We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

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

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

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

Obama: An Intimate Portrait

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

Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001

Wonderful time capsule of the 90s, packed with typewriters, anarchists, midnight bike rides, living in tree houses and squats, roaming from Asheville to Vermont to Berkeley to Eureka to NYC, advice about surviving abuse, herbal remedies, recipes, scenes from punk life, basement shows, lists of books and 101 ways to get romance, her sister Caty and farming and building greenhouses, resources for depression (including herbs: guarana, damiana, peppermint, rosemary, gotu kola). Doris is one of my favorite zines and I was lucky to be able to catch up on these early issues via the anthology. Amazing amazing amazing.

The Allure of the Archives

This book will delight anyone who has spent any time doing research. Translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, this was originally published in 1989 before the vast digitization of archives had begun in earnest. Farge leads us through the Parisian archives of criminal complaints from the 18th century, peppering her account with scenes from her own time—racing other researchers to get the best spot, shivering with the cold, hoping that the lights stayed on. She also brings to life those characters she encounters on the page, the man who embroidered a letter to his wife on a handkerchief while in jail, a packet of seeds that had not been opened in 2 centuries.

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.”

Girls Gone Old

Fiona Helmsley’s collection of essays is sometimes satisfying. Best are the recollections of her first experience of writing on the internet for Livejournal in 2002, early pioneer blogging, creating a new identity from her mom’s home in Connecticut as she detoxed from drugs. Also the essay on the power of saying no, w/r/t Elliot Rodger and his idiotic manifesto and massacre because women wouldn’t sleep with him. Overall, it wasn’t terribly inspiring. I think I’d like it better couched as short stories, reality masquerading behind a thin film of fiction.

London Fog: The Biography

If you’re wondering how it’s possible to write over 300 pages about London’s fog, I’m just as perplexed. Corton relies heavily on quotes from Dickens (primarily Bleak House, but also Pickwick and The Old Curiosity Shop), interspersed with illustrations from Cruikshank, Claude Monet, Punch, and stills from Hitchcock. She also uses a lot of American authors to make her point, noting that Melville is quoted in the OED’s citation for the first expression of “pea soup” to describe the fog in 1849 (Corton offhandedly sums up Moby-Dick as “vast, baggy, and iconic”), in addition to Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain’s impressions of the fog.

What’s odd is her complete lack of British voices about London’s fog except for Dickens’ plaintive wail from the 19th century. What of those essential Londoners, Pepys of the 17th century, Defoe of the 18th, and Woolf of the 20th? Corton is eerily silent, smothering their voices which are conspicuously absent from the text.

The book in a nutshell: London’s geography always made it susceptible to natural fog. Coupled with pollution from coal fires, wood fires, and the industrial revolution, things got out of hand. The Clean Air Act of of 1956 solved the problem.

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.”

Passenger to Teheran

This starts with a beautiful introductory section, worth quoting in full. In addition to dissecting the trouble of capturing one’s travel experience in words, Vita discusses the art of writing (and reading) letters.

One nit-pick I have is with the photo captions; her son, Nigel Nicolson injects unnecessary commentary into the story, saying Vita “unaccountably fails to mention” that Howard Carter was excavating King Tut’s tomb when she was there, and that Dorothy Wellesley “to her disgust” was not mentioned in the book although she traveled with Vita as far as India. In her defense, Vita only started writing the book once she left India, and the passage up to that point in the book is quite solid without the mention of her companions or the specific details at Luxor. She’s poetic in her descriptions, humorous about travel, and contains all the shortcomings of rich travelers of that age—low-key racism and dismissing the various landscapes as being empty sandy vistas. On occasion she makes up for it with interesting observations, such as “To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend, as a paradox which may please the most fastidious taste. Indeed, I came to believe that every book should be read in the most incongruous surroundings possible, for then it imposes its own unity in a way that startles the reader when he has to emerge again into his own world; thus, when I passed from a ball at the hotel de Guermantes into the little dining saloon of the s.s. Varela, Proust’s world was still truer than the ship and I was puzzled to know, really, where I was.”

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.”

Knole and the Sackvilles

Vita takes us on a house tour of her ancestral home, the ridiculously large and elegant Knole in Kent. Apparently this is the 3rd largest residential home in England. Rumor has it that there are 52 staircases (for each week of the year) and 365 rooms, but she never could be bothered to count them. Growing up here in the care of her grandfather, you somehow lack pity for Vita when she muses, “after a lifetime of familiarity, I still catch myself pausing to think out the shortest route from one room to another. Four acres of building is no mean matter.”

Having access to hordes of documents locked up in chests on the property, Vita reconstructs its history from the 15th century onward, ignoring the previous centuries due to lack of documentation. In the 16th century it was briefly given to Henry VIII, then granted to the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth in 1586. Vita charts the ups and downs of her illustrious family with the help of letters, diaries, speeches, along with contemporary accounts from the likes of Pepys, Macaulay, etc.

The most interesting person to waft from the dusty pages was Lady Anne Clifford, who died in 1624. “It so happens that a remarkably complete record has been left of existence at Knole in the early 17th century—an existence compounded of extreme prodigality of living, tedium, and perpetual domestic quarrels. We have a private diary, in which every squabble and reconciliation between Lord and Lady Dorset is chronicled; every gown she wore; every wager he won or lost (and he made many); every book she read; every game she played at Knole with the steward or with the neighbors; every time she wept; every day she ‘sat still, thinking the time to be very tedious.'” Lady Anne Clifford was an heiress in her own right, married off to the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville, who was a spendthrift who wanted access to her fortune which she denied him.

Menu for banquet in July 1636

Also of interest are the myriad of lists of expenses for various items, ranging from armor to banquet menus. Another list is of slang used by thieves in the 17th century that was scribbled on the back of another document with words like “bleating-cheat” (sheep), “tip me my earnest” ( give me my part), “fambles” (hands), “knapper of knappers” (sheep stealer), “lullabye cheat” (child), and “mumpers” (gentile beggars).

 

Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings

A smorgasbord of various pieces across Vita’s career—travel writing from Persia, diaries of her exhausting lecture trip across the U.S., excerpts from novels, bits of poetry, letters, diaries, memoirs. I enjoyed her incessant carping about Americans being loud, dumb, and fat in her 1933 travel diary, her inflicting a cold blast of air on reporters in Chicago by leaving the window open, her insistence that the red on her cheeks was not rouge—go ahead and wipe it off, she encouraged, so much train travel and arriving dirty and tired.

I’m also keen on reading Passenger to Teheran in full, especially on the heels of reading MacCannell’s thoughts on tourism. VW got letters from Vita and noted in her diary that “[Vita] is not clever: but abundant and fruitful, truthful too.” After getting the manuscript for the book, she declared it full of “nooks and crannies.”