Don Quixote by Kathy Acker

I’ve been a long time coming to Kathy Acker, finally pushed into reading this by Sarah Schulman’s recommendation. Acker re-imagines herself as Don Quixote, the modern version, galloping into the rotting husk of NYC, watching junkies use razors instead of needles, her sidekick St. Simeon turning into a dog, seeing filth everywhere and being kicked pummeled punched flogged.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Dream state stream of consciousness interspersed with clever poems or recreation of the dialog at the end of the perfect film, The Women, zipping to St. Petersburg and back, discussion of politics Regan Nixon, Nazis, Oedipus, Waiting for Godot, sex, madness, drugs, rats, rotting. Surreal.

Selected Stories by Frances Bellerby

A delightful collection of somewhat creepy stories that linger around death, children, etc. The first story is a delicate exploration of how a father breaks the news of his young daughter’s death to his slightly older son. Another has a pair of siblings explore the roof of their new house and leave a surprise at the summit for someone else to discover when they’re gone, which shocks the sister, not able to comprehend where they will have gone, before they slide down to check on their sick mother. A father gives up his young daughter after the death of his wife, tries to forget about her, but Fate drives her to his door, he almost scares her away but realizes who she is, shows her a picture but all she can see is the gigantic spider scurrying away. Great writing, but some of the pieces aren’t as top notch as the others.

Henry Darger

Life is sometimes too perfect. I’d requested two Darger books from various libraries that arrived just in time for the furor over Confederate statues to reach fever peak and was delighted to find several depictions of statues strangling children just as they are strangling us right now. (See images below)

The first book was Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings from 2000, which includes Bonesteel’s great essay “Henry Darger: Author, Artist, Sorry Saint, Protector of Children.” This recounts Darger’s childhood (sent to an asylum for feeble-minded children at age 12, there when one of the inmates tried to castrate himself and died 4 days later) through decades in Chicago working as a dishwasher and making art and writing and going to Mass 3 or 4 times a day. The rest of the book includes selections from Darger’s writing: Realms of the Unreal (“the reason the story runs so much with little girls as the actual heroes in this warfare is because, under most circumstances, women are braver than men”), The History of My Life, Book of Weather Reports, and his diary. In this book Bonesteel informs us that Darger pronounced his name with a hard G like Berger.

The second book was Henry Darger, edited by Klaus Biesenbach, including another essay by Bonesteel. This was almost 6 pounds of glossy reproductions of Darger’s work, including several pages of his History of My Life, which fittingly ended with “There is one really important thing I must write which I have forgotten.” Definitely a must-read for anyone who is even slightly interested in Darger.

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back

Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book is a bit uneven but there are worthwhile bits tucked inside. It shines at the beginning, providing a glance back in time to what healthcare was like in the early 20th century and its evolution since into big business. Things veer off course in a bit of a preachy manner with excoriating screeds against hospitals, doctors, pharma. The book levels back to usefulness when she lays out her suggestions for how to improve things, giving specific advice for individuals. Besides always asking for things to be done “in-network” and asking how much tests/etc. cost, I found her ideas around hospital bills insightful:

  1. Make it clear you didn’t request a private room (they have a glut of these) otherwise you may be hit up with a “private room supplement” charge.
  2. Admitting docs will include a page about willingness to accept financial responsibility. Write “as long as the providers are in my insurance network” before you sign.
  3. Be clear about your status- are you under observation or being admitted? Observation will cost you much much more.
  4. If you’re up for it, ask to know the identity of everyone who appears at your bedside, what they’re doing, who sent them. Or ask a friend who’s with you if you’re too ill. Write it down. Drive-by doctoring will ring up the bills big time, and you can always say no. You might be billed for a physical therapist to help you out of bed when the nurse did it. Dermatologist there to examine a rash that has nothing to do with your illness? “Tell them all to go away. Everything done to you or for you in the hospital will be billed at exorbitant rates.”
  5. Hospital may try to send you home with equipment you don’t need, like slings, knee braces, wheelchair. Decline and buy them much cheaper elsewhere.
  6. When bills arrive, request complete itemization. You should also negotiate. “Prices are so inflated that even low-level clerks are authorized to approve major discounts.” Check the bill against your notes. Protest the bill in writing to create a record. Argue against surprise out of network fees.

Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market:

1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive treatment.
2. A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure.
3. Amenities and marketing matter more than good care.
4. As technologies age, prices go up rather than fall.
5. There is no free choice. Patients are stuck. And they’re stuck buying American.
6. More competition vying for business doesn’t mean better prices. It can drive prices up, not down.
7. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more.
8. There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test. And the uninsured pay the highest prices of all.
9. There are no standards for billing. There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything.
10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It

I know, I know. Dull business books have no place on my read pile rubbing shoulders with amazing literature and non-fiction gems. But this book kept coming up in conversation after conversation I’ve been having with business owners and I finally held my nose for the plunge. It didn’t stink, filled with rather straightforward and readable talk about what it takes to build a business that doesn’t consume you but that you can replicate and eventually sell. The book garnered one of the highest star ratings that I’ve ever seen for a hugely reviewed book (1658 reviews on AMZN). The “e” in e-myth is for entrepreneur, not for “electronic”, thank god.

I suppose having my own business also helped retain my interest, if you can call my consulting shop of one a business. The idea of managing folks gives me the cold sweats, so I’ve never really considered what it would take to build my business into, say, an agency. This book allows you to dream a little in that direction.

Once you make your first hire, you can celebrate, offload tasks you hate: “you suddenly understand what it means to be in business in a way you never understood before: I don’t have to do that anymore!”

The first thing he has you do is to define your Primary Aim:

  • What do I wish my life to look like?
  • How do I wish my life to be on a day-to-day basis?
  • What would I like to be able to say I truly know in my life, about my life?
  • How would I like to be with other people in my life—family, friends, biz associates, customers, employees
  • How would I like people to think about me?
  • What would I like to be doing 2 years/10 years/20 years from now?
  • What specifically do I want to learn during my life: spiritually, physically, financially, technically, intellectually, about relationships
  • How much $$ will I need to do the things I want to do and by when?

And I get it—putting things in writing makes you more able to commit to them.

There are some wacky ideas and various suggestions that I disagree with, such as the tired idea that people respond to salespeople touching them. He includes a letter to the fictional woman that he’s helping with her pie shop and creepily ends it by saying “And remember, my heart will be with you wherever you are.” Then an epilogue, then an afterword. I’m sure Gerber would invent an after-afterword if he could.

Verdict: possibly useful for anyone starting a non-consulting business.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer’s book about living in one of the surviving hutongs that was slated for destruction in the tidal wave of modernization that the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought. This was a great read, well written and packed full of detail about the crumbling neighborhood that was a community destined to be exploded to the winds. Once evicted by The Hand, they could fight for compensation that would barely get them a part of one of the new (and not yet constructed) apartments that were in suburbs far from their current location. It was a great reminder that this type of destruction of the past is happening everywhere, and nowhere as rapidly as in China.

Meyer comes to China with the Peace Corps and stays on to teach English at a local school in his hutong, Dazhalan. He is known as Little Plumblossom and accepted into the community, and his book provides us with a stunning first-hand experience of the destruction of this part of town. Drawings go up around town to depict the future avenue, only the people aren’t Chinese but white-skinned. “The only depicted shop signs were for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.” This new plan completely disregarded the principles of feng shui that once governed the construction of imperial cities in China, where a town’s central axis should be unimpeded in the south and shielded in the north.

He used to play hockey with other locals on a lake near the Drum and Bell towers and there was an old man who had been sharpening skates since 1937, even during the 8 winters of Japanese occupation. “He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.”

Construction never stops, even in the case of discovering 2,000 year old artifacts. The Cultural Relics Bureau was given a week to grab what they could from the discovered site before the land was covered with new cement foundations.

One explanation for the lack of interest in historic sites comes from architect Zhang who noted that Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years. Old buildings were seen as reminders of feudalism.

This section reminds us that the whole world was destroying its old buildings:

The assault continued worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”

Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s nineteenth-century design. Thousands of New York building were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. “Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures.” The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old Cit like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact.

Haussmann’s Paris also gets discussed. But is preservation the right answer? Meyer mentions seeing the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, Laos threatened not by bulldozers, but tourists. The historic structures were converted to guesthouses, increasing sewage, traffic, and making the city a cultural Disneyland.

This is crazy to think about: “At a time when New York was building skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Beijing still delivered water to homes by wheelbarrow.”

 

A Suspension of Mercy

One of Pat’s best books, pub’d in 1965 when she was in her full powers and had yet to slide into decline. It’s a story about a fiction writer (Sydney Bartleby) who hates his wife Alicia and keeps thinking about ways he would murder her. She’s an artist and takes time away from him, ostensibly to paint but in reality it’s just to get away from him. After a few days, she returns, and then after a major fight departs again, this time for a much longer time. Sydney is pleased to not have her around and begins producing great crime plots that he collaborates on with his pal Alex for television treatment. The day after Alicia leaves on her longer stay, Syd thinks he’d like to see what it’s like to raise suspicion that he’s murdered her, so early one morning carries a rolled up carpet that he goes and buries four feet underground. Alicia has actually flown into the arms of another man, Edward Tilbury, and in various disguises she stays away, raising alarm and suspicion when she doesn’t cash her monthly trust fund check. Syd jokes with Alex that he pushed her down the stairs and buried the body in a carpet, and the police come sniffing around. Eventually the carpet gets dug up, no body. Syd thinks, the body is deeper in the hole, keep digging, but there is no body because Alicia is still alive and in hiding. Eventually Syd’s publishing prospects are held up by people suspecting that he did in his wife, so he spies on her, discovers the affair, and telegrams her to return to her parents. Alicia panics, gets drunk, chases after Edward, and falls or is pushed off a cliff. Syd’s off the hook for her murder, but he’s not satisfied, he goes to Tilbury’s flat and forces him to eat sleeping pills which later kill him.

Poetry State Forest

Bernadette Mayer strikes again, playing with words, showing you her old notebooks with lists of words, creating poems out of daily life that reveal bits of herself: her fights with Phil, presents from her son Max, the neighbor who buys the land next door to put up a cabin (“At least it’s not a walmart/a used care lot or a mine”), railing against George Bush (W), going to anti-war demonstrations, talking about the gloomy month of December. My favorite one was “Idyll,” written from the perspective of a know-nothing typical redneck white male who’s vacationing by the lake, dousing his bbq with lighter fluid, fishing, tossing his cigarette butts in the water, then throwing more of his garbage in. Mostly it’s a book of play, words dancing and pirouetting and bowing and scraping across the page.

You & a Bike & a Road

Eleanor Davis sketches a beautiful story of her solo bike touring as she bikes from Tuscon, AZ to Athens, GA. (She ultimately gives up in Mississippi, but the journey to get there takes 57 days). She sings and soaks in the gorgeousness of farmland, icing her swollen knees with frozen green beans at a coffee shop inside a grocery store because she doesn’t like peas. She meets lovely people along the way that provide shelter or guidance or acupuncture or vegetable soup. Through it all we know that she’s struggling with depression, that she’s got to do this trip now or wait 20 years because she and her husband want to have children. She camps along the way when she can, resenting shelling out $60 for motels when conditions require it, and when concerned people ask if she’s doing it alone she assures them her husband is with her, imagining a knife she calls her husband to do the trick if anyone were to try anything funny. The border patrol in AZ, NM, and Texas are all omnipresent, she’s shaken by the image of a man walking slowly in the canal, agents on either side waiting to catch him, but she does score some water from them occasionally as she’s biking. Delicious treat for the eyes and brain.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Exhausting. I’ve been wrestling with this book for a couple of weeks now and would have given up except the subject matter is too compelling. Because I’m high on Highsmith I suffered through the terribly constructed, bloated biography that Schenkar put together. That may be harsh criticism, but surely there was a way to chop the 600 pages into something more manageable. And nothing is more deflating than struggling through hundreds of pages of Pat’s tempestuous affairs with ladies (and a few men), looking up to see that you are in Part 14 of the section, Les Girls. I almost cried when I realized how much she’d packed into those pages. Did every single detail of every single affair she had need to be included? Ye gods. (Pat was a busy woman, frequently sleeping with several women at the same time, preferring love triangles or affairs with married women so there was no possibility of it continuing).

The most interesting intel I got from this was Pat’s secret life as a comic strip writer. During the 1940s she was the “most consistently employed female scriptwriter in the Golden Age of American Comics,” and she continued to write them freelance while in Europe trying to make ends meet. Comics she wrote for include: Black Terror, Pyroman, Fighting Yank, The Destroyer, Sergeant Bill King, Jap Buster Johnson, The Human Torch, Crisco and Jasper, Real Life Comics, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Golden Arrow. She hid this work from everyone, ashamed of it, but admitted later that it helped her tremendously in having to crank out huge quantities of pages around tight plot lines. This is also where she picked up the dual imagery she clung to in her own work, the alter-ego.  The biographer goes on an interesting tangent about that era of comics and includes Gertrude Stein’s impression that Americans “do the best designing and use the best material in the cheapest thing.” Apparently Stein had Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids strips mailed to her in Paris, sharing them with equally obsessed comics fan Picasso.

As a girl, Pat read obsessively and used books as “drugs”—sounds familiar—and later in life read the dictionary for half an hour each night (“As a novelist, I can say the dictionary is the most entertaining book I have ever read”). She kept snails as pets and would unleash them onto the dinner table to freak people out.

An alcoholic, she shunned food and actually marked a line across the bottle for each day’s rations of booze (beer and gin or vodka in the morning, scotch for the remainder of the day). The author, Schenkar, claims: “Coffee, scientists now tell us gravely, helps to protect the livers of heavy drinkers from cirrhosis,” meaning that Pat was preserving herself by being a huge coffee drinker along with consuming astounding amounts of booze. She was also known to be furious if she was at a party that ran out of alcohol.

She was obviously deeply into murder, and her last writer’s diary calculates that “one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. Those over eight would take two blows to kill.” What circumstances would drive her to this frenzy? “One situation—maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.” Amen, sister. Later she says “Families are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live with one.” Pat had a ridiculously complicated and fraught relationship with her mother Mary, having to cut off contact completely in later years after one too many screaming matches.

A misanthrope, she preserved herself by “avoiding meeting people, encountering them on my walks, greeting even the most pleasant acquaintances by crossing the street when I see them far ahead of me on the sidewalk… I feel that I am never quite myself with others.” Another great quote: “I can easily bear cold, loneliness, hunger and toothache, but I cannot bear noise, heat, interruptions, or other people.”

She met Carson McCullers (who told Pat all afternoon that she had a “very good figure”). She also met Shirley Jackson who advised her about the importance of finding a literary agent. Jane Bowles told her “Don’t plan. It always works better to write first, and then rewrite.”

 

The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser makes the case for poetry, the transfer of energy between writer and reader. It’s a book that makes you pause, linger, think, and is unable to be slurped up quickly like so many others I’ve devoured lately. Originally pub’d in 1949, thankfully reissued for a new generation of writers and readers.

I muddled through most of it because she absolutely nails a few things with such clarity that she deserved to be heard in full. The beginning was particularly hard-hitting for me, dealing with the fear of poetry that I think affects most of us. Written almost 70 years ago, her words resonate particularly well in today’s troubled times:

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves. If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun. Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has—the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge—infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

Our resistance is a signifier of how afraid we are of poetry. The post-modern search for uniformity leads to mental disease and a fear of poetry. And yet poetry is everywhere, in songs, theater, books. But put a book of poems in someone’s hand and they freeze up, frightened. It’s the least recognized and rewarded art form. Why?

On Writing Well

I read this book ten years ago (here’s my breathless and inept review from 2007) and was reminded of Zinsser’s book after reading Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship. The re-read was coincidental to the launch of my August writing group and provided some guide rails of additional thought.

Most advice about writing circles around the same concepts—be yourself, tell your story, provide interesting detail, avoid platitudes.

Writing about a trip? “Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and ‘all’ is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know?” You don’t actually have to travel far to write about a place, just settle into a spot and distill its uniqueness. Another exercise: think about one place that’s important to you, tell us why you want to write it and how you want to write about it. Bonus points if quest or pilgrimage.

This also struck me: “Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

The advice offered by S.J.Perelman also rings out: “[To write humor] takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity. The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good. Even if he isn’t.” You have to jump start your own engine, get started, and do it every day.

Final advice: “Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”

A Dog’s Ransom

Back on the Highsmith horse with this 1972 story about a crazy NYC neighbor who delights in sending poison pen letters finally kidnapping a dog and sending a $1000 ransom request. The Reynolds are the victims, and they’ve received three other nasty letters before the ransom note. Instead of going to the police, they tie up a bag of $1,000 and hope for the best. The money is taken but no dog, since it was killed the night it was stolen by the limping Rowajinski, disabled from a construction accident that has him on permanent disability. Now the Reynolds head to the police, which is where Clarence, the bright-eyed college educated cop, overhears their story and follows up on it of his own initiative. He tracks Rowajinski down, gets a confession, then oddly leaves him to go confer with the Reynolds about next steps (Rowajinski says the dog is still alive but at his sister’s house and will be killed if anything happens to him). While Clarence is gone, R’s landlady kicks him out and he recedes to a hotel in the Village. He gets another $1000 from the Reynolds and proceeds to burn half of it so he can say that Clarence took it as a bribe. Mixed up in all this is Marylyn, Clarence’s reluctant girlfriend who he’s asked multiple times to marry him. R gets caught by one of the other officers in Clarence’s unit and immediately accuses him of the $500 bribe, but ends up in Bellevue for a few days. After he’s released, he begins to haunt Marylyn, dropping notes and threats to her that make her fed up with Clarence who ultimately chases R down one night and beats him to death with his gun.

He confesses to Marylyn and the Reynolds, who have nothing but sympathy for him, but holds up under intense questioning by the police. In the end, it’s the “wop cop” that was harassing Marylyn who shows up and shoots Clarence after he refused to confess. Bizarre tale.

Works & Days

Who am I to judge poetry? And yet, that’s what do with each entry here. I liked this collection less than Scarlet Tanager, it felt like an exercise in filling up some pages to get paid, moaning about not having money, being poor, Phil having to go to his job and the car being broken. Including bits of Jumble words as filler. Entries like spasmodic journaling. I did learn that Monsanto has a building in the St. Louis botanical gardens named after it, though. And I did like this poem called “Walking Like A Robin”:

take 3 or 4 steps then stop/look smell taste touch & hear/is there anything to eat?/oh look, there’s some caviar/it must be my birthday, thanks/i must be very old, like seventy/i guess i’m falling apart, i’ll just/sew myself back together but will it last?/please take a piece of me back home, each piece/is anti-war and don’t pay your rent, in fact/remember: property is robbery, give everybody/everything, other birds walk this way too

Bruce Conner: The Afternoon Interviews

Tape recorded conversations with Bruce Conner from the 1970s until 2000s, speaking to V.Vale who started the punk mag Search & Destroy and got Conner to photograph punk banks at Mabuhay Gardens. The chats are transcribed into meandering bits, always interesting tales. Many rants against the behavior of Timothy Leary and his institution which sidled up to millionaires to solicit funds but never really did much beyond funding Leary and a tight cohort of his friends. Leary also boorishly blared into Mexican villages demanding to know where the mushrooms were and how people felt when they took them, acting as the obnoxious American and ensuring people would just clam up and not talk to him. Also of interest is when Conner meets Duchamp, brings him a box sealed up that has his signature stamp inside and asks Duchamp to give it to a mutual friend, which he does. Lots of talk about music and the bands that were in town, and a digression where Conner was trying to remember the name of a group of black men in the 1950s who were actually several different groups sent out on the road to maximize ticket sales because the producers felt like people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Calling Jello Biafra a nut, “he’s insane.” Getting death threats when he ran for the Board of Supes (BC got 5400 votes). His experience in Tokyo with everything running on time and feeling like an “enormous intruder… I’m too big. I’m too clumsy.” At one point BC is trying to convince Vale to go to the club that night but Vale wants to stay home and watch television, specifically “The Prisoner” which was on PBS. Bruce tells him:

“You should’ve seen it on commercial television. Because what happened was, when the commercials came on, there wasn’t any difference between ‘The Prisoner’ and the rest of the television thing. It was like the commercials are all part of this diabolic thing that was happening… It was as though you were locked into this labyrinthine structure and the TV commercials just fit right into it… It would come on and then it would just totally alter your consciousness of television, so you’d get into this grotesque, surrealistic thing of who’s number one and who’s number two and obscure plots where you don’t know who’s causing what and posters–all sorts of things that are caricatures of our 20th century of living And then the commercials would come on and the people that were in them were just like these sort of robot-like number threes and number fours, talking about brushing their teeth and happy all the time, and positive, and announcements – everything was like that, even the breaks for the station.”

The Prisoner,” by the way, looks amazing.

A few hours after reading this, I’m struck by the fact that Jean, Conner’s wife, comes into the conversations a few times, always as someone telling Bruce it was time to eat. This another example of a male artist benefiting from the structure of marriage, to the detriment of Jean’s own artistic work.