The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause

Germaine Greer is at her best when enraged. This is a book that any woman can appreciate, no matter what stage of life she’s in, even if just glimpsing the climacteric over the horizon as I am. Doctors pressing HRT onto older women are idiotic, the male gaze falling away is not to be missed, joy is to be found in this later cycle of life where the focus can be on oneself and not on caring for those around us. Greer castigates physicians for their feeble attempts, saying how extraordinary it is that we don’t know ANYTHING about menopause: we don’t know what is happening, why it happens, we can’t tell if it’s about to happen, is happening, or is over, we don’t know why there are symptoms for some women while others have none, we don’t know what’s related to just plain aging or why sleeping is disturbed or what a hot flush is.

Some of Greer’s rage is pure poetry:

Psychiatrists have no option but to blame people for their own suffering; admitting that unhappiness might be justified would undermine the entire rationale of medicating the mind. There can be no suggestion that feeling tired and disillusioned at fifty might be the appropriate response and that convincing yourself that you are happy and fulfilled might be self-deluding to the point of insanity. “Bringing up” children is not necessarily enjoyable; our children are not necessarily nice people and if they are it is not something we can congratulate ourselves upon.

I read this over many months, but the part freshest in my mind is the end wherein she winds up telling women to embrace themselves, care not a fig for the opinion of others, “become more abundantly” the old woman. Oh, we ruin things for the boys at the pub with our presence? So much the better. “Why not wear an invisible T-shirt that says ‘A glance from my eye can make your beer turn rancid’?” Indeed.

The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County

Hilarious 100+ page parody of Marin County in the 1970s, poking fun at all the stereotypes by going over the top on every page. I knew when I spotted this at Green Arcade bookstore that I was in for a real treat, and it did not disappoint.

Are you ready for carrot juice drinking yuppies who are into astrology and self discovery and yoga and EST (Erhard Seminars Training) and rebellious daughters who have house parties that allow guests to park their motorcycles inside? Everyone smoking dope and riding their bike from the Sausalito ferry? Consciousness raising and macramé and a world where restaurants didn’t accept credit cards yet? There’s a VW bus and a waterbed, OF COURSE. And kids that don’t get disciplined or who join the Moonies. This perfect bit was from a guy who was looking to escape Marin and move to Indiana: “I can’t take the whole Marin head-set anymore… Natural foods. Cocaine. Woodacre. Flea markets. Pool parties… Plant stores. Kleenraw in the hummingbird feeder. Weekends at Tahoe. Vasectomies. The Fungus Faire, redwood bathtubs, mandalas, compost piles, needlepoint, burglar alarms, acupuncture, saunas, sourdough, macramé…”

Written by Cyra McFadden and wonderfully illustrated by Tom Cervenak, such as this delightful image of a sadomasochist that Kate picks up at the flea market who takes her back to his houseboat. The whole thing got me thinking about doing a similar parody for 2018 San Francisco, the techies and their “communes”, their cryptocurrency and yoga classes and Instacart and rideshares.

Quiet Girl in a Noisy World: An Introvert’s Story

Hooray for introverts! I loved Debbie Tung’s graphic novel about how she copes with the world, recharging with alone time even at her wedding, asking her boss if she can work from home the rest of the afternoon so she can actually get work done, eventually quitting her job and embracing her inner need to work alone and on projects that are meaningful for her. We introverts get exhausted from social contact and have to recharge, and she feels alone until she stumbles onto the world of introvert blogs and finds out she’s not crazy after all, that there are millions of others just like her. After this, she gives herself permission to be herself, to turn down more invitations she doesn’t want to do. I loved the pages of her social hangover cures: comfort food, good books, favorite music, quiet time alone, warm hugs from a loved one.

Megahex

The Megahex gang is made up of a witch (Megg), her black cat (Mogg), their roommate Owl, a wizard in primary colors (red, blue), and Werewolf Jones. They spend their days smoking weed and dropping acid and playing tricks on each other, and every minute you spend reading this your mind will be spinning dizzily in this alternative universe. There’s lots of punching and smoking and puking and pooping and general mayhem. My favorite from the book was “Megg & Mogg’s horrible party” wherein Owl is drinking beer from a Foam Dome hat that has 2 cans with straws to his mouth, smoking in the yard and Werewolf Jones is chugging beer while running a weed whacker and the wizard finds a trampoline in the neighbor’s yard that Jones bounces on with the whacker still running then decides to use a cheese grater on his privates. It’s funny and terrible and you will sometimes laugh out loud but mostly you’ll feel like you’ve just inhaled some second-hand crack or weed by simply reading the bizarre tale.

L’Affaire

Why pick up trashy novels, and what compels me to sometimes read them all the way to the end? At least this one by Diane Johnson doesn’t commit any egregious sins of writing besides moving the plot along the obvious arc. This was actually suggested by someone as a great take-me-away type book, and I admit to the guilty pleasure of reading it through a rainy day. Stereotypes abound. Rich American woman comes to France to work on self-improvement projects, discovers the cultured Europeans, falls in love with a married man. There is an undercurrent of suspense, an avalanche traps a couple, leading to them on life support, the man is transported back to England where he dies, avoiding certain legal constraints on his legacy. It’s all very hocus pocus and strapping healthy tan ski instructors and doddering old English poets and weepy daughters who didn’t know their biological fathers.

Women & Power: A Manifesto

Thank god Mary Beard is out there doing the hard work of being a classical studies feminist so the rest of us don’t have to labor in the Latin & Greek trenches. This latest book encompasses two lectures she’s given in the last few years, born of her experience of being threatened/harassed/trolled on Twitter for committing the crime of being a woman with something to say. She also apparently gets mansplained about ancient Rome by these idiots.

She takes women’s silencing back all the way back to the first written tale—Homer’s Odyssey. Telemachus tells his mom Penelope to pipe down and head back to her weaving because speech is the “business of men, all men, and of me most of all.” From there we only have thousands of other years of examples of women being told to shut up.

Despite how it sounds, it’s a delightful romp. You’ve got Hilary Clinton & Angela Merkel alongside Medusa, Lysistrata, the Amazons, Herland from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Lucretia, Sojourner Truth, Fulvia, Queen Elizabeth I, and Clytemnestra. And Beard’s sass sneaks in as well, how she bought a pair of blue tights for her first interview for an academic job: “If you interviewers are going to be thinking that I’m a right bluestocking, let me just show you that I know that’s what you’re thinking and that I got there first.”

A Room of One’s Own

I had drinks with a friend last week and mentioned that I’ve been having difficulty finding a book to sink my teeth into, frequently hurling rejects across the room into a return-to-library pile. My friend said that sounded like a scene from A Room of One’s Own, I disagreed, then we determined to investigate the source of the “woman throwing book across room” image without the help of modern search technologies. Anything for a excuse to reread this absolute gem.

I must get this on the calendar for a regular re-read. Along with exploding patriarchal myths, delighting the senses, filling you with wit and laughter, it’s an exhortation to get out and write write write what you know (“the truer the facts, the better the fiction—so we are told”).

But no, there are no scenes of throwing a book across the room. Perhaps my friend was remembering  that Woolf mentions a girl who refused to marry the man of her father’s choosing was liable to be beaten and “flung about the room,” or that upon reading a poorly constructed novel that doesn’t reveal the human condition, Woolf “heaves a sigh of disappointment and says, Another failure.” My friend later emailed that she thought it might be Becky Sharp’s character in Vanity Fair who does the tossing, and Becky herself makes an appearance in Woolf’s list of women  who don’t lack in personality or character.

Something else that jumped out at me on this nth reading was that this work is truly the origin of the Bechdel test. It’s in the section where her fictitious author Mary Carmichael creates two characters (Olivia and Chloe) that talk about something other than men. “I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends…. almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”

I’m in the midst of luxuriating in a leisurely read of Proust and appreciate Woolf’s comments on him in this:

  • “Even so it remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men.”
  • “In our time Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.”
  • “For the reading of these books [La Recherche du Temps Perdu] seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.” (I agree with Woolf—I have only been able to read a few paragraphs of Proust at a time without my heart bursting)

I’d forgotten that she explodes the myth of the starving artist in here as well, at the end, reinstating her demand for £500/year for these women to have the financial security to write. Quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Woolf notes “It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth… the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance… a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”

Reading this in year 2 of McDonald Tr*mp, I enjoyed Woolf’s musing that anger is “somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power… Rich people, for example, are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their wealth.”

Previously documented readings of ROOO in 2016, 2014.

*** UPDATE ***

Apparently it was Becky Sharp who flung books around. Let’s not forget that Thackeray was the father of Virginia’s father’s first wife, e.g. a step-grandfather of sorts.

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:

View

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]:

Sink

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.