500 Capp Street: David Ireland’s House

A few months ago I finally made it to 500 Capp Street to check out the David Ireland house and was stunned by the delicious curved walls on the second floor, the walls stripped down to their original plaster and coated with polyurethane to shine. Fantastic that artwork has been preserved as a museum piece (but I wish we’d been able to climb up the wooden ladder that was apparently in one of the bedrooms up to a loft that Ireland built?!). Ireland’s original intention was to renovate the broken down house but instead he stabilized it and preserved its elements, even marking with plaques on the wall the two spots where he damaged the stairway when removing a heavy safe from the previous owner. He created sculpture from bits of what the previous tenants left behind and made his home a living piece of art. Purchased for $50k in 1975, he lived in the house until he had to move into assisted living in the 2000’s, but he was alive to know that his home was purchased by an art lover who would keep it intact.

It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand

Grief is not a problem to be solved but something to be supported and worked through. Megan Devine helps navigate through the landmines that fresh grief deploy at one’s feet, beginning with exasperation at our society’s reaction to grief as something that should be fixed as soon as possible, calling this grief illiteracy.

She peppers the book with supporting quotes, like Walt Whitman’s “Reexamine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” There is no right or wrong way to grieve, it is the most highly personal and unique feeling for an individual along with love (which is what’s ultimately causing grief). “When you are broken, the correct response is to be broken.” Embrace your pain but tamp down the suffering.

Also appreciated the section on how grief can end friendships due to people’s whack-a-doodle way of responding to someone’s pain. I’ve seen this first hand, bizarre comments or words that are just not helpful, and it’s good to see that it’s normal for people to be snipped from your life if you so desire when they’re cruel at a time you need them to be kind. And also helpful to see that she had trouble reading during her most intense grief period—attention span diminished, comprehension gone.

Joy Enough: A Memoir

I suppose we’re meant to think of Sarah McColl’s two losses as a diptych—her mother dies, her husband leaves—but the abandonment by spouse was more embarrassing, like we needed to forgive her the sin of getting hitched in the first place. It contains occasional sparks that touch on the real grief, the forever grief of losing a mother, such as that moment when she’s replacing a light bulb in her kitchen and thinking “I could get my sea legs on the ocean of aloneness. As a divorced person it was not terrible. As a daughter, it was.”

Perhaps the diptych serves to counterbalance; love of a spectacular mother weighted against the betrayal of a husband who preferred writing code on his laptop. It also gives us an area where she can rebound by dating, by filling her life with replacements in way that is not possible with the other loss.

Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.

Lili Anolik’s book about Eve Babitz (“… isn’t a biography… won’t attempt to impose narrative structure and logic on life, which is (mostly) incoherent and irrational, lived moment-by-moment and instinctively rather than by grand design…”) is a self-professed love story about her obsession with the amazing (and previously forgotten) writer, Eve. I’m thankful to have read a few of Babitz’s greatest books over the last two years and tempted to re-read them after this reminder of her wit and sparkle. What I enjoyed most of all was Anolik’s assertion that the previously crowned classics about L.A. (by Nathanael West and Joan Didion) should be tossed aside in favor of Eve’s glittering tome. Even Bret Easton Ellis agreed in an interview with the author, saying he considers Slow Days, Fast Company his favorite book about L.A., much looser and expansive than Didion’s rigid Play It As It Lays. Eve, having been given her break by Didion, never felt comfortable talking badly about her, but is clearly pleased when Anolik takes Didion down in an article for Vanity Fair.

Miss Mackenzie

My first dollop of Trollope, what took me so long? Delightful story of a woman whose life has been spent caring for aging father then dying brother, surprise discovery that said brother left her a significant fortune, foraying out into the world for the first time and as a wealthy single woman, suitors lining up for her money, a cousin who’s pressured to offer his hand as well in order to win back the cash that was rightfully his, then the wills disputed and discovery that the cash WAS his all along, but marriage prevails after a very long protracted legal case (her lawyer rightfully named Mr. Slow). All’s well that ends well in 1865 London.

Trollope’s writing is a dash of Dickens without the oomph; he winks and nods as his reader throughout, has high sympathy for his female characters.

La Grande Therese : The Greatest Scandal of the Century

Hilary Spurling discovered Therese Humbert while researching her Matisse biography (he married the daughter of Therese’s housekeeper) and decided such a jaw-dropping story deserved a book of its own. Therese was a poor peasant girl from the southern countryside of France who dreamed up imaginary riches and somehow conned Paris into believing her (thus fronting her millions of francs). She infiltrated the highest levels of Parisian official society, pals with the head of police, various presidents and other officials. Eventually the scheme came crashing down and she and her family disappeared from history.

The Basketball Diaries

Jim Carroll’s classic book about growing up in Manhattan in the 1960s has been on my must-read list for too long. It was as dreamy as expected, all poetry and drugs and sex and chaos and hustling gay men for money and running away from cops and shoving onto crowded subway cars and the power blackout that darkened the east coast and lunar eclipses and jacking people for money near the Cloisters and shooting up heroin and getting thrown into Rikers for a month and smoking weed and throughout it all playing basketball.

The Golem and the Jinni

Escapist fiction by Helene Wecker about a genie/jinni that is released from a flask who befriends a golem (woman made of clay with superhuman strength, bound to a single master) in turn-of-20th-century New York City. Somewhat entertaining, the pages kept flipping past so I guess I enjoyed it.

Women, Literature and Finance in Victorian Britain

Nancy Henry’s book is a bit too academic for my taste, where “academic” is an excuse for neglecting to weave the information into a palatable format and just stuff myriad of facts into our mouths. It defines the cultures that emerged from the stock market opening up to women in 19th century Britain when ladies had few other ways to make money. Citing the ability of male authors (Trollope, Dickens, Gissing) to diss capitalism in a way that women were unable to because of their dependence on the meager returns that their investments made in order to be independent. Let’s not forget that the marriage law allowing women to own their own property after marriage was only passed in 1870. Henry also explores how women authors invested and depicted the economy in their works by way of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Bronte, Margaret Oliphant, and Charlotte Riddell. She thumbs her nose a bit at the more upper class women (Woolf, Edith Wharton) who were able to take a more passive role in investing and not get as grubby about it.

One interesting takeaway is that the more a writer had been adversely affected by not having enough money growing up or in adulthood, the more of a presence the economy is in their work (Dickens a great example of this). Overall reinforces the idea that women were investing in the Consol (that paid 3-5%), railroads, East Indies and other “dirty” money projects that benefited from slavery.

The Friend

A sweet and ferociously well-written book about (or imagining) a friend’s suicide that leaves the narrator caring for his left behind dog, an aging Great Dane named Apollo. But does the friend really die? We have a later section wherein it was botched, the attempt failed, the friend embarrassed, but then the story swings back to life with Apollo again. I admit to breezing quickly through the dog bits, becoming enraged when it seemed like she was about to lose her rent stabilized apartment all for the sake of a dog and then equally enraged by her getting a service dog designation in order to stay. The narrator was very close friends with the suicide/faux suicide, had originally been his student, had seen him through 3 wives. In between plot points she muses about her own students’ writings, so absent of any mention of technology despite their spending 10 hours a day on social media. (Another friend’s kid asks when having a story read to him, ‘When do they go the bathroom?’ and indeed, much of life is usually left out of stories, including technology)

Victorian Literature and Finance

I’ve always been fascinated by the world of women described in British literature as assured of a certain income a year, interest on their capital, that famous £500 a year that Virginia Woolf claimed (as she was given by her aunt’s legacy) you needed for a room of one’s own. Even today I bumped up against this idea as I trundled slowly through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda where she pokes fun at the young men who wonder if it’s worth participating in the battle for work, clarifying that she means, “of course, the young men in whom the unproductive labour of questioning is sustained by three or five per cent on capital which somebody else has battled for.”

The highlight of this collection of essays is Nancy Henry’s ‘Ladies do it?’: Victorian Women Investors in Fact and Fiction. She points out the independence that women gained by being able to participate in varying levels of investment and speculation, naming the Brontës and Elizabeth Gaskell among those writers who expanded their earnings from the pen by shrewd investment. Also, “few critics of the market were willing to address their own dependence on it…” in the case of Dickens, Zola, Maupassant, and Karl Marx. She recounts a letter Marx wrote to his uncle in 1864 after inheriting money that he’d been “speculating—partly in American funds, but more especially in English stocks”: “It’s a type of operating that makes small demands on one’s time, and it’s worth while running some risk in order to relieve the enemy of his money.”

It is here that I discover the source I’ve been looking for. “Beginning in 1749, ‘the consols’, or ‘the funds’, paid a fixed rate of 3 per cent annual interest (thus known as ‘the three per cents’). The Three Per Cent Consols are referenced in a wide variety of books from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to Trollope to Jane Austen. Henry mentions “throughout the nineteenth century, many women survived on the income of money safely invested in the Funds.”

Great detail behind “the funds” here.

The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000

I’m not sure how much you should trust a book that erroneously attributes a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson as published in 1978, but after digging into the sources quoted, I’ll go for it. Unlike Nancy Henry’s assertion that the consols began in 1749, the source quoted here (Larry Neal’s Rise of Financial Capitalism) notes 1726 as the 1st year that the 3% return was offered, with the Consolidating Act of 1751 bringing what was known as the consol into play.

From Rise of Financial Capitalism:

The World My Wilderness

Rose Macaulay’s 1950 book about a post-war London and France, a family picking up the pieces in the wake of divorce, murder, collaborating with the German occupying army. A languid and charming mother (Helen) who runs away from her upright husband to a lover in France (subsequently drowned by vigilantes upset by his collaboration), a wild daughter Barbary who sees and experiences unspeakable acts at the hands of the occupying army and who can’t adjust to life in London with her father (later revealed in the book’s windup not to be her actual father). Tremendously well-written and informed by Macaulay’s own experience surviving the bombing of London in the war.

The Great Believers

Wow. A stunning fictionalized account of the AIDS crisis as it hit the Chicago boys in the 1980s, along with their female friends who helped them protest and cared for their dying bodies. Makkai does a brilliant job juxtaposing current day (2015) with past (1985), pacing the story perfectly between the two eras and leaving you forever curious and turning the pages to learn what happens to Yale the development director of the Northwestern art museum and Fiona his best friend whose great-aunt donates her personal art collection which dates from 1920s Paris where she worked as an artist’s model. Terrific story, writing, plot, heartbreaking details of the oft-overlooked AIDS holocaust.


After I finish a book I barely tolerated, I’m soothed by discovering via mediocre reviews online that I am not alone. My nitpicks are not the same as everyone else’s—I don’t mind a somewhat plotless yet well-written book with no backstory whose main character is a mentally ill woman. Mostly I wasn’t in the mood for a character whose whole life goes down the tubes once her husband leaves her (see: mental illness) and who obsesses about not being able to have children (yawn). This character goes nuts on her famous actress neighbor in Manhattan, stealing her child’s bike and squirreling away her boxes of free stuff left on the curb only to stage a bizarre installation in her garden late at night of all the stolen loot. I think she attacks the actress at the end? The narrator is also caught up in a sexual harassment accusation at the night school she teaches at after sleeping with a student. Skip it.