After Midnight

Absolutely brilliant rendering of what life in Nazi Germany was like in the final months before the war. I adored Gilgi and set off for more from this overlooked writer, discarding The Artificial Silk Girl as too similar to Gilgi and settling on Nacht Mitternacht, pub’d in 1937 in Amsterdam where she’d fled (before sneaking back into Germany in 1940 under an assumed name.)

The life in Frankfurt is hellish, everyone spying on everyone else and ratting out the slightest infraction to the Gestapo. Sanna, our narrator, is a 19-year-old who doesn’t like getting lectured by Goebbels on the radio and thinks Hitler sweats too much. Her aunt reports her, she flees Cologne after a hideous interrogation, goes to live with her step-brother, a popular novelist whose works are now banned by the Nazis (basically Keun’s situation). Bits dribble out through the story, her stepbrother wants to off himself or escape his life, her cousin/fiancee Franz has just killed an ex-SS officer, a guest at their party (an outspoken anti-Nazi) has just shot himself in the head during the party after this speech:

I’ve spent over ten years writing my fingers to the bone, racking my brains, to warn people of the madness of the barbarism ahead. A mouse squeaking to hold back an avalanche. Well, the avalanche has come down, burying the lot of us. And the mouse has squeaked its last. I am old and ridiculous: no power or desire to begin all over again… There are plenty of others to say the rest of what I have said for me…

This came out in 1937. Germany was well aware of what lay ahead. Keun lays it out so simply. I’m astonished that we don’t have more voices like this reporting from right up until the edge of the war.

Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

Muddled hodgepodge of a book that was not successful in its attempt to find commonality in the act/art of waiting. Mostly I’m fascinated by the pneumatic tubes which were essential to delivering mail in NYC, Philly, Paris, London, and the reason I picked up this book. But Farman uses a not-well-defined concept (we’ve always waited, it has an impact on our lives) as an excuse for trips to Japan and Australia in addition to chasing Civil War battlefields and musing about the Hubble telescope. What a weird and patched-up book whose seams are fraying and tattered. There’s a whole discourse on the design of computer icons to indicate waiting.

Paris used the pneumatic tube mailing system from 1866-1984; London launched it in 1853 and it was used in the U.S. from 1893 to 1953 to shoot mail quickly across town from one station to another. Farman dazzles himself by discovering that one of these stations (Station A) is now an Apple Store, fitting nicely into his story about instant messaging and how making people wait in line for their products creates desirability.  Anyway, the system was decommissioned in the 1950s because the tubes were expensive to maintain and trucks could handle large quantities of mail cross-town.

Tubes were also used in department stores (clerks take the money for your purchase and shoot it to another floor, getting your receipt and change back by way of tube as well), the NYPL library, banks, and hospitals.

Some guy thought he’d figured out the solution to more cheaply laying fiber across NYC by utilizing the existing pneumatic tube system, but nope, much cheaper to just dig shallow trenches. Also, post-9/11 the actual schematics of the tube system became impossible to access due to terrorist threat.

 

Dodsworth

A fantastic introduction to Sinclair Lewis! This book follows Sam Dodsworth, a retired automobile executive whose wife is bored with small town U.S. life, clamoring to be taken away to Europe to spend his millions. Once there she swoons with adoring men who introduce her to romance and quite easily lure her away from her stolid husband. Sam trails around amiably for a few years, watching the affairs, then leaves her when she decides to marry a poor Count. He stumbles blindly around the continent for a bit, ends up in the arms of an American widow in Venice who he’d met earlier. The book was a grand excuse to indulge in speeches about the differences in attitudes between Europe and America (circa late 1920s when the book was written).

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

Very much enjoyed Ullman’s essays about technology, life in SF during the boom/bust/boom, programming from a woman’s perspective. She’s an eloquent writer who blends the humanities with the sciences in a way that makes her story compelling to everyone, even if you don’t know how to program COBOL or BASIC. She rails against the prepackaged wizards that arrived to take the mystery out of coding, just three clicks of the mouse and you have the skeleton of a program up and running (“not content with infantilizing the end user, the purveyors of point-and-click seem determined to infantilize the programmer as well”).

I loved her reminisces about the Y2K bug and the ingenious solution of two men who worked for a railroad company—they simply reset the internal clock of the network to 1972 because the year 2000’s days of the week are the same as those in 1972, which “literally buys them time” to figure out a permanent solution. Y2K was pretty much a non-issue because of the concerted effort the world put into fixing it.

Ullman is also concerned with the migration of the internet to hyper-capitalist ends, convincing consumers that self-service is the way to go. “Whereas companies once vied for your business by telling you about their courteous people and how well they would serve you, their job now is to make you believe that only you can take care of yourself… In the internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed-down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings. The rest of us must make do with web pages, and feel happy about it.” This is something I’ve been witnessing for years now, something I reassure a friend who works as an executive assistant about her job security—rich people need an actual PERSON to order around, it makes them feel more important than bossing around a robot. (Witness all those losers barking commands at their Alexas.)

More than just extreme capitalism, Ullman fears the bubble that the internet creates. “Physical reality put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches and extreme political parties.” But now you can reinforce your own beliefs from the comfort of your home. This focus on the individual’s desires and comforts decimates the civic space that props up democracy.

She talks about a programming gig she got in 1981 for a company that sounds a lot like Macy’s from her descriptions. Her job was bug fixing, and one of the remaining bugs was with a report that she presented each week to the buyers. Turns out the report had never provided accurate information so they buyers had never looked at it. “So this was my job: Go to a floor that did not exist as far as the elevator was concerned. Work on programs that were completely useless. Make sure they ran anyway.” (Spoiler alert: she fixed the bug, made the report actually mean something. The problem came down to an underscore instead of a dash in a file name.)

Ullman traces her route to programming by way of a media group at college that banded together to buy a Portapak. “Film requires expertise, but anyone handed a Portapak learned how to use it within minutes. The reel-to-reel recording deck came in a leather case with a strap light enough to sling over your shoulder and carry for awhile… I learned I had no fear of machines… Time went on; I graduated from Cornell and moved to San Francisco, where, one day in 1979, I walked past a Radio Shack store on Market Street and saw in the window a microcomputer called the TRS-80. Reader, I bought it… The fact that I knew next to nothing about computers was actually a draw. I could fool around and see what happened, as with the Portapak.”

The most depressing section of essays is about the current atmosphere in San Francisco—depressing because she describes accurately the hell-on-earth that it has become. After the first boom/bust of internet, startup culture has descended again, but this time with fratty finance bros flip-flopping their way through pitch decks. “The would-be CEOs can more accurately be called conformists. They want what they are supposed to want; they are the men in the gray flannel suits of our time: tee shirts and jeans, causal business khakis. They are not wild. They march down the startup alley of Second Street not as assemblies of punks but like a disciplined army on maneuvers—yet ever anxious. Their ventures are likely to fade away, as a fickle public disposes of both the soldiers and the code, app by app.”

A very satisfying part of her ridicule is reserved for the co-working spaces that have sprung up to accommodate this army. Ullman raises an eyebrow (as have I) at all the ridiculous slogans plastered between the free beer and the cramped open plan desks: Do what you love, Make life not just a living, If you don’t like your job create one, Change the world. “The assumption is change for the better. But rarely have I met would-be founders who consider how the ‘better’ world they envision may be entwined with one that is worse.” She goes on to cite Uber, Amazon, FB as those companies that are changing the world for the worse. “The drive is to make a fortune, and it hardly matters what follows in its wake. ‘Change the world!’ is but an advertisement, a branding that obscures the little devil, disruption, that hides within the mantra, a slogan to rally the youth, tell them it’s fine, you are not here just to make money: You are noble.”

Seven Notebooks: Poems

Interesting concept—McGrath supposedly kept seven distinct notebooks during this time, each seems to have a theme (e.g. Hurricane, Luxury, Dawn), he went through a haiku stage plus liberal quotes from other male poets, his obsession with Whitman and Neruda, his interactions with the world at large and his family on a smaller scale, observations from his son Jackson (Sam seems more distant, older?) and wife Elizabeth. Preferred the work where he circles around the same theme (like in the Bob Hope poem, circling capitalism and snowstorms) instead of the meandering loose tongued snippets from his life.

I think what I hate about this approach is that it makes it seem as if McGrath simply oozed into 7 different notebooks and clapped them shut and sent them off to the publisher, as if there were no editing involved. Words don’t fall perfectly from our brains onto the page.

The Song of Achilles

Magical retelling of the ancient story of the Greek war against Troy, details masterfully filled in by Madeline Miller. If you’ve read The Iliad, there are no real surprises here, just an in-depth exploration of the tender and loving relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Odysseus makes an appearance, of course, as well as the throng of other Greeks from the well-known tale. Brilliant and captivating in a way that modern readers struggle to feel about Homer’s version.

Gilgi: One of Us

First book of the year sets the tone for the rest of the annual avalanche of books, I hope. A stunning 1931 novel by Irmgard Keun, translated from the German by Geoff Wilkes, tells of life in the Weimar Republic (Cologne, specifically) for an independent 20-something woman who discovers on her 21st birthday that she’s adopted. Her methodical life is perfect—secretarial work in an office during the day, language classes at the Berlitz at night (English/French/Spanish so she can work anywhere and be a translator), impassioned discussions with friends Olga and Pit. She seeks out her birth mother, mistakenly thinking it was the woman who handed her over to her adopted mother but instead of this poverty-stricken seamstress it’s some upper class woman who paid the seamstress to get rid of the child. This is helpful later when Gilgi’s life is unraveling and she needs money fast for a friend (who ends up gassing himself, his wife, and 2 kids). Her perfect life also includes a separate studio where she listens to a phonograph and practices her translations. Then she meets Olga’s friend Martin and falls in love with him, slowly abandoning her precise life for a slovenly one that racks up debts and an unwanted pregnancy. In the end she flees on a train to Berlin, still pregnant, in hopes of restarting life.

When her cousins come to visit, the family all huddles in one small apartment. “Gilgi borrowed a travel book from the library that morning—she’d like to read, but that would be considered impolite. Everyone is getting on everyone else’s nerves a little, everyone would like to do something other than what she’s doing just now. But everyone keeps smiling, preserving the impression that they have lots and lots in common.”

Olga wants to travel to Majorca where it’s cheap and warm and people speak a language she doesn’t understand. “Can you imagine how magical it is to hear just a melody of words, without understanding all the nonsense that lies behind them?”

Another great untranslatable German word: Weltschmerz (depression,  apathy, weariness caused the state of the world).

Irmgard Keun’s books were banned and burned by the Nazis, she fled into exile, then faked a suicide in 1940 in order to sneak back into Germany under a different name.

The Innocent

Taylor Stevens dips into her own past for this one, a story about the extraction of a young girl from a religious cult currently keeping her in Argentina in a house with dozens of other children, some of whom are sexually abused.

The depiction of Michael/Vanessa starts to get a bit tedious, her nightmares ending in knifed up sheets and terrors, killing random street pervs in New York, snapping necks when she stumbles onto an unrelated child abuse case in South America. But the story still has heat, her rage intact, helping her friend Logan get his daughter Hannah out of the cult.

The Informationist

Crazy good escapism from this thriller, the first of Taylor Stevens books, a stunning debut novel. The gender-bending heroine is the daughter of a missionary, born in Africa, who excels at languages and consults with governments, corporations, individuals to obtain whatever information they need. With this case, her talents are being used to locate a missing woman, Emily, whose stepfather is still attempting to find her after 4 years disappearance in Africa. Naturally, there’s tons of money tied up in the affair, he really wants Emily dead so he can take over her trust (her mother died under possibly suspicious circumstances). Michael/Vanessa/Essa is the hired gun who morphs into any situation to obtain information, wielding killer knife skills she learned from daily torture and rape while a teenager. Her rage makes for an extremely satisfying read.

***
Updated to say that after reading a bit about Ms Stevens, her own story (born into a religious cult, not exposed to books until she and her husband left the cult) is stunning as well…

Spring Comes To Chicago

Campbell McGrath ushers in spring and his soon-to-be-born son in this book of poetry that centers around the massive Bob Hope Poem wherein he watches a snowstorm rage outside while flipping People magazine and musing about Bob Hope’s greed (“so what if he’s a nonagenarian he wants that extra 25 million bucks so bad he can taste it”), the murky underpinnings of capitalism bolstering the American dream, nestled against observations made from the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, amidst quotes from Melville, Whitman, Wittgenstein, Marx, Veblen, Darwin, Thoreau, Columbus. We’re meant to believe that as he’s writing this epic poem, word comes over the radio that Bob is dead, “retired at last to vaudeville Valhalla, that heavenly Pro-Am, that never-ending celebrity roast in the sky… Bob the mad jester of cultural hegemony.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

Despite knowing better, I attempted to read another Olivia Laing book (I also attempted & abandoned The Lonely City a few times) simply because it’s an irresistible topic. One of my favorite movies of the year, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, even taps into this connection when Lee uses it as an excuse to get into sacred library texts to research her next book about drunk writers.

Early red flags warned me from continuing, like page 9’s admission that she was most interested in pursuing the stories of six men despite “many women writers [she] could have chosen.” Those crimson flags slapped me in the face by the time she was swooning over two of my least tolerated writers, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, painting them with the inaccurate golden boy brush and slandering Zelda per usual. I made it 100 pages before abandoning it. Devoted fans of the aforementioned writers plus Cheever, Carver, Berryman, and Tennesee Williams may feel differently.

Sister Carrie

My first foray into Theodore Dreiser territory was successful. This was on Dawn Powell’s list of novels she liked best, so I took it for a spin. Something that’s always enjoyable about opening a time capsule from 1900 is discovering old names for things, like “fire signs” as the term used for electrically lit signs (specifically in Times Square in this instance).

Characters spin in and out of whirlpools, get caught in eddies, then zip back into the story. We meet Sister Carrie in the first sentence, on a train headed to Chicago away from her Wisconsin small town, at the ripe old age of 18. Carrie has an astonishing number of names throughout this tale (Caroline Meeber, officially; stage name Carrie Madenda; pretending to be Charlie Drouet’s wife; then pretending to be Hurstwood’s wife, who goes by Murdock as he’s fleeing to Canada with a stolen $10k from his bosses, and then goes by Wheeler; she’s also affectionately known as Cad). Quickly she realizes that life as a boarder in her sister’s home (paying $4 a week out of her $4.50 wages in a shoe factory) is untenable. She takes up with Drouet, then begins an affair with Hurstwood who kidnaps her on his way out of town after the theft of the money. They end up in New York and she eventually bursts forth as a major Broadway talent once he runs out of money. Hurstwood unravels into a Bowery bum and eventually dies. Carrie enjoys her success, but you’re left wondering if there’s more to life for her.

The Royals

No matter whose dumb idea it was for me to read Kitty Kelley’s book about the House of Windsor (those sucking parasites, as the saner side of the UK seems to render them), it’s still my fault for actually going through with it and suffering many hundreds of pages of inanity. I was looking for a soft off-ramp for my brain at the end of the year, and this was so soft as to be gooey. It reads almost as the script for the TV series The Crown, then once Charles & Di get onto the screen, it’s hundreds of dull pages about their turbulent relationship (and don’t forget Fergie!) I’m finally putting this down after skimming the last few chapters. I don’t think I missed anything.

The Samurai’s Daughter

These Sujata Massey books are getting out of control. Is there a Japanese word for “wishes she had never read this book?” The creakingly terrible mysteries are simply not good, but I have a whole stack of them beside me to ride out the remainder of the year. Will I be strong enough to just toss them all aside in favor of better quality books? I doubt my own resolve.

The only interesting bits in this one (theme: Comfort Women!) were related to Rei Shimura’s brief visit to her parents’ Pac Heights home during the dot com bust. As she’s being proposed to, her car is broken into in the Presidio, super-apt even in today’s world. She mentions Greens restaurant. I think that’s it for highlights.

Sabrina

The hubbub about this book seems excessive. It was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker prize, but stop clutching your pearls because it didn’t win (nor should it have). Old friends reunite when one of their girlfriends disappears (turns out she was murdered, and the snuff film hits the airwaves), an AlexJones-esque radio announcer weaves his lies into the ear of the innocent boyfriend but Jones’ army of idiots comes after everyone even tangentially involved in the story with death threats and more. Seriously wonder why this got attention from the prize committee when there are so many better graphic novels to point to. Illustrations have a flat quality that works well with the flat telling of the story, but there’s enough tension in the undercurrents that you’re interested in flipping the pages to find out what happens.