Walking in Berlin: A Flaneur in the Capital

I cannot resist books by flaneurs. This is a translation of Hessel’s 1929 book of walking through Weimar-era Berlin, although the longest section is his tour of the city by car. This edition includes an intro essay by Walter Benjamin which has a great quote, “The flaneur memorizes like a child, asserts his wisdom like an old man.”

Sadly much of this was not worth perusing, perhaps due to my lack of connection to Berlin, seen only in fleeting glimpses over a decade ago. My favorite part was the first chapter, The Suspect, wherein Hessel describes the suspicion of everyone he meets when he saunters through their avenues.

“Walking slowly down bustling streets is a particular pleasure. Awash in the haste of others, it’s a dip in the surf. But my dear fellow citizens of Berlin don’t make it easy, no matter how nimbly you weave out of their way. I attract wary glances whenever I try to play the flaneur among the industrious; I believe they take me for a pickpocket.”

Perhaps this would be worth reading as one flew to Germany. Otherwise, it gets a solid pass from me.

San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay

Mostly useful for the amusing perspective the various writers had in 1940 when this was compiled, such as their attitude about the Western Addition:

“Like the backyard of some imposing but superannuated mansion, the Western Addition is cluttered with the discarded furniture of the city’s Gilded Age. It is a curious district whose claim to distinction is its disdain of all pretense. It is not beautiful, and yet San Franciscans refer to it almost affectionately as ‘The Fillmore,’ the name of its busiest thoroughfare, and love it, as Charles Caldwell Dobie says, ‘for its supreme grotesqueness.’ ” Ah yes, those grotesque Victorian houses that dared to be protected from the 1906 fire and straggle into the 20th century. The book calls them “the preposterous old houses built here in the 1870s and 1880s.” Truly hilarious, as these gems are what make the neighborhood so unique in this age of excessive blue glass buildings.

This is a quaint look at SF from the ancient viewpoint of nearly 80 years ago, littered with ignorant statements about the natives and non-white immigrants. They make it seem like the land was just sitting here empty, waiting to be civilized by white man, whereas reading Tending The Wild leads to a more evolved view that the natives created the abundant garden that whites found.

There are a few things that haven’t changed much from 1940, such as the crowd that hangs out by the Main Library: “A ragged senate of unemployed philosophers gathers daily along the ‘wailing wall’ by the south entrance of the San Francisco Public Library…” This of course was the Carnegie library that now houses the Asian Art musuem. The present day site of the main branch was an open park, Marshall Square, where “women air their babies and exercise their dogs, schoolboys play football, and down-and-outers snatch a bit of sun and sleep.” There used to be a cemetary on the spot until 1870.

Interesting to read their list of restaurants where special care is taken to note whether the place has a bar or not. The dreary pre-war days seem to have lulled the writers into a dull sense of boredom, and they bemoan the lost yesteryear of SF: “While the graft investigation scandals of 1906 had forced the toning down of the city’s night life, it was not until the war years [WWI] and the advent of Prohibition that the death knell of San Francisco’s gaiety was sounded… Over old San Francisco, twilight had fallen, from which it never would emerge. San Francisco would be the same city when the era of sobriety came at last to its end, but, like wine in a bottle once opened, then corked and laid away, its flavor would be gone.” Yikes, WPA writers! So maudlin!

It was fun to mark certain landmarks that were mentioned to go back and see what’s there now on the 2017 map, like the Hotel Empire at the corner of Leavenworth and McAllister, now a part of Hastings.

Some things learned:

  • In 1853, a newspaper surveyed the town and found 537 places where liquor was sold. Of those, 125 did not even “keep an onion to modify the traffic.” What a great phrase!
  • Buena Vista “with its deeply shaded nooks smelling always of dampness” was set aside in 1868 as the first plot of the city’s park system.
  • I’ve never heard of this park! Mount Olympus near 17th and Clayton.
  • Alta Plaza was turned into a park by McLaren when he filled a deserted rock quarry with trash, topped it with soil, planted lawns and laid out walks. South side stairway is a reproduction of the grand stairway up to the casino in Monte Carlo.
  • Baker Beach (property of the War Department when this was written) named for the same guy that Baker St, Fort Baker, and the town in Oregon are named after – Edward Dickinson Baker.
  • The authors make a distinction between motion picture houses and “legitimate theaters.”
  • Tule fog is a winter phenomenon, different from the more prevalent white fog.
  • The most important industry in 1937 was printing & publishing, output valued at $40M.
  • How times have changed. In 1940, “employers estimate that half the population of San Francisco consists of union members and their families.”
  • Pedestrians and cyclists used to pay $0.10 toll for the Golden Gate bridge. Also, the authors struggle with the fact that “San Francisco has no single spectacular landmark by which the world may identify it,” not realizing that the GG Bridge was destined to become that landmark.

Vanessa Bell

I wish I’d been able to jet over to London for the exhibition this spring at the Dulwich Picture Gallery of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Instead, I ordered up this gorgeous catalog from the exhibition and enjoyed the photographs, the wallpaper, the furnishings, the pottery and plates, but most of all the paintings. The book has several scholarly essays about Bell’s work, her upbringing, her unconventional life, and—of course— her sister. They include one of Virginia’s poems which might have been her response to Nessa’s gripe that writers don’t really deal in colors. Quite a lovely collection, and I’m sure seeing all the works together would be overwhelming and amazing.

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Brilliant collection of Jessica Mitford’s articles along with explanatory notes about her process. This might be one of the most helpful books about writing that I’ve ever read. Her emphasis on picking a subject that you’re completely absorbed in is absolutely right—if you’re not mesmerized by what you’re learning, you’re unlikely to infect others with curiosity from your piece. Being over-prepared for interviews is of the utmost importance, especially when interviewing hostile sources. She also highly recommends dipping into the trade magazines/publications of the industry you’re muckraking—find out what they really say when they think it’s just themselves listening. (This is on obvious display in her wonderful book about the funeral industry). For interviews, you’ll tap into Friendlies and Unfriendlies, but in both cases your questions should slide from kind to cruel. Her suggestions around organization were incredibly helpful, recommending a letter writing technique to distill all the info you’re learning into interesting bits for your friends.

As for the articles themselves, there are some real gems in here—her trip through the South to find out how they’re handling integration, her road trip story that gives the life hack of making person-to-person calls and asking for yourself at the other end so that your family doesn’t have to pay or asking for Minnie S. Ota to let them know that you’re in Minnesota, the amazing takedown of the Famous Writers Correspondence Class (a Utah Congressman read her whole article into the Congressional Record as a warning to the public), her interview with George Jackson at San Quentin, her brief but fraught tenure as a sociology professor at San Jose State where she refused the loyalty oath and fingerprinting.

Her recs on texts about writing:

  • The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (“The last chapter, ‘An Approach to Style,’ is particularly rewarding.”)
  • On Writing Well by Zinsser (looks like I read this 10 years ago and probably am due for a refresher)

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy’s memoir started out strong but quickly went down the toilet. She sets up the scene well, we’re primed to hear a tale of disaster when we learn that she lost her baby, her spouse, and her house. But she digresses and then puts us on a cliffhanger that honestly makes no sense. On a writing assignment in South Africa, she spends a weekend in a national park. “On the day that I first saw a pride of lions flopping on their backs in the dry yellow grass and licking each other… I made the mistake that would lead to my first real regret… On that morning, I made the first of many mistakes that would stack up on top of one another until they blocked out the sun.” And? What was that mistake? We never find out. My mistake was in reading this all the way through, wondering if she’d ever veer back on track.

She leaves her alcoholic wife when she’s in rehab, has her baby early in Mongolia where it dies, and has to sell their Shelter Island house to pay for Lucy’s rehab. Then she hints at a future happy ending with the doctor who treated her after the early birth, Dr. John. It’s all a big shrug to me, if offered to take it or leave it I would recommend not even touching it.

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing Russia

Occasionally reading mediocre books can give a writer both hope and despair—hope that she’ll eventually get off her tuchus to do such a thing and despair that if she does it, she’ll churn out a similar piece of tepid prose. Lisa Dickey’s book was not very good, but I read it anyway. I will not get those two hours back, but I persevered. We can’t always read top quality books in life.

Basic premise is that she lucks into a cross-country journey with a photojournalist back in 1995, decides to re-do the trip 10 years later with a different photographer then another 10 years later by herself. As I read increasingly boring travel tales which any woman-on-the-street could provide, I wondered if her choice to do it alone stemmed from not being able to find someone to do it with her. (See also: her original photographer opting out of the 2005 trip)

We’re regaled with the mind-numbing details of travel horror I’ve come to expect from lending half an ear to older relatives back from cruises where the fitness center didn’t have a band-aid. Dickey spares no detail, telling us about waking up in a wet bed from her own diarrhea, being subjected to a smoking room in a non-smoking hotel, her laptop dying then miraculously resurrecting itself, leaving her backpack behind to find nothing stolen only later to have a thief steal her wallet, yawn I am falling asleep here trying to remember all the dry dusty bits.

Mostly she pounces on unsuspecting Russians without prior notice, foisting herself on them, reluctant to tell them she’s gay and married to a woman despite these people reasonably wanting updates of her life since they’ve seen her last. Occasionally there’s some interesting fodder, like the fact that everyone uniformly adores Putin (“everyone loves the winning team”) and thinks the U.S. is meddling in Ukraine.

The book title comes from a phrase she hears several times in her trip, that Americans think Russians are backwards, with bears running in the streets.

No mediocre book would be without a glaring editorial error, which happens on page 165, “David and popped into a store…”

The American Way of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford’s reissued and revised book on the funeral industry is an unexpected treat—witty, humorous, light banter that then swings a 50-ton hammer at you with the unflattering truths about the greed of morticians and their ilk. This book is another strand I’m following during my curious unearthing of topics on death after reading Ann Neumann’s The Good Death recently. Originally published in 1963, this revised edition came out shortly after Mitford’s death in 1998, chockablock full of updates that the industry had undergone during the intervening years, and including many delightful anecdotes of the reactions the book got. Mitford fearlessly joined panels of funeral directors who called her all sorts of names and testified in court battles. It was also discovered that Robert Kennedy had read her book and thoughts of it swirled round his head after JFK’s Dallas assassination, but ultimately the funeral parlor cashed in a pretty penny.

Mostly, the industry preyed/preys on the fact that people aren’t used to making this type of purchase. It’s uncommon, and not something you do a lot of research about, unlike the other big purchases you make of a car or a home. There’s no Kelly Blue Book on funerals. Plus the grief factor and the guilt factor turn into some serious profits. Embalming helps them jack up the cost, and families used to have no say in whether or not their deceased got injected with formaldehyde. Laws have changed.

Funeral directors like to misquote the law to boost their profits, insisting that a casket is required by law even for a cremation. Mitford called up a handful of funeral parlors to ask this question and was told with such conviction that it was illegal that she began to doubt the evidence before her eyes in the state code. So, the FTC ruled in 1984 that morticians are no longer allowed to lie to the public. “Anecdotal reports indicate that honesty is still an elusive quality in the trade.”

The best, most natural, most earth-friendly way to go is either burial in a shroud without casket, or cremation. The industry still has a long way to go in not bilking every last cent out of grieving families, though.

(Unrelated: just realized that Jessica is the sister of the great Nancy Mitford. Those sisters know how to write!!)

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose

Alice Walker continues to blow me away. This collection of essays, thoughts, memos written between 1966 and 1982, is page-turning and inspirational. “So much of the satisfying work of life begins as an experiment; having learned this, no experiment is ever quite a failure.”

“It was just six years ago that I began to be alive. I had, of course, been living before… but I did not really know it.”

“A white writer tried recently to explain that the reason for the relatively few Negro hippies is that Negroes have built up a ‘super-cool’ that cracks under LSD and makes them have a ‘bad trip.’ What this writer didn’t guess at is that Negroes are needing drugs less than ever these days for any kind of trip. While the hippies are ‘tripping,’ Negroes are going after power which is so much more important to their survival and their children’s survival than LSD and pot.”

“So for the past four years I’ve been in still another college. This time simply a college of books—musty old books that went out of print years ago—and of old people, the oldest old black men and women I could find, and a college of the young students and dropouts who articulate in various bold and shy ways that they believe themselves to be without a valuable history, without a respectable music, without writing or poetry that speaks to them. My enrollment in this newest college will never end, and for that I am glad. And each day I look about to see what can and should be done to make it a bigger college, a more inclusive one, one more vital and long living.”

“And if I leave Mississippi—as I will one of these days—it will not be for the reasons of the other sons and daughters of my parents. Fear will have no part in my decision, nor will lack of freedom to express my womanly thoughts. It will be because the pervasive football culture bores me, and the proliferating Kentucky Fried Chicken stands appall me, and neon lights have begun to replace the trees. It will be because the sea is too far away and there is not a single mountain here. But most of all it will be because I have freed myself to go; and it will be My Choice.”

The Coming Insurrection

I’ve started a new Fourth of July tradition — reading this gem from The Invisible Committee. It’s been a few years since I first read it and in light of the malaise and disgust settling over the U.S. like a toxic cheeto-colored fog I figured it was time for a re-read.

The text is sometimes unapproachable, not sure if that’s a result of translation from French or just from ideas coming too quickly that they clog the brain pipes. While touching on a lot that’s rotted in society, the possibilities it dreams of seem too outlandish. I don’t see how this insurrection can be achieved, partly because I’m not ready to hit the streets from the comfort of my cozy reading chair and partly because of an uneasy feeling that anarchists tend to ruin things (see recent Berkeley events). I did laugh though when I saw the Fox News review that this was the most evil thing they’d ever read. It’s a direct assault on all that Fox clings to.

It’s laid out in sections, seven circles:

  1. I am what I am (“Never has domination found such an innocent-sounding slogan. The maintenance of the self in a permanent state of deterioration, in a chronic state of near-collapse, is the best-kept secret of the present order of things.”). This elevation of individuals over the collective good is the sludgey ooze that pulls society apart.
  2. Entertainment is a vital need. Laughing at the news is our coping mechanism. “Everyone can testify to the doses of sadness condensed from year to year in family gatherings, the forced smiles, the awkwardness of seeing everyone pretending in vain, the feeling that a corpse is lying there on the table, and everyone acting as though it were nothing.”
  3. Life, health, and love are precarious—why should work be an exception. We’re the generation that never counted on a pension or the right to work, much less rights at work. “The disaster has already occurred: it resides in everything that had to be destroyed, in all those who had to be uprooted, in order for work to end up as the only way of existing.”
  4. More simple, more fun, more mobile, more secure. “The grapevine can’t be wiretapped.”
  5. Fewer possessions, more connections!  The economy isn’t IN crisis, it IS the crisis. Negative growth is the new mantra, to consume less, be frugal, be content with what’s strictly necessary. “When an individual is frugal, property serves its function perfectly, which is to allow the individual to enjoy her own life sheltered from public existence, in the private sanctuary of her life.”
  6. The environment is an industrial challenge. The “environment” is a relationship to the world based on estrangement, management. “We have become neighbors in a planetary board meeting. It’s difficult to imagine a more complete hell… The globular sticky mass of their guilt lands on our tired shoulders, pressuring us to cultivate our garden, sort out our trash, and eco-compost the leftovers of this macabre feast…. We have to consume a little less to be able to keep consuming. We have to produce organically to keep producing… This is the logic of a world straining to maintain itself while giving itself an air of historical rupture.”
  7. We are building a civilized space here. “The feeling that we’ve been tricked is a like a wound that is becoming increasingly infected. It’s the source of the latent rage that just about anything will set off these days.” There’s also this beautiful extended metaphor:

Today the West is the GI who dashes into Fallujah on an M1 Abrams tank, listening to heavy metal at top volume. It’s the tourist lost on the Mongolian plains, mocked by all, who clutches his credit card as his only lifeline. It’s the CEO who swears by the game Go. It’s the young girl who looks for happiness in clothes, guys, and moisturizing creams… It’s the art lover who wants us to be awestruck before the “modern genius” of a century of artists, from surrealism to Viennese actionism, all competing to see who could best spit in the face of civilization.

The rest of the book is an exhortation to get going, organize, form communes, find each other. “Attach yourself to what you feel to be true. Begin there.” Circulate knowledge. “Proliferating horizontal communication is also the best form of coordination among different communes, the best way to put an end to hegemony.”

The Genius of Birds

Jennifer Ackerman’s book about bird brains is getting rave reviews everywhere but I wasn’t as impressed as most readers. I prefer the more in-depth tales like Ravens in Winter instead of this book that flits from research study to research study. She also overdid the bird puns, like good for goose/good for the gander, chicken/egg conundrum, bird brain, etc.

The one thing I learned was about birds flocking—each bird interacts with the seven birds closest to it, adjusting their movements to mirror their neighbors so a huge group of birds can veer in one direction in a split second.

A bit of info about birds as dinosaurs but I wished for more detail. Lots and lots of stories about crows using tools to accomplish various tasks. Bottom line: birds are smart, plus they’re interesting to watch and learn from. Go outside and observe some birds in lieu of reading this.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

A stunning memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston published in 1975 which I’m ashamed to have missed reading before. It was brought up in Zinsser’s memoir book and sounded interesting, so I added it to the pile. It is by far the best memoir of the handful I’ve taste-tested this month from a list compiled from his book.

The Woman Warrior is made up of perfectly formed pearls, stories that you had to shut the book after reading to roll them around in your mouth and savor. Normally I’m chomping through books like a hungry hippo, but I was smart enough to close the book after each tidbit. White Tigers was the story that stunned me into silence—the story of a swordswoman who wanders away from her village as a young girl and is trained up by a couple of immortal gods to eventually go back and avenge the pillaging of her family and community by leading an army.

Shaman is the tale where we learn of the medical training of her mother. Marrying her father, he then immigrated to NYC to make money, sending it home to his wife to care for their two children, who eventually die. The mother still continues to collect money from America and decides to go to medical school. She’s a big success with the villagers once she’s done, having attained nearly magical powers. Then she migrates to America to join her husband (where they later have Maxine), finds herself working long hours in a laundromat. In the story, Maxine is visiting her old mother and concerned about her health.

[Her mother] coughed deeply. “See what I mean? I have worked too much. Human beings don’t work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we’re too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all. I can’t sleep in this country because it doesn’t shut down for the night. Factories, canneries, restaurants, always somebody somewhere working through the night. It never gets done all at once here. Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here; one evening so long, you could visit your women friends, drink tea, and play cards at each house, and it would still be twilight. It even got boring, nothing to do but fan ourselves. Here midnight comes and the floor’s not swept, the ironing’s not ready, the money’s not made. I would still be young if we lived in China.”

And in A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, great detail about how Maxine feigns undesirability so that she won’t get married off, so she can still pursue her studies:

As my parents and the FOB sat talking at the kitchen table, I dropped two dishes. I found my walking stick and limped across the floor. I twisted my mouth and caught my hand in the knots of my hair. I spilled soup on the FOB when I handed him his bowl. “She can sew, though,” I heard my mother say, “and sweep.” I raised dust swirls sweeping around and under the FOB’s chair—very bad luck because spirits live inside the broom. I put on my shoes with the open flaps and flapped about like a Wino Ghost.

Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation

I picked up this book from 1995 as an anodyne to feeling icky from attempting to read Nabokov’s Speak Memory which derailed rather quickly for me on page 2 when he “mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists.” That one pinprick of nauseating sexism set my mind wholly against continuing, although I gave a few more pages a desultory turn or two. Luckily, I had this collection of feminist essays from 1995 on hand to wipe away all traces of the egotism and overconfidence of a white male writer.

This contains 28 essays, ranging from burning-hot amazing to shrug-worthy. Mostly I was excited to fill the gaps in my knowledge between the 1970s and current feminist texts. Essays I loved:

  • Ruminations of a Feminist Aerobics Instructor by Alisa L. Valdés; I sighed when I came across this bit, which is so applicable 21 years later: “What could honestly be more frightening to men than a room full of capable, professional women moving together, in sync, unaware of anything but themselves and each other? Only Hillary Rodham Clinton and a truly lesbian orgy, perhaps.”
  • Your Life As a Girl by Curtis Sittenfeld. Brilliant description of tom-girl playing baseball morphing into the girl society wants her to be. I enjoyed her modernized version of Pride and Prejudice: Eligible. She wrote this essay while a student at Vassar.
  • You’re Not the Type by Laurel Gilbert. The struggle of being a pregnant teenager.
  • Bloodlove by Christine Doza. High school from the perspective of a woke teenager who makes a zine, Upslut, that her teacher threatens to sue her for libel until he realizes she won’t back down from her true assertions of his harassment.

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir

An excellent graphic memoir by Roz Chast that I was turned onto by her current exhibition at the Jewseum. Instead of reading the panels one by one on the walls, elbowing other spectators aside so I could get a closer look, I borrowed the memoir in book-form from the library. I’ve been coincidentally reading a lot about death after hearing Ann Neumann on the radio recently, and this memoir is a wonderful addition to the topic. Chast tackles the difficult subject of watching her parents decline rapidly once they pass age 90, but they refuse to discuss basic things like living wills or how they’d like to go off into the sunset. After her dominant mother falls one too many times in their dusty and grime-encased Brooklyn apartment, she manages to pull them into a assisted living facility in Connecticut near her family. Her dad has been sinking into dementia for years and her mother never regains strength after a few weeks in the hospital. Their decline continues, achingly slowly, and expensively. Chast watches as the bills mount and silently thanks her parents for squirreling away what tiny amount they could, but even that pile is melting quickly. I particularly appreciate the honesty she shows in dealing with her feelings —she’s never been particularly close to her mother and does not have a change of heart at the end.

Pretending Is Lying

A beautiful graphic novel from Belgian artist Dominique Goblet. The images are haunting, bizarre, perfect, and follow her as she introduces her four-year-old daughter Nikita to her father, who’s been sober for 4 years. Her dad is shacked up with an eerily ghost-like creature, named Blandine, but pronounced by Nikita “Bleeding.” We also flash back to Dom’s childhood, bored on a rainy day and cruelly tied up in the attic by her mother for accidentally splashing paint on the freshly laundered and ironed shirts her mom has been slaving over while her dad watches car racing in the other room. She also endures heartbreak when a man she loves can’t quite quit the woman he was seeing before – you can see him haunted by her ghost-like form below:

Including these as examples of the astonishing layering and style she uses. Lovely overall, big thumbs up.

Never Married Women (Women in the Political Economy series)

I stumbled onto this book from 1987 while researching friendship, and one of my JSTOR sources mentioned this in relation to the question of how singles deal with friendship differently than marrieds. Being a vehement pro-single woman myself, I couldn’t resist dipping into the full work, and it was well worth the time.

Barbara Levy Simon interviewed fifty “rebels” as she calls them, women born between 1884 and 1918 who never married, rebels because they were brought up in a society that didn’t offer much of a choice except to marry and have children. “They have swum upstream, selecting their own stroke and pace, enduring the economic hardships and social stigma that women without men face.”

Despite loving their independence and living alone, most women found it necessary to couple up with another woman for the waning years of life, to share expenses and to inject their lives with social time that was missing after retiring from work. Most rejected marriage in their early years because they did not want to give up their independence and become someone’s property, and several batted away endless offers of betrothal. All this while weathering the storm of the Depression.

Great research and an invaluable tool for future study, filled with completely readable and interesting bits. I doubt any of the ladies profiled in this book from 40 years ago are still alive, but I give them a standing ovation for their contrary attitudes.