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.

Against Everything: Essays

I have a theory that Greif founded n+1 because no one else would publish his writing. This collection is a group of essays he first put forth in that publication, launched in 2004. The only solid essay of the book was the first one he published, Against Exercise, in 2004. Maybe he worked hard at polishing it, and then once n+1 launched, his attention was diverted to managing the magazine instead of honing his writing. Besides tearing apart our culture of exercise, he touches on our food obsession, sexualizing children, Octomom & Bernie Madoff taking the brunt of anger during the financial crisis (woman & Jew, the usual targets instead of those who actually inflicted damage). There’s an embarrassing section wherein he muses about music, from Radiohead to Tribe Called Quest, cataloging his attempt to learn to rap as a Jew from Boston. Add in an overly boring section on reality TV, a dash of the trailer park near Walden Pond, a nip of police and Zuccotti Park, and you’ve got the book of essays.

In Against Exercise he calls out that what used to be private is now on display, gym rats obsessing about their numbers and enslaved by the routine. Another observation is that jogging is “a direct invasion of public space…. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

A later essay, The Concept of Experience, takes aim at readers and writers: “Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books… Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies

This started out strong but whimpered out. It’s the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman who was instrumental in codebreaking during the two great 20th century wars. Elizebeth met her husband William on a private estate, both paid researchers for millionaire George Fabyan, Elizebeth paid to prove that a code embedded in Shakespeare shows his works were written by Bacon. The pair marry and end up becoming the best codebreakers in the U.S., working side by side. Of course, only William was recognized and promoted to high rank… at least until his mental breakdown. Elizebeth carried on, supporting him and the children and running her own codebreaking crew out of the Coast Guard during Prohibition, then being swept into the Navy during WW2. She caught some Nazis and all of the credit was slurped up by J.Edgar Hoover. I did appreciate that the author devoted a lot of space to showing how the codes worked and including examples. The petering-out of my interest was caused by his constant wide-eyed amazement that such an amazing woman could be swept under the rug of history until he came along to shine a light on her archives.

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream

It is refreshing and almost soothing to see that the same issues we’re grappling with now have been around for a while. This book came out 30 years ago in 1988 and the voices sound like they’ve been interviewed today—grappling with greed, capitalism, racism, neo-nazis, ultra-religious nuts, worrying about nuclear war and quality of life declining for future generations. Somehow this takes a bit of the sting out of the slap we were dealt in 2016 with the election of McDonald Tr*mp—this stuff has been simmering for a long time, we were just in our progressive bubble and refused to see it. The only real difference is that unions were a lot more prevalent back then. Now, they’re an anomaly. And more people were actively protesting nukes.

Per his usual style, Terkel interviews hundreds of folks and lets their words do the talking. Art Spiegelman kvetches about art students not knowing anything about the 1960s (“They had never heard of underground comics. Nobody in the class had ever heard of Robert Crumb. This is not the general public we’re talking about. These people are aspiring to be cartoonists…”) and he had to explain protests against the Vietnam War to his class. Another teacher discusses how censorship has morphed into people withdrawing books they don’t like from the library, “often one that is feminist in theme”, paying the fine and the book is never replaced.

I particularly liked Isabelle Kuprin’s interview: “I’m a copywriter for an ad agency. It involves being a total asshole. I do it for the money, it’s easy and horrible. I do nothing good for society. I mean, I help people sell cheese. The talent is being able to sit in meetings and listen to people talk about an adjective for four hours.”

Douglas Roth is also a hero– a pastor in a small Pennsylvania town that was ravaged by steel mills closing, he led an effort to get the bank to reinvest in the town. One of their tactics was to send people with $10 to ask for that in pennies and to drop some of them, get in line, pick them up, ask for nickels, cause chaos. Another was a fish action: taking out safety deposit boxes and filling them with frozen fish. “By Monday, they were beginning to raise their own odor. Boy it was really something! They had to drill out the boxes. They drilled into one lady’s jewels and somebody else’s heroin.”

Another hero: Jean Gump, mother of 12, jailed for a demonstration at a nuclear silo. As part of her interview, she reveals the ridiculousness of the government, telling the story about an inmate who lay in the yard and got a sunburn then an incident report was written up for “destruction of government property” because she destroyed her own skin.

Entertainment age: TV!

Echoes of current day ring out in this: “There’s this constant need to be entertained. Every kid has his little Walkman radio, playing tapes… There’s this constant need to be distracted. I think this is a rejection of thought.”

TV is blamed frequently. “Now you don’t talk to anybody ’cause you got your head stuck in that TV.” Also: “Television is fucking up the country completely, making us more violent and more druggy. The Sistine Chapel ceiling of American creativity is the thirty-second television commercial. That’s where America’s genius is concentrated. What are they telling us to do? Consume, look after number one, pamper yourself.”

“Television could be a very great thing for politics. It could create the revival of the stump. Instead, it actually destroys analysis, debate, reason, and substitutes advertising. One-liners. Two-liners take up too much time.”

Racism

Reagan’s election on race: “Reagan made it very accepted to be a white bigot. It’s the most fashionable thing. Now they say: America is white… When I was comin’ up, it was embarrassing to be considered a racist or bigot. Now I think people take pride in it.”

Football controversy

Another similarity to current times: in 1987 there was a football players’ strike. “What really disturbed me was the attitude of the fans. How easily they were manipulated into support-not of the players, whom they come to see and love to watch-but of the owners, who never played a game in their lives… It was amazing to hear million-dollar sportscasters criticize half-million dollar ballplayers: ‘They make too much money.'”

Somewhat related: “People are really not interested in politics. They’ve got too many other interests. You find people know so much about football.If they knew the same amount about the stock market, they’d be millionaires. Trivialities have overwhelmed us.”

Politics

While we’re on the subject of politics: “The scandals, open or secret, are happening so regularly, it’s as if one is constantly irritated by a blow on the shins to a point where he’s no longer sensitive. What the Reagan administration has discovered is that that which becomes commonplace is no longer a scandal. The violations have been unprecedented in their repetitiousness. People have lost their sense of outrage.”

Religion

“Unfortunately, America has got religion in a way that it hasn’t had before… Shrewd political people have recognized the potential of grabbing hold of the religions constituency… Their basic appeal is to people who feel left out. Marginalized people, who have an emotional hunger. W.H. Auden has a line about the wild prayers of longings… In a world that’s in chaos, fundamentalist religion provides you with a well ordered world, an architectonic world. It helps you get through. These programs have a lot of appeal to people without a sense of history… It’s fast food. It’s just there, it’s bland, it’s inoffensive, it fills you up for a while. And it helps. Sadly. You’re given answers. You’re not presented with problems. The idea is not to reflect, because that’s disturbing.” — Roy Larson, Methodist minister, Chicago

On the opposite end, Dennis McGrath, fundamentalist Christian in Brooklyn: “Most problems in public schools come from our throwing out prayer. Where’s the authority? It comes from God. Armageddon will come, of course. It’s part of God’s plan. Why stop it? I see no reason to stop it.”

Sexism in Technology Sector

Nancy Miles is a 23-year-old engineer who graduated from Cornell in 1985. “The attrition rate is enormous, people leaving engineering, especially women. There’s a lot against us…. During the interviews, the company would ask if you could get a security clearance. Wow, I’m gonna be working at a place where the government has to know about me, know what I do, know my politics. How much of myself am I willing to give up to work in Silicon Valley?”

Black women will save us

A flight attendant whose pilot-husband regularly crosses her strike line complains about the lack of support the women have gotten in general. Except: “You know who have been doing the most fighting and sticking together in our union? Black women. Here in Chicago, black flight attendants have been our strongest core. They have been able to handle the negatives of being out on strike for six months a lot better than their white counterparts.”

Robots are here + age discrimination

“An ironic touch has been added during these past 10 years. Our life-cycle has lengthened in every decade, yet we are seeing early retirement more and more frequently… That’s the au courant phrase these days: early retirement. In some cases, it’s a euphemism for being fired. It may be a case of wanting a younger person. Or they may just do away with the job. The job is robotized or faded out. The job is eliminated. Of course, for people this age it is difficult to find work again.” – Maggie Kuhn, of the Gray Panthers, a national org militantly concerned with the rights of the elderly.

Inequality

Anthony Bouza is the police chief of Minneapolis: “As for the country, I honestly believe we are observing a decline of the republic. There’s a major shift in American values, between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. We are screwing the poor people.” This is also a guy whose wife has been arrested 5 times for protesting nuclear bomb-making plants in town.

Dumb rich people

Terkel interviews a socialite, Sugar Rautbord, who has incredibly idiotic things to say, including about her visit to the White House where she’s briefed on Grenada and thinks there is still a war there. Terkel corrects her, saying that the U.S. won the war there already. “Well, whatever. We live in a democracy, so everyone has a right to an opinion.” At the end of the interview, she says it’s important for her and her ladies to run around with their Tiffany cups out looking for donations to their pet causes. Terkel: “Tiffany what?” Sugar: “Cups out. Panhandling, you know.”

Here is New York

E.B. White’s 1948 love letter to NYC is just as readable 70 years later. It begins, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” He calls what the city gives its citizens “a dose of supplementary vitamin—the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty, and unparalleled.”

The three types of NYers are natives, commuters, and people who migrate there to live; of those, White calls the migrants the greatest, the cause of all the art and literature and energy of the city. He dismisses the commuters as a pack of locusts descending each day and not experiencing anything except the bus schedule and the closest place to get lunch from work.

NYC’s neighborhoods give much of its charm, and each small two or three block neighborhood is somewhat self-contained. No matter where you live, you’ll find within a block or two “a grocery store, a barbershop, a newsstand and shoeshine shack, an ice-coal-and-wood cellar (where you write your order on a pad outside as you walk by), a dry cleaner, a laundry, a delicatessen (beer and sandwiches delivered at any hour to your door), a flower shop, an undertaker’s parlor, a movie house, a radio-repair shop, a stationer, a haberdasher, a tailor, a drugstore, a garage, a tearoom, a saloon, a hardware store, a liquor store, a shoe-repair shop.”

This part struck me; remember, this is from 70 year ago:

New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago — and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with nerve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, toward the ultimate tip. On the West Side Highway, approaching the city, the motorist is swept along in a trance — a sort of fever of inescapable motion, goaded from behind, hemmed in on either side, a mere chip in a millrace.

Finally, it’s inevitable to recall 9/11 when he speaks of one change that no one talks about: “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

The Ethics of Sightseeing

I keep thinking about Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist so decided to see if he’d written anything else recently. This seems to be his latest book, but I hope he’s hard at work on something that layers in how the necessity of creating content for social media sites, that incessant hungry beast that demands jealousy-producing photos, has cranked tourism into overdrive.

This 2011 book has the same pitfalls of The Tourist, the muddy writing whilst pontificating in a scholarly voice. Tragically, it’s a disaster of a book with only a few redeeming qualities, outlined below. Much blather, poor planning, and overcompensating for his lack of a cohesive theory by stuffing our eyes with Lacan and Stendhal references. I hate to be a stickler, but his “slip is showing” (e.g. lack of any kind of structure) when he doesn’t bother to mark where Part 2 begins, then just slaps a lame “Part 3” heading atop a random chapter, before settling into proper single page announcement treatment of Part 4 (like Part 1).

He rails against “Staged Authenticity” that has overwhelmed all of life, how it’s not just for tourism anymore. He briefly touches on our blithe acceptance of the surveillance state, gladly handing over privacy to reap the rewards of being internet famous or going viral, “desire for fame and recognition trumping (or Trumping) all other desires.” He asks what happens when everything that was once a “societal secondary adjustment (gangster lifestyles, lost weekends, profit skimming, exercise addiction, extramarital affairs, resume inflation, test cheating, dope dealing, dope taking, food fetishism…) what happens when everything that was once a secondary adjustment becomes merely another suburban lifestyle choice?”

Mocking our forced casual fashion, “we comfortably inhabit the space of staged authenticity and dress accordingly, that is, like tourists… The same expensive exercise outfits can be worn in public by suburban women and young inner city [kids].” You can’t tell who’s important anymore by what they drive, either. Limos signify nothing, everyone wants a huge SUV. “You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Other than having money and a willingness to waste it, the purchase signifies positive nothingness; a large investment in maintaining zero specific identity, no purpose, and no direction.”

Later, he’s eviscerating the ever-present command: Enjoy! “Pleasure itself has become a new moral imperative. Today, we are all supposed to be having fun… Everyone’s life should resemble a beer commercial… In postmodernity, if you are not having fun, or appearing to be having fun, it means you have done something wrong. Someone who just ekes out a living, always doing the right thing but never getting anywhere or going anywhere must now carry the burden of guilt for having failed to ‘Enjoy!'”

One of his claims is that tourists are so overwhelmed in the presence of the Sight that they’ve come to See, they clam up, unable to speak, anxious that they don’t get it or might forget it. “The main protection tourists have devised against anxiety-provoking exigencies is manic picture taking and repetition of information about the attraction.”

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

Knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em also applies to pages in a book. After a 300+ page slog through this 900 page behemoth, I’m cutting my losses and moving on to explore for intellectual oil elsewhere.

History, I’d forgotten, is overwhelmingly the story of men, and that point came across in this Bechdel-test failing tome. There’s nary a woman in the pages, except as a whisper in the wind, a remembered comment attributed to her wit, or a nameless faceless member of a harem. Still, I persisted. I wanted to know more about this black gold that humans have pried from the earth with such desperation, the fuel that keeps my city clogged with roaring impatient engines, the insidious father of plastic.

The early story of oil was fairly interesting, which is why I gritted my teeth and kept diving once more unto the breach. From early days, people recognized the unique properties of the black goo seeping out of the earth, using it to seal roofs or boats, pave roads, keep fire going, or even as a health ointment. The earliest discovery in the U.S. was in Pennsylvania, which is where Rockefeller and Standard Oil come into the picture. As everyone got “oil fever”, Rockefeller actually got concerned when his favorite German baker traded his bakery for a low-quality oil refinery and bought him out so he would return to baking. Standard Oil brought about the new era of corporations, gobbling up competitors and becoming a vertically integrated entity (manufacture, refining, transportation, distribution, marketing). Amazingly, the U.S. was in a progressive moment that busted the trust and shattered Standard into smaller pieces. This was actually beneficial because several of the young guns were able to take over as head honchos and innovate faster.

In Russia, the Rothschilds loaned money to small producers who were competing with the Nobel family. European newspapers erroneously reported the death of Alfred Nobel and when he read his own obituary summing him up as a weapons maker and dynamite king, Nobel rewrote his will to establish the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oil was discovered in Texas around the turn of the 20th century, and scenes from the 1849 California gold rush were repeated again—shacks, saloons, gambling houses all springing up overnight. This reminded me of something I read about the gold rush where people paid for others to wait in line for their mail when the mail boat came in. In Texas: “At the barbershops, folks stood in line an hour to pay a quarter for the privilege of bathing in a filthy tub. People did not want to waste time when there was oil business to be done, so spaces near the head of the long line went for as much as one dollar. Some people made forty or fifty dollars a day, standing in line and selling their spaces to those who didn’t have time to wait.”

More similarities to today were in the description of the Czar of Russia, “the font of ineptitude… highly vulnerable to flattery, a dangerous characteristic in an autocrat… contemptuous of all the non-Russian minorities in his multinational empire and sanctioned the repression that, in turn, made them into rebels.” Ah history, how thou doth repeat thyself.

Here’s a lovely tidbit from Beaumont, Texas—prostitutes were arrested and displayed on the balcony of a hotel. “Each woman’s fine was announced and the man who paid it could keep her for twenty-four hours.”

More on the misogynist front, when King Ibn Saud’s Arabian land was secured for oil rights, the huge payment of gold came from London. “Care had been taken that all the coins bore the likeness of a male English monarch, not Queen Victoria, which, it was feared, would have devalued them in the male-dominated society of Saudi Arabia.”

The author settles into his armchair and eagerly goes into the tedious weeds of the world wars. I understand that this accelerated the importance of oil, but my god those sections were mind-numbingly dull. War is just not that interesting. At this point, I was looking down the barrel of another 500 pages and dodging his extraneous exclamation points at every turn. I gave up, I give up.

How did this win the Pulitzer?

Bauhaus: Weimar, Dessau, Berlin, Chicago

This is the heaviest book I’ve ever lugged home from the library, a whopping 12 pounds. I was tipped off to it after untangling leads from the Rauschenberg hole I fell into, mostly curious about Josef Albers. Indeed, his lecture “Creative Education” was my whole reason for ordering up this back-breaking work (p 142-143).

The 600+ pages are a must-read for any art nerds who want to get their hands on primary source materials about the history of the Bauhaus, from its origins in Weimar through its move to Dessau, to its destruction in Berlin thanks to the Nazis and finally its resurgence in Chicago. There’s a whole section of pre-history docs that show the slow buildup to the movement out of the ashes of the Arts & Crafts school.

Walter Gropius’s recommendation for founding a school of this sort, from 1916:

Whereas in the old days the entire body of man’s products was manufactured exclusively by hand, today only a rapidly disappearing small portion of the world’s goods is produced without the aid of machines. The natural desire to increase the efficiency of labor by introducing mechanical devices is growing continuously. The threatening danger of superficiality, which is growing as a consequence of this, can be opposed by the artist, who holds the responsibility for the formation and further development of form in the world, only by sensibly coming to terms with the most powerful means of modern formal design, the machine of all types, from the simplest to the most complicated, and by pressing it into his service, instead of avoiding it as a result of his failure to recognize the natural course of events. This realization will, of necessity, lead to a close partnership between the businessman and the technician on the one hand, and the artist on the other.

In the entire field of trade and industry there has arisen a demand for beauty of external form as well as for technical and economic perfection. Apparently, material improvement of products does not by itself suffice to achieve victories in international competitions. A thing that is technically excellent in all respects must be impregnated with an intellectual idea—with form—in order to secure preference among the large quantity of products of the same kind. Firms employing manual workers and small traders have, because of their very nature, never lost touch with art entirely; to influence them artistically no longer satisfies modern demands. Today, the entire industry is also confronted with the challenge of applying its mind seriously to artistic problems. The manufacturer must see to it that he adds to the noble qualities of handmade products the advantages of mechanical production… Only then will the original idea of industry—a substitute for handwork by mechanical means—find its complete realization.

A small section of colored plates was at the beginning, including this Herbert Bayer  (“Chromatic into Two Centers”), 1967.

A Christmas Carol

It has been a year of Dickens, apparently. This is my 6th Dickens book consumed this year, appropriately timed for the holidays. Gorgeous edition from the Morgan Library which included digital photographs of each page of the manuscript side-by-side with the transcribed text.

Dickens is in top form in this quickly rendered story, churned out in six weeks for the 1843 Christmas season and to help pay the bills that were crowding in. Scrooge is the main attraction, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!… self-contained and solitary as an oyster.” Marvelous character! He says if he could get his wish, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” As he tries to withstand the onslaught of Spirits, he claims that anything could upset his senses, such fragile things they are. “A little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!”

Two Years Before the Mast

I’m not sure how I managed to avoid reading Richard Henry Dana’s classic work chronicling his two years at sea, but Melville tipped me off to it again recently (Dana recites the 39th chapter of Job to keep himself entertained during his watch on board). Dana’s voyage began in 1834 out of Boston on a ship bound for California to collect hides. Once they get to San Diego, Dana is tasked with curing the cattle hides on shore and becomes familiar with the other beach denizens, learning piecemeal Hawaiian and mastering Spanish. He finagles his way onto a different ship when he learns that his original ship was going to stick around the California coast for an extra year or two, and Dana was concerned about missing too much of his “real” life (he took a few year sabbatical from Harvard studies to go oceaning).

It’s an interesting work—priceless descriptions of early California pre-Gold Rush, detailed information about the running of a ship from a worker’s perspective—but nothing nearly as astonishing as Melville’s blend of tale and poetry. I was struck by one possible coincidence/influence—did Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” originate out of Dana’s Indians who were asked to help and shook their heads saying “no quiero” ?? (Chapter XIV)

Dana’s treatment of the natives is as racist and ridiculous as you’d expect. He calls their language “the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.”

I learned that sailors call tea “water bewitched,” which I love. And his use of “holyday” made me realize that this is where “holiday” derives from.

Great quote about California that I wish were still true: “Revolutions are matters of constant occurrence in California. They are got up by men who are at the foot of the ladder and in desperate circumstances…” Also prescient is his comment about the Bay Area (circa 1935): “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Oliver Twist

Gruel, gruel world! This is Dickens’s second novel, a more gruesome and tattered look at poverty and crime in early 19th century London, peppered with bits of witticism but mostly just grim. There’s even a murder! Poor Nancy gets offed by Sikes when he suspects her of having told people of his crimes. But the main story is the eponymous Oliver Twist, an orphan raised by the state with starvation rations, farmed out to a coffin-maker as an apprentice where he runs away from more ill-treatment. Walking the 70 miles to London, he arrives fairly bedraggled and falls in with the wrong crowd. Artful Dodger, as Jack Dawkins is known, feeds him and takes him to his boss, Fagin the Jew, who leads a ring of petty thieves, stealing pocket handkerchiefs and watches and anything else of resale value. We know Oliver is different, somehow angelic in the middle of all these bad ‘uns. Of course it turns out that his parents were rather well-to-do, and he ends up with a pretty inheritance along with a parcel of happy and kind friends.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir

This is a terrible book.

It takes a certain combination of factors to get me to “rage-read” a book and this memoir overflowed with those elements. I really wanted to like it—it’s billed as a tale that weaves surfing in NYC with Moby-Dick. What could go wrong?

Justin is blindingly ignorant of his own privilege, for one thing. He chooses to go to grad school in literature because you get the summers off. His constant braying about being “poor” rings so falsely, but I didn’t start to rage read until he brags about his wealthy friend Kyle Grodin who withdrew a huge stack of money from an ATM and tossed them around like confetti, “like being inside one of those state-lottery globes where it snows money.”

Bragging is—at least— a consistent theme through the book. Attending a Unitarian church service (after whining that you can’t admit to going to church without people looking at you like you’re an alien), he looks around the room at the gray-haired congregation and realizes that the minister’s sermon around Green Day lyrics is probably going over their heads. “It’s a safe bet that I’m the only one in the room with remotely punk rock roots: the only one with multiple tattoos, or who’s seen Fugazi live from the front row of a Wyoming cowboy bar, or who’s skated Burnside solo on a rainy Christmas Eve.”

Remember how he’s poor? Yet when he goes to a donation-based therapist, it’s “a foreign concept for someone who’s spent thousands of dollars in therapy.” Get ready to start feeling really uncomfortable, because this man is a coddled wreck. He goes to this counselor to get advice about a woman who broke up with him 6 months ago. This is where we’re treated (vomit) to a description of this ex-girlfriend, “She was and is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known: sea-green eyes and impossibly long lashes, olive complexion, and aquiline nose and thick dark hair.” Surprise, surprise, she doesn’t want to get back together with him. He goes into shock (I’m not making this up) and somewhat loses his mind: “I thought about calling Nicole [the woman who rejected him], or 911, or the psychic hotline, or every woman in the phone book until someone came to help me.” What the actual fuck? He thinks all women exist solely to talk him out of his funk.

This might be a good time to mention that in the first 30 pages of this mess, he tries to work an “I’m bisexual” vibe in when he visits this dude, Asa. Justin’s dropping Queequeg hints all over the place—they’re hard to miss. “He reaches over and places his hand on my shoulder, squeezes. ‘I’m glad you’re here, man,’ he says. Our eyes meet for a moment, then I glance at the open window, through which I can see his bed and stack of surfboards, and part of me wants to lean back over and kiss him… I realize that I sort of want to spend the night over at Asa’s… Instead of kissing him, I make him promise to take me surfing.” I have no problem with bisexuality, but my god he is such a terrible writer. And the bi-claim goes stale quickly when it’s only women who get reduced to terms of physical appearance from now on, like the “good-looking city women who are out for the weekend” or Lisa Mae who is “totally beautiful.”

I had to take a break mid-way through to recover from eye-roll strain. “Dawn stays out in the ocean for another half hour, while Teagan and I nap and flirt on the beach. It’s late afternoon by the time we make it back to Brooklyn. I shower and put on a T-shirt and jeans and cowboy boots. Before heading out I do a quick double take in the mirror, a little surprised how surfing has transformed my upper body.” He is so in love with himself, and it comes through in every whine and annoying comment.

Remember Nicole? She’s not the only ex-girlfriend in this story. A more recent breakup is Karissa, whose acne is described in disgusting detail when she comes to visit him pre-breakup. But now he’s mooning over her and “Then it hits me—what feels like an epiphany: I want to be with Karissa.” When he calls her in Portland, he finds out that she’s happily dating someone else. “Feeling panicked and desperate, I tell her how I’ve dated some people too, but that I realize now how special what we had was…”

I guess this is as good a place as any to mention that this idiot goes to “men’s meetings” as a way to deal with his “addiction” to relationships. I’ll just let that sit here.

At one of these men’s meetings (try not to giggle imagining these terrible get-togethers), a man mentions that he’s dealing with his ex working in the same office with him. Justin gets a jolt of anxiety listening to his story, thinking “what if Karissa’s new boyfriend has a bigger dick than me?” I think I actually hooted with laughter here.

Throughout this sad tale of a Colorado spoiled brat who moves to NYC and surfs at Rockaway while going to men’s meetings and agonizing over whether to quit his job or not, he tries to weave in more personal details along with the terrible pastiche of Melville trivia. This is how we learn about his grandmother who loved spending time at the beach in California, playing her ukulele. “It’s a little sad that Mariana stayed in Missouri, her creative connection to the ocean relegated to an old-fashioned bathtub…” Even sadder is that she had children that in turn had you, my friend. His uncle got kicked out of Scientology, if that gives you any indication of the type of genius that runs in this family.

Justin dons his professor cap to teach us about “dark romanticism” vs the romance novels that he’s editing for his day job. Adopt a nasally tone as you read this in your head: “As a genre, romance traces back to masters of the novel like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. I have nothing but respect for both writers; I’d read and loved Jane Eyre. And a century later, their brand of spooky romance is back in vogue, and I think it’s sort of cool.” Sort of cool. Right. And let’s just skip over Samuel Richardson and Walter Scott, shall we? Back at work, Justin is editing romance novels and in BIG TROUBLE because he’s also an addict, remember? He’s in a 12-step program dealing with co-dependence and it makes him squirmy to read hot and heavy text all day. “Even worse, there’s a new emphasis on Latina romance, stuff that gets really steamy, and that reminds me, page after agonizing page, of Karissa.” (Page after agonizing page? I feel your pain.) When he brings up this pathetic complaint to his group, his “new Puerto Rican friend Carlos” tells him to wake up: “So you have to edit some romance novels, so what? Is reading a book going to kill you?” Carlos is the only sane person in this memoir. Justin ignores their advice not to quit his job, because, white male privilege.

My favorite part of the book is when Justin gets carjacked in Denver. As he drives to his stepsister’s house, he muses about how much tougher his Brooklyn hood is: “I laugh inwardly at what she considers rough… it has no graffiti tags, rats, broken beer bottles, used condoms, or female junkies shooting smack in broad daylight.” Female junkies? Thanks for clarifying. Anyway, his rental car gets stolen along with his laptop and backpack, and this gives him carte blanche to start whining about PTSD. And when he’s back at the beach in NYC, “I notice my heart punching in my chest when a couple thugs blasting 50 Cent in a lowered Nissan circle around the parking lot.”

He gets some anti-depressants and thinks he’ll end up at Bellevue. “The evening after my Ambien reaction, I call my mother and tell her what happened. Clearly distressed, she asks if I’ve considered hurting myself. [INSERT DRAMATIC PAUSE] I tell her the truth.” Please do us all a favor and off yourself already.

Meanwhile, he’s been offered a job in Portland and cannot get off his ass to move there. After accepting the job, he lags for another few months before moving. During that time, there’s a break-in at the office and computers and monitors are stolen. “I know it’s because the organization is a captainless ship, in chaos without me.” Ow, ow, ow, my eye roll strained again.

He hears some voices (not making this up) that tell him to move to Porland. He asks the voices what to do about Karissa, who lives there. “At this there is laughter; a voice explains that I’m not to worry, that I’ll meet a girl who does yoga and surfs.” OMG this guy.