To the North

There is something about late December that always puts me in the mood for a tumble into mid-20th century British fiction. And mood determines whether or not I’ll throw a book across the room into my ever-growing discard pile or settle in for a comfy afternoon of reading. Elizabeth Bowen’s novel was just was I needed to entertain the mind and stay warm and cozy today.

To the North has two wonderfully complex women as the protagonists: Cecilia, a widow who lives with her dead husband’s sister Emmeline. Early on, Emmeline wonders if she will ever love anyone. “Nothing could be as dear as the circle of reading-light round her solitary pillow.” Cecilia meets Markie on a train in Switzerland and passes him off to Emmeline who then falls in love with him. Meanwhile, Cecilia is conflicted about whether she’ll marry rich Julian. Other characters: Pauline, Julian’s orphaned niece; Lady Waters – Georgina, who is Cecilia’s aunt and Emmeline’s cousin.

The book is infused with an understated atmosphere. Emmeline makes unintended cutting remarks as she dreams away in company with Markie, thinking of her travel agency. Cecilia, too, bustles about with her own energy and brings a certain light to the pages when she appears.

A sprinkle of yummy words like bumptious make the prose sparkle. Discovered by way of Cambridge’s summer reading course for next year.

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York

Roz Chast is on a roll after her best-selling Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and now this hit. The book was born out of a pamphlet she put together for her daughter who was going off to college and didn’t know what a “block” was in terms of city distances. It’s a labor of love, giving you the lay of the land, explaining the Avenues vs. the Streets and how the subway works, reminding you to hit up all the amazing museums and maybe skip the Statue of Liberty because Roz herself has not yet gone (too touristy). Very sweet book, works as a palate cleanser and a refreshing break from the book about oil that I’m hundreds of pages deep into now.

Homesick for Another World: Stories

A short story collection that includes her story I first read in the Paris Review—Dancing in the Moonlight—which was one of the strongest pieces in the book. Some of the stories felt like they could have used a bit more shaping, the endings coming on too sudden or jarringly. Overall yet another dip into the weird brain of Moshfegh, a delightful escape from the world of the normals.

The Heart of a Woman

I love reading Maya Angelou and enjoyed this memoir detailing her history in the late 1950s and early 1960s, shuttling from a houseboat commune in Sausalito to LA to NYC to Cairo and beyond. Her work in NYC brought her in contact with Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Max Roach, among others.

Most interesting to me were the descriptions of life in the ever-changing times, her mother and her being the first black hotel guests at a Fresno hotel that had just opened to blacks, her description of the streets of Harlem teeming with people to see speakers, her memories of life in the Fillmore district with a car accident at Fulton/Gough and her son learning to ride his bike in Alamo Square (“a park on Fulton”, I assume is A-Square).

Unfortunately, she marries an African freedom fighter mid-way through and gives up her work outside the home, retreating even from friends. She makes us suffer through the long, tedious marriage that you know is going to end, but not until they get to Cairo and she has further proof of his infidelity in addition to unpaid bills that he ignores. He also becomes enraged when she gets a job. Good riddance, she jettisons him near then end, then wraps up the tale with further travels in Africa with her son. Still, a strong first half and fairly weak second.

Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts

If I were alive in the 16th century, I would have been nabbed as a witch for sure. Risk factors: female, not married, and outspoken.

Unfortunately, this academic dive into the witch hunts of Europe and the periphery was not well done. Barstow juggles tons of studies and primary source trial documents but overlays them with her narrow 20th century perspective. Not nearly as thorough or well-thought out as it should have been.

Of the meager good bits to be salvaged:

Persecution broke out when it did due to economics, of course. In ~1560, Europe had “population saturation, food scarcity, and runaway inflation” and women were a convenient scapegoat. Your wife not able to bear children? A witch has cursed her. Your crops are failing? It’s the witch’s fault. But the overwhelming targeting of women as witches only occurred after the witch hunting manuals came out, which pointed the finger at those dirty menstruating creatures. Fun fact—the pillaging of the New World lead to inflation as all that silver and gold flooded into European markets, indirectly causing this craze. This economic unrest shifted a lot of women into poverty, and Barstow claims that the increase in female beggars “so discomfited their better-off neighbors that the neighbors accused them of witchcraft in order to get rid of them.”

The church has a huge role in all of this, too. Clergy were jealous of women’s power as midwives and healers, usurping their own duties. And yet the church practiced its own magic as well—that turning of a communion wafer into the body and blood of Christ, for one.

Eileen

Little did I know when I grabbed a few copies of The Paris Review from my neighbor’s “Help Yourself” pile that I’d discover a new favorite author. Ottessa Moshfegh has major writing skills, and her short story Dancing in the Moonlight left me wanting more, which I got served in her novel, Eileen. I finished the book minutes ago and feel completely wrung out, spent, a puddle having been floored by her talent.

Eileen is the narrator of this weird, dark tale—a twenty-something reject living with her drunk father and working at the boys’ prison in town. Her mother died five years previously and Eileen shuffles between work and home and the liquor store filling up her father’s liver and her own, wearing her dead mother’s clothes, eating mayonnaise sandwiches, jamming cold handfuls of snow into her underpants to wash away the image of two teenagers necking. A radiant, sparkling woman, Rebecca, comes to work at the prison, changing Eileen’s life forever.

The author is masterful in dropping hints that keep you reading. You know that the narrator survives the hellish landscape she’s describing, because she’s still here 50 years later, narrating her tale. But little pops of mystery get nestled in, you know she disappears before Christmas and she layers on lavish details about her present and past as she keeps reminding you that within a week of this occurrence, she’s gone from town, or in a few days she’ll be out of there. You see her ex-cop dad’s gun make its appearance, wonder about its significance. When she goes to Rebecca’s on Christmas Eve, Rebecca is acting weird and you start to get very anxious, what is going to happen, and then boom—you find out Mrs. Polk is tied up in the basement. It’s brilliant, well-paced, beautifully written.

Here are a few samples to give a flavor:

My father said it himself: I smelled like hell. I dressed myself in my mother’s old Sunday clothes—gray trousers, black sweater, hooded woolen parka. I put on my snow boots and drove to the library. I’d just finished looking through a brief history of Surname and a book on how to tell the future from looking at the stars. The former had great pictures of nearly naked men and old topless women. I recall one photograph of a monkey suckling a woman’s nipple, but perhaps I’m inventing. I liked twisted things like that. My curiosity for the stars is obvious: I wanted something to tell me my future was bright. I can imagine myself saying at the time that life itself was like a book borrowed from the library —something that did not belong to me and was due to expire. How silly.

I remember sitting up on my cot under a bare lightbulb and surveying the attic. It’s a charming picture of misery.

There’s nothing I detest more than men with happy childhoods.

A grown woman is like a coyote—she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.

When I was very upset, hot and shaking, I had a particular way of controlling myself. I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed. That always did the trick.

I’m almost too scared to learn anything about this writer which might puncture my perfect understanding of her talent, but I’ve added a few more of her books to my list.

 

How To Be Happy

I really liked Eleanor Davis’s You & a Bike & a Road earlier this year so grabbed her first book, which was also a shot of joy in my arm. Unlike the other book, this is more of a meandering across various scenarios and topics, her observations as she makes her way through life. The art is gorgeous, lush, strange, and the stories are weird and wonderful. Before she begins, her first pages sketch out her character saying: “Write a story. A story about yourself. A story about your life. Now, believe it. Now write another story, same subject. A better story. More interesting. Stronger characters. Now, believe that. Just keep writing. You have plenty of time.”

Revolutionary Letters

Diane di Prima’s classic volume of poetry seems….well, dated. Or perhaps I’m just in a bad mood and hating everything I’m reading today. Some of the poems are worth waving around, like Revolutionary Letter #10: These are transitional years and the dues/ will be heavy./ Change is quick but revolution/ will take a while./ America has not even begun as yet. / This continent is seed.

The dues are heavy indeed. Another goodie is #46: And as you learn the magic, learn to believe it/ Don’t be ‘surprised’ when it works, you undercut/ your power.

Finally, I’ll leave you with some closing thoughts, Revolutionary Letter #53:

SAN FRANCISCO NOTE

I think I’ll stay on this
earthquake fault near this
still-active volcano in this
armed fortress facing a
dying ocean &
covered w/ dirt
while the
streets burn up & the
rocks fly & pepper gas
lays us out
cause
that’s where my friends are,
you bastards, not that
you know that that means…

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie

It’s odd to have expectations that a graphic novel will be of a certain quality. This one unfortunately was of a lower quality than I had hoped. Agatha Christie had a fantastically strange life but the treatment in this book is jarring and uneven. They did a good job leading with her mysterious disappearance in 1926 when she pseudo-faked her death to get back at her husband who was having an affair. But then they tangled Arthur Conan Doyle up in the plot, going to a fortune teller to divine whether she’s alive or not, which catapults us back in time to her childhood, then forward past her divorce and onto other adventures. Her fictional characters, Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Marple, show up to accompany her throughout the book.

Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago

This is the heaviest book I’ve ever lugged home from the library, a whopping 12 pounds. I was tipped off to it after untangling leads from the Rauschenberg hole I fell into, mostly curious about Josef Albers. Indeed, his lecture “Creative Education” was my whole reason for ordering up this back-breaking work (p 142-143).

The 600+ pages are a must-read for any art nerds who want to get their hands on primary source materials about the history of the Bauhaus, from its origins in Weimar through its move to Dessau, to its destruction in Berlin thanks to the Nazis and finally its resurgence in Chicago. There’s a whole section of pre-history docs that show the slow buildup to the movement out of the ashes of the Arts & Crafts school.

Walter Gropius’s recommendation for founding a school of this sort, from 1916:

Whereas in the old days the entire body of man’s products was manufactured exclusively by hand, today only a rapidly disappearing small portion of the world’s goods is produced without the aid of machines. The natural desire to increase the efficiency of labor by introducing mechanical devices is growing continuously. The threatening danger of superficiality, which is growing as a consequence of this, can be opposed by the artist, who holds the responsibility for the formation and further development of form in the world, only by sensibly coming to terms with the most powerful means of modern formal design, the machine of all types, from the simplest to the most complicated, and by pressing it into his service, instead of avoiding it as a result of his failure to recognize the natural course of events. This realization will, of necessity, lead to a close partnership between the businessman and the technician on the one hand, and the artist on the other.

In the entire field of trade and industry there has arisen a demand for beauty of external form as well as for technical and economic perfection. Apparently, material improvement of products does not by itself suffice to achieve victories in international competitions. A thing that is technically excellent in all respects must be impregnated with an intellectual idea—with form—in order to secure preference among the large quantity of products of the same kind. Firms employing manual workers and small traders have, because of their very nature, never lost touch with art entirely; to influence them artistically no longer satisfies modern demands. Today, the entire industry is also confronted with the challenge of applying its mind seriously to artistic problems. The manufacturer must see to it that he adds to the noble qualities of handmade products the advantages of mechanical production… Only then will the original idea of industry—a substitute for handwork by mechanical means—find its complete realization.

A small section of colored plates was at the beginning, including this Herbert Bayer  (“Chromatic into Two Centers”), 1967.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Audre Lorde’s classic collection of essays is extremely helpful in connecting the dots of why intersectionality is a must for feminists. Black women face a double burden of racism and sexism in this hostile world of capitalist white male supremacy. There is no point in just looking at sexism without also tackling racism.

The essays range from a recap of her trip to Russia in 1976 (where she sums up the endless nattering of heterosexual norms… “I sat with three other African women and we exchanged chitchat for 5 1/2 hours about our respective children, about our ex-old men, all very, very heterocetera”) to an open letter to Mary Daly (calling her to task for ignoring black feminists’ perspective), to detailing how her young son will grow up to be a good man raised by lesbian, interracial parents. She occasionally mentions Patricia Cowan, a black woman auditioning for a play called Hammer in 1977 who was bludgeoned to death by the young black male playwright (James Thomas) at the audition, in front of her 4-year old son (who was also bludgeoned but survived).

My favorite essay was The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action (1980).

Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…

Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge… I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?

And it is never without fear — of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.

we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

 

After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography

I will read pretty much anything Chris Kraus writes. This biography of the irrepressible Kathy Acker fills a huge hole by piecing together fragments from the post-punk plagiarist’s life while casually name-dropping the stars of the 70s/80s art and lit scenes of NY/SF/London. Kraus holds shards of Acker’s writing up to the light, framing them in a way that imbues spectral genius meaning, making it almost approachable. Perhaps I’ll give Acker another try now that I’m equipped with her backstory and guideposts to which of her works are easily consumed. Through no fault of her own, Kraus continues her tradition of making me feel dumb as I realize how much I don’t know, jotting down names of writers and artists and pieces and magazines. Weighted down by my own ignorance, it was a treat to have familiar faces bob out of the mist, like Bernadette Mayer and Pat Highsmith who both crossed paths with KA, either in a big way (Mayer) or tangentially (Highsmith through Lil Picard).

The book settles the conflicting opinion of whether Acker was wealthy or not. Yes, then no, then yes again once her grandmother died. With her inheritance, she seemed to purchase apartments in London and NYC at the drop of a hat, but at the end of her life, dying of cancer and refusing chemo, wasting away in Tijuana, she had very little left.

Kraus interviewed scads of Acker’s friends and acquaintances to pull together the overall view. You can sense her raised eyebrow when she got an email reply from Kathy’s first husband who said he was “surprised there’s any interest in the subject. I never see her books in bookstores anymore, and I visit bookstores pretty often.”

One of Acker’s main influences was David Antin, teaching a poetry seminar at UCSD and who, out of fear of having to read too many maudlin undergrad poems, instructed his students to “find someone who’s already written about something better than you could possibly do at this moment in your life, and we’ll consider the work of putting the pieces together like a film.” This layering of “found” text is an integral part of Acker’s work from then on.

David’s wife, Eleanor Antin, was also a huge help, donating her list of 600 friends/acquaintances and Acker copied Eleanor’s strategy of sending something once a month to the list as a deadline and a way to keep top of mind to this influential group. The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula went out in 6 installments to this list from the anonymous Acker, her real identity known only by hearsay. “Then, just as now, rumor and hearsay were far more effective tools for advancing a nascent reputation than plastering one’s unwanted name all over the place.”

Acker lived in a couple of locations in the Haight/Cole Valley: 46 Belvedere St. and 929 Clayton St. She also stayed with friends in Noe Valley and traipsed around to various punk/dyke/dive bars in the city. She produced pamphlets at a  Noe Valley print shop and bookstore called the Empty Elevator Shaft (1970s). When KA came back to SF in 1990, she fell in love with the welcoming community and found a kindred spirit in Avital Ronell (whose Telephone Book I’ve tried to read but may give Crack Wars a try).

A reminder of kinder, gentler times: “Throughout the 1970s, welfare, unemployment insurance, and disability SSI were the de facto grants that funded most of New York’s off-the-grid artistic enterprises.” There was also an abundance of grants. Acker applied for and won a CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service) grant in 1975 to travel to Haiti for research for a book.

Lil Picard, also applying for that CAPS grant at age 76, invited KA to participate in her performance piece, Tasting and Spitting, where the audience was invited to taste then spit wine at Acker. Pat Highsmith introduced Lil to the 10th St. galleries of the 1940s and Lil’s interest shifted from cabaret and hat-making to visual arts. According to Kraus,”Picard became a key member of the NO!art group, a transnational association of artists that included Boris Lurie, Alan Kaprow, Yayoi Kusama, and Jean-Jacques Lebel. The group embraced rebellion and stood against pop art, the celebration of consumerism, art world-market investment, and the amnesiac postwar consciousness that reigned in New York during the 1960s.”

Hilariously, Acker was banned from AOL in the mid 90s “for using obscenity in a chat room” before she moved on to another provider.  “Like many others, Acker was already skeptical about the transformative potential of the internet, an information superhighway already littered with commerce and trash.” Acker tells her friend Cynthia in Seattle that “if it weren’t for teaching and the gym, I might never leave my house! That’s how much I got into my computer…. The world of books is becoming like the world of opera.”  (e.g. obsolete)

  • Acker’s 1983 book Great Expectations, “arguably her best work… the novel she worked on for the longest time, and the shortest of her subsequent books.” (Then Blood and Guts in High School?)
  • Bernadette Mayer’s Memory exhibition in 1972; she also edited 0 to 9 magazine between 1967-69.
  • Spitting Image was a satirical show in the UK that featured “grotesque, scary puppets.”

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

Carole Anderson’s book should be assigned at birth to anyone with white skin. I’m not sure how she manages to pack in so much history into so few pages without bursting with rage herself.

She flips the usual image of black rage on its head, and instead directs us to the bigger issue, that of white people’s incomprehensible anger at seeing others succeed. Starting with America’s “original sin,” as James Madison labelled slavery, she picks apart nearly every administration from Lincoln onward, pinpointing exactly how they worked to reduce the rights of blacks. I was surprised to find that Lincoln was a party to this hatred also, saying “I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black man.”

Post Civil War Reconstruction was a terrible period, Southern white resentment at federal meddling causing inexcusable terror to be brought upon the newly freed. Once Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s VP from Tennessee) assumed the Presidency, all hell broke loose. Johnson said “This is … a country for white men, and by God, as long as I’m President, it shall be a government for white men.” Southern states went about immediately trying to “Reconstruct” life as it had been under slavery, passing the notorious Black Code laws that required annual labor contracts to be signed, and anyone who wasn’t working could be arrested for vagrancy. Blacks couldn’t hold any jobs except laborer or domestic unless they had the written consent of the mayor, and were banned from hunting and fishing. Punishment was by whipping. Here’s an unpleasant surprise: Mississippi delayed their ratification of the 13th Amendment until 2013. Lovely.

Anderson then tackles the Great Migration (read Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing book for more detail) and the fight to get equal education. Next came the Civil Rights movement, which was when racists went underground. Her final chapter is on Obama’s historic presidency, bringing all the racists back out again. He had 4x the number of death threats than George W. Bush.

The book is extensively researched and annotated. I doubt you’ll be able to read it without feeling some rage against the awful society America has inherited.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

I really wanted to like this book, but it was like a jackhammer in my brain. She uses the phrase “From a Nordic perspective” no less than 6 times and repeats the same mantra over and over: Finland is better than the U.S. in a lot of ways. It’s the obvious perks/life necessities where those Nordic nations excel: health care, child care, elder care, education, work/life balance.

There were a few things I gained from that “Nordic perspective,” namely that people coming to the U.S. from other developed nations feel a stark contrast, that overwhelming feeling that you are on your own, no one is going to help you out. She details a few examples, like signing up for cable TV and not being able to get the real price out of the salesperson.

It was all part of a way of doing things in the United States that, as I would gradually realize, forced you to be constantly on guard, constantly worried that whatever amount of money you had or earned would never be enough, and constantly anxious about navigating the complex and mysterious fine print thrown at you from every direction by corporations that had somehow managed to evade even the bare minimum of protections for consumers.

There was a confirmation of a sneaking suspicion that I had about how people treat their children in America, “that somehow the children were taking over their parents’ lives.” In this case, she points the blame on how shakily society is set up, that parents need their kids to do well in school so that they have a fair chance to succeed in life. But also, “I was surprised by how frequently I heard even grown adults in the United States say that their parents were their best friends. This level of dependency among older children on their parents was almost unheard of back in Nordic countries.”

Back in Finland (which, didja hear? Is one of the best countries on Earth!), parents don’t pressure their kids and firmly believe that “childhood should be childhood.” I am thankful to have grown up in a time when this was the case. I do not think I would have survived growing up in early 21st century America.

I loved this call-out as well, in response to hear hearing over and over how grateful Americans should be for their freedoms (like at all public events, baseball games, rodeos, speeches, etc.): “It’s almost as if Americans don’t realize that there are many, many other nations in the world where citizens enjoy exactly the same freedoms that Americans do, and where not as much fuss is made about them. Moreover, Americans don’t seem to realize that there are citizens in other parts of the world, like the Nordic regions, who have acquired other kinds of freedoms that Americans lack” (emphasis mine).

The United States today puts people, even people who are doing well, into an intensely stressful logistical nightmare that is exhausting.

Amen.

Juliet Takes a Breath

No, I am decidedly NOT ashamed of reading teen lit. This was on the potential list for the Bluestockings book club and it provided a breath of fresh air.

Juliet is a queer Latina from the Bronx who (somewhat magically) gets a summer internship in PDX with a white feminist who wrote a book that inspired her. Right before leaving for the airport, she comes out to her close-knit Puerto Rican family and her mom is taken aback but eventually they work it out. In Portland, Juliet is disconcerted by all the white hippies, including a rant about their stinkiness that she eventually sees as an earthy smell. Her task for the summer is to take a box of scraps of paper with various women’s names on them and to research each for Harlowe, the author. The library is her source, resulting in this nice section:

Libraries are safe but also exciting. Libraries are where nerds like me go to refuel. They are safe-havens where the polluted noise of the outside world, with all the bullies and bro-dudes and anti-feminist rhetoric, is shut out. Libraries have zero tolerance for bullshit. Their walls protect us and keep up safe from all the bastards that have never read a book for fun.

Juliet is a 19-year-old struggling to figure life out, figure herself out, keep a long-distance relationship going with a girlfriend from school, find a way to be her best self and not bow down to the whiteness of the feminism she was swirling in. As she dives into the library stacks, she learns a ton, including what a banana republic is, and why horrifying it is that there’s a shop named after the concept. “It’s such a tongue-in-cheek fuck-you to countries that have been exploited for their natural resources…”

Of course her menstrual cycle syncs immediately with Harlowe’s in Portland. Surprised by the early period, she’s moaning about cramps and dying for an evil tampon when Harlowe suggests that she can bring her a sacred period ritual kit instead. It’s touches like this throughout the Portland chapters that are hilarious. There’s a struggle that is set up between white Harlowe and her WOC friends, including Juliet. At Harlowe’s Powell’s Books reading, she embarrasses Juliet by singling her out of the crowd and saying she’s a ghetto rat from the Bronx who is ok with Harlowe’s white feminism. Juliet immediately flies to Miami and spends a magical weekend with her cousin before coming back to Portland. This whole plot twist was a bit too much for me, but I guess it was necessary to show how women of color could create a safe space and have a great time without white feminists?

Also learned about Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican nationalist who shot up the House of Representatives in 1954 while demanding Puerto Rican independence.