The Pleasures of Walking

I stumbled onto this curious relic from 1934 when perusing a nearby shelf at the library. Oh for the heyday of publishing when an editor like Edwin Mitchell could have a boozy lunch and come up with a book idea that would take him half an afternoon to complete. He digs up essays from a bunch of men, mostly dead, tosses off a quick introduction, et voila! Sometimes he tells you where he culled the essays from (like Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller) but mostly he just plops them in there, with no helpful information such as date written. How egregious to have a book about walking that snubs Virginia Woolf but includes her less-eloquent father Leslie Stephen, who’s a fan of “a little trespassing” when necessary to get to the best paths. My own research shows that Stephen’s essay In Praise of Walking was from his 1898 Studies of a Biographer. Which makes all the difference knowing it was in the late 19th century when he said “Conversation, we are often told, like letter-writing, is a lost art. We live too much in crowds.”

There’s lively “discussion” between the essays about whether walking is good for writing, or conversation, or done best alone. Max Beerbohn’s Going Out for a Walk was entertaining, saying he never walks voluntarily and describes a painful walk with a companion who feels obligated to blather platitudes every few minutes and insists on “reading vapidly aloud to me” every sign he encounters. (Written in 1918)

Dickens gets two essays in here, which seems like cheating, but only one was worth including—Night Walks—wherein he describes the walks he takes through London when he can’t sleep, seeing a man bring a large cold meat pudding into a cafe out of his hat, and various other wonderments. (1860s)

George Macaulay Trevelyan’s Walking seems to have come out in 1913 in his collection Clio, a Muse, and Other Essays which I’ll probably check out. It starts out strong: “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” He’s a proponent of solitary, silent walking, and recommends taking a whole day off during a walking tour to gain strength. “Our modern life requires such days of ‘anti-worry’ and they are only to be obtained in perfection when the body has been walked to a standstill.”

On Going A Journey by William Hazlitt was first published in 1822, another vote for solitary walking. “I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy… I begin to feel, think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull commonplaces, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence. No one likes puns, alliteration, antitheses, argument and analysis better than I do; but I sometimes had rather be without them.”

A few of the essays I had already encountered in their native habitats, like George Gissing’s Walking Experiences, taken from The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and Hilaire Belloc’s Brienzer Grat, taken from The Path to Rome. The collection ends with the obvious inclusion of Thoreau’s Walking.

Under the Skin

Now that’s how a story ends! “Here I come,” she said. Blowing up her car and taking herself out with it. This is a strange almost sci-fi book filled with lyrical writing. The otherness of it sneaks up on you. The story opens with a woman picking up hitchhikers along the road in Scotland, making sure they are beefy male specimens. Only the end result is to kidnap them and hustle them back to the farm where the workers (considered “human beings” but they seem to be hairy, walking on 4 legged creatures) fatten the hitchers up then carve them up as meat. Beautiful writing and a strange story, but perfectly paced. Reco’d by Luke from Hell World, who included this passage in his write-up:

Isserley drove through the open fields, where massive round hay-bales lay scattered like black holes in the horizon. One field lay fallow, the opposite one was lush with the dark secretive greenery of potatoes. Here and there, bushes and trees that served no agricultural purpose sprouted up towards the heavens, displaying hardy flowers or long fragile twigs, each according to its kind.

Isserley knew what Amlis must be feeling: here was plant life that did not need to be grown in tanks or grubbed out of chalky, slimy soil, but that grew straight up into the air like a gush of joy. Here was acre upon acre of tranquil fecundity, taking care of itself with no apparent help from humans. And he was seeing Ablach’s fields in winter: if only he could see what happened here in spring! …

At the great gate at the end of the Ablach path, not far short of the cliffs, Isserley stopped the car and turned off the engine. From here there was a clear view of the North Sea, which was silver tonight, under a sky whose eastern reaches were grey with advancing snow, while the west was still bright with the moon and stars.

‘Oh,’ said Amlis feebly.

He was in shock, more or less, she could tell. He stared straight ahead at the immense, impossible waters, and she stared at the side of his face, secure in the knowledge that he was unaware of her longing.

After a long time, Amlis was ready to ask a question. Isserley knew what it was going to be before he even opened his mouth, and answered him before he could speak. That thin line of brightness there,’ she pointed. That’s where the sea ends. Well, it doesn’t really end there, it goes on forever. But that’s where our perception of it ends. And above that: that’s where the sky begins. You see?’ It was almost cruelly poignant, but delightful too, the way Amlis seemed to regard her as the custodian of an entire world, as if it belonged to her. Which, perhaps, it did.

The Long View

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second novel, pub’d in 1956, is interesting only in that it gives you a window into how she gradually gained her powers of depicting characters that draw you in. The cast of this novel is an unhappy family, starting in 1950 and working backwards to when the couple first married in 1927. The husband begins the story in 1950 largely disappearing from the family, teasing and torturing guests at a dinner party to celebrate his son’s engagement to a disastrously dull woman. His daughter is torn between two men, one who loves her and one who does not, and she gets pregnant by the one who loathes her and runs away with the other.

Very Nice

Another NYC media-darling book that disappoints. A writing professor sleeps with his student on the last day of classes before his contract ends, sends her off to her parents house in Connecticut with his beloved poodle for the summer. He’s sublet his NYC apartment to Khloe, twin sister of Kristi, a friend of his working at the Iowa writers’ workshop. He comes back from Pakistan too quickly, his grandmother dying as soon as she saw him. Khloe sends him to Connecticut to fetch his dog, but he ends up staying and sleeping with his student’s mother, who is separated from her husband (who of course ends up being Khloe’s boss in finance). There’s a gun at the end and it’s all very dull and unrewarding.

How Could She

Meh. Not terrible writing, but I’m not a huge fan of books that seem to be more like pitches for screenplays to be adapted from them. A trio of Canadian woman (ok, one is originally from Brooklyn, but she ends up in Toronto) who are frenemies, or friends, or enemies, depending on the season. Sunny’s a successful artist, married, who everyone seems to fall in love with. Rachel the Brooklynite, married with kid, whose brother Jesse woos Sunny; she’s a YA author/magazine editor. And Geraldine, when we first meet her stuck in Toronto getting over a jilting by her fiance, moves to NYC and ends up in the podcasting business. It’s all very mediocre.

On the Move: A Life

I’m continuing my Oliver Sacks kick by going straight to the source, to his own memoir written in his last years as he finally came to terms with openly being a gay man. What a full and thrilling life he managed to pack in! Details here that were missing from the other book, like about the PCP party he was invited to and he arrived late only to find everyone had lost their minds and he called emergency services for them. Or the road trip he took on his motorcycle which broke down and he hitched a ride with a trucker for a few days. Being so excited about some research at Oxford that he didn’t have time to write his essay so he extemporized and flipped blank pages of a notepad as if it were written down. Lyrical descriptions of living on City Island in the Bronx, calling it an old fishing village where they didn’t lock their doors and neighbors looked out for each other. Yet he wonders aloud why he didn’t stay in the West, more specifically the Southwest, instead of the 50 years he spent in NYC.

Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time

Gorgeous black and white photos of huge and ancient trees by Beth Moon, the result of a 15 year project traveling the world to capture these giants. Some are thousands of years old, like the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines in the California Inyo National Forest. Old yews in England, including a “pulpit” yew that stairs had been built inside. The strangling figs of Cambodia. Beautiful oaks. Yemen’s Heart of the Dragon trees and the Desert Rose. Madagascar’s amazing Ifaty Teapot tree, a baobab. This is a book guaranteed to soothe you.

Patsy

A Jamaican woman travels to NYC in search of the promised good life of the U.S. but without proper papers is met with a series of terrible low-wage jobs. She’s a math wizard but not given the chance to flaunt this skill, dating back to childhood when she gave her friend Cicely the answers to a math test and then the teacher accused Patsy of cheating off Cicely’s paper. In NYC she’s taken to an agency where Cicely tries to get her to accept a nanny gig, but Patsy revolts, wants to try her hand at an office job, which they wouldn’t give to anyone without proper documentation. Instead, she works in a restaurant cleaning toilets, then as a maid, later as a nanny for one of the homes she cleans. When she left Jamaica, she left a 5-year-old daughter behind. The story of Patsy is interspersed with that of Tru, being brought up by her father. Mostly I was disappointed, skimmed the book to just read the Patsy sections which I found more interesting.

Bunny: A Novel

I’m amazed by the quantity of high quality work being done, and Mona Awad’s novel is no exception. Hilarious, wry jab at MFA programs taken to bizarre heights of imagination, written in this perfect, coolly pointed prose. Brilliant, actually, if you let yourself get taken away and immersed in the story. Samantha, our narrator, is the odd-woman-out in her 5 person writing class, the other 4 ladies a group she calls the Bunnies because they all call each other Bunny, cooing as they hug each other and eat tiny cupcakes and act like stereotypical blonde, rich, pampered “artists.” Samantha inexplicably gets asked to join the group and discovers that their version of workshopping something is to turn actual rabbits into boys/men, exploding their heads, gore and guts all over the attic room of one of their houses. Sam creates her own boy who then wreaks havoc on the Bunnies. Possibly my favorite part was the final workshop meeting where the Bunnies all have dropped their masks and tell each other what pretentious crap they’re writing. Kill your darlings takes on a life of its own here.

Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir

Ghostwritten by Joshua Daniel Stein to give it a very readable style, a nice arc. The story begins when Kwame is at the height of his powers, catering a gig in 2016 at the opening of the National Museum of African American History, on the cusp of opening his own fine dining establishment in DC at the age of 26. Then we rewind back to his days growing up in the Bronx, whipped by his dad when things go wrong but learning to cook in his mom’s cramped kitchen. Living in Nigeria for a few years as a kid. Hanging out with various gangsters, slinging drugs, getting kicked out of college for slinging drugs, working as a chef on a cleanup ship for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, working at Per Se, studying at the CIA, starting his own catering business. Eventually everything unravels with the DC restaurant and we’re left wondering what will happen next in Kwame’s exciting life as a chef.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

Beautiful memoir by Billy Hayes about moving to NYC and falling in love with Oliver Sacks, being with him for his remaining years and comforting him as he died. Sacks had the same type of ocular melanoma that went into remission before roaring to life years later as advanced and lethal liver cancer. He underwent one treatment of embolization but it was too late for additional treatments. The end came with hospice, dying in his apartment surrounded by loved ones. Yes, I cried.

When Sacks gets his diagnosis of a few months to live, he writes pieces for the New York Times about it, but the list of reasons he’s thankful that he makes that night include: an easy death (relatively), time (to complete life), loving support, book published, more good work, enjoyment allowed, best doctors and treatments available, psychiatric support.

As he’s dying, “The most we can do is to write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

Hayes is an excellent writer in his own right. His description of New York makes me heartsick for that city. Talking about moving there after decades in SF, bringing very little, getting a tiny apartment with a killer view and watching the Empire State and Chrysler buildings from his kitchen at night.

I love that Sacks calls Billy’s iphone his “little box” because he finds the word iphone too ugly to pronounce. “It’s not even a word, it’s a brand.” “If you would be so kind, look up something for me on your little box?”

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks

If you don’t come away from this book with adoration for this lovable weirdo, something’s wrong with you. I didn’t want to stop reading this, seriously considering throwing off all plans until the very last page reached. The Paris Review had a lovely excerpt from the book detailing Thom Gunn’s admiration of how Sacks had changed from the daredevil drug-chugging motorcycle leather daddy whose prose could be quite cruel into a more centered and empathetic writer. Weschler reveals that in the early 80s he planned to write a profile of Sacks for the New Yorker and spent several years gathering material before Sacks asked him not to publish it because he was deeply closeted and had been celibate for several years, not wanting his sexuality raked about in public. Sacks had a change of heart on his deathbed in 2015, and thus we get this delightful tome.

During WW2, most London parents sent their children to the countryside and the Sacks were no exception. It was here that Oliver experienced abuse that scarred him for life, perhaps seeping into all his relations and his manic personality. He goes on to become a doctor, then flees England before he’s drafted, landing in Canada then SF and LA before settling in NYC.

Despite claiming that women’s anatomy was a complete scotoma (one of Sacks’s favorite words, a pathological hole in your visual field), at the age of 20 he ghostwrote a book with his mother about menopause, Women of Forty: The Menopausal Syndrome by Muriel Elsie Landau. This was before, I think, he came out as gay to his parents, whereupon his mother released an hours-long Deuteronomy-driven harangue before lapsing into the silent treatment for days and then never mentioning it again.

Sacks’s drug use: his slogan was “Every dose an overdose” and was known for being greedy, sucking down as much LSD and amphetamines that he could find. He was also addicted to acceleration and speed, zooming to the Grand Canyon through the night on his motorcycle at more than 100mph.

“For all my failures and the suicide which will probably end it all, I do have a feeling of developing, though, of being different at fifty than I was at forty, at forty than at thirty. I don’t know how people who don’t develop bear it.”

What types of books captivated him as a child? “Moby-Dick. What can you say about Moby-Dick? There’s Shakespeare and there’s Moby-Dick and that’s that.” Also: “Early on an editor told me I was too florid, to be more spare, to be like Hemingway, which among other things prevented me from liking Hemingway.” And: “Dickens wasn’t Dickens: He was life.”

Describing his first year at Oxford: “something bizarre must have been going on in terms of reading and searching: I was insatiable. I read Western philosophy with a sort of desperation. It didn’t work. I didn’t get anything, I didn’t retain anything, the only value in retrospect having been that 20 years later, I knew where to look… I became learning-voracious, swallowing up enormous obsessive amounts… If one could dig out the record of the library from that year, one would see what kind of strange, futile frenzy it was.”

On one phone call, Oliver excitedly relates that after swimming he returned to shore only to find that the rock beneath his foot moved, the whole field of rocks a horde of horseshoe crabs beached for mating. “My people have come!” Oliver crowed.

His relationship with the truth was something he struggled with all the time: “its not that I invent the truth. Rather I intuit or imagine it.”

He begins to be recognized in the 1980s; one turning point seems to be the 1984 lecture he gave at the NYPL, introduced by Susan Sontag who cooed about his writing style. Weschler mentions being there in the audience: “Jasper Johns is seated behind me: it’s that sort of crowd.”

The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote To What Isn’t Working Today

I sneak up on this book and take little sips, hoping to prolong my pleasure. Hecht’s method is “happiness by historical perspective” and she looks at four issues as topics seen through the lens of history: drugs, money, bodies, celebration. There are three distinct kinds of happiness, not unrelated but not in harmony with each other:

A Good Day: filled with lots of mild pleasures, repeatable, forgettable, a tiny bit of rewarding effort

Euphoria: intense, memorable, involves risk or vulnerability

A Happy Life: lots of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning) sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or euphoria.

Taking thousands of years of writing and thinking on the subject, there are four things in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help:

  • Know yourself.
  • Control your desires.
  • Take what’s yours.
  • Remember death.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero more accurately translated as “Pluck the day, never trust the next.”

Everyone is forgotten. Hecht uses a brutal example, asking readers to list the names of your grandparents’ mothers. From her quick survey only a tiny minority could name even two of their four great-grandmothers.

Everything has to be learned twice. “In childhood we have ignorant happiness, and we must lose this happiness if we are ever to get beyond it. Repression is not the same as transcendence. Between these states of calm ignorance and calm knowing, there has to be some half-wise screaming. Some few people actually grow wise by acting wise, but most grow wise by acting foolish, by accruing a variety of experiences, by taking chances, and by making errors.”

Your worst barrier against happiness is you: “You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it.” If you master these issues, you can be happy, but it’s not easy; it must be constantly worked at and never completely works.

Car culture makes us prize clearheadedness. “What makes opium a bad drug and Zoloft a good one has a lot to do with fogginess.” The degree of gauzelike inebriation is the difference between a bad drug and a good one. Car culture is also bananas because “if we rejected cars, we would have to walk, and our exercise problem would be over” (along with our fuel problem and pollution problem).

Drugs like cocaine and opium were actually useful in the 19th century for their medicinal properties. “While cocaine is great for allergies and toothaches, opium has a more important medicinal punch: it stops coughs and diarrhea.” Which in the era of epidemics of tuberculosis and dysentery was a blessing: heath AND happiness in a bottle.

Happiness maintenance work is “creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.”

Money has stolen away our sense of community, “consumerism has become the central opportunity for public performance; for being someone; and for eating and feeding, rather than being eaten.” We shop to have good interactions and get stuff, we watch TV to bond with others.

Exercise is something that we’ve invented because machines have made life easy. “The only labor available is purposeless.” And also a drain on resources because you have to plug that treadmill in. When we fill our town centers with gyms, we’re combining 2 American traditions: the pride of the upper class not having to do work so doing sport instead, and religious identity distinguishing virtue through self-limitation. Hecht says we’d be better off if we only did unproductive exercise for pleasure…. walk somewhere you have to go anyway, take the stairs, chop some wood. “Forget the gym unless you love it or need a change of habit.”

She recommends creating a list of things we do that contribute to all 3 prongs of happiness: Good-Day Happiness (what makes a good day for you?), Euphoria (How do you get euphoria), A Happy Life (What do you need to have or be working toward, in order to like your life)

The Maltese Falcon

The only entertainment gained from reading this “classic” from Dashiell Hammett is following along the SF streets as he zips around Sutter, Kearny, Post, Geary, 9th Avenue. He’s credited with inventing the whole genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, by which I guess means tough guys who snarl at ladies who are swooningly in love with them. One particularly laughable moment in the Falcon comes when all the characters are penned up in Sam Spade’s apartment and he nonchalantly gets the woman, Brigid, to rustle up some coffee and food for his “guests.” I’m obviously not a fan of Hammett’s writing, preferring the higher skills of Raymond Chandler any day of the week. However, after living in SF for 20 years, I felt obligated to knock this off my list.

Meditations in an Emergency

Frankie soothes me with his 1957 book of poems. Gems include For Grace, After a Party (Grace Hartigan) and the eponymous Meditations in an Emergency.

For Grace:

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t interest / me, it was love for you that set me / afire, / and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of / strangers my most tender feelings /
writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand, / isn’t there
an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside / the bed? And someone you love enters the room / and says wouldn’t / you like the eggs a little / different today? / And when they arrive they are / just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather / is holding.