American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Another book about bored white hillbillies screwing up America, only this time the couple targeted their tiny town in Accomack County, Virginia, with a series of fires (70+). I knew the book was going to be good by the second paragraph where Monica Hesse says she spent two years trying to figure out why they did it, and that the answer involved “hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms, intrigue, and America.”

She does an excellent job laying out all the facts, from the first fire’s 911 calls all the way through the months of other fires and finally the bust, interrogation, and trials. Charlie is made out to be the impotent half-wit who went along with the first dozen fires because they made Tonya happy, and because they were somewhat of a substitute to his not being able to get it up.

Really well done; I read it straight through, abandoning all other commitments for the afternoon.

Odd tidbit: an Alford plea is based on the case of a man named Henry Alford who wanted to plead not guilty of murder but feared that a jury trial would convict and punish him with death, so he plead to get life in prison.

Optimism over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change

I’m pretty sick of reading the opinions of old white men, but I’ll make an exception for Chomsky. I could use a dose of optimism and thought it would be unusual to come from such a source. The book is the result of a series of interviews with C.J. Polychroniou between 2013-2017 and all previously published in Truthout. Yes, there are brief touches on the Toxic T administration, but life in January 2017 looks much different in August 2017 when I read this.

Spoiler alert: there’s not a ton of optimism, although at the end of section 1 (and repeated at the end of section 3), he makes the best case for optimism:

If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world. Not much of a choice.

Chomsky consistently argues that the two most pressing issues we face are climate change and the possibility of nuclear war, saying that we don’t talk enough about the latter and are way too complacent about the former. One of the problems in raising concern about global warming is the absurdity that “40 percent of the US population doesn’t see why it is a problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades.”

The other point he hammers is that the US is unusual to the extent that we’re a “business-run society, where short-term concerns of profit and market share displace rational planning.” We also have a disproportionate part of the population that are religious fundamentalists. Basically, we’re screwed. Only don’t give up! Keep trying even though there is no hope.

Another note: I did not know about the “eloquent and poignant manifesto” left by the Austin pilot who suicided by flying his plane into an IRS office in Feb 2010. Worth a read and a helluva way to send a message about taxes.

Excellent Women

An excellent novel, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. The phrase denotes women who are great but unmarriageable, and is used tongue-in-cheek by the narrator of the story, Mildred Lathbury, a capable spinster living in her own flat but sharing a bathroom with the downstairs flat. New neighbors move in, the Napiers, and disrupt Mildred’s quiet life. Helena is an anthropologist, quite independent, and finds herself in love with a man not her husband. Rocky is the husband, serving as a Naval officer in Italy and winding up home with Helena to find her attracted to Eduard. Mildred’s closest friends are the vicar’s sister and the vicar, and that relationship goes topsy-turvy when they take in a border, a widowed Mrs Grey who soon becomes engaged to the vicar but the relationship sours when Mrs Grey insists that Winifred, the sister, must find somewhere else to live. Through the drama, Mildred counts and recounts her blessings about not being married, having to defend herself against unjust accusations that she is in love with this or that man. Eduard invites her over for dinner in his flat but she can’t bear the thought of having to cook his dinner for him, so she declines. In the end, she’s there, taking the roast chicken out of the oven, dreaming up how her life will be as she helps him with this scholarly work.

One interesting bit I picked up is the use of “any road” as another way to say “anyway”: Mrs Morris says ‘Let’s have a fag, any road.’

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

The 2016 election caused a collective trauma to the U.S. Therapists are experiencing boom times, with one Florida doctor noting 80% of her clients say the election is a source of fear and sadness. Requests for online therapy through Talkspace tripled immediately after the election. In an effort to try and heal my own shocked and broken heart, I reached out to Judith Herman’s legendary book about trauma. I mean in no way to belittle the other forms of trauma by equating them with post-election trauma. I offer up a few tidbits learned along the way, but know there is a long road ahead to rebuild connections and restore my faith in humanity.

The book is broken into two parts: the historical search to diagnose this disorder (from hysterical women to shell-shocked soldiers to sexual abuse survivors) and an overview of the healing process. I found the former part to be of the most interest, the latter self-help component to be a bit saggy for my taste.

Fascinating that the study of hysteria came about as a way to divest the Catholic Church of some of its power in France. Freud was initially part of the investigation, but got freaked out when he realized the extent of what he was uncovering, the frequency of sexual assault. I didn’t realize that famous patient Anna O (Bertha Pappenheim) was Joseph Breuer’s, collaborating with Freud to publish their analysis, and that Breuer abandoned Anna after two years of intense daily “talking cure” (Bertha came up with the famous term). Falling ill for years after Breuer’s abandonment, she eventually recovered and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights.

This post-trauma disorder cropped up again in WWI as shell shock. One study estimates 40% of British battle casualties to be mental breakdowns, reports suppressed to prevent this demoralizing news from reaching the public.

The common trait of psychological trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.” This describes the atmosphere of 2017. Trauma is also amplified when coupled with being taken by surprise. Hello November 9, 2016. Traumatic reactions happen when you can’t make a difference with your own action. “When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized.”

This sums up my feeling pretty well:

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.


This Sweet Sickness

Maybe I’m overdosing on Highsmith because she’s the perfect complement to the insanity of today’s world. So here’s another, this not among her worst or her best; pub’d in 1960, bouncing back from her unreadable 1958 book set in Mexico.

The “hero,” David Kelsey, is an absolute nut, living a splintered life in a boardinghouse during the week and then scampering off on weekends to a house he bought where he lives a fantasy life with the woman he loved but who married someone else. His boardinghouse and work think he spends weekends with his dying mother in a nursing home, but she’s been dead fourteen years. David buys the house under a fake name, William Neumeister, and lives an entirely different life as Bill, smoking and drinking cocktails while he pretends that Annabelle lives with him. David continues to write to Annabelle, insisting that she spend a few days leading up to Christmas with him in NYC, calling her house, and generally terrorizing her. He shows up one day and meets the husband, insults him, and leaves. The continued behavior drives Gerald, the husband, to the brink of wanting to kill David, and he shows up at the boardinghouse with a gun. David’s neighbor Effie gives Gerald the location of the house that David spends the weekends at, and Gerald arrives, brandishing the gun, gets into a scuffle, is shoved by David, clonks his head, and dies. David/Bill drives the body to the police and gives a full report acting as William Neumeister, then proceeds to sell his house, quit his job, get another job and move to a different town. Effie’s in love with David and keeps his secret, but as David becomes more and more unhinged (Annabelle marries a different man after Gerald’s death), Effie & his friend Wes visit and David accidentally kills her. The last pages are when he’s on the lam in NYC, acting weird as Bill, pretending he and Annabelle are on their honeymoon, ordering 2 dinners with 2 drinks, then showing up at an old college buddy’s apartment who then sends his wife out for the police. He ends up jumping from their apartment, but does he hit the police net or die?

When tech bros bloviate; or: George Orwell on the Uber investor letter

Have you laughed at the ridiculous letter an Uber investor wrote yet? It’s below in full (“liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels,” “unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity,” among other bloviated gems).

Normally I’d just smirk and move on, but I happened to read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay a day later and was amused by the coincidence. The Uber letter reeks of all the faults laid out in Orwell’s essay: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words. Orwell says, “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Orwell later notes that when “the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” We all know the toxic atmosphere steaming up the Uber headquarters and seeping through the corridors of Silicon Valley, so this letter is unsurprising. From his 1946 perch, Orwell cautions us to recognize “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” and offers us rules which Pishevar would be wise to swallow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you frequently see
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The bloviation of Uber investor, Shervin Pishevar, in full:

Let us take this pause in this moment, when we find ourselves swimming in the crucible of one of the grandest business and moral battles of our generation, and find strength in each stroke of our proverbial digital pens, that we wrote with the indelible, eternal and permanent ink of righteousness. We write with the souls of thousands of lives saved, the lives of millions of jobs created liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels of corrupt cabals that choked cities with their pollution of air and morals. We write with the spirit of Bonnie Kalanick, who raised her son with deep unconditional love and unfading faith in his ability to do good for the world. Whose tragic and untimely death was used against her son at his most vulnerable, unspeakable time of pain. They chose to strike at a moment of a devoted son’s retreat and leave of absence to mourn the absence of the inviolable love of his mother. In doing so, they joined the very corruption her son had devoted such fervent passion to fight. In her memory, we devote our actions to a just cause; to defend what is right and to protect the interest of not only shareholders but most importantly the far more important stakeholders of employees, drivers and customers whose lives have been forever altered by the abiding faith and fervent hard work of Travis Kalanick and the Uber team. Their allegiance was met by this unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity.

Let us strike tomorrow with the full and fulsome courage of our convictions. Let our just cause give pause to those who would ever dream of ever emulating the shameful shenanigans of these sanctimonious hypocrites who fling filings and letters de haut en bas; when it is we who have the higher moral ground and our letters and filing will hail down upon their platforms, exposing them as bitterly barren barons of moral turpitude. And as the summer sets, we let us be steward of truth who in unison proclaim: fiat justitia ruat caelum.

-Shervin Pishevar


Burning Girl

Perhaps Claire Messud’s Burning Girl was an ill-considered choice of reading material on a day that shattered heat records in San Francisco. My heart wasn’t quite in it, as I gulped down water, hid behind curtained windows, and blasted the fan while leaning back on a towel-covered ice pack. Or maybe the writing just wasn’t enough to transport me through to the world on the other side. I can’t chalk it up to the narrator’s youth, as I have absolutely loved some YA fiction (e.g. The Fault in our Stars). The plot seemed thinly stretched, and although less than 250 pages, a chore to get through. It’s a story of the disintegrated friendship of two young girls, besties at age 12 only to spiral away from each other. One goes to the bad crowd, one gets asked to join the debate club. The usual. The bad girl ends up trying to overdose in an abandoned asylum. Almost too cliche but there it is.

I appear not to have enjoyed her other work too much either, so maybe this is just par for the course.

Small G: A Summer Idyll

Pat’s U.S. publishers rejected her last work a few months before her death; I suppose the in-your-face gayness was too much for them? The story follows an atypical trajectory for Highsmith, starting with the brutal murder of Peter, a young homosexual, then meandering through the lives of various other Zurich residents related to Peter before ending on a happy note with Peter’s lover having moved on, and happy endings all around. Luisa is a teenager who fell in love with Peter to his dismay, and is eased in his death by Rickie, Peter’s much older boyfriend. She’s an apprentice seamstress kept under virtual lock and key by her mistress, Renate, who vocally abuses gays at the local watering hole, the Small g, AKA Jakob’s (small g for gay). Teddie is a young man who wanders in one night, Rickie falls for him but he’s straight and lusts after Luisa who ends up dating both Teddie (a man) and Dorrie (a woman). Renate is killed after slipping on the stairs running after Dorrie and Luisa inherits her whole estate, including the dress shop. Very odd for Highsmith, the last word is “happy.” Did she realize that would be ultimately her final printed word? Would she have wanted that? Hmm.

A Legacy

Sybille Bedford’s novel is another enjoyable example of her luxurious prose, droll wit, perfectly timed dialogue (see also her travel book to Mexico), always a treat to sink into after a few hours of battling with the gloom of the real world. It’s couched as fiction, but the bones of the story seem to closely follow her own life, born to an elderly German baron who lived in France and Spain and a distracted, rich, beautiful English woman (possibly not even the baron’s, having an affair with someone else at the time). It’s rich with descriptions of growing up in the polished wood mansion of her grandparents’ Berlin home, only they weren’t her grandparents—it’s complicated. Her father’s first marriage was to a wealthy young Berliner, Melanie, who died a year after giving birth to the narrator’s half-sister, Henrietta. The in-laws, the Mertz, insisted on his living with them and raising Henrietta, and soon he got a large allowance and was kept on in style. When he married a second time, he has the audacity to ask for a larger allowance from his previous in-laws! The first section is an exploration of her father’s childhood, carefree for the most part, until rumblings in the German state caused chaos and sent his younger brother Jean to military school where he went insane. They lived in the country, ate well, no money problems but no real money either. The grandfather insisted that they dine an hour after sunset, as was the custom of the Romans.

Beautiful and well worth your time to take a trip back to pre-war Europe if you can stand the mutterings and peccadilloes of the upper class.

Janesville: An American Story

Perhaps it’s a result of overdosing on books about the failing/flailing middle class (e.g. 1, 2, or 3 which was also about Wisconsin), but I was reluctant to read this all the way to the end. Amy Goldstein takes us on an in-depth tour of Janesville, Wisconsin, home of Paul Ryan, and a town where GM shut down one of its oldest factories in 2008. Other industry in the town left as well, Parker Pen having been sold to investors and eventually to Gillette, jobs marching out of town in the thousands. She shows you what life looks like as a family slides from middle class into needing help from the local food pantry, and poor families slipping into poverty sometimes abandoning their kids into homelessness. The impact of job loss ripples outward as people who made the seats that went into the cars also get shut down (and other ancillary services like day care, etc. that are now no longer affordable).

One man opts to become a “gypsy” commuting to a GM factory in Indiana and sharing an apartment with another Janesville gypsy during the week, then driving 5 hours back each weekend. Others go back to technical school to pick up skills and hope to find work. Some are successful, like Barb who helps developmentally disabled adults. Some fail, like Barb’s best friend Kristi who kills herself after getting a job at the jail and falling in love with a prisoner. Suicide rates double in the town after the factory closes.

Mostly you see the splintering of a town, with rich optimists on one side (aka Paul Ryan supporters) who give lip service about jobs and things turning around, and those thousands who are actually impacted, who learn to do without, to eat a lot of pasta, to give up their dreams.

Iron & Silk

Nowhere nearly as good as the other book about China I recently read, but at least not painful to read. Perhaps the only painful part was the author photo in the back, showcasing the young author in a sleeveless t-shirt to show off his bulging martial arts muscles while eating Chinese takeout with a plastic fork. Yikes.

This came out in 1986, a record of Salzman’s two years teaching English and studying gong fu with a seemingly endless stream of willing teachers. (And yet, he protects his own time from frequent requests to give private language lessons by saying no). He also picks up a calligraphy teacher or two, and practices his sketching along the foggy river befriending fishermen who are dazzled by seeing a white man who speaks Chinese. A true Renaissance man, Salzman fixes an old lady’s piano and brings his cello to the fisherman’s home to give a concert (they’re dazzled most by the red velvet lining the case).

Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company

I will never understand the impulse to write a biography about someone you don’t like. James Mellow has little respect for Stein’s genius and his disdain comes through in sneers throughout. Maybe his purpose was to sneak an encomium to Leo Stein into a book that people would be tricked into reading, much more interested about his stunningly talented sister instead. Snide comments about Gertrude’s girth start in the first paragraph and pepper the remainder of the text. The only reason I picked this up was because it was the source of a reference in Pat Highsmith’s bio about how much Stein and Picasso adored the Katzenjammer Kids comics. I’m taking a hard pass on the remaining hundreds of pages of this travesty of a biography.

The Sisters Chase

Sarah Healy has written a gorgeous novel about two sisters left alone after their mother dies in a car accident, without money because the hotel she owned was in the red. Mary, aged 18 at the time, whisks Hannah, aged 4, into their car and heads south to her mother’s cousin Gail in Florida, where she seduces Gail’s husband and photographs it for $10k blackmail. This gives Mary and Hannah enough to get on their feet, travel a bit and then settle into a town and get Hannah schooled. Only Mary chooses the town that her love, Stefan, grew up in, and concocts a flat tire in front of his house before Christmas when he’s visiting, causing them to reunite after 6 years. Naturally, Mary is really Hannah’s mom, and Stefan is her father, but all of this doesn’t come out concretely until the end. It’s beautifully written, well-paced, a delightful treat for the otherwise harried mind.

The Gift

You’re not smart or cool or hip enough for this book, but it doesn’t care—it will lead you by the hand anyway through the nooks and crannies of NYC’s art world, intellectual circles, performance pieces, poetry readings. It grants you access, a gift, a glimpse inside a world you’re not enough for. From Barbara Browning’s own words, it’s a book about technique, art, love, surrogacy, gift economies, feminism, communism, and the erotics of collaboration. It’s non-fiction disguised as fiction, or at least sliding to that end of the spectrum.

The book is a gift, as intended. A mediation on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which deals with artistic talent needing to be given away and not just bottled up and sold. Browning’s work is another in a long line of dreamy, smart, creative books by intellectual women I’ve been digging lately—Maggie Nelson, Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus—all of whom have mentions in the book. It’s the chin nod to one’s peers or influencers. Other name drops: Sophie Calle, Valerie Solanas (wherein I learn that she scrawled edits to the NYPL copy of SCUM Manifesto complaining about the publisher’s changes), Lauren Berlant (repeatedly referred to by Browning as “the smartest woman in the US”), Andre Breton, Gertrude Stein.

She begins by talking about the ukulele covers she’s been making for friends and how she responded to a spam message by making a cover for the sender. This leads into a discussion about a reclusive musical genius with Asperger in Germany she befriends (and later has a disastrous attempt to visit in Köln where she learns that he’s given a fake address), Sami, who makes his own musical videos posted online. Browning also makes various naked dance videos of herself or her hands, set either to music or to the voice messages that Sami leaves her. The German term for Asperger is Inselbegabung, meaning “insular talent.”

The book meanders, dipping into performance art of her transgender friend Tye, bragging about how smart her NYU doctoral students are, giving lectures at the post-Occupy Free University, pop-up lectures on Pussy Riot, New Museum patronage of Karen Finley’s sexting piece, discussing appropriation in the digital world (centos are poems constructed of lines from other poets, the form originated in 3rd century AD). It’s delightful, uncategorizable, intellectual, dreamy, thought-provoking stuff.

Strangers on a Train

Pat’s first book, pub’d 1950 when she was 29 and obviously made famous by Hitchcock’s picking it up for a film (Raymond Chandler worked on the adaptation before he got fired and said the plot drove him “crazy”). The film streamlines and simplifies, as it always does. In the book, Guy breaks down and commits the murder of Bruno’s dad after months of torment and letters and harassment by Bruno after he offs Miriam. Bruno still can’t let well enough alone and insinuates himself into Guy and Anne’s life, eventually ending up on a boat with them that he drunkenly falls from, drowning. Guy is wracked with guilt, tracks down Miriam’s old boyfriend and confesses, of course to find Bruno’s private detective outside the door having heard it all. Most interesting to know about Pat’s alcoholism while reading this, as Bruno is constantly sloshed, saying things like the best way to experience the world is while drunk.