I’m amazed that I somehow had never read this, but I enjoyed Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and was reminded about this book by the profile of Evan Ratliff in my alumni magazine. The structure of this book is phenomenal—she starts out with Laroche and his theft of ghost orchids from the swamp. (“I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words ‘swamp’ and ‘orchids’ and ‘Seminoles’ and ‘cloning’ and ‘criminal’ together in one short piece.”) She branches out into the general weirdness of orchids and Florida. There’s a section on the real estate scams throughout the ages, how one parcel of swampland netted hundreds of millions in profits when people bought sight unseen. They paved some of the roads and now bear sightings can be pinpointed at particular intersections in the jungle-overgrown grid. “It was a weird unquiet stillness, and yet the place had a weird overfull emptiness. It was more ghostly than a ghost town. In a ghost town, only the people are missing. Here the people are missing, too. It didn’t seem like a peaceful place where nothing ever happened—it was full of the feeling of a million things planned on and never done.”
I love sociology books based on extensive interviews with subjects, and this is no exception. Ravenelle interviewed 80 workers from Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kitchensurfing, spending hours with each subject to get past the fluff and nonsense and dig into the real dirt. Airbnb hosts admitted to sleeping with guests, Uber drivers talk candidly about peeing wherever they can, Taskers talk about random sexual harassment, and Kitchensurfing chefs dish on requests they participate in orgies. The best gigs seemed to be Airbnb & Kitchensurfing (RIP), where there was really minimal interaction with the public. Uber and TaskRabbit push the downtrodden and out-of-other-option folks into situations that were unsafe, toxic, and without protection from their corporate bosses. Essentially, the dwindling middle class finds themselves able to hire servants from the ever-burgeoning class of underlings.
The last paragraph of the book sums it up nicely: “The sharing economy offers workers a way to ‘save themselves’ through extra work, but the growth of the sharing economy may only continue to subvert workers’ rights and protections. Hard-won victories for workers’ rights and protections are being hacked and disrupted in the name of a ‘cheaper, poorer quality’ progress that is eviscerating a hundred years of workers’ rights. The disruption offered by the sharing economy is simply a hustle.”
Yes! A much deeper dive into the optics/lens-based visual techniques used in the 15th century up until photography was invented. I remember seeing Hockney’s Great Wall (see below) at the De Young in 2013 but it didn’t bring me to my knees like reading in depth about these images. Especially the explosion of left-handed drinkers at the end of the 16th century when lenses came onto the scene, which reverse the image (instead of earlier optics like concave mirrors which invert the image but keep it from flipping across the axis). The left-handed drinking phenomenon arrived with Caravaggio and lasted for ~40 years until good quality flat mirrors reversed the image back. Fascinating stuff.
I’ve been authorizing myself small sips of this for the last few weeks in order to prolong the delight and maximize my full attention which tends to wander off to various spots of further discovery. I loved the explorations Hockney did with photographs in the 1980s, railing against the flatness of normal photographs and trying to get to a true vision of how we look at things. He would assemble collages of the resulting images, layering them to recreate the way we glimpse at images. Explaining his process to Weschler about taking dozens of photos of location then having the rolls developed at a local one-hour processing spot, he had to convince them to print all the photos and would still get “wonderful standardized notices back with my batches of prints patiently explaining what I am doing wrong, how I should try to center the camera on the subject, focus on the foreground, and so forth.”
Arguably one of his best examples now sits in the Getty collection:
People criticized the painter for his work with photographs saying they’re not art, and I love Hockney’s response: “I couldn’t care less in a sense whether they are art or not. It’s not up to me to say, and maybe it’s not up to him either. It’s certainly interesting where they’re leading and where they’ve led, and you don’t stop in the middle of it all because, you know, ‘Gee, I’m not sure if this is art anymore.'” Later he notes, “If art isn’t playful, it’s nothing. Without play, we wouldn’t be anywhere. Play is incredibly important; it’s deeply serious as well.”
He begins to lose his hearing before his 50th birthday and revels in his new hearing aids which he got in bright mismatched colors of red and blue. “The moment I put it on, it was like a big muffler had been taken off my head.” When people notice the aids they ask if he has a hearing problem and he says “Well I used to but I don’t know.”
The really interesting sections of this book dive into Hockney’s investigation into how artists worked in the 15th century, more specifically what type of optical aids they used. He begins to collect images that show how portraits were a bit awkward up until 1425 when something shifted (concave mirrors, then lenses, camera lucidas, etc.), all the way up until photography used chemicals to stamp the image on paper, and then a return to awkwardness/cubism as a critique of photography and the entire lens-based tradition. As he gathers more and more evidence of this, Hockney faxes his handwritten findings on a nightly basis, never having learned to type. All of this means I’m probably going to have to dive deep into his book about the matter next, Secret knowledge: rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters.
Extremely talented photographer Ruby Ray was on the scene when punk broke open in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. She wielded her camera expertly, layering double exposures, timed exposures, experimental amazingness, tinged with a dose of sass (especially throwing shade on Sid Vicious, whose antics were decidedly not appreciated). Invaluable documentation of the early days, incredible shots of Mark Mothersbaugh & gang, Darby Crash’s exuberance, the hole in the wall hotel room where punk fans lived at the Oz Hotel, pantsed Jello Biafra, and just tons of glorious Mabuhay footage.
I love this photo of Jean Conner and Bruce:
And is this the old parking lot near Sutro Baths that’s been turned into a tidy tourist spot?
Neel explores the flip side of the creative class and coastal bubble cities, telling about his experiences in the hinterlands of the Nevada desert, the border between Oregon and California, Ferguson MO, suburbs of Seattle, and outskirts of southern China. This is the real deal, more legitimate than JD Vance’s much praised but highly suspect Hillbilly Elegy—he’s got the pedigree to talk about the underclass but doesn’t blame the poverty-stricken for the woes of late stage capitalism.
It’s beautiful writing as well as being sharp and pointed. Here he reflects on jail time from participating in the riots of Occupy Seattle: “If was only in those dull chrome holding cells and glass-glittering streets that I fully realized how cold that distant landscape had been, the downtown towers simply the crystallization of dead labor drawn together from all across the globe, the streets nothing but corridors for cops and capital. Everything that we were doing there—rioting, occupying, walking out of our jobs as fast-food workers—was all caught up already in the spectacle of itself, captured in a cold, dead space built to contain it. And it was really only from outside the walls that this could be seen clearly. That hinterland of decaying, industrialized suburbia seemed to offer a certain counterpoint to the ‘creative class’ and its urban palace. From this distance, hidden sightlines could be found and the occluded core of the region’s economy unveiled.”
His description of the work-release program included mention of how the whole system depended on the functioning of an underlying software system that told the guards to let you out to work or record when you should be back. The system crashed one day, wiping out the data so everyone was stuck inside while people had to be called up to input their work schedules one by one. Trapped inside for five days, they played hearts and talked about what they used to do and what they would do when they were released, “even when we knew the reality was that we had done and would be doing much the same thing, only more alone. When things break, it only shows that everything is already broken.”
Coastal cities survive and thrive because “they are where all the factors of economic concentration tend to be combined—seaports, rail and interstate hubs, first-stop destinations for foreign air freight, historical endowments in the form of established universities, wealthy residents, and leisure industries.”
The Ferguson discussion was interesting, noting how because the area was previously wealthy and majority white, it lacked the necessary narrow street infrastructure and security cameras usually used to quell rioting in cities.
The concept of the near-hinterland, that outer ring near cities dense with industry, likely to be “the central theater in the coming class war, the most concise summation of which is simply the fact that large populations of people who have been made surplus to the economy live and work along its integral corridors.”
I’m a sucker for books on walking. Unfortunately, it’s harder to write about than it would seem. Kagge (translated by Becky Crook from Norwegian) plods along and tries to interest you in glimpses from his packet of walks, including a sewer walk under NYC and a 40 mile hike through LA, but the spark never catches. Instead, it’s dull and dreary, pedestrian prose in every sense.
I read this 10 years ago and may make a habit of re-reading it every decade. Frankl survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau through transcending the filth and negative and despair. The last of human freedoms is to choose your attitude under any set of circumstances, to choose how you react. What matters is to make the best of any given situation.
He quotes Bismark: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Nietzsche is also quoted several times: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Frankl founded a school of thought called logotherapy, which believes the meaning of life can be discovered in three different ways: by creating work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (if it’s avoidable and you wallow in it, you’re masochistic.) The notion that “experiencing can be as valuable as achieving is therapeutic because it compensates for our one-sided emphasis on the external world of achievement at the expense of the internal world of experience” (here he quotes Edith Weisskopf-Joelson.)
It also embraces the idea of paradoxical intention as cure (the stutterer who can’t stutter when he tries to, the man who sweats excessively unable to sweat when trying to do so). The procedure consists of a reversal of the patient’s attitude. “By this treatment, the wind is taken out of the sails of anxiety.”
Despite losing his wife, parents, brother to the concentration camps, he survives and pulls himself back into humanity; the meaning of his life was to help others discover the meaning of theirs.
Delightful novel about a woman with a hideous past (her mother tried to kill her and successfully killed her younger sister) who attempts to be normal, going to her office job, spending weekends with frozen pizza and vodka to pass the days. She develops a crush on a musician she spots onstage, spinning out a fantasy life, and attempts to redo her image in order to be with him. Her co-worker, Raymond, is always there in the background, and they become unlikely friends and more. Eleanor’s candor, frankness, inability to not speak her mind is refreshing and weird. She grapples with feelings of intense loneliness and is unsure of how to make her way in the world until Raymond leads her onto the path toward normalcy.
“She wasn’t actually chewing gum, but her demeanor was very much that of a gum chewer.”
After Eleanor has a bit of a makeover, her coworkers treat her differently, kinder. “Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”
If ever there was a book to read during a sweltering heat wave, it’s How to Do Nothing. Jenny Odell is one of my favorite thinkers/artists and I very much enjoyed most of this book, tried not to get enraged by the sloppy notes section which is marred by several errors. Best sections were the intro and first chapter, which was taken from the talk she gave in 2017 that went viral, and if you don’t know Odell, it’s a good place to start.
Essentially, the book boils down to prodding us to be more present with where we are right now, at this very moment. To listen, to observe, to pay human attention to the things around us. To (obviously) put down the screens. Nothing new there, just a well-reasoned argument for resisting the attention economy in whatever way we can.
The stakes are high for us to wake from our collective stupor and resist late capitalism’s demand for total productivity. The world is impatient with “anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious.” These nothings don’t provide a deliverable, thus are valueless. “To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system…. embracing fuzzier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal.”
Great quote from Gordon Hempton, “an acoustic ecologist who records natural soundscapes”: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”
Left with plenty of reading material to follow up on, about Pauline Oliveros, David Hockney, Diogenes, Agnes Martin, Tehching Hsieh, Eleanor Coppola.
I think I saw a notice that this is soon to be reissued, so became aware of its existence. Philippe Petit, translated from French by Paul Auster, muses poetically on his craft, genuflects towards the other greats in the field (Blondin who prepared an omelette on the wire, opened a bottle of champagne, took photographs of the crowd watching him cross the rapids at Niagara Falls; Madame Saqui who created frescoes while on a tightrope; Omankowsky), includes dozens of spectacular photos of people doing the impossible—walking on air on a wire high up without supports, includes historical depictions of high wire acts. He urges the reader on, tries to get us to take up this incredible sport, and his words apply across disciplines: “Eliminate cumbersome exercises. Keep those that transfigure you. Triumph by seeking out the most subtle difficulties. Reach victory through solitude.”
“In waiting to fall in this way, I have sometimes cursed the wire, but it has never made me afraid. I know, however, that one day, standing at the edge of the platform, this anguish will appear. One hideous day it will be waiting for me at the foot of the rope ladder. It will be useless for me to shake myself, to joke about it. The next day it will be in my dressing room as I am putting on my costume, and my hands will be wet with horror. Then it will join me in my sleep. I will be crushed a thousand times, rebounding in slow motion in a circus ring, absolutely weightless. When I wake up, it will be stuck to me, indelible, never to leave me again. And of that, I have a terrible fear.”
Despite actively hating one of Chloe Caldwell’s other books, I took this one up and enjoyed it. A novella tracing the narrator’s falling in love with a woman for the first time, having moved to the city for a change of scenery and after dumping yet another boyfriend she meets Finn, an older woman in a long-term relationship (which she refuses to leave). The narrator is a 20-something author who gets a job at a library and enjoys having patrons recognize her face from her book jacket. She’s a recovering addict who gloms onto Finn as her latest addiction, an unhealthy obsessive relationship/affair follows, which she turns into the art of this book. Left with a few breadcrumbs for other books, like the one this Jeanette Winterson quote is from: “There’s nothing so sweet as wallowing in it, is there? Wallowing is like sex for depressives.”
Roland Barthes scribbled notes detailing the shades of his despair after his mother died, collected into this mourning diary. It is an especially helpful meditation for anyone in the throes of grief, grieving. Tiny snippets take no more of your brain than you can give, just an idea, a feeling, a sentence.
Over a year after the death, “we don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.” More immediate are the raw emotions, racking himself with pain by remembering her calling out to him. “I have known the body of my mother, sick and then dying.”
Two days after her death, “as soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.” He roots out the measurement of morning according to a book: “eighteen months for mourning a father, a mother.”
“I know now that my mourning will be chaotic.”
“What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character.”
“Each of us has his own rhythm of suffering.”
- Everyone is extremely nice—and yet I feel entirely alone. (‘Abandonitis’)
- Everything pains me. The merest trifle rouses a sense of abandonment. I’m impatient with other people, their will to live, their universe. Attracted by a decision to withdraw from everyone.
“Like love, mourning affects the world—and the worldly—with unreality, with importunity. I resist the world, I suffer from what it demands of me, from its demands. The world increases my sadness, my dryness, my confusion, my irritation, etc. The world depresses me.”
“… maman is no longer here and life, stupid life, continues.”
The 1939 book by Erika and Klaus Mann (Thomas Mann’s oldest children) begins with an epigraph by Dorothy Thompson: “Practically everybody who in world opinion had stood for what was currently called German culture prior to 1933 is now a refugee.”
The work is a hodgepodge, meandering, sometimes dull account of the steady stream of intellectuals, artists, professors, writers, thinkers, etc. who flowed out of Germany when Hitler started rotting the country in 1933 with the false Reichstag fire (having put together the list of people they wanted to accuse of the fire a day ahead of time, then setting it).
There are occasional flashes of interest, like the revelation that Mann used several letters from his wife in Magic Mountain (hmm, another Zelda/F. Scott problem?). Also guidance for those of us in 2019 who seem to be facing similar difficulty:
We are charged not only to unmask and denounce evil, but to practise good as far as in us lies. Our inner life would wither if we were to confine ourselves to an endless repetition of: Hitler is abominable, Hitler is deplorable. We have other things to do. The values and traditions we wish to protect from the clutch of Fascism must be creatively upheld.
I like how Lynn Hudson attempts to demystify Mary Ellen Pleasant by laying out all the rumors and sketchy biographies that have been generated about her. She’s been called a witch, voodoo queen, a madam, a mammy, almost everything but what she seemed to actually be—a successful black businesswoman in 19th century San Francisco.
Stories swirl around about how she got her initial seed month, supposedly $30k from her late husband to help abolitionist causes. She did arrive in California with a lot of capital, then set about making it work for herself. She seemed to hide publicly in the role of servant at white homes, but she actually owned the homes themselves, like the one on Octavia Street:
She donated money to John Brown’s abolitionist cause before the raid at Harper’s Ferry and has “friend of John Brown” on her Napa headstone. She earned tons of money cooking, operating boardinghouses and laundromats. She speculated in stocks for the silver mines and loaned money at interest. She bought and sold real estate. Luckily for us, she was also involved in several court cases, which gives us the best and most real document of her, including a suit which forced street cars to start picking up non-whites, and a divorce suit where dirty underwear had a starring role.