The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

This beautiful book is a miracle. To be able to write a compelling and well-researched book about recovery—a subject everyone’s else glaze over when you bring up—is extremely hard. Leslie Jamison does an astonishing job at making this interesting, weaving her own story in among the many tales she picks up at AA meetings in her constant struggle to remain sober. Interspersed among this are literary nuggets as she tries to demystify the notion that writers must be drunks to get gold to gush from their pens, holding up Raymond Carver as a shining example of one who was able to write in sobriety (ending her book with a pilgrimage to his grave). David Foster Wallace is among the pages and she credits reading Infinite Jest as a crucial support system during her early months of sobriety. He called booze “the interior jigsaw’s missing piece.” Brutally honest about her own depths of depravity, she shows us the ugliness of her scheming to drink whenever her boyfriend is away from home, how solo cups filled with whiskey prevent her from making progress on a book she’s supposed to be writing about the Sandinistas, the dirty tour of despair through Iowa City and New Haven on the road to recovery.

Top Picks of 2017

This year I added a new tag to make it easier to find books that I really liked. This makes the year-end recap a cinch instead of having to wade through 300+ titles to handpick my favorites.

It’s been quite the year. Despite trying to slow down my reading, I gobbled down a record number this year: 336. My consumption of women writers dropped to 69% this year, down from last year’s 78%; men clocked in at 29% with the remainder a mix of both. Non-fiction (64%) edged out fiction (36%) for the second year in a row. These are some of my favorites that were absorbed in 2017:

Non-fiction

The first five on the list are absolute must-reads. The last three are delicious treats.

Fiction

Fiction is extremely hard to recommend since it is such a personal taste. Here are a few.

Travel Writing/Memoir

Eileen

Little did I know when I grabbed a few copies of The Paris Review from my neighbor’s “Help Yourself” pile that I’d discover a new favorite author. Ottessa Moshfegh has major writing skills, and her short story Dancing in the Moonlight left me wanting more, which I got served in her novel, Eileen. I finished the book minutes ago and feel completely wrung out, spent, a puddle having been floored by her talent.

Eileen is the narrator of this weird, dark tale—a twenty-something reject living with her drunk father and working at the boys’ prison in town. Her mother died five years previously and Eileen shuffles between work and home and the liquor store filling up her father’s liver and her own, wearing her dead mother’s clothes, eating mayonnaise sandwiches, jamming cold handfuls of snow into her underpants to wash away the image of two teenagers necking. A radiant, sparkling woman, Rebecca, comes to work at the prison, changing Eileen’s life forever.

The author is masterful in dropping hints that keep you reading. You know that the narrator survives the hellish landscape she’s describing, because she’s still here 50 years later, narrating her tale. But little pops of mystery get nestled in, you know she disappears before Christmas and she layers on lavish details about her present and past as she keeps reminding you that within a week of this occurrence, she’s gone from town, or in a few days she’ll be out of there. You see her ex-cop dad’s gun make its appearance, wonder about its significance. When she goes to Rebecca’s on Christmas Eve, Rebecca is acting weird and you start to get very anxious, what is going to happen, and then boom—you find out Mrs. Polk is tied up in the basement. It’s brilliant, well-paced, beautifully written.

Here are a few samples to give a flavor:

My father said it himself: I smelled like hell. I dressed myself in my mother’s old Sunday clothes—gray trousers, black sweater, hooded woolen parka. I put on my snow boots and drove to the library. I’d just finished looking through a brief history of Surname and a book on how to tell the future from looking at the stars. The former had great pictures of nearly naked men and old topless women. I recall one photograph of a monkey suckling a woman’s nipple, but perhaps I’m inventing. I liked twisted things like that. My curiosity for the stars is obvious: I wanted something to tell me my future was bright. I can imagine myself saying at the time that life itself was like a book borrowed from the library —something that did not belong to me and was due to expire. How silly.

I remember sitting up on my cot under a bare lightbulb and surveying the attic. It’s a charming picture of misery.

There’s nothing I detest more than men with happy childhoods.

A grown woman is like a coyote—she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.

When I was very upset, hot and shaking, I had a particular way of controlling myself. I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed. That always did the trick.

I’m almost too scared to learn anything about this writer which might puncture my perfect understanding of her talent, but I’ve added a few more of her books to my list.

 

We Were Witches

This book made me dizzy, sizzled my hands. Preference for fiction is such a personal thing, I usually refrain from loading it into my highly recommended category. But I’ve got to put this book on there, if only because I had to stop reading it several times to 1) savor the goodness,  making it last longer 2) text friends to put it on their reading lists immediately.

It’s a novel, a fictionalized memoir with the real characters of Ariel, as narrator, along with her daughter Mia. Her son shows up years later, but he’s hinted at in the beginning when she’s having a midwife inject her with borrowed sperm who notices her scar from a painful operation she had in rural Italy in 1990 when giving birth to her daughter.

The story follows Ariel, a teenaged single mother who did not finish high school, as she raises Mia with no help from her parents or Mia’s father, while going to college, first at an unnamed school near Petaluma then at Mills College. Magical realism lifts your heart as you pull for this family to make it, for Ariel to become the artist mother that she wants to be, to blossom into a raging feminist, to evolve into a witch. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.

Along the way, she melds the fiercest quotes from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olson, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde. There’s a sprinkling of spells, too. Gore’s own words are powerful, spare, lovingly picked, packed with punch. Major kudos for her including a reading list at the end, curating all the breadcrumbs of books she dropped references to throughout in one easily accessible spot. It’s a modern tale that leaves out all the name-dropping/brand-calling/technology-inserting that mars other similar works, marking them as ineligible for Classic status.

One of my favorite chapters, The Feminist Agenda, quotes Pat Robertson in 1992 saying that the feminist agenda is about “a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Gore notes that aside from wanting to kill her child the rest of the list rang very true, and factored into her goals and reminders for 1992:

Don’t get married, ever.
Practice witchcraft.
Destroy capitalism.

Another great chapter is called White-Lady Feminism 101, which is three words in its entirety, and made me laugh: “Bring a mirror.”

For her senior thesis combining feminist economics and English lit, she links Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Michel Foucault to Marilyn Waring’s economic treatise If Women Counted, wrapping up with: “Like Hester Pryne’s moment in The Scarlet Letter, my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine. I reject this system. I intend to resist this system.”

As she stands in her professor’s office, nursing her daughter, the professor announces that Ariel will have to be a feminist, because “Feminists do what they want.” That seared my scalp, yes yes yes!

In her rules for being 20 years old: “If there are only two options, always choose material poverty over psychic poverty.”

Quoting Adrienne Rich: “To seek visions, to dream dreams, is essential, and it is also essential to try new ways of living, to make room for serious experimentation, to respect the effort even where it fails.”

Greatest risk factors to being accused, tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 15th-17th centuries? Being a woman and being poor. “Add to those risk factors having a job or being sexual or single or outspoken or an unwed mother or unconcerned with cultural beauty norms or mentally ill or a healer—especially a midwife or a counselor—and you were pretty much dead. Dare to help another woman find contraceptives, and you were dead. Have the audacity to be old and grumpy, and you were most certainly dead.” Quoting the 1487 witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

“If we don’t follow society’s rules, we risk losing our freedom [e.g. being locked up]. But if we must follow those rules without question, we’ve already given up our freedom.”

 

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.

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.

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveler’s Tale from Mexico

A delightful travel book about Mexico by Sybille Bedford, soaking up as much of the New World post WWII before heading back to Europe. (At one point she considers sailing on a boat from Vera Cruz to Bordeaux that would allow her to take two small donkeys back to Normandy.)  Descriptions waft out of her book with the scent of freshly made tortillas, tinkling with the clink of ice in a glass of rum or tequila, sparkling with the frank heat of a noontime sun.

I sipped from this book carefully, not gobbling at the usual speed and keeping a separate tally of all the intriguing words she packed in. This week I’ve become a bit of a word connoisseur, sampling the sound of each as I strain toward writing my own. These are not words you find in today’s sparse and modern tomes:

expostulate excrement sybaritic admixture rend desolation volcanic haphazard proportion graft expulsion promulgation appurtenance charlatan ossify miasma exegesis exorbitant inviolate somnolent torpor quiescence dour chafe sempiternal empyrean satraps gauleiters inured

Sybille and her friend “E.” (Esther Murphy Arthur) leave New York’s Grand Central and head south by train. I knew I was in for a treat early on when I encountered her acerbic retelling of the various availability of alcohol per state.

E. was told to wait until we have crossed the state line.  It is all very confusion. Oklahoma and Kansas are bone dry, that is everybody drinks like fishes. In Vermont you are rationed to two bottles of hard liquor a month. In Pennsylvania you cannot get a drink on Sunday; in Texas you may only drink at home, in Georgia only beer and light wines, in Ohio what and as much as you like but you have to buy it at the Post Office. Arizona and Nevada are wet but it is a criminal offence to give a drink to a Red Indian. In New York you cannot publicly consume anything on a Sunday morning but may have it sent up to an hotel bedroom. And nowhere, anywhere, in the Union can you buy, coax or order a drop on Election Day.

Her descriptions of the country are pure poetry, lyrical, flowing. Laziness overcomes me and instead of transcribing, I take the easy way out by screengrabbing Amazon’s copy (“Creole ladies went to Mass covered in diamonds leading pet leopards” and “women in crinolines sat at banquet among the flies at Vera Cruz” are you kidding me, perfect!):

The pair spend weeks in Mexico City, (just “Mexico” to locals), exploring the streets and jumping on buses for gut-wrenching lurching toward other towns up and down mountains. Drinking is somewhat of a problem as bars aren’t open to women except certain hotel bars. But this isn’t so terrible, “this is not a good country to drink in: in daytime one does not want it at all, and at night one wants it too much.” The wines are horrible, but Sybille learns to swallow it “with a liberal admixture of water, like a man.”

Of the sights, there is much to see. “Everywhere. No need, no point, to plan and rush, only to stand, to stroll and stare; to connect. Not great beauty, not the perfect proportions, the slow-grown, well-grown balance, not the long-tended masterpiece of thought and form, the tight French gem, but the haphazard, the absurd, the overblown, the savage, the gruesome. The fantastic detail and the frightening vista; the exotically elegant; the vast, the far, the legendarily ancient.”

She buys a manual of conversation for Indian phrases. In a section headed Useful Words and Phrases, page one has:
‘Are you interested in death, Count?’
‘Yes, very much, your Excellency.’

E.’s cousin Anthony joins them midway through the trip, making friends with all the Mexican gentlemen and paving the way for an easier journey. Anthony is on vacation from his job in Baltimore and after a few weeks of fun, lolling about Don Otavio’s well-managed house reading and drinking and talking and exploring, Sybille broaches the fact that he must return in three weeks. “How can you bear it? Cellophane, television, the deep-freeze unit, getting and spending. The whole old bag of nothing.”

A book like this makes me want to travel again. Maybe.

 

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer’s book about living in one of the surviving hutongs that was slated for destruction in the tidal wave of modernization that the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought. This was a great read, well written and packed full of detail about the crumbling neighborhood that was a community destined to be exploded to the winds. Once evicted by The Hand, they could fight for compensation that would barely get them a part of one of the new (and not yet constructed) apartments that were in suburbs far from their current location. It was a great reminder that this type of destruction of the past is happening everywhere, and nowhere as rapidly as in China.

Meyer comes to China with the Peace Corps and stays on to teach English at a local school in his hutong, Dazhalan. He is known as Little Plumblossom and accepted into the community, and his book provides us with a stunning first-hand experience of the destruction of this part of town. Drawings go up around town to depict the future avenue, only the people aren’t Chinese but white-skinned. “The only depicted shop signs were for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.” This new plan completely disregarded the principles of feng shui that once governed the construction of imperial cities in China, where a town’s central axis should be unimpeded in the south and shielded in the north.

He used to play hockey with other locals on a lake near the Drum and Bell towers and there was an old man who had been sharpening skates since 1937, even during the 8 winters of Japanese occupation. “He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.”

Construction never stops, even in the case of discovering 2,000 year old artifacts. The Cultural Relics Bureau was given a week to grab what they could from the discovered site before the land was covered with new cement foundations.

One explanation for the lack of interest in historic sites comes from architect Zhang who noted that Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years. Old buildings were seen as reminders of feudalism.

This section reminds us that the whole world was destroying its old buildings:

The assault continued worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”

Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s nineteenth-century design. Thousands of New York building were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. “Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures.” The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old Cit like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact.

Haussmann’s Paris also gets discussed. But is preservation the right answer? Meyer mentions seeing the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, Laos threatened not by bulldozers, but tourists. The historic structures were converted to guesthouses, increasing sewage, traffic, and making the city a cultural Disneyland.

This is crazy to think about: “At a time when New York was building skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Beijing still delivered water to homes by wheelbarrow.”

 

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

I’m muddling through reading a sexist and mundane book about surfing, so it was a relief to switch over to reading Schulman’s intellectual musings about gentrification, specifically the impact that the AIDS holocaust had on accelerating the process. I’d never thought about this, and she raises an excellent point—you had a generation of artists who died off, unable to leave their apartments to their lovers (they weren’t “married”), and suddenly rents skyrocketed from $300/month to the market rate in NYC and SF. The high rate of death from AIDS was a significant factor in the rapid gentrification of certain Manhattan neighborhoods.

Her book is a bit of a ramble, but I didn’t mind taking that leisurely walk with her brain. She had a front row seat to seeing gentrification take over her East Village neighborhood. Privileged new tenants didn’t have to be aware of their power or even of the people who’d been brushed aside. They “saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order. This is the essence of supremacy ideology: the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement.”

Since the mirror of gentrification is representation in popular culture, increasingly only the gentrified get their stories told in mass ways. They look in the mirror and think it’s a window, believing that corporate support for and inflation of their story is in fact a neutral and accurate picture of the world. If all art, politics, entertainment, relationships, and conversations must maintain that what is constructed and imposed by force is actually natural and neutral, then the gentrified mind is a very fragile parasite.

She and two lesbian artist friends watched limos arrive in 1980 to the first art gallery on E 11th and Ave C where champagne and oysters were served up. She and her friends felt no sense of threat, just watched it as a spectacle. Then a posh restaurant named after the Hawaii Five-O tv show opened on the block:

Almost immediately it was filled with a kind of person unfamiliar to us, wearing clothes and paying prices that came from another place… That was one of the bizarre things about these new businesses. They would open one day and be immediately packed, as though the yuppies were waiting in holding pens to be transported en masse to new, ugly, expensive places.

After the influx of Europeans into the East Village, the acronym “B&T” for bridge & tunnel got amended to “B&T&A” to include airplane.

While outlining the connection between AIDS and gentrification, she isn’t shy about speaking truth about gay men. “Although I have spent thirty years of my life writing about the heroism of gay men, I have also come to understand their particular brand of cowardice. There is a destructive impulse inside many white gay men, where they become cruel or childlike or spineless out of a rage about not having the privileges that straight men of our race take for granted. They have grief about not being able to subjugate everyone else at will.” She then calls out Andrew Sullivan for declaring in 1996 that we’d reached “the end of AIDS.”

Schulman goes after the younger generation of queers, too, saying that they don’t seem to appreciate what had happened, seemed blithely unaware about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, seemed to take their freedom for granted. Artists, too, seem to be much more conservative, flocking to get MFAs instead of congregating with freaks and other artists. Schulman was tapped to write a piece about emerging theater in 1997 and she was shocked by the new scene that was geared toward profitability instead of pushing boundaries or talking politics. One director said that “issues are for television,” while another amazingly said “Many artists today don’t have to suffer like they did in the fifties. They have enough intelligence to avoid it.” The MFA crisis is another function of gentrification, homogenizing the creation process.

I was pleased that she included a significant section of devotion to Kathy Acker, a victim of the forgetting/whitewashing away of gay thought more than a victim of AIDS (she died of breast cancer). Ultimately, Kathy’s wealthy background gave her the ability to create art, and Schulman says flat out that many people who aren’t the source of their own financial lives are infantilized and tyrannical. “They seem to believe, on some level, that they deserve this advantage. In Kathy’s case, her background and financial cushion gave her a sense of entitlement that was unreasonable.”

Schulman holds her own writing workshops out of her apartment, called “The Satellite Academy”, charging $40 a class and providing “no chit-chat, no nurturing, no consciousness raising or eating. They come on time, and I take out my little blackboard and we go through each person’s work with an eye towards craft alone… We’re artists together, looking at each other’s work, and I am the senior one sharing what I know. In this way, I have recreated my lost world for myself, and it give me hope that bohemian, smart angry girls with something new to say and a desire to say it are never in short supply.”

Her interview with Marcia Gallo about her book Different Daughters included detail about the shock troops who were working to enact change. Gallo’s comments about feminism are strong:

Feminism is still subversive. It’s still scary. Feminism means humanity moving forward and addressing inequalities. And that women lead. Independent women who do not need men for their emotional, physical, and economic well-being are scary still. Even those of us who love men. I think that the fact that we strive to be independent is frightening because we challenge all the paradigms. When we’re at our best we challenge the way power gets constructed. We challenge how knowledge is transmitted. We are just too powerful, too uncontrollable, too queer.

I’m always appreciative when someone comes right out and says what they feel about raising children as clearly as Schulman does, watching her lesbian friends adopt or get artificial insemination to carry on the mother duties:

Very few children actually grow up to make the world a better place. Personally, I don’t feel that creating new victims, perpetrators, and bystanders is the great social ooh-and-aah that it is made out to be. I do understand that people want to have children for reasons personal to their own needs, not necessarily for the child or for the world, and perhaps that’s reason enough, but I don’t know why.

 

 

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!!)

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

A stunning memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston published in 1975 which I’m ashamed to have missed reading before. It was brought up in Zinsser’s memoir book and sounded interesting, so I added it to the pile. It is by far the best memoir of the handful I’ve taste-tested this month from a list compiled from his book.

The Woman Warrior is made up of perfectly formed pearls, stories that you had to shut the book after reading to roll them around in your mouth and savor. Normally I’m chomping through books like a hungry hippo, but I was smart enough to close the book after each tidbit. White Tigers was the story that stunned me into silence—the story of a swordswoman who wanders away from her village as a young girl and is trained up by a couple of immortal gods to eventually go back and avenge the pillaging of her family and community by leading an army.

Shaman is the tale where we learn of the medical training of her mother. Marrying her father, he then immigrated to NYC to make money, sending it home to his wife to care for their two children, who eventually die. The mother still continues to collect money from America and decides to go to medical school. She’s a big success with the villagers once she’s done, having attained nearly magical powers. Then she migrates to America to join her husband (where they later have Maxine), finds herself working long hours in a laundromat. In the story, Maxine is visiting her old mother and concerned about her health.

[Her mother] coughed deeply. “See what I mean? I have worked too much. Human beings don’t work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we’re too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all. I can’t sleep in this country because it doesn’t shut down for the night. Factories, canneries, restaurants, always somebody somewhere working through the night. It never gets done all at once here. Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here; one evening so long, you could visit your women friends, drink tea, and play cards at each house, and it would still be twilight. It even got boring, nothing to do but fan ourselves. Here midnight comes and the floor’s not swept, the ironing’s not ready, the money’s not made. I would still be young if we lived in China.”

And in A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, great detail about how Maxine feigns undesirability so that she won’t get married off, so she can still pursue her studies:

As my parents and the FOB sat talking at the kitchen table, I dropped two dishes. I found my walking stick and limped across the floor. I twisted my mouth and caught my hand in the knots of my hair. I spilled soup on the FOB when I handed him his bowl. “She can sew, though,” I heard my mother say, “and sweep.” I raised dust swirls sweeping around and under the FOB’s chair—very bad luck because spirits live inside the broom. I put on my shoes with the open flaps and flapped about like a Wino Ghost.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Wow wow wow. Arlie Russell Hochschild leads the pack of authors helping to explain the unexplainable—namely, why those poor folks on the Right who are directly impacted by pollution and income equality are supporting candidates looking out for big business and small government. I’ve been reading a lot of sociologists lately for their take on this issue, but Hochschild is the clear winner. From my safe perch in San Francisco, she can actually make me scale the empathy wall and, if I squint, see things from the perspective of the other side, mired in sink holes in the Louisiana swamp she spends five years studying. At no point does she pander to them or to us, her readers. In fact, the book is a marvel in terms of balanced, respectful writing—if she gave every one of her interview subjects a copy of it, none should be offended.

One thing that struck me early as I was reading was the connection between money and religion. Both of these concepts make people feel comfortable; with money, you buy leisure, with religion, you buy afterlife. Several of the folks she interviews belong to a Pentecostal church—the type that believe in The Rapture and speaking in tongues. With this in mind, their carelessness about the environment makes perfect sense. They actually believe themselves to be living in End Times (and who knows! maybe we are! sure feels like it), so the earth will purge itself for 1,000 years and then come back a paradise. “The earth will burn with fervent heat,” is one quote from the book of Revelation.

The marriage of the 1% ultra rich Republicans who run for office with religion was super smart. This is one aspect that these people will not compromise on. “We vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs,” says one.

The people scoff at environmental regulations and simply endure pollution. The Louisiana Dept of Health printed instructions on how to prepare contaminated fish to eat. I found a copy online (image below from page 24). “You got a problem? Get used to it.” & “Sometimes you had to endure bad news for a higher good, like jobs in oil.” & worst of all: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”

Fox News comes in for scrutiny, and Hochschild rightly takes them to task for fear-mongering. One of the ladies says she listens to Fox throughout the day. “Fox is like family to me. Bill O’Reilly is like a steady reliable dad…” (albeit one that sexually harasses ladies.)

The part of the book that struck me most was her exploration of everyone’s “deep story”—everyone’s waiting in line for the American Dream and they are patiently waiting, it’s hot out, the sun is beating down, and the line’s not moving. Sometimes it seems they’re going backwards. And then, a group of people cut in line (e.g. woman, blacks, immigrants). And it seems like Obama is encouraging them to cut in line, and isn’t he a line cutter also? (How else did he get into Harvard).

“The year when the Dream stopped working for the 90 percent was 1950. If you were born before 1950, on average, the older you got, the more your income rose. If you were born after 1950, it did not.”

But this craving to earn lots of money lingers, and there is worship of successful businessmen. With lots of the men Hochschild spoke with, “the repeated term ‘millionaire’ floated around conversations like a ghost.” Identifying with the 1% was a source of pride for Tea Partiers, showing that you were optimistic, that you tried.

On the problem of Toxic T (our Cheeto in Chief), Hochschild wrote this before he was elected, but she sees all the signs that led to his selection. He released the crowds from the obligation to care about anyone but themselves, no longer required to be p.c., able to trashtalk women/minorities/disabled and feel good about it. “While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest—a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.”

The Tea Party has a long history of electing people who do exactly what they say, shrink government, and ravage the land. They don’t like the results, so they vote him (usually a him) out, and elect a Democrat who hikes taxes and then start to complain about that, with a short memory of the terrible things that happened without government spending.

This is probably the first book where I’ve eagerly devoured the Appendices. Appendix B contains fascinating data which interrelated political choice, attitudes about the environment, with actual risk of toxic releases. Most interesting: “as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement People worry too much about human progress harming the environment. So the higher the exposure to environmental pollution, the less worried the individual was about it—and the more likely that person was to define himself as a strong Republican.”

We blue states benefit from this attitude. We get less pollution but still reap the benefits of the products coming out of red states.

This is a tremendous book. Highly recommended.

West with the Night

Fantastic memoir by Beryl Markham about her childhood on a farm in East Africa (Kenya), becoming a horse trainer and then a freelance pilot across Africa. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (thus “West with the night” as the title), ending up with her plane nose-first in the mud on Cape Breton after it runs out of fuel. Incredibly well-written and entertaining, with equal parts adventure and understated philosophy.

“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting pig with the Nandi, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika and the waterless bush country between the Tana and the Athi Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and live there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”

In the wilds of Africa, the Brits set a lush tea table, prompting this recollection: “I have sometimes thought since of the Elkinton’s tea-table—round, capacious, and white, standing with sturdy legs against he green vines of the garden, a thousand miles of Africa receding from its edge. It was a mark of sanity, I suppose, less than of luxury. It was evidence of the double debt England still owes to ancient China for her two gifts that made expansion possible — tea and gunpowder.”

Upon coming across a man knee-deep in fixing his automobile on a dusty road, “In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love thy neighbor’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop—another time he may stop for you.”

After rescuing a hunting party trapped on a plateau by flooded rivers, she mulls her next step: “I wonder if I should have a change—a year in Europe this time—something new, something better, perhaps. A life was to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think… I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all…. I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends and a world without walls to live in. These things I still have, I remind myself – and shall have until I leave them.” Later, she picks up this theme again, “All this, and discontent too! Otherwise, why am I sitting here dreaming of England Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”

Up and Down California in 1860–1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

I hoarded this book, waiting until the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in its pages. That moment arrived over the past weekend as I was nestled in a chair on a mountain top in Mendocino County, listening to the cacophony of birds, feeling the heat of the California sun bake the land around me. Every so often, I’d bark out another amazing tidbit from the book, and by the end of the trip, I’d resolved to return to the northern lands for further exploration of Lassen, Mt. Shasta, and the Trinity area.

This book is a collection of letters written by the lead naturalist, William Brewer, back to his family in New York. While not educated as a geologist, he carefully studied the strata and made excellent notes for the expedition, the goal of which was to produce a report and a complete Geological Survey of the state of California. Mining fever obviously played a part in funding this act of April 1860, and the commission was led by Professor Josiah Whitney, who promptly selected Brewer to be his chief of staff. Whitney occasionally ventures out to join the group, but mostly seems caught up with fundraising activities. Brewer is the real leader of this rag-tag group of geologist/botanist/camp men.

California’s first hipster?

The journey begins with a trip south out of San Francisco, where the crew sails down to Los Angeles, population 3,000. “The weather is soft and balmy—no winter but perpetual spring and summer. Such is Los Angeles, a place where ‘every prospect pleases and only man is vile.’ … The grapes are famous, and the wine of Los Angeles begins to be known even in Europe.” They outfitted themselves with buckskin pants, said to prevent rattlesnake and tarantula bites.

Throughout, he mentions the bits of news he gets from month-old papers about the war raging back east. California is solidly for the Union, but he makes disparaging remarks about the desperadoes and “white trash” who are “Secesh”-  pro-secession). He has the prevailing racist attitude about the Indians and frequently makes no further comment about the white women he encounters other than their beauty. But he’s a fan of Dickens, referencing Pickwick and mentioning finishing reading Bleak House over the campfire.

“Then the wash, that I so much abominate. But clothes must be cleansed, and there is no woman to do it.”

On San Francisco, June 1861: “How busy, bustling, hurrying, high-wrought, and excited this city seems, in contrast with the quiet life of camp!” In July 1862, “I am glad enough to be here, although our camp is not in a pleasant place, yet it is preferable to the city. The crowds of the city make me feel sad and lonely. I feel restless and long for the quiet of camp life—quiet, yet active—rich in that excitement that arises from the contemplation and study of nature, but quiet in all that relates to strife with the busy, bustling world.” December 1863: “Fifteen years ago two or three ranch houses and barren sand hills marked the spot: today it is a city of over 100,000 inhabitants, and growing fast. Since I arrived here three years ago building has been going on at an almost incredible rate. I live now in a fine, large boarding house, with stores under it, on a growing and fashionable street. When I arrived streets were laid out there, through barren sand hills, with here and there a sort of shell of a house standing.”

Comparing Oakland to Brooklyn in Sept 1861: “Oakland is a pretty little place, springing up with residences of San Francisco merchants. It is like Brooklyn from New York, only it is farther, the bay being some seven or eight miles wide there.” Dec 1863: “Oakland is the largest, and grows as Brooklyn does, only it is farther off and grows slower.”

Food was sometimes sketchy: “Our coffee has given out, the last ‘fresh’ meat, in an advanced state of blueness and beginning to have a questionable odor as well as color, was eaten for breakfast, but bacon yet remains.”

On early gentrification: “This hunter, by the way, is an old companion of ‘Grizzly’ Adams. This man came here and lived with Adams before he left, and has hunted ever since, but he complains that civilization has interfered seriously with his sport. ‘We had good times before the settlers came,’ he says, and he bears terrible scars, the trophies of contact with grizzlies.”

Invited to lecture in Stockton, he visits the State Lunatic Asylum there. “There are more insane in this state, by far, in proportion to the whole population, than in any other state in the Union. I need not dilate on the reasons. High mental excitement, desperate characters, disappointed hopes of miners, the unnatural mode of life incident to mining, separation of families, and the indiscretions and infidelity to the marriage vows—these and other reasons have produced this frightful result.”

Tomales Bay “is the greatest place in the state for potatoes, both as regards quality and quantity. The number raised here is enormous, and, as a consequence, Irishmen abound.”

Champagne is consumed in quantities larger than expected, at every civilized house.

  • At Pescadero Ranch, June 1860: “The dinner was good, not brilliant—champagne was partaken of moderately.”
  • In Stockton after his lecture, April 1861: “After the lecture I was invited with a few others to the house of the mayor of the city, where an oyster and champagne supper awaited us.”
  • Also in April 1861: “We commenced by drinking a bottle of champagne presented by a young lady of San Francisco.”
  • December 1862, on a sail down to Potrero Hill to check out the new steamer, the Yosemite, “we sat down to a most sumptuous lunch, where cold turkey and champagne suffered tremendously.”

Lake Tahoe was originally called Lake Bigler after Governor Bigler who turned “Secesh” so pro-Union papers called for the name to be reverted to the old Indian name of Tahoe.

Earthquakes dot the tale, men rushing naked out of baths to head into the city (1861).

Language differences: several times he mentions “recruiting” in the sense of recuperating. “I resolved to stay in camp quietly and recruit my knee before it grew worse.”

A man comes along and takes photos of the crew at camp on leather. I had not heard of this practice of leather photographs. (May 1861)

He mentions “Russian America” by which I suppose is meant Alaska?