We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

I will read anything Coates writes, but was a bit disappointed in this. I didn’t realize it was going to be a collection of essays he’d already published in the Atlantic from 2009-2016. This makes it a bit of a rehash that I assume was published to take advantage of post-Obama nostalgia in an age of McDonald Tr*mp. He does write intro sections for each of the essays and a recap at the end, but otherwise it’s probably material you’ve already read before (including the well-worth-another-read The Case for Reparations).

Hangsaman

Spooky novel from Shirley Jackson about a 17-year-old girl who’s off to college and who loses her grip on reality somewhat, plus the disappearance of her friend Tony. It’s structured in three sections: Natalie on the cusp of leaving for school, at her parent’s house, possibly/definitely assaulted by a friend of her father’s at a party; Natalie at school, discovering that she’s drinking more than reading and that her English prof has married an ex-student but who still has affairs with current students, letters back and forth to her writer dad with advice and assignments; the final section she returns home and can’t wait to head back to school, when she does it’s an unreal unraveling where she and Tony hide from the college, go eat in town hanging in the railway station, then at a diner where a one-armed man asks for help buttering his roll, then they take a bus to the end of the line and Tony disappears.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Excellent work that will break your heart. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard law graduate who heads south to help defend inmates on death row, especially in Alabama where they turned their execution program on overdrive with the highest rate per capita. Through his many years helping the innocent and the unjustly imprisoned, Stevenson collected a huge bag of stories that he drips before and after the main story of Walter McMillian, who was put on death row while he AWAITED trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Local authorities were angry that he’d dared to have an interracial relationship so were happy to pin the blame on him. Well written, gripping story. I had to put it down every so often just to breathe and try to calm down.

0 To 9: The Complete Magazine, 1967-1969

Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci edited this magazine from 1967 to 69, buying their own paper, stencils, and ink and then using the mimeograph machine at Bernadette’s boyfriend’s father’s office from 6pm to 8am to crank out hundreds of copies. This collection digitizes this artifact from the height of the conceptual art period of NYC, with poems, plays, drawings (Sol Lewitt included), interviews. The afterword is from the two guys who decided to republish this in 2004, giddy with their discovery of a few old copies in the NYPL. Vito’s intro note is a strange meandering whine about where has Bernadette gone, she doesn’t use email thus has escaped from the ease of catch-up circles although she did send him an unanswered card last year. Bernadette’s intro is much tighter and more descriptive of the process, the people, the magazine.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait

Taking a break this MLK weekend from shuddering about Mcdonald Tr*mp’s tactless idiocy/racism/greed to read this gem from Pete Souza. The photographer had extraordinary access to Obama during the 8 years of his presidency and captured real moments that occasionally brought me to tears. Say what you will about Obama, the man has charm, style, wit, intelligence, compassion, and that comes through in these photos. It is an absolute delight to remind yourself that outstanding presidents who don’t embarrass us have existed and will exist again in the future.

Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001

Wonderful time capsule of the 90s, packed with typewriters, anarchists, midnight bike rides, living in tree houses and squats, roaming from Asheville to Vermont to Berkeley to Eureka to NYC, advice about surviving abuse, herbal remedies, recipes, scenes from punk life, basement shows, lists of books and 101 ways to get romance, her sister Caty and farming and building greenhouses, resources for depression (including herbs: guarana, damiana, peppermint, rosemary, gotu kola). Doris is one of my favorite zines and I was lucky to be able to catch up on these early issues via the anthology. Amazing amazing amazing.

Nicholas Nickleby

That gaseous old windbag, Dickens, has exhausted me after many weeks of tackling this, his third novel. It brims with the same colorful cast of miscellaneous characters that add a bit of sparkle to the 700+ pages. These are the random bits that delight, like the names of companies as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

The story follows the usual lines—a poor widow and her children reaches out to her rich brother-in-law for help, only to find that he’s a scoundrel. Uncle Ralph sends Nicholas out to be a teacher at a ridiculously abusive school where he ends up whipping the schoolmaster and leaving with one of the runaway boys, then ending up acting on the stage under an assumed name to make money for a while. Nicholas’ sister Kate is of course beautiful and pure and angelic, and Uncle Ralph sends her into the various clutches of terrible people in London. The widow mother, Mrs. Nickleby, is a blathering buffoon of the type that Dickens frequently makes women—airheads concerned with appearances and telling endless tales of their former glory. The only amusing part she plays is when she believes that the insane neighbor is in love with her. Caught in their chimney, the old man demands to be sent a bottle of lightning, a thunder sandwich, and a plate of boots to eat.

Miss La Creevy is one of the only female characters that comes close to being interesting in all of Dickens’ work that I’ve read so far. She’s a portrait painter who is an independent, friendly, smart spinster. “Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone for so long. The little bustling, active, cheerful creature, existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidant of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss La Creevy’s.”

The Allure of the Archives

This book will delight anyone who has spent any time doing research. Translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, this was originally published in 1989 before the vast digitization of archives had begun in earnest. Farge leads us through the Parisian archives of criminal complaints from the 18th century, peppering her account with scenes from her own time—racing other researchers to get the best spot, shivering with the cold, hoping that the lights stayed on. She also brings to life those characters she encounters on the page, the man who embroidered a letter to his wife on a handkerchief while in jail, a packet of seeds that had not been opened in 2 centuries.

What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm

This book got me thinking that books need some sort of a rating system like movies, but to warn people of the level of male smarminess/privilege inside. Works by Mailer or Roth or Kerouac (and this) would score in the toxic red zone and thus sensitive readers could avoid them. Alas, this warning label did not exist and I took seriously Jenny Odell’s recommendation that this was her new favorite book, so read it.

If you’re lucky, you’ve never heard of Stephen Diamond, author of this 1970 remembrance of the hippie farm he and a bunch of dudes lived on in Massachusetts. Oh I guess there were a few girls there, but they get slighted in the story until they do something like bitch about how they’re doing all the cooking and cleaning of dishes. Diamond’s words are a poor man’s Kerouac, he attempts to free associate and lacks any of Jack’s sparkle or rhythm.

Against Everything: Essays

I have a theory that Greif founded n+1 because no one else would publish his writing. This collection is a group of essays he first put forth in that publication, launched in 2004. The only solid essay of the book was the first one he published, Against Exercise, in 2004. Maybe he worked hard at polishing it, and then once n+1 launched, his attention was diverted to managing the magazine instead of honing his writing. Besides tearing apart our culture of exercise, he touches on our food obsession, sexualizing children, Octomom & Bernie Madoff taking the brunt of anger during the financial crisis (woman & Jew, the usual targets instead of those who actually inflicted damage). There’s an embarrassing section wherein he muses about music, from Radiohead to Tribe Called Quest, cataloging his attempt to learn to rap as a Jew from Boston. Add in an overly boring section on reality TV, a dash of the trailer park near Walden Pond, a nip of police and Zuccotti Park, and you’ve got the book of essays.

In Against Exercise he calls out that what used to be private is now on display, gym rats obsessing about their numbers and enslaved by the routine. Another observation is that jogging is “a direct invasion of public space…. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

A later essay, The Concept of Experience, takes aim at readers and writers: “Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books… Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures.”

Girls Gone Old

Fiona Helmsley’s collection of essays is sometimes satisfying. Best are the recollections of her first experience of writing on the internet for Livejournal in 2002, early pioneer blogging, creating a new identity from her mom’s home in Connecticut as she detoxed from drugs. Also the essay on the power of saying no, w/r/t Elliot Rodger and his idiotic manifesto and massacre because women wouldn’t sleep with him. Overall, it wasn’t terribly inspiring. I think I’d like it better couched as short stories, reality masquerading behind a thin film of fiction.

London Fog: The Biography

If you’re wondering how it’s possible to write over 300 pages about London’s fog, I’m just as perplexed. Corton relies heavily on quotes from Dickens (primarily Bleak House, but also Pickwick and The Old Curiosity Shop), interspersed with illustrations from Cruikshank, Claude Monet, Punch, and stills from Hitchcock. She also uses a lot of American authors to make her point, noting that Melville is quoted in the OED’s citation for the first expression of “pea soup” to describe the fog in 1849 (Corton offhandedly sums up Moby-Dick as “vast, baggy, and iconic”), in addition to Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain’s impressions of the fog.

What’s odd is her complete lack of British voices about London’s fog except for Dickens’ plaintive wail from the 19th century. What of those essential Londoners, Pepys of the 17th century, Defoe of the 18th, and Woolf of the 20th? Corton is eerily silent, smothering their voices which are conspicuously absent from the text.

The book in a nutshell: London’s geography always made it susceptible to natural fog. Coupled with pollution from coal fires, wood fires, and the industrial revolution, things got out of hand. The Clean Air Act of of 1956 solved the problem.

The Middlesteins

Overdosing, or should I say overindulging, in Jami Attenberg lately. This is my least favorite so far, the story of an obese woman whose husband leaves her after a few decades of marriage right as she’s suffering health declines. She’s the star, and supporting cast are the estranged husband, her new lover (Chinese chef), daughter Robin and her boyfriend, son Ben and his wife and kids. Spoiler alert, she dies of a heart attack eating ice cream with the freezer open.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies

This started out strong but whimpered out. It’s the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman who was instrumental in codebreaking during the two great 20th century wars. Elizebeth met her husband William on a private estate, both paid researchers for millionaire George Fabyan, Elizebeth paid to prove that a code embedded in Shakespeare shows his works were written by Bacon. The pair marry and end up becoming the best codebreakers in the U.S., working side by side. Of course, only William was recognized and promoted to high rank… at least until his mental breakdown. Elizebeth carried on, supporting him and the children and running her own codebreaking crew out of the Coast Guard during Prohibition, then being swept into the Navy during WW2. She caught some Nazis and all of the credit was slurped up by J.Edgar Hoover. I did appreciate that the author devoted a lot of space to showing how the codes worked and including examples. The petering-out of my interest was caused by his constant wide-eyed amazement that such an amazing woman could be swept under the rug of history until he came along to shine a light on her archives.

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream

It is refreshing and almost soothing to see that the same issues we’re grappling with now have been around for a while. This book came out 30 years ago in 1988 and the voices sound like they’ve been interviewed today—grappling with greed, capitalism, racism, neo-nazis, ultra-religious nuts, worrying about nuclear war and quality of life declining for future generations. Somehow this takes a bit of the sting out of the slap we were dealt in 2016 with the election of McDonald Tr*mp—this stuff has been simmering for a long time, we were just in our progressive bubble and refused to see it. The only real difference is that unions were a lot more prevalent back then. Now, they’re an anomaly. And more people were actively protesting nukes.

Per his usual style, Terkel interviews hundreds of folks and lets their words do the talking. Art Spiegelman kvetches about art students not knowing anything about the 1960s (“They had never heard of underground comics. Nobody in the class had ever heard of Robert Crumb. This is not the general public we’re talking about. These people are aspiring to be cartoonists…”) and he had to explain protests against the Vietnam War to his class. Another teacher discusses how censorship has morphed into people withdrawing books they don’t like from the library, “often one that is feminist in theme”, paying the fine and the book is never replaced.

I particularly liked Isabelle Kuprin’s interview: “I’m a copywriter for an ad agency. It involves being a total asshole. I do it for the money, it’s easy and horrible. I do nothing good for society. I mean, I help people sell cheese. The talent is being able to sit in meetings and listen to people talk about an adjective for four hours.”

Douglas Roth is also a hero– a pastor in a small Pennsylvania town that was ravaged by steel mills closing, he led an effort to get the bank to reinvest in the town. One of their tactics was to send people with $10 to ask for that in pennies and to drop some of them, get in line, pick them up, ask for nickels, cause chaos. Another was a fish action: taking out safety deposit boxes and filling them with frozen fish. “By Monday, they were beginning to raise their own odor. Boy it was really something! They had to drill out the boxes. They drilled into one lady’s jewels and somebody else’s heroin.”

Another hero: Jean Gump, mother of 12, jailed for a demonstration at a nuclear silo. As part of her interview, she reveals the ridiculousness of the government, telling the story about an inmate who lay in the yard and got a sunburn then an incident report was written up for “destruction of government property” because she destroyed her own skin.

Entertainment age: TV!

Echoes of current day ring out in this: “There’s this constant need to be entertained. Every kid has his little Walkman radio, playing tapes… There’s this constant need to be distracted. I think this is a rejection of thought.”

TV is blamed frequently. “Now you don’t talk to anybody ’cause you got your head stuck in that TV.” Also: “Television is fucking up the country completely, making us more violent and more druggy. The Sistine Chapel ceiling of American creativity is the thirty-second television commercial. That’s where America’s genius is concentrated. What are they telling us to do? Consume, look after number one, pamper yourself.”

“Television could be a very great thing for politics. It could create the revival of the stump. Instead, it actually destroys analysis, debate, reason, and substitutes advertising. One-liners. Two-liners take up too much time.”

Racism

Reagan’s election on race: “Reagan made it very accepted to be a white bigot. It’s the most fashionable thing. Now they say: America is white… When I was comin’ up, it was embarrassing to be considered a racist or bigot. Now I think people take pride in it.”

Football controversy

Another similarity to current times: in 1987 there was a football players’ strike. “What really disturbed me was the attitude of the fans. How easily they were manipulated into support-not of the players, whom they come to see and love to watch-but of the owners, who never played a game in their lives… It was amazing to hear million-dollar sportscasters criticize half-million dollar ballplayers: ‘They make too much money.'”

Somewhat related: “People are really not interested in politics. They’ve got too many other interests. You find people know so much about football.If they knew the same amount about the stock market, they’d be millionaires. Trivialities have overwhelmed us.”

Politics

While we’re on the subject of politics: “The scandals, open or secret, are happening so regularly, it’s as if one is constantly irritated by a blow on the shins to a point where he’s no longer sensitive. What the Reagan administration has discovered is that that which becomes commonplace is no longer a scandal. The violations have been unprecedented in their repetitiousness. People have lost their sense of outrage.”

Religion

“Unfortunately, America has got religion in a way that it hasn’t had before… Shrewd political people have recognized the potential of grabbing hold of the religions constituency… Their basic appeal is to people who feel left out. Marginalized people, who have an emotional hunger. W.H. Auden has a line about the wild prayers of longings… In a world that’s in chaos, fundamentalist religion provides you with a well ordered world, an architectonic world. It helps you get through. These programs have a lot of appeal to people without a sense of history… It’s fast food. It’s just there, it’s bland, it’s inoffensive, it fills you up for a while. And it helps. Sadly. You’re given answers. You’re not presented with problems. The idea is not to reflect, because that’s disturbing.” — Roy Larson, Methodist minister, Chicago

On the opposite end, Dennis McGrath, fundamentalist Christian in Brooklyn: “Most problems in public schools come from our throwing out prayer. Where’s the authority? It comes from God. Armageddon will come, of course. It’s part of God’s plan. Why stop it? I see no reason to stop it.”

Sexism in Technology Sector

Nancy Miles is a 23-year-old engineer who graduated from Cornell in 1985. “The attrition rate is enormous, people leaving engineering, especially women. There’s a lot against us…. During the interviews, the company would ask if you could get a security clearance. Wow, I’m gonna be working at a place where the government has to know about me, know what I do, know my politics. How much of myself am I willing to give up to work in Silicon Valley?”

Black women will save us

A flight attendant whose pilot-husband regularly crosses her strike line complains about the lack of support the women have gotten in general. Except: “You know who have been doing the most fighting and sticking together in our union? Black women. Here in Chicago, black flight attendants have been our strongest core. They have been able to handle the negatives of being out on strike for six months a lot better than their white counterparts.”

Robots are here + age discrimination

“An ironic touch has been added during these past 10 years. Our life-cycle has lengthened in every decade, yet we are seeing early retirement more and more frequently… That’s the au courant phrase these days: early retirement. In some cases, it’s a euphemism for being fired. It may be a case of wanting a younger person. Or they may just do away with the job. The job is robotized or faded out. The job is eliminated. Of course, for people this age it is difficult to find work again.” – Maggie Kuhn, of the Gray Panthers, a national org militantly concerned with the rights of the elderly.

Inequality

Anthony Bouza is the police chief of Minneapolis: “As for the country, I honestly believe we are observing a decline of the republic. There’s a major shift in American values, between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. We are screwing the poor people.” This is also a guy whose wife has been arrested 5 times for protesting nuclear bomb-making plants in town.

Dumb rich people

Terkel interviews a socialite, Sugar Rautbord, who has incredibly idiotic things to say, including about her visit to the White House where she’s briefed on Grenada and thinks there is still a war there. Terkel corrects her, saying that the U.S. won the war there already. “Well, whatever. We live in a democracy, so everyone has a right to an opinion.” At the end of the interview, she says it’s important for her and her ladies to run around with their Tiffany cups out looking for donations to their pet causes. Terkel: “Tiffany what?” Sugar: “Cups out. Panhandling, you know.”