We Took to the Woods

Another book from a woman in the woods. This one by Louise Dickinson Rich came out in 1942 detailing her life in the Maine woods, cut off from “civilization” when during the freeze-up when the ice was too thin to walk/drive on but otherwise living in various cabins with her husband and small son year-round. Her story about giving birth in the woods was very matter-of-fact, just popping him out easy as pie, wagging a finger at other ladies who complain and pretend to be fragile.

Woods life involves making up lists of groceries needed for the week (during the summer) or for the month (during the winter months), gathering lots of firewood, fishing, mending, tinkering with motors, boating, making their own flies for fishing, baking, hunting, being entertained by the loggers who come in annually and the additional telephone lines that get hung from the trees when they’re there. Berry picking, pie baking, gardening, fending off the deer from the garden. Life without modern amenities once again sounds idyllic yet constantly busy.

I liked her honesty about her own writing quality:

I’ve read a lot of first-rate writing, and I have some critical sense; so I know where I stand. I’ll never be first-rate. I’ll improve with practice, I trust, but I haven’t got what it takes to reach the top… Everything I write, no matter how lousy it turns out to be, is the very best I am capable of at the time. My writing may be third-rate, but at least it’s honest. You can’t be even a third-rate writer without taking your work seriously.

Saint Joan of Arc (Born 6 January 1412, Burned as a Heretic 30 May 1431, Canonised as a Saint 16 May 1920)

This is by far the most readable book on Joan/Jeanne that I’ve found. Why oh why did it take me so long to fall into Vita’s arms? A cursory glance at some comments leads me to comments that question Vita’s scholarship, accusing her of reinterpreting 15th century sources to suit her needs. I disagree—she was candid throughout whenever she was making a digression or assumption based on the dry dusty books she had in front of her. Much more valuable was the expert weaving of the tale into a tasty treat, digestible and understandable. My only real complaint is the usual one for authors of the 19th/20th century– they assume English readers also have a passable knowledge of French, thus she freely quoted large sections in the original French.

Another treat I had was being able to tap into my personal Woolf research library and track down Virginia’s appraisal of the book. Twenty days after having received a copy, VW writes to Vita:

What a time I’ve been thanking you for your book! But my brain is an engine that only runs 10 minutes at a time. Now I’ve just done it, and if you want my opinion, worthless as I feel it considering the lump of putty where there should be a brain, I think its a solid, strong, satisfactory, most reputable and established work; stone laid to stone; squared, cemented, and all weather tight, roofed in and likely to last these many years… Only as there is so little one can know for certain, I wished sometimes you had guessed more freely… Whats interesting is the whole, however, not the parts. I keep speculating—which is what I enjoy most in all books: not themselves: what they make me think. How I wish you’d write another chapter on superstition: what the French peasant at that time believed.  (June 29 1936)

Beyond Black Bear Lake

As previously threatened, I’m reading more of the Woodswoman’s books. In this sequel, Anne takes a more vocal stance on environmental issues, shouting from the rooftop of her cabin about acid rain’s destruction on the woods/lake/world. I remember acid rain as the major bugaboo in the 1980s but it has somehow fallen out of favor for the more gripping Climate Change or Global Warming.

In this book, Anne is up to her old tricks with romance, wooing her doctor but never giving up her independence. She has a nice section about being over marriage and pleased that she doesn’t have kids. She travels around as an ecology consultant, and has become somewhat famous from her Woodswoman book, with fans stalking her at her cabin. Yikes!

In addition to those intrusions, the constant whir of motorboats during the summer seriously bums her out. “I go camping on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day. I can’t bear to sit in my cabin and listen to what’s happening.” Then she takes it one step further and builds a second cabin on her land, this one set deep within the woods, hidden away on a second lake. She calls the cabin Thoreau II and enlists the help of friends each summer to cut and shape the logs.

Parts of the book are worth the overall strain. She appreciates nature and silence, something we have less and less of with each passing day.

Devotion (Why I Write)

Not every Patti Smith book can be a wonder. Her latest, Devotion, is actually worth missing completely. It seems to be comprised of three parts: her trip to Paris and pilgrimage to Simone Weil’s grave; the story that she wrote while in Paris; a visit to Camus’ house. This “book” seems to be built on the successful framework of M Train, but lacks any meat on its bones. Avoid.

Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness

I am a sucker for stories about heading off into the woods to live simply, and this was a book that was mentioned in Nomadland as a favorite of the migrating campers. The quality of this collection of nature musings was mediocre, but I’ll probably look up the sequels to continue reading her saga. I’m also a sucker for punishment.

One problem is her attitude throughout. Hiking a multi-day trail alone, she worries about meeting “rough kids on drugs, or worse, a criminal.” She’s also weirdly proud about having a black friend (and another friend with a pet racoon) come stay for a weekend, imagining comments from her neighbors as “A Negro and a tame raccoon! What’s that girl in the log cabin up to now?”

It’s also a little creepy that she married a much older man who was her manager at the hotel she helped at during summers between school. Not surprisingly, they divorce after a few years, prompting Anne’s departure to the wilderness where she builds her log cabin with the help of a few laborers.

On the positive side, it was astonishing to see that even in the early 1970s silence in the woods was disappearing. Anne chronicles the arrival of snowmobiles and actually gets one herself. One local muses that “when I was a boy, I could step outside in winter and hear the silence. Nothing anywhere, just once in awhile a tree cracking or ice making up on the flow. It’s not like that anymore.” Road rage makes an appearance when she visits DC and learns that traffic was so bad that someone went to the car in front of them and shot them. Back on the lake, she’s annoyed by motorboats and tries to reason with her neighbor who speeds dangerously through the lake. She gives up and goes camping during the summer to avoid the “summer people” who destroy the peacefulness of her refuge.

Most useful was her description of how exactly she was living off the grid—extensive use of propane gas, bathing in the lake, drinking from the lake, chopping firewood, using the snowmobile to go into town for supplies. She had an outhouse for the summer and rigged up an indoor portapotty for the winter. Her oven was a metal box that fit over one of the propane stove burners.

Her writing was cringe-worthy at times: “He grinned, patted me on the head, and began wolfing his food. Pitzi was also chomping busily at his bowl in the corner.”

Last Girl Standing

I just spent the afternoon with Trina Robbins. Well, I read her memoir, that is. There are minor annoyances like editing flubs where she repeated four sentences as a mistake in Chapter 9. And she does come across a bit braggy about her inside connection to the hip kids of the 60s and 70s (“I slept with Jim Morrison! and here’s a list of other guys I could have slept with but didn’t because I was married: Bob Dylan…” and Sonny/Cher wanted her to design their clothes) If you can stomach that, then it’s worth the effort. Tales from the trenches of male-dominated underground comix world, designing clothes for the rock gods and goddesses of the time, raising a daughter as a single mother, bopping around NYC, LA, and landing in SF for good. She takes the opportunity to settle some scores, debunking myths/rumors and going after people who have shunned her. I’m glad she was able to churn this out as a record for posterity.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, Jessica Bruder reports on the new migrant white middle-class workforce that treks around the country picking up low wage jobs and seeking spots to camp their rigs. The author follows the tribes for a few years and settles in to tell Linda May’s story, a sixty-something woman battling to survive on less than $500 a month in Social Security benefits, including work as a camp monitor in the spring/summer and then one of the “Amazombies” at the warehouses gearing up for Christmas madness. Amazon warehouses have wall-mounted dispensers of free OTC painkillers for their aging workforce. Not all nomads can get a job in the warehouses- you need at least a high school diploma for some reason.

The chipper stories of elderly workers will break your heart—one woman slipped going up stairs, ending up with stitches and bruises, but gushed her delight that she wasn’t fired and that an HR rep visited her trailer. Lest you think Amazon is doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they get federal tax credits (25-40% of wages) for hiring disadvantaged workers like those on SSI or food stamps. Also laughable is that they call their meetings “stand ups” – gatherings before the shift begins where everyone does exercises while getting productivity goals barked at them by supervisors. “Each item Linda scanned was a pixel in a picture that depressed her.”

Some of the workers seem savvy about the nightmare they’re participating in. One woman, Patti, tells people not to shop at Amazon or Walmart but to buy from a mom and pop store down the street.

Workers gather in free camping spots in the southwest through the winter and share tips, work small jobs, get by. One man showed off his modded Prius where he’d taken out the passenger seat to make a counter that he cooked on and slept on; Prius ideal as a camping vehicle because the power supply lets you keep the heat on without the engine running.

Other things I can’t stop thinking about:

  • The nomads travel over the Mexican border to get cheaper dental work and prescription drugs.
  • States and the nation overall are cracking down on residency requirements, making it seem like you actually need a house/home in order to get license, passport. South Dakota seemed to have the most lax requirements, but that may be changing.
  • BLM land remains the best choice in the west for free camping. How long will that last?

Great taste of the overall tale available in this Wired article. And to follow along with some of the nomads mentioned, Silvianne’s blog and LaVonne’s blog.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

An absolute must-read. I am humbled by my ignorance about this major historical movement that ended right about the time I was getting birthed into the South. Isabel Wilkerson spent over a decade researching this story, interviewing thousands of surviving migrants who made it out of the Jim Crow South to places like LA, Chicago, New York, Oakland. The brilliance of this work is reflected in the careful curation of those thousands of stories into three main threads that she follows: Ida Mae from Mississippi to Chicago in the late 1930s, George Starling from Florida in the 1940s, and Dr. Foster from Louisiana to LA in the 1950s.

Quotes from Frederick Douglass (I hear he’s having a comeback!) in his last public lecture, 1894: “I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”

There are brutal realities revealed within. And absurdities, like the fact that blacks were arrested in Florida in the 1940s if they were “caught not working,” charged with vagrancy and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane.

Flagrant idiocy and cruelty of the South is evident throughout, but I had to laugh at the initial reaction when blacks started to leave. “As the North grows blacker, the South grows whiter,” noted the New Orleans paper. Then they realized that they had no labor to pick their crops. Whoops. “Where shall we get labor to take their places?” Blacks in South Carolina has to apply for a permit to do any work other than agriculture after Reconstruction.

As the writing of the book stretched from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, Wilkerson got to include Obama as well, and he makes a surprise visit as an unknown state senator bopping into Ida Mae’s monthly community meeting in 1996. “Nobody in the room could have imagined that they had just seen the man who would become the first black president of the United States.”

This seems worth quoting in full. From the 1922 white-led Chicago Commission on Race Relations in the aftermath of the 1919 riots:

It is important for our white citizens always to remember that the Negroes alone of all our immigrants came to America against their will by the special compelling invitation of the whites; that the institution of slavery was introduced, expanded, and maintained in the United States by the white people and for their own benefit; and that they likewise created the conditions that followed emancipation.

Our Negro problem, therefore, is not of the Negro’s making. No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance; and every citizen, regardless of color or racial origin, is in honor and conscience bound to seek and forward its solution.

The Highsmith books I couldn’t finish

The first book I abandoned was her attempt to set a book in Mexico: A Game for the Living. Pat considered this her worst book, saying, “I had tried to do something different from what I had been doing, but this caused me to leave out certain elements that are vital for me: surprise, speed of action, stretching the reader’s credulity, and above all the intimacy with the murderer himself… The result, after rewriting the book four times in a grueling year of work, was mediocrity…I disobeyed my natural laws in this boring book.”

Also abandoned: Animal-lover’s Book of Beastly Murder. Tales from the perspective of animals are not Highsmith’s forte. She should have stuck to homo sapiens.  She doesn’t hate this book, but she does call it a departure from her usual style. “Thirteen short stories in which animals get the better of their masters or owners, because the latter merit their comeuppance.”

Another failure was The Glass Cell. Pat wrote about this book in her Plotting Suspense Fiction book but I took it for a spin just in case it had some hidden joy. Nope. Dunno if it was the jailhouse setting or the clunky slang dialog but the lines grew tedious after a few pages and I scrapped it.

Further dud: the 1980s collection of short stories Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes. Weird tumorous growths in the cemetery, a strange take on Moby-Dick, lots of aborted story ideas that were gathered up into this failed collection.

And that’s all she wrote.


People Who Knock on the Door

What a dud to finish Highsmith’s oeuvre on. I’ve worked my way through her complete list of novels and short stories and this is the last one I was able to finish (another post to come on the ones that stunk so badly that I couldn’t even hold my nose to complete). I guess I stuck it out with this one out of curiosity—when would the crime happen, how dull could she make it? This is from her terrible 1980s phase and she amps up the unblinking dullness. The story revolves around Arthur, a teenager who plans on going to Columbia in the fall but who knocks up his girlfriend Maggie who has an abortion. Arthur’s dad has become a born-again Christian and kicks him out of the house for this nonsense, says he won’t pay for Columbia. Arthur picks himself up, lives at a friend’s house and then in the local college’s dorms. Mr. high and mighty religious nut dad ends up getting Irene, a woman in his church, pregnant, and Arthur’s younger brother Robbie shoots him out of disgust for his sin. Happily ever after, amen, pass the salt. Lackluster effort that wasn’t worth flipping pages to get to the end.

Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution

I was looking for something better from Julia Alekseyeva’s memoir of her 100-year-old great-grandmother who experienced the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and WW2 and Stalin’s rise only to flee to America in the 1990s after Chernobyl. Julia inserts herself into the story in interludes, trying to tie her tale together with her great-grammy’s but it falls flat. Lola’s story was interesting, but it dies a bit on the vine and I didn’t love the graphic style.

The Glass Castle

Gorgeous memoir by Jeannette Walls that I knew was going to be good when I saw there was still a queue for it at the library, over 10 years since its publication.

She turns a truly wretched childhood into story gold by giving us a no-holds-barred look at the crazy upbringing her parents put her through. Bohemian is too prim a word for it. When she was four years old and sister Lori 7, they were parked outside a bar for hours while their parents drank inside. They started counting the number of places they’d lived, after having to define “lived” as having unpacked your things instead of just staying somewhere for a couple nights. They gave up after counting 11 places. “We couldn’t remember the names of some of the towns or what the houses looked like. Mostly, I remembered the inside of cars.”

Their dad was a drunk who fancied himself an entrepreneur, always one step ahead of the law and frequently rousing the family for a middle-of-the-night escape. He took advantage of the lack of technology in one town to withdraw all his money from a bank teller inside the bank while his wife simultaneously withdrew the same amount from the drive-up teller. The mom fancied herself an artist, splurging on art supplies when there was no money for food. In one particularly terrible scene, the 4 kids are sitting around trying not to think about how hungry they are when they notice their mom keeps ducking under a blanket. Turns out she’s eating a huge chocolate bar.

They wind their way through the desert, survive a fire in an SRO in San Francisco, watch their dad gamble away their money in Vegas, then set up house for a time in an old mining town. Once their dad gets (inevitably) fired, they start to starve. For some reason, the mom never mentions that her mom died, leaving her a house in Arizona and money, which they eventually tap into. There’s some mysterious check that arrives from land in Texas that the mom now owns, later found out to value $1M. And yet they starve, and they head to the dad’s hometown in West Virginia where things just get dilapidated. The sisters start working jobs and saving cash so they can escape to NYC, but the dad steals it and drinks it away. Eventually, they make it out, send for their brother, and then their little sister. A few years later, the parents end up in NYC as well, eventually becoming homeless as they get evicted from various living arrangements. They end up as squatters, the dad has a heart attack, the family breaks apart and then comes back together.

A Life of One’s Own

I came across Marion Milner’s book (originally published 1934) via How To Be Bored, which is surprising. The concepts she covers were much more in line with all of the books about meditation and Buddhism that I’ve been reading lately, so I figured that was where I’d stumbled on Milner.

I felt a little bad for Milner as I read her journey to discover how to side-eye/watch her own thoughts. The mindfulness books I was also reading gave really clear direction on how to take the steps necessary for this internal attention/silence/noticing, but here she was in the 1930s, toughing it out and struggling to figure out the puzzle with no guidance.

To begin with, she tracked what made her happy in a journal. “I want to live amongst things that grow, not amongst machines. To live in a regular rhythm with sun and rain and wind and fresh air and the coming and going of the seasons. I want a few friends that I may learn to know and understand and talk to without embarrassment or doubt.”

She performed “experiments” on herself and realized that she had an automatic response and a more hidden response. “It seemed to me that perhaps my previous ignorance of the ways of this self might be sufficient reason why I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives.”

As she explores further, “I saw now that my usual attitude to the world was a contracted one, like the sea anemone when disturbed by a rough touch, like an amoeba shut within protective walls of its own making… I had thought I wanted a great many friends but had often refused invitations because I hated to feel the beautiful free space of an empty day, free for me to do what I like in, broken into by social obligations. I had thought I wanted to be a unique individual, but had been filled with shame when anyone disagreed with me, hastening to take back what I had said.”

If I had a time machine, I’d head back to whisper in her ear that the Buddhists have been working on this problem for thousands of years and that might be a good place to start. But then again, we’d miss her own personal exploration if that were the case.

The Customer is Always Wrong

Mimi Pond’s graphic novel about 1980s Oakland, working as a waitress in a diner and trying to hustle up a career drawing comics, fending off (or partaking in) the river of drugs that flows through the restaurant, her tender relationship with Lazlo the manager (who develops cancer, enlists Madge’s help to wrest his 14-year-old daughter from the drips of a maniac boyfriend, the poet who drinks/drugs and all the restaurant staff adore him). Eventually Madge saves up enough money and heads to New York, sight unseen with her cat in a carrier and having given away most of her belongings.

You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages

Half of these essays were fantastic, then they tapered off with a thud. On the plus side, she did get me to watch Private Benjamin (excellent!) and I’m left with a stack of other must-see movies to catch up on, including a re-watch of the Stepford Wives. And her writing was solid, filled with delicious vocabulary like fulminate, impune, ineffable, elide, intemerate.

Chocano takes her pop-culture critic pen and dissects movies from Flashdance (“the first time I’ve seen a girl whose artistic genius does not get her frog-marched directly to a course of electroshock treatments and long-term institutionalization”) to Thelma & Louise/Pretty Woman/Ghostbusters (the all-female reboot). Growing up, she initially thought her/our generation was the first post-feminist generation but “didn’t know that this moment was the tail end of a brief period in American cinema, between 1978 and 1985, when heroine’s stories didn’t end in marriage but started with adventure…” Chocano also dives into film history, name-dropping Dorothy Azner along with Alice Guy, who directed the 1912 film (now lost) In the Year 2000, “a film about a time when women rule the world.” Downside: she’s in love with the phrase “the cognitive dissonance was palpable,” using it a handful of times.

On Flashdance:

We don’t care how this young girl in a depressed steel town got a union job. We don’t care how she managed not to get slighted, diminished, harassed, or bullied at work. We don’t care how she affords her enormous warehouse space, and heats it, while saving money to attend a prestigious dance academy. We don’t care that she is too old to be a ballerina and too young to be a steelworker because by then the steel mills had stopped hiring, and wouldn’t have hired her in the first place. We don’t notice how creepy the love story is, that her boyfriend is twenty years older than she is, that she works for him, that he owns the means of production, for Karl Marx’s sake.

The essays stacked early in the collection were super-charged. Dealing with post-WWII economic boom, the concept of a middle class was new, but “it wasn’t women working that was new. What was (relatively) new was global corporate capitalism as the organizing principle, and what was still unclear was how women would fit in.”