A Poetry Handbook

Mary Oliver’s practical advice to poets is a slim volume packed with tips on getting serious about your writing. First and foremost: commit, show up, do the work. Then: read, imitate other poets. Don’t neglect the ancients who seem stuck in their prosody and rhyme to our modern ears. The sound of the words is an essential element, so think about the aspirates, the liquids, the mutes and hard stops. Alliteration is your friend, along with assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia. Read, appreciate, write.

I also enjoyed this diatribe at the beginning of the book written by some Berkeley library patron. She’s so right! One of the unspoken joys of library books is the commentary that people are compelled to write.

The Father: Poems

I was reminded of Sharon Olds when I was reading Doris recently, so grabbed this book of poems about her father’s death. Powerfully written, made me wonder if she wrote them in the moment (e.g. The Exact Moment of His Death or The Dead Body) or if she was able to reconstruct the feeling from a distance of hours/days/months. It’s another great collection of poems that will help anyone battling the weight of grief.

The Best of Writers and Company

Someone once told me that Eleanor Wachtel is *the* best interviewer, so I’ve always been curious about her technique. This collection includes some great interviews with Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantel, Anne Carson, Toni Morrison, Alice Monroe. I can summarize Wachtel’s interview technique as such: research the hell out of your subject and read everything they’ve written then gently probe, saying “Tell me about…” It does make me wonder if I can find some of these interviews online, but I appreciated the quick read.

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography

My interest in Lenny Bruce got a jolt from watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series so I grabbed this autobio that was published in installments in Playboy. Parts are interesting, like his upbringing and running away from home as a teenager to work on a farm and then to the Navy for active duty during WW2. I didn’t realize that his first arrest for obscenity was in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. He also mentions Ann’s 440 Club on Broadway as an early incubator for his talent. The autobiography is a bit rambly, much like his sets were, but peppered  with too much of the court transcripts from his various trials. He ends one of his chapters with the great saying: “There’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.”

The Knot: poems

I discovered Alice Jones in the collection of SF Bay Area poems recently, so of course did my usual hoovering up of everything the library has on hand. This collection includes a fantastic section contemplating the death of a close friend/ex-lover who died of AIDS in 1991. Really powerful pieces that I would guess would be helpful to anyone grieving over a friend’s death.

Fante Bukowski (volumes 1 & 2)

Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novels about the struggling writer, Fante Bukowski, were a pleasant diversion this morning. He’s a big time loser who, at 23, is berating himself for not having written a great novel. His mom covers his bills until (in volume 2) he pays for a prostitute with a credit card, in addition to buying thousands of copies of his own 6-page zine which he attempts to sell for $8 a copy. The books are peppered with writerly sayings like “For a writer every day is a nervous breakdown” (John Banville) or “The beginning is always today” (Mary Shelley).  Bonus points for jabbing at Dave Eggers writing at an Eggers signing where he says “I’m right here, I can hear you.”

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

This is a chatty, bloated, meandering book that mashes up psychology, evolution, and Buddhism. Wright tries to make the very complex and challenging aspects of mindfulness meditation more approachable by being conversational while peppering his text with pop culture references (The Matrix, Kurt Cobain). On the plus side, he does bring up some good points about evolutionary psychology, why we are dominated by our feelings, and how meditation can help you break the connection between yourself and those feelings/addictions/impulses. He points out that we’re designed by natural selection to care a lot about what other people think of us because people who were well liked would have propagated genes better. But in today’s world we are constantly meeting people who know nothing about us, amping up the pressure of every social occasion.

Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City

This book made my heart hurt, I liked it so much. If you can’t spend time in the greatest city on earth, you can soothe your senses by picking up a copy of this book and flipping through to get the visual cacophony delivered straight to your eyeballs. I was delighted to find that it wasn’t just a neighborhood-by-neighborhood exploration, but it dips into weird bits of history like Typhoid Mary, underground pinball, Nellie Bly, the oldest bars in the city (and the secret bars), and the history of Kim’s Video. Only yesterday I was bemoaning the loss of video rental stores where you could legally access any movie by dropping in and renting a flick. Kim’s Video was a mecca for film nerds, the collection built from obscurity to wondrous by Matt Marello, an employee of Mr. Kim’s. After many decades of success, it succumbed to the pressure of online nonsense and Mr. Kim sold the collection off to an Italian town that promised to host a 24-hour film festival and name a pavilion in his honor; none of their promises have been kept and the films are suspected to be slowly decaying in a poorly preserved environment. Beautifully done book by Julia Wertz, a document of her decade in New York.

The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems from the San Francisco Bay Watershed

Every day is made better by a dose of poetry. A goal for this year is to read at least a poem a day, something I’m helped tremendously by Matthew Ogle’s daily email, Pome.

This collection caught my eye when I was trawling the library shelves for something nearby. Tapping into people’s thoughts about the Bay Area from current poets and earlier ones (Rexroth, Milosz, Gunn, etc.), it comes close to capturing the magic of this nature-abundant, foggy sunny paradise that is San Francisco. Because this is my site, I’m allowed to play favorites; the one that captured my heart was Alice Jones’s The Bay, which ends with a section of words that smear around like a jelly donut in your mouth:

bone cold skin nip capillary constrict clipped off sting lips flip flop fat layers gone cold useful jelly fish numb-toed slop slung song overwashed and underworried the sea swishes its tail around drinks what it likes spits out takes in abrades harries the dry people rising sea levels melting polar glaciers beach front lot it’s a matter of time lycra in the bay stretched belly rubber and polyfoam plastic goggles salt licking and licked can’t help goes down the mouth tube how unsteady the land is when you stand up afterwards with ebb tide out the gate thousands of gallons in one narrow space the bay sinks 6 feet of water swept out solidity and substance flux flowing around itself buoyed up drunken


Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

I’m not a huge fan of Peter Bagge’s style, but I appreciate his ability to tell the complex story of Sanger’s life within a few pages. Her work as a nurse exposed her to the many methods women used to try to control their fertility and she made it her mission to bring those to women of all backgrounds and classes. While she did marry early, she eventually split from her first husband and gallivanted about with lots of other dudes, including HG Wells (of course– he was diddling everybody back then). Her greatest achievement was getting the birth control pill funded and developed, something that has had a huge impact on women ever since.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story

Men are mutants, as we know.  XY chromosomes are a mutation from XX (women), and this may explain part of the mystery as to why women live longer than men despite having everything stacked against them (society, childbirthing, higher pain tolerance). The flexibility of women’s immune system with fluctuations during menstruation may also contribute.

The book exposes Darwin’s sexism, the terribleness of drug trials (it’s cheaper to only study one sex—men—to the detriment to women’s health), various researchers’ obsession with proving that women are inferior (size of brain, which, if it were to matter to intelligence would make elephants/whales the dominant species), debunking lots of myths along the way and showing how social constructs effect EVERYTHING.

The sex ratio in India is skewed in favor of boys more than it was 10 years ago—7M fewer girls than boys aged 6 or younger. Yikes. But boys are actually statistically more at risk of dying than girls, which makes this stat even more staggering, the willful destruction of girl babies. “The biological risk is against the boy, but the social risk is against the girl,” says Joy Lawn, a director at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The book dabbles in this and that, blowing up the theory that men are better, smarter, etc. and pointing out the sociological ways that women are handicapped. “It isn’t just supreme feats of learning or traumatic experiences that affect the brain but more subtle and prolonged things, too, like the way girls and women are treated by society.”

Brain scans were all the rage when they hit the scene, but Gina Rippon cautions against them. “Every brain is different from every other brain. We should take more of a fingerprint type of approach.”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s quote from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, is apt: “It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.”

In the Freud Archives

This was my 2nd attempt to read this and I only finished it because I enjoyed another Malcolm book, The Journalist and the Murderer. I’m not a huge fan of Freud and all the inside baseball chatter about the feud between inner and outer circles of analysts and scholars left me mentally snoring. There’s a charismatic young guy who gains access to the precious Freud Archives by cozying up to some bigwigs, including Anna Freud, and then blows his chance by trumpeting some wildly anti-Freud views in an article in the New York Times.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Here’s a cheerful book for a rainy day. The Anthropocene is the geological era defined by humans, which, according to various accounts, began either in Industrial Revolution or with the dawn of agriculture 12k years ago or with the 1945 atomic bomb drop. Scranton relies on his combat experience in Iraq to set the stage for what living in end-times really looks like, and asks how we make meaningful decisions as we teeter toward the end of civilization. His answer is that we simply let go, of ego, of capitalism, of war, and do our best to safeguard the thousands of years of hard-fought learning to survive in the future so it isn’t lost.

The elephant in the room is climate change, and he devotes quite a bit to that topic. “The problem is that the problem is us.”

Our online overlords are not helping:

Social media like Facebook crowdsource catharsis, creating self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.

Scranton calls out that our simply passing along articles or reactions contributes to the weakening of reflection or independent thought. “With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers.”

He quotes Peter Sloterdijk as saying the role of the philosopher is to be “continually self-immunizing against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting [our] own connection to collective life.” This interruption is reflection, a sitting with, not a smashing:

We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.

On a lighter note, he included a part of Inger Christensen’s poem, alphabet, which I really liked:

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

The Journalist and the Murderer

Maggie Nelson referenced this Janet Malcolm book in her talk at the Nourse Theater last week and I scribbled the title down in the dark on my notepad. It was an excellent musing on the relationship between journalist and subject, taking for its example the betrayal of Jeffrey MacDonald  by Joe McGinniss in his book, Fatal Vision, about MacDonald’s murder trial and conviction. Joe pretended to be Jeff’s friend to maintain access even as he became convinced of Jeff’s guilt and wrote a series of letters that reveal his lies to Jeff up until the book came out. This “fraud” was then rehashed in a libel suit that MacDonald pursued against McGinniss, which is when Janet Malcolm got involved and tried to start untangling all the bits.

During this libel trial, the question of whether authors can lie to their subjects in order to get them more comfortable with spilling their story came up repeatedly. A few experts were called, including Joseph Wambaugh who later told Malcolm: “When you talk to a sociopathic criminal, you have to flatter him and curry favor with him by telling him something that isn’t absolutely true… They enjoy it. They’ll say ‘You believe me, don’t you?’ right at a point where you’re convinced they’re lying. If you say no, you could lose everything you’ve gained, including your book, your money, your time if you’re a writer, and your case if you’re a cop. So you cannot tell the truth.” This sheds some light on how the current White House is being run, in my opinion.

Also of tangential interest were Malcolm’s musings on letter writing: “But if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the chief pleasure of the correspondence lies in its responsive aspect rather than with that of our pen pal; what makes the arrival of a letter a momentous event is the occasion it affords for writing rather than for reading.”

She begins corresponding with MacDonald in prison, receiving his 20 to 30 page letters that “were like sledgehammer strokes in their relentless, repetitive, bombastic self-justification. When a letter came, I would put off reading it—the writing was unrelievedly windy…”

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

I love Isabel Greenberg’s work. This is an earlier book (2013) but it has the same bones as One Hundred Nights of Hero– layers and layers of story to nestle around you and keep you warm. One tale leads to the next and you’re in deep with the traveling storyteller who weaves stories for his supper. There’s one of an awesome “old crone” who bucks the trend of the elderly slow-shuffling off into the forest when their time to die arrives. Instead, she tells the community that she’ll rid them of the giant who is pillaging and if successful, they must keep her around. To kill him, she invites him to eat some tasty sausages around her bonfire while she tells him stories (which give the sleeping pills time to work on him). When he’s conked out, she saws off his head. Yay for old women!