The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Another one from Deep Focus’s Novel Approach to Cinema wherein writers deconstruct, analyze, roll around in the playpen of a particularly kitschy film (see previous post where Jonathan Lethem takes on They Live). This covers the hastily put together sequel to the classic Bad News Bears, a 1977 movie where the team hits the road to play in Houston’s now exploded Astrodome.

I’d have to say that the author’s father was my favorite part of the book, reaching through the telephone to dump doom and gloom on his son when he was looking for a personal recollection of how they dealt with the 1977 NYC blackout but instead his dad talks about the limits of capitalism and how the global economy had reached the end of its post-war boom in 1977: “The mid- to late-1970s were the beginning of an unstoppable decline.”

Wilker picks apart all the continuity mistakes, the new actors cast into roles that rolled over from the previous movie, the flimsiness of the sequel itself. I think this is a less interesting book than Lethem’s mostly due to the movie comparison; They Live is a commentary on what we’re dealing with now whereas Breaking Training takes us back to a simpler time where racism and misogyny were normal and kids could play unsupervised even to escape in a custom van on the road.

Celestial Navigation

Another beautiful book by Anne Tyler (how is it that I have never heard of her amazing writing before?!). This one from 1974 shifts the narrator among a handful of people, beginning with Amanda in 1960, gone home to Baltimore with her sister Laura to help their brother Jeremy bury their mother. Once she discovers that her mom left her house to Jeremy, the sisters depart and are only shadows in the remaining story. But we get a glimpse of Jeremy in her story, a man incapable of leaving the house to visit his mother in the funeral home, a man lost in his own world spending hours creating art in his upstairs studio while letting the elderly boarders roam around the rest of the house willy-nilly.

We get a chapter with Jeremy as the main focus but he never achieves first person narration. Next up in the narrator’s slot is Mary, a woman who arrived at the boarding house with her four-year-old daughter in tow, escaping a husband and intent on marrying another man. Her husband refuses divorce, the other man loses interest, Jeremy is blinded by her dazzling looks and comforts her as best he can. When he comes across her crying, “his voice wavered, as if he might start crying himself. Sad people are the only real ones. They can tell you the truth about things; they have always known that there is no one you can depend upon forever and no change in your life, however great, that can  keep you from being in the end what you were in the beginning: lost and lonely, sitting on an oilcloth watching the rest of the world do the butterfly stroke.”

Jeremy pseudo-marries her (they pretend to get married, since she can’t, because the husband won’t divorce her) and they start to churn out babies. His art thrives, he becomes successful. The house hums along in orderly fashion with Mary at the helm. And yet, the sounds of the children and Mary’s household questions starts to overwhelm him. Eventually Mary’s husband divorces her, Mary suggests that she and Jeremy get married for real, she proposes a date and reminds him and reminds him but he never leaves his studio, so she leaves with the kids to an abandoned shack his art dealer has for his boat. Jeremy comes out once, is overwhelmed by her competency, goes back to his art and to the other elderly boarder, Miss Vinton, who shows her own predilection for solitude: “If you were to ask my vision of the future back then, my favorite daydream, it was this: I would be reading a book alone in my room, and no one would ever, ever interrupt me.”

 

Ladder of Years

One of the joys of reading several books by a writer is picking up the patterns between them. This one expands on the interesting scene that happens in Breathing Lessons where a woman leaves her husband’s car during a spat and imagines setting out a new life for herself. Ladder of Years begins with the ominous news clipping about the disappearance of a Baltimore housewife and we learn that Delia simply walks away from her unappreciative family to slip into a new life. First she gets a room in a boarding house and is a secretary to a lawyer in town. Then she answers an ad for a live-in woman to care for a young son and a bachelor ex-husband. Letters from her mother-in-law arrive with more sympathy than nagging to get back to her own husband. Her grumpy teenage son shows up in town one day looking for her, but she’s disappointed that husband Sam never makes much of an effort to win her back. Eventually, her daughter Susie gets married and she heads back to Baltimore for the festivities, slipping back into her old life. The writing is incredible and almost timeless—I was jolted by the appearance of a computer in the lawyer’s office, otherwise this could have been set in the 1950s or 60s. Delia’s father had died the previous year, leading to this poignant thought:

Didn’t it often happen, she thought, that aged parents die exactly at the moment when other people (your husband, your adolescent children) have stopped being thrilled to see you coming? But a parent is always thrilled, always dwells so lovingly on your face as you are speaking. One of life’s many ironies.

 

The Perfect Nanny

An easily digested beach-read-y type book that was actually quite good for the nanny genre it’s in. This French novel (translated to English by Sam Taylor) was a re-telling of the real life nanny murders that happened in NYC a few years ago, but Slimani shapes the psyche of Louise the nanny in such a way that doesn’t cheapen her motives, doesn’t suggest envy of her employers’ barely middle class possessions, but rather her complicated child-like state and total neglect of her own life subsumed by her employers’ kids. As Jessa Crispin noted in her Baffler review of the book, “But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts.” It is “a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety,” when women try to have both successful career and happy family.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.

I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:

  1. Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
  3. Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
  5. Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
  6. All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
  8. Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.

Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round: Commentaries on The Ring of the Nibelung

I grabbed this book from the stacks without any guidance, hoping it could serve to steady me through a week of performances of The Ring. In it, Lee lays out the synopsis of each opera scene by scene (in Das Rheingold) or Act by Act (in the other three longer operas). Then he muses on philosophy, art, Schopenhauer, Liszt, Wagner, etc.

Wagner got the story from bit here and there, a little bit of medieveal myth, Norse/German saga, early pagan sources mixed in with his thinking awakened by Schopenhauer’s Will and Representation. Some parts originated with him, like Alberich’s stealing of the Rhine’s gold. “The idea for the Ring, then, did not spring full-grown and armed, lke Athene from the brain of Zeus, from Wagner’s endlessly seething, outsized head.”

Thomas Carlyle called the Ring “our northern Iliad” and cautioned European to see its opposition to materialism as a way to save industrialized nations from the insane power grabbing wealth hoarding path they were on.

Famously, Wagner wrote the texts in reverse order, starting with the 3rd and then writing the 2nd and 1st to fill in the gaps of the story. He took five years to just write the words, publishing them in 1853, then began to set them to music which ends up totaling about fifteen hours.

The fundamental insight of the Ring, Lee argues, is that everything that exists has evolved from one primal substance and that man had to separate himself from nature by evolving into consciousness.

Lee claims that half an hour into Act II of Die Walküre the music shifts to become palpably pessimistic. It’s at this point that Wagner began obsessively reading cheery old Schopenhauer, and it affects the rest of the music. The world is an illusion. As Wagner writes Liszt, “the world is evil, fundamentally evil!”

****

Myself, I wonder how feminists are able to sit through this non-stop worship of the patriarchy. Women being used as currency to pay for Valhalla’s building. Freia’s humiliation in the act of her body erased by the sacks of gold in exchange for her freedom (and by the way, why on earth does she seem to yearn for Fasolt, her captor who has just released her? Stockholm syndrome?). Why couldn’t Loge’s character be a woman? These are just some thoughts while listening to Das Rheingold last night after enduring the disparaging remarks of the huge elderly man squeezed into the seat next to me about how Wagner is pompous and how he prefers Italian and French operas. Great thing to hear right before settling in for fifteen hours of German opera! I’m excited about tonight’s Die Walküre but less enthused about Friday’s Siegfried after reading this book (Lee: “Long stretches of dialog fall in musical invention below the level of anything in the other parts of the cycle. More than two hours elapse before we hear a single female voice, and then we hear only an occasional chirp from the forest bird.”)

Breathing Lessons

Another from Anne Tyler, but a step down from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. A mother meddles in her son’s failed marriage, trying to engineer them back together by telling each what they want to hear. This comes after a trip to a friend’s husband’s funeral where they’re required to sing the same songs they sang at her wedding 30+ years earlier. Add in a dash of eating disorder (she’s constantly worrying about her weight), falsely telling an old man he had a wobbly tire to force him off the road after he nearly ran them off, and an incident where she demands to be let out of the car and walks back to the diner where she imagines she starts her life all over again. It’s odd, but quick.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

I discovered Anne Tyler by way of John McPhee and can’t believe I hadn’t heard of her before. This was a book that wrapped you in its arms and treated you like family, letting you in on all the secrets of Pearl and her three children. Her traveling salesman husband left one day and she raised Cody, Ezra, and Jenny by herself, never announcing that he was gone but simply getting a job as a cashier at a grocery store in Baltimore. Cody grows up to be a time management consultant, wildly successful but jealous of his brother Ezra for whom everything comes easily (most especially his mother’s love and admiration). Ezra, the dreamer, is happy running a restaurant in town (Homesick) although he gets a bit gloomy after Cody steals his fiancee Ruth away and marries her. Jenny becomes a pediatrician and goes through a few divorces before marrying a man with a large brood of children. In the end, Pearl dies, Ezra finds his father’s contact information and invites him to the funeral. Happily ever after, a grand way to lose yourself from the world for a few hours.

This Little Art

Disappointing read on one of my favorite topics— the art and difficulties of translation. Kate Briggs muses on the choices made during translation, holds up other translators as examples, gives us a peek inside the kimono of her own translation of Barthes. Throw in a heavy helping of Robinson Crusoe’s table making, a few obligatory references to Virginia Woolf, and an extremely protective stance about Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann, and you’ve got your book. Perhaps I was too annoyed by the structure—each thought bundled onto a separate page, sometimes several pages at a stretch with only a sentence on them. It wasn’t all rubbish, I did mark a few spots that were especially poignant. She also got me interested in comparing Lowe-Porter’s translation to James Woods (which I own), so another reading of The Magic Mountain is forthcoming. I’m also nosing around in Goethe’s Faust and have Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel headed my way. If anything, this book was successful in bread-crumbing me into the arms of better writers.

“When I tell you that I have read The Magic Mountain is this a quick small-part-for-the-whole way for me to tell you that I’ve read The Magic Mountain in English translation? The title here standing in for the original — each slightly smaller, reduced part (the title, the translation) pointing to some further, just out of reach and more expansive aesthetic experience (the real one this time, the authentic one)?”

“… How, in fact, the font does matter, or it can — likewise the timing and circumstances of my reading, the books I am reading the book with, the people I am talking to about it, who might make me think differently; the difference between reading a book for the first time and for the third.”

“For Barthes, preparing for the novel also means establishing what he calls a daily practice of notation, a mode of attending to and recording the detail of everyday life. These notes are what his projected novel will be made from. Preparing, then, in the way you might ready your ingredients before making a meal… In this manner, the preparation for the novel starts touching at and partaking in preparation of the novel. In other words, preparing as a means of pracising, exercising, learning—of readying oneself for the writing-to-still-come—and at the same time, preparing as already its own form of writing, as already taking the form of writing.”

Just remembered another good tidbit – apparently Barthes was pretty lax about people translating his work. “Just make it up!” he instructed them if the translators were unable to verify something he had written.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912

I struck gold by finding all six volumes of VW’s letters at the (now defunct) Logos bookstore in Santa Cruz last year, staggering out to the car with the books stacked up to my chin. A month ago I decided it was time to stop postponing the luxurious treat of diving into her life and began reading the letters, alternating with Vol 1 of her essays to read the finished product of the writing she casually bitched about to her friends in the letters. I plan to continue this, layering in her diaries and completed novels or other books once I reach that point in the timeline where they come in. Immersing myself in the world of Virginia Woolf is the best form of escapism I know.

It would be foolish to try and capture the 30? 40? notations that I tagged in this volume as especially resonating with me. Most of them are about reading and letter writing and the craft of writing and her love of London and her love of nature. Her letters are wickedly, wildly funny, gossipy, brilliant, irreverent, endearing. Her letter to Leonard brutally weighing the pros/cons of marriage is stunning (p 496).

There are some gaspingly gorgeous lines like, “I despair of my brains, which seem to be guttering like a tallow candle.” (p 182) Also “A true letter, so my theory runs, should be as a film of wax pressed close to the graving in the mind…” (p 282) and “… I run to a book as a child to its mother.” (p 274)

“I begin to believe that I shall write rather well one of these days.” (p 368)

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1904-1912

VW started writing journalism (mostly book reviews) in 1904 at age 22 after her father died, determined to make a living by her pen and becoming more and more confident in her writing skills. This volume of early essays collects the work she published in the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, Speaker, Cornhill, and the Academy. Essays that stand out are on Jane Carlyle, Boswell, Henry James, George Gissing, her father (Leslie Stephen), Charles Lamb, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Richard Hakluyt, and scores of obscure women writers.

The best quote I got from this applies to several books that I read and think would be better off as articles: “The ordinary reader… will doubt whether this vagrant air is potent enough to steep three-hundred-and-fifty-odd pages in its fragrance. A magazine article or a sonnet were the proper vessel for such sweetness.”

A Streetcar to Subduction and Other Plate Tectonic Trips by Public Transport in San Francisco

This booklet was put together for attendees of the 1979 American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco, a guide to seven trips in the area where you could hop on a streetcar (or BART) and check out some amazing rocks.  After a quick recap of plate tectonic theory, subduction explanation, and overview of rock types (serpentine, sandstone, shale, chert, basalt, gabbro), he dives into the various MUNI lines and trips around the city. Trip 1 takes you from Billy Goat Hill in the Mission (basalt, chert, and greywacke exposed) to Corona Heights to the New Mint outcrop (“This is probably the most beautiful and informative outcrop of serpentine in San Francisco”). Trip 2 is all about Fort Mason; Trip 3 dips into Baker Beach and Fort Point. Trip 4 was some crazy long bus ride around the city, to McLaren Park, Glen Canyon, Candlestick Hill, etc. The rest of the trips are outside the city in Marin, Angel Island, Hayward.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer

I’m not one for true crime books but Michelle McNamara’s work was exceptionally well-written, meticulously detailed, and powerful. It’s also a bit eerie to consume alongside real world news of his arrest (Joseph James DeAngelo, former police officer who’s now 72 years old) this April near Sacramento. He tallied over 10 murders and nearly 50 rapes, leaving communities across California terrified in the 1970s and 1980s. He left DNA at the crime scenes, but went underground for decades until his DNA matched one of his relatives who was innocently searching for his own ancestry via one of the ubiquitous sites that now tells you in minute details everything you’d want to know about your heritage. I hope they got him.