Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story

Fire!!: The Zora Neale Hurston Story

For those folks who don’t have enough time to digest Hurston’s autobiography or Wrapped in Rainbows: the Life of Zora Neale Hurston, this is a quick introduction to the literary genius that was Zora. Her life dipped and arced and twisted and turned, and Peter Bagge does a great job illustrating this vividly.

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

This was mildly entertaining. His constant interspersing with exclamations from his young daughter Josephine were sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing. A Berkeley writer with the luxury of working from home and raising his child decides to dig into the natural world around them, investigating the mundanities of squirrels, ants, crows, turkey vultures, etc. I enjoyed the Ginko chapter the most, getting a book rec or two (Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo, and Marie Stopes’ Ancient Plants– curiously I’d just discovered Stopes vis-à-vis Woolf’s letters where she credits Stopes’ book on parenting for giving her lessons in birth control).

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

I wanted to like this book, but a light, barely perceptible tinge of woman-hating wafts through the pages, skimming along and occasionally stinging. The author is from the town he writes about, Lancaster, OH, and feels obligated to insert himself into the story, which combined with the misogyny, makes you wish you were reading a better version of this book. The best part is when he hits his stride, sadly only a few page from the end, thundering proclamations about how the social contract has been destroyed by three decades of greed: “The ‘vicious, selfish culture’ didn’t come from small towns, or even from Hollywood or ‘the media.’ It came from a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.” (The “vicious, selfish culture” quote from a Kevin Williamson National Review article March 2016 wherein he says “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”)

By inserting himself into the story, I feel compelled to slap him, especially when he mocks one of his subjects in person. “When I left them, I needled Brian. ‘Keep opening those boxes!’ I said, referring to his work at Drew [shoe factory]. ‘I think a little of Brian just died when you said that,’ Chris said. ‘Yeah dude,’ Brian said. ‘ A piece of my heart just fell on the floor.’ ”

My biggest problem with the book was that he didn’t knit the various pieces together in a cohesive argument (until the very end… way too late… you lost my interest). Over here we have drugs, cheap heroin, junkies, dealers. Then over here we have the corporate raiding of the town’s glass factory, decimating jobs. Only at the end does he connect the two, corporate greed ransacking the town, pulling away any opportunities for a decent wage/schools/life. This younger generation has NOTHING to look forward to. “The problem wasn’t caused by drugs at all, or government handouts, or single-parent families. While addiction could be as individual as people, common themes included alienation and disconnection.” Earlier in the book, he gives us a hint of this direction, saying that drug dealers were the visionaries who knew that they lived “in a global, rootless, gadget-coveting, atomized, every-man-for-himself world in which money trumped all other considerations.”

I didn’t bother to track his anti-women comments from the beginning, so I won’t do a catalogue of them, but I can summarize by saying women were mostly not named, only given “X’s girlfriend” or “Y’s wife”. One that is named is Lora Manon, who appeared to the author to be “a steely stickler, a middle-aged, pants-wearing schoolmarm.” His distaste for the young girls who had several babies by various fathers: “And the babies. All those young women pushing charity-store strollers around town, playing mix-and-match paternity.” Being the white, privileged male, even in the midst of unraveling this tale of social ills, he fails to understand the feminist perspective, or even empathize about the fourteen-year-old girl who walks up to him “with a sashay that showed off her too-small denim shorts. Amanda was pretty enough that the missing bottom half of her left arm was not necessarily the first thing most people noticed. She’d taken care to apply mascara, and a little pale, glossy lipstick. She glanced up at me with the eyes of a coquettish puppy.” Yes, jerk, this fourteen-year-old is well versed in how the world works already and knows that the only thing she’s got that is worth anything to the world is sex. I don’t suppose you took your eyes off her “too-small denim shorts” long enough to ask her any questions?

The Gentleman from San Francisco

The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

I was primarily interested in this 1923 collection of Bunin stories because D.H. Lawrence and S.S. Koteliansky translated it for the Hogarth Press, and Leonard contributed some of the other story translations with Kot. The story wasn’t particularly interesting to me, the unnamed family known as either the Gentleman from San Francisco or his wife or daughter. They voyage to the Old World, ready to spend some of his hard earned cash. He dies, and immediately all respect for the family disappears, the hotel proprietor insists that the body be disposed of immediately. The women voyage home with the body. The end? Perhaps the most interesting part was the couple who were paid by the ship company to voyage on this or that cruise ship and pretend to be deeply in love.

Cleaning House: A Mom’s Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement

Cleaning House: A Mom's Twelve-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement

As a break from the massive quantities of literature I’ve been consuming, I took a few hours to gouge my eyes out while reading this ridiculous book. The premise is great—a mom decides to whip her five children into shape by having them do household chores and to learn basic life skills. Even though I caught a whiff of Bible-thumping from the Amazon review, I decided to plunge ahead. It was terrible.

She did restrain herself and wait 12 pages before quoting scripture, but page 2 has her equating her slacker kids with socialists, “I think I’m raising little socialists, the serve-me kind that are numb to the benefits of ingenuity and hard work, the kind that don’t just need to be taken care of—they expect it.” I squinted a bit to try and make the real definition of socialism fit this Fox-News-worthy description, but I was tripped up by having a brain. Later, she rails against the provision in the Affordable Care Act that allows children to remain on their parents’ insurance plan until age 26. The government (read: Obama) fueled the entitlement crisis that our youngsters are facing by providing “parachutes” (aka safety nets! for people who need them!). “Great message to send the future leaders of America: keep relying on your parents.” My rage began simmering, this lady blind to the realities that are keeping people living at home (stunning lack of job opportunities and high cost of living).

In one scene she drives a son to Wendy’s to buy dinner for the family, pitching in $10 while the son covered the remaining $10.14. When they got home and his order was wrong, she “whisked it up, put him in the car, and drove right back to Wendy’s. How dare they mess up my kid’s order!” She justifies this overbearing mom behavior by using it as an example to show her kids how to return an order gone wrong. On the plus side, she lives in the Dallas area, so I hope she was stuck in traffic for a good bit of this tantrum.

She has no qualms about hammering gender training into her kids, blithely coming to expect cooperation from her daughters while her elitist sons whinge. After laying out that month’s task, “cheers from one side of the room, moans from the other. No surprise from whom.” When the task is party planning, one of her daughters opts not to spend the $50 budget on a floral centerpiece, and the author loves this. Naturally this doesn’t come up in the sons’ party experience. When the experiment is first announced to the kids in a family meeting (gag!), she actually says “Jon [the husband] lets me explain the premise…” Let that seep in for a bit. Her husband allows her to speak. Don’t even get me started on the manners section where doors are opened for ladies and when a kid asked who made these rules up, she says “It actually goes back to the way men should treat women, which is to cherish them, to care for them.” I had to finish reading in the bathroom from barfing so much.

There’s an idiotic section that states “the jury is still out as to whether technology and the pervasiveness of social networking helps kids connect with one another or hinders their emotional development.” Oh honey. Pull up a chair and read the thousands of studies that are crying out against the act of friendship through intermediaries of our phone/screens.

And wacko Christianity oozes across the pages. A neighbor “went home to be with the Lord recently,” one of the worst euphemisms for “died.” Funny how it’s totally cool to “do service” for the poor but god forbid we set up social programs to help them. It continues to be one area that baffles me, the hypocrisy of these Bible-thumpers who are intoxicated by their own privilege and can’t fathom how someone without the benefits of being white and wealthy might need extra care to survive the grueling battle of capitalism.


Sophie Calle: Did you see me?: M’as Tu Vue?

Sophie Calle: Did you see me?: M'as Tu Vue? - Did You See Me? by Sophie Calle (2003-11-05)

Eccentric book provides the perfect format for Sophie Calle’s work, snippets from her lifetime. Those who are not familiar with her art can start with this collection, as it dabs you into the major themes and pushes you into the swirl of text and photos. Thin pink paper separates sections, photographs flutter within the pages, some photos/text printed on thicker paper, some printed on the glossy paper you’d expect. Only brief mention is given of the Address Book, my first conscious exposure to Calle’s work (although I think saw her at SFMOMA years ago); in this she finds an address book and begins to sketch a picture of the owner by calling up his friends and meeting them. In The Sleepers, she invites people to come sleep in her bed and be photographed. Because of this, a man in San Francisco years later asks her if he can sleep in his bed to get over a heartbreak; she ships him her bed instead (Josh Greene). Exquisite Pain is also in here, something I’d recently come across, record of a countdown to heartbreak (69 days until heartbreak) when she’s abandoned by her lover who was supposed to show up in India.

Natural History: A Selection

Natural History: A Selection (Penguin Classics)

Pliny the Elder has some interesting observations about the world in first century AD. This is a simplified version of his work, and I bopped around to various sections finding bits of interest instead of reading cover to cover.

Re: wine in Book XIV. Here we find proof that wine was combined with water.

  • Homer states that Maronean wine was mixed with water in the proportion of 1:20 (Iliad, XI 639 and Odyssey, X, 235).
  • Mucianus discovered on a recent visit to Thrace that it is the practice to mix this wine with water in the proportion of 1:8, and that it is dark in colour, has a bouquet, and improves with age.

Women were not allowed to drink wine; a husband was acquitted of murdering his wife for drinking from a large jar of wine. Overindulging in wine leads to all sorts of trouble, like telling the truth (in vino veritas).

There’s a whole section on hangovers: “Even in the most favorable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life;’ but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows.”

Book XX is about drugs obtained from the garden. He suggests that onions provide a cure for poor vision through tears caused by their smell; “even more effective is the application of some onion-juice to the eyes.” Hmm, no thanks. The praises of cabbage are sung briefly. There are several other sections on medicines made from plants and trees, magic, incantations, benefits of sex and asses’ milk. Oysters “are extremely good for bad colds.”

The Nix

The Nix: A novel

This is a terrible book. I sped through 600 pages out of curiosity, looking to articulate exactly why I hated it.

Long-winded, interminable descriptions. The boy needs an editor. Someone to shape this lumpy sack of clay into a slenderized version that has the necessary tension that makes us want to turn the pages.

Cardboard characters. I think I was 500 pages into the book before I met a single character I cared about, which ended up being the radical hippie, Alice.

Saccharine-induced loopy unbelievable happy endings tied with a giant red bow. What a miracle that Faye (the mother who walked out on her son) winds up at the bedside of her father (who had abandoned a separate family in Norway before having Faye). How perfect that the judge from 1968 was also the judge in charge of the 2011 case against Faye. And of course Periwinkle (Samuel’s editor) ends up being Sebastian from 1968. Perhaps the most unbelievable tie-up at the end is when Samuel asks Bethany for a place to stay for awhile in NYC and she hands over the keys to her 8 bedroom apartment.

Books like this make me mad because it showcases the downward trajectory of publishing standards. The fact that this is mentioned as a great book, and even whispered as “DFW-esque,” is a tragedy. There is nothing clever here, no good writing, only a monkey doing donuts in the empty cul-de-sac of an abandoned suburb. We clap because we’re surprised that a monkey can do this.

The Diary of a Nobody

Diary of a Nobody

Although I’m knee-deep in reading about diaries that Virginia Woolf read or kept in her early years, I randomly began reading this book when it cropped up in Family Roundabout, Mrs. Fowler deciding to spend the afternoon reading George Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody. It’s a slender volume that I wish had shrunk even more—the joke is prolonged and becomes shrill over all the extraneous pages. It’s the tiresome recounting of an average London clerk’s life with friends who take advantage of his hospitality and a son (Lupin) who’s kicked out of school and comes to live at home again while stirring up mischief. The title headings are the best bits, summarizing the contents within and usually containing some self-praise like “I make one of the best jokes of my life” or “I make another good joke.”

The Children Who Lived in a Barn

The Children Who Lived in a Barn

Eleanor Graham’s children’s book from 1938 is an earlier “Home Alone” tale—a family of five children left to fend for themselves when their parents disappear in a plane accident. Sue’s the oldest at 13, and sets the whole family to rights doing the drudgery of house keeping plus cooking plus laundry plus going to school and keeping the books for the baker in exchange for stale bread. Bob’s 11 years old, then the twin boys, then youngest is Alice, at 7. They’re driven out of their house by a greedy landlord and find refuge in a farmer’s barn. The kids fix it up into a home and proceed to live as they can for a few months, the village sending a woman to check up on them and threatening to toss them all into an orphanage at the slightest sign of dirt or misbehavior. Fairly flimsy plot, quite unbelievable that the parents would leave, and also that the village wouldn’t do more for them. At the end, with orphanage threatening, Sue “goes on strike” for a day and wanders the countryside, meeting a journalist by chance to tell her story to the world. Parents (amnesia?) arrive shortly after.

Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs: A Novel

What an idiotic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Alison Lurie’s 1984 novel has been recommended twice to me in the past few months, and although I initially tasted and discarded it, this time I gave it the full read. Nothing could be more of a waste of time. I’m not sure if it’s the vast gaping chasm that separates this type of book from the quality 1940s British fiction I’ve been reading, but it was pure tripe. The book alternates chapters following two Americans in London, one the 54-year-old spinster professor, Virginia/Vinnie, and one the 28-year-old married English professor, Fred Turner, who has movie-star good looks. You know a book is just going to go off the rails with these two at the helm. Vinnie’s got an imaginary dog that trails her, fed on her own self-pity. Fred’s wife (a photographer) exhibited photos of his penis without his consent, so left in a huff and supposedly they were separated; he finds love in the form of older actress Rosemary, who shockingly turns out to BE the Cockney Mrs. Harris drunkenly hitting on Fred as he sneaks in to get his clothes before heading home to American. Vinnie also picks up an American cowboy boyfriend, married, who she loses her heart to completely. He dies. This book makes me seriously wonder what qualifications are considered for the Pulitzer.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century

Paula Uruburu dives into the historical record and various memoirs of the main characters to pull together a comprehensive and entertaining recap of the murder of Stanford White by Harry Thaw in front of hundreds of people on June 25, 1906 in Madison Square Garden (the original one). As Harry shoots Stanford, he shouts that he’s done it because Stanford “ruined his wife.” This is a reference to the fact that Stannie took advantage of underaged beauty, Evelyn Nesbit and eventually raped her virginity away. Thaw had already been obsessed by White, building a case for Comstock on White’s luring of nubile chorus girls. Thaw aggressively pursues Nesbit, and on one particularly gruesome night in Europe, he makes her confess what White did to her. Thaw then goes on to brutally whip and rape her himself a few weeks later in an abandoned castle he’s rented for a few weeks. It’s a stark tale of the excesses that money could buy during a time when the haves were flaunting it in front of the have-nots, a pre-income tax era where Thaw pays for a drink at the bar with a $100 bill and walks away without his change. Very brutal treatment of Evelyn in the press during the murder trial(s). She never escapes the rumors or ruin to her reputation.

The New Normal

The New Normal

Stumbled into the arms of this delightful book by way of hunting more Sophie Calle. This is the post-exhibition catalog published in 2008 with essays about privacy and life post-9/11. The artists include Sophie Calle, Miranda July, Corinna Schnitt, Jill Magid, and Angie Waller, ranging from video to websites, sculpture and found objects/photos. Michael Connor writes the main essay, discussing the art in The New Normal while railing against the surveillance state. “The rise of state and corporate surveillance has not been the only, or perhaps even the most definitive, factor affecting the privacy sphere since 2001. Equally remarkable has been the willingness demonstrated by millions of us to document and reveal our own behavior and the behavior of others, in personal photos and video clips posted on blogs and online dairies, or just sent via email.” This self-narc’ing behavior has only gotten worse in the 8 years since this book came out.

Calle’s work in the exhibition was a video work titled Unfinished (2005) that shows how she grappled with the project for decades after a U.S. bank invited her to take images from their ATM machines and make art, including stills from a woman being mugged at the Minneapolis ATM machine in 1983. The images she was mesmerized by are of people who know they are alone, giving unfiltered expressions. This work is shown in contrast to the MySpace intro playlists that another artist (Guthrie Lonergan) pulls from their context and presents as stand alone; the people here are acting for an audience, being as socially aware as possible.

The other work I was extremely interested in was Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience: JSA/2005. As a brown man post-9/11 he’s put on a watchlist and hassled by the FBI too many times to count. He passes a lie-detector test nine times before finally being “cleared,” and asks for a written letter stating this to avoid any further detention. When they refuse, he begins a project of “aggressive compliance” by putting up a website with images of everywhere he goes and everything he does, showing his exact whereabouts, as a digital alibi. The site’s still up, although it’s redirecting here now.

Found out via his essay about the AOL release in 2006 of 20M web searches that were “anonymized” by changing usernames to IDs. Within 3 days, the NYT has tracked down AOL user 4417749 as Georgia resident Thelma Arnold.

There’s an interesting piece by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy that purchases all the objects listed out in rock star (or other celebrity) riders. Dick Cheney required decaf coffee, temperature setting of 68 degrees, and that all televisions be tuned to Fox News.

Clay Shirky has an essay in here as well: Private, Public, and the Collapse of the Personal. In the “digital dark ages of 1980 or so” we could assume that our behavior wasn’t being recorded, but now it’s cheaper and easier to record everybody all the time. He cites Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the contents of the new medium are the old media” since the Internet carries more and more of our phone calls. “Making things public has gone from difficult to easy and from expensive to cheap. Keeping things private has gone in the opposite direction. And the personal sphere-which used to be the envelope that contained most of our speech and action-is slowly disappearing.”  And this gem, “if people are acting out more, it is in part because they understand, correctly, that they are onstage more.”

The Bibliography of this book was a godsend… giving me at least 5 books to check out (Presentation of self in everyday life-1959- by Erving Goffman, Toward a feminist theory of the state-1989- by Catharine MacKinnon, Coming of age in Samoa by Margaret Mead, M’as-tu vue?  by Sophie Calle, and Lincoln, Ocean, Victor, Eddy by Jill Magid). Also a slew of NYT articles, Atlantic article from March 2001 about privacy, How Publicity Makes People Real by David Bromwich, a 1994 Bruce Sterling speech, and the discovery of The New School’s journal, Social Research.


The Medium is the Massage

The Medium is the Massage

Another zippy work from Marshall McLuhan, so fresh and relevant in 2016 and yet published in 1967. Quintin Fiore did the graphic design for the book, which helps it tremendously. McLuhan coined the oft-quoted “medium is the message” and the mis-titling of this book as “massage” instead of “message” is claimed to have been due to a printer’s error on the cover that breathed fresh life into what had been quickly becoming a cliché. If in 1967 we were already talking about “electronic information devices for the universal, tyrannical womb-to-tomb surveillance” that caused privacy issues, where on earth are we now, 50 years later? “What’s that buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing?” McLuhan asks… it very well might be my cellphone vibrating with messages. He’s highly literate, dropping in Joyce quotes and wordplay while striving to outline the disease that loomed large on the horizon. It’s fun to read, like all of his stuff.

Once again, as in Mechanical Bride, he references Poe’s mariner in the Descent into the Maelstrom who avoids disaster by understanding the whirlpool’s action. “His insight offers a possible stratagem for understanding our predicament, our electrically-configured whirl.”

“We have had to shift our stress of attention from action to reaction… At the high speeds of electronic communication, purely visual means of apprehending the world are no longer possible; they are just too slow to be relevant or effective. Unhappily, we confront this new situation with an enormous backlog of outdated mental and psychological responses. We have been left d-a-n-g-l-i-n-g. Our most impressive words and thoughts betray us—they refer only to the past, not to the present.”

“Our official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old. These are difficult times because we are witnessing a clash of cataclysmic proportions between two great technologies. We approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses to the old. This clash naturally occurs in transitional periods. In late medieval art, for instance, we was the fear ofhte new print technology expressed in the theme The Dance of Death. Today, similar fears are expressed in the Theater of the Absurd. Both represent a common failure: the attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old.”


Marjory Fleming

Oriel Malet fictionalizes the short life of a real 19th century child prodigy, Marjory Fleming. The 1946 book begins by listing the sources she drew from to create the picture, Mr. Macbean’s 1904 Pet Marjorie, Dr. Brown’s 1863 Pet Marjorie, etc., so we know that this real life child created quite a stir in her time. Next, the complete listing for Marjory Fleming from Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography, 1889 volume. (Stephen, of course, was Virginia Woolf’s pops). Marjory’s life (1803-1811) was the shortest recorded in the National Biography.

Malet lays out a dreamy, tempestuous brief life of Marjory, filled with tantrums and poetry and wonder. Marjory shows her distinction early on, is rescued by an older, wealthier cousin and taken under her wing for a few years where she blossoms, but then her mother demands her return home. Once home, she’s miserable, catches measles, dies of water on the brain as she approached her ninth birthday. She left behind scads of precocious journals and poetry, from which her legend is nourished.