Walking: One Step At a Time

I’m a sucker for books on walking. Unfortunately, it’s harder to write about than it would seem. Kagge (translated by Becky Crook from Norwegian) plods along and tries to interest you in glimpses from his packet of walks, including a sewer walk under NYC and a 40 mile hike through LA, but the spark never catches. Instead, it’s dull and dreary, pedestrian prose in every sense.

Man’s Search for Meaning

I read this 10 years ago and may make a habit of re-reading it every decade. Frankl survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau through transcending the filth and negative and despair. The last of human freedoms is to choose your attitude under any set of circumstances, to choose how you react. What matters is to make the best of any given situation.

He quotes Bismark: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Nietzsche is also quoted several times: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Frankl founded a school of thought called logotherapy, which believes the meaning of life can be discovered in three different ways: by creating work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (if it’s avoidable and you wallow in it, you’re masochistic.) The notion that “experiencing can be as valuable as achieving is therapeutic because it compensates for our one-sided emphasis on the external world of achievement at the expense of the internal world of experience” (here he quotes Edith Weisskopf-Joelson.)

It also embraces the idea of paradoxical intention as cure (the stutterer who can’t stutter when he tries to, the man who sweats excessively unable to sweat when trying to do so). The procedure consists of a reversal of the patient’s attitude. “By this treatment, the wind is taken out of the sails of anxiety.”

Despite losing his wife, parents, brother to the concentration camps, he survives and pulls himself back into humanity; the meaning of his life was to help others discover the meaning of theirs.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen blew me away a few years ago and I recently stumbled onto a mention of this 2004 work, essays mulling over a post-9/11 world, a post-2000 election world, a world where Saddam Hussein is pulled humiliated out of a hole in the ground, a world where Amadou Diallo is shot 41 times while holding a cellphone, a world where Louima was sodomized with a broomstick in police custody, a world where her sister lost her husband and children in a car accident, a world where prescription drugs are available for anything and everything you need. She goes to the Museum of Emotion in London and plays a game that asks yes/no questions, as long as you answer correctly you can keep playing. The first question asks if you were terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died. Rankine truthfully says no and is booted from the game. “Walking out, I couldn’t help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive to anyone outside of her friends and family—truly?”

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Delightful novel about a woman with a hideous past (her mother tried to kill her and successfully killed her younger sister) who attempts to be normal, going to her office job, spending weekends with frozen pizza and vodka to pass the days. She develops a crush on a musician she spots onstage, spinning out a fantasy life, and attempts to redo her image in order to be with him. Her co-worker,  Raymond, is always there in the background, and they become unlikely friends and more. Eleanor’s candor, frankness, inability to not speak her mind is refreshing and weird. She grapples with feelings of intense loneliness and is unsure of how to make her way in the world until Raymond leads her onto the path toward normalcy.

“She wasn’t actually chewing gum, but her demeanor was very much that of a gum chewer.”

After Eleanor has a bit of a makeover, her coworkers treat her differently, kinder. “Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

If ever there was a book to read during a sweltering heat wave, it’s How to Do Nothing. Jenny Odell is one of my favorite thinkers/artists and I very much enjoyed most of this book, tried not to get enraged by the sloppy notes section which is marred by several errors. Best sections were the intro and first chapter, which was taken from the talk she gave in 2017 that went viral, and if you don’t know Odell, it’s a good place to start.

Essentially, the book boils down to prodding us to be more present with where we are right now, at this very moment. To listen, to observe, to pay human attention to the things around us. To (obviously) put down the screens. Nothing new there, just a well-reasoned argument for resisting the attention economy in whatever way we can.

The stakes are high for us to wake from our collective stupor and resist late capitalism’s demand for total productivity. The world is impatient with “anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious.” These nothings don’t provide a deliverable, thus are valueless. “To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system…. embracing fuzzier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal.”

Great quote from Gordon Hempton, “an acoustic ecologist who records natural soundscapes”: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”

Left with plenty of reading material to follow up on, about Pauline Oliveros, David Hockney, Diogenes, Agnes Martin, Tehching Hsieh, Eleanor Coppola.

Appendix Project

When someone designates their book as a collection of appendices, it’s a blanket excuse for pulling together a baggy, incoherent group of texts and calling it a day. Disappointing because I’m usually a KZ fan, but this grated on me with its tone of see-how-smart-I-am-but-oh-I’m-sleep-deprived-from-my-baby, thinking she could get away without substance by magically name-dropping Roland Barthes enough times. (It’s not just Barthes, it’s Proust, Kafka, Benjamin, Anne Carson, Woolf, Plath, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Claudia Rankine, Chantal Ackerman, etc.) Perhaps she should get points for honesty, saying outright that she created this book of talks/essays out of a desire not to read from her previous Book of Mutter while interviewing for teaching gigs. Instead she creates this book of all the things she left out of Mutter, her 10-year project dealing with her mother’s death.

On the High Wire

I think I saw a notice that this is soon to be reissued, so became aware of its existence. Philippe Petit, translated from French by Paul Auster, muses poetically on his craft, genuflects towards the other greats in the field (Blondin who prepared an omelette on the wire, opened a bottle of champagne, took photographs of the crowd watching him cross the rapids at Niagara Falls; Madame Saqui who created frescoes while on a tightrope; Omankowsky), includes dozens of spectacular photos of people doing the impossible—walking on air on a wire high up without supports, includes historical depictions of high wire acts. He urges the reader on, tries to get us to take up this incredible sport, and his words apply across disciplines: “Eliminate cumbersome exercises. Keep those that transfigure you. Triumph by seeking out the most subtle difficulties. Reach victory through solitude.”

“In waiting to fall in this way, I have sometimes cursed the wire, but it has never made me afraid. I know, however, that one day, standing at the edge of the platform, this anguish will appear. One hideous day it will be waiting for me at the foot of the rope ladder. It will be useless for me to shake myself, to joke about it. The next day it will be in my dressing room as I am putting on my costume, and my hands will be wet with horror. Then it will join me in my sleep. I will be crushed a thousand times, rebounding in slow motion in a circus ring, absolutely weightless. When I wake up, it will be stuck to me, indelible, never to leave me again. And of that, I have a terrible fear.”

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories

Never trust a translation of Kafka that has an excessively cute cover. Alexander Starritt has done a disservice to Franz Kafka and I should have known better as soon as I read his preface that mentions how bored he was reading The Castle, and that Kafka’s novels aren’t great reads. But Kafka was what was packed in my backpack for a day trip to Orange County and it seemed too appropriate to read him on the way to my own nightmarish day, so I plugged on and waded through Starritt’s garbage translation.


Despite actively hating one of Chloe Caldwell’s other books, I took this one up and enjoyed it. A novella tracing the narrator’s falling in love with a woman for the first time, having moved to the city for a change of scenery and after dumping yet another boyfriend she meets Finn, an older woman in a long-term relationship (which she refuses to leave). The narrator is a 20-something author who gets a job at a library and enjoys having patrons recognize her face from her book jacket. She’s a recovering addict who gloms onto Finn as her latest addiction, an unhealthy obsessive relationship/affair follows, which she turns into the art of this book. Left with a few breadcrumbs for other books, like the one this Jeanette Winterson quote is from: “There’s nothing so sweet as wallowing in it, is there? Wallowing is like sex for depressives.”

Mourning Diary

Roland Barthes scribbled notes detailing the shades of his despair after his mother died, collected into this mourning diary. It is an especially helpful meditation for anyone in the throes of grief, grieving. Tiny snippets take no more of your brain than you can give, just an idea, a feeling, a sentence.

Over a year after the death, “we don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.” More immediate are the raw emotions, racking himself with pain by remembering her calling out to him. “I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.”

Two days after her death, “as soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.” He roots out the measurement of morning according to a book: “eighteen months for mourning a father, a mother.”

“I know now that my mourning will be chaotic.”

“What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character.”

“Each of us has his own rhythm of suffering.”

On abandonment:

  • Everyone is extremely nice—and yet I feel entirely alone. (‘Abandonitis’)
  • Everything pains me. The merest trifle rouses a sense of abandonment. I’m impatient with other people, their will to live, their universe. Attracted by a decision to withdraw from everyone.

“Like love, mourning affects the world—and the worldly—with unreality, with importunity. I resist the world, I suffer from what it demands of me, from its demands. The world increases my sadness, my dryness, my confusion, my irritation, etc. The world depresses me.”

“… maman is no longer here and life, stupid life, continues.”


Escape to Life

The 1939 book by Erika and Klaus Mann (Thomas Mann’s oldest children) begins with an epigraph by Dorothy Thompson: “Practically everybody who in world opinion had stood for what was currently called German culture prior to 1933 is now a refugee.”

The work is a hodgepodge, meandering, sometimes dull account of the steady stream of intellectuals, artists, professors, writers, thinkers, etc. who flowed out of Germany when Hitler started rotting the country in 1933 with the false Reichstag fire (having put together the list of people they wanted to accuse of the fire a day ahead of time, then setting it).

There are occasional flashes of interest, like the revelation that Mann used several letters from his wife in Magic Mountain (hmm, another Zelda/F. Scott problem?). Also guidance for those of us in 2019 who seem to be facing similar difficulty:

We are charged not only to unmask and denounce evil, but to practise good as far as in us lies. Our inner life would wither if we were to confine ourselves to an endless repetition of: Hitler is abominable, Hitler is deplorable. We have other things to do. The values and traditions we wish to protect from the clutch of Fascism must be creatively upheld.

The Making of “Mammy Pleasant”: A Black Entrepreneur in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

I like how Lynn Hudson attempts to demystify Mary Ellen Pleasant by laying out all the rumors and sketchy biographies that have been generated about her. She’s been called a witch, voodoo queen, a madam, a mammy, almost everything but what she seemed to actually be—a successful black businesswoman in  19th century San Francisco.

Stories swirl around about how she got her initial seed month, supposedly $30k from her late husband to help abolitionist causes. She did arrive in California with a lot of capital, then set about making it work for herself. She seemed to hide publicly in the role of servant at white homes, but she actually owned the homes themselves, like the one on Octavia Street:

She donated money to John Brown’s abolitionist cause before the raid at Harper’s Ferry and has “friend of John Brown” on her Napa headstone. She earned tons of money cooking, operating boardinghouses and laundromats. She speculated in stocks for the silver mines and loaned money at interest. She bought and sold real estate. Luckily for us, she was also involved in several court cases, which gives us the best and most real document of her, including a suit which forced street cars to start picking up non-whites, and a divorce suit where dirty underwear had a starring role.

School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis

A disturbing look at Germany in the 1930s by Erika Mann (daughter of Thomas Mann), detailing the systematic dismantling of the family and Hitler’s emphasis on recruiting and training the youth who would then snitch on their parents for not being Nazi enough. Every child shouted “Heil Hitler” as a greeting between 50-150 times a day, way more than the more neutral “hello” was said previously. Required by law, it was used to open and close study periods, say to friends/acquaintances/family members (“if your parents’ first words when you come home to lunch are not ‘Heil Hitler!’ they have been guilty of a punishable offense and can be denounced”), end your nightly prayers with. Women’s only job was to push out more babies which would become the future army. Everything was geared toward inevitable war war war. Published in 1938.

Elizabeth Street

Terrific novel based on the real life story of the author’s great-grandmother and grandmother. Fleeing Sicily, Giovanna’s first husband and true love, her cousin Nunzio lands in Little Italy in NYC and gets a laborer job, all that’s open to him as an eye-talian even though he’s an educated & skilled engineer. He dies on the job, Giovanna becomes mute and her village takes up a collection to ship her to NYC to see where he’s buried. She stays with her brother and his family, gets married to a silent and stable man, sues the company responsible for Nunzio’s death, uses the money to set up a grocery shop which is then threatened for protection money by the Black Hand. Her daughter eventually kidnapped, she turns her midwifing healing skills into dropping poison oak on letters to the kidnappers and claims to be a witch. Eventually the daughter (the author’s grandmother) is released, mostly due to Giovanna’s dedicated sleuthing and threatening.

Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink And How They Can Regain Control

Ladies are imbibing more than ever and AA does not work for them (which actually only has a 12% success rate). The woman described in the book, Joanna, discovered Your Empowering Solutions out of Palos Verdes, run by psychologists Mary Ellen Barnes and Ed Wilson to offer an intensive 5-day, 1-on-1 therapy program to determine what works best for the patient to reduce or stop alcohol abuse ($10k). Naltrexone is a drug that blocks alcohol cravings; it works by blocking endorphins from releasing when drinking, so you get less/no reward, reducing alcohol euphoria most effectively in women. Taken an hour before drinking, it’s “lapse prevention.” The team also had her take a test (Washington University Sentence Completion Test) which assesses how a person’s experiences and identity shape their approach to life. Autonomous people who have highly evolved sense of independence and self (as Joanna scored) don’t do well in A.A. whereas people lower on the scale are more fit for that type of treatment. Independent thinkers who are introspective and aware of inner conflicts benefit more from the tailored approach of the Palos Verdes group.