An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

Early work by Perec wherein he commits to sitting in a cafe and describing what is happening around him for a few days. The first day, obsession with the rigid frequency of buses provide the structure around which the other random bits are hung. An attempt to organize thoughts (what is visible? trajectories, colors). Unsure if the people he sees on subsequent days are those he saw the day before, but sure that the birds are the same.”There are people who read while walking, not a lot, but a few.” The best bits are where he puts some personality behind his observations, “why are two nuns more interesting than two other people?” A delightful breath mint of a book, a grand idea, I was curious to see how he’d execute it, and perhaps will parody something along these lines. Imitation/flattery/etc.
***
Recommended by a staff member of Spoonbill and Sugartown.

The Secret History

Yes, the “Dickensian” Donna Tartt. I started with her earlier work, and will be reading the much praised Goldfinch later this year. This book was devour-able in one big gulp. Kid from California ends up at a ritzy Vermont college with an elite group of wealthy students studying Greek and the Classics. Murder ensues. Coverups, cigarettes, cocaine, letters from dead Bunny, people perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Some of my favorite scenes were inexplicably those where the narrator, Richard, is living for a few months in January/February in a space without heat and with a hole in the ceiling, during the coldest winter in years. He gets pneumonia, shocker, and Henry (one of the Greek Classic students) saves him. Other characters: Camilla/Charles the twins (who sleep together), Francis (gay with trust fund), and Bunny (absolutely poor, but raised with expensive taste), Julian the teacher. Judy the red corvette driving dorm mate who helps Richard frequently. The murder happens when Henry et al are attempting to reach nirvana vis a vis fasting and then getting wasted. They accidentally kill a neighbor farmer. When Bunny finds out, he will not let up, hounding the rest of the group, becoming unhinged, and has to be pushed off a ravine. Charles is nearly off’d by Henry because H is sleeping with Camilla and so is Charles. Tawdry stuff, but very page-turnable.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview

Largely an erudite conversation between two learneds, but various slices worth exposing here. Cott met with Sontag in Paris in February 1978 and in NYC in November 1978, with a shortened version of this piece published in 1979 Rolling Stones issue. Cott has done his homework for the interview, quoting Nietzsche, Shakespeare, the Bible, Simone de Beauvoir, Rilke, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Wilhelm Reich, Octavio Paz, Thomas Mann, Italo Svevo, Stendhal, as well as extensive knowledge of Sontag’s books and essays.
Authors to read: Mina Loy, Link Gillespie, Harry Crosby, Laura Riding (progress of stories), Paul Goodman (Johnson stories)

Someone once told me that you used to read a book a day.
I read an enormous amount and, in large part, quite mindlessly. I love to read the way people love to watch television, and I kind of nod out over it. If I’m depressed, I pick up a book and I feel better. Reading is my entertainment, my distraction, my consolation, my little suicide… my reading is not in any way systematic. I’m very lucky in that I read rapidly, and I suppose that compared to most people I’m a speed reader, which has its great advantages in that I can read a lot, but it also has its disadvantages because I don’t dwell over anything. I just take it all in and let it cook somewhere.

(In the 1950s) there was this total separation between those who were tuned into popular culture and those who were involved in high culture. There was nobody I ever met who was interested in both, and I always was, and I used to do all sorts of things by myself because I couldn’t share this with anybody else. But then, of course, all of that changed. And that’s what was interesting about the sixties. But now because high culture is being liquidated, one wants to take a step backward and say, Whoa, wait a minute, Shakespeare is still the greatest writer who ever lived, let’s not forget that.

I think the world should be safe for marginal people. One of the primary things that a good society should be about is to allow people to be marginal. What’s so awful about countries that call themselves communist is that their point of view does not allow for dropouts or marginal people.

Jane Eyre

It’s embarrassing that I had not yet read this book until yesterday, and now seek to devour the rest of Charlotte Bronte’s work. An astonishingly good read, it has all the essential elements: terrific writing, well paced drama, a symphonic work. It follows the life of Jane from her ten year old self, orphaned and “cared” for by the widow of her uncle Reed, through to marriage. Her shelter in the Reed household was tenuous, always scolded for non-existent wrongdoings, tormented by the older son. She leaps at the chance to go away to a charity school, filled with girls who have no one else to care for them. A miserable winter is endured there, with meager food and cold halls, finally giving way to an epidemic of typhus which kills off a lot of the students and shines light on the poor conditions to result in improvements. Jane’s friend Helen dies in her arms of consumption, but Jane survives and finishes her time there, with two additional years as a teacher. When her friend Miss Temple leaves to be married, Jane realizes it’s time for her own departure, and advertises for a position as a governess. Thus she arrives as Thornfield Hall to tutor the ward of Mr. Rochester, mostly absent from the property. Jane settles into a quiet life with Adele (her pupil) and Mrs. Fairfax (the housekeeper).

Enjoying the moonlight on the road one night, Jane watches as a man rides by and his horse slips on the ice, causing the man to fall and sprain his ankle. Jane helps him up, finds out later he is Mr. Rochester. They begin to spend time together, Edward liking Jane’s frank words and clear mind. Someone attempts to burn Edward in bed at night, but Jane discovers the flames and douses him to save his life. As he is thanking her, his face betrays more emotions and Jane finds that she is in love with him, believes he is also in love. The next morning he’s immediately off to socialize with the local gentry for a few weeks, and then brings the party back to Thornfield. Jane mopes, believing he is to be married to the haughty Miss Ingram. A gypsy arrives to tell fortunes, planting the idea in Miss Ingram’s head that Rochester’s fortune isn’t as great as she thought, whispering the names of who the other girls’ beaus were in their ears, and demanding to see Jane before she departed. The gypsy is Rochester in disguise, attempting to wrest any information about how Jane feels about him. That night, another strange attack, this time on Mr. Mason, a guest newly arrived.

Rochester proposes to Jane shortly after she returns from caring for her dying aunt, who admits to telling her other uncle that Jane died in the fevers at school. On her wedding day, Mr. Mason shows up in the church to bar the ceremony, on the grounds that Rochester is already married to his sister, the insane woman locked in the attic at Thornfield Hall who has been causing all the attacks. Jane runs away to escape her feelings, nearly dies of hunger but is taken in by the Rivers sisters and brother. She sets up a local school and settles in for a year, then finds that her uncle has died and left her 20,000 pounds. She also discovers that the Rivers sisters and brother are her cousins, and she divides her inheritance into fourths. Musing on love, she inquires about news of Rochester, and hearing nothing decides to set out on her own. She finds Thornfield a charred ruin, Rochester blind and holed up in one of his smaller homes. His wife died in the fire, and Jane vows to stay with him always.

Sibley’s Birding Basics

Terrific primer for beginners and enthusiasts alike. Covers everything from vocalization of birds (go out and listen, if you don’t recognize a call at least you’ll know where the bird is), monitoring behavior (a bird that sits for a few minutes is not likely to be a warbler), basics like keeping records of birds seen where and when, and a helpful section on feathers. Strange to say, I’d not really considered the wonder of feathers until reading that chapter. These lightweight feathers are what provide the mechanism to allow birds to fly, using muscles at the base of the feathers. They can puff up the feathers to provide a layer of insulation, or sleek them down, at will. Is this a good time to mention/brag that I saw the much anticipated grey catbird and black-and-white warbler in the botanical garden on Sunday (amongst 50+ other species).

On the Shortness of Life

A collection of three of Seneca’s essays: On the Shortness of Life, Consolation to Helvia, On Tranquility of the Mind, all of which deal with ways of thinking and living life. Consolation is written to his mother, to assuage her grief at his death, and contains thoughts which may help those who are grieving. Tranquility is written to his friend Serenus, and reinforces the Stoic philosophy that happiness comes from within ourselves, do not reach for external trappings, guard your time for valiant pursuits, do good work and sprinkle in a bit of relaxation. The title essay, Shortness of Life, continues these themes with many quotable bits.

You hear many people saying: ‘When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure’… And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Aren’t you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life, and to devote to wisdom only that time which cannot be spent on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end!

Learning how to live takes a whole life, and… it takes a whole life to learn how to die… Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself. None of it lay fallow and neglected, none of it under another’s control.

You must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbour, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.

Now while the blood is hot you should make your way with vigour to better things. In this kind of life you will find much that is worth your study: the love and practice of the virtues, forgetfulness of the passions, the knowledge of how to live and die, and a life of deep tranquility. Indeed the state of all who are preoccupied is wretched, but the most wretched are those who are toiling not even at their own preoccupations, but must regulate their sleep by another’s, and their walk by another’s pace, and obey orders in those freest of things, loving and hating. If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.

All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror

At a recent event, the author bragged/implied that his book had some influence in the recent softening of US/Iran relations. “Secretary of State Kerry had me sign a copy of the book, and enthused ‘Great book!’ before rushing onto his next appointment,” Kinzer claimed. I hope Kerry is briefed more fully than just reading this book, but it was a good start for a plebeian such as myself, being woefully unaware of the US involvement in destabilizing Iran. The book provides some keys to understanding the psyche of Iran that I hadn’t considered:
* Iran is one of the oldest nations with traditions reaching back thousands of years. Even today, despite long periods of repression and suffering, Iranians are passionate about their historical importance.
* Continued effort to synthesize Islam (imposed on the country by Arab invaders) and Iran’s rich heritage.
* Desire for a “just” leadership, shaped by Shiite tradition (Zoroastrianism merging with Islam)
* Sense of martyrdom and communal pain is sharpened by Shiite beliefs, contributing to a tragic view of life
* Iran’s continued invasion by foreign entities (geographically located in the middle of major trade routes, and now sitting on top of a great oil field)
As Iran tripped and stumbled toward democracy, dealing with corrupt monarchs and politicians, the British company exploiting Iran’s oil fields nervously watched as a popular prime minister (Mossadegh) gains power and declares the oil industry nationalized, essentially kicking Britain out. Failed negotiations between the two parties led to this bold act, where Britain was unable to peer forth from their harsh colonial policies they’d perfected across the world and to treat Iran as a partner, not a subject. So Iran snapped, and oil stopped flowing for lack of skilled workers to run the works. The feud escalates to the U.N. where Mossadegh gives an impassioned speech and introduced the principle of “total loss” – that it’s possible to have an argument in the United Nations where everyone loses, as Britain was not able to retain their oil rights and Iran’s economy begins to flounder without active money from oil. When a friend mentions that he will return to Iran empty-handed, Mossadegh says, “Don’t you realize that in returning to Iran empty-handed, I return in a much stronger position than if I returned with an agreement which I would have to sell to my fanatics?”
Clearly this could not stand. Britain was knee-deep in coup plotting when Mossadegh expelled all British citizen after catching wind of the plot. The Brits tried to convince Truman that his help was necessary, but Truman held them back. That all changed after Eisenhower swept into office in the next election, and the wheels of the coup were spinning a few days after election day, before he took office. The Dulles brothers were highly susceptible to the drumbeat of panic the Brits were banging, that Iran was in danger of falling to Communism. And so, the US participated in its first of many overthrows of foreign government. Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy, led the effort in Tehran. Newspapers were paid to start pushing anti-Mossadegh sentiment, paid mobs flooded the city chanting against Mossadegh. The first attempt in August 1953 failed, but Roosevelt immediately attempted another a few days later, this one successful. Therein lie the seeds of the 1979 uprising, now tinged with much anti-American feeling (prior to 1953, Iranians held the US in high regard as an example of democracy).