Museum of Mistakes: The Fart Party Collection

Overdosing on Julia Wertz in the best way. This collects her early work from Fart Party which details her relationship with Oliver Trixl before he heads off to law school in Vermont and before she scurries away to Brooklyn. I’ve immersed myself so much in these that I’m not sure which stories were in which collections, but I think this also includes her farewell walks around SF (mostly Chinatown and residential neighborhoods where she wasn’t likely to run into anyone she knew).

The Infinite Wait and Other Stories

I’m on a Julia Wertz tear lately, scarfing down her graphic novels a few blocks from the locations she’s mentioning in SF, namedropping Bean Bag and Cafe Abir and Dog Eared and Cafe Le Soleil and BrainWash (where her brother worked). Highly entertaining autobiographical work that explores how she dealt with life in Napa, then SF as a student where she found out she had Lupus, then bailing and heading to Brooklyn. While recuperating(?) from her Lupus diagnosis, she discovered Julie Doucet and other graphic novelists, consumed their work voraciously and started doing her own, feeling like she’d finally found what she was meant to do with her life. Great great great stuff.

XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century

An overly ambitious project from McGrath, to capture the 20th century in 100+ poems (at least one for each year of the century) and somehow get at the essence of that time. Reading it, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that women barely exist, although he throws us token bones in the form of nods to Gertrude (which is actually one of the best poems- see below), Virginia, Sylvia (married as always to mention of Ted), Frida, Georgia. Part of my problem is knowing too much about Woolf to enjoy her fragments in here, of course mentioning her suicide (so exasperating that this above else is remembered, just like Sylvia’s poem).

I did enjoy a few other poems in here, like the one for Edward Bernays (1928), the man enlisted to craft a PR campaign that would get women smoking, the man behind the force of advertising that swept over us in the 20th century. Other favorite was Hiroshima (just the letters ‘a’, ‘o’, ‘*’ scattered across the page, raining terror down below).

Overall, he grants the voice of authority to Picasso and Chairman Mao by giving them frequent poems throughout the century. Elvis got an inexplicably long poem, and Woody Guthrie & Orson Welles pop up occasionally.

I Saw You…: Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections

Wertz edited this collection of comics inspired by real Missed Connections, which are always a hot bed of entertainment. Best of all is that the cover image (Wertz’s) is of Bean Bag Cafe in SF. The utter hopelessness and optimism of these posts are heartbreaking, but you can’t help diving in for more. I just checked the site again and weirdness flows in abundance still, so the world is ok. (Whole Foods on Franklin: “You were the gorgeous blonde in black. I was astonished by your beauty. I wasn’t clear if you were alone and didn’t want to cause drama. You know who I am. I was adoring you by the kale and apples.
Reach out?”)

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Beastie Boys Book

Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz document the group in Yauch’s absence, filling hundreds of pages with memories, photos, stories. Other essays flesh out the scene, like Luc Sante‘s vivid description of NYC in 1981. Even tiny addendum contain marvels, like MD’s note about Tania Aebi (whose book about being the youngest person to sail around the world I read in 2003) being a friend of his family.

This is a truly magical book. It’s a sweet, open-hearted, candid look back at their rise and conquest of the world. Although the mic is passed between Horovitz and Diamond throughout the book, Yauch comes through as a genius over and over with bizarro ideas that elevated their sound (upside down drum machine recording, 10 foot long cardboard tubes to amp up the drum sound, a million other examples).

It’s a time machine back to the 80s, but also gives you a front row seat to how people can live wildly creative and successful lives. Amy Poehler’s essay has a bit about her riding her bike around Chicago finding comfort in the lyric “Be true to yourself and you will never fail,” and my heart explodes thinking about the number of people they’ve had a positive impact on.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time, I imagine.

Drinking at the Movies

Wherein Julia moves from SF to New York back in 2007, providing us with a glimpse into life back in the glory days of the early 2000’s in Brooklyn and SF. She moves around a lot, attempts various jobs and frequently gets fired, but mostly draws, drinks, watching old TV shows like Gilmore Girls and 30 Rock. Actually, way too much out of control drinking, and she ends the book with the positive note that in 2009 she stops drinking completely. She ends up in SF at one point, panicking at the corner of Divis & Page because it’s her ex’s house and he just coincidentally texted her out of the blue. In NY she does a lot of drinking at the movies, as promised, and also with friends at bars. She lucks into a basement apartment that isn’t as creepy as it could be, endures the winter as a bicycle delivery person, has various waitressing gigs, quits an office job after a few days because of inherent boredom. Always good stuff in a Wertz graphic novel.

Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey

Liked this primarily because it got me thinking about remembering my dreams, which is step one to actually remembering them. I wish I’d liked the rest of the book as much as the introduction. Improving your dream life, Robb asserts, is as simple as thinking more about your dreams, sparing a moment before sleep to set your intention to remember, and writing them down in the morning. And just like that, you’re accessing your whole life, not just the 2/3 of it when you’re awake. Lucid dreaming sounds like something worth spending time to accomplish, too. The essence of this seems to be the “reality test” that you give yourself every hour of the day to see if you’re awake or not. Since we do a lot of the same things when we’re asleep that we do while dreaming, the theory is that you’ll ask yourself if you’re awake when dreaming and when you realize you’re not, you get to take control of the dream.

Dreams are where we work out problems that we’re encountering in our waking lives and hone skills we’re learning. Hugely important for everyone’s sanity and health. We forget most of our dreams because the chemical necessary for remembering isn’t actively being secreted by our brains while sleeping. Another weird thing: 117 otherwise healthy young men in the Midwest began dying in their sleep over a few years in the 1980s, from nightmares (Laotian immigrants who weren’t adjusting well and who may have had heart conditions).

The Apple That Astonished Paris: Poems

Beautiful words from Billy Collins, most especially this one describing how his students react and analyze poems:

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Letters to Wendy’s

Some people have classified Wenderoth’s book as a novel but this feels much more like a book of poems— philosophical bits and pornographic rants scrawled onto the tiny space of a Wendy’s comment card, submitted between July 1996 and July 1997. The narrator reminded me of the creepy-hiding-in-plain-sight of Connell’s Diary of a Rapist. He’s occasionally lucid and occasionally off the rails but always always sticking whatever he has to say into the small space of the card. Originally discovered by way of a quote from Ada Limón where she peels off the end of the July 12, 1996 letter, “I’m a fleshy bell, incapable of vibrating any more vigorously. If I rang out with any more force I don’t know that I would remain a bell—and I don’t know that the air could stand me.”

A few that I enjoyed:

Oct 7, 1996: Why is there somewhere that is not Wendy’s? The question haunts me. Perhaps there need be a coming into Wendy’s, a coming into that’s only possible when there is a no-Wendy’s. Perhaps the question should be: is there truly somewhere that is not Wendy’s? Could our conception of where we are have developed within an unconscious need to forget how far Wendy’s truly extends?

Nov 16, 1996: It’s good, this not knowing anyone’s name. The employees have name-tags, but no one believes them. Their anonymity is far too obvious. How monstrous to introduce oneself to one’s register person! How useless, how wearying, that information is! Only the shouted names of children make sense here, denoting not a person but a drifting off, a subversive fascination.

Dec 3, 1996: Today I had fifteen dollars worth of coffees. I got them one at a time, and dined in. The first five were leisurely, but then the leisure disintegrated. I went through the last five in about five minutes. After awhile the register girl looked at her manager as if to say: “Is there something we should do?” The manager said nothing. I said nothing. We understood one another perfectly.

Apr 8, 1997: Sometimes I think of Wendy’s as a library without books. Without records, magazines, maps, or videos. Without a rare books room, and without an Information desk. As such, it is the most pleasant library I’ve ever visited. It offers one text—on reserve and on view. This text explicitly organizes the way we feed ourselves. And it allows us to act as though a greater significance has never been attempted.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide

I’m not even in the market to write a novel but I absolutely loved this book. It’s 100% focused on creating good writing, and it makes you laugh and laugh and laugh. Sometimes it’s the just the quote at the beginning of the chapter that is perfect, like this one for the chapter on Endings: “And Jesus lived happily ever after.” Who knew that 6 words could pack that much humor? Or there’s the section on Character, wherein we’re cautioned not to write people who have no traits, just sock puppets uncovering a ring of sock puppets at the bottom of a sock puppet ocean. Hilarious skewering of the “how to” books about writing that actually manages to sneak in helpful tips (if you do the opposite).

Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work

DeSalvo’s book is legendary and I finally got around to reading it this week. Most astonishing part for me was the first section that delved into Virginia’s sisters and half-sisters, women that I’d barely paid attention to in the past while consumed with worshiping VW’s brilliance. It’s absolutely stunning when you think about it: Laura, the daughter of Leslie Stephen and Minnie Thackeray, I’ve always written off as the madwoman who was the writer Thackeray’s granddaughter and VW’s half-sister. DeSalvo digs into why Laura was banished to an asylum and the results are not pretty. Aged 12 when VW was born, Laura was acting out in a bid for attention—she’d been an only child whose mother died and was then ignored by Leslie until he married Julia Duckworth and inherited 3 step-siblings (Gerald, George, Stella). Julia proceeded to pop out 4 children in 5 years (!!)—Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, Adrian. After VW’s birth, Laura is severely punished for expressing her rage, punished for not reading quickly or well, punished for simply existing. She’s banished to a part of the house where no one else visits, and later outside the house. No one called her an “idiot” contemporaneously, simply “difficult.” What’s fascinating is DeSalvo’s proposal that Leslie changed his characterization of her as mentally deficient after 1889 when Parliament passed a law protecting children from cruelty. This law was in effect when he was writing his memoirs, thus the revised characterization so he wouldn’t be accused of anything for banishing his child to an insane asylum simply for her “perverse” behavior as it was called at the time.

Next up, Stella, another half-sister of VW’s, one who died a few months after finally escaping the Stephen household by marrying Jack Hill—Leslie Stephen had transferred his affections to his step-daughter immediately after Julia died, and DeSalvo insinuates incest of a sort here as well. Not to mention the pursuit of Stella by woman-hating cousin J.K. Stephen (Jem/Jim) who has been accused by some of being the actual Jack the Ripper.

Then Vanessa, especially interesting through Angelica’s eyes. Garnett’s memoir is one I’ve avoided up until now but it sounds worthy of a read, exposing the Bloomsbury myth and continuing on in the incestuous nature of the family by marrying the lover of her father (Bunny); Vanessa pursued her own semi-incestuous relationship by going after Duncan Grant who’d had a relationship with her brother Adrian. And around and around they whirl.

The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Vol 1 (1785-1800)

It feels like a violation of privacy to churn through someone’s letters, especially those crisp reminders of childhood, plaintive pleas for money to be sent for various school expenses, etc. If my own letters were collected I’d be embarrassed to peruse them.

In this volume, you are thrashed around from staggering highs and extreme lows, only filled in on the details by an occasional footnote. In the midst of college, boom! he’s off and enlisted in the army either because of debts or because a lady rejected his affections (his brothers get him out of it by claiming insanity). We even get a peek at letters to that lady, such as this from 1792 to Mary Evans which is a great example of Coleridge’s quirky talent:

Now by the most accurate calculation of the specific quantities of sounds, a female tongue, when it exerts itself to the utmost, equals the noise of eighteen sign-posts, which the wind swings backwards and forwards in full creak. If then one equals eighteen, ten must equal one hundred and eighty; consequently, the circle at Jermyn Street unitedly must have produced a noise equal to that of one hundred and eighty old crazy sign-posts, inharmoniously agitated as aforesaid. Well! to be sure, there are few disagreeables for which the pleasure of Mary and Anne Evans’ company would not amply compensate; but faith! I feel myself half inclined to thank God that I was fifty-two miles off during this clattering clapperation of tongues.

The letters moan about fevers and colds and detail business transactions and poem corrections. They chronicle the trip to Germany with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, requests for loans, beg for advice about whether to take a job teaching or preaching or writing, detail the deterioration of his relationship with Charles Lamb.

He makes up words like “vaccimulgence”: “Will you try to look out for a fit servant for us—simple of heart, physiognomically handsome, and scientific in vaccimulgence? That last word is a new one, but soft in sound and full of expression. Vaccimulgence! I am pleased with the word.” (1796)

He uses surprising phrases: “Monday afternoon, Ned, Tatum, and myself sat from four till ten drinking! and then arose as cool as three undressed cucumbers.”

He tells dumb jokes/puns: “I would write Odes and Sonnets Morning & Evening – & metaphysicize at Noon – and of rainy days I would overwhelm you with an Avalanche of Puns and Conundrums loosened by sudden thaw from the Alps of my imagination.” (He then goes on to pun about kild-er-kin, satan, religious attorneys, etc.)

Everyone loves a good self-deprecation: “[My face is] a mere carcase of a face: flat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression… my gait is awkward & the walk, & the Whole man indicates indolence capable of energies…”

But then he launches into beautiful language about being a reader and being too lazy to write, calling himself a cormorant who will eat just about anything:

I am, and ever have been, a great reader, and have read almost everything—a librarycormorant. I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times, or of the puritanical era. I have read and digested most of the historical writers; but I do not like history. Metaphysics and poetry and “facts of mind,” that is, accounts of all the strange phantasms that ever possessed “your philosophy;” dreamers, from Thoth the Egyptian to Taylor the English pagan, are my darling studies. In short, I seldom read except to amuse myself, and I am almost always reading. Of useful knowledge, I am a so-so chemist, and I love chemistry. All else is blank; but I will be (please God) an horticulturalist and a farmer. I compose very little, and I absolutely hate composition, and such is my dislike that even a sense of duty is sometimes too weak to overpower it.

 

Bright Dead Things

I’m coming to love Ada Limón’s poems and starting to get mad when bookstores I wander into don’t have anything of hers.

This is a collection spawned from her move away from Brooklyn down to Kentucky with a boyfriend, musings on the dying of her step-mother.

The poems hop around to various locales, mentioning her parents coupling in San Francisco in their apartment above a bar in the Castro, to Oklahoma, Boston, the San Fernando Valley, the bluegrass state. Looking forward to her novel.

Interior States: Essays

Essays that remind me I’d rather be reading Montaigne instead of these. A mishmash of thoughts from a woman raised as an evangelical Christian. A dip into what reading John Updike is like as a woke woman. A sad droning tone throughout, not worth reading.

Heavy: An American Memoir

Everyone lost their minds over this book so I figured it was a must read. Definitely excellent in parts but it dragged a bit. This memoir covers Laymon’s childhood growing up as an overweight black boy in Mississippi with a demanding mother who encouraged him to write write write and who also abused him and had a serious gambling problem. Laymon navigates the world as a black man, understandably raging against the odds being stacked against him, but prevailing by continuing his education after being kicked out of school for a highly questionable reason (the college claimed he stole a copy of The Red Badge of Courage from the library, which they said was a jailable offense), ending up a professor at Vassar. He develops an eating problem and loses a ton of weight, then gains it all back and loses it again, I think.