I suppose this was considered racy fare in 1956 when first published, a soap opera tale of a small town that involves rape, abortion, drinking, sex, deception, child abuse, wife beatings, bastard children, sleeping with married men, and murder. Parts are downright hilarious, like the seven men who hole up in Kenny’s cellar on an extended drunken bender for five or six weeks. Allison Mackenzie is the daughter of Constance Mackenzie, a bastard child who’s a year older than she is told in order to cover her mother’s disgrace. Her friend Selena is a member of one of the shack families in town, abused by her stepfather who rapes/impregnates her, she has abortion, years later he returns to town and she kills him. There’s a newspaper owner who doesn’t like to take sides and a wealthy mill owner who overprotects his son (keeping him from war but the drunken son ends up killing himself in a car wreck), a friend of Allison who loses her arm in a carnival accident, a handsome new principal who sweeps Constance off her feet, an overprotective mother who lies about her son being a war hero, the list goes on forever.
Evan Ratliff’s book about Paul Le Roux’s internet prescription drug cartel was exciting until the last 100 pages when it hit a reef and sank. After spending years researching and then writing about this epic drug lord hacker (who got into narcotics and guns and money laundering), the book drifts off once Le Roux is captured by the DEA and flipped. There’s no grand moment when Le Roux gets his comeuppance, just a tiny whimper as the U.S. government uses this top of the pyramid to take out the rest of his business network. Disappointing. I also wish he’d kept himself out of the book more, but he was always elbowing his way into the story somehow.
I liked the first two stories but then either my mood changed or the book’s equilibrium shifted or something else but I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for the final four. Strongest (as always!) is the first one, the eponymous story, where an artist lucks into a vacation home when a rich couple buy one of her paintings from a friend, she spends the summer daydreaming and gazing out at the landscape and trying to avoid being the entertainment for the other guests. Taj Mahal was a sweet story about a group of oldsters who get together to gossip about the gossipy biography they were all just mentioned in.
I read this over a decade ago and it kept coming up lately so I did a highly satisfying re-read. Best writing lesson he got from his first job writing for a local newspaper, condensing and simplifying. “When you write a story you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
He defends his own category of blockbuster writing and talks about critics being suspicious of popular success… “suspicions used as an excuse not to think. No one can be as intellectually slothful as a really smart person; give smart people half a chance and they will ship their oars and drift… dozing to Byzantium, you might say.”
Basically you gotta see or hear clearly, then describe to your reader. Practice, honesty. Back story: everyone has a history and most of it isn’t interesting.
Other bits: Trollope invented the red mail pillars during his day job as a mail clerk in the 1850s. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch is the originator of “Murder your darlings” as writing advice.
Maggie Nelson normally charms me, so I was surprised to find myself yawning through this book, mostly a function of mood, as I was headed out the door to gift it to a friend. For some reason I thought I’d read it before, and when I bought a copy of it, I’d intended it for my forever shelves. In her usual way, she meanders around Gertrude Stein and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Goethe’s theory of color and various and sundry Greek philosophers and Joseph Cornell, Monet, Mallarme. What I like best is the meditation on a central theme that anchors the book but allows wide sway. Is it poetry, is it digestible mainly because of its tiny fragments that our attention-addled brains can grasp onto?
I came to Fanny Howe by way of the Eve Babitz biography and was not disappointed. Her deep appreciation for Moby-Dick as an extended poem (yes!), her autobiographical musings of a few marriages that finally left her alone in peace with her children, books, and movies.
“The prose notebook is something else entirely, without repetition or revision included. It is antimemoir, a response to a day, and all the day produces by chance. It is in many ways the most radical form: a chronicle without rhythm or beat. Pure reflection, transparency. No audience desired or expected. It is inherently anarchist.”
I love the strange, weird, childlike world of Fletcher Hanks, even if he was an asshole drunk father who left his family in 1930 and ended up freezing to death on a park bench in Central Park at age 90. The similarities between all the strips show his obsession with a hero who saves New York City again and again from danger, loving to depict the bad guys (and sometimes the good guys or the neutral folks) as hanging in mid-air. He loves squeezing the bad guys and flinging them into a chilly ice jail in outer space (thus ironic that he freezes to death himself).
I flipped through this and Jess: To and From the Printed Page in an attempt to fill the gaps in my knowledge about yet another major Bay Area artist of the mid-20th century. Some great paste-ups, collages, mixing up Dick Tracy columns, weaving in various erotic photos of men, always with the words words words (as influenced by his husband, Robert Duncan?). I’m also reading another book about the poetry scene in SF in the 50s (not the Beats) and Jess comes up (via the Duncan connection) as sneering at Jack Spicer and forbidding him from entering his house, which makes me like Jess more than anything else I’ve read about him. Another lucky lottery winner of WWII extraction, working as a chemist at Oak Ridge facilities then coasting into art school on the GI Bill.
Another entry in the list of terrible biographies. Mostly I read this because curious about David Ireland’s life before art (he started making art in his 40s), when he was an insurance salesman for 7 years in Bellingham and had a wife and kids. Every other work seemed to gloss over those years, but at least Klausner gets to the bottom of the gossipy stuff for me. I’m also bored bored bored of reading about men who all gather and do art and lift each other up and yak yak yak about their process. Perhaps I’m still in a crabby mood after viewing the 1973 film Painters Painting yesterday, wherein only Helen Frankenthaler was the only woman interviewed, albeit briefly, and one of the dumb questions was “Is it hard to be a woman artist?” which she deflected by saying basically it’s hard to be an artist, period. Some of my rage boiled over onto reading DI’s biography, I guess, but it was also extremely poorly written/researched. One thing I will agree with in DI’s point of view is that a life can be an artwork. But this book is neither life nor art.
A great collection of poetry and brief essays by Mary Oliver that I found while in the “O”s of the poetry section recently. Two favorites:
Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,
or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.
But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen
and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage
of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.
Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.
Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another — why don’t you get going?
For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.
And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money,
I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.
and Blue Iris
Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?
Can’t fly, can’t run, and see how slowly I walk.
Well, I think, I can read books.
“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past.
I close the book.
Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.
“What’s that you’re doing?” whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.
Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.
“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.
And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.
Disappointing collection of essays from women in their 40s but I suppose I should know better than to expect good stuff from Kate Bolick or Sloane Crosley anymore. The best essay was the one that convinced me to get the book in the first place, Meghan Daum’s essay Same Life, Higher Rent which you can read online. Several red flags in the introductory piece by Lindsey Mead who sprinkled me with tired and droopy adjectives: “rickety wooden steps” “riotous colors” of the sky, etc. And are women the only ones who turn 40? Not that I’m complaining about not having to suffer through another tale from a male’s perspective, but there’s no mention anywhere about this being so gender specific.
The beauty of shopping at the library is to stumble on old friends when picking up new ones. While I was in the 811.54’s fetching Sharon Olds, I spied Frank’s lunch poems and even though I’ve read them before (but somehow not catalogued here) they made me giddy as I walked out with them at lunchtime into the sunshine. Hayes Valley never saw me smile so much. Maybe it’s coming back to Frank after knowing about his closeness to Grace Hartigan, after learning more about his role in the art scene in the 50s/60s, knowing that it was to his desk at MOMA he was returning from all those lunch breaks he records. The poems swirl and dance and themes recur (Iroquois, construction hats, Lana Turner [“oh Lana Turner we love you get up”], Pierre Reverdy) “Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday.” “I had a teacher one whole summer who never told me anything and it was wonderful” and “I read what you read/ you do not read what I read/ which is right, I am the one with the curiosity/ you read for some mysterious reason/ I read simply because I am a writer” One of my favs is Personal Poem, “but now I’m happy for a time and interested”… leading me to scratch my head when trying to figure out what the poet’s walk in SF was (we don’t like Henry James so much we like Herman Melville we don’t want to be in the poets’ walk in San Francisco).
I had not read this collection of poems by Sharon Olds but my sister had just replaced a book at her library in the display I’d suggested books for, and so I trudged down to the library to discover what it was I’d supposedly recommended (I’d previously enjoyed her poems in The Father). I was a bit unimpressed until I got to the last section of the collection, the eponymous One Secret Thing, and staggered by her descriptions of her dying and then dead mother, her application of vaseline to dried lips.”The secret was how deeply I did not want to touch inside her, and how much the act was an act of escape, my last chance to free myself.” She crawls into the hospital bed sobbing, her mother tilted up “eyes closed, mouth open,” and then is there for her last hour, the death rattle described as a gasp forced in then quiet, then a sign of relief. “I felt as if she had always wanted to escape and now she had escaped.”…. “my mother’s dying was like an end of life on earth, some end of water and moisture salt and sweet, and vapor, till only that still, ocher moon shone, in the room, mouth open, no song.” …. “It was like walking away from someone who is drowning in inches of water—and I’d bent beside her, and called to the morphine to drown her, she had lain face up in the cloud of it lowered like a pool to her face. It was time. It was past midnight, the air of the quiet town was wild with fresh salt sea and pine. Never again. Always. Never again. Always.”
Finally got through this classic Studs Terkel collection of interviews with working shlubs from the 1970s. Forty years on and things are wildly different… his book is bursting with conversations with blue collar workers flush with cash and excited to send their kids to college for a better life. I got a bit bored by all the focus on the automotive factory workers but enjoyed scraps of other conversations, like the airline stewardess who picked up a smoking habit after working on planes and who was required to wear false eyelashes and nails. Apparently first class was only $5 more expensive in the 70s. (“If I want to fly first class, I pay the five dollars difference. I like the idea of getting free drinks, free champagne, free wine. In a coach, you don’t.”) I think I stayed away from this book for so long because I read some knock-off book many years ago that was a remake of this idea, interviewing various people about their jobs, and felt that covered the matter.
Paul Auster’s memoir is a double feature of two components: Portrait of an Invisible Man and The Book of Memory. The first, Portrait, is a beautiful and savage look at his father’s life in the weeks and months after his death at age 67. “Like the house that was well ordered and yet falling apart from within, the man himself was calm, almost supernatural in his imperturbability, and yet prey to a roiling, unstoppable force of fury within. All his life he strove to avoid a confrontation with this force, nurturing a kind of automatic behavior that would allow him to pass to the side of it. Reliance on fixed routines freed him from the necessity of looking into himself when decisions had to be made; the cliche was always quick to come to his lips (‘A beautiful baby. Good luck with it.’ [the phrase he utters when meeting his grandson for the first time]) instead of words he had gone out and looked for. All this tended to flatten him out as a personality. But at the same time, it was also what saved him, the thing that allowed him to live. To the extent that he was able to live.”
Turns out Paul’s father Sam witnessed the 1919 murder of his father by his mother, causing all sorts of psychic damage. Also poignant are the descriptions of Paul dealing with the fallout of his father living so long in their old family house, mountains of junk having to be dealt with post-death, the neighbor child pretending that his father was calling on the phone, Paul winding down memory lane to peel away acceptable moments to hold onto before his father fades into nothing. The items retrieved and held onto as a reminder: “At first I thought it would be a comfort to hold on to these things, that they would remind me of my father and make me think of him as I went about my life. But objects, it seems, are no more than objects. I am used to them now, I have begun to think of them as my own. I read time by his watch, I wear his sweaters, I drive around in his car. But all this is no more than an illusion of intimacy. I have already appropriated these things. My father has vanished from them, has become invisible again. And sooner or later they will break down, fall apart, and have to be thrown away. I doubt that it will even seem to matter.”
The second piece of this memoir is The Book of Memory, a dull meandering bit of filler to puff out the book to proper publishing length. His father is dead, his marriage collapsed, he bemoans not being able to see his son every day as he paces around a tiny unheated room on Varick St. in NYC. His maternal grandfather falls ill, dies. He reminisces about his time in Paris translating, writing poetry. He gets a blow job from a woman after he “accidentally” goes to a topless bar. There are few and far between good bits, like this definitive cry for why travel is futile: “The world has shrunk to the size of this room for him, and for as long as it takes him to understand it, he must stay where he is. Only one thing is certain: he cannot be anywhere until he is here. And if he does not manage to find this place, it would be absurd for him to think of looking for another.”
Disturbing description of a woman had a teenage crush on, years later: “It had been several years since their last meeting, and now he found it gloomy, almost oppressive to be with her. She was still beautiful, he thought [OMFG!!! seriously, Auster?], and yet solitude seemed to enclose her, in the same way an egg encloses an unborn bird. She lived alone, had almost no friends. For many years she had been working on sculptures in wood, but she refused to show them to anyone. Each time she finished a piece, she would destroy it, and then begin on the next one. Again, A. had come face to face with a woman’s solitude. But here it had turned in on itself and dried up at its source.” Yikes, dude. Get a grip. She probably is bummed about having to spend time with you and doesn’t want to show you her art. Who could blame her? “Dried up at its source” could be another way to say that she found you repellent, my friend.