A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople

I love books about walking long distances, but this is one I rage-read, furiously flipping the pages and muttering to myself. Rarely do I read to the end a book I hate, but such was the case. If I’m not enjoying a book after ~50 pages, it’ll usually end up on the trash-heap without an entry on the site. This was an exception, due to not having anything else on hand to read, and wanting to congeal exactly what I hated about it into a coherent thought.
First and inexcusably, the writing sucks – pumping adjectives, adverbs, and $5 words into limp sentences like a Botox injection. Oh yes, I’ve dogeared a few delightful examples: “As he spoke, fashionable Europe at the turn of the century rose like an emanation of absurd and captivating splendor. Sovereigns and statesmen confabulated in a rose-colored, dove-gray mist. Ambassadors, proconsuls and viceroys, winking with jewelled stars, postured in colloquy.” Hollow, meaningless tripe. Or this: “My polymath neighbor’s reassuring pats on the shaggy scalp at his side were rewarded by a languorous gaze and a few tail-thumps…”
Secondly, I want to give further emphasis to the egregiousness of using fancy words that taste like cardboard when you look them up in the dictionary: “It was Melt at last, a long conventual palace cruising above the roofs and the trees, a quinquereme among abbeys” or “he was learned and amusing and the ideal cicerone for all that lay ahead.”
Last, and worst (?), having to listen to this wealthy, upperclass, white Englishman get free lodging across Europe in 1934: “The kind old landlady of the place accepted payment for my dinner but none for the room: they had seen I was tired and taken me under their wing. This was the first marvelous instance of kindness and hospitality that was to occur again and again on these travels.” Thereafter we follow his adventures through the countryside, taking advantage of poor families’ hospitality, sometimes sleeping in haystacks, and then finding himself invited to stay at a baron’s castle for a few nights. His connections netted him a safety net of comfortable lodging across Europe on his clever goal of walking to Constantinople. He stayed with one friend for three weeks in Vienna.

Remembering the advice the mayor of Bruchsal had given me, the moment I had arrived in this little village, I had sought out the Bürgermeister. I found him in the Gemeindeamt, where he filled out a slip of paper. I presented it at the inn: it entitled me to supper and a mug of beer, a bed for the night and bread and a bowl of coffee in the morning; all on the parish. It seems amazing to me now, but so it was, and there was no kind of slur attached to it; nothing, ever, but a friendly welcome. I wonder how many times I took advantage of this generous and, apparently, very old custom? It prevailed all through Germany and Austria, a survival perhaps, of some ancient charity to wandering students and pilgrims, extended now to all poor travelers.

At one point, he almost attains self-awareness, wondering how differently a German wanderer would be treated in London if attempting the narrator’s Grand Scheme of walking to Constantinople. For the most part, the writer comes off as completely tone deaf to his own privilege, the ability to float through Europe in 1934 on the kindness of strangers and in the magnificent castles of the wealthy titled class he belongs to.

The Slide Area

Comparisons to Nathaniel West are inevitable, but Lambert outshines West in his depictions of the bleak unreality of Los Angeles in the late 1950s. This is a collection of stories with interweaving characters who pop in and out of each story, sometimes through death, sometimes through disappearance to a tropical island. My favorite of the lot was The End of the Line, where the Countess Marguerite Osterberg-Steblechi goes blind and loses her hearing and suddenly decides she’d like to do a world tour while she’s still alive. Her “nieces” (not related, but close enough, and they stand to inherit the Countess’ millions) delude the Countess into thinking she’s on a boat across the Atlantic, checking into and out of hotels (always with stairs, broken elevators abound in these “hotels”), all the while the nieces work tirelessly to create the illusion of travel while keeping her safe within her Hollywood hills home, keeping her millions safe for their inheritance. They use fans and electric fires to change the temperature to suit the new locations, and become stuck in Marrakesh for weeks:

It seemed nothing would move the Countess. (The nieces) warned her about the hot season, announced it had come, closed all the windows and filled her room with electric fires. ‘It’s not as bad as I expected,’ the Countess said. Carlotta would add another fire. ‘Makes me a little sleepy,’ the Countess said.

We also meet the Countess in the title story, wanting to buy a pulp book for $0.25 and balking at the extra $0.10 she is charged. In The Slide Area, Lambert captures the dreamy drifting of the city:

It is only a few miles’ drive to the ocean, but before reaching it I shall be nowhere. Hard to describe the impression of unreality, because it is intangible; almost supernatural; something in the air… Nothing belongs. Nothing belongs except the desert soil and gruff eroded-looking mountains…. Los Angeles is not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.

As he drives to the ocean, he passes a recent earth slide which has deposited three old women onto the road in a pile of dirt:

From a great pile of mud and stones and sandy earth, the legs of old ladies are sticking out. Men with shovels are working to free the rest of their bodies. Objects are rescued first, a soiled tablecloth and a thermos flask and what looks like a jumbo sandwich, long as a baby eel. Then an air cushion and more long sandwiches, and a picnic basket, and at last the three old ladies themselves. They are all right. They look shaken and angry, which is to be expected. A few minutes ago they had been sitting on the Palisades, in a pleasant little hollow free from the wind. The cloth was spread for a picnic… Absolutely silent at first, the ground beneath them disappeared.

Other notable characters are his friend Mark who worships the sun, becoming impressively tan, always chasing more rays, shirking real work, saying “the sun’s the only thing that matters.” Skipping town in the narrator’s beat up Cadillac, he winds up on an island in the middle of the Pacific, sending a cryptic postard, “This is a perfect little island though I’m not sure I want to stay. The trouble is, it’s impossible for me to leave.” And Clyde Wallace, the handsome psychotic son of a famous agent, spends three hours with the narrator while he attempts to leave his girlfriend but must retrieve his clothes. And Emma, the 14 year old from small town Illinois, who runs away from home to become famous, resisting the advice of the narrator to give up her hopes.

Now more time passes. I am working at the studio every day. The sound of hammering echoes across the back lot wilderness, and I suppose they must be building something new. It seems a long while ago that they were shooting the science-fiction film, and the war film, and the western; now they are shooting a western, a war film, and a science-fiction film.

Persuasion

To read Austen is to recognize what a trapped life women led in the 19th century English countryside (and before and after and elsewhere, I’m sure). The whole rigamarole of what Austen constantly writes about does not appeal to me: the quest for a good social match that also involves a genuine liking on the part of both parties. Of course a good social match means money, lots of it, and perhaps a title to boot. In this novel, we have Anne, the daughter of a spendthrift baronet who must rent out his estate, still recovering from a heartache of long ago (Captain Wentworth). When he proposed eight years prior, she was persuaded to reject the match since he had no money. Lo and behold he comes marching onto the scene with £25,000, quite the good match now. Anne herself is the perfect Austen character: sweet, charming, well-read, good brains, correct manners, and everyone loves her (except her family, who treat her as an afterthought). She has two good friends, Lady Russell (the earlier persuader against the Wentworth proposal), and Mrs. Smith (an old school chum who provides information about Anne’s cousin which makes us gloat when he walks away with nothing at the end). Through all the whirling gaiety and parties and walks about the countryside, you’re struck by the absolute reliance these unmarried women had on others. Anne must be invited to stay with her sister and Lady Russell in order to stick around the countryside until winter. She’s unable to decide where she goes. She must submit to the advances of her cousin Mr. Elliot, knowing she’ll turn down his proposal. In the end, she must acquire her father’s blessing in order to marry Wentworth. She’s accompanied everywhere, unable to walk alone back to her house and contemplate the hurried letter she gets from Wentworth proclaiming his feelings are still intact. Luckily, brother-in-law Charles hands her off to Wentworth to walk the remaining way to her door. This lack of privacy, autonomy, independence chafes my brain.

Men Explain Things To Me

This was the first book I’ve read by Solnit, and I had high hopes after reading her stellar essay about the #YesAllWomen response to the Isla Vista shootings. While the content of her work is tip top, tackling slippery-to-grasp gender issues, I confess to not being a fan of her style. The other problem I had with the book was its use of extensive pull-quotes. I find it unnecessary to writ large what I’ve already (or am about to) read. On the plus side, I appreciated her lack of thanking or dedicating the book to any named men, while she does recognize that we need men to partner in this fight, she thankfully left their omnipresent names out of this tome.
Men Explain Things To Me is a collection of essays dancing around and occasionally punching patriarchy in the face. I definitely enjoyed the essay the collection is named after; Solnit is at a party where a condescending male host asks what she’s written, and when she mentions her latest book on Muybridge, proceeds to talk over her about a Very Important Book that just came out about the topic, going into detail he picked up from a book review, talking over her protests that yes, that was HER book he was trying to explain back to her. He finally heard her, “as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read… so confused the neat categories into which his wold was sorted that he was stunned speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again.” Solnit says, “I like incidents of that sort, when forces that are usually so sneaky and hard to point out slither out of the grass and are as obvious as, say, an anaconda that’s eaten a cow or an elephant turd on the carpet.” I love the detail of the man being only momentarily thrown, and then back to pontificating. It’s such a reality, the overconfidence of men and the need for women to be 100% confident of something before she speaks.
The essay I liked the least was Woolf’s Darkness; while I’m a VW fan, I just didn’t appreciate the way Solnit seemed to brag about how Virginia Woolf is present in five of her books, then gave us a catalog of their titles so we could scurry off and purchase them. And a final beef to mention, her excessive quoting of others (Graeber, Sontag, Laurence Gonzalez), but I’m also guilty of excessive quoting on this site, so I shouldn’t toss pebbles. Overall, a worthwhile collection to read, raising key questions like why aren’t we focused on what’s wrong with men if they’re responsible for 90% of gun violence, huge majority of all other violence. That’s the main point I take away from this work– we need to shift the conversation to let men be in the spotlight. #FixMen might be wrongly construed for a neuter campaign?

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Holy hell, I can’t believe it took me this long to explore the work of McCullers. In Heart, she weaves a tale of friendship and loneliness while tackling big issues like class, race, and poverty. It begins (and ultimately ends) with the two mutes, Antonapolous and Singer, who live together and exist happily in their routine for ten years until the Greek’s cousin has him committed to an insane asylum. Singer strikes out alone, walking the town on crisp cold winter nights, and finds himself a beacon for others to unburden themselves to him. Singer occasionally makes the journey to visit Antonapolous, weighted down with gifts that are lightly ignored, frantically signing to the Greek the myriad of things that have occurred to him. Singer is only able to release his thoughts to Antonapolous, and when he discovers his friend has died, promptly heads home to shoot himself in the chest. The book wraps up with sections on how each of his friends deal with Singer’s death: Jake leaves town to preach the truth (communism) elsewhere; Doctor Copeland bumps along in the mule-drawn wagon to his father-in-law’s farm to recover from illness, Singer’s death, and his rage at the lopping off of his son’s feet in prison; Mick Kelly struggles with the ability to be creative (making music) in a world where she works as a shop girl (a “trap – the store, then home to sleep, and back to the store again”) at age fourteen; Biff the shopkeeper continues on as usual, discovers he is no longer in love with Mick, raises the awning for another day.
McCullers details the poor white neighborhoods near the mills, the poor black neighborhoods, the tensions between races when in reality man is only separated by class (Dr. Copeland goes off on a grand Marxist rant to this effect: “to Karl Marx it seemed that being one of the millions of poor people or one of the few rich was more important to a man than the color of his skin.”) While Copeland and Jake Blount are initially wary of each other, they discover a common bond in their belief in Marx (Copeland has even named one of his sons “Karl Marx” although he goes by “Buddy” instead).
Mick is a complicated character, in transition from tomboy into young woman, gripped by delirium when she hears music that stirs her soul (Beethoven’s 3rd, covertly heard sitting outside a stranger’s house when it played on their radio). She tends to her younger brothers, fights neighborhood kids, throws a party for the people in her freshman class that she wants to befriend, falls semi-in-love(?) with next door neighbor Harry.
One of Jake’s rants against capitalism:

“He sees the world as it is and he looks back thousands of years to see how it all come about. He watches the slow agglutination of capital and power and sees its pinnacle today. He sees America as a crazy house. He sees how men have to rob their brothers in order to live. He sees children starving and women working sixty hours a week to get to eat. He sees a whole damn army of unemployed and billions of dollars and thousands of miles of land wasted. He sees war coming. He sees how when people suffer just so much they get mean and ugly and something dies in them. But the main thing he sees is that the whole system of the world is built on a lie. And although it’s as plain as the shining sun – the don’t-knows have lived with that lie so long they just can’t see it.”

a bit of Doctor Copeland’s intense Marx lecture:

“We in this room have no private properties. Perhaps one or two of us may own the homes we live in, or have a dollar or two set aside – but we own nothing that does not contribute directly toward keeping us alive. All that we own is our bodies. And we sell our bodies every day we live. We sell them when we go out in the morning to our jobs and when we labor all the day. We are forced to sell at any price, at any time, for any purpose. We are forced to sell our bodies so that we can eat and live. And the price which is given us for this is only enough so that we will have the strength to labor longer for the profits of others. Today we are not put up on platforms and sold at the courthouse square. But we are forced to sell our bodies so that we can eat and live. We have been freed from one kind of slavery only to be delivered into another. Is this freedom? Are we yet free men?”

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

Not surprisingly, life in China sucks for women. Heartbreaking interviews with educated, smart Chinese ladies who are falling into the trap of needing to get married lest they be labeled “leftover” women, despite the ratio being in their favor for finding a mate. Time and again these high wage earners put their entire life savings into buying a house in their husband’s name and not having a cent of their own during the obvious turmoil that follows in most modern marriages. “Have you experienced domestic violence?” “No.” “Has your husband ever hit you?” “Yes.” Disparity of what is considered OK. The stripping away of the equal rights that Chairman Mao ostensibly fought for.
Parents routinely help male cousins purchase houses and expect their daughters to pitch in, instead of investing in housing for their daughters. At the time of writing, China National Board of Statistics data show 20M more men than women under 30 years old, due to the preference of male children and the one-child policy. One example: Zhou Nan, a 25 year old hair stylist in Beijing with 2 older sisters; their parents did not help the sisters buy homes when they married. Even though Zhou has no plans to marry, his parents bought him an apartment with cash several years ago. Then they helped him buy a second apartment. Why didn’t his parents also help his sisters? Zhou says, “Chinese parents do not like to buy homes for girls.”
There you have it: deeply rooted cultural patriarchy making everything ok. The author interviewed hundreds of people for this book; another interviewee, 26 year old legal worker and only daughter said her parents kept a detailed account of all the money they spent on her over the years for school, clothes, food, travel, and frequently showed her an itemized list of expenses to remind her that she owed them. Never did parents demand that their son repay them for buying his house.
Sorely tempted to flounce over to China and buy myself an apartment.

The Human Factor

If this book is indicative of Greene’s “talent” then I’ll pass on perusing the remainder of his oeuvre. Published in 1978, we have the Cold War backdrop supporting a double agent London spy whose interest is in helping the anti-apartheid interests of South Africa. Maurice Castle has spent the last 7 years in London with his wife & son (both black), funneling secrets to the Communists in order to help (in his mind) his wife’s people. There’s quite a bit of whisky (J&B) drinking, mustache stroking, unanswered ringing phone call codes. Castle’s helpmate, Davis, is suspected as the leaker, and eliminated with some peanut toxins that masquerade as cirrhosis. A lot of the higher-ups in the hush hush secret office seem tired, near retirement, ready to give it all up. Maurice ends up with his feet up, relaxing in Moscow, waiting for the day his wife & son can join him. Boring.

It Was Like This

Where did I get the recommendation for this middlebrow maudlin romance by Anne Goodwin Winslow? I just finished, tossing the book aside with an eye-roll and muttering. Two brothers, raised in the south (VA? MS?) with their female second cousin; naturally they both fall in love with her. Naturally she is beautiful, heroic, mythical. Older brother Hugh goes off to Richmond to be a political journalist, Anna goes to finishing school. Lawrence, younger, stays at home and farms. When Hugh declares a tiny bit of the love he feels for Anna, she is frightened, marches away. Off in Richmond recovering from a gun shot wound (dueling!), Hugh learns of their marriage (Anna/Lawrence). He returns to the farm, writes his book about Shakespeare and Catullus. Inexplicable scene where the previous owner (Duncan) comes back and holds Anna hostage – very maudlin, idiotic plot twist. Gypsies at the gate tell Anna & Hugh they will have a kid (eye roll). Hugh finds he cannot hold his feelings back, so leaves again. As they part, Anna thinks of Hugh and the gypsy prediction. Gak. The mother’s friend Mrs. Middleton provides some erudite advice to Hugh (her favorite), acts as a sane sounding board. There is a brief scandal with Ollie (the caretaker’s daughter) getting pregnant and asking that Hugh be told. The baby later drowns. Much rowing back and forth. Much ado about nothing.

Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels

A treasure chest containing forgotten gems of the stunningly talented Rhys. I was double-barrel shotgunned with the recommendation to read Rhys from two of my recently read authors, Heather O’Neil and Masha Tupitsyn, the latter interspersing quotes from Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight in her story, Proverbial. When I read Good Morning Midnight a week after reading Tupitsyn’s piece, phrases echoed in my head and I frantically searched through the earlier novels to see if Rhys was continuing a theme (blond cendré, prince or prostitute, sheets changed twice on Sunday). Staring out the window of an airplane, I had an a-ha moment and realized Rhys was echoing from my earlier reading of Tupitsyn. Minor mental victory.
What to say about Rhys? Her writing career is presented in this collection as a play in two acts: Act 1- the 1930s Parisian/London novels, Act 2 – her famous Wide Sargasso Sea depicting the Caribbean island she grew up on. The 1930s works are glittering, hard gems, with themes that become familiar repetitions: single girl with no money has sex for money, has either child that dies or an abortion, drinks excessively. Wide Sargasso Sea penned 30 years later is a dreamier landscape of color and madness, “everything is too much.. too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” The roles reversed in this later book, the girl has the money and is married off to a grasping man who encourages her madness.
Of the 1930s works, Good Morning Midnight is the strongest, showcasing her growing skill which inexplicably goes dark for a few decades after its publication in 1939. What price, war?
Devastating blows with single sentences then fantastic description follows. Four perfect paragraphs, all lovely for different reasons, all together on top of each other:

Today I must be very careful, today I have left my armour at home.
Théodore’s is more expensive than most of the restaurants round here and it is not very full. I watch the girl opposite cutting up the meat on her plate. She prongs a bit with her fork and puts it into her companion’s mouth. He eats, registers pleasure as hard as he can, prods round for the best bit on his plate and feeds her with it. At any moment you expect these two to start flapping wings and chirping.
Then there’s a middle-aged couple with their napkins tucked under their chins and a pretty woman accompanied by her husband – husband, I think, not lover.
These people all fling themselves at me. Because I am uneasy and sad they all fling themselves at me larger than life. But I can put my arm up to avoid the impact and they slide gently to the ground. Individualists, completely wrapped up in themselves, thank God. It’s the extrovert, prancing around, dying for a bit of fun – that’s the person you’ve got to be wary of.

Powerful one-liners:

That’s my idea of luxury – to have the sheets changed every day and twice on Sundays.

Shrugging and going with the flow:

Usually, in the interval between my afternoon sleep and my night sleep I went for a walk… I got in the habit of walking with my head down… I was walking along in a dream, a haze, when a man came up and spoke to me.
This is unhoped-for. It’s also quite unwanted. What I really want to do is to go for my usual walk, get a bottle of wine on tick and go back to the hotel to sleep. However, it has happened, and there you are. Life is curious when it is reduced to its essentials.

More apathy:

Well, there you are. It’s not that these things happen or even that one survives them, but what makes life strange is that they are forgotten. Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies. This is what makes life so droll – the way you forget, and every day is a new day, and there’s hope for everybody, hooray…

After being told she is stupid:

An extremely funny monologue is going on in my head – or it seems to me extremely funny. I want to stop myself from laughing out loud, so I say, ‘We’re getting very high-toned. What is a cérébrale, anyway? I don’t know, Do you?’
‘A cérébrale,’ he says, seriously, ‘is a woman who doesn’t like men or need them.’
‘Oh, is that it? I’ve often wondered. Well there are quite a lot of those, and the ranks are daily increasing.’
‘Ah, but a cérébrale doesn’t like women either. Oh no. The true cérébrale is a woman who likes nothing and nobody except herself and her own damned brain or what she thinks is her brain.’

Tirade against her employer:

He looks at me with distaste. Plat du jour – boiled eyes, served cold…
Well, let’s argue this out, Mr Blank. You, who represent Society, have the right to pay me 400 francs a month. That’s my market value, for I am an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray, there’s no denying it. So you have the right to pay me 400 francs a month, to lodge me in a small dark room, to clothe me shabbily, to harass me with worry and monotony and unsatisfied longings till you get me to the point when I blush at a look, cry at a word. We can’t all be happy, we can’t all be rich, we can’t all be lucky – and it would be so much less fun if we were. Isn’t it so, Mr Blank? There must be the dark background to show up the bright colours. Some must cry so that the others may be able to laugh more heartily. Sacrifices are necessary… Let’s say that you have this mystical right to cut my legs off. But the right to ridicule me afterwards because I am a cripple – no, that I think you haven’t got. And that’s the right you hold most dearly, isn’t it? You must be able to despise the people you exploit.

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie had some quotable bits as well:

At first the landlady had been suspicious and inclined to be hostile because she disapproved of Julia’s habit of coming home at night accompanied by a bottle. A man, yes; a bottle, no….
Julia was not altogether unhappy. Locked in her room – especially when she was locked in her room – she felt safe. She read most of the time.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

A stunning, detailed, comprehensive peek under the covers of the 14th century with its myriad of ills: the plague and its re-occurrence wiping out 50% of the European population during the century, endless war between France/England and the ravaging/pillaging of the land by marauding bands in times of peace or war, and the schism in the church with two popes, one in Avignon, France, the other in Rome. “Apocalypse was in the air.” Taxation as a constant and escalating burden on the lower classes to pay for the pomp and frivolity of the upper, who were more concerned about going to war bedecked in jewels and decorative tunics than in bringing the proper equipment (battering ram) to break through fortresses. “Funds had been invested in silk and velvet and gold embroidery, cargo space packed with wine and festive provisions. Why drag heavy machinery a thousand miles across Europe for use against a contemptible enemy? Something fundamental in the culture determined these choices,” and “The common people ‘groaned,’ wrote Jean de Venette, ‘to see dissipated in games and ornaments the funds they had so painfully furnished for the needs of war.'”
Tuchman selects Enguerrand de Coucy VII as the hero which the entire book follows; “to narrow the focus (in the 50 years that followed the Black Death), I have chosen a particular person’s life as the vehicle of my narrative… this has the advantage of enforced obedience to reality. I am required to follow the circumstances and the sequence of an actual medieval life.”
Joanna of Flanders (Countess of Montfort) led soldiers in defending her town, “devised feints and stratagems, wielded her sword in sea fights.” Inexplicably she is written off to history as “going mad” and being shut up and forgotten in the castle of Tickhill (England) for thirty years until her death; the fate of strong-willed women = declared mad?
Christine de Pisan, the only medieval woman to make her living with a pen, wrote about the art of war, a life of Charles V, a treatise on the education of women, and La Cité des dames (lives of famous women of history).
Rising up against the hypocrisy of the church, Brethren of the Free Spirit spread doctrinal and civil disorder, embracing poverty and communal living, “cluttering the towns like sparrows, preaching, begging, interrupting church services, scorning monks and priests.” Women were more prominent among the mystics, and its major gospels were written by women, “one a shadowy figure known only as Schwester Katrei, the other named Marguerite Porete, who wrote The Mirror of Free Souls who was excommunicated and burned with her book in 1310.” Other notable women: Bloemardine, Jeanne Dabenton. The movement was condemned by the Inquisition, but flourished and spread.
The initial outbreak of Black Death carried off “a third of the world,” which would equate to 20M deaths in Europe. One immediate consequences was labor shortages in manufacturing/agriculture harvest, which in turn gave labor groups more power (eventually). Not surprisingly, Jews were accused as bringing the plague (well-poisoning), and hysteria massacred Jewish communities throughout Europe, “a whole community of several hundred Jews burned in a wooden house especially constructed for that purpose on an island in the Rhine.”
Tuchman weaves Coucy’s story among a detailed look at the century’s customs.
Women’s treatment:

While husbands and lovers in the stories are of all kinds, ranging from sympathetic to disgusting, women are invariably deceivers: inconstant, unscrupulous, quarrelsome, querulous, lecherous, shameless… their antagonism to women reflected a common attitude which took its tone from the Church.

Examples of the terrible fate that meets carping and critical wives are cited by the Menagier and Landry, who tells how a husband, harshly criticized by his wife in public, “being angry with her governance, smote her with his fist down to the earth,” then kicked her in the face… “her due for her evil and great language as she was wont to say to her husband.”
So much emphasis is repeatedly placed on compliance and obedience as to suggest that opposite qualities were more common. Anger in the Middle Ages was associated with women, and the sin of Ire often depicted as a woman on a wild board, although the rest of the seven Vices were generally personified as men. If the lay view of medieval woman was a scold and a shrew, it may be because scolding was her only recourse against subjection to man…

On entertainment:

Entertainment was not only the recital of lofty epics of chivalrous if tedious adultery. The coarse comic fabliaux in quick rhymed couplets, satiric, obscene, often cruel or grotesque, were told for laughs like dirty stories of any age… treated sex more as pratfall than ennoblement, and their recital or reading aloud was as welcome in the castle as in town, tavern and probably cloister. A knight, asked by the Queen if he has fathered any children, is forced to admit he has not, and indeed he “did not have the look of a man who could please his mistress when he held her naked in his arms… for it is easy to judge from the state of the hay whether the pitchfork is good.” In his turn, the knight asks, “Lady answer me without deceit. Is there hair between your legs?” When she replies, “None at all,” he comments, “Indeed I do believe you for grass does not grow on a well-beaten path.”

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

The untold story about how Ulysses got published, as an in depth exploration of the legal trials and physical tribulations Joyce endured. Read in its entirety on a train ride to Seattle, it was allowed the prestigious honor of being allowed in my backpack with 2 other books after I skimmed it while packing and came across: “One of the ironies of Ulysses is that while it was banned to protect the delicate sensibilities of female readers, the book owes its existence to several women.. inspired by one woman, funded by another, serialized by two more and published by yet another.” Thus are Nora, Harriet Weaver, Margaret Anderson & Jane Heap, and Sylvia Beach outed as the heroines of the book. Nora is the woman who ran away from Ireland with Joyce about whom the book details the day of their first date, and is also the mother of his two children, one of whom is diagnosed with schizophrenia, the woman who never leaves him despite his obsession and single-mindedness about writing the book. Harriet Weaver sends him money to sustain (e.g. drink) himself while writing the book, giving him the equivalent of £1M in today’s money (as capital, that he could take a percentage of as annual return). Margaret Anderson & Jane Heap are the editors of The Little Review, a Greenwich Village magazine that serializes Ulysses as its being written, running into censorship flagged by the Comstock Act for indecent material being sent through the mail. Sylvia Beach, the American running a Parisian bookshop who takes a chance and publishes the entire work as a book.
The origins of The Little Review harken back to Dora Marsden’s feminist radical magazine, The Freewoman, founded to foment “a vast revolution in the entire field of human affairs, intellectual, sexual, domestic, economic, legal and political.” Opposing everything that threatened individual freedom: governments, churches, gender, class, race. Joyce as philosophical anarchist: skepticism of self-evident concepts that hold sway over people.

Anarchism emerged as a response to the rapid growth of the modern state… to the growth of one of the nineteenth century’s biggest ideas: the police…. By 1878 the British government had passed more than one hundred laws expanding police powers, and Britain set the example for police expansion all around the world. (p51)

Amazing sexism of Ezra Pound, telling his partner they should make an official announcement: “No woman shall be allowed to write for this magazine… I think active America is getting fed up on gynocracy and that it’s time for a male review…” Yet Pound had an essential role in acting as intermediary to get Joyce’s words out into the world.
The suppression of expression during WWI amped up under William Lamar (solicitor general of the Post Office), who wrote to a journalist, “I am after three things and only three things – pro germanism, pacifism, and high browism.”
Wrapped along with this, the woeful tale of Joyce’s eyes/eyesight deteriorating and taking medicines that sent him into hallucinatory states, the benefit to the book of having periods of no editing/writing where it was all internal reflection. The writing of scraps of paper, messages in a bottle, left around the apartment for better days. Ulysses as a never-revised book, since it was in a constant state of revision, being churned out sentence by sentence, painstakingly.

Beauty Talk & Monsters

I am a moth to her intellectual flame. How do you recap a book where nearly every page is dog-eared from a mental fist-pump, “oh yeah!” ? Tupitsyn’s writing is poetic and precise, tackling the issue of women as image through a dreamscape of films, books, cafés, hours of solitude. She eviscerates when needed, taking down Jack Nicholson (“Jack infects women like salmonella bacteria… I hate creeps and Jack is the King.”), and circles in on the social ills of male-dominated society. This collection of nineteen essays/stories/forays plucks at the scab of patriarchy and pokes, examines. “I think (gay men) treat women better than straight men do. But ambivalence can do that.” Throughout, she rapturously describes the pleasures of reading and solitude, sometimes opening up relationships for us to bear witness. I’m in love with the entire chapter 16: Reading is a Nightmare; I’ll try to resist quoting the whole thing (“On Wednesday I go to San Francisco to read my book… Reading is what I do most of the time, so instead of doing something else entirely, I modify the environment in which I read. I don’t stop reading.” “Is being alone, like reading, my hobby too?”).
There’s something magical about this book. The humor, the cultural signposts. “Peter and I met the usual way. He barged into me while I was reading The Sorrows of Young Werther at a café.” “Female aloneness by choice was so rare, it was almost a separate genre, a fantasy, science fiction. There was always some suspension of belief and some degree of sexual apocalypse involved.”
On writing (p 176):

When any body asks me what I write about, they don’t know what they want me to say and it sounds like I don’t know either. I don’t sound like I know what I’m thinking about when it comes to writing it down, but I’m doing the same thing (Kathy Acker) is (“I write to get it out of me. I don’t write it to remember it.”). I want to be a microscope over this shit and a needle too. I’m self-censoring to give other people an easier ride with me. I get quieter every year. I sound like less than I am.

On walking while reading (p 182):

Sometimes I walk while I read, or read while I walk. It makes me feel like I’m combining a daredevil sport with something geeky. That is, something physical with something physically, but not mentally, static. Or that what I’m doing gives me so much pleasure, I can’t stop doing it. I don’t want to. Not even to look where I’m going. Not even to see if I’m being looked at. I’ve only fallen once that way.

On being incessantly talked to while reading (p 154):

Reading on Sundays is really important to me… Though reading on Sundays is almost a religious ritual for me, my reading is diluted by the fact that I do it at noisy cafés. People often disregard that I’m reading because I’m seen doing it in a public place… which means I’m really waiting for someone to come and talk to me. Plus, I’m a girl. That always leaves the door wide open no matter how many things you use to close it. I’m talked to incessantly…. People have no respect for books, or they want to invade the space a book excludes. It was Goethe who said, “The decline of literature reflects the decline of a nation.” I use books as shields for all kinds of things… I rarely want an audience for what I’m feeling and thinking. I don’t want to dilute something that could potentially be important with the presence of someone who doesn’t understand its importance. I rarely want to get my ideas across knowing that the across is most likely a shitty destination.

On her employer’s penchant for stiletto heels (p 113):

I thought: this is Aileen’s way of getting high, injecting herself with stature and superiority. You could never pick up the pace with these kinds of shoes. Never get serious or determined. Never out-walk anyone, never out-run anyone, or anything, never get pissed off. Which meant Aileen had nothing to run away from and nothing to be pissed off about. Besides, New York was no longer the kind of place that signaled Danger. There was nothing to fear, except loss and boredom, and being stuck all day with a nostalgia that one one else bothers to feel.

On movies (p 142):

People forget all the time that movies are ultra-social extroverts. The kind of person that at a party makes you cringe because they can’t help blasting themselves all over the place like images that blink in every single room simultaneously. Even if you’re in the kitchen with a beer, you can hear them – they’re so wasteful – or in the hallway, you can see them, but there’s no sound. Most extroverts work on introverts like an x-ray effect, illuminating the damage inside.

On The Shining (p 69):

The way the blood tossed and turned like a secret ocean in a closet of skeletons. A cranberry horizon, some sailor’s dream-image of seasickness. Drunk on horror, now it makes me think of champagne sloshing around in a glass. Jack celebrates his rage and makes a toast to it. Getting shit-faced on a world of murder… While teaching a class on The Shining, William Burroughs defends Jack and explains, “Guy goes crazy, guy shoots his wife, it could happen to anyone.” Women being the proverbial anyones. I always have my finger on the power button when The Shining is on. When the cuntish maze finally bites down on Jack.

The Notebook

A delightfully terrible book that dives into your guts and jangles your heartstrings. I needed this simple yet powerful book as a palate cleanser after all the dense but silly books I’ve been reading lately, so picked up this for a re-read. The twin boys with their mental and physical exercises to harden their bodies and become less sensitive to verbal/physical abuse, their fasting and silence and stillness meditations, their essentially good hearts that push them to help their grandmother on the farm, and to provide assistance to “Harelip” their neighbor or to anyone in need. I’d forgotten about their retaliation on the housekeeper who cruelly denied a starving prisoner of war some bread (they explode ammunition in her stove). The cruelties of war are on every page, sometimes outright (their mother’s head dangling after a shell explodes on her), sometimes subtly through the sparseness of the prose. In the end, one twin crosses the frontier and the other remains at their grandmother’s house; the time had come for them to be separate people.