Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

I want to hold this book up over my head and wave it around as an example of some of the best type of travel writing, the kind that makes you feel like you are traveling but not having to add your sweaty body to the over-congested, over-touristed spots. Doerr writes beautifully, and I didn’t realize I’ve already read him, All the Light We Cannot See was the book he was ostensibly working on during his year in Rome, but he found it impossible to keep his eye on WW2 France research while he was immersed in the wonder and beauty and chaos of Rome. He, Shauna, and their twin sons (only months old) arrive and occupy an apartment near his writing studio space at the American Academy.

While the boys crawl and later walk, Doerr and Shauna learn Italian, figure out how to navigate the city, survive hearing the thunk of pedestrians killed by a 70-year-old American tourist driving a rental car close by their apartment. A neighbor, Laura, tells them that if it starts to snow, get themselves to the Pantheon immediately because watching snow float through the hole in the ceiling—the eye, the oculus—is one of the most beautiful things they’ll ever see in their life. They never actually see this, but Shauna wisely notes that sometimes the most beautiful things in your life are the ones that you don’t see, the idea of a thing. Thousands of years of building and thousands of years of graffiti; in Trajan’s column, “there is graffiti in there four times older than the United States.”

Though the exploration, Doerr writes, working on short stories. “A journal entry is for its writer; it helps its writer refine, perceive, and process the world. But a story—a finished piece of writing—is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world—the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last. Every morning I try to remind myself to give unreservedly, to pore over everything, to test each sentence for fractures in the dream.”

What Narcissism Means to Me: Poems

This 2003 collection contains a few of the poems people were chattering about recently that drew me to Hoagland. My initial flurry of swoon is waning a bit, as it is want to do, I can never sustain a writerly crush for long on contemporaries for some reason. I’m a bit put out by his weird racist-adjacent writing, rooting for the white girl in the tennis match against the strong black woman, anti-rap music in another. But then I come around again with poems like Hate Hotel: “Sometimes I like to think about the people I hate. I take my room at the Hate Hotel, and I sit and flip through the heavy pages of the photographs, the rogue’s gallery of the faces I loathe. My lamp of resentment sputters twice, then comes on strong, filling the room with its red light. That’s how hate works—it thrills you and kills you with its deep heat. Sometimes I like to sit and soak in the Jacuzzi of my hate, hatching my plots…”

Another favorite: Reasons to Survive November:

Appius and Virginia

Absolute bananas book (pub’d 1933) by G. E. (Gertrude Eileen) Trevelyan. Virginia, a 40-something spinster, buys a baby orangutan who she raises as a boy, Appius. She retires to the country and spends the next decade painstakingly teaching him to speak and read, keeping him cooped up in the nursery instead of swinging from the tree tops, restricting him in little boy clothing. One afternoon he does escape into the trees, “one glorious half-hour he lived his own life, his own swinging rhythmical life, high up out of their reach among the leaves and sunbeams, and then had been forced to come back.” He likes to listen to the murmur of her voice although he understands little of it . “Reading bored him, but by now he knew most of the sentences in the book. So long as he could say the right one for each sentence mama was satisfied, he knew, and would go on talking for a long time, hum-hum in the distance, whilst he could nod at the flames or wallow drowsily in the warm, comfortable world deep down inside him.” She admits at one point that she undertook this experiment mostly so she could have someone to talk to, since everyone else thought she was mad.

Trevelyan writes beautifully and shows us the difference in comprehension as Appius watches a thunderstorm from his window:

Blackness. Big moving things. Big still things. Big black things. Stillness, whiteness, dazzle.

White lights shooting: bright blades cleaving the black branches. Big silent things swaying and shiverying. Big moving things rotating: bending, sinking, swaying, crouching under the light.

Dazzle, giddiness. Blackness, brightness. Round and round, down and down.

In the end, Virginia falls to the floor and dies after restraining herself from shooting Appius when he seemed to be getting out of control. Now what will happen to the ape? Neglected Books calls it one of “the most powerful stories about loneliness ever written.”

Little Oceans

Hello to a new poet crush who I read all the way home from the library, cackling with delight and reading poems quietly aloud as I strolled, only pausing to look up at intersections where death machines (e.g. cars) lurked. Someone mentioned Tony Hoagland in my digital world today, and, in need of a brisk walk, I hied down to the main library to scoop up his work.

His phrases are to die for, “swinging her credit card like a scythe,” “the guy on the rowing machine who is stroking across a cardiovascular ocean.”

A few hits:

Don’t support Amazon, obviously

I rely on the library for 99% of my reading, only buying a book after I’ve read it and loved it, or if it’s one I want to reference at a moment’s notice (e.g. complete diaries, essays, letters, books of Virginia Woolf), or if it’s a behemoth that is taking me years to get through (e.g. Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project). When I do buy books, I support local bookstores or buy from “good” online stores like Powells or Better World Books. And here’s another reason to support Better World—they just partnered with Internet Archive to scan books that are missing from the archive.

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

Everyone wants to write the next Nickel and Dimed, the classic undercover piece by Barbara Ehrenreich exposing low wage working conditions that the rest of us haven’t suffered. This was a sometimes good sometimes bad attempt at something similar, where Guendelsberger took 3 jobs after she lost her journalism gig in Philly. First up, the ubiquitous Amazon warehouse worker story that has flooded the market lately. Nothing new here, it sucks, she walks millions of miles a day and is in pain constantly, shocked by the vending machine dispensing pain killers. She sings to remain sane, is always happy to bump into a fellow picker alone in the warehouse where it seems the algorithm keeps them far apart. I did learn about “chaotic storage” here, a practice Amazon discovered wherein it’s faster to find an item stored among a bunch of dissimilar other things than to pull a particular size out of a container filled with the same thing; works for humans and you can be damned sure the robots do better with it.

Her next job is in Hickory, N.C. at a call center, helping AT&T customers. She’s living in her car, then squeezes into an apartment with one of her coworkers after spending too much money on a hotel room to beat the heat wave. People who call in are reliably terrible, but so are the systems she’s given to use. She has 8 or so different programs that are cobbled together and nothing really works, making her yearn for the efficiency of Amazon. Here, as in Amazon, every second is clocked and monitored, every late arrival and bathroom break, every phone call timed.

Finally, the worst portion of the book, her few months at a McDonald’s in downtown SF, probably the one on Market at Montgomery based on her comments about the homeless problem. She’s scored a free bedroom in Oakland through a friend of a friend, although she complains about the cat’s fleas. Even though she’s only living here for a few months, I find it sad that she gets her geography so wrong, talking about the view of the “Golden Gate Bridge as we cross the river to Oakland” (lol, what river?), and saying San Jose is half and hour from downtown SF.

She weaves in discussions about Taylorism, the lawsuits against McDonald’s, and makes up some hypothetical character named Wanda that honestly bored me so much I just skipped over the text whenever Wanda appeared. Could have been a much better book, but she made some poor choices along the way.

Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag

Sigrid Nunez’s memoir was a delight—mentioned in Janet Malcolm’s latest New Yorker piece wherein she eviscerates a new biography of Sontag and offers Nunez’s memories as a counterbalance.  Nunez arrived at Sontag’s doorstep to help with piled up correspondence that had pooled while Sontag was convalescing from breast cancer. Soon she was dating Sontag’s song, David, who lived with Susan, and the three of them were shortly piled into the apartment together for a few years. Beautiful, generous memories from Nunez that humanize Sontag in a way that no others seem to.

Even someone who met her only once was likely to go away with a reading list. She wanted to improve the minds and refine the tastes of other people, to tell people things they didn’t know. She wanted her passions to be shared by all, and to respond with equal intensity to any work she loved was to give her one of her biggest pleasures.

Sontag was addicted to films:

It was with her that I first learned how much more exciting a movie is when watched form a seat close up to the screen. Because of her, I still always sit in the front of the theater, I still resist watching any movie on television, and I have never been able to bring myself to rent movie videos or DVDs.

Always, always book recommendations:

I cannot recall a single book she recommended that I was not glad to have read. One of the last times I saw her, it was W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants that she went on and on about.

When Nunez shows Sontag her own writing, Susan spots the problem at once: “‘You need an agon,’ she said. And then, of course, she had to explain to me what that meant. ” (Conflict)

Nunez was much more introverted than the two of them and didn’t want to go out as much. “When I got sick of being faulted for not being more like the two of them, for not getting out in the world more, for not wanting to see and do more, I’d retaliate with what was probably the biggest gun I had: ‘Beckett wouldn’t do it.'”

More recommendations from Sontag: Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

*** Update, days later after watching Tokyo Story, I can’t stop thinking about this:

Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom

Another day, another rabbit hole. Heard about Sarah Seo’s book on the War on Cars podcast and needed more detail about how we’ve essentially given up our 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure in exchange for the “freedom” of cars. The origin of the modern police state can be traced back to the adoption of automobiles. Previously, cops only interacted with “unsavory” elements on the outskirts of society, but with cars on the scene, everyone becomes a suspect and open to arrest/interrogation.

Dense with intricate examination of legal cases, there’s a lot of good info in here. Seo calls the need to reconcile policing power with right to privacy the greatest struggle of the U.S.’s 20th century. Vollmer was the visionary police chief in Berkeley who launched a proto-pager system that alerted cops when crimes went down instead of requiring them to return to the station to discover what had happened. He also combined cars with two way radios for the first time, and pushed all cops across America to get automobiles into their fleets. In Roscoe Pound’s 1930 Criminal Justice in America, he dubs technological innovations “agencies of menace” because the car, radio, and moving pictures seemed to magnify “conscious and aggressive individual self assertion” which increased the “points at which the claims and desires of each individual and those of his fellows conflict or overlap.” Automobiles enlarged perceptions of the self, enhancing freedom and self-determination.

In the 1920s, volunteers would spot traffic violations and report to a committee that would mail a letter urging cooperation in reducing incidents. A second communication would be more pointed, and a third report would trigger a police action. This wasn’t sustainable, so police were beefed up to handle the huge influx of traffic violations, to disastrous effect for people of color (and others).

Spectacle

I loved Susan Steinberg’s first novel, Machine, so trooped down to the library to grab this collection of her short stories. The stylistic elements are the same, brutal short punchy sentences and erratic punctuation that pulls you onward, but I didn’t enjoy the stories as much as the novel. Perhaps it was the lack of overlying narrative thread to cling to when the stories seemed to dissolve before your eyes?

Ship of Fools

As I was checking it out at the library, a woman behind me was surprised that I was reading Ship of Fools; she was an older patron clutching a DVD copy of the film adapted from the book itself. “It’s the rare case of the movie being better than the book,” she crowed smugly. And so I got delight reading each page and disputing this specious claim, mentally shaking my fist and saying, “You’re wrong, old lady!”

Katherine Ann Porter’s magnum opus was years in the making, having dashed off a smaller version of it between 1940-1 and finally producing the finished 500 pages in 1962. A cast of characters that no one could love, and yet you enjoy peering at life from their particular porthole, section after section. Germans returning from Mexico to their homeland, an American artist couple squabbling, devious zarzuela dancing crew whose children thieve and throw things overboard, a group of Cuban students, an imprisoned Contessa and the doctor who gives her drugs to sleep. The book is relentless, wave after wave of text coming at you and only broken up into three sections corresponding to getting on the boat, being at sea, and sailing into port. Dazzling writing, and there’s no way the movie could hold a candle to the layers of complexity, nuance, and sting of the book itself.

Machine

Brilliant fiction from Susan Steinberg with brave punctuation, something I never expected myself to say out loud. It’s the story of a girl and her family who summer at the shore, a local girl drowns (“your knockout in her underwear”) from the dock where kids drunkenly horse around, the narrator’s older brother messed up on pills stolen from their mother’s drawer and sitting in strangers’ cars in the parking lot of the grocery store, lots of sleeping around and drinking and taking random pills and feeling like queens of the universe, the threatening shadow of her father with his affair and ultimate divorce. Tight writing punctuated by semicolons and later spaced out like poems then pulled back again more prose-like. Ghosts, machines, stars, killers, liars, saviors, animals. The spacing and styling make the pace push faster on the page, like someone out of breath from running to tell you this story, this story she’s been trying to tell her entire life.

Year of the Monkey

Patti starts the book in Santa Cruz, talking to the sign at the Dream Inn, trying to scrounge up coffee on New Years day and worried about Sandy Pearlman’s condition in the ICU. Each chapter is a month in the year, and the Year of the Monkey hits in February 2016, unleashing mischief onto the world. I’m less enthusiastic about this book than most of Smith’s work, not quite in the mood for her fantastical takes (see: talking to signs, writing things that might be dreams and might be reality), but there’s good stuff in here as well. She helps Sam Shepard with his last work, travels east and west and back to NYC, ends the book with a catalog of those who are dead, now including Sandy and Sam in that count.

The Soundscape

If you spend even a moment doing research into sound, you’ll stumble onto R. Murray Schafer’s groundbreaking book from 1977, and so I came to Schafer from a handful of other sources. How can you not a love a man who describes Muzak/Moozak as schizophonic musical drool? (And a man who invents the term “schizophonia,” the splitting of sound from its origins and where it is heard). While listening to stonemasons in Iran, he realized that in earlier societies sounds were discrete and interrupted but today most sounds are continuous. The montage of constant sounds is jolting in juxtapositions (like of Vietnam war reporting interrupted by Wrigley gum jingle to Chew your cares away). He illustrates the irrationality of electroacoustic juxtapositioning with a few stories.

He takes as earwitnesses those sources I was considering delving into for their reportage of sound—Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Dickens, Woolf, the ancient Greeks, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Whitman, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Proust, the whole gang. Noise has been problematic throughout human history, something I’m constantly forgetting as I grit my teeth and cover my ears to protect from the daily sirens screaming past my window. Schopenhauer (Cheery old Arthur, as I like to call him) describes the cracking of whips to be the worst distraction: “I denounce it as making a peaceful life impossible; it puts an end to all quiet thought… No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought” (from “On Noise” in The Pessimist’s Handbook).

I knew Thomas Carlyle struggled with noise, attempting to build a soundproof writing room in his London house. Schafer mentions that he added his name to a letter also signed by Dickens, Tennyson, and various other London intellectuals complaining of street musicians. “[We] are even made especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads; for, no sooner does it become known to those producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.” (Quoted in a pamphlet/collection of letters circulated in 1864 as Street Music in the Metropolis)

Hilarious quote from 1899 Scientific American article: “The improvement in city conditions by the general adoption of the motorcar can hardly be overestimated. Streets clean, dustless and odourless, with light rubber tired vehicles moving swiftly and noiselessly over the smooth expanse, would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life.” Yet here we are, drowning in traffic sounds.

Schafer created the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s.

Coventry: Essays

Fascinating only in the sense that this was a great example of a fiction writer I admire wholeheartedly whose non-fiction prose shuddered me to sleep. Her lovely writing style is on display here but it simply doesn’t work with her personal tales of family, art or book criticism. I thought surely I would love the first essay, Driving as Metaphor, about the traffic that builds up and clogs her tiny village by the sea, how cars are completely irrational and ruining the world, but I had to force myself to keep turning the page. None of the following essays redeemed her.