The snail-watcher, and other stories

Pat’s first collection of short stories came out in 1970 and her obsession with snails is clear from the eponymous story. A man grows interested in snails when he sees them mating before they’re about to be cooked for dinner, rescues them, turns his study into a snail habitat, lets them run wild, they take over and eventually crush him to death. Snails pop up again in The Quest for “Blank Claveringi,” a story about a man bent on discovering a new snail species who sets out to investigate the man-eating 25-foot snails he’s read about. (He dies, eaten by snails). The Terrapin follows the anguish of a son realizing that his mother has brought a turtle home to eat, not as his pet. That night he cuts her up like he witnessed her attack on the terrapin. A woman attempts to kill her husband with chloroform in When the Fleet was in at Mobile. The Cries of Love has two old ladies who wreak havoc on each others’ lives, Hattie snipping Alice’s nice new cardigan into shreds, Alice chopping off one of Hattie’s braids while she slept. They continue to live together, plotting slow revenge. In The Heroine, an insane woman comes to be the nurse of two rich kids, ripping her pay into bits, setting the house on fire so she can be of use. This collection was published as Eleven in the UK.

A Drinking Life: A Memoir

Another tepid memoir recommended by Zinsser. At least this one had enough tiny morsels of interest to keep me flipping the pages. His late teenage years were the most interesting, dropping out of the elite Catholic school, working in the Navy Yard, having his own apartment and going to illustration school at night. Hamill comes from an Irish background and makes the case that it was inevitable that he start to drink, his life incorporating booze at an early age. He joins the Navy but avoids combat in the Korean War, stays long enough to qualify for the GI Bill and get college paid for. This leads him to Mexico to study art and writing, but he gets in trouble with the police for busting down a whorehouse door and later pummeling someone. A group of gringos heads for the beach for a vacation and rents hammocks for cheap each night, mooching off the friendly locals who provide them with food and beer. Back in NYC, Hamill becomes a journalist, enters an ill-advised marriage, has a few kids, gets divorced, dates Shirley Maclaine, and gives up drinking. No AA, just cold turkey. Yawn.

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

I felt a little duped by this, since it’s mostly a rehashing of essays I’ve previously read by Dillard with a foreword by the wretched Geoff Dyer whom I’ve vowed never to read again (“The chimera of Dyer’s talent I first peeped in Zona turned out to be nothing but a blotchy oil spill farting and leering at women’s breasts.” – from my review of Another Great Day at Sea). Skipping the foreword, I was still delighted by Annie Dillard’s poetic trance and relished her dance through the pages.

She starts with a piece about the 1979 total eclipse, especially timely to read a few weeks after our 2017 eclipse; wild, ragged, and beautiful sentences capturing the eeriness, the oddity of ending up at a diner with other eclipse viewers eating eggs and hearing a boy say that the ring looked like a Life Saver in the sky.

The rest of the essays are taken from Holy the Firm, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. I’m reminded to try again to read Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a book Dillard credits with making her want to write when she was 16, a book that I gave up on after a few pages. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, will try again.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Probably the only reason to read this is for the crumbs that reveal Dickens’s rage against America. Those are the only savory bits I enjoyed, at least.

As the younger Martin arrives by boat, he’s astonished by the newsboys crying their wares, “Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here’s the New York Rowdy Journal!… with all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs. White’s last night, where the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here’s the Sewer!… Here’s the Sewer’s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here’s the Sewer!” A great commentary of the state of the U.S. press that slips all too closely into what today’s media is like.

Dickens let loose with all his impressions, how we’re a country obsessed by money: “It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?”

The unending pursuit of knowledge was also pilloried as a lady is asked what course of lectures she’s attending. Wednesday is the Philosophy of the Soul, Monday is Philosophy of Crime, Friday is the Philosophy of Vegetables.

All the men Martin is introduced to are “one of the most remarkable men in the country,” so this becomes a jokey refrain. He is barraged with requests to lecture about any topic he chooses, and has to endure hoards of people coming to get a look at him. “If they spoke to him, which was not often, they invariably asked the same questions, in the same tone: with no more remorse or delicacy or consideration than if he had been a figure of stone, purchased and paid for, and set up there for their delight.”

After a failed attempt to set up a business in the wilderness and beating an illness, Martin hightails it back to England. His companion says he’d like to paint a picture of the American Eagle: “I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud and thinking nobody sees it…”

Charming, Charles!

The Cry of the Owl

This 1962 gem from Pat looks like a practice run for her more perfectly formed A Suspension of Mercy (1965) wherein one of the characters disappears so as to bring suspicion of murder onto another character. The Cry of the Owl centers around Robert, a recently divorced draftsman who works at an aeronautics company and who likes to go peeping at night. He prowls up to Jenny’s isolated home and enjoys watching her in the kitchen, happy for her when he sees her making dinner for her and her boyfriend, Greg. A few errant noises makes Jenny spooked about his sneaking around outside, and eventually she catches him. Surprise: she’s not freaked out, but befriends him and finds their meet cute to be fate. Soon she’s abandoned Greg, who turns savage and stalks Jenny, tries to run Robert off the road, engages in a fight that leaves Greg knocked out by the river’s edge and Robert pulls Greg out so he doesn’t drown. But Greg disappears, heads to NYC and gets support from Robert’s psychotic ex-wife Nickie. Robert tries to track him down in a NYC hotel but fails. The local police suspect him of murder and eventually find a body in the river, unfortunately missing the part of teeth that the dentist could have matched with his records for Greg. Fast forward, Greg comes out of hiding to shoot at Robert, improbably, and eventually kills the doctor who was tending Robert’s gunshot wounds. Greg’s out on bail and Nickie comes to visit him, then they head over to Robert’s to terrorize him a bit more (Jenny has killed herself by now). In a final knife fight, Greg swipes at Robert but kills Nickie, Robert looks at the knife and realizes he has to call the police.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Another book about bored white hillbillies screwing up America, only this time the couple targeted their tiny town in Accomack County, Virginia, with a series of fires (70+). I knew the book was going to be good by the second paragraph where Monica Hesse says she spent two years trying to figure out why they did it, and that the answer involved “hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms, intrigue, and America.”

She does an excellent job laying out all the facts, from the first fire’s 911 calls all the way through the months of other fires and finally the bust, interrogation, and trials. Charlie is made out to be the impotent half-wit who went along with the first dozen fires because they made Tonya happy, and because they were somewhat of a substitute to his not being able to get it up.

Really well done; I read it straight through, abandoning all other commitments for the afternoon.

Odd tidbit: an Alford plea is based on the case of a man named Henry Alford who wanted to plead not guilty of murder but feared that a jury trial would convict and punish him with death, so he plead to get life in prison.

Optimism over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change

I’m pretty sick of reading the opinions of old white men, but I’ll make an exception for Chomsky. I could use a dose of optimism and thought it would be unusual to come from such a source. The book is the result of a series of interviews with C.J. Polychroniou between 2013-2017 and all previously published in Truthout. Yes, there are brief touches on the Toxic T administration, but life in January 2017 looks much different in August 2017 when I read this.

Spoiler alert: there’s not a ton of optimism, although at the end of section 1 (and repeated at the end of section 3), he makes the best case for optimism:

If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world. Not much of a choice.

Chomsky consistently argues that the two most pressing issues we face are climate change and the possibility of nuclear war, saying that we don’t talk enough about the latter and are way too complacent about the former. One of the problems in raising concern about global warming is the absurdity that “40 percent of the US population doesn’t see why it is a problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades.”

The other point he hammers is that the US is unusual to the extent that we’re a “business-run society, where short-term concerns of profit and market share displace rational planning.” We also have a disproportionate part of the population that are religious fundamentalists. Basically, we’re screwed. Only don’t give up! Keep trying even though there is no hope.

Another note: I did not know about the “eloquent and poignant manifesto” left by the Austin pilot who suicided by flying his plane into an IRS office in Feb 2010. Worth a read and a helluva way to send a message about taxes.

Excellent Women

An excellent novel, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. The phrase denotes women who are great but unmarriageable, and is used tongue-in-cheek by the narrator of the story, Mildred Lathbury, a capable spinster living in her own flat but sharing a bathroom with the downstairs flat. New neighbors move in, the Napiers, and disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. Helena is an anthropologist, quite independent, and finds herself in love with a man not her husband. Rocky is the husband, serving as a Naval officer in Italy and winding up home with Helena to find her attracted to Eduard. Mildred’s closest friends are the vicar’s sister and the vicar, and that relationship goes topsy-turvy when they take in a border, a widowed Mrs Grey who soon becomes engaged to the vicar but the relationship sours when Mrs Grey insists that Winifred, the sister, must find somewhere else to live. Through the drama, Mildred counts and recounts her blessings about not being married, having to defend herself against unjust accusations that she is in love with this or that man. Eduard invites her over for dinner in his flat but she can’t bear the thought of having to cook his dinner for him, so she declines. In the end, she’s there, taking the roast chicken out of the oven, dreaming up how her life will be as she helps him with this scholarly work.

One interesting bit I picked up is the use of “any road” as another way to say “anyway”: Mrs Morris says ‘Let’s have a fag, any road.’

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

The 2016 election caused a collective trauma to the U.S. Therapists are experiencing boom times, with one Florida doctor noting 80% of her clients say the election is a source of fear and sadness. Requests for online therapy through Talkspace tripled immediately after the election. In an effort to try and heal my own shocked and broken heart, I reached out to Judith Herman’s legendary book about trauma. I mean in no way to belittle the other forms of trauma by equating them with post-election trauma. I offer up a few tidbits learned along the way, but know there is a long road ahead to rebuild connections and restore my faith in humanity.

The book is broken into two parts: the historical search to diagnose this disorder (from hysterical women to shell-shocked soldiers to sexual abuse survivors) and an overview of the healing process. I found the former part to be of the most interest, the latter self-help component to be a bit saggy for my taste.

Fascinating that the study of hysteria came about as a way to divest the Catholic Church of some of its power in France. Freud was initially part of the investigation, but got freaked out when he realized the extent of what he was uncovering, the frequency of sexual assault. I didn’t realize that famous patient Anna O (Bertha Pappenheim) was Joseph Breuer’s, collaborating with Freud to publish their analysis, and that Breuer abandoned Anna after two years of intense daily “talking cure” (Bertha came up with the famous term). Falling ill for years after Breuer’s abandonment, she eventually recovered and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights.

This post-trauma disorder cropped up again in WWI as shell shock. One study estimates 40% of British battle casualties to be mental breakdowns, reports suppressed to prevent this demoralizing news from reaching the public.

The common trait of psychological trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.” This describes the atmosphere of 2017. Trauma is also amplified when coupled with being taken by surprise. Hello November 9, 2016. Traumatic reactions happen when you can’t make a difference with your own action. “When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized.”

This sums up my feeling pretty well:

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.

 

This Sweet Sickness

Maybe I’m overdosing on Highsmith because she’s the perfect complement to the insanity of today’s world. So here’s another, this not among her worst or her best; pub’d in 1960, bouncing back from her unreadable 1958 book set in Mexico.

The “hero,” David Kelsey, is an absolute nut, living a splintered life in a boardinghouse during the week and then scampering off on weekends to a house he bought where he lives a fantasy life with the woman he loved but who married someone else. His boardinghouse and work think he spends weekends with his dying mother in a nursing home, but she’s been dead fourteen years. David buys the house under a fake name, William Neumeister, and lives an entirely different life as Bill, smoking and drinking cocktails while he pretends that Annabelle lives with him. David continues to write to Annabelle, insisting that she spend a few days leading up to Christmas with him in NYC, calling her house, and generally terrorizing her. He shows up one day and meets the husband, insults him, and leaves. The continued behavior drives Gerald, the husband, to the brink of wanting to kill David, and he shows up at the boardinghouse with a gun. David’s neighbor Effie gives Gerald the location of the house that David spends the weekends at, and Gerald arrives, brandishing the gun, gets into a scuffle, is shoved by David, clonks his head, and dies. David/Bill drives the body to the police and gives a full report acting as William Neumeister, then proceeds to sell his house, quit his job, get another job and move to a different town. Effie’s in love with David and keeps his secret, but as David becomes more and more unhinged (Annabelle marries a different man after Gerald’s death), Effie & his friend Wes visit and David accidentally kills her. The last pages are when he’s on the lam in NYC, acting weird as Bill, pretending he and Annabelle are on their honeymoon, ordering 2 dinners with 2 drinks, then showing up at an old college buddy’s apartment who then sends his wife out for the police. He ends up jumping from their apartment, but does he hit the police net or die?

When tech bros bloviate; or: George Orwell on the Uber investor letter

Have you laughed at the ridiculous letter an Uber investor wrote yet? It’s below in full (“liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels,” “unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity,” among other bloviated gems).

Normally I’d just smirk and move on, but I happened to read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay a day later and was amused by the coincidence. The Uber letter reeks of all the faults laid out in Orwell’s essay: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words. Orwell says, “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Orwell later notes that when “the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” We all know the toxic atmosphere steaming up the Uber headquarters and seeping through the corridors of Silicon Valley, so this letter is unsurprising. From his 1946 perch, Orwell cautions us to recognize “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” and offers us rules which Pishevar would be wise to swallow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you frequently see
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The bloviation of Uber investor, Shervin Pishevar, in full:

Let us take this pause in this moment, when we find ourselves swimming in the crucible of one of the grandest business and moral battles of our generation, and find strength in each stroke of our proverbial digital pens, that we wrote with the indelible, eternal and permanent ink of righteousness. We write with the souls of thousands of lives saved, the lives of millions of jobs created liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels of corrupt cabals that choked cities with their pollution of air and morals. We write with the spirit of Bonnie Kalanick, who raised her son with deep unconditional love and unfading faith in his ability to do good for the world. Whose tragic and untimely death was used against her son at his most vulnerable, unspeakable time of pain. They chose to strike at a moment of a devoted son’s retreat and leave of absence to mourn the absence of the inviolable love of his mother. In doing so, they joined the very corruption her son had devoted such fervent passion to fight. In her memory, we devote our actions to a just cause; to defend what is right and to protect the interest of not only shareholders but most importantly the far more important stakeholders of employees, drivers and customers whose lives have been forever altered by the abiding faith and fervent hard work of Travis Kalanick and the Uber team. Their allegiance was met by this unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity.

Let us strike tomorrow with the full and fulsome courage of our convictions. Let our just cause give pause to those who would ever dream of ever emulating the shameful shenanigans of these sanctimonious hypocrites who fling filings and letters de haut en bas; when it is we who have the higher moral ground and our letters and filing will hail down upon their platforms, exposing them as bitterly barren barons of moral turpitude. And as the summer sets, we let us be steward of truth who in unison proclaim: fiat justitia ruat caelum.

-Shervin Pishevar

 

Burning Girl

Perhaps Claire Messud’s Burning Girl was an ill-considered choice of reading material on a day that shattered heat records in San Francisco. My heart wasn’t quite in it, as I gulped down water, hid behind curtained windows, and blasted the fan while leaning back on a towel-covered ice pack. Or maybe the writing just wasn’t enough to transport me through to the world on the other side. I can’t chalk it up to the narrator’s youth, as I have absolutely loved some YA fiction (e.g. The Fault in our Stars). The plot seemed thinly stretched, and although less than 250 pages, a chore to get through. It’s a story of the disintegrated friendship of two young girls, besties at age 12 only to spiral away from each other. One goes to the bad crowd, one gets asked to join the debate club. The usual. The bad girl ends up trying to overdose in an abandoned asylum. Almost too cliche but there it is.

I appear not to have enjoyed her other work too much either, so maybe this is just par for the course.

Small G: A Summer Idyll

Pat’s U.S. publishers rejected her last work a few months before her death; I suppose the in-your-face gayness was too much for them? The story follows an atypical trajectory for Highsmith, starting with the brutal murder of Peter, a young homosexual, then meandering through the lives of various other Zurich residents related to Peter before ending on a happy note with Peter’s lover having moved on, and happy endings all around. Luisa is a teenager who fell in love with Peter to his dismay, and is eased in his death by Rickie, Peter’s much older boyfriend. She’s an apprentice seamstress kept under virtual lock and key by her mistress, Renate, who vocally abuses gays at the local watering hole, the Small g, AKA Jakob’s (small g for gay). Teddie is a young man who wanders in one night, Rickie falls for him but he’s straight and lusts after Luisa who ends up dating both Teddie (a man) and Dorrie (a woman). Renate is killed after slipping on the stairs running after Dorrie and Luisa inherits her whole estate, including the dress shop. Very odd for Highsmith, the last word is “happy.” Did she realize that would be ultimately her final printed word? Would she have wanted that? Hmm.