Those Who Walk Away

I could read Patricia Highsmith morning, noon, and night and not get enough of her. I was recently reminded of her after reading about Marijane Meaker, supposedly the inspiration/source of Highsmith’s Price of Salt. Worming my way into the mystery section of the local branch, I found this gem and alternated between slurping it down and having to take a break when the suspense notched too high.

The story revolves around Ray, a widower whose wife killed herself only a year or so into the marriage. Ray’s father in law, Ed Coleman, tries to kill him multiple times and Ray never turns him in, following him to Venice in fact to try and explain further why Peggy slit her wrists in the tub in Mallorca. Ray’s an art dealer from a wealthy family and has seemingly been untroubled by any hardships in life until Ed shoots him (grazes his arm) then in Venice tosses him into the canal after supposedly knocking him unconscious (Ray swims to a buoy and is rescued by Luigi).

After the second attempt on his life, Ray decides to lay low, doesn’t go back to his hotel, holes up in various rooms across the city. He attempts to live a second life as someone else, but keeps running into people who knew him as Ray. Eventually Ed comes at him one last time, smashes his head with a rock, but Ray flings him off and leaves Ed immobile on the sidewalk (although not dead). Ed goes underground and tries to draw suspicion of Ray murdering him, but the jig is up when he sees Ray wandering around trying to find him. Enraged, Ed comes after him with a lead pipe in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses. Ray doesn’t press charges, Ed escapes prison, and happily ever after?

Mules and Men

This 1935 publication of African-American folklore is groundbreaking—the first compiled by an African-American and not some derisive white male. Instead, Zora Neale Hurston returns to her hometown in Florida to gather stories—lies, as they’re commonly called—and then pokes around various spots in the South, ending up learning Hoodoo (voodoo to us whites) in New Orleans. The whole trip was funded by Mrs. Osgood Mason of NYC, giving Hurston enough runway to gadabout for a year collecting stories.

Lots of Brer Fox/Rabbit/Dawg/Gator stories, along with tales of John (Negro hero) vs Ole Massa. Hurston settles in and is trusted right away by her old townfolk, invited to listen to some lies and take them down. She follows groups to work at the mill as they lie along the way, or to fishing holes spouting lies, etc. None of the tales jump out as being particularly memorable, but there are some great lines:

“Don’t never worry about work. There’s more work in de world than there is anything else. God made de world and de white folks made work.” This spawns a tale about how blacks ended up working so much—God put down two bundles on the road and the white man raced the black man to see who would get there first; the black man arrived first and claimed the big bundle, leaving the small sack for the white man. In the big bundle was a pick, shovel, hoe, axe, and plow. In the small bundle was a pen and ink. “So ever since then de n— been out in de hot sun, usin’ his tools and de white man been sittin’ up figgering’, ought’s a ought, figger’s a figger; all for de white man, none for de n—.”

A Fine Old Conflict

I can’t stop reading Jessica Mitford. This latest is her recap of years as a Commie, title taken from the anthem, the Internationale, which she misheard as a teenager as “It’s a fine old conflict” instead of “‘Tis the final conflict.” Her writing style continues to be hilarious, but this book definitely felt lopsided and meandering at parts. Perhaps her best work was when she co-authored American Way of Death with her husband, or maybe her editors were much tougher then?

She gives an example of her first successful organization effort, that of other women recovering from childbirth in her DC hospital. When the nurse didn’t answer the bell after ten seconds, all the women agreed to wet their beds. The nurse was faced with nine beds to change and apparently learned to hop to it from this terrible “action.”

Decca escapes DC when she feels jealous of Bob (later her husband)’s attentions to other women. With daughter Dinky in tow, she heads to San Francisco. After a multi-day train trip, she plunks her kid in a hotel and asks the maid to watch her while she heads out for a drink. After she sits down, the hostess explains that an emergency wartime measure by the city forbade any women who were unaccompanied to be at a bar. WHAT?! Eventually she finds an apartment for $40/month in Mrs. Tibbs’s boardinghouse on Haight St. near Ashbury. “In 1943 it was just another run-down district of small shops and working-class homes.” Her work continued at the OPA (Office of Price Administration, a wartime effort to control prices), and the SF branch was housed along with other war agencies in the Furniture Mart at 10th & Market (now the Twitter building). It is here that she later hides from and then punches a photographer from the Examiner looking to get a photo of the blueblooded sister of Hitler’s “Nordic Goddess” who was working for the US government.  (The Mitford family dynamics are complicated, to say the least)

After marrying Bob, they move to Oakland and she continues to be knee-deep in leftist causes, including a jaunt to Mississippi in 1951 to protest the upcoming execution of Willie McGee. Fun fact—she became a US citizen in order to become a member of the Communist Party, because the American branch was only accepting citizens. From 1952-58, passports were arbitrarily withheld or revoked from Americans with Left leanings. “Thus for almost a decade only the true blue, the politically and intellectually untainted, were permitted to travel abroad. I have often wondered if this accounted for the generally low esteem in which American tourists were held by Europeans.” Decca has a great story about her and Bob continuing to press to get passports, eventually getting them, and then receiving word that it was a mistake and they were to hand them over immediately. Instead, they left the country and visited England.

They eventually left the CP after the FBI infiltration wiped out several local chapters and turned it into more of a bureaucratic nightmare. Despite this, her Red roots continued to haunt her, even getting her fired from a terrible job at the SF Chronicle attempting to poach advertisers from competing newspapers. She eventually discovered the freedom of being a writer, and began to churn out articles and books.

Vanessa Bell

I wish I’d been able to jet over to London for the exhibition this spring at the Dulwich Picture Gallery of Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Instead, I ordered up this gorgeous catalog from the exhibition and enjoyed the photographs, the wallpaper, the furnishings, the pottery and plates, but most of all the paintings. The book has several scholarly essays about Bell’s work, her upbringing, her unconventional life, and—of course— her sister. They include one of Virginia’s poems which might have been her response to Nessa’s gripe that writers don’t really deal in colors. Quite a lovely collection, and I’m sure seeing all the works together would be overwhelming and amazing.

The Nakeds

Well done, Lisa Glatt! A very enjoyable read that weaves strands from various characters into a cohesive tale that just works. A young girl (Hannah) gets hit by a drunk driver (Marty) who flees the scene, necessitating years of a cast on her leg. Most of the story revolves around Hannah and her mother, who divorces her father for cheating on her and then remarries a much younger Arab man, Azeem, who lures her into the nudist lifestyle. Marty quits driving his car and eventually leaves town for Vegas, coming back at the end when his dad dies to help his mother run their restaurants. After many years, Hannah finally gets her cast off and the family goes to Marty’s restaurant to celebrate, the chef’s face wild-eyed when he recognized her as the girl he hit. Perfect pacing and structure, very readable.

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking

Brilliant collection of Jessica Mitford’s articles along with explanatory notes about her process. This might be one of the most helpful books about writing that I’ve ever read. Her emphasis on picking a subject that you’re completely absorbed in is absolutely right—if you’re not mesmerized by what you’re learning, you’re unlikely to infect others with curiosity from your piece. Being over-prepared for interviews is of the utmost importance, especially when interviewing hostile sources. She also highly recommends dipping into the trade magazines/publications of the industry you’re muckraking—find out what they really say when they think it’s just themselves listening. (This is on obvious display in her wonderful book about the funeral industry). For interviews, you’ll tap into Friendlies and Unfriendlies, but in both cases your questions should slide from kind to cruel. Her suggestions around organization were incredibly helpful, recommending a letter writing technique to distill all the info you’re learning into interesting bits for your friends.

As for the articles themselves, there are some real gems in here—her trip through the South to find out how they’re handling integration, her road trip story that gives the life hack of making person-to-person calls and asking for yourself at the other end so that your family doesn’t have to pay or asking for Minnie S. Ota to let them know that you’re in Minnesota, the amazing takedown of the Famous Writers Correspondence Class (a Utah Congressman read her whole article into the Congressional Record as a warning to the public), her interview with George Jackson at San Quentin, her brief but fraught tenure as a sociology professor at San Jose State where she refused the loyalty oath and fingerprinting.

Her recs on texts about writing:

  • The Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (“The last chapter, ‘An Approach to Style,’ is particularly rewarding.”)
  • On Writing Well by Zinsser (looks like I read this 10 years ago and probably am due for a refresher)

The Rules Do Not Apply

Ariel Levy’s memoir started out strong but quickly went down the toilet. She sets up the scene well, we’re primed to hear a tale of disaster when we learn that she lost her baby, her spouse, and her house. But she digresses and then puts us on a cliffhanger that honestly makes no sense. On a writing assignment in South Africa, she spends a weekend in a national park. “On the day that I first saw a pride of lions flopping on their backs in the dry yellow grass and licking each other… I made the mistake that would lead to my first real regret… On that morning, I made the first of many mistakes that would stack up on top of one another until they blocked out the sun.” And? What was that mistake? We never find out. My mistake was in reading this all the way through, wondering if she’d ever veer back on track.

She leaves her alcoholic wife when she’s in rehab, has her baby early in Mongolia where it dies, and has to sell their Shelter Island house to pay for Lucy’s rehab. Then she hints at a future happy ending with the doctor who treated her after the early birth, Dr. John. It’s all a big shrug to me, if offered to take it or leave it I would recommend not even touching it.

The Assistants

Cute, implausible beach read of a book if you have a couple hours to kill. It’s every low-paying wage worker’s fantasy—to somehow tap into that shower of gold that lines the executive’s pockets while they bark orders at you and you cut limes for their noon-time drinks.

Tina is the 30-year-old assistant to Robert, head of a media empire who spends lavishly. When his jet is broken, he insists that she buy out first class in the next available flight and get it comped. The agent refuses to comp it and Tina puts the $20k charge on her credit cards, but the next day, the airline apologizes and refunds the money. Only Tina has already submitted the expense report, and along comes the check, which would cover the remainder of her student debt. She holds on to the check for a few weeks and then throws caution to the wind and cashes it.

Turns out Emily, an assistant in the Travel & Expenses department, figures out what Tina’s done, and wants in on it. Soon Tina is covering Emily’s college debt as well, and Emily somehow moves in with her as a non-paying roommate. You know where this is leading. Another woman from accounting wants to cover the debt of a co-worker, and they come streaming in.

It all resolves itself without jail time or even any criminal charges. Everything plays out into a nice non-profit with the help of some software written by another low-paid woman who works at the company. Parts are entertaining and it’s a decent read for anyone looking for some mindless entertainment.

Harriet

A gruesome tale by Elizabeth Jenkins, based on the true story of a developmentally disabled, wealthy 30-year-old woman who is married to an unscrupulous man and then starved to death in his sister-in-law’s home after he takes control of Harriet’s money. The crime unfolds slowly, as Lewis first lives with Harriet for a year. Then she has a baby, and Lewis summons his lover, Alice, to come and supposedly tend to Harriet but truly to be his companion. Then Harriet’s shipped off to the country with the baby, to live with Lewis’s brother Patrick, who’s married to Alice’s sister Elizabeth. There’s also a cousin, Clara, who works for no wages but room and board, and who eventually spills the beans on the foursome after Harriet (and the baby)’s death.

Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing Russia

Occasionally reading mediocre books can give a writer both hope and despair—hope that she’ll eventually get off her tuchus to do such a thing and despair that if she does it, she’ll churn out a similar piece of tepid prose. Lisa Dickey’s book was not very good, but I read it anyway. I will not get those two hours back, but I persevered. We can’t always read top quality books in life.

Basic premise is that she lucks into a cross-country journey with a photojournalist back in 1995, decides to re-do the trip 10 years later with a different photographer then another 10 years later by herself. As I read increasingly boring travel tales which any woman-on-the-street could provide, I wondered if her choice to do it alone stemmed from not being able to find someone to do it with her. (See also: her original photographer opting out of the 2005 trip)

We’re regaled with the mind-numbing details of travel horror I’ve come to expect from lending half an ear to older relatives back from cruises where the fitness center didn’t have a band-aid. Dickey spares no detail, telling us about waking up in a wet bed from her own diarrhea, being subjected to a smoking room in a non-smoking hotel, her laptop dying then miraculously resurrecting itself, leaving her backpack behind to find nothing stolen only later to have a thief steal her wallet, yawn I am falling asleep here trying to remember all the dry dusty bits.

Mostly she pounces on unsuspecting Russians without prior notice, foisting herself on them, reluctant to tell them she’s gay and married to a woman despite these people reasonably wanting updates of her life since they’ve seen her last. Occasionally there’s some interesting fodder, like the fact that everyone uniformly adores Putin (“everyone loves the winning team”) and thinks the U.S. is meddling in Ukraine.

The book title comes from a phrase she hears several times in her trip, that Americans think Russians are backwards, with bears running in the streets.

No mediocre book would be without a glaring editorial error, which happens on page 165, “David and popped into a store…”

The American Way of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford’s reissued and revised book on the funeral industry is an unexpected treat—witty, humorous, light banter that then swings a 50-ton hammer at you with the unflattering truths about the greed of morticians and their ilk. This book is another strand I’m following during my curious unearthing of topics on death after reading Ann Neumann’s The Good Death recently. Originally published in 1963, this revised edition came out shortly after Mitford’s death in 1998, chockablock full of updates that the industry had undergone during the intervening years, and including many delightful anecdotes of the reactions the book got. Mitford fearlessly joined panels of funeral directors who called her all sorts of names and testified in court battles. It was also discovered that Robert Kennedy had read her book and thoughts of it swirled round his head after JFK’s Dallas assassination, but ultimately the funeral parlor cashed in a pretty penny.

Mostly, the industry preyed/preys on the fact that people aren’t used to making this type of purchase. It’s uncommon, and not something you do a lot of research about, unlike the other big purchases you make of a car or a home. There’s no Kelly Blue Book on funerals. Plus the grief factor and the guilt factor turn into some serious profits. Embalming helps them jack up the cost, and families used to have no say in whether or not their deceased got injected with formaldehyde. Laws have changed.

Funeral directors like to misquote the law to boost their profits, insisting that a casket is required by law even for a cremation. Mitford called up a handful of funeral parlors to ask this question and was told with such conviction that it was illegal that she began to doubt the evidence before her eyes in the state code. So, the FTC ruled in 1984 that morticians are no longer allowed to lie to the public. “Anecdotal reports indicate that honesty is still an elusive quality in the trade.”

The best, most natural, most earth-friendly way to go is either burial in a shroud without casket, or cremation. The industry still has a long way to go in not bilking every last cent out of grieving families, though.

(Unrelated: just realized that Jessica is the sister of the great Nancy Mitford. Those sisters know how to write!!)

Vain Shadow

Another escape from reality with a dip into a Persephone book. This one by Jane Hervey was a quick read. A family, relieved when the Old Man dies, but trying not to be too greedy to read the will to see who got what. The widow is happy to finally be rid of her husband after 50 years of his browbeating and anger, but she’s unable to recover her old spirit. Her granddaughter is attempting to slough off her own poorly-chosen husband who berates her in private but puts a brave and charming face out to the world. When it’s discovered that her inheritance is left in trust, that he won’t be able to tap into her capital, he’s not very upset. The uncles tell him that they want to change the will so that she forfeits all money if she divorces him, but the lawyer squashes that idea. Oldest son Jack also gets his money in trust, so that none of it goes to his actress wife on his death.

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose

Alice Walker continues to blow me away. This collection of essays, thoughts, memos written between 1966 and 1982, is page-turning and inspirational. “So much of the satisfying work of life begins as an experiment; having learned this, no experiment is ever quite a failure.”

“It was just six years ago that I began to be alive. I had, of course, been living before… but I did not really know it.”

“A white writer tried recently to explain that the reason for the relatively few Negro hippies is that Negroes have built up a ‘super-cool’ that cracks under LSD and makes them have a ‘bad trip.’ What this writer didn’t guess at is that Negroes are needing drugs less than ever these days for any kind of trip. While the hippies are ‘tripping,’ Negroes are going after power which is so much more important to their survival and their children’s survival than LSD and pot.”

“So for the past four years I’ve been in still another college. This time simply a college of books—musty old books that went out of print years ago—and of old people, the oldest old black men and women I could find, and a college of the young students and dropouts who articulate in various bold and shy ways that they believe themselves to be without a valuable history, without a respectable music, without writing or poetry that speaks to them. My enrollment in this newest college will never end, and for that I am glad. And each day I look about to see what can and should be done to make it a bigger college, a more inclusive one, one more vital and long living.”

“And if I leave Mississippi—as I will one of these days—it will not be for the reasons of the other sons and daughters of my parents. Fear will have no part in my decision, nor will lack of freedom to express my womanly thoughts. It will be because the pervasive football culture bores me, and the proliferating Kentucky Fried Chicken stands appall me, and neon lights have begun to replace the trees. It will be because the sea is too far away and there is not a single mountain here. But most of all it will be because I have freed myself to go; and it will be My Choice.”

The Genius of Birds

Jennifer Ackerman’s book about bird brains is getting rave reviews everywhere but I wasn’t as impressed as most readers. I prefer the more in-depth tales like Ravens in Winter instead of this book that flits from research study to research study. She also overdid the bird puns, like good for goose/good for the gander, chicken/egg conundrum, bird brain, etc.

The one thing I learned was about birds flocking—each bird interacts with the seven birds closest to it, adjusting their movements to mirror their neighbors so a huge group of birds can veer in one direction in a split second.

A bit of info about birds as dinosaurs but I wished for more detail. Lots and lots of stories about crows using tools to accomplish various tasks. Bottom line: birds are smart, plus they’re interesting to watch and learn from. Go outside and observe some birds in lieu of reading this.

The Sex Without the Sentiment

Thyra Samter Winslow’s collection of short stories from 1957 came up recently on Neglected Books (he’s got a soft spot for Winslow!) so I summoned a copy from interlibrary loan. Unfortunately, none of her collections stand up to the one from 1923— Picture Frames.

There are a few strong stories in the bunch, but several yawn-inducers. I enjoyed the description of the lonely old woman in A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog, given a dog by her friend who was moving overseas and suddenly her world changes, she becomes a PERSON, people stop to talk to her (about dog stuff). Rudolph was another entertaining one about a ghost who comes to haunt the wrong house and the housewife loves him for babysitting the children and tidying up the house. Technique also delighted, a story about a playwright who fools around on his actress wife with a younger actress and who writes a play to launch the mistress but leaves the dialogue tweaks up to his wife, who turns his play into a masterpiece elevating herself over the tramp.