Those Who Walk Away

I could read Patricia Highsmith morning, noon, and night and not get enough of her. I was recently reminded of her after reading about Marijane Meaker, supposedly the inspiration/source of Highsmith’s Price of Salt. Worming my way into the mystery section of the local branch, I found this gem and alternated between slurping it down and having to take a break when the suspense notched too high.

The story revolves around Ray, a widower whose wife killed herself only a year or so into the marriage. Ray’s father in law, Ed Coleman, tries to kill him multiple times and Ray never turns him in, following him to Venice in fact to try and explain further why Peggy slit her wrists in the tub in Mallorca. Ray’s an art dealer from a wealthy family and has seemingly been untroubled by any hardships in life until Ed shoots him (grazes his arm) then in Venice tosses him into the canal after supposedly knocking him unconscious (Ray swims to a buoy and is rescued by Luigi).

After the second attempt on his life, Ray decides to lay low, doesn’t go back to his hotel, holes up in various rooms across the city. He attempts to live a second life as someone else, but keeps running into people who knew him as Ray. Eventually Ed comes at him one last time, smashes his head with a rock, but Ray flings him off and leaves Ed immobile on the sidewalk (although not dead). Ed goes underground and tries to draw suspicion of Ray murdering him, but the jig is up when he sees Ray wandering around trying to find him. Enraged, Ed comes after him with a lead pipe in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses. Ray doesn’t press charges, Ed escapes prison, and happily ever after?

Mules and Men

This 1935 publication of African-American folklore is groundbreaking—the first compiled by an African-American and not some derisive white male. Instead, Zora Neale Hurston returns to her hometown in Florida to gather stories—lies, as they’re commonly called—and then pokes around various spots in the South, ending up learning Hoodoo (voodoo to us whites) in New Orleans. The whole trip was funded by Mrs. Osgood Mason of NYC, giving Hurston enough runway to gadabout for a year collecting stories.

Lots of Brer Fox/Rabbit/Dawg/Gator stories, along with tales of John (Negro hero) vs Ole Massa. Hurston settles in and is trusted right away by her old townfolk, invited to listen to some lies and take them down. She follows groups to work at the mill as they lie along the way, or to fishing holes spouting lies, etc. None of the tales jump out as being particularly memorable, but there are some great lines:

“Don’t never worry about work. There’s more work in de world than there is anything else. God made de world and de white folks made work.” This spawns a tale about how blacks ended up working so much—God put down two bundles on the road and the white man raced the black man to see who would get there first; the black man arrived first and claimed the big bundle, leaving the small sack for the white man. In the big bundle was a pick, shovel, hoe, axe, and plow. In the small bundle was a pen and ink. “So ever since then de n— been out in de hot sun, usin’ his tools and de white man been sittin’ up figgering’, ought’s a ought, figger’s a figger; all for de white man, none for de n—.”

A Fine Old Conflict

I can’t stop reading Jessica Mitford. This latest is her recap of years as a Commie, title taken from the anthem, the Internationale, which she misheard as a teenager as “It’s a fine old conflict” instead of “‘Tis the final conflict.” Her writing style continues to be hilarious, but this book definitely felt lopsided and meandering at parts. Perhaps her best work was when she co-authored American Way of Death with her husband, or maybe her editors were much tougher then?

She gives an example of her first successful organization effort, that of other women recovering from childbirth in her DC hospital. When the nurse didn’t answer the bell after ten seconds, all the women agreed to wet their beds. The nurse was faced with nine beds to change and apparently learned to hop to it from this terrible “action.”

Decca escapes DC when she feels jealous of Bob (later her husband)’s attentions to other women. With daughter Dinky in tow, she heads to San Francisco. After a multi-day train trip, she plunks her kid in a hotel and asks the maid to watch her while she heads out for a drink. After she sits down, the hostess explains that an emergency wartime measure by the city forbade any women who were unaccompanied to be at a bar. WHAT?! Eventually she finds an apartment for $40/month in Mrs. Tibbs’s boardinghouse on Haight St. near Ashbury. “In 1943 it was just another run-down district of small shops and working-class homes.” Her work continued at the OPA (Office of Price Administration, a wartime effort to control prices), and the SF branch was housed along with other war agencies in the Furniture Mart at 10th & Market (now the Twitter building). It is here that she later hides from and then punches a photographer from the Examiner looking to get a photo of the blueblooded sister of Hitler’s “Nordic Goddess” who was working for the US government.  (The Mitford family dynamics are complicated, to say the least)

After marrying Bob, they move to Oakland and she continues to be knee-deep in leftist causes, including a jaunt to Mississippi in 1951 to protest the upcoming execution of Willie McGee. Fun fact—she became a US citizen in order to become a member of the Communist Party, because the American branch was only accepting citizens. From 1952-58, passports were arbitrarily withheld or revoked from Americans with Left leanings. “Thus for almost a decade only the true blue, the politically and intellectually untainted, were permitted to travel abroad. I have often wondered if this accounted for the generally low esteem in which American tourists were held by Europeans.” Decca has a great story about her and Bob continuing to press to get passports, eventually getting them, and then receiving word that it was a mistake and they were to hand them over immediately. Instead, they left the country and visited England.

They eventually left the CP after the FBI infiltration wiped out several local chapters and turned it into more of a bureaucratic nightmare. Despite this, her Red roots continued to haunt her, even getting her fired from a terrible job at the SF Chronicle attempting to poach advertisers from competing newspapers. She eventually discovered the freedom of being a writer, and began to churn out articles and books.

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital

I cannot resist books by flaneurs. This is a translation of Hessel’s 1929 book of walking through Weimar-era Berlin, although the longest section is his tour of the city by car. This edition includes an intro essay by Walter Benjamin which has a great quote, “The flaneur memorizes like a child, asserts his wisdom like an old man.”

Sadly much of this was not worth perusing, perhaps due to my lack of connection to Berlin, seen only in fleeting glimpses over a decade ago. My favorite part was the first chapter, The Suspect, wherein Hessel describes the suspicion of everyone he meets when he saunters through their avenues.

“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”

Perhaps this would be worth reading as one flew to Germany. Otherwise, it gets a solid pass from me.

San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

Mostly useful for the amusing perspective the various writers had in 1940 when this was compiled, such as their attitude about the Western Addition:

“Like the backyard of some imposing but superannuated mansion, the Western Addition is cluttered with the discarded furniture of the city’s Gilded Age. It is a curious district whose claim to distinction is its disdain of all pretense. It is not beautiful, and yet San Franciscans refer to it almost affectionately as ‘The Fillmore,’ the name of its busiest thoroughfare, and love it, as Charles Caldwell Dobie says, ‘for its supreme grotesqueness.’ ” Ah yes, those grotesque Victorian houses that dared to be protected from the 1906 fire and straggle into the 20th century. The book calls them “the preposterous old houses built here in the 1870s and 1880s.” Truly hilarious, as these gems are what make the neighborhood so unique in this age of excessive blue glass buildings.

This is a quaint look at SF from the ancient viewpoint of nearly 80 years ago, littered with ignorant statements about the natives and non-white immigrants. They make it seem like the land was just sitting here empty, waiting to be civilized by white man, whereas reading Tending The Wild leads to a more evolved view that the natives created the abundant garden that whites found.

There are a few things that haven’t changed much from 1940, such as the crowd that hangs out by the Main Library: “A ragged senate of unemployed philosophers gathers daily along the ‘wailing wall’ by the south entrance of the San Francisco Public Library…” This of course was the Carnegie library that now houses the Asian Art musuem. The present day site of the main branch was an open park, Marshall Square, where “women air their babies and exercise their dogs, schoolboys play football, and down-and-outers snatch a bit of sun and sleep.” There used to be a cemetary on the spot until 1870.

Interesting to read their list of restaurants where special care is taken to note whether the place has a bar or not. The dreary pre-war days seem to have lulled the writers into a dull sense of boredom, and they bemoan the lost yesteryear of SF: “While the graft investigation scandals of 1906 had forced the toning down of the city’s night life, it was not until the war years [WWI] and the advent of Prohibition that the death knell of San Francisco’s gaiety was sounded… Over old San Francisco, twilight had fallen, from which it never would emerge. San Francisco would be the same city when the era of sobriety came at last to its end, but, like wine in a bottle once opened, then corked and laid away, its flavor would be gone.” Yikes, WPA writers! So maudlin!

It was fun to mark certain landmarks that were mentioned to go back and see what’s there now on the 2017 map, like the Hotel Empire at the corner of Leavenworth and McAllister, now a part of Hastings.

Some things learned:

  • In 1853, a newspaper surveyed the town and found 537 places where liquor was sold. Of those, 125 did not even “keep an onion to modify the traffic.” What a great phrase!
  • Buena Vista “with its deeply shaded nooks smelling always of dampness” was set aside in 1868 as the first plot of the city’s park system.
  • I’ve never heard of this park! Mount Olympus near 17th and Clayton.
  • Alta Plaza was turned into a park by McLaren when he filled a deserted rock quarry with trash, topped it with soil, planted lawns and laid out walks. South side stairway is a reproduction of the grand stairway up to the casino in Monte Carlo.
  • Baker Beach (property of the War Department when this was written) named for the same guy that Baker St, Fort Baker, and the town in Oregon are named after – Edward Dickinson Baker.
  • The authors make a distinction between motion picture houses and “legitimate theaters.”
  • Tule fog is a winter phenomenon, different from the more prevalent white fog.
  • The most important industry in 1937 was printing & publishing, output valued at $40M.
  • How times have changed. In 1940, “employers estimate that half the population of San Francisco consists of union members and their families.”
  • Pedestrians and cyclists used to pay $0.10 toll for the Golden Gate bridge. Also, the authors struggle with the fact that “San Francisco has no single spectacular landmark by which the world may identify it,” not realizing that the GG Bridge was destined to become that landmark.

Vanessa Bell

I wish I’d been able to jet over to London for the exhibition this spring at the Dulwich Picture Gallery of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Instead, I ordered up this gorgeous catalog from the exhibition and enjoyed the photographs, the wallpaper, the furnishings, the pottery and plates, but most of all the paintings. The book has several scholarly essays about Bell’s work, her upbringing, her unconventional life, and—of course— her sister. They include one of Virginia’s poems which might have been her response to Nessa’s gripe that writers don’t really deal in colors. Quite a lovely collection, and I’m sure seeing all the works together would be overwhelming and amazing.

The Nakeds

Well done, Lisa Glatt! A very enjoyable read that weaves strands from various characters into a cohesive tale that just works. A young girl (Hannah) gets hit by a drunk driver (Marty) who flees the scene, necessitating years of a cast on her leg. Most of the story revolves around Hannah and her mother, who divorces her father for cheating on her and then remarries a much younger Arab man, Azeem, who lures her into the nudist lifestyle. Marty quits driving his car and eventually leaves town for Vegas, coming back at the end when his dad dies to help his mother run their restaurants. After many years, Hannah finally gets her cast off and the family goes to Marty’s restaurant to celebrate, the chef’s face wild-eyed when he recognized her as the girl he hit. Perfect pacing and structure, very readable.

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Brilliant collection of Jessica Mitford’s articles along with explanatory notes about her process. This might be one of the most helpful books about writing that I’ve ever read. Her emphasis on picking a subject that you’re completely absorbed in is absolutely right—if you’re not mesmerized by what you’re learning, you’re unlikely to infect others with curiosity from your piece. Being over-prepared for interviews is of the utmost importance, especially when interviewing hostile sources. She also highly recommends dipping into the trade magazines/publications of the industry you’re muckraking—find out what they really say when they think it’s just themselves listening. (This is on obvious display in her wonderful book about the funeral industry). For interviews, you’ll tap into Friendlies and Unfriendlies, but in both cases your questions should slide from kind to cruel. Her suggestions around organization were incredibly helpful, recommending a letter writing technique to distill all the info you’re learning into interesting bits for your friends.

As for the articles themselves, there are some real gems in here—her trip through the South to find out how they’re handling integration, her road trip story that gives the life hack of making person-to-person calls and asking for yourself at the other end so that your family doesn’t have to pay or asking for Minnie S. Ota to let them know that you’re in Minnesota, the amazing takedown of the Famous Writers Correspondence Class (a Utah Congressman read her whole article into the Congressional Record as a warning to the public), her interview with George Jackson at San Quentin, her brief but fraught tenure as a sociology professor at San Jose State where she refused the loyalty oath and fingerprinting.

Her recs on texts about writing:

  • The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (“The last chapter, ‘An Approach to Style,’ is particularly rewarding.”)
  • On Writing Well by Zinsser (looks like I read this 10 years ago and probably am due for a refresher)

Mapping all of Virginia Woolf’s novels

I thought this was super-cool—Londonist mapped all locations mentioned or visited in The Voyage Out (1915), Night and Day (1919), Jacob’s Room (1922), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), Flush (1933), The Years (1937), Between The Acts (1941).

Takeaways they call out:

  • Obviously London is her biggest playground. Picadilly is her most used location, in 8 novels. 7 mention Hampstead, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s, Strand. 6 novels mention Regent’s Park, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall.
  • Bloomsbury’s only mentioned in 4 novels.
  • She does roam beyond London, 8 novels mentioning Oxford, 5 mentioning Cambridge.
  • Internationally, every continent except Antarctica gets mentioned at least twice, including 2 North Pole namedrops. 8 novels mention Paris, Rome, Venice, 5 novels include Constantinople, 4 mention Athens, 3 mention New York, Berlin, Madrid.

 

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy’s memoir started out strong but quickly went down the toilet. She sets up the scene well, we’re primed to hear a tale of disaster when we learn that she lost her baby, her spouse, and her house. But she digresses and then puts us on a cliffhanger that honestly makes no sense. On a writing assignment in South Africa, she spends a weekend in a national park. “On the day that I first saw a pride of lions flopping on their backs in the dry yellow grass and licking each other… I made the mistake that would lead to my first real regret… On that morning, I made the first of many mistakes that would stack up on top of one another until they blocked out the sun.” And? What was that mistake? We never find out. My mistake was in reading this all the way through, wondering if she’d ever veer back on track.

She leaves her alcoholic wife when she’s in rehab, has her baby early in Mongolia where it dies, and has to sell their Shelter Island house to pay for Lucy’s rehab. Then she hints at a future happy ending with the doctor who treated her after the early birth, Dr. John. It’s all a big shrug to me, if offered to take it or leave it I would recommend not even touching it.

The Assistants

Cute, implausible beach read of a book if you have a couple hours to kill. It’s every low-paying wage worker’s fantasy—to somehow tap into that shower of gold that lines the executive’s pockets while they bark orders at you and you cut limes for their noon-time drinks.

Tina is the 30-year-old assistant to Robert, head of a media empire who spends lavishly. When his jet is broken, he insists that she buy out first class in the next available flight and get it comped. The agent refuses to comp it and Tina puts the $20k charge on her credit cards, but the next day, the airline apologizes and refunds the money. Only Tina has already submitted the expense report, and along comes the check, which would cover the remainder of her student debt. She holds on to the check for a few weeks and then throws caution to the wind and cashes it.

Turns out Emily, an assistant in the Travel & Expenses department, figures out what Tina’s done, and wants in on it. Soon Tina is covering Emily’s college debt as well, and Emily somehow moves in with her as a non-paying roommate. You know where this is leading. Another woman from accounting wants to cover the debt of a co-worker, and they come streaming in.

It all resolves itself without jail time or even any criminal charges. Everything plays out into a nice non-profit with the help of some software written by another low-paid woman who works at the company. Parts are entertaining and it’s a decent read for anyone looking for some mindless entertainment.

Harriet

A gruesome tale by Elizabeth Jenkins, based on the true story of a developmentally disabled, wealthy 30-year-old woman who is married to an unscrupulous man and then starved to death in his sister-in-law’s home after he takes control of Harriet’s money. The crime unfolds slowly, as Lewis first lives with Harriet for a year. Then she has a baby, and Lewis summons his lover, Alice, to come and supposedly tend to Harriet but truly to be his companion. Then Harriet’s shipped off to the country with the baby, to live with Lewis’s brother Patrick, who’s married to Alice’s sister Elizabeth. There’s also a cousin, Clara, who works for no wages but room and board, and who eventually spills the beans on the foursome after Harriet (and the baby)’s death.

A Tale of Two Cities

This is Dickens’s worst book. There, I said it.

Oh yes, it has some memorable parts, like that epic first sentence—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Dickens is notorious for taking his time warming up in a novel— Pickwick only starts to get good once Sam enters the scene. But 150 pages in, and six weeks of forcing myself to try to read this, I’m throwing in the towel.

I think the main problem is that he strays from what he does best—describing the working conditions of London’s underclass—to churn out this historical novel about the French Revolution. Because he’s so far afield, he doesn’t have the right grip to be able to toss out the bevy of jolly and ridiculous characters that usually propel a story forward. I felt no connection to any of these stilted names, making it harder and harder to pick up the book and push through a chapter.

Please tell me this is not inflicted on schoolchildren still.

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing Russia

Occasionally reading mediocre books can give a writer both hope and despair—hope that she’ll eventually get off her tuchus to do such a thing and despair that if she does it, she’ll churn out a similar piece of tepid prose. Lisa Dickey’s book was not very good, but I read it anyway. I will not get those two hours back, but I persevered. We can’t always read top quality books in life.

Basic premise is that she lucks into a cross-country journey with a photojournalist back in 1995, decides to re-do the trip 10 years later with a different photographer then another 10 years later by herself. As I read increasingly boring travel tales which any woman-on-the-street could provide, I wondered if her choice to do it alone stemmed from not being able to find someone to do it with her. (See also: her original photographer opting out of the 2005 trip)

We’re regaled with the mind-numbing details of travel horror I’ve come to expect from lending half an ear to older relatives back from cruises where the fitness center didn’t have a band-aid. Dickey spares no detail, telling us about waking up in a wet bed from her own diarrhea, being subjected to a smoking room in a non-smoking hotel, her laptop dying then miraculously resurrecting itself, leaving her backpack behind to find nothing stolen only later to have a thief steal her wallet, yawn I am falling asleep here trying to remember all the dry dusty bits.

Mostly she pounces on unsuspecting Russians without prior notice, foisting herself on them, reluctant to tell them she’s gay and married to a woman despite these people reasonably wanting updates of her life since they’ve seen her last. Occasionally there’s some interesting fodder, like the fact that everyone uniformly adores Putin (“everyone loves the winning team”) and thinks the U.S. is meddling in Ukraine.

The book title comes from a phrase she hears several times in her trip, that Americans think Russians are backwards, with bears running in the streets.

No mediocre book would be without a glaring editorial error, which happens on page 165, “David and popped into a store…”

The American Way of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford’s reissued and revised book on the funeral industry is an unexpected treat—witty, humorous, light banter that then swings a 50-ton hammer at you with the unflattering truths about the greed of morticians and their ilk. This book is another strand I’m following during my curious unearthing of topics on death after reading Ann Neumann’s The Good Death recently. Originally published in 1963, this revised edition came out shortly after Mitford’s death in 1998, chockablock full of updates that the industry had undergone during the intervening years, and including many delightful anecdotes of the reactions the book got. Mitford fearlessly joined panels of funeral directors who called her all sorts of names and testified in court battles. It was also discovered that Robert Kennedy had read her book and thoughts of it swirled round his head after JFK’s Dallas assassination, but ultimately the funeral parlor cashed in a pretty penny.

Mostly, the industry preyed/preys on the fact that people aren’t used to making this type of purchase. It’s uncommon, and not something you do a lot of research about, unlike the other big purchases you make of a car or a home. There’s no Kelly Blue Book on funerals. Plus the grief factor and the guilt factor turn into some serious profits. Embalming helps them jack up the cost, and families used to have no say in whether or not their deceased got injected with formaldehyde. Laws have changed.

Funeral directors like to misquote the law to boost their profits, insisting that a casket is required by law even for a cremation. Mitford called up a handful of funeral parlors to ask this question and was told with such conviction that it was illegal that she began to doubt the evidence before her eyes in the state code. So, the FTC ruled in 1984 that morticians are no longer allowed to lie to the public. “Anecdotal reports indicate that honesty is still an elusive quality in the trade.”

The best, most natural, most earth-friendly way to go is either burial in a shroud without casket, or cremation. The industry still has a long way to go in not bilking every last cent out of grieving families, though.

(Unrelated: just realized that Jessica is the sister of the great Nancy Mitford. Those sisters know how to write!!)