Eve’s Hollywood

Eve's Hollywood (New York Review Books Classics)

You know a book is good when you take a brief intermission in the middle of it to frantically scan the library holdings for anything else the author has written. All of the other Eve Babitz books are now in my queue to be greedily gobbled up, although I’m sure to be disappointed by them compared to this gem.

The writing is perfect, punchy, well-timed, smooth, sparse and angular like the setting sun over the Pacific. She is a fierce defender of the culture of L.A., at least from when she was born there (mid-1940s) to when this book came out (1972), ten years after she graduated from Hollywood High. Eve’s parents are part of the vast, talented music industry that supports the film industry, and she see plenty of culture everywhere she looks, especially being Stravinsky’s goddaughter.

Her pieces range from tight, few-lined gloriousness to longer expositions. My jaw dropped frequently at her skill: “She was the grand finale of what it meant to be darling, adorable, and cute,” and:

“From her warmly tanned face she languidly opened her expensive blue eyes wide before narrowing them, transforming them into the eyes of an aristocratic animal whose defense lay in some rapid paralyzing venom which hissed from the pupils and stopped him in his tracks. She stirred her snowcone while she took her time assessing him from his bloody face to his sandy feet to his blood-soaked pocket and then she lowered her eyes, shrugged, and strolled through the space the crowd had opened for her with me floating in back of her, having no wish to stay on after witnessing that crisis of frozen looks.”

In Secret Ambition, she confesses a desire to have a house in Ojai with cats, orange trees, and a goat. “A stone house with a dirt road… And the thing was, my secret ambition has always to be a spinster.” Her friend Tina, “Yours too?”

Eve spends a year in NYC and predictably hates it. (Earlier, she mentions how in the Depression, everyone with brains headed to New York, and everyone with beautiful faces headed to LA). “That always seemed like the whole thing; they’ll let you have stories, but you can’t ever think in a certain way. There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind. It’s like a tunnel where there’s no sky.”

I love her even more when she attacks the fallacy that Nathanael West (nee Weinstein) was the best writer about Hollywood. “I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he’d gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It’s a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn’t have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.” In another story she shrugs off Christmas in LA saying how weird it is to wish someone Merry Christmas as they’re watering their lawn in shorts.

There’s even a chapter on books (even better, from the library) which gave me some breadcrumbs to follow next. My heart swooned when she said “Mostly, I find myself coming out of the library with all women writers. I keep hoping the library attendant won’t notice, but when 8 out of 8 of the books you take out are by women, you try not to look too dykey.” Other recs: Anthony Powell (“much less leaden than John Updike and he’s a downright souffle compared to just about anyone else.”), Colette (Earthly Paradise), Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, Max Beerbohm (“Max, like Kaluha, any idiot can like it”), Joyce Carol Oates (them, and Wonderland) and Raynar Bahnam’s Los Angeles: A City of Four Ecologies. She wrote a fan letter to MFK Fisher telling her she’s just like Proust only better because she also gives us recipes. MFK wrote back supposing that some day someone will write their PhD thesis on madeleines.

Her exclamation about Virginia Woolf also left me happy:

“Virginia Woolf tantalizes me. I wish I could write like that. She is in love with London and I am in love with LA but London has seasons and this giant history and stratas of society… She wouldn’t like LA but maybe she’d forgive me for loving it anyway. The Waves is the best she’s written, you go crazy it’s so perfect. And then, it was her A Room of One’s Ownn that made me believe in Women’s Lib.”

This book is perfect. I want to read it all over again.

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections

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.”

The realities of fiction: a book about writing

The realities of fiction: an author talks about writing

After finishing The Prodigal Women, I was thirsty for anything else Nancy Hale had written and opted to dip into her lectures on writing. Unfortunately, this collection of her thoughts from 1960 seems extremely dated. Not only does she reference walking on the moon as a distant possibility, but her attitude toward defining the novel vs. the short story seems rigid when looking back over 50 years. Still, the book is not completely without merits.

When writing, she emphasizes that novelists express the part of themselves that they are unaware of—writing as discovery/therapy. The writer trusts her imagination most of all, and makes society into a character. Hale claims that the only unique things are those that exist in the real world, that imagination creates things that are like something else. The pieces she claims as most important: beginning, the balance of forces or tension, writing in SCENES as much as possible, motivations for action, and skillful unnoticeable transitions.

I never need to read A Passage to India after consuming this book since Hale takes every available opportunity to praise and quote it.

Ultimate verdict- skip this book.

The Zürau Aphorisms

The Zurau Aphorisms

These 109 scraps of fragmented thoughts from his months in Zürau are labeled aphorisms despite not following the classic form of an aphorism. The collection starts out strong but I found it lacking overall when compared to similar collections of wise, short, pithy sayings. Robert Calasso also includes the final chapter of his book, K., to help flesh out the volume.

My favorite was Number 5:

“From a certain point on, there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.”

Other good ones:

  • 42: “To let one’s hate-and disgust-filled head slump onto one’s chest.”
  • 76: “The feeling: ‘I’m not dropping anchor here,’ and straightaway the feeling of the sustaining sea-swell around one.”
  • 11/12: “The variety of views that one may have, say, of an apple: the view of the small boy who has to crane his neck for a glimpse of the apple on the table, and the view of the master of the house who picks up the apple and hands it to a guest.”
  • 20: “Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.”
  • 109: “It isn’t necessary that you leave home. Sit at your desk and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t wait, be still and alone. The whole world will offer itself to you to be unmasked, it can do no other, it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens: A Life

I’ve decided that I don’t like Tomalin as a biographer. She does very little in this book to get across the essence of Dickens, but maybe I’m too hard on her because primary sources are at a minimum. Dickens burned all his letters in 1860 and didn’t keep the type of journal that Woolf has delighted us with in her posthumous era. Tomalin works with what she has—mostly letters and the texts that D published—to pull off a quick 400+ page biography that conveys above all else that he was an extraordinarily energetic man besides being hugely talented. D kept his finger in every pie he got hold of, dictating the household arrangements and summertime escapes, charitably caring for random orphans and prostitutes and strangers he met along the way, enthusiastically carrying on with a large set of male friends (and having a shadow household of sister-in-law Georgy plus the mysterious Nelly/Ellen once he separates from Catherine). Early on you get a weird feeling about him, his going ga-ga over the death of his other sister-in-law (Mary) at age 16, the favored pet of his household later replaced by Georgina. When Mary Hogarth’s brother unexpectedly died, D was reportedly upset “not because he know George well but because he had been expecting to be buried beside Mary…”

He makes two trips to America, and in the first is overwhelmed by crowds swooning over his celebrity (and pushing for international copyright law b/c he saw zero money from U.S. publications). He loved Cincinnati: “a very beautiful city: I think the prettiest place I have seen here, except Boston. It has risen out of the forest like an Arabian-night city; is well laid out; ornamented in the suburbs with pretty villas… has smooth turf-plots and well kept gardens.”

I liked this photograph of him from 1850:

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project

The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought)

A very approachable guide by Susan Buck-Morss to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which has been gathering dust on my bedside table for months now. “The effect of technology on both work and leisure in the modern metropolis had been to shatter experience into fragments, and journalistic style reflected that fragmentation.” This, the essence of Benjamin’s masterwork. Buck-Morss’s book was published in 1989, before any version of Arcades Project hit the streets, and this is a useful guide that remains helpful even though the project has been published on its own. Photographs and illustrations help to make her point, along with biographical information about Benjamin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot

You can’t be a self-respecting feminist without reading this book. I was somewhat clueless about the inner workings of Pussy Riot and their political art until Gessen laid it all out for me. The title comes from a quote from Solzhenitsyn used by Nadya in her closing statement during the sham trial. The three women (Nadya, Kat, Maria) were charged with essentially hurting the feelings of the religious people who witnessed their action at the Orthodox church in Moscow. Kat’s sentence got commuted, but Nadya and Maria got a few years in jail, but let’s not forget that this is Russian jail, where human rights are particularly overlooked. Maria became quite the jailhouse lawyer and continued fighting for better conditions at each penal colony she was sent to. Nadya philosophized and sent out various speeches through any channels she could. Fortunately, there was enough media attention on the women and jailers were forced to treat them somewhat well. They exited the system in 2013. Sadly, my own interest in their story is heightened by the fact that conditions in the U.S. are teetering towards those of Russia, so all outspoken feminist art warriors should read this as a cautionary tale but also for inspiration.

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

Bits of this were good but overall it’s not her best work. It’s an interesting attack on the bloated insistency on positive vibes, positive thinking, optimism. With this enforced viewpoint, we stumble blindly towards disaster, blithely ignoring warning signs of economic recession because of course the housing market can’t fail, etc.

The best parts of the book were the intro and the summation, and sandwiched in between were her story of wading through the pink paradise of surviving breast cancer, dealing with hyper-optimistic gurus who insist that all is cured with a flick of the mental switch, megachurches that more resemble corporations insisting that God wants you to be rich, and too much detail on the motivational speakers that made me want to crawl under the covers and never see the light of day again.

Ehrenreich discusses how positive thinking snuggles up quite closely to late capitalism’s insistence that we buy more and that corporations continue to always grow, fueling consumer society by saying that bygod we deserve newer/better electronics/cars/houses. “Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.”

The effect is seen in the economy, we spend a lot and save a little, never worrying about a rainy day that will never come. Good news– we do have “defensive pessimism” that keeps us safe, assuming that cars won’t stop at red lights or that engines may fail, otherwise we’d truly be living in a LALAland where nothing bad can ever happen (also why Ehrenreich says we were taken by surprise during 9/11 despite the many signs leading up to it).

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (Chicago Studies in American Politics)

Another great book helping to explain the unexplainable—why people will vote against their best interest (rural folks voting against the social safety net that helps them). Cramer spends years in the field infiltrating a few dozen small groups around the state, mostly of old men. She develops a theory of rural consciousness as a lens through which to view everything from non-urbanites. Diving into the numbers, she shows that rural displeasure in having to pay more than they get back is misplaced—rural areas skew towards getting more per capita than they put in. There’s a deep-seated feeling of resentment, the idea that urbanites are getting more than they deserve and not working hard. The idea that manual labor is more deserving than white collar labor is pervasive. Very readable recap of several years of research with great bits of conversation recorded. Rural denizens feel left out, abandoned, ignored, and as if they are stupid.

Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus

Brilliant book by the smart, funny, honest and intensely brave Laura Kipnis. It changed my perspective on automatically assuming that sexual assault reports were to be believed by exposing the grotesque practice of kangaroo courts of Title IX investigations on campus. Kipnis lands a goldmine of evidence from Peter Ludlow who was railroaded out of his star tenure position in philosophy by two somewhat disturbing accusations from female students that disintegrate under serious study. Kipnis encourages us to view women not just as the passive objects that we’ve become, needing to be protected by overzealous university administrators with consent rules. She even touches on that taboo subject of excessive drinking on campus and its role in attacks. Wisely, she counsels women to take self-defense classes and learn how to vehemently say NO!, unraveling the socialization of being female that has taught us to be pleasing and placid.

Kipnis gets caught in the maw of this Title IX beast when charges are brought against her by people upset about an essay she wrote, claiming that it created a chilling environment on campus. “I knew next to nothing about Title IX, but we were still living in America (or so I thought) and either the place turned into a police state without my noticing, or using a federal law against gender discrimination to punish a professor for writing an essay was something other people were likely to find outrageous too.”

It’s fierce, intelligent writing that takes an unpopular view, sprinkled with bits of Kipnis’s wit throughout. “During our interview, Ludlow tried to interest me in My Little Pony, too, insisting at one point that I watch a video clip of a bunch of winsome animated ponies cavorting in a candy-colored field, which was the longest three minutes of my life.”

Let’s teach women how to say “Get your fucking hand off my knee” instead of setting up bizarre secret courts which allow them to hogtie men for their actions with very little evidence.

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

It’s too soon to read this book. Unless, of course, you’re ready to pull the scabs off and start digging into the open wounds again, raising your ire and fully hating Bernie bros, Comey, and the misogynist nation that barely elected Toxic T. No thanks. I wasn’t ready to deal with this, wasn’t ready to have it all condensed into a few hundred pages. Maybe in a few years.

A London Family Between the Wars

A London Family Between the Wars (Oxford Paberbacks) by Mary Vivian Hughes (1979-10-31)

Molly Hughes is the perfect traveling companion, lightening your spirits with jolly tales of life in the countryside on the outskirts of England in the 20s and 30s. It seems all of her books include a tragedy of some sort and this is no different—she becomes a widow and has to forge on by earning her keep to feed and shelter her three sons.

Beautiful language throughout, such as her description of a moonset, a term she coins, “The moon was setting among a glory of silver clouds. I stared in stupid amazement. I had seen many a fine sunset, but never before (or since) a moonset. In fact, I am coining the word, for the O.E.D. doesn’t mention it, although quite chatty about a sunset.”

She moves to the countryside and is beset by invitations to join “society” which she rebuffs by saying “I’m so sorry but I can’t join your circle. I can’t sew, or do anything useful, or play cards, or be sociable in any way; and I’m not a lady.” This gets her out of the obligatory social calls that deaden an afternoon and waste time, but she’s extremely friendly with neighbors and people who pop in to ask for things or just a brief informal chat.

She gives invaluable advice about lectures, suggesting that “unless you shock people you make little impression.” Also interesting thought about the gramophone and how she was reluctant to use it because she might put on a record once too often and thus lessen the joy of listening to it. In this age of play whatever you want, watch whatever you want whenever you want, I wonder if we have some of the same deadening.

Her tone is always funny, and she relates little tales that make you laugh, like the Irish shopkeeper who closed up shop. “What made you close down?” asked an Englishman. “Ah, we were getting too many orders.” was the reply.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less

After watching the lovely movie inspired by this book (Julianne Moore, directed by Jane Anderson, 2005) I broke my usual rule and read the book to see if there were more crumbs of the story to hoover up. Indeed there were, more bits of Evelyn Ryan’s poems and snippets from her contesting, along with the discovery after her death that she had married Kelly at 6 in the morning on a Thanksgiving in the 1930s, meaning that she had already been pregnant with Lea Anne at the time, necessitating the wedding and throwing her plans for college and writing a newspaper column to the winds.

The book treats the father much more lightly than the cartoonish character Woody Harrelson plays, and Evelyn begins to control her winnings earlier in the story than simply handing them over to the man who will drink them away. Also included is a painfully honest assessment of the family’s problems when Evelyn asks the college to reconsider their not extending scholarships to her children since she’s working part time and Kelly is retired, flat out stating that he is an alcoholic who drank up most of their money and if it hadn’t been for her contesting, the family never would have made it.