam. Skimming over later titles, one is reminded of the enormous commitment of women then to establish support groups in various fields, to rally against discrimination, to pressure for new laws, and more. Those of us who lived through that time wonder why that history has been relatively forgotten. How often do my cohort members comment upon the set belief of so many young California women that equality is here, when that is not the case? We feel cranky, but when I survey what we attempted, perhaps we deserve to feel such annoyance.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ella Lefland, writer

(The writing muse seems to have struck again, following a long break. So entries will be arriving at shorter intervals.)

I read Leffland's 1970 novel Rumors of Peace several years ago, yet many of its scenes still resonate. The story takes place at the start of World War II in fictional Mendoza that resembles Martinez or Carquinez. Told through the viewpoint of young Susie Hansen, the war's approach takes on the particularity of its location. A tomboy when the bombers attack Pearl Harbor, she has learned to appreciate her burgeoning womanliness by the time of Hiroshima. Guiding her on this journey is the radical and brilliant older sister of her best friend. Susie's mentor helps her to navigate a self-acceptance that acknowledges her new sexuality without compromising and swallowing the standard female role of the time. So it is a path many, including myself, have followed.

This book works on so many levels, as coming-of-age, as the war's effect upon California, as a commentary on the difficulties of friendship, and more. I was dismayed to discover it is no longer in my library, though that absence means someone else is enjoying my copy, perhaps a purchase at a library sale. Highly recommended for all readers, and would serve a special gift to young adult readers and fans of California history.

Leffland's latest book, which I have yet to read, concerns a biography of Hermann Goering. One of these days...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Still missing....depending on where you look

Today the California Historical Society sent me a message concerning their store. I checked out their book list and was dismayed to find not one concerned women or women's activities in California. The society's journal, California History, has not been so exclusive, and in fact has published articles that have been on the forefront of the latest historical thinking. For example, the latest issue concerns three generation of women who contributed to the Spanish Revival movement in architecture. Several issues past explored the significant role of conservative women during the 1950s, an important reminder that women's history should include all varieties of political and feminist thought.

I look forward every time this excellent publication appears in my mail box, and read it through. Unfortunately, it is not something that will come before the purview of the average Californian, let alone one who wanders into the Society in San Francisco. I would love to be an editor at a publishing house right now and sign up people to fill the gap in the book shelves.

Meanwhile, another source that once available in local bookstores is The Californians. This magazine was well-designed for the general public, well-illustrated with historic photographs and artwork, well-referenced articles, and complete primary documents. Its demise years ago is still missed by those of us fascinated with state history, and notably that of its women's role.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Anna Strunsky Walling

Anna Strusky is well-known to those who are familiar with Jack London's life. They crossed paths at various socialist events during the turn of the 20th century. Born in Russia in 1877, Walling was 9 when her family emigrated to America, and 16 when it settled in San Francisco. She attended Stanford as one of its first female students, and assisted William James in some of his research. As a result of her socialist enthusiasm, one shared with older sister Rose, she did not remain at the university.

Intrigued by Strunsky's commitment and intellectuality, London invited her to collaborate on The Kempton-Wace Letters, published anonymously. The imaginary epistolary exchange concerns the existence of love, whether it is real and the basis for a strong marriage (Strunsky) or whether science should determine the selection of partners (London). London did marry on the basis of his wife Bess Maddern's solid potential as a progenitor of strong children. Two years into the marriage London and Strunsky fell in love, though she spurned him once she learned his wife was expecting a second child. He remained the great love of her life nonetheless.

Anna Strunsky's place in California history is thus not very significant, except as she represents one of many women of her time participating in the socialist movement of the Bay area. Had she remained in the state, instead of marrying William Walling and moving east, she would doubtless have played a larger role in California political movements. She also came from a Jewish family that grew in influence in San Francisco as a center for intellectual and political discussion.

James Boylan's Revolutionary Lives (University of Massachusetts Press) is the only book to date to explore Strunsky's socialism, which continued with her marriage to Walling. The couple spent two years in Russia, along with sister Rose, during a time of revolutionary outbreak, and were eventually jailed before being expelled from the country. They returned to New York to become key founders of the NAACP. Strunsky's promise as a writer and activist were squelched by the demands of her husband, who belittled her capabilities. They eventually parted ways when she remained a pacifist during WWI. As her children reached adulthood, she was once more active in political causes and writing. She died in 1964, survived by four children.

Sister Rose also moved to New York, settling in Greenwich Village. She became a noted translator of Russian works, notably those of Leon Trotsky. Rose married Louis Lorwin in 1920, and died in 1963.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Juana Briones de Miranda

Here is a topic for your child or grandchild taking California history to write about. Briones was born in 1802 in Santa Cruz. Her maternal grandparents and mother were part of the deAnza expedition in 1776, choosing to escape the rigid, complex racial caste system of Mexico for better opportunities in an unknown land. Her mother married one of the many soldiers who came to protect missions from Indians and incursions from other countries' explorers.

Juana and her siblings grew up in the San Francisco presidio, where in 1820 she married one of its soldiers, Apollinario de Miranda. There she bore eight children and adopted a Native American child as well. When her husband retired, they moved to what is now North Beach in Yerba Buena, where she kept a vegetable and herbal garden, as well as raised cattle for the hide-and-tallow trade. From her extended family she had learned the complex skills of natural medicine and was a renowned midwife and curandera who treated visiting sailors as well as local residents. She also learned from Native Americans, whose instructions helped her manage a small pox epidemic in Marin in 1834, and the setting of broken bones.

Briones challenged even the church authority by appealing to the bishop for a sancioned separation from her alcoholic and physically abusive husband in 1844. "Your Lordship, my husband is the greatest obstacle placed before my children, because from him they learn nothing but swearing, blasphemy, and ugly, lewd, and dissolute behavior. How will I excuse myself before God, if I do not seek, as much as I can, all possible means of ridding my family of such as bad example?" Nevertheless, the curate repeatedly ordered her to return her family home, which she refused. This was a most rebellious act for a woman of her belief and culture. Eventually she dropped her husband's name and referred to herself as a widow.

Juana had always been close to her sisters, using them at times for refuge, and purchasing with them lands beyond Yerba Buena. In 1844 she acquired the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purisima Concepcion covering parts of what is now Palo Alto and Los Altos. The adobe home she built remains and is part of a historic preservation effort. There continued her very successful ranching business and contributions to her community, with help from no men, including any of her sons, nor other male relations.

Briones is one of many Spanish-speaking women from this early period who broke beyond the restricted Mexican culture. Of mixed-race, she was able to achieve what would have been impossible in her mestizo grandparents' homeland, where emphasis on whiteness was obsessive and essential to advancement. She was able to take advantage of the Spanish culture's more liberal view towards women owning or inheriting property. Finally, in her standing up to the church, she would represent one of many whose challenge would spark a move toward secular government and society.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kay Ryan, Poet

Ryan, a lifelong Californian and graduate of UCLA, was recently named our 16th Poet Laureate. [Ryan, on right, with Emily Warn at a poetry conference. Photo: Star Black,Flickr]

It was only after this announcement that I became familiar with her writing. What I discovered was someone who is unafraid of the most commonplace as the basis for wonder. A friend e-mailed me "Home to Roost," which begins:

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way....

These charming first lines, with the almost childlike rhyme of day/way soon unfurls to offer a metaphorical commentary open to various interpretations. See the entirety of "Home to Roost" and several other of her poems at this PBS poetry page.

Ryan lives in Marin County, where she is also a mountain biker, so you could perhaps have a sudden encounter with her on Mount Tam. She admits to preferring a hermetic life, and is now forced to deal with publicity and perhaps more appearances than she would prefer.

Ryan has been published in many literary journals and magazines. Her collections of poetry are: Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends. Fairfax, CA: Taylor Street Press, 1983.
Strangely Marked Metal
. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1985.

Flamingo Watching
. Providence, RI: Copper Beech Press, 1994.
lephant Rocks, New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Say Uncle
. New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Niagara River
. New York: Grove Press,