The English Mail-Coach and Other Essays

I spent the afternoon being jostled along reading De Quincey’s essays, including “The English Mail-Coach” (1849?) which keeps popping up in my life. The mail-coach was an entertaining read and held up best among all the other works. De Quincey gives you a thrill ride on the mail coach, sitting outside on the box, of course, because that’s where the fresh air and action is, and perhaps you’ll be able to catch the reins and drive for awhile. The essay celebrates this royal form of mail delivery while hinting that it’s soon to perish, mentioning the railway and its requisite boredom. Best parts were riding along and bringing fresh news from London to the surrounding areas of all the battles during the Napoleonic wars. He also tackles whether tis better to die suddenly or not, in the context of an accident he witnessed on the road when the driver was asleep and the coach was hurtling on the wrong side of the road toward a flimsy carriage.

Oliver Ranch

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost 20 years and had never heard of Oliver Ranch until it bubbled up twice over the last week in separate mentions (1, 2). A sheep ranch up north turned sculpture garden, privately owned and only open to the public a few times a year, this site boasts amazing work by Ursula von Rydingsvard, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Serra, Bill Fontana, Judith Shea among many others. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag along on a future group tour. This book is an oversized collection of photographs with reminisces from Steve Oliver about the ongoing installations.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Italo Calvino’s 1985 lectures went unfinished (he got 5 out of 6 written) when he died, but cracking this book open decades later, there is plenty of advice for us in those. Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, and Multiplicity were the ones he wrote, meaning to tackle Consistency as well.

In Exactitude, he dives deep on the pestilence of images. “We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of mirrors… Much of this cloud of visual images fades at once, like the dreams that leave no trace in the memory, but what does not fade is a feeling of alienation and discomfort.”

Writing prose should be the same as poetry; the goal is to look “for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.”

Calvino’s motto has been the Latin Festina lente: hurry slowly.

In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogeneous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them.

De Quincey’s “The English Mail Coach” essay bumps into my consciousness again in his lecture on Quickness. A copy of that essay awaits me at the library, having come across it when it was mentioned as Joseph Cornell’s favorite book.

On objects: “the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships…. in a narrative any object is always magic.”

 

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World

Disappointing. I was expecting much more about Sally Horner than Weinman delivered. It seems like she tried to fluff a book out of the smattering of facts she could dig up about Sally Horner and filled in the gaps with speculation about how much Nabokov was influenced by Horner’s story. There is no smoking gun here, Nabokov openly references Horner on page 289 of Lolita: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”

Sally’s story in a nutshell: she was peer pressured into stealing a notebook from Woolworth’s and Lasalle pretended to be an FBI agent when he caught her. He threatened to tell her mother and send her to reform school if she didn’t promise to keep in touch with him. Months later, he insists that she go with him to Atlantic City for a vacation, lying to her mother that she’s with friends. And that’s it, she’s off on a bus with this man and disappears for two years as his prepubescent sex slave. When she finally tells someone what’s going on in San Jose, CA, he gets arrested, jailed for life. Her own life ends in a car crash a few years later.

No matter how much talent the Nabokovs had  (Vera was a huge part of that partnership with Vladimir), I really didn’t want a behind-the-scenes gossip fest about Lolita‘s writing and publication and whirlwind afterwards. But I did learn that apparently Vlad was in the habit of lying in bed writing while letting Vera teach his classes and grade his papers at Cornell. Did any of the students complain?

Weinman insists on pretending this is a detective story she’s sussing out, trailing leads from 70 years ago, sniffing out sources, when the evidence is right there. Yes, he knew about Horner’s story. It was an influence. It’s not like he plagiarized court transcripts or any such nonsense. Who cares?

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Found this book when I was really looking for the film of the same name. Whyte conducted years of research in the 1970s with time lapse cameras, measuring tape, and observation. Not a surprise to find that having places to sit is one of the biggest factors in whether people congregate in an area. Also important: sun, water, trees, other people, moveable chairs. He makes the point that most builders make their plazas unfriendly because afraid of the undesirables who might show up, but that only discourages everyone else from plopping down. And if you build to accommodate handicapped, everyone will benefit. I still haven’t found a copy of the film but am dying for footage of 1970’s New York.

What If This Were Enough?: Essays

I need to remember that I don’t like Heather Havrilesky’s essays. I can’t find my notes from the other books of hers I’ve tried, but as I forced myself through this, a vague memory floated up that I had the same problem with those as well. Her subjects seem like a perfect fit for me on the surface—consumption, television shows, technology, etc. But the writing doesn’t deliver, the concepts don’t hew close to the bone. The closest I got to appreciation was her discussion of the self-righteousness of Yelp reviews, “as if the world turns on their appraisals, awaits their Yelp verdicts like an anxious crowd in Rome waiting for the cardinals to elect a new Pope.”

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

This was of varying quality, much lukewarm but occasionally good, dissecting the important issue of what’s going on with our brains when we skim vast quantities of digital content and then apply those surface-reading skills to books. Some of the chapters—er, “letters” (an unfortunate choice by Wolf to make the work more approachable, she crafts each chapter as a Dear Reader letter)—were worthy of deep reading but most were fine to casually breeze through, especially if you’re not particularly invested in what’s happening with children’s minds. So is deep reading endangered? Are years of screen reading changing the way that we think and read and pay attention when we deal with difficult, dense texts?

The fourth chapter (I’m refusing to call them “letters”) was the best, entitled What Will Become of the Readers We Have Been? In it, she posits that yes, we’re encouraging our brains to reshape to do more surface reading. “When we read for hours on a screen whose characteristics involve a rapid speed of information processing, we develop an unconscious set toward reading based on how we read during most of our digital-based hours. If most of those hours involve reading on the distraction-saturated Internet, where sequential thinking is less important and less used, we begin to read that way even when we turn off the screen and pick up a book or newspaper.”

This sent panic surging through me although my wild thirst for reading may be keeping me better fit for the exercise. I, too, have noticed my inattention while nestled in the chair reading a book. My mind flits, I give in and put the book down for awhile. But I have not lost the ability to give myself over completely, I do not struggle to read or re-read the complex works which have delighted me all these decades.

“The issue is never just about how many words we consume or even how we read in the digital culture. It is about the significant effects of how much we read upon how we read and the effects of both upon what we read and remember…[and] what we read further changes the next link in the chain, how things are written.”

***

Discovered originally by following her son Ben’s art feed after seeing his eyeball sculpture at Minnesota St. Project gallery

No One Tells You This: A Memoir

B sent me the NYT review for this months ago, knowing my penchant for stories about ladies who opt not to follow the operating instructions of marriage/children/misery. Perhaps I should have read the review more closely, Amanda Stern mentioning “the occasional flatness of MacNicol’s prose, and some irksome references to her glitzy life,” which is a much kinder review than I can give.

MacNicol paints herself as a fabulous single woman who makes her living as a writer but when you read this you begin to wonder where the bar is set for writers. The book was painfully bad, a mixture of pretend sass about being single but several moans about wondering if she should have children and mention of a “husband-shaped hole” in her life. Ick, seriously? Perhaps she is so used to overstating that it is her desire in life to be single that it’s out of the question to pry that dead horse away from her beating. If anything it leaves me thinking that someone really needs to write the book about being solo that I want to read, one that doesn’t dip in curtsy to wrestle with the question of babies, one that doesn’t always nod to the perpetually full stable of strong women friends that fills up one’s “husband-shaped hole.”

Crudo

This book is a tonic for 2018. Olivia Laing embodies Kathy Acker and imagines her response to events of 2017 in the weird world that is daily revealed to be crueler than we’d ever imagined. Generous heapings of Acker’s own words course through the pages as we try to make sense of what is happening. The Charlottesville Nazis, the Houston flood, the North Korea escalation. Parallels with the Jewish concentration camps and how it all worked because the Nazis induced numbness on both sides, a group of prisoners managing to escape by un-numbing themselves. “Imagine what a process it was to unnumb yourself, to see it as it actually was. That’s the only reason to be an artist: to escape, to bear witness to this.”

Kathy acts as divine inspiration for Laing in a way I’m familiar with, having “co-written” a poem with Kathy myself. She hurls us up into the sky with her, whiplashing us around. When Laing despairs about the House of Commons shouting Shame at the woman who asked what was being done about climate change: “This is how it is then, walking backwards into disaster, braying all the way.”

Laing weaves in true biographical details about Kathy into this imaginary tale in a way that keeps her still alive. How I wish we still had her around, what would she make of the current state of affairs?

Bartleby the Scrivener

I sat down at the airport next to an older woman reading a John Grisham novel and pulled this out. “Oh!” she said, “Is that a new book?” I assured her it was an oldie but a goodie and that’s all it took to launch us into a delightful conversation for the next hour waiting for our plane.

I’m not sure I can do a better recap than the one from 6 years ago. Except the last lines echo through my head (Melville was exceptional at last lines): “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Discovered Cornell by way of the documentary about Yayoi Kusama and immediately needed to know more. I grabbed both this catalog and a biography about him (Utopia Parkway by Deborah Solomon, which I gave up in disgust after 100 pages of her assumptions and mean-spirited comments about Cornell’s mother). The essays in this are excellent, especially that by Sarah Lea, and the extensive photographs of his work will stun you into silence. He was a man living in 20th century New York as well as 19th century Europe, despite never having traveled far from NYC. The basic facts of his life are known to all, born 1903, father dies when Joseph is 13, goes to Phillips Exeter Academy but then returns home and gets a job to support his mother and disabled brother, Robert. He lives with them until their deaths in 1966 and 1965, respectively. Joseph died in 1972. All of his work was done in the basement of the house that he lived in with his mom and brother in Queens, somewhat far removed from the bustling NYC art scene. Despite his remoteness, he was great pals with a variety of art superstars like Duchamp, Rothko, De Kooning, Warhol, as well as Susan Sontag and Lee Miller.

Reviewing his work I’m struck by the massive influence he had on other artists like Bruce Connor, whose own shadow boxes are direct descendants of Cornell’s. Also Cornell’s 1936 film montage from found footage (Rose Hobart) provoked a jealous reaction from Dali who said Cornell stole the idea from his subconscious. This prefigured Conner’s A Movie, as well. Need to try and find a copy of Thimble Theater (1938), Gnir Rednow (1960s), the wonder ring (brakhage’s 1955 film with cornell), centuries of june (1955 with brakhage)

Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing

Deborah Levy can be hit or miss; so far I’ve been either blown away or bored, and this falls into the bored category. She writes of escaping London where she was inexplicably crying whenever she took an escalator upwards, heading to Majorca and settling in to write. She shares a table with a Chinese shopkeeper and most of the book is supposedly what she unfurled about her life story to him.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

My first taste of Leduc’s fiction made me giddy with delight. As Deborah Levy says in the Foreword, “Violette Leduc’s novels are works of genius and also a bit peculiar.”

This is the story of a 60 year old woman who “was handling her sixtieth year as lightly as we touch the lint when dressing a wound.” She rents an attic room in Paris but is desperately poor, walking the streets and imagining life without living in the real world. She frequently opts to use money to ride the Metro instead of eating food, sustaining herself on the sights and sounds of the crowd that rushes past. At home she has a meager stock of a few sugar cubes, coffee beans, and potatoes that keep her going. It is February, bitterly cold, and she reminisces about a summer day wherein she woke at dawn to rummage through the garbage looking for a piece of orange to suck on. Instead she found a fox fur, which she then kisses and treats like her husband. Now that it’s winter, the time has come to try and sell it, and she’s rejected. Instead of getting much needed money, she whirls around in ecstasy that she’s been reunited with her love, the fox fur. She sticks her hand out and begs for a few coins which she turns into food. Back at home, she tucks the fox away, marches around, lies on the bed, and sinks into her own world. As she says herself, “her world consisted of nothing but what she had invented.”

“Living was simple: it was no more than a few habitual actions strong on to a routine.”

Excellently translated by Derek Coltman.

Tender is the Night

I finally got around to reading F. Scott  FitzPlagiarizer’s final novel, where he lifted whole sections from Zelda’s letters to him from the sanatorium and dropped them into the book (as exposed in Ch 17 of Nancy Milford’s biography, Zelda). It’s amazing it got written at all, with the quantities of alcohol Scott was soaking himself in while writing it.

There are clues to why Zelda might lose her mind in his writing, like the assertion “like most women she liked to be told how she should feel…” And he almost approaches a confession with “Nicole’s emotions had been used unfairly—what if they turned out to have been his own?”

The only time Dick Diver approaches seeming like a human is when he gets a telegram of his father’s death: “He felt a sharp wince at the shock, a gathering of the forces of resistance; then it rolled up through his loins and stomach and throat. He read the message again. He sat down on the bed, breathing and staring; thinking first the old selfish child’s thought that comes with the death of a parent, how will it affect me now that this earliest and strongest of protections is gone?”

Otherwise Diver is a cardboard cutout of a charming older man who resents that his wife has a lot of money. In Book 1, the big reveal is that Nicole/Zelda has lost her marbles–she’s saying weird things while trying to wash blood of a murdered man’s sheets. Nicole is also coming to grips with Dick’s lust-love for Rosemary, the 18 year old American actress. Book 2 sees the Divers in Switzerland operating a hospital where Dick practices medicine of the head shrinking variety. He can’t stand Nicole, breaks away for a conference where he learns of his father’s death, sails for America, returns via Naples where he consummates his relationship with Rosemary. Book 3 is the further disintegration of him into alcoholism, losing his hospital, losing his wife, finally returning to America and getting into trouble here and there while Nicole finds love with Tommy.

Goodbye Vitamin: A Novel

Very sweet book about a 30 year old woman who’s just been dumped by her fiance (who then goes on to marry another woman and have a kid) who visits her parents near LA for the holidays, only to be asked by her mother if she could stay on for a year to help out with caring for her father as he descends into Alzheimer’s. The narrator promptly returns to San Francisco, quits her job, loads her car up and heads back south for the year. The father is slowly unraveling, has been removed from his teaching post and some considerate grad students hatch an idea to have him teach unofficially (although he thinks it’s real). The father also uncovers a book of notes he kept when the narrator was young, all her various questions and insights, and now she returns the favor by jotting down all the things he does.