How To Be Happy

I really liked Eleanor Davis’s You & a Bike & a Road earlier this year so grabbed her first book, which was also a shot of joy in my arm. Unlike the other book, this is more of a meandering across various scenarios and topics, her observations as she makes her way through life. The art is gorgeous, lush, strange, and the stories are weird and wonderful. Before she begins, her first pages sketch out her character saying: “Write a story. A story about yourself. A story about your life. Now, believe it. Now write another story, same subject. A better story. More interesting. Stronger characters. Now, believe that. Just keep writing. You have plenty of time.”

Revolutionary Letters

Diane di Prima’s classic volume of poetry seems….well, dated. Or perhaps I’m just in a bad mood and hating everything I’m reading today. Some of the poems are worth waving around, like Revolutionary Letter #10: These are transitional years and the dues/ will be heavy./ Change is quick but revolution/ will take a while./ America has not even begun as yet. / This continent is seed.

The dues are heavy indeed. Another goodie is #46: And as you learn the magic, learn to believe it/ Don’t be ‘surprised’ when it works, you undercut/ your power.

Finally, I’ll leave you with some closing thoughts, Revolutionary Letter #53:

SAN FRANCISCO NOTE

I think I’ll stay on this
earthquake fault near this
still-active volcano in this
armed fortress facing a
dying ocean &
covered w/ dirt
while the
streets burn up & the
rocks fly & pepper gas
lays us out
cause
that’s where my friends are,
you bastards, not that
you know that that means…

Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie

It’s odd to have expectations that a graphic novel will be of a certain quality. This one unfortunately was of a lower quality than I had hoped. Agatha Christie had a fantastically strange life but the treatment in this book is jarring and uneven. They did a good job leading with her mysterious disappearance in 1926 when she pseudo-faked her death to get back at her husband who was having an affair. But then they tangled Arthur Conan Doyle up in the plot, going to a fortune teller to divine whether she’s alive or not, which catapults us back in time to her childhood, then forward past her divorce and onto other adventures. Her fictional characters, Hercule Poirot and Mrs. Marple, show up to accompany her throughout the book.

Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago

This is the heaviest book I’ve ever lugged home from the library, a whopping 12 pounds. I was tipped off to it after untangling leads from the Rauschenberg hole I fell into, mostly curious about Josef Albers. Indeed, his lecture “Creative Education” was my whole reason for ordering up this back-breaking work (p 142-143).

The 600+ pages are a must-read for any art nerds who want to get their hands on primary source materials about the history of the Bauhaus, from its origins in Weimar through its move to Dessau, to its destruction in Berlin thanks to the Nazis and finally its resurgence in Chicago. There’s a whole section of pre-history docs that show the slow buildup to the movement out of the ashes of the Arts & Crafts school.

Walter Gropius’s recommendation for founding a school of this sort, from 1916:

Whereas in the old days the entire body of man’s products was manufactured exclusively by hand, today only a rapidly disappearing small portion of the world’s goods is produced without the aid of machines. The natural desire to increase the efficiency of labor by introducing mechanical devices is growing continuously. The threatening danger of superficiality, which is growing as a consequence of this, can be opposed by the artist, who holds the responsibility for the formation and further development of form in the world, only by sensibly coming to terms with the most powerful means of modern formal design, the machine of all types, from the simplest to the most complicated, and by pressing it into his service, instead of avoiding it as a result of his failure to recognize the natural course of events. This realization will, of necessity, lead to a close partnership between the businessman and the technician on the one hand, and the artist on the other.

In the entire field of trade and industry there has arisen a demand for beauty of external form as well as for technical and economic perfection. Apparently, material improvement of products does not by itself suffice to achieve victories in international competitions. A thing that is technically excellent in all respects must be impregnated with an intellectual idea—with form—in order to secure preference among the large quantity of products of the same kind. Firms employing manual workers and small traders have, because of their very nature, never lost touch with art entirely; to influence them artistically no longer satisfies modern demands. Today, the entire industry is also confronted with the challenge of applying its mind seriously to artistic problems. The manufacturer must see to it that he adds to the noble qualities of handmade products the advantages of mechanical production… Only then will the original idea of industry—a substitute for handwork by mechanical means—find its complete realization.

A small section of colored plates was at the beginning, including this Herbert Bayer  (“Chromatic into Two Centers”), 1967.

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Audre Lorde’s classic collection of essays is extremely helpful in connecting the dots of why intersectionality is a must for feminists. Black women face a double burden of racism and sexism in this hostile world of capitalist white male supremacy. There is no point in just looking at sexism without also tackling racism.

The essays range from a recap of her trip to Russia in 1976 (where she sums up the endless nattering of heterosexual norms… “I sat with three other African women and we exchanged chitchat for 5 1/2 hours about our respective children, about our ex-old men, all very, very heterocetera”) to an open letter to Mary Daly (calling her to task for ignoring black feminists’ perspective), to detailing how her young son will grow up to be a good man raised by lesbian, interracial parents. She occasionally mentions Patricia Cowan, a black woman auditioning for a play called Hammer in 1977 who was bludgeoned to death by the young black male playwright (James Thomas) at the audition, in front of her 4-year old son (who was also bludgeoned but survived).

My favorite essay was The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action (1980).

Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength.

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…

Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge… I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?

And it is never without fear — of visibility, of the harsh light of scrutiny and perhaps judgment, of pain, of death. But we have lived through all of those already, in silence, except death. And I remind myself all the time now that if I were to have been born mute, or had maintained an oath of silence my whole life long for safety, I would still have suffered, and I would still die. It is very good for establishing perspective.

we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

 

After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography

I will read pretty much anything Chris Kraus writes. This biography of the irrepressible Kathy Acker fills a huge hole by piecing together fragments from the post-punk plagiarist’s life while casually name-dropping the stars of the 70s/80s art and lit scenes of NY/SF/London. Kraus holds shards of Acker’s writing up to the light, framing them in a way that imbues spectral genius meaning, making it almost approachable. Perhaps I’ll give Acker another try now that I’m equipped with her backstory and guideposts to which of her works are easily consumed. Through no fault of her own, Kraus continues her tradition of making me feel dumb as I realize how much I don’t know, jotting down names of writers and artists and pieces and magazines. Weighted down by my own ignorance, it was a treat to have familiar faces bob out of the mist, like Bernadette Mayer and Pat Highsmith who both crossed paths with KA, either in a big way (Mayer) or tangentially (Highsmith through Lil Picard).

The book settles the conflicting opinion of whether Acker was wealthy or not. Yes, then no, then yes again once her grandmother died. With her inheritance, she seemed to purchase apartments in London and NYC at the drop of a hat, but at the end of her life, dying of cancer and refusing chemo, wasting away in Tijuana, she had very little left.

Kraus interviewed scads of Acker’s friends and acquaintances to pull together the overall view. You can sense her raised eyebrow when she got an email reply from Kathy’s first husband who said he was “surprised there’s any interest in the subject. I never see her books in bookstores anymore, and I visit bookstores pretty often.”

One of Acker’s main influences was David Antin, teaching a poetry seminar at UCSD and who, out of fear of having to read too many maudlin undergrad poems, instructed his students to “find someone who’s already written about something better than you could possibly do at this moment in your life, and we’ll consider the work of putting the pieces together like a film.” This layering of “found” text is an integral part of Acker’s work from then on.

David’s wife, Eleanor Antin, was also a huge help, donating her list of 600 friends/acquaintances and Acker copied Eleanor’s strategy of sending something once a month to the list as a deadline and a way to keep top of mind to this influential group. The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula went out in 6 installments to this list from the anonymous Acker, her real identity known only by hearsay. “Then, just as now, rumor and hearsay were far more effective tools for advancing a nascent reputation than plastering one’s unwanted name all over the place.”

Acker lived in a couple of locations in the Haight/Cole Valley: 46 Belvedere St. and 929 Clayton St. She also stayed with friends in Noe Valley and traipsed around to various punk/dyke/dive bars in the city. She produced pamphlets at a  Noe Valley print shop and bookstore called the Empty Elevator Shaft (1970s). When KA came back to SF in 1990, she fell in love with the welcoming community and found a kindred spirit in Avital Ronell (whose Telephone Book I’ve tried to read but may give Crack Wars a try).

A reminder of kinder, gentler times: “Throughout the 1970s, welfare, unemployment insurance, and disability SSI were the de facto grants that funded most of New York’s off-the-grid artistic enterprises.” There was also an abundance of grants. Acker applied for and won a CAPS (Creative Artists Public Service) grant in 1975 to travel to Haiti for research for a book.

Lil Picard, also applying for that CAPS grant at age 76, invited KA to participate in her performance piece, Tasting and Spitting, where the audience was invited to taste then spit wine at Acker. Pat Highsmith introduced Lil to the 10th St. galleries of the 1940s and Lil’s interest shifted from cabaret and hat-making to visual arts. According to Kraus,”Picard became a key member of the NO!art group, a transnational association of artists that included Boris Lurie, Alan Kaprow, Yayoi Kusama, and Jean-Jacques Lebel. The group embraced rebellion and stood against pop art, the celebration of consumerism, art world-market investment, and the amnesiac postwar consciousness that reigned in New York during the 1960s.”

Hilariously, Acker was banned from AOL in the mid 90s “for using obscenity in a chat room” before she moved on to another provider.  “Like many others, Acker was already skeptical about the transformative potential of the internet, an information superhighway already littered with commerce and trash.” Acker tells her friend Cynthia in Seattle that “if it weren’t for teaching and the gym, I might never leave my house! That’s how much I got into my computer…. The world of books is becoming like the world of opera.”  (e.g. obsolete)

  • Acker’s 1983 book Great Expectations, “arguably her best work… the novel she worked on for the longest time, and the shortest of her subsequent books.” (Then Blood and Guts in High School?)
  • Bernadette Mayer’s Memory exhibition in 1972; she also edited 0 to 9 magazine between 1967-69.
  • Spitting Image was a satirical show in the UK that featured “grotesque, scary puppets.”

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

Carole Anderson’s book should be assigned at birth to anyone with white skin. I’m not sure how she manages to pack in so much history into so few pages without bursting with rage herself.

She flips the usual image of black rage on its head, and instead directs us to the bigger issue, that of white people’s incomprehensible anger at seeing others succeed. Starting with America’s “original sin,” as James Madison labelled slavery, she picks apart nearly every administration from Lincoln onward, pinpointing exactly how they worked to reduce the rights of blacks. I was surprised to find that Lincoln was a party to this hatred also, saying “I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black man.”

Post Civil War Reconstruction was a terrible period, Southern white resentment at federal meddling causing inexcusable terror to be brought upon the newly freed. Once Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s VP from Tennessee) assumed the Presidency, all hell broke loose. Johnson said “This is … a country for white men, and by God, as long as I’m President, it shall be a government for white men.” Southern states went about immediately trying to “Reconstruct” life as it had been under slavery, passing the notorious Black Code laws that required annual labor contracts to be signed, and anyone who wasn’t working could be arrested for vagrancy. Blacks couldn’t hold any jobs except laborer or domestic unless they had the written consent of the mayor, and were banned from hunting and fishing. Punishment was by whipping. Here’s an unpleasant surprise: Mississippi delayed their ratification of the 13th Amendment until 2013. Lovely.

Anderson then tackles the Great Migration (read Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing book for more detail) and the fight to get equal education. Next came the Civil Rights movement, which was when racists went underground. Her final chapter is on Obama’s historic presidency, bringing all the racists back out again. He had 4x the number of death threats than George W. Bush.

The book is extensively researched and annotated. I doubt you’ll be able to read it without feeling some rage against the awful society America has inherited.

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life

I really wanted to like this book, but it was like a jackhammer in my brain. She uses the phrase “From a Nordic perspective” no less than 6 times and repeats the same mantra over and over: Finland is better than the U.S. in a lot of ways. It’s the obvious perks/life necessities where those Nordic nations excel: health care, child care, elder care, education, work/life balance.

There were a few things I gained from that “Nordic perspective,” namely that people coming to the U.S. from other developed nations feel a stark contrast, that overwhelming feeling that you are on your own, no one is going to help you out. She details a few examples, like signing up for cable TV and not being able to get the real price out of the salesperson.

It was all part of a way of doing things in the United States that, as I would gradually realize, forced you to be constantly on guard, constantly worried that whatever amount of money you had or earned would never be enough, and constantly anxious about navigating the complex and mysterious fine print thrown at you from every direction by corporations that had somehow managed to evade even the bare minimum of protections for consumers.

There was a confirmation of a sneaking suspicion that I had about how people treat their children in America, “that somehow the children were taking over their parents’ lives.” In this case, she points the blame on how shakily society is set up, that parents need their kids to do well in school so that they have a fair chance to succeed in life. But also, “I was surprised by how frequently I heard even grown adults in the United States say that their parents were their best friends. This level of dependency among older children on their parents was almost unheard of back in Nordic countries.”

Back in Finland (which, didja hear? Is one of the best countries on Earth!), parents don’t pressure their kids and firmly believe that “childhood should be childhood.” I am thankful to have grown up in a time when this was the case. I do not think I would have survived growing up in early 21st century America.

I loved this call-out as well, in response to hear hearing over and over how grateful Americans should be for their freedoms (like at all public events, baseball games, rodeos, speeches, etc.): “It’s almost as if Americans don’t realize that there are many, many other nations in the world where citizens enjoy exactly the same freedoms that Americans do, and where not as much fuss is made about them. Moreover, Americans don’t seem to realize that there are citizens in other parts of the world, like the Nordic regions, who have acquired other kinds of freedoms that Americans lack” (emphasis mine).

The United States today puts people, even people who are doing well, into an intensely stressful logistical nightmare that is exhausting.

Amen.

Juliet Takes a Breath

No, I am decidedly NOT ashamed of reading teen lit. This was on the potential list for the Bluestockings book club and it provided a breath of fresh air.

Juliet is a queer Latina from the Bronx who (somewhat magically) gets a summer internship in PDX with a white feminist who wrote a book that inspired her. Right before leaving for the airport, she comes out to her close-knit Puerto Rican family and her mom is taken aback but eventually they work it out. In Portland, Juliet is disconcerted by all the white hippies, including a rant about their stinkiness that she eventually sees as an earthy smell. Her task for the summer is to take a box of scraps of paper with various women’s names on them and to research each for Harlowe, the author. The library is her source, resulting in this nice section:

Libraries are safe but also exciting. Libraries are where nerds like me go to refuel. They are safe-havens where the polluted noise of the outside world, with all the bullies and bro-dudes and anti-feminist rhetoric, is shut out. Libraries have zero tolerance for bullshit. Their walls protect us and keep up safe from all the bastards that have never read a book for fun.

Juliet is a 19-year-old struggling to figure life out, figure herself out, keep a long-distance relationship going with a girlfriend from school, find a way to be her best self and not bow down to the whiteness of the feminism she was swirling in. As she dives into the library stacks, she learns a ton, including what a banana republic is, and why horrifying it is that there’s a shop named after the concept. “It’s such a tongue-in-cheek fuck-you to countries that have been exploited for their natural resources…”

Of course her menstrual cycle syncs immediately with Harlowe’s in Portland. Surprised by the early period, she’s moaning about cramps and dying for an evil tampon when Harlowe suggests that she can bring her a sacred period ritual kit instead. It’s touches like this throughout the Portland chapters that are hilarious. There’s a struggle that is set up between white Harlowe and her WOC friends, including Juliet. At Harlowe’s Powell’s Books reading, she embarrasses Juliet by singling her out of the crowd and saying she’s a ghetto rat from the Bronx who is ok with Harlowe’s white feminism. Juliet immediately flies to Miami and spends a magical weekend with her cousin before coming back to Portland. This whole plot twist was a bit too much for me, but I guess it was necessary to show how women of color could create a safe space and have a great time without white feminists?

Also learned about Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican nationalist who shot up the House of Representatives in 1954 while demanding Puerto Rican independence.

We Were Witches

This book made me dizzy, sizzled my hands. Preference for fiction is such a personal thing, I usually refrain from loading it into my highly recommended category. But I’ve got to put this book on there, if only because I had to stop reading it several times to 1) savor the goodness,  making it last longer 2) text friends to put it on their reading lists immediately.

It’s a novel, a fictionalized memoir with the real characters of Ariel, as narrator, along with her daughter Mia. Her son shows up years later, but he’s hinted at in the beginning when she’s having a midwife inject her with borrowed sperm who notices her scar from a painful operation she had in rural Italy in 1990 when giving birth to her daughter.

The story follows Ariel, a teenaged single mother who did not finish high school, as she raises Mia with no help from her parents or Mia’s father, while going to college, first at an unnamed school near Petaluma then at Mills College. Magical realism lifts your heart as you pull for this family to make it, for Ariel to become the artist mother that she wants to be, to blossom into a raging feminist, to evolve into a witch. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.

Along the way, she melds the fiercest quotes from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olson, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde. There’s a sprinkling of spells, too. Gore’s own words are powerful, spare, lovingly picked, packed with punch. Major kudos for her including a reading list at the end, curating all the breadcrumbs of books she dropped references to throughout in one easily accessible spot. It’s a modern tale that leaves out all the name-dropping/brand-calling/technology-inserting that mars other similar works, marking them as ineligible for Classic status.

One of my favorite chapters, The Feminist Agenda, quotes Pat Robertson in 1992 saying that the feminist agenda is about “a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Gore notes that aside from wanting to kill her child the rest of the list rang very true, and factored into her goals and reminders for 1992:

Don’t get married, ever.
Practice witchcraft.
Destroy capitalism.

Another great chapter is called White-Lady Feminism 101, which is three words in its entirety, and made me laugh: “Bring a mirror.”

For her senior thesis combining feminist economics and English lit, she links Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Michel Foucault to Marilyn Waring’s economic treatise If Women Counted, wrapping up with: “Like Hester Pryne’s moment in The Scarlet Letter, my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine. I reject this system. I intend to resist this system.”

As she stands in her professor’s office, nursing her daughter, the professor announces that Ariel will have to be a feminist, because “Feminists do what they want.” That seared my scalp, yes yes yes!

In her rules for being 20 years old: “If there are only two options, always choose material poverty over psychic poverty.”

Quoting Adrienne Rich: “To seek visions, to dream dreams, is essential, and it is also essential to try new ways of living, to make room for serious experimentation, to respect the effort even where it fails.”

Greatest risk factors to being accused, tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 15th-17th centuries? Being a woman and being poor. “Add to those risk factors having a job or being sexual or single or outspoken or an unwed mother or unconcerned with cultural beauty norms or mentally ill or a healer—especially a midwife or a counselor—and you were pretty much dead. Dare to help another woman find contraceptives, and you were dead. Have the audacity to be old and grumpy, and you were most certainly dead.” Quoting the 1487 witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

“If we don’t follow society’s rules, we risk losing our freedom [e.g. being locked up]. But if we must follow those rules without question, we’ve already given up our freedom.”

 

A Christmas Carol

It has been a year of Dickens, apparently. This is my 6th Dickens book consumed this year, appropriately timed for the holidays. Gorgeous edition from the Morgan Library which included digital photographs of each page of the manuscript side-by-side with the transcribed text.

Dickens is in top form in this quickly rendered story, churned out in six weeks for the 1843 Christmas season and to help pay the bills that were crowding in. Scrooge is the main attraction, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!… self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Marvelous character! He says if he could get his wish, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” As he tries to withstand the onslaught of Spirits, he claims that anything could upset his senses, such fragile things they are. “A little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”

Robert Rauschenberg

It is perhaps unfair to call Rauschenberg a spoiled/rich-man’s version Bruce Conner, but that’s what I’m left feeling after viewing the extensive retrospective at SFMOMA. A friend said it made him feel melancholy to view the vast production of art over many decades, culminating in Rauschenberg’s purchasing of an island in Florida—the feeling comes from sadness that this type of life no longer seems possible, to stumble into making art as a twenty-something of no means, travel the world, brainstorm with the most creative minds at Black Mountain, to end up almost printing money by being the art world darling.

The book was put together for the MOMA show that is now in SF and offers a chance to get up close and personal with the work in a way that is impossible when you’re elbowing others out of your viewing space. But it cannot possibly convey the magic of the sound sculptures, the burbling of the Mud Muse, the quirky clips from Pelican and Linoleum.

I’m left wanting to know more about Josef Albers time at Black Mountain College because of this statement he made in 1929 back in Germany while working at the Bauhaus:

First we seek contact with material… Instead of pasting it, we will put paper together by sewing, buttoning, riveting, typing, and pinning it; in other words we fasten it in a multitude of ways. We will test the possibilities of its tensile and compression-resistant strength. In doing so, we  do not always create ‘works of art’ but rather experiments; it is not our ambition to fill museums; we are gathering experience.

Two Years Before the Mast

I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading Richard Henry Dana’s classic work chronicling his two years at sea, but Melville tipped me off to it again recently (Dana recites the 39th chapter of Job to keep himself entertained during his watch on board). Dana’s voyage began in 1834 out of Boston on a ship bound for California to collect hides. Once they get to San Diego, Dana is tasked with curing the cattle hides on shore and becomes familiar with the other beach denizens, learning piecemeal Hawaiian and mastering Spanish. He finagles his way onto a different ship when he learns that his original ship was going to stick around the California coast for an extra year or two, and Dana was concerned about missing too much of his “real” life (he took a few year sabbatical from Harvard studies to go oceaning).

It’s an interesting work—priceless descriptions of early California pre-Gold Rush, detailed information about the running of a ship from a worker’s perspective—but nothing nearly as astonishing as Melville’s blend of tale and poetry. I was struck by one possible coincidence/influence—did Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” originate out of Dana’s Indians who were asked to help and shook their heads saying “no quiero” ?? (Chapter XIV)

Dana’s treatment of the natives is as racist and ridiculous as you’d expect. He calls their language “the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.”

I learned that sailors call tea “water bewitched,” which I love. And his use of “holyday” made me realize that this is where “holiday” derives from.

Great quote about California that I wish were still true: “Revolutions are matters of constant occurrence in California. They are got up by men who are at the foot of the ladder and in desperate circumstances…” Also prescient is his comment about the Bay Area (circa 1935): “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Little Fires Everywhere

Everyone is in love with this book, but I can only work up a mild flirtation. There were some sparkling parts, and as I dove in I was sure that I would excitedly gobble it up in one sitting. Instead, it lurched across the entire afternoon, more of a plowing through than a nibbling delightedly.

Most interesting were the characters of Mia, the artist-mom who comes into town with her teenage daughter Pearl in tow, and Izzy – the daughter of the rich family that Pearl falls in love with and who Mia starts to clean/cook for. Izzy sets her own parents’ house on fire and runs away, a scene that lingers through the rest of the smoke-tinged air of the rest of the book. There are subplots aplenty—Pearl becomes instant besties with Moody, the 2nd son of the rich family, but starts boning Trip, the oldest son. Lexi is the oldest daughter, a spoiled popular brat but not too unlikeable. Izzy’s the youngest, the most hated sibling. The mother is a frustrated journalist who gave up her career to raise this family.

Another plot is the abandoned Asian baby—dropped at a firehouse—adopted by rich friends of the main family, but the mother (who works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant) decides she wants her baby back. Her court case fails so she steals it. Blargh, none of this book is memorable nor will stay in the mind for more than a few seasons before sinking into obscurity.

I guess one good thing from the book was getting tipped off to Phillip Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse. “Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself.”

Oliver Twist

Gruel, gruel world! This is Dickens’s second novel, a more gruesome and tattered look at poverty and crime in early 19th century London, peppered with bits of witticism but mostly just grim. There’s even a murder! Poor Nancy gets offed by Sikes when he suspects her of having told people of his crimes. But the main story is the eponymous Oliver Twist, an orphan raised by the state with starvation rations, farmed out to a coffin-maker as an apprentice where he runs away from more ill-treatment. Walking the 70 miles to London, he arrives fairly bedraggled and falls in with the wrong crowd. Artful Dodger, as Jack Dawkins is known, feeds him and takes him to his boss, Fagin the Jew, who leads a ring of petty thieves, stealing pocket handkerchiefs and watches and anything else of resale value. We know Oliver is different, somehow angelic in the middle of all these bad ‘uns. Of course it turns out that his parents were rather well-to-do, and he ends up with a pretty inheritance along with a parcel of happy and kind friends.