Three Tales

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I don’t enjoy reading translated works that give no credit to the translator, but the 1924 Knopf translation of Flaubert’s tales gives no information. These tales were recommended by Knausgaard in his latest volume of Struggles, but I can’t say I have much kinship with them. Three barely cobbled together stories, the longest being A Simple Heart, the story of Felicite the servant of Madame Aubain for over fifty years who ends up with a parrot (of course) and no children of her own. The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller was probably the most interesting, a medieval knight who is raised to be a saint by his mother and raised to be an emperor by his father and who goes nuts on hunting and killing wildlife, eventually cursed by an elk who says he’ll kill his parents. He does end up killing them after they creep into his house years later at the invitation of his wife, the daughter of an emperor. The last tale is Herodias, which I found extremely uninteresting being filled with Biblical allusions and such. I’m lazy, what can I say.

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Edited Dec 2016 to note that A Simple Heart came up again in I Love Dick. Of course I didn’t remember reading it a few months ago, so checked it out from the library only to have that feeling creep over me of having read it before. Thanks to LLL I can confirm I have!

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes -and- But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes

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I’d expected to enjoy this two-fer-one book of Anita Loos’s stories, but found my interest waning with every turning page. The famous Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was the stronger story, published in 1925 as the diary of a blonde who is bettering herself by pretending to like rich intellectuals who buy her jewelry before she skips town. Gentlemen Marry Brunettes was a much weaker tale explaining Dorothy’s obsession with the opposite of Lorelei– supporting men instead of entrapping rich ones in marriage. Blech, an hour of my life wasted wading through the cutesy intentionally misspelled words (faux intellectual, remember?).

Tent Folk of the Far North

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The thickness of paper in books from nearly 100 years ago never fails to astound me and to prevent me from dogearing pages (it feels too much like you’re chopping a tree down when you bend the page corner). I learned about Ester Blenda Nordstrom from a New Yorker piece and got my hands on her book about the summer she was appointed by the Swedish government as teacher to the Lapp people in Swedish Lapland. Nordstrom knows how to tell a tale– the story opens in the middle of a snowstorm raging as she walks with her tribe towards the spot where they will await spring, barely able to see in front of her with the blowing snow.

Coffee and fires abound, life in a tent is made to seem pleasant, and she starts up her school as soon as they reach the settlement spot. Summer arrives with the birds and nonstop sunlight. A ball she brings with her is a source of amazement and amusement for the children she teaches. Her story weaves in cultural observances and sprinkles in a bit of scolding when she is denied a hotel because the proprietor mistakes her for a Lapp who happens to speak Swedish very well. I’m going to track down a few more of her adventure stories.

From the New Yorker piece:

Born in 1891, Nordström began working as a journalist under the pseudonym The Boy and, at the age of twenty-three, wrote a best-selling book that exposed the harsh working conditions of household servants in Sweden. A kind of female Bruce Chatwin, Nordstrom toured around Sweden by motorcycle; hitchhiked alone across the U.S., in 1922 (and wrote a book about it); spent five years exploring Kamchatka (ditto); wrote a series of young-adult novels about tomboys; and, apparently, caused everyone she encountered, male and female, to fall in love with her.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

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A tale of growing up with a sister who is taken away and a brother who disappears, Fowler weaves a delightful story that dances at the tips of your thoughts, not requiring much deep musing. The sister is Fern, who turns out to be a chimpanzee. The brother turns out to run away to join ALF to try and do something about Fern’s prison of medical research. The narrator sandwiches these tales alongside her own 1990s college study at UC Davis. Mostly a story about a family, but with animal ethics peppered throughout.

The Creation of Patriarchy

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Gerda Lerner’s 1986 book is the first volume in her exploration of Women and History, and I heard about it from the unlikely source of Jane Fonda, via Fonda’s essay in Lenny about her convoluted journey to feminism. She begins her introduction, “Women’s history is indispensable and essential to the emancipation of women.” From this statement, she dives into historical record to try and resurrect the voices of women. “Women are and have been central, not marginal, to the making of society and to the buildng of civilization.” In the earliest times, history was preserved in collective memory passed down through oral tradition. Then, writing hit the scene in ancient Mesopotamia, and was preserved by men, recording what men have done and experienced and found significant.

Her main arguments:

  1. The appropriation of women’s reproductive capacity happened before private property and class formation, indeed it laid the foundations for private property.
  2. Men learned to enslave women and then expanded to enslaving conquered men and women.
  3. The earliest law codes institutionalized women’s sexual subordination and created an artificial division of women into respectable vs. not (respectable allowed to/must wear veils when out in public, prostitutes not allowed to veil themselves).
  4. Goddesses rejected by a dominant male god soon after the establishment of a strong and imperialist kingship. Hebrew monotheism further attacks cult of fertility goddesses, and encoding the Old Testament with creativity and pro-creativity to an all-powerful male god, associating female sexuality with sin and evil.
  5. Establishment of basic symbolism that the contract between God and humanity demands that women are subordinate, their only access to God is in their function as mothers.
  6. “This symbolic devaluing of women in relation to the divine becomes one of the founding metaphors of Western civilization. The other founding metaphor is supplied by Aristotelian philosophy, which assumes as a given that women are incomplete and damaged human beings of an entirely different order than men. It is with the creation of these two metaphorical constructs, which are build into the very foundations of the symbol system of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as “natural,” hence it becomes invisible. It is this which finally establishes patriarchy firmly as an actuality and as an ideology.”

Because I’m always very interested in the connection between women’s subordination and slavery, an extensive quote of Lerner’s thoughts on that in her Definitions section.

Sexism stands in the same relation to paternalism as racism does to slavery. Both ideologies enabled the dominant to convince themselves that they were extending paternalistic benevolence to creatures inferior and weaker than themselves. But here the parallel ends, for slaves were driven to group solidarity by racism, while women were separated from one another by sexism.

The slave saw other kinds of hierarchy and inequality: that of white men inferior in rank and class to his master; that of white women inferior to white men. The slave experienced his oppression as one kind within a system of hierarchy. Slaves could see clearly that their condition was due to the exploitation of their race. Thus race, the factor on which oppression was based, became also the force unifying the oppressed.

For the maintenance of paternalism (and slavery) it is essential to convince subordinates that their protector is the only authority capable of fulfilling their needs. It is therefore in the interest of the master to keep the slave in ignorance of his past and of future alternatives. But slaves kept alive an oral tradition  which spoke of a time prior to their enslavement and defined a previous time of freedom. This offered an alternative to their present state. Slaves knew that their people had not always been slaves and that others like them were free. This knowledge of the past, their separate cultural tradition, the power of their religion and their group solidarity enabled slaves to resist oppression and secure the reciprocity of rights implicit in their status.

Eugene Genovese, in his superb study of slave culture, shows how paternalism, while it softened the harshest features of the system, also tended to weaken the individual’s ability to see the system in political terms. He says: “It was not that the slaves did not act like men. Rather, it was that they could not grasp their collective strength as people and act like political men.” That they could not become conscious of their collective strength was due to paternalism.

This description has great significance for an analysis of the position of women, since their subordination has been primarily expressed in the form of paternalistic dominance within the structure of the family. This structural condition made any development of female solidarity and group cohesiveness extremely difficult. In general we can observe that women deprived of group support and of an accurate knowledge of the past history of women experienced the full and devastating impact of cultural modeling through sexist ideology, as expressed in religion, law, and myth.

Single Blessedness: observations on the single status in married society

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Another book (pub’d 1976) culled from the footnotes of Spinster, it’s almost embarrassing to read a book that so clearly outlines the delightfulness of being untethered to another human—preaching to the choir, perhaps. At any rate, I “learned” that us singles are a pretty awesome group, albeit completely ignored and under-represented in society. We value our independence (duh) and have strong social connections. While we have to face the peeling off of our more simple-minded friends into the bondage of marriage and kids, we make up for their loss by finding new friends who aren’t in lockstep with societal norms. The pairing off frees us to weed out the weak and to find more interesting and valuable connections. (Ok, most of the above is my own thoughts, but it aligns with what Margaret Adams outlines).

Althea Webster originated the concept of “Top Ten People” —the ten people you’re closest to that you turn to for help and for celebration— and she considers this loose network as valuable (or more) than what marrieds gain from their legal bondage. “She also feels that for her this is a much preferable alternative to the exclusive one-to-one involvement implicit in modern marriage and one more conducive to the growth of personality, self-awareness, and social identity, because it is free of the dependency that is so often a feature of marriage…”

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Another book closely related is Liberty, A Better Husband: Single Women in America The Generations of 1780-1840 whose title came from a snippet of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 diary, “[The article I wrote] was about old maids. “Happy Women” was the title, and I put in my list all the busy, useful, independent spinsters I know, for liberty is a better husband than love to many of us.” From a quick perusal of this book, I learned the term “thornbacks” was applied to unmarried women over age 26. Hell yeah, thornbacks! Also learned about Mary Abigal Dodge, who wrote under the pseudonym Gail Hamilton, quoted from her work, A New Atmosphere (1865).

These Modern Women

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I’m finally tackling a stack of book recommendations I got from reading Bolick’s (somewhat weak) Spinster. This is a collection of seventeen essays from women written in 1926-7 as contributions to The Nation, invited to share their stories and explain how their feminist convictions have withstood real life. As editor Elaine Showalter explains in the intro, the 1920s saw the decline of feminism post-suffrage win, when everyone seemed to throw up their hands and say, you won the vote, so why isn’t life as grand as you’d expected? (Ahem: powerful underlying patriarchal structures, internalized sexism on both women and men’s part, for starters). Showalter calls this feminism’s awkward age.

The essays are all by middle to upper class white women, so definitely not a diverse viewpoint. 70% of the essays were written by women who married and there’s the overarching image that women should be able to “have it all,” it being career, family, success. The series was the idea of managing editor Freda Kirchwey who seems to have been an early Lean In proponent– keeping her name and working right up until her due date then returning to work right after her son was born. Found out about Heterodoxy, a NY feminist society organized in 1912 by Marie Jenny Howe, a Unitarian minister, which held what seemed to be early consciousness-raising sessions each week.

A common thread through the essays was telling the stories of their mothers, especially the trials and tribulations of child-bearing/rearing. Kate Gregg’s essay (which I enjoyed most) mentions the loaded gun she saw her mother put under her pillow, planning to kill herself if she went into her sixth child’s labor when her husband was yet again out philandering and leaving her abandoned. Another mentions her mother inheriting seven children from her husband’s previous marriage and then adding ten more of her own, having to manage a household of seventeen children.

Kate talks about her decision not to marry, and also mentions  psychoanalysts. The Nation also ran three essays by psychologists which tried to explain these modern women (more on that later):

Other men have come my way. One planned a house for me and insisted on a nice big kitchen. That was the end of him. Another dear kind soul with whom I though I could live rapturously could not build a fire on a camping trip and fancied always when he was lost that the Pacific Ocean must be in the east. The psychoanalyst will say–but who cares what the psychoanalyst will way? I know myself that if I had done otherwise in any one of these three marriage opportunities I would have been a fool…. Perhaps the tranquil, peaceful, rich life I live is more of an argument than any words I shall ever say.

So, the psychologists’ responses. Thankfully Kirchwey recruited one woman psychologist, Beatrice Hinkle, who seemed fairly sympathetic to the women’s essays and viewpoints. John Watson was another enlisted, and he raged against the women in an essay called The Weakness of Women which starts out claiming that we can’t expect these short biographies of the women to be truthful. Another weakness of women, according to Watson, is that they have never been trained to work like men, “hence few women have achieved greatness.” Blind to his own ignorance, he goes on to say that women have the strength to paint, “yet there has never been a great woman painter.” Hmm, if that were true (it’s not) perhaps it could circle back to your original point that women were not trained like men. Had Picasso been born a girl, would his father had taken the trouble to train her, expose her to the same things Pablo got exposed to? Joseph Collins is the third psychologist, and his essay is slightly better than Watson’s inanities, but yet he states that women have one purpose—birthin’ babies—then he digresses into musing about which of the authors he would like to have as a companion. WTF. He almost picks one and then states that “her buoyant spirit made her over-affable.” Again, WTF. A pox on both your houses, Watson and Collins.

On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light

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Holy hell, another Canadian woman who can write the boots off a snake. And another book I devoured in one sitting, although Cordelia Strube’s 360 pages were less gluttonous than the 600+ of Knausguaard. Beautifully written and structured, I closed the cover and felt like I was floating when it was over.

Broken into two sections, Before and After, with 60% of the book concentrated in the Before chapters that deal with Harriet, the on-the-go eleven-year-old who runs errands for the seniors who live in her building to earn money to run away with. She is a whirlwind of energy, painting, making sculpture with found objects (and dumpster diving for them), defending her one friend against the petty tyranny of popular kids, scheming to get her mom interested in a nice, employed guy instead of the deadbeat who lives with them (and who slaps Harriet on one of her last days), caring for her younger brother Irwin who was born with water on the brain and given up for hopeless by the doctors. Harriet also cares for the man who runs the corner store where she’s always fetching items for the old folk, ice cream, candy, chips from Mr. Hung of Hung Best. Her dad seems like a real loser, divorcing her mom when he realized he couldn’t handle a special needs child and then focusing only on long distance bicycling instead of paying child support.

The After section picks up the story when Irwin is fourteen years old and Harriet has been dead for years, having stepped off a balcony believing she could fly after taking some medication to ease her pain. I initially balked at having to suffer through the remaining pages, her ending could have been the perfect stopping point, but Strube pushes on and brings the story to a more complete ending, showing us the pain of losing Harriet, and how Irwin builds a life for himself out of his friends in the building, his mom, and his half-sister who looks just like Harriet. Irwin’s world is rocked when he finds out that Harriet was an organ donor, and he can’t handle thinking about pieces of her floating off to be rejected by other people’s bodies. In the end, his friend discovers a local artist whose work looks oddly similar to Harriet’s, somewhat neatly (too neatly) having been the recipient of her heart and lungs. In the end, Irwin and pals go to his art show, he sees Harriet in the artist’s eyes, they hug.

My Struggle: Book 5

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Reluctantly I am unable to control my devouring of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s struggle. Book 5 continues the story (thank god there is only 1 remaining) with his acceptance into the Writer’s Academy, his ill-fated attempt to study Literature in Bergen, his role as a pseudo-drummer in his brother’s band, the year off he takes to care for mentally ill (mostly to earn money), his ambivalence about writing, his inability to write, and then finally his breakthrough, his first novel and critical acclaim. 600+ pages over the last two days, I admit that he has real skill in swirling his story among descriptions of gorgeous Scandinavian nature scenes and city life. Yet there are still parts that I can’t bear, his insistence on telling us how he prematurely ejaculates, how he smuggles an art book down to the bathroom to masturbate, his roving eye and subsequent dismissal of women except as objects to be described. He continues to be a flawed character who reveals all, the dirty details of all his friendships and relationships. I would not want to spend a single minute in his company, and yet I appreciate the writing, appreciate the spotlight he shines on the struggle of writing.

What was this feeling? I didn’t now. It was beyond investigation, beyond explanation or justification, there was no rationality in it at all, yet it was self=evident, all-eclipsing: anyting other than writing was meaningless for me. Nothing else would be enough, would quench my thirst.
But thirst for what?
How could it be so strong? Writing a few words on paper? And, yes, that wasn’t a dissertation, research, a report, or that sort of thing, but literary?
It was madness, for this was precisely what I couldn’t do. I was good at academic assignments, and I was good at articles, reviews, and interviews. But as soon as I sat down to write literature, which was the only way I wanted to spend my life, the sole occupation I perceived as meaningful enough, then I fell short.
I wrote letters, they just flowed, sentence after sentence, page after page. Often they consisted of stories about my life, what I’d experienced and what I’d thought. Had I only been able to transfer that feeling, that state of mind, that flow into literary prose, everything would have been fine. But I couldn’t I sat at my desk, wrote a line, then stop. I wrote another line, stop.

I feel your pain, Knausgaard. Later, when he’s in the flow, he mentions the importance of routine to conserve all available energy for writing.

Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook

Pamela Frankau’s disjointed and sloppy 1961 book that intends to impart words of wisdom around writing but then veers off into autobiographical details beyond the craft. She was apparently a prolific writer who struggled to make ends meet despite churning out several books. Part of her persona seems to have been forged in the conflict of living in England vs. America, she reluctantly moves here but then secretly finds herself writing more and more like an American. She falls in love with San Francisco and writes “Life in California is very beautiful, very hygienic, very tiring and very expensive.” Her editor killed the “beautiful” and she became infamous for her description (which is still oddly apt nearly 70 years later). If you turn a blind eye to the horribly off-kilter and unnecessary autobiographical bits, you do get a few gems about writing and reading.

A cautionary note for my reviews on LLL:

After a very few weeks, I was saddened to find myself slipping into the traditional reviewer’s idiom, the de-haut-en-bas idiom that I find so poisonous. Even in praising a novel, I discovered, I was beginning to make myself sound as though I could have written it as well- or better. I pressed on for a year, but it was a relief, once I had resigned, to be free of the mysterious disease, Critic’s Sniff.

Her insistence that characters trump plot, then trying to define plot:

After much musing, we would eventually decide that a plot was a linked series of actions and reactions; that its pattern of stresses must provide a beginning, a middle, and an end… the man who defined a plot as ‘the thing that keeps you reading’ probably said it all.

The Honorable Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman from Brooklyn

Nancy Hicks wrote this in 1971 during Shirley Chisholm’s first term in Congress, a historic event being the first black woman elected to Congress. Unfortunately, it reads at a third grade level with simple sentences, perhaps aimed at a grade school audience, and written at the beginning of Chisholm’s career it lacked much detail of her battles in Congress. Much is made of her vow to vote against any defense bill before domestic issues were addressed. Left me wanting to know much more detail about Chisholm, which is never a good thing when finishing a book.

Beloved

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Holy shit. This is a beautiful book that seems overlooked, a victim of its own success, relegated to the “assigned reading” category for kids and thus something non-students shy away from. The copy I read from the library was filled with nonsensical notes and underlines that I erased from the book before I read it (the pencil marks, at least—some moron used pen and highlighter to make erroneous notes deep in the novel).

The story revolves around Sethe, an escaped slave who makes a life for herself in Cincinnati with her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and her daughter Denver, along with the ghost of her murdered daughter, Beloved. Morrison expertly teases and weaves the prior story in with the current story, granting us glimpses of the horrors of slavery then fully revealing that Sethe sawed through Beloved’s neck as she was on the cusp of being captured, a month into her freedom.

Fantastic writing, pacing, and storytelling that shows us some of the horrors of our past. If you read this for a class, it’s time for a re-read to fully enjoy her talent.

Rhinoceros and Other Plays

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A few of Eugène Ionesco’s plays, most notably Rhinoceros, translated from the French by Derek Prouse, first produced in Paris in 1960. Over the course of four scenes in three acts, almost all the people in a small town turn into rhinoceroses, except for Bérenger, the drinker who somehow manages to keep a clear head throughout. Seemed like commentary on the French response to the Nazi invasion of France during WW2, where people flipped their wigs and became friendly to the invaders. The rhinoceroses maul through the town, killing cats and stairways in their rampage.

The first scene has Bérenger meet his friend Jean for a drink, and that’s when they first spot the rhinoceroses. Next, the scene is in the workplace, where they discuss whether the rhinoceroses were a hoax. After one demolishes their staircase, the crew escape through the window and Bérenger goes off to make amends to Jean for the day before. Only he finds Jean sick in bed, then watches him turn into a rhinoceros. In the last scene, we’re at Bérenger’s apartment, where his work friend Dudard and love interest Daisy are the only humans left in town, watching the rhinoceroses roar and kick up dust below.

By visiting museums, reading literary periodicals, going to lectures. That’ll solve your troubles, it will develop your mind. In four weeks you’ll be a cultured man.

Indeed. (This was Jean’s haphazard plan for how Bérenger could woo Daisy.) Looking forward to catching a performance of this in Seattle next month.

Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions

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Interesting and well-researched portrait of radical doctor/abortionist/suffragist/leftist Marie Equi, born 1872 in New Bedford, MA to immigrant parents (Italian dad, Irish mom). Michael Helquist took on the challenge of having to recreate Equi’s life “given the loss of her journals, personal papers, and memorabilia, discarded after her death.” He notes that historians frequently encounter this difficulty “in researching women’s lives at a time when their experiences and contributions were less valued.” Instead, he relied on some recently uncovered oral histories conducted in Portland in the 1980s along with court records, most notably the records from Equi’s federal court trial. J.Edgar Hoover also requested that all of her letters from San Quentin be monitored, so we have copies of those from the final four months of her stay.

With such resources, Helquist managed to paint a fairly comprehensive picture of Equi by filling in a lot of the blanks with blanket statements about life during those times, the prevalence of doctors providing abortions, other accounts of IWW/Wobbly activities. Equi crosses paths with several of the leading women of the times and of the movement, including a friendship with Margaret Sanger.

At a high level, Equi was an independent woman who never finished high school, headed west to help her girlfriend/companion settle her homestead claim in Oregon, studied medicine, lived in San Francisco before settling in Portland, helped with medical support after the 1906 earthquake, had a long-term relationship with Harriet Speckart with whom she raised a child that they adopted (thus becoming the first unmarried lesbian woman to have custody of a child). She comes across as a real firebrand, written up in newspaper articles for horsewhipping a minister who wouldn’t pay Harriet’s salary, throwing elbows and punches later on in life at Wobbly meetings. In 1916 she joined the Portland “Preparedness Day” (e.g. war-preparedness) with an anti-war banner “Prepare to Die, Workingman–J.P.Morgan & Co. Want Preparedness for Profit.” She later climbed a telephone pole and unleashed a banner that said “Down with the Imperialist War.” For these efforts and more, she was arrested and imprisoned under the Sedition Act. Her sentence was reduced by President Wilson from 3 years to 1 year and a day, but she ended up spending time in jail in Marin County, further irritating her claustrophobia brought on by violent police treatment earlier in life.

An Unnecessary Woman

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I wish I liked this more than I did but am left feeling underwhelmed. Rabih Alameddine writes about a woman who lives in Beirut, translating English and French literature into Arabic with a new book every year, for fifty years, living alone after her impotent husband left her a few years after their failed marriage began. This book had all the markers to be a slam dunk hit for lit nerds, but something about the tone was off. Allusions to authors and their work swirl on every page, (rightly) expecting you to be able to hop along between each stepping stone across the pool. But yet, this didn’t penetrate my soul, possible because written by a man, he only relies on the usual suspects for inspiration.

He also sneaks in a bit of drama between the narrator and her elderly mother, attempted to be dumped at her doorstep by her half-brother. Instead, the translator ventures over to visit, gives her mother a foot bath and pedicure. The most satisfying relationship is that between the women in the building, those survivors from all the horrors Beirut has seen over the past 50 years.

There are some interesting musings on the nature of translation, some shit-talking about Constance Garnett’s classic Russian translations (she was self-taught… who isn’t?); the reason we can’t tell Tolstoy apart from Dostoyevski is because we’re reading Garnett instead. He also goes off on Hemmingway and how boring he is, how there’s no depth but yet critics and college boys insist that the meaning is beneath the surface.

The good parts:

He quotes Marianne Moore from her essay If I Were Sixteen Today in an epigram, “The cure for loneliness is solitude.”

It seems melancholic, but I liked:

I used to dream that one day I’d have friends over for dinner and we’d spend the entire evening in sparkling conversation about literature and art. Laughing and cavorting and making merry, Wildean wit and sassy, delightful repartee parried back and forth across the room. My salon would be the envy of the world, if only the world knew about it.

Also, the most common text found on Roman graves:

Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.
I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.