Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Finally, a book of Benjamin’s essays that is somewhat approachable and readable! It comes with a long intro essay from Hannah Arendt, and essays by Benjamin on Kafka, Baudelaire, Proust, Nikolai Leskov, on translation, on book collecting, and art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Despite being over-Kafka-nated, his essay was enjoyable especially after Arendt set the stage of their similarities (K only 10 years older, both alien Jews in a German land, both geniuses who found posthumous fame). I also found a lot of use in the essay on Leskov’s storytelling since I’m currently obsessed with the idea of plot/tales/stories.

As always, Benjamin can be relied on to provide quality content about boredom:

“If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places —the activities that are intimately associated with boredom—are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.”

The realities of fiction: a book about writing

The realities of fiction: an author talks about writing

After finishing The Prodigal Women, I was thirsty for anything else Nancy Hale had written and opted to dip into her lectures on writing. Unfortunately, this collection of her thoughts from 1960 seems extremely dated. Not only does she reference walking on the moon as a distant possibility, but her attitude toward defining the novel vs. the short story seems rigid when looking back over 50 years. Still, the book is not completely without merits.

When writing, she emphasizes that novelists express the part of themselves that they are unaware of—writing as discovery/therapy. The writer trusts her imagination most of all, and makes society into a character. Hale claims that the only unique things are those that exist in the real world, that imagination creates things that are like something else. The pieces she claims as most important: beginning, the balance of forces or tension, writing in SCENES as much as possible, motivations for action, and skillful unnoticeable transitions.

I never need to read A Passage to India after consuming this book since Hale takes every available opportunity to praise and quote it.

Ultimate verdict- skip this book.

The Zürau Aphorisms

The Zurau Aphorisms

These 109 scraps of fragmented thoughts from his months in Zürau are labeled aphorisms despite not following the classic form of an aphorism. The collection starts out strong but I found it lacking overall when compared to similar collections of wise, short, pithy sayings. Robert Calasso also includes the final chapter of his book, K., to help flesh out the volume.

My favorite was Number 5:

“From a certain point on, there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”

Other good ones:

  • 42: “To let one’s hate-and disgust-filled head slump onto one’s chest.”
  • 76: “The feeling: ‘I’m not dropping anchor here,’ and straightaway the feeling of the sustaining sea-swell around one.”
  • 11/12: “The variety of views that one may have, say, of an apple: the view of the small boy who has to crane his neck for a glimpse of the apple on the table, and the view of the master of the house who picks up the apple and hands it to a guest.”
  • 20: “Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.”
  • 109: “It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens: A Life

I’ve decided that I don’t like Tomalin as a biographer. She does very little in this book to get across the essence of Dickens, but maybe I’m too hard on her because primary sources are at a minimum. Dickens burned all his letters in 1860 and didn’t keep the type of journal that Woolf has delighted us with in her posthumous era. Tomalin works with what she has—mostly letters and the texts that D published—to pull off a quick 400+ page biography that conveys above all else that he was an extraordinarily energetic man besides being hugely talented. D kept his finger in every pie he got hold of, dictating the household arrangements and summertime escapes, charitably caring for random orphans and prostitutes and strangers he met along the way, enthusiastically carrying on with a large set of male friends (and having a shadow household of sister-in-law Georgy plus the mysterious Nelly/Ellen once he separates from Catherine). Early on you get a weird feeling about him, his going ga-ga over the death of his other sister-in-law (Mary) at age 16, the favored pet of his household later replaced by Georgina. When Mary Hogarth’s brother unexpectedly died, D was reportedly upset “not because he know George well but because he had been expecting to be buried beside Mary…”

He makes two trips to America, and in the first is overwhelmed by crowds swooning over his celebrity (and pushing for international copyright law b/c he saw zero money from U.S. publications). He loved Cincinnati: “a very beautiful city: I think the prettiest place I have seen here, except Boston. It has risen out of the forest like an Arabian-night city; is well laid out; ornamented in the suburbs with pretty villas… has smooth turf-plots and well kept gardens.”

I liked this photograph of him from 1850:

The Prodigal Women

I got swept up in the fast-moving currents of Nancy Hale’s dramatic masterpiece from 1942, a best-seller in its day that has now become moldering. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for stories with strong women who prefer solitude to anything else.

The story begins with a young Leda March looking back at her home and relishing the weekend’s release from school so that she can be alone. She comes from a poor branch of the aristocratic Marches of Boston and is an only child who finds comfort in the rollicking good time offered by her new friend Betsy Jekyll. The next 500+ pages follow the girls as they grow up and try on various identities—wealthy and beautiful wife (Leda) who bores of her marriage and chucks it all to become a poet, and Betsy’s bohemian spirit leads her to flapperism in NYC which she must renounce when she ends up with a wife-beating husband who loves to imagine all the various men she’s been with (so as to enrage himself). Leda falls in love with Betsy’s sister Maise’s husband, the artist Lambert Rudd. Maise herself gets sick in South America due to a botched abortion and becomes an invalid until she has her own child, and then loses her mind. It’s a real page-turner, delicious way to sink into the hours of the afternoon.

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought)

A very approachable guide by Susan Buck-Morss to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which has been gathering dust on my bedside table for months now. “The effect of technology on both work and leisure in the modern metropolis had been to shatter experience into fragments, and journalistic style reflected that fragmentation.” This, the essence of Benjamin’s masterwork. Buck-Morss’s book was published in 1989, before any version of Arcades Project hit the streets, and this is a useful guide that remains helpful even though the project has been published on its own. Photographs and illustrations help to make her point, along with biographical information about Benjamin.

BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

Bart: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

I really wanted to like this book all the way through but as a reader, my energy flagged and waned with every rabbit-hole Michael Healy went down. There are some great parts, with interesting bits scattered throughout, but it really could have used an editor to excise out the sleep-inducing parts. On the good side: details about the construction and early battles around routes/stations/locations. The Embarcadero station was never part of the original design (now one of the busiest)! Insider stories also very interesting, such as the fact that the flea market at Berkeley’s Ashby station was never supposed to be permanent but after a court battle, it remains in business nearly 40 years later. Disabled-rights activist Harold Willson was hugely influential in making BART the first transpo system in the nation that was 100% accessible to people not able to walk (the slogan to get elevators was “BART, give us the shaft,” which I love).

The technology going into the excavation and creation of the tunnel for the Transbay tube also very interesting. The first tunneling shield was used in London to create a pedestrian tunnel under the Thames, written about by Charles Dickens in 1843 and now part of the Underground.

Healy sometimes gives a nod to the male-dominated field, mentioning the first women on the board, women managers, etc. Also a ridiculous story about how Kay Springer was trying to give visitors a tour of the subway construction but she was stopped by the foreman because of a superstition about women in the construction area. Hello, patriarchy! Luckily, her manager informed the foreman that she needed access and the taboo was broken to no ill effect. Shocking!

The hubbub over the 100-millionth passenger was telling– they randomly selected a woman who was leaving the Embarcadero Station and descended on her with bright lights and uniformed officers and she covered her face and didn’t want to give her name. Bravo, lady, for “having none of it”.

I also didn’t realize that bike lockers had been used by homeless as shelters, renting them for $35/year. Overall, it’s worth reading, but godbless you if you don’t plow dazed and bleary-eyed through the boring parts.

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

You can’t be a self-respecting feminist without reading this book. I was somewhat clueless about the inner workings of Pussy Riot and their political art until Gessen laid it all out for me. The title comes from a quote from Solzhenitsyn used by Nadya in her closing statement during the sham trial. The three women (Nadya, Kat, Maria) were charged with essentially hurting the feelings of the religious people who witnessed their action at the Orthodox church in Moscow. Kat’s sentence got commuted, but Nadya and Maria got a few years in jail, but let’s not forget that this is Russian jail, where human rights are particularly overlooked. Maria became quite the jailhouse lawyer and continued fighting for better conditions at each penal colony she was sent to. Nadya philosophized and sent out various speeches through any channels she could. Fortunately, there was enough media attention on the women and jailers were forced to treat them somewhat well. They exited the system in 2013. Sadly, my own interest in their story is heightened by the fact that conditions in the U.S. are teetering towards those of Russia, so all outspoken feminist art warriors should read this as a cautionary tale but also for inspiration.

Enchanted Islands

Enchanted Islands

Sometimes you have a bad idea that you just have to follow through on. Today’s mistake was deciding that I’d slough off on work and simply read all afternoon, which I doubled down on by consuming this not so great book in a few hours. I was intrigued by the premise when I saw the book jumping out at me from a Chicago bookstore not long ago, so ordered it up and polished it off in one sitting, despite giving myself a tummyache in the process. It’s not good writing. It’s not good plot development. The characters are flimsy and unbelievable. Yet, I persisted, driven by the idea that some nugget of wisdom about female friendship would be waiting for me at the end. Nope.

It begins at the end, when Fanny & Rosalie are tucked away in an old folk’s home in the Bay Area, then yanks you backward through their childhood growing up Jewish in Minnesota, running away from home to work as a secretary in Chicago and then fleeing for farm life/suffragette life in Nebraska (of all places) when Fanny walks in on Rosalie with Fanny’s boyfriend Zeke, in an unnecessarily graphic and extremely detailed sex scene. Then Fanny ends up graying in San Francisco as a teacher, which she eventually chucks to go back to secretarial work in her 50s for the Navy. She gets recruited to pose/become the wife of a spy and go live on one of the Galapagos Islands in the lead up to WWII. Her husband, Ainslie, is gay, the “confirmed bachelor” hints broadly ignored by Fanny up until she catches him (of course) in flagrante.

The part of the story that unfolds on the islands is the flimsiest, most improbable, and least worth reading despite what you’d imagine. There are German spies on the island, drama drama drama, then the war, and Fanny’s shipped back to SF where she finally does fall in love (Joseph) but returns with Ainslie to the Galapagos when the war is over. It’s a muddy, icky, not-worth-your-time mess and I wish the author had had the kindness to keep it tucked away in a drawer and forgotten.

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Bits of this were good but overall it’s not her best work. It’s an interesting attack on the bloated insistency on positive vibes, positive thinking, optimism. With this enforced viewpoint, we stumble blindly towards disaster, blithely ignoring warning signs of economic recession because of course the housing market can’t fail, etc.

The best parts of the book were the intro and the summation, and sandwiched in between were her story of wading through the pink paradise of surviving breast cancer, dealing with hyper-optimistic gurus who insist that all is cured with a flick of the mental switch, megachurches that more resemble corporations insisting that God wants you to be rich, and too much detail on the motivational speakers that made me want to crawl under the covers and never see the light of day again.

Ehrenreich discusses how positive thinking snuggles up quite closely to late capitalism’s insistence that we buy more and that corporations continue to always grow, fueling consumer society by saying that bygod we deserve newer/better electronics/cars/houses. “Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.”

The effect is seen in the economy, we spend a lot and save a little, never worrying about a rainy day that will never come. Good news– we do have “defensive pessimism” that keeps us safe, assuming that cars won’t stop at red lights or that engines may fail, otherwise we’d truly be living in a LALAland where nothing bad can ever happen (also why Ehrenreich says we were taken by surprise during 9/11 despite the many signs leading up to it).

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago Studies in American Politics)

Another great book helping to explain the unexplainable—why people will vote against their best interest (rural folks voting against the social safety net that helps them). Cramer spends years in the field infiltrating a few dozen small groups around the state, mostly of old men. She develops a theory of rural consciousness as a lens through which to view everything from non-urbanites. Diving into the numbers, she shows that rural displeasure in having to pay more than they get back is misplaced—rural areas skew towards getting more per capita than they put in. There’s a deep-seated feeling of resentment, the idea that urbanites are getting more than they deserve and not working hard. The idea that manual labor is more deserving than white collar labor is pervasive. Very readable recap of several years of research with great bits of conversation recorded. Rural denizens feel left out, abandoned, ignored, and as if they are stupid.

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Brilliant book by the smart, funny, honest and intensely brave Laura Kipnis. It changed my perspective on automatically assuming that sexual assault reports were to be believed by exposing the grotesque practice of kangaroo courts of Title IX investigations on campus. Kipnis lands a goldmine of evidence from Peter Ludlow who was railroaded out of his star tenure position in philosophy by two somewhat disturbing accusations from female students that disintegrate under serious study. Kipnis encourages us to view women not just as the passive objects that we’ve become, needing to be protected by overzealous university administrators with consent rules. She even touches on that taboo subject of excessive drinking on campus and its role in attacks. Wisely, she counsels women to take self-defense classes and learn how to vehemently say NO!, unraveling the socialization of being female that has taught us to be pleasing and placid.

Kipnis gets caught in the maw of this Title IX beast when charges are brought against her by people upset about an essay she wrote, claiming that it created a chilling environment on campus. “I knew next to nothing about Title IX, but we were still living in America (or so I thought) and either the place turned into a police state without my noticing, or using a federal law against gender discrimination to punish a professor for writing an essay was something other people were likely to find outrageous too.”

It’s fierce, intelligent writing that takes an unpopular view, sprinkled with bits of Kipnis’s wit throughout. “During our interview, Ludlow tried to interest me in My Little Pony, too, insisting at one point that I watch a video clip of a bunch of winsome animated ponies cavorting in a candy-colored field, which was the longest three minutes of my life.”

Let’s teach women how to say “Get your fucking hand off my knee” instead of setting up bizarre secret courts which allow them to hogtie men for their actions with very little evidence.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

It’s too soon to read this book. Unless, of course, you’re ready to pull the scabs off and start digging into the open wounds again, raising your ire and fully hating Bernie bros, Comey, and the misogynist nation that barely elected Toxic T. No thanks. I wasn’t ready to deal with this, wasn’t ready to have it all condensed into a few hundred pages. Maybe in a few years.

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Twelve tales that Mann wrote between 1896 and 1912 (Death in Venice), some quite strange, all with the tell-tale Mann stamp upon them.
The Will for Happiness (1896)- man with fatal heart condition evades death until at long last the father of his beloved allows them to marry. He dies on their wedding night.
Little Herr Friedemann (1897)- crippled by being dropped as an infant, Friedemann falls in love then realizes it is futile since he is grotesque, focuses on being cultured instead. Years later, he falls for a new woman in town who cruelly rejects him, he drowns himself in the creek by her house at a party one night.
Tobias Mindernickel (1897) – old man is laughed at by children, acquires a dog but then beats it, only finds relief in providing succor once he’s almost killed it. Then he does kill it.
Little Lizzy (1897) – attractive woman married to an obese lawyer and openly carrying on affairs that the whole town knows about. She convinces her husband to dress up like a giant baby and sing a number at her party, to his humiliation. “This fat man had the most bizarre character. No one could have been more courteous, more gracious, more obliging than he. Yet without actually articulating it, people felt that his overly friendly and flattering behavior was somehow forced, that it was rooted in timidity and insecurity, and so it got on their nerves. Nothing is uglier than a person who despises himself but who, out of cowardice and vanity, is eager to please because he wants to be liked.”
Gladius Dei (1902)- strange story where a painting of the Virgin Mary is deemed by a passerby to be too seductive, he tries to get it taken out of the window of the gallery that’s selling copies of it.
Tristan (1903) – hints of Magic Mountain in this one— a writer and a consumptive (only the windpipe tho!) meet in a sanatorium and develop a friendship; she dies after having been convinced by him to play Tristan and Isolde.
The Starvelings: A Study (??) – brief portrait of a jealous friend who wishes his lady friend would tell him to wait a bit and hang out with her. Echoes of this show up again in Tonio Kroger.
Tonio Kroger (1903)- fantastic novella, Kroger falls in love with Hans and then with Inge, both of whom he encounters later in Sweden they having married and he having traveled there to get a fresh perspective. “If he was asked what in the world he wanted to be, he would supply different answers, for he was in the habit of saying—and had already written—that he bore within himself the possibilities of a thousand different ways of life, together with the secret awareness that they were all impossibilities.”
“He did not work like someone who works in order to live; rather, he worked like someone who wants nothing but to work because he considers himself nothing as a living person, wishes only to be regarded as a creative being, and otherwise goes about gray and inconspicuous like an actor who has taken off his makeup and is nothing so long as he has nothing to portray. He worked in silent and invisible seclusion, disdainful of those small-minded people for whom talent was a social asset, who, whether rich or poor, went about wild and dilapidated or lived high on the hog with very individualistic neckties, who were devoted to their charming and artistic lives and unaware that good works can emerge only under the pressure of a bad life, that the person who lives does not work, and that an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative.”
The Wunderkind (1903) – a young skilled composer and pianist pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, or so he feels.
Harsh Hour (1905) – I think this is Mann’s portrait of Schiller writing? He mentions Don Carlos… it’s late at night, the writer is alone and taking a break to look more holistically at his work. “Do not brood: work! Limit, exclude, give shape, complete… And complete it he did, the work of his suffering. It may not have been good, but complete it he did. And when it was complete, lo and behold, it was good. And from his soul, from Music and Idea, new works struggled upward, resonant and shimmering creations, which, in sacred form, wondrously hinted at their infinite homeland, just as the ocean, from which it is fished, roars in the seashell.”
The Blood of the Walsungs (1905) – bizarre tale of twins who are in love with each other, named after the characters in Die Walkure who they see that night at the opera; they consummate their relationship on the eve of the girl twin getting married off.
Death in Venice (1912) – old man and the sea, feels the travel bug and doesn’t know how to fight it, goes here and there and finally Venice, tries to leave but his trunk gets sent on in the wrong direction, he uses this as an excuse to stay and watch a young boy whom he’s in love with. Disease hits the city, he dies.