Ottoline: The life of Lady Ottoline Morrell

A tremendously boring biography about a tremendously interesting woman, Ottoline. Her life intersected with so many of the greats we revere today, and yet the story of her life as told by Darroch falls flat on its face. Friends with Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Bertrand Russell (lovers, actually), Katherine Mansfield, Murray-Middleton, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, the Asquiths, Henry Lamb (another lover), etc. etc. etc. She met Gertrude Stein in Paris, and was immortalized in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a “marvellous female version of Disraeli.”

Probably the most interesting bits gleaned from this dull tome were two pieces of unusual language: the idea that someone can be melancholy (and not melancholic), and the concept of someone getting their portrait painted as “sitting to” a painter, not “sitting for.”

I’m always hungry for gossip that denigrates Middleton-Murry, Katherine Mansfield’s unworthy husband, and this letter from Bertrand Russell to Ottoline does nicely: “I thought Murry beastly and the whole atmosphere dead and putrefying.” Also a comment dropped by Ott in her memoirs about KM calling him “a little mole hung out on a string to dry.”

Ottoline’s first impression of Katherine Mansfield wasn’t the best, KM having been embarrassed into silence by DH Lawrence’s violent political speech, she “sat very silent and Buddha-like on the big sofa—she might almost have held in her hand a lotus-flower.”

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveler’s Tale from Mexico

A delightful travel book about Mexico by Sybille Bedford, soaking up as much of the New World post WWII before heading back to Europe. (At one point she considers sailing on a boat from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux that would allow her to take two small donkeys back to Normandy.)  Descriptions waft out of her book with the scent of freshly made tortillas, tinkling with the clink of ice in a glass of rum or tequila, sparkling with the frank heat of a noontime sun.

I sipped from this book carefully, not gobbling at the usual speed and keeping a separate tally of all the intriguing words she packed in. This week I’ve become a bit of a word connoisseur, sampling the sound of each as I strain toward writing my own. These are not words you find in today’s sparse and modern tomes:

expostulate excrement sybaritic admixture rend desolation volcanic haphazard proportion graft expulsion promulgation appurtenance charlatan ossify miasma exegesis exorbitant inviolate somnolent torpor quiescence dour chafe sempiternal empyrean satraps gauleiters inured

Sybille and her friend “E.” (Esther Murphy Arthur) leave New York’s Grand Central and head south by train. I knew I was in for a treat early on when I encountered her acerbic retelling of the various availability of alcohol per state.

E. was told to wait until we have crossed the state line.  It is all very confusion. Oklahoma and Kansas are bone dry, that is everybody drinks like fishes. In Vermont you are rationed to two bottles of hard liquor a month. In Pennsylvania you cannot get a drink on Sunday; in Texas you may only drink at home, in Georgia only beer and light wines, in Ohio what and as much as you like but you have to buy it at the Post Office. Arizona and Nevada are wet but it is a criminal offence to give a drink to a Red Indian. In New York you cannot publicly consume anything on a Sunday morning but may have it sent up to an hotel bedroom. And nowhere, anywhere, in the Union can you buy, coax or order a drop on Election Day.

Her descriptions of the country are pure poetry, lyrical, flowing. Laziness overcomes me and instead of transcribing, I take the easy way out by screengrabbing Amazon’s copy (“Creole ladies went to Mass covered in diamonds leading pet leopards” and “women in crinolines sat at banquet among the flies at Vera Cruz” are you kidding me, perfect!):

The pair spend weeks in Mexico City, (just “Mexico” to locals), exploring the streets and jumping on buses for gut-wrenching lurching toward other towns up and down mountains. Drinking is somewhat of a problem as bars aren’t open to women except certain hotel bars. But this isn’t so terrible, “this is not a good country to drink in: in daytime one does not want it at all, and at night one wants it too much.” The wines are horrible, but Sybille learns to swallow it “with a liberal admixture of water, like a man.”

Of the sights, there is much to see. “Everywhere. No need, no point, to plan and rush, only to stand, to stroll and stare; to connect. Not great beauty, not the perfect proportions, the slow-grown, well-grown balance, not the long-tended masterpiece of thought and form, the tight French gem, but the haphazard, the absurd, the overblown, the savage, the gruesome. The fantastic detail and the frightening vista; the exotically elegant; the vast, the far, the legendarily ancient.”

She buys a manual of conversation for Indian phrases. In a section headed Useful Words and Phrases, page one has:
‘Are you interested in death, Count?’
‘Yes, very much, your Excellency.’

E.’s cousin Anthony joins them midway through the trip, making friends with all the Mexican gentlemen and paving the way for an easier journey. Anthony is on vacation from his job in Baltimore and after a few weeks of fun, lolling about Don Otavio’s well-managed house reading and drinking and talking and exploring, Sybille broaches the fact that he must return in three weeks. “How can you bear it? Cellophane, television, the deep-freeze unit, getting and spending. The whole old bag of nothing.”

A book like this makes me want to travel again. Maybe.

 

Don Quixote by Kathy Acker

I’ve been a long time coming to Kathy Acker, finally pushed into reading this by Sarah Schulman’s recommendation. Acker re-imagines herself as Don Quixote, the modern version, galloping into the rotting husk of NYC, watching junkies use razors instead of needles, her sidekick St. Simeon turning into a dog, seeing filth everywhere and being kicked pummeled punched flogged.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Dream state stream of consciousness interspersed with clever poems or recreation of the dialog at the end of the perfect film, The Women, zipping to St. Petersburg and back, discussion of politics Regan Nixon, Nazis, Oedipus, Waiting for Godot, sex, madness, drugs, rats, rotting. Surreal.

Selected Stories by Frances Bellerby

A delightful collection of somewhat creepy stories that linger around death, children, etc. The first story is a delicate exploration of how a father breaks the news of his young daughter’s death to his slightly older son. Another has a pair of siblings explore the roof of their new house and leave a surprise at the summit for someone else to discover when they’re gone, which shocks the sister, not able to comprehend where they will have gone, before they slide down to check on their sick mother. A father gives up his young daughter after the death of his wife, tries to forget about her, but Fate drives her to his door, he almost scares her away but realizes who she is, shows her a picture but all she can see is the gigantic spider scurrying away. Great writing, but some of the pieces aren’t as top notch as the others.

Henry Darger

Life is sometimes too perfect. I’d requested two Darger books from various libraries that arrived just in time for the furor over Confederate statues to reach fever peak and was delighted to find several depictions of statues strangling children just as they are strangling us right now. (See images below)

The first book was Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings from 2000, which includes Bonesteel’s great essay “Henry Darger: Author, Artist, Sorry Saint, Protector of Children.” This recounts Darger’s childhood (sent to an asylum for feeble-minded children at age 12, there when one of the inmates tried to castrate himself and died 4 days later) through decades in Chicago working as a dishwasher and making art and writing and going to Mass 3 or 4 times a day. The rest of the book includes selections from Darger’s writing: Realms of the Unreal (“the reason the story runs so much with little girls as the actual heroes in this warfare is because, under most circumstances, women are braver than men”), The History of My Life, Book of Weather Reports, and his diary. In this book Bonesteel informs us that Darger pronounced his name with a hard G like Berger.

The second book was Henry Darger, edited by Klaus Biesenbach, including another essay by Bonesteel. This was almost 6 pounds of glossy reproductions of Darger’s work, including several pages of his History of My Life, which fittingly ended with “There is one really important thing I must write which I have forgotten.” Definitely a must-read for anyone who is even slightly interested in Darger.

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back

Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book is a bit uneven but there are worthwhile bits tucked inside. It shines at the beginning, providing a glance back in time to what healthcare was like in the early 20th century and its evolution since into big business. Things veer off course in a bit of a preachy manner with excoriating screeds against hospitals, doctors, pharma. The book levels back to usefulness when she lays out her suggestions for how to improve things, giving specific advice for individuals. Besides always asking for things to be done “in-network” and asking how much tests/etc. cost, I found her ideas around hospital bills insightful:

  1. Make it clear you didn’t request a private room (they have a glut of these) otherwise you may be hit up with a “private room supplement” charge.
  2. Admitting docs will include a page about willingness to accept financial responsibility. Write “as long as the providers are in my insurance network” before you sign.
  3. Be clear about your status- are you under observation or being admitted? Observation will cost you much much more.
  4. If you’re up for it, ask to know the identity of everyone who appears at your bedside, what they’re doing, who sent them. Or ask a friend who’s with you if you’re too ill. Write it down. Drive-by doctoring will ring up the bills big time, and you can always say no. You might be billed for a physical therapist to help you out of bed when the nurse did it. Dermatologist there to examine a rash that has nothing to do with your illness? “Tell them all to go away. Everything done to you or for you in the hospital will be billed at exorbitant rates.”
  5. Hospital may try to send you home with equipment you don’t need, like slings, knee braces, wheelchair. Decline and buy them much cheaper elsewhere.
  6. When bills arrive, request complete itemization. You should also negotiate. “Prices are so inflated that even low-level clerks are authorized to approve major discounts.” Check the bill against your notes. Protest the bill in writing to create a record. Argue against surprise out of network fees.

Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market:

1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive treatment.
2. A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure.
3. Amenities and marketing matter more than good care.
4. As technologies age, prices go up rather than fall.
5. There is no free choice. Patients are stuck. And they’re stuck buying American.
6. More competition vying for business doesn’t mean better prices. It can drive prices up, not down.
7. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more.
8. There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test. And the uninsured pay the highest prices of all.
9. There are no standards for billing. There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything.
10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It

I know, I know. Dull business books have no place on my read pile rubbing shoulders with amazing literature and non-fiction gems. But this book kept coming up in conversation after conversation I’ve been having with business owners and I finally held my nose for the plunge. It didn’t stink, filled with rather straightforward and readable talk about what it takes to build a business that doesn’t consume you but that you can replicate and eventually sell. The book garnered one of the highest star ratings that I’ve ever seen for a hugely reviewed book (1658 reviews on AMZN). The “e” in e-myth is for entrepreneur, not for “electronic”, thank god.

I suppose having my own business also helped retain my interest, if you can call my consulting shop of one a business. The idea of managing folks gives me the cold sweats, so I’ve never really considered what it would take to build my business into, say, an agency. This book allows you to dream a little in that direction.

Once you make your first hire, you can celebrate, offload tasks you hate: “you suddenly understand what it means to be in business in a way you never understood before: I don’t have to do that anymore!”

The first thing he has you do is to define your Primary Aim:

  • What do I wish my life to look like?
  • How do I wish my life to be on a day-to-day basis?
  • What would I like to be able to say I truly know in my life, about my life?
  • How would I like to be with other people in my life—family, friends, biz associates, customers, employees
  • How would I like people to think about me?
  • What would I like to be doing 2 years/10 years/20 years from now?
  • What specifically do I want to learn during my life: spiritually, physically, financially, technically, intellectually, about relationships
  • How much $$ will I need to do the things I want to do and by when?

And I get it—putting things in writing makes you more able to commit to them.

There are some wacky ideas and various suggestions that I disagree with, such as the tired idea that people respond to salespeople touching them. He includes a letter to the fictional woman that he’s helping with her pie shop and creepily ends it by saying “And remember, my heart will be with you wherever you are.” Then an epilogue, then an afterword. I’m sure Gerber would invent an after-afterword if he could.

Verdict: possibly useful for anyone starting a non-consulting business.

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer’s book about living in one of the surviving hutongs that was slated for destruction in the tidal wave of modernization that the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought. This was a great read, well written and packed full of detail about the crumbling neighborhood that was a community destined to be exploded to the winds. Once evicted by The Hand, they could fight for compensation that would barely get them a part of one of the new (and not yet constructed) apartments that were in suburbs far from their current location. It was a great reminder that this type of destruction of the past is happening everywhere, and nowhere as rapidly as in China.

Meyer comes to China with the Peace Corps and stays on to teach English at a local school in his hutong, Dazhalan. He is known as Little Plumblossom and accepted into the community, and his book provides us with a stunning first-hand experience of the destruction of this part of town. Drawings go up around town to depict the future avenue, only the people aren’t Chinese but white-skinned. “The only depicted shop signs were for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.” This new plan completely disregarded the principles of feng shui that once governed the construction of imperial cities in China, where a town’s central axis should be unimpeded in the south and shielded in the north.

He used to play hockey with other locals on a lake near the Drum and Bell towers and there was an old man who had been sharpening skates since 1937, even during the 8 winters of Japanese occupation. “He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.”

Construction never stops, even in the case of discovering 2,000 year old artifacts. The Cultural Relics Bureau was given a week to grab what they could from the discovered site before the land was covered with new cement foundations.

One explanation for the lack of interest in historic sites comes from architect Zhang who noted that Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years. Old buildings were seen as reminders of feudalism.

This section reminds us that the whole world was destroying its old buildings:

The assault continued worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”

Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s nineteenth-century design. Thousands of New York building were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. “Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures.” The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old Cit like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact.

Haussmann’s Paris also gets discussed. But is preservation the right answer? Meyer mentions seeing the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, Laos threatened not by bulldozers, but tourists. The historic structures were converted to guesthouses, increasing sewage, traffic, and making the city a cultural Disneyland.

This is crazy to think about: “At a time when New York was building skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Beijing still delivered water to homes by wheelbarrow.”

 

You & a Bike & a Road

Eleanor Davis sketches a beautiful story of her solo bike touring as she bikes from Tuscon, AZ to Athens, GA. (She ultimately gives up in Mississippi, but the journey to get there takes 57 days). She sings and soaks in the gorgeousness of farmland, icing her swollen knees with frozen green beans at a coffee shop inside a grocery store because she doesn’t like peas. She meets lovely people along the way that provide shelter or guidance or acupuncture or vegetable soup. Through it all we know that she’s struggling with depression, that she’s got to do this trip now or wait 20 years because she and her husband want to have children. She camps along the way when she can, resenting shelling out $60 for motels when conditions require it, and when concerned people ask if she’s doing it alone she assures them her husband is with her, imagining a knife she calls her husband to do the trick if anyone were to try anything funny. The border patrol in AZ, NM, and Texas are all omnipresent, she’s shaken by the image of a man walking slowly in the canal, agents on either side waiting to catch him, but she does score some water from them occasionally as she’s biking. Delicious treat for the eyes and brain.

The Life of Poetry

Muriel Rukeyser makes the case for poetry, the transfer of energy between writer and reader. It’s a book that makes you pause, linger, think, and is unable to be slurped up quickly like so many others I’ve devoured lately. Originally pub’d in 1949, thankfully reissued for a new generation of writers and readers.

I muddled through most of it because she absolutely nails a few things with such clarity that she deserved to be heard in full. The beginning was particularly hard-hitting for me, dealing with the fear of poetry that I think affects most of us. Written almost 70 years ago, her words resonate particularly well in today’s troubled times:

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves. If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun. Everywhere we are told that our human resources are all to be used, that our civilization itself means the uses of everything it has—the inventions, the histories, every scrap of fact. But there is one kind of knowledge—infinitely precious, time-resistant more than monuments, here to be passed between the generations in any way it may be: never to be used. And that is poetry.

Our resistance is a signifier of how afraid we are of poetry. The post-modern search for uniformity leads to mental disease and a fear of poetry. And yet poetry is everywhere, in songs, theater, books. But put a book of poems in someone’s hand and they freeze up, frightened. It’s the least recognized and rewarded art form. Why?

On Writing Well

I read this book ten years ago (here’s my breathless and inept review from 2007) and was reminded of Zinsser’s book after reading Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship. The re-read was coincidental to the launch of my August writing group and provided some guide rails of additional thought.

Most advice about writing circles around the same concepts—be yourself, tell your story, provide interesting detail, avoid platitudes.

Writing about a trip? “Nobody turns so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it—and ‘all’ is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. What made his trip different from everybody else’s? What can he tell us that we don’t already know?” You don’t actually have to travel far to write about a place, just settle into a spot and distill its uniqueness. Another exercise: think about one place that’s important to you, tell us why you want to write it and how you want to write about it. Bonus points if quest or pilgrimage.

This also struck me: “Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

The advice offered by S.J.Perelman also rings out: “[To write humor] takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity. The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good. Even if he isn’t.” You have to jump start your own engine, get started, and do it every day.

Final advice: “Living is the trick. Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer. I’ve used writing to give myself an interesting life and a continuing education. If you write about subjects you think you would enjoy knowing about, your enjoyment will show in what you write. Learning is a tonic.”

Bruce Conner: The Afternoon Interviews

Tape recorded conversations with Bruce Conner from the 1970s until 2000s, speaking to V.Vale who started the punk mag Search & Destroy and got Conner to photograph punk banks at Mabuhay Gardens. The chats are transcribed into meandering bits, always interesting tales. Many rants against the behavior of Timothy Leary and his institution which sidled up to millionaires to solicit funds but never really did much beyond funding Leary and a tight cohort of his friends. Leary also boorishly blared into Mexican villages demanding to know where the mushrooms were and how people felt when they took them, acting as the obnoxious American and ensuring people would just clam up and not talk to him. Also of interest is when Conner meets Duchamp, brings him a box sealed up that has his signature stamp inside and asks Duchamp to give it to a mutual friend, which he does. Lots of talk about music and the bands that were in town, and a digression where Conner was trying to remember the name of a group of black men in the 1950s who were actually several different groups sent out on the road to maximize ticket sales because the producers felt like people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Calling Jello Biafra a nut, “he’s insane.” Getting death threats when he ran for the Board of Supes (BC got 5400 votes). His experience in Tokyo with everything running on time and feeling like an “enormous intruder… I’m too big. I’m too clumsy.” At one point BC is trying to convince Vale to go to the club that night but Vale wants to stay home and watch television, specifically “The Prisoner” which was on PBS. Bruce tells him:

“You should’ve seen it on commercial television. Because what happened was, when the commercials came on, there wasn’t any difference between ‘The Prisoner’ and the rest of the television thing. It was like the commercials are all part of this diabolic thing that was happening… It was as though you were locked into this labyrinthine structure and the TV commercials just fit right into it… It would come on and then it would just totally alter your consciousness of television, so you’d get into this grotesque, surrealistic thing of who’s number one and who’s number two and obscure plots where you don’t know who’s causing what and posters–all sorts of things that are caricatures of our 20th century of living And then the commercials would come on and the people that were in them were just like these sort of robot-like number threes and number fours, talking about brushing their teeth and happy all the time, and positive, and announcements – everything was like that, even the breaks for the station.”

The Prisoner,” by the way, looks amazing.

A few hours after reading this, I’m struck by the fact that Jean, Conner’s wife, comes into the conversations a few times, always as someone telling Bruce it was time to eat. This another example of a male artist benefiting from the structure of marriage, to the detriment of Jean’s own artistic work.

Lulu in Hollywood

Louise Brooks was an actor who could write, or perhaps a writer who could act. At any rate, she was an artist (also dancer!) and she left behind this collection of memories that is well worth a read. Stories of dancing in New York City in the 1920s, getting lavish presents from rich men (converting real jewels into cash and fake jewels so they were none the wiser, “ours was a heartless racket”), resisting the pull to Hollywood but finally caving and making some pictures under contracts she deemed slavery. Louise was a reader all her life, surrounded by books, reading Schopenhauer on the set, an anomaly in the world of acting.

Wondering to herself why she hadn’t written about her good friend Pepi Lederer, Maron Davies’s niece, she goes to her shelf and pulls out an old dictionary whose flyleaves were covered with pasted quotes from Goethe: “For a man remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment.”

Hollywood and celebrity do find her. She spends weeks as a guest of Hearst in San Simeon, ends up divorcing her director husband Eddie Sutherland and fooling around with the Redskins owner George Marshall who likes her for her mind. “He understood my passion for books, which has made me perhaps the best-read idiot in the world.”

There’s a section on Humphrey Bogart, one on W.C. Fields, one with Lilian Gish and Greta Garbo. She dishes on what it was like to work with Wallace Beery (dreamy) and admits to sleeping with her stuntman. She muses on all the horribleness of the studio system, contracts locking you in and forcing you to do bad movies. She ultimately refuses her new contract which had a huge pay cut when talkies were coming into their own, got blacklisted from Hollywood. Later she’s invited to write about films and later still she’s visited by college boys in the 1960s who expect her to be thankful that they’re remembering her and wouldn’t she just write their paper for them for film school.

“As a loner, I count as my two most precious rights those that allow me to choose the periods of my aloneness and allow me to choose the people with whom I will spend the periods of my not-aloneness.”

I wish she’d left us more words.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

This is the type of book that gives me nightmares. It hovers in mediocrity with brief flashes of insight, and my greatest fear is that my own writing falls into this tepid category. I’d rather not be published than to be allowed to put something like this out.

The book has every indication that it’d be up my alley—it’s a book about her (Pamela Paul’s) lifelong journey through reading, centered on a notebook she’s kept from 1988 where she enters the book titles she’s read. Sounds familiar, but she abandoned the idea of recording her thoughts about the books and only lists titles. Is that really useful? Unfortunately, the flaccidity of the story proves that it takes more to being a solid writer than hoovering up books for decades. There goes my lifelong preparation, guess I’ll have to start pushing the pen across the page instead.

We have several things in common—a likelihood of mispronouncing words we’ve only seen in print, dubbed “mumblenyms” by Liesl Schillinger); the realization that the more you read the more you realize remains to be read and the more that you’re aware of not having scratched the surface; the fact that being told “you should read this book” is never as simple as it sounds (and most likely not advice to be taken).

Pamela’s life is sliced and diced into chapters, overlain on a particular book’s theme. Not all lives are worthy of this dissection, and I yawned reading the cliché of her Southeast Asian travel years to boring first marriage to dull rebound relationships to even duller second marriage with family life. She read Hunger Games. I should have thrown it down at that point. (And hasn’t read Ulysses.)

She’s the editor of the NYT book review, the only part of the Sunday Times that I immediately recycle, which should have been a red flag for me and made me avoid this book. Alas.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

I spent way too much time reading this book but I’m a sucker for adventure travel books, especially when they combine lyrical descriptions of surfing/beaches/the sea. I’m sad to see that this won a Pulitzer, since it’s a fairly uneven book. If Finnegan had stuck to writing about surfing, he would have earned that prize fully, but he veers into the danger zone when he starts blathering sexist comments about the ladies he’s encountered. He doesn’t know that he’s being terrible, laying himself bare with eye-popping statements. The utter cluelessness yet confidence of white males will never cease to amaze me. One of  many examples: he breaks into an all-women commune in Australia to search for a girl and has the cops called on him.

Unlike most negative reviews I issue here, I won’t obsessively catalog the flaws of this book, since it was buoyed by its positive aspects. I will mention a few: a phrase that should never be used— “pursing his own PhD in having fun;” the time a woman lets him know that his endless chatter about surfing is mindlessly boring, she’s “rudely interrupting;” his pretentious lit-talk discussing “the decadence of Sartre and situationism;” his goal go “sleep with women from many lands” being cruelly foiled by the prudishness of the Tahitian women— “I did not want to leave someone else weeping. Neither did I want to get my ass kicked by her uncles.”

The good parts are the surfing parts and luckily that’s most of the book. He takes up surfing early as a kid in LA, then his family moves to Oahu where he surfs, then he ditches UC-SantaCruz to surf some more, then a quasi-round-the-world surf trip for 4 years where he finds many occasions to be an asshole surf tourist somewhat aware of his privileges but pushing on regardless (and years later having regrets about not paying the family that they imposed on for many weeks, instead giving them worthless trinkets).

Really interesting section about surfing San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the 1980s. Apparently there were pedestrian tunnels under Great Highway—now you’ve got to scurry across the road like a chicken. The surfing sections are where his descriptive powers excel and all the cultural bullshit he’s caught up in unawares fades away. He moves to NYC and surfs there, finds a buddy who convinces him to surf Madeira in Portugal before it gets modernized (they actually destroy the surf by building a seawall for some reason).

If you’re an old white man, you’ll probably enjoy this book 100%. Everyone else might register at 85% or less as you see what types of adventures are possible if you were a white male growing up in the 1960s.