The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

If you’re looking for a cheerful read to buoy your spirits as late capitalism rages all around you, this is not the book. Instead, it’s an important aggregation of all the mind-numbing stats about ongoing catastrophic climate change presented in a lyrical way. This is no rubber mallet hammering stats into your brain, but poetic writing that makes you look again at those topics you most want to avoid in an effort of self preservation.

Works of other writers are cited alongside scientist quotes, which partially explains its appeal to me. Robertson Jeffers, Sheila Heti, Yeats, H. G. Wells, Joan Didion, Dickens, Steinbeck, Rachel Carson, etc.

William Vollman’s Carbon Ideologies is referenced after Wallace-Wells notes a state of “half-ignorance and half-indifference is a much more pervasive climate sickness than true denial or true fatalism.” Vollman writes from a devastated future: “Of course we did it to ourselves; we had always been intellectually lazy, and the less asked of us, the less we had to say… We all lived for money, and that is what we died for.”

Even before I got to his section about our cognitive biases I appreciated the way he was giving us the worst case scenario first, as a way of anchoring our perspective. In the Crisis Capitalism chapter, he lays out the many ways we’re hindered from mentally grappling with this issue: anchoring, the ambiguity effect, anthropocentric thinking, automation bias, bystander effect, confirmation bias, default effect, status quo bias, endowment effect, overconfidence, optimism bias, AND pessimism bias.

 

How It All Began

This puts the “light” in “delightful”—just a soapy, wafty, story-laden beach read of a book to pull one into the life of a handful of various characters all changed by a single event, when an older woman gets mugged and breaks her hip. This event ripples into the lives of her daughter and son-in-law, her daughter’s employer (Lord P, the elderly academician) and his niece Marion (who has to accompany him to a luncheon where she meets a businessman who scams her), Marion’s married lover whose wife discovers the text that Marion sends begging off an engagement because she must accompany her uncle to that luncheon, and Anton, the Eastern European seeking help with his reading skills from Charlotte (the older women who was mugged), who Rose (the daughter) falls in love with. It’s a well-paced stream of plot, little bits parceled out to keep you hungrily paging for more.

Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley

In his effort to create a fair and balanced telling of the city, McClelland serves up a tepid book of mediocre interest. Written in the style of Studs Terkel’s Working, McClelland interviews a handful of SFers for their stories, letting Matt Gonzalez rub shoulders against Ron Conway who buts up against the Google Bus protest organizer. Best interview was with one of the first Uber drivers who talks about how he drove all the tech gurus around in the early days (Travis, Jack Dorsey, Elon, the Airbnb guy) and there wasn’t anything inspiring about them which gave him hope that it was easier to succeed in this city than it seems. Another great interview mentions the young kids with strollers in Hayes Valley who think the city is getting better (she calls them libertarian dicks). Blander than it had to be, unfortunately.

The Florida Keys: From Key Largo to Key West.

While I was submerged in Joy Williams’s novel Breaking and Entering, set in Florida, I discovered that she’d written this guidebook that came out in 1987. Insanely great although I would be terrified to bring it with me to Key West and see what rubble remains of what she’s described.

This is no ordinary guidebook. Stories are shared about why dogs aren’t allowed in this bar or how this other bar has patron who gets on the bar and does an imitation of a railroad. Her best stuff is really for the ride on the way down to Key West, the 100+ miles of Route 1. Past Crawl Key there’s a place called Adventure Island, “a feverish dream for the highly active, where there are sailboat, catamaran, sunfish, and jet-ski rentals. You can also have the thrilling rackety fun of a helicopter ride. There was ambition here once—there are 27 picnic tables behind the tiki-bar—but excited intentions have given way to exhausted somnolence. A bored Rottweiler is tied beneath a broken barbecue stand by the helicopter pad, and parrotfish with toothy smiles graze in the waters off the dock.”

Other poetry: “Look upon it, this tangled swamp, and be both respectful and glad.” One resort is mentioned in the possible lodgings section: “you can get a small room in a trailer here for $25, if you don’t mind sharing it with an enormous TV. Fantasize that you are in a fifties movie. You are on the lam. You are attempting to escape something terrible. You sit on the green plaid bedspread and listen to your breathing. No one will ever find you here.”

Half of the book takes you the route down to Key West, and then she spends the second half wandering that old town. Williams writes that Key West, “which is so singular in its architecture and attitude, its posturing and fancifulness, its zany eclecticism, its seedy tropicality, is a town come upon unseen, unexpected, the something else almost felt. It is an urbane, isolated, freewheeling, lighthearted, gossipy, and eccentric town. There is a sense of adventure here, of excess and individuality. It’s odd. Actually odd. It is rather a dirty town and has very little dignity, but it has style.”

Naturally, the tourists (and cruise ships) have ruined everything, especially a particularly nice sunset spot. “If you don’t have a camera you will probably be elbowed away from various sights by those who do… The Mayor had to promise sunset devotees that whatever gargantuan [cruise] ship docked there will have left each day before the sun goes down. The crowds mob this congested spot. Street entertainers quarrel with parking lot attendants. Merchants quarrel with street vendors. The City Commission wanting sunsets ‘to be maintained’ has set up a committee to explore the possibility of an alternative site for sunset activities. The sunset has become something of a problem.”

Breaking and Entering

A gorgeously strange melancholy novel from Joy Williams, pub’d in 1988. I’d only read her short stories before and was amazed to find myself submerged in this full length tale; at first, the chapters seemed like short stories in themselves, only with the characters continuing on, and then I realized belatedly I was reading a novel. It’s a dreamy, unreal story with an epigram from André Breton before the second half, “It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.”

Liberty and Willie are a married couple who float through life, breaking into houses in Florida just to see what other people’s lives are like. Liberty rescued a big white dog, Clem, from a mailbox, and he follows her around freaking out other people. They befriend a security guard who assumes they’re just guests of the people who own the house. Eventually they leave this house, head back to the one they’re renting, back to the town where they’re somewhat known. Drunk Charlie is in love with Liberty but she’s too far gone on Willie to care. Willie takes off for a week or so, calls Liberty to tell her to jump into the tide at a certain time and she’ll be swept to the key where he is. She obeys, they end up at a house of a body-building septuagenarian rich woman who worms their origin story out of them (met as kids, Liberty’s parents abandoned her to be brought up by Willie’s parents, pregnant at 15, suicide pact gone awry, no more babies possible). Liberty leaves Willie there and floats back to their headquarters, ends up talking to Charlie at the bar and then he’s stabbed by her neighbor. They drive through a car wash to try and wash the pee (the neighbor’s) off the car and this is possibly where Charlie dies, but it’s the end so who knows.

“She remembered feeling once that anything was possible. The sky was bright and blue and she was walking fast and could go anywhere. But that had been a moment years ago, and since that moment she had felt that her life was like someone else’s garden she had wandered into, something she could care for or not, like one did another’s garden.”

“After she stopped wailing, I lingered for a moment and listened to the wind in the trees. They were whispering something that at the time made an enormous deal of sense. Never have I heard the susurrus of branches so clearly.”

Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing

I’m so glad Caro took a break from LBJ to give us this memoir-lite describing his research process and early beginnings. If anything, I need to re-read Master of the Senate and Passage of Power along with the other 2 LBJ volumes I’ve skipped. My Robert Moses immersion was only a few years ago but am now considering a reread of that as well.

Turn every page while researching because you never know what gold you’ll stumble onto. He also writes “SU” all over his notes as a reminder to self to Shut Up while he’s trying to outwait an interviewee who’s silent. Seems like Caro was motivated by the general depravity of the current administration to get some thoughts out there about what his projects have been about (power, how people get it, how they use it).

Afloat

Beautiful nonfiction travel diary by Guy de Maupassant first pub’d in 1888 (Sur l’eau). This is the book that Virginia Woolf has a character in The Years pluck from the shelves to read at random “The mediocrity of the universe astonishes and repels me…” so of course I needed to go straight to the (translated) source. Maupassant sets out on his yacht Bel-Ami with a two man crew to do the heavy lifting and sails around the coast of France for a nine day tour, spending lots of time ashore, ending up on a train to meet a friend at a casino in Monte Carlo.

As he heads out, he appreciates his solitude, although technically he’s also with his two sailors:

I can enjoy the thrill of being alone, the quiet thrill of being able to rest and never be disturbed by a letter or telegram, the sound of a doorbell… Nobody can call on me, invite me out, depress me with smiles, harass me with flattery. I’m alone, really alone, and I’m free.

Generally he doesn’t like the people he comes across:

Is there anything more sinister than that “table chat” in hotels? I’ve lived in such places, I’ve had to suffer all the platitudes that the human race can produce on such occasions. You have to bite the bullet really hard in order not to weep with grief, disgust, and shame when you listen to people talking… It seems to me that I’m looking into their ghastly souls and discovering a monstrous fetus preserved in alcohol. And I’m watching them slowly give birth to commonplaces that they’ll go on producing again and again, I can feel them dropping out of their mouths from their inexhaustible fund of idiotic ideas and carried into my ears by the lifeless air.

In later pages he expands (this is the surrounding text for the quote VW uses):

It’s true that sometimes I feel such a horror of living that I long to die, so intensely do I suffer from the relentless monotony of every landscape, of people’s faces and their thoughts. I find the mediocrity of the universe appalling, revolting, I’m disgusted by the paltriness of everything, overwhelmed by the utter worthlessness of the human race.

This captures my own feeling of insatiable curiosity that goes nowhere:

I’ve lusted after everything and enjoyed nothing. I would have needed the vitality of a whole race of men, the intelligence scattered among all living creatures, every conceivable faculty of mind and body, in addition to a thousand more lives in reserve, because I have inside me every sort of appetite and curiosity—and I’ve been reduced to observing everything and grasping nothing.

Against crowds:

I always experience an odd, unbearable feeling of discomfort, a terrible nervous irritation as if I was struggling with all my might against a mysterious, irresistible force… How often have I come to realize that my intelligence expands and soars as soon as it’s alone and falls into pieces as soon as I’m in a crowd… The qualities of intellectual initiative, of free will, of individual wisdom, and even of perception of a man left to himself will generally dissipate as soon as he mingles with any large number of other men.

It’s eerie to read his description of late 19th century city planning along the coast of South France, how there’s “not one single house, nothing but the layout of future streets running through the trees. There are crossroads, boulevards, squares. They’ve even put up metal plates marking their names: boulevard Ruysdael, boulevard Rubens, boulevard Van Dyck, boulevard Claude-Lorrain. You may be wondering: why all these painters? It’s because the Company, like God himself before lighting the sun, said: ‘This is going to be a resort for artists!’ ”

His great tirade on the working stiffs that he sees headed off for lunch “like two old workhorses who’d been unbridled for a brief moment to snatch a mouthful of oats at the bottom of a canvas bag…”

Translated from the French by Douglas Parmee

Dear Mrs. Bird

A light palate cleanser to burn through quickly, story of wartime London complete with air raids, bombings, soldiers running off with nurses, men in uniform making ladies swoon. A bit on the sentimental side but not too maudlin. The narrator, Emmy, takes a job answering correspondence for an advice column but doesn’t like Mrs. Bird’s strict rules around what’s acceptable or not to answer. Emmy takes it upon herself to answer several letters, doling out comfort and advice to those who would be otherwise rejected by Mrs. Bird. She meets the half-brother of her boss, a soldier on leave named Charles, and has a night of dancing with him before starting correspondence. She lives with her pal Bunty, who becomes engaged to William, but tragedy strikes at their engagement party when bombers hit and Bill dies. This is where it goes off the rails, Bunty decides it’s Emmy’s fault that Bill dies, refuses to speak to her, ends up writing a letter to the magazine that Emmy responds to behind Bird’s back which of course draws significant support from the audience, resulting in a dramatic Hollywood moment of the mailboy bringing up the bag of letters from people, skyrocketing subscription numbers, and Bunty showing up to plead for Emmy’s job.

Virginia Woolf, the War Without, the War Within: Her Final Diaries and the Diaries She Read

The final installment of Barbara Lounsberry’s valuable contribution to VW scholarship, this book covers Woolf’s diaries from 1929 to 1941 (book one 1897-1918, book two 1918-1929). This look at Woolf’s diaries and the diaries she read was less interesting than the other volumes, although I did pick up recommendations for Alice James’s diary and reinforced the idea I need to eventually finish reading Gide’s diary. As always, Lounsberry does a great job picking apart how the diary influences Woolf’s other published work, her grand exhaustion over The Years, her use of one work to balance out another. Oh! And the Michael Field diaries, the pseudonym of an aunt & niece combo who wrote poetry but who suffered much abuse from the male establishment, by way of Ruskin, giving Woolf much material for On Being Despised.

On being 50:

how possessed I am with the feeling that now, age 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight & undeflected my bolts whatever they are…

Her prodigious appetite for reading:

I want to write another 4 novels… & to go through English literature, like a string through cheese, or rather like some industrious insect, eating its way from book to book, from Chaucer to Lawrence. This is a programme (1932).

And in 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it with books, as a sponge with water”.

Alice James on suicide: “Every educated person who kills himself does something toward lessening the superstition. It’s bad that it’s so untidy… But how heroic to be able to supress one’s vanity to the extent of confessing that the game is too hard.”

Tidbits of the outer world float in, like the shocking discovery of Cook’s travel pamphlets issuing a brochure inviting a “Heil! Summer!” which helped to normalize Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. (See: Petra Rau’s “The Fascist Body Beautiful and the Imperial Crisis in 1930s British Writing.”)

My interest is only increased in setting aside all my attention to the VW project and working my way through her enormous mound of words, piece by piece.

 

Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions

Briallen Hopper’s collection of musings was a bit disappointing. I appreciated the well-reasoned takedown of Kate Bolick’s Spinster, and of course the amazing essay about Grace Metalious, Pandora in Blue. But the rest bored me into skimming, and then I tripped over her Moby-Dick essay which was more about the game DICK (apparently a Cards-Against-Humanity-esque game where every answer is from Moby-Dick) and her quest for a sperm donor.

Jillian

Halle Butler’s first book is an interesting read after The New Me. You can see her finding her way, honing her misanthropic chops in this earlier work, a story about two office-mates who are on opposite sides of the cheerfulness spectrum. Megan is the younger, the more surly of the two, about 10 years younger than Jillian, a single mom bursting with misplaced optimism. Megan lives with her boyfriend and likes to fill her purse with beer before heading to parties, so she’s never far away from a cold one.

The trick I didn’t like in The New Me actually works here, the jumping between perspectives; possibly works better here because there is no “I” character, so it’s all 3rd person perspective surfing throughout.

Jillian’s life starts to unravel, but then again so does Megan’s. “Jillian deleted the voicemails and took another two Tylenol T3s with codeine and decided that the courthouse must have had the wrong number, because she really didn’t have the money and wouldn’t have the money for another two weeks, at which time she would call the courthouse herself because she was a responsible person.”

The language made me laugh at times: “She felt like a warty little toad or a troll or a guy who was so visibly lonely that everyone thought he might start beating off or crying just for the feeling of connection he would get from all that wild, concentrated attention.”

Pure poetry at times dipping into the utter boredom of life: “Carrie sat on the couch, staring at the bay windows with her left hand held out absent-mindedly before her. Soon it would be 3:30, soon it would be 4:00, soon it would be 4:30, soon it would be 5:00, then 5:15, then 5:30, then 5:45, 46, 47, 48, 49.”

Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

This is a volume of use for anyone who has actual access to the notebooks themselves in the Berg collection at NYPL (33 notebooks) or the notebooks at University of Sussex (33 other notebooks) or the single notebook at Yale. Sadly the notebooks themselves are not digitized or collected in any accessible form that I can discover, so I’m left in suspense about VW’s notes on Moby-Dick, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight, or Hemingway’s Men Without Women, among hundreds of other books she kept notes for in these notebooks. Luckily this index of sorts is now available online from Dartmouth, in case I need to make my mouth water about what’s out there.

 

A Curtain of Green: And Other Stories

I am not a Eudora Welty fan, but prior to this book I’d read nothing by her, so needed to remedy that (especially after she came so highly regarded by Steven King’s writing memoir). My opinion remains unchanged, and she blends in together with the amorphous group of Southern women writers, one big bag of Flannery/Carson/Eudora that I have trouble keeping apart. I’m a terrible person, I know.

There was some descriptive flair I liked in Why I Live at the P.O. where she’s grabbing everything in sight to take with her, ukulele, thermometer, watermelon rinds, tacks in the wall. I also did like A Memory, perhaps the only first-person story in the bunch, about a girl dreaming beside a lake interrupted by a group of “loud, squirming, ill-assorted people who seemed thrown together only by the most confused accident, and who seemed driven by foolish intent to insult each other, all of which they enjoyed with a hilarity which astonished my heart.”

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

I can’t be bothered to even rage read this piece of garbage masquerading as a book. It’s a gussied up Wikipedia entry from a millennial who is shocked to discover that research on an unknown figure must be done offline, in something called…. libraries?!

If you’re looking for a great example of how today’s Youth are blowhards puffing themselves up to be more than they are, read this book. It’s almost a caricature. O’Meara tries to convince you that she’s an old hat in the horror film genre, that she’s racked up SUCH experience (oh she’s only 25 years old when setting out to write this), she’s so dedicated to the quest that she gets her 18th tattoo of her subject Milicent posed in front of the creature she designed. Thanks to her “full-time job as a genre film producer” (she has 2 credits on IMDB), she’s been able to afford these marks.

I knew I had a stinking pile of trash on my hands when I got to her paragraph summarizing the 1906 earthquake in SF saying that the “roaring arts culture of San Francisco never fully recovered from this blow and the creative torch of the West was ultimately passed down to Los Angeles, a city not on a fault line.” She’s not being funny, she’s actually nervous that she’s summoning an earthquake by writing this.

We get pages and pages of filler explaining who William Randolph Hearst was, and who Julia Morgan was, all ostensibly in service of explaining that Milicent’s father helped supervise the building of San Simeon. Naturally, all this is hidden from the author because she had simply been googling “Milicent Patrick” and assuming that was her name. A friend had to help her hone her search skills and they discovered Milicent Patrick Trent was who they were looking for. “I almost jumped out of my chair. That’s why I was having such a hard time finding her; she must have gotten married and gone by a different name later in life!” Let’s excuse the 25-year-old non-writer’s terrible “almost jumped out of my chair” and concentrate on the rocks-for-brains research skills that held her back before this moment.

Skimming the rest, I see that she inserts herself heavily into the story throughout. She moves to LA to mooch on someone’s couch, bitches about not getting access to Disney’s history department at a party and meets someone there, blah blah blah. Her final act is to drive up to the “San Francisco Bay” because that’s where Milicent’s ashes were scattered after she died in 1998.

Who greenlit this book?