Saplings (Persephone Classics)

Noel Streatfeild wrote books for adults, too! I realized when I was about 100 pages in that this was the same Noel Streatfeild who wrote the famous “Shoes” books for kids– Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theater Shoes, etc. Saplings is yet another Persephone title, the tale of a family thriving pre-war and surviving during it. Alex and Lena are the adorable parents, but Lena goes to pieces when Alex is flattened by a bomb on their London home. The kids go to various pieces as well, and the four are farmed out to the aunts who aren’t terribly pleased to see them either. Lena takes up drinking, and cavorts around with a married American, Walter. Aunt Lindsay arrives to tell her she’s a drunkard who needs to shape up immediately, and Lena tries to kill herself, passed off to the kids as a nervous breakdown. The two oldest seem to suffer the most, but the younger two develop twitches and quirks of their own. It ends with Laurel expelled from school for a tale that her American solider lover gave her pearls when they were in reality a present from Aunt Lindsay’s hubby who runs off with Ruth, the kids’ ex-governness. Plots, drama, excitement, among war-time clothing shortages, gas rations, and other deprivations.

Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man

Marshall McLuhan’s first book, his first deep dive into pop culture, published in 1951; this is a hodgepodge of essays alongside examples of advertisements or newspaper front pages. Delicious, sharp stinging commentary pointing out the idiocy of the barrage of exhortations to buy buy buy. He excoriates an ad that claims to have a letter from soldiers who witnessed the dying of one of their own while holding a poster of Betty Grable—”an alert and conscious public would have repudiated this ad emphatically,” but “[the American nihilist is] unconscious, illogical, and inarticulate… must destroy because of the vacuum and self-hatred within him… he is born of the social conditions of rapid turnover, planned obsolescence, and systematic change for its own sake.”

“When people have been accustomed for decades to perpetual emotions, a dispassionate view of anything at all is difficult to achieve.” This, from 1951. Sixty years later, the swirl of perpetual emotions is even stronger, the onslaught of images ever more constant.

“A very able person may often choose to freeze or anesthetize large areas of his mind and experience for the sake of social and practical success or the pleasures of group solidarity.”

“Freedom, like taste, is an activity of perception and judgment based on a great range of particular acts and experiences. Whatever fosters mere passivity and submission is the enemy of this vital activity.”

Terrific takedown of the book of the month clubs and their advertisements that claim “Perhaps you have often wondered how these truly great books ‘got that way.’ First, because they are so readable… And of course to be interesting they had to be easy to understand. And those are the very qualities which characterize these selections: readability, interest, simplicity.” Apparently books were subjected to Gallup Poll type activities where a manuscript was boiled down to a one-hour reading and recorded then played to various segments who recorded their impressions while listening. He quotes Sterling North, “gaping at these wondrous totalitarian techniques for mashing the public into process cheese,” as saying “this is a way of consulting the collective wisdom of the American people.” McLuhan’s best line yet: “Which gives the cube root of pink toothbrush, at least.”

In analyzing an ad to help you develop your executive ability, McLuhan questions the person who’s being built up. “The successful executive has to strip himself of every human quality until he is nearly mad with boredom. Then he can work, work, work without distraction. The work is the narcotic for the boredom, as the boredom is the spur to work.”

He mentions a 1947 editorial in Fortune about the flood of advertising, “The American citizen lives in a state of siege from dawn till bedtime. Nearly everything he sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells is an attempt to sell him something. Luckily for his sanity he becomes calloused shortly after diaperhood; now to break through his protective shell, the advertisers must continuously shock, tease, tickle, or irritate him, or wear him down by the drip-drip-drip or Chinese water-torture method of endless repetition.”

Finally, he questions education. “Why train men if there is only a market for robots? Why train individuals, if the only available life is the collective dream of uniform tasks and mass entertainment? Why make life difficult? Why be different? Why use your brains to ensure poverty? To put the whole thing briefly, a power economy cannot tolerate power that cannot be centrally controlled. It will not tolerate the unpredictable actions and thoughts of individual men.”



Another Persephone imprint that I gobbled down in a few hours, losing myself in E. M. Delafield’s story of hapless Alex, who is unable to make her life into anything much. Failure to be a normal teenager, failure to fall in love with a man, she does get a marriage proposal but then breaks the engagement after she realizes she isn’t in love, sequesters herself for a decade in a convent in Belgium where she loses her health and a few teeth. She finally breaks free, comes home to her siblings (parents have died in the interim, leaving no provision for her in the will), pingpongs between households then escapes to a shabby room, kills herself by walking into the marsh with rocks in her pocket. Decent story, not terrific but a good escape for 400 pages.

Exquisite pain

Exquisite Pain

Another interesting art book by Sophie Calle. The first part is photos/description of the 92 days before her heartbreak. She receives a grant to travel to NYC but decides to go to Japan instead, and takes the train from Paris through Moscow through China. She hates it, but looks forward to meeting up with her lover in India at the end of it all. The day before they’re to meet, he says he’ll see her there; when she gets to the airport, a message that he’s been in an accident. The accident was an infected finger which was just a way of him saying he’d met another woman. The last half of the book is her recovery from that heartbreak, the text gradually fading on the black paper, and juxtaposed against other people’s sorrowful tales, mostly about death.

Farewell Leicester Square

Farewell Leicester Square

Another Persephone title, this one penned by Betty Miller, pub’d in 1941. Unfortunately, a bit too humdrum, but I finished it. Main character Alec Berman struggles with being a Jew in England, throws off his family but finds he’s unable to escape his Jewishness. Becomes a successful film director and marries a shiksa (non-Jew) who seems up to the “mixed” marriage, but can’t handle Alec’s extreme sensitivity to his Jewishness. The final blow comes when they have a son and she doesn’t want him exposed to Alec’s worries and fretting and Jewishness. In the end, Alec returns home, the prodigal son, returned to his dying mother who seems to rally at the sight of him, returned to the familiar sights and sounds and smells of Brighton and family. Structure of the book attempts somewhat to be like a film? But doesn’t really carry it all the way through.

The Red Car

The Red Car: A Novel

Average quality, quick read tale by Marcy Dermansky about a woman in crisis, a married writer who doesn’t love her husband (they’re both writers and she hates his loud music, sometimes escapes to her parents’ house in Jersey to write) who gets an email from an ex-co-worker to tell her that Judy, her old boss, has been killed in a car wreck. Judy has left Leah (the writer) her red car, the one that killed her, along with a painting and a bit of money. Her old co-worker Diego buys her a first-class ticket back to San Francisco with a 2 week return date, and Leah escapes New York after being strangled by her husband Hans. Some crappy “let’s go see the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf” scenes in SF and random hookups with lesbians who live in the house where she used to live 10 years ago (and miraculously there are 3 boxes of her stuff still in the closet?) and with Diego on his bathroom floor. A weird swirl of stuff that doesn’t go down as well as the more buttoned up mid-century British fiction I’ve been devouring lately. What is the difference? Why do “modern” books all involve sex/drugs/violence? Is the breaking down of the moral code of conduct a necessary thing to demonstrate? Anyway, I liked this barely enough to finish reading.

Some other thoughts:  perhaps the lack comes from the woodenness of the characters. Her husband, Hans, is violent—breaking a house plant and then strangling her; she married him so he could get a visa; she muses constantly about all the things she’s paid for over the years; he keeps sending her emails asking for her editing help with his writing. He’s an asshole mooch that she’s gotten used to. There’s no difficult dilemma here about what to do. She didn’t really need Judy’s money in order to escape.

Also, a lot of random characters. The hotel clerk at the inn in Big Sur. The lesbian writer she has a brief afternoon fling with. The Grateful Dead mechanic. Her pals at Stanford in their pink kitten shirts. The rich dude from college who loves her still. These all seem thrown in to see what will happen.

The Troubled American – Newsweek’s 1969 “Special Report on the White Majority”

I came across this special report by way of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling and found a copy online that I ordered up. It arrived, a pristine, un-thumbed-through copy of this 1969 report on the “white majority” that I looked to for insights into how my country is so wrong-headed in 2016.

A 47-year-old magazine is a wonderful thing. The ads alone are amazing, maybe because America was building some sexy cars for the 1970s. The ads are also horribly sexist, but more on that later. In the meat of the magazine itself, I was jolted by so many parallels to what I’m experiencing today. For one, the continual push to abolish the electoral college. The 1969 Senate was trying to send a bill to get rid of the electoral college and authorize popular election of the President. Oh for a time machine.

The Troubled American: A Special Report on the White Majority

This troubling essay is punctuated with scary pull quotes like “You better watch out—the common man is standing up” and photos of grumpy old white men in front of American flags. Women live for their kids. “A treat is dinner at the Burger King, or a movie. Family fun is a Sunday drive, a backyard hamburger barbecue, or watching TV. Television is more than ever the national narcotic for the financially immobilized. That’s one reason the spirit of the neighborliness is dying.” Ah, that old chestnut, the decline of manners and friendliness pinned on the screen, the devil’s portal, TV. How far have we come almost 50 years later, a screen in every pocket, eyes glued constantly.

There’s some nice snark about Nixon: “He is doing the best he can with the ability he has, which I don’t think is too much.”

There’s some eye-opening racism.

There’s a nice photo essay of Pittsburgh, supposed epicenter of this white majority who’s kicking about having to deal with integration of their unions, dealing with inflation, and generally grousing and being racist. 69% of the city’s poor are white, but 79% of anti-poverty funds go to non-whites.

Pittsburgh, 4 p.m. The whistle has just blown at the steel mill, and the day shift sprints to the parking lot to try to beat the traffic jam.

We meet some of the families. I can sympathize about the pace of life, but 50 years later, it’s exponentially worse. Mr Huff says, “Everything is getting uglier and uglier. You can go 30 miles into the country and get away from it. But then it costs too much to commute. It’s having an effect. People get irritated now over things they would have laughed at years ago. There’s a lack of friendliness. No closeness. Half the time you don’t even know who your neighbor is, unless there’s a fight. Something seems to have gone out of people. Life is getting faster and furious-er. Sometimes you feel like throwing up your hands and saying to hell with it and going so far back in the hills they’ll have to pipe sunshine in. We’ve only got a few more years to contend with it. That’s why we rent, so when we’re ready, all we have to do is pack and tell the kids good-by. Then mamma and I will bum around out West until we find a place. There’s still a lot of beautiful country.”

Did I mention racism? Here’s another extra-large helping of it, served up as steaming shit. Weird how Newsweek bleeps out “f——” but not the n-word. “Paint your face black and you can get a new Cadillac… We should have a Hitler here to get rid of the troublemakers the way they did with the Jews in Germany.” Lovely Texas assholes!

Guns and obese men who don’t wear shirts. How much has really changed in 50 years? This guy got a seat on the Newark city council after setting up patrol to protect white neighborhoods. Thankfully, he’s dead now, and the NYT obit says he began preaching armed white self-defense in 1967, at one point warning that “when the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting.”

The rest of the October 6, 1969 Newsweek

Pontificating about the future of the Democratic party in the 1970s. Will they orient away from center and toward “beard and sandal rather than toward crew cut and bowling shoe”??

One thing that jumped out at me in this age of Toxic T, the president-elect who we suspect to have extreme difficulty in reading/being literate: “Politicians are not only articulate, they are literate. They can read…” So funny these days!

The public service announcements

Zip codes! Who knew that these were kind of new in 1969?! Apparently the Zone Improvement Plan (ZIP!) was introduced in 1963.

The Ads

A scotch ad with an illustration of old white men drinking, the tag line telling you to “ask the men who drink it.” Japan Air Lines boasting their hostesses’ training goes back centuries to provide “an almost telepathic ability to anticipate your needs” (booze, foot rub, happy ending? it’s not difficult to guess these needs). An IBM ad that assumes a businessman dictating to his woman secretary. World Airways two-page spread about the world’s most beautiful stewardess, “this bright, delicate University of Georgia graduate loves art, people, and ‘living each day by itself.’ Girls like Becky have helped us prove that service on charter flights can be just as attractive as the price.”

And then there’s this gem. Western Union includes two telegrams, with two unwitting HR violations. The first mentions a report that was finally located “under a stack of Playboys in Cohen’s office.” The second brags about signing a cookbook author whose local town is naming a school after her “despite opposition from local society of weight watchers. She also agrees to do five commercials for us. If only she looked as good as she cooks, we’d have no problem.”

Spare the Birds!: George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society

Spare the Birds!: George Bird Grinnell and the First Audubon Society

This was a weird book. Carolyn Merchant writes this as a way of explaining the origin of the Audubon Society through a lens of gender divisions of that era, and most of the book is Grinnell’s writings, collected here for the modern reader instead of locked away in the handful of libraries that still holds issues of the first The Audubon Magazine.

Part 1 is Merchant’s discussion of Grinnell’s life in NYC, growing up on the Audubon estate and taking lessons from Lucy Audubon, John James’ wife. Part 2 encompasses Grinnell’s biographical writings, of Audubon and of Alexander Wilson, the competing avian artist. Part 3 is a reproduction of the birds that Grinnell featured in each issue of the magazine. As for the gender lens, the focus was mostly on the fact that birds were sacrificed to make women’s hats until conservationists shamed the industry and women. Men hunted, women wore hats. Women were also involved in the conservation movement, but the men who saved forests, mountains, and big game had more prestige than the women who saved birds and flowers. “Political Hermaphrodites” was a turn-of-the-century term used to denigrate men who joined forces with women in reform movements.

Of interest in the book were the passages highlighting the tension between Audubon and Wilson; Wilson is painted as one jealous of Audubon’s talents and who doesn’t even mention A. in his volume of American Ornithology. Grinnell cites Charles Wilkins Webber’s comments about Wilson, “We will not add to the gloom which followed the illustrious life of poor Wilson to his grave by any officious comments upon the tenor of this short narrative. I will add, though, that it should be remembered, in forming any judgement of that strange moody man, that he had bitter woes enough to content with, not only in his friendless early days, but in the harsh isolation of his weary wanderings and unappreciated after-life, to have grown a gall beneath an angel’s wing.”

While in Kentucky, Audubon got  a chance to hunt with Daniel Boone who showed of his skill in “barking off” squirrels.

And… the 36 names that people were using for the Northern Flicker/Golden-Winged Woodpecker. Yucker might be my favorite:

Heard of Carolyn Merchant by way of Suzi Gablik’s Conversations Before the End of Time.

Some books on writing

The Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method by Gerard Genette (1983-08-31)

I just finished a creative writing class based on the idea that “method writing” is just as valid as “method acting.” This idea is not new, and definitely didn’t originate with Jack Grapes (his real name!) whose book we used for the course: Jack Grapes’ Method Writing. This idea is found in Shirley Jackson’s 1950s/60s writing about writing, “The thing I am talking about is best identified by reference to a theory of acting that has always seemed to me very profound, and certainly useful to the writer: Before entering upon a role, the actor, having of course familiarized himself with the character he is to portray, constructs for himself a set of images, or mental pictures, of small, unimportant things he feels belong around the character.”

So anyway, Jack Grapes self-published a book riddled with typos and with minimal care to the details of book design that would help ease the strain of reading this. The basics come down to:

  • Write like you talk.
  • Find a transformation line (one containing “I” or “me”) and massage it until you uncover the deepest truth about what your purpose or meaning in life is.
  • Create image moments by bracketing description between two actions or lines of dialogue.

What I got most out of the class was the pressure to write every day, to churn things out focusing only on PROCESS and not on PRODUCT. And image/moment is a magic trick that seems too trite to be believed, but actually works.

The other book I’ve been reading, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method by Gerard Genette, is a doozy and one I’ll want to revisit once I’m reading Proust again. Essentially Genette creates a systematic theory of narrative solely by dissecting A la recherche du temps perdu. He goes through the elements of narrative in great detail: Order, duration, frequency, mood, voice. There’s tons of great guidance here, including quotes from Balzac: “Step into the action first. Grab your subject sometimes sideways, sometimes from the rear; finally, vary your plans, so as never to be the same.”

My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel

Maudlin tripe from Daphne du Maurier, but I should have known better. I seem to have lost all vestiges of quality control in my reading material. An heir to an estate is jealous when he discovers his benefactor has married a woman in Italy, who then dies and leaves him the estate because a new will was never signed. Phillip, the heir, at first hates the woman, cousin Rachel, but then falls in love with her. He has cryptic letters from his uncle that Rachel tormented him and caused his death, and a final letter hints at poison. Her knowledge of herbs and gardening does support this theory, but in the end she’s presumed innocent, yet Phillip kills her by sending her out on an unsafe walk alone while he ransacks her room looking for evidence that she tried to poison him, after he signed over his estate to her. It’s all very throw-your-hands-in-the-air-and-give-up type stuff.

The problem with memoirs I’ve been attempting to read lately

I’ve thrown down half a dozen memoir/autobiographies lately with bored disgust, not mentioning them here. But I came across this great quote from Annie Dillard that sums up what the problem has been:

You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”

Annie Dillard, in “To Fashion a Text,” in William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth (1987)

This is the main issue with why I’m returning books that I tried hard to like, but found to be too dull:

  • How I became one of the invisible by David Rattray
  • Recollections of my life as a woman : the New York years : a memoir by Diane di Prima
  • Scottish Himalayan Expedition by W.H. Murray
  • Visions from San Francisco Bay by Czesław Milosz

Sophie Calle: The Address Book

Sophie Calle: The Address Book

An art project turned into book form— in 1983, Sophie Calle found an address book and made a photocopy of all the pages, then sent it back to its owner with no note. She then reached out to one person a day for the next month, to meet up with them and to get a better understanding of the owner (Pierre D) from their descriptions. Interspersed between recaps of the daily interviews, she includes photographs of the notebook or of the location where she meets people, armchairs she sits in that the owner sat in a few nights prior, snapshots of Pierre that people show her. One of the people sends her a postcard that Pierre sent him. The people she meets with range from barely knowing him to his best friend. His brother declines to meet, although he isn’t told whose address book it is. Interesting layering on of identity based on other people’s perceptions. Definitely want to see more of Sophie Calle’s art.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Persephone Classics)

Clever, charming, sugarplum of a book by Winifred Watson, another Persephone title devoured in a few hours. A middle aged woman at the end of her luck goes to apply for a governess job and gets swept up into a nightclub singer’s life, helping her get rid of one young man, beat off another, and granting advice that helps her friend reunite with her fiance. Miss Pettigrew is dolled up in dress & fur loaned by Miss LaFosse, and she never gets around to asking about the job until 4 in the morning, after a riotous night out. At this point, she’s already landed her first boyfriend, a wealthy man who manufactures corsets, and maneuvered Miss LaFosse into marrying the right man, Michael, instead of the menacing Nick in whose apartment she’s staying. LaFosse asks her to be her housekeeper in Michael’s large place, and the Cinderella story goes happily ever after.

The Other America: Poverty in the United States

The Other America:  Poverty in the United States

This 1960s classic work on poverty by Michael Harrington was referenced in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Fear of Falling, so I sniffed around the primary source itself. Coming off the glory of Ehrenreich’s book, this fell a bit flat, not really living up to the blurb on the cover from the NYT calling it “a scream of rage, a call to conscience…”

His introduction in the 1969 edition ends with a clarion call:

The poor are the most sorely tried and dramatic victims of the economic and social tendencies which threaten the entire nation. They suffer most grievously from unplanned, chaotic urbanization, but millions of the affluent are affected too. They are the first to experience technological progress as a curse which destroys the old muscle-power jobs that previous generations used as a means to fight their way out of poverty. Yet, as the current student radicalism makes clear, the nature of work is also becoming problematic for the most advantaged in the society. If, in other words, the cities sprawl and technology revolutionizes the land in a casual, thoughtless way, polluting the very fundamentals of human existence, like air and water, it is the poor who will be most cruelly used but the entire nation will experience a kind of decadence.

The other great tidbit was the discovery of the Yeats poem, Sailing to Byzantium, that is quoted in parts throughout. A tattered coat upon a stick, indeed.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The Carlyles at Home

The Carlyles at Home

Thea Holme writes the most engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.

The chapters detail the life of the house, a glimpse into life in 1840s/50s, with several chapters dedicated to the problem of retaining and training servants (and including an appendix of all the servants who worked at the house during Jane’s lifetime). They had to deal with insufficient plumbing, installing gas lighting in a few locations, suffering through bed bugs (and other bugs) and mice. Jane was thrifty, making due with the small allowance that Thomas gave her for household expenses, even going so far as to detail out exactly why she needed £30 more per year due to food price inflation, increased tax, and larger wages for a better maid. One chapter is given over to describing the neighbors and nuisances that Carlyle had to put up with as he’s working on his great books—parrots, pianos, cocks crowing. They even went so far as to rent the neighboring house to leave it empty for a year for peace and quiet. A very readable book that leaves me much more interested in reading Carlyle, another great man bolstered by the efforts of his brilliant wife.