In Brief: on Edan Lepucki’s WOMAN NO. 17, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Feminism, Domenico Starnone’s TIES, & newly found photos by Weegee

“I’m keenly interested in the ways in which parents and their children don’t understand each other,” said Edan Lepucki in an interview at the time her rewarding second novel, Woman No. 17, was published earlier this year. The story is told alternately by Lady Daniels, a mother of two children who has just separated from her husband, and by Esther or S., her nanny who lives in the cottage behind Lady’s house in the affluent Hollywood hills. Both narrators are aspiring artists – Lady aims to expand an article she published in Real Simple magazine into a memoir about raising a child who has been non-verbal from birth. But nothing is real simple for Lady. Lady struggles to talk her way into shaping her role as mother, daughter, wife, lover. S. gropes for a technique to deploy everything into art. Floating freely between them is another artist, Lady’s famous photog sister-in-law Kit, who shot Lady’s portrait as “Woman No. 17” for one of her portfolios.

Lepucki.jpgThis is a world where a mother checks her Twitter feed to see what her disaffected mute son is thinking. Lepucki hears the voices of her characters acutely (and handles the non-verbal son expertly as well) and somehow manages to blend an acidic edge with a gradually growing empathy. Woman No. 17 is a comedy, after all, in which identities shape-shift, relationships occur like drive-by encounters, and the potential for art collides with what Kit calls “the perils of representation.” Lepucki writes snappy, knowing sentences that entice by suggesting that there is always more to know. Here, Lady remarks on a “neighbor girl” who lives near her first husband: “The way Astrid told me her trampoline was ‘kidney-shaped’ suggested she didn’t know what a kidney was – bean or organ. She was only fourteen but she already had a tattoo of a butterfly on her wrist and the sickly and easy-to-please look of unloved girls everywhere.”

[Woman No. 17, published by Hogarth, May 9, 2017. 320 pages, $26.00 hardcover]

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Writings about Georgia O’Keeffe’s feminism have tended to emphasize one of the following four assumptions: 1) she transcended gender by focusing on sensory experience; 2) she transcended gender through her independent stance and sheer creative power; 3) her feminism is largely a refusal to submit to male domination, or 4) she made art to celebrate the feminine and enlarge the scope of womanhood. Some scholars and critics identify her with “the feminine.” Others call her “a feminist.” But how did O’Keeffe perceive herself and her work in this regard? As Linda M. Grasso engagingly explains in Equal Under the Sun: Georgia O’Keeffe and Twentieth Century Feminism the artist’s views were complicated and provocative. “Although O’Keeffe was grounded in feminist-modernist cultures,” she writes, “she later erased this history from her autobiography.”

Grasso.jpgBut O'Keeffe complained that at times she had been treated unfairly because of her gender and refusal to conform her style to sellable trends. Grasso portrays O’Keeffe’s relations with those who educated her and who appreciated, showed, curated, and wrote about her work during her lifetime. Her political activities and affiliations are discussed as well. “O’Keeffe, however, did not want to belong to any group that classified her as a ‘woman’ artist, even when the designation was interpreted positively,” Grasso writes. Yet she pulled on every string attached to the four notions mentioned above. In 1949, when Smith College organized a show titled “Ten Women Who Paint,” O’Keeffe avidly participated. She unabashedly portrayed herself as a “triumphant achiever,” but at times she was less than direct about what she triumphed over -- perhaps because, as this lively and deeply informed study proves, one must triumph over oneself.

[Equal Under the Sky, published by the University of New Mexico Press, October 15, 2017. 336 pages, 38 half-tones, $65.00 hardcover]

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The Ukraine-born tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), famously known as Weegee, liked to say that murders and fires were his bread and butter. With a police radio crackling on his nightstand, he would leap out of bed, grab his 4x5 format Speed Graphic camera, jump in his sedan and arrive at the scene just in time to light his cigar and capture the perfect image. New York City of the 30’s and 40’s is chronicled in his pictures, from stylish Fifth Avenue to the alleyways of the boroughs. Around 1935 when in his mid-thirties, he decided to become a freelancer after a decade working as a darkroom assistant. By 1939 he was a celebrity, having taken the notorious photo titled “Balcony Seats at a Murder” depicting people leaning out of their apartment windows to gaze down at a body lying on the sidewalk.

Weegee.jpgIn 2012, Ryan Adams, a photojournalism expert, discovered a remarkable huge cache of Weegee photos in a Midwest storage facility. These shots formed part of the veritable Newspaper Enterprise Association archive that had moved from hand to hand for six decades. In Extra! Weegee! many of these photographs may be seen for the first time. There is a spontaneous roughness to many of them. Editor Daniel Blau has grouped them loosely according to subject matter (crime, characters, crowds, festivals, etc.) and includes four essays. The shots are accompanied by pictures of Weegee’s brief typewritten notes on yellowing slips of paper.

[Extra! Weegee! published by Hirmer Publishers, September 25, 2017. 336 pages, 359 photographs, $55.00 large3 format hardcover]

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When Domenico Starnone’s novel Ties was published earlier this year, the reviews seemed more interested in his marriage than his writing. His wife is Anita Raja, aka Elena Ferrante, whose 2002 novel The Days of Abandonment was named as a possible prequel to Ties. But Starnone’s novel, only his second to be translated for anglophones, more than stands on its own. The story is told from three vantage points: there is the husband, Aldo, 74 years old; the wife, Vanda, 76; and then their children Sandro and Anna. Back in 1974, Aldo left Vanda after 12 years of marriage to live with a woman named Lidia – only to return for good some years later.

Starnone_Cover.jpgAldo says, “I can’t say precisely when I started to be afraid of Vanda. Then again, I never said to myself in such an explicit way -- I am afraid of Vanda -- it’s the first time I’m trying to lend this feeling a grammar and syntax. But it’s hard. Even the verb I’ve used – to fear – seems inadequate to me. I’m using it out of convenience, but it’s limited, it leaves out a lot. In any case, for simplicity’s sake, this is how things are: Since 1980 until today I’ve lived with a woman who, though of minute build, quite thin, fragile by now in her very bones, knows how to sap me of my voice and my strength, knows how to render me ignoble.” A retired television writer (like Starnone), Aldo also seems to “leave out a lot” even as he strives for expression after so many years of rutted marriage. The “ties” between this family’s characters are both familiar and enigmatic. Starnone’s challenge was to elevate an unchanging, murmuring anguish over the hyperactivity of plot – and he succeeded.

[Ties, published by Europa Editions, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. 150 pages, $16.00 paperback]