Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Figured I’d take a break from real life controversies by dipping into a literary one and re-read Huck Finn. Parts are delightful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the depiction of Jim, the slave that joins Huck on his swirl down the Mississippi, left me queasy. The squabble that’s been around since the book came out is around the question of Racist or Not and it drops so many “n word”s that the idea of whitewashing the book by search/replace with another word is laughable. I can only equate the feeling to when I read books about terrible things said about women, only usually those are couched with a glimmer of hope or irony, a strong woman character plotting revenge in the corner or muttering pithy replies under her breath. In this, Jim has no counterpoint to the stereotypical image of an enslaved black man. There are no gibes he gets in about the white men going to pieces all around him.

In my mind, the best parts are at the beginning, on the river, Huck and Jim. Even the parts with the “king” and “duke” joining the caravan are good at first, then become tedious. But the book clunks to a halt when Tom Sawyer arrives in the deep south to bungle the attempt to free Jim. Tom prefers to gussy up the plan by making it more dramatic, when they could have simply popped out a board to free him. This disrespect of the life of a man convinces me that the book is largely flawed, despite whatever intentions Twain had for poking fun at racism.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

In the aftermath of the kerfuffle over NYC’s Public Theater’s staging of Julius Caesar, I decided to spend the afternoon reading the play. The levels of ridiculousness increase exponentially as the alt-right fans flames of furor over this depiction of our Toxic Cheeto as Julius Caesar, who—spoiler alert!—gets murdered in the 3rd act. The play was written in 1599, and that it continues to be relevant and provide entertaining parallels to today’s political climate is just peachy.

Most of Bill’s research for the play came from the Sir Thomas North translation of Plutarch’s Life of Brutus, Life of Antonius, and Life of Caesar. circa first century AD. Bill added the unforgettable speech of Antony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”) along with the gory detail of the conspirators washing their hands in Caesar’s blood, but otherwise stayed close to Plutarch’s version of events.

As Marcus Brutus broods on whether it’s justified to kill Caesar for his ambition to rule Rome:

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

Decius Brutus tells Cassius that he’ll be able to bend Caesar’s mood to fit their needs and lure him to the Senate despite bad omens. (The bit about flattery is perfect on this day that Toxic Cheeto made his cabinet go around the room praising him.)

Never fear that. If he be so resolved
I can o’ersway him. For he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betrayed with trees
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers —
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.

“Speak, strike, redress.” Indeed.

The Silent Passage

Gail Sheehy’s book about menopause is a classic guide in desperate need of updating—I think there’s been a lot more research about the impact of HRT, but she sells it as the easiest way to drop a Get Out of Jail card to avoid the peskiest of effects.

George Sand wrote a letter to her editor in 1853 that mentions her state:

“I am as well as I can be, given the crisis of my age. So far everything has taken place without grave consequence, but with sweats that I find overwhelming, and which are laughable because they are imaginary. I experience the phenomenon of believing that I am sweating 15 or 20 times a day and night… I have both the heat and the fatigue. I wipe my face with a white handkerchief and it is laughable because I am not sweating at all. However, that makes me very tired.”

Natural remedies for perimenopausal symptoms:

  • Dong quai
  • Black cohosh
  • Vitamin E and licorice
  • Siberian ginseng
  • Tofu & soy milk

Also, birth control pills can help mitigate some of the symptoms during peri-pause. “The body still manufactures its own estrogen, erratically, now and then, causing an excess of the hormone. The way around it is to give a dose of estrogen high enough to suppress the body from making its own, such as that contained in oral contraceptive pills.”

Apparently weight plays a big difference in how you experience the pause, with plump ladies having fewer effects usually. Other ways your diet can help you through this:

  • Decrease fat intake
  • Increase calcium intake
  • Increase tofu
  • Eat yams (source of natural plant estrogen, lots of beta carotene that’s an antioxidant)

Let’s not forget that heart disease is the number one killer of ladies over 50 though. To that end:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Cut down on animal fat/trans-fat. Diet for midlife women: low in fat/dairy products, high in phytoestrogens (soy milk!), high in veggies/fruit, esp those with Vitamin E & folic acid, high in fiber, small portions (frequent small meals)
  • Exercise – rapid walking!
  • Reduce stress

What about bones?!

  • Calcium supplmements
  • Brisk walking
  • Tai Chi!

Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt’s memoir won the Pulitzer in 1997 for autobiography but I completely missed it at the time, although I remember seeing it in every bookstore. Definitely worth reading, well-written, descriptive, evoking the desperate poverty brought on by a dad who drank away his paycheck and a Catholic mom who kept popping out babies who couldn’t be fed. Born in America, the family migrates back to Ireland to live with Angela’s family when the dad couldn’t keep a job in Brooklyn and after the death of their only daughter. A few more kids die, a few more arrive. Frank goes to school, takes on various jobs, sails away for America at the end. The last chapter is great, a single word “‘Tis”  in response to the end of the previous chapter’s rhetorical question “this is a great country, isn’t it?”

The scenes of poverty are heartbreaking, fleas, lice, excrement, starvation, and yet the childhood somehow seems happy. McCourt taught school for decades and finally got to work on this book post-retirement.

The Liars’ Club

I’m in awe of Mary Karr’s detailed remembrances poured forth in this memoir that’s largely hailed as bringing back a revival of the form (although I’m not sure it ever went out of style). And her retelling of her mother’s experience seeing Einstein lecture at Bell Labs was fabulous. He needed some simple law of mechanics explained to him and replied, “I never bother to remember anything I can look up.” Her mother loved the idea of a genius who couldn’t do basic things but who could order the entire universe inside his head. “He bowed his head between questions like he was praying, then raised it up to give answers like those mechanical swamis wearing turbans that guessed your future for a quarter at Coney Island. At the crowded reception after the lecture, she claimed that nobody even tried to talk to him. He sat in a straight chair in the corner by himself looking like somebody’s daffy uncle.”

She grew up in Texas in a fraught family with older sister Lecia, adoring her daddy and frightened as her mother began to drink more and more. There’s a stint in Colorado when her mother starts spending her inheritance on horses and a cabin, divorces Karr, takes up with another drunk, buys a bar, almost shoots her next husband which sends her young daughters flying back to Texas accidentally by way of Mexico City where they were chaperoned by a drunk from her mom’s bar. Her mom comes back to their father after he punches out her current husband. It’s a rich, beautiful tale that was hard to put down. The best bits are the stories told by the liars’ club that her daddy leads, each man telling whoppers and drinking sips of Jack Daniels.

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories

Mariana Enriquez is an Argentinian Shirley Jackson. Her stories have a dash of creepy, ghost stories that are grounded in normal life. The decapitated street kid, the plot to bury sausages in the hotel beds to create an untraceable stink foiled by the appearance of ghosts from the police state, the girl without a left arm who disappears into a haunted house, women who burn themselves to disfigure their looks away from what men want. A fantastic collection, translated by Megan McDowell.

Break of Day

Reading Eve Babitz’s book, I was reminded of the existence of Colette, thus picked this from the shelves. Parts of this are excellent, mostly the snippets from her mother’s letters and musings on aging. The section that stuck most in my craw was the ill-advised affair with her lapdog, Vial, a handsome youth whom Colette tries to interest in another younger woman but who only has eyes for Madame Colette. But the descriptions of the hot, dusty summer in Provence, gathering together for impromptu dinners with friends, sleeping outside under the stars, all these make it worth a read.

My favorite bit from her mother’s letter is when she’s raging about wanting to sleep in her own house alone, without caring about potential burglars or tramps:

“Give me a dog if you want. Yes, a dog, I’ll agree to that. But don’t compel me to be shut up with someone at night! I’ve reached the point where I can’t bear to have a human being sleeping in my house… It’s the final return to single life when you refuse to have any longer in your house, specially if it’s a small one, an unmade bed, a pail of slops, an individual—man or woman—walking about in a nightshirt. Ugh! No, no, no more company at night, no more strangers breathing, no more of that humiliation of waking up simultaneously! I prefer to die, it’s more seemly.”

All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to Be Famous Strangers

Alana Massey’s book was a dumbed down version of Sady Doyle’s Trainwreck. I had high hopes at the beginning, really enjoying the essay comparing Winona Ryder’s substance with Gwyneth Paltrow’s lack thereof. Even the Britney Spears essay isn’t terrible, giving us glimpses into how hard she must work to attain that level of perfect body. Other pieces cover Sylvia Plath, Fiona Apple, Lil’ Kim, Courtney Love, Scarlett Johansson, the Olsen twins, and Princess Diana. Fairly vapid and forgettable stuff, especially when compared with the intelligent insights of Doyle’s much better work.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

William Zinsser’s collection of authors speaking about their process of writing memoir comes from a series of their talks at the NYPL and is quite digestible. I’m left with a long list of memoirs to check out in further detail and a dose of bravery to inject myself with to get the words flowing from my own pen. This collection includes inspiration from Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Jill Ker Conway, Eileen Simpson, Frank McCourt, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

A reminder of that great quote from Annie Dillard, which is in this.

You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

 

 

The Ice Palace

I put a note in the back of a library book I enjoyed asking future readers to send me book recommendations if they enjoyed that book as much as I did. So far, this is the only book that I’ve been able to get through of the handful that have been recommended via that method.

It’s a creepy book, two eleven-year-old girls on the brink of a friendship only to have one of them die in the ice palace of exposure to cold the day after they have their first confab. Siss is a local girl, the leader of kids at school, and Unn has just moved to town after losing her mother, now living with her aunt. Siss feels that there’s something different about Unn, and the two warily circle each other for weeks before finally Unn writes a note saying that she wants to see her. Siss walks over to Unn’s house at night, bravely facing her fear of the dark, clomping in the cold. The two girls shut themselves up in Unn’s room and struggle to find common ground. They ogle themselves in a mirror, and take off all their clothes before hurriedly getting redressed. Unn hints at a secret, but Siss goes home before she finds out.

The next day, Unn feels too shy about seeing Siss at school, so she plays hooky and goes to the ice palace, formed at the river by the waterfall. She slips inside through a small crack, wanders deeper and deeper, finally taking off her coat to squeeze into an even smaller space, and then can’t get back to it. She lays down, sleeps.

That night, Siss joins the search party and the men eventually go to the ice palace. Their lights dance from within the palace, but Unn is not found. Siss gets a fever and feels she’s been asked by Unn to keep a promise not to forget her.

In the spring, Siss asks the kids to go back to the ice palace because it’s about to give way due to melting. They frolic, but do not find Unn. Later, the ice palace cracks and gives way, sweeping all evidence into the river. Fin. By the Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan.

Bay Area Book Fest

I’m not sure how I previously missed this book festival in my backyard, now in its third year. But newly aware, I hopped on the train today and headed east to rub elbows with the literati of the Bay Area. Whenever I emerge into Berkeley, I fall in love with it all over again, and today was no exception—sun shining, book nerds coalescing, scrappy jazz band playing clarinet/upright piano/trombone/trumpet in the street while families gather in a line for free ice cream samples.

The festival itself is a combo of lots of free outdoor events plus lots of ticketed (or wristband-accessible) events to hear authors indoors. An amazing assortment of booths lined the square behind City Hall, all catering to book lovers—local bookstores, authors, and all sorts of tempting treats for people in love with the written word. I picked up a magnificent magnet with Virginia Woolf’s portrait and a fabulous “holster” for my pen to attach to a moleskin notebook. Also a free copy of the Koran and pamphlets about Muslim women—what a fantastic idea, we’re all so curious about this religion that’s causing panic on the right, and what better idea than to staff a booth with a friendly guy answering question and handing out free copies of their book?!

I bought priority tickets to see Roxane Gay in conversation with Rafia Zakaria and Masha Gessen in conversation with Orville Schell, so after enjoying the upright piano/clarinet/trumpet/trombone magic on the street of John Brothers Piano Company I headed to Freight and Salvage and was overwhelmed by the huge crowd of women waiting to get in for Roxane, who was up first.

Notes from Roxane Gay’s interview:

  • “After Sandy Hook, I stopped believing in institutions.” We can no longer rely on institutions to make things right.
  • Best way for white people to help? Stop calling yourself an ally, which puts a barrier between you & the problem. Start feeling the oppression. “Make the oppression your own. That racial oppression is mine. That transgender oppression is mine. Disabled oppression is mine.”
  • References to Who Gets to Be Angry (NYTimes, June 2016), the Nov 10 interview with Kamau Bell on Politically Re-Active that I’m listening to right now.
  • Difference between rage and anger? Anger is more focused, rage is collective.
  • How to respond to someone who says “you sound angry” — they’re being lazy. Are they reachable? If not, fuck ’em.
  • “I don’t have low self-esteem about my writing.” (Hell yeah!) When she writes a good paragraph, she feels a “rush of energy beneath my skin” (this in response to an audience question, does she feel blown away when she reads the stuff she writes).
  • Re: hope. “If we don’t have hope, what are we fighting for?”
  • Living in the flyover states, she sees plenty of rage, but it’s “rage born of entitlement… ‘I did not get the white dream, I am really angry.'” We need to educate these folks about their real oppressor, rich white men.
  • Hilarious comment about LA, where you think everyone is just thin (Roxane has a book coming out about her struggles with weight): “People in LA are so self-absorbed that they’re not worried about you.” e.g. you’re overlooked, you get a pass.
  • What she’s reading? An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Ellen Pao’s upcoming memoir. 
  • She hasn’t tweeted in 9 days, what’s up? Roxane mentioned having given a talk at Twitter HQ yesterday, but said she’d taking a break b/c she isn’t paid for the emotional effort she puts into fighting the trolls on Twitter—it isn’t worth it, she needs time off. Fuck you Twitter, fix your system.

Notes from Masha Gessen interview on Truth, Lies and Totalitarianism in Russia and the U.S.

  • Damn, I wish I was as smart and well-spoken as Masha Gessen. Her eloquence and intelligence will haunt me to the end of my days.
  • Of course the conversation turns to what she thinks about the current political climate in the U.S. She’s “not surprised, but always shocked.”
  • She moved to the U.S. at age 14 in 1981 before Gorbachev had unleashed perestroika & glasnost onto the world—her emigrant family wanted to believe the worst to justify their fleeing the Soviet Union.
  • Totalitarianism is all about the destruction of the fabric of society, of shared experiences. The huge absence of these things makes it impossible to recover from the big boot stamp of totalitarianism.
  • Rise happening now? The West lost the cautionary tale that existed in the Soviet Union. (THIS IS HUGE) Western democracies have steadily become less democratic since.
  • She doesn’t believe history has a direction, but rather believes in the “mess and idiocy narrative.”
  • Tim Snyder of NYRB said it best, that Putin is the person that Trump plays on TV. Trump sees Putin’s power and popularity and wants it.
  • Estonia is “one of the best places in the world.” !!!
  • The story around her article, Autocracy: Rules for survival, was fantastic. Apparently, she’d been tapped to write the reaction essay for Russia’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s win for the NYT. “They did not have a plan B.” The A-team had gone home and Gessen emailed the on-call editor suggesting that she write rules for survival instead of a reaction piece. The junior editor nixed the idea, and Gessen offered it to NYRB. It was so successful it broke her smartwatch because it overheated after getting so many notifications about the piece.
  • We have a real problem of imagination. We couldn’t imagine Trump would get the R nom. We couldn’t imagine he’d be president. “The present defies imagination.” Thus we use crutches like, “Russia interfered!” instead of digging into the icky reason why millions voted for the Cheeto in Chief. We also immediately grabbed at straws thinking that he’d be “presidential” or maybe the electors would step in to not cast their votes for him.
  • Probably the most shocking comment was when she was asked her opinion of Russia, her home country. “Hopeless. Layers and layers of tragedy and awfulness.” After laying out this bleakness, she revealed that some of her friends have moved from big picture projects to small projects—small charities like an orphanage to handle disabled kids instead of tackling the whole system of orphanages. Moving to changing the world via one life at a time, which we know is somewhat futile.
  • The view of the world as “basically rotten” is the fascist view, and one that is being peddled mightily by the right. As a society, we need to return to talking about ideals.
  • Will America be able to resist totalitarianism? There is no such thing as American exceptionalism. The force that oversimplifies and says it can put all fears to rest is hard to resist. We will succumb.
  • Question about what the person-on-the-street likes best about Putin, what changes he’s made to their day-to-day life. Putin has not done anything to improve their particular life, but he projects a strong image that people like. He made Russia great again. This public vs. private self– public self identifies with strong country, likes that. Private self feels like it is always getting screwed by government, always being defrauded. Bifurcation of identity.
  • The U.S.’s Reichstag moment was 9/11. !!!
  • Wikileaks involvement in election: Julian Assange is “his own agent of destruction.” (Masha recommends watching Laura Poitras’s Risk, but I couldn’t take the inflated ego of Assange on display, which is her point.)  Ultimately, the NYT and WaPo share some blame for forging ahead with the material gained from the poisoned tree. Perhaps this will start a conversation about how the media does function as political actors. You can’t just shrug and say, it was out there, and publish it.

The Pickwick Papers

The Marx Brothers have nothing on Dickens, as proven in his scenes of ragtag madcap drinking, jesting, capering, punning, joking. This is his first novel, fully titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and you can actually watch as he progresses in honing his skills across the pages. The first chapters are universally despised as boring, but Dickens introduces the character of Sam Weller in chapter 10, breathing life into the story and carrying it to success for another 600+ pages. It gives off “an extraordinary sound, which being neither a groan, nor a grunt, nor a gasp, nor a growl, seemed to partake in some degree of the character of all four” (from chapter 52, where Sam’s dad is about to give the red-nosed preacher a beat down).

Pickwick roves the countryside with his band of merry younger friends in search of wisdom but adventures come knocking. Even in the early chapters we see glimpses of genius like “[the horse] wouldn’t shy if he was to meet a wagon load of monkeys with their tails burnt off.”

The scene with warring political parties also comes off well in chapter 8, where Pickwick cheers for the candidate that the mob just cheered and tells his friends, “Hush. Don’t ask any questions. It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” Mr. Snodgrass asks “But suppose there are two mobs?” and Pickwick recommends to “Shout with the largest.” Later, a politician is making the rounds and told to kiss babies to make a good impression on the crowd, to which the politician (Slumkey) resigns himself.

One of my favorite techniques Dickens uses is the nested story, having a character relate a tale that he heard, like the Bagman’s ghost story (Ch 14). Inevitably the people in the story get drunk, which explains the weird stuff they see later. In the Bagman’s Story, Tom Smart thinks a chair in his bedroom is an old gentleman, and begins to have an argument with it/him. The chair brags of having lots of ladies sit in his lap, then proceeds “to recount some other exploits of his youth, when he was seized with such a violent fit of creaking that he was unable to proceed.”

Another embedded ghost story in chapter 49 ended with a line that made me laugh out loud. The character walked home late at night, drunk (natch!), and sat in some dilapidated abandoned mail coaches, then woke to find them bustling about, brand new. He attempts to help one of the ghosts elude her captor, but wakes before they get to safety. The landlord who has listened to this tale asks “I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,” and the storyteller answers, “The dead letters, of course.”

We get the first hints of Dickens anger about lawyers, courts, and debtor prisons here (prisons more fully explored in Little Dorrit and courts in Bleak House). Pickwick is entrapped by his landlady who thinks he’s made a marriage proposal and who sues him for breach of contract. When a jury finds him guilty, he refuses to pay the amount and prefers to go to Fleet prison instead. After a few months, the woman’s lawyers throw her into prison for non-payment of their fee, wherein Pickwick pays her out in return for a letter saying that he never made such a proposal. Unaccountably, Pickwick also helps Jingle out of prison, despite being made the butt of his schemes earlier in the book.

Besides this aborted marriage, there are plenty of sneaking around and pinching of barmaids. Several of Pickwick’s friends end up married off at the end, bearing children for him to godfather.

Possibly my favorite parts were those witticisms of Sam. If I read this again, I’ll try to collect all of them. A sample:

  • “Come sir, this is rayther too rich, as the young lady said, wen she remonstrated with the pastry-cook, arter he’d sold her a pork-pie as had got nothin’ but fat inside.”
  • “I rayther think you’d change your note, as the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, ven he heerd the robin redbreast a singin’ round the corner.”
  • “Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”

Pickwick disbands his club with a farewell speech worth quoting, as it mirrors Dickens’ own farewell to the time spent writing this in monthly serials:

“I shall never regret having devoted the greater part of two years to mixing with different varieties and shades of human character: frivolous as my pursuit of novelty may have appeared to many. Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me—I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding. If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm, and that none of my adventures will be other than a source of amusing and pleasant recollection to me in the decline of life. God bless you all!”

The Princess Diarist

I’ve been on a long waiting list for this at the library and it finally popped up. Apparently everyone wanted to read this in the aftermath of Carrie Fisher’s too-soon death last year. Personally, I preferred Postcards from the Edge more than this one, although if you’re a huge Star Wars fan, this is probably your favorite. She divulges the fact that she and Harrison had a three-month long affair while filming the first one, hampered from it becoming a full-blown relationship by his marriage and lack of conversation ability. This includes snippets from the diaries she kept during the filming, and comes with the heavy dose of Carrie-snark which her writing is usually salted with.

Twilight Sleep

For some reason I’ve never ventured past Edith Wharton’s prime time novels (House of Mirth, Age of Innocence), but Twilight Sleep was mentioned in a book I read last week so I figured I’d take it for a whirl. Pub’d in 1927, you’re immersed in the dazzling world of wealthy pre-Depression NYC, and immediately confronted by the complex character of Pauline Manford. This middle-aged matron has a schedule that does not stop: “7:30 Mental uplift. 7:45 Breakfast. 8 Psychoanalysis 8:15 See cook. 8:30 Silent meditation. 8:45 Facial massage. 9 Man with Persian miniatures 9:15 Correspondence. 9:30 Manicure. 9:45 Eurythmic exercises. 10 Hair waved. 10:15 Sit for bust. 10:30 Receive Mother’s Day deputation. 11 Dancing lesson. 11:30 Birth Control meeting…”

From this, you can see that she’s bursting with contradictions, praising motherhood and yet supporting birth control, attempting to find peace through meditation and yet cramming it into a hectic schedule. Later, she’ll start giving the speech she prepared for the Birth Control group to the mothers, only to catch herself in time and say that this is what “they” say about mothers. Pauline is a divorcee on friendly terms with her first husband, Wyant, from whom she has a son, Jim (who’s married to Lita). Pauline also has a daughter Nona by Manford.  Lita does her duty and pushes out a baby boy, with the help of drugs during the birthing process that render “Twilight Sleep”… “Of course there ought to be no Pain… nothing but Beauty… It ought to be one of the loveliest, most poetic things in the world to have a baby.” Jim adores the baby and “Lita hadn’t minded in the least.”

But there is trouble in paradise, amid the bustle. Pauline’s husband Manford has fallen in love with Lita, or at least it’s quite obviously hinted at throughout, not declared outright. There was something missing in this treatment of the “affair” – it just didn’t sit right. Manford describes himself as having a fatherly feeling about Lita, but gets enraged when he sees a risque picture of her in a magazine and squanders a large part of his wife’s fortune trying to keep a handsome ne’er do well from arriving to lure Lita to Hollywood.

Nona is in love with her married cousin, and it comes to naught. She also is accidentally shot by her father who finds a “burglar” in Lita’s room (was it a burglar? who knows). The book ends with her dreaming of joining a convent of atheists, soured on the unraveling marriages around her.