Views A-foot; Or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff

Some books are meant to be lost in the sands of time. There’s really no reason you would ever read this book unless you were going down a rabbit hole to investigate influences on Melville’s writing, and this is one of those influences. Taylor’s reminisces of an 1844-46 journey to the Old World were gobbled up by Melville in 1846; Herman also traveled with Taylor’s cousin, Franklin, on his ship to London, and knew Bayard well, according to the Hendricks House edition of Moby-Dick. Still, I was curious, so I hunted down a copy of the book, obtaining an 1869 edition which came from Boston via ILL.

Taylor was a 20-year-old entitled white man who set out to prove that Europe could be conquered cheaply by the pedestrian traveler. He was basically one of the first terrible American tourists abroad. His attitudes towards women, Jews, gypsies, the Irish, are as loathsome as you’d expect. On the voyage out, there are some Iowa Indians headed to England, and while the men are handsome, “the squaws were all ugly.” This sets the tone for his women-hating, with frequent comments about how ugly and dull-looking are the women he encounters. “I regret to say, one looks almost in vain, in Germany, for a handsome female countenance… In a public walk, the number of positively ugly faces is really astonishing.” One hotelier is described as a “shrill-voiced hostess.”

He has intolerable views about Jews as well, giving them all a sinister look, except for Mendelssohn (the composer) who he compliments as having a Jewish face “softened and spiritualised, retaining none of its coarser characteristics.” Of the Irish, “there was scarcely a mark of intelligence; they were a most brutalized and degraded company of beings.”

Taylor has no qualms about begging for a loan of $50 from a stranger, an artist in Italy (the equivalent of $2k in today’s currency). He’s a busybody who almost tells fellow travelers (a German family) who are headed to Texas not to bother because the climate is bad and Indians are violent. Weirdly, he recommends pouring brandy into your boots to alleviate blisters. He steals flowers from Beethoven’s grave and is constantly climbing up hills to grab wildflowers to press into his books as gifts for people at home. Not having enough money to afford a cabin on a ship, he huddles on deck in the rain looking miserable until someone takes pity on him. He later tips one servant but “the other servant who had not taken the least notice of us, laughed sneeringly” until he saw the tips getting handed out. Then Taylor turns his back on the sneering servant and walks off without giving him anything.

Most of the book is mind-numbing descriptions of the sights he sees along the way, the kind of stuff that you glaze over when someone tells you every last detail of their latest trip. More interesting are the crumbs of personal stories he drops along the way, little details like eating oat cakes and milk for dinner or various altercations he gets in.

N.P. Willis crops up again (Fanny Fern’s brother), and Taylor gets a letter of introduction from him to his brother Richard Willis in Frankfort, Germany.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Gorgeous book by Edgar Allan Poe that I stumbled onto by way of reading the extensive notes to Moby-Dick (Hendricks House edition) wherein they claim several instances of influence that Poe’s 1838 novel had on Melville (especially in the whiteness of the whale aspect, compared closely with Poe’s eerie last chapter where everything turns white: white powder, white animals, white ashy material, down to the last sentence: “And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”

Things kick into high gear quickly, where Arthur and his pal Augustus get drunk and take a boat out; nearly dying after being run down by a larger ship, they’re rescued and plopped back on shore. This whets Arthur’s appetite for sea-faring, and he stows away when Augustus sails off on a whaling voyage. A mutiny prevents Augustus from helping Arthur bust out of the hold, and he nearly dies of thirst/hunger. Many are killed, but Augustus is spared, the mutineers start to drink and argue and eventually Arthur appears as the ghost of one of the crew that was killed, helping his friends take control of the ship. Then a huge storm, they’re almost flooded, and near starvation because the stores are flooded. Cannibalism ensues. Eventually, Arthur and Peters are rescued (Augustus doesn’t make it) and head off to polar expedition with the new ship. At this point, the story lags and starts to fall apart, but Poe continues on, has his hero encounter natives in the Arctic that ambush the whites but Arthur hides in a crevice with Peters. Eventually they escape in a canoe and head off into the weird wild whiteness. A lot of the arctic piece was cribbed from A Narrative of Four Voyages published by Benjamin Morrell in 1832; seems like that was the thing to do (as Melville relied heavily on Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale).

This was Poe’s only novel published, and it leaves me wanting much more. I guess I’ll have to dip into the tales.

The Heretic’s Feast: A History of Vegetarianism

The best parts of Spencer’s book are when he reaches back into antiquity to talk about the birth of vegetarianism, but this also is where he makes bold statements with minimal documentation about his sources. To simplify, he puts the source of abstaining from meat in ancient Egypt, as something priests did to get closer to the gods, to become more godlike themselves since gods couldn’t eat but simply smelled the smoke of the burnt offerings. Pythagoras is the first person to go on record as a vegetarian, but he lived ~580 BC to the early 500s BC and accounts of his life started being committed to paper hundreds of years later. Jokes about vegetarians/Pythagorians abounded in ancient Greek comedies (and continue, of course, to this day. I started reading this book because of the Pythagorean fart joke Melville makes early on in Moby-Dick).

Spencer asserts that “vegetarianism is one of the signs of a radical thinker, the individual who criticizes the status quo, who desires something better, more humane and more civilised for the whole of society. It makes meat-eaters uneasy and they often react aggressively.”

Apparently, things went off the rails for vegetarians after Christianity got hijacked by Paul/Saul. Dark ages ensued, then here comes the Renaissance where Leonardo Da Vinci was an outspoken critic of eating animals. Yadda yadda long lists of famous vegetarians: GB Shaw, Hitler, Voltaire, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Benjamin Franklin, etc. and then the advent of the factory farm where everyone should know better than to eat hormone-pumped, disastrously maintained animals.

Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul

An exhausting 400+ page dive into how New York has become Disneyland for tourists and the ultra-rich. I’m a fan of the blog but was slightly disappointed with the book after initially bouncing off the walls with excitement from having a kindred spirit put into words the destruction that I’m witnessing in SF. After finishing, the lingering complaint is around lack of notation (the note section tags maybe 1 out of every 5 quotes or sources you’d expect) and a sense of repetition that kicked in midway through. I didn’t like his repeating “Dear reader” wherein he patronizes those of us who don’t live in NYC but who are reading the book.

I did like his structure, layering in historical facts in between a neighborhood by neighborhood distillation of the stripping away of authentic NYC for the blandalism of chain stores and luxe condos. I appreciated his insight in the intro that this isn’t just isolated to NYC, hyper-gentrification is eating SF (“dying, maybe even faster than New York”), London, Paris, Seattle, Portland, etc.; with the same story of evictions, invasions of the suburban mindset, “plague of tourists, the death of small local businesses” and monoculture settling in with (as Howard Kunstler puts it) “geography of nowhere” as chain stores nullify the streets. I also appreciated his passion and going all-out in defending his position. It’s clear which side he’s on, no pseudo-diplomacy here.

Where are the weirdos? Moss calls them “polar bears” that he occasionally spots. They’re still here/there but dying off, forced out, outpriced. Instead, residents are people like the woman who blogged about leaving the LES after living there for a year and not missing “the smell of pickles from Katz Deli that I am forced to inhale when walking home” (she also bemoans that there is not a close enough Starbucks).

The process started in NYC way back. Mayor Koch declared in a 1984 cocktail party conversation that “We’re not catering to the poor anymore. There are four other boroughs they can live in. They don’t have to live in Manhattan.” Breathtakingly honest! And we know that by 2017 those 4 other boroughs are almost as expensive as the island.

Another similarity to SF is the scourge of tourists. Sex in the City brought hordes of them to the townhouse filmed to depict where Carrie Bradshaw lived and the poor owners put up a chain and No Trespassing signs to keep tourists from taking photos. Out-of-towners climbed over the chain. Similar to the frenzy over the Full House house and the Painted Ladies, only the Full House creator ended up buying the Full House house because the owners got sick of the crowds.

Gross things are on the horizon still for NYC, specifically near the High Line at Hudson Yards where a huge mall is being built along with a $250M sculpture called Vessel that houses flights of stairs tourists can climb; the creator wanted to create a piece that would highlight its visitors to “celebrate ourselves” and “showcase us.” The intended view will not be the city but rather tourist facing tourist, “a hall of living mirrors.”

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution

I was looking for something better from Julia Alekseyeva’s memoir of her 100-year-old great-grandmother who experienced the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and WW2 and Stalin’s rise only to flee to America in the 1990s after Chernobyl. Julia inserts herself into the story in interludes, trying to tie her tale together with her great-grammy’s but it falls flat. Lola’s story was interesting, but it dies a bit on the vine and I didn’t love the graphic style.

The Glass Castle

Gorgeous memoir by Jeannette Walls that I knew was going to be good when I saw there was still a queue for it at the library, over 10 years since its publication.

She turns a truly wretched childhood into story gold by giving us a no-holds-barred look at the crazy upbringing her parents put her through. Bohemian is too prim a word for it. When she was four years old and sister Lori 7, they were parked outside a bar for hours while their parents drank inside. They started counting the number of places they’d lived, after having to define “lived” as having unpacked your things instead of just staying somewhere for a couple nights. They gave up after counting 11 places. “We couldn’t remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.”

Their dad was a drunk who fancied himself an entrepreneur, always one step ahead of the law and frequently rousing the family for a middle-of-the-night escape. He took advantage of the lack of technology in one town to withdraw all his money from a bank teller inside the bank while his wife simultaneously withdrew the same amount from the drive-up teller. The mom fancied herself an artist, splurging on art supplies when there was no money for food. In one particularly terrible scene, the 4 kids are sitting around trying not to think about how hungry they are when they notice their mom keeps ducking under a blanket. Turns out she’s eating a huge chocolate bar.

They wind their way through the desert, survive a fire in an SRO in San Francisco, watch their dad gamble away their money in Vegas, then set up house for a time in an old mining town. Once their dad gets (inevitably) fired, they start to starve. For some reason, the mom never mentions that her mom died, leaving her a house in Arizona and money, which they eventually tap into. There’s some mysterious check that arrives from land in Texas that the mom now owns, later found out to value $1M. And yet they starve, and they head to the dad’s hometown in West Virginia where things just get dilapidated. The sisters start working jobs and saving cash so they can escape to NYC, but the dad steals it and drinks it away. Eventually, they make it out, send for their brother, and then their little sister. A few years later, the parents end up in NYC as well, eventually becoming homeless as they get evicted from various living arrangements. They end up as squatters, the dad has a heart attack, the family breaks apart and then comes back together.

A bunch of rejects

A batch of books headed back to the library, most of which I tossed aside after attempting. Of this group, I ended up reading 2 to completion, and I purchased one from the bookstore to be able to mark up appropriately. The gray one without a title is Cheery Old Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism which I choked down quickly, holding my nose at his wildly misogynistic essay on women and straining to pass his anti-Semitic thoughts for saner passages.

I had high hopes for Marion Milner’s two books, but did read A Life of One’s Own. I attempted her follow-up An Experiment in Leisure but quickly jumped ship when I saw it was another meandering discourse of self-experimentation that slowly gets her to awareness.

I had high hopes for Secret Sisterhood but they were dashed immediately by the tone of the authors. I should more carefully follow my rule never to read a book that stemmed from bloggers. There was absolutely nothing new to be gained about the friendship between Woolf and Mansfield, although I’m at a disadvantage from having read all the primary source material already.

The Challenge of Affluence looked extremely promising at first, ringing out a very clear initial sentence “Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines well-being.” However, the author does not do anything to bolster the assertion, follows up with stats to prove how affluent the U.S. and the U.K. have become and how no one gets married, we eat too much, and we’re really soulless pigs lost in the wilderness of late capitalism.

I’m in the midst of reading Moby-Dick and its hundreds of pages of notes, so was curious about Twice-Told Tales by Hawthorne, which Melville had recently read. I don’t think they’ve held up well to the test of time.

The Pargiters I’ve had my eye on for awhile, curious about this rejected manuscript of Woolf’s never published in her time. Unfortunately, the text is true to history and contains all of her edits, etc, which made it an unpleasant read. Maybe another time.

That The people are going to rise like the waters upon your shore : a story of American rage was written by a Bernie bro became evident within minutes of cracking the spine, relegating it to the trash heap.

Another week, another crop of books to tear through. I’m thankful for the meaty classics like Moby that help get me through these lean times. To the library!

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English

This is actually the third book by Bhante  Gunaratana I’ve gobbled up, but perhaps the best was his first. For some reason I rebel against the highly structured format that he tries to hammer into you, with the 4 foundations of mindfulness (body, feelings, mind, dhamma) which include the 5 hindrances (desire, ill will, laziness, restlessness/worry, doubt), the 5 aggregates of clinging (material form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), 6 internal & external senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind), 7 factors of enlightenment (mindfulness, investigation of dhamma, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration, equanimity), 4 noble truths (suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path that leads to cessation), and the noble 8-fold path (skillful understanding, thinking, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration). Overwhelmed yet?

Most helpful to me as always are the sections on anger. Buddha abandoned thoughts of anger by thinking of compassion and loving friendliness/kindness. It’s useless to dwell on things in the past that you’ve done wrong, a waste of time and energy. Mindfulness “suffocates anger by taking away the fuel it needs to keep burning. When hate fills our minds, we should think: Hate makes me sick. My thinking is confused. A sick mind defeats the purpose of my meditation.”

How to deal with anger when it arises:

  • Practice mindfulness of breathing. Take a few deep breaths, counting up to ten then down to one.
  • Practice restraint. Stop talking if the conversation is leading to argument. During the pause, investigate what’s causing your heated words.
  • Replace the hatef by thinking kind thoughts.
  • Avoid angry people.
  • Make a commitment in the morning to be mindful about not getting angry.

He also cautions that every kind of ill will arises from the wish to be physically separated from something that causes discomfort or pain. The ill will & its causes are impermanent.

 

A Life of One’s Own

I came across Marion Milner’s book (originally published 1934) via How To Be Bored, which is surprising. The concepts she covers were much more in line with all of the books about meditation and Buddhism that I’ve been reading lately, so I figured that was where I’d stumbled on Milner.

I felt a little bad for Milner as I read her journey to discover how to side-eye/watch her own thoughts. The mindfulness books I was also reading gave really clear direction on how to take the steps necessary for this internal attention/silence/noticing, but here she was in the 1930s, toughing it out and struggling to figure out the puzzle with no guidance.

To begin with, she tracked what made her happy in a journal. “I want to live amongst things that grow, not amongst machines. To live in a regular rhythm with sun and rain and wind and fresh air and the coming and going of the seasons. I want a few friends that I may learn to know and understand and talk to without embarrassment or doubt.”

She performed “experiments” on herself and realized that she had an automatic response and a more hidden response. “It seemed to me that perhaps my previous ignorance of the ways of this self might be sufficient reason why I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives.”

As she explores further, “I saw now that my usual attitude to the world was a contracted one, like the sea anemone when disturbed by a rough touch, like an amoeba shut within protective walls of its own making… I had thought I wanted a great many friends but had often refused invitations because I hated to feel the beautiful free space of an empty day, free for me to do what I like in, broken into by social obligations. I had thought I wanted to be a unique individual, but had been filled with shame when anyone disagreed with me, hastening to take back what I had said.”

If I had a time machine, I’d head back to whisper in her ear that the Buddhists have been working on this problem for thousands of years and that might be a good place to start. But then again, we’d miss her own personal exploration if that were the case.

The Customer is Always Wrong

Mimi Pond’s graphic novel about 1980s Oakland, working as a waitress in a diner and trying to hustle up a career drawing comics, fending off (or partaking in) the river of drugs that flows through the restaurant, her tender relationship with Lazlo the manager (who develops cancer, enlists Madge’s help to wrest his 14-year-old daughter from the drips of a maniac boyfriend, the poet who drinks/drugs and all the restaurant staff adore him). Eventually Madge saves up enough money and heads to New York, sight unseen with her cat in a carrier and having given away most of her belongings.

You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages

Half of these essays were fantastic, then they tapered off with a thud. On the plus side, she did get me to watch Private Benjamin (excellent!) and I’m left with a stack of other must-see movies to catch up on, including a re-watch of the Stepford Wives. And her writing was solid, filled with delicious vocabulary like fulminate, impune, ineffable, elide, intemerate.

Chocano takes her pop-culture critic pen and dissects movies from Flashdance (“the first time I’ve seen a girl whose artistic genius does not get her frog-marched directly to a course of electroshock treatments and long-term institutionalization”) to Thelma & Louise/Pretty Woman/Ghostbusters (the all-female reboot). Growing up, she initially thought her/our generation was the first post-feminist generation but “didn’t know that this moment was the tail end of a brief period in American cinema, between 1978 and 1985, when heroine’s stories didn’t end in marriage but started with adventure…” Chocano also dives into film history, name-dropping Dorothy Azner along with Alice Guy, who directed the 1912 film (now lost) In the Year 2000, “a film about a time when women rule the world.” Downside: she’s in love with the phrase “the cognitive dissonance was palpable,” using it a handful of times.

On Flashdance:

We don’t care how this young girl in a depressed steel town got a union job. We don’t care how she managed not to get slighted, diminished, harassed, or bullied at work. We don’t care how she affords her enormous warehouse space, and heats it, while saving money to attend a prestigious dance academy. We don’t care that she is too old to be a ballerina and too young to be a steelworker because by then the steel mills had stopped hiring, and wouldn’t have hired her in the first place. We don’t notice how creepy the love story is, that her boyfriend is twenty years older than she is, that she works for him, that he owns the means of production, for Karl Marx’s sake.

The essays stacked early in the collection were super-charged. Dealing with post-WWII economic boom, the concept of a middle class was new, but “it wasn’t women working that was new. What was (relatively) new was global corporate capitalism as the organizing principle, and what was still unclear was how women would fit in.”

On the Road

When I was a kid, I read War and Peace but got bored by all the war chapters so skipped them and just read the peace ones. After 100 pages of Kerouac nonsense, I returned to this same strategy, only reading the San Francisco and New York sections. Still, it was a waste of time.

I read this book as a kid, too, and was curious about how the experience of reading it would differ after decades of living in SF and maturing my brain. My teenaged mind was boggled by the adventure and free association prose poem, but my wiser, older self views this as a putrid piece of garbage that does nothing to deserve the label “Classic.” It was a gut-punching reminder that the patriarchy’s toxic waste filters down to both genders in vehicles like this. Books where women are depicted as mindless chicks who nag and whine and are only good for one thing—screwing. And his ignorance of white privilege is astonishing in this passage where he says he’s a dreary white man, wishing he were the colored man he sees in front of him, “wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.”

Most useful was the introduction where the myth of Kerouac’s writing this all out rat-a-tat in 3 weeks was dispelled. He’d written several versions of it over the preceding years and would go on to write another version after the 3-weeks-typed-onto-long-roll version.

Enter Talking

Joan Rivers has a helluva memoir. Hundreds of pages detailing the brutal struggle she went through to finally make it to her Johnny Carson appearance which unlocked the doors to success. I didn’t realize that she was a chum of Treva Silverman, the hilarious writer for most of the Mary Tyler Moore shows that I actually enjoyed. No one believed in Joan’s talent but herself for many gripping, penny-pinching years, but as soon as she made it, everyone agreed that they had seen it in her and had supported her. Also amusing was the back & forth comment war in the margins from previous library patrons, wherein one tried to name drop how he knew various celebrities and another pencil commenter furiously scribbled a diatribe against the original comment. Gold.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life

I’m a little embarrassed that I’m only now embarking on reading biographies of my favorite 19th century authors (Melville, now Thoreau). Walls’s book is a terrific compendium of Henry’s life, compiled from various letters and journals to trace the footsteps of America’s first ecologist and one of the finest writers of the ages.

We all know he lived simply (a friend said “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough”), but I was in the dark about much of his process and life. Contrary to some deeply held belief I had, he traveled widely—to Montreal, Niagara Falls, Minneapolis, as well as extensively through Maine, Massachusetts, Cape Code, New Hampshire, and every inch of Concord. Walden was lived (the biographer claims it as performance art) then mulled over for many seasons, trotted out on the lecture circuit, then published.

His connection to Emerson is well-known, helping to raise Waldo’s family while R.E. is in Europe lecturing, tutoring Waldo’s brother’s family on Staten Island for his first exposure to NYC, and most egregiously being called a watered-down version of Emerson himself. Also well documented are his friendships with Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He met Walt Whitman once and decided to like him. Kansas abolitionist John Brown spent hours discussing the day’s events in the Thoreau parlor in Concord and Henry championed him in fiery lectures. He heard Caroline Dall speak in Concord and Lucretia Mott lecture in Boston, and counted Margaret Fuller among his friends. Horace Greeley tirelessly promoted him in publishing circles, Thoreau read Melville’s Typee (sadly, despite their mutual bosom friend of Hawthorne, it appears that the two men never met), and he crossed paths at Harvard with Richard Dana fresh from his years behind the mast.

The biographer makes a strident case that Thoreau witnessed the beginning of the Anthropocene, seeing the collapse of a two-hundred year old system of English farming that had been in place in Concord and watching the railroad cut a swath across the field near Walden Pond.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

Stunning book that definitely deserves its Pulitzer Prize. Meticulously researched by Heather Ann Thompson over many years to investigate and wrest the hidden documents from the guilty hands of the State of New York. Exquisitely structured in manageable 10 sections laying out the inhumane conditions leading up to the riot, the political landscape, the brutal event in detail from its inception on Sept 9, 1971 to Sept 13, 1971 when the [white] State Troopers who had been chomping at the bit to come in and terrorize the [mostly brown] prisoners who had deigned to revolt were unleashed with guns and teargas into the yard. Then the book covers the horrific followup, the coverup by the State to not bring any Troopers to trial, the legal actions against a few dozen of the prisoners, and finally to retribution for the tortured prisoners and a settlement for hostages and their families. Thompson wraps everything up with a peek at the state of our extreme incarceration and terrible prison conditions in 2016.

This from the epilogue is particularly poignant in today’s police-state:

… the 1960s and 1970s were all about the politics of the ironic. At the Democratic National Convention protests of 1968, Kent State in 1970, and Wounded Knee in 1973, unfettered police power each time turned protests violent, and yet, after each of these events, the nation was sent the message that the people, not the police, were dangerous. Somehow voters came to believe that democracy was worth curtailing and civil rights and liberties were worth suspending for the sake of “order” and of maintaining the status quo.

As I read this book, I was amazed over and over by things Thompson brought to light. I’ll admit that I had to put it down several times, reading it the day after the most recent Biggest Ever mass shooting in Las Vegas and finding it hard to read the descriptions of what bullets do to a body. Some thoughts:

Why did Rockefeller send in the NYSP instead of letting the National Guard go in? Both groups were on the scene. “Whereas the National Guard had a clear plan already in place for bringing civil disturbances in confined areas under control, known as Operation Plan Skyhawk, the New York State Police had virtually no formal training for this sort of action.”

The troopers removed their identification badges “just before they went in” so that they wouldn’t be able to be tagged to their crimes. A trooper later said “we weren’t stopping traffic where a citizen would have the perfect right to know who they’re being stopped by… it was a different thing.” Basically premeditated murder that they could (and would) get away with scot-free.

The racism was unbelievable and yet, in view of lingering terribleness on this front, completely believable. It goes all the way up the chain to Nixon, caught on tape excusing Rockefeller’s excessive and indefensible use of force because “you see it’s the black business… he had to do it.”

The Attica chant of Al Pacino from Dog Day Afternoon echoed in my head throughout. This is an unmissable book that shines light on the terrible and incredible events from 1971 onward.