Call Me Ishmael: A Study of Melville

Charles Olson can ostensibly get away with this flimsy 1947 opinion piece on Melville because he’s a poet. Something wasn’t quite right about the whole thing, and after finishing it, cursory research on Olson reveals that he was a known misogynist, “sexist, chauvinist and macho.” That’s what comes across most jarringly in Olson’s essay, this hatred of women, calling Melville’s marriage a “white marriage” in the same breath as talking about the tragedy of his two sons (“white marriage” = not consummated, e.g. acting as a beard, but if children result is it divine intervention?)

Of more interest is when he can occasionally float above this rotted attitude and stick to the facts, dissecting the precise influence of King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, etc. on Melville. But anyone looking for a thoughtful and considered deep dive on Moby or even Melville’s life should chuck this into the garbage bin where it belongs.

Last Girl Standing

I just spent the afternoon with Trina Robbins. Well, I read her memoir, that is. There are minor annoyances like editing flubs where she repeated four sentences as a mistake in Chapter 9. And she does come across a bit braggy about her inside connection to the hip kids of the 60s and 70s (“I slept with Jim Morrison! and here’s a list of other guys I could have slept with but didn’t because I was married: Bob Dylan…” and Sonny/Cher wanted her to design their clothes) If you can stomach that, then it’s worth the effort. Tales from the trenches of male-dominated underground comix world, designing clothes for the rock gods and goddesses of the time, raising a daughter as a single mother, bopping around NYC, LA, and landing in SF for good. She takes the opportunity to settle some scores, debunking myths/rumors and going after people who have shunned her. I’m glad she was able to churn this out as a record for posterity.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, Jessica Bruder reports on the new migrant white middle-class workforce that treks around the country picking up low wage jobs and seeking spots to camp their rigs. The author follows the tribes for a few years and settles in to tell Linda May’s story, a sixty-something woman battling to survive on less than $500 a month in Social Security benefits, including work as a camp monitor in the spring/summer and then one of the “Amazombies” at the warehouses gearing up for Christmas madness. Amazon warehouses have wall-mounted dispensers of free OTC painkillers for their aging workforce. Not all nomads can get a job in the warehouses- you need at least a high school diploma for some reason.

The chipper stories of elderly workers will break your heart—one woman slipped going up stairs, ending up with stitches and bruises, but gushed her delight that she wasn’t fired and that an HR rep visited her trailer. Lest you think Amazon is doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they get federal tax credits (25-40% of wages) for hiring disadvantaged workers like those on SSI or food stamps. Also laughable is that they call their meetings “stand ups” – gatherings before the shift begins where everyone does exercises while getting productivity goals barked at them by supervisors. “Each item Linda scanned was a pixel in a picture that depressed her.”

Some of the workers seem savvy about the nightmare they’re participating in. One woman, Patti, tells people not to shop at Amazon or Walmart but to buy from a mom and pop store down the street.

Workers gather in free camping spots in the southwest through the winter and share tips, work small jobs, get by. One man showed off his modded Prius where he’d taken out the passenger seat to make a counter that he cooked on and slept on; Prius ideal as a camping vehicle because the power supply lets you keep the heat on without the engine running.

Other things I can’t stop thinking about:

  • The nomads travel over the Mexican border to get cheaper dental work and prescription drugs.
  • States and the nation overall are cracking down on residency requirements, making it seem like you actually need a house/home in order to get license, passport. South Dakota seemed to have the most lax requirements, but that may be changing.
  • BLM land remains the best choice in the west for free camping. How long will that last?

Great taste of the overall tale available in this Wired article. And to follow along with some of the nomads mentioned, Silvianne’s blog and LaVonne’s blog.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

An absolute must-read. I am humbled by my ignorance about this major historical movement that ended right about the time I was getting birthed into the South. Isabel Wilkerson spent over a decade researching this story, interviewing thousands of surviving migrants who made it out of the Jim Crow South to places like LA, Chicago, New York, Oakland. The brilliance of this work is reflected in the careful curation of those thousands of stories into three main threads that she follows: Ida Mae from Mississippi to Chicago in the late 1930s, George Starling from Florida in the 1940s, and Dr. Foster from Louisiana to LA in the 1950s.

Quotes from Frederick Douglass (I hear he’s having a comeback!) in his last public lecture, 1894: “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

There are brutal realities revealed within. And absurdities, like the fact that blacks were arrested in Florida in the 1940s if they were “caught not working,” charged with vagrancy and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane.

Flagrant idiocy and cruelty of the South is evident throughout, but I had to laugh at the initial reaction when blacks started to leave. “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” noted the New Orleans paper. Then they realized that they had no labor to pick their crops. Whoops. “Where shall we get labor to take their places?” Blacks in South Carolina has to apply for a permit to do any work other than agriculture after Reconstruction.

As the writing of the book stretched from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, Wilkerson got to include Obama as well, and he makes a surprise visit as an unknown state senator bopping into Ida Mae’s monthly community meeting in 1996. “Nobody in the room could have imagined that they had just seen the man who would become the first black president of the United States.”

This seems worth quoting in full. From the 1922 white-led Chicago Commission on Race Relations in the aftermath of the 1919 riots:

It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded, and maintained in the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and that they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation.

Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance; and every citizen, regardless of color or racial origin, is in honor and conscience bound to seek and forward its solution.

A Song for Lost Angels

I love reading the Wednesday SF Chronicle for one reason—the column by Kevin Fisher-Paulson. His tales from the outer, outer Excelsior detail being married to his partner Brian, raising two sons whose mothers were addicted to drugs while they were in the womb, navigating life as a gay white dad raising black sons in a weird world; oh and he works at the sheriff’s department while his husband is a professional dancer. He’s a great storyteller in those Wednesday columns, and through them I found out that he had written a book about their first attempt to adopt. In the early 2000’s, they fostered triplets whose mother abandoned them while they were in the ICU after birth; she was a diagnosed schizophrenic who seemed to have no desire to raise the children when they met with her in obligatory visits, but her mother, the triplets’ grandmother, was eager to get paid by the state to care for the babies. The Fisher-Paulsons took amazing care of these fragile creatures for a year while the state and birth grandmother machinated on how to obtain custody. A homophobic social worker started lying about their behavior and eventually the babies were taken away. There is a bittersweet ended in that the couple goes on to successfully adopt their current sons, and news filters back that the triplets were taken from their mother after abuse charges surfaced.

Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation

A collection of stories that had the best intentions and enlisted some superstar talent to share thoughts on the class divide. Repurposed content from other places along with stories and essays written purely for the book. My favorites were the reprint of Rebecca Solnit’s Death by Gentrification, an original poem i’m sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think by Danez Smith, Sandra Cisnero’s musings on Chicago, Timothy Egan’s quick summation of how life in Seattle has changed now that the good union jobs are replaced with tech work that brings brogrammers, and Chris Offutt’s Trash Food. The rest did not grab me or were highly skim-able.

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

An interesting idea that would have been vastly aided by better execution. If you’re going to look at 500+ drawings, it’s best if you appreciate the style of the artist. I admit that it was a nice break, as I was reading Moby-Dick and cross-referencing with the 1952 Hendricks House notes, to then dip into this book and flip through the pages that I had just read. But I never looked forward to seeing how Kish had depicted the scenes. Most interesting is his summarizing of Melville’s sayings as Aphorisms (although I noted a few in reading that he missed):

  • Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian
  • A good laugh is a mighty good thing and rather too scarce a thing
  • I’ll try a pagan friend… since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
  • Nothing exists in itself
  • If you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least
  • When a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact

The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

An account of a year spent living alone on a spit of land at the edge of Cape Cod in 1926. He hikes into town twice a week for eggs and butter, spends his days collecting driftwood and watching birds, chats with the coast guardsmen that patrol the beach at night. It’s a watered down attempt at what Thoreau perfected over the years he reworked Walden. Skip this and read that instead. Or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Best parts are descriptions of the cold sleety beach during the dark winter months, as he piles up wood wherever he can in the cabin to keep it dry. Also of scavenging from the many shipwrecks that happen right off the spit of land.

He instructs you to view birds sitting but be sure to clap your hands to send them into flight. “They will take no real alarm and will soon forgive you.” Hmm, ok. Expending precious energy for human’s amusement.

“The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.”

Views A-foot; Or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff

Some books are meant to be lost in the sands of time. There’s really no reason you would ever read this book unless you were going down a rabbit hole to investigate influences on Melville’s writing, and this is one of those influences. Taylor’s reminisces of an 1844-46 journey to the Old World were gobbled up by Melville in 1846; Herman also traveled with Taylor’s cousin, Franklin, on his ship to London, and knew Bayard well, according to the Hendricks House edition of Moby-Dick. Still, I was curious, so I hunted down a copy of the book, obtaining an 1869 edition which came from Boston via ILL.

Taylor was a 20-year-old entitled white man who set out to prove that Europe could be conquered cheaply by the pedestrian traveler. He was basically one of the first terrible American tourists abroad. His attitudes towards women, Jews, gypsies, the Irish, are as loathsome as you’d expect. On the voyage out, there are some Iowa Indians headed to England, and while the men are handsome, “the squaws were all ugly.” This sets the tone for his women-hating, with frequent comments about how ugly and dull-looking are the women he encounters. “I regret to say, one looks almost in vain, in Germany, for a handsome female countenance… In a public walk, the number of positively ugly faces is really astonishing.” One hotelier is described as a “shrill-voiced hostess.”

He has intolerable views about Jews as well, giving them all a sinister look, except for Mendelssohn (the composer) who he compliments as having a Jewish face “softened and spiritualised, retaining none of its coarser characteristics.” Of the Irish, “there was scarcely a mark of intelligence; they were a most brutalized and degraded company of beings.”

Taylor has no qualms about begging for a loan of $50 from a stranger, an artist in Italy (the equivalent of $2k in today’s currency). He’s a busybody who almost tells fellow travelers (a German family) who are headed to Texas not to bother because the climate is bad and Indians are violent. Weirdly, he recommends pouring brandy into your boots to alleviate blisters. He steals flowers from Beethoven’s grave and is constantly climbing up hills to grab wildflowers to press into his books as gifts for people at home. Not having enough money to afford a cabin on a ship, he huddles on deck in the rain looking miserable until someone takes pity on him. He later tips one servant but “the other servant who had not taken the least notice of us, laughed sneeringly” until he saw the tips getting handed out. Then Taylor turns his back on the sneering servant and walks off without giving him anything.

Most of the book is mind-numbing descriptions of the sights he sees along the way, the kind of stuff that you glaze over when someone tells you every last detail of their latest trip. More interesting are the crumbs of personal stories he drops along the way, little details like eating oat cakes and milk for dinner or various altercations he gets in.

N.P. Willis crops up again (Fanny Fern’s brother), and Taylor gets a letter of introduction from him to his brother Richard Willis in Frankfort, Germany.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Gorgeous book by Edgar Allan Poe that I stumbled onto by way of reading the extensive notes to Moby-Dick (Hendricks House edition) wherein they claim several instances of influence that Poe’s 1838 novel had on Melville (especially in the whiteness of the whale aspect, compared closely with Poe’s eerie last chapter where everything turns white: white powder, white animals, white ashy material, down to the last sentence: “And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Things kick into high gear quickly, where Arthur and his pal Augustus get drunk and take a boat out; nearly dying after being run down by a larger ship, they’re rescued and plopped back on shore. This whets Arthur’s appetite for sea-faring, and he stows away when Augustus sails off on a whaling voyage. A mutiny prevents Augustus from helping Arthur bust out of the hold, and he nearly dies of thirst/hunger. Many are killed, but Augustus is spared, the mutineers start to drink and argue and eventually Arthur appears as the ghost of one of the crew that was killed, helping his friends take control of the ship. Then a huge storm, they’re almost flooded, and near starvation because the stores are flooded. Cannibalism ensues. Eventually, Arthur and Peters are rescued (Augustus doesn’t make it) and head off to polar expedition with the new ship. At this point, the story lags and starts to fall apart, but Poe continues on, has his hero encounter natives in the Arctic that ambush the whites but Arthur hides in a crevice with Peters. Eventually they escape in a canoe and head off into the weird wild whiteness. A lot of the arctic piece was cribbed from A Narrative of Four Voyages published by Benjamin Morrell in 1832; seems like that was the thing to do (as Melville relied heavily on Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale).

This was Poe’s only novel published, and it leaves me wanting much more. I guess I’ll have to dip into the tales.

The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism

The best parts of Spencer’s book are when he reaches back into antiquity to talk about the birth of vegetarianism, but this also is where he makes bold statements with minimal documentation about his sources. To simplify, he puts the source of abstaining from meat in ancient Egypt, as something priests did to get closer to the gods, to become more godlike themselves since gods couldn’t eat but simply smelled the smoke of the burnt offerings. Pythagoras is the first person to go on record as a vegetarian, but he lived ~580 BC to the early 500s BC and accounts of his life started being committed to paper hundreds of years later. Jokes about vegetarians/Pythagorians abounded in ancient Greek comedies (and continue, of course, to this day. I started reading this book because of the Pythagorean fart joke Melville makes early on in Moby-Dick).

Spencer asserts that “vegetarianism is one of the signs of a radical thinker, the individual who criticizes the status quo, who desires something better, more humane and more civilised for the whole of society. It makes meat-eaters uneasy and they often react aggressively.”

Apparently, things went off the rails for vegetarians after Christianity got hijacked by Paul/Saul. Dark ages ensued, then here comes the Renaissance where Leonardo Da Vinci was an outspoken critic of eating animals. Yadda yadda long lists of famous vegetarians: GB Shaw, Hitler, Voltaire, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Benjamin Franklin, etc. and then the advent of the factory farm where everyone should know better than to eat hormone-pumped, disastrously maintained animals.

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul

An exhausting 400+ page dive into how New York has become Disneyland for tourists and the ultra-rich. I’m a fan of the blog but was slightly disappointed with the book after initially bouncing off the walls with excitement from having a kindred spirit put into words the destruction that I’m witnessing in SF. After finishing, the lingering complaint is around lack of notation (the note section tags maybe 1 out of every 5 quotes or sources you’d expect) and a sense of repetition that kicked in midway through. I didn’t like his repeating “Dear reader” wherein he patronizes those of us who don’t live in NYC but who are reading the book.

I did like his structure, layering in historical facts in between a neighborhood by neighborhood distillation of the stripping away of authentic NYC for the blandalism of chain stores and luxe condos. I appreciated his insight in the intro that this isn’t just isolated to NYC, hyper-gentrification is eating SF (“dying, maybe even faster than New York”), London, Paris, Seattle, Portland, etc.; with the same story of evictions, invasions of the suburban mindset, “plague of tourists, the death of small local businesses” and monoculture settling in with (as Howard Kunstler puts it) “geography of nowhere” as chain stores nullify the streets. I also appreciated his passion and going all-out in defending his position. It’s clear which side he’s on, no pseudo-diplomacy here.

Where are the weirdos? Moss calls them “polar bears” that he occasionally spots. They’re still here/there but dying off, forced out, outpriced. Instead, residents are people like the woman who blogged about leaving the LES after living there for a year and not missing “the smell of pickles from Katz Deli that I am forced to inhale when walking home” (she also bemoans that there is not a close enough Starbucks).

The process started in NYC way back. Mayor Koch declared in a 1984 cocktail party conversation that “We’re not catering to the poor anymore. There are four other boroughs they can live in. They don’t have to live in Manhattan.” Breathtakingly honest! And we know that by 2017 those 4 other boroughs are almost as expensive as the island.

Another similarity to SF is the scourge of tourists. Sex in the City brought hordes of them to the townhouse filmed to depict where Carrie Bradshaw lived and the poor owners put up a chain and No Trespassing signs to keep tourists from taking photos. Out-of-towners climbed over the chain. Similar to the frenzy over the Full House house and the Painted Ladies, only the Full House creator ended up buying the Full House house because the owners got sick of the crowds.

Gross things are on the horizon still for NYC, specifically near the High Line at Hudson Yards where a huge mall is being built along with a $250M sculpture called Vessel that houses flights of stairs tourists can climb; the creator wanted to create a piece that would highlight its visitors to “celebrate ourselves” and “showcase us.” The intended view will not be the city but rather tourist facing tourist, “a hall of living mirrors.”

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution

I was looking for something better from Julia Alekseyeva’s memoir of her 100-year-old great-grandmother who experienced the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and WW2 and Stalin’s rise only to flee to America in the 1990s after Chernobyl. Julia inserts herself into the story in interludes, trying to tie her tale together with her great-grammy’s but it falls flat. Lola’s story was interesting, but it dies a bit on the vine and I didn’t love the graphic style.

The Glass Castle

Gorgeous memoir by Jeannette Walls that I knew was going to be good when I saw there was still a queue for it at the library, over 10 years since its publication.

She turns a truly wretched childhood into story gold by giving us a no-holds-barred look at the crazy upbringing her parents put her through. Bohemian is too prim a word for it. When she was four years old and sister Lori 7, they were parked outside a bar for hours while their parents drank inside. They started counting the number of places they’d lived, after having to define “lived” as having unpacked your things instead of just staying somewhere for a couple nights. They gave up after counting 11 places. “We couldn’t remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.”

Their dad was a drunk who fancied himself an entrepreneur, always one step ahead of the law and frequently rousing the family for a middle-of-the-night escape. He took advantage of the lack of technology in one town to withdraw all his money from a bank teller inside the bank while his wife simultaneously withdrew the same amount from the drive-up teller. The mom fancied herself an artist, splurging on art supplies when there was no money for food. In one particularly terrible scene, the 4 kids are sitting around trying not to think about how hungry they are when they notice their mom keeps ducking under a blanket. Turns out she’s eating a huge chocolate bar.

They wind their way through the desert, survive a fire in an SRO in San Francisco, watch their dad gamble away their money in Vegas, then set up house for a time in an old mining town. Once their dad gets (inevitably) fired, they start to starve. For some reason, the mom never mentions that her mom died, leaving her a house in Arizona and money, which they eventually tap into. There’s some mysterious check that arrives from land in Texas that the mom now owns, later found out to value $1M. And yet they starve, and they head to the dad’s hometown in West Virginia where things just get dilapidated. The sisters start working jobs and saving cash so they can escape to NYC, but the dad steals it and drinks it away. Eventually, they make it out, send for their brother, and then their little sister. A few years later, the parents end up in NYC as well, eventually becoming homeless as they get evicted from various living arrangements. They end up as squatters, the dad has a heart attack, the family breaks apart and then comes back together.

A bunch of rejects

A batch of books headed back to the library, most of which I tossed aside after attempting. Of this group, I ended up reading 2 to completion, and I purchased one from the bookstore to be able to mark up appropriately. The gray one without a title is Cheery Old Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism which I choked down quickly, holding my nose at his wildly misogynistic essay on women and straining to pass his anti-Semitic thoughts for saner passages.

I had high hopes for Marion Milner’s two books, but did read A Life of One’s Own. I attempted her follow-up An Experiment in Leisure but quickly jumped ship when I saw it was another meandering discourse of self-experimentation that slowly gets her to awareness.

I had high hopes for Secret Sisterhood but they were dashed immediately by the tone of the authors. I should more carefully follow my rule never to read a book that stemmed from bloggers. There was absolutely nothing new to be gained about the friendship between Woolf and Mansfield, although I’m at a disadvantage from having read all the primary source material already.

The Challenge of Affluence looked extremely promising at first, ringing out a very clear initial sentence “Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being.” However, the author does not do anything to bolster the assertion, follows up with stats to prove how affluent the U.S. and the U.K. have become and how no one gets married, we eat too much, and we’re really soulless pigs lost in the wilderness of late capitalism.

I’m in the midst of reading Moby-Dick and its hundreds of pages of notes, so was curious about Twice-Told Tales by Hawthorne, which Melville had recently read. I don’t think they’ve held up well to the test of time.

The Pargiters I’ve had my eye on for awhile, curious about this rejected manuscript of Woolf’s never published in her time. Unfortunately, the text is true to history and contains all of her edits, etc, which made it an unpleasant read. Maybe another time.

That The people are going to rise like the waters upon your shore : a story of American rage was written by a Bernie bro became evident within minutes of cracking the spine, relegating it to the trash heap.

Another week, another crop of books to tear through. I’m thankful for the meaty classics like Moby that help get me through these lean times. To the library!