Harriet

A gruesome tale by Elizabeth Jenkins, based on the true story of a developmentally disabled, wealthy 30-year-old woman who is married to an unscrupulous man and then starved to death in his sister-in-law’s home after he takes control of Harriet’s money. The crime unfolds slowly, as Lewis first lives with Harriet for a year. Then she has a baby, and Lewis summons his lover, Alice, to come and supposedly tend to Harriet but truly to be his companion. Then Harriet’s shipped off to the country with the baby, to live with Lewis’s brother Patrick, who’s married to Alice’s sister Elizabeth. There’s also a cousin, Clara, who works for no wages but room and board, and who eventually spills the beans on the foursome after Harriet (and the baby)’s death.

A Tale of Two Cities

This is Dickens’s worst book. There, I said it.

Oh yes, it has some memorable parts, like that epic first sentence—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Dickens is notorious for taking his time warming up in a novel— Pickwick only starts to get good once Sam enters the scene. But 150 pages in, and six weeks of forcing myself to try to read this, I’m throwing in the towel.

I think the main problem is that he strays from what he does best—describing the working conditions of London’s underclass—to churn out this historical novel about the French Revolution. Because he’s so far afield, he doesn’t have the right grip to be able to toss out the bevy of jolly and ridiculous characters that usually propel a story forward. I felt no connection to any of these stilted names, making it harder and harder to pick up the book and push through a chapter.

Please tell me this is not inflicted on schoolchildren still.

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…”

The American Way of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford’s reissued and revised book on the funeral industry is an unexpected treat—witty, humorous, light banter that then swings a 50-ton hammer at you with the unflattering truths about the greed of morticians and their ilk. This book is another strand I’m following during my curious unearthing of topics on death after reading Ann Neumann’s The Good Death recently. Originally published in 1963, this revised edition came out shortly after Mitford’s death in 1998, chockablock full of updates that the industry had undergone during the intervening years, and including many delightful anecdotes of the reactions the book got. Mitford fearlessly joined panels of funeral directors who called her all sorts of names and testified in court battles. It was also discovered that Robert Kennedy had read her book and thoughts of it swirled round his head after JFK’s Dallas assassination, but ultimately the funeral parlor cashed in a pretty penny.

Mostly, the industry preyed/preys on the fact that people aren’t used to making this type of purchase. It’s uncommon, and not something you do a lot of research about, unlike the other big purchases you make of a car or a home. There’s no Kelly Blue Book on funerals. Plus the grief factor and the guilt factor turn into some serious profits. Embalming helps them jack up the cost, and families used to have no say in whether or not their deceased got injected with formaldehyde. Laws have changed.

Funeral directors like to misquote the law to boost their profits, insisting that a casket is required by law even for a cremation. Mitford called up a handful of funeral parlors to ask this question and was told with such conviction that it was illegal that she began to doubt the evidence before her eyes in the state code. So, the FTC ruled in 1984 that morticians are no longer allowed to lie to the public. “Anecdotal reports indicate that honesty is still an elusive quality in the trade.”

The best, most natural, most earth-friendly way to go is either burial in a shroud without casket, or cremation. The industry still has a long way to go in not bilking every last cent out of grieving families, though.

(Unrelated: just realized that Jessica is the sister of the great Nancy Mitford. Those sisters know how to write!!)

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.

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose

Alice Walker continues to blow me away. This collection of essays, thoughts, memos written between 1966 and 1982, is page-turning and inspirational. “So much of the satisfying work of life begins as an experiment; having learned this, no experiment is ever quite a failure.”

“It was just six years ago that I began to be alive. I had, of course, been living before… but I did not really know it.”

“A white writer tried recently to explain that the reason for the relatively few Negro hippies is that Negroes have built up a ‘super-cool’ that cracks under LSD and makes them have a ‘bad trip.’ What this writer didn’t guess at is that Negroes are needing drugs less than ever these days for any kind of trip. While the hippies are ‘tripping,’ Negroes are going after power which is so much more important to their survival and their children’s survival than LSD and pot.”

“So for the past four years I’ve been in still another college. This time simply a college of books—musty old books that went out of print years ago—and of old people, the oldest old black men and women I could find, and a college of the young students and dropouts who articulate in various bold and shy ways that they believe themselves to be without a valuable history, without a respectable music, without writing or poetry that speaks to them. My enrollment in this newest college will never end, and for that I am glad. And each day I look about to see what can and should be done to make it a bigger college, a more inclusive one, one more vital and long living.”

“And if I leave Mississippi—as I will one of these days—it will not be for the reasons of the other sons and daughters of my parents. Fear will have no part in my decision, nor will lack of freedom to express my womanly thoughts. It will be because the pervasive football culture bores me, and the proliferating Kentucky Fried Chicken stands appall me, and neon lights have begun to replace the trees. It will be because the sea is too far away and there is not a single mountain here. But most of all it will be because I have freed myself to go; and it will be My Choice.”

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.

The Sex Without the Sentiment

Thyra Samter Winslow’s collection of short stories from 1957 came up recently on Neglected Books (he’s got a soft spot for Winslow!) so I summoned a copy from interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, none of her collections stand up to the one from 1923— Picture Frames.

There are a few strong stories in the bunch, but several yawn-inducers. I enjoyed the description of the lonely old woman in A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog, given a dog by her friend who was moving overseas and suddenly her world changes, she becomes a PERSON, people stop to talk to her (about dog stuff). Rudolph was another entertaining one about a ghost who comes to haunt the wrong house and the housewife loves him for babysitting the children and tidying up the house. Technique also delighted, a story about a playwright who fools around on his actress wife with a younger actress and who writes a play to launch the mistress but leaves the dialogue tweaks up to his wife, who turns his play into a masterpiece elevating herself over the tramp.

The Idiot

Elif Batuman’s modus operandi seems to be writing books that take their titles from Dostoevsky. Perhaps the greatest gift I got from reading this was the desire to re-read Dosty’s version of The Idiot.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a great book in parts. I thoroughly enjoyed the parts that took place on the Harvard campus during Selin’s freshman year, as she tries on various classes and grapples with roommates (and their sleep apnea). But then she follows a boy she likes to Hungary, Ivan, and teaches ESL to kids there. Meh. It is uneven, at best.

In the Harvard sections, she’s wrestling with big meaty questions and diving into linguistics, Russian, philosophy, literature. I learned the word “amphibrach” from her, where the middle syllable is accented (spaghetti, appendix).

Mostly I’m looking forward to reading Dostoevsky now.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

A stunning memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston published in 1975 which I’m ashamed to have missed reading before. It was brought up in Zinsser’s memoir book and sounded interesting, so I added it to the pile. It is by far the best memoir of the handful I’ve taste-tested this month from a list compiled from his book.

The Woman Warrior is made up of perfectly formed pearls, stories that you had to shut the book after reading to roll them around in your mouth and savor. Normally I’m chomping through books like a hungry hippo, but I was smart enough to close the book after each tidbit. White Tigers was the story that stunned me into silence—the story of a swordswoman who wanders away from her village as a young girl and is trained up by a couple of immortal gods to eventually go back and avenge the pillaging of her family and community by leading an army.

Shaman is the tale where we learn of the medical training of her mother. Marrying her father, he then immigrated to NYC to make money, sending it home to his wife to care for their two children, who eventually die. The mother still continues to collect money from America and decides to go to medical school. She’s a big success with the villagers once she’s done, having attained nearly magical powers. Then she migrates to America to join her husband (where they later have Maxine), finds herself working long hours in a laundromat. In the story, Maxine is visiting her old mother and concerned about her health.

[Her mother] coughed deeply. “See what I mean? I have worked too much. Human beings don’t work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we’re too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all. I can’t sleep in this country because it doesn’t shut down for the night. Factories, canneries, restaurants, always somebody somewhere working through the night. It never gets done all at once here. Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here; one evening so long, you could visit your women friends, drink tea, and play cards at each house, and it would still be twilight. It even got boring, nothing to do but fan ourselves. Here midnight comes and the floor’s not swept, the ironing’s not ready, the money’s not made. I would still be young if we lived in China.”

And in A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, great detail about how Maxine feigns undesirability so that she won’t get married off, so she can still pursue her studies:

As my parents and the FOB sat talking at the kitchen table, I dropped two dishes. I found my walking stick and limped across the floor. I twisted my mouth and caught my hand in the knots of my hair. I spilled soup on the FOB when I handed him his bowl. “She can sew, though,” I heard my mother say, “and sweep.” I raised dust swirls sweeping around and under the FOB’s chair—very bad luck because spirits live inside the broom. I put on my shoes with the open flaps and flapped about like a Wino Ghost.

Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation

I picked up this book from 1995 as an anodyne to feeling icky from attempting to read Nabokov’s Speak Memory which derailed rather quickly for me on page 2 when he “mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists.” That one pinprick of nauseating sexism set my mind wholly against continuing, although I gave a few more pages a desultory turn or two. Luckily, I had this collection of feminist essays from 1995 on hand to wipe away all traces of the egotism and overconfidence of a white male writer.

This contains 28 essays, ranging from burning-hot amazing to shrug-worthy. Mostly I was excited to fill the gaps in my knowledge between the 1970s and current feminist texts. Essays I loved:

  • Ruminations of a Feminist Aerobics Instructor by Alisa L. Valdés; I sighed when I came across this bit, which is so applicable 21 years later: “What could honestly be more frightening to men than a room full of capable, professional women moving together, in sync, unaware of anything but themselves and each other? Only Hillary Rodham Clinton and a truly lesbian orgy, perhaps.”
  • Your Life As a Girl by Curtis Sittenfeld. Brilliant description of tom-girl playing baseball morphing into the girl society wants her to be. I enjoyed her modernized version of Pride and Prejudice: Eligible. She wrote this essay while a student at Vassar.
  • You’re Not the Type by Laurel Gilbert. The struggle of being a pregnant teenager.
  • Bloodlove by Christine Doza. High school from the perspective of a woke teenager who makes a zine, Upslut, that her teacher threatens to sue her for libel until he realizes she won’t back down from her true assertions of his harassment.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir

An excellent graphic memoir by Roz Chast that I was turned onto by her current exhibition at the Jewseum. Instead of reading the panels one by one on the walls, elbowing other spectators aside so I could get a closer look, I borrowed the memoir in book-form from the library. I’ve been coincidentally reading a lot about death after hearing Ann Neumann on the radio recently, and this memoir is a wonderful addition to the topic. Chast tackles the difficult subject of watching her parents decline rapidly once they pass age 90, but they refuse to discuss basic things like living wills or how they’d like to go off into the sunset. After her dominant mother falls one too many times in their dusty and grime-encased Brooklyn apartment, she manages to pull them into a assisted living facility in Connecticut near her family. Her dad has been sinking into dementia for years and her mother never regains strength after a few weeks in the hospital. Their decline continues, achingly slowly, and expensively. Chast watches as the bills mount and silently thanks her parents for squirreling away what tiny amount they could, but even that pile is melting quickly. I particularly appreciate the honesty she shows in dealing with her feelings —she’s never been particularly close to her mother and does not have a change of heart at the end.

The Edible Woman

Was this Atwood’s first novel? It was pub’d in 1969 and various sources claim that it established her as a serious writer. It’s an interesting read—you can tell it’s an early work because bits are too stolid, like Marian’s overt reference to returning to first-person in Part 3. I was jarred by the return, not really having noticed the switch from first- to third-person between parts 1 & 2.

Marian works at a survey research firm (much like the one that Atwood worked at in Toronto before writing the book), editing questionnaires and sampling products (like pudding flavors). She puts up with her boyfriend, Peter, carefully trying not to make him think that she wants to marry him. In fact, she runs away during an outing with another couple, drunk but clear in her mind about what she wants. When Peter finds her, he pops the question. She’s living with Ainsley, a psych-major taking temporary jobs and permanently focused on the idea of having a baby (eventually luring Marian’s friend Len into the equation on the optimal day to have a Springtime baby). They rent an apartment in an old mansion and avoid the furious stares of their landlady who suspect them up to something. On one Saturday, she heads out with a questionnaire to ascertain the effectiveness of a beer jingle and meets Duncan, an eccentric grad student who loves ironing as a release from stress (she later runs into him at the laundromat).

Part 2 switches to third-person for Marian, as she reluctantly plods towards marriage, losing her appetite for meat and then for basically every other food item. When work finds out that she’s engaged, her boss firmly says that she won’t be working there after the wedding. She has an affair with Duncan. Peter throws a party and Marian rashly invites Duncan and his roommates, as well as Ainsley, last minute. At that party, she gets drunk, realizes that her life would be hell with Peter, and escapes to find Duncan. They consummate their affair in a seedy hotel room and she resolves to tell Peter it’s over. She does this by baking a sponge cake in the shape of a woman, and when Peter rages over to confront her about disappearing from the party, she says that he’s been trying to consume her, that she made this other woman which would do much better for him.

Part 3, Marian back to first-person, in control of her life, cleaning the apartment, picking up the threads of her life. Duncan comes over for tea, eats the rest of the cake, says it was he who was trying to consume her, not Peter.

Scene from the office Christmas party, segregated by department:

She looked around the room at all the women there, at the mouths opening and shutting, to talk or to eat. Here, sitting like any other group of women at an afternoon feast, they no longer had the varnish of officialdom that separated them, during regular office hours, from the vast anonymous ocean of housewives whose minds they were employed to explore. They could have been wearing housecoats and curlers.

Coming home from a hair appointment that transformed her into a creature she couldn’t recognize, she stumbled onto a group of women watching a demonstration of a vegetable grater:

Marian stopped for a minute on the outer fringe of the group. The little man made a radish-rose with yet another attachment. Several of the women turned and glanced at her in an appraising way, summing her up. Anyone with a hair-style like that, they must have been thinking, would be far too trivial to be seriously interested in graters. How long did it take to acquire that patina of lower-middle income domesticity, that weathered surface of slightly mangy fur, cloth worn thin at the cuff-edges and around buttons, scuffed leather of handbags; the tight slant of the mouth, the gauging eyes; and above all that invisible colour that was like a smell, the underpainting of musty upholstery and worn linoleum that made them in this bargain basement authentic in a way that she was not?

Pretending Is Lying

A beautiful graphic novel from Belgian artist Dominique Goblet. The images are haunting, bizarre, perfect, and follow her as she introduces her four-year-old daughter Nikita to her father, who’s been sober for 4 years. Her dad is shacked up with an eerily ghost-like creature, named Blandine, but pronounced by Nikita “Bleeding.” We also flash back to Dom’s childhood, bored on a rainy day and cruelly tied up in the attic by her mother for accidentally splashing paint on the freshly laundered and ironed shirts her mom has been slaving over while her dad watches car racing in the other room. She also endures heartbreak when a man she loves can’t quite quit the woman he was seeing before – you can see him haunted by her ghost-like form below:

Including these as examples of the astonishing layering and style she uses. Lovely overall, big thumbs up.