Starting the year off with a bang! This was an extremely interesting deep dive into Linklater’s early film career, detailing how things went into the production of Slacker as well as Dazed and Confused. Maerz did a great job wrangling hundreds of interviews with cast, crew, and fans (like the brothers Duplass) about the making of these films. One of the best books I’ve encountered in the film genre and it sent me scurrying to the library to see if anything else came close (so far, no). Everything about this film seemed blessed, the amazing cast of actors before they were known stars, the chemistry, the script, McConaughey’s performance, the music. And yet the studio tried everything in their power to sink it, to Linklater’s dismay. Don Phillips the extraordinary casting director (who w/r/t Jared Leto’s audition said “I love Jared, but Jared’s a real piece of work.”) allegedly threatened to expose himself if a certain movie weren’t submitted to the awards circuit. The final chapter points out how hard we fell for this supposedly anti-nostalgia film because of how much life/society has changed the past few decades. This was real livin’ and we love this movie because we miss it.
The pandemic ravaged my attention span and choked off my main source of books (the library) for months. I turned to a project I’ve wanted to tackle for years, reading everything Virginia Woolf wrote (including essays, letters, diaries, novels, non-fiction) in chronological order. That project gave this weird amorphous year a backbone for me to fling myself onto and limp toward the finish line. I’m currently up to October 1938.
Another project I took up and made progress with was something I’ve always wanted to do: read the goddamn Bible, the book of Books. Holy shit, it’s a bananas ride. I got through the Book of Job and took a break in August, never took it back up. The Old Testament is hilarious and fierce. I need to get back in there next year.
And I finally read Montaigne’s complete essays!
Read 140 books; 62% women writers; 38% men. Non-fiction (61%) edged out fiction (39%) for the fifth year in a row, pretty surprising since I thought I went hard for escapist fiction this year. Guess not! The overall book count was down 45% from last year but I feel like I read deeper, ruthlessly discarding books that were wastes of time.
Some worth mentioning:
- The Notebooks of Samuel Butler (I fell completely in love with Sam Butler this year, swoon)
- Diaries of Virginia Woolf. All five volumes are intensely amazing, brimming with gold. I’ll be re-reading these for the rest of my life.
- In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying
- Crash Course: If You Want To Get Away With Murder, Buy A Car
- Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
- The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
- Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino
- Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
- Drives My Green Age by Josephine Carson
- Poetry & Grammar by Gertrude Stein
I’m not investing any effort into writing about books that I don’t want to, but I do still want to keep a list of what I’ve read so I know not to dip into them again.
- The hard tomorrow by Eleanor Davis;
- Tony Greene Era by Kevin Killian;
- sharks in the rivers by Ada Limón;
- Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation by Gabriele Oettingen (WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan);
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana;
- Calling a wolf a wolf: poems by Kaveh Akbar;
- Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) by Whitman;
- I lost my girlish laughter by Jane Allen (Silvia Schulman and Jane Shore)
- Tin man by Sarah Winman;
- The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy;
- How we fight for our lives : a memoir by Saeed Jones (that last line killed me, “Our mothers are why we are here.”);
- Topics of conversation by Miranda Popkey;
- The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives by Diane Johnson;
- A life discarded : 148 diaries found in the trash by Alexander Masters (“A nice day in general; just enjoying myself. No particular thoughts, except perhaps I’d like to change my life.”);
- All this could be yours by Jami Attenberg;
- Drinking : a love story by Caroline Knapp;
- Astronomy : a self-teaching guide by Dinah L. Moché;
- A first year in Canterbury Settlement by Samuel Butler
- Sanditon by Jane Austen
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (re-read);
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (re-read)
- The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge;
- The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World
- Hidden San Francisco by Chris Carlsson;
- Harry Potter Book 1;
- Harry Potter Book 2;
- The Sherwoood Anderson Reader (sections 1-5)
- Harry Potter Book 3;
- Harry Potter Book 4;
- My Fault: Poems by Leora Fridman;
- The Roar of Silence by Don Campbell
- Harry Potter Book 5;
- The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine
- The office : the untold story of the greatest sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene;
- Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney;
- Harry Potter Book 6;
- Alta California : from San Diego to San Francisco, a journey on foot to rediscover the Golden State by Nick Neely;
- The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
- Labor of love : the invention of dating by Moira Weigel (I loved her on The Feminist Present podcast);
- Book of numbers by Joshua Cohen (I liked his Kafka preface but not this fiction);
- Harry Potter Book 7 (finally finished this horrendous series);
- How we keep spinning: selected writings from SF Chronicle columns by Kevin Fisher-Paulson;
- So far, so good by Charles Towne (pub: 1945);
- 101 essays that will change the way you think by Brianna Wiest;
- Americana by Luke Healy;
- Julia, a portrait of Julia Strachey by herself & Frances Partridge;
- This brilliant darkness : a book of strangers by Jeff Sharlet.
- Shapes that pass: memories of old days by Julian Hawthorne;
- Autobiography of a Chinese woman, Buwei Yang Chao put into English by her husband Yuenren Chao;
- Screwball!: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey;
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell;
- Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell;
- One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry;
- Journey around my room : the autobiography of Louise Bogan : a mosaic by Ruth Limmer.
- A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki;
- Alice James, a biography by Jean Strouse;
- William James: in the maelstrom of American modernism, a biography by Robert D. Richardson;
- The craving mind by Judson Brewer;
- I knew a phoenix : sketches for an autobiography by May Sarton (includes recollection of meeting Woolf in 1937);
- Females by Andrea Long Chu (homage to Valerie Solanas);
- A libertarian walks into a bear : the utopian plot to liberate an American town (and some bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (this was a terrible book);
- Sontag : her life and work by Benjamin Moser;
- Essays of the 1960s and 70s by Susan Sontag (the Uncollected Essays where she focused on feminist issues);
- Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel about the Brontës);
- The 99% invisible city : a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design (ugh, incredibly boring execution of what could have been great, had to force myself to skim through);
- The movie brats : how the film generation took over Hollywood by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles;
- Reeling by Pauline Kael (I took another romp through this book since I’ve watched several of these 1970s films since last I peeked into it; love her spicy take on the major films of the decade).
F: 35; M: 28; Fict: 25; Non: 40
I have to agree with Leonard that this was not her best work. I gushed over this six years ago when I read it for the first time, so not much more to add except how interesting it was to read in the chronology, having read the drumbeats of war leading up to it, including their drive through Nazi Germany in 1935.
Her take down of religion’s keeping women out of paying positions was particularly delicious and she backs up her arguments with Biblical quotes. I agree with her assessment that “those who have not been forced from childhood to hear it thus dismembered weekly assert that the Bible is a work of the greatest interest, much beauty, and deep meaning.”
Normally I would have thrown this on my list of books I’m too lazy to write about (post soon to come with this year’s list) but I enjoyed reading it too much and when I reached the Acknowledgements I realized why… this was shaped and edited by J.R. Moehringer, of The Tender Bar memoir fame. It has Agassi’s voice and I’m sure he’s a good writer in his own right, but everything from the title to the pacing and structure benefited from J.R.’s input, I bet. Definitely recommend, even for non-tennis fans.
Oddly, I can’t find a previous entry for this book although I have vivid memories of reading it in New York on one of my summer sabbaticals. The image of the final party was the one that stuck with me, and it becomes vivid again upon rereading. I read this one slowly, carefully, knowing exactly what a toll it took on Woolf to write, slogging through drafts and cutting and rewrites for years. Perhaps the title can also be a nod to the length of time it took her to complete this work.
The book follows the Pargiter family across the years, from 1880s through “present day” which would have been the 1930s. Eleanor is the oldest girl, caring for their aging father into her spinsterhood. Rose fights for suffrage rights. Delia marries an Irish gentleman. Edward teaches classics at Cambridge. One of their nephews, North, is back from farming in Africa. Sally/Sara befriends the Polish “Mr Brown” and her sister Maggie marries a Frenchman, Rene/Renny. Peggy becomes a doctor, tired from her work and wondering what it all means.
Perhaps Woolf sums it up best in a letter to Stephen Spender:
But what I meant I think was to give a picture of society as a whole; give characters from every side; turn them towards society, not private life; exhibit the effect of ceremonies; Keep one toe on the ground by means of dates, facts: envelop the whole in a changing temporal atmosphere; Compose into one vast many-sided group at the end; and then shift the stress from present to future; and show the old fabric insensibly changing without death or violence into the future—suggesting that there is no break, but a continuous development, possibly a recurrence of some pattern; of which of course we actors are ignorant. And the future was gradually to dawn.
Insanely great novel about an unenthusiastic bride whose grandmother appears to her as a bird in the week leading up to her wedding, telling her to see her brother before she ties the knot. The bride ventures forth to discover her brother Tom has transitioned into her sister Simone, then she herself transmogrifies into her mother, then the painful wedding, flashes back to her past and the random stabbing and her work helping brain-traumatized clients reconstruct what they’ve lost, and finally the lackluster wedding but triumphant departure the next day when the wife leaves the new husband and flees with her sister. Tremendous writing talent, great storytelling, a perfect textile weaving story lines together with the right pacing, some of the best current writing out there.
Letters from Vanessa Bell, 1885 (as a six-year-old writing to her father) to 1961 (the year she died). Admittedly, my interest in Vanessa stems mainly from her relationship with her sister (Virginia Woolf) and the ability for these letters to color in the background details of their lives. But she is a wildly interesting character in her own right, the queen of Bloomsbury, a radical maternal figure who ended up living exactly the unconventional life she yearned for.
The letters are not quite as snarky and deliciously malicious as I’d been led to believe, but still were lively, entertaining, gossipy, and candid.
In 1904 she wrote to Virginia: “But there’s something horrible to me… in any third person’s reading what was meant to be only between two. I shall burn all my letters someday.”
Excellent book, soothing wisdom to cool our overheated minds in these turbulent times. Beautifully written by Helen Tworkov’s help, the story of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey as a 36-year-old hitting the road for a three year wandering of the world. He goes from being protected and cared for by his monastery to wandering homeless, begging for food, shedding the layers of his identity and continuing his meditation. The book centers around the first weeks as he endures the shock of the world, having to handle money and deal with people on his own for the first time ever, sleeping on the floor of the train and then the station and gradually making his way to a lesser-visited historical site of the Buddha. He slowly peels off his conception of who he is, finally removing the robes that confer him identity and respect, his money now run out he sleeps in a park and begs for food which poisons him, leaving him in a death-state.
Against this scaffolding, he offers meditation guidance, sometimes in the way of direct instruction (to the man who asks for advice), sometimes just by way of what he does. I found the thought meditation instruction helpful:
“Just as you have placed your mind on your breath, now place your mind on your thoughts. Whatever comes, just watch. In the same way that you could use the breath as support for meditation, now use thoughts. Breath never stays the same for an instant, but it can be a stable support. So try to practice this way, just staying aware of your thoughts, without chasing after them.”
The man comes back and says his mind goes blank when he tries to watch his thoughts, and Mingyur Rinpoche says Yes, exactly! “That is the secret of thought meditation. What you are calling blank is actually open awareness… If you can watch thoughts, it’s like watching television. You’re not in the television, you’re watching it… There is a big screen and there are many free channels. There are only two problems: The programs are quite old and there are a lot of reruns.”
“I finally discovered the only reliable liberation from suffering: not trying to get rid of the problem.”
“To enter an unmapped domain of newness, and to be completely open and available to what it offers, we must let go of our cherished ideas of how things are supposed to work.”
“In a noisy and materialistic society, to sit down and remain still and quiet is a reverse activity.”
Perfect writing, deliciously crafted. But how can I feel so conflicted about being able to recommend it to people? Perhaps it’s because, as the author himself noted, the book is “100% pornographic and 100% high art.” And so you prudes out there are forewarned, this is some crazy erotica, some of the best writing about sex between men ever written (or sex between anyone?).
The narrator is an American teaching literature in Bulgaria; the ease and flow of the book’s words is something difficult to find these days as we are overloaded with terrible writing. Simple scenes such as the description of a group of writers gathered at the sea side after a workshop, watching the priest swim out further and further from shore, have so much else packed into their bones. A trip abroad with his young boyfriend, watching an outdoor opera performance then the sputtering disappointment of the town’s light show. Anguish as his gay students twist in not being able to be as open about their desires as he is. I’m now greedy for Garth Greenwell, will be searching out his earlier book.
Joseph Goldstein’s 1976 guide to meditation plunges you into the world of a 30-day retreat, something I dream of being able to attend in a non-pandemic future. In the meantime, there is this book with snippets of wisdom taking you from the first evening to the third morning all the way through to the closing session on the thirtieth morning.
Just a few quotes: “Freedom lies in how we relate to what is happening in the moment.”
“We should speak the truth when it is useful.”
As he bids the attendees farewell, he suggests continuing their practice with sitting twice a day for an hour or longer at a time to strengthen concentration and mindfulness. Not sure I can make it to 2 hours daily, but a good goal post.
She seems to be relying on the diary a bit more as time goes on, using it to cool her brain as she struggled mightily writing The Years. As she captures daily life, we see a picture of Europe marching toward war. It’s horrifying to read her travel diary through Germany in May 1935, towns with signs saying Jews not welcome, she notes after they cross safely over the border that Leonard says it’s ok to write the truth again, they had suppressed their real thoughts until they were free.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 1931, Lytton is still alive, but dying. And the swirl of death in the air has her talking to Leonard about “death: its stupidity; what he would feel if I died… And the feeling of age coming over us: & the hardship of losing friends; & my dislike of the younger generation…”
In January 1932: “And I want to write another 4 novels: Waves, I mean; & the Tap on the Door; & 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, considering my slowness, & how I get slower, thicker, more intolerant of the fling & the rash, to last out my 20 years, if I have them.”
14 July 1932 worth quoting in full: “‘Immunity’ I said to myself half an hour ago, lying back in my chair. Thats the state I am (or was) in. And its a holy, calm, satisfactory flawless feeling—To be immune, means to exist apart from rubs, shocks, suffering; to be beyond the range of darts; to have enough to live on without courting flattery, success; not to need to accept invitations; not to mind other people being praised; to feel This—to sit & breathe behind my screen, alone, is enough; to be strong; content; to let Nessa & D. go to Paris without envy; to feel no one’s thinking of me; to feel I have done certain things & can be quiet now; to be mistress of my hours; to feel detached from all sayings about me; & claims on me; to be glad of lunching alone with Leonard; to have a spare time this afternoon; to read Coleridge’s letters. Immunity is an exalted calm desirable state, & one I could reach much oftener than I do.”
Recording the suffering of an 92-year-old woman in the village who prays to die every night, repeating her misery over and over. “This is what we make of our lives—no reading or writing—keep her alive with doctors when she wishes to die. Human ingenuity in torture is very great.”
“Here I sit on my bed in the windy seaside hotel, & wait for dinner, with this usual sense of time shifting & life becoming unreal, so soon to vanish while the world will go on millions upon millions of years.”
On reading the Bible in 1935: “At last I am illuminating that dark spot in my reading.”
Catching up with Hugh Walpole at a party, she admits that films are an amazing art form: “Six months at Hollywood has completely changed him. When we said something about upper class, he laughed. Classes have been wiped out. He has seen through everything. Given up the Book of the Month; no longer frets about fame & reviews; & is taking to the great new art—the complex & amazing art of colour, music, words all in one. Of course there may be something in it.”
“Habit is the desirable thing in writing.”
And to end on a humorous note: “Last night L. was woken at one, by a man shouting abuse of Woolf & Quack in German under his window. Ought we to tell the police? I think it was a drunken undergraduate.”
I feel myself dragging my feet to delay the end of this project since it’s giving me so much joy. And yet here I am at the end of 1935 already, finishing a volume of letters and a volume of the diary at the same time, the first coinciding.
During these years, Ethel Smyth remained her most-frequently corresponded with friend, although Vita still lingers on the outskirts. Glimpses of VW’s life are best seen through the letters interspersed with her diaries. Below are just bits I dogeared for later:
- She encourages Elizabeth Bowen to start a LoudLatinLaughing of sorts – “I hope you will carry out your idea of a diary of books… I mean not tea parties but Milton and so on”
- She continues to dodge the spotlight: “limelight is bad for me: the light in which I work best is twilight.”
- “When one is writing a letter, the whole point is to rush ahead…”
- “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.”
Her 23 Jan 1935 letter to Ethel Smyth has lots of good quotes:
“I have 3½ mins: before settling down to read the Bible. Why did you never tell me what a magnificent book it is! And the Testament? and the Psalms!… Oh I’ve been in such a howling duststorm—to sit alone and read the Bible is like drawing into a sunny submarine hollow between deep waves.”
“I agree with you entirely about death from Cancer: I forget how you said it: something about having a chance to die standing up.”
Impossible to categorize this– is it fiction, non-fiction? It’s a dramatic farce based on Woolf’s real life great aunt, Julia Cameron, known for her fuzzy out-of-focus classical photographs which Woolf lampoons. Originally planned for Christmas 1923 production, it was shelved and actually performed (much re-written) in 1935. Cameron famously took coffins on her last voyage to India, planning to die there and not convinced they would have quality coffins. Lord Tennyson recites Maud, Ellen Terry scampers away from her husband the elderly painter Watts, and the maid who marries a peer is included. All is grist for the mill for Woolf in retelling her great-aunt’s life.
I was as unexcited to read this as Woolf was to have it published. She started this project as a lark, as a way to relieve the pressure of having created The Waves, dreaming up the biography of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog. Not being much of a dog person, I was reluctant to add this to my collection, but it’s still filled with dazzling VW sentences, and I liked the notes in the back that she writes to explain away her choices (we know Flush died, but not exactly when, etc.)
Interesting to read about the conflict between the haves and have nots, the scoundrels who kidnapped Flush and demanded a princely ransom (equivalent of $2500 in today’s currency) for his return. Other dog owners who didn’t pay received their dog’s paws severed from the dog’s body. Yikes.