Spectacle

I loved Susan Steinberg’s first novel, Machine, so trooped down to the library to grab this collection of her short stories. The stylistic elements are the same, brutal short punchy sentences and erratic punctuation that pulls you onward, but I didn’t enjoy the stories as much as the novel. Perhaps it was the lack of overlying narrative thread to cling to when the stories seemed to dissolve before your eyes?

Ship of Fools

As I was checking it out at the library, a woman behind me was surprised that I was reading Ship of Fools; she was an older patron clutching a DVD copy of the film adapted from the book itself. “It’s the rare case of the movie being better than the book,” she crowed smugly. And so I got delight reading each page and disputing this specious claim, mentally shaking my fist and saying, “You’re wrong, old lady!”

Katherine Ann Porter’s magnum opus was years in the making, having dashed off a smaller version of it between 1940-1 and finally producing the finished 500 pages in 1962. A cast of characters that no one could love, and yet you enjoy peering at life from their particular porthole, section after section. Germans returning from Mexico to their homeland, an American artist couple squabbling, devious zarzuela dancing crew whose children thieve and throw things overboard, a group of Cuban students, an imprisoned Contessa and the doctor who gives her drugs to sleep. The book is relentless, wave after wave of text coming at you and only broken up into three sections corresponding to getting on the boat, being at sea, and sailing into port. Dazzling writing, and there’s no way the movie could hold a candle to the layers of complexity, nuance, and sting of the book itself.

Machine

Brilliant fiction from Susan Steinberg with brave punctuation, something I never expected myself to say out loud. It’s the story of a girl and her family who summer at the shore, a local girl drowns (“your knockout in her underwear”) from the dock where kids drunkenly horse around, the narrator’s older brother messed up on pills stolen from their mother’s drawer and sitting in strangers’ cars in the parking lot of the grocery store, lots of sleeping around and drinking and taking random pills and feeling like queens of the universe, the threatening shadow of her father with his affair and ultimate divorce. Tight writing punctuated by semicolons and later spaced out like poems then pulled back again more prose-like. Ghosts, machines, stars, killers, liars, saviors, animals. The spacing and styling make the pace push faster on the page, like someone out of breath from running to tell you this story, this story she’s been trying to tell her entire life.

Year of the Monkey

Patti starts the book in Santa Cruz, talking to the sign at the Dream Inn, trying to scrounge up coffee on New Years day and worried about Sandy Pearlman’s condition in the ICU. Each chapter is a month in the year, and the Year of the Monkey hits in February 2016, unleashing mischief onto the world. I’m less enthusiastic about this book than most of Smith’s work, not quite in the mood for her fantastical takes (see: talking to signs, writing things that might be dreams and might be reality), but there’s good stuff in here as well. She helps Sam Shepard with his last work, travels east and west and back to NYC, ends the book with a catalog of those who are dead, now including Sandy and Sam in that count.

The Soundscape

If you spend even a moment doing research into sound, you’ll stumble onto R. Murray Schafer’s groundbreaking book from 1977, and so I came to Schafer from a handful of other sources. How can you not a love a man who describes Muzak/Moozak as schizophonic musical drool? (And a man who invents the term “schizophonia,” the splitting of sound from its origins and where it is heard). While listening to stonemasons in Iran, he realized that in earlier societies sounds were discrete and interrupted but today most sounds are continuous. The montage of constant sounds is jolting in juxtapositions (like of Vietnam war reporting interrupted by Wrigley gum jingle to Chew your cares away). He illustrates the irrationality of electroacoustic juxtapositioning with a few stories.

He takes as earwitnesses those sources I was considering delving into for their reportage of sound—Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Dickens, Woolf, the ancient Greeks, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Whitman, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Proust, the whole gang. Noise has been problematic throughout human history, something I’m constantly forgetting as I grit my teeth and cover my ears to protect from the daily sirens screaming past my window. Schopenhauer (Cheery old Arthur, as I like to call him) describes the cracking of whips to be the worst distraction: “I denounce it as making a peaceful life impossible; it puts an end to all quiet thought… No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought” (from “On Noise” in The Pessimist’s Handbook).

I knew Thomas Carlyle struggled with noise, attempting to build a soundproof writing room in his London house. Schafer mentions that he added his name to a letter also signed by Dickens, Tennyson, and various other London intellectuals complaining of street musicians. “[We] are even made especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads; for, no sooner does it become known to those producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.” (Quoted in a pamphlet/collection of letters circulated in 1864 as Street Music in the Metropolis)

Hilarious quote from 1899 Scientific American article: “The improvement in city conditions by the general adoption of the motorcar can hardly be overestimated. Streets clean, dustless and odourless, with light rubber tired vehicles moving swiftly and noiselessly over the smooth expanse, would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life.” Yet here we are, drowning in traffic sounds.

Schafer created the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s.

Coventry: Essays

Fascinating only in the sense that this was a great example of a fiction writer I admire wholeheartedly whose non-fiction prose shuddered me to sleep. Her lovely writing style is on display here but it simply doesn’t work with her personal tales of family, art or book criticism. I thought surely I would love the first essay, Driving as Metaphor, about the traffic that builds up and clogs her tiny village by the sea, how cars are completely irrational and ruining the world, but I had to force myself to keep turning the page. None of the following essays redeemed her.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Delirious with delight from reading Amy Hempel. I’ve sipped on these slowly, rationing them out to a few a day so I could extend my pleasure. So many good stories in here, I could have dogeared every page. In Tonight is a Favor to Holly, a travel agent goes on a blind date but most of the story is about the two of them bumming around a near-LA beach town. Celia is Back was a direct hit to my solar plexus: two kids enter contests with the help of their father who cautions them to be simple, original and sincere in their answers. The last paragraph, the father’s driving and spots a sign saying “Celia, formerly of Mr. Edward, has rejoined our staff” and he thinks everything will be fine now that Celia’s here. Three Popes Walk Into a Bar is about friendship with a comedian performing in SF. The Man in Bogotá is a story told to a woman threatening to jump from a ledge about a guy in Colombia who was kidnapped and his captors made him quit smoking and exercise to keep him alive, so he was in great shape when released, the best thing that ever happened to him.

Her stories of the Bay Area are divine, description of hearing the fog horns at night and cannon from the Presidio at dawn. Punchy lines like “Mornings, robins robbed the ground. A rooster startled the cat that had been raised indoors. Nothing clever was said.” Descriptions of letter writing: “I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you in the western tradition: Put your cards on the table. This is easier, I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less: there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less careful. We can say everything.”

Sound and the Ancient Senses

Continuing with my investigation of soundscapes through time, this collection of essays touches on various aspects of sound in ancient Greece and Rome, handed down to us through what does survive time, unlike sound itself. Sound leaves behind no trace, no ruin or residue; the ephemerality of sound can represent the impermanence of human existence. The introductory essay by Sarah Nooter and Shane Butler is a great start, and for once it makes sense to go deep on etymology, tracing the historical roots of how we felt about sound through the words that were used. Voice, song, music hugely important (Homer’s opening lines of Iliad, “Sing, divine wrath/ ménin a-ei-de” ). Poetry (then as now, but much more then) was spoken, stories passed down through the ages orally.

Seneca’s Epistles give us a detailed glimpse into the Roman soundscape:

Petrarch, reading Cicero 14 centuries later reminds us that ancient texts can be experienced as soundscapes, voices from the past.

Where sound doesn’t observe its proper boundaries, it disrupts our sense of place sometimes violently, a common problem in urban environments.

Most entertaining essay award goes to Joshua T. Katz’s Gods and Vowels, with a delightful playful tone and topic that refreshed after many pages of a bit dry academic prose. Also enjoyed the acoustic rendering of late Republican Rome by Erika Houlter, Susanne Muth and Sebastian Schwesinger (Sounding out public space) and Pamela Zinn’s Lucretius on sound.

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World

Why do all male nature writers ultimately turn out to be sexist jerks? The list is long— Edward Abbey and Colin Fletcher come immediately to mind although I’m sure there are others, including this latest, Gordon Hempton. At first I was mildly charmed by this kook/crank who obsesses over keeping one square inch of the Hoh Rainforest in northern Washington completely silent. His descriptions of the natural sounds he encounters are dreamy and he passes on a tip that opening your mouth improves your hearing because the auditory canal straightens and your mouth becomes a resonant chamber. But then he sets out on an ambitious round-the-country tour to listen to America’s sounds in his (noisy) 1968 VW van that he never tires of telling you how much people ogle, starting with a leg that he forces his reluctant teenage daughter on. He’s horrified when she deigns to SPEAK at the sacred spot of the one square inch of silence instead of understanding his weird pantomimes where he asks for a bag to put the red stone that serves as a mascot. He pouts when she refuses to wear the stone around her neck, stews when she prefers to listen to her music loudly through headphones and panics when she decides to abandon him once she reaches her maternal grandmother’s house.

I didn’t start to loathe him until he’s deep in the wilderness of Utah at a secret spot for several days with another soundscape enthusiast. In the midst of a pleasant experience, “two female rangers burst into camp  barking questions, pointing fingers, expecting answers… Both women have darting eyes, as if they suspect us of a crime. The bulldog of the two barks out the big question: ‘Why have you come here ten years in a row and stayed without moving on?’… In the expanse of the desert you need days, not minutes, for your senses to adjust and new experiences to come your way. But come your way they will—unless the Rangerettes barge in. I’m still pissed at the Rangerettes….” Ah, yes. Uppity women doing their job are always a grain of irritating sand in the sweaty gym sock of dudes.

In Montana he meets Doug Peacock, the friend of Ed Abbey who he based the main character of Hayduke on. Peacock’s wife hovers in the background, serving coffee as all good little silent women must.

He’s constantly jumping up and recording sound levels of everything, noting the time that jets are passing by overhead during the night, 1AM, 2AM, 3AM, he’s up and monitoring. He takes this instrument everywhere, taking measurements at sports games, the symphony, diners, in elevators.

At a motel front desk, the manager is a “an attractive Eastern European woman (must be her elderly mother looking on from the back room)”—I can’t make this up.

An online reviewer says, “He comes off as a single-issue zealot who alienates park rangers, airline officials and even his own daughter.”

Leonard Woolf, on meeting Gertrude Stein

Thanks to the delicious Virginia Woolf list-serv comes this tidbit, a piece by Leonard Woolf first published in The London Magazine October 1955  as “Coming to London — II”, part of a regular series about London life.

Leonard remembers meeting Gertrude Stein:

One of the things which I have been asked to deal with in this article is my ‘first impressions of the London literary world’. My feelings towards that world are probably also ambivalent. It is sometimes represented as composed of literary personages, major and minor, endlessly talking, eating, and drinking in pubs and Soho restaurants, in rooms and flats and parties. Into that world, if it exists, I have not penetrated, and I can only remember two occasions upon which I felt that I was in the real London literary world, even though not of it. The first was when, latish in life, I was sometimes invited to the Sitwells, a dinner, say, with Osbert Sitwell or a party given by Edith Sitwell to meet Gertrude Stein. This was, of course, not in the least like the imaginary would of the literary personages in Soho, but it was a literary world into which I went as an intruder feeling the inferiority complex of the amateur minnow among the great, confident, professional pike. To be led up to Gertrude Stein sitting on a kind of throne and to be given five minutes’ conversation with her was what an old Edinburgh Writer to the Signet used to call ‘an experience’. When he took me as a boy to see Abbotsford and halted me outside to survey that fantastic monument of literary fame and success, he said: ‘This is an experience which ye’ll do well to remember—O Ay, an experience ye’ll do well to remember.’ Gertrude Stein, I felt, was the same kind of experience.

And this, his other literary London memory, a hilarious story about Virginia and his bumbling at a fancy party:

My only other memory of entering the real London literary world recalls a more trivial and to me discreditable experience than a Sitwell party. Virginia and I accepted an invitation to dine with a well-known novelist whom we liked very much. We expected to dine with her alone or at most another guest, and late, dirty, and dishevelled we dashed from printing in the basement in a taxi to her flat—and found ourselves at a formal dinner of twelve or fourteen distinguished writers all in full evening dress. I suppose it was nervousness which made us fail the entrance examination to literary London. At any rate first, when one of those curious collective silences suddenly fell upon the company, Virginia’s extremely clear voice was heard to say: ‘The Holy Ghost?’ to which the distinguished Catholic writer sitting on her left replied with indignation: ‘I did not say Holy Ghost; I said the whole coast.’ Almost immediately after, thinking that the distinguished lady writer sitting on my left had dropped her white handkerchief on the floor, I leant down, picked it up, and handed it to her, to find, to my horror, that it was the hem of her white petticoat which had protruded below her skirt. As soon as we decently could, we slunk off home, feeling that we had both disgraced ourselves in literary London.

The End of Silence

As part of my quest to inhale all things acoustic/soundscape related, I holed up at the library to read the long article, The End of Silence, in the November issue of the Atlantic. Hugely recommended for anyone interested in the futile quest for quiet.

  • Noise pollution doubles or triples every 30 years, according to a study by the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.
  • Slow TV…”It’s a sailboat that runs 10 hours, and all you hear is the ship breaking water. That’s it. Every now and then you’ll hear bruhhhhh—another ship that passes by. That’s it. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.”
  • Lovely site called mynoise.net “which offers its more than 15,000 daily listeners an encyclopedic compendium of noise-masking tracks that range from “Distant Thunder” to “Laundromat,” a listener request.”
  • Ecuador has a lovely Quiet Park: “For $6,450, not including airfare, you too can take a plane to a car to a motorboat to a canoe to a hiking trail to spend three days with a tour group along Ecuador’s Zabalo River, which was recently named the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park… (The Zabalo River qualified for Wilderness Quiet Park status by having a noise-free interval of at least 15 minutes, during which no man-made sounds were audible.)” (Certified by Quiet Park International)
  • People who seem worth investigating more: Gordon Hempton (acoustic ecologist), Arjun Shankar (acoustic consultant), Arline Bronzaft (NYC’s noise czar who’s theory on why Trump ran for president was to kept planes from flying over Mar a Lago – it worked.), R Murray Schafer (composer, acoustic ecologist), Antonella Radicchi (architect mapping the quiet spaces in cities).

Aug 9 Fog

Did she? Supposedly, 15 years ago, Kathryn Scanlan found a stranger’s diary at an estate auction in a small town in Illinois. The owner of the diary was 86 when she began recording the details of her life. Scanlan played with the sentences that caught her attention and the result is this slim book, categorized as Fiction in my library; should it be poetry? Grouped into sections based on the seasons, it is a moving portrait, spare, sparse, so much conveyed in a simple sentence, so much sickness and death and life and food and squirrels and dogs and jigsaw puzzles. The entry “New neighbors.” conveys everything and nothing.  Quite moving and beautiful. Why the fiction category?!

The Dutch House

Ann Patchett is one of the best novelists working today. And so I gave my day up to the indulgence of reading her latest, a story about a family wherein the mother abandons her children and husband to go help poor people in India, the father remarries a scheming woman who kicks them out of the house when he dies a few years later. Danny, the son, is in high school, his sister Maeve having graduated college already. They discover an educational trust which they proceed to drain with as much expensive education for Danny as possible—Choate, Columbia undergrad, Columbia medical school. Meanwhile Danny just wants to follow in his real estate father’s footsteps, buying up buildings in Harlem whenever he gets the chance. Complicated relationship between the close siblings, a marriage that dissolves, their mother appears after Maeve has a heart attack, things wrap up nicely with a bow when she goes to take care of the dementia-addled stepmother who is still in the house.

The Cow in the Parking Lot

Simply existing in the city taxes my sanity and drives me to the brink of rage at times (cars almost hitting me, scooters and bikes zooming past on the sidewalk at high speeds, people drunkenly yelling at 2am when the bars shut them out). There are some helpful tips in this Zen approach to overcoming anger. The story relayed by the title immediately gave my mind something to think about: you’re enraged if a car zooms in to steal a parking spot you were clearly waiting for, but what would your reaction be if instead of a rude driver it was a cow that walked into the space and settled down without budging? How you choose to react to a situation is everything. I’m trying this out by envisioning all the city jerks as cows, mooing behind the wheel, udderly clueless.

The five hypotheses about anger: It’s a destructive emotion; the first person damaged by your anger is you; you act irrationally when you act out of anger; if you choose to, you can reduce the amount of anger in your life; as you reduce anger in your life you’ll be happier and more effective.

Recognizing the physical differences you feel when you are angry vs when you are happy reminds you to observe the feelings in your everyday life; see how you feel when you’re angry without acting on it. Examine the way that suggestion and expectation affect our realities. Pause and ask yourself “what’s really happening here?”

Anger arises when we have unmet demands, e.g. my demand that the world around me act civilly, not like jerks. Turns out this is a pretty irrational demand. Demanding respect from a stranger is something that is never going to happen, so I’m only doing myself harm from expecting this.

Anger isn’t an effective tool for getting what we want but it taps into the lizard brain of the amygdala, leaving our rational brain lagging behind. The cost of anger is paid primarily by you, then everyone around you.

Three methods of working with yourself once anger arises: tolerant patience (sit with your pain, see that it’s impermanent), insightful patience (figure out why it’s happening, what the person’s unmet demand is), forgiving patience (have compassion for yourself, forgive yourself, thank the person for the opportunity to work on anger, trade places with your enemy).

Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black

Have I already read this before and not added it here? I’m certain that I’ve read Cookie Mueller’s story about 1967 San Francisco, a fantasy wherein her 1826 Page Street apartment shares a courtyard with Janis Joplin, she strolls the streets and casually meets the Manson family (but not Charlie), helps with an LSD capping party, catches a ride with the Grateful Dead to San Quentin for a free concert, meets up with someone worshipping Anton LaVey, etc. Other stories in here about hitchhiking, birthing her son, starring in John Waters’ films (a fellow Baltimore native), accidentally burning down a friend’s house, dying of AIDS.