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?

The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty: Wilderness Guide, Pilot, and Conservationist

I’m jealous of the life that Clarence was able to lead. This was written in 2002, when Clarence was still alive at aged 97. He died seven years later, aged 104. Born into a wilderness family in the Adirondacks, his mom insisted on an education, which led to college and his being able to take the forester’s exam, which put him on the path to being a major factor in ensuring the conservation of Adirondack Park in upstate New York. As you’d imagine, he’s full of stories, like that of the somewhat famous hermit in the woods who was his friend, Noah John Rondeau, who used to squirrel away bits of food in the woods, like the time he checked on a loaf of bread he stored in a tree two years earlier that was stashed in a tree and good as new. Noah also was a bit “lazy” according to Clarence, sometimes not chopping firewood but simply taking a long pole and sticking one end into the stove and pushing it through as it burned. Seems like a smart idea to me.

Clarence got his pilot’s license and ended up training people to fly for over sixty years. He was born in the right time, getting a job with the CCC during the depression and then vaulting into being a park ranger when the war was over. Interesting to note the political divisions between the rangers (more police-like and less nature loving) versus the foresters (loved the wilderness, hiking). Clarence tells another great story about clearing trees one winter after a hurricane flattened them, working up a sweat and removing his jacket only to come back and find that the tree he’d put it on had sprung back in the air and the jacket was now 30 feet up, so he cut the tree down. “That was a good jacket. I didn’t want to lose that.”

The book is sometimes repetitious but my major beef was in the mysterious disappearance of any mention of Clarence’s wife and family. We find out when his mom dies, but no mention of Ferne Petty’s demise. She only appears occasionally in the pages, a big contrast to her husband who was taking the world by storm. In later pages she’s mentioned by someone as “hard to get along with” compared to Clarence, which just seems like a mean-spirited one-sided thing to say.

The Typewriter Repair Manual

I wasn’t going to include this in my recap but a reader insisted that the weird books I consume is one of the unexpected joys he gets when perusing the site (which apparently can get kind of “stuffy” with all the high-falutin’ literature or grim liberal non-fiction), so here you go. I got this repair manual as a way to bolster my knowledge after acquiring a gorgeous 1965 Olympia SM9 typewriter that types like a dream. It covers the basics on what parts are called and what they do, and how to go about troubleshooting. #1 tip is to keep your machine covered so dust doesn’t muck up the innards.

This section below is probably my favorite part of the manual, with frank guidance about how you can use this book to create your very own typewriter repair business. Yes, this was published in 1981.

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography

My interest in Lenny Bruce got a jolt from watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series so I grabbed this autobio that was published in installments in Playboy. Parts are interesting, like his upbringing and running away from home as a teenager to work on a farm and then to the Navy for active duty during WW2. I didn’t realize that his first arrest for obscenity was in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. He also mentions Ann’s 440 Club on Broadway as an early incubator for his talent. The autobiography is a bit rambly, much like his sets were, but peppered  with too much of the court transcripts from his various trials. He ends one of his chapters with the great saying: “There’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.”

Fante Bukowski (volumes 1 & 2)

Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novels about the struggling writer, Fante Bukowski, were a pleasant diversion this morning. He’s a big time loser who, at 23, is berating himself for not having written a great novel. His mom covers his bills until (in volume 2) he pays for a prostitute with a credit card, in addition to buying thousands of copies of his own 6-page zine which he attempts to sell for $8 a copy. The books are peppered with writerly sayings like “For a writer every day is a nervous breakdown” (John Banville) or “The beginning is always today” (Mary Shelley).  Bonus points for jabbing at Dave Eggers writing at an Eggers signing where he says “I’m right here, I can hear you.”

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

This is a chatty, bloated, meandering book that mashes up psychology, evolution, and Buddhism. Wright tries to make the very complex and challenging aspects of mindfulness meditation more approachable by being conversational while peppering his text with pop culture references (The Matrix, Kurt Cobain). On the plus side, he does bring up some good points about evolutionary psychology, why we are dominated by our feelings, and how meditation can help you break the connection between yourself and those feelings/addictions/impulses. He points out that we’re designed by natural selection to care a lot about what other people think of us because people who were well liked would have propagated genes better. But in today’s world we are constantly meeting people who know nothing about us, amping up the pressure of every social occasion.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

I’m not a huge fan of Peter Bagge’s style, but I appreciate his ability to tell the complex story of Sanger’s life within a few pages. Her work as a nurse exposed her to the many methods women used to try to control their fertility and she made it her mission to bring those to women of all backgrounds and classes. While she did marry early, she eventually split from her first husband and gallivanted about with lots of other dudes, including HG Wells (of course– he was diddling everybody back then). Her greatest achievement was getting the birth control pill funded and developed, something that has had a huge impact on women ever since.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Here’s a cheerful book for a rainy day. The Anthropocene is the geological era defined by humans, which, according to various accounts, began either in Industrial Revolution or with the dawn of agriculture 12k years ago or with the 1945 atomic bomb drop. Scranton relies on his combat experience in Iraq to set the stage for what living in end-times really looks like, and asks how we make meaningful decisions as we teeter toward the end of civilization. His answer is that we simply let go, of ego, of capitalism, of war, and do our best to safeguard the thousands of years of hard-fought learning to survive in the future so it isn’t lost.

The elephant in the room is climate change, and he devotes quite a bit to that topic. “The problem is that the problem is us.”

Our online overlords are not helping:

Social media like Facebook crowdsource catharsis, creating self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.

Scranton calls out that our simply passing along articles or reactions contributes to the weakening of reflection or independent thought. “With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers.”

He quotes Peter Sloterdijk as saying the role of the philosopher is to be “continually self-immunizing against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting [our] own connection to collective life.” This interruption is reflection, a sitting with, not a smashing:

We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.

On a lighter note, he included a part of Inger Christensen’s poem, alphabet, which I really liked:

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

I will read anything Coates writes, but was a bit disappointed in this. I didn’t realize it was going to be a collection of essays he’d already published in the Atlantic from 2009-2016. This makes it a bit of a rehash that I assume was published to take advantage of post-Obama nostalgia in an age of McDonald Tr*mp. He does write intro sections for each of the essays and a recap at the end, but otherwise it’s probably material you’ve already read before (including the well-worth-another-read The Case for Reparations).

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Excellent work that will break your heart. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard law graduate who heads south to help defend inmates on death row, especially in Alabama where they turned their execution program on overdrive with the highest rate per capita. Through his many years helping the innocent and the unjustly imprisoned, Stevenson collected a huge bag of stories that he drips before and after the main story of Walter McMillian, who was put on death row while he AWAITED trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Local authorities were angry that he’d dared to have an interracial relationship so were happy to pin the blame on him. Well written, gripping story. I had to put it down every so often just to breathe and try to calm down.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait

Taking a break this MLK weekend from shuddering about Mcdonald Tr*mp’s tactless idiocy/racism/greed to read this gem from Pete Souza. The photographer had extraordinary access to Obama during the 8 years of his presidency and captured real moments that occasionally brought me to tears. Say what you will about Obama, the man has charm, style, wit, intelligence, compassion, and that comes through in these photos. It is an absolute delight to remind yourself that outstanding presidents who don’t embarrass us have existed and will exist again in the future.

Nicholas Nickleby

That gaseous old windbag, Dickens, has exhausted me after many weeks of tackling this, his third novel. It brims with the same colorful cast of miscellaneous characters that add a bit of sparkle to the 700+ pages. These are the random bits that delight, like the names of companies as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

The story follows the usual lines—a poor widow and her children reaches out to her rich brother-in-law for help, only to find that he’s a scoundrel. Uncle Ralph sends Nicholas out to be a teacher at a ridiculously abusive school where he ends up whipping the schoolmaster and leaving with one of the runaway boys, then ending up acting on the stage under an assumed name to make money for a while. Nicholas’ sister Kate is of course beautiful and pure and angelic, and Uncle Ralph sends her into the various clutches of terrible people in London. The widow mother, Mrs. Nickleby, is a blathering buffoon of the type that Dickens frequently makes women—airheads concerned with appearances and telling endless tales of their former glory. The only amusing part she plays is when she believes that the insane neighbor is in love with her. Caught in their chimney, the old man demands to be sent a bottle of lightning, a thunder sandwich, and a plate of boots to eat.

Miss La Creevy is one of the only female characters that comes close to being interesting in all of Dickens’ work that I’ve read so far. She’s a portrait painter who is an independent, friendly, smart spinster. “Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone for so long. The little bustling, active, cheerful creature, existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidant of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss La Creevy’s.”

What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm

This book got me thinking that books need some sort of a rating system like movies, but to warn people of the level of male smarminess/privilege inside. Works by Mailer or Roth or Kerouac (and this) would score in the toxic red zone and thus sensitive readers could avoid them. Alas, this warning label did not exist and I took seriously Jenny Odell’s recommendation that this was her new favorite book, so read it.

If you’re lucky, you’ve never heard of Stephen Diamond, author of this 1970 remembrance of the hippie farm he and a bunch of dudes lived on in Massachusetts. Oh I guess there were a few girls there, but they get slighted in the story until they do something like bitch about how they’re doing all the cooking and cleaning of dishes. Diamond’s words are a poor man’s Kerouac, he attempts to free associate and lacks any of Jack’s sparkle or rhythm.