The Razor’s Edge

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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…”

 

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

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.

Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father

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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.

Night

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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.”

The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter

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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.

Up and Down California in 1860–1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

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.

California’s first hipster?

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?

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

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Much more helpful than the saggy book about plots I just referenced was this autobiography by Harry Crews. In most bios & autobios I get bogged down by all the tedious details of the ancestors. I don’t usually care about the mothers and fathers of the main event. But Crews brings these to life by telling stories about them, especially his father who died before he was old enough to remember him. He relies on the trick Twain uses frequently, retelling a tale that’s told to him. Crews grows up in South Georgia and describes life on the farm, playing with his family’s sharecropper’s son, making up stories from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Great writing, interesting tales. “They start talking about God. We know the horror story’s coming.” It’s a way of life that revolves around stories, the things that keep us alive and human. I want to catch a bit of Crews’ magic and weave some of my own.

Plot: how to build short stories and novels that don’t sag, fizzle, or trail off…

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Meh. Started out strong with some useful tips but the pressure of having to fill 100+ pages overwhelmed him.

  • Cause and effect make up plot.
  • Effective plots: struggle, conflict, dissatisfaction, aspiration, and choice.
  • You can create movement by shifting between perspectives
  • Exposition can come via inner monologue, omniscient narrator between scenes, dialogue, or via props (a card from a child lets you know that the woman is a mother, etc.)

An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 1)

Orwell left instructions in his will forbidding a biography, so this is as close as we presumably can get to know the man hiding behind a pseudonym (although biographies have, of course, been written). Unfortunately, it comes with a big smack in the face for me, Blair/Orwell’s misogyny coming through clearly when you read condensed notes for his books and his letters/journalism. (His love of Henry Miller, his comments that women “as usual, don’t understand politics but have adopted the views of their husbands as wives ought,” among many other examples.)

That said, I can take a deep breath and appreciate some of the bits, such as the first hint in 1932 of his desire for anonymity seen in a letter to his literary agent, Moore, asking him to “please see that it [Down and Out in Paris and London] is published pseudonymously, as I am not proud of it.” In another later, he suggests possible names to use, such as P.S. Burton, the name he uses when tramping, or possibly Kenneth Miles, George Orwell, or H.Lewis Allways. “I rather favour George Orwell.”

I also enjoyed some of the pieces I hadn’t seen before, like Clink, his description of being locked up as a drunk (intentionally), where we learn the delicious epithet of “Fucking toe-rag!”

He seems to fancy his friend Eleanor Jaques, who ends up marrying another of his friends (Dennis Collings) instead. Blair signed his letters “with much love” and was always pressing Jaques for visits. Another woman correspondent was Brenda Salkeld, on whom Blair lavished intense literary instruction, telling her what to read and what to think about Ulysses which he revered above all. (Garnett’s The Twilight of the Gods is a “positive duty” to read). He’s dismissive of Gertrude Stein (shocker!), saying that Wyndham Lewis’s takedown of her in The Enemy wasn’t worth the effort.

Several of his book reviews are included, which I enjoyed for the content and the structure (always looking for tips!), but I really dug the letters. From these, we learn that he opens a village store as a way to cover his rent while he writes in the morning (store open in the afternoon); his discussion of the benefits of a store that sells sundries vs a bookstore sticks with me—essentially people browse forever in a bookstore and never buy, but in a real shop, they come with a purpose and are less troublesome.

He also has a friend (Jack Common) stay in his cottage to care for the chickens and goats while he’s in Morocco (giving him instruction on what type of toilet paper won’t clog the septic system). And I loved the tale of stealing a copy of H.G. Wells’s Country of the Blind from his fellow school friends because they were all so eager to read it (“It’s a very vivid memory of mine, stealing alone the corridor at about four o’clock on a midsummer morning into the dormitory where you slept and pinching the book from beside your bed.”).

I hadn’t realized Orwell was in contact with John Middleton Murry as well (“I heard from Murry who seemed in the weeps about something” – which doesn’t surprise me). He also agitates friends to try and stockpile paper and printing equipment ahead of the coming war (in 1938), rightfully thinking that they’ll be in short supply when war does break out. (“I cannot believe that the time when one can buy a printing press with no questions asked will last for ever.”)

His essay on joining the Independent Labour Party is instructive: “… the era of free speech is closing down. The freedom of the press in Britain was always something of a fake, because in the last resort, money controls opinion… The time is coming… when every writer will have the choice of being silenced altogether or of producing the dope that a privileged minority demands.”

Least liked was the extensive takedown of Dickens, but he slightly redeems himself in the 5th section by saying “By this time anyone who is a lover of Dickens, and who has read as far as this, will probably be angry with me.”

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

For once I wholeheartedly agree with the Pulitzer Prize committee, this is an incredible book. Imminently readable, thoroughly researched with years of fieldwork layered on with later years of surveys and data analysis. I appreciate more than anything that he wrote it third person, taking the pesky “I” out of the finished product because, as he says at the end, the story is about bigger game than just how he felt about witnessing such poverty and destruction of lives. The footnotes are glorious, dripping with facts and backup assertions, so don’t skip them.

What Matthew Desmond lays bare in this book are the myriad of ways the system fails poor people and rigs the game against them. SSI payments get reduced or cut off once you achieve $2,000 in your bank account, discouraging any kind of saving that might help give them a leg up in extricating from the situation. Besides giving us a seat of unprecedented access to the unraveling of these lives, Desmond layers in bits of research like psychologists showing self-preservation pitted against empathy usually results in empathy losing. “Humans act brutally under brutal conditions.”

Some follow ups: Robert Fogelson The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929, Henry Zorbaugh The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side from 1929

Definite thumbs up and highly recommended.

Effi Briest

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This forgotten gem by Theodor Fontane in 1895 is well-worth a read. Thomas Mann said in 1919 that it was among the six most significant novels ever written, yet it has been completely forgotten by most of the literati. The story involves young Effi Briest, a girl who’s married off to her mother’s ex-boyfriend (!!), Baron Instetten, many decades older than her. What could go wrong?! The story unfolds slowly but not ploddingly, she’s semi-abandoned in a frontier town while her husband climbs the ranks of official life. Along the way she has a flirtation/affair with one of his friends, and when they must leave for Berlin, she’s relieved to end it all. Six years pass, and when her daughter bangs her head on a stair, bleeding profusely, the maids crack open Effi’s desk to find some bandages. Later, out of the chaos, the Baron discovers a packet of letters and reads them. Despite so much time having passed, he immediately heads out and challenges the guy to a duel, killing him. Effi is then truly abandoned, stripped of her child and reputation, only surviving due to her parents’ largess. Later she has a doctor convince her parents to let her come back and live with them, where she later dies. Just before leaving this mortal coil, the Baron has some twinges of regret, realizing that he’s forsaken happiness forever.

The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain

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I’m on a hunt for specific tips around the craft of story-telling, and who better to ask than Mark Twain? This collection features what the editor feels are the best of his stories, plus a snippet in the appendix “How to tell a story” comes from Twain in 1895.

Perhaps my favorite was “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm” from 1882, wherein Twain relates a tale told to him (a frequent device) by a man who foolishly invested and doubled down and tripled down on his burglar alarm investment. Delicious first sentence, “The conversation drifted smoothly and pleasantly along from weather to crops, from crops to literature from literature to scandal, from scandal to religion; then took a random jump, and landed on the subject of burglar alarms.”

Also of interest, the extracts from Adam’s diary (and later, from Eve’s, which wasn’t as interesting).

But mostly I was there for the writing tips, and nuggets like this are sprinkled throughout: “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

“To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.”

The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains: Oddball Criminals from Comic Book History

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A few years ago I enjoyed the The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes from Comic Book History and was pleased to see this compilation out recently. My favorite era of comics seems to be in that 1940s-1970s range—anything in the 80s and beyond seems too slick, too computer-drawn. Like the previous collection, you’re treated to at least a cover shot of the comic, plus puns/snarky comments alongside.

This one was my favorite, not for the artwork but the concept… the villian was “The Jingler”, an evil poet who realizes the only way to get his work published is by killing people and stuffing it in their mouths or on their person.

This one was for a villain that was both he and she, ingeniously named “He/She”. But I like the exclamation, “Strip my gears and call me shiftless!” Gonna borrow that one.

This guy has a very capitalist attitude about paying workers:

Finally, one for B:

How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood

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This book started with such promise but fizzled once it got to SF. Peter Moskowitz puts the spotlight on New Orleans, Detroit, SF, and NYC to show various stages of gentrification. The New Orleans and Detroit sections were good, but maybe I just don’t know enough about those cities to judge correctly? He falls flat in SF, making this the shortest section and padding it with a lot of Solnit quotes and facts from federal housing programs that mostly apply to NYC. He also makes some weird statements that don’t hold up, like the fact that the Mission is gentrifying faster b/c “it’s serviced by both of San Francisco’s train systems (Muni and BART),” not mentioning the main reason as close proximity to the highways leading south to Silicon Valley (in fact he barely mentions the Valley, and forgetting completely CalTrain but who can blame him). He redeems himself slightly by mentioning the infamous Dropbox soccer fiasco where they tried to kick neighborhood kids out and when asked how long they’d lived in the community, the techies said “Who gives a shit? Who cares about the neighborhood?”

Shocking quotes pulled together from various interviews, such as the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco saying that they had M-16s locked and loaded, “I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.” A real estate developer let loose to a German newspaper saying “Most importantly, the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city, and we hope they don’t come back.” And in Detroit, an official blatantly said “Bring on more gentrification. I’m sorry, but I mean, bring it on.”

He states some things repeatedly, begging for an editor, and sometimes contradicting points (like the amount that Twitter tax benefited was $56M or $34M depending on which page you were on).

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

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Finally, a book of Benjamin’s essays that is somewhat approachable and readable! It comes with a long intro essay from Hannah Arendt, and essays by Benjamin on Kafka, Baudelaire, Proust, Nikolai Leskov, on translation, on book collecting, and art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Despite being over-Kafka-nated, his essay was enjoyable especially after Arendt set the stage of their similarities (K only 10 years older, both alien Jews in a German land, both geniuses who found posthumous fame). I also found a lot of use in the essay on Leskov’s storytelling since I’m currently obsessed with the idea of plot/tales/stories.

As always, Benjamin can be relied on to provide quality content about boredom:

“If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places —the activities that are intimately associated with boredom—are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.”