Corduroy Books

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All Hail Betty Halbreich! All Hail Joan Rivers!

by Kati Heng



Three cheers for the tough old broads.

I’ll Drink to That, the new memoir from Betty Halbreich, the 86-year-old woman who’s become famous during her 40 years working as a personal shopper at NYC’s Bergdorf Goodman (shopping’s mecca for the uninitiated) is an utterly thrilling read, written crisply and cleanly by a woman on whom it appears decades of reading Vogue have shaped into a completely gorgeous writer.

I have a strong desire to throw the word ‘legend’ in here, but Halbreich specifically said in the book she hates that word (in relation to herself, at least). Fact is: for so many, Halbreich is Bergdorf Goodman. She’s the star of that 2013 documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf Goodman, a look into the cult of BG, how its fans are more loyal to the store than to most are to their alma maters. (She’s also going to be the inspiration for Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, which ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME I cannot wait to see).

From girlhood it seems, Halbreich had a preternatural instinct for dressing herself and dressing herself well. Living a plush life in a rich Jewish community in South Chicago, Halbreich learned early on the importance of well made, lasting clothing. Yet, something her upbringing couldn’t teach her, the girl always knew how to stick out from the crowd. As her mother would say (and I quote loosely), “If the other girl’s were wearing scarfs around their heads, Betty put hers around her waist.”

Flash-forward to adulthood. Halbreich quickly marries an even richer, even-more on-the-scene man with roots in New York City. The fashion is amplified. No longer can she wear the same thing to two different social events. Now it seems, there must be a new dress for each party. The marriage though, isn’t a happy one, leaving Halbreich attempting suicide as it unravels and spending time in a mental institution to sort things out.

Days – literally, days- after leaving that institution, she starts her job at Bergdorf Goodman. Plucky enough to stand up to it’s snottiest customers and honest enough to let a woman leave without spending hundreds on a piece that wouldn’t suit her, Halbreich’s talent is quickly recognized, even though she’s not actually been fulfilling all the duties she should as a salesgirl, seeing as she nearly refuses to use the register. Thus, the creation of her own department, “Solutions,” as they call it. Women come in with a problem, in need of a specific look or piece; Halbreich provides the solution.

You know how there is probably one thing that every person is really actually born to do? It’s so enormously satisfying to read the story of a person who is actually doing, and has been for decades. Halbreich didn’t simply create/found the Solutions department at Bergdorf; she essential is the solution to many a woman’s dressing woes.

From the introduction to the end, Halbreich walks us through the typical days in her shoes (which, I could not help but appreciate, never show toes. FINALLY someone else who understands my deep-seated aversion to flip-flops!!). Woman come in, seek Halbreich’s assistance, leave with wisdom and hints as to dressing, and – but only if they truly find something they look stunning in – leave with the perfect piece. One completely admirable thing about Halbreich: she can tell a woman simply in need of “retail therapy,” not in need of new clothes, from a mile away. She often offers that therapy and keeps the clothes on the rack.

And when there is a woman who truly needs something, Halbreich delivers. I imagine her mind working a bit like a computer system – she seems to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the store, walking through it each day and noting items/designers and pieces that have been moved around. Sort of like a dewy decimal system on clothing, if you need to find something, refer to her. Furthermore, though, she can tell what will suit each woman. Basically, she’s a living breathing for women and their clothing.

Who are these women, anyway? Everyone from costume designers (she’s help curate looks you’ve seen in Woody Allen’s movies as well as on Sarah Jessica Parker circa Sex & The City) to celebrities to everyday New York City women, sometimes even a bride or two.

Note here, and this is terribly sad yet touching: Halbreich was a great fan (and friend) of Joan Rivers, another one of her loyal customers, and writes freely about her adoration for Joan. It was so strange reading this book in the days after Rivers’ death – unlike the magazines picking up her story as it was hot, Halbreich included this ode to her friend months before she could have known. Timely, yet unintentional, I think this may be the best tribute (even if it wasn’t meant to be) to Rivers I have read so far. And – as a further testament to the women’s mutual respect for each other, Rivers’ blurb on the back of the book is perfect: “”I would trust this woman with my life—closet!”

Anyway, this isn’t a book about fashion, or why Bergdorf Goodman is holy or why you must buy designer (Halbreich herself often relates the desire to cut the tags out of clothes to curb her client’s label obsessions); this is simply a book about a woman who is doing what she was put on this earth to do, who has changed women’s lives and shaped the film and fashion industries by doing it.

One Door Shuts…

by Kati Heng

517hDiDJFPL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_EPILOGUE: A MEMOIR by Will Boast

It starts with the death of his father, his last immediate family member. From there, Will Boast’s memoir goes on a powerful journey through his family’s past and his path to finding the other family he never knew he had. It’s deep, tragic, painfully honestly reflective and so, so good.

Boast’s mother was the first guardian lost, early on in his high-school days. Discovering cancer, she went through chemo and the works, but the shitty thing doctors don’t tell people or their families point blank when the cancer begins to spread is that chemo doesn’t cure everybody. One in five survivors, one in four depending on the type. Boast’s mother was not the one. That left Will, his younger brother Rory and his dad.

Obviously, it’s hard for a father, any father, to suddenly be left with the responsibilities of both parents. Especially so if the guy’s not been so involved with the kids lives before. Even more if the guy finds his main source of comfort from the bottle.

It’s the three men in the house for a bit, but soon, Boast must go to college, leaving just his dad and Rory in the house. They fight. It’s tense. Father sees son throwing his life away, drinking too young and too much, doing drugs, skipping classes and never caring for homework, hanging out with the wrong crowd. Son sees dad (often drunk) and rolls eyes to the remarks, goes out and lives as he wants.

Then, Rory gets in a car accident with those boys his father warned him about. Will’s crushed by his brother’s death, losing this kid that meant so much to him, that charmed everyone he met.

Now, his father is all alone in the home, practically drinking himself to death. Will visits and calls as often as he can, but finds it hard to balance spending so much time with his last remaining family member with his desire to leave the Midwest, to move even further from his Wisconsin hometown, his discomfort seeing his father so deep in his alcoholism, often saying odd, things, slurring and hiccupping as they talk.

His dad shows up to work one day with a pain in his gut. Still, this is the man with perfect attendance. He powers through. On the drive home, he collapses, dying at the steering wheel of his car.

This is where Epilogue, time-line wise, begins, as 24-year-old Boast realizes the family he knew is gone.

In the days after his father’s death, Boast begins to clean the house, airing papers, documents and secrets his father had hidden for many years. There’s a folder marked “Marriage/Divorce.” Was his father planning on leaving Boast’s mom before they found the cancer? There’s a massive sum of money, more than poor bohemian Boast ever imagined he would earn thanks to his aspirations as a writer and jazz-musician, that is the product of the payouts from Rory’s death.

And, as his aunts reveal to Boast, there’s the fact his father was married before, while he was still living in England. He loved an older woman, got her pregnant and raised two young boys with her until about 10 years later, he left and never came back. Never even kept photos of his British boys. Boast’s father had another family, but, as Will realizes, he, his mom and his brother were the other family, the ones his father chose.

It’s aching, and rough and may even be hopeless, but Will knows he must find his half-brothers, the only people it seems he has left.

Epilogue is intense, exposing the wounds of a family, the ways its members try to heal them or at least hide the scars. It’s unfair, for Will, to have lost so much so soon. It’s unfair, for his half-brothers, to have lost their father years before his death.

As the story unfolds though, there is hope. It’s an Epilogue to his first family, the ordinary mother-father-two-kids set-up, a beautiful obituary to the good times and the bad. Yet, the story is just the beginning of Will’s new life, the story of how he came to find his other family and how the pain both sets of boys helped sew them together.

Two New-ish Novels

by Weston Cutter

Bluff City Pawn by Stephen Schottenfeld


I’m surprised this didn’t get more press; maybe it did and my head’s buried. Regartdless: it’s a fine, tough novel (if you’re deep on Bloomsbury it may remind you of Hart’s Then Came The Evening, in lots of ways [Hart's new one's called The Bully of Order; thing hit 9/2]) about three brothers in Memphis, the middle of whom, Huddy, runs Bluff City Pawn, purchased with help from his older brother Joe, a construction guy (so lamely vague and general: he owns a construction company, was developing the sort of McMansion boomtown exurb places whose value was mercilessly deflated as of ’08 and is written as exactly the sort of guy one’d spend energy trying to avoid [because arrogance, because blind consumption of upper-middle-class BS, etc] but also exactly the sort of guy who’d never know he’s cause for avoidance). Their younger brother, Harlan, has been in trouble, is un- or underemployed variously, is someone who’d’ve maybe been called a bit of a drifter in some black-and-white era, and he comes back to town from reaches south just in time to help these two guys with a Big Deal: an old gun collector has died, and his collection’s been offered to Huddy, who needs Joe’s help financially to close the deal and Harlan’s help hands-wise to actually make the deal physically transpire.

So simple, that premise. And yet: there’s the turbulence of blood, the way family can trap us and make us continue to be the same people, the way we try to—with new prospects and chances—clear old trouble, gain new vistas, and the book’s hard as hell for the way the river of it courses so happy one page/section/movement until the reader, deep in, feels and realizes that nothing comes without some price, and the payments Schottenfeld exacts from his supremely well-drawn characters are never obsence, never gratuitous, but holy hell do you feel them. That, more than anything: this was the book this summer that had me feeling most, that sort of read you’ve got to buck yourself up to read, knowing it’ll drag you through stuff you have the chance to, with other novels, avoid. This is gobledygook. Read the thing. You’ll see. If I had some place to put such a bet, I’d gamble this’ll be quick on the list of Books I Didn’t Think I’d Return To But Then Did, Very Quickly.


California by Edan Lepucki


Splashy as hell, this thing was, the Colbert Bump and all, and I’d be lying to claim it anything other than a seductive read: each time I laid the thing pages-side down and heaved from the couch for more water or snack or whatever I was itching to get back soon as I’d moved from it. Soon as. Every time.

Yet the book ultimately felt thinner than the thing I was left holding in my hand: engaging, eminently readable fiction, certainly, but a story that felt…wary, maybe unsure. It’s weird. The set-up’s great: Something’s Happened, and in the Post-Happened world, a couple—Cal and Frida—are out California somewhere, fending for themselves in a small home they moved into after the former occupants didn’t need it any longer. Hand-washing clothes, growing your own food, the whole post-apocolyptic thing—and, in this scenario, Frida’s with-child, which fact Lepucki weaves through the book as sort of a moral Magic-8 ball: should she bring a child into such a world? What does it say about those who’d argue either side of that? PS it’s not *everyone* that’s been cast-out: there are wealthy communities in which folks are still protected, in which there’s still electricity and food and goods, in which there’s still available the ease of modernity. Also there’s a group called the Movement, activists who, as the Falling Apart (it’s never named or specificed, the Happening that cleaves time from Before to After, but it’s not, like, a meteor or plague: it’s just the logical further moves of the current unsustainable path we’re on at present, with wealth accruing more of it and the poor accruing less and the middle class getting hollowed as an empty can) was transpiring, did stuff to try to shake people into awareness, to fight for equality, etc. Among those in the Movement was Frida’s brother, whose final act was to blow himself up at a mall.

Further detailing later plot moves robs certain likely-seeable-from-miles developments, but still, I’ll abstain. Despite, however the interesting set-up and cool moves, as of page 137 the book, to this reader, deflated, and the plodding on from there’s much, much less interesting and fulfilling than it’d been at the start. Who knows. Maybe I’m being dickish and unfair. It’s not a bad book, certainly, but it sure as hell could’ve (and maybe should’ve) been quite a bit more.

Learning to Build the Best Commune

by Kati Heng

the-farm-essayLEARNING BY DOING AT THE FARM by Robert J. Kett and Anna Kryczka

1960’s. A mixed group of mostly young adults long for the areas of California not yet developed, plots of land never cemented over, fertile, and ready for plants to grow. They wish instead of being suited adults, to be craftsmen and women, to make their own goods, to live as sustainably as possible. They wish to learn about the earth, the cultures so far from their American upbringings, the ways to fight the horrors of modern life by simply not participating.

The difference with this group, the real-life characters of Soberscorve Press’s Learning by Doing at the Farm: Craft, Science, and Counterculture in Modern California, as opposed to the many “familes,” hippie communes and free-floaters is simple: they’re getting class credit for it all.

Starting in the early sixties, the University of California, Irvine, began to put together an experimental off-campus living space, a home on non-developed land owned but unused by the school. Their goal was to create a living, breathing farm space where students would learn from indigenous peoples who would visit/teach/live with the students; become familiar with the ways of life and the creation of goods before the modern-day consumerist culture took hold; and of course, to study the effects of alternate learning environments and techniques.

a map of the farm, as found in the book

In short, to so many dreamy 19-teen year olds of the 1960s, their school was working on creating a perfect counter-culture space for them to just be.

Learning by Doing is actually less of a book about that house, what went on in it and what the students learned than it is a collection of the documents, meeting minutes and photos archived from preparations for the house and planning going into the experiment, as well as photos from the day to day lives of the students lucky enough to get in during the short time the house functioned.

Well, I shouldn’t say there are no stories about day to day life. There’s amazing anecdotes about the students thrown in there, like this photo diary about some kid everyone called Frog who hardly wore shoes and wore his unbuttoned shirts so long they covered his shorts. In like 4 photos, I feel like I understand the story of this guy.

So much of the book explores the red tape you’d never even think about, though. Like, it sounds easy to just set up some simple structures on empty land. Still need permits, and when your with the school, funding forms, accounts, etc. It sounds so cool to hire craftspeople from Mexico, Samoa and Guatemala to teach the kids how to weave, make houses, throw pottery, but actually, the United States has miles of red tape keeping you from bringing in visitors for so-much time and how much exactly you’d have to pay them and how exactly you’d have to qualify their visit. This is kind of a bummer to free spirited hippie kids who’d much rather just do, in basically any sense besides doing paperwork.

portraits of a weaver and her family living and working on the farm

portraits of a weaver and her family living and working on the farm

It’s still such an interesting idea, though. Even though the class on the farm didn’t last long, as the evidence shows, it made a great impact. Is it just impossible to have alternative classrooms? Was this college just not properly invested to make the whole thing really work? Every hippie ounce of me hopes not.

scenes from life and learning on the farm

scenes from life and learning on the farm





by Weston Cutter

The Luminol Reels by Laura Ellen Joyce


            Today’s fun definition, brought to you by Wikipedia: “Luminol (C8H7N3O2) is a versatile chemical that exhibits chemiluminescence, with a striking blue glow, when mixed with an appropriate oxidizing agent…Luminol is used by forensic investigators to detect trace amounts of blood left at crime scenes, as it reacts with iron found in hemoglobin.” You’re welcome.

            What this book is is—and it’s so small, physically, you’ll be kicked several inches back to feel it—this incredibly dense, fragmentary list of atrocities or harms, basically, each of which is small (<300 words) and titled (Lobotomy, Feeding, Girl on Girl) and, seemingly, describing scenes, moving pictures. There are ten sections of various lengths, the titles ranging from Saints to Porno to Virgins to Rituals to Murderers to Martyrs. The texts feature a blunt, disquieting directness.

            But there’s something happening here that’s more than just a gross-out or brutalizing: Laura Ellen Joyce is trying to get the reader somewhere: we start at “Mothering,” in which the blood and ruptures of flesh are already (of course) present and we end on “Revelation,” which is as follows:


Oxidation of luminol is attended by a striking emission of blue-green light. An alkaline solution of the compound is allowed to reac with a muxture of hydrogen peroxide and potassium ferricyanide. The dianion (5) is oxidized to the triplet excited state (two unpaired electrons of like spin) (6) of the amino phthalate ion (Scheme 2). This slowly undergoes intersystem crossing to the singlet excited state (two unpaired electrons of opposite spin) (7), which decays to the ground state ion (8) with the emission of one quantum of light (a photon) per molecule.


            Is it already obvious that the back of the book’s got an image of the Shroud of Turin? Or that the first-person-plural that feels weirdly exclusive at book’s start by the thing’s end feels radically, harrowingly inclusive? That the book reads like an assortment of the atrocities we visit on each other and that, because of the causelessness of the book—these things just happen, a priori, idiopathically, right from the book’s first entry—you’re left at book’s end suffering a raft of questions as applicable to your extra-book existence as they are to the text you’re just leaving?

            This should all be obvious.


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