300 Arguments: Essays

Manguso specializes in these tiny books. This was by far my favorite of the 3 I’ve read so far, a “short book composed entirely of what [she] hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.”

The snippets appeal to minuscule attention spans like the one I’ve developed that keeps me tossing book after book into the reject pile. Somehow I made it through this unscathed.

A smattering of samples:

  • “For a little attention, complain a little. For a lot of attention, stop complaining.”
  • “The greatest commitments are to experiences with no known end points: friendship, marriage, parenthood, one’s own life.”
  • “Bad art is from no one to no one. “
  • “The difference between writers under thirty and writers over forty is that the former, like everyone their age, already know how to act like famous people: people whose job it is to be photographed.”

When the Sick Rule the World

My second Dodie Bellamy book was a much less ecstatic experience than reading The Buddhist a few years ago. Maybe the magic has worn off and I’m annoyed by all the insider gossip/name-dropping/self-reverential stuff. Yes, yes, you’re pals with Eileen Myles and knew Kathy Acker, how lovely.

This is a ragtag collection of essays of varying quality. I enjoyed Whistle While You Dixie briefly, her rants against the old adage that whistling women bring no good (“why is whistling a male thing?”) and pointing out the oddity of the sound itself (“Whistling is freakish, like a wheeze that has been unnaturally domesticated.”)

There are parts of other essays that are worthwhile, like Digging Through Kathy Acker’s Stuff wherein she badgers Matias for some jewelry he promised that she could have of Acker’s. In the essay, she mentions Acker responding to a talk Bellamy gave praising Acker and citing a passage that Acker later stated she stole from Juan Goytisolo. Bellamy admits that she was inspired by Acker’s thievery and pumped her novel Letters of Mina Harker full of “anything and everything that crossed my path.” But when the Bay Guardian reviewed the book and quoted a passage, it was a passage she’d ripped off from Gail Scott’s Heroine. Also learned that Acker used to hold her classes at Edinburgh Castle instead of at the Art Institute.

The excruciatingly long essay, In the Shadow of Twitter Towers, closes out the book. Lots of beefs with this one despite us sharing common sentiment about gentrification and tech killing the city. No one calls NEMA a Twitter Tower, for one thing. I did like her characterization of the Google buses: “slugs with dark eyeless windows – giant white slugs of capitalism clogging traffic with their slime.” She apparently lives on Minna St. a block away from the Uber HQ where cab drivers were protesting. “San Francisco won’t stop screeching as if its heart were being ripped out. A bad place doesn’t spring up on its own. Something creates it. Atrocity births ghosts; soulless gentrification herds the desperate into ghettos away from moneyed eyes of tourists… I say hi to a young guy at a bus stop and he turns his head away. I share a table in a cafe with a woman and she stares at her phone the entire meal, never acknowledging my presence. All these clean, clean people – I stare at them trying to crack the mystery of how they do it, walk down the street impeccable as a doll wrapped in plastic.” Bellamy even co-opts some text from Daphne Gottlieb to express her frustration: “Were you in another city, state, place, neighborhood that changed drastically because of a seizure by people with money? What did you do? Where did you go? I was just thinking that I haven’t been evicted (yet), but my culture has. I have been in San Francisco 24 years. San Francisco raised me. I don’t know if I could survive in the wild. Where do I go? What do I do?”

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

I got whiplash from reading this. Gordon’s tactic of alternating chapters about Mary Wollstonecraft with chapters about Mary Shelley was too much to bear. I couldn’t keep track of which Mary I was reading about, and which baby had just died, and which husband was off philandering and messing things up in general. After sucking it up and suffering all the way through to the end, I can appreciate the twinned structure in two areas—where she does back-to-back chapters of Shelley’s death by drowning against Mary Wollstonecraft’s death in childbirth pushing Mary Shelley into the world; also in the similar mangling that took place posthumously– Godwin forever ruining Wollestonecraft’s reputation by publishing bits she had excised from her own writing and Mary Shelley tightening up Shelley’s posthumous recollections to be acceptable to the greater world.

I’m happy to have learned a bit about both women, and extraneous bits picked up along the way, such as the utter solitude that the Shelleys experienced in Rome at the Baths of Caracalla where Shelley proclaimed “Never was any desolation more sublime and lovely.” I cannot imagine this spot not overrun by tourists, but life in 1819 was much different. Then again, there have been some improvements over the last 200 years, such as in birth control methods. It was appalling to read page after page of devastation and drama brought on by the ladies being yet again pregnant. Also appalling was Godwin’s pecuniary motives in writing to his daughter, always wheedling for money out of Shelley even after Godwin had shunned her for the impropriety of her relationship.

Gorgeous Mourning

Poems by Alice Jones that seem dashed off on scraps of paper without being agonizingly edited; this could be good, fluid, etc. but instead they come off as thudding duds in love with their own rhyme and word play without wit. A blurb on the back notes their “blithe fluency”, the “blithe” nails it, the carelessness and thoughtlessness bothered me. It seems like a good idea at first, take a word and then hammer home its sound in line after line but somehow it fails. There is a lack of craft in these that reminds me of my own meager bits. Here are two of the least tedious examples.

Taking a word and forcing the rhyme:


A day with no more purpose than any other, perched and looking, the curlew’s calls, a fever waning: waht’s in purview now? After ginger and curcuma, parched and reaching for anything to satisfy a thirst that’s larger than this lake. What do you propose? After the cat-fight, fur flew around the yard for days until someone procured it to line a nest, only the best for her new eggs. The winning cat, now on curfew, bathes on her blue sill with a purr, viewing the courtyard, a few daffodils, also with no purpose, blooming.

Taking a word and referring to it without using it throughout (I’ve noted each use in [brackets]:


your stomach falls [sink] as the rapid transit zooms downhill [sink] going under [sink] the bay for seven minutes and you race along thinking how many feet of rock and mud and bay lie over your head, the weight of water there, unseen. The pot hole [sink] swallowed two lanes of traffic. We’d throw bottle caps into the deep end and they’d flutter as they descended [sink]. Oblivious to time, we dove to retrieve them over and over, until the sun would get low [sink] and our mother would call us home to dinner, then she’d stand there with the dishes she’d wash and wash [sink].

A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia

It doesn’t feel like Sandra Allen is using her uncle by exploiting his story. Not really. But kind of?

The author receives her uncle Bob’s manuscript as she’s on the cusp of discovering her own writerly chops, in grad school for writing. At first, she’s horrified by the racist, sexist screed, but she warms up to it and peels away the parts that can be used to tell the story of a boy (Bob) who grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s & 70s to a wealthy father divorced from his mother and who was first placed in a mental hospital at age 16, garnering the treatment we see on display in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – enforced drug treatments, syringes planted into his butt, drooling on himself, roughed up by guards.

In addition to editing Bob’s story, Sandra researches schizophrenia and her family’s reaction to Bob way back when. After many years of being bailed out of various situations by the wealthy dad, Bob’s stepmom eventually buys him some property 3 hours north of the Bay Area where he lives in a trailer then a small house for the rest of his life, on medication, on disability, but also getting checks from his dad (without which, his stepmom says he’d be on the street like all the other homeless schitzos).

Historic Photos of San Francisco

Great collection of photos that I hadn’t seen before of this gem of a city. So strange to see people milling about in the streets like it’s no big deal. The gorgeous buildings both before and after the fire of 1906 are amazing—well beyond what would be required for purely utilitarian use. Saw this on display at Green Arcade, a fabulous bookstore with a curated collection of books about labor, urban issues, and local SF stuff.

A Poetry Handbook

Mary Oliver’s practical advice to poets is a slim volume packed with tips on getting serious about your writing. First and foremost: commit, show up, do the work. Then: read, imitate other poets. Don’t neglect the ancients who seem stuck in their prosody and rhyme to our modern ears. The sound of the words is an essential element, so think about the aspirates, the liquids, the mutes and hard stops. Alliteration is your friend, along with assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia. Read, appreciate, write.

I also enjoyed this diatribe at the beginning of the book written by some Berkeley library patron. She’s so right! One of the unspoken joys of library books is the commentary that people are compelled to write.

The Father: Poems

I was reminded of Sharon Olds when I was reading Doris recently, so grabbed this book of poems about her father’s death. Powerfully written, made me wonder if she wrote them in the moment (e.g. The Exact Moment of His Death or The Dead Body) or if she was able to reconstruct the feeling from a distance of hours/days/months. It’s another great collection of poems that will help anyone battling the weight of grief.

The Best of Writers and Company

Someone once told me that Eleanor Wachtel is *the* best interviewer, so I’ve always been curious about her technique. This collection includes some great interviews with Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantel, Anne Carson, Toni Morrison, Alice Monroe. I can summarize Wachtel’s interview technique as such: research the hell out of your subject and read everything they’ve written then gently probe, saying “Tell me about…” It does make me wonder if I can find some of these interviews online, but I appreciated the quick read.

The Knot: poems

I discovered Alice Jones in the collection of SF Bay Area poems recently, so of course did my usual hoovering up of everything the library has on hand. This collection includes a fantastic section contemplating the death of a close friend/ex-lover who died of AIDS in 1991. Really powerful pieces that I would guess would be helpful to anyone grieving over a friend’s death.

Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City

This book made my heart hurt, I liked it so much. If you can’t spend time in the greatest city on earth, you can soothe your senses by picking up a copy of this book and flipping through to get the visual cacophony delivered straight to your eyeballs. I was delighted to find that it wasn’t just a neighborhood-by-neighborhood exploration, but it dips into weird bits of history like Typhoid Mary, underground pinball, Nellie Bly, the oldest bars in the city (and the secret bars), and the history of Kim’s Video. Only yesterday I was bemoaning the loss of video rental stores where you could legally access any movie by dropping in and renting a flick. Kim’s Video was a mecca for film nerds, the collection built from obscurity to wondrous by Matt Marello, an employee of Mr. Kim’s. After many decades of success, it succumbed to the pressure of online nonsense and Mr. Kim sold the collection off to an Italian town that promised to host a 24-hour film festival and name a pavilion in his honor; none of their promises have been kept and the films are suspected to be slowly decaying in a poorly preserved environment. Beautifully done book by Julia Wertz, a document of her decade in New York.

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story

Men are mutants, as we know.  XY chromosomes are a mutation from XX (women), and this may explain part of the mystery as to why women live longer than men despite having everything stacked against them (society, childbirthing, higher pain tolerance). The flexibility of women’s immune system with fluctuations during menstruation may also contribute.

The book exposes Darwin’s sexism, the terribleness of drug trials (it’s cheaper to only study one sex—men—to the detriment to women’s health), various researchers’ obsession with proving that women are inferior (size of brain, which, if it were to matter to intelligence would make elephants/whales the dominant species), debunking lots of myths along the way and showing how social constructs effect EVERYTHING.

The sex ratio in India is skewed in favor of boys more than it was 10 years ago—7M fewer girls than boys aged 6 or younger. Yikes. But boys are actually statistically more at risk of dying than girls, which makes this stat even more staggering, the willful destruction of girl babies. “The biological risk is against the boy, but the social risk is against the girl,” says Joy Lawn, a director at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The book dabbles in this and that, blowing up the theory that men are better, smarter, etc. and pointing out the sociological ways that women are handicapped. “It isn’t just supreme feats of learning or traumatic experiences that affect the brain but more subtle and prolonged things, too, like the way girls and women are treated by society.”

Brain scans were all the rage when they hit the scene, but Gina Rippon cautions against them. “Every brain is different from every other brain. We should take more of a fingerprint type of approach.”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s quote from A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792, is apt: “It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.”

In the Freud Archives

This was my 2nd attempt to read this and I only finished it because I enjoyed another Malcolm book, The Journalist and the Murderer. I’m not a huge fan of Freud and all the inside baseball chatter about the feud between inner and outer circles of analysts and scholars left me mentally snoring. There’s a charismatic young guy who gains access to the precious Freud Archives by cozying up to some bigwigs, including Anna Freud, and then blows his chance by trumpeting some wildly anti-Freud views in an article in the New York Times.

The Journalist and the Murderer

Maggie Nelson referenced this Janet Malcolm book in her talk at the Nourse Theater last week and I scribbled the title down in the dark on my notepad. It was an excellent musing on the relationship between journalist and subject, taking for its example the betrayal of Jeffrey MacDonald  by Joe McGinniss in his book, Fatal Vision, about MacDonald’s murder trial and conviction. Joe pretended to be Jeff’s friend to maintain access even as he became convinced of Jeff’s guilt and wrote a series of letters that reveal his lies to Jeff up until the book came out. This “fraud” was then rehashed in a libel suit that MacDonald pursued against McGinniss, which is when Janet Malcolm got involved and tried to start untangling all the bits.

During this libel trial, the question of whether authors can lie to their subjects in order to get them more comfortable with spilling their story came up repeatedly. A few experts were called, including Joseph Wambaugh who later told Malcolm: “When you talk to a sociopathic criminal, you have to flatter him and curry favor with him by telling him something that isn’t absolutely true… They enjoy it. They’ll say ‘You believe me, don’t you?’ right at a point where you’re convinced they’re lying. If you say no, you could lose everything you’ve gained, including your book, your money, your time if you’re a writer, and your case if you’re a cop. So you cannot tell the truth.” This sheds some light on how the current White House is being run, in my opinion.

Also of tangential interest were Malcolm’s musings on letter writing: “But if we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the chief pleasure of the correspondence lies in its responsive aspect rather than with that of our pen pal; what makes the arrival of a letter a momentous event is the occasion it affords for writing rather than for reading.”

She begins corresponding with MacDonald in prison, receiving his 20 to 30 page letters that “were like sledgehammer strokes in their relentless, repetitive, bombastic self-justification. When a letter came, I would put off reading it—the writing was unrelievedly windy…”

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

I love Isabel Greenberg’s work. This is an earlier book (2013) but it has the same bones as One Hundred Nights of Hero– layers and layers of story to nestle around you and keep you warm. One tale leads to the next and you’re in deep with the traveling storyteller who weaves stories for his supper. There’s one of an awesome “old crone” who bucks the trend of the elderly slow-shuffling off into the forest when their time to die arrives. Instead, she tells the community that she’ll rid them of the giant who is pillaging and if successful, they must keep her around. To kill him, she invites him to eat some tasty sausages around her bonfire while she tells him stories (which give the sleeping pills time to work on him). When he’s conked out, she saws off his head. Yay for old women!