Lullabies for Little Criminals

O’Neill clearly grew up without a mother-figure, a theme she returned to in her most recent book, and one she explores here. Devastating whiplash between the normal world of a twelve-year-old, being silly and imaginative, to the abnormal world of turning tricks and shooting heroin. I love the casualness of the narrator, not caring what she’s wearing, her hair always looking like she just got off a seesaw. Moving from furnished room to furnished room with her dad, feeling most at home in the seediest parts of Montreal, having her dad’s junkie friends come over and entertain her. Sitting on the stoop outside her dad’s dealer’s house with the marionette he gave her on her 12th birthday, dipping into the roller rink to slouch around with other kids, making them laugh with her antics. Ending up in a foster home, which heartbreakingly is the only place she can sleep and feel normal with its schedule, quiet, and flanked by other misfits. Staying with Felix and brother Johnny and mother for a few months while her dad does rehab, only he comes out angry and their connection is dropped. The yearning for attention and touch. Her ragtag group of weirdo friends, and sweet Xavier, someone her own age whose fragility and childishness appeals to her. Glamorizing the gutter-punk, interspersed with real bits of being a kid then transitioning to smoking discarded cigarette butts like a bum.
Sitting on the front stoop, asked why she was wearing her dad’s suit by some pals in the neighborhood:

“Because I died last night,”I said. “And they dressed me up in my fanciest suit and laid me down in a coffin. It’s such a nice day and you are all my good friends, so I decided to get my butt up out of the coffin, just like Jesus Christ, and come and chitchat with all my beautiful and soulful friends.”

****
O’Neill seems destined to be let down by editors with two slip-ups in this one.
p 320: His bags consisted of a red school satched overstuffed with clothes.
The other was a misplaced period where the second sentence was intended to be part of the first. Unfortunately can’t find my dog-ear to note page number.

What Alice Forgot

A light and fluffy “beach-read” consumed in four hours last night; sometimes it’s good to give the old noggin’ a rest from having to think, to let it glide on top of a casual word-frolic. Alice wakes up on the floor of the gym, having flung off her bike during spin class and sustained a head injury that drops her back in 1998 while the mean world of 2008 swirls around her. She has no memory of her three kids, or why she’s getting a divorce from hubby Nick. Ten years vanish in her mind, she becomes “young again,” completely ignorant of how to be the perfect mom she was (heading up committees, having fund-raisers, organizing the baking of a world record largest merengue pie). She discovers things about herself she doesn’t really like, has the opportunity to re-engage with people she’d alienated over that decade. Side stories of sister undergoing IVF treatments (spoiler: sister finally has a baby with the last chance egg), mother re-marrying skeevy father of Nick and salsa dancing, “grandmother” Fannie falling in love with a guy at her retirement home. Alice’s memory returns, she briefly hates her husband again, but never fear gentle reader, there is a happy ending lurking in the bushes (shocking!).

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

Rarely upon finishing a book do I immediately seek to find if the story continues in a sequel, but this one sent me scurrying to see if she’d yet published the next in the series. A faux-memoir of the great dragon naturalist, Lady Trent, detailing her earliest enthusiasms in dissecting pigeons to learn the purpose of the wishbone, sneaking onto a hunt for a wolf-drake and being slashed by it before shooting it, the grey time between 14-16 years of age when forbidden to even look at a natural history book, in preparation for entering the marriage market. Her father comes up with a list of potential suitors who might allow her access to their libraries, and she meets her husband-to-be in the dragon room of the menagerie. Off they head to distant lands to study the habits of dragons, only to find that this particular batch of dragons is attacking humans, not normal behavior. The mystery unravels and we’re entertained throughout by Isabella’s shunting off the social codes and pushing her way forward into the world of scholars normally men-only.
Very delightful quick reading, well-written and with a forceful and fierce narrator.
*****
Reco’d by Maggie, who continues to funnel high-quality, story-laden books my way.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress

Do not attempt to read this book in one sitting. I got seasick and had to take frequent breaks from the text, the dizzying mono-tonal statements layered atop mono-tonal statements. It throws out dense intellectual gang signs and begs to be interpreted. The narrator finds herself to be the only living thing remaining in the world, drives around ‘looking’ for people across the world by jumping into abandoned cars that still had gas/battery, or sailing, or rowing. Driving across Siberia by heading dead west and waiting for the sun to be ahead of her, then following it until it set. Living in museums and building fires. Losing her baggage, letting loose hundreds of tennis balls to bounce down the Spanish Steps in Rome, picking up a soccer shirt after her car fell off an embankment. Name-dropping artists (de Kooning, Rembrandt, El Greco, Van Gogh, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bellini, Fabritius, Pollock, too many more), philosophers (Wittgenstein of course, Heidegger, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, etc), composers (Brahams’ reputation for giving candy to children, Beethoven, Bach…), and all the great characters of the Trojan War era (Helen, Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Achilles, Hector, Menelaus, Penelope, Ulysses…). Repetitions similar to those employed by the Illiad (and also making frequent use of “rosy fingered dawn”). The monotony, the repeating with slight tweaks, the factual statements you’re not sure to believe, it all adds up to an intellectual headache. Luckily, during one of my breaks, I expanded my appreciation for the work by lapping up DFW’s review. Lapping up is probably the wrong phraseology to use for a multi-hour perusing of a 24 page review (it’s DFW, what else do you expect), which I cannot refrain from quoting below. DFW’s thoughts on the book:

For Markson has in this book succeeded already on all the really important levels of fictional conviction. He has fleshed the abstract sketches of Wittgensteinian doctrine into the concrete theatre of human loneliness. In so doing he’s captured far better than pseudobiography what made Wittgenstein a tragic figure & a victim of the very diffracted modernity he helped inaugurate. Markson has written an erudite, breath-takingly cerebral novel whose prose is crystal & whose voice rivets & whose conclusion defies you not to cry. Plus he’s also, in a way it’d seem for all the world he doesn’t know, produced a powerfully critical meditation on loneliness’s relation to language itself.

Mansfield Park

Fanny is plucked from the consumptive bosom of her impoverished family and brought to live with her wealthy uncle and aunt. She becomes the perfect gentlewoman under cousin Edmund’s tutelage but is denied the same pleasures that her female cousins have (a nightly fire in her fireplace, attendance at balls, etc.). Eventually these female cousins display their bad apple tendencies, Maria leaves her husband and is shockingly divorced, Julia elopes with someone of meager circumstances, so Fanny becomes even more beloved to her aunt (Lady Bertham) while becoming more reviled by her Aunt Norris. A young visiting couple (brother and sister: Henry & Mary Crawford) enliven the evenings, and while uncle is away in the West Indies, the youth undertake to produce a play, a very risky proposition with risqué material. Henry behaves badly and leads on Maria (then engaged) and Julia, while Mary lures Edmund’s heart (tho disposed to prefer the older brother who will inherit the estate). Eventually Henry sets his sights on Fanny and falls desperately in love, demanding her hand in marriage. She nearly faints away, wanting nothing to do with him. He pursues her to her poor family’s door, where she’s settled in for a three month visit., and he finagles a commission for her brother William. She is summoned back to Mansfield Park and told to bring her younger sister Susan, who then follows in Fanny’s footsteps and fills her place after she marries (no shocker) Edmund. Ah, the delights that pour forth from Austen’s pen. If only she didn’t have to write in secret, pretending her manuscript was a letter that she shoved under stacks of paper when visitors dropped by.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

I got up at 6 AM to finish this book. I wish I’d written my thoughts immediately after finishing it, but I wanted to float on the cloud it propped under me. Magical work, terrifically tender, funny and ferocious writing. A story of 20 year old twins, famous (in Quebec) for having been on TV as children with their crooner father who largely abandoned them. Their mother abandoned them as babies on the father’s doorstep, not being able to raise them herself at 14 years of age. The narrator is the female twin, the steady and positive contrast to her brother’s manic negative. She’s fantastically strong, plowing through social scenes and choosing who she wants to be with at the moment. She finds solace in the corpulent body of Misha, an old Russian man she occasionally sleeps with (“He was always doing magic tricks. That was one of the truisms about dating older men”). Adam, the non-Quebecois, is madly in love with her (bizarre story of how Nicolas met Adam by banging on the door where their mother had worked as a nanny, finding friendship with the boy who was raised by his mother while Nicolas and Nouschka raised themselves). But Raphael is the one who she falls for, whom she marries and has his child.
Of course, the larger story is her connection to her twin, Nicolas. She spends the first six chapters introducing us to various characters and neighborhood sights and smells, but searching always searching for Nicolas. She finds him in chapter seven, splayed out on the bed fully clothed (they share a small bed, something that raises eyebrows around the neighborhood), having been out on a robbery in an attempt to get money to support his young son. From the beginning, she’s driven to connect with yet separate from him, taking classes to get her high school diploma, thinking about moving out. A film crew hovers around the edges of the story, desperate to get new footage of the lovely Tremblay family who looked so adorable on TV but were/are such a mess in real life.
I hate to nitpick, but yet again we have evidence of the decline of editors in publishing. There’s an error in continuity, p 255 “When I finished my shift, I saw him sitting in the restaurant across the street from the magazine store,” but fifty pages earlier she’d gotten a different (better, farther downtown) job (p 205 “I got the job at Place Des Artes.”) I don’t deliberately look for this stuff, but it conks me on the head and disrupts my flow unpleasantly.
***
Reco’d by Kate Bolick

Notes from Robert Dawson’s phototalk on public libraries

Robert Dawson has been photographing public libraries for the past eighteen years, capturing images in 48 states (excluding Alabama and Hawaii). He went through a slide show for half an hour before sitting in conversation with Luis Herrera, librarian at SFPL.
* 17,000 public libraries in the US, ~550 are in his book
* Peterborough, NH library was the first public library.
* Early libraries included collections of paintings and other art
* Library in Derby Line is half in US, half in Quebec
* Carnegie libraries: Dawson said we have 5 in the Bay Area but I see a whole lot more in the list; Carnegie spent ~70% of his fortune on libraries. They had swimming pool, basketball court, indoor track, and books. For his donation to SF of $750k, half was spent on the main library (now Asian Art musuem), the rest on branches (Chinatown, Mission, Golden Gate, Sunset, Richmond, Noe Valley, Presido)
* Seattle’s library has too many nooks and crannies for patrons to hide in at the end of the day
* Salt Lake City & Philadelphia have gorgeous libraries (his list of top 3: NYC, Seattle, SLC)
* San Rafael, CA has a Frank Lloyd Wright designed library
* Yosemite library only (?) library in a national park
* Kansas City has a library in an old bank, they show movies in the vault
* Henderson, NV has a library in the shopping mall, confusing patrons who tried to buy the books, so they had to offer some for sale.
* The busy busy Berkeley tool library offers check-out of tools
* Hurricane Katrina wiped out 50% of books, 90% of library staff
* Most unusual library in his opinion that of Elsie Eiler, mayor of a one-woman town
* Other trends: libraries closing when we need it most (Great Recession), spike in computer use

A Room of One’s Own

Gearing up for a summer class on Women’s Studies, I dusted off this classic for a re-read. Part of the pain of owning a book for a long time is having to suffer through the annotations left by your younger self, what resemble the markings of a maniac. My prior reading was during a time when I felt it acceptable to underline phrases I liked, instead of drawing a line in the margin to indicate something worth diving deeper into. I shamefully admit that my former self drew a smiley face and made other odd call-outs in the margins (but at least I was never a highlighter). Once I got past the frailty and foibles of my youth, I was knocked out by VW’s powerful, reasoned, calm dismantling of the problem of patriarchy.
Asked to give a lecture on Women and Fiction, she’s weighted down with the dilemma of having only an hour to discuss these enormous unsolved problems, she sits on the banks of a river and a thought comes to her, darting and sinking like a fish, setting up “such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.” So up she goes, walking across the grass, only to be frantically waved off by a professor– only Scholars are allowed on the grass, she must get back on the gravel. By that time, whatever grand thought she’d been chasing had fled. Now she decides to head to the library to check out Milton’s Lycidas, but is fluttered and chased off because she’s not accompanied by a Fellow of the College. She wanders the college grounds until lunch, going into great detail about the soles, partridges with sharp or sweet sauces, salads, potatoes, roast, pudding and wines of both hues.

And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company- in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind, as, lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat.

Walking back to town, she muses that the war (WWI) has changed the undertone of conversation, removing the buzz of romantic hope that was previously. When she gets to her friend’s college, contrast lunch with what is served the women: plain gravy soup, beef and potatoes, prunes and custard. “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.” Safely up in Mary Seton’s room with a post-dinner cocktail, VW details the elaborate meal, the impressive architecture of the men’s college, and Seton explains that the women found it very hard to get £2,000 together to start the college in the first place, so “amenities will have to wait.” And why was it so hard to raise the funds? Why were women poor?
VW attacks this question back in London with a visit to the British Museum and is absolutely stunned by the volume of books written about women by men. “Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?” She later muses that this explosion in interest was due to the recent campaign for voting rights, “when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively.” Swirling in a sea of books about women, she doodles and finds herself most angry at the book entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex, and realizes that most of these men are also angry. How to explain their anger? Over lunch, she decides it’s because women are no longer functioning as “looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
There is of course, much more. Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith. The fact that women pervade poetry as subjects but are completely absent from history. The effect of active discouragement upon female artists. Bronte & Austen & Eliot. The strange absence of any females depicted as friends throughout literature (except as Woolf stumbles onto Carmichael’s “Chloe liked Olivia”).

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

This collection of posthumously gathered essays showcases the growth of VW’s skill from 1917 onward. One favorite from the batch is Street Haunting, an account of an afternoon stroll across London in quest of a lead pencil, eyes floating but not focused too deeply on what is around, dipping into secondhand bookshops where “in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” She sees a dwarf getting fitted for shoes, a necklace of pearls that transport her to 2AM and just home from a party, and a cat creeping along a garden wall. When she arrives at the stationer’s shop, she senses tension between the husband and wife owners, which dissipates as she lingers over her particular choice of pencil.
Also lovely is Twelfth Night at the Old Vic, deconstructing what is great about spoken vs. read Shakespeare.

Certainly there is a good deal to be said for reading Twelfth Night if the book can be read in a garden, with no sound but the thud of an apple falling to the earth, or of the wind ruffling the branches of the trees…. There is time.. to make a note in the margin; time to wonder at queer jingles like “that live in her; when liver, brain, and heart”… “and of a foolish knight that you brought in one night”… For Shakespeare is writing not with the whole of his mind mobilized and under control but with feelers left flying that sport and play with words so that the trail of a chance word is caught and followed recklessly. From the echo of one word is born another word, for which reason, perhaps, the play seems as we read it to tremble perpetually on the brink of music.

Versus spoken aloud:

Perhaps the most impressive effect in the play is achieved by the long pause which Sebastian and Viola make as they stand looking at each other in a silent ecstasy of recognition. The reader’s eye may have slipped over that moment entirely. Here we are made to pause and think about it; and are reminded that Shakespeare wrote for the body and mind simultaneously.

Another favorite is the essay on Craftmanship, which dances with words and shows the futility of making them mean anything. “They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.”
Several of her essays touch on the art of letter writing, diving into the correspondence of Madame de Sevigne, Horace Walpole, Reverend Cole. “Was it the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?” If Horace Walpole was the greatest letter writer, “above all he was blessed in his little public- a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence.” In A Letter to a Young Poet, she exhorts him “for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.”

Thus the fourteen volumes of her (M. de Sevigne’s) letters enclose a vast open space… thus we live in her presence, and often fall, as with living people, into unconsciousness. She goes on talking, we half listen. And then something she says rouses us. We add it to her character, so that the character grows and changes, and she seems like a living person, inexhaustible.
This of course is one of the qualities that all letter writers possess, and she, because of her unconscious naturalness, her flow and abundance, possesses it far more than the brilliant Walpole, for example, or the reserved and self-conscious Gray. Perhaps in the long run we know her more instinctively, more profoundly, than we know them.

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

There is room for a bit of feminism in the collection, with the essays Professions for Women, Why? and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. “Even when the path is nominally open- when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant- there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved.” “Are we not stressing our disability because our ability exposes us perhaps to abuse, perhaps to contempt? ‘I will not cease from mental fight,’ Blake wrote. Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it.”
Space is devoted to analyzing the friendships of Walpole/Cole (unlikely pals who bonded over antiquities) and Gibbons/Sheffield (the historian and the Peer). A few essays touch on Shelley, Henry James, George Moore, E.M. Forster. Woolf also pulls apart the Coleridge myth, likening him to Mr. Micawber, and saying “anything may tumble out of that great maw; the subtlest criticism, the wildest jest, the exact condition of his intestines.”

But there is a difference. For this Micawber (Coleridge) knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child.

Her letter to the editor of New Statesman chided the reviewer of her book for not using the word “highbrow” to describe her (or to specify her location as “Bloomsbury”). She pleads for highbrows and lowbrows to come together to fight middlebrows. Invited to tea at a middlebrow’s house, she’s not sure what to wear:

We highbrows may be smart, or we may be shabby; but we never have the right thing to wear. I proceed to ask next: What is the right thing to say? Which is the right knife to use? What is the right book to praise? All these are things I do not know for myself. We highbrows read what we like and do what we like and praise what we like. We also know what we dislike… bound volumes of the classics behind plate glass… people who call both Shakespeare and Wordsworth equally “Bill”… And in the matter of clothes, I like people either to dress very well; or to dress very badly; I dislike the correct thing in clothes.

We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy- what are the things that middlebrows always buy? Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers- always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters;… but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.

****
A receipt tucked inside informs me that I purchased this book at the Borders on Peachtree Road in Atlanta in 1998, and have carried this book with me, unread, for one cross-country move and five intra-city moves. Also scrawled on the receipt is a 919 phone number for Susan, an pal I took a Woolf class with in school. Yes kids, we once wrote phone numbers down on scraps of paper.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

I don’t remember reading it as a wee one, but lately I’ve had an itch to experience this iconic work. I didn’t do a deep read with annotations and allusions explained, so I have no profound insights about the puzzles or layered meanings, but as a romp through fantasy-land, it was quite enjoyable. The nonsense piles on so thick sometimes that you, as reader, feel dizzy and laugh much like Alice. The puns fly fast and furious, the weak jokes (much appreciated by myself). You run into familiar faces that are deeply etched into the cultural tablecloth, the “off with their head” queen, the timid rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and March Hare. The volume I read included Through the Looking Glass, so we also get the great Jabberwocky poem, the TweedleDee/Dums, and Humpty Dumpty (who graciously explains the words in the first Jabberwocky verse, like brillig meaning about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when you start to broil things). Alice is constantly told by the fantasy characters how stupid she is, and she gracefully deflects the conversation to other topics without becoming angry (and is told specifically not to lose her temper by the purple hookah-smoking caterpillar). She asks many questions and attempts to ingratiate herself by complimenting some of the characters. In the end she always returns to the real world by arising from a nap.

Through the Safety Net: stories

This one lingered a bit longer on my table than it should have. I was reluctant to read it, not really loving the writing when I picked it up a few days ago. But tonight’s plowing through the stories reinforced my wavering opinion of the Bibiloracle’s taste. (Got the recommendation from his tweet bemoaning the lack of recognition for Midwestern writers, had the book delivered to the library a few days later.)
A book of short stories from 1985 that doesn’t have any 80s window dressing that would date it, very refreshing. Baxter does write well, but not astonishingly so. Memorable characters: the advertising writer whose Saturdays were protected zones for protracted drinking (Eleventh Floor), a drunken grad student’s slippery drive to pick up his soon to be ex-fiancee (Winter Journey), a bereft janitor plotting his fame as walking through a plate glass window (Media Event), and Gryphon‘s substitute teacher that told kids it was ok to think 11 x 6 was 68 because sometimes it was.