Listening to Kathy
By Jo Scott-Coe
Big Jacaranda Books
There is something to be said for the very small books; the ones you carry about in your pocket or your pocketbook, to be delved into and read over time. Converse to their size, one wants to linger with them: their compactness urges you to draw out what you’re reading, so that you may glean what their authors must have gleaned: that what you’re holding should be savored, because every word is critical.
Listening to Kathy is like that. It’s a slice of the past, and yet, a modern continuing commentary on the way we look at women and the way our media reports on the stories that involve them. (Remember that day Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and major newspapers featured her husband in photos?)
Kathy Leissner Whitman was married to Charles Whitman, the infamous Texas Sniper. She and her mother-in-law were killed by Whitman before he went on his rampage at the University of Texas, Austin, but their stories were largely buried in the reporting of Whitman’s life and acts. In this monograph, a reprint of an article at Catapult.co with additional photographs and an introduction by Scott-Coe, Scott-Coe writes, “For a long time I had been writing about violence in public spaces, especially schools. I paid particular attention to the strange silence around the experiences of those—often women—who knew the perpetrators beforehand and had been preliminary witnesses to, or targets, of, escalation aggression and abuse.”
Scott-Coe does a masterful job of piecing together correspondence between Leissner Whitman and the other women in her life, as well as letting her family members tell us the stories we haven’t heard before. She deftly fills in the background we never got to discover about Kathy, and places them squarely against the scenery we should be looking for, but which is often overlooked, when we write and read about women who have been connected to notorious partners: their education and aspirations, relationships to other women; the work these women perform and how it was valued.
“Oh!” you say to yourself. “The thing is available online. Shall I just read it there?” No, says this reader, go get yourself a print copy, for three reasons: First, the book comprises a certain number of letters, which surely will be a more pleasurable read from something you can hold in your hand; second, Scott-Coe’s introduction is worth the price; and finally, oh finally, Scott-Coe has curated a collection of photographs that appear at the end of the book in full color, and the juxtaposition of these with the text of the Catapult.co article make the whole thing come alive, in turn allowing Kathy, to come to life where previously she’d been denied a voice.
Get to know her. And then, ask yourself who else we might have overlooked in our retellings of history.
Death of Art
By Chris Campanioni
“I fictionalized the real in order to make it feel more real to me,” writes Chris Campanioni in his fifth book and his first memoir, and we can see why, from the first few pages of Death is Art. Campanioni is a model and a poet and a professor, and so one might be tempted to cast a cynical eye over what he writes about the worlds he moves in, as if the entire persona is created just to make the reader ask just which world we’re living in now.
But Campanioni is genuinely earnest about his work as a model, educator, and writer, and offers a refreshing take on these careers. And when he talks about his trips to Cannes and the days he spent posing with tourists in front of shopfronts in New York (he was meant to be a lifeguard, zinc oxide over nose and all), you get the feeling that you’re in lockstep with this writer/model/educator as he tries to navigate the weirdness that is his life, as in this opening essay, “This is the best part.”
“These people know more about my body than I know about my body… On the C-IN2 website you can scroll through eight years of me. I look the same. It makes me dizzy to actually do it, to scroll through eight years of me… Aging, not aging.”
Campanioni’s work shines brightest when he writes about his family and his background and about the people he loves, and these people appear frequently, from his fiancée to a deceased uncle to his own parents. From a craft point of view, he’s a master at the sneaky inclusion of the reader in his essays, asking in the footnotes if we’re at the same party he’s at; clueing us in to some trivia about Beverly Hills, 90210 or some episodes of the Care Bears that he thinks we should know about. And then, too, what seems mundane is never wasted: In one essay, he goes on for a couple of words describing his shirt, finally describing it as a near deep V, and then, just as the reader is wondering why on earth this matters, he answers us, wryly: “I always either over-estimate or under-estimate.”
Death of Art is part poetry collection, part narrative essay, but everything fits together, so that by three-quarters of the way through the book, just as we’re expecting a denouement to happen if we were reading an essay, in a work called “In a lace where everybody,” Campanioni neatly and deliberately ties various parts of his seemingly divergent worlds together, so that the reader sees how the model fits into the educator fits into the writer and editor. It’s a remarkably satisfying way to reach what would traditionally be the peak of a narrative, in this untraditional memoir.
Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I
By Paula Becker
University of Washington Press
True confession: This reviewer has never read the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. And so, you might wonder, what made me pick up this book, about the creator of the famed series for middle-grade readers?
Call it a fascination with all things touching on women who made it for themselves in the 1930s and ’40s. Call it a soft spot for historians who fall in love with ramshackle old houses and who follow up on getting inside them, just to touch and be near historical objects and the people who owned them.
Whatever it is, although I still can’t call myself a fan of either Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, or the book-later-film The Egg and I, I was fully entranced by this book, which uncovers the woman behind a series of best-selling books, a woman who supported her husband entirely and still never managed to see herself very far beyond the possibility of bankruptcy.
Of course that’s not the point of the story. The point is how she got there, and although Becker paints MacDonald with a fine, detailed brush, I’m perhaps as much fascinated by Becker’s research as I am with MacDonald’s life, and her skill in teasing apart, and selecting, the parts of the narrative that make the MacDonald really come to life.
Becker, true to her profession as a historian at HistoryLink.org, is our constant guide through the entire narrative, and far from taking her presence in the book as a distraction, this reader is deeply grateful for her interest in MacDonald, which makes her so much more than a historical figure to admire and learn about. Through Becker’s lens, MacDonald becomes something much more than her books and her movies. In fact, it’s her presence in this narrative, her kind voice and apparent interest in MacDonald, that allows someone unfamiliar with the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books to also become interested in MacDonald.