Halle Butler’s first book is an interesting read after The New Me. You can see her finding her way, honing her misanthropic chops in this earlier work, a story about two office-mates who are on opposite sides of the cheerfulness spectrum. Megan is the younger, the more surly of the two, about 10 years younger than Jillian, a single mom bursting with misplaced optimism. Megan lives with her boyfriend and likes to fill her purse with beer before heading to parties, so she’s never far away from a cold one.

The trick I didn’t like in The New Me actually works here, the jumping between perspectives; possibly works better here because there is no “I” character, so it’s all 3rd person perspective surfing throughout.

Jillian’s life starts to unravel, but then again so does Megan’s. “Jillian deleted the voicemails and took another two Tylenol T3s with codeine and decided that the courthouse must have had the wrong number, because she really didn’t have the money and wouldn’t have the money for another two weeks, at which time she would call the courthouse herself because she was a responsible person.”

The language made me laugh at times: “She felt like a warty little toad or a troll or a guy who was so visibly lonely that everyone thought he might start beating off or crying just for the feeling of connection he would get from all that wild, concentrated attention.”

Pure poetry at times dipping into the utter boredom of life: “Carrie sat on the couch, staring at the bay windows with her left hand held out absent-mindedly before her. Soon it would be 3:30, soon it would be 4:00, soon it would be 4:30, soon it would be 5:00, then 5:15, then 5:30, then 5:45, 46, 47, 48, 49.”

A Curtain of Green: And Other Stories

I am not a Eudora Welty fan, but prior to this book I’d read nothing by her, so needed to remedy that (especially after she came so highly regarded by Steven King’s writing memoir). My opinion remains unchanged, and she blends in together with the amorphous group of Southern women writers, one big bag of Flannery/Carson/Eudora that I have trouble keeping apart. I’m a terrible person, I know.

There was some descriptive flair I liked in Why I Live at the P.O. where she’s grabbing everything in sight to take with her, ukulele, thermometer, watermelon rinds, tacks in the wall. I also did like A Memory, perhaps the only first-person story in the bunch, about a girl dreaming beside a lake interrupted by a group of “loud, squirming, ill-assorted people who seemed thrown together only by the most confused accident, and who seemed driven by foolish intent to insult each other, all of which they enjoyed with a hilarity which astonished my heart.”

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick

I can’t be bothered to even rage read this piece of garbage masquerading as a book. It’s a gussied up Wikipedia entry from a millennial who is shocked to discover that research on an unknown figure must be done offline, in something called…. libraries?!

If you’re looking for a great example of how today’s Youth are blowhards puffing themselves up to be more than they are, read this book. It’s almost a caricature. O’Meara tries to convince you that she’s an old hat in the horror film genre, that she’s racked up SUCH experience (oh she’s only 25 years old when setting out to write this), she’s so dedicated to the quest that she gets her 18th tattoo of her subject Milicent posed in front of the creature she designed. Thanks to her “full-time job as a genre film producer” (she has 2 credits on IMDB), she’s been able to afford these marks.

I knew I had a stinking pile of trash on my hands when I got to her paragraph summarizing the 1906 earthquake in SF saying that the “roaring arts culture of San Francisco never fully recovered from this blow and the creative torch of the West was ultimately passed down to Los Angeles, a city not on a fault line.” She’s not being funny, she’s actually nervous that she’s summoning an earthquake by writing this.

We get pages and pages of filler explaining who William Randolph Hearst was, and who Julia Morgan was, all ostensibly in service of explaining that Milicent’s father helped supervise the building of San Simeon. Naturally, all this is hidden from the author because she had simply been googling “Milicent Patrick” and assuming that was her name. A friend had to help her hone her search skills and they discovered Milicent Patrick Trent was who they were looking for. “I almost jumped out of my chair. That’s why I was having such a hard time finding her; she must have gotten married and gone by a different name later in life!” Let’s excuse the 25-year-old non-writer’s terrible “almost jumped out of my chair” and concentrate on the rocks-for-brains research skills that held her back before this moment.

Skimming the rest, I see that she inserts herself heavily into the story throughout. She moves to LA to mooch on someone’s couch, bitches about not getting access to Disney’s history department at a party and meets someone there, blah blah blah. Her final act is to drive up to the “San Francisco Bay” because that’s where Milicent’s ashes were scattered after she died in 1998.

Who greenlit this book?

San Francisco at your feet: The great walks in a walker’s town

I came across this book while trying to figure out Frank O’Hara’s reference to the poet’s walk in San Francisco that he didn’t want to be a part of and I am utterly delighted by my trip down the rabbit hole. Margot Patterson Doss is a poet in her own right, tramping around 1960s SF with her husband and 4 sons in tow, “a family ambulant beyond the call of duty.” Anyone who references Shakespeare’s will (the second best bed) and Kafka’s The Castle in relation to SF’s financial district earns bonus points with me. (“Downtown offices are usually as inaccessible to the casual walker as the castle was for Kafka, but each year there is an office and industry tour sponsored by the auxiliary of the San Francisco Senior Center which magically opens flossy doors.”) She loathes “the tragedy that is Van Ness” where walkers meet a barricade and bemoans the freeway that marked the bitter end of Market St. near the ferry building. She was not a fan of cars (“today’s bumper-to-bumper harassment”) and gives a cheer for the 170 daily ferry trips that once crowded the building until the bridges showed up to end most ferry services.

Doss cautions women about certain walks that will get her catcalled and calls the Marina the spot where the “leer-while-you-steer car-poolers from Marin” have found the prettiest ladies.

Her first paragraphs usher in the tone:

Among American cities, San Francisco is that rarity, an exciting town to walk. Indeed, as more people are discovering, now that walking as a noncompetitive sport is fashionable, it is the only way to truly know her.

The hasty motorist may taste, between his home and office, a tantalizing sample of her charms, but it is the man on foot who feasts on this rich and saucy city.

The fare could vary daily all his life. The city offers infinite choices: great walks and good walks, lusty walks and sad, hiker’s walks, children’s walks, sea walks, secret silent walks known only to the aficionado, and the noisy promenade of the gaudy, the greedy, the cheap, the gauche and the rest of us. Or if he chooses, a walker can go quietly through dell and high water with the birdwatchers and still never leave the city.

She covers so much about this city, some gone (Sutro Castle turned into Sutro Tower, Playland turned into Safeway, Sutro Baths still standing) and some unknown to me (the Ingleside Sundial, Edgewood Avenue & Farnsworth Lane, Piedmont Street with its 1850s farmhouse at number 11 once part of a pigfarm but moved uphill away from sand fleas in 1890), some changed but worth exploring (Macondray Lane on Russian Hill). The list of bookstores no longer on Clement Street breaks my heart (Porpoise, Jabberwock, El Dorado, The Library—a bookstore on the 900 block not to be confused with the other establishment on the block called The Library which looked like a bookstore from the outside but was “an unusual pub in which strangers can meet by telephone.”)

Some things never change, like the idiots who need rescue from Land’s End (“every year the irresistible music of challenge lures another overbold climber or two out onto the crumbling cliffs. The lucky ones get pulled off by helicopter.”)

McAllister Street is called “the Fibber McGee’s closet of San Francisco” and in this walk she bemoans a “hideous interchange which feeds traffic into the city from a freeway.” Doss waxes poetic about McLaren Park: “the moods and mysteries of the living land. The sound of surging tides in spring. The dry whispering of dead leaves in fall. Trees laid open like a shattered door. The spider’s web, dew-flecked, unbroken. The vision of what the West offered its pioneers. And if you look deeply enough, along this little-traveled way, your own heart, city scarred.”

Her description of Sutro Baths bears copying in full since it is no longer: “the kookiest, flukiest, and… spookiest, walk in San Francisco,” calling it a “McAllister Street under glass” (whatever that means!), mentioning the “grabby row of coin-operated machines, all with their slots yawning greedily…” 


The New Me

Paralyzingly beautiful novel by Halle Butler about a woman having an early-life crisis, unable to keep even the simplest of temp jobs, making grand plans to join a yoga studio and get her groceries delivered and spending money wildly although she has no income source (read: her parents pay her rent for her still and feel a little bit sorry for her when she visits them in a funk). Millie, the narrator, is hostile and crude and mostly keeps her cruel thoughts to herself, like when she invites Sarah over to have beers, even though she hates Sarah, because she can pretend that she has a normal life with friends this way. Her receptionist boss Karen belittles her intelligence by asking if she knows how to use a shredder and telling her that she’s putting paper clips on the wrong way (“She seems to be showing me how to use a paper clip. She holds it in her hands, demonstrating both the right and the wrong way. Holy absurdity, little side on top, big side on bottom, I guess I did it wrong. I say ‘Oh okay, that makes sense.’ ‘It’s a matter of style,’ she explains. ‘I totally get it,’ I say, speaking in low tones, soothing and reassuring, nodding, and to keep the indignant scream from leaving my lips, I imagine that she needs to poop, all the time, but can’t.”

The brash, awful, crude, misanthropic female character reminds me a bit of Otessa’s Eileen, but with more fury. The only parts I was less than pleased about were the inexplicable switches to other characters’ points of view, like her downstairs neighbors who smell something weird in the drains or her boss Karen’s perspective of how weird Millie is and how she wants to get rid of her urgently.

A Girl in Winter

Fabulous story of a French woman (Katherine) working in a library in wartime England. Part 1 is our introduction to Katherine at the library, where her idiotic boss irritates her to no end, and she escapes to help a coworker home with a dental emergency. The jaunt takes her to a dentist, then to her house where the coworker can recover, then there’s a purse switch at the pharmacy that she must deal with before returning to work. Meanwhile she’s waiting anxiously for a response to her letter to Robyn, a man who was her pen pal when they were 16 and who invited her to spend a summer vacation with him then. Part 2 takes us back to that three week spell in the summer where Katherine meets Robyn and more importantly, his sister Jane, who’s the one who encouraged Robyn to invite K. She falls in love with Robyn then out of love, then he awkwardly kisses her the night before she leaves. In Part 3, we return to present day. Katherine ends up taking the bus to return the switched purse to a woman who happens to be involved with Katherine’s terrible boss at the library (discovered by way of a letter in the purse). Robyn’s letter announces his arrival that day, Katherine scurries away nervous and heads back to work, gets into a fight with the boss, announces her resignation, heads home in the gloom, and finds a drunk Robyn at her steps. She’s tired and not attracted to him, but she lets him stay as the solution of least resistance. A halfhearted marriage proposal is uttered and dismissed. The scene ends with snow drifting down on the pair as they lay awake in K’s attic.

There’s a few miraculous  passages that detail what depression feels like:

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death

This might be a record for the shortest time between hearing about a book and finishing it—my sister recommended this book to me this afternoon as I was about to head to the library, so I grabbed a copy and devoured it in one gulp. Beautiful memoir about the various scrapes and near-death experiences Maggie and her children have endured. I was especially pleased by the pacing of the stories—they’re not told chronologically (boring!) but instead layered in a way that draws you in. First, the story of almost being strangled as an 18-year-old hiking near a lake (the guy ends up killing a different woman a few days later). Then hints of a childhood disease that was devastating, but she leaves that mega-story for the penultimate. The last tale is one about her daughter, seemingly allergic to everything, being rushed to a hospital in anaphylactic shock. Also a frank story about a miscarriage (they allowed her to walk away from the clinic with a dead body inside her, told her it could pass naturally!) and how common those are but mysterious because no one talks of them.

Wim Wenders: Written in the West

Wim Wenders’s collection of photos from his exploratory mission before filming Paris, Texas. Includes an interview that has choice quotable bits like: “Solitude and taking photographs are connected in an important way. If you aren’t alone, you can never acquire this way of seeing, this complete immersion in what you see, no longer needing to interpret, just looking.”

Seasonal Associate

Brilliant novel written in second person narration, aimed at the reader, the generic “You” who is called to enter her world as an Amazon seasonal worker in Germany in 2010. The narrator is a struggling writer/translator who sucks it up and gets a terrible job at the Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush, describing the mind-numbing routine, the crushing workload, the unpaid work of changing in and out of work clothes, the sneers from management, the silliness of imported American informality in calling everyone by their first name. The drudgery of rising in the early hours of winter to slog through snow and cancelled public transportation to work in a place where the door to the outside won’t shut so is freezing all day. The slap of having to get a doctor’s written note testifying that one is sick. Being yelled at like you’re a child over and over.

The narrator knows she’ll soon be replaced by robots: “You… are nothing but a placeholder for machines that have already been invented but aren’t yet profitable enough to permanently replace you and your workmates, who are very low-cost. The fact that your presence is necessary troubles your employer, who dislikes dealing with troublemakers.”

She sprinkles in wisdom from various sources, Engels, Arendt, etc. including this bit from Byung-Chul Han: “There’s no way to form a revolutionary mass out of exhausted, depressed, isolated individuals,” and this from Elfriede Jelenek: “Anyone alive disrupts.”

A great excerpt from the 4th chapter is online, including:

I too buy my books from Amazon. I buy the books there that I can’t get elsewhere. What I don’t buy from Amazon is books or other things I can get elsewhere, not even if they’re cheaper there or delivered more quickly.

A few days before, I held a far too vehement lecture at my mother’s kitchen table, preaching that one doesn’t necessarily have to buy things one wants from the cheapest source. I said there was no order and no law that you have to choose the cheapest offer. My mother looked at me as though checking whether I meant it seriously, first of all, and secondly whether I might have turned into a rich woman overnight, someone who could afford to say such things.

I appreciated the way she simply walked off the job at the end, realizing that she could just quit. Months later, she gets a call from Amazon asking for feedback, which she gives them. They also offer her the chance to come back anytime. But her freelance work has picked back up, making her realize:

The present performance subject is identical to the Hegelian slave apart from the circumstance that it does not work for the master, but exploits itself voluntarily. As an entrepreneur of itself, it is both master and slave simultaneously.

I also enjoyed the unique table of contents, summarizing and commenting on the ensuing chapter:

Translated by Katy Derbyshire from German.

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

Stunning, poetic, political book by writer/visual artist/AIDS activist/filmmaker/painter/musician David Wojnarowicz (pronounced “voy-nah-ROW-vitch”) published a year before his own AIDS-related death at age 37 in 1992. It’s a memoir of 80s NYC hustling that is gripped by the constant deaths of friends from AIDS. He’s rightfully angry about existing in a world where his very being is illegal. The words spill breathless onto the page with an urgency born of watching those around him die. Pure prose poetry from beginning to end, wrapped in a rage blanket, spitting hatred at Reagan and the ineptitude of American leaders.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays

Janet Malcolm’s collection of essays has a few gems, like the one about the three sisters in their seventies who run Argosy Bookshop on E 59th St, plus the one referenced by the cover image of pianist Yuja Wang, and the Eileen Fisher profile. Coincidentally, these are the first three essays of the book. From there, I felt it was downhill, although I did like the takedown of the P&V translations versus Constance Garnett (people have been inexplicably swooning over P&V translation and I can’t understand why). She also enthusiastically recommends Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, and waxes on and on about Joseph Mitchell’s dance between fiction and non.

Peyton Place

I suppose this was considered racy fare in 1956 when first published, a soap opera tale of a small town that involves rape, abortion, drinking, sex, deception, child abuse, wife beatings, bastard children, sleeping with married men, and murder. Parts are downright hilarious, like the seven men who hole up in Kenny’s cellar on an extended drunken bender for five or six weeks. Allison Mackenzie is the daughter of Constance Mackenzie, a bastard child who’s a year older than she is told in order to cover her mother’s disgrace. Her friend Selena is a member of one of the shack families in town, abused by her stepfather who rapes/impregnates her, she has abortion, years later he returns to town and she kills him. There’s a newspaper owner who doesn’t like to take sides and a wealthy mill owner who overprotects his son (keeping him from war but the drunken son ends up killing himself in a car wreck), a friend of Allison who loses her arm in a carnival accident, a handsome new principal who sweeps Constance off her feet, an overprotective mother who lies about her son being a war hero, the list goes on forever.

The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.

Evan Ratliff’s book about Paul Le Roux’s internet prescription drug cartel was exciting until the last 100 pages when it hit a reef and sank. After spending years researching and then writing about this epic drug lord hacker (who got into narcotics and guns and money laundering), the book drifts off once Le Roux is captured by the DEA and flipped. There’s no grand moment when Le Roux gets his comeuppance, just a tiny whimper as the U.S. government uses this top of the pyramid to take out the rest of his business network. Disappointing. I also wish he’d kept himself out of the book more, but he was always elbowing his way into the story somehow.

Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories

I liked the first two stories but then either my mood changed or the book’s equilibrium shifted or something else but I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the final four. Strongest (as always!) is the first one, the eponymous story, where an artist lucks into a vacation home when a rich couple buy one of her paintings from a friend, she spends the summer daydreaming and gazing out at the landscape and trying to avoid being the entertainment for the other guests. Taj Mahal was a sweet story about a group of oldsters who get together to gossip about the gossipy biography they were all just mentioned in.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I read this over a decade ago and it kept coming up lately so I did a highly satisfying re-read. Best writing lesson he got from his first job writing for a local newspaper, condensing and simplifying. “When you write a story you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

He defends his own category of blockbuster writing and talks about critics being suspicious of popular success… “suspicions used as an excuse not to think. No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift… dozing to Byzantium, you might say.”

Basically you gotta see or hear clearly, then describe to your reader. Practice, honesty. Back story: everyone has a history and most of it isn’t interesting.

Other bits: Trollope invented the red mail pillars during his day job as a mail clerk in the 1850s. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch is the originator of “Murder your darlings” as writing advice.