A Girl in Winter

Fabulous story of a French woman (Katherine) working in a library in wartime England. Part 1 is our introduction to Katherine at the library, where her idiotic boss irritates her to no end, and she escapes to help a coworker home with a dental emergency. The jaunt takes her to a dentist, then to her house where the coworker can recover, then there’s a purse switch at the pharmacy that she must deal with before returning to work. Meanwhile she’s waiting anxiously for a response to her letter to Robyn, a man who was her pen pal when they were 16 and who invited her to spend a summer vacation with him then. Part 2 takes us back to that three week spell in the summer where Katherine meets Robyn and more importantly, his sister Jane, who’s the one who encouraged Robyn to invite K. She falls in love with Robyn then out of love, then he awkwardly kisses her the night before she leaves. In Part 3, we return to present day. Katherine ends up taking the bus to return the switched purse to a woman who happens to be involved with Katherine’s terrible boss at the library (discovered by way of a letter in the purse). Robyn’s letter announces his arrival that day, Katherine scurries away nervous and heads back to work, gets into a fight with the boss, announces her resignation, heads home in the gloom, and finds a drunk Robyn at her steps. She’s tired and not attracted to him, but she lets him stay as the solution of least resistance. A halfhearted marriage proposal is uttered and dismissed. The scene ends with snow drifting down on the pair as they lay awake in K’s attic.

There’s a few miraculous  passages that detail what depression feels like:

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

This might be a record for the shortest time between hearing about a book and finishing it—my sister recommended this book to me this afternoon as I was about to head to the library, so I grabbed a copy and devoured it in one gulp. Beautiful memoir about the various scrapes and near-death experiences Maggie and her children have endured. I was especially pleased by the pacing of the stories—they’re not told chronologically (boring!) but instead layered in a way that draws you in. First, the story of almost being strangled as an 18-year-old hiking near a lake (the guy ends up killing a different woman a few days later). Then hints of a childhood disease that was devastating, but she leaves that mega-story for the penultimate. The last tale is one about her daughter, seemingly allergic to everything, being rushed to a hospital in anaphylactic shock. Also a frank story about a miscarriage (they allowed her to walk away from the clinic with a dead body inside her, told her it could pass naturally!) and how common those are but mysterious because no one talks of them.

Wim Wenders: Written in the West

Wim Wenders’s collection of photos from his exploratory mission before filming Paris, Texas. Includes an interview that has choice quotable bits like: “Solitude and taking photographs are connected in an important way. If you aren’t alone, you can never acquire this way of seeing, this complete immersion in what you see, no longer needing to interpret, just looking.”

Seasonal Associate

Brilliant novel written in second person narration, aimed at the reader, the generic “You” who is called to enter her world as an Amazon seasonal worker in Germany in 2010. The narrator is a struggling writer/translator who sucks it up and gets a terrible job at the Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush, describing the mind-numbing routine, the crushing workload, the unpaid work of changing in and out of work clothes, the sneers from management, the silliness of imported American informality in calling everyone by their first name. The drudgery of rising in the early hours of winter to slog through snow and cancelled public transportation to work in a place where the door to the outside won’t shut so is freezing all day. The slap of having to get a doctor’s written note testifying that one is sick. Being yelled at like you’re a child over and over.

The narrator knows she’ll soon be replaced by robots: “You… are nothing but a placeholder for machines that have already been invented but aren’t yet profitable enough to permanently replace you and your workmates, who are very low-cost. The fact that your presence is necessary troubles your employer, who dislikes dealing with troublemakers.”

She sprinkles in wisdom from various sources, Engels, Arendt, etc. including this bit from Byung-Chul Han: “There’s no way to form a revolutionary mass out of exhausted, depressed, isolated individuals,” and this from Elfriede Jelenek: “Anyone alive disrupts.”

A great excerpt from the 4th chapter is online, including:

I too buy my books from Amazon. I buy the books there that I can’t get elsewhere. What I don’t buy from Amazon is books or other things I can get elsewhere, not even if they’re cheaper there or delivered more quickly.

A few days before, I held a far too vehement lecture at my mother’s kitchen table, preaching that one doesn’t necessarily have to buy things one wants from the cheapest source. I said there was no order and no law that you have to choose the cheapest offer. My mother looked at me as though checking whether I meant it seriously, first of all, and secondly whether I might have turned into a rich woman overnight, someone who could afford to say such things.

I appreciated the way she simply walked off the job at the end, realizing that she could just quit. Months later, she gets a call from Amazon asking for feedback, which she gives them. They also offer her the chance to come back anytime. But her freelance work has picked back up, making her realize:

The present performance subject is identical to the Hegelian slave apart from the circumstance that it does not work for the master, but exploits itself voluntarily. As an entrepreneur of itself, it is both master and slave simultaneously.

I also enjoyed the unique table of contents, summarizing and commenting on the ensuing chapter:

Translated by Katy Derbyshire from German.

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

Stunning, poetic, political book by writer/visual artist/AIDS activist/filmmaker/painter/musician David Wojnarowicz (pronounced “voy-nah-ROW-vitch”) published a year before his own AIDS-related death at age 37 in 1992. It’s a memoir of 80s NYC hustling that is gripped by the constant deaths of friends from AIDS. He’s rightfully angry about existing in a world where his very being is illegal. The words spill breathless onto the page with an urgency born of watching those around him die. Pure prose poetry from beginning to end, wrapped in a rage blanket, spitting hatred at Reagan and the ineptitude of American leaders.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays

Janet Malcolm’s collection of essays has a few gems, like the one about the three sisters in their seventies who run Argosy Bookshop on E 59th St, plus the one referenced by the cover image of pianist Yuja Wang, and the Eileen Fisher profile. Coincidentally, these are the first three essays of the book. From there, I felt it was downhill, although I did like the takedown of the P&V translations versus Constance Garnett (people have been inexplicably swooning over P&V translation and I can’t understand why). She also enthusiastically recommends Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, and waxes on and on about Joseph Mitchell’s dance between fiction and non.

Peyton Place

I suppose this was considered racy fare in 1956 when first published, a soap opera tale of a small town that involves rape, abortion, drinking, sex, deception, child abuse, wife beatings, bastard children, sleeping with married men, and murder. Parts are downright hilarious, like the seven men who hole up in Kenny’s cellar on an extended drunken bender for five or six weeks. Allison Mackenzie is the daughter of Constance Mackenzie, a bastard child who’s a year older than she is told in order to cover her mother’s disgrace. Her friend Selena is a member of one of the shack families in town, abused by her stepfather who rapes/impregnates her, she has abortion, years later he returns to town and she kills him. There’s a newspaper owner who doesn’t like to take sides and a wealthy mill owner who overprotects his son (keeping him from war but the drunken son ends up killing himself in a car wreck), a friend of Allison who loses her arm in a carnival accident, a handsome new principal who sweeps Constance off her feet, an overprotective mother who lies about her son being a war hero, the list goes on forever.

The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.

Evan Ratliff’s book about Paul Le Roux’s internet prescription drug cartel was exciting until the last 100 pages when it hit a reef and sank. After spending years researching and then writing about this epic drug lord hacker (who got into narcotics and guns and money laundering), the book drifts off once Le Roux is captured by the DEA and flipped. There’s no grand moment when Le Roux gets his comeuppance, just a tiny whimper as the U.S. government uses this top of the pyramid to take out the rest of his business network. Disappointing. I also wish he’d kept himself out of the book more, but he was always elbowing his way into the story somehow.

Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories

I liked the first two stories but then either my mood changed or the book’s equilibrium shifted or something else but I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the final four. Strongest (as always!) is the first one, the eponymous story, where an artist lucks into a vacation home when a rich couple buy one of her paintings from a friend, she spends the summer daydreaming and gazing out at the landscape and trying to avoid being the entertainment for the other guests. Taj Mahal was a sweet story about a group of oldsters who get together to gossip about the gossipy biography they were all just mentioned in.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I read this over a decade ago and it kept coming up lately so I did a highly satisfying re-read. Best writing lesson he got from his first job writing for a local newspaper, condensing and simplifying. “When you write a story you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

He defends his own category of blockbuster writing and talks about critics being suspicious of popular success… “suspicions used as an excuse not to think. No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift… dozing to Byzantium, you might say.”

Basically you gotta see or hear clearly, then describe to your reader. Practice, honesty. Back story: everyone has a history and most of it isn’t interesting.

Other bits: Trollope invented the red mail pillars during his day job as a mail clerk in the 1850s. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch is the originator of “Murder your darlings” as writing advice.

Bluets

Maggie Nelson normally charms me, so I was surprised to find myself yawning through this book, mostly a function of mood, as I was headed out the door to gift it to a friend. For some reason I thought I’d read it before, and when I bought a copy of it, I’d intended it for my forever shelves. In her usual way, she meanders around Gertrude Stein and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Goethe’s theory of color and various and sundry Greek philosophers and Joseph Cornell, Monet, Mallarme. What I like best is the meditation on a central theme that anchors the book but allows wide sway. Is it poetry, is it digestible mainly because of its tiny fragments that our attention-addled brains can grasp onto?

The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation

I came to Fanny Howe by way of the Eve Babitz biography and was not disappointed. Her deep appreciation for Moby-Dick as an extended poem (yes!), her autobiographical musings of a few marriages that finally left her alone in peace with her children, books, and movies.

“The prose notebook is something else entirely, without repetition or revision included. It is antimemoir, a response to a day, and all the day produces by chance. It is in many ways the most radical form: a chronicle without rhythm or beat. Pure reflection, transparency. No audience desired or expected. It is inherently anarchist.”

 

I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!

I love the strange, weird, childlike world of Fletcher Hanks, even if he was an asshole drunk father who left his family in 1930 and ended up freezing to death on a park bench in Central Park at age 90. The similarities between all the strips show his obsession with a hero who saves New York City again and again from danger, loving to depict the bad guys (and sometimes the good guys or the neutral folks) as hanging in mid-air. He loves squeezing the bad guys and flinging them into a chilly ice jail in outer space (thus ironic that he freezes to death himself).

Jess – O! Tricky Cad and Other Jessoterica

I flipped through this and Jess: To and From the Printed Page in an attempt to fill the gaps in my knowledge about yet another major Bay Area artist of the mid-20th century. Some great paste-ups, collages, mixing up Dick Tracy columns, weaving in various erotic photos of men, always with the words words words (as influenced by his husband, Robert Duncan?). I’m also reading another book about the poetry scene in SF in the 50s (not the Beats) and Jess comes up (via the Duncan connection) as sneering at Jack Spicer and forbidding him from entering his house, which makes me like Jess more than anything else I’ve read about him. Another lucky lottery winner of WWII extraction, working as a chemist at Oak Ridge facilities then coasting into art school on the GI Bill.

Touching Time And Space: A Portrait Of David Ireland

Another entry in the list of terrible biographies. Mostly I read this because curious about David Ireland’s life before art (he started making art in his 40s), when he was an insurance salesman for 7 years in Bellingham and had a wife and kids. Every other work seemed to gloss over those years, but at least Klausner gets to the bottom of the gossipy stuff for me. I’m also bored bored bored of reading about men who all gather and do art and lift each other up and yak yak yak about their process. Perhaps I’m still in a crabby mood after viewing the 1973 film Painters Painting yesterday, wherein only Helen Frankenthaler was the only woman interviewed, albeit briefly, and one of the dumb questions was “Is it hard to be a woman artist?” which she deflected by saying basically it’s hard to be an artist, period. Some of my rage boiled over onto reading DI’s biography, I guess, but it was also extremely poorly written/researched. One thing I will agree with in DI’s point of view is that a life can be an artwork. But this book is neither life nor art.