Manguso specializes in these tiny books. This was by far my favorite of the 3 I’ve read so far, a “short book composed entirely of what [she] hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.”
The snippets appeal to minuscule attention spans like the one I’ve developed that keeps me tossing book after book into the reject pile. Somehow I made it through this unscathed.
A smattering of samples:
- “For a little attention, complain a little. For a lot of attention, stop complaining.”
- “The greatest commitments are to experiences with no known end points: friendship, marriage, parenthood, one’s own life.”
- “Bad art is from no one to no one. “
- “The difference between writers under thirty and writers over forty is that the former, like everyone their age, already know how to act like famous people: people whose job it is to be photographed.”
What do you get when you pair an amazing subject with a mediocre writer? This book. I suppose I should be grateful that Finkel fleshes out the story of Chris Knight, the Maine hermit that lived in the woods, surviving on junk food he foraged from nearby cabins for 28 years. Knight is an excellent subject, someone who took one look at civilization and immediately headed for isolation after he left high school. But the author smarms his way into the story and ruins it—once Knight is out of jail, he tells Finkel not to visit him, but of course Finkel ignores that. Knight admits that he’s not adjusting well and that his plan is to walk out on a winter night and die of hypothermia, so Finkel immediately starts dialing up therapists to get advice on what to do about this 6-month-in-the-future suicide plan. Finkel also dreams up some scheme to buy Knight his own cabin so he won’t have to live with his mom, but abandons it. Unfortunately, all of this spools off at the end, so I’m left with a terrible taste in my mouth after enjoying most of the book.
I guess another early clue that this was not a worthy read was when Finkel drops some Virginia Woolf references in, claiming that she might have had Asperger’s because she “killed herself.” (This in the section where people are trying to categorize what disorder Knight has.)
I did enjoy reading about Knight’s literary preferences, how he wished he had more Edna St. Vincent Millay around (a fellow Mainer), and his comments about Joyce’s Ulysses “What’s the point of it? I suspect it was a bit of a joke by Joyce…. Pseudo-intellectuals love to drop the name Ulysses as their favorite book. I refused to be intellectually bullied into finishing it.” Knight had a disdain for Thoreau (“he had no deep insight into nature”) but Emerson was ok. John Grisham novels were used as toilet paper. And “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac.” Amen, brother.
Best were descriptions of how Knight spent his time in the woods. “Mostly what he did was nothing. He sat on his bucket or in his lawn chair in quiet contemplation… ‘Daydreaming,’ he termed it. ‘Meditation. Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.'”
And this might be my favorite line in the book: “His closest companion may have been a mushroom.” Apparently he watched a shelf mushroom grow from the size of a watch face to a dinner plate over many years, which sounds simply dreamy.
I was pleasantly surprised by how readable this was. Early indications were that it was filled with typos and poorly written, but I found it entertaining and worth reading. It brings moments of guffaws as you relive the horror of the past 18 months, now with color commentary by the major players (Bannon, Spicer, etc.). The book will remind you of things you’d long forgotten, like the utterly disastrous attempt on Day 1 to placate the intelligence community by giving a weird speech at Langley that bragged about his own intelligence (“Trust me, I’m like a smart person”) and inflated the inauguration crowd size along with strange riffs about Iraq (“keep the oil”). It’s extremely gratifying to read the blow-by-blow account of the unraveling, even as we’re still stuck in this nightmare. I didn’t realize that nine of the top law firms turned down the chance to represent Tr*mp in the Russia investigation. Even scarier is the epilogue that Bannon is gearing up for his own 2020 run for the presidency.
My second Dodie Bellamy book was a much less ecstatic experience than reading The Buddhist a few years ago. Maybe the magic has worn off and I’m annoyed by all the insider gossip/name-dropping/self-reverential stuff. Yes, yes, you’re pals with Eileen Myles and knew Kathy Acker, how lovely.
This is a ragtag collection of essays of varying quality. I enjoyed Whistle While You Dixie briefly, her rants against the old adage that whistling women bring no good (“why is whistling a male thing?”) and pointing out the oddity of the sound itself (“Whistling is freakish, like a wheeze that has been unnaturally domesticated.”)
There are parts of other essays that are worthwhile, like Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff wherein she badgers Matias for some jewelry he promised that she could have of Acker’s. In the essay, she mentions Acker responding to a talk Bellamy gave praising Acker and citing a passage that Acker later stated she stole from Juan Goytisolo. Bellamy admits that she was inspired by Acker’s thievery and pumped her novel Letters of Mina Harker full of “anything and everything that crossed my path.” But when the Bay Guardian reviewed the book and quoted a passage, it was a passage she’d ripped off from Gail Scott’s Heroine. Also learned that Acker used to hold her classes at Edinburgh Castle instead of at the Art Institute.
The excruciatingly long essay, In the Shadow of Twitter Towers, closes out the book. Lots of beefs with this one despite us sharing common sentiment about gentrification and tech killing the city. No one calls NEMA a Twitter Tower, for one thing. I did like her characterization of the Google buses: “slugs with dark eyeless windows – giant white slugs of capitalism clogging traffic with their slime.” She apparently lives on Minna St. a block away from the Uber HQ where cab drivers were protesting. “San Francisco won’t stop screeching as if its heart were being ripped out. A bad place doesn’t spring up on its own. Something creates it. Atrocity births ghosts; soulless gentrification herds the desperate into ghettos away from moneyed eyes of tourists… I say hi to a young guy at a bus stop and he turns his head away. I share a table in a cafe with a woman and she stares at her phone the entire meal, never acknowledging my presence. All these clean, clean people – I stare at them trying to crack the mystery of how they do it, walk down the street impeccable as a doll wrapped in plastic.” Bellamy even co-opts some text from Daphne Gottlieb to express her frustration: “Were you in another city, state, place, neighborhood that changed drastically because of a seizure by people with money? What did you do? Where did you go? I was just thinking that I haven’t been evicted (yet), but my culture has. I have been in San Francisco 24 years. San Francisco raised me. I don’t know if I could survive in the wild. Where do I go? What do I do?”
I got whiplash from reading this. Gordon’s tactic of alternating chapters about Mary Wollstonecraft with chapters about Mary Shelley was too much to bear. I couldn’t keep track of which Mary I was reading about, and which baby had just died, and which husband was off philandering and messing things up in general. After sucking it up and suffering all the way through to the end, I can appreciate the twinned structure in two areas—where she does back-to-back chapters of Shelley’s death by drowning against Mary Wollstonecraft’s death in childbirth pushing Mary Shelley into the world; also in the similar mangling that took place posthumously– Godwin forever ruining Wollestonecraft’s reputation by publishing bits she had excised from her own writing and Mary Shelley tightening up Shelley’s posthumous recollections to be acceptable to the greater world.
I’m happy to have learned a bit about both women, and extraneous bits picked up along the way, such as the utter solitude that the Shelleys experienced in Rome at the Baths of Caracalla where Shelley proclaimed “Never was any desolation more sublime and lovely.” I cannot imagine this spot not overrun by tourists, but life in 1819 was much different. Then again, there have been some improvements over the last 200 years, such as in birth control methods. It was appalling to read page after page of devastation and drama brought on by the ladies being yet again pregnant. Also appalling was Godwin’s pecuniary motives in writing to his daughter, always wheedling for money out of Shelley even after Godwin had shunned her for the impropriety of her relationship.
Poems by Alice Jones that seem dashed off on scraps of paper without being agonizingly edited; this could be good, fluid, etc. but instead they come off as thudding duds in love with their own rhyme and word play without wit. A blurb on the back notes their “blithe fluency”, the “blithe” nails it, the carelessness and thoughtlessness bothered me. It seems like a good idea at first, take a word and then hammer home its sound in line after line but somehow it fails. There is a lack of craft in these that reminds me of my own meager bits. Here are two of the least tedious examples.
Taking a word and forcing the rhyme:
A day with no more purpose than any other, perched and looking, the curlew’s calls, a fever waning: waht’s in purview now? After ginger and curcuma, parched and reaching for anything to satisfy a thirst that’s larger than this lake. What do you propose? After the cat-fight, fur flew around the yard for days until someone procured it to line a nest, only the best for her new eggs. The winning cat, now on curfew, bathes on her blue sill with a purr, viewing the courtyard, a few daffodils, also with no purpose, blooming.
Taking a word and referring to it without using it throughout (I’ve noted each use in [brackets]:
your stomach falls [sink] as the rapid transit zooms downhill [sink] going under [sink] the bay for seven minutes and you race along thinking how many feet of rock and mud and bay lie over your head, the weight of water there, unseen. The pot hole [sink] swallowed two lanes of traffic. We’d throw bottle caps into the deep end and they’d flutter as they descended [sink]. Oblivious to time, we dove to retrieve them over and over, until the sun would get low [sink] and our mother would call us home to dinner, then she’d stand there with the dishes she’d wash and wash [sink].
It doesn’t feel like Sandra Allen is using her uncle by exploiting his story. Not really. But kind of?
The author receives her uncle Bob’s manuscript as she’s on the cusp of discovering her own writerly chops, in grad school for writing. At first, she’s horrified by the racist, sexist screed, but she warms up to it and peels away the parts that can be used to tell the story of a boy (Bob) who grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s & 70s to a wealthy father divorced from his mother and who was first placed in a mental hospital at age 16, garnering the treatment we see on display in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – enforced drug treatments, syringes planted into his butt, drooling on himself, roughed up by guards.
In addition to editing Bob’s story, Sandra researches schizophrenia and her family’s reaction to Bob way back when. After many years of being bailed out of various situations by the wealthy dad, Bob’s stepmom eventually buys him some property 3 hours north of the Bay Area where he lives in a trailer then a small house for the rest of his life, on medication, on disability, but also getting checks from his dad (without which, his stepmom says he’d be on the street like all the other homeless schitzos).
If you’re looking for a gossipy, approachable, Page Six version of the lead up to WWI, this is the jackpot. Franz Ferdinand previously only existed for me as a name in a paragraph in a textbook (and later, as the band) until he was fleshed out in more detail here. Boiling with rage about the treatment of his un-royal wife (snubbed), trying desperately to keep Austria out of war with the Serbs, rolling his eyes at the ridiculousness of early 20th century Vienna, Ferdinand was the leader we never got.
Vienna in 1913 has been well documented as the location of many unlikely bedfellows: Freud, Stalin, Lenin (nearby), Trotsky, and Hitler—who was outed as a trust funder by this book, that wily old dictator who by the way was deemed unfit for service by the Austrian army “too weak, incapable of bearing arms.” (Morton also describes him “doodling his way toward destiny” back in Munich as he tries to make a living as an artist.)
I love being reminded that there are historical precedents to the nightmare we’re currently enduring with McDonald Tr*mp—he seems like a reincarnation of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, the inept idiot “who loved to wallow in borrowed glory” and whose ministers tried to keep him in the dark as long as possible about the impending war. His ministers “knew that the Kaiser was much better at attitudinizing gorgeously than at thinking cogently or feeling deeply… [with emotions that] were unsteady, unsure, manipulable.” They knew too well his “impulsiveness, unevenness, hollowness—the thunder of his tongue, the shaking of his knees.” They’d delay transmission of telegrams until he’s gone to bed so that he’d have a good night’s rest. Wilhelm also relied on stupid nicknames for people, like “Wrinkled Gypsy” and “Lanky Theo.”
Fun fact: WW1 was the first war where a telegram opened hostilities. Will WW3 be opened by a tweet?
I’m jealous of the life that Clarence was able to lead. This was written in 2002, when Clarence was still alive at aged 97. He died seven years later, aged 104. Born into a wilderness family in the Adirondacks, his mom insisted on an education, which led to college and his being able to take the forester’s exam, which put him on the path to being a major factor in ensuring the conservation of Adirondack Park in upstate New York. As you’d imagine, he’s full of stories, like that of the somewhat famous hermit in the woods who was his friend, Noah John Rondeau, who used to squirrel away bits of food in the woods, like the time he checked on a loaf of bread he stored in a tree two years earlier that was stashed in a tree and good as new. Noah also was a bit “lazy” according to Clarence, sometimes not chopping firewood but simply taking a long pole and sticking one end into the stove and pushing it through as it burned. Seems like a smart idea to me.
Clarence got his pilot’s license and ended up training people to fly for over sixty years. He was born in the right time, getting a job with the CCC during the depression and then vaulting into being a park ranger when the war was over. Interesting to note the political divisions between the rangers (more police-like and less nature loving) versus the foresters (loved the wilderness, hiking). Clarence tells another great story about clearing trees one winter after a hurricane flattened them, working up a sweat and removing his jacket only to come back and find that the tree he’d put it on had sprung back in the air and the jacket was now 30 feet up, so he cut the tree down. “That was a good jacket. I didn’t want to lose that.”
The book is sometimes repetitious but my major beef was in the mysterious disappearance of any mention of Clarence’s wife and family. We find out when his mom dies, but no mention of Ferne Petty’s demise. She only appears occasionally in the pages, a big contrast to her husband who was taking the world by storm. In later pages she’s mentioned by someone as “hard to get along with” compared to Clarence, which just seems like a mean-spirited one-sided thing to say.
Great collection of photos that I hadn’t seen before of this gem of a city. So strange to see people milling about in the streets like it’s no big deal. The gorgeous buildings both before and after the fire of 1906 are amazing—well beyond what would be required for purely utilitarian use. Saw this on display at Green Arcade, a fabulous bookstore with a curated collection of books about labor, urban issues, and local SF stuff.
I wasn’t going to include this in my recap but a reader insisted that the weird books I consume is one of the unexpected joys he gets when perusing the site (which apparently can get kind of “stuffy” with all the high-falutin’ literature or grim liberal non-fiction), so here you go. I got this repair manual as a way to bolster my knowledge after acquiring a gorgeous 1965 Olympia SM9 typewriter that types like a dream. It covers the basics on what parts are called and what they do, and how to go about troubleshooting. #1 tip is to keep your machine covered so dust doesn’t muck up the innards.
This section below is probably my favorite part of the manual, with frank guidance about how you can use this book to create your very own typewriter repair business. Yes, this was published in 1981.
Mary Oliver’s practical advice to poets is a slim volume packed with tips on getting serious about your writing. First and foremost: commit, show up, do the work. Then: read, imitate other poets. Don’t neglect the ancients who seem stuck in their prosody and rhyme to our modern ears. The sound of the words is an essential element, so think about the aspirates, the liquids, the mutes and hard stops. Alliteration is your friend, along with assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia. Read, appreciate, write.
I also enjoyed this diatribe at the beginning of the book written by some Berkeley library patron. She’s so right! One of the unspoken joys of library books is the commentary that people are compelled to write.
I was reminded of Sharon Olds when I was reading Doris recently, so grabbed this book of poems about her father’s death. Powerfully written, made me wonder if she wrote them in the moment (e.g. The Exact Moment of His Death or The Dead Body) or if she was able to reconstruct the feeling from a distance of hours/days/months. It’s another great collection of poems that will help anyone battling the weight of grief.
Someone once told me that Eleanor Wachtel is *the* best interviewer, so I’ve always been curious about her technique. This collection includes some great interviews with Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantel, Anne Carson, Toni Morrison, Alice Monroe. I can summarize Wachtel’s interview technique as such: research the hell out of your subject and read everything they’ve written then gently probe, saying “Tell me about…” It does make me wonder if I can find some of these interviews online, but I appreciated the quick read.
My interest in Lenny Bruce got a jolt from watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series so I grabbed this autobio that was published in installments in Playboy. Parts are interesting, like his upbringing and running away from home as a teenager to work on a farm and then to the Navy for active duty during WW2. I didn’t realize that his first arrest for obscenity was in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. He also mentions Ann’s 440 Club on Broadway as an early incubator for his talent. The autobiography is a bit rambly, much like his sets were, but peppered with too much of the court transcripts from his various trials. He ends one of his chapters with the great saying: “There’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.”