Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

For once I wholeheartedly agree with the Pulitzer Prize committee, this is an incredible book. Imminently readable, thoroughly researched with years of fieldwork layered on with later years of surveys and data analysis. I appreciate more than anything that he wrote it third person, taking the pesky “I” out of the finished product because, as he says at the end, the story is about bigger game than just how he felt about witnessing such poverty and destruction of lives. The footnotes are glorious, dripping with facts and backup assertions, so don’t skip them.

What Matthew Desmond lays bare in this book are the myriad of ways the system fails poor people and rigs the game against them. SSI payments get reduced or cut off once you achieve $2,000 in your bank account, discouraging any kind of saving that might help give them a leg up in extricating from the situation. Besides giving us a seat of unprecedented access to the unraveling of these lives, Desmond layers in bits of research like psychologists showing self-preservation pitted against empathy usually results in empathy losing. “Humans act brutally under brutal conditions.”

Some follow ups: Robert Fogelson The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929, Henry Zorbaugh The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side from 1929

Definite thumbs up and highly recommended.

Effi Briest

This forgotten gem by Theodor Fontane in 1895 is well-worth a read. Thomas Mann said in 1919 that it was among the six most significant novels ever written, yet it has been completely forgotten by most of the literati. The story involves young Effi Briest, a girl who’s married off to her mother’s ex-boyfriend (!!), Baron Instetten, many decades older than her. What could go wrong?! The story unfolds slowly but not ploddingly, she’s semi-abandoned in a frontier town while her husband climbs the ranks of official life. Along the way she has a flirtation/affair with one of his friends, and when they must leave for Berlin, she’s relieved to end it all. Six years pass, and when her daughter bangs her head on a stair, bleeding profusely, the maids crack open Effi’s desk to find some bandages. Later, out of the chaos, the Baron discovers a packet of letters and reads them. Despite so much time having passed, he immediately heads out and challenges the guy to a duel, killing him. Effi is then truly abandoned, stripped of her child and reputation, only surviving due to her parents’ largess. Later she has a doctor convince her parents to let her come back and live with them, where she later dies. Just before leaving this mortal coil, the Baron has some twinges of regret, realizing that he’s forsaken happiness forever.

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

Ahhh, a much better choice for the writing class I’ve enrolled myself in. Gornick has been an invaluable guide to memoir writing and an enjoyable read, and compared to Nancy Hale’s dusty and irrelevant tome from 1960, this was a treat to read and slurp up ideas.

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

It’s the movement toward knowledge that matters:

“The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or the movement toward it—that counts.”

She includes great snippets from a variety of writers (unlike Hale’s over-reliance on Out of Africa), including Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” going on to pinpoint what it is about Orwell that we admire while hating his actual person:

“Orwell himself was a man often at the mercy of his own mean insecurities. In life he could act and sound ugly: revisionist biographies now have him not only a sexist and an obsessed anti-communist but possibly an informer as well. Yet the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose. This George Orwell is a wholly successful fusion of experience, perspective, and personality that is fully present on the page. Because he is so present, we fell that we know who is speaking. The ability to make us believe that we know who is speaking is the trustworthy narrator achieved.”

The drive toward resolution:

“These writers might not ‘know’ themselves—that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us—but in each case—and this is crucial—they know who they are at the moment of writing. They know they are there to clarify in relation to the subject in hand and on this obligation they deliver.”

On the need to create sympathy for the subject no matter how ugly they are:

“In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows.”

She sums up what she’s learned over decades of teaching: know “who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two.”

Of course, a laundry list of titles to check out: Ackerly’s My Father & Myself, Hazlit’s On the pleasure of hating, Harry Crews Why I live Where I live, Gosse’s Father & Son, Wolff’s Duke of Deception, Zinsser’s Inventing the truth.

The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain

I’m on a hunt for specific tips around the craft of story-telling, and who better to ask than Mark Twain? This collection features what the editor feels are the best of his stories, plus a snippet in the appendix “How to tell a story” comes from Twain in 1895.

Perhaps my favorite was “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm” from 1882, wherein Twain relates a tale told to him (a frequent device) by a man who foolishly invested and doubled down and tripled down on his burglar alarm investment. Delicious first sentence, “The conversation drifted smoothly and pleasantly along from weather to crops, from crops to literature from literature to scandal, from scandal to religion; then took a random jump, and landed on the subject of burglar alarms.”

Also of interest, the extracts from Adam’s diary (and later, from Eve’s, which wasn’t as interesting).

But mostly I was there for the writing tips, and nuggets like this are sprinkled throughout: “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.”

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains: Oddball Criminals from Comic Book History

A few years ago I enjoyed the The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History and was pleased to see this compilation out recently. My favorite era of comics seems to be in that 1940s-1970s range—anything in the 80s and beyond seems too slick, too computer-drawn. Like the previous collection, you’re treated to at least a cover shot of the comic, plus puns/snarky comments alongside.

This one was my favorite, not for the artwork but the concept… the villian was “The Jingler”, an evil poet who realizes the only way to get his work published is by killing people and stuffing it in their mouths or on their person.

This one was for a villain that was both he and she, ingeniously named “He/She”. But I like the exclamation, “Strip my gears and call me shiftless!” Gonna borrow that one.

This guy has a very capitalist attitude about paying workers:

Finally, one for B:

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood

This book started with such promise but fizzled once it got to SF. Peter Moskowitz puts the spotlight on New Orleans, Detroit, SF, and NYC to show various stages of gentrification. The New Orleans and Detroit sections were good, but maybe I just don’t know enough about those cities to judge correctly? He falls flat in SF, making this the shortest section and padding it with a lot of Solnit quotes and facts from federal housing programs that mostly apply to NYC. He also makes some weird statements that don’t hold up, like the fact that the Mission is gentrifying faster b/c “it’s serviced by both of San Francisco’s train systems (Muni and BART),” not mentioning the main reason as close proximity to the highways leading south to Silicon Valley (in fact he barely mentions the Valley, and forgetting completely CalTrain but who can blame him). He redeems himself slightly by mentioning the infamous Dropbox soccer fiasco where they tried to kick neighborhood kids out and when asked how long they’d lived in the community, the techies said “Who gives a shit? Who cares about the neighborhood?”

Shocking quotes pulled together from various interviews, such as the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco saying that they had M-16s locked and loaded, “I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.” A real estate developer let loose to a German newspaper saying “Most importantly, the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.” And in Detroit, an official blatantly said “Bring on more gentrification. I’m sorry, but I mean, bring it on.”

He states some things repeatedly, begging for an editor, and sometimes contradicting points (like the amount that Twitter tax benefited was $56M or $34M depending on which page you were on).

The One Hundred Nights of Hero: A Graphic Novel

Isabel Greenberg does a graphic novel treatment of Scheherazade’s story. The main action revolves around a virgin wife who’s in love with her maid; her dumb husband bets his neighbor that he can’t seduce her even if given 100 nights to attempt it. The maid overhears the nefarious plan and she and the wife devise a plan to avoid entrapment—Hero will tell amazing stories for 100 nights and the neighbor will forget all about seducing the wife. Which is exactly what happens, and we flit around into various folk tales. Good stuff!

Eve’s Hollywood

You know a book is good when you take a brief intermission in the middle of it to frantically scan the library holdings for anything else the author has written. All of the other Eve Babitz books are now in my queue to be greedily gobbled up, although I’m sure to be disappointed by them compared to this gem.

The writing is perfect, punchy, well-timed, smooth, sparse and angular like the setting sun over the Pacific. She is a fierce defender of the culture of L.A., at least from when she was born there (mid-1940s) to when this book came out (1972), ten years after she graduated from Hollywood High. Eve’s parents are part of the vast, talented music industry that supports the film industry, and she see plenty of culture everywhere she looks, especially being Stravinsky’s goddaughter.

Her pieces range from tight, few-lined gloriousness to longer expositions. My jaw dropped frequently at her skill: “She was the grand finale of what it meant to be darling, adorable, and cute,” and:

“From her warmly tanned face she languidly opened her expensive blue eyes wide before narrowing them, transforming them into the eyes of an aristocratic animal whose defense lay in some rapid paralyzing venom which hissed from the pupils and stopped him in his tracks. She stirred her snowcone while she took her time assessing him from his bloody face to his sandy feet to his blood-soaked pocket and then she lowered her eyes, shrugged, and strolled through the space the crowd had opened for her with me floating in back of her, having no wish to stay on after witnessing that crisis of frozen looks.”

In Secret Ambition, she confesses a desire to have a house in Ojai with cats, orange trees, and a goat. “A stone house with a dirt road… And the thing was, my secret ambition has always to be a spinster.” Her friend Tina, “Yours too?”

Eve spends a year in NYC and predictably hates it. (Earlier, she mentions how in the Depression, everyone with brains headed to New York, and everyone with beautiful faces headed to LA). “That always seemed like the whole thing; they’ll let you have stories, but you can’t ever think in a certain way. There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind. It’s like a tunnel where there’s no sky.”

I love her even more when she attacks the fallacy that Nathanael West (nee Weinstein) was the best writer about Hollywood. “I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he’d gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It’s a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn’t have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.” In another story she shrugs off Christmas in LA saying how weird it is to wish someone Merry Christmas as they’re watering their lawn in shorts.

There’s even a chapter on books (even better, from the library) which gave me some breadcrumbs to follow next. My heart swooned when she said “Mostly, I find myself coming out of the library with all women writers. I keep hoping the library attendant won’t notice, but when 8 out of 8 of the books you take out are by women, you try not to look too dykey.” Other recs: Anthony Powell (“much less leaden than John Updike and he’s a downright souffle compared to just about anyone else.”), Colette (Earthly Paradise), Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, Max Beerbohm (“Max, like Kaluha, any idiot can like it”), Joyce Carol Oates (them, and Wonderland) and Raynar Bahnam’s Los Angeles: A City of Four Ecologies. She wrote a fan letter to MFK Fisher telling her she’s just like Proust only better because she also gives us recipes. MFK wrote back supposing that some day someone will write their PhD thesis on madeleines.

Her exclamation about Virginia Woolf also left me happy:

“Virginia Woolf tantalizes me. I wish I could write like that. She is in love with London and I am in love with LA but London has seasons and this giant history and stratas of society… She wouldn’t like LA but maybe she’d forgive me for loving it anyway. The Waves is the best she’s written, you go crazy it’s so perfect. And then, it was her A Room of One’s Ownn that made me believe in Women’s Lib.”

This book is perfect. I want to read it all over again.

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Finally, a book of Benjamin’s essays that is somewhat approachable and readable! It comes with a long intro essay from Hannah Arendt, and essays by Benjamin on Kafka, Baudelaire, Proust, Nikolai Leskov, on translation, on book collecting, and art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Despite being over-Kafka-nated, his essay was enjoyable especially after Arendt set the stage of their similarities (K only 10 years older, both alien Jews in a German land, both geniuses who found posthumous fame). I also found a lot of use in the essay on Leskov’s storytelling since I’m currently obsessed with the idea of plot/tales/stories.

As always, Benjamin can be relied on to provide quality content about boredom:

“If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places —the activities that are intimately associated with boredom—are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.”

The realities of fiction: a book about writing

After finishing The Prodigal Women, I was thirsty for anything else Nancy Hale had written and opted to dip into her lectures on writing. Unfortunately, this collection of her thoughts from 1960 seems extremely dated. Not only does she reference walking on the moon as a distant possibility, but her attitude toward defining the novel vs. the short story seems rigid when looking back over 50 years. Still, the book is not completely without merits.

When writing, she emphasizes that novelists express the part of themselves that they are unaware of—writing as discovery/therapy. The writer trusts her imagination most of all, and makes society into a character. Hale claims that the only unique things are those that exist in the real world, that imagination creates things that are like something else. The pieces she claims as most important: beginning, the balance of forces or tension, writing in SCENES as much as possible, motivations for action, and skillful unnoticeable transitions.

I never need to read A Passage to India after consuming this book since Hale takes every available opportunity to praise and quote it.

Ultimate verdict- skip this book.

The Zürau Aphorisms

These 109 scraps of fragmented thoughts from his months in Zürau are labeled aphorisms despite not following the classic form of an aphorism. The collection starts out strong but I found it lacking overall when compared to similar collections of wise, short, pithy sayings. Robert Calasso also includes the final chapter of his book, K., to help flesh out the volume.

My favorite was Number 5:

“From a certain point on, there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”

Other good ones:

  • 42: “To let one’s hate-and disgust-filled head slump onto one’s chest.”
  • 76: “The feeling: ‘I’m not dropping anchor here,’ and straightaway the feeling of the sustaining sea-swell around one.”
  • 11/12: “The variety of views that one may have, say, of an apple: the view of the small boy who has to crane his neck for a glimpse of the apple on the table, and the view of the master of the house who picks up the apple and hands it to a guest.”
  • 20: “Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.”
  • 109: “It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

Charles Dickens: A Life

I’ve decided that I don’t like Tomalin as a biographer. She does very little in this book to get across the essence of Dickens, but maybe I’m too hard on her because primary sources are at a minimum. Dickens burned all his letters in 1860 and didn’t keep the type of journal that Woolf has delighted us with in her posthumous era. Tomalin works with what she has—mostly letters and the texts that D published—to pull off a quick 400+ page biography that conveys above all else that he was an extraordinarily energetic man besides being hugely talented. D kept his finger in every pie he got hold of, dictating the household arrangements and summertime escapes, charitably caring for random orphans and prostitutes and strangers he met along the way, enthusiastically carrying on with a large set of male friends (and having a shadow household of sister-in-law Georgy plus the mysterious Nelly/Ellen once he separates from Catherine). Early on you get a weird feeling about him, his going ga-ga over the death of his other sister-in-law (Mary) at age 16, the favored pet of his household later replaced by Georgina. When Mary Hogarth’s brother unexpectedly died, D was reportedly upset “not because he know George well but because he had been expecting to be buried beside Mary…”

He makes two trips to America, and in the first is overwhelmed by crowds swooning over his celebrity (and pushing for international copyright law b/c he saw zero money from U.S. publications). He loved Cincinnati: “a very beautiful city: I think the prettiest place I have seen here, except Boston. It has risen out of the forest like an Arabian-night city; is well laid out; ornamented in the suburbs with pretty villas… has smooth turf-plots and well kept gardens.”

I liked this photograph of him from 1850:

The Prodigal Women

I got swept up in the fast-moving currents of Nancy Hale’s dramatic masterpiece from 1942, a best-seller in its day that has now become moldering. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for stories with strong women who prefer solitude to anything else.

The story begins with a young Leda March looking back at her home and relishing the weekend’s release from school so that she can be alone. She comes from a poor branch of the aristocratic Marches of Boston and is an only child who finds comfort in the rollicking good time offered by her new friend Betsy Jekyll. The next 500+ pages follow the girls as they grow up and try on various identities—wealthy and beautiful wife (Leda) who bores of her marriage and chucks it all to become a poet, and Betsy’s bohemian spirit leads her to flapperism in NYC which she must renounce when she ends up with a wife-beating husband who loves to imagine all the various men she’s been with (so as to enrage himself). Leda falls in love with Betsy’s sister Maise’s husband, the artist Lambert Rudd. Maise herself gets sick in South America due to a botched abortion and becomes an invalid until she has her own child, and then loses her mind. It’s a real page-turner, delicious way to sink into the hours of the afternoon.

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

A very approachable guide by Susan Buck-Morss to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which has been gathering dust on my bedside table for months now. “The effect of technology on both work and leisure in the modern metropolis had been to shatter experience into fragments, and journalistic style reflected that fragmentation.” This, the essence of Benjamin’s masterwork. Buck-Morss’s book was published in 1989, before any version of Arcades Project hit the streets, and this is a useful guide that remains helpful even though the project has been published on its own. Photographs and illustrations help to make her point, along with biographical information about Benjamin.

BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

I really wanted to like this book all the way through but as a reader, my energy flagged and waned with every rabbit-hole Michael Healy went down. There are some great parts, with interesting bits scattered throughout, but it really could have used an editor to excise out the sleep-inducing parts. On the good side: details about the construction and early battles around routes/stations/locations. The Embarcadero station was never part of the original design (now one of the busiest)! Insider stories also very interesting, such as the fact that the flea market at Berkeley’s Ashby station was never supposed to be permanent but after a court battle, it remains in business nearly 40 years later. Disabled-rights activist Harold Willson was hugely influential in making BART the first transpo system in the nation that was 100% accessible to people not able to walk (the slogan to get elevators was “BART, give us the shaft,” which I love).

The technology going into the excavation and creation of the tunnel for the Transbay tube also very interesting. The first tunneling shield was used in London to create a pedestrian tunnel under the Thames, written about by Charles Dickens in 1843 and now part of the Underground.

Healy sometimes gives a nod to the male-dominated field, mentioning the first women on the board, women managers, etc. Also a ridiculous story about how Kay Springer was trying to give visitors a tour of the subway construction but she was stopped by the foreman because of a superstition about women in the construction area. Hello, patriarchy! Luckily, her manager informed the foreman that she needed access and the taboo was broken to no ill effect. Shocking!

The hubbub over the 100-millionth passenger was telling– they randomly selected a woman who was leaving the Embarcadero Station and descended on her with bright lights and uniformed officers and she covered her face and didn’t want to give her name. Bravo, lady, for “having none of it”.

I also didn’t realize that bike lockers had been used by homeless as shelters, renting them for $35/year. Overall, it’s worth reading, but godbless you if you don’t plow dazed and bleary-eyed through the boring parts.