Andy Goldsworthy: Projects

I fell in love with Goldsworthy again after seeing the latest documentary about his work and so lugged this 7 lb. book home from the library to ogle the projects in slower, greater detail. So many favorites, but I think the one on the cover stands out as the one that gave me the chills when I saw it unfold (Passage, 2015, in I think Kensington, New Hampshire, commissioned by the Lewis Family Foundation, possibly at Alnoba?). Also great: the chalk stones in Sussex, the very temporary white walls in NYC gallery that flaked off the wall over a few week period (performance art!), the Coppice Room in Scotland, the Alderney Stones on an island in the English Channel (that deteriorate over time and disgorge their contents all relating to their environment). Of course I also have a preference for the works I see on a regular basis (Spire and Wood Line in the Presidio), and this weekend we popped in to see Tree Fall again (the tree wedged into the gunpowder room from the Civil War, covered in clay). Also of interest, the Boulder House in New Hampshire, also a Lewis Family Foundation commission, where a house was built around an enormous boulder. Similar to this is Stone House, at Jupiter Artland in Scotland, where a large piece of bedrock shapes the floor and the rest of the house was built to surround it. Ohio apparently has a ton of Goldsworthy projects: Torn Tree Shelter, Road, Contour 950, and Red Hill, all commissioned by Scott Mueller.  The book starts with an in-depth interview with Andy, best read after you gorge yourself on the 350+ pages of photos.

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

A book written 20-ish years ago about fear is mostly valid but contains some quaint bits, like wanting to “kill” the person who is taking too long on the pay phone ahead of you, or somehow predicting ride-shares back in 1997 (but erroneously destined for 2050) as a way of showing how much we can trust strangers.

Basically, the book is about trusting your intuition and paying attention to small things that add up to warning signs (or even big, obvious things).

He’s pretty down on the Unabomber in this, saying that Ted did it for attention (um, no), the same sin he assigns Valerie Solanas (um, double no) who he claims got her 90 minutes of fame with the movie about her life that was released. He loves quoting Ernest Becker (de Becker loves Becker for some reason)’s Denial of Death which I couldn’t get through for all the penis-envy Freudian love he gave it.

On the plus side, learned about this 1986 hijacking of a USAir plane by a disgruntled employee who shot his boss on the flight and then crashed the plane. Besides accidentally killing the president of Chevron (oops!), it also took out 3 top officials of PacBell, causing the much quoted rule that companies not allow their execs to travel together.

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books

I was transported back in time with Maud Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy, and Tib series, back to my nine-year-old self devouring these books with impish Betsy who aspires to be a writer, shy Tacy, and Tib the dancer. The girls make paper dolls out of catalogs that come to their Minnesota homes, dye sand to put in bottles for sale, go hiking and pretend to be beggars when they get hungry. To pick this collection of books up again after many decades and still squeeze goodness out of it is pure delight. I think I only read the first two books as a wee one, but enjoyed Over the Big Hill and Go Downtown as well, with new characters bursting onto the scene in the form of Betsy’s actor uncle, the kindly Mrs Poppy who invites Betsy to have hot chocolate in her hotel after being caught in a snowstorm, and a fourth girl—Winona—the daughter of the town’s newspaper editor. Hooray for Betsy and Tacy forever!

The Blue Castle

What a fantastic novel from the author of the inimitable Anne of Green Gables series! I had no idea this book existed until it surface on a thread of recommendations. One woman said she liked this better than the Green Gables series and I have to agree—the out-loud laughs (snorts? guffaws) at Valancy’s actions to her family once she awakens from her 29 year lethargy.

When we first meet Valancy, she’s dreary and sad and tiptoes around her imperious relatives who make fun of her for being a spinster, continually bringing up transgressions she did when she was a kid (apparently she ate jam out of a jar without permission). She feels like she might have heart trouble, goes to the doctor who rushes off when he gets a phone call about his son being in an accident but who later writes her a letter saying that she only has a year to live. With this benediction, Valancy flips the table and hulks out on her family, sort of. She stops being polite and tending to their wishes, stops doing her dutiful daughter act, stops being a punchline. The dinner scene at which her family realizes something is “wrong” with her is priceless. She gives it back to them as good as she gets it, and they are shocked. When her uncle suggests that she’s forgotten the 5th commandment, she taunts him with the 9th (I had to look these up—5th is obey parents & 9th is don’t gossip about neighbors).

She hires herself out as a housekeeper to a man and his dying daughter, then proposes marriage to a supposedly evil man, Barney, who the town thinks is variously a thief, a murderer, an escaped convict. She finally begins to live, and loves life on his island in the woods. Of course he’s the author that she also loves, writing under a pseudonym; you pick that up as soon as he turns his nose up at John Foster’s book. Turns out that he’s also a millionaire! Confetti! Nothing like a happy ending with a wealthy husband.

Happy All the Time

A snackable treat from Laurie Colwin discovered by way of a Twitter thread asking for books that help to cocoon you from the world. Ostensibly about a pair of wealthy cousins, Guido and Vincent, it’s actually filled with extremely interesting women. Guido marries Holly, a woman who must go away by herself to think about his marriage proposal and later to a monastic retreat when she gets preggers. Vincent floats through life having various affairs he cares nothing for until he meets Misty, the linguist at his work. She has a job she values, has the audacity to ask her boss for a raise, and manages not to lose her head over Vincent. Ultimately it ends up as a happily ever after sap-fest but still a delightful trip for a few hours.

Silence: In the Age of Noise

Beautifully translated from the Norwegian by Becky Crook, this touches on a lot of issues I have been struggling with lately: how to attain and maximize silence, how to simply sit thinking, wondering how much  technology impede us, how much of a luxury item silence is.

I was enjoying the book until a realization crept up on me. This is written by a man who has little respect for women, including his three teenage daughters whom he belittles at the beginning of the book for wanting such silly items as Louis Vuitton purses and for being teenagers who are stuck in their world of screens (phones, tablets, TVs). Kagge tosses around the usual ragtag list of powerful male minds to let you know how smart he is, how much he gets it—Pascal, Kierkegaard (for some reason specifically called out as a philosopher—does he think we’re too dumb to know this?), David Foster Wallace, Seneca, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Oliver Sacks, Wittgenstein. Beethoven and Thomas Edison get shout outs. No ladies, aside from a seven-word quote from Emily Dickinson: “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” When I think of all the women who could have been referenced who also have insightful, poetic, perfect thoughts on silence (Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, too many others), my mouth gapes. For all the talk about the Nordic world being heaven for women, it sure seems that the literary men have their heads up their asses just as much as in our world. (See also all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work).

But the worst comes in a section where he openly idolizes Elon Musk. Kagge’s adulation is stunning; he hangs on Musk’s every word, he erroneously credits Musk with inventing the idea of a reusable space shuttle (“NASA scientists were always convinced that space shuttles could only be used once, which was a tremendously expensive accepted truth that had lingered since NASA’s early days. This continued all the way up until the moment when Musk informed them that there was no reason not to build a shuttle that could be launched multiple times into space…”) which is mind-mindbogglingly incorrect. He’s so in love with Musk that he digresses into a tale about coming up with the idea to create his own publishing house while washing the dishes, much like how one of Musk’s engineers comes up with his best ideas on the toilet. Ah but, “I am not so stupid as to compare myself to Elon Musk.” Yet he is so stupid enough to worship him.

Now that I’ve released the steam from that valve, here are the parts that I did enjoy, taken with the grain of salt that I question his scholarly chops and extremely lightweight notation style.

    • Being uncomfortable with stillness and silence didn’t arrive with the television, internet or iPhones. Pascal in the 1600s said “all of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But our opportunities to be interrupted have increased dramatically. Silence is almost extinct.
    • On the subject of news, in 1984 he sails for eight months and has no access to newspapers or radio. When he gets back, he realizes that people are still talking about the same old things. “When you’ve invested a lot of time in being accessible and keeping up with what’s happening, it’s easy to conclude that it all has a certain value, even if what you have done might not be that important.”
    • “Another form of luxury is to be unavailable. To turn your back on the daily din is a privilege… You have fought your way into a position where you couldn’t care less if someone wants to contact you.” This reminds me of the NYT piece that alternately fascinated and enraged me, the rich white man who put up a blockade so he wouldn’t hear any news after the disastrous 2016 election.
    • One of my favorite philosophers, Seneca, has some great things to say about life and is quoted in this book:

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.


The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County

Hilarious 100+ page parody of Marin County in the 1970s, poking fun at all the stereotypes by going over the top on every page. I knew when I spotted this at Green Arcade bookstore that I was in for a real treat, and it did not disappoint.

Are you ready for carrot juice drinking yuppies who are into astrology and self discovery and yoga and EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and rebellious daughters who have house parties that allow guests to park their motorcycles inside? Everyone smoking dope and riding their bike from the Sausalito ferry? Consciousness raising and macramé and a world where restaurants didn’t accept credit cards yet? There’s a VW bus and a waterbed, OF COURSE. And kids that don’t get disciplined or who join the Moonies. This perfect bit was from a guy who was looking to escape Marin and move to Indiana: “I can’t take the whole Marin head-set anymore… Natural foods. Cocaine. Woodacre. Flea markets. Pool parties… Plant stores. Kleenraw in the hummingbird feeder. Weekends at Tahoe. Vasectomies. The Fungus Faire, redwood bathtubs, mandalas, compost piles, needlepoint, burglar alarms, acupuncture, saunas, sourdough, macramé…”

Written by Cyra McFadden and wonderfully illustrated by Tom Cervenak, such as this delightful image of a sadomasochist that Kate picks up at the flea market who takes her back to his houseboat. The whole thing got me thinking about doing a similar parody for 2018 San Francisco, the techies and their “communes”, their cryptocurrency and yoga classes and Instacart and rideshares.

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story

Hooray for introverts! I loved Debbie Tung’s graphic novel about how she copes with the world, recharging with alone time even at her wedding, asking her boss if she can work from home the rest of the afternoon so she can actually get work done, eventually quitting her job and embracing her inner need to work alone and on projects that are meaningful for her. We introverts get exhausted from social contact and have to recharge, and she feels alone until she stumbles onto the world of introvert blogs and finds out she’s not crazy after all, that there are millions of others just like her. After this, she gives herself permission to be herself, to turn down more invitations she doesn’t want to do. I loved the pages of her social hangover cures: comfort food, good books, favorite music, quiet time alone, warm hugs from a loved one.


The Megahex gang is made up of a witch (Megg), her black cat (Mogg), their roommate Owl, a wizard in primary colors (red, blue), and Werewolf Jones. They spend their days smoking weed and dropping acid and playing tricks on each other, and every minute you spend reading this your mind will be spinning dizzily in this alternative universe. There’s lots of punching and smoking and puking and pooping and general mayhem. My favorite from the book was “Megg & Mogg’s horrible party” wherein Owl is drinking beer from a Foam Dome hat that has 2 cans with straws to his mouth, smoking in the yard and Werewolf Jones is chugging beer while running a weed whacker and the wizard finds a trampoline in the neighbor’s yard that Jones bounces on with the whacker still running then decides to use a cheese grater on his privates. It’s funny and terrible and you will sometimes laugh out loud but mostly you’ll feel like you’ve just inhaled some second-hand crack or weed by simply reading the bizarre tale.


Why pick up trashy novels, and what compels me to sometimes read them all the way to the end? At least this one by Diane Johnson doesn’t commit any egregious sins of writing besides moving the plot along the obvious arc. This was actually suggested by someone as a great take-me-away type book, and I admit to the guilty pleasure of reading it through a rainy day. Stereotypes abound. Rich American woman comes to France to work on self-improvement projects, discovers the cultured Europeans, falls in love with a married man. There is an undercurrent of suspense, an avalanche traps a couple, leading to them on life support, the man is transported back to England where he dies, avoiding certain legal constraints on his legacy. It’s all very hocus pocus and strapping healthy tan ski instructors and doddering old English poets and weepy daughters who didn’t know their biological fathers.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Thank god Mary Beard is out there doing the hard work of being a classical studies feminist so the rest of us don’t have to labor in the Latin & Greek trenches. This latest book encompasses two lectures she’s given in the last few years, born of her experience of being threatened/harassed/trolled on Twitter for committing the crime of being a woman with something to say. She also apparently gets mansplained about ancient Rome by these idiots.

She takes women’s silencing back all the way back to the first written tale—Homer’s Odyssey. Telemachus tells his mom Penelope to pipe down and head back to her weaving because speech is the “business of men, all men, and of me most of all.” From there we only have thousands of other years of examples of women being told to shut up.

Despite how it sounds, it’s a delightful romp. You’ve got Hilary Clinton & Angela Merkel alongside Medusa, Lysistrata, the Amazons, Herland from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lucretia, Sojourner Truth, Fulvia, Queen Elizabeth I, and Clytemnestra. And Beard’s sass sneaks in as well, how she bought a pair of blue tights for her first interview for an academic job: “If you interviewers are going to be thinking that I’m a right bluestocking, let me just show you that I know that’s what you’re thinking and that I got there first.”

Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books

Books reveal much more of their authors than they’d like. I find Bishop to be a tepid, boring sloppy scholar who lucked out into getting a professorship that grants sabbaticals and who turned his ride from Canada to Texas into this limp recap. The big surprise is supposed to be that he’s a professor AND a guy riding a motorcycle. Amazing. He admits to wanting to appear like the biggest bad ass when he rides into town, even if he’s just there to check out the Virginia and Leonard Woolf library at Washington State University. He feels completely comfortable stashing his bike rent-free into a widow’s garage in Austin while he goes on a trip to Europe to track down the essential James Joyce covers.

Any scholar who whinges about nearly falling asleep in the British Museum while being given the privilege of rooting through their archives deserves to be slapped silly. His claim to have caught the archivist bug only after nearly drooling on Virginia Woolf’s suicide note is disgusting. Ye gods, was this man actually entrusted in compiling an edition of Jacob’s Room?

This book is horrifyingly terrible and yet was recommended by my hitherto impeccable Virginia Woolf listserve. Avoid at all costs.

Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy

The structure of a book of essays is something like this: strongest essay first, followed by progressively weaker essays to the point of despair, at which point you shore up the reader’s confidence with another solid essay, then repeat the petering out of bland work like a can of silly string that’s reached its last hiccups.

After reading Hickey’s first essay in this, I shouted hooray! and closed the book, eager to savor it and come back to what I knew would be lesser essays. Indeed, excerpts of Baby Breakers are available on The Paris Review. He struck first sentence gold: “I went to first grade in Fort Worth with Lee Harvey Oswald.” then goes on to write the kind of essay you get lost in, wandering in his sandy footsteps as he’s learning to surf in Santa Monica in the 1950s.

The rest of the essays vary in quality but never achieve the perfection of the first.

Hypercapitalism: The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them

Fantastic book that exposes the negative effects of our current economic system and how we got there, along with steps to resist and change. The text comes from Tim Kasser’s lectures in a class taught at Knox College on alternatives to consumerism, made accessible to all attention spans by Larry Gonick’s drawings.

So much is packed in here, like the Schwartz circumplex that shows the ten human values in relation to each other—”universalism” diametrically opposed to “power” and “achievement” for example.

It includes a strangely muddled portrait of Thoreau as someone who valued life because he had tuberculosis, but the other examples of people who have thrown off the torments of modern life were new to me—Helen and Scott Nearing and Colin Beavan. Loved the idea of timebanks as a place to give and receive help/work without money, everyone sharing their expertise. And a great reminder about responsible investing, e.g. Parnassus Endeavor fund that avoids oil and tobacco stocks.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

What do you get when you pair an amazing subject with a mediocre writer? This book. I suppose I should be grateful that Finkel fleshes out the story of Chris Knight, the Maine hermit that lived in the woods, surviving on junk food he foraged from nearby cabins for 28 years. Knight is an excellent subject, someone who took one look at civilization and immediately headed for isolation after he left high school. But the author smarms his way into the story and ruins it—once Knight is out of jail, he tells Finkel not to visit him, but of course Finkel ignores that. Knight admits that he’s not adjusting well and that his plan is to walk out on a winter night and die of hypothermia, so Finkel immediately starts dialing up therapists to get advice on what to do about this 6-month-in-the-future suicide plan. Finkel also dreams up some scheme to buy Knight his own cabin so he won’t have to live with his mom, but abandons it. Unfortunately, all of this spools off at the end, so I’m left with a terrible taste in my mouth after enjoying most of the book.

I guess another early clue that this was not a worthy read was when Finkel drops some Virginia Woolf references in, claiming that she might have had Asperger’s because she “killed herself.” (This in the section where people are trying to categorize what disorder Knight has.)

I did enjoy reading about Knight’s literary preferences, how he wished he had more Edna St. Vincent Millay around (a fellow Mainer), and his comments about Joyce’s Ulysses “What’s the point of it? I suspect it was a bit of a joke by Joyce…. Pseudo-intellectuals love to drop the name Ulysses as their favorite book. I refused to be intellectually bullied into finishing it.” Knight had a disdain for Thoreau (“he had no deep insight into nature”) but Emerson was ok. John Grisham novels were used as toilet paper. And “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac.” Amen, brother.

Best were descriptions of how Knight spent his time in the woods. “Mostly what he did was nothing. He sat on his bucket or in his lawn chair in quiet contemplation… ‘Daydreaming,’ he termed it. ‘Meditation. Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.'”

And this might be my favorite line in the book: “His closest companion may have been a mushroom.” Apparently he watched a shelf mushroom grow from the size of a watch face to a dinner plate over many years, which sounds simply dreamy.