“That Last Prelude” — Notes on Banned Books Week

MY FRIEND Nona asked me what I was reading for Banned Book Week. She’s a librarian and a researcher so for her it isn’t just idle interest; she’s passionate about it and what it means. I told her that I usually don’t plan for it; rather usually something just falls into my hands. I only recently finished In Cold Blood and that that had been on banned book lists for decades. But, she pressed. The idea this time around is to read one and pass it forward, I wanted to participate in this ring — a fight against censorship.

Once pressed, I have to say my pick was easy. For some reason, I was never assigned to read Kate Chopin‘s The Awakening in school — neither high school (don’t think it was banned from our school, just something that slipped through the cracks) nor college. And, even though I’m very interested in books about Louisiana, New Orleans and in particular the maze of Creole culture throughout, this one had made it to a place on my bookcase but hadn’t yet found itself on my “to read” pile.

I just dipped in yesterday and already, the way the story unfolds — a sort of dreamy, humid set-piece — the proceedings feel like a Seurat painting — or if set in motion, something that Merchant/Ivory would have filmed as a languid, lush retelling: The women in muslin, the overstuffed, horsehair pillows propped up in cane chairs facing the sea, the long-afternoons of work in the shade of the great-house galleries.

Published in 1889, Chopin’s slim novel wasn’t fully appreciated until more than a half a century later, when it was “re-dsiscovered” — coinciding with the emergence of American feminist movement in the 1970s. Already I can see what’s been set in motion, the portent prelude of what’s to come: the dissatisfied married protagonist Edna Pontellier being seduced by the sea, the full moon, and the thrill of Fredric Chopin’s (no relation) piano preludes played after dinner, impromptu. All of it in noisy concert with the frank, free-talking Creoles vacationing in Grand Isle, Louisiana, just off the coast of New Orelans.

Below from the Banned Books site a synopsis of a recent case of the book’s censoring:

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

Retained on the Northwestern Suburban High School District 214 reading list in Arlington Heights, IL along with eight other challenged titles in 2006. A board member, elected amid promises to bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, raised the controversy based on excerpts from the books she’d found on the Internet. First published in 1899, this novel so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward.

Rachel Adams, a professor of 19th and 20th Century literature at Columbia University, writes in her introduction to the 2003 edition, that the claims of the book controversy were often exaggerated and over-reported, a scare tactic in their own right. Over the years, to build a defense, Chopin’s protagonist Edna has been faulted for many things — as a “self-indulgent sensualist…”she has been criticized as a character whose “awakening, only vaguely intellectual, is disturbingly physical.” A woman with agency, of course, proved to be one of the most controversial and contested figures of the time. But what’s even more disconcerting is that what Chopin was pressing at — a woman’s right to choose, to explore who she might be outside of the confines of expectation, outside what is known to her — is still something that is just important and gravely at stake in 2012 as it was in 1899.

You can click here for the list


Of Off Ramps and Service Roads

AN INCREDIBLE shot of the I-10 (Santa Monica Freeway) during construction in the early 60s — before the big web was connected.

The 10 cut into long-seated ethnic communities fanning out toward the Pacific, built dividing lines that Angelenos still observe today — even if they believe that they don’t. There is a preception about what lies “south of the 10” — Real Estate tells us so.

Great piece on the KCET blog that addresses L.A.’s connecting the city’s history via the freeway on this “Carmageddon” weekend.

Click here to see the rest of the photographs that say so much more than words can.

Melrose Avenue (East)

I’M ALWAYS drawn to places — moments — in Los Angeles that go against the perception of what the city is.

These old structures rest on a corner just as you cross over the part of Melrose Avenue that goes from “trendy and quirky” to stately Hancock Park-adjacent into what we call “East Hollywood” which is an amalgam of ethnicities and language and visual notes. These old neighborhoods have eluded the long-arm of gentrification — for now anyway — and give us a sense of what the city used to look like.

This one is going soon. It makes me wonder about all of the stories that took place in and around it.

Listening to the Moon Over Alameda Street

NICE INTERVIEW last night with a local novelist — also a native Angeleno. She’s written deeply about not just what the city looks like, but what it feels like: the pin-pricks of harsh sunlight on your skin in Tijunga, the crunch and stain of juniper berries underfoot. She talked about germinating ideas, chance and “sense of engagement” — the art of “seeking the miraculous” in small moments and things. Good session and a reminder to pause and look twice.

Light is leaving earlier and earlier now. This shot was just after seven — a week ago the sky still would have held some sun.

The Turquoise House: 8

I don’t like to admit that I have a favorite, but this one is edging into that territory ….

I almost forgot, but there is a small story to go with this grouping.

This particular structure has been haunting me for a little while. I could spot it while I was sitting in the bumper-to-bumper nightmare that is now Sunday late-afternoon traffic off the incline from the 101 Freeway to the 110 North. It can get ugly where all the roads of the four-level combine, so often I am simply sitting still on the transition road.

You see the city from a strange and different perspective from that angle, like looking at the hem of a skirt — just bursts of color, chain-link, letters on billboard big as buildings: that’s when I saw the little house. Old. Another Century old. Rare here. It slumps into the side of the hill where it’s perched along the freeway. It looks very tired. I wanted to find it, see it close up. Weeks passed and on my way from or to something, I would divert from the main thoroughfare and wind through what I thought had to be the right side streets to get to the street that sat at the lip of the freeway. It kept eluding me. Disappearing as I’d swoop into the deep curves of these old hilly streets that lead to neighborhoods vanished — Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine.


A wrong turn produced a right one — and there it was at the edge of a strange little half street cleared of houses except for these last two and a vacant lot and a homless man tatted up face to toe, with a loin-cloth-esque band tied just south of his midsection.

I kept snapping, so didn’t notice him first, but just as he passed me to retrieve his pallet and huge daypack from the bushes, he approached me but in a gentle whisper said: “God bless, you.”

Then he too disappeared along the curve.

September 2012