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.

 

Deep Water

Pat’s 1957 Deep Water is light on suspense compared to her other work. This is part of its beauty, the mundane details building to an unexpected event. In this book, Vic is the “hero,” the psychopath husband who plays it all cool. His wife Melinda ignores their daughter Trixie (so Vic ups his attention to her) and has several open affairs with other men. Vic moves to the garage where he tends to his snails and study of Italian. One of Melinda’s lovers is murdered in NYC and Vic begins to bandy about the story that he killed him to scare off other lovers. This works, until the real murderer is found. But the seed is planted, and off Vic goes. First he drowns the piano player, Charles, in a neighbor’s pool at a party where no one else is around. Then a detective comes sniffing around, disguised as a psychiatrist. Melinda trumpets his killing Charles around town, everyone averts their eyes and most believe Vic didn’t do it. Nothing comes of it except Melinda’s close alliance to Don Wilson, a man who also hates Vic. Along comes another conquest, Cameron, and after much in-your-face flirtation, Melinda decides to take Vic up on his offer of divorce with a generous alimony settlement (he has a private income from his family and runs a publishing business mostly for kicks). Chance allows Vic to lure Cameron to the quarry where he hits him with a rock and weighs him down to drop to the bottom of the water. Eventually he’s caught back at the scene and in the final pages attempts(?) to kill Melinda before he’s nabbed by the police.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays

Samantha Irby is unapologetically hilarious, trashy, vulgar, and disgusting. This collection of her essays is the purest declaration of a personality that I’ve seen in recent years. Usually I groan about books that include cultural touch points like social media, but Irby gets away with it. Someone might read this in 30 years and not understand all the references but it’s as close to an intelligent and realistic description of what modern life is really like. Plus she’s a misanthrope, so we share some of the same preferences, like wanting to meet OUT somewhere instead of at someone’s house, which is infinitely harder to slip away from. “I just want to go down to the bar, listen to three beers’ worth of your problems, then claim that my stomach hurts so I can leave and get in bed before nine.”

On the other hand, she’s a huge TV junkie, so we could not bond over reality television and I’m pretty sure she’s talking about someone like me here: “Picture it: you’re chilling in the corner at a party full of people you’ve never met before and hated on sight, humming the lyrics to a Coldplay song to yourself to drown out the Swedish death metal the hostess put on to prop up her apparition of coolness, then here comes some asshole who makes her own yogurt and just discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates condescending at you about how damaging reality shows are to impressionable youth. ”

She’s also not having kids, so I enjoyed the essay about how all her friends were popping out tots. “Everyone I know is having a goddamned baby and what that means is you can’t just stop by your homegirl’s house unannounced with a bottle of Carménère and a couple of tubes of Pringles to watch hours of makeup tutorial videos on YouTube anymore. Because that baby might be sleeping or eating or doing its taxes, and you are going to mess it all up with your loud, single-person bullshit.”

The snail-watcher, and other stories

Pat’s first collection of short stories came out in 1970 and her obsession with snails is clear from the eponymous story. A man grows interested in snails when he sees them mating before they’re about to be cooked for dinner, rescues them, turns his study into a snail habitat, lets them run wild, they take over and eventually crush him to death. Snails pop up again in The Quest for “Blank Claveringi,” a story about a man bent on discovering a new snail species who sets out to investigate the man-eating 25-foot snails he’s read about. (He dies, eaten by snails). The Terrapin follows the anguish of a son realizing that his mother has brought a turtle home to eat, not as his pet. That night he cuts her up like he witnessed her attack on the terrapin. A woman attempts to kill her husband with chloroform in When the Fleet was in at Mobile. The Cries of Love has two old ladies who wreak havoc on each others’ lives, Hattie snipping Alice’s nice new cardigan into shreds, Alice chopping off one of Hattie’s braids while she slept. They continue to live together, plotting slow revenge. In The Heroine, an insane woman comes to be the nurse of two rich kids, ripping her pay into bits, setting the house on fire so she can be of use. This collection was published as Eleven in the UK.

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

I felt a little duped by this, since it’s mostly a rehashing of essays I’ve previously read by Dillard with a foreword by the wretched Geoff Dyer whom I’ve vowed never to read again (“The chimera of Dyer’s talent I first peeped in Zona turned out to be nothing but a blotchy oil spill farting and leering at women’s breasts.” – from my review of Another Great Day at Sea). Skipping the foreword, I was still delighted by Annie Dillard’s poetic trance and relished her dance through the pages.

She starts with a piece about the 1979 total eclipse, especially timely to read a few weeks after our 2017 eclipse; wild, ragged, and beautiful sentences capturing the eeriness, the oddity of ending up at a diner with other eclipse viewers eating eggs and hearing a boy say that the ring looked like a Life Saver in the sky.

The rest of the essays are taken from Holy the Firm, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. I’m reminded to try again to read Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a book Dillard credits with making her want to write when she was 16, a book that I gave up on after a few pages. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, will try again.

The Cry of the Owl

This 1962 gem from Pat looks like a practice run for her more perfectly formed A Suspension of Mercy (1965) wherein one of the characters disappears so as to bring suspicion of murder onto another character. The Cry of the Owl centers around Robert, a recently divorced draftsman who works at an aeronautics company and who likes to go peeping at night. He prowls up to Jenny’s isolated home and enjoys watching her in the kitchen, happy for her when he sees her making dinner for her and her boyfriend, Greg. A few errant noises makes Jenny spooked about his sneaking around outside, and eventually she catches him. Surprise: she’s not freaked out, but befriends him and finds their meet cute to be fate. Soon she’s abandoned Greg, who turns savage and stalks Jenny, tries to run Robert off the road, engages in a fight that leaves Greg knocked out by the river’s edge and Robert pulls Greg out so he doesn’t drown. But Greg disappears, heads to NYC and gets support from Robert’s psychotic ex-wife Nickie. Robert tries to track him down in a NYC hotel but fails. The local police suspect him of murder and eventually find a body in the river, unfortunately missing the part of teeth that the dentist could have matched with his records for Greg. Fast forward, Greg comes out of hiding to shoot at Robert, improbably, and eventually kills the doctor who was tending Robert’s gunshot wounds. Greg’s out on bail and Nickie comes to visit him, then they head over to Robert’s to terrorize him a bit more (Jenny has killed herself by now). In a final knife fight, Greg swipes at Robert but kills Nickie, Robert looks at the knife and realizes he has to call the police.