Blood on the Forehead: What I Know About Writing

This is one of the worst books I’ve read about writing. I got hipped to Kerr because she’s supposedly the inspiration for Carol in Price of Salt by the immensely talented Patricia Highsmith. Sadly, Kerr has nothing to offer a discerning reader/writer in any of her many permutations.

The book seems to be created out of an urgent need for cash. There are perhaps 20 pages about the craft of writing wedged in betwixt too many pages of Kerr’s not so great short stories or a few chapters of her tepid novels.

I had hope in the beginning: “The difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between a visit to a nearby town and at trip to another country. To visit the nearby town you don’t pack much, you don’t have as far to go, fewer people are involved, and you take a direct route to your destination.”

Perhaps the most helpful piece of information conveyed was her technique for using posterboard to list out the elements of her stories before she began: NAME, AGE, DESCRIPTION, BACKGROUND, HABITS, BEGINNING, END.

Then she does dumb stuff like qualify her sources: “The famous writer W. Somerset Maugham wrote: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.'” Did we really need the explanation that Maugham was a famous writer? Didn’t we already know that? This book is clearly not aimed at people like me, lit-nerds.

Possibly the worst abuse she inflicted on my eyes was her explanation of why she assumes a male point of view. “Teachers have told me that boys prefer to read only stories that boys tell. Girls like both. So if I use a male voice, then everyone’s happy.” Except me, frustrated and banging my fists against the willful ignorance of people perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

A quick skim of 4 WPA state/city guides

My interest was piqued after reading the entertaining perspectives of 1930’s San Francisco via the WPA writers’ project, so I dove in and grabbed a handful from the stacks at the library. None of them are worth reading cover to cover, but I did pick up some tidbits and amusements. The librarian who handed them over gave me an “are you insane” look and asked if I was reading these as travel guides or as history. I tried explaining what a great resource these WPA guides are and he got a bored look on his face then pronounced that the WPA program still existed and was still paying writers. I wish!

WPA Guide to California– This was a later edition (1984) that contained a somewhat snarky introduction saying that much had changed since 1939, “often for the worse,” citing Cannery Row’s and Fisherman Wharf’s tourist attractions and that Daly City now had tract homes instead of being covered by fields of lettuce, artichokes, pansies, and violets. The intro also revealed that Tillie Olsen was a contributor, among others (Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, etc.).

  • The Hollywood section lists out actual house addresses of celebrities of the time, including Wallace Beery (816 N. Alpine Drive), Edward G. Robinson (910 N. Rexford Drive), Greta Garbo (250 N. Cliffword Ave), Joan Crawford (426 N. Bristol Ave.), Groucho Marx, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astair, Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple…
  • The SF library used ot have a “piano for the use of patrons wishing to try out selections.”
  • The Mint on Buchanan was scaled by “two schoolboys by daylight by means of a drain pipe” who slipped into an open window and threw out a copper plate just to see if it could be done (Jan 1939).
  • North Beach in SF used to be known as the Latin Quarter.
  • Pescadero was once “the whitest town in the State; when the S.S. Columbia was wrecked near Pigeon Point, most of her cargo of white paint drifted ashore and, salvaged by the inhabitants, was used lavishly.”

WPA’s New York city guide; a comprehensive guide to the five boroughs of the metropolis–Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond

  • Wait, Staten Island is officially known as “Richmond”?
  • Richard Wright was a contributor!
  • The accommodations section lists out prices of hotel rooms per day – $2.00 up to $8.00 (Hampshire House, 150 Central Park South)
  • The traffic rules section cracked me up. “SIGNAL LIGHTS (1) Green means go. (2) Red means stop… (5) when light turns red drivers shall stop at nearest intersecting street.” Also, “PLAY STREETS. These streets are set aside for children to play in; no traffic is permitted except vehicles having business in such streets.” And “HORNS. Horns must not be sounded except to warn a person or animal of danger.”
  • In the foreign meals section, they helpfully list out common dishes under each heading. Tortillas are explained as “corn pancakes.”
  • Once again, the distinction between “legitimate theaters” and “motion picture theaters.”

Massachusetts’s WPA state guide, the 1971 edition.

zzz boring, nothing to even call out here. They go town by town alphabetically trying to squeeze out a few lines per town. Louisa May Alcott is denigrated by saying she wrote “sentimental” novels.

Kansas, A Guide to the Sunflower State; compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kansas.

No credit is given to the writers and none is due. This, too, was a snoozer. The only note I made was on climate, where they said “topcoats and overcoats necessary Sept 1 to June 1.” Oh really? Also a lot of regulations around fishing, saying it was prohibited to have more than 2 poles and a line, or dynamiting, poisoning, ice fishing or “any manner of taking fish except with artificial lures or baited hooks.”

San Francisco: A Map of Perceptions

This book perfectly captures the mood of the city… until it doesn’t. I was dreamily reading along, appreciating an outsider’s perspective on my city, loving the descriptions of fog, small paragraphs about disparate topics, peppered with watercolor drawings of the city itself. But then our opinions differ and he seems to crap all over my neighborhood while glorying in all that North Beach contains (clearly the preference for any Italian). A callous attitude about homeless here, a snide comment about the committee to prevent the Manhattanization of the city there, then he loops the Bay from Berkeley to SF to Marin to Richmond to Berkeley to end the book. Strange.

He’s absolutely in love with the Beats, claiming that “with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s last breath, San Francisco will become a different city.” Alas that time has already come while Ferlie is still alive, although he’s approaching 100 years of age.

Perhaps the best section was describing the Embarcadero Freeway (R.I.P.):

An architect friend of mind told me, in the long-ago 1980s, that speeding into downtown San Francisco on the Embarcadero Freeway was one of the most exciting experiences he had ever had. The Embarcadero exit was the last turnoff before the elevated freeway entered onto the Bay Bridge in the direction of East Bay. Drivers felt as if they were riding a hyperurban roller coaster, flying along for at least a mile in the midst of skyscrapers very close at hand until, after a broad curve, they glided into the heart of North Beach. Seen from the ground, the freeway had a completely different flavor: it was an incongruous, Brutalist wilderness of enormous concrete pilings, a barrier separating downtown from the front along the bay. The long piers and the beloved Ferry Building were cut off form the rest of the city, relegated to a narrow space, wedged in between the freeway and the sea.

The freeway ended at North Beach, but the idea of its original designers was to continue it all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. This would have meant six miles of uninterrupted destruction of the most beautiful waterfront in America. The advantage was that it would save motorists the inconvenience of having to pass through the residential areas of North Beach, Russian Hill, and the Marina. A potential premeditated urban murder, this insane plan was luckily never carried out.

But great descriptions of fog swirling around the streets. Not terrible, but slightly disappointing.

LaRose

This book exhausted me. I thought I’d take a quick sojourn out of my complete immersion in Patricia Highsmith to read this novel, which came highly recommended from a friend with spectacular literary taste. And yet, I didn’t feel any connection to the characters and plodded along dutifully for hundreds of pages past my usual expiration date. It’s a tangle of characters and emotions, all swirling around the main story of one man shooting another man’s son by accident, and then donating their own son to the victim’s family to raise. Throughout the present day narrative there are specks of an older story of ancestors which bogged it down further for me. I can appreciate the sparkle of the writing, but it lacked the necessary oomph to reach into my chest and pull out my heart. A hollow feeling came across, and I dreaded reaching for it in between gorging myself on Highsmith.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

I hate this book. I’m a lazy writer and loathe the rules, giving myself leeway and pretending that all my reading soaks proper writing into my brain. I’ve tried to read it closely a number of times over the years and always end up sighing and skimming. The latest attempt was due to Jessica Mitford’s urging in Poison Penmanship. Yes, commas should be placed before conjunctions that introduce independent clauses; yes, of course we should use definite, specific, concrete language; yes yes the number of subject determines the number of the verb zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The only real help I got was definite info around further vs farther: “farther serves best as a distance word, further as a time or quantity word.”

Apologies to all my future editors out there, but I’ve got an 80% grasp on these ideas intuitively and will simply rely on the grammar nazis to set me straight where needed.

Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital

I cannot resist books by flaneurs. This is a translation of Hessel’s 1929 book of walking through Weimar-era Berlin, although the longest section is his tour of the city by car. This edition includes an intro essay by Walter Benjamin which has a great quote, “The flaneur memorizes like a child, asserts his wisdom like an old man.”

Sadly much of this was not worth perusing, perhaps due to my lack of connection to Berlin, seen only in fleeting glimpses over a decade ago. My favorite part was the first chapter, The Suspect, wherein Hessel describes the suspicion of everyone he meets when he saunters through their avenues.

“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”

Perhaps this would be worth reading as one flew to Germany. Otherwise, it gets a solid pass from me.

San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

Mostly useful for the amusing perspective the various writers had in 1940 when this was compiled, such as their attitude about the Western Addition:

“Like the backyard of some imposing but superannuated mansion, the Western Addition is cluttered with the discarded furniture of the city’s Gilded Age. It is a curious district whose claim to distinction is its disdain of all pretense. It is not beautiful, and yet San Franciscans refer to it almost affectionately as ‘The Fillmore,’ the name of its busiest thoroughfare, and love it, as Charles Caldwell Dobie says, ‘for its supreme grotesqueness.’ ” Ah yes, those grotesque Victorian houses that dared to be protected from the 1906 fire and straggle into the 20th century. The book calls them “the preposterous old houses built here in the 1870s and 1880s.” Truly hilarious, as these gems are what make the neighborhood so unique in this age of excessive blue glass buildings.

This is a quaint look at SF from the ancient viewpoint of nearly 80 years ago, littered with ignorant statements about the natives and non-white immigrants. They make it seem like the land was just sitting here empty, waiting to be civilized by white man, whereas reading Tending The Wild leads to a more evolved view that the natives created the abundant garden that whites found.

There are a few things that haven’t changed much from 1940, such as the crowd that hangs out by the Main Library: “A ragged senate of unemployed philosophers gathers daily along the ‘wailing wall’ by the south entrance of the San Francisco Public Library…” This of course was the Carnegie library that now houses the Asian Art musuem. The present day site of the main branch was an open park, Marshall Square, where “women air their babies and exercise their dogs, schoolboys play football, and down-and-outers snatch a bit of sun and sleep.” There used to be a cemetary on the spot until 1870.

Interesting to read their list of restaurants where special care is taken to note whether the place has a bar or not. The dreary pre-war days seem to have lulled the writers into a dull sense of boredom, and they bemoan the lost yesteryear of SF: “While the graft investigation scandals of 1906 had forced the toning down of the city’s night life, it was not until the war years [WWI] and the advent of Prohibition that the death knell of San Francisco’s gaiety was sounded… Over old San Francisco, twilight had fallen, from which it never would emerge. San Francisco would be the same city when the era of sobriety came at last to its end, but, like wine in a bottle once opened, then corked and laid away, its flavor would be gone.” Yikes, WPA writers! So maudlin!

It was fun to mark certain landmarks that were mentioned to go back and see what’s there now on the 2017 map, like the Hotel Empire at the corner of Leavenworth and McAllister, now a part of Hastings.

Some things learned:

  • In 1853, a newspaper surveyed the town and found 537 places where liquor was sold. Of those, 125 did not even “keep an onion to modify the traffic.” What a great phrase!
  • Buena Vista “with its deeply shaded nooks smelling always of dampness” was set aside in 1868 as the first plot of the city’s park system.
  • I’ve never heard of this park! Mount Olympus near 17th and Clayton.
  • Alta Plaza was turned into a park by McLaren when he filled a deserted rock quarry with trash, topped it with soil, planted lawns and laid out walks. South side stairway is a reproduction of the grand stairway up to the casino in Monte Carlo.
  • Baker Beach (property of the War Department when this was written) named for the same guy that Baker St, Fort Baker, and the town in Oregon are named after – Edward Dickinson Baker.
  • The authors make a distinction between motion picture houses and “legitimate theaters.”
  • Tule fog is a winter phenomenon, different from the more prevalent white fog.
  • The most important industry in 1937 was printing & publishing, output valued at $40M.
  • How times have changed. In 1940, “employers estimate that half the population of San Francisco consists of union members and their families.”
  • Pedestrians and cyclists used to pay $0.10 toll for the Golden Gate bridge. Also, the authors struggle with the fact that “San Francisco has no single spectacular landmark by which the world may identify it,” not realizing that the GG Bridge was destined to become that landmark.

Vanessa Bell

I wish I’d been able to jet over to London for the exhibition this spring at the Dulwich Picture Gallery of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Instead, I ordered up this gorgeous catalog from the exhibition and enjoyed the photographs, the wallpaper, the furnishings, the pottery and plates, but most of all the paintings. The book has several scholarly essays about Bell’s work, her upbringing, her unconventional life, and—of course— her sister. They include one of Virginia’s poems which might have been her response to Nessa’s gripe that writers don’t really deal in colors. Quite a lovely collection, and I’m sure seeing all the works together would be overwhelming and amazing.

The Nakeds

Well done, Lisa Glatt! A very enjoyable read that weaves strands from various characters into a cohesive tale that just works. A young girl (Hannah) gets hit by a drunk driver (Marty) who flees the scene, necessitating years of a cast on her leg. Most of the story revolves around Hannah and her mother, who divorces her father for cheating on her and then remarries a much younger Arab man, Azeem, who lures her into the nudist lifestyle. Marty quits driving his car and eventually leaves town for Vegas, coming back at the end when his dad dies to help his mother run their restaurants. After many years, Hannah finally gets her cast off and the family goes to Marty’s restaurant to celebrate, the chef’s face wild-eyed when he recognized her as the girl he hit. Perfect pacing and structure, very readable.

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy’s memoir started out strong but quickly went down the toilet. She sets up the scene well, we’re primed to hear a tale of disaster when we learn that she lost her baby, her spouse, and her house. But she digresses and then puts us on a cliffhanger that honestly makes no sense. On a writing assignment in South Africa, she spends a weekend in a national park. “On the day that I first saw a pride of lions flopping on their backs in the dry yellow grass and licking each other… I made the mistake that would lead to my first real regret… On that morning, I made the first of many mistakes that would stack up on top of one another until they blocked out the sun.” And? What was that mistake? We never find out. My mistake was in reading this all the way through, wondering if she’d ever veer back on track.

She leaves her alcoholic wife when she’s in rehab, has her baby early in Mongolia where it dies, and has to sell their Shelter Island house to pay for Lucy’s rehab. Then she hints at a future happy ending with the doctor who treated her after the early birth, Dr. John. It’s all a big shrug to me, if offered to take it or leave it I would recommend not even touching it.

The Assistants

Cute, implausible beach read of a book if you have a couple hours to kill. It’s every low-paying wage worker’s fantasy—to somehow tap into that shower of gold that lines the executive’s pockets while they bark orders at you and you cut limes for their noon-time drinks.

Tina is the 30-year-old assistant to Robert, head of a media empire who spends lavishly. When his jet is broken, he insists that she buy out first class in the next available flight and get it comped. The agent refuses to comp it and Tina puts the $20k charge on her credit cards, but the next day, the airline apologizes and refunds the money. Only Tina has already submitted the expense report, and along comes the check, which would cover the remainder of her student debt. She holds on to the check for a few weeks and then throws caution to the wind and cashes it.

Turns out Emily, an assistant in the Travel & Expenses department, figures out what Tina’s done, and wants in on it. Soon Tina is covering Emily’s college debt as well, and Emily somehow moves in with her as a non-paying roommate. You know where this is leading. Another woman from accounting wants to cover the debt of a co-worker, and they come streaming in.

It all resolves itself without jail time or even any criminal charges. Everything plays out into a nice non-profit with the help of some software written by another low-paid woman who works at the company. Parts are entertaining and it’s a decent read for anyone looking for some mindless entertainment.

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing Russia

Occasionally reading mediocre books can give a writer both hope and despair—hope that she’ll eventually get off her tuchus to do such a thing and despair that if she does it, she’ll churn out a similar piece of tepid prose. Lisa Dickey’s book was not very good, but I read it anyway. I will not get those two hours back, but I persevered. We can’t always read top quality books in life.

Basic premise is that she lucks into a cross-country journey with a photojournalist back in 1995, decides to re-do the trip 10 years later with a different photographer then another 10 years later by herself. As I read increasingly boring travel tales which any woman-on-the-street could provide, I wondered if her choice to do it alone stemmed from not being able to find someone to do it with her. (See also: her original photographer opting out of the 2005 trip)

We’re regaled with the mind-numbing details of travel horror I’ve come to expect from lending half an ear to older relatives back from cruises where the fitness center didn’t have a band-aid. Dickey spares no detail, telling us about waking up in a wet bed from her own diarrhea, being subjected to a smoking room in a non-smoking hotel, her laptop dying then miraculously resurrecting itself, leaving her backpack behind to find nothing stolen only later to have a thief steal her wallet, yawn I am falling asleep here trying to remember all the dry dusty bits.

Mostly she pounces on unsuspecting Russians without prior notice, foisting herself on them, reluctant to tell them she’s gay and married to a woman despite these people reasonably wanting updates of her life since they’ve seen her last. Occasionally there’s some interesting fodder, like the fact that everyone uniformly adores Putin (“everyone loves the winning team”) and thinks the U.S. is meddling in Ukraine.

The book title comes from a phrase she hears several times in her trip, that Americans think Russians are backwards, with bears running in the streets.

No mediocre book would be without a glaring editorial error, which happens on page 165, “David and popped into a store…”

Vain Shadow

Another escape from reality with a dip into a Persephone book. This one by Jane Hervey was a quick read. A family, relieved when the Old Man dies, but trying not to be too greedy to read the will to see who got what. The widow is happy to finally be rid of her husband after 50 years of his browbeating and anger, but she’s unable to recover her old spirit. Her granddaughter is attempting to slough off her own poorly-chosen husband who berates her in private but puts a brave and charming face out to the world. When it’s discovered that her inheritance is left in trust, that he won’t be able to tap into her capital, he’s not very upset. The uncles tell him that they want to change the will so that she forfeits all money if she divorces him, but the lawyer squashes that idea. Oldest son Jack also gets his money in trust, so that none of it goes to his actress wife on his death.

The Coming Insurrection

I’ve started a new Fourth of July tradition — reading this gem from The Invisible Committee. It’s been a few years since I first read it and in light of the malaise and disgust settling over the U.S. like a toxic cheeto-colored fog I figured it was time for a re-read.

The text is sometimes unapproachable, not sure if that’s a result of translation from French or just from ideas coming too quickly that they clog the brain pipes. While touching on a lot that’s rotted in society, the possibilities it dreams of seem too outlandish. I don’t see how this insurrection can be achieved, partly because I’m not ready to hit the streets from the comfort of my cozy reading chair and partly because of an uneasy feeling that anarchists tend to ruin things (see recent Berkeley events). I did laugh though when I saw the Fox News review that this was the most evil thing they’d ever read. It’s a direct assault on all that Fox clings to.

It’s laid out in sections, seven circles:

  1. I am what I am (“Never has domination found such an innocent-sounding slogan. The maintenance of the self in a permanent state of deterioration, in a chronic state of near-collapse, is the best-kept secret of the present order of things.”). This elevation of individuals over the collective good is the sludgey ooze that pulls society apart.
  2. Entertainment is a vital need. Laughing at the news is our coping mechanism. “Everyone can testify to the doses of sadness condensed from year to year in family gatherings, the forced smiles, the awkwardness of seeing everyone pretending in vain, the feeling that a corpse is lying there on the table, and everyone acting as though it were nothing.”
  3. Life, health, and love are precarious—why should work be an exception. We’re the generation that never counted on a pension or the right to work, much less rights at work. “The disaster has already occurred: it resides in everything that had to be destroyed, in all those who had to be uprooted, in order for work to end up as the only way of existing.”
  4. More simple, more fun, more mobile, more secure. “The grapevine can’t be wiretapped.”
  5. Fewer possessions, more connections!  The economy isn’t IN crisis, it IS the crisis. Negative growth is the new mantra, to consume less, be frugal, be content with what’s strictly necessary. “When an individual is frugal, property serves its function perfectly, which is to allow the individual to enjoy her own life sheltered from public existence, in the private sanctuary of her life.”
  6. The environment is an industrial challenge. The “environment” is a relationship to the world based on estrangement, management. “We have become neighbors in a planetary board meeting. It’s difficult to imagine a more complete hell… The globular sticky mass of their guilt lands on our tired shoulders, pressuring us to cultivate our garden, sort out our trash, and eco-compost the leftovers of this macabre feast…. We have to consume a little less to be able to keep consuming. We have to produce organically to keep producing… This is the logic of a world straining to maintain itself while giving itself an air of historical rupture.”
  7. We are building a civilized space here. “The feeling that we’ve been tricked is a like a wound that is becoming increasingly infected. It’s the source of the latent rage that just about anything will set off these days.” There’s also this beautiful extended metaphor:

Today the West is the GI who dashes into Fallujah on an M1 Abrams tank, listening to heavy metal at top volume. It’s the tourist lost on the Mongolian plains, mocked by all, who clutches his credit card as his only lifeline. It’s the CEO who swears by the game Go. It’s the young girl who looks for happiness in clothes, guys, and moisturizing creams… It’s the art lover who wants us to be awestruck before the “modern genius” of a century of artists, from surrealism to Viennese actionism, all competing to see who could best spit in the face of civilization.

The rest of the book is an exhortation to get going, organize, form communes, find each other. “Attach yourself to what you feel to be true. Begin there.” Circulate knowledge. “Proliferating horizontal communication is also the best form of coordination among different communes, the best way to put an end to hegemony.”

The Genius of Birds

Jennifer Ackerman’s book about bird brains is getting rave reviews everywhere but I wasn’t as impressed as most readers. I prefer the more in-depth tales like Ravens in Winter instead of this book that flits from research study to research study. She also overdid the bird puns, like good for goose/good for the gander, chicken/egg conundrum, bird brain, etc.

The one thing I learned was about birds flocking—each bird interacts with the seven birds closest to it, adjusting their movements to mirror their neighbors so a huge group of birds can veer in one direction in a split second.

A bit of info about birds as dinosaurs but I wished for more detail. Lots and lots of stories about crows using tools to accomplish various tasks. Bottom line: birds are smart, plus they’re interesting to watch and learn from. Go outside and observe some birds in lieu of reading this.