BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

Bart: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System

I really wanted to like this book all the way through but as a reader, my energy flagged and waned with every rabbit-hole Michael Healy went down. There are some great parts, with interesting bits scattered throughout, but it really could have used an editor to excise out the sleep-inducing parts. On the good side: details about the construction and early battles around routes/stations/locations. The Embarcadero station was never part of the original design (now one of the busiest)! Insider stories also very interesting, such as the fact that the flea market at Berkeley’s Ashby station was never supposed to be permanent but after a court battle, it remains in business nearly 40 years later. Disabled-rights activist Harold Willson was hugely influential in making BART the first transpo system in the nation that was 100% accessible to people not able to walk (the slogan to get elevators was “BART, give us the shaft,” which I love).

The technology going into the excavation and creation of the tunnel for the Transbay tube also very interesting. The first tunneling shield was used in London to create a pedestrian tunnel under the Thames, written about by Charles Dickens in 1843 and now part of the Underground.

Healy sometimes gives a nod to the male-dominated field, mentioning the first women on the board, women managers, etc. Also a ridiculous story about how Kay Springer was trying to give visitors a tour of the subway construction but she was stopped by the foreman because of a superstition about women in the construction area. Hello, patriarchy! Luckily, her manager informed the foreman that she needed access and the taboo was broken to no ill effect. Shocking!

The hubbub over the 100-millionth passenger was telling– they randomly selected a woman who was leaving the Embarcadero Station and descended on her with bright lights and uniformed officers and she covered her face and didn’t want to give her name. Bravo, lady, for “having none of it”.

I also didn’t realize that bike lockers had been used by homeless as shelters, renting them for $35/year. Overall, it’s worth reading, but godbless you if you don’t plow dazed and bleary-eyed through the boring parts.

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Death in Venice and Other Tales

Twelve tales that Mann wrote between 1896 and 1912 (Death in Venice), some quite strange, all with the tell-tale Mann stamp upon them.
The Will for Happiness (1896)- man with fatal heart condition evades death until at long last the father of his beloved allows them to marry. He dies on their wedding night.
Little Herr Friedemann (1897)- crippled by being dropped as an infant, Friedemann falls in love then realizes it is futile since he is grotesque, focuses on being cultured instead. Years later, he falls for a new woman in town who cruelly rejects him, he drowns himself in the creek by her house at a party one night.
Tobias Mindernickel (1897) – old man is laughed at by children, acquires a dog but then beats it, only finds relief in providing succor once he’s almost killed it. Then he does kill it.
Little Lizzy (1897) – attractive woman married to an obese lawyer and openly carrying on affairs that the whole town knows about. She convinces her husband to dress up like a giant baby and sing a number at her party, to his humiliation. “This fat man had the most bizarre character. No one could have been more courteous, more gracious, more obliging than he. Yet without actually articulating it, people felt that his overly friendly and flattering behavior was somehow forced, that it was rooted in timidity and insecurity, and so it got on their nerves. Nothing is uglier than a person who despises himself but who, out of cowardice and vanity, is eager to please because he wants to be liked.”
Gladius Dei (1902)- strange story where a painting of the Virgin Mary is deemed by a passerby to be too seductive, he tries to get it taken out of the window of the gallery that’s selling copies of it.
Tristan (1903) – hints of Magic Mountain in this one— a writer and a consumptive (only the windpipe tho!) meet in a sanatorium and develop a friendship; she dies after having been convinced by him to play Tristan and Isolde.
The Starvelings: A Study (??) – brief portrait of a jealous friend who wishes his lady friend would tell him to wait a bit and hang out with her. Echoes of this show up again in Tonio Kroger.
Tonio Kroger (1903)- fantastic novella, Kroger falls in love with Hans and then with Inge, both of whom he encounters later in Sweden they having married and he having traveled there to get a fresh perspective. “If he was asked what in the world he wanted to be, he would supply different answers, for he was in the habit of saying—and had already written—that he bore within himself the possibilities of a thousand different ways of life, together with the secret awareness that they were all impossibilities.”
“He did not work like someone who works in order to live; rather, he worked like someone who wants nothing but to work because he considers himself nothing as a living person, wishes only to be regarded as a creative being, and otherwise goes about gray and inconspicuous like an actor who has taken off his makeup and is nothing so long as he has nothing to portray. He worked in silent and invisible seclusion, disdainful of those small-minded people for whom talent was a social asset, who, whether rich or poor, went about wild and dilapidated or lived high on the hog with very individualistic neckties, who were devoted to their charming and artistic lives and unaware that good works can emerge only under the pressure of a bad life, that the person who lives does not work, and that an artist must virtually die in order to be fully creative.”
The Wunderkind (1903) – a young skilled composer and pianist pulls the wool over his audience’s eyes, or so he feels.
Harsh Hour (1905) – I think this is Mann’s portrait of Schiller writing? He mentions Don Carlos… it’s late at night, the writer is alone and taking a break to look more holistically at his work. “Do not brood: work! Limit, exclude, give shape, complete… And complete it he did, the work of his suffering. It may not have been good, but complete it he did. And when it was complete, lo and behold, it was good. And from his soul, from Music and Idea, new works struggled upward, resonant and shimmering creations, which, in sacred form, wondrously hinted at their infinite homeland, just as the ocean, from which it is fished, roars in the seashell.”
The Blood of the Walsungs (1905) – bizarre tale of twins who are in love with each other, named after the characters in Die Walkure who they see that night at the opera; they consummate their relationship on the eve of the girl twin getting married off.
Death in Venice (1912) – old man and the sea, feels the travel bug and doesn’t know how to fight it, goes here and there and finally Venice, tries to leave but his trunk gets sent on in the wrong direction, he uses this as an excuse to stay and watch a young boy whom he’s in love with. Disease hits the city, he dies.

Franz Kafka: The Tremendous World Inside My Head

Franz Kafka: The Tremendous World Inside My Head

Louis Begley’s biographical essay about Kafka is a great place to start unraveling the twisty turns of this Prague genius’s forty year life. You’re left with the confirmed opinion that K was a giant weirdo, beset by crippling fear and antipathy towards his father/parents, torturing his fiancee Felice with up and down/back and forth/push-pull of wanting to marry and not marry (his letter to Milena “Yes, torture is extremely important to me—my sole occupation is torturing and being tortured”). He was fiercely protective of his work, only allowing a handful of things to be published in his lifetime and instructing Max Brod to burn everything else on his death (command ignored, for better or worse, giving us The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, Letter to His Father, and all his diaries and letters). Of those published while he was alive I’ve only read The Metamorphosis (decades ago). Otherwise, his sanctioned works are In the Penal Colony, and short stories: The Judgement, A Country Doctor, A Report to the Academy, A Hunger Artist, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

Here’s a sobering tidbit—all three of Kafka’s sisters were murdered by Germans in concentration camps. Kafka himself bowed out of the world stage at age 40 in 1924, from tuberculosis. He preferred his youngest sister, Ottla, but otherwise despised his family, with whom he lived. “It is not because they are relatives that I cannot bear to be in the same room with them, but merely because they are people… I cannot live with people; I absolutely hate all my relatives, not because they are wicked, not because I don’t think well of them… but simply because they are people with whom I live in close proximity.” Further in this letter to his fiance, he tells her that he’d be incomparably happier living in a desert, in a forest, on an island, rather than with his family. “Beware of thinking of life as commonplace… Life is merely terrible; I feel it as few others do. Often—and in my inmost self perhaps all the time—I doubt that I am a human being.”

He took work as a clerk in an insurance office but always knew that his purpose in life was to write. “The tremendous world I have inside my head, but how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather to be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.” As such, he yearned for complete solitude in his life, saying, “this is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

The fantastic quote about literature comes from a letter to Oskar Pollak from 1904:

“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… We need books to affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Begley credits K’s 1912 story, The Judgement for revealing one of Kafka’s greatest inventions: the “nonchalant treatment of events in his fiction that every reader knows are implausible.”

Lots of book suggestions from this: Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann, Ferdydurke by Gombrowicz, Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Elizabeth Boa’s Kafka: Gender, Class and Race, and K by Roberto Calasso. (Note: I did a cursory flip through Boa’s book on Kafka and gender and it looks solid but I’m all Kafka’d out at the moment. Benjamin’s Illuminations also very good.)

A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie

A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie

Great companion book to go along with the bio of Satie I just finished. The editor, Ornella Volta, carefully curates all the various bits of writing that Satie left behind, either within his musical compositions, or published essays, or from the 150 surviving of 4,000 little cards found in his room after his death (“amid an indescribable mess, carefully stored in cigar boxes, each describing in neat calligraphy, in the form of small advertisements, elements of a looking-glass world.”) It’s a beautiful book.

Volta groups Satie’s writing in three categories: written for performance (despite fake? admonition not to read it outloud), written for publication, and his private writings. Quite possibly my favorite section was the compendium of all the performance indications he’d notated into his music, all grouped together, alphabetically in one place.

A sample:

  • A bit rococo but slow
  • Arching your back
  • Be an hour late
  • Continue without losing consciousness
  • Dance inwardly
  • Do not change our physiognomy
  • Do not cough
  • Do not look disagreeable
  • Dry as a cuckoo
  • Even duller if you can
  • From a distance, bored
  • Gird yourself with perceptiveness
  • Like a nightingale with a toothache
  • On the tips of your back teeth
  • On yellowing velvet
  • Take your hand off and put it in your pocket
  • Tell yourself about it
  • With your bones dry and distant

Amusing Ourselves To Death

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

I had to wait several weeks for this to filter through the library to me since everyone seems eager to understand the calamity of Election 2016. This book helped, despite being over 30 years old (pub’d 1985), by outlining the ways our television culture redefines discourse. It holds up well through the decades if you can overlook the dated cultural touchstones (even the intro from Postman’s son in 2005 dated quickly, mentioning Tivoing and Game Boys).

Postman first outlines the ways that print culture forced various modes of communication, mentioning Plato’s recognition that no intelligent person would write down their philosophy in unchangeable text. How strange writing must seem to people of an entirely oral culture “a conversation with no one and yet with everyone.”

In 1835, de Tocqueville presaged the arrival of Twitter hundred of years ahead of time: “In America, parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire.”

From the perspective of someone with a 2 second attention span, it’s mind boggling to imagine the audiences for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took seven hours. “Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? or five? or three? Especially without pictures of any kind?” He then shows an example of the complex clauses used by Lincoln while speaking and says (of Reagan, but it applies to Toxic T) “It is hard to imagine the present occupant of hte White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience.”

Enter photographs and advertising, then slogans and the decline of text was on the rise. But the death knell came with the invention of the telegraph, which “dignified irrelevance and amplified impotence… making public discourse essentially incoherent.” He quotes Lewis Mumford as saying that it brought us into a world of “broken time and broken attention.”

Television forced everything to become entertainment, including the news; everything is there for our amusement and pleasure. This focus on amusement makes us leery of caring about facts, quoting a 1983 NYTimes story saying “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore [due to lack of public interest].”

Walter Lippmann in 1920 wrote: “There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.” This assumes that the press would function as lie-detectors and that the public would care. We don’t. Further on, Postman notes (quaintly for 2017’s alternative facts) “And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.”

On the pernicious effects of commercials:

A person who has seen one million television commercials might well believe that all political problems have fast solutions through simple measures—or ought to.  Or that complex language is not to be trusted, and that all problems lend themselves to theatrical expression.

I do have some concerns with his statements, especially the comment that “a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought it too busy for that, and too detached.” He also mistakenly assumes “women were probably more adept readers than men” on the American frontier, woefully ignorant of the lack of basic education open to them. Jane Franklin, Ben’s sister, rose up in my mind, embarrassed about the spelling errors in her letters to him.

Little Dorrit

If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.

There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.

Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.

His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”

You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.

Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.

The Thirteen Travellers

Delightful collection of stories about the residents of a posh apartment home (Hortons) in the center of London, all figuring out how to live post-war in 1919. Published in 1920, this provided a fantastic glimpse into the chaos and psychic mess that people had to deal with.

1. There’s Absalom Jay, the man at his best in the 1890s who simply withers without funds/social engagements/society in the post-war world.

2. Fanny Close is the highly competent portress who takes over the job when all the men ship off for war, and retains it when they come back; she’s quite pleasant to everyone because compared to her sister Aggie, everyone is dreamy.

3. The Honorable Clive Torby is a silly chit of a man who spends his parents money without care until the day that it runs out and then he cheerfully goes out and learns how to be a (one-armed) house-painter.

4. Miss Morganhurst is an old spinster who only cares for her tiny dog and who effectively seals off her brain from any war news; she goes insane and dies after her dog dies and she’s unable to keep the vivid horrific war images from her brain, insisting that she was there: “I was there, you know.”

5. Peter Westcott is a has-been novelist who borrows the flat of a rich and successful author; he snubs modern authors for their cheap tricks and says he could do it as well as they: “Write in suspensive dots and dashes, mention all parts of the human body in full, count every tick of the clock, and call your book ‘Disintegration,’ or ‘Dead Moons,’ or ‘Green Queens.’ ”

6. Lucy Moon comes to visit her aunt in Hortons on the eve of her wedding, discovers that she knows nothing and has not yet begun to live. She exchanges glances with a strange man at the symphony and realizes she will not marry the older man she’s said yes to.

7 & 8. Mrs. Porter and Miss Allen have a bit of a ghost tale in them, haunted by the apparition of dead Mr. Porter who swore that as soon as Mrs. Porter began to enjoy her life without him, he’d come steal her for death.

9. Lois Drake is one of those hard, modern women who thrived during this time, whooping it up with men and living loud, drinking whiskey, flaunting convention. Only it turns out that her best friend falls in love with the man Lois is in love with, leaving her alone and weeping.

10. Mr. Nix is the manager of Hortons who begins having bad dreams after the war. This rings quite true for me in 2017: “everyone was having bad dreams just now, that it was the natural reaction after the four years of stress and turmoil through which we have passed.” His wife decides to leave him and assert her independence, at which point he falls madly in love with her again and vows never to take her for granted.

11. Lizzie Rand is an old maid whose last job as a companion netted her a boatload of money from the woman who wanted to spite her nephews and nieces. She meets a widower who struggles to let go of his wife’s image, and he soon proposes to her. Lizzie turns him down because she sees how easy it is to dominate him and just wants to stay pals.

12. Nobody is actually Tom, back from the war thrice wounded and inheriting a pile of money from his uncle. He’s dead on the inside until he has a chance meeting where he helps an old couple get home in the rain to their squalid home.

13. Bombastes Furioso is the storyteller who cannot seem to tell a completely true story about himself but does not think he is lying. His stories are threatened to come to an end when he falls in love with a woman who says she’ll marry him if he stops lying.

Leviathan

Leviathan

It’s been over twenty years since I read any Paul Auster and I’m convinced I need to do a reboot after finishing this delightful book. I came to Leviathan by way of Sophie Calle, who figures as Maria Turner in the book, with several of her real life projects featured. Dedicated to his pal, Don DeLillo, I wondered what kind of post-modern treat I’d be subjected to, but very much enjoyed it. Well-written and a tasty tale to boot…. the best book written by a man that I’ve consumed in months/years? Perhaps there is hope for them yet. (Although the women are slightly cardboard, at least there is a lack of overt misogyny and his writing smooths away my wrinkled brow)

The narrator, Auster thinly disguised as “Peter Aaron,” hurriedly writes the book of Benjamin Sachs’ life in the weeks following his death by accidental explosion when the bombs he’s setting off across the nation at all the Statue of Liberty replicas goes off before he’s ready. There are some hard lefts in the plot, such as when Ben is swallowed up by the earth, e.g. disappears for years. Entertaining and well written. Putting Auster on my list again.

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

This was mildly entertaining. His constant interspersing with exclamations from his young daughter Josephine were sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing. A Berkeley writer with the luxury of working from home and raising his child decides to dig into the natural world around them, investigating the mundanities of squirrels, ants, crows, turkey vultures, etc. I enjoyed the Ginko chapter the most, getting a book rec or two (Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo, and Marie Stopes’ Ancient Plants– curiously I’d just discovered Stopes vis-à-vis Woolf’s letters where she credits Stopes’ book on parenting for giving her lessons in birth control).

The Journey to the Western Islands Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

A Journey to the Western Islands Scotland

I am finally ready to give this one back to the library, it having lulled me to sleep many nights over many months. A unique pairing of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands Scotland with Boswell’s much more entertaining Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, two works that cover the same trip the two of them undertook in 1773. I had to shove my way through Johnson’s prose, lines not holding up well to the inspection of modern times. Boswell much more lively, giving bursts of personality throughout. On the whole it made me dread less the reading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, since most of the laughable bits were those of quoting dialog straight from SJ’s mouth, including frequent coining of new words. Their journey seemed arduous, plagued by rain and wind, and resulted in several cozy fireside chats about God and sundry.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

I wanted to like this book, but a light, barely perceptible tinge of woman-hating wafts through the pages, skimming along and occasionally stinging. The author is from the town he writes about, Lancaster, OH, and feels obligated to insert himself into the story, which combined with the misogyny, makes you wish you were reading a better version of this book. The best part is when he hits his stride, sadly only a few page from the end, thundering proclamations about how the social contract has been destroyed by three decades of greed: “The ‘vicious, selfish culture’ didn’t come from small towns, or even from Hollywood or ‘the media.’ It came from a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.” (The “vicious, selfish culture” quote from a Kevin Williamson National Review article March 2016 wherein he says “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”)

By inserting himself into the story, I feel compelled to slap him, especially when he mocks one of his subjects in person. “When I left them, I needled Brian. ‘Keep opening those boxes!’ I said, referring to his work at Drew [shoe factory]. ‘I think a little of Brian just died when you said that,’ Chris said. ‘Yeah dude,’ Brian said. ‘ A piece of my heart just fell on the floor.’ ”

My biggest problem with the book was that he didn’t knit the various pieces together in a cohesive argument (until the very end… way too late… you lost my interest). Over here we have drugs, cheap heroin, junkies, dealers. Then over here we have the corporate raiding of the town’s glass factory, decimating jobs. Only at the end does he connect the two, corporate greed ransacking the town, pulling away any opportunities for a decent wage/schools/life. This younger generation has NOTHING to look forward to. “The problem wasn’t caused by drugs at all, or government handouts, or single-parent families. While addiction could be as individual as people, common themes included alienation and disconnection.” Earlier in the book, he gives us a hint of this direction, saying that drug dealers were the visionaries who knew that they lived “in a global, rootless, gadget-coveting, atomized, every-man-for-himself world in which money trumped all other considerations.”

I didn’t bother to track his anti-women comments from the beginning, so I won’t do a catalogue of them, but I can summarize by saying women were mostly not named, only given “X’s girlfriend” or “Y’s wife”. One that is named is Lora Manon, who appeared to the author to be “a steely stickler, a middle-aged, pants-wearing schoolmarm.” His distaste for the young girls who had several babies by various fathers: “And the babies. All those young women pushing charity-store strollers around town, playing mix-and-match paternity.” Being the white, privileged male, even in the midst of unraveling this tale of social ills, he fails to understand the feminist perspective, or even empathize about the fourteen-year-old girl who walks up to him “with a sashay that showed off her too-small denim shorts. Amanda was pretty enough that the missing bottom half of her left arm was not necessarily the first thing most people noticed. She’d taken care to apply mascara, and a little pale, glossy lipstick. She glanced up at me with the eyes of a coquettish puppy.” Yes, jerk, this fourteen-year-old is well versed in how the world works already and knows that the only thing she’s got that is worth anything to the world is sex. I don’t suppose you took your eyes off her “too-small denim shorts” long enough to ask her any questions?

The Gentleman from San Francisco

The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

I was primarily interested in this 1923 collection of Bunin stories because D.H. Lawrence and S.S. Koteliansky translated it for the Hogarth Press, and Leonard contributed some of the other story translations with Kot. The story wasn’t particularly interesting to me, the unnamed family known as either the Gentleman from San Francisco or his wife or daughter. They voyage to the Old World, ready to spend some of his hard earned cash. He dies, and immediately all respect for the family disappears, the hotel proprietor insists that the body be disposed of immediately. The women voyage home with the body. The end? Perhaps the most interesting part was the couple who were paid by the ship company to voyage on this or that cruise ship and pretend to be deeply in love.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television

Jerry Mander (whose parents had a delightful sense of humor when naming him) wrote this book 1977 and it wheezes across forty years to raise a shaking fist against that 20th century devil, television. It’s almost quaint to read in this age where everyone’s snoot is deep into their own tiny screens, city workers under the sidewalk watching videos on their phones, people heads down staring at their inches of entertainment instead of interacting and engaging in their surroundings. It’s a bit of a depressing and unnecessary read in this era of our first reality-show president.

Jerry tells us from the get-go that he’s a reformed advertising executive, and that’s how he had he Aha! moment— when he saw how much clients were spending to thrust images of their products into your home, compared to how little was spent by non-profits trying to get you to do the right thing (e.g. recycle).

His arguments:

  1. The mediation of experience: we no longer have direct contact with the world, everything is experienced through a film/screen/unreality.
  2. The colonization of experience: TV creates consumers, period. That’s it.
  3. The effects of TV on human beings: TV produces neuro-physiological responses in its viewers, creating confusion and submission to external images. “Taken together, the effects amount to conditioning for autocratic control.” TV loves creating passive people who soak up its message, e.g. couch potatoes. “We are only the second generation that has had to face the fact that huge proportions of the images we carry in our heads are not natural images which arrived as though they were connected to the planet… Without training in sensory cynicism, we cannot possibly learn to deal with this.”
  4. The inherent biases of TV: you only see what is shown. (How does one show empathy/kindness on TV? easier to show violence, drama)

Perhaps the best part for me was the act of reading this forty-year-old book with all the markings and scrawls and notations of other readers across the ages.

 

Beginning Again: An Autobiography Of The Years 1911 To 1918

Beginning Again - An Autobiography of The Years 1911 to 1918

So far I’ve managed to avoid Mr. Woolf, but he’s come knocking at my door finally, and I dipped into this volume of his extensive autobiography for background detail on Katherine Mansfield. On the plus side, there are minor details that he blurts out that otherwise would go untold, how at his and Virginia’s marriage ceremony on August 10 1912 at the St. Pancras Register Office, Vanessa interrupted the Registrar to ask how to go about changing her 2-year-old son Clement’s name to Quentin. There’s also a good deal of gobbledygook about VW’s “madness” and his coded entries in Tamil to chart her progress.

For the most part, it’s a dry, circuitous journey through Leonard’s years between 1911 and 1918, with occasional flashes of unintentional funny: “Journalism is a highly dangerous profession. Among its many occupational diseases is not only drink, but a kind of fatty degeneration of the mind.” He’s quite serious about this, going on at length to talk about the six years of journalism he did and how it almost wiped his mind clean.

There’s also a terrible section where he hammers home the point that Vanessa was more beautiful than Virginia. This never ceases to enrage me— you were married to a genius and yet a few decades after her death, you’re talking about how her sister was prettier. “Vanessa was, I think, usually more beautiful than Virginia. The form of her features was more perfect, her eyes bigger and better, her complexion more glowing. If Rupert [Brooke] was a goddess’s Adonis, Vanessa in her thirties had something of the physical splendour which Adonis must have seen when the goddess suddenly stood before him. To many people she appeared frightening and formidable, for she was blended of three goddesses with slightly more of Athene and Artemis in her and her face than of Aphrodite. I myself never found her formidable, partly because she had the most beautiful speaking voice that I have ever heard, and partly because of her tranquility and quietude.”  We learn from LW that Virginia was frequently laughed at by people on the street, something wasn’t quite right about her appearance. (Although we also learn the same was true of Lady Ottoline, later).

Some interesting details about starting Hogarth Press, glimpses into the years with VW, but for the most part you walk away thinking him a tremendous bore and wishing that V’s talent would have rubbed off on him a bit more from constant contact during the years they spent together.