Janesville: An American Story

Perhaps it’s a result of overdosing on books about the failing/flailing middle class (e.g. 1, 2, or 3 which was also about Wisconsin), but I was reluctant to read this all the way to the end. Amy Goldstein takes us on an in-depth tour of Janesville, Wisconsin, home of Paul Ryan, and a town where GM shut down one of its oldest factories in 2008. Other industry in the town left as well, Parker Pen having been sold to investors and eventually to Gillette, jobs marching out of town in the thousands. She shows you what life looks like as a family slides from middle class into needing help from the local food pantry, and poor families slipping into poverty sometimes abandoning their kids into homelessness. The impact of job loss ripples outward as people who made the seats that went into the cars also get shut down (and other ancillary services like day care, etc. that are now no longer affordable).

One man opts to become a “gypsy” commuting to a GM factory in Indiana and sharing an apartment with another Janesville gypsy during the week, then driving 5 hours back each weekend. Others go back to technical school to pick up skills and hope to find work. Some are successful, like Barb who helps developmentally disabled adults. Some fail, like Barb’s best friend Kristi who kills herself after getting a job at the jail and falling in love with a prisoner. Suicide rates double in the town after the factory closes.

Mostly you see the splintering of a town, with rich optimists on one side (aka Paul Ryan supporters) who give lip service about jobs and things turning around, and those thousands who are actually impacted, who learn to do without, to eat a lot of pasta, to give up their dreams.

The Sisters Chase

Sarah Healy has written a gorgeous novel about two sisters left alone after their mother dies in a car accident, without money because the hotel she owned was in the red. Mary, aged 18 at the time, whisks Hannah, aged 4, into their car and heads south to her mother’s cousin Gail in Florida, where she seduces Gail’s husband and photographs it for $10k blackmail. This gives Mary and Hannah enough to get on their feet, travel a bit and then settle into a town and get Hannah schooled. Only Mary chooses the town that her love, Stefan, grew up in, and concocts a flat tire in front of his house before Christmas when he’s visiting, causing them to reunite after 6 years. Naturally, Mary is really Hannah’s mom, and Stefan is her father, but all of this doesn’t come out concretely until the end. It’s beautifully written, well-paced, a delightful treat for the otherwise harried mind.

The Gift

You’re not smart or cool or hip enough for this book, but it doesn’t care—it will lead you by the hand anyway through the nooks and crannies of NYC’s art world, intellectual circles, performance pieces, poetry readings. It grants you access, a gift, a glimpse inside a world you’re not enough for. From Barbara Browning’s own words, it’s a book about technique, art, love, surrogacy, gift economies, feminism, communism, and the erotics of collaboration. It’s non-fiction disguised as fiction, or at least sliding to that end of the spectrum.

The book is a gift, as intended. A mediation on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which deals with artistic talent needing to be given away and not just bottled up and sold. Browning’s work is another in a long line of dreamy, smart, creative books by intellectual women I’ve been digging lately—Maggie Nelson, Kate Zambreno, Chris Kraus—all of whom have mentions in the book. It’s the chin nod to one’s peers or influencers. Other name drops: Sophie Calle, Valerie Solanas (wherein I learn that she scrawled edits to the NYPL copy of SCUM Manifesto complaining about the publisher’s changes), Lauren Berlant (repeatedly referred to by Browning as “the smartest woman in the US”), Andre Breton, Gertrude Stein.

She begins by talking about the ukulele covers she’s been making for friends and how she responded to a spam message by making a cover for the sender. This leads into a discussion about a reclusive musical genius with Asperger in Germany she befriends (and later has a disastrous attempt to visit in Köln where she learns that he’s given a fake address), Sami, who makes his own musical videos posted online. Browning also makes various naked dance videos of herself or her hands, set either to music or to the voice messages that Sami leaves her. The German term for Asperger is Inselbegabung, meaning “insular talent.”

The book meanders, dipping into performance art of her transgender friend Tye, bragging about how smart her NYU doctoral students are, giving lectures at the post-Occupy Free University, pop-up lectures on Pussy Riot, New Museum patronage of Karen Finley’s sexting piece, discussing appropriation in the digital world (centos are poems constructed of lines from other poets, the form originated in 3rd century AD). It’s delightful, uncategorizable, intellectual, dreamy, thought-provoking stuff.

Strangers on a Train

Pat’s first book, pub’d 1950 when she was 29 and obviously made famous by Hitchcock’s picking it up for a film (Raymond Chandler worked on the adaptation before he got fired and said the plot drove him “crazy”). The film streamlines and simplifies, as it always does. In the book, Guy breaks down and commits the murder of Bruno’s dad after months of torment and letters and harassment by Bruno after he offs Miriam. Bruno still can’t let well enough alone and insinuates himself into Guy and Anne’s life, eventually ending up on a boat with them that he drunkenly falls from, drowning. Guy is wracked with guilt, tracks down Miriam’s old boyfriend and confesses, of course to find Bruno’s private detective outside the door having heard it all. Most interesting to know about Pat’s alcoholism while reading this, as Bruno is constantly sloshed, saying things like the best way to experience the world is while drunk.

The Two Faces of January

I promise, I’m getting close to the end of my Pat Highsmith list. This one was from her peak period of writing in the 1960s (1964) and a treat for the eyes, although sloppy in a couple of places. Colette and Chester are an American couple in Greece fleeing Chester’s bad business deals back in the States by heading to Europe in the winter. They come across Rydal, another American, who has been struck by Chester’s similarity to his dead father. Rydal helps Chester dispose of the body of a Greek policeman who’s come sniffing around about the fraud, accidentally killed. Then Rydal helps him get fake passports, and decides to travel with them to Crete where he falls in love with Colette and she with him. Chester tries to kill Rydal at Knossos, but ends up dropping a heavy stone on his wife instead, crushing her. Then the inevitable fleeing the country, attempting to pin the blame on Rydal, etc. etc.

The Blunderer

More murder from Pat Highsmith, this one an early gem from 1954. She begins with a gruesome killing, a man sets his alibi by going to a movie and making sure to say hello to someone, then exiting the theater to follow the bus his wife is on, viciously killing her at the rest stop. A blurb about the murder comes out in the paper and is collected by Walter, a lawyer who writes essays about human relationships for fun. Later, he thinks about doing just that (killing his wife at a rest stop) but she ends up suiciding from a cliff at the rest stop instead, casting suspicion onto him. The original murderer starts to face intense scrutiny, ends up killing Walter and being taken into custody for the two murders. Not great, but not terrible.

Ottoline: The life of Lady Ottoline Morrell

A tremendously boring biography about a tremendously interesting woman, Ottoline. Her life intersected with so many of the greats we revere today, and yet the story of her life as told by Darroch falls flat on its face. Friends with Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Bertrand Russell (lovers, actually), Katherine Mansfield, Murray-Middleton, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, Duncan Grant, Clive Bell, the Asquiths, Henry Lamb (another lover), etc. etc. etc. She met Gertrude Stein in Paris, and was immortalized in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a “marvellous female version of Disraeli.”

Probably the most interesting bits gleaned from this dull tome were two pieces of unusual language: the idea that someone can be melancholy (and not melancholic), and the concept of someone getting their portrait painted as “sitting to” a painter, not “sitting for.”

I’m always hungry for gossip that denigrates Middleton-Murry, Katherine Mansfield’s unworthy husband, and this letter from Bertrand Russell to Ottoline does nicely: “I thought Murry beastly and the whole atmosphere dead and putrefying.” Also a comment dropped by Ott in her memoirs about KM calling him “a little mole hung out on a string to dry.”

Ottoline’s first impression of Katherine Mansfield wasn’t the best, KM having been embarrassed into silence by DH Lawrence’s violent political speech, she “sat very silent and Buddha-like on the big sofa—she might almost have held in her hand a lotus-flower.”

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveler’s Tale from Mexico

A delightful travel book about Mexico by Sybille Bedford, soaking up as much of the New World post WWII before heading back to Europe. (At one point she considers sailing on a boat from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux that would allow her to take two small donkeys back to Normandy.)  Descriptions waft out of her book with the scent of freshly made tortillas, tinkling with the clink of ice in a glass of rum or tequila, sparkling with the frank heat of a noontime sun.

I sipped from this book carefully, not gobbling at the usual speed and keeping a separate tally of all the intriguing words she packed in. This week I’ve become a bit of a word connoisseur, sampling the sound of each as I strain toward writing my own. These are not words you find in today’s sparse and modern tomes:

expostulate excrement sybaritic admixture rend desolation volcanic haphazard proportion graft expulsion promulgation appurtenance charlatan ossify miasma exegesis exorbitant inviolate somnolent torpor quiescence dour chafe sempiternal empyrean satraps gauleiters inured

Sybille and her friend “E.” (Esther Murphy Arthur) leave New York’s Grand Central and head south by train. I knew I was in for a treat early on when I encountered her acerbic retelling of the various availability of alcohol per state.

E. was told to wait until we have crossed the state line.  It is all very confusion. Oklahoma and Kansas are bone dry, that is everybody drinks like fishes. In Vermont you are rationed to two bottles of hard liquor a month. In Pennsylvania you cannot get a drink on Sunday; in Texas you may only drink at home, in Georgia only beer and light wines, in Ohio what and as much as you like but you have to buy it at the Post Office. Arizona and Nevada are wet but it is a criminal offence to give a drink to a Red Indian. In New York you cannot publicly consume anything on a Sunday morning but may have it sent up to an hotel bedroom. And nowhere, anywhere, in the Union can you buy, coax or order a drop on Election Day.

Her descriptions of the country are pure poetry, lyrical, flowing. Laziness overcomes me and instead of transcribing, I take the easy way out by screengrabbing Amazon’s copy (“Creole ladies went to Mass covered in diamonds leading pet leopards” and “women in crinolines sat at banquet among the flies at Vera Cruz” are you kidding me, perfect!):

The pair spend weeks in Mexico City, (just “Mexico” to locals), exploring the streets and jumping on buses for gut-wrenching lurching toward other towns up and down mountains. Drinking is somewhat of a problem as bars aren’t open to women except certain hotel bars. But this isn’t so terrible, “this is not a good country to drink in: in daytime one does not want it at all, and at night one wants it too much.” The wines are horrible, but Sybille learns to swallow it “with a liberal admixture of water, like a man.”

Of the sights, there is much to see. “Everywhere. No need, no point, to plan and rush, only to stand, to stroll and stare; to connect. Not great beauty, not the perfect proportions, the slow-grown, well-grown balance, not the long-tended masterpiece of thought and form, the tight French gem, but the haphazard, the absurd, the overblown, the savage, the gruesome. The fantastic detail and the frightening vista; the exotically elegant; the vast, the far, the legendarily ancient.”

She buys a manual of conversation for Indian phrases. In a section headed Useful Words and Phrases, page one has:
‘Are you interested in death, Count?’
‘Yes, very much, your Excellency.’

E.’s cousin Anthony joins them midway through the trip, making friends with all the Mexican gentlemen and paving the way for an easier journey. Anthony is on vacation from his job in Baltimore and after a few weeks of fun, lolling about Don Otavio’s well-managed house reading and drinking and talking and exploring, Sybille broaches the fact that he must return in three weeks. “How can you bear it? Cellophane, television, the deep-freeze unit, getting and spending. The whole old bag of nothing.”

A book like this makes me want to travel again. Maybe.

 

Don Quixote by Kathy Acker

I’ve been a long time coming to Kathy Acker, finally pushed into reading this by Sarah Schulman’s recommendation. Acker re-imagines herself as Don Quixote, the modern version, galloping into the rotting husk of NYC, watching junkies use razors instead of needles, her sidekick St. Simeon turning into a dog, seeing filth everywhere and being kicked pummeled punched flogged.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Dream state stream of consciousness interspersed with clever poems or recreation of the dialog at the end of the perfect film, The Women, zipping to St. Petersburg and back, discussion of politics Regan Nixon, Nazis, Oedipus, Waiting for Godot, sex, madness, drugs, rats, rotting. Surreal.

Selected Stories by Frances Bellerby

A delightful collection of somewhat creepy stories that linger around death, children, etc. The first story is a delicate exploration of how a father breaks the news of his young daughter’s death to his slightly older son. Another has a pair of siblings explore the roof of their new house and leave a surprise at the summit for someone else to discover when they’re gone, which shocks the sister, not able to comprehend where they will have gone, before they slide down to check on their sick mother. A father gives up his young daughter after the death of his wife, tries to forget about her, but Fate drives her to his door, he almost scares her away but realizes who she is, shows her a picture but all she can see is the gigantic spider scurrying away. Great writing, but some of the pieces aren’t as top notch as the others.

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back

Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book is a bit uneven but there are worthwhile bits tucked inside. It shines at the beginning, providing a glance back in time to what healthcare was like in the early 20th century and its evolution since into big business. Things veer off course in a bit of a preachy manner with excoriating screeds against hospitals, doctors, pharma. The book levels back to usefulness when she lays out her suggestions for how to improve things, giving specific advice for individuals. Besides always asking for things to be done “in-network” and asking how much tests/etc. cost, I found her ideas around hospital bills insightful:

  1. Make it clear you didn’t request a private room (they have a glut of these) otherwise you may be hit up with a “private room supplement” charge.
  2. Admitting docs will include a page about willingness to accept financial responsibility. Write “as long as the providers are in my insurance network” before you sign.
  3. Be clear about your status- are you under observation or being admitted? Observation will cost you much much more.
  4. If you’re up for it, ask to know the identity of everyone who appears at your bedside, what they’re doing, who sent them. Or ask a friend who’s with you if you’re too ill. Write it down. Drive-by doctoring will ring up the bills big time, and you can always say no. You might be billed for a physical therapist to help you out of bed when the nurse did it. Dermatologist there to examine a rash that has nothing to do with your illness? “Tell them all to go away. Everything done to you or for you in the hospital will be billed at exorbitant rates.”
  5. Hospital may try to send you home with equipment you don’t need, like slings, knee braces, wheelchair. Decline and buy them much cheaper elsewhere.
  6. When bills arrive, request complete itemization. You should also negotiate. “Prices are so inflated that even low-level clerks are authorized to approve major discounts.” Check the bill against your notes. Protest the bill in writing to create a record. Argue against surprise out of network fees.

Economic Rules of the Dysfunctional Medical Market:

1. More treatment is always better. Default to the most expensive treatment.
2. A lifetime of treatment is preferable to a cure.
3. Amenities and marketing matter more than good care.
4. As technologies age, prices go up rather than fall.
5. There is no free choice. Patients are stuck. And they’re stuck buying American.
6. More competition vying for business doesn’t mean better prices. It can drive prices up, not down.
7. Economies of scale don’t translate to lower prices. With their market power, big providers can simply demand more.
8. There is no such thing as a fixed price for a procedure or test. And the uninsured pay the highest prices of all.
9. There are no standards for billing. There’s money to be made in billing for anything and everything.
10. Prices will rise to whatever the market will bear.

A Suspension of Mercy

One of Pat’s best books, pub’d in 1965 when she was in her full powers and had yet to slide into decline. It’s a story about a fiction writer (Sydney Bartleby) who hates his wife Alicia and keeps thinking about ways he would murder her. She’s an artist and takes time away from him, ostensibly to paint but in reality it’s just to get away from him. After a few days, she returns, and then after a major fight departs again, this time for a much longer time. Sydney is pleased to not have her around and begins producing great crime plots that he collaborates on with his pal Alex for television treatment. The day after Alicia leaves on her longer stay, Syd thinks he’d like to see what it’s like to raise suspicion that he’s murdered her, so early one morning carries a rolled up carpet that he goes and buries four feet underground. Alicia has actually flown into the arms of another man, Edward Tilbury, and in various disguises she stays away, raising alarm and suspicion when she doesn’t cash her monthly trust fund check. Syd jokes with Alex that he pushed her down the stairs and buried the body in a carpet, and the police come sniffing around. Eventually the carpet gets dug up, no body. Syd thinks, the body is deeper in the hole, keep digging, but there is no body because Alicia is still alive and in hiding. Eventually Syd’s publishing prospects are held up by people suspecting that he did in his wife, so he spies on her, discovers the affair, and telegrams her to return to her parents. Alicia panics, gets drunk, chases after Edward, and falls or is pushed off a cliff. Syd’s off the hook for her murder, but he’s not satisfied, he goes to Tilbury’s flat and forces him to eat sleeping pills which later kill him.

Poetry State Forest

Bernadette Mayer strikes again, playing with words, showing you her old notebooks with lists of words, creating poems out of daily life that reveal bits of herself: her fights with Phil, presents from her son Max, the neighbor who buys the land next door to put up a cabin (“At least it’s not a walmart/a used care lot or a mine”), railing against George Bush (W), going to anti-war demonstrations, talking about the gloomy month of December. My favorite one was “Idyll,” written from the perspective of a know-nothing typical redneck white male who’s vacationing by the lake, dousing his bbq with lighter fluid, fishing, tossing his cigarette butts in the water, then throwing more of his garbage in. Mostly it’s a book of play, words dancing and pirouetting and bowing and scraping across the page.

You & a Bike & a Road

Eleanor Davis sketches a beautiful story of her solo bike touring as she bikes from Tuscon, AZ to Athens, GA. (She ultimately gives up in Mississippi, but the journey to get there takes 57 days). She sings and soaks in the gorgeousness of farmland, icing her swollen knees with frozen green beans at a coffee shop inside a grocery store because she doesn’t like peas. She meets lovely people along the way that provide shelter or guidance or acupuncture or vegetable soup. Through it all we know that she’s struggling with depression, that she’s got to do this trip now or wait 20 years because she and her husband want to have children. She camps along the way when she can, resenting shelling out $60 for motels when conditions require it, and when concerned people ask if she’s doing it alone she assures them her husband is with her, imagining a knife she calls her husband to do the trick if anyone were to try anything funny. The border patrol in AZ, NM, and Texas are all omnipresent, she’s shaken by the image of a man walking slowly in the canal, agents on either side waiting to catch him, but she does score some water from them occasionally as she’s biking. Delicious treat for the eyes and brain.

The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith

Exhausting. I’ve been wrestling with this book for a couple of weeks now and would have given up except the subject matter is too compelling. Because I’m high on Highsmith I suffered through the terribly constructed, bloated biography that Schenkar put together. That may be harsh criticism, but surely there was a way to chop the 600 pages into something more manageable. And nothing is more deflating than struggling through hundreds of pages of Pat’s tempestuous affairs with ladies (and a few men), looking up to see that you are in Part 14 of the section, Les Girls. I almost cried when I realized how much she’d packed into those pages. Did every single detail of every single affair she had need to be included? Ye gods. (Pat was a busy woman, frequently sleeping with several women at the same time, preferring love triangles or affairs with married women so there was no possibility of it continuing).

The most interesting intel I got from this was Pat’s secret life as a comic strip writer. During the 1940s she was the “most consistently employed female scriptwriter in the Golden Age of American Comics,” and she continued to write them freelance while in Europe trying to make ends meet. Comics she wrote for include: Black Terror, Pyroman, Fighting Yank, The Destroyer, Sergeant Bill King, Jap Buster Johnson, The Human Torch, Crisco and Jasper, Real Life Comics, Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight, Golden Arrow. She hid this work from everyone, ashamed of it, but admitted later that it helped her tremendously in having to crank out huge quantities of pages around tight plot lines. This is also where she picked up the dual imagery she clung to in her own work, the alter-ego.  The biographer goes on an interesting tangent about that era of comics and includes Gertrude Stein’s impression that Americans “do the best designing and use the best material in the cheapest thing.” Apparently Stein had Krazy Kat and The Katzenjammer Kids strips mailed to her in Paris, sharing them with equally obsessed comics fan Picasso.

As a girl, Pat read obsessively and used books as “drugs”—sounds familiar—and later in life read the dictionary for half an hour each night (“As a novelist, I can say the dictionary is the most entertaining book I have ever read”). She kept snails as pets and would unleash them onto the dinner table to freak people out.

An alcoholic, she shunned food and actually marked a line across the bottle for each day’s rations of booze (beer and gin or vodka in the morning, scotch for the remainder of the day). The author, Schenkar, claims: “Coffee, scientists now tell us gravely, helps to protect the livers of heavy drinkers from cirrhosis,” meaning that Pat was preserving herself by being a huge coffee drinker along with consuming astounding amounts of booze. She was also known to be furious if she was at a party that ran out of alcohol.

She was obviously deeply into murder, and her last writer’s diary calculates that “one blow in anger [would] kill, probably, a child from aged two to eight. Those over eight would take two blows to kill.” What circumstances would drive her to this frenzy? “One situation—maybe one alone—could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness.” Amen, sister. Later she says “Families are nice to visit but I wouldn’t want to live with one.” Pat had a ridiculously complicated and fraught relationship with her mother Mary, having to cut off contact completely in later years after one too many screaming matches.

A misanthrope, she preserved herself by “avoiding meeting people, encountering them on my walks, greeting even the most pleasant acquaintances by crossing the street when I see them far ahead of me on the sidewalk… I feel that I am never quite myself with others.” Another great quote: “I can easily bear cold, loneliness, hunger and toothache, but I cannot bear noise, heat, interruptions, or other people.”

She met Carson McCullers (who told Pat all afternoon that she had a “very good figure”). She also met Shirley Jackson who advised her about the importance of finding a literary agent. Jane Bowles told her “Don’t plan. It always works better to write first, and then rewrite.”