What a relief to find that other reviewers are finding this less than readable. I usually like Nell Zink’s writing but this went off the rails. Luckily (?) I was noting down plot points of each chapter and I can actually tell you where it falls apart. The story is interesting when it’s about Pam and Daniel and Joe, thrashing about the Lower East Side in late 1980s NYC. Pam, a high school dropout, takes up computer coding quite successfully. Daniel does a series of late night proofreading at law firms and then temping. Joe is Joe is Joe, afflicted by the Williams syndrome and cheerfully accepting everyone, recording amazing tunes and inexplicably becoming a rock star. Then, tragically, Pam decides not to abort her pregnancy, and Flora is unleashed on the story, dragging it down behind her. It’s not too terrible until Chapter 14 when Flora takes over the story and everyone else is left behind. Before that, 9/11 happens, the family flees to DC, Joe is fed heroin by his worthless groupie girlfriend Gwen and dies; Gwen flees and leaves him there for days, dead. Naturally as the pages fly by, Zink resorts to the same old trick to spice up the story and now Flora is pregnant, only it’s by a fling she has while campaigning for Jill Stein instead of with her Clinton-advising boyfriend who’s had a vasectomy. It might sound interesting, but it’s not.

Appius and Virginia

Absolute bananas book (pub’d 1933) by G. E. (Gertrude Eileen) Trevelyan. Virginia, a 40-something spinster, buys a baby orangutan who she raises as a boy, Appius. She retires to the country and spends the next decade painstakingly teaching him to speak and read, keeping him cooped up in the nursery instead of swinging from the tree tops, restricting him in little boy clothing. One afternoon he does escape into the trees, “one glorious half-hour he lived his own life, his own swinging rhythmical life, high up out of their reach among the leaves and sunbeams, and then had been forced to come back.” He likes to listen to the murmur of her voice although he understands little of it . “Reading bored him, but by now he knew most of the sentences in the book. So long as he could say the right one for each sentence mama was satisfied, he knew, and would go on talking for a long time, hum-hum in the distance, whilst he could nod at the flames or wallow drowsily in the warm, comfortable world deep down inside him.” She admits at one point that she undertook this experiment mostly so she could have someone to talk to, since everyone else thought she was mad.

Trevelyan writes beautifully and shows us the difference in comprehension as Appius watches a thunderstorm from his window:

Blackness. Big moving things. Big still things. Big black things. Stillness, whiteness, dazzle.

White lights shooting: bright blades cleaving the black branches. Big silent things swaying and shiverying. Big moving things rotating: bending, sinking, swaying, crouching under the light.

Dazzle, giddiness. Blackness, brightness. Round and round, down and down.

In the end, Virginia falls to the floor and dies after restraining herself from shooting Appius when he seemed to be getting out of control. Now what will happen to the ape? Neglected Books calls it one of “the most powerful stories about loneliness ever written.”

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

Everyone wants to write the next Nickel and Dimed, the classic undercover piece by Barbara Ehrenreich exposing low wage working conditions that the rest of us haven’t suffered. This was a sometimes good sometimes bad attempt at something similar, where Guendelsberger took 3 jobs after she lost her journalism gig in Philly. First up, the ubiquitous Amazon warehouse worker story that has flooded the market lately. Nothing new here, it sucks, she walks millions of miles a day and is in pain constantly, shocked by the vending machine dispensing pain killers. She sings to remain sane, is always happy to bump into a fellow picker alone in the warehouse where it seems the algorithm keeps them far apart. I did learn about “chaotic storage” here, a practice Amazon discovered wherein it’s faster to find an item stored among a bunch of dissimilar other things than to pull a particular size out of a container filled with the same thing; works for humans and you can be damned sure the robots do better with it.

Her next job is in Hickory, N.C. at a call center, helping AT&T customers. She’s living in her car, then squeezes into an apartment with one of her coworkers after spending too much money on a hotel room to beat the heat wave. People who call in are reliably terrible, but so are the systems she’s given to use. She has 8 or so different programs that are cobbled together and nothing really works, making her yearn for the efficiency of Amazon. Here, as in Amazon, every second is clocked and monitored, every late arrival and bathroom break, every phone call timed.

Finally, the worst portion of the book, her few months at a McDonald’s in downtown SF, probably the one on Market at Montgomery based on her comments about the homeless problem. She’s scored a free bedroom in Oakland through a friend of a friend, although she complains about the cat’s fleas. Even though she’s only living here for a few months, I find it sad that she gets her geography so wrong, talking about the view of the “Golden Gate Bridge as we cross the river to Oakland” (lol, what river?), and saying San Jose is half and hour from downtown SF.

She weaves in discussions about Taylorism, the lawsuits against McDonald’s, and makes up some hypothetical character named Wanda that honestly bored me so much I just skipped over the text whenever Wanda appeared. Could have been a much better book, but she made some poor choices along the way.

Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom

Another day, another rabbit hole. Heard about Sarah Seo’s book on the War on Cars podcast and needed more detail about how we’ve essentially given up our 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure in exchange for the “freedom” of cars. The origin of the modern police state can be traced back to the adoption of automobiles. Previously, cops only interacted with “unsavory” elements on the outskirts of society, but with cars on the scene, everyone becomes a suspect and open to arrest/interrogation.

Dense with intricate examination of legal cases, there’s a lot of good info in here. Seo calls the need to reconcile policing power with right to privacy the greatest struggle of the U.S.’s 20th century. Vollmer was the visionary police chief in Berkeley who launched a proto-pager system that alerted cops when crimes went down instead of requiring them to return to the station to discover what had happened. He also combined cars with two way radios for the first time, and pushed all cops across America to get automobiles into their fleets. In Roscoe Pound’s 1930 Criminal Justice in America, he dubs technological innovations “agencies of menace” because the car, radio, and moving pictures seemed to magnify “conscious and aggressive individual self assertion” which increased the “points at which the claims and desires of each individual and those of his fellows conflict or overlap.” Automobiles enlarged perceptions of the self, enhancing freedom and self-determination.

In the 1920s, volunteers would spot traffic violations and report to a committee that would mail a letter urging cooperation in reducing incidents. A second communication would be more pointed, and a third report would trigger a police action. This wasn’t sustainable, so police were beefed up to handle the huge influx of traffic violations, to disastrous effect for people of color (and others).


I loved Susan Steinberg’s first novel, Machine, so trooped down to the library to grab this collection of her short stories. The stylistic elements are the same, brutal short punchy sentences and erratic punctuation that pulls you onward, but I didn’t enjoy the stories as much as the novel. Perhaps it was the lack of overlying narrative thread to cling to when the stories seemed to dissolve before your eyes?

Ship of Fools

As I was checking it out at the library, a woman behind me was surprised that I was reading Ship of Fools; she was an older patron clutching a DVD copy of the film adapted from the book itself. “It’s the rare case of the movie being better than the book,” she crowed smugly. And so I got delight reading each page and disputing this specious claim, mentally shaking my fist and saying, “You’re wrong, old lady!”

Katherine Ann Porter’s magnum opus was years in the making, having dashed off a smaller version of it between 1940-1 and finally producing the finished 500 pages in 1962. A cast of characters that no one could love, and yet you enjoy peering at life from their particular porthole, section after section. Germans returning from Mexico to their homeland, an American artist couple squabbling, devious zarzuela dancing crew whose children thieve and throw things overboard, a group of Cuban students, an imprisoned Contessa and the doctor who gives her drugs to sleep. The book is relentless, wave after wave of text coming at you and only broken up into three sections corresponding to getting on the boat, being at sea, and sailing into port. Dazzling writing, and there’s no way the movie could hold a candle to the layers of complexity, nuance, and sting of the book itself.


Brilliant fiction from Susan Steinberg with brave punctuation, something I never expected myself to say out loud. It’s the story of a girl and her family who summer at the shore, a local girl drowns (“your knockout in her underwear”) from the dock where kids drunkenly horse around, the narrator’s older brother messed up on pills stolen from their mother’s drawer and sitting in strangers’ cars in the parking lot of the grocery store, lots of sleeping around and drinking and taking random pills and feeling like queens of the universe, the threatening shadow of her father with his affair and ultimate divorce. Tight writing punctuated by semicolons and later spaced out like poems then pulled back again more prose-like. Ghosts, machines, stars, killers, liars, saviors, animals. The spacing and styling make the pace push faster on the page, like someone out of breath from running to tell you this story, this story she’s been trying to tell her entire life.

Year of the Monkey

Patti starts the book in Santa Cruz, talking to the sign at the Dream Inn, trying to scrounge up coffee on New Years day and worried about Sandy Pearlman’s condition in the ICU. Each chapter is a month in the year, and the Year of the Monkey hits in February 2016, unleashing mischief onto the world. I’m less enthusiastic about this book than most of Smith’s work, not quite in the mood for her fantastical takes (see: talking to signs, writing things that might be dreams and might be reality), but there’s good stuff in here as well. She helps Sam Shepard with his last work, travels east and west and back to NYC, ends the book with a catalog of those who are dead, now including Sandy and Sam in that count.

The Soundscape

If you spend even a moment doing research into sound, you’ll stumble onto R. Murray Schafer’s groundbreaking book from 1977, and so I came to Schafer from a handful of other sources. How can you not a love a man who describes Muzak/Moozak as schizophonic musical drool? (And a man who invents the term “schizophonia,” the splitting of sound from its origins and where it is heard). While listening to stonemasons in Iran, he realized that in earlier societies sounds were discrete and interrupted but today most sounds are continuous. The montage of constant sounds is jolting in juxtapositions (like of Vietnam war reporting interrupted by Wrigley gum jingle to Chew your cares away). He illustrates the irrationality of electroacoustic juxtapositioning with a few stories.

He takes as earwitnesses those sources I was considering delving into for their reportage of sound—Schopenhauer, Carlyle, Dickens, Woolf, the ancient Greeks, Tolstoy, Wittgenstein, Thoreau, Whitman, Thomas Mann, Rilke, Proust, the whole gang. Noise has been problematic throughout human history, something I’m constantly forgetting as I grit my teeth and cover my ears to protect from the daily sirens screaming past my window. Schopenhauer (Cheery old Arthur, as I like to call him) describes the cracking of whips to be the worst distraction: “I denounce it as making a peaceful life impossible; it puts an end to all quiet thought… No one with anything like an idea in his head can avoid a feeling of actual pain at this sudden, sharp crack, which paralyzes the brain, rends the thread of reflection, and murders thought” (from “On Noise” in The Pessimist’s Handbook).

I knew Thomas Carlyle struggled with noise, attempting to build a soundproof writing room in his London house. Schafer mentions that he added his name to a letter also signed by Dickens, Tennyson, and various other London intellectuals complaining of street musicians. “[We] are even made especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments, beaters of drums, grinders of organs, bangers of banjos, clashers of cymbals, worriers of fiddles, and bellowers of ballads; for, no sooner does it become known to those producers of horrible sounds that any of your correspondents have particular need of quiet in their own houses, than the said houses are beleaguered by discordant hosts seeking to be bought off.” (Quoted in a pamphlet/collection of letters circulated in 1864 as Street Music in the Metropolis)

Hilarious quote from 1899 Scientific American article: “The improvement in city conditions by the general adoption of the motorcar can hardly be overestimated. Streets clean, dustless and odourless, with light rubber tired vehicles moving swiftly and noiselessly over the smooth expanse, would eliminate a greater part of the nervousness, distraction, and strain of modern metropolitan life.” Yet here we are, drowning in traffic sounds.

Schafer created the World Soundscape Project in the late 1960s.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Delirious with delight from reading Amy Hempel. I’ve sipped on these slowly, rationing them out to a few a day so I could extend my pleasure. So many good stories in here, I could have dogeared every page. In Tonight is a Favor to Holly, a travel agent goes on a blind date but most of the story is about the two of them bumming around a near-LA beach town. Celia is Back was a direct hit to my solar plexus: two kids enter contests with the help of their father who cautions them to be simple, original and sincere in their answers. The last paragraph, the father’s driving and spots a sign saying “Celia, formerly of Mr. Edward, has rejoined our staff” and he thinks everything will be fine now that Celia’s here. Three Popes Walk Into a Bar is about friendship with a comedian performing in SF. The Man in Bogotá is a story told to a woman threatening to jump from a ledge about a guy in Colombia who was kidnapped and his captors made him quit smoking and exercise to keep him alive, so he was in great shape when released, the best thing that ever happened to him.

Her stories of the Bay Area are divine, description of hearing the fog horns at night and cannon from the Presidio at dawn. Punchy lines like “Mornings, robins robbed the ground. A rooster startled the cat that had been raised indoors. Nothing clever was said.” Descriptions of letter writing: “I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you in the western tradition: Put your cards on the table. This is easier, I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less: there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less careful. We can say everything.”

Sound and the Ancient Senses

Continuing with my investigation of soundscapes through time, this collection of essays touches on various aspects of sound in ancient Greece and Rome, handed down to us through what does survive time, unlike sound itself. Sound leaves behind no trace, no ruin or residue; the ephemerality of sound can represent the impermanence of human existence. The introductory essay by Sarah Nooter and Shane Butler is a great start, and for once it makes sense to go deep on etymology, tracing the historical roots of how we felt about sound through the words that were used. Voice, song, music hugely important (Homer’s opening lines of Iliad, “Sing, divine wrath/ ménin a-ei-de” ). Poetry (then as now, but much more then) was spoken, stories passed down through the ages orally.

Seneca’s Epistles give us a detailed glimpse into the Roman soundscape:

Petrarch, reading Cicero 14 centuries later reminds us that ancient texts can be experienced as soundscapes, voices from the past.

Where sound doesn’t observe its proper boundaries, it disrupts our sense of place sometimes violently, a common problem in urban environments.

Most entertaining essay award goes to Joshua T. Katz’s Gods and Vowels, with a delightful playful tone and topic that refreshed after many pages of a bit dry academic prose. Also enjoyed the acoustic rendering of late Republican Rome by Erika Houlter, Susanne Muth and Sebastian Schwesinger (Sounding out public space) and Pamela Zinn’s Lucretius on sound.

One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World

Why do all male nature writers ultimately turn out to be sexist jerks? The list is long— Edward Abbey and Colin Fletcher come immediately to mind although I’m sure there are others, including this latest, Gordon Hempton. At first I was mildly charmed by this kook/crank who obsesses over keeping one square inch of the Hoh Rainforest in northern Washington completely silent. His descriptions of the natural sounds he encounters are dreamy and he passes on a tip that opening your mouth improves your hearing because the auditory canal straightens and your mouth becomes a resonant chamber. But then he sets out on an ambitious round-the-country tour to listen to America’s sounds in his (noisy) 1968 VW van that he never tires of telling you how much people ogle, starting with a leg that he forces his reluctant teenage daughter on. He’s horrified when she deigns to SPEAK at the sacred spot of the one square inch of silence instead of understanding his weird pantomimes where he asks for a bag to put the red stone that serves as a mascot. He pouts when she refuses to wear the stone around her neck, stews when she prefers to listen to her music loudly through headphones and panics when she decides to abandon him once she reaches her maternal grandmother’s house.

I didn’t start to loathe him until he’s deep in the wilderness of Utah at a secret spot for several days with another soundscape enthusiast. In the midst of a pleasant experience, “two female rangers burst into camp  barking questions, pointing fingers, expecting answers… Both women have darting eyes, as if they suspect us of a crime. The bulldog of the two barks out the big question: ‘Why have you come here ten years in a row and stayed without moving on?’… In the expanse of the desert you need days, not minutes, for your senses to adjust and new experiences to come your way. But come your way they will—unless the Rangerettes barge in. I’m still pissed at the Rangerettes….” Ah, yes. Uppity women doing their job are always a grain of irritating sand in the sweaty gym sock of dudes.

In Montana he meets Doug Peacock, the friend of Ed Abbey who he based the main character of Hayduke on. Peacock’s wife hovers in the background, serving coffee as all good little silent women must.

He’s constantly jumping up and recording sound levels of everything, noting the time that jets are passing by overhead during the night, 1AM, 2AM, 3AM, he’s up and monitoring. He takes this instrument everywhere, taking measurements at sports games, the symphony, diners, in elevators.

At a motel front desk, the manager is a “an attractive Eastern European woman (must be her elderly mother looking on from the back room)”—I can’t make this up.

An online reviewer says, “He comes off as a single-issue zealot who alienates park rangers, airline officials and even his own daughter.”

Leonard Woolf, on meeting Gertrude Stein

Thanks to the delicious Virginia Woolf list-serv comes this tidbit, a piece by Leonard Woolf first published in The London Magazine October 1955  as “Coming to London — II”, part of a regular series about London life.

Leonard remembers meeting Gertrude Stein:

One of the things which I have been asked to deal with in this article is my ‘first impressions of the London literary world’. My feelings towards that world are probably also ambivalent. It is sometimes represented as composed of literary personages, major and minor, endlessly talking, eating, and drinking in pubs and Soho restaurants, in rooms and flats and parties. Into that world, if it exists, I have not penetrated, and I can only remember two occasions upon which I felt that I was in the real London literary world, even though not of it. The first was when, latish in life, I was sometimes invited to the Sitwells, a dinner, say, with Osbert Sitwell or a party given by Edith Sitwell to meet Gertrude Stein. This was, of course, not in the least like the imaginary would of the literary personages in Soho, but it was a literary world into which I went as an intruder feeling the inferiority complex of the amateur minnow among the great, confident, professional pike. To be led up to Gertrude Stein sitting on a kind of throne and to be given five minutes’ conversation with her was what an old Edinburgh Writer to the Signet used to call ‘an experience’. When he took me as a boy to see Abbotsford and halted me outside to survey that fantastic monument of literary fame and success, he said: ‘This is an experience which ye’ll do well to remember—O Ay, an experience ye’ll do well to remember.’ Gertrude Stein, I felt, was the same kind of experience.

And this, his other literary London memory, a hilarious story about Virginia and his bumbling at a fancy party:

My only other memory of entering the real London literary world recalls a more trivial and to me discreditable experience than a Sitwell party. Virginia and I accepted an invitation to dine with a well-known novelist whom we liked very much. We expected to dine with her alone or at most another guest, and late, dirty, and dishevelled we dashed from printing in the basement in a taxi to her flat—and found ourselves at a formal dinner of twelve or fourteen distinguished writers all in full evening dress. I suppose it was nervousness which made us fail the entrance examination to literary London. At any rate first, when one of those curious collective silences suddenly fell upon the company, Virginia’s extremely clear voice was heard to say: ‘The Holy Ghost?’ to which the distinguished Catholic writer sitting on her left replied with indignation: ‘I did not say Holy Ghost; I said the whole coast.’ Almost immediately after, thinking that the distinguished lady writer sitting on my left had dropped her white handkerchief on the floor, I leant down, picked it up, and handed it to her, to find, to my horror, that it was the hem of her white petticoat which had protruded below her skirt. As soon as we decently could, we slunk off home, feeling that we had both disgraced ourselves in literary London.

The End of Silence

As part of my quest to inhale all things acoustic/soundscape related, I holed up at the library to read the long article, The End of Silence, in the November issue of the Atlantic. Hugely recommended for anyone interested in the futile quest for quiet.

  • Noise pollution doubles or triples every 30 years, according to a study by the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division.
  • Slow TV…”It’s a sailboat that runs 10 hours, and all you hear is the ship breaking water. That’s it. Every now and then you’ll hear bruhhhhh—another ship that passes by. That’s it. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.”
  • Lovely site called “which offers its more than 15,000 daily listeners an encyclopedic compendium of noise-masking tracks that range from “Distant Thunder” to “Laundromat,” a listener request.”
  • Ecuador has a lovely Quiet Park: “For $6,450, not including airfare, you too can take a plane to a car to a motorboat to a canoe to a hiking trail to spend three days with a tour group along Ecuador’s Zabalo River, which was recently named the world’s first Wilderness Quiet Park… (The Zabalo River qualified for Wilderness Quiet Park status by having a noise-free interval of at least 15 minutes, during which no man-made sounds were audible.)” (Certified by Quiet Park International)
  • People who seem worth investigating more: Gordon Hempton (acoustic ecologist), Arjun Shankar (acoustic consultant), Arline Bronzaft (NYC’s noise czar who’s theory on why Trump ran for president was to kept planes from flying over Mar a Lago – it worked.), R Murray Schafer (composer, acoustic ecologist), Antonella Radicchi (architect mapping the quiet spaces in cities).