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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Emily Mitchell

In this issue:

Whether they got started late in life or in childhood, seven gifted older women writers have much on their minds. They have their say in the pages of The Crimson Edge, published byhooray!a woman.

Three generations and Ralph Fiennes spill onto the screen in Sunshine

Madness is a land apart, and womens views of that troubled terrain are mined in the new book, Out of Her Mind; Female scientists are few, and some of the top in their field relate the difficulties and triumphs in The Door in the Dream.


In Good Company

The Crimson Edge: Volume Two
Edited by Sondra Zeidenstein  (Chicory Blue Press; 341 pages; $17.95)

I publish older women because I need company. So explains Sondra Zeidenstein in the introduction to The Crimson Edge, her anthology of writing by seven women whose total of life and experience exceeds 420 years. By itself, that is a good enough reason to get the words of these women onto the printed page and heres another: they all have compelling stories that need to be told and ought to be read.  Zeidenstein is a poet and for more that a decade has operated Chicory Blue Press in Goshen, Conn., specializing in works by older women. This is the second volume in a series, and following each of the essays, stories and poems is an autobiographical afterword explaining how the author came to be a writer. The situations vary for each. Nellie Wong is a California activist and poet who began writing in her 30s. She speaks for herself but could be expressing the thoughts of the others with this: The scratching of my pen on paper. Fingers tapping the keys of the computer keyboard. Writing is my life.

The collection is movingly led of by Barbara Moore Balzers elegiac short story Transitions. Returning home to the city at the end of summer after her familys usual stay in the country, a womanknown to the reader only as Shedrives alone in her car to visit  the cemetery where her firstborn infant had been buried years earlier. Memories are fugitive: the sight of the babys face, his small, perfect features remains vivid and so too is the day when the small white coffin of the child was placed on the ground beside the freshly dug grave and the pile of dirt that was soon to cover it. But, she wonders, can she find the stone that marks the place?  It is small and flat on the ground, bearing on it the simplest message: God Is Present.

The search opens the floodgates of the past and images from the small town of her earlier life come pouring back. All of the dead are remembered: her favorite great uncles, a storekeeper who had once sold her a vase she had saved money for, a farmers wife who had given her a kitten, the minister who had died far too young, a classmate who passed away in the year after their high school graduation. She is reconnected to them, just as she is to the child whom she had never even held in her arms. Mourning them all, she comes to understand that grief cannot be absorbed transparently into life. It has its own shadings and may fade and turn pale, but never vanishes or is vanquished. Moss may fill in the letters of a crumbling tombstone, the grave may become merely a depression in the earth, but for her there can be no resolution, only a longing to regain the innocence now lost.

Poet Joan Swift acknowledges that writing is hard work,but easier than not writing. Her stark poems are as revealing as testimony given in a courtroom and center on a brutal rape and a murderers trial, examining the events from the perspectives of different people involved in a real-life tragedy. Carol Lee Sanchez has other evidence to offer in her poems. Part Lebanese and part Native American, she observes in a dreamlike manner the many pathways on her journey from a New Mexico town of 20 families to academe and scholarship and conquest of the English language. Florence Weinberger brings into view the opposing sides of life and darkness, uncovering the subtext of America in the latter part of the 20th century. Of a pleasant drive in California, she writes: You find restored Victorian inns, visit all the wineries,/learn which grapes were brought from Hungary,/a straight peaceful road, not the bloody way/ your parents came from the death camps/ and landed you here too.

Another of the writers is Eileen Tobin, and she experienced a renaissance of an earlier writing career when at 79 she signed on for a class offered to seniors by novelist and essayist Mary Gordon. A selection from her memoir, Bog Oak, looks back on a childhood in New Jersey changed forever by the death of her father, and the subsequent struggle of a young, gifted and literary-minded woman to support herself in New York City and care for an increasingly infirm mother. Writing went on hold.

In 1997, with Gordons help, she had a story published, the first in 50 years. Self-pity and resentment have no place in Tobins universe; her voice is honest and forthright. This is what happened, she is saying, this is what I have made of my days.  Tobins commitment to continue writing no matter what is shared by Pearl Garret Crayton, born in 1932 on a Louisiana cotton plantation. Her earliest writing was for her church and poems for the newly deceased.

She kept at it during her school years, through a bad marriage and divorce, during years of work at Sears and as a teacher. Hers is a authentic and resonant African - American voice, and the poems and stories in the collection are at the same time beautifully constructed and deceptively simple. How Deep the Feeling Go evokes rural life in the South in the early decades of the 20th century and the crystalline moment when a child begins to understands the difference between intolerance and the responsibilities of human love.

Race isnt the topic hereits genderbut the issues underlying it are the same. Craytons poem God sees the Lord in the person of a skinny and bad smelling old man in faded clothes climbing onto a bus. Hell look the same when he greets folks at the pearly gates

and he gonna be telling me/that bit from Matthew 25/ about how he done been/ all the least of the little ones back on Earth,/ And me, Im gonna be asking him/ how come he didnt bathe.

Irreverent? Possibly, but closer to a fundamental spiritual truth than a pious platitude. Crayton, and her six colleagues dont mince words or parse reality. They havent the time and neither do their readers. 


True Identity

Directed by Istvan Szabo; Written by Istvan Szabo and Israel Horowitz

Tradition is the title of a song from Fiddler on the Roof, and its an optimistic rouser of a number honoring the strong bonds connecting past and present. In the movie Sunshine, assimilation, not tradition, is the key word. Three generations of an upwardly striving Jewish family in Hungary attempt to fit in, to disappear into the fabric of the national life, and the result of getting along by going along has disastrous consequences as their country undergoes political upheaval, war and occupation.

At the end of the 19th century, the Sonnenschein (the name means sunshine in German) family have ascended in money and status and bask in the comforts and prosperity of Budapest under the apparently benign rule of the Emperor Joseph. The elder son, Ignatz, is destined for a legal career; the hot-headed younger brother, Gustave, for the medical profession. An orphaned cousin, Valerie, is brought into the household to live and turns the household upside down. She is a life-force, young and gloriously headstrong with a consuming passion for what is beautiful. No surprise, then, that both brothers fall in love with herthough shes considered their little sister. Her social and political sympathies are more in line with those of Gustave, but she chooses the sober and industrious Ignatz.

Nearsighted patriotism and a bind devotion to the aging emperor wrings all joy from Ignatz. His and Valeries son Adam has another obsession: fencing. As a boy he takes it up to ward of being bullied as a Jew. As a grown man he changes his name (to Sors) and his religion (to Catholicism) in order to join with the national military. Despite his position as Hungarys Olympic champion, to the Nazis he is just another dirty Jew to be sent to the camps—and to his death.

Looking for revenge and to assuage his own guilt, Adams son Ivan becomes an enthusiastic Communist, but in the end is brutally disillusioned. His grandmother,Valerie, with a lifetime of sorrow and wisdom etched in fine lines on her still lovely face, has not only survived, but triumphed over the destructive forces that murder the human soul. She, Ivan realizes, has been the only Sonnenschein to retain her true identity. She has breathed free while the others suffocated. With this knowledge, he can cut loose from the past, and the curse that seemed to hover over him, his father and grandfather is lifted.

Playing the three roles of Ignatz, Adam and Ivan, Ralph Fiennes gives a bravura performance. No actor today can match him in white-hot intensity; he burns with a cold fury that can be more tightly controlled than a laser or explode into searing flames. His face in the scenes of the torture and execution of Adam Sors, a modern crucifixion, is almost unbearable to watch.

The young Valerie is brilliantly played by Jennifer Ehle. She has won Broadways Tony Award for best actress in The Real Thing, competing against her mother, Rosemary Harris. In Sunshine, theres no rivalry, since Harris stars as the older Valerie in the latter part of the film. Between the two, they create a memorable woman of intelligence, humor and grace.

This in many ways is an old-fashioned film, the historical saga with both the grandiose sweep and the intimate stories personal tragedies in a cruel time. At three hours, it is a tad overlong and occasional anachronistic dialogue unnecessarily intrudes in an otherwise skillful and affecting film. A family is tested, and even when they are found wanting, their courage and humanity win our admiration and our respect. 


Out of Her Mind
Edited by Rebecca Shannonhouse (Random House; 175 pages; $21.95)

Thank you, Tipper Gore. Her candor has made it respectable to talk openly about her mental stresses and strains, a taboo subject in past presidential election years. Not that womens mental health has ever been widely discussed in any year. Too often, its hushed up, the nasty little secret to be whispered about. That is somewhat remedied by this assemblage of fiction, essays and memoirs of women on the topic of madness.

Dorothea Dix in 1843 tells of a female lunatic kept locked out in an unheated shed in the harsh Boston winter, pleading for a bit of fire to warm her. From the 1946 classic, The Snake Pit, is an excerpt on a patients electro-shock therapy. Clamps are put on the head, hands are tied, legs held down, and the patient waits for it to be over.

Fast forward to our Prozac-empowered day, and conditions have changed and understanding has deepened. Womens madness doesnt put them in danger of being tried for witchcraft, for instance. Still, the interior distress and diminishment of life are no less severe and cannot be ignored. Writes editor Shannonhouse: It is clear that there is an important body of literature that can reveal to others the largely private world of emotional suffering.

The Door in the Dream 
Edited by Elga Wasserman (Joseph Henry Press; 254 pages;$24.95)

What happens to the young women seriously pursuing scientific studies and intent on a career?  They just seem to disappear is the conclusion of a prominent immunologist interviewed for this examination of the presenceand more important, the absenceof women in scientific fields.

Elga Wasserman, a professional steeped in science, law and university policies, spoke to a number of women for this book who have all been elected to the National Academy of Science. Some are Nobel laureates. They are experts in their field as well as on the subject of the difficulties faced by  women seeking a career in science.

Similarities emerge: many of them had encouragement from their family, an important mentor while students or early in their career, and support from a husband or partner. Luck had something to do with it too, but as one sociologist points out, Its very difficult to be mother, maid and Madame Curie.

The individual stories of these scientific pioneers and heroes are inspiring, though its disheartening to be reminded that laboratories and scientific classrooms remain a realm dominated by men. The future of scientific research is too valuable and too necessary, the author points out, to exclude a full half of the population. Men should take note of that and so should women. © 2000 Emily Mitchel for SeniorWomenWeb


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