A Boy at the Hogarth Press

Richard Kennedy was 16 when he went to work at the Hogarth Press. This book is a pseudo-journal, recollections jotted down decades after the experience, describing the more mundane side of Leonard and Virginia and peppered with Kennedy’s own drawings.

Kennedy was a friend of the family it seems; his aunt’s parents had rented out Talland House to Julie and Leslie Stephen in St. Ives, the home VW used for To The Lighthouse. After Kennedy is kicked out of school for not being able to pass on to higher learning, he’s relaxing with his uncle in St. Ives when he learns of the opportunity to work for the press. Kennedy mentions that he would prefer to become an artist, and his uncle “replied that it was a positive duty on the part of any responsible person to discourage a young man or woman from taking up the arts: if they were any good they would do so anyway.”

This book is mostly valuable for giving us an honest portrayal of the Woolves from the perspective of a non-Bloombury-ite. Virginia is seen handing over tickets to lectures she can’t attend, sometimes chattering happily if she’s been to a party or “been walking round London, which she often does.”

Despite mispronouncing Proust, he elicits this opinion from her (who’s been called the “English Proust”): “she laughed and said she couldn’t do French cooking, but it was very delicious.”

Other details: VW handrolled her own shag (loose tobacco) cigarettes, talked about enjoying to learn foxtrot steps and kicking up her heels, is described as “beautifully dressed” throughout, said that the Hogarth Press was like keeping a grocer’s shop, and works in a studio in the basement (large windowless room) with boxes of books all around: “sitting in her little space by the gas fire.. she looks at us over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, her grey hair hanging over her forehead and a shag cigarette hanging from her lips. She wears a hatchet-blue overall and sits hunched in a wicker armchair with a pad on her knees and a small typewriter beside her.”


This shows Leonard’s temper in action when confronted with the petty cash book not adding up correctly.

Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing

I became curious about Bryan Garner after reading DFW’s long piece in Consider the Lobster about usage of the English language wherein he reveres Garner as a genius. Apparently the two met twice in real life but carried on an epistolary friendship along with scattered phone calls. The second real life meetings was the one captured in this book— Garner interviewed him in LA for an hour about writing and language. (The first meeting DFW brought his mom—a huge Garner fan—and his dad along, but Garner never even bothers to call DFW’s mother by name in his intro, all while mentioning James—his dad—as a philosophy professor. ARGH.) The conversation recorded here proves DFW’s charm and humor and smarts, conveying words of writerly wisdom while making my heart hurt from our loss of him. (Garner includes a weird bit about being disturbed by the way DFW signed books, crossing out his printed name with an editing mark, which apparently signaled a suicidal mind in the handwriting analysis books he read as a kid.)

I love that Wallace considered himself a journeyman of writing, someone skilled at a craft from having worked his way day-in and day-out, honing, struggling, showing up. He revealed that his process for writing the long form non-fiction essays took him about six months with obsessive notes and several drafts before he figured out what it was he wanted to say.

Random thoughts on writing:

  • “The reader cannot read your mind.”
  • Learn to pay attention in different ways, such as the exercise where you take a book you like, read a page 3 or 4 times, put it down, try to imitate it word for word to feel your own muscles trying to achieve the effects of the text. It will be in your failure to duplicate it that you learn what’s going on.
  • “The writing writing that I do is longhand… the first 2 or 3 drafts… I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.”
  • “One of the things that the college drummed into me is, ‘Welcome to the adult world. It doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.'”
  • How to write effectively is more a matter of spirit than of intellect or verbal facility. “The spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
  • “The average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.”
  • Bryan asked him what writers he admired. “You mean writers I think are models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose? William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich… here’s a weird one, though: one of my very favorites is Cormac McCarthy.”
  • “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—[it] becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.”
  • “And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day… Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
  • Necessary tools: OED, Roget thesaurus, and a usage dictionary like Garner’s Modern American Usage. “It’s like if all of English is a treasure and this is the chest that it’s in.”
  • “A good opener fails to repel… it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes.”
  • “The general rule of thing is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation…[and] there’s this thing called ‘elegant variation.’ You have to be able… In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

What can you say about DFW that hasn’t already been moaned before? I love his essays, his incisive bite, his bulging vocabulary that precisely pinpoints the exact word necessary to bowl you over. Reading him in 2018 you get almost nauseated with sadness, the gaping hole where his skewering of the McDonald Tr*mp era would have fit nicely. There are glimpses of what his take would have been, like in the footnote in Big Red Son where he’s describing adult film star Scotty Schwartz’s recounting of praise he’s gotten (and gnashing of teeth over the fact that rival Corey Feldman’s career survived rehab):

“Russ comes over to me and goes, ‘Scotty, I been watching you. I like your style. I’m a good judge of people, and Scotty, you’re good people. I never heard one person say one bad thing about you.'” [Keep in mind that this is Scotty telling the story. Note how verbatim he gets Hampshire’s dialogue. Note the altered timbre and perfectly timed delivery. Note the way it never even occurs to Schwartz that a normal US citizen might be bored or repelled by Scotty’s lengthy recitation of someone else’s praise of him. Schwartz knows only that this interchange occurred and that it signified that a big fish approves of him and that it redounds to Scotty’s credit and that he wants it widely, widely known.]… What is the socially appropriate response to an anecdote like this—a contextless anecdote, apropos nothing, with its smugly unsubtle (and yet not unmoving, finally, in its naked insecurity) agenda of getting you to admire the teller?

Consider the Lobster is brimming with delights. A lengthy tour of the Vegas-hosted adult video awards where an industry journalist makes the prescient quote that “Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.” DFW’s complete body slam of John Updike brought a huge smile to my face along with his coining of the Great Male Narcissist label for Mailer, Updike & Roth, and the perfect ending to the piece: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” The epic essay on American English Usage, drowning in footnotes and sidebars and interpolations. A raw recounting of experiencing 9/11 with a group of ladies from his church in Bloomington, Indiana, and the aftermath of flags that popped up the next day, leading him on a futile search that ended in breaking down in a gas station, comforted by the Pakistani owner over cups of styrofoam tea. His incisive and bitter review of tennis phenom Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten memoir where he wonders why she bothered to have someone ghostwrite such terrible things like “I immediately knee what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” His 80 page article for Rolling Stone covering McCain’s 2000 run, hilarious and more entertaining than HS Thompson’s classic from the campaign trail. His questioning of the ethics of eating meat after attending the Maine Lobster Festival wherein these creatures are boiled alive (including a great footnote about tourists, see below). His quick glimpse at Frank’s epic bio of Dostoevsky which I’ve added Vol 4 to my to-read list since C&P has been sitting beside me for months in a please read me again attempt; also includes some tirades against translation which I enjoyed (more below). And finally, a really long piece (Host) that is nearly unreadable in the way it’s laid out on the page with boxes and arrows overlaying the main thrust of the article about a certain AM talk radio host; of interest in this piece is the early discussion of the fragmentation of news controlled by a handful of companies, creating “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.”

On tourists:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

On translation. DFW is not a fan of Constance Garnett’s “excruciatingly Victorianish translations” but he also has problems with the overly popular P&V translations. “Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinarily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old, Dostoevsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly.”

 

The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams

How dreadful to be known as a revolutionary poet and yet write a tedious and boring autobiography.

I’ve been thinking about reading WCW’s poetry but first decided to check his autobiography for any cautionary tales. And yes, they are legion—sexually harassing young girls with his college pal Ezra Pound, slinking along with various “streetwalkers,” ogling the nurses in his hospital (“well-made” with “powerful legs”). But there are bits of interest as well, such as words of wisdom from people who told him to keep studying medicine so that he could get an income while he worked on his writing (an abundance of plays and poems). Instead of enlisting in the military for WWI, he opts to remain home offering his services as a doctor, which were needed in the 1918 flu pandemic. He has the obligatory post-WWI jaunt through Paris and Europe, hobnobbing with Joyce, Pound, “Hem,” Ford Madox Ford, the usual tripe. On a return visit, he’s invited to tea at Gertrude Stein’s, and the toxic waste of his friends’ dismissal of her work bubbles to his lips and he actually tells her he’d burn her notebooks if he were her. (Later he comes to admire her work, so he does redeem himself slightly in my eyes).

Mostly I kept reading for the all too rare tidbits about writing which, looking back, all seem to be clustered in the Foreword.

There is a great virtue in such an isolation. It permits a fair interval for thought. That is, what I call thinking, which is mainly scribbling. It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfactions.

When and where did I or could I write? Time meant nothing to me. I might be in the middle of some flu epidemic, the phone ringing day and night, madly, not a moment free. That made no difference. If the fit was on me… I would be like a woman at term; no matter what else was up, that demand had to be met.

Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found. I had my typewriter in my office desk. All I needed to do was to pull up the leaf to which it fastened and I was ready to go. I worked at top speed. My head developed a technique: something growing inside of me demanded reaping. It had to be attended to. Finally, after eleven at night, when the last patient had been put to bed, I could always find the time to bang out ten or twelve pages. In fact, I couldn’t rest until I had freed my mind from the obsessions which had been tormenting me all day. Cleansed of that torment, having scribbled, I could rest.

Once he got bitten by the theater bug in college, he wanted to write plays and wanted to see every available play that came through but had no money.

But it was money that finally decided me. I would continue medicine, for I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to. I would live: that first, and write, by God, as I wanted to if it took me all eternity to accomplish my design. My furious wish was to be normal, undrunk, balanced in everything.

Besides meeting Ezra Pound at University of Pennsylvania, he also befriended the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). Williams’ relationship with Ezra was complicated—he describes Ezra coming over to his house and playing the piano. “Everything, you might say, resulted except music… It was part of his confidence in himself. My sister-in-law was a concert pianist. Ez never liked her.” There was a particularly horrifying scene wherein Ezra brings WCW along to stalk a “particularly lovely thing in her early teens…. The poor child was all but paralyzed with fear, panting to the point of speechlessness as she just managed to say in a husky voice, ‘Go away! Please go away! Please! Please!”

The 1913 Armory Show seemed to be a pivotal moment for the group: “There had been a break somewhere, we were streaming through, each thinking his own thoughts, driving his own designs toward his self’s objectives. Whether the Armory Show in painting did it or whether that also was no more than a facet—the poetic line, the way the image was to lie on the page was our immediate concern. For myself all that implied, in the materials, respecting the place I knew best, was finding a local assertion—to my everlasting relief. I had never in my life before felt that way. I was tremendously stirred.”

Then the war came. “I decided that I would write something every day, without missing one day, for a year. I’d write nothing planned but take up a pencil, put the paper before me, and write anything that came into my head. Be it nine in the evening or three in the morning, returning from some delivery on Guinea Hill, I’d write it down.”

John Herrmann was a pal of his who bought a farm, grew his own vegetables, and wrote. Occasionally he’d float into the city and go into a bar with a copy of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans which he’d read aloud. “He’d have them spellbound. It wasn’t a gag. He knew it was interesting stuff and if people could get to it they’d like it.”

One of the more idiotic tidbits to drop from WCW’s pen was this: “Spanish is not, in the sense to which I refer, a literary language.” Had he not been exposed to Don Quixote?

Jumbled thoughts on a luxurious, slow read of Proust

Reading Remembrance of Things Past—I prefer Moncrieff’s translation and not the In Search of Lost Time translations that attempt to correct his lyrical embellishments, but perhaps I should just say À la recherche du temps perdu to avoid any confusion—I’ve granted myself the luxury and extreme pleasure of a long, slow read.

The work is lengthy, a novel in seven parts spread across three volumes. I’m still sipping Swann’s Way (which itself is broken into four pieces: Overture, Combray, Swann in Love, and Place-Names) but having fought my way through Swann in Love, I needed to come up for air and note just a few things. SIL was hard to get through, excruciatingly painful to see Swann’s discomfort of being in love with the odious Odette. But that’s the point, the sharp jealousies and ecstasies of love, the pitfalls and triumphs, the heady early days melting into tedium and apathy.

Luckily, there are bits of humor tucked in along the way that act as breadcrumbs leading you on. And the insults reach art form, as Swann says to Odette’s face:

You are a formless water that will trickle down any slope that it may come upon, a fish devoid of memory, incapable of thought, which all its life long in its aquarium will continue to dash itself, a hundred times a day, against a wall of glass, always mistaking it for water.

By far the dreamiest part is Combray,

And I should have liked to be able to sit down and spend the whole day there, reading and listening to the bells, for it was so charming there and so quiet that, when an hour struck, you would have said not that it broke in upon the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of its superfluity, and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking exactitude of a person who has nothing else to do, had simply, in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops which had slowly and naturally accumulated in the hot sunlight, pressed, at a given moment, the distended surface of the silence.

I naturally gravitate toward the section that is all about long walks and reading.

Overture is delightful as well, with its infamous dipping of madeleine into tea to trigger tidal waves of memory and emotion. I also enjoyed Swann’s comment about the newspaper:

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.

One more section and I’ve finished the first part of the seven!

Andy Goldsworthy: Projects

I fell in love with Goldsworthy again after seeing the latest documentary about his work and so lugged this 7 lb. book home from the library to ogle the projects in slower, greater detail. So many favorites, but I think the one on the cover stands out as the one that gave me the chills when I saw it unfold (Passage, 2015, in I think Kensington, New Hampshire, commissioned by the Lewis Family Foundation, possibly at Alnoba?). Also great: the chalk stones in Sussex, the very temporary white walls in NYC gallery that flaked off the wall over a few week period (performance art!), the Coppice Room in Scotland, the Alderney Stones on an island in the English Channel (that deteriorate over time and disgorge their contents all relating to their environment). Of course I also have a preference for the works I see on a regular basis (Spire and Wood Line in the Presidio), and this weekend we popped in to see Tree Fall again (the tree wedged into the gunpowder room from the Civil War, covered in clay). Also of interest, the Boulder House in New Hampshire, also a Lewis Family Foundation commission, where a house was built around an enormous boulder. Similar to this is Stone House, at Jupiter Artland in Scotland, where a large piece of bedrock shapes the floor and the rest of the house was built to surround it. Ohio apparently has a ton of Goldsworthy projects: Torn Tree Shelter, Road, Contour 950, and Red Hill, all commissioned by Scott Mueller.  The book starts with an in-depth interview with Andy, best read after you gorge yourself on the 350+ pages of photos.

The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence

A book written 20-ish years ago about fear is mostly valid but contains some quaint bits, like wanting to “kill” the person who is taking too long on the pay phone ahead of you, or somehow predicting ride-shares back in 1997 (but erroneously destined for 2050) as a way of showing how much we can trust strangers.

Basically, the book is about trusting your intuition and paying attention to small things that add up to warning signs (or even big, obvious things).

He’s pretty down on the Unabomber in this, saying that Ted did it for attention (um, no), the same sin he assigns Valerie Solanas (um, double no) who he claims got her 90 minutes of fame with the movie about her life that was released. He loves quoting Ernest Becker (de Becker loves Becker for some reason)’s Denial of Death which I couldn’t get through for all the penis-envy Freudian love he gave it.

On the plus side, learned about this 1986 hijacking of a USAir plane by a disgruntled employee who shot his boss on the flight and then crashed the plane. Besides accidentally killing the president of Chevron (oops!), it also took out 3 top officials of PacBell, causing the much quoted rule that companies not allow their execs to travel together.

Silence: In the Age of Noise

Beautifully translated from the Norwegian by Becky Crook, this touches on a lot of issues I have been struggling with lately: how to attain and maximize silence, how to simply sit thinking, wondering how much  technology impede us, how much of a luxury item silence is.

I was enjoying the book until a realization crept up on me. This is written by a man who has little respect for women, including his three teenage daughters whom he belittles at the beginning of the book for wanting such silly items as Louis Vuitton purses and for being teenagers who are stuck in their world of screens (phones, tablets, TVs). Kagge tosses around the usual ragtag list of powerful male minds to let you know how smart he is, how much he gets it—Pascal, Kierkegaard (for some reason specifically called out as a philosopher—does he think we’re too dumb to know this?), David Foster Wallace, Seneca, Heidegger, Plato, Aristotle, Oliver Sacks, Wittgenstein. Beethoven and Thomas Edison get shout outs. No ladies, aside from a seven-word quote from Emily Dickinson: “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” When I think of all the women who could have been referenced who also have insightful, poetic, perfect thoughts on silence (Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, too many others), my mouth gapes. For all the talk about the Nordic world being heaven for women, it sure seems that the literary men have their heads up their asses just as much as in our world. (See also all of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work).

But the worst comes in a section where he openly idolizes Elon Musk. Kagge’s adulation is stunning; he hangs on Musk’s every word, he erroneously credits Musk with inventing the idea of a reusable space shuttle (“NASA scientists were always convinced that space shuttles could only be used once, which was a tremendously expensive accepted truth that had lingered since NASA’s early days. This continued all the way up until the moment when Musk informed them that there was no reason not to build a shuttle that could be launched multiple times into space…”) which is mind-mindbogglingly incorrect. He’s so in love with Musk that he digresses into a tale about coming up with the idea to create his own publishing house while washing the dishes, much like how one of Musk’s engineers comes up with his best ideas on the toilet. Ah but, “I am not so stupid as to compare myself to Elon Musk.” Yet he is so stupid enough to worship him.

Now that I’ve released the steam from that valve, here are the parts that I did enjoy, taken with the grain of salt that I question his scholarly chops and extremely lightweight notation style.

    • Being uncomfortable with stillness and silence didn’t arrive with the television, internet or iPhones. Pascal in the 1600s said “all of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” But our opportunities to be interrupted have increased dramatically. Silence is almost extinct.
    • On the subject of news, in 1984 he sails for eight months and has no access to newspapers or radio. When he gets back, he realizes that people are still talking about the same old things. “When you’ve invested a lot of time in being accessible and keeping up with what’s happening, it’s easy to conclude that it all has a certain value, even if what you have done might not be that important.”
    • “Another form of luxury is to be unavailable. To turn your back on the daily din is a privilege… You have fought your way into a position where you couldn’t care less if someone wants to contact you.” This reminds me of the NYT piece that alternately fascinated and enraged me, the rich white man who put up a blockade so he wouldn’t hear any news after the disastrous 2016 election.
    • One of my favorite philosophers, Seneca, has some great things to say about life and is quoted in this book:

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.

 

How Proust Can Change Your Life

As I sip delicately from pages of Proust in tiny increments, I indulge myself in reading books about Proust in larger bursts. I stumbled on this book whilst hunting another psuedo-guide to Proust (which was quickly abandoned). I love most of what Alain de Botton has written and this was a pleasure romp like the others. By interspersing Proust’s own words within a framework of a How-to guide, de Botton breathes new life into the heavy volumes of In Search of Lost Time. He breaks the advice down into nine tidy sections: How to love life today, how to read for yourself, how to take your time, how to suffer successfully, how to express your emotions, how to be a good friends, how to open your eyes, how to be happy in love, and how to put books down. It’s a prescription from the lit doctor that you won’t want to ignore.

As always, I find comfort in authors’ antisocial tendencies, and Proust is no exception. De Botton pulls out a Proust quote in the section on friendship that I particularly love: “Conversation, which is friendship’s mode of expression, is a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.”

Also, Proust once compared friendship to reading: “In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its original purity. There is no false amiability with books. If we spend the evening with these friends, it is because we genuinely want to.”

Lovely light intro to Proust for those afraid of dipping a toe in. Once you dip, you dive, submerge, and never return, so caveat lector!

Updated to include this snippet that I just quoted in a letter to my sister, imploring her to give up her attempt to read Ulysses in order to clear the decks for Proust, mentioning that Joyce met Proust at a friend’s dinner party in Paris in 1922 and wrote of the meeting: “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘Non.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said ‘Non.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said ‘Non.’ And so on.” They then shared a taxi away from the party and Joyce said nary a word while Proust chattered away to the Schiffs (Sydney & Violet), not speaking to Joyce at all. Fin!

Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books

Books reveal much more of their authors than they’d like. I find Bishop to be a tepid, boring sloppy scholar who lucked out into getting a professorship that grants sabbaticals and who turned his ride from Canada to Texas into this limp recap. The big surprise is supposed to be that he’s a professor AND a guy riding a motorcycle. Amazing. He admits to wanting to appear like the biggest bad ass when he rides into town, even if he’s just there to check out the Virginia and Leonard Woolf library at Washington State University. He feels completely comfortable stashing his bike rent-free into a widow’s garage in Austin while he goes on a trip to Europe to track down the essential James Joyce covers.

Any scholar who whinges about nearly falling asleep in the British Museum while being given the privilege of rooting through their archives deserves to be slapped silly. His claim to have caught the archivist bug only after nearly drooling on Virginia Woolf’s suicide note is disgusting. Ye gods, was this man actually entrusted in compiling an edition of Jacob’s Room?

This book is horrifyingly terrible and yet was recommended by my hitherto impeccable Virginia Woolf listserve. Avoid at all costs.

Perfect Wave: More Essays on Art and Democracy

The structure of a book of essays is something like this: strongest essay first, followed by progressively weaker essays to the point of despair, at which point you shore up the reader’s confidence with another solid essay, then repeat the petering out of bland work like a can of silly string that’s reached its last hiccups.

After reading Hickey’s first essay in this, I shouted hooray! and closed the book, eager to savor it and come back to what I knew would be lesser essays. Indeed, excerpts of Baby Breakers are available on The Paris Review. He struck first sentence gold: “I went to first grade in Fort Worth with Lee Harvey Oswald.” then goes on to write the kind of essay you get lost in, wandering in his sandy footsteps as he’s learning to surf in Santa Monica in the 1950s.

The rest of the essays vary in quality but never achieve the perfection of the first.

Hypercapitalism: The Modern Economy, Its Values, and How to Change Them

Fantastic book that exposes the negative effects of our current economic system and how we got there, along with steps to resist and change. The text comes from Tim Kasser’s lectures in a class taught at Knox College on alternatives to consumerism, made accessible to all attention spans by Larry Gonick’s drawings.

So much is packed in here, like the Schwartz circumplex that shows the ten human values in relation to each other—”universalism” diametrically opposed to “power” and “achievement” for example.

It includes a strangely muddled portrait of Thoreau as someone who valued life because he had tuberculosis, but the other examples of people who have thrown off the torments of modern life were new to me—Helen and Scott Nearing and Colin Beavan. Loved the idea of timebanks as a place to give and receive help/work without money, everyone sharing their expertise. And a great reminder about responsible investing, e.g. Parnassus Endeavor fund that avoids oil and tobacco stocks.

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

What do you get when you pair an amazing subject with a mediocre writer? This book. I suppose I should be grateful that Finkel fleshes out the story of Chris Knight, the Maine hermit that lived in the woods, surviving on junk food he foraged from nearby cabins for 28 years. Knight is an excellent subject, someone who took one look at civilization and immediately headed for isolation after he left high school. But the author smarms his way into the story and ruins it—once Knight is out of jail, he tells Finkel not to visit him, but of course Finkel ignores that. Knight admits that he’s not adjusting well and that his plan is to walk out on a winter night and die of hypothermia, so Finkel immediately starts dialing up therapists to get advice on what to do about this 6-month-in-the-future suicide plan. Finkel also dreams up some scheme to buy Knight his own cabin so he won’t have to live with his mom, but abandons it. Unfortunately, all of this spools off at the end, so I’m left with a terrible taste in my mouth after enjoying most of the book.

I guess another early clue that this was not a worthy read was when Finkel drops some Virginia Woolf references in, claiming that she might have had Asperger’s because she “killed herself.” (This in the section where people are trying to categorize what disorder Knight has.)

I did enjoy reading about Knight’s literary preferences, how he wished he had more Edna St. Vincent Millay around (a fellow Mainer), and his comments about Joyce’s Ulysses “What’s the point of it? I suspect it was a bit of a joke by Joyce…. Pseudo-intellectuals love to drop the name Ulysses as their favorite book. I refused to be intellectually bullied into finishing it.” Knight had a disdain for Thoreau (“he had no deep insight into nature”) but Emerson was ok. John Grisham novels were used as toilet paper. And “I don’t like people who like Jack Kerouac.” Amen, brother.

Best were descriptions of how Knight spent his time in the woods. “Mostly what he did was nothing. He sat on his bucket or in his lawn chair in quiet contemplation… ‘Daydreaming,’ he termed it. ‘Meditation. Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.'”

And this might be my favorite line in the book: “His closest companion may have been a mushroom.” Apparently he watched a shelf mushroom grow from the size of a watch face to a dinner plate over many years, which sounds simply dreamy.

Fire and Fury: Inside the Tr*mp White House

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable this was. Early indications were that it was filled with typos and poorly written, but I found it entertaining and worth reading. It brings moments of guffaws as you relive the horror of the past 18 months, now with color commentary by the major players (Bannon, Spicer, etc.). The book will remind you of things you’d long forgotten, like the utterly disastrous attempt on Day 1 to placate the intelligence community by giving a weird speech at Langley that bragged about his own intelligence (“Trust me, I’m like a smart person”) and inflated the inauguration crowd size along with strange riffs about Iraq (“keep the oil”). It’s extremely gratifying to read the blow-by-blow account of the unraveling, even as we’re still stuck in this nightmare. I didn’t realize that nine of the top law firms turned down the chance to represent Tr*mp in the Russia investigation. Even scarier is the epilogue that Bannon is gearing up for his own 2020 run for the presidency.

Thunder at Twilight: Vienna, 1913-1914

If you’re looking for a gossipy, approachable, Page Six version of the lead up to WWI, this is the jackpot. Franz Ferdinand previously only existed for me as a name in a paragraph in a textbook (and later, as the band) until he was fleshed out in more detail here. Boiling with rage about the treatment of his un-royal wife (snubbed), trying desperately to keep Austria out of war with the Serbs, rolling his eyes at the ridiculousness of early 20th century Vienna, Ferdinand was the leader we never got.

Vienna in 1913 has been well documented as the location of many unlikely bedfellows: Freud, Stalin, Lenin (nearby), Trotsky, and Hitler—who was outed as a trust funder by this book, that wily old dictator who by the way was deemed unfit for service by the Austrian army “too weak, incapable of bearing arms.” (Morton also describes him “doodling his way toward destiny” back in Munich as he tries to make a living as an artist.)

I love being reminded that there are historical precedents to the nightmare we’re currently enduring with McDonald Tr*mp—he seems like a reincarnation of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, the inept idiot “who loved to wallow in borrowed glory” and whose ministers tried to keep him in the dark as long as possible about the impending war. His ministers “knew that the Kaiser was much better at attitudinizing gorgeously than at thinking cogently or feeling deeply… [with emotions that] were unsteady, unsure, manipulable.” They knew too well his “impulsiveness, unevenness, hollowness—the thunder of his tongue, the shaking of his knees.” They’d delay transmission of telegrams until he’s gone to bed so that he’d have a good night’s rest. Wilhelm also relied on stupid nicknames for people, like “Wrinkled Gypsy” and “Lanky Theo.”

Fun fact: WW1 was the first war where a telegram opened hostilities. Will WW3 be opened by a tweet?