I hate this book. I’m a lazy writer and loathe the rules, giving myself leeway and pretending that all my reading soaks proper writing into my brain. I’ve tried to read it closely a number of times over the years and always end up sighing and skimming. The latest attempt was due to Jessica Mitford’s urging in Poison Penmanship. Yes, commas should be placed before conjunctions that introduce independent clauses; yes, of course we should use definite, specific, concrete language; yes yes the number of subject determines the number of the verb zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
The only real help I got was definite info around further vs farther: “farther serves best as a distance word, further as a time or quantity word.”
Apologies to all my future editors out there, but I’ve got an 80% grasp on these ideas intuitively and will simply rely on the grammar nazis to set me straight where needed.
I cannot resist books by flaneurs. This is a translation of Hessel’s 1929 book of walking through Weimar-era Berlin, although the longest section is his tour of the city by car. This edition includes an intro essay by Walter Benjamin which has a great quote, “The flaneur memorizes like a child, asserts his wisdom like an old man.”
Sadly much of this was not worth perusing, perhaps due to my lack of connection to Berlin, seen only in fleeting glimpses over a decade ago. My favorite part was the first chapter, The Suspect, wherein Hessel describes the suspicion of everyone he meets when he saunters through their avenues.
“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”
Perhaps this would be worth reading as one flew to Germany. Otherwise, it gets a solid pass from me.
Oh yes, it has some memorable parts, like that epic first sentence—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Dickens is notorious for taking his time warming up in a novel— Pickwickonly starts to get good once Sam enters the scene. But 150 pages in, and six weeks of forcing myself to try to read this, I’m throwing in the towel.
I think the main problem is that he strays from what he does best—describing the working conditions of London’s underclass—to churn out this historical novel about the French Revolution. Because he’s so far afield, he doesn’t have the right grip to be able to toss out the bevy of jolly and ridiculous characters that usually propel a story forward. I felt no connection to any of these stilted names, making it harder and harder to pick up the book and push through a chapter.
Please tell me this is not inflicted on schoolchildren still.
Figured I’d take a break from real life controversies by dipping into a literary one and re-read Huck Finn. Parts are delightful, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the depiction of Jim, the slave that joins Huck on his swirl down the Mississippi, left me queasy. The squabble that’s been around since the book came out is around the question of Racist or Not and it drops so many “n word”s that the idea of whitewashing the book by search/replace with another word is laughable. I can only equate the feeling to when I read books about terrible things said about women, only usually those are couched with a glimmer of hope or irony, a strong woman character plotting revenge in the corner or muttering pithy replies under her breath. In this, Jim has no counterpoint to the stereotypical image of an enslaved black man. There are no gibes he gets in about the white men going to pieces all around him.
In my mind, the best parts are at the beginning, on the river, Huck and Jim. Even the parts with the “king” and “duke” joining the caravan are good at first, then become tedious. But the book clunks to a halt when Tom Sawyer arrives in the deep south to bungle the attempt to free Jim. Tom prefers to gussy up the plan by making it more dramatic, when they could have simply popped out a board to free him. This disrespect of the life of a man convinces me that the book is largely flawed, despite whatever intentions Twain had for poking fun at racism.
In the aftermath of the kerfuffle over NYC’s Public Theater’s staging of Julius Caesar, I decided to spend the afternoon reading the play. The levels of ridiculousness increase exponentially as the alt-right fans flames of furor over this depiction of our Toxic Cheeto as Julius Caesar, who—spoiler alert!—gets murdered in the 3rd act. The play was written in 1599, and that it continues to be relevant and provide entertaining parallels to today’s political climate is just peachy.
Most of Bill’s research for the play came from the Sir Thomas North translation of Plutarch’s Life of Brutus, Life of Antonius, and Life of Caesar. circa first century AD. Bill added the unforgettable speech of Antony (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”) along with the gory detail of the conspirators washing their hands in Caesar’s blood, but otherwise stayed close to Plutarch’s version of events.
As Marcus Brutus broods on whether it’s justified to kill Caesar for his ambition to rule Rome:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which hatched would as his kind grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.
Decius Brutus tells Cassius that he’ll be able to bend Caesar’s mood to fit their needs and lure him to the Senate despite bad omens. (The bit about flattery is perfect on this day that Toxic Cheeto made his cabinet go around the room praising him.)
Never fear that. If he be so resolved
I can o’ersway him. For he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betrayed with trees
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers —
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Frank McCourt’s memoir won the Pulitzer in 1997 for autobiography but I completely missed it at the time, although I remember seeing it in every bookstore. Definitely worth reading, well-written, descriptive, evoking the desperate poverty brought on by a dad who drank away his paycheck and a Catholic mom who kept popping out babies who couldn’t be fed. Born in America, the family migrates back to Ireland to live with Angela’s family when the dad couldn’t keep a job in Brooklyn and after the death of their only daughter. A few more kids die, a few more arrive. Frank goes to school, takes on various jobs, sails away for America at the end. The last chapter is great, a single word “‘Tis” in response to the end of the previous chapter’s rhetorical question “this is a great country, isn’t it?”
The scenes of poverty are heartbreaking, fleas, lice, excrement, starvation, and yet the childhood somehow seems happy. McCourt taught school for decades and finally got to work on this book post-retirement.
William Zinsser’s collection of authors speaking about their process of writing memoir comes from a series of their talks at the NYPL and is quite digestible. I’m left with a long list of memoirs to check out in further detail and a dose of bravery to inject myself with to get the words flowing from my own pen. This collection includes inspiration from Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Jill Ker Conway, Eileen Simpson, Frank McCourt, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
A reminder of that great quote from Annie Dillard, which is in this.
You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.”
I put a note in the back of a library book I enjoyed asking future readers to send me book recommendations if they enjoyed that book as much as I did. So far, this is the only book that I’ve been able to get through of the handful that have been recommended via that method.
It’s a creepy book, two eleven-year-old girls on the brink of a friendship only to have one of them die in the ice palace of exposure to cold the day after they have their first confab. Siss is a local girl, the leader of kids at school, and Unn has just moved to town after losing her mother, now living with her aunt. Siss feels that there’s something different about Unn, and the two warily circle each other for weeks before finally Unn writes a note saying that she wants to see her. Siss walks over to Unn’s house at night, bravely facing her fear of the dark, clomping in the cold. The two girls shut themselves up in Unn’s room and struggle to find common ground. They ogle themselves in a mirror, and take off all their clothes before hurriedly getting redressed. Unn hints at a secret, but Siss goes home before she finds out.
The next day, Unn feels too shy about seeing Siss at school, so she plays hooky and goes to the ice palace, formed at the river by the waterfall. She slips inside through a small crack, wanders deeper and deeper, finally taking off her coat to squeeze into an even smaller space, and then can’t get back to it. She lays down, sleeps.
That night, Siss joins the search party and the men eventually go to the ice palace. Their lights dance from within the palace, but Unn is not found. Siss gets a fever and feels she’s been asked by Unn to keep a promise not to forget her.
In the spring, Siss asks the kids to go back to the ice palace because it’s about to give way due to melting. They frolic, but do not find Unn. Later, the ice palace cracks and gives way, sweeping all evidence into the river. Fin. By the Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan.
The Marx Brothers have nothing on Dickens, as proven in his scenes of ragtag madcap drinking, jesting, capering, punning, joking. This is his first novel, fully titled The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club and you can actually watch as he progresses in honing his skills across the pages. The first chapters are universally despised as boring, but Dickens introduces the character of Sam Weller in chapter 10, breathing life into the story and carrying it to success for another 600+ pages. It gives off “an extraordinary sound, which being neither a groan, nor a grunt, nor a gasp, nor a growl, seemed to partake in some degree of the character of all four” (from chapter 52, where Sam’s dad is about to give the red-nosed preacher a beat down).
Pickwick roves the countryside with his band of merry younger friends in search of wisdom but adventures come knocking. Even in the early chapters we see glimpses of genius like “[the horse] wouldn’t shy if he was to meet a wagon load of monkeys with their tails burnt off.”
The scene with warring political parties also comes off well in chapter 8, where Pickwick cheers for the candidate that the mob just cheered and tells his friends, “Hush. Don’t ask any questions. It’s always best on these occasions to do what the mob do.” Mr. Snodgrass asks “But suppose there are two mobs?” and Pickwick recommends to “Shout with the largest.” Later, a politician is making the rounds and told to kiss babies to make a good impression on the crowd, to which the politician (Slumkey) resigns himself.
One of my favorite techniques Dickens uses is the nested story, having a character relate a tale that he heard, like the Bagman’s ghost story (Ch 14). Inevitably the people in the story get drunk, which explains the weird stuff they see later. In the Bagman’s Story, Tom Smart thinks a chair in his bedroom is an old gentleman, and begins to have an argument with it/him. The chair brags of having lots of ladies sit in his lap, then proceeds “to recount some other exploits of his youth, when he was seized with such a violent fit of creaking that he was unable to proceed.”
Another embedded ghost story in chapter 49 ended with a line that made me laugh out loud. The character walked home late at night, drunk (natch!), and sat in some dilapidated abandoned mail coaches, then woke to find them bustling about, brand new. He attempts to help one of the ghosts elude her captor, but wakes before they get to safety. The landlord who has listened to this tale asks “I wonder what these ghosts of mail-coaches carry in their bags,” and the storyteller answers, “The dead letters, of course.”
We get the first hints of Dickens anger about lawyers, courts, and debtor prisons here (prisons more fully explored in Little Dorrit and courts in Bleak House). Pickwick is entrapped by his landlady who thinks he’s made a marriage proposal and who sues him for breach of contract. When a jury finds him guilty, he refuses to pay the amount and prefers to go to Fleet prison instead. After a few months, the woman’s lawyers throw her into prison for non-payment of their fee, wherein Pickwick pays her out in return for a letter saying that he never made such a proposal. Unaccountably, Pickwick also helps Jingle out of prison, despite being made the butt of his schemes earlier in the book.
Besides this aborted marriage, there are plenty of sneaking around and pinching of barmaids. Several of Pickwick’s friends end up married off at the end, bearing children for him to godfather.
Possibly my favorite parts were those witticisms of Sam. If I read this again, I’ll try to collect all of them. A sample:
“Come sir, this is rayther too rich, as the young lady said, wen she remonstrated with the pastry-cook, arter he’d sold her a pork-pie as had got nothin’ but fat inside.”
“I rayther think you’d change your note, as the hawk remarked to himself with a cheerful laugh, ven he heerd the robin redbreast a singin’ round the corner.”
“Sorry to do anythin’ as may cause an interruption to such wery pleasant proceedin’s, as the king said wen he dissolved the parliament.”
Pickwick disbands his club with a farewell speech worth quoting, as it mirrors Dickens’ own farewell to the time spent writing this in monthly serials:
“I shall never regret having devoted the greater part of two years to mixing with different varieties and shades of human character: frivolous as my pursuit of novelty may have appeared to many. Nearly the whole of my previous life having been devoted to business and the pursuit of wealth, numerous scenes of which I had no previous conception have dawned upon me—I hope to the enlargement of my mind, and the improvement of my understanding. If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm, and that none of my adventures will be other than a source of amusing and pleasant recollection to me in the decline of life. God bless you all!”
Not surprisingly, I did not “feel myself getting smarter, my brain expanding while I read this,” unlike the idiotic character in I’ll Tell You In Person, which is where I got the breadcrumb to check out W. Somerset Maugham’s classic novel. I’m actually quite tired of reading books by gay men that make women into the shallowest of characters, ugly, grasping, with no redeeming qualities, while the men are heroic, handsome gods. This book strained every nerve of that kind.
If I identified with anyone in the book, it was Larry, the quiet and curious character who the entire thing is about, following his strange travels around the world “to loaf” by which he meant to study and read up and discover the meaning of life. He’s adamant about rejecting the normal path of office work and ends up losing a girlfriend/fiancee as a result. Isabel doesn’t take too kindly to the monkish aesthetic that Larry cultivates in his tiny Parisian apartment and can’t imagine herself without access to society, gems, furs, etc.
After a separation of two years wherein Larry heads to Europe from Chicago to find himself, they meet up, and Isabel asks what he’s been up to. “I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as easily as I can read French.”
Isabel then cuts off the engagement, not wanting to face life without scads of money. (Larry has a small living that he can get by on without having to work, but that’s not enough for her.) In response to her rejection, he says “I wish I could make you see how much fuller the life I offer you is than anything you have a conception of. I wish I could make you see how exciting the life of the spirit is and how rich in experience. It’s illimitable. It’s such a happy life.”
Much later, after he meets up with the author after burying Sophie (naked, throat cut, opium addicted prostitute from Chicago to Paris and almost married to Larry until Isabel tempted her into drinking again). Larry mentions his plan of giving away all his money and starting in America with nothing, taking a manual labor job because that’s how he’s able to think. “My mind is free when I’m washing a car or tinkering with a carburetor…”
I know, I know, I know. I should exercise more. And this book points out the many ways it benefits not only your body but also your brain. I enjoyed this book, surprised that it was not just another “shoulda been an article but I beefed it up into a book” type book. I think what saved him was the inclusion of so many stories, of patients, or of research papers and studies. He gets pretty technical, and you learn some stuff about the old noggin, like the fact that serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are all neurotransmitters.
It starts out strong, with two examples of schools that boosted their test scores by implementing a new way to do gym, that of focusing on heart rate for participation, not just performance. Exercise gets the blood flowing, gets your brain fusing new pathways, gets you ready to learn. Chapters touch on stress, anxiety, depression, and specific changes that women go through monthly and then through menopause. Throughout it all, a drum beat to get 5 days of exercise of 30 minutes at a minimum. This is just the safe side. Best? 6 days a week, 45min to an hour, four days longer with moderate intensity and 2 days shorter with higher intensity.
What started out as a breathtaking memoir soured over the hundreds of pages that didn’t quite live up to the beginning, which had been so good that I read it aloud to a bemused hearer who feigned interest. The beginning paints a picture of a sunny day when death is the furthest thing from his mind, then leads you down a false trail where you think that the narrator’s son has died in an automobile accident with his 90-year-old grandmother at the wheel. But no, while death is in the air, it comes in the form of a phone call announcing the writer’s father’s death:
“We had been drinking rum… My wife’s brother-in-law John was called to the telephone… John returned to the terrace… I walked down that terrace to learn which of my boys was dead… John said: ‘Your father is dead.’ And I said: ‘Thank God.'”
The rest of the book purports to explain this reaction, to soften the blow. We learn that Duke, the father, was a con man, lying his way through decades of life, making up a Yale education, pretending not to be Jewish, scamming merchants and frequently fleeing town with creditors at his heels. Very Catch Me If You Can, but instead of feigning to be a doctor or pilot he became an aerospace engineer and worked on the bombing planes that delivered the end of WWII. These Duke-focused tales are actually quite good, but the author insists on his own position in the story, inserts himself. I yawned at his extended descriptions of boarding school and racing boats. Only when the end was nigh did my attention get re-engaged, when Duke is jailed in California and the author sending checks back.
Intriguingly, he mentions his father having a wooden suitcase that when unfolded became a boat that he paddled around the harbor in Martha’s Vineyard.
Elie Wiesel’s intense description of surviving Auschwitz but seeing the decline and death of his father is incredibly moving. He lost mother, father, and sister to the Holocaust but somehow made it out. Even more heartbreaking is that he and his father would have been liberated by the Russians if they’d just stayed put in the infirmary where Elie was recuperating from his foot surgery. Instead, they made a calculated decision to try for life, to leave with the rest of the liquidation. This is a must-read. I’m not sure how it’s slipped past my notice all this time. It’s very much a Moby-Dick-ish ending, “And I alone escaped to tell thee.”
Here’s a book you can skip. Go ahead, just remove it from your list, and instead of spending a few hours rage-reading it like I did, go for a walk in the analog world. The book is a pointless blather wherein dudes mansplain to you how analog beats digital because of the human touch. I’m a sucker for these types of books, being an inveterate physical book lover and handwritten letter person, but the only real use of this book is as a door stopper, maybe a fly swatter.
One of the biggest problems with the book was the insistent inclusion of the author on every page, announcing “Me! Me! Me! I did this and I talked to this person and I raised my hand and asked this question.” This would be less of an issue if I actually liked the author, but his smarminess oozes through and I had to gag back reactions to keep plowing through.
The first tedious thing about the book is the chapters and book sections. Everything is couched in “The Revenge of the ….” terms, ad nauseam. This makes sense for some parts, like vinyl records, moleskin notebooks, Polaroid film, and (WTF?) board games. But it’s absolute garbage when it comes to the second half of the book, trying to prove that “analog work” is better than digital by using the Shinola watch company’s manufacturing example in Detroit. Huh? And the emphasis on meditation in Silicon Valley life. These are neither analog nor digital things.
Basic premise: digital is cheaper and more efficient, but our “honeymoon” with these technologies end and make us judge analog tools as better. Also, analog costs more, thus is a status symbol. (Disagree.)
In his longest chapter, he drones on about the joys of vinyl purchasing, and how record stores knew that vinyl was on the way back when “Girls!” started buying records again. I was more interested in his chapter on paper, and do agree that its benefits outpace those of digital, with the advantage that you don’t need to worry about technology being around to allow you to read it in a few years time. He includes a quote from a creative director at Mohawk Paper (erroneously) saying that digital natives are the most interested in paper, despite not having nostalgia for it.
The only useful bit of information in here are some stats on bookstores, which he credits as being the revenge of retail, an ill-timed assertion in this era of zombie malls and death knells of retail. Low point was 2009 of 1650 independent bookstores, down from the high point of 4000 in the 90s. The Strand in NYC is called out for special notice, with parenthetical explanation that it has survived because it owns its building. He also cites the bold example of a sweatshirt he saw in a store window, prompting purchase, as evidence that in-person buying is more powerful than online.
I hoarded this book, waiting until the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in its pages. That moment arrived over the past weekend as I was nestled in a chair on a mountain top in Mendocino County, listening to the cacophony of birds, feeling the heat of the California sun bake the land around me. Every so often, I’d bark out another amazing tidbit from the book, and by the end of the trip, I’d resolved to return to the northern lands for further exploration of Lassen, Mt. Shasta, and the Trinity area.
This book is a collection of letters written by the lead naturalist, William Brewer, back to his family in New York. While not educated as a geologist, he carefully studied the strata and made excellent notes for the expedition, the goal of which was to produce a report and a complete Geological Survey of the state of California. Mining fever obviously played a part in funding this act of April 1860, and the commission was led by Professor Josiah Whitney, who promptly selected Brewer to be his chief of staff. Whitney occasionally ventures out to join the group, but mostly seems caught up with fundraising activities. Brewer is the real leader of this rag-tag group of geologist/botanist/camp men.
The journey begins with a trip south out of San Francisco, where the crew sails down to Los Angeles, population 3,000. “The weather is soft and balmy—no winter but perpetual spring and summer. Such is Los Angeles, a place where ‘every prospect pleases and only man is vile.’ … The grapes are famous, and the wine of Los Angeles begins to be known even in Europe.” They outfitted themselves with buckskin pants, said to prevent rattlesnake and tarantula bites.
Throughout, he mentions the bits of news he gets from month-old papers about the war raging back east. California is solidly for the Union, but he makes disparaging remarks about the desperadoes and “white trash” who are “Secesh”- pro-secession). He has the prevailing racist attitude about the Indians and frequently makes no further comment about the white women he encounters other than their beauty. But he’s a fan of Dickens, referencing Pickwick and mentioning finishing reading Bleak House over the campfire.
“Then the wash, that I so much abominate. But clothes must be cleansed, and there is no woman to do it.”
On San Francisco, June 1861: “How busy, bustling, hurrying, high-wrought, and excited this city seems, in contrast with the quiet life of camp!” In July 1862, “I am glad enough to be here, although our camp is not in a pleasant place, yet it is preferable to the city. The crowds of the city make me feel sad and lonely. I feel restless and long for the quiet of camp life—quiet, yet active—rich in that excitement that arises from the contemplation and study of nature, but quiet in all that relates to strife with the busy, bustling world.” December 1863: “Fifteen years ago two or three ranch houses and barren sand hills marked the spot: today it is a city of over 100,000 inhabitants, and growing fast. Since I arrived here three years ago building has been going on at an almost incredible rate. I live now in a fine, large boarding house, with stores under it, on a growing and fashionable street. When I arrived streets were laid out there, through barren sand hills, with here and there a sort of shell of a house standing.”
Comparing Oakland to Brooklyn in Sept 1861: “Oakland is a pretty little place, springing up with residences of San Francisco merchants. It is like Brooklyn from New York, only it is farther, the bay being some seven or eight miles wide there.” Dec 1863: “Oakland is the largest, and grows as Brooklyn does, only it is farther off and grows slower.”
Food was sometimes sketchy: “Our coffee has given out, the last ‘fresh’ meat, in an advanced state of blueness and beginning to have a questionable odor as well as color, was eaten for breakfast, but bacon yet remains.”
On early gentrification: “This hunter, by the way, is an old companion of ‘Grizzly’ Adams. This man came here and lived with Adams before he left, and has hunted ever since, but he complains that civilization has interfered seriously with his sport. ‘We had good times before the settlers came,’ he says, and he bears terrible scars, the trophies of contact with grizzlies.”
Invited to lecture in Stockton, he visits the State Lunatic Asylum there. “There are more insane in this state, by far, in proportion to the whole population, than in any other state in the Union. I need not dilate on the reasons. High mental excitement, desperate characters, disappointed hopes of miners, the unnatural mode of life incident to mining, separation of families, and the indiscretions and infidelity to the marriage vows—these and other reasons have produced this frightful result.”
Tomales Bay “is the greatest place in the state for potatoes, both as regards quality and quantity. The number raised here is enormous, and, as a consequence, Irishmen abound.”
Champagne is consumed in quantities larger than expected, at every civilized house.
At Pescadero Ranch, June 1860: “The dinner was good, not brilliant—champagne was partaken of moderately.”
In Stockton after his lecture, April 1861: “After the lecture I was invited with a few others to the house of the mayor of the city, where an oyster and champagne supper awaited us.”
Also in April 1861: “We commenced by drinking a bottle of champagne presented by a young lady of San Francisco.”
December 1862, on a sail down to Potrero Hill to check out the new steamer, the Yosemite, “we sat down to a most sumptuous lunch, where cold turkey and champagne suffered tremendously.”
Lake Tahoe was originally called Lake Bigler after Governor Bigler who turned “Secesh” so pro-Union papers called for the name to be reverted to the old Indian name of Tahoe.
Earthquakes dot the tale, men rushing naked out of baths to head into the city (1861).
Language differences: several times he mentions “recruiting” in the sense of recuperating. “I resolved to stay in camp quietly and recruit my knee before it grew worse.”
A man comes along and takes photos of the crew at camp on leather. I had not heard of this practice of leather photographs. (May 1861)
He mentions “Russian America” by which I suppose is meant Alaska?