Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing

I’m so glad Caro took a break from LBJ to give us this memoir-lite describing his research process and early beginnings. If anything, I need to re-read Master of the Senate and Passage of Power along with the other 2 LBJ volumes I’ve skipped. My Robert Moses immersion was only a few years ago but am now considering a reread of that as well.

Turn every page while researching because you never know what gold you’ll stumble onto. He also writes “SU” all over his notes as a reminder to self to Shut Up while he’s trying to outwait an interviewee who’s silent. Seems like Caro was motivated by the general depravity of the current administration to get some thoughts out there about what his projects have been about (power, how people get it, how they use it).

Afloat

Beautiful nonfiction travel diary by Guy de Maupassant first pub’d in 1888 (Sur l’eau). This is the book that Virginia Woolf has a character in The Years pluck from the shelves to read at random “The mediocrity of the universe astonishes and repels me…” so of course I needed to go straight to the (translated) source. Maupassant sets out on his yacht Bel-Ami with a two man crew to do the heavy lifting and sails around the coast of France for a nine day tour, spending lots of time ashore, ending up on a train to meet a friend at a casino in Monte Carlo.

As he heads out, he appreciates his solitude, although technically he’s also with his two sailors:

I can enjoy the thrill of being alone, the quiet thrill of being able to rest and never be disturbed by a letter or telegram, the sound of a doorbell… Nobody can call on me, invite me out, depress me with smiles, harass me with flattery. I’m alone, really alone, and I’m free.

Generally he doesn’t like the people he comes across:

Is there anything more sinister than that “table chat” in hotels? I’ve lived in such places, I’ve had to suffer all the platitudes that the human race can produce on such occasions. You have to bite the bullet really hard in order not to weep with grief, disgust, and shame when you listen to people talking… It seems to me that I’m looking into their ghastly souls and discovering a monstrous fetus preserved in alcohol. And I’m watching them slowly give birth to commonplaces that they’ll go on producing again and again, I can feel them dropping out of their mouths from their inexhaustible fund of idiotic ideas and carried into my ears by the lifeless air.

In later pages he expands (this is the surrounding text for the quote VW uses):

It’s true that sometimes I feel such a horror of living that I long to die, so intensely do I suffer from the relentless monotony of every landscape, of people’s faces and their thoughts. I find the mediocrity of the universe appalling, revolting, I’m disgusted by the paltriness of everything, overwhelmed by the utter worthlessness of the human race.

This captures my own feeling of insatiable curiosity that goes nowhere:

I’ve lusted after everything and enjoyed nothing. I would have needed the vitality of a whole race of men, the intelligence scattered among all living creatures, every conceivable faculty of mind and body, in addition to a thousand more lives in reserve, because I have inside me every sort of appetite and curiosity—and I’ve been reduced to observing everything and grasping nothing.

Against crowds:

I always experience an odd, unbearable feeling of discomfort, a terrible nervous irritation as if I was struggling with all my might against a mysterious, irresistible force… How often have I come to realize that my intelligence expands and soars as soon as it’s alone and falls into pieces as soon as I’m in a crowd… The qualities of intellectual initiative, of free will, of individual wisdom, and even of perception of a man left to himself will generally dissipate as soon as he mingles with any large number of other men.

It’s eerie to read his description of late 19th century city planning along the coast of South France, how there’s “not one single house, nothing but the layout of future streets running through the trees. There are crossroads, boulevards, squares. They’ve even put up metal plates marking their names: boulevard Ruysdael, boulevard Rubens, boulevard Van Dyck, boulevard Claude-Lorrain. You may be wondering: why all these painters? It’s because the Company, like God himself before lighting the sun, said: ‘This is going to be a resort for artists!’ ”

His great tirade on the working stiffs that he sees headed off for lunch “like two old workhorses who’d been unbridled for a brief moment to snatch a mouthful of oats at the bottom of a canvas bag…”

Translated from the French by Douglas Parmee

Dear Mrs. Bird

A light palate cleanser to burn through quickly, story of wartime London complete with air raids, bombings, soldiers running off with nurses, men in uniform making ladies swoon. A bit on the sentimental side but not too maudlin. The narrator, Emmy, takes a job answering correspondence for an advice column but doesn’t like Mrs. Bird’s strict rules around what’s acceptable or not to answer. Emmy takes it upon herself to answer several letters, doling out comfort and advice to those who would be otherwise rejected by Mrs. Bird. She meets the half-brother of her boss, a soldier on leave named Charles, and has a night of dancing with him before starting correspondence. She lives with her pal Bunty, who becomes engaged to William, but tragedy strikes at their engagement party when bombers hit and Bill dies. This is where it goes off the rails, Bunty decides it’s Emmy’s fault that Bill dies, refuses to speak to her, ends up writing a letter to the magazine that Emmy responds to behind Bird’s back which of course draws significant support from the audience, resulting in a dramatic Hollywood moment of the mailboy bringing up the bag of letters from people, skyrocketing subscription numbers, and Bunty showing up to plead for Emmy’s job.

Virginia Woolf, the War Without, the War Within: Her Final Diaries and the Diaries She Read

The final installment of Barbara Lounsberry’s valuable contribution to VW scholarship, this book covers Woolf’s diaries from 1929 to 1941 (book one 1897-1918, book two 1918-1929). This look at Woolf’s diaries and the diaries she read was less interesting than the other volumes, although I did pick up recommendations for Alice James’s diary and reinforced the idea I need to eventually finish reading Gide’s diary. As always, Lounsberry does a great job picking apart how the diary influences Woolf’s other published work, her grand exhaustion over The Years, her use of one work to balance out another. Oh! And the Michael Field diaries, the pseudonym of an aunt & niece combo who wrote poetry but who suffered much abuse from the male establishment, by way of Ruskin, giving Woolf much material for On Being Despised.

On being 50:

how possessed I am with the feeling that now, age 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight & undeflected my bolts whatever they are…

Her prodigious appetite for reading:

I want to write another 4 novels… & to go through English literature, like a string through cheese, or rather like some industrious insect, eating its way from book to book, from Chaucer to Lawrence. This is a programme (1932).

And in 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it with books, as a sponge with water”.

Alice James on suicide: “Every educated person who kills himself does something toward lessening the superstition. It’s bad that it’s so untidy… But how heroic to be able to supress one’s vanity to the extent of confessing that the game is too hard.”

Tidbits of the outer world float in, like the shocking discovery of Cook’s travel pamphlets issuing a brochure inviting a “Heil! Summer!” which helped to normalize Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. (See: Petra Rau’s “The Fascist Body Beautiful and the Imperial Crisis in 1930s British Writing.”)

My interest is only increased in setting aside all my attention to the VW project and working my way through her enormous mound of words, piece by piece.

 

Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions

Briallen Hopper’s collection of musings was a bit disappointing. I appreciated the well-reasoned takedown of Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and of course the amazing essay about Grace Metalious, Pandora in Blue. But the rest bored me into skimming, and then I tripped over her Moby-Dick essay which was more about the game DICK (apparently a Cards-Against-Humanity-esque game where every answer is from Moby-Dick) and her quest for a sperm donor.

Jillian

Halle Butler’s first book is an interesting read after The New Me. You can see her finding her way, honing her misanthropic chops in this earlier work, a story about two office-mates who are on opposite sides of the cheerfulness spectrum. Megan is the younger, the more surly of the two, about 10 years younger than Jillian, a single mom bursting with misplaced optimism. Megan lives with her boyfriend and likes to fill her purse with beer before heading to parties, so she’s never far away from a cold one.

The trick I didn’t like in The New Me actually works here, the jumping between perspectives; possibly works better here because there is no “I” character, so it’s all 3rd person perspective surfing throughout.

Jillian’s life starts to unravel, but then again so does Megan’s. “Jillian deleted the voicemails and took another two Tylenol T3s with codeine and decided that the courthouse must have had the wrong number, because she really didn’t have the money and wouldn’t have the money for another two weeks, at which time she would call the courthouse herself because she was a responsible person.”

The language made me laugh at times: “She felt like a warty little toad or a troll or a guy who was so visibly lonely that everyone thought he might start beating off or crying just for the feeling of connection he would get from all that wild, concentrated attention.”

Pure poetry at times dipping into the utter boredom of life: “Carrie sat on the couch, staring at the bay windows with her left hand held out absent-mindedly before her. Soon it would be 3:30, soon it would be 4:00, soon it would be 4:30, soon it would be 5:00, then 5:15, then 5:30, then 5:45, 46, 47, 48, 49.”

Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

This is a volume of use for anyone who has actual access to the notebooks themselves in the Berg collection at NYPL (33 notebooks) or the notebooks at University of Sussex (33 other notebooks) or the single notebook at Yale. Sadly the notebooks themselves are not digitized or collected in any accessible form that I can discover, so I’m left in suspense about VW’s notes on Moby-Dick, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight, or Hemingway’s Men Without Women, among hundreds of other books she kept notes for in these notebooks. Luckily this index of sorts is now available online from Dartmouth, in case I need to make my mouth water about what’s out there.

 

A Curtain of Green: And Other Stories

I am not a Eudora Welty fan, but prior to this book I’d read nothing by her, so needed to remedy that (especially after she came so highly regarded by Steven King’s writing memoir). My opinion remains unchanged, and she blends in together with the amorphous group of Southern women writers, one big bag of Flannery/Carson/Eudora that I have trouble keeping apart. I’m a terrible person, I know.

There was some descriptive flair I liked in Why I Live at the P.O. where she’s grabbing everything in sight to take with her, ukulele, thermometer, watermelon rinds, tacks in the wall. I also did like A Memory, perhaps the only first-person story in the bunch, about a girl dreaming beside a lake interrupted by a group of “loud, squirming, ill-assorted people who seemed thrown together only by the most confused accident, and who seemed driven by foolish intent to insult each other, all of which they enjoyed with a hilarity which astonished my heart.”

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

I can’t be bothered to even rage read this piece of garbage masquerading as a book. It’s a gussied up Wikipedia entry from a millennial who is shocked to discover that research on an unknown figure must be done offline, in something called…. libraries?!

If you’re looking for a great example of how today’s Youth are blowhards puffing themselves up to be more than they are, read this book. It’s almost a caricature. O’Meara tries to convince you that she’s an old hat in the horror film genre, that she’s racked up SUCH experience (oh she’s only 25 years old when setting out to write this), she’s so dedicated to the quest that she gets her 18th tattoo of her subject Milicent posed in front of the creature she designed. Thanks to her “full-time job as a genre film producer” (she has 2 credits on IMDB), she’s been able to afford these marks.

I knew I had a stinking pile of trash on my hands when I got to her paragraph summarizing the 1906 earthquake in SF saying that the “roaring arts culture of San Francisco never fully recovered from this blow and the creative torch of the West was ultimately passed down to Los Angeles, a city not on a fault line.” She’s not being funny, she’s actually nervous that she’s summoning an earthquake by writing this.

We get pages and pages of filler explaining who William Randolph Hearst was, and who Julia Morgan was, all ostensibly in service of explaining that Milicent’s father helped supervise the building of San Simeon. Naturally, all this is hidden from the author because she had simply been googling “Milicent Patrick” and assuming that was her name. A friend had to help her hone her search skills and they discovered Milicent Patrick Trent was who they were looking for. “I almost jumped out of my chair. That’s why I was having such a hard time finding her; she must have gotten married and gone by a different name later in life!” Let’s excuse the 25-year-old non-writer’s terrible “almost jumped out of my chair” and concentrate on the rocks-for-brains research skills that held her back before this moment.

Skimming the rest, I see that she inserts herself heavily into the story throughout. She moves to LA to mooch on someone’s couch, bitches about not getting access to Disney’s history department at a party and meets someone there, blah blah blah. Her final act is to drive up to the “San Francisco Bay” because that’s where Milicent’s ashes were scattered after she died in 1998.

Who greenlit this book?

San Francisco at your feet: The great walks in a walker’s town

I came across this book while trying to figure out Frank O’Hara’s reference to the poet’s walk in San Francisco that he didn’t want to be a part of and I am utterly delighted by my trip down the rabbit hole. Margot Patterson Doss is a poet in her own right, tramping around 1960s SF with her husband and 4 sons in tow, “a family ambulant beyond the call of duty.” Anyone who references Shakespeare’s will (the second best bed) and Kafka’s The Castle in relation to SF’s financial district earns bonus points with me. (“Downtown offices are usually as inaccessible to the casual walker as the castle was for Kafka, but each year there is an office and industry tour sponsored by the auxiliary of the San Francisco Senior Center which magically opens flossy doors.”) She loathes “the tragedy that is Van Ness” where walkers meet a barricade and bemoans the freeway that marked the bitter end of Market St. near the ferry building. She was not a fan of cars (“today’s bumper-to-bumper harassment”) and gives a cheer for the 170 daily ferry trips that once crowded the building until the bridges showed up to end most ferry services.

Doss cautions women about certain walks that will get her catcalled and calls the Marina the spot where the “leer-while-you-steer car-poolers from Marin” have found the prettiest ladies.

Her first paragraphs usher in the tone:

Among American cities, San Francisco is that rarity, an exciting town to walk. Indeed, as more people are discovering, now that walking as a noncompetitive sport is fashionable, it is the only way to truly know her.

The hasty motorist may taste, between his home and office, a tantalizing sample of her charms, but it is the man on foot who feasts on this rich and saucy city.

The fare could vary daily all his life. The city offers infinite choices: great walks and good walks, lusty walks and sad, hiker’s walks, children’s walks, sea walks, secret silent walks known only to the aficionado, and the noisy promenade of the gaudy, the greedy, the cheap, the gauche and the rest of us. Or if he chooses, a walker can go quietly through dell and high water with the birdwatchers and still never leave the city.

She covers so much about this city, some gone (Sutro Castle turned into Sutro Tower, Playland turned into Safeway, Sutro Baths still standing) and some unknown to me (the Ingleside Sundial, Edgewood Avenue & Farnsworth Lane, Piedmont Street with its 1850s farmhouse at number 11 once part of a pigfarm but moved uphill away from sand fleas in 1890), some changed but worth exploring (Macondray Lane on Russian Hill). The list of bookstores no longer on Clement Street breaks my heart (Porpoise, Jabberwock, El Dorado, The Library—a bookstore on the 900 block not to be confused with the other establishment on the block called The Library which looked like a bookstore from the outside but was “an unusual pub in which strangers can meet by telephone.”)

Some things never change, like the idiots who need rescue from Land’s End (“every year the irresistible music of challenge lures another overbold climber or two out onto the crumbling cliffs. The lucky ones get pulled off by helicopter.”)

McAllister Street is called “the Fibber McGee’s closet of San Francisco” and in this walk she bemoans a “hideous interchange which feeds traffic into the city from a freeway.” Doss waxes poetic about McLaren Park: “the moods and mysteries of the living land. The sound of surging tides in spring. The dry whispering of dead leaves in fall. Trees laid open like a shattered door. The spider’s web, dew-flecked, unbroken. The vision of what the West offered its pioneers. And if you look deeply enough, along this little-traveled way, your own heart, city scarred.”

Her description of Sutro Baths bears copying in full since it is no longer: “the kookiest, flukiest, and… spookiest, walk in San Francisco,” calling it a “McAllister Street under glass” (whatever that means!), mentioning the “grabby row of coin-operated machines, all with their slots yawning greedily…” 

 

The New Me

Paralyzingly beautiful novel by Halle Butler about a woman having an early-life crisis, unable to keep even the simplest of temp jobs, making grand plans to join a yoga studio and get her groceries delivered and spending money wildly although she has no income source (read: her parents pay her rent for her still and feel a little bit sorry for her when she visits them in a funk). Millie, the narrator, is hostile and crude and mostly keeps her cruel thoughts to herself, like when she invites Sarah over to have beers, even though she hates Sarah, because she can pretend that she has a normal life with friends this way. Her receptionist boss Karen belittles her intelligence by asking if she knows how to use a shredder and telling her that she’s putting paper clips on the wrong way (“She seems to be showing me how to use a paper clip. She holds it in her hands, demonstrating both the right and the wrong way. Holy absurdity, little side on top, big side on bottom, I guess I did it wrong. I say ‘Oh okay, that makes sense.’ ‘It’s a matter of style,’ she explains. ‘I totally get it,’ I say, speaking in low tones, soothing and reassuring, nodding, and to keep the indignant scream from leaving my lips, I imagine that she needs to poop, all the time, but can’t.”

The brash, awful, crude, misanthropic female character reminds me a bit of Otessa’s Eileen, but with more fury. The only parts I was less than pleased about were the inexplicable switches to other characters’ points of view, like her downstairs neighbors who smell something weird in the drains or her boss Karen’s perspective of how weird Millie is and how she wants to get rid of her urgently.

A Girl in Winter

Fabulous story of a French woman (Katherine) working in a library in wartime England. Part 1 is our introduction to Katherine at the library, where her idiotic boss irritates her to no end, and she escapes to help a coworker home with a dental emergency. The jaunt takes her to a dentist, then to her house where the coworker can recover, then there’s a purse switch at the pharmacy that she must deal with before returning to work. Meanwhile she’s waiting anxiously for a response to her letter to Robyn, a man who was her pen pal when they were 16 and who invited her to spend a summer vacation with him then. Part 2 takes us back to that three week spell in the summer where Katherine meets Robyn and more importantly, his sister Jane, who’s the one who encouraged Robyn to invite K. She falls in love with Robyn then out of love, then he awkwardly kisses her the night before she leaves. In Part 3, we return to present day. Katherine ends up taking the bus to return the switched purse to a woman who happens to be involved with Katherine’s terrible boss at the library (discovered by way of a letter in the purse). Robyn’s letter announces his arrival that day, Katherine scurries away nervous and heads back to work, gets into a fight with the boss, announces her resignation, heads home in the gloom, and finds a drunk Robyn at her steps. She’s tired and not attracted to him, but she lets him stay as the solution of least resistance. A halfhearted marriage proposal is uttered and dismissed. The scene ends with snow drifting down on the pair as they lay awake in K’s attic.

There’s a few miraculous  passages that detail what depression feels like:

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

This might be a record for the shortest time between hearing about a book and finishing it—my sister recommended this book to me this afternoon as I was about to head to the library, so I grabbed a copy and devoured it in one gulp. Beautiful memoir about the various scrapes and near-death experiences Maggie and her children have endured. I was especially pleased by the pacing of the stories—they’re not told chronologically (boring!) but instead layered in a way that draws you in. First, the story of almost being strangled as an 18-year-old hiking near a lake (the guy ends up killing a different woman a few days later). Then hints of a childhood disease that was devastating, but she leaves that mega-story for the penultimate. The last tale is one about her daughter, seemingly allergic to everything, being rushed to a hospital in anaphylactic shock. Also a frank story about a miscarriage (they allowed her to walk away from the clinic with a dead body inside her, told her it could pass naturally!) and how common those are but mysterious because no one talks of them.

Wim Wenders: Written in the West

Wim Wenders’s collection of photos from his exploratory mission before filming Paris, Texas. Includes an interview that has choice quotable bits like: “Solitude and taking photographs are connected in an important way. If you aren’t alone, you can never acquire this way of seeing, this complete immersion in what you see, no longer needing to interpret, just looking.”