The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

Another great book helping to explain the unexplainable—why people will vote against their best interest (rural folks voting against the social safety net that helps them). Cramer spends years in the field infiltrating a few dozen small groups around the state, mostly of old men. She develops a theory of rural consciousness as a lens through which to view everything from non-urbanites. Diving into the numbers, she shows that rural displeasure in having to pay more than they get back is misplaced—rural areas skew towards getting more per capita than they put in. There’s a deep-seated feeling of resentment, the idea that urbanites are getting more than they deserve and not working hard. The idea that manual labor is more deserving than white collar labor is pervasive. Very readable recap of several years of research with great bits of conversation recorded. Rural denizens feel left out, abandoned, ignored, and as if they are stupid.

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Brilliant book by the smart, funny, honest and intensely brave Laura Kipnis. It changed my perspective on automatically assuming that sexual assault reports were to be believed by exposing the grotesque practice of kangaroo courts of Title IX investigations on campus. Kipnis lands a goldmine of evidence from Peter Ludlow who was railroaded out of his star tenure position in philosophy by two somewhat disturbing accusations from female students that disintegrate under serious study. Kipnis encourages us to view women not just as the passive objects that we’ve become, needing to be protected by overzealous university administrators with consent rules. She even touches on that taboo subject of excessive drinking on campus and its role in attacks. Wisely, she counsels women to take self-defense classes and learn how to vehemently say NO!, unraveling the socialization of being female that has taught us to be pleasing and placid.

Kipnis gets caught in the maw of this Title IX beast when charges are brought against her by people upset about an essay she wrote, claiming that it created a chilling environment on campus. “I knew next to nothing about Title IX, but we were still living in America (or so I thought) and either the place turned into a police state without my noticing, or using a federal law against gender discrimination to punish a professor for writing an essay was something other people were likely to find outrageous too.”

It’s fierce, intelligent writing that takes an unpopular view, sprinkled with bits of Kipnis’s wit throughout. “During our interview, Ludlow tried to interest me in My Little Pony, too, insisting at one point that I watch a video clip of a bunch of winsome animated ponies cavorting in a candy-colored field, which was the longest three minutes of my life.”

Let’s teach women how to say “Get your fucking hand off my knee” instead of setting up bizarre secret courts which allow them to hogtie men for their actions with very little evidence.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

It’s too soon to read this book. Unless, of course, you’re ready to pull the scabs off and start digging into the open wounds again, raising your ire and fully hating Bernie bros, Comey, and the misogynist nation that barely elected Toxic T. No thanks. I wasn’t ready to deal with this, wasn’t ready to have it all condensed into a few hundred pages. Maybe in a few years.

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story

For those folks who don’t have enough time to digest Hurston’s autobiography or Wrapped in Rainbows: the Life of Zora Neale Hurston, this is a quick introduction to the literary genius that was Zora. Her life dipped and arced and twisted and turned, and Peter Bagge does a great job illustrating this vividly.

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Twelve tales that Mann wrote between 1896 and 1912 (Death in Venice), some quite strange, all with the tell-tale Mann stamp upon them.
The Will for Happiness (1896)- man with fatal heart condition evades death until at long last the father of his beloved allows them to marry. He dies on their wedding night.
Little Herr Friedemann (1897)- crippled by being dropped as an infant, Friedemann falls in love then realizes it is futile since he is grotesque, focuses on being cultured instead. Years later, he falls for a new woman in town who cruelly rejects him, he drowns himself in the creek by her house at a party one night.
Tobias Mindernickel (1897) – old man is laughed at by children, acquires a dog but then beats it, only finds relief in providing succor once he’s almost killed it. Then he does kill it.
Little Lizzy (1897) – attractive woman married to an obese lawyer and openly carrying on affairs that the whole town knows about. She convinces her husband to dress up like a giant baby and sing a number at her party, to his humiliation. “This fat man had the most bizarre character. No one could have been more courteous, more gracious, more obliging than he. Yet without actually articulating it, people felt that his overly friendly and flattering behavior was somehow forced, that it was rooted in timidity and insecurity, and so it got on their nerves. Nothing is uglier than a person who despises himself but who, out of cowardice and vanity, is eager to please because he wants to be liked.”
Gladius Dei (1902)- strange story where a painting of the Virgin Mary is deemed by a passerby to be too seductive, he tries to get it taken out of the window of the gallery that’s selling copies of it.
Tristan (1903) – hints of Magic Mountain in this one— a writer and a consumptive (only the windpipe tho!) meet in a sanatorium and develop a friendship; she dies after having been convinced by him to play Tristan and Isolde.
The Starvelings: A Study (??) – brief portrait of a jealous friend who wishes his lady friend would tell him to wait a bit and hang out with her. Echoes of this show up again in Tonio Kroger.
Tonio Kroger (1903)- fantastic novella, Kroger falls in love with Hans and then with Inge, both of whom he encounters later in Sweden they having married and he having traveled there to get a fresh perspective. “If he was asked what in the world he wanted to be, he would supply different answers, for he was in the habit of saying—and had already written—that he bore within himself the possibilities of a thousand different ways of life, together with the secret awareness that they were all impossibilities.”
“He did not work like someone who works in order to live; rather, he worked like someone who wants nothing but to work because he considers himself nothing as a living person, wishes only to be regarded as a creative being, and otherwise goes about gray and inconspicuous like an actor who has taken off his makeup and is nothing so long as he has nothing to portray. He worked in silent and invisible seclusion, disdainful of those small-minded people for whom talent was a social asset, who, whether rich or poor, went about wild and dilapidated or lived high on the hog with very individualistic neckties, who were devoted to their charming and artistic lives and unaware that good works can emerge only under the pressure of a bad life, that the person who lives does not work, and that an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative.”
The Wunderkind (1903) – a young skilled composer and pianist pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, or so he feels.
Harsh Hour (1905) – I think this is Mann’s portrait of Schiller writing? He mentions Don Carlos… it’s late at night, the writer is alone and taking a break to look more holistically at his work. “Do not brood: work! Limit, exclude, give shape, complete… And complete it he did, the work of his suffering. It may not have been good, but complete it he did. And when it was complete, lo and behold, it was good. And from his soul, from Music and Idea, new works struggled upward, resonant and shimmering creations, which, in sacred form, wondrously hinted at their infinite homeland, just as the ocean, from which it is fished, roars in the seashell.”
The Blood of the Walsungs (1905) – bizarre tale of twins who are in love with each other, named after the characters in Die Walkure who they see that night at the opera; they consummate their relationship on the eve of the girl twin getting married off.
Death in Venice (1912) – old man and the sea, feels the travel bug and doesn’t know how to fight it, goes here and there and finally Venice, tries to leave but his trunk gets sent on in the wrong direction, he uses this as an excuse to stay and watch a young boy whom he’s in love with. Disease hits the city, he dies.

A London Family Between the Wars

Molly Hughes is the perfect traveling companion, lightening your spirits with jolly tales of life in the countryside on the outskirts of England in the 20s and 30s. It seems all of her books include a tragedy of some sort and this is no different—she becomes a widow and has to forge on by earning her keep to feed and shelter her three sons.

Beautiful language throughout, such as her description of a moonset, a term she coins, “The moon was setting among a glory of silver clouds. I stared in stupid amazement. I had seen many a fine sunset, but never before (or since) a moonset. In fact, I am coining the word, for the O.E.D. doesn’t mention it, although quite chatty about a sunset.”

She moves to the countryside and is beset by invitations to join “society” which she rebuffs by saying “I’m so sorry but I can’t join your circle. I can’t sew, or do anything useful, or play cards, or be sociable in any way; and I’m not a lady.” This gets her out of the obligatory social calls that deaden an afternoon and waste time, but she’s extremely friendly with neighbors and people who pop in to ask for things or just a brief informal chat.

She gives invaluable advice about lectures, suggesting that “unless you shock people you make little impression.” Also interesting thought about the gramophone and how she was reluctant to use it because she might put on a record once too often and thus lessen the joy of listening to it. In this age of play whatever you want, watch whatever you want whenever you want, I wonder if we have some of the same deadening.

Her tone is always funny, and she relates little tales that make you laugh, like the Irish shopkeeper who closed up shop. “What made you close down?” asked an Englishman. “Ah, we were getting too many orders.” was the reply.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less

After watching the lovely movie inspired by this book (Julianne Moore, directed by Jane Anderson, 2005) I broke my usual rule and read the book to see if there were more crumbs of the story to hoover up. Indeed there were, more bits of Evelyn Ryan’s poems and snippets from her contesting, along with the discovery after her death that she had married Kelly at 6 in the morning on a Thanksgiving in the 1930s, meaning that she had already been pregnant with Lea Anne at the time, necessitating the wedding and throwing her plans for college and writing a newspaper column to the winds.

The book treats the father much more lightly than the cartoonish character Woody Harrelson plays, and Evelyn begins to control her winnings earlier in the story than simply handing them over to the man who will drink them away. Also included is a painfully honest assessment of the family’s problems when Evelyn asks the college to reconsider their not extending scholarships to her children since she’s working part time and Kelly is retired, flat out stating that he is an alcoholic who drank up most of their money and if it hadn’t been for her contesting, the family never would have made it.

Avoiding Politics: How Americans Produce Apathy in Everyday Life

Extremely interesting sociological study of a handful of suburban groups in the late 1980s to understand why people avoid speaking about political issues. Eliasoph did her fieldwork over two and a half years, going to country and western dance halls, parent volunteer groups, anti-nuke activist meetings, and anti-drug volunteering. She shows the great lengths that each group goes to to avoid talking about the wider world and to avoid showing that they care about politics.

There’s a “spiral of silence” where people don’t express what could be an unpopular viewpoint to strangers, “sucking unpopular viewpoints out of circulation by making them embarrassing to hold publicly.” She points to other studies that show avoidance of disagreement is not universal. Israelis “use political talk the way Americans use talk about sports: to create common ground, with political disagreements only adding to the entertainment value.” This leads to political evaporation, and average Americans not knowing nearly enough about what’s going on in the world.

In group after group, she found conditions where as soon as discussion might spring up that would be enlightening, it was squashed. “One of the most important things that freely organized citizens’ groups can do that social service bureaucrats cannot do…is engage in imaginative, improvisational, creative political conversation.” But, it’s discouraged by the very fabric of engagement set up in these groups.

“Silencing public-spirited political conversation was, paradoxically, volunteers’ way of looking out for the common good… In their effort to be open and inclusive, to appeal to regular, unpretentious fellow citizens without discouraging them, they silenced public-spirited deliberation, working hard to keep public-spirited conversation backstage – though open political conversation was just what someone like Charles thought the group need to hold, in order to involve new members and address community problems.”

Discovered by way of the author’s great article about the rural whites.

Franz Kafka: The Tremendous World Inside My Head

Louis Begley’s biographical essay about Kafka is a great place to start unraveling the twisty turns of this Prague genius’s forty year life. You’re left with the confirmed opinion that K was a giant weirdo, beset by crippling fear and antipathy towards his father/parents, torturing his fiancee Felice with up and down/back and forth/push-pull of wanting to marry and not marry (his letter to Milena “Yes, torture is extremely important to me—my sole occupation is torturing and being tortured”). He was fiercely protective of his work, only allowing a handful of things to be published in his lifetime and instructing Max Brod to burn everything else on his death (command ignored, for better or worse, giving us The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, Letter to His Father, and all his diaries and letters). Of those published while he was alive I’ve only read The Metamorphosis (decades ago). Otherwise, his sanctioned works are In the Penal Colony, and short stories: The Judgement, A Country Doctor, A Report to the Academy, A Hunger Artist, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

Here’s a sobering tidbit—all three of Kafka’s sisters were murdered by Germans in concentration camps. Kafka himself bowed out of the world stage at age 40 in 1924, from tuberculosis. He preferred his youngest sister, Ottla, but otherwise despised his family, with whom he lived. “It is not because they are relatives that I cannot bear to be in the same room with them, but merely because they are people… I cannot live with people; I absolutely hate all my relatives, not because they are wicked, not because I don’t think well of them… but simply because they are people with whom I live in close proximity.” Further in this letter to his fiance, he tells her that he’d be incomparably happier living in a desert, in a forest, on an island, rather than with his family. “Beware of thinking of life as commonplace… Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time—I doubt that I am a human being.”

He took work as a clerk in an insurance office but always knew that his purpose in life was to write. “The tremendous world I have inside my head, but how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.” As such, he yearned for complete solitude in his life, saying, “this is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

The fantastic quote about literature comes from a letter to Oskar Pollak from 1904:

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… We need books to affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Begley credits K’s 1912 story, The Judgement for revealing one of Kafka’s greatest inventions: the “nonchalant treatment of events in his fiction that every reader knows are implausible.”

Lots of book suggestions from this: Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann, Ferdydurke by Gombrowicz, Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Elizabeth Boa’s Kafka: Gender, Class and Race, and K by Roberto Calasso. (Note: I did a cursory flip through Boa’s book on Kafka and gender and it looks solid but I’m all Kafka’d out at the moment. Benjamin’s Illuminations also very good.)

One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

I read this book not from any interest in the god-awful practice of having the government get involved in your relationship, but rather out of curiosity about Mead’s reporting and writing methods which I enjoyed in her Middlemarch book. We are of like minds on this subject—the practice of elaborate, expensive, fairy-tale weddings is ludicrous—but Mead was curious about the engine that was driving this nonsense. She dives deep into wedding planning and the billion dollar industry that supports this myth, transforming weddings into “machines for making money” and tapping into the “deepest hopes and fears of consumers to accomplish their economic goals.”

Her tongue in cheek writing style rescues some of the dreariest tales, such as when a group of women gathered for a weekend-long seminar to give them “their MBA in getting married,” Mead drolly notes that the book brides would turn to most in their education would be the checkbook.

Some eye-popping stats come up, such as the average cost of a wedding increasing 100% since 1990 with people paying ~$30k for the occasion now.

Mead wonders what it means that today’s modern woman “who has, by law, as much right as her male peers to education, to employment opportunity, to financial self-sufficiency, to political independence, and to the expression of sexual freedom should want, on her wedding day, to affect the styles and manners of prefeminist femininity?”

There’s also the pathetic couple who were so entranced by the video screen showing images of their wedding that the photographer ended up with lots of photos of people sitting around watching TV instead of having a lively event.

In the end, Mead chalks it up to the overwhelming consumerism that has overtaken American culture. This is what causes the pressures to have the perfect day. I’d venture to guess that since the book came out in 2009 there’s an entire chapter to be added about the pressures of having the event play well on social media.

A London Girl of the 1880s

Ever since sampling Hughes’ A London Child of the 1870s, I was eager to read the continuation of her tale of growing up in a jolly but poor home in London. This middle book was my favorite of the trilogy, grand adventures with her mother and detailed stories of her education. She studies at a new school for teachers at Cambridge, and names her room the Growlery after the room in Bleak House of the same name, a place where anyone could come and growl and then laugh it off.

It’s a book filled with small hilarious tales, such as the tailor who was asked to read from the Bible when he passed through town and, angry that he hadn’t been offered tea, created some impromptu verses “Cursed be the housewife that bringeth not forth tea to the tailor.”

She meets her future husband, friend of her brother Charles who unexpectedly dies (as does another of her brothers later). They traipse around Wales and Cornwall and London and have a merry old time with no money. Fun reading and a delightful peek into living conditions of over 100 years ago!

A London Home in the 1890s

Molly Hughes continues the tale, picking up where she left off in the last book with her mother’s death. She’s cheered by visits to her brothers and her aunt, and returns to her work running a teachers’ college in earnest. This volume sees her venturing to America on a steamship, participating in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to pick up tidbits on education at the lectures but learning far more through casual conversations with teachers in the hallways and tearooms. She ventures to Canada, Washington DC, and Boston before sailing home from New York.

This is the volume where she finally marries Arthur after many years of engagement, his prospects finally becoming more settled as he works the Bar. They have a daughter, Bronwen, who dies young, followed by three strapping sons.

As usual, the writing it light, instructive, and cheerful. My only nitpicks are with her overeagerness to use the word “obey” in her wedding vows despite the fuss that had been made over it recently in the papers. She was also all to ready to hand money matters over to her husband and give up working.

My Life in Middlemarch

This was a serendipitous find on the shelves of the library, nestled quite close to the book of Zadie Smith essays that I was hunting. I normally don’t stray from my proscribed list, but I had extra time on my hands on Tuesday and knew I needed to stock up on books for the week. I’m very glad that my roving eye picked this up, as it counterbalanced all the terribleness in Smith’s essays by demonstrating exactly how to do literary criticism/history/personal story.

Mead does an excellent job weaving in quotes from Eliot’s letters, journals, interviews with her acquaintances, along with Mead’s own thoughtful analysis of Middlemarch. It has me anxious to re-read Eliot’s book, which has to be at least one of Mead’s intended reactions. It’s biography, criticism, history, and appreciation all rolled into one, with the perfect dose of Mead’s own tale interwoven. This is exactly how the book should have been done.

She travels to Coventry, Weymouth, London, and haunts Mary Ann Evans’ life, tracking down her manuscript and proofs, taking us on her journey into the NYPL rare books room where she sniffs discretely at Eliot’s notebook, detecting the smell of smoke from a fireplace, perhaps from the Priory (the house Eliot bought in 1863 in St. John’s Wood). She gives an unflinching report of the drastic changes wrought on the landscape since Eliot’s time. And she gives glimpses of her own life, her young son playing in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, so vastly removed from the Victorian age.

Excellent work, highly recommended for book nerds and lit geeks. For the research wonks, it’s a great example of a very elegant way of incorporating notes at the end, grouped by chapter without tedious numbering. As usual, I’m interested in pursuing more of Mead’s work. Also, on to another read of Middlemarch!

Future reading: Haight’s biography of Eliot and Ashton’s biography

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

I raced off to the library to pick up more Zadie Smith after finishing White Teeth and ended up with this collection of “accidental” essays, rejecting two of her other novels after brief perusal. It seems like White Teeth was a bit of a flash in the pan, or a serious collaboration with a skilled editor, because the other books quickly disintegrated in my hand, beginning with a batch of emails. No one wants to read a book that begins with emails. No one.

Anyway, her essays offer a bit of consolation, and her voice occasionally rings out strong and clear. But she almost lost me in the first section on Reading, continually clanging the bell of star writers and invoking them over and over and over: DFW, Kafka, Nabokov. She devotes the entire last essay to Wallace, mimicking his “w/r/t” and overabundance of footnotes. It’s tedious.

I picked up a few book recs from her, Zora Neale Hurston’s biography by Valerie Boyd and the Kafka bio by Begley. The best essays were those on Liberia and Katherine Hepburn. Needing to fill out the book, she padded it with 30+ pages of old cinema reviews for such duds like Date Movie and Proof.

For the most part, the title is apt. I’ve changed my mind about Zadie’s writing.

White Teeth

Oh Zadie Smith, where have you been all my reading life? Great fictional tale of a mixed-race (Jamaican/English) family growing up in London intertwined with an immigrant family (Bengali) due to the fathers having stumbled across each other during WWII. Masterful weaving in of teeth, whether the light bits that hint of Iris becoming a dentist or the terrible things that come out of the old man racist’s mouth when the children go to deliver apples to him as a school charity project.