Dashiell Hammett tour of San Francisco

On this last Sunday in September, The Max and I braved the sunny skies and waded past the homeless conglomeration at the Main Library to join up with Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett tour of the city. Don’s website had mentioned the meetup point, along with the requisite $10 per person, but made no mention of the tour’s length. A jaw-dropping 4 hour tour was proposed as soon as we had gathered. After ponying up the cash, we were in for a few hours, before hunger got the best of us, and we left the group at the midway break point.
Some really great stuff gleaned along the way, and a great tour overall– Don is worth every penny.
* The Max called out as being intrepid enough to give Bill a call to tour the Hammett/Spade apartment on Post street.
* The occupant of the Hammett/Spade apartment is listed in the phone book as S. Spade
* Blanco’s was built in 1907 and one of the first quality restaurants rebuilt in the burn zone (post-earthquake). The Continental Op ate his meals at Blancos. You can see “Blancos” written very faded on the brick in an alley off O’Farrell street. Current occupant of Blancos? Great American Music Hall.
* If you’re lucky, you’ll hear about the crazies who have taken the tour before you (Don’s been doing this for 30 years)– Wyatt Earp fans, Raymond Chandler defendees, Cleveland police chief, etc.
* If you’re unlucky, you’ll hear the “Shut up cookie” story. Maybe it was just Don warming up, but it was a terribly long winded story about Elisha Cook Jr. coming to town as a 90 year old man with his entourage of nursing home workers, one of whom told him to “shut up, cookie” when he started screaming.
* Hammett felt he didn’t get the story right in some of his Continental Ops pieces, so basically rewrote them as the Maltese Falcon.
* John’s Grill had a recent publicity stunt with the missing statue (Don maintains it’s not true)

Spook Country

Hollis Henry is constantly recognized as a member of The Curfew, a band that broke up ages ago, but whose fan base has a wide reach. She’s trying to reinvent herself as a journalist, most recently with an assignment from nonexistent magazine Node. Her journey takes her from LA to Vancouver and back, picking up her old bandmates in both spots (pretty weak storyline), as she investigates the mystery of Bobby Chombo and the shipping container. Intersperse this with the storyline of virtual reality art pieces (phantom beds of tulips, body of River Phoenix, etc. etc.)
Tito is a young, agile, seriously trained member of a crime family, whose job it is to plant a fake iPod on some pursuers and to patch up the mutilated shipping container with heavy magnets.
Milgrim was probably my favorite character, a junkie captured by a quasi-cop and forced to translate the encoded Russian messages from Tito to his family. Milgrim’s a philosopher at heart, constantly reading and rereading the book he picked up along with someone else’s jacket, constantly on the lookout for an escape from Brown (quasi-cop/Blackwater figure).
Brief excerpt from the book gives you a sense of the writing (not fabulous, but sometimes funny):
Brown left Milgrim in the Korean’s laundry for a very long time. Eventually, a younger Korean, perhaps the proprietor’s son, arrived with a brown-bagged Chinese meal, which he presented to Milgrim with no comment. Milgrim cleared a space among the magazines on the plywood coffee table and unpacked his lunch. Plain rice, boneless chicken nuggets in red dye no.3, fluorescent-green vegetable segments, finely sliced brown mystery meat. Milgrim preferred the plastic fork to the chopsticks. If you were in prison, he encouraged himself, you’d find this food a treat. Unless you were in a Chinese prison, some less-cooperative part of himself suggested, but he worked his way through it all, methodically. With Brown, it was best to eat what you could when the opportunity presented itself.
–(Chapter 23, Two Moors)

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The Voyage of the Beagle

Nothing like hearing about the voyage from the source. Darwin’s story of the 5-year trip around the world was first put out in 1839 then revised with some serious scientific ideas in 1845 as he was about to spring the idea of evolution on us. In this book, he describes the interactions with the people in South America, the Galapagos, Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, etc.
Some of my favorite sentences from the work:
“A strong desire is always felt to ascertain whether any human being has previously visited an unfrequented spot.” (Chapter 13, Chiloe and Chonos Islands)
“It was a pretty scene; but I missed that pensive stillness which makes the autumn in England indeed the evening of the year.” (Chapter 15, Passage of the Cordillera)
“I am tired of repeating the epithets barren and sterile.” (Chapter 16, Northern Chile and Peru)
“Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” (Chapter 17, Galapagos Archipelago)
“Farewell, Australia! you are a rising child, and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.” (Chapter 19, Australia)
“Other losses, although not at first felt, tell heavily after a period: these are the want of room, of seclusion, of rest; the jading feeling of a constant hurry; the privation of small luxuries, the loss of domestic society and even of music and the other pleasures of imagination.” (Chapter 21, Mauritius to England)

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DMZ Vol. 1: On the Ground

Tore thru volume 1, 2, and 3 of DMZ this weekend. These are awesome comics, eerily painting a picture of what life in the US could be like if we ever get all “civil war” on each other. Matty Roth is a journalist dropped in the DMZ of Manhattan, surrounded by the Free States (Jersey border) fighting the US government (Staten Island and beyond). NYC looks exactly like Baghdad does, car bombs, Haliburton security forces, underground everything (food, music, art). From the Ghost crew growing underground bamboo farms, to the Chinese mafia running security around Matty, to the med school student Zee who stitches up the bloody mess the city has become.
Is it such a stretch that we could end up like this? Listen to the vitriol spewed on call-in radio and at peace/war rallies, and you’ll see 2 distinct Americas seething with rage at each other.
Reco’d by The Max

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Death in Venice

Sometimes it’s necessary to disconnect from the conveyor belt of current literature and feast on older delights like those Thomas Mann brings to the table. I wish I read German, but I thoroughly enjoyed Heim’s translation.
Basic idea is that a writer breaks away from his mountain home to seek inspiration for the work he’s stuck on. “He needed a change of scene, a bit of spontaneity, an idle existence, a foreign atmosphere, and an influx of new blood to make the summer bearable and productive.” (Chapter 1) After a brief stop in Greece, he heads for the sparkling city of Venice where he puts down roots for the summer, becoming enchanted with the Polish youth Tadzio, whom he compares with Greek statues and whom he indulges various fantasies about.
Inspiration to write returns to him in a flash, and with Tadzio in his sight, he pens a glorious few pages on the youth’s beauty. “It is surely as well that the world knows only a beautiful work itself and not its origins, the conditions under which it comes into being, for if people had knowledge of the sources from which the artist derives his inspiration they would oftentimes be confused and alarmed and thus vitiate the effects the artist had achieved.” (Chapter 4) “Yet it cannot be said he was suffering: he was drunk in both head and heart, and his steps followed the dictates of the demon whose delight it is to trample human reason and dignity underfoot.” (Chapter 5)
While he was keeping his love a secret from the youth, the city of Venice was keeping a cholera epidemic secret from all visitors. When von Aschenbach (the writer) finally wheedles the truth out of the British travel agent, he considers telling the Polish family and then fleeing the city. Instead, he embraces the chaos and decides to remain in Venice. His death at the end of the story is not cholera-related, but rather the result of knowing Tadzio is leaving that day and his heart breaks.

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Men Without Women

Old H really has the magic; those short, brutal sentences that punch to the heart of the matter, the unspoken words that lurks beneath the dialogue, the powerful staccato of conversation. This collection of stories is unified simply by what the title suggests- Men without women. Several stories have men urging other men to hurry up and get married, that they’ll be more settled and able to sleep. One of the stars of the bunch, Hills like White Elephants, is the interchange between a man and woman on a train station in between Barcelona and Madrid, on the topic of aborting her baby. Today is Friday a short clever play involving 3 Roman soldiers present at the crucifixion. Other stories involve characters that range from matadors to boxers to soldiers.

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Reading like a writer

Ms. Prose (is that a psuedonym?!) begins with a question: is it possible to teach creative writing? She answers herself with a roundabout Yes, and goes on to show us that you learn by reading, by inhaling the structure, details, characters, sentences, paragraphs of the masters. The book itself is like a crash course in reading– she snips dialogue and paragraphs, explains why they’re so juicy and perfect, showcasing the spectrum (excellence both with sparse and overflowing detail).
The book ends with her list of “Books to be read immediately” (god bless, Francine!), of which I’ve sampled many, but will use as my roadmap along with Bloom’s recent recommendations to navigate my reading route for the next year(s).

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Stumbling on Happiness

Witty, engaging, and the kind of book you pass around the breakfast table to showcase the optical illusion that brought everything into perspective, so to speak. The book is less about happiness than about how the brain works to create pictures and fill in ideas of the future based on what it knows now. The optical illusion was one where you see your blind spot in action– the spot where your optical nerve attaches to your eye, and thus you can’t see anything in that particular area. Your brain fills in the blind spot with pixels of its choosing, to normalize your view.
I adore any book that includes as its first footnote a tongue-in-cheek note about how if you’re the type of person who gets frustrated flipping back and forth between the text and notes that rest assured “this” note is the only one worth reading.
If you’re reading this book actually looking for tips towards happiness, the best I can distill is the age-old “Be here now” – don’t get all anxious about what’s going to happen b/c you have no control over it, enjoy where you are now, be present in the moment. Don’t project a future. Recognize that your mind plays tricks on you, and you’ll fall for those tricks every time. Think for yourself.
Sidenote on babies– as a species we’re predisposed to want to continue our race, so there’s this super-myth that having kids is the best thing ever. Gilbert included some data from studies where marital happiness dips significantly after the birth of the first child and only returns to normal level when the kids are gone. Empty nest might actually be a good thing!
Highly recommended.

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Why I may start collecting books again

I have been a huge proponent of getting rid of “stuff” and simplifying my life, but after yesterday’s excursion to the main branch of the library, I may have been too hasty in purging my personal library. In theory, the library works perfectly for me– I can order books online and have them delivered to the branch of my choice. This suits me 98% of the time.
But yesterday, I trudged upstairs to the stacks, held my nose, and plunged into the sad excuse for a fiction section on the 3rd floor. Fresh off of Mssr Bloom’s recommended reading list, I scoured the shelves for something, anything that might delight me. No Flannery O’Connor. One sad slim volume of Hemingway that I ended up taking (I couldn’t believe there wasn’t more– I kept double checking how I was spelling ‘Hemingway’). No Blood Meridian. No Pickwick Papers, Bleak House, or Great Expectations. No Henry James. Badly translated Thomas Mann.
These are the basics, the rainy day books you want to have on hand in case a whim seizes you. And so my personal library-building begins anew.

How to Read and Why

More than anything, I got a massive reading list from this book. Or a re-reading list, since I tore through a lot of these books 15-20 years ago. I’m excited to dive back into the Western canon.
To (Re)Read:
Dickens: Pickwick papers, Bleak House, Great Expectations
Cervantes: Don Quixote
Stendhal: Charterhouse of Parma, translated by Richard Howard
Austen: Emma, Persuasion
Joyce: Finnegan’s Wake
Shakespeare: Hamlet, Henry IV (1&2), king lear
Ibsen: Hedda Gabler
Turgenev, chekhov, Hemingway short stories, Flannery o’connor, Italo calvino, de Maupassant, Nabokov
Mann: Magic mountain
proust: search of lost time
mcCarthy: Blood Meridian
Faulkner: as I lay dying
Crime & Punishment
Henry James: Portrait of a Lady
Moby Dick
Invisible Man

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