See, Carolyn 1934- (Monica Highland, a joint pseudonym, Carolyn Penelope See)
See, Carolyn 1934- (Monica Highland, a joint pseudonym, Carolyn Penelope See)
Born January 13, 1934, in Pasadena, CA; daughter of George Newton Bowland (a writer) and Kate Laws; married Richard Edward See (an anthropologist), February 27, 1954 (divorced, 1959); married Tom Sturak (an editor and teacher), April 11, 1960 (divorced, 1969); living with John Espey since 1974; children: (first marriage) Lisa; (second marriage) Clara. Education: Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences (now California State University, Los Angeles), B.A., 1957; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A., 1961, Ph.D., 1963. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, sailing, dance, brush clearing.
Home—Pacific Palisades, CA. Office—Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles, CA, 90095-9000. Agent—Anne Sibbald, Janklow Nesbit Agency, 598 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]
Writer. Waitress, 1950s; teaching assistant, 1960s; Loyola University of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, began as associate professor, became professor of English, 1970-85; University of California, Los Angeles, visiting professor, 1986-89, adjunct professor of English, 1989—.
National Book Critics Circle, Writers Guild of America, Modern Language Association of America, PEN West International (president, 1990-91), Poets & Writers (board member), Friends of English (board member).
Samuel Goldwyn Award, 1963; Sidney Hillman Award, 1969; grant from National Endowment for the Arts, 1974; Proclamation from City of Los Angeles and Long Beach Literary Hall of Fame Award, both 1983, both for Lotus Land; runner-up, Olive Branch Award, Writers' and Publishers' Alliance for Nuclear Disarmament/Editors' Organizing Committee, 1987, and Bread and Roses Award, National Women's Political Caucus, 1988, both for Golden Days; Vesta award, 1989, for writing; Guggenheim fellowship in fiction, 1990-91; Women's Care Cottage Apple award, 1991; Lila Wallace teaching grant, 1992-93; Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award, Los Angeles Times, 1993; Midway Plantation fellow, 2002.
The Rest Is Done with Mirrors (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1970.
Blue Money: Pornography and the Pornographers—An Intimate Look at the Two-Billion Dollar Fantasy Industry, McKay (New York, NY), 1973.
Mothers, Daughters (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1977.
Rhine Maidens (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1981.
(With John Espey and daughter, Lisa See Kendall, under joint pseudonym Monica Highland) Lotus Land (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1983.
(With John Espey and Lisa See Kendall under joint pseudonym Monica Highland) 110 Shanghai Road (novel), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1986.
Golden Days (novel), McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1986, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1996.
(Editor, with Ehrhard Bahr) Literary Exiles & Refugees in Los Angeles: Papers Presented at a Clark Library Seminar, 14 April 1984, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (Los Angeles, CA), 1988.
(With John Espey and Lisa See Kendall under joint pseudonym Monica Highland) Greetings from Southern California (nonfiction), Graphic Arts Center Publishing (Portland, OR), 1988.
(With John Espey) Two Schools of Thought: Tales of Education and Romance, John Daniel (Santa Barbara, CA), 1991.
Making History (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America (memoir), Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
The Handyman (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
There Will Never Be Another You (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2006.
Regular contributor to TV Guide; also contributor to Atlantic, Los Angeles Times Magazine, McCall's, Ms., Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and California Magazine. Weekly book reviewer, Los Angeles Times, 1981-93, New York Newsday, 1990-92, and Washington Post, 1993—.
Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road have been optioned for television miniseries. Golden Days has been optioned for a feature film by producer Arnold Glimcher; The Handyman has been optioned for a feature film by Warner Bros.
Carolyn See is an author, book critic, and educator who has received such honors as the Sidney Hillman Award and the Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award. A native Californian who wrote her doctoral thesis on the "Hollywood" novel, See has written works that contribute to the genre by using settings, characters, and ideas that illustrate the unique West Coast lifestyle. The Rest Is Done with Mirrors relates the story of two UCLA graduate students, or "unpersons," remarked a New York Times Book Review critic, who added that the two "are described in detail and patronized continually—but characterized inadequately." Mothers, Daughters is a novel about "the commonplace conjugal recklessness of our dwindling decade," summarized Jane Larkin Crain in the New York Times Book Review. Mothers, Daughters was written after See's second divorce, and she remarked to Charles Trueheart in a Washington Post interview that she "should have waited another year…. I was still awfully mad at Tom [Sturak], so I wrote it as a sorrowful woman's book. It's pretty silly, although there's some good writing in it." Crain echoed See's assessment, writing that although the book begins with "bite and tension … [it] never really achieves dramatic plausibility."
With her third novel, Rhine Maidens, however, See "has written a book about women that is agreeably free from passive self-pity and humorless hand-wringing," according to Judith Chettle in the Washington Post Book Review. The novel "hands us a bittersweet slice of California living and introduces two characters who pull us in to share their shoes, their eyes, their insides," observed Rhea Kohan in Los Angeles Times Book Review. These two characters are a mother and daughter who, as Nora Johnson described in New York Times Book Review, "have nothing in common but a chance biological connection and an eerie penchant for losing husbands." Although Clancy Sigal, writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, found Rhine Maidens to be "hugely funny and entertaining," he also remarked that it is "a breeze—perhaps a little too much so. See is so at pains not to bore her readers that [the characters] do not fully engage." Kohan feels otherwise; although the two women are "pathetic," the author "makes us care, really care about them," commented the critic. "She makes us root for them…. See's depiction of life styles is so vivid the reader sees, smells, feels, weeps, even laughs along with the characters." As Chettle put it, Rhine Maidens "is a book in the best tradition of comedy, where laughter is close to tears."
Many critics found Rhine Maidens successful because of the quality of its writing. Chettle noted that See "has an eye for the little details that give a place authenticity. … The data are noted with affection and tolerant amusement." Johnson had a similar assessment: "Carolyn See is a skillful writer…. [She] looks at that well-trodden territory, Southern California, from some new angles." Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek called the author "a clever writer; whenever her story stumbles into stridency or distemper, she gives it a shake and then her wit falls back glittering onto the page."
In Golden Days, a post-doomsday novel set in California, See "has taken The Unthinkable and turned it into a tale that is almost inspirational," commented Johnson in Los Angeles Times Book Review. As See told Trueheart, her book considers and confronts "The Unthinkable": "‘I don't have to think about it’—that's a failure of imagination. The people who survive will be the ones who like their life enough that they want to see what's going to happen next." What happens next is "an absolute refusal by … California weirdos—particularly in the graduates of positive-thinking workshops—to accept the end of the world," in the words of New York Times Book Review contributor Carol Sternhell.
See has explained that, after writing Rhine Maidens, she intended to make her work less generic. She told Trueheart: "I don't think I'm interested in writing women's novels anymore." This claim to the contrary, some critics detected a distinctly "female" outlook in Golden Days. Ursula K. LeGuin, writing in the Washington Post Book World, thought that the novel contained "the strength of feminism [that] enables it to take the risk of being vulnerable. It isn't safe, but it's fearless." Sternhell also observed a "wicked feminist skewering of ‘grim-lipped men’ and their missiles" while Johnson saw an "intricate connection between male fear of failure and ever bigger payloads and bigger bangs." While the author does not view the book as feminist, there is within it a demonstration of "the female principle, not confined to women," as Johnson described it, "the kind of thinking that could—were it in higher places—save our lives."
This "female," less incendiary way of thinking is also reflected in the more flexible West Coast viewpoint of the novel: "The sophistication of thought in the novel is considerable, cool and Californian," said LeGuin. "The rigid European fixation of much East Coast thinking doesn't encompass the real West at all." Helen Byatt, writing in Times Literary Supplement, felt this regional viewpoint is confusing: "We are mostly unaware of any direction. It is also difficult to distinguish the other characters…. One needs to be finely tuned to the Californian idiom to recognize [them]." LeGuin believed, however, that this uniquely western idiom "may be invisible to readers to whom they're just foreign words…. No harm in that, unless it leaves the book underestimated by critics who should know better."
As with her previous novel, Golden Days demonstrates See's skillful writing; in the London Times, for example, John Nicholson noted that the author "writes tautly and with scathing elegance about contemporary Californian mores." The critic also called Golden Days "one of the most original and entertaining books to come out of America for a very long time." R.Z. Sheppard of Time characterized See's writing as "strikingly gnomic," although he criticized her "impatience with novelistic invention." He also commented that much of the novel "reads like a catchall of California behaviors." Johnson, however, believed that this impatience is consistent with the book; although Golden Days "seems hastily put together, as though written in a race against the last deadline of all, … this perhaps unintentional mood of haste works."
Although Sheppard did not think Golden Days will "pass for serious fiction in the 80s," LeGuin saw in it a vision of "crazy majesty … [and] stinging exactness." While "an inspirational novel about nuclear war seems, well, a bit perverse," Sternhell contended that "this may be the most life-affirming novel I've ever read." "Anybody who cares about anything should read this," suggested Johnson, concluding that Golden Days "is a very, very, important book."
Under the pseudonym Monica Highland, See, her longtime companion, John Espey, and her daughter, Lisa See Kendall, have published such novels as Lotus Land and 110 Shanghai Road. The first Monica Highland novel, Lotus Land, is a "rich and well-researched story," according to Audrey C. Foote in Washington Post Book World. Although at first "the author drones portentously," said the critic, Highland "then mercifully gets down to business … in brief, serviceable prose." Linda Rolens, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, found that the three authors "build a sense of place and character and a feel that is somehow historically accurate." Even when "characterization turns vague and the details … are ignored," noted Rolens, the book "manages to imitate the nature of the [Los Angeles] it chronicles—often unashamedly tacky, frequently fun."
110 Shanghai Road, the second Monica Highland chronicle, is a "plot-heavy book … [that] contains a great deal more intelligence and elan than most historical sagas," remarked Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post Book World. "There is nothing dull about 110 Shanghai Road," wrote Harrison E. Salisbury in Los Angeles Times Book Review. The novel "roars over continents, time zones, the years from 1913 to 1983, in a panorama of murder, incest, rape, torture, passion, high crime, jealousy, billions, betrayal, and all the furies known to humanity and even a few hitherto unknown. If hilariously out-of-sync chronologies of the last few decades satisfy your taste, no zanier one is likely to be pasted together." "Although the authors might try fleshing out their characters more," suggested Drabelle, "on the whole their amalgamated talents do justice to their rich material."
See has not allowed the success of "Monica Highland" to interfere with her own more serious fiction. In 1991 she published another California novel, Making History. Set in the affluent neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, the work presents a family that must deal with a series of harsh blows and sudden catastrophes. One character, a teen named Robin, narrates sections from the afterlife. Another, the gracious homemaker Wynn, questions her reliance on the "safety nets" of marriage and financial prosperity. Los Angeles Times Book Review reviewer Bette Pesetsky wrote that, in Making History, "the family drama is the focus, the driving force—but we are not about to be trapped in any banal suburban malaise. See is too good for that, and she knowingly explores the facade of civility with which her characters interact." Pesetsky concluded that the book is "perceptive in its details and ambitious in its daring…. Making History is a satisfying and remarkable book." In New York Times Book Review, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer declared: "To read Making History is to hear what Thea, the book's seer, perceives—it is to tune in to a kind of cosmic television on whose channels one can see and hear the living and the dead, the animate and the inanimate…. Ms. See sets out to catch the sound of our world singing its way into the future. The miracle is how well she has succeeded."
From writing fiction about the American family, See turned in 1995 to a nonfiction account of her own eccentric relatives and their history of self-destructive behavior. Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, a well-received memoir, has been cited for its emotional bravery and clear writing. "Carolyn See's is the kind of American voice you can fall in love with," maintained Geoffrey Wolff in his Washington Post Book World review of the work. "This is not a celebration of the self or a limning of the self's prison walls. Dreaming is the systematic disclosure of a process of understanding … in the sense of figuring out, making sense." Wolff further praised the book as "unflinching, reflective, sassy, building a house from bad cards, creating a voice and vision from the raw material of shouting and mess."
See draws on her experiences as a freelance writer and English professor in Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and other Dreamers, "a beginner's guide to the craft of writing and the business of publishing," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews. See presents a framework for behaving like a writer, recommending that aspiring authors write 1,000 words a day and compose a daily note of praise to a writer, editor, or agent they admire. She also addresses the mechanics of writing, including character, plot, and point of view, and discusses the importance of self-promotion. "Her advice is practical and folksy," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. Herbert E. Shapiro, reviewing the work in the Library Journal, stated that "at times you'll feel as if you were listening in on one of her classes." "Literature's mystique is unshakable," remarked Donna Seaman in Booklist, "and See's irreverent approach is bound to intrigue wanna-be writers."
See returned to fiction in 1999 with the publication of The Handyman, "a novel of compelling drive and great warmth," Brad Hooper commented in Booklist. The work opens in 2027 as a young researcher applies for a Guggenheim grant to study the works of Bob Hampton, an internationally renowned artist. In flashbacks to 1996, readers are introduced to Hampton, a struggling twenty-eight-year-old who has left art school in Paris and returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, where he earns a living as a self-employed handyman. Hampton's clients, a collection of forlorn misfits that include a grieving widow, an abandoned young mother, and a man dying of AIDS, come to rely on him for emotional support, and Hampton experiences an artistic awakening. "As he copes with the messes people make of their lives, he gleans unexpected insights into the practical value of beauty," wrote Entertainment Weekly critic Megan Harlan. Praising the work, a critic in Publishers Weekly called The Handyman, a "vibrant and provocative novel with a hopeful vision of a more spiritually attuned, less venal California in the 21st century, and with a positive spin on the role of an artist in transforming society."
Set in post-9/11 Los Angeles, There Will Never Be Another You concerns Phil Fuchs, an unhappily married dermatologist at the UCLA Medical Center, and Edith, his twice-widowed mother, who volunteers as a receptionist at the hospital information desk. When a number of neighborhood cats mysteriously die, Phil is recruited for a secret bioterrorism response team; his mother, meanwhile, begins a series of ill-fated relationships. "See thus surrounds their personal calamities with the background hum of a world that might soon go up in smoke," observed Susan Kelly in USA Today. There Will Never Be Another You, wrote Washington Post Book World, reviewer Chris Bohjalian, "is potent because the sense of dread and unease that mark almost every moment in the book is palpable; it is poignant because See, who in previous books has proven eminently capable of skewering her characters when they misbehave, has such compassion for the largely villain-less ensemble that populates this tale." "With wry insight and a unique mix of hope and cynicism," Kelly concluded, "See speaks to the nature of being human in today's complicated world."
On her Web site, See remarked: "I was born in Los Angeles and I love it. One of the things I really love is that it hasn't been thoroughly mapped in fiction yet. It's terra incognita in a lot of ways."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
See, Carolyn, Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
Booklist, February 1, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America, p. 971; January 1, 1999, Brad Hooper, review of The Handyman, p. 793; August 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, p. 1912; February 15, 2006, Brad Hooper, review of There Will Never Be Another You, p. 6.
Books, June 11, 2006, Jessica Treadway, "Carolyn See's Engaging New Novel Suffers from Gaps and Loose Ends," p. 6.
Christian Century, May 19, 1999, review of The Handyman, p. 591.
Christian Science Monitor, April 29, 1999, review of The Handyman, p. 20.
Entertainment Weekly, April 2, 1999, Megan Harlan, "Editor's Choice," review of The Handyman, p. 88.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2002, review of Making a Literary Life, p. 866; February 15, 2006, review of There Will Never Be Another You, p. 157.
Library Journal, February 15, 1999, Jo Manning, review of The Handyman, p. 185; August 1, 2002, Herbert E. Shapiro, review of Making a Literary Life, p. 112; March 15, 2006, Karen Walton Morse, review of There Will Never Be Another You, p. 65.
Los Angeles Magazine, July 1, 2006, Robert Ito, "City Limits," review of There Will Never Be Another You, p. 122.
Los Angeles Times, November 3, 2002, review of Making a Literary Life, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 27, 1981, Rhea Kohan, review of Rhine Maidens; March 20, 1983, Linda Rolens, review of Lotus Land; July 13, 1986, Harrison E. Salisbury, review of 110 Shanghai Road; October 12, 1986, Nora Johnson, review of Golden Days, p. 2; September 15, 1991, Bette Pesetsky, review of Making History, pp. 1, 9; March 5, 1995, review of Dreaming, pp. 2, 11.
Michigan Quarterly Review, fall, 2000, Robert Solotaroff, "Local Transcendence," p. 839.
National Post, March 20, 1999, Marni Jackson, review of The Handyman, p. 19.
Newsweek, October 5, 1981, Peter S. Prescott, review of Rhine Maidens; April 17, 1995, review of Dreaming, p. 67.
New Yorker, May 31, 1999, review of The Handyman, p. 112.
New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1970, review of The Rest Is Done with Mirrors, p. 43; January 15, 1978, Jane Larkin Crain, review of Mothers, Daughters, p. 12; October 18, 1981, Nora Johnson, review of Rhine Maidens, p. 15; November 30, 1986, Carol Sternhell, review of Golden Days, p. 9; September 15, 1991, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, review of Making History, p. 7; March 5, 1995, Linda Gray Sexton, review of Dreaming, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995, review of Dreaming, p. 64; January 4, 1999, review of The Handyman, p. 70; June 10, 2002, review of Making a Literary Life, p. 48; February 13, 2006, review of There Will Never Be Another You, p. 60.
School Library Journal, June 1, 1999, Molly Connally, review of The Handyman, p. 158.
Time, November 24, 1986, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Golden Days; April 12, 1999, Elizabeth Gleick, review of The Handyman, p. 98.
Times (London, England), October 8, 1987, John Nicholson, review of Golden Days.
Times Literary Supplement, November 12, 1987, Helen Byatt, review of Golden Days.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 18, 1981, Clancy Sigal, review of Rhine Maidens; October 12, 2003, review of Making a Literary Life, p. 6.
USA Today, May 15, 2006, Susan Kelly, "Life Takes Unnerving Turns in Carolyn See's ‘You.’"
Voice Literary Supplement, April, 1995, review of Dreaming, p. 5.
Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1999, Kate Flatley, review of The Handyman, p. 13; August 21, 2002, James Wolcott, "The Next Bestselling Author—Why Not You?," p. 8.
Washington Post, December 30, 1986, Charles Trueheart, interview with Carolyn See.
Washington Post Book World, November 2, 1981, Judith Chettle, review of Rhine Maidens; March 6, 1983, Audrey C. Foote, review of Lotus Land; August 31, 1986, Dennis Drabelle, review of 110 Shanghai Road; November 9, 1986, Ursula K. LeGuin, review of Golden Days, p. 6; March 5, 1995, Geoffrey Wolff, review of Dreaming, pp. 1, 10; May 21, 2006, Chris Bohjalian, "The Age of Anxiety," p. 5.
Carolyn See Home Page,http://www.carolynsee.com (June 1, 2007).
Fiction Writers of Monterey County,http://www.fwomp.com/ (May 25, 2004), Byron Merritt, "Bestselling Author and Washington Post Book Reviewer Carolyn See on Writing and Keeping a Stiff Upper Lip."