The Way of All Flesh

Is there a better delight than unearthing a book that you’d never heard of but that is considered “one of the summits of human achievement” by Shaw, “one of the time bombs of literature” by V.S. Pritchett, better than “some of the masterpieces of English fiction” by Woolf? (Woolf’s 1916 review of his biography notes that Samuel Butler “is one of those rare spirits among the dead whom we like… as we do the living, so strong is their individuality and so clearly can we make up our minds about their manners and opinions.”) I stumbled onto this book by way of the 1924 Who Would Be Free, where the book made a huge impact on the main character. And lo, it appears to be on a list of the best 100 novels of all time!

Published posthumously in 1903 so as not to offend his family, it’s semi-autobiographical, a tale of a promising young boy thrust into the clergy and eventually estranged from his domineering pastor father. Unbeknownst to him, his aunt has left him a fortune to come to him upon his 28th birthday, and his godfather Overton (the book’s narrator) oversees the funds until then. The writing is a delight, so fresh and modern for having been written in the 1870s. His passage on marriage can’t be left without note:

A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage—but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends.  The rift in friendship which invariably makes its appearance on the marriage of either of the parties to it was fast widening, as it no less invariably does, into the great gulf which is fixed between the married and the unmarried, and I was beginning to leave my protégé to a fate with which I had neither right nor power to meddle.  In fact I had begun to feel him rather a burden; I did not so much mind this when I could be of use, but I grudged it when I could be of none.  He had made his bed and he must lie upon it.  Ernest had felt all this and had seldom come near me till now, one evening late in 1860, he called on me, and with a very woebegone face told me his troubles.

As soon as I found that he no longer liked his wife I forgave him at once, and was as much interested in him as ever.  There is nothing an old bachelor likes better than to find a young married man who wishes he had not got married—especially when the case is such an extreme one that he need not pretend to hope that matters will come all right again, or encourage his young friend to make the best of it.

 

Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

This isn’t the best written biography you’ll ever read, which is why it seems I keep taking it up and discarding it. But I always return because Cynthia Carr’s Wojnarowicz is the most deeply researched by way of interviews with his friends and cohorts.

Of most interest to me in this go-round was the detail surrounding the Rimbaud mask photos. He was visiting JP in Paris in the summer of 1979, a time when French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest had attached Rimbaud’s photo to a photo of a leather-jacketed young man, lifesize photos plastered on walls, phone booths, billboarrds. “Surely David had seen the cheap newsprint Rimbaud posters plastered everywhere in Paris in 1978-79,” Carr conjectures.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s Rimbaud posters in Paris, 1978-79

David had a short-lived minimum wage job in the summer of 1979 for an ad agency that trained him to print photographs and run a photostat machine. This is where he photostated the cover of Illuminations to create the Rimbaud mask, life-sized. From there he put Brian Butterick, John Hall, and JP into the mask and into various NYC-based location shoots. When he got $150 from Soho News to print four of his Rimbaud photos, it was the first payment he got for his art.

Other random factoids: living with Brian Butterick in DUMBO at 59 Hudson Ave., they kept a 3-ring binder that they’d each add an artwork to every day—a poem, drawing, found object, collage.

Who Would Be Free

Marian Spitzer’s 1924 book about a young semi-talented artistic Jewish woman who resolutely rejects marriage in order to live by herself, free, was a joy to inhale this morning. She’s beset by traps on all sides. Her mother schemes to get her to marry an acceptable Jewish man, Chester Adelstein, while Eleanor prefers the more bohemian (and unacceptable Jewish) man, Ted Levine (Jew-on-Jew hatred apparently a thing, German Jews looking down on those from Russia?), who encouraged her to go to art school instead of become a teacher. But she knows she wants to escape her parents, the regimented life, and she fights hard to do so. Although in love with Ted, he goes off to war (WW1) and she knows she’ll never see him again. Sure enough, news of his death comes on Armistice Day. She throws herself back into life again and manages to move out of her parents’ apartment, earn a small living as a graphic designer for the theater, and when she turns 21, comes into money from her Grandmother that allows her to get her own attic studio apartment for $60 a month. Another man enters the fray as soon as she becomes successful, and she nearly becomes trapped by him, too. An ultimatum to marry him right before he sails for Europe that she accepts, then spends a sleepless night worrying about. I cheered as I sat alone in my room of my own, as she comes to the decision to back out of the marriage.

The room became suddenly invested with a new value—the room that summed up, really, all that she had fought and worked for, ever. It was there, alone, that she had come into possession of her soul. And now she was giving it up—leaving it behind—sailing for Europe, marrying. It was funny, now that Steve was gone, Europe didn’t seem quite so alluring. After all, just more places, other cities, with different streets and buildings. That was one of the things about belonging just to yourself. You didn’t have to go anywhere. Or do anything. You had wonderful moments, unspoiled by anything. It occurred to her that whatever moments of absolutely unalloyed beauty and happiness she had ever known, had been in solitude—solitude of body and spirit… The peace that had once been so palpably a part of the room slowly gathered again and eveloped her. She and peace were in that room, and the rest of the world was shut outside.    THE END

Olive Kitteridge

I’m not a fan of reading books after having seen the screen adaptation, but somehow having Frances McDormand’s face loom up from the pages wasn’t all bad, as long as the writing moved along creamily and pulled me under. Plus there are many more stories and layers in the written work than what could be depicted even in an extended miniseries. Sturdy Olive Kitteridge, retired math teacher with a saint for a husband, speaks her mind and has no love lost from the small Maine town’s citizens. Henry has a stroke, hangs on for years in a nursing home. Her son Christopher leaves town with wife #1 for California, only to get divorced and remarry a woman with a few kids of her own before settling in NYC as a podiatrist. Elizabeth Strout has the gift of weaving a tale out of nothing, making you invested in the characters in this small community, eager for more.

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Recommended by the Yale class on The Science of Well-Being, Lyubomirsky helps us hack our way into adjusting the factors we control that influence 40% of what determines happiness (circumstances = 10%, genetic set point = 50%). She starts with a  epigraph from William James: “To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” (Sadly I can’t find a definitive citation, so I think it’s only rumored to be James.)

After leading you through some diagnostic tests to figure out which activity best fits your personality, she explores 12 happiness activities:

  • Express gratitude
  • Cultivate optimism
  • Avoid overthinking & social comparison
  • Practice acts of kindness
  • Nurture social relationships
  • Develop coping strategies
  • Learn to forgive
  • Increase flow experiences
  • Savor life’s joys
  • Commit to your goals
  • Practice religion/spirituality
  • Take care of your body through meditation/exercise/acting happy

For cultivating optimism, she suggests writing about your best possible self; think about your best possible self now and during the next few weeks—imagine yourself in the future after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You’ve worked hard and accomplished all your goals. This is the realization of your life dreams and your best potentials. Write for 20 minutes daily about what this is like, or think about this for 20 minutes then write your conclusions about what you imagine. Why does writing work? “Because writing is highly structured, systematic, and rule-bound, it prompts you to organize, integrate, and analyze your thoughts in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, to do if you were just fantasizing.”

New Grub Street

George Gissing’s classic work exposing the brutal reality of difficulty making a living as a writer in 1880s London, laying out all the facts, the pittance offered for a work that cost the author a year of his life or more. One writer, Reardon, ends up sick and dies nearly penniless, despite his wife having come into an inheritance. Another writer, Biffen, kills himself, although for flimsier reasons—not caring particularly that his book wasn’t a success but more because he can’t marry someone? Then there’s Jasper, the frivolous man who understands how to write the blather that the public wants, and not to burden himself with a wife unless she’s rich. The story of the two cousins, Amy and Marian Yule, comes into this, Jasper first promising to marry Marian but when her inheritance disappears he pulls away, eventually marrying Amy after Reardon dies.

Marian helps her father write his articles, and she sits in the Reading Room musing one foggy day: “A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself, to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.”

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

This is not the type of book you breeze through in an afternoon. Recommended by a meditation class I took a few years ago, I finally got around to reading it in tiny bites each morning, a great way to start the day. Now that I’m through with one pass of the book, I’m going to keep it on my table and start again, a morning burst of wisdom to set the tone for the day.

While I suppose structure is a necessary component of explaining the Buddha’s teachings, I admit that it makes my head spin to try and keep track of all the things: the 7 factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the 5 techniques for getting rid of distracting thoughts, 5 themes of reflection, and on and on. Will I be quizzed on this? Instead, I tried to focus on the underlying concepts and let the numbers float away.

The personal stories inside are the ones that have the most staying power to stick in your brain, like his tales from meditation retreats or other monks’ experiences.

In a Lonely Place

Terrific Los Angeles noir from Dorothy Hughes, a mystery writer my sister recommended. Dix is a grifter, an ex-pilot unleashed from WW2 onto the Santa Monica streets where he inhales the fog while looking around for women to strangle. He calls up an old military buddy who happens to be an LA cop, and ratchets up his own pleasure in committing the crimes that his friend is investigating. The writing is beyond great, “He put out his hand to the mossy fog as if he would capture it, but his hand went through the gauze and he smiled.” Ms. Hughes is now on my must read list whenever I get a hankering for fiction.

Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life

An entertaining and witty memoir from Charleston lawyer and disability activist Harriet Johnson. Born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, she’s never been able to walk or bathe or get dressed without help from the form of paid caregivers. She tells stories that she’s honed over the years as payment in return for countless rides and assistance she’s received. From an early protest against Ronnie Reagan’s appearance on campus (not consenting to having her rooms searched without being present and hanging protest signs from her windows directly behind the podium), more protests at the DNC Chicago in 1996 when she felt endangered by the thousands of butts in her face, visiting Cuba for a conference and feeling like she was treated like a normal person,  and debating philosopher Peter Singer about her right to exist. She’s hilarious, heartwarming, sassy, and fierce. Easy to read and leaves you with a much needed perspective from someone who lived her life in a wheelchair.

The Best American Poetry 2019

I used to abhor anthologies but now I find them perfectly suited to my taste, my mood, my attention span(?). These are the best poems of the year, according to Major Jackson this year’s guest editor, a bold statement that invites raised eyebrows. And  of course leads to all sorts of squabbles in the comments/rating system of the book online, people who are pissed not to see more straight white men represented, as if we haven’t had enough of their droning. My own beef is with the ordering system, listing the poems by author’s last name, alphabetical. As someone with a name at the end of the alphabet, I hate this default ordering system. Why not zetabetical, mix it up a bit?

I loved poems from my continued favorite, Ada Limón (Cannibal Woman), along with David Lehman’s It Could Happen to You (I like the idea of taking the anniversary of an event and exploring what else was happening on that day, oh so long ago).

Ilya Kaminsky’s Last Will and Testament, Amy Gerstler’s haunting Update (what life is like after a death), Chen Chen’s I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party wherein they are advised yet again that he is gay and his boyfriend will be attending and to please be interested in him. Victoria Chang’s Six Obits also great (I’m seeing my trend of loving death as a topic)—for friendships, optimism, affection, clothes, the ocean, and the clock. Margaret Atwood has a delightful Update on Werewolves which allows women to get wild and hairy. Jeffrey McDaniel’s Bio from a Parallel World: “Jeffrey McDaniel runs his hands along the two f’s in his name like elephant tusks and shakes his head like a bucket full of soggy trademarks.” The powerful Head Crack Head Crack from Willie Perdomo. Philip Schultz’s The Women’s March zapped me back in time to 2017 at my own march. And I like the idea of David Wojahn’s Still Life: Stevens’s Wallet on a Key West Hotel Dresser, where he describes the contents of Wallace Stevens’s wallet as he’s at a conference away from his wife.

Waiting for Nothing

Tom Kromer wrote about his life tramping during the Depression, the tricks he used to try and rustle up a free cup of coffee, to get people to give him enough money to flop somewhere warm for the night. He made it out to Santa Rosa by 1931, harvesting grapes and by 1932 was working the fields in Napa. The book was written in 1933 while he was enrolled in the California branch of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Murphys in Calaveras County (north of Angel’s Camp).

One great story in here about a trick he learns from another tramp—to buy a donut, drop it on a corner where women wait for a streetcar, wait for a different group of ladies to arrive, walk up to the donut and stare at it, then scurry away to eat it behind a telephone pole. Women would come up and give money to him after seeing that act. Tales of bums huffing the gas that runs the heating system, gas hounds who soak a handkerchief full of gas and drip it into a glass mixed with water, called “derail.” Bums hunkered down in an abandoned building to sleep in the rain, hustled out by cops. Taking pennies and trying to barter for half loaves of stale bread hoping that the baker would just give you the loaf. Walking into fancy restaurants and loudly asking the manager for a meal so he’d make a big deal of being generous in front of customers. Riding the rails out west where it’s at least warm and hiding money in his bandaged arm. And the mysterious chapter 4—which disappeared from some versions of the book—where a he accepts hospitality from a “fairy” dressed up in women’s clothes who offers him a meal and a warm bed.

Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition, prose introduction

It’s taken me about a week to slog through the 24 page, 30 paragraph, nearly unreadable “prose” introduction Whitman tacked onto the first edition, written after the poems when he was starting to puff and bloat. Crowley calls out Whitman’s “rather bumptious American nationalism” as the new prophecy he begins to promote in that text. Indeed, Walt seems very proud to be an American, continues to marvel at the fact that the President must tip his hat to us instead of vice-versa. What fun to travel back in time when that was the case, before the U.S. experienced its own bloat and gluttony.

Despite the confusing, swollen sentences, there are bits of gold dust to be panned and savored. Walt commands us, “This is what you shall do:… read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”

I did like his phrasing around appreciating immigrants: “To [the American poet] the other continents arrive as contributions.”

Not a huge fan of how he seems to relegate women to their one role of birthing babies, but that’s the patriarchy for you. Since it’s Walt, it’s filled with “goodshaped and wellhung” men, masturbation (onanism), foolish women.

Earlier, he contradicts himself, “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters is simplicity. ” But he’s barely able to contain himself, as shown in the below snippet. Crowley calls it “Whitman’s age-old habit of never saying in three words what might be said in six.” Is this something you’d want to read?

A Poetry Handbook

Another book I’ve been sipping from for weeks, and one I’ll likely keep reading continuously. I picked up at the Beat Museum, on my list to buy after another poet (Hoagland) called Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” so I rose to defend her. This is a helpful book that drills down on technique, inviting students to mimic other writers to try on different styles, to pay attention to SOUND, to the line, whether or not to go for free verse or something more restricted, the role of imagery, tone, voice, the importance of revision.

She recommends consistent writing to allow inspiration to know when to show up. You “promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes or are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Imagery

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world she has taken for subject. If a poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because she has not stood long enough among the flowers—not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

Line length

“The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs—that is, speaking in English—and thus it is the line most free from any special effect.”

Tone

“In order for the tone of the poem to change, the line had to change. Now a line was needed that would sound and feel not like formal speech but like conversation. What was needed was a line which, when read, would feel as spontaneous, as true to the moment, as talk in the street, or talk between friends in one’s own house…. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation.”

 

Bounjour Tristesse

Francoise Sagan’s novella from 1955 is a charming delight, translated from the French by Irene Ash. A 17-year-old woman who enjoys life with her bachelor father (widowed for several years) takes a vacation on the Mediterranean. He brings his latest lover, and the three of them get along fabulously. Then in swoops Anne, a friend of the dead mother, who lures the father into proposing marriage. The daughter plots a way to break them up, accidentally causing Anne’s death and returning them to their normal state of affairs. A delicious snack of a read.

Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

Almost a week of December has slipped away and I’ve only posted one book here, what could I be up to? I’ve been sipping slowly and deliberately at this delicious Whitman concoction for the past few weeks and finally decided to pop it up here, although I don’t think I’m going to ever stop reading it, a few lines a day maybe, briefly considering the effort it would take to memorize some of it, wouldn’t that be divine to be able to summon Uncle Walt’s words at a moment’s notice? So far I’ve only managed to memorize “Washes and razors for foo-foos…. for me, freckles and a bristling beard”—a line that Whitman excised from the “Deathbed” edition of his much-revised poems, which tells you everything you need to know about which version to read (this first one, of course).  This Penguin edition I’m reading has an intro by Malcolm Crowley from 1955 wherein he calls this first edition a “buried masterpiece of American writing” because everyone ignored it before his resurrection I suppose. Walt himself insisted that the 1892 Deathbed edition (a bloated 383 poems instead of the pure 12 included here) was the version he preferred and recommended, but I’m on Crowley’s side with this one.

This version seems more pure, a simple clarity with “no twistified or foggy sentences” as Whitman himself put it. After 1855 he fell under his own spell and thought himself a prophet, puffed up his prose and overedited things into shambles. Crowley calls this period when Whitman was “inflated.”

The only thing I’ve yet to really appreciate is Whitman’s original introduction to the 1855 edition, written after the poems and when he was catching a bit of the puff of himself. It’s 19 pages of blathering that I need to gird myself to go back to, when I’d much rather frolic in the verses themselves. “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”

Sidenote, not from anything I read in this edition but my own convoluted knowledge of strange things: Whitman’s idea for the cover art (Flowery letters of gold overlaid on green) came after he saw his pal Fannie Fern‘s book cover- Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (to whom he owed a bit of money that he never repaid, by the by).