I really liked Eleanor Davis’s You & a Bike & a Road earlier this year so grabbed her first book, which was also a shot of joy in my arm. Unlike the other book, this is more of a meandering across various scenarios and topics, her observations as she makes her way through life. The art is gorgeous, lush, strange, and the stories are weird and wonderful. Before she begins, her first pages sketch out her character saying: “Write a story. A story about yourself. A story about your life. Now, believe it. Now write another story, same subject. A better story. More interesting. Stronger characters. Now, believe that. Just keep writing. You have plenty of time.”
No, I am decidedly NOT ashamed of reading teen lit. This was on the potential list for the Bluestockings book club and it provided a breath of fresh air.
Juliet is a queer Latina from the Bronx who (somewhat magically) gets a summer internship in PDX with a white feminist who wrote a book that inspired her. Right before leaving for the airport, she comes out to her close-knit Puerto Rican family and her mom is taken aback but eventually they work it out. In Portland, Juliet is disconcerted by all the white hippies, including a rant about their stinkiness that she eventually sees as an earthy smell. Her task for the summer is to take a box of scraps of paper with various women’s names on them and to research each for Harlowe, the author. The library is her source, resulting in this nice section:
Libraries are safe but also exciting. Libraries are where nerds like me go to refuel. They are safe-havens where the polluted noise of the outside world, with all the bullies and bro-dudes and anti-feminist rhetoric, is shut out. Libraries have zero tolerance for bullshit. Their walls protect us and keep up safe from all the bastards that have never read a book for fun.
Juliet is a 19-year-old struggling to figure life out, figure herself out, keep a long-distance relationship going with a girlfriend from school, find a way to be her best self and not bow down to the whiteness of the feminism she was swirling in. As she dives into the library stacks, she learns a ton, including what a banana republic is, and why horrifying it is that there’s a shop named after the concept. “It’s such a tongue-in-cheek fuck-you to countries that have been exploited for their natural resources…”
Of course her menstrual cycle syncs immediately with Harlowe’s in Portland. Surprised by the early period, she’s moaning about cramps and dying for an evil tampon when Harlowe suggests that she can bring her a sacred period ritual kit instead. It’s touches like this throughout the Portland chapters that are hilarious. There’s a struggle that is set up between white Harlowe and her WOC friends, including Juliet. At Harlowe’s Powell’s Books reading, she embarrasses Juliet by singling her out of the crowd and saying she’s a ghetto rat from the Bronx who is ok with Harlowe’s white feminism. Juliet immediately flies to Miami and spends a magical weekend with her cousin before coming back to Portland. This whole plot twist was a bit too much for me, but I guess it was necessary to show how women of color could create a safe space and have a great time without white feminists?
Also learned about Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican nationalist who shot up the House of Representatives in 1954 while demanding Puerto Rican independence.
This book made me dizzy, sizzled my hands. Preference for fiction is such a personal thing, I usually refrain from loading it into my highly recommended category. But I’ve got to put this book on there, if only because I had to stop reading it several times to 1) savor the goodness, making it last longer 2) text friends to put it on their reading lists immediately.
It’s a novel, a fictionalized memoir with the real characters of Ariel, as narrator, along with her daughter Mia. Her son shows up years later, but he’s hinted at in the beginning when she’s having a midwife inject her with borrowed sperm who notices her scar from a painful operation she had in rural Italy in 1990 when giving birth to her daughter.
The story follows Ariel, a teenaged single mother who did not finish high school, as she raises Mia with no help from her parents or Mia’s father, while going to college, first at an unnamed school near Petaluma then at Mills College. Magical realism lifts your heart as you pull for this family to make it, for Ariel to become the artist mother that she wants to be, to blossom into a raging feminist, to evolve into a witch. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.
Along the way, she melds the fiercest quotes from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olson, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde. There’s a sprinkling of spells, too. Gore’s own words are powerful, spare, lovingly picked, packed with punch. Major kudos for her including a reading list at the end, curating all the breadcrumbs of books she dropped references to throughout in one easily accessible spot. It’s a modern tale that leaves out all the name-dropping/brand-calling/technology-inserting that mars other similar works, marking them as ineligible for Classic status.
One of my favorite chapters, The Feminist Agenda, quotes Pat Robertson in 1992 saying that the feminist agenda is about “a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Gore notes that aside from wanting to kill her child the rest of the list rang very true, and factored into her goals and reminders for 1992:
Don’t get married, ever.
Another great chapter is called White-Lady Feminism 101, which is three words in its entirety, and made me laugh: “Bring a mirror.”
For her senior thesis combining feminist economics and English lit, she links Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Michel Foucault to Marilyn Waring’s economic treatise If Women Counted, wrapping up with: “Like Hester Pryne’s moment in The Scarlet Letter, my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine. I reject this system. I intend to resist this system.”
As she stands in her professor’s office, nursing her daughter, the professor announces that Ariel will have to be a feminist, because “Feminists do what they want.” That seared my scalp, yes yes yes!
In her rules for being 20 years old: “If there are only two options, always choose material poverty over psychic poverty.”
Quoting Adrienne Rich: “To seek visions, to dream dreams, is essential, and it is also essential to try new ways of living, to make room for serious experimentation, to respect the effort even where it fails.”
Greatest risk factors to being accused, tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 15th-17th centuries? Being a woman and being poor. “Add to those risk factors having a job or being sexual or single or outspoken or an unwed mother or unconcerned with cultural beauty norms or mentally ill or a healer—especially a midwife or a counselor—and you were pretty much dead. Dare to help another woman find contraceptives, and you were dead. Have the audacity to be old and grumpy, and you were most certainly dead.” Quoting the 1487 witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”
“If we don’t follow society’s rules, we risk losing our freedom [e.g. being locked up]. But if we must follow those rules without question, we’ve already given up our freedom.”
It has been a year of Dickens, apparently. This is my 6th Dickens book consumed this year, appropriately timed for the holidays. Gorgeous edition from the Morgan Library which included digital photographs of each page of the manuscript side-by-side with the transcribed text.
Dickens is in top form in this quickly rendered story, churned out in six weeks for the 1843 Christmas season and to help pay the bills that were crowding in. Scrooge is the main attraction, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!… self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Marvelous character! He says if he could get his wish, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” As he tries to withstand the onslaught of Spirits, he claims that anything could upset his senses, such fragile things they are. “A little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”
Everyone is in love with this book, but I can only work up a mild flirtation. There were some sparkling parts, and as I dove in I was sure that I would excitedly gobble it up in one sitting. Instead, it lurched across the entire afternoon, more of a plowing through than a nibbling delightedly.
Most interesting were the characters of Mia, the artist-mom who comes into town with her teenage daughter Pearl in tow, and Izzy – the daughter of the rich family that Pearl falls in love with and who Mia starts to clean/cook for. Izzy sets her own parents’ house on fire and runs away, a scene that lingers through the rest of the smoke-tinged air of the rest of the book. There are subplots aplenty—Pearl becomes instant besties with Moody, the 2nd son of the rich family, but starts boning Trip, the oldest son. Lexi is the oldest daughter, a spoiled popular brat but not too unlikeable. Izzy’s the youngest, the most hated sibling. The mother is a frustrated journalist who gave up her career to raise this family.
Another plot is the abandoned Asian baby—dropped at a firehouse—adopted by rich friends of the main family, but the mother (who works with Mia at a Chinese restaurant) decides she wants her baby back. Her court case fails so she steals it. Blargh, none of this book is memorable nor will stay in the mind for more than a few seasons before sinking into obscurity.
I guess one good thing from the book was getting tipped off to Phillip Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse. “Man hands on misery to man./It deepens like a coastal shelf./Get out as early as you can,/And don’t have any kids yourself.”
Gruel, gruel world! This is Dickens’s second novel, a more gruesome and tattered look at poverty and crime in early 19th century London, peppered with bits of witticism but mostly just grim. There’s even a murder! Poor Nancy gets offed by Sikes when he suspects her of having told people of his crimes. But the main story is the eponymous Oliver Twist, an orphan raised by the state with starvation rations, farmed out to a coffin-maker as an apprentice where he runs away from more ill-treatment. Walking the 70 miles to London, he arrives fairly bedraggled and falls in with the wrong crowd. Artful Dodger, as Jack Dawkins is known, feeds him and takes him to his boss, Fagin the Jew, who leads a ring of petty thieves, stealing pocket handkerchiefs and watches and anything else of resale value. We know Oliver is different, somehow angelic in the middle of all these bad ‘uns. Of course it turns out that his parents were rather well-to-do, and he ends up with a pretty inheritance along with a parcel of happy and kind friends.
Not every Patti Smith book can be a wonder. Her latest, Devotion, is actually worth missing completely. It seems to be comprised of three parts: her trip to Paris and pilgrimage to Simone Weil’s grave; the story that she wrote while in Paris; a visit to Camus’ house. This “book” seems to be built on the successful framework of M Train, but lacks any meat on its bones. Avoid.
The first book I abandoned was her attempt to set a book in Mexico: A Game for the Living. Pat considered this her worst book, saying, “I had tried to do something different from what I had been doing, but this caused me to leave out certain elements that are vital for me: surprise, speed of action, stretching the reader’s credulity, and above all the intimacy with the murderer himself… The result, after rewriting the book four times in a grueling year of work, was mediocrity…I disobeyed my natural laws in this boring book.”
Also abandoned: Animal-lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. Tales from the perspective of animals are not Highsmith’s forte. She should have stuck to homo sapiens. She doesn’t hate this book, but she does call it a departure from her usual style. “Thirteen short stories in which animals get the better of their masters or owners, because the latter merit their comeuppance.”
Another failure was The Glass Cell. Pat wrote about this book in her Plotting Suspense Fiction book but I took it for a spin just in case it had some hidden joy. Nope. Dunno if it was the jailhouse setting or the clunky slang dialog but the lines grew tedious after a few pages and I scrapped it.
Further dud: the 1980s collection of short stories Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes. Weird tumorous growths in the cemetery, a strange take on Moby-Dick, lots of aborted story ideas that were gathered up into this failed collection.
And that’s all she wrote.
What a dud to finish Highsmith’s oeuvre on. I’ve worked my way through her complete list of novels and short stories and this is the last one I was able to finish (another post to come on the ones that stunk so badly that I couldn’t even hold my nose to complete). I guess I stuck it out with this one out of curiosity—when would the crime happen, how dull could she make it? This is from her terrible 1980s phase and she amps up the unblinking dullness. The story revolves around Arthur, a teenager who plans on going to Columbia in the fall but who knocks up his girlfriend Maggie who has an abortion. Arthur’s dad has become a born-again Christian and kicks him out of the house for this nonsense, says he won’t pay for Columbia. Arthur picks himself up, lives at a friend’s house and then in the local college’s dorms. Mr. high and mighty religious nut dad ends up getting Irene, a woman in his church, pregnant, and Arthur’s younger brother Robbie shoots him out of disgust for his sin. Happily ever after, amen, pass the salt. Lackluster effort that wasn’t worth flipping pages to get to the end.
How to go about capturing the umpteenth reading of this classic work? My copy is pockmarked with post-it notes of things to remember. This was the first time I read the book with the extremely helpful 1952 Hendricks House edition’s hundreds of pages of notes (which also is filling up with my post-it notes, reviewed here). I sip at a chapter of M-D, dive into the Hendricks notes, cross-reference with online notations, look up delicious words in the dictionary, and scribble the good ones into a notebook where I’m collecting words. It’s taking me awhile to swim through, but as always it is a delight. Fart jokes, Shakespeare/Milton/Goethe/Carlyle/Montaigne influences, Biblical stories, alliterative gold. The book is a wonder. You hop from Hamlet to Macbeth to King Lear to Job and back again. The hero of the book swims into view only in the final 3 chapters—masterful!
Chapter 1: Loomings. Nothing comes close to the perfection of this opening chapter. Ishmael finds himself growing grim about the mouth, bringing up the rear of every funeral he meets, wanting to knock people’s hats off, so he goes to sea. Also nestled in this chapter is the timeless reference to a “Grand Contested Election for Presidency of the United States” and a bloody battle in Afghanistan.
Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag. Ishmael is on his way. Stuck in New Bedford until the next ferry to Nantucket, he looks for a cheap hotel. Melville makes me weak at the knees: “Yet Dives himself, he too lives like a Czar in an ice palace made of frozen sighs, and being a president of a temperance society, he only drinks the tepid tears of orphans.” And don’t miss the fart joke: “For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim)”—e.g. don’t eat beans.
Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn. Enter Queequeg, Ishmael’s sleeping companion and soon bosom buddy. Here we find M-D‘s first aphorism: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
I can’t continue to go chapter by chapter else I write the longest entry ever, but I also want to call out the beautiful explanation of Jonah’s Biblical story in Chapter 9: The Sermon. If church were always so lyrical, I might be tempted to attend.
Something that strikes the ear repeatedly is Melville’s masterful use of alliteration. These are some of my favorites, by no means an exhaustive list:
Huge hills and mountains of casks on casks were piled upon her wharves, and side by side the world-wandering whale ships lay silent and safely moored at last; while from others came a sound of carpenters and coopers, with blended noises of fires and forges to melt the pitch… (Ch 13)
On Ahab: “There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance.” (Ch 28, when Ahab first arrives on the scene)
Having impulsively, it is probable, and perhaps somewhat prematurely revealed the prime but private purpose of the Pequod’s voyage, Ahab was now entirely conscious that, in so doing, he had indirectly laid himself open to the unanswerable charge of usurpation; (Ch 46)
It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. (Ch 51)
As morning mowers, who side by side slowly and seethingly advance their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads; even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound; and leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea. (Ch 58)
Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications, thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan, smackingly feasted on its fatness. (Ch 64)
So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale. (Ch 134)
Rhyme, humor, or playing with words:
Go it, Pip! Bang it, bell-boy! Rig it, dig it stig it, quig it, bell-boy! Make fire-flies; break the jinglers! (Ch 40)
The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability to express it. (Ch 86)
Ch 15, while eating chowder, wondering what the effect is on the head (e.g. chowder-headed people)
… this same cash would soon cashier Ahab. (Ch 46)
The whole scene in Ch 91 where Stubb speaks disrespectfully to the French captain through an interpreter. “You may as well tell him now that – that – in fact, tell him I’ve diddled him…”
Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head. (Ch 110)
Oh! jolly is the gale, And a joker is the whale, A’ flourishin’ his tail, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! The scud all a flyin’, That’s his flip only foamin’; When he stirs in the spicin’, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! Thunder splits the ships, But he only smacks his lips, A tastin’ of this flip, – Such a funny, sporty, gamy, jesty, joky, hoky-poky lad, is the Ocean, oh! (Ch 119)
A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that. (Ch 16)
For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. (Ch 35)
And, as for me, if, by any possibility, there be any as yet undiscovered prime thing in me; if I shall ever deserve any real repute in that small but high hushed world which I might not be unreasonably ambitious of; if hereafter I shall do anything that, upon the whole, a man might rather have done than to have left undone; if, at my death, my executors, or more properly my creditors, find any precious MSS. in my desk, then here I prospectively ascribe all the honor and the glory to whaling; for a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard. (Ch 24)
Self-referential (or on writing)
For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! (Ch 32)
But I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans; I have had to do with whales with these visible hands; I am in earnest; and I will try. (Ch 32)
So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory. (Ch 45)
Now then, thought I, unconsciously rolling up the sleeves of my frock, here goes a cool, collected dive at death and destruction, and the devil fetch the hindmost. (Ch 49)
Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. (Ch 85)
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. (Ch 104)
Words to love:
portentous, ponderous, fain, arrant, toper, obstreperous, farrago, bosky, withal, tarry, stalwart, inexorable, nonce, wights, celerity, stultify, brindled, palavering, apotheosis, puissant, pallid, expatiate, flummery, solecism, legerdemain, howdah, windrow, cozening, scaramouch, freshet, vicissitude, ineffable, recondite, expatiate, chriography, stolidity, effulgences
An interesting idea that would have been vastly aided by better execution. If you’re going to look at 500+ drawings, it’s best if you appreciate the style of the artist. I admit that it was a nice break, as I was reading Moby-Dick and cross-referencing with the 1952 Hendricks House notes, to then dip into this book and flip through the pages that I had just read. But I never looked forward to seeing how Kish had depicted the scenes. Most interesting is his summarizing of Melville’s sayings as Aphorisms (although I noted a few in reading that he missed):
- Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian
- A good laugh is a mighty good thing and rather too scarce a thing
- I’ll try a pagan friend… since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy.
- Nothing exists in itself
- If you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner out of it, at least
- When a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact
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.
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.
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.
Pat had a ho-hum period in the 80s that explains why this 1981 collection of stories is sleep inducing. No story stands out as worthy of remembering, but I’m still committed to working my way through her entire oeuvre. She’s best when she drips the details of everyday life in with an increasing sense of suspense, and that is sorely lacking from this collection. The closest you get is in the first story where a cat finds a severed hand and the finder calls his neighbor to let him know, only to have the neighbor come over to admit to killing his gardener for flirting with his wife. I guess the other story that was amusing was the couple who “adopt” an older couple from the nursing home to let them live their glory days in style. The old folks take over, TV blaring, demanding trays of food to be sent up, wetting their bed deliberately.