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.

We Took to the Woods

Another book from a woman in the woods. This one by Louise Dickinson Rich came out in 1942 detailing her life in the Maine woods, cut off from “civilization” when during the freeze-up when the ice was too thin to walk/drive on but otherwise living in various cabins with her husband and small son year-round. Her story about giving birth in the woods was very matter-of-fact, just popping him out easy as pie, wagging a finger at other ladies who complain and pretend to be fragile.

Woods life involves making up lists of groceries needed for the week (during the summer) or for the month (during the winter months), gathering lots of firewood, fishing, mending, tinkering with motors, boating, making their own flies for fishing, baking, hunting, being entertained by the loggers who come in annually and the additional telephone lines that get hung from the trees when they’re there. Berry picking, pie baking, gardening, fending off the deer from the garden. Life without modern amenities once again sounds idyllic yet constantly busy.

I liked her honesty about her own writing quality:

I’ve read a lot of first-rate writing, and I have some critical sense; so I know where I stand. I’ll never be first-rate. I’ll improve with practice, I trust, but I haven’t got what it takes to reach the top… Everything I write, no matter how lousy it turns out to be, is the very best I am capable of at the time. My writing may be third-rate, but at least it’s honest. You can’t be even a third-rate writer without taking your work seriously.

Saint Joan of Arc (Born 6 January 1412, Burned as a Heretic 30 May 1431, Canonised as a Saint 16 May 1920)

This is by far the most readable book on Joan/Jeanne that I’ve found. Why oh why did it take me so long to fall into Vita’s arms? A cursory glance at some comments leads me to comments that question Vita’s scholarship, accusing her of reinterpreting 15th century sources to suit her needs. I disagree—she was candid throughout whenever she was making a digression or assumption based on the dry dusty books she had in front of her. Much more valuable was the expert weaving of the tale into a tasty treat, digestible and understandable. My only real complaint is the usual one for authors of the 19th/20th century– they assume English readers also have a passable knowledge of French, thus she freely quoted large sections in the original French.

Another treat I had was being able to tap into my personal Woolf research library and track down Virginia’s appraisal of the book. Twenty days after having received a copy, VW writes to Vita:

What a time I’ve been thanking you for your book! But my brain is an engine that only runs 10 minutes at a time. Now I’ve just done it, and if you want my opinion, worthless as I feel it considering the lump of putty where there should be a brain, I think its a solid, strong, satisfactory, most reputable and established work; stone laid to stone; squared, cemented, and all weather tight, roofed in and likely to last these many years… Only as there is so little one can know for certain, I wished sometimes you had guessed more freely… Whats interesting is the whole, however, not the parts. I keep speculating—which is what I enjoy most in all books: not themselves: what they make me think. How I wish you’d write another chapter on superstition: what the French peasant at that time believed.  (June 29 1936)

Beyond Black Bear Lake

As previously threatened, I’m reading more of the Woodswoman’s books. In this sequel, Anne takes a more vocal stance on environmental issues, shouting from the rooftop of her cabin about acid rain’s destruction on the woods/lake/world. I remember acid rain as the major bugaboo in the 1980s but it has somehow fallen out of favor for the more gripping Climate Change or Global Warming.

In this book, Anne is up to her old tricks with romance, wooing her doctor but never giving up her independence. She has a nice section about being over marriage and pleased that she doesn’t have kids. She travels around as an ecology consultant, and has become somewhat famous from her Woodswoman book, with fans stalking her at her cabin. Yikes!

In addition to those intrusions, the constant whir of motorboats during the summer seriously bums her out. “I go camping on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. I can’t bear to sit in my cabin and listen to what’s happening.” Then she takes it one step further and builds a second cabin on her land, this one set deep within the woods, hidden away on a second lake. She calls the cabin Thoreau II and enlists the help of friends each summer to cut and shape the logs.

Parts of the book are worth the overall strain. She appreciates nature and silence, something we have less and less of with each passing day.

Devotion (Why I Write)

Not every Patti Smith book can be a wonder. Her latest, Devotion, is actually worth missing completely. It seems to be comprised of three parts: her trip to Paris and pilgrimage to Simone Weil’s grave; the story that she wrote while in Paris; a visit to Camus’ house. This “book” seems to be built on the successful framework of M Train, but lacks any meat on its bones. Avoid.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir

This is a terrible book.

It takes a certain combination of factors to get me to “rage-read” a book and this memoir overflowed with those elements. I really wanted to like it—it’s billed as a tale that weaves surfing in NYC with Moby-Dick. What could go wrong?

Justin is blindingly ignorant of his own privilege, for one thing. He chooses to go to grad school in literature because you get the summers off. His constant braying about being “poor” rings so falsely, but I didn’t start to rage read until he brags about his wealthy friend Kyle Grodin who withdrew a huge stack of money from an ATM and tossed them around like confetti, “like being inside one of those state-lottery globes where it snows money.”

Bragging is—at least— a consistent theme through the book. Attending a Unitarian church service (after whining that you can’t admit to going to church without people looking at you like you’re an alien), he looks around the room at the gray-haired congregation and realizes that the minister’s sermon around Green Day lyrics is probably going over their heads. “It’s a safe bet that I’m the only one in the room with remotely punk rock roots: the only one with multiple tattoos, or who’s seen Fugazi live from the front row of a Wyoming cowboy bar, or who’s skated Burnside solo on a rainy Christmas Eve.”

Remember how he’s poor? Yet when he goes to a donation-based therapist, it’s “a foreign concept for someone who’s spent thousands of dollars in therapy.” Get ready to start feeling really uncomfortable, because this man is a coddled wreck. He goes to this counselor to get advice about a woman who broke up with him 6 months ago. This is where we’re treated (vomit) to a description of this ex-girlfriend, “She was and is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known: sea-green eyes and impossibly long lashes, olive complexion, and aquiline nose and thick dark hair.” Surprise, surprise, she doesn’t want to get back together with him. He goes into shock (I’m not making this up) and somewhat loses his mind: “I thought about calling Nicole [the woman who rejected him], or 911, or the psychic hotline, or every woman in the phone book until someone came to help me.” What the actual fuck? He thinks all women exist solely to talk him out of his funk.

This might be a good time to mention that in the first 30 pages of this mess, he tries to work an “I’m bisexual” vibe in when he visits this dude, Asa. Justin’s dropping Queequeg hints all over the place—they’re hard to miss. “He reaches over and places his hand on my shoulder, squeezes. ‘I’m glad you’re here, man,’ he says. Our eyes meet for a moment, then I glance at the open window, through which I can see his bed and stack of surfboards, and part of me wants to lean back over and kiss him… I realize that I sort of want to spend the night over at Asa’s… Instead of kissing him, I make him promise to take me surfing.” I have no problem with bisexuality, but my god he is such a terrible writer. And the bi-claim goes stale quickly when it’s only women who get reduced to terms of physical appearance from now on, like the “good-looking city women who are out for the weekend” or Lisa Mae who is “totally beautiful.”

I had to take a break mid-way through to recover from eye-roll strain. “Dawn stays out in the ocean for another half hour, while Teagan and I nap and flirt on the beach. It’s late afternoon by the time we make it back to Brooklyn. I shower and put on a T-shirt and jeans and cowboy boots. Before heading out I do a quick double take in the mirror, a little surprised how surfing has transformed my upper body.” He is so in love with himself, and it comes through in every whine and annoying comment.

Remember Nicole? She’s not the only ex-girlfriend in this story. A more recent breakup is Karissa, whose acne is described in disgusting detail when she comes to visit him pre-breakup. But now he’s mooning over her and “Then it hits me—what feels like an epiphany: I want to be with Karissa.” When he calls her in Portland, he finds out that she’s happily dating someone else. “Feeling panicked and desperate, I tell her how I’ve dated some people too, but that I realize now how special what we had was…”

I guess this is as good a place as any to mention that this idiot goes to “men’s meetings” as a way to deal with his “addiction” to relationships. I’ll just let that sit here.

At one of these men’s meetings (try not to giggle imagining these terrible get-togethers), a man mentions that he’s dealing with his ex working in the same office with him. Justin gets a jolt of anxiety listening to his story, thinking “what if Karissa’s new boyfriend has a bigger dick than me?” I think I actually hooted with laughter here.

Throughout this sad tale of a Colorado spoiled brat who moves to NYC and surfs at Rockaway while going to men’s meetings and agonizing over whether to quit his job or not, he tries to weave in more personal details along with the terrible pastiche of Melville trivia. This is how we learn about his grandmother who loved spending time at the beach in California, playing her ukulele. “It’s a little sad that Mariana stayed in Missouri, her creative connection to the ocean relegated to an old-fashioned bathtub…” Even sadder is that she had children that in turn had you, my friend. His uncle got kicked out of Scientology, if that gives you any indication of the type of genius that runs in this family.

Justin dons his professor cap to teach us about “dark romanticism” vs the romance novels that he’s editing for his day job. Adopt a nasally tone as you read this in your head: “As a genre, romance traces back to masters of the novel like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. I have nothing but respect for both writers; I’d read and loved Jane Eyre. And a century later, their brand of spooky romance is back in vogue, and I think it’s sort of cool.” Sort of cool. Right. And let’s just skip over Samuel Richardson and Walter Scott, shall we? Back at work, Justin is editing romance novels and in BIG TROUBLE because he’s also an addict, remember? He’s in a 12-step program dealing with co-dependence and it makes him squirmy to read hot and heavy text all day. “Even worse, there’s a new emphasis on Latina romance, stuff that gets really steamy, and that reminds me, page after agonizing page, of Karissa.” (Page after agonizing page? I feel your pain.) When he brings up this pathetic complaint to his group, his “new Puerto Rican friend Carlos” tells him to wake up: “So you have to edit some romance novels, so what? Is reading a book going to kill you?” Carlos is the only sane person in this memoir. Justin ignores their advice not to quit his job, because, white male privilege.

My favorite part of the book is when Justin gets carjacked in Denver. As he drives to his stepsister’s house, he muses about how much tougher his Brooklyn hood is: “I laugh inwardly at what she considers rough… it has no graffiti tags, rats, broken beer bottles, used condoms, or female junkies shooting smack in broad daylight.” Female junkies? Thanks for clarifying. Anyway, his rental car gets stolen along with his laptop and backpack, and this gives him carte blanche to start whining about PTSD. And when he’s back at the beach in NYC, “I notice my heart punching in my chest when a couple thugs blasting 50 Cent in a lowered Nissan circle around the parking lot.”

He gets some anti-depressants and thinks he’ll end up at Bellevue. “The evening after my Ambien reaction, I call my mother and tell her what happened. Clearly distressed, she asks if I’ve considered hurting myself. [INSERT DRAMATIC PAUSE] I tell her the truth.” Please do us all a favor and off yourself already.

Meanwhile, he’s been offered a job in Portland and cannot get off his ass to move there. After accepting the job, he lags for another few months before moving. During that time, there’s a break-in at the office and computers and monitors are stolen. “I know it’s because the organization is a captainless ship, in chaos without me.” Ow, ow, ow, my eye roll strained again.

He hears some voices (not making this up) that tell him to move to Porland. He asks the voices what to do about Karissa, who lives there. “At this there is laughter; a voice explains that I’m not to worry, that I’ll meet a girl who does yoga and surfs.” OMG this guy.

Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness

I am a sucker for stories about heading off into the woods to live simply, and this was a book that was mentioned in Nomadland as a favorite of the migrating campers. The quality of this collection of nature musings was mediocre, but I’ll probably look up the sequels to continue reading her saga. I’m also a sucker for punishment.

One problem is her attitude throughout. Hiking a multi-day trail alone, she worries about meeting “rough kids on drugs, or worse, a criminal.” She’s also weirdly proud about having a black friend (and another friend with a pet racoon) come stay for a weekend, imagining comments from her neighbors as “A Negro and a tame raccoon! What’s that girl in the log cabin up to now?”

It’s also a little creepy that she married a much older man who was her manager at the hotel she helped at during summers between school. Not surprisingly, they divorce after a few years, prompting Anne’s departure to the wilderness where she builds her log cabin with the help of a few laborers.

On the positive side, it was astonishing to see that even in the early 1970s silence in the woods was disappearing. Anne chronicles the arrival of snowmobiles and actually gets one herself. One local muses that “when I was a boy, I could step outside in winter and hear the silence. Nothing anywhere, just once in awhile a tree cracking or ice making up on the flow. It’s not like that anymore.” Road rage makes an appearance when she visits DC and learns that traffic was so bad that someone went to the car in front of them and shot them. Back on the lake, she’s annoyed by motorboats and tries to reason with her neighbor who speeds dangerously through the lake. She gives up and goes camping during the summer to avoid the “summer people” who destroy the peacefulness of her refuge.

Most useful was her description of how exactly she was living off the grid—extensive use of propane gas, bathing in the lake, drinking from the lake, chopping firewood, using the snowmobile to go into town for supplies. She had an outhouse for the summer and rigged up an indoor portapotty for the winter. Her oven was a metal box that fit over one of the propane stove burners.

Her writing was cringe-worthy at times: “He grinned, patted me on the head, and began wolfing his food. Pitzi was also chomping busily at his bowl in the corner.”

Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville

Charles Olson can ostensibly get away with this flimsy 1947 opinion piece on Melville because he’s a poet. Something wasn’t quite right about the whole thing, and after finishing it, cursory research on Olson reveals that he was a known misogynist, “sexist, chauvinist and macho.” That’s what comes across most jarringly in Olson’s essay, this hatred of women, calling Melville’s marriage a “white marriage” in the same breath as talking about the tragedy of his two sons (“white marriage” = not consummated, e.g. acting as a beard, but if children result is it divine intervention?)

Of more interest is when he can occasionally float above this rotted attitude and stick to the facts, dissecting the precise influence of King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, etc. on Melville. But anyone looking for a thoughtful and considered deep dive on Moby or even Melville’s life should chuck this into the garbage bin where it belongs.

Herman Melville: Representative selections, with introduction, bibliography

Following some threads that I uncovered while reading Moby-Dick, I was led to Willard Thorp’s 1938 book that encompasses snippets from Melville’s work along with a 100+ page introduction by Thorp. I skipped over the pieces of M’s novels since I plan to read them in their entirety and gobbled up the letters, criticism, and poetry.

The reprints of his literary criticism include M’s thoughts on Browne’s Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1847) and a near-love-letter to Hawthorne’s Mosses from an old Manse, fairly oozing with adoration. This last was written on the eve of the two men meeting for the first time, and apparently Hawthorne was reading M as well, saying “I have read Melville’s works with a progressive appreciation of the author. No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does in ‘Redburn,’ and ‘White Jacket’ ‘Mardi’ is a rich book, with depths here and there that compel a man to swim for his life. It is so good that one scarcely pardons the writer for not having brooded long over it, so as to make it a great deal better.” (Hawthorne to Duyckinck, August 1850).

The selections of letters are too sparse for my liking, but the ones that were included were a gem. In his 1861 letter back home to his wife, he talks about meeting President Lincoln in Washington: “A steady stream of two-&-twos wound thro’ the apartments shaking hands with ‘Old Abe’ and immediately passing on. This continued without cessation for an hour & a half. Of course I was one of the shakers. Old Abe is much better looking that [sic] I expected & younger looking. He shook hands like a good fellow—working hard at it like a man sawing wood at so much per cord.”

M’s letters to Hawthorne once they become fast friends are a whirlwind. “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, —why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” (March 1851)

The whole June 1851 letter is amazing, M writing in the heat of battle as he finishes up Moby. Some choice parts:

“In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my “Whale” while it is driving through the press. That is the only way I can finish it now, – I am so pulled hither and thither by circumstances. The calm, the coolness, the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose, – that, I fear, can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar. My dear Sir, a presentiment is on me, – I shall at last be worn out and perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, –it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

“If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won’t believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, –then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, –when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity. ”

“Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

“My development has been all within a few years past. I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which, after being three thousand years a seed and nothing but a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould. So I. Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.”

“P.S. You must not fail to admire my discretion in paying the postage on this letter.”

 

Last Girl Standing

I just spent the afternoon with Trina Robbins. Well, I read her memoir, that is. There are minor annoyances like editing flubs where she repeated four sentences as a mistake in Chapter 9. And she does come across a bit braggy about her inside connection to the hip kids of the 60s and 70s (“I slept with Jim Morrison! and here’s a list of other guys I could have slept with but didn’t because I was married: Bob Dylan…” and Sonny/Cher wanted her to design their clothes) If you can stomach that, then it’s worth the effort. Tales from the trenches of male-dominated underground comix world, designing clothes for the rock gods and goddesses of the time, raising a daughter as a single mother, bopping around NYC, LA, and landing in SF for good. She takes the opportunity to settle some scores, debunking myths/rumors and going after people who have shunned her. I’m glad she was able to churn this out as a record for posterity.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, Jessica Bruder reports on the new migrant white middle-class workforce that treks around the country picking up low wage jobs and seeking spots to camp their rigs. The author follows the tribes for a few years and settles in to tell Linda May’s story, a sixty-something woman battling to survive on less than $500 a month in Social Security benefits, including work as a camp monitor in the spring/summer and then one of the “Amazombies” at the warehouses gearing up for Christmas madness. Amazon warehouses have wall-mounted dispensers of free OTC painkillers for their aging workforce. Not all nomads can get a job in the warehouses- you need at least a high school diploma for some reason.

The chipper stories of elderly workers will break your heart—one woman slipped going up stairs, ending up with stitches and bruises, but gushed her delight that she wasn’t fired and that an HR rep visited her trailer. Lest you think Amazon is doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they get federal tax credits (25-40% of wages) for hiring disadvantaged workers like those on SSI or food stamps. Also laughable is that they call their meetings “stand ups” – gatherings before the shift begins where everyone does exercises while getting productivity goals barked at them by supervisors. “Each item Linda scanned was a pixel in a picture that depressed her.”

Some of the workers seem savvy about the nightmare they’re participating in. One woman, Patti, tells people not to shop at Amazon or Walmart but to buy from a mom and pop store down the street.

Workers gather in free camping spots in the southwest through the winter and share tips, work small jobs, get by. One man showed off his modded Prius where he’d taken out the passenger seat to make a counter that he cooked on and slept on; Prius ideal as a camping vehicle because the power supply lets you keep the heat on without the engine running.

Other things I can’t stop thinking about:

  • The nomads travel over the Mexican border to get cheaper dental work and prescription drugs.
  • States and the nation overall are cracking down on residency requirements, making it seem like you actually need a house/home in order to get license, passport. South Dakota seemed to have the most lax requirements, but that may be changing.
  • BLM land remains the best choice in the west for free camping. How long will that last?

Great taste of the overall tale available in this Wired article. And to follow along with some of the nomads mentioned, Silvianne’s blog and LaVonne’s blog.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

An absolute must-read. I am humbled by my ignorance about this major historical movement that ended right about the time I was getting birthed into the South. Isabel Wilkerson spent over a decade researching this story, interviewing thousands of surviving migrants who made it out of the Jim Crow South to places like LA, Chicago, New York, Oakland. The brilliance of this work is reflected in the careful curation of those thousands of stories into three main threads that she follows: Ida Mae from Mississippi to Chicago in the late 1930s, George Starling from Florida in the 1940s, and Dr. Foster from Louisiana to LA in the 1950s.

Quotes from Frederick Douglass (I hear he’s having a comeback!) in his last public lecture, 1894: “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

There are brutal realities revealed within. And absurdities, like the fact that blacks were arrested in Florida in the 1940s if they were “caught not working,” charged with vagrancy and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane.

Flagrant idiocy and cruelty of the South is evident throughout, but I had to laugh at the initial reaction when blacks started to leave. “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” noted the New Orleans paper. Then they realized that they had no labor to pick their crops. Whoops. “Where shall we get labor to take their places?” Blacks in South Carolina has to apply for a permit to do any work other than agriculture after Reconstruction.

As the writing of the book stretched from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, Wilkerson got to include Obama as well, and he makes a surprise visit as an unknown state senator bopping into Ida Mae’s monthly community meeting in 1996. “Nobody in the room could have imagined that they had just seen the man who would become the first black president of the United States.”

This seems worth quoting in full. From the 1922 white-led Chicago Commission on Race Relations in the aftermath of the 1919 riots:

It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded, and maintained in the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and that they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation.

Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance; and every citizen, regardless of color or racial origin, is in honor and conscience bound to seek and forward its solution.

A Song for Lost Angels

I love reading the Wednesday SF Chronicle for one reason—the column by Kevin Fisher-Paulson. His tales from the outer, outer Excelsior detail being married to his partner Brian, raising two sons whose mothers were addicted to drugs while they were in the womb, navigating life as a gay white dad raising black sons in a weird world; oh and he works at the sheriff’s department while his husband is a professional dancer. He’s a great storyteller in those Wednesday columns, and through them I found out that he had written a book about their first attempt to adopt. In the early 2000’s, they fostered triplets whose mother abandoned them while they were in the ICU after birth; she was a diagnosed schizophrenic who seemed to have no desire to raise the children when they met with her in obligatory visits, but her mother, the triplets’ grandmother, was eager to get paid by the state to care for the babies. The Fisher-Paulsons took amazing care of these fragile creatures for a year while the state and birth grandmother machinated on how to obtain custody. A homophobic social worker started lying about their behavior and eventually the babies were taken away. There is a bittersweet ended in that the couple goes on to successfully adopt their current sons, and news filters back that the triplets were taken from their mother after abuse charges surfaced.

Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

A collection of stories that had the best intentions and enlisted some superstar talent to share thoughts on the class divide. Repurposed content from other places along with stories and essays written purely for the book. My favorites were the reprint of Rebecca Solnit’s Death by Gentrification, an original poem i’m sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think by Danez Smith, Sandra Cisnero’s musings on Chicago, Timothy Egan’s quick summation of how life in Seattle has changed now that the good union jobs are replaced with tech work that brings brogrammers, and Chris Offutt’s Trash Food. The rest did not grab me or were highly skim-able.

The Highsmith books I couldn’t finish

The first book I abandoned was her attempt to set a book in Mexico: A Game for the Living. Pat considered this her worst book, saying, “I had tried to do something different from what I had been doing, but this caused me to leave out certain elements that are vital for me: surprise, speed of action, stretching the reader’s credulity, and above all the intimacy with the murderer himself… The result, after rewriting the book four times in a grueling year of work, was mediocrity…I disobeyed my natural laws in this boring book.”

Also abandoned: Animal-lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. Tales from the perspective of animals are not Highsmith’s forte. She should have stuck to homo sapiens.  She doesn’t hate this book, but she does call it a departure from her usual style. “Thirteen short stories in which animals get the better of their masters or owners, because the latter merit their comeuppance.”

Another failure was The Glass Cell. Pat wrote about this book in her Plotting Suspense Fiction book but I took it for a spin just in case it had some hidden joy. Nope. Dunno if it was the jailhouse setting or the clunky slang dialog but the lines grew tedious after a few pages and I scrapped it.

Further dud: the 1980s collection of short stories Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes. Weird tumorous growths in the cemetery, a strange take on Moby-Dick, lots of aborted story ideas that were gathered up into this failed collection.

And that’s all she wrote.