Oliver Ranch

I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost 20 years and had never heard of Oliver Ranch until it bubbled up twice over the last week in separate mentions (1, 2). A sheep ranch up north turned sculpture garden, privately owned and only open to the public a few times a year, this site boasts amazing work by Ursula von Rydingsvard, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Serra, Bill Fontana, Judith Shea among many others. Hopefully I’ll be able to tag along on a future group tour. This book is an oversized collection of photographs with reminisces from Steve Oliver about the ongoing installations.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World

Disappointing. I was expecting much more about Sally Horner than Weinman delivered. It seems like she tried to fluff a book out of the smattering of facts she could dig up about Sally Horner and filled in the gaps with speculation about how much Nabokov was influenced by Horner’s story. There is no smoking gun here, Nabokov openly references Horner on page 289 of Lolita: “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?”

Sally’s story in a nutshell: she was peer pressured into stealing a notebook from Woolworth’s and Lasalle pretended to be an FBI agent when he caught her. He threatened to tell her mother and send her to reform school if she didn’t promise to keep in touch with him. Months later, he insists that she go with him to Atlantic City for a vacation, lying to her mother that she’s with friends. And that’s it, she’s off on a bus with this man and disappears for two years as his prepubescent sex slave. When she finally tells someone what’s going on in San Jose, CA, he gets arrested, jailed for life. Her own life ends in a car crash a few years later.

No matter how much talent the Nabokovs had  (Vera was a huge part of that partnership with Vladimir), I really didn’t want a behind-the-scenes gossip fest about Lolita‘s writing and publication and whirlwind afterwards. But I did learn that apparently Vlad was in the habit of lying in bed writing while letting Vera teach his classes and grade his papers at Cornell. Did any of the students complain?

Weinman insists on pretending this is a detective story she’s sussing out, trailing leads from 70 years ago, sniffing out sources, when the evidence is right there. Yes, he knew about Horner’s story. It was an influence. It’s not like he plagiarized court transcripts or any such nonsense. Who cares?

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Found this book when I was really looking for the film of the same name. Whyte conducted years of research in the 1970s with time lapse cameras, measuring tape, and observation. Not a surprise to find that having places to sit is one of the biggest factors in whether people congregate in an area. Also important: sun, water, trees, other people, moveable chairs. He makes the point that most builders make their plazas unfriendly because afraid of the undesirables who might show up, but that only discourages everyone else from plopping down. And if you build to accommodate handicapped, everyone will benefit. I still haven’t found a copy of the film but am dying for footage of 1970’s New York.

What If This Were Enough?: Essays

I need to remember that I don’t like Heather Havrilesky’s essays. I can’t find my notes from the other books of hers I’ve tried, but as I forced myself through this, a vague memory floated up that I had the same problem with those as well. Her subjects seem like a perfect fit for me on the surface—consumption, television shows, technology, etc. But the writing doesn’t deliver, the concepts don’t hew close to the bone. The closest I got to appreciation was her discussion of the self-righteousness of Yelp reviews, “as if the world turns on their appraisals, awaits their Yelp verdicts like an anxious crowd in Rome waiting for the cardinals to elect a new Pope.”

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

This was of varying quality, much lukewarm but occasionally good, dissecting the important issue of what’s going on with our brains when we skim vast quantities of digital content and then apply those surface-reading skills to books. Some of the chapters—er, “letters” (an unfortunate choice by Wolf to make the work more approachable, she crafts each chapter as a Dear Reader letter)—were worthy of deep reading but most were fine to casually breeze through, especially if you’re not particularly invested in what’s happening with children’s minds. So is deep reading endangered? Are years of screen reading changing the way that we think and read and pay attention when we deal with difficult, dense texts?

The fourth chapter (I’m refusing to call them “letters”) was the best, entitled What Will Become of the Readers We Have Been? In it, she posits that yes, we’re encouraging our brains to reshape to do more surface reading. “When we read for hours on a screen whose characteristics involve a rapid speed of information processing, we develop an unconscious set toward reading based on how we read during most of our digital-based hours. If most of those hours involve reading on the distraction-saturated Internet, where sequential thinking is less important and less used, we begin to read that way even when we turn off the screen and pick up a book or newspaper.”

This sent panic surging through me although my wild thirst for reading may be keeping me better fit for the exercise. I, too, have noticed my inattention while nestled in the chair reading a book. My mind flits, I give in and put the book down for awhile. But I have not lost the ability to give myself over completely, I do not struggle to read or re-read the complex works which have delighted me all these decades.

“The issue is never just about how many words we consume or even how we read in the digital culture. It is about the significant effects of how much we read upon how we read and the effects of both upon what we read and remember…[and] what we read further changes the next link in the chain, how things are written.”

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Discovered originally by following her son Ben’s art feed after seeing his eyeball sculpture at Minnesota St. Project gallery

No One Tells You This: A Memoir

B sent me the NYT review for this months ago, knowing my penchant for stories about ladies who opt not to follow the operating instructions of marriage/children/misery. Perhaps I should have read the review more closely, Amanda Stern mentioning “the occasional flatness of MacNicol’s prose, and some irksome references to her glitzy life,” which is a much kinder review than I can give.

MacNicol paints herself as a fabulous single woman who makes her living as a writer but when you read this you begin to wonder where the bar is set for writers. The book was painfully bad, a mixture of pretend sass about being single but several moans about wondering if she should have children and mention of a “husband-shaped hole” in her life. Ick, seriously? Perhaps she is so used to overstating that it is her desire in life to be single that it’s out of the question to pry that dead horse away from her beating. If anything it leaves me thinking that someone really needs to write the book about being solo that I want to read, one that doesn’t dip in curtsy to wrestle with the question of babies, one that doesn’t always nod to the perpetually full stable of strong women friends that fills up one’s “husband-shaped hole.”

Bartleby the Scrivener

I sat down at the airport next to an older woman reading a John Grisham novel and pulled this out. “Oh!” she said, “Is that a new book?” I assured her it was an oldie but a goodie and that’s all it took to launch us into a delightful conversation for the next hour waiting for our plane.

I’m not sure I can do a better recap than the one from 6 years ago. Except the last lines echo through my head (Melville was exceptional at last lines): “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust

Discovered Cornell by way of the documentary about Yayoi Kusama and immediately needed to know more. I grabbed both this catalog and a biography about him (Utopia Parkway by Deborah Solomon, which I gave up in disgust after 100 pages of her assumptions and mean-spirited comments about Cornell’s mother). The essays in this are excellent, especially that by Sarah Lea, and the extensive photographs of his work will stun you into silence. He was a man living in 20th century New York as well as 19th century Europe, despite never having traveled far from NYC. The basic facts of his life are known to all, born 1903, father dies when Joseph is 13, goes to Phillips Exeter Academy but then returns home and gets a job to support his mother and disabled brother, Robert. He lives with them until their deaths in 1966 and 1965, respectively. Joseph died in 1972. All of his work was done in the basement of the house that he lived in with his mom and brother in Queens, somewhat far removed from the bustling NYC art scene. Despite his remoteness, he was great pals with a variety of art superstars like Duchamp, Rothko, De Kooning, Warhol, as well as Susan Sontag and Lee Miller.

Reviewing his work I’m struck by the massive influence he had on other artists like Bruce Connor, whose own shadow boxes are direct descendants of Cornell’s. Also Cornell’s 1936 film montage from found footage (Rose Hobart) provoked a jealous reaction from Dali who said Cornell stole the idea from his subconscious. This prefigured Conner’s A Movie, as well. Need to try and find a copy of Thimble Theater (1938), Gnir Rednow (1960s), the wonder ring (brakhage’s 1955 film with cornell), centuries of june (1955 with brakhage)

Tender is the Night

I finally got around to reading F. Scott  FitzPlagiarizer’s final novel, where he lifted whole sections from Zelda’s letters to him from the sanatorium and dropped them into the book (as exposed in Ch 17 of Nancy Milford’s biography, Zelda). It’s amazing it got written at all, with the quantities of alcohol Scott was soaking himself in while writing it.

There are clues to why Zelda might lose her mind in his writing, like the assertion “like most women she liked to be told how she should feel…” And he almost approaches a confession with “Nicole’s emotions had been used unfairly—what if they turned out to have been his own?”

The only time Dick Diver approaches seeming like a human is when he gets a telegram of his father’s death: “He felt a sharp wince at the shock, a gathering of the forces of resistance; then it rolled up through his loins and stomach and throat. He read the message again. He sat down on the bed, breathing and staring; thinking first the old selfish child’s thought that comes with the death of a parent, how will it affect me now that this earliest and strongest of protections is gone?”

Otherwise Diver is a cardboard cutout of a charming older man who resents that his wife has a lot of money. In Book 1, the big reveal is that Nicole/Zelda has lost her marbles–she’s saying weird things while trying to wash blood of a murdered man’s sheets. Nicole is also coming to grips with Dick’s lust-love for Rosemary, the 18 year old American actress. Book 2 sees the Divers in Switzerland operating a hospital where Dick practices medicine of the head shrinking variety. He can’t stand Nicole, breaks away for a conference where he learns of his father’s death, sails for America, returns via Naples where he consummates his relationship with Rosemary. Book 3 is the further disintegration of him into alcoholism, losing his hospital, losing his wife, finally returning to America and getting into trouble here and there while Nicole finds love with Tommy.

Goodbye Vitamin: A Novel

Very sweet book about a 30 year old woman who’s just been dumped by her fiance (who then goes on to marry another woman and have a kid) who visits her parents near LA for the holidays, only to be asked by her mother if she could stay on for a year to help out with caring for her father as he descends into Alzheimer’s. The narrator promptly returns to San Francisco, quits her job, loads her car up and heads back south for the year. The father is slowly unraveling, has been removed from his teaching post and some considerate grad students hatch an idea to have him teach unofficially (although he thinks it’s real). The father also uncovers a book of notes he kept when the narrator was young, all her various questions and insights, and now she returns the favor by jotting down all the things he does.

Calamities

Tedious repetition of “I began the day…” introduces each new section. The only good parts were where she reveals some of herself, like the trip she took with sisters and mother to Hilton Head, eating Snickers the entire time. Problem is that she doesn’t do enough of this to carry you through, to make you care.

Obligatory recommendation from Eileen Myles because she’s mentioned in the book? I did also like the part where she’s written Gail Scott’s sentences up on her wall, but the parroting of Scott’s style made me blush; I, too, had been guilty of that trick, using Scott’s short sentences and gerunds to goad myself into writing.

Paris Speen by Baudelaire

Baudelaire has been on my mind lately, a bit because I’ve been hobnobbing with the French writers of the 20th century, but mostly from Brautigan’s poem, The Galilee Hitchhiker, wherein Baudelaire does various things like pick up a hitchhiking Jesus in his Model A Ford or open a hamburger stand in San Francisco or watch a baseball game or go into an insane asylum.

I read the Martin Sorrell translation, not being up on my French. In the intro, Sorrell reminds us that Baudelaire’s misogyny “permeates everything.” Oh goody. Suck it up, ladies, and open your mouths for another shit sandwich. Nevertheless, I persisted in reading his selection of poems because I’m curious about what he witnessed in 1860s Paris. One of the titles Baudelaire considered for the poems was Le Rôdeur parisien, “prowler around Paris,” which I love. He’s a “wanderer, ironic and eccentric, the flaneur adrift in a wasteland of deprivation, squalor, failed ambition, and rich in flawed and affecting humanity… The ordinary humanity of the wanderer, as well as of the ambitious artist, begins to find recompense in the teeming mess that is Paris.”

Baudelaire had been thinking about Paris as a subject as early as 1846, “Parisian life is rich in poetic, marvelous subjects. We are surrounded by the marvelous, which sustains us like air itself, but which we do not perceive.” An 1862 letter outlined his ambition for prose poems: “Who has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch consciousness?” As Sorrell notes in the intro, “The idea of major interest here is that the prose should be poetic and musical without the support of meter and rhyme… The prose poem allows, more readily than verse, rapid and random changes of mood, contrasts, incongruities… the flexibility to place side by side such antagonists as lyricism and analysis, the glib and the intense, irony and sincerity, beauty and ugliness.”

The poems themselves give us a sense for Baudelaire the man, luring a glassmaker up six floors to pretend to want to purchase his wares only to shout at him that there is no colored glass, how dare he try to sell something that doesn’t make life look beautiful, shoving him down the stairs and dropping a pot of flowers on him from the 6th floor which caused him to smash his entire pack of glassware. “And drunk on my madness I raged at him: ‘Make life beautiful, make life beautiful.’ Such tortured antics are not without danger, and often they cost us dear. But what does eternal hellfire matter to someone who for one second has known an infinity of joy?” We see his hatred of women come out clearly in other works. But then he entertains us with poems like this 1864 gem entitled “Be Drunk”:

Be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk. But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue—the choice is yours. Just be drunk. And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!

 

Witches’ Sabbath

This is the work Maurice Sachs was writing while holed up with Violette Leduc in Normandy during WWII, Leduc voicing her caution that he was being hard on Cocteau in his reminisces. Since we have Sachs to thank for pushing her to write her own autobiography, I felt required to read his.

While doing a quick search about their relationship, I stumbled on horridly misogynistic Harold Acton’s 1966 NYRB review of Leduc’s work wherein he states (among vicious rips on Leduc’s prose): “The insistence on ovaries throughout this tome is a leitmotiv which eventually gets on one’s nerves to such an extent that one sympathizes wholeheartedly with her friend Maurice Sachs when he explodes: ‘Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.'”

But back to Sachs. This book, compared to Leduc’s masterpiece, is a tepid bath swirling with soap scum and the occasional rubber ducky. We follow his progress through life, from his childhood yearning to be a girl, his family losing its fortune, realizing his preference for boys, his desperation to become a writer, sudden conversion to Catholicism and entry into a monastery, departure into army life, life as an art dealer, years living in New York (where he acquires and abandons a wife, then departs with boyfriend to France), life in Paris then the provinces mostly in poverty, etc.

An invocation at the beginning:

May this book ultimately free me of my first self so that when I have completed it I can exclaim: Here is a life over and done with! It has been lived, confessed, expiated; I say farewell to it in order ot begin another in accord with the ideal I have conceived in misfortune, the result of all my follies.

On how writing can help one’s sanity:

It’s extraordinary how it drains off your moods; the composition of a novel clears your mind! You sweat out your bitterness exactly the way you sweat out your acidity when you do calisthenics. Doubtless that’s why everyone writes today, as a form of hygiene…

I was pleased by what he said about my own city after a visit in the 1930s:

When autumn came, we set out on my second lecture tour. It brought us, after several intermediary stops, to San Francisco, where I would rather end my days than in any other city. Here are the seven hills of Rome, and a bay that stands comparison with Rio’s. The glowing skies, the forests of mimosa that grow down to a sea incredibly bluer than the Mediterranean, a mild climate, a wildly luxuriant flora that blossoms in a thousand ravishing gardens, and below them, a port, last guard of the West and already partaking of the Oriental mystery: everything continues to make San Francisco a city without a peer.

Blue Trout and Black Truffles: The Peregrinations of an Epicure

Joseph Wechsberg takes you on a culinary tour of Europe in the early 20th century, dropping mouth-watering descriptions of the sumptuous feasts he attended (although I was less fond of the endless pages describing the meat dishes). Also enjoyable are the depictions of his own growing up, moving out from under the wealthy family thumb in Austria and trying to make it on his own as a violinist in Paris. His first trip to Paris is in 1926, intending to study at the Sorbonne but getting immersed in street life instead. By mispronouncing Montparnasse, his cab driver dropped him in the middle of Monmartre instead, and he gets a room in a fleabag brothel for a month. After a terrible first night trying to sleep, he discovers harmony with the place by staying up as late as the girls and sleeping till afternoon, completely abandoning his plan to study. In this atmosphere he finds a delightful hole in the wall prix-fixe restaurant where he takes all his meals. An entertaining romp through the restaurants of post-war Europe, peppered with tales from the waiters who bemoan the years gone by.

Convenience Store Woman

Sayaka Murata’s story (translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori) about a weirdo woman who just can’t fit in with society. She knows from an early age she’s not quite right, clanging one kid over the head with a shovel to stop a fight, gleefully bringing a dead bird to her mom and saying they should cook it for dad’s dinner. She struggles through school then ends up taking a wrong turn and spotting a convenience store that’s about to open in a business district. By the next week, she’s all trained up and ready to help them open. The employee manual is the first time anyone has given her explicit instructions on how she’s supposed to behave, what to say, what facial expressions to make, and she loves it, she fits in. Eighteen years later, she’s still there, working diligently and absorbing speech patterns and fashion tips from her coworkers. Her so-called friends worry about her having a dead end job and no husband, so she asks the guy who just got fired from the store if he wants to get married. He moves in and hides from the world and from his debt, sponging off her meager salary and encouraging her to find a different job that pays more, to take care of him. He flips through the help wanted ads, happy to peruse them as long as the job isn’t for him. On the day of her interview, she wanders back into a convenience store and realizes that’s where she belongs, so dumps him and dives back into her life.