Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

Stunning book that definitely deserves its Pulitzer Prize. Meticulously researched by Heather Ann Thompson over many years to investigate and wrest the hidden documents from the guilty hands of the State of New York. Exquisitely structured in manageable 10 sections laying out the inhumane conditions leading up to the riot, the political landscape, the brutal event in detail from its inception on Sept 9, 1971 to Sept 13, 1971 when the [white] State Troopers who had been chomping at the bit to come in and terrorize the [mostly brown] prisoners who had deigned to revolt were unleashed with guns and teargas into the yard. Then the book covers the horrific followup, the coverup by the State to not bring any Troopers to trial, the legal actions against a few dozen of the prisoners, and finally to retribution for the tortured prisoners and a settlement for hostages and their families. Thompson wraps everything up with a peek at the state of our extreme incarceration and terrible prison conditions in 2016.

This from the epilogue is particularly poignant in today’s police-state:

… the 1960s and 1970s were all about the politics of the ironic. At the Democratic National Convention protests of 1968, Kent State in 1970, and Wounded Knee in 1973, unfettered police power each time turned protests violent, and yet, after each of these events, the nation was sent the message that the people, not the police, were dangerous. Somehow voters came to believe that democracy was worth curtailing and civil rights and liberties were worth suspending for the sake of “order” and of maintaining the status quo.

As I read this book, I was amazed over and over by things Thompson brought to light. I’ll admit that I had to put it down several times, reading it the day after the most recent Biggest Ever mass shooting in Las Vegas and finding it hard to read the descriptions of what bullets do to a body. Some thoughts:

Why did Rockefeller send in the NYSP instead of letting the National Guard go in? Both groups were on the scene. “Whereas the National Guard had a clear plan already in place for bringing civil disturbances in confined areas under control, known as Operation Plan Skyhawk, the New York State Police had virtually no formal training for this sort of action.”

The troopers removed their identification badges “just before they went in” so that they wouldn’t be able to be tagged to their crimes. A trooper later said “we weren’t stopping traffic where a citizen would have the perfect right to know who they’re being stopped by… it was a different thing.” Basically premeditated murder that they could (and would) get away with scot-free.

The racism was unbelievable and yet, in view of lingering terribleness on this front, completely believable. It goes all the way up the chain to Nixon, caught on tape excusing Rockefeller’s excessive and indefensible use of force because “you see it’s the black business… he had to do it.”

The Attica chant of Al Pacino from Dog Day Afternoon echoed in my head throughout. This is an unmissable book that shines light on the terrible and incredible events from 1971 onward.

The Black House

Pat had a ho-hum period in the 80s that explains why this 1981 collection of stories is sleep inducing. No story stands out as worthy of remembering, but I’m still committed to working my way through her entire oeuvre. She’s best when she drips the details of everyday life in with an increasing sense of suspense, and that is sorely lacking from this collection. The closest you get is in the first story where a cat finds a severed hand and the finder calls his neighbor to let him know, only to have the neighbor come over to admit to killing his gardener for flirting with his wife. I guess the other story that was amusing was the couple who “adopt” an older couple from the nursing home to let them live their glory days in style. The old folks take over, TV blaring, demanding trays of food to be sent up, wetting their bed deliberately.

The Tyranny of Choice

I’m not even sure what I just read—it was muddled and didn’t make a clear argument. Renata Salecl writes about late capitalism’s insidious pushing of the choice agenda as a way to make us all feel better, but it’s really just making us anxious. We’re drowning in self-help guides but not getting any better. We put on a happy positive face that ends up just masking the need to “rethink the nature of social inequalities” and find other ways to let capitalism develop. We’re pressured to be “unique” but also to conform; therein lies the power of celebrity. An arbitrary popular figure can give you clues on how to dress/talk/walk/sing/do business and you’re accepted. “This reflects a major change in the way that the individual identifies with social ideas under late capitalism, a shift that has also occurred in the way people today identify with authorities chosen and self-imposed and how they perceive themselves in society as a whole.” We’re essentially told to create an identity by copying one from someone else.

The one unexpected delight I got from the book was finally an explanation as to why people insist on videotaping every moment of their vacation or big event: interpassivity, coined by Robert Phaller, is what occurs between an individual and their proxy who is tasked with experiencing something for the other, like the Serbian women hired to cry at funerals. “… by the same token, people record films they will never watch because the recording equipment is in a way watching the film for them.”

Unfortunately, not a good choice of a book.

 

Angel

What an odd book from British author, Elizabeth Taylor. The early parts were well done, depicting a bullheaded young girl who proudly writes her first novel and insists that no changes be made to the over-the-top language that ends up being commercially appealing to the uneducated. She’s a goldmine, but rigidly humorless. These early sections are also a goldmine.

Then a man comes onto the scene, and of course he’s penniless but a gambler. Enter marriage, and Angel buying an old dilapidated mansion that she pours her money into (reminding me of the film, Mildred Pierce), and he heads off to war but spends his leaves with another lady, coming home with a huge gambling debt that Angel writes another novel furiously to cover the expenses of. He ends up drowning in  a pond, and the story limps along through another war and to the bitter desperate end of Angel’s life. Blah.

I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction

Another hit from the hilarious Jen Kirkman, her latest exposition of life as a divorcee who never ever ever wants kids thankyouverymuch. She’s frank, open, crass, but completely honest about life after her marriage dissolves 18 months in, life on the road as a traveling comic, someone who’s fiercely protective of her privacy and resents her new neighbor knocking on her door at all hours. Great comedic relief from the tedium of a workweek.

Found in the Street

Ugh, I finally found a Pat Highsmith book that was disappointing. Actually, there are a few that I couldn’t even continue reading (post to come later), but this one held out a tinge of promise so I plowed through. The one-star review on AMZN echoes my feeling: “I nearly always love the work of Patricia Highsmith so this was a real disappointment.”

I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, or even who the anti-hero was. You’ve got the freelance journalist who’s also an artist who loses his wallet, found by weirdo stalker guy who insists that the young woman working at the coffee shop is also a prostitute (she’s not). Ultimately, she’s killed by the jealous ex-lover of her own ex-girlfriend. It’s meandering and wheezy and avoidable.

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids

I saw the brilliant Jen Kirkman when she rolled through town earlier this month but did not realize until today that she had written books. This is a hilarious volume of takedowns aimed at people who aggressively insist on questioning her conviction that she does not want children. I can relate, and am happy to find another member of the club, especially one with such great comebacks. “I’m a nice person because I’m usually in a good mood and I’m usually in a good mood because I’m not responsible for raising a child I don’t want.”

She gets into the autobiographical details of her life, raised Catholic outside Boston, her mother making her say the same creepy prayer that I once did: “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Best is her retort: “That prayer is comforting—if you’re ninety and on a respirator.”

Railing against the obsession of trashy magazines with tracking “baby bumps,” she wonders if there’ll be an Adoption Papers Bump Watch analyzing celebrities carrying overstuffed briefcases with what seem to be reams of legal docs: “Is She Adopting or Is She Working Part-Time as a Paralegal?”

Best are her impressions of her mother, like the response to her teenaged outfit of thrift-store black dress, ripped tights, combat books, and dyed hair: “Jennifah, why can’t you wear some color? You look like a witch with shoe polish on her head.”

What Happened

On Election Day 2016, I got gussied up to walk a block down the street and cast my mail-in ballot a local elementary school. I put on high heels and my sassiest blue and white dress, belted with a red velvet sash. Before I left, I took a retro selfie with a Polaroid, posing with my ballot proudly marked to cast my vote for the first woman President of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Looking at the picture now reminds me exactly how I felt. I walked down the block and the crossing guard at the school told me how fabulous I looked. I told her, “I’m going to vote!” The long national nightmare was almost over; soon I would no longer have nightmares about the toxic turd posing as the Republican candidate.

Voting wasn’t anything special. I hefted my many paged ballot (California elections are ridiculous) into the open slot, took an “I Voted” sticker, looked around the school auditorium at all the other morning voters. It seemed calm. I stifled a whoop of joy. My friend Jane later told me that she wanted to yell “I voted FOR A WOMAN!” as she left her precinct. When I got back home I watched a livestream from Susan B. Anthony’s grave where people were flocking to place voting stickers or other mementos. I cried a lot of joyful tears. Many texts were sent to friends across the country of the “!!!!” happy excitement variety.

And then the nightmare got worse. Watching that NYTimes % chance calculator drop from 99% certainty of Clinton victory all the way down. I went to bed, unable to listen to the pundits. For months after, I’ve struggled with depression brought on by the trauma. When I heard that HRC was writing a book about the experience, I said HELL YES.

I’ve read the book and weathered the media shitstorm telling her once again to shut up and go away. I don’t want this woman to go away, and it looks like she refuses to. She is a feminist hero, and this book is a goddamn manifesto. I laughed out loud, a lot. I cried. I had to take frequent breaks. It should be required reading for every American.

I don’t read books by politicians. Never have, and never plan to. This is not a book by a politician (although some of her chapters do get a bit into the weeds of policy). This is a first-person account of someone on the receiving end of the body slam that was Russian interference (hello you dumb Americans who believe things you read on FB & Twitter or hear on Fox News), Jim Comey’s last minute grand reveal of her emails into the spotlight again (for naught, because there is nothing in them), blowback from 8 years of “post-racial” America (remember that dream?!), and deep horrifying real misogyny.

I’ve said a lot already and haven’t even gotten into the book itself. She shares self-care tips like alternate nostril breathing techniques, sly digs at Putin, an exhaustive list of words to describe Trump (fraud, con man, “no ideological core apart from his towering self-regard”). She’s also quite funny. And her quotes range from Emerson, JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot, to Nancy Drew. She reveals grand secrets like how her staff warmed up Quest bars by sitting on them before they ate them and how their favorite hot sauce was Marie Sharp’s (I can relate). She shares her thoughts on selfies: not a fan but likes that they absolve her from the wrist pain of “autographs, now obsolete.”

The best parts are where she’s breaking down the role of sexism in the campaign, how women aren’t supposed to speak up. “Think about it: we know of only a handful of speeches by women before the latter half of the 20th century, and those tend to be by women in extreme and desperate situations. Joan of Arc said a lot of interesting things before they burned her at the stake.”

On debate prep, her team realized that it would be a lot different against Trump. “He was rarely linear in his thinking or speaking. He digressed into nonsense and then digressed even more.” P.S. she won all 3 debates handily despite his following her around the stage while she mulled over whether to say “Back up creep” or just suck it up like all us women usually do. Oh, and do you remember how she got criticized for being too prepared? You cannot make this stuff up.

More humor– she attributes a “Lock her up!” quote to Michael Flynn at the RNC in July. “This quote could have been pulled from nearly any Trump rally of the entire campaign, but there’s a certain poetic justice now in remembering how enthusiastic Michael Flynn was about sending me to jail.”

To my never-ending delight, she unmasks Bernie Sanders for the fraud he is. “After the election, Bernie suggested that Democrats should be open to nominating and supporting candidates who are anti-choice. Other topics, such as economic justice, are sacrosanct, but apparently women’s health is not.” And Bernie, who loves to talk about true progressives never bowing to political interests, “has long bowed to the political reality of his rural state of Vermont and supported the NRA’s key priorities.” She says she’s proud to be a Democrat “and I wish Bernie were, too.” And this is just brilliant, a Facebook post included in her book:

She writes about her marriage to Bill in a way that made my heart nearly burst. All their negative moments have been shared with the press, and she shares some of the daily positives. This section is led by a great quote: “I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.” (– Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) Hillary brings up that people contend she and Bill must have some sort of secret “arrangement” where she stuck with him and he must stick with her until she’s President. We do have an arrangement, she says, “it’s called a marriage.”

She talks about how we’ve lost half a million retail jobs since 2001, something no other politician is discussing, and brings up our skewed reality of “coal miners.” She mentions how automation is also killing jobs, and how frightened she is of the power wielded by the Silicon Valley firms.

She accuses Putin of manspreading! “When I sat with Putin in meetings, he looked more like one of those guys on the subway who imperiously spread their legs wide, encroaching on everyone else’s space.” As for Toxic T, she nails it, “Why did Donald Trump keep blowing kisses to Vladimir Putin?”

It has to be painful for her to watch this buffoon singlehandedly bring down America’s reputation abroad. “America’s lost prestige and new-found isolation were embodied in the sad image of the other leaders of Western democracies strolling together down a lovely Italian street while Trump followed in a golf cart, all by himself.” He also has an “utter lack of interest in or knowledge of most foreign policy issues” and dreams of “Moscow on the Potomac.” His reaction to her during a debate still echoes in her head. “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.”

 

It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness

Sylvia Boorstein serves up a very snackable book about mindfulness and living a good life, along with her pal Atla’s recipe for marinated mushrooms (2/3 cup oil seems extreme for 1 lb of mushrooms, to be honest). Very conversational tone to the book, very readable. Her approach is to let you know that you don’t have to be a weirdo when you become a meditator and establish “equanimity.” Normal folks incorporate these basic rules into their lives and go on living, but are just happier and nicer people. You, too, can achieve this once you realize that the mind sets up various traps to enrage you or cause desire.

Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life

I actually really appreciate Sylvia Boorstein’s chatty and informal style of discussing meditation and Buddhist thought/philosophy/religion. This means wading through several pages of stories about airport/airplane encounters since she seems to always be traveling from San Francisco to the east coast or to France (where she lives for several months each year). She’s one of the founding teachers of Spirit Rock in Marin County.

Some helpful tips from the book- if something bad happens, tell yourself “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” Bad feelings aren’t good for you. Buddha taught oh so many millennia ago that anger is “a toxin in the veins.” Let it go.

Her prayer for metta/lovingkindness is: May I feel contented and safe. May I feel protected and pleased. May my physical body support me with strength. May my life unfold smoothly with ease.

Another of her favorite prayers: May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

The beautiful Roxane Gay opens herself up about her past and how the horrible thing that happened to her at age 12 led to her fortifying her body with food, eating and eating to form armor that would protect her from the male gaze. The book is heartbreakingly honest, astonishingly well-written, smart, open, searching, and wise.

I don’t know how she has handled her escalating visibility in a world that loathes obese people. She’s also an unapologetic feminist, raising her loud intelligent voice to speak truth to power or the crumbling forms of it that coalesce around conservatives. She talks about her weight, brought on almost intentionally by eating her way out of trauma, her parents frantic and not knowing what was going on with her. She discusses her lost year in Arizona where she fled mid-semester at Yale. She details her shyness, hatred of being touched and looked at and talked about, and enumerates several harrowing experiences where invited to talk in front of an audience and afraid the chair was going to break. This book is amazing. Roxane is one of the top writers flexing their pens today and it is a privilege to read her.

The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation

“Another book about meditation?” you groan. Yes, grasshopper. Only this one wasn’t nearly as good as Mindfulness in Plain English—clunkier, interspersed with tedious personal reflections by each of the authors, and much more concerned that I learn the 5 Hindrances, the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. Too structured!

The one tip I picked up was around turning your regular walking into a meditative practice by counting the steps. When you take the first step, that’s 1. On the next 2 steps, 1, 2. Next 3 steps are 1, 2, 3. Etc up to 10. Upon reaching 10, it’s 10 for the first step, 10, 9 for steps 1 & 2, etc.

Otherwise, there’s an extensive list of books for further reading that I’ll probably hit up. But this one is a waste of time and energy. It’s ok, I’m observing that negative thought from outside myself and watching my reaction. Om.

The View from the Ground

Martha Gellhorn’s collection of articles that she churned out in six decades of freelance journalism is sparkling, but my favorite book of hers remains Travels with Myself and Another. In this collection, she groups the essays by decade and offers up a quirky summation for each period— sometimes this was my favorite part. She manically travels the world, from Spain to Poland to St. Louis to Texas to Vietnam to Israel to London ad infinitum.

Her comparison of the wretched House UnAmerican Activities Committee (targeting Eleanor Roosevelt’s rep, ultimately) with the jovial and prudent House of Commons was wonderful. Two Irish members were unable to take their places in the House of Commons due to being in jail for helping to hold up a British arms depot; a second election was held and they were re-elected. “This raised a fascinating dilemma: whereas you may not vote, in jail, you may, evidently, stand for Parliament.”

Later parts tend toward dullness, and she has an ill-advised trip to Haiti where she claims to realize what blacks feel like in bad places since she was slightly tormented by being the only white person around. The only bright spot in the 2nd half of the book was her 1980s essay that hearkens back to the 1930s where she glories in the beauty of not needing advance travel reservations and brags about how wonderful train trips were. “Trains were leisurely… You had time to watch [the land] change, to feel the differences and the great distance. You knew you were traveling… The population explosion, the airplane, and tourism as a major international industry have changed travel, for an old traveler like me, from thrilling impetuous private discovery into a hassle of the deepest dye.”

New phrase I picked up: “like billy-o” meaning extremely. “I laughed like billy-o” says Gellhorn about her romp with poverty-stricken Poland. “When they say they are interested in making money, they mean they are interested in staying alive.”

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

The only non-fiction I’ve gobbled up by Pat so far is this useful book on writing with tips that stretch beyond the “suspense” label. She relies on her decades of successfully publishing books and stories and reveals her process, unbuttoning the kimono.

“I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don’t dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine.” She also admits to enjoying conversations with people that others find dull: “there are some people, often most unlikely people—dull-witted, lazy, mediocre in every way—who are for some inexplicable reason stimulating to the imagination. I have known many such people. I like to see and talk to them now and then, if I can.”

In her twenties, she worked during the day and would come home, nap at 6pm, then bathe and change clothes, getting up for her second job which was to write her own work. “This gave me an illusion of two days in one and made me as fresh for the evening as I could be.”

To combat fatigue, she advocates for taking a trip, even a short, cheap trip to change the scene. “If you can’t take a trip, take a walk.” Lack of ideas might also be due to the people you’re around.

Technical specifics get into outlining chapters, always with the question in mind about how this chapter advances the story. List the specific points you want to cover in each chapter and have that beside you as you write it.

She sneers at people who imitate current trends that are selling: “A writer can be assured of a good living by imitating current trends and by being logical and pedestrian, because such imitations sell and do not take too much out of a writer in an emotional sense.”

Pat cries foul of those writers who love to let their characters take on a life of their own: “I do not subscribe to the belief that having a vigorous character who acts for himself is always good. After all, you are the boss, and you don’t want your characters running around all over the place or possibly standing still, no matter how strong they may be.”

Dialogue can be summed up where not important to increase the dramatic effect. Instead of tediously listing out the characters’ lines, “Howard refused to budge, though she argued with him for a full half hour.”

As usual, the best writing advice is simply to do it, and to do it often. She is speaking directly to me here:

One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours absolute privacy here and there. This schedule should become a habit, and the habit, like writing itself, a way of life. It should become a necessity; then one can and will always work. It is possible to think like a writer all one’s life, to want to be a writer, yet to write seldom, out of laziness or lack of habit. Such a person may write passably well when he writes—such people are known as great letter writers—and may even sell a few things, but that is doubtful. Writing is a craft and needs constant practice.

Throughout, she dissects her successful books and her failures. This book is a must-read for any Highsmith fan to get her take on her own work. When discussing Strangers on a Train, she says “It is a wonder this simple idea [strangers exchanging murders] is not used more often in real life, and perhaps it is, since it is said that only eleven percent of the murders committed are ever solved.”

How to be Bored

I really want to like these School of Life books, but usually end up disappointed. Eva Hoffman’s contribution was no different, tiny essays that stapled themselves together into a slender “book” claiming that we must allow ourselves to reach a state of boredom in order to delve more deeply inside. For those pressed for time, perhaps just reading the conclusion will do: “There are many ways to live; but to live meaninglessly is to miss your life. If we rush through our days and months in ceaseless activity, and without taking stock of what we’re doing, we can soon lose track of what we are doing it for, or why it matters to us… we need to orient ourselves in our lives – and within ourselves: to muse, relish, reflect and occasionally even to be bored.”

Ultimately I leave with a collection of other book recommendations, which isn’t bad in itself if the books turn out to be insightful. Also a reminder to pick up my Montaigne essays again. Otherwise, the best part was really her section on why to read books:

… books (good books, that is; books that matter) are the best aid to extended thought and imaginative reflection we have invented… this is particularly important, as an antidote to the segmentation of thought encouraged by digital technologies… the disparate fragments we look at on our various screens rarely cohere into continuous thought, or a deepening of knowledge…. They literally broaden our mental horizons and our perspective… imaginative literature is the art form most capable of encompassing all dimensions of human experience: the outer and the inner world, specific facts and the elusive textures of consciousness, the stories of individual selves and of the self within culture and society.

She winds up with a lethal dart at online reading:

Our contemporary forms of reading threaten to reduce that amplification. Aside from the fact that overusing digital technologies eventually makes us less mentally agile and more forgetful (as research increasingly shows), the kind of segmented, bite-sized reading we do on the internet fragments and constricts the ‘space to think’, instead of expanding it; in a sense, it reduces or even rubbishes our mental experience.