This story was more bonkers than I realized. Besides the willfully deceptive insistence that their fake product worked, there are seamy tales of hiding the bizarre relationship of Holmes and her much older, pudgy, Indian boyfriend from the board, the strained relationship of grandfather & grandson Schultz, the egg on the face of many pseudo-respectable figureheads on the board who were mesmerized by Holmes, a suicide prompted by impending grand jury testimony, and direct consequences to patients who had tests done by these fake pinprick sticks. Despite what seemed to be excellent reporting by Carreyrou, I can’t help feeling like there’s a bit of smacking of the lips, people enjoying this story a bit too much because of the meteoric rise and fall of this woman. Surely the Travises have participated in similar fraud? The investigative reporter must have mentioned Holmes’ preternatural deep voice over a dozen times. Bonus points for the fact that the fraud charges continue to pile up as everyone flips the pages of this book.
Another one from Deep Focus’s Novel Approach to Cinema wherein writers deconstruct, analyze, roll around in the playpen of a particularly kitschy film (see previous post where Jonathan Lethem takes on They Live). This covers the hastily put together sequel to the classic Bad News Bears, a 1977 movie where the team hits the road to play in Houston’s now exploded Astrodome.
I’d have to say that the author’s father was my favorite part of the book, reaching through the telephone to dump doom and gloom on his son when he was looking for a personal recollection of how they dealt with the 1977 NYC blackout but instead his dad talks about the limits of capitalism and how the global economy had reached the end of its post-war boom in 1977: “The mid- to late-1970s were the beginning of an unstoppable decline.”
Wilker picks apart all the continuity mistakes, the new actors cast into roles that rolled over from the previous movie, the flimsiness of the sequel itself. I think this is a less interesting book than Lethem’s mostly due to the movie comparison; They Live is a commentary on what we’re dealing with now whereas Breaking Training takes us back to a simpler time where racism and misogyny were normal and kids could play unsupervised even to escape in a custom van on the road.
An easily digested beach-read-y type book that was actually quite good for the nanny genre it’s in. This French novel (translated to English by Sam Taylor) was a re-telling of the real life nanny murders that happened in NYC a few years ago, but Slimani shapes the psyche of Louise the nanny in such a way that doesn’t cheapen her motives, doesn’t suggest envy of her employers’ barely middle class possessions, but rather her complicated child-like state and total neglect of her own life subsumed by her employers’ kids. As Jessa Crispin noted in her Baffler review of the book, “But if one can’t reach a person’s inner world via journalism or a court of law, fiction seems like the ideal place from which to attempt radical empathy and reach a consciousness that is capable of monstrous acts.” It is “a novel about internalized post-feminist anxiety,” when women try to have both successful career and happy family.
This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.
I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:
- Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
- Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
- Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
- Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
- Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
- All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
- Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
- Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
- The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
- Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
- Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
- Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.
I grabbed this book from the stacks without any guidance, hoping it could serve to steady me through a week of performances of The Ring. In it, Lee lays out the synopsis of each opera scene by scene (in Das Rheingold) or Act by Act (in the other three longer operas). Then he muses on philosophy, art, Schopenhauer, Liszt, Wagner, etc.
Wagner got the story from bit here and there, a little bit of medieveal myth, Norse/German saga, early pagan sources mixed in with his thinking awakened by Schopenhauer’s Will and Representation. Some parts originated with him, like Alberich’s stealing of the Rhine’s gold. “The idea for the Ring, then, did not spring full-grown and armed, lke Athene from the brain of Zeus, from Wagner’s endlessly seething, outsized head.”
Thomas Carlyle called the Ring “our northern Iliad” and cautioned European to see its opposition to materialism as a way to save industrialized nations from the insane power grabbing wealth hoarding path they were on.
Famously, Wagner wrote the texts in reverse order, starting with the 3rd and then writing the 2nd and 1st to fill in the gaps of the story. He took five years to just write the words, publishing them in 1853, then began to set them to music which ends up totaling about fifteen hours.
The fundamental insight of the Ring, Lee argues, is that everything that exists has evolved from one primal substance and that man had to separate himself from nature by evolving into consciousness.
Lee claims that half an hour into Act II of Die Walküre the music shifts to become palpably pessimistic. It’s at this point that Wagner began obsessively reading cheery old Schopenhauer, and it affects the rest of the music. The world is an illusion. As Wagner writes Liszt, “the world is evil, fundamentally evil!”
Myself, I wonder how feminists are able to sit through this non-stop worship of the patriarchy. Women being used as currency to pay for Valhalla’s building. Freia’s humiliation in the act of her body erased by the sacks of gold in exchange for her freedom (and by the way, why on earth does she seem to yearn for Fasolt, her captor who has just released her? Stockholm syndrome?). Why couldn’t Loge’s character be a woman? These are just some thoughts while listening to Das Rheingold last night after enduring the disparaging remarks of the huge elderly man squeezed into the seat next to me about how Wagner is pompous and how he prefers Italian and French operas. Great thing to hear right before settling in for fifteen hours of German opera! I’m excited about tonight’s Die Walküre but less enthused about Friday’s Siegfried after reading this book (Lee: “Long stretches of dialog fall in musical invention below the level of anything in the other parts of the cycle. More than two hours elapse before we hear a single female voice, and then we hear only an occasional chirp from the forest bird.”)
Disappointing read on one of my favorite topics— the art and difficulties of translation. Kate Briggs muses on the choices made during translation, holds up other translators as examples, gives us a peek inside the kimono of her own translation of Barthes. Throw in a heavy helping of Robinson Crusoe’s table making, a few obligatory references to Virginia Woolf, and an extremely protective stance about Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann, and you’ve got your book. Perhaps I was too annoyed by the structure—each thought bundled onto a separate page, sometimes several pages at a stretch with only a sentence on them. It wasn’t all rubbish, I did mark a few spots that were especially poignant. She also got me interested in comparing Lowe-Porter’s translation to James Woods (which I own), so another reading of The Magic Mountain is forthcoming. I’m also nosing around in Goethe’s Faust and have Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel headed my way. If anything, this book was successful in bread-crumbing me into the arms of better writers.
“When I tell you that I have read The Magic Mountain is this a quick small-part-for-the-whole way for me to tell you that I’ve read The Magic Mountain in English translation? The title here standing in for the original — each slightly smaller, reduced part (the title, the translation) pointing to some further, just out of reach and more expansive aesthetic experience (the real one this time, the authentic one)?”
“… How, in fact, the font does matter, or it can — likewise the timing and circumstances of my reading, the books I am reading the book with, the people I am talking to about it, who might make me think differently; the difference between reading a book for the first time and for the third.”
“For Barthes, preparing for the novel also means establishing what he calls a daily practice of notation, a mode of attending to and recording the detail of everyday life. These notes are what his projected novel will be made from. Preparing, then, in the way you might ready your ingredients before making a meal… In this manner, the preparation for the novel starts touching at and partaking in preparation of the novel. In other words, preparing as a means of pracising, exercising, learning—of readying oneself for the writing-to-still-come—and at the same time, preparing as already its own form of writing, as already taking the form of writing.”
Just remembered another good tidbit – apparently Barthes was pretty lax about people translating his work. “Just make it up!” he instructed them if the translators were unable to verify something he had written.
This booklet was put together for attendees of the 1979 American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco, a guide to seven trips in the area where you could hop on a streetcar (or BART) and check out some amazing rocks. After a quick recap of plate tectonic theory, subduction explanation, and overview of rock types (serpentine, sandstone, shale, chert, basalt, gabbro), he dives into the various MUNI lines and trips around the city. Trip 1 takes you from Billy Goat Hill in the Mission (basalt, chert, and greywacke exposed) to Corona Heights to the New Mint outcrop (“This is probably the most beautiful and informative outcrop of serpentine in San Francisco”). Trip 2 is all about Fort Mason; Trip 3 dips into Baker Beach and Fort Point. Trip 4 was some crazy long bus ride around the city, to McLaren Park, Glen Canyon, Candlestick Hill, etc. The rest of the trips are outside the city in Marin, Angel Island, Hayward.
I’m not one for true crime books but Michelle McNamara’s work was exceptionally well-written, meticulously detailed, and powerful. It’s also a bit eerie to consume alongside real world news of his arrest (Joseph James DeAngelo, former police officer who’s now 72 years old) this April near Sacramento. He tallied over 10 murders and nearly 50 rapes, leaving communities across California terrified in the 1970s and 1980s. He left DNA at the crime scenes, but went underground for decades until his DNA matched one of his relatives who was innocently searching for his own ancestry via one of the ubiquitous sites that now tells you in minute details everything you’d want to know about your heritage. I hope they got him.
This book contains some of the most useful advice about writing that I’ve seen, much better than the random writing classes I’ve popped in and out of over the years. Especially useful is the section about Structure, originally in the New Yorker like the rest of McPhee’s stuff. One example is the cyclical nature of his Alaska tale, how he starts on day 4 of the adventure in present tense, goes to the end and loops the first 3 days as flashback in past, all to support the true nature of when they ran into bears along the way. Also in this chapter is information on the program McPhee uses— Kedit, a bare bones text editor that doesn’t do fancy things like pagination or spell check but will count the number of times you use words, zapping you for over-reliance on certain terms.
I’m adding this book even though I skimmed the last 300 pages because I can’t stop thinking about it and perhaps it has inspired me to do a similar project. Christa Wolf wrote extensively about her September 27th of each year. This, in addition to a daily journal. But the Sept 27 pieces each year were vastly expanded, trying to give a real sense of the day itself beyond just jotting down the daily details in shorthand like most journal entries. This book is a collection of 40 of those Sept 27 entries, translated from the German. Inspired to read this after this article about Wolf, which raises some of the same pain points I experienced—her writing is best when highly personal and at its most dreary when describing the day-to-day of living as an East German active in the Communist Party. The introduction might have been the best part, wherein she muses, “Is life identical with time in its unavoidable but mysterious passage? While I write this sentence, time passes; simultaneously a tiny piece of my life comes into being — and passes away.”
Yawn. This kind of hagiography masquerading as a biography does a disservice to its subject. I’m left feeling even more distant from the poet Jeffers than I was before picking up this book in preparation for an upcoming visit to Tor House. Was Jeffers simply not a very interesting person, or did the biographer do little but spew what passes as the work of a second-grader? The sentence structure is so simplified, it feels like reading a Dick and Jane primer.
Apparently this crew loved to kill themselves with cyanide (it merits its own entry in the index!), as this flat sentence states: “Nora had swallowed cyanide, the sediment from which was found in her glass.” Another example of the terrible writing, w/r/t George Sterling, whose former wife “Carrie, who never stopped loving him, ended her life with poetic flair in August 1918. She carefully arranged her hair, put on a dressing gown and placed a recording of Chopin’s Funeral March on the gramophone. Then she took a lethal dose of cyanide, lay down on her bed and, listing to the somber strains of music, joined her own procession to the grave.” [“Never stopped loving him”? Don’t bother citing any evidence for this, just her suicide, right?] Sterling’s pal Jack London also possibly suicided, but nothing about London’s undying love for Sterling here. Sterling himself later opted out of life with his own packet of cyanide.
Most egregious, as is always the case with these terrible bios of men, is the treatment of women. When Jeffers’ wife Uma is initially introduced, she’s “strikingly beautiful and very intelligent,” reading Faust. While getting her master’s degree at USC, she was a married woman who fell in love with Jeffers, eventually ditching her marriage and studies to drive up the coast and launch his poetic career in Carmel. Her own pastimes became sewing and doing “household chores” (the biographer can’t be bothered to be more descriptive). “Her children were at the center of her life.” Following the usual playbook, Jeffers has several affairs, one of which was arranged by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who “decided that Jeffers should have an affair. Only the passionate embrace of a younger woman could revivify his spirits and restore the flow of creative energy within… Jeffers either pursued the woman or surrendered to her charms.” Christ on a cracker.
What I’m taking away from this is that Robinson Jeffers lived a charmed life, discovering a wild and serene place where he built a home for his family and where he was able to howl at the moon while writing his poetry, listening to the waves crash nearby. My only consolation is that as time passed, Carmel got increased tourist traffic and grumpy Jeffers put up signs trying to drive people away but they liked picnicking on the rocks below his house, almost driving him away.
It’s weird how the same Baffler article could gift me this delight in the same breath as the fairly putrid Asymmetry, but here we are! I very much enjoyed Sally Rooney’s tale of not a love triangle but a love square perhaps? Finishing up college, Frances is our narrator, a strong intelligent poet whose only relationship has been with her best friend Bobbi. Enter a married couple, Nick and Melissa, when Melissa asks to photograph Bobbi and Frances and write up a profile about their spoken word performances. Bobbi pursues Melissa while Nick and Frances sidle up to each other. The couples part, come back together, part again, ending up in a cozy intertwining that is a happy ending of sorts? Along the way Frances is chronically poor from her drunk father not depositing funds for her, fainting due to her newly diagnosed endometriosis, trying to make sense of the Dublin world. Highly entertaining romp.
If only Lisa Halliday had released this as short stories instead of trying to asymmetrically forcing the two stories into a non-coherent whole, I would have enjoyed it more. Hooray for the first part, wherein she writes what she knows, drawing on her relationship with the much older Phillip Roth who plied her with gifts and contrasted wildly to her younger life. But part 2 comes along to remind you of how bad writing can be when so removed from what you know. And then there’s some weird coda that supposedly knits the whole together, an interview with the Roth-ian character. Did literary America all conspire to push this book forward? I did not enjoy the shift off a cliff it never recovered from.
Jonathan Lethem’s analysis of John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live is delicious and insightful. While not required to have seen the movie immediately before reading, it certainly helps as he calls out details that you missed upon a cursory viewing. Somewhat questionable is his insistence on the nod to gay porn, but he makes a fairly compelling argument (Nada taking his shirt off for no good reason, Frank’s deep-throated come hither invitation to join the homeless camp, their strange grappling in the alley) and backs it up by referencing the fact that Carpenter wrote several porn scripts in the 70s. Lethem guides us minute by minute through the romp, pulling out the obvious references (shot by shot comparison to Hitchcock, nods to John Wayne, etc.) and pieces of the plot you’re likely to overlook in the lead-up to the best sequence, the appearance of the ghouls & slogans when wearing the Hoffman glasses. I’m definitely interested in watching this again with fresh eyes.
George Gissing almost had my complete admiration with this book of curmudgeonly wisdom from a writer retiring to a peaceful life in the countryside until he slapped me with a throwaway sexist comment near the end: “Little girls should be taught cooking and baking more assiduously than they are taught to read.” Yowza, Gissing. Up until that point we were mind-melding, but that was the record scratch that brought me up short. Perhaps I’m too sensitive; Woolf didn’t seem to mind that bit when she wrote her essay about his talents.
Before the casual, devastating sexism popped in, I was wholly loving this story of a retired writer who lucked into an inheritance from a friend that allowed him to spend his remaining years peacefully reading and thinking in the countryside, wandering on walks, watching the seasons, learning the names of the wildflowers he encountered, hating the sound of the human voice to disrupt his reveries.
His advice for letting the day’s news wait until later in the day is refreshing for those of us addicted to refreshing the internet/Twitter for the latest gossip: “Generally I leave [the newspaper] till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife. I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish.” Later, he adds: “Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.”
He frequently reflects on his earlier toils, making his living by his pen, dodging poverty by the skin of his teeth. Mostly, he did it alone. “I never belonged to any cluster; I shrank from casual acquaintance, and, through the grim years, had but one friend with whom I held converse. It was never my instinct to look for help, to seek favour for advancement; whatever step I gained was gained by my own strength.”
On living alone in cheap lodgings: “I was easily satisfied; I wanted only a little walled space in which I could seclude myself, free from external annoyance… A door that locked, a fire in winter, a pipe of tobacco–these were things essential; and, granted these, I have been richly contented in the squalidest garret.”
My kinship with Gissing grew even more with his delight in reading. “To the end I shall be reading– and forgetting. Ah, that’s the worst of it! Had I at command all the knowledge I have at any time possessed, I might call myself a learned man. Nothing surely is so bad for the memory as long-enduring worry, agitation, fear. I cannot preserve more than a few fragments of what I read, yet read I shall, persistently, rejoicingly. Would I gather erudition for a future life? Indeed, it no longer troubles me that I forget. I have the happiness of the passing moment, and what more can mortal ask?”
He also hated the sounds of the city. “Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence… I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense on returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. Noises of wood and metal, clattering of wheels, banging of implements, jangling of bells–all such things are bad enough, but worse still is the clamorous human voice. Nothing on earth is more irritating to me than a bellow or scream of idiot mirth, nothing more hateful than a shout or yell of brutal anger. Were it possible, I would never again hear the utterance of a human tongue, save from those few who are dear to me.”
Most houses were quarrelsome, but his was not. “What proportion of the letters delivered any morning would be found to be written in displeasure, in petulance, in wrath? The postbag shrieks insults or bursts with suppressed malice.”
Thinking vs. reading: “I read much less than I used to do; I think much more. Yet what is the use of thought which can no longer serve to direct life? Better, perhaps, to read and read incessantly, losing one’s futile self in the activity of other minds.”
More on reading: “How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion… often it happens that the book which comes to mind could only be procured with trouble and delay; I breathe regretfully and put aside the thought. Ah! the books that one will never read again. They gave delight, perchance something more; they left a perfume in the memory; but life has passed them by for ever. I have but to muse, and one after another they rise before me. Books gentle and quieting; books noble and inspiring; books that well merit to be pored over, not once but many a time. Yet never again shall I hold them in my hand; the years fly by too quickly, and are too few. Perhaps when I lie waiting for the end, some of those lost books will come into my wandering thoughts, and I shall remember them as friends to whom I owed a kindness– friends passed upon the way. What regret in that last farewell!”
On coming to grips with old age: “As I walked today in the golden sunlight–this warm, still day on the far verge of autumn–there suddenly came to me a thought which checked my step, and for the moment half bewildered me. I said to myself: My life is over. Surely I ought to have been aware of that simple fact; certainly it has made part of my meditation, has often coloured my mood; but the thing had never definitely shaped itself, ready in words for the tongue. My life is over. I uttered the sentence once or twice, that my ear might test its truth.”