All Grown Up

I loved this while reading it, then got annoyed with the constant repeating of information, but finally came around to appreciating her structure. She tells the story of a single woman almost in rounds, the same details being sung over and over about her junkie dad overdosing, her brother making it as a musician before marrying an amazing woman and having a severely disabled daughter they raise in New Hampshire, her mother throwing “rent parties” with a bunch of skeezy old men who insist on putting teenage Andrea in their laps and jostling her, and her own narrative arc of leaving Chicago art school to settle back home in NYC where she grew up on the Upper West Side and now lives in Brooklyn but working in advertising instead of as an artist.

Some of her lines are simply devastating. Throughout, she is wry and funny and real. I was hooked in the first chapter, where she describes her run-down apartment in Brooklyn with a view of the Empire State Building she’d sketch every day:

Still you draw. This is the best part of your day. This is your purest moment. This is when the breath leaves you body and you feel like you are hovering slightly above the ground. On New Year’s, that day of fresh starts, you allow yourself to flip through some of the old sketchbooks. You recognize you have gotten better. You are not not talented. That is a thing that fills you up. You sit with it. You sit with yourself. You allow yourself that pleasure of liking yourself. What if this is enough?

At her therapist she runs through a list of things that she is, besides being single (woman, Jewish, designer, friend, daughter, sister, aunt). In her head she thinks of another list (alone, drinker, former artist, and “the captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.”) She dates, usually unsuccessfully. About one encounter: “This is not a date; this is an audition for a play about a terrible date.”

She begins to think about making art again.

What if I did just that? That is the thing I love, that is  the thing I miss the most. For so long I have believed I could never catch up, but now I realize there’s nothing to catch up to, there’s only what I choose to make. There’s still time, I think. I have so much time left.

Here is New York

E.B. White’s 1948 love letter to NYC is just as readable 70 years later. It begins, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” He calls what the city gives its citizens “a dose of supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.”

The three types of NYers are natives, commuters, and people who migrate there to live; of those, White calls the migrants the greatest, the cause of all the art and literature and energy of the city. He dismisses the commuters as a pack of locusts descending each day and not experiencing anything except the bus schedule and the closest place to get lunch from work.

NYC’s neighborhoods give much of its charm, and each small two or three block neighborhood is somewhat self-contained. No matter where you live, you’ll find within a block or two “a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar (where you write your order on a pad outside as you walk by), a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen (beer and sandwiches delivered at any hour to your door), a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drugstore, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.”

This part struck me; remember, this is from 70 year ago:

New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago — and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with nerve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, toward the ultimate tip. On the West Side Highway, approaching the city, the motorist is swept along in a trance — a sort of fever of inescapable motion, goaded from behind, hemmed in on either side, a mere chip in a millrace.

Finally, it’s inevitable to recall 9/11 when he speaks of one change that no one talks about: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

Knole and the Sackvilles

Vita takes us on a house tour of her ancestral home, the ridiculously large and elegant Knole in Kent. Apparently this is the 3rd largest residential home in England. Rumor has it that there are 52 staircases (for each week of the year) and 365 rooms, but she never could be bothered to count them. Growing up here in the care of her grandfather, you somehow lack pity for Vita when she muses, “after a lifetime of familiarity, I still catch myself pausing to think out the shortest route from one room to another. Four acres of building is no mean matter.”

Having access to hordes of documents locked up in chests on the property, Vita reconstructs its history from the 15th century onward, ignoring the previous centuries due to lack of documentation. In the 16th century it was briefly given to Henry VIII, then granted to the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth in 1586. Vita charts the ups and downs of her illustrious family with the help of letters, diaries, speeches, along with contemporary accounts from the likes of Pepys, Macaulay, etc.

The most interesting person to waft from the dusty pages was Lady Anne Clifford, who died in 1624. “It so happens that a remarkably complete record has been left of existence at Knole in the early 17th century—an existence compounded of extreme prodigality of living, tedium, and perpetual domestic quarrels. We have a private diary, in which every squabble and reconciliation between Lord and Lady Dorset is chronicled; every gown she wore; every wager he won or lost (and he made many); every book she read; every game she played at Knole with the steward or with the neighbors; every time she wept; every day she ‘sat still, thinking the time to be very tedious.'” Lady Anne Clifford was an heiress in her own right, married off to the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville, who was a spendthrift who wanted access to her fortune which she denied him.

Menu for banquet in July 1636

Also of interest are the myriad of lists of expenses for various items, ranging from armor to banquet menus. Another list is of slang used by thieves in the 17th century that was scribbled on the back of another document with words like “bleating-cheat” (sheep), “tip me my earnest” ( give me my part), “fambles” (hands), “knapper of knappers” (sheep stealer), “lullabye cheat” (child), and “mumpers” (gentile beggars).

 

What did Virginia Woolf read?

I just discovered this incredibly useful resource that has compiled a searchable database detailing the history of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945. Yowza.

Here’s a list of 381 works VW read, pieced together from letters and diaries. Basically, I found this site because I was wondering what her exposure to Dickens was, and was too lazy to page through the indexes of her letters/diaries myself. (And here’s what Dickens was reading.)

I knew Vita Sackville-West was a fan of Proust (“To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend”) and her list of books contains quite a few references to the Frenchman.

Maybe you’re curious what Samuel Johnson read? Or his sidekick, Boswell? Or Carlyle? The great 17th century diarist, Pepys? Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot)? Charlotte Brontë?

This is a rabbit hole I won’t be falling out of anytime soon.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Another gem from British author Elizabeth Taylor (I also read her Angel earlier this year). In this one, Mrs Palfrey is a widow who arrives at a London residential hotel because she has nowhere else to go, her daughter not having invited her to live in Scotland with her, ignored by her grandson, Desmond, who works at the British Museum. It’s brimming with tragic descriptions of how barren life can be for an oldster, how the residents cling to their routine and savor the tiny enjoyments like reading the day’s menu, trying to make time pass as quickly as possible.

One day, Mrs Palfrey slips and falls on the street, and is rescued by Ludo, an aspiring author who lives in a basement apartment where she fell. He cleans her up and gives her a cup of tea before calling for a cab. Ludo slips into her life and Palfrey passes him off as her grandson Desmond, whom the residents have been clamoring to meet. In fact, Ludo is a much nicer “grandson” than her actual one.

The lone male resident decides he wants to marry Palfrey and she is horrified by the prospect. But still, she hints at his proposal in a letter home to her daughter, which sends consternation flurrying at the idea that they might not get her money after all.

Clever, charming book, a delightful treat for an afternoon’s reading.

Top Picks of 2017

This year I added a new tag to make it easier to find books that I really liked. This makes the year-end recap a cinch instead of having to wade through 300+ titles to handpick my favorites.

It’s been quite the year. Despite trying to slow down my reading, I gobbled down a record number this year: 336. My consumption of women writers dropped to 69% this year, down from last year’s 78%; men clocked in at 29% with the remainder a mix of both. Non-fiction (64%) edged out fiction (36%) for the second year in a row. These are some of my favorites that were absorbed in 2017:

Non-fiction

The first five on the list are absolute must-reads. The last three are delicious treats.

Fiction

Fiction is extremely hard to recommend since it is such a personal taste. Here are a few.

Travel Writing/Memoir

Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings

A smorgasbord of various pieces across Vita’s career—travel writing from Persia, diaries of her exhausting lecture trip across the U.S., excerpts from novels, bits of poetry, letters, diaries, memoirs. I enjoyed her incessant carping about Americans being loud, dumb, and fat in her 1933 travel diary, her inflicting a cold blast of air on reporters in Chicago by leaving the window open, her insistence that the red on her cheeks was not rouge—go ahead and wipe it off, she encouraged, so much train travel and arriving dirty and tired.

I’m also keen on reading Passenger to Teheran in full, especially on the heels of reading MacCannell’s thoughts on tourism. VW got letters from Vita and noted in her diary that “[Vita] is not clever: but abundant and fruitful, truthful too.” After getting the manuscript for the book, she declared it full of “nooks and crannies.”

The Ethics of Sightseeing

I keep thinking about Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist so decided to see if he’d written anything else recently. This seems to be his latest book, but I hope he’s hard at work on something that layers in how the necessity of creating content for social media sites, that incessant hungry beast that demands jealousy-producing photos, has cranked tourism into overdrive.

This 2011 book has the same pitfalls of The Tourist, the muddy writing whilst pontificating in a scholarly voice. Tragically, it’s a disaster of a book with only a few redeeming qualities, outlined below. Much blather, poor planning, and overcompensating for his lack of a cohesive theory by stuffing our eyes with Lacan and Stendhal references. I hate to be a stickler, but his “slip is showing” (e.g. lack of any kind of structure) when he doesn’t bother to mark where Part 2 begins, then just slaps a lame “Part 3” heading atop a random chapter, before settling into proper single page announcement treatment of Part 4 (like Part 1).

He rails against “Staged Authenticity” that has overwhelmed all of life, how it’s not just for tourism anymore. He briefly touches on our blithe acceptance of the surveillance state, gladly handing over privacy to reap the rewards of being internet famous or going viral, “desire for fame and recognition trumping (or Trumping) all other desires.” He asks what happens when everything that was once a “societal secondary adjustment (gangster lifestyles, lost weekends, profit skimming, exercise addiction, extramarital affairs, resume inflation, test cheating, dope dealing, dope taking, food fetishism…) what happens when everything that was once a secondary adjustment becomes merely another suburban lifestyle choice?”

Mocking our forced casual fashion, “we comfortably inhabit the space of staged authenticity and dress accordingly, that is, like tourists… The same expensive exercise outfits can be worn in public by suburban women and young inner city [kids].” You can’t tell who’s important anymore by what they drive, either. Limos signify nothing, everyone wants a huge SUV. “You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Other than having money and a willingness to waste it, the purchase signifies positive nothingness; a large investment in maintaining zero specific identity, no purpose, and no direction.”

Later, he’s eviscerating the ever-present command: Enjoy! “Pleasure itself has become a new moral imperative. Today, we are all supposed to be having fun… Everyone’s life should resemble a beer commercial… In postmodernity, if you are not having fun, or appearing to be having fun, it means you have done something wrong. Someone who just ekes out a living, always doing the right thing but never getting anywhere or going anywhere must now carry the burden of guilt for having failed to ‘Enjoy!'”

One of his claims is that tourists are so overwhelmed in the presence of the Sight that they’ve come to See, they clam up, unable to speak, anxious that they don’t get it or might forget it. “The main protection tourists have devised against anxiety-provoking exigencies is manic picture taking and repetition of information about the attraction.”

Seducers in Ecuador

Brilliant novella by Vita, written in 1924 and dedicated to Virginia Woolf, who said “I wish I had written it.” In the collection of Vita’s writing that I’m reading, it’s described as “the most complex and the most highly stylized, the most interesting and the most modernist” of her works.

Arthur Lomax is a nonchalant Englishman whose life is changed when he agrees to join a pleasure-cruise to Egypt. This is where he discovers the joy and transformation of wearing colored glasses, first blue then green and black. The very first sentence gives away a major plot point: “It was in Egypt that Arthur Lomax contracted the habit which, after a pleasantly varied career, brought him finally to the scaffold.”

He loves the effect of the colored glass and refuses to go anywhere without them. “He resolved, however, not to initiate a soul into his discovery. To those blessed with perception, let perception remain sacred, but let the obtuse dwell for ever in their darkness.”

How did he end up in Egypt anyway? He’s sitting beside a man at his London club who mentioned that he was sailing to Egypt the next day and bemoaning the fact that his third guest backed out due to family problems:

“Family ties,” he grumbled; and then, to Lomax, “somehow you don’t look as though you had any.” “I haven’t,” said Lomax. “Lucky man,” grumbled Bellamy. “No,” said Lomax, “not so much lucky as wise. A man isn’t born with wife and children, and if he acquires them he has only himself to blame.” This appeared to amuse Bellamy, especially coming from Lomax, who was habitually taciturn, and he said,”That being so, you’d better come along to Egypt tomorrow.” “Thanks,” said Lomax, “I will.”

A few paragraphs later, Vita introduces the rest of the cruising passengers:

It is now time to be a little more explicit on the question of the companions of Lomax.
Perhaps Miss Whitaker deserves precedence, since it was she, after all, who married Lomax.
And perhaps Bellamy should come next, since it was he, after all, for whose murder Lomax was hanged.
And perhaps Artivale should come third, since it was to him, after all, that Lomax bequeathed his, that is to say Bellamy’s, fortune.
The practised reader will have observed by now that the element of surprise is not to be looked for in this story.

And there you have it—the entirety of the plot line. The rest of the novella flows along these lines, finally ending with Lomax arrested for Bellamy’s death and Artivale not getting the money after all due to a contested will. The seducer of the title is the unknown man who has impregnated Miss Whitaker, causing Lomax to marry her out of pity. Bellamy supposedly has a fatal disease and asks Lomax to help him die, but once the deed is done, his body is exhumed and no disease found.

The Heir

Vita wrote this in 1920 after visiting property that had gone up for sale after the death of one of her acquaintances. It’s a charming quick story of a nephew who inherits a large home and parcel of land from his aunt. Immediately ignored by the lawyers and house agents, Chase finds the sale of the house arranged for him, but then takes a few weeks off work (for an insurance agency) to explore the home and environs. Unfortunately, he falls in love with the house and the local people (who all fall in love with him too). But he has no money, and so the house must be sold. In the end he shows up at the auction and outbids everyone, a ridiculous sum that he does not have. It’s worth it, he feels, and he keeps the servants around, ending the book with the choice between dinner in the garden or inside.

Great Expectations: A Novel

Kathy Acker’s most readable book, according to Chris Kraus’s biography. It’s a great example of her layering technique, collaging with words, expropriating work from other writers (e.g. Dickens), avant-guarding all over the page.

Snuck in bits of her own life between wild careenings of flights of fancy, like her mother’s suicide on Christmas Eve after spending all of her money, and Acker’s own inheritance of wealth from her father.

Acker explains her process: “I wrote so many pages a day and that was that. I set up guidelines for each piece, such as you’ll use autobiographical and fake autobiographical material, or you’re not allowed to re-write. I really didn’t want any creativity. It was task work, and that’s how I thought of it.”

All Passion Spent

Oh Vita, bravo! This is a book I shall recommend to anyone who is experiencing the loss of a loved one, tackling death and absence in such a tremendous way, with a light touch and humor.

We first meet Lady Slane at age 88, her husband of 70 years having just died. Her brood of children includes the usual bores—the over-ambitious first son, the hyper-efficient first daughter, the complaining second son, the parsimonious third son, and the dreamers who were the youngest daughter and son, most beloved by their parents. In the wake of their father’s death, they all gather to discuss what is to be done with Mother, hatching their tedious plan of pawning her off between each of their houses for a few months of the year. Mother (Lady Slane) has other plans. After dumping her only real wealth, the jewels left to her by her husband, into the lap of her oldest son, she declares that she’s taking a house in Hampstead that she noticed 30 years ago and no she does not want anyone going out with her to arrange matters.

Alone, she meets the landlord Mr Bucktrout, and immediately finds a kindred weirdo spirit who tells her “I have few friends, and I find that as one grows older one relies more and more on the society of one’s contemporaries and shrinks from the society of the young. They are so tiring. So unsettling. I can scarcely, nowadays, endure the company of anybody under seventy.” Lady Slane agrees and tells her children that she does not want her grandchildren or great-grandchildren visiting her. “They were forbidden. The grandchildren did not count; they were insignificant as the middle distance.” So refreshing to hear this opinion, especially in this age when grandparents gush unremittingly about their offspring’s offspring.

A friend of her youngest son appears who has known Lady Slane many decades ago in India and they resume acquaintance, whereupon he rewrites his will and leaves millions to her, dying soon after. Lady Slane then donates all the money and art to hospitals and museums, infuriating her oldest children, but her great-granddaughter comes to thank her, saying that this made her less attractive as a marriage option and able to break an engagement she didn’t want. We end with Lady Slane expiring after that conversation.

The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks

Many thanks to Erin for reminding me about how wonderful Gwendolyn Brooks is. This is a distillation of the “essential” poems of her life, including the perfect We Real Cool. I didn’t realize that Brooks was the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer, obtained in 1950 for her book Annie Allen. Born in Topeka, KS in 1917, she moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration only a few months after her birth.

We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

McGlue

In an interview with The Guardian, Ottessa said she wrote this during her MFA course at Brown, “Looking back I’m astonished that I wrote it, I think it’s an astonishing book.” Indeed it is.

Incoherent, poetic rambling from the mouth of a sick alcoholic (McGlue) jailed for killing his best friend, Johnson. Parts are very very violent, leaving me shuddering. But overwhelmingly you’re drawn into the dream world of McGlue as he frets below-deck of the ship in a haze and ensconced in a Salem jail once he’s on shore. He keeps yelping for Johnson, not believing that he’s dead.

“Right,” I said, but it didn’t feel very right. I didn’t want to make it. I wanted to lie down with it and strangle it and kill it and save it and nurse it and kill it again and I wanted to go and forget where I was going and I wanted to change my name and forget my face and wanted to drink and get my head ruined but I certainly hadn’t thought about making it.

The language is just unstoppable:

I’ve not seen Johnson in too long. He comes and goes in my mind’s eye and still he hasn’t come to my lock-up down here in the boat to cool my nerves, my hot snake brains they feel like, slithering and stewing around, steam seeping through the crack in my head.

And

Me, peddling my legs around Salem like a windup doll looking for a glass teat to suck. “We’ll go,” he said. “I’d even pay my way.” But he didn’t have to try hard to get a job on that ship, and with him me too. Looking like a stowaway I made onto that ship the day of departure with Jonson clearing a path for me, like a prince. “He’s not feeling well,” was his explanation for why I was stained with wine, stumbling, smirking and raising a finger to say something, then forgetting and stumbling on.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

Knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em also applies to pages in a book. After a 300+ page slog through this 900 page behemoth, I’m cutting my losses and moving on to explore for intellectual oil elsewhere.

History, I’d forgotten, is overwhelmingly the story of men, and that point came across in this Bechdel-test failing tome. There’s nary a woman in the pages, except as a whisper in the wind, a remembered comment attributed to her wit, or a nameless faceless member of a harem. Still, I persisted. I wanted to know more about this black gold that humans have pried from the earth with such desperation, the fuel that keeps my city clogged with roaring impatient engines, the insidious father of plastic.

The early story of oil was fairly interesting, which is why I gritted my teeth and kept diving once more unto the breach. From early days, people recognized the unique properties of the black goo seeping out of the earth, using it to seal roofs or boats, pave roads, keep fire going, or even as a health ointment. The earliest discovery in the U.S. was in Pennsylvania, which is where Rockefeller and Standard Oil come into the picture. As everyone got “oil fever”, Rockefeller actually got concerned when his favorite German baker traded his bakery for a low-quality oil refinery and bought him out so he would return to baking. Standard Oil brought about the new era of corporations, gobbling up competitors and becoming a vertically integrated entity (manufacture, refining, transportation, distribution, marketing). Amazingly, the U.S. was in a progressive moment that busted the trust and shattered Standard into smaller pieces. This was actually beneficial because several of the young guns were able to take over as head honchos and innovate faster.

In Russia, the Rothschilds loaned money to small producers who were competing with the Nobel family. European newspapers erroneously reported the death of Alfred Nobel and when he read his own obituary summing him up as a weapons maker and dynamite king, Nobel rewrote his will to establish the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oil was discovered in Texas around the turn of the 20th century, and scenes from the 1849 California gold rush were repeated again—shacks, saloons, gambling houses all springing up overnight. This reminded me of something I read about the gold rush where people paid for others to wait in line for their mail when the mail boat came in. In Texas: “At the barbershops, folks stood in line an hour to pay a quarter for the privilege of bathing in a filthy tub. People did not want to waste time when there was oil business to be done, so spaces near the head of the long line went for as much as one dollar. Some people made forty or fifty dollars a day, standing in line and selling their spaces to those who didn’t have time to wait.”

More similarities to today were in the description of the Czar of Russia, “the font of ineptitude… highly vulnerable to flattery, a dangerous characteristic in an autocrat… contemptuous of all the non-Russian minorities in his multinational empire and sanctioned the repression that, in turn, made them into rebels.” Ah history, how thou doth repeat thyself.

Here’s a lovely tidbit from Beaumont, Texas—prostitutes were arrested and displayed on the balcony of a hotel. “Each woman’s fine was announced and the man who paid it could keep her for twenty-four hours.”

More on the misogynist front, when King Ibn Saud’s Arabian land was secured for oil rights, the huge payment of gold came from London. “Care had been taken that all the coins bore the likeness of a male English monarch, not Queen Victoria, which, it was feared, would have devalued them in the male-dominated society of Saudi Arabia.”

The author settles into his armchair and eagerly goes into the tedious weeds of the world wars. I understand that this accelerated the importance of oil, but my god those sections were mind-numbingly dull. War is just not that interesting. At this point, I was looking down the barrel of another 500 pages and dodging his extraneous exclamation points at every turn. I gave up, I give up.

How did this win the Pulitzer?