The Family Fang

Wonderful, funny, well-written, well-paced book about a family of performance artists. The parents, rather, are performance artists who drag their children into their art. We meet the children as adults, dealing with repercussions of having been used as art objects for their entire childhood, fragile and broken but still making valiant attempts at life. Annie is a successful actor in the midst of a topless scandal, Buster a struggling writer who is immediately hit in the face with a high powered potato gun after we meet him on assignment as a freelance magazine writer. The plot hinges on them both returning home to recuperate from their respective disasters, and their parents then go missing. They assume it’s a performance, complete with real blood and an abandoned van, but months drag on before they discover a clue that leads them to a North Dakota door and their father. Each chapter that moves the plot forward is interspersed with a flashback to a particular performance piece.

Machine

Brilliant fiction from Susan Steinberg with brave punctuation, something I never expected myself to say out loud. It’s the story of a girl and her family who summer at the shore, a local girl drowns (“your knockout in her underwear”) from the dock where kids drunkenly horse around, the narrator’s older brother messed up on pills stolen from their mother’s drawer and sitting in strangers’ cars in the parking lot of the grocery store, lots of sleeping around and drinking and taking random pills and feeling like queens of the universe, the threatening shadow of her father with his affair and ultimate divorce. Tight writing punctuated by semicolons and later spaced out like poems then pulled back again more prose-like. Ghosts, machines, stars, killers, liars, saviors, animals. The spacing and styling make the pace push faster on the page, like someone out of breath from running to tell you this story, this story she’s been trying to tell her entire life.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Delirious with delight from reading Amy Hempel. I’ve sipped on these slowly, rationing them out to a few a day so I could extend my pleasure. So many good stories in here, I could have dogeared every page. In Tonight is a Favor to Holly, a travel agent goes on a blind date but most of the story is about the two of them bumming around a near-LA beach town. Celia is Back was a direct hit to my solar plexus: two kids enter contests with the help of their father who cautions them to be simple, original and sincere in their answers. The last paragraph, the father’s driving and spots a sign saying “Celia, formerly of Mr. Edward, has rejoined our staff” and he thinks everything will be fine now that Celia’s here. Three Popes Walk Into a Bar is about friendship with a comedian performing in SF. The Man in Bogotá is a story told to a woman threatening to jump from a ledge about a guy in Colombia who was kidnapped and his captors made him quit smoking and exercise to keep him alive, so he was in great shape when released, the best thing that ever happened to him.

Her stories of the Bay Area are divine, description of hearing the fog horns at night and cannon from the Presidio at dawn. Punchy lines like “Mornings, robins robbed the ground. A rooster startled the cat that had been raised indoors. Nothing clever was said.” Descriptions of letter writing: “I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you in the western tradition: Put your cards on the table. This is easier, I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less: there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less careful. We can say everything.”

The Dutch House

Ann Patchett is one of the best novelists working today. And so I gave my day up to the indulgence of reading her latest, a story about a family wherein the mother abandons her children and husband to go help poor people in India, the father remarries a scheming woman who kicks them out of the house when he dies a few years later. Danny, the son, is in high school, his sister Maeve having graduated college already. They discover an educational trust which they proceed to drain with as much expensive education for Danny as possible—Choate, Columbia undergrad, Columbia medical school. Meanwhile Danny just wants to follow in his real estate father’s footsteps, buying up buildings in Harlem whenever he gets the chance. Complicated relationship between the close siblings, a marriage that dissolves, their mother appears after Maeve has a heart attack, things wrap up nicely with a bow when she goes to take care of the dementia-addled stepmother who is still in the house.

The Book of Delights: Essays

Simply a delight. Ross Gay tries his hand at a daily essay-ette about something delightful, written by hand, drafted quickly. Themes crop up quickly: he travels a lot reading his poems to classes, groups; he writes in cafes; his mother is on his mind; so is racism, and kindness, and books, and politics, and food, and his garden. It is impossible to get through a few pages without smiling and wanting to do a similar project. Turning a daily gratitude into a writing exercise. As with all great books, there are endless breadcrumbs of other books and movies and poets I need to investigate that he mentions. He even dedicates one meditation of delight to discussing Toto, the band, and how amazing it was that they were just average looking dudes, how much the world has shifted to being much more image conscious than just focused on music.

There are too many good entries here, about the joys of carports (amen!), eating berries, bombing downhill on a bike to a vegan bakery, etc etc, but I particularly loved 87. Loitering:

The Webster’s definition of loiter reads thus: “to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,” and “to travel indolently with frequent pauses.” Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet (“Lollygagger!” or “Loafer!”). Indeed, lollygag was one of the words my mom would use to cajole us while jingling her keys when she was waiting on us, which, judging from the visceral response I had while writing that memory, must’ve been not quite infrequent. All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues.

The more stuff you love, the happier you will be.

Bunny: A Novel

I’m amazed by the quantity of high quality work being done, and Mona Awad’s novel is no exception. Hilarious, wry jab at MFA programs taken to bizarre heights of imagination, written in this perfect, coolly pointed prose. Brilliant, actually, if you let yourself get taken away and immersed in the story. Samantha, our narrator, is the odd-woman-out in her 5 person writing class, the other 4 ladies a group she calls the Bunnies because they all call each other Bunny, cooing as they hug each other and eat tiny cupcakes and act like stereotypical blonde, rich, pampered “artists.” Samantha inexplicably gets asked to join the group and discovers that their version of workshopping something is to turn actual rabbits into boys/men, exploding their heads, gore and guts all over the attic room of one of their houses. Sam creates her own boy who then wreaks havoc on the Bunnies. Possibly my favorite part was the final workshop meeting where the Bunnies all have dropped their masks and tell each other what pretentious crap they’re writing. Kill your darlings takes on a life of its own here.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

Beautiful memoir by Billy Hayes about moving to NYC and falling in love with Oliver Sacks, being with him for his remaining years and comforting him as he died. Sacks had the same type of ocular melanoma that went into remission before roaring to life years later as advanced and lethal liver cancer. He underwent one treatment of embolization but it was too late for additional treatments. The end came with hospice, dying in his apartment surrounded by loved ones. Yes, I cried.

When Sacks gets his diagnosis of a few months to live, he writes pieces for the New York Times about it, but the list of reasons he’s thankful that he makes that night include: an easy death (relatively), time (to complete life), loving support, book published, more good work, enjoyment allowed, best doctors and treatments available, psychiatric support.

As he’s dying, “The most we can do is to write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

Hayes is an excellent writer in his own right. His description of New York makes me heartsick for that city. Talking about moving there after decades in SF, bringing very little, getting a tiny apartment with a killer view and watching the Empire State and Chrysler buildings from his kitchen at night.

I love that Sacks calls Billy’s iphone his “little box” because he finds the word iphone too ugly to pronounce. “It’s not even a word, it’s a brand.” “If you would be so kind, look up something for me on your little box?”

The Light Years: Volume 1 of the Cazalet Chronicles

Oh glorious mid-century British prose that lures you in with lush reports detailing everything about a particular family in 1937, capturing the thoughts and fears and mistakes and calamities of the family and their various servants. It’s a book that you get lost in, the clock becomes meaningless, and the entire day is given over to raptures of reading. Why on earth is this not more well known or considered a classic?

When I first opened it, I was slightly annoyed by the family tree and list of characters, but as I plowed ahead, completely smitten, I found myself paging back to figure out who each was, how they were related, which cousins were children of which of the Cazalet brothers (Hugh, Edward, Rupert), which elegant women were those brothers wives (Sybil, Villy, Zoe). The Cazalet sister, Rachel, is a spinster and early on we figure out that she’s carrying on a clandestine relationship with Sid, a woman musician/teacher whom no one suspects of anything untoward. Delightfully full of small and large drama, all set on the background of the coming war.

I have the remaining 4 books ready to catapult into my brain, and then I’ll treat myself to this Hilary Mantel recollection of Howard.

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks

If you don’t come away from this book with adoration for this lovable weirdo, something’s wrong with you. I didn’t want to stop reading this, seriously considering throwing off all plans until the very last page reached. The Paris Review had a lovely excerpt from the book detailing Thom Gunn’s admiration of how Sacks had changed from the daredevil drug-chugging motorcycle leather daddy whose prose could be quite cruel into a more centered and empathetic writer. Weschler reveals that in the early 80s he planned to write a profile of Sacks for the New Yorker and spent several years gathering material before Sacks asked him not to publish it because he was deeply closeted and had been celibate for several years, not wanting his sexuality raked about in public. Sacks had a change of heart on his deathbed in 2015, and thus we get this delightful tome.

During WW2, most London parents sent their children to the countryside and the Sacks were no exception. It was here that Oliver experienced abuse that scarred him for life, perhaps seeping into all his relations and his manic personality. He goes on to become a doctor, then flees England before he’s drafted, landing in Canada then SF and LA before settling in NYC.

Despite claiming that women’s anatomy was a complete scotoma (one of Sacks’s favorite words, a pathological hole in your visual field), at the age of 20 he ghostwrote a book with his mother about menopause, Women of Forty: The Menopausal Syndrome by Muriel Elsie Landau. This was before, I think, he came out as gay to his parents, whereupon his mother released an hours-long Deuteronomy-driven harangue before lapsing into the silent treatment for days and then never mentioning it again.

Sacks’s drug use: his slogan was “Every dose an overdose” and was known for being greedy, sucking down as much LSD and amphetamines that he could find. He was also addicted to acceleration and speed, zooming to the Grand Canyon through the night on his motorcycle at more than 100mph.

“For all my failures and the suicide which will probably end it all, I do have a feeling of developing, though, of being different at fifty than I was at forty, at forty than at thirty. I don’t know how people who don’t develop bear it.”

What types of books captivated him as a child? “Moby-Dick. What can you say about Moby-Dick? There’s Shakespeare and there’s Moby-Dick and that’s that.” Also: “Early on an editor told me I was too florid, to be more spare, to be like Hemingway, which among other things prevented me from liking Hemingway.” And: “Dickens wasn’t Dickens: He was life.”

Describing his first year at Oxford: “something bizarre must have been going on in terms of reading and searching: I was insatiable. I read Western philosophy with a sort of desperation. It didn’t work. I didn’t get anything, I didn’t retain anything, the only value in retrospect having been that 20 years later, I knew where to look… I became learning-voracious, swallowing up enormous obsessive amounts… If one could dig out the record of the library from that year, one would see what kind of strange, futile frenzy it was.”

On one phone call, Oliver excitedly relates that after swimming he returned to shore only to find that the rock beneath his foot moved, the whole field of rocks a horde of horseshoe crabs beached for mating. “My people have come!” Oliver crowed.

His relationship with the truth was something he struggled with all the time: “its not that I invent the truth. Rather I intuit or imagine it.”

He begins to be recognized in the 1980s; one turning point seems to be the 1984 lecture he gave at the NYPL, introduced by Susan Sontag who cooed about his writing style. Weschler mentions being there in the audience: “Jasper Johns is seated behind me: it’s that sort of crowd.”

The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote To What Isn’t Working Today

I sneak up on this book and take little sips, hoping to prolong my pleasure. Hecht’s method is “happiness by historical perspective” and she looks at four issues as topics seen through the lens of history: drugs, money, bodies, celebration. There are three distinct kinds of happiness, not unrelated but not in harmony with each other:

A Good Day: filled with lots of mild pleasures, repeatable, forgettable, a tiny bit of rewarding effort

Euphoria: intense, memorable, involves risk or vulnerability

A Happy Life: lots of difficult work (studying, striving, nurturing, maintaining, negotiating, mourning) sometimes seriously cutting into time for a good day or euphoria.

Taking thousands of years of writing and thinking on the subject, there are four things in all happiness theory from wisdom literature, philosophy, psychology, and self-help:

  • Know yourself.
  • Control your desires.
  • Take what’s yours.
  • Remember death.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero more accurately translated as “Pluck the day, never trust the next.”

Everyone is forgotten. Hecht uses a brutal example, asking readers to list the names of your grandparents’ mothers. From her quick survey only a tiny minority could name even two of their four great-grandmothers.

Everything has to be learned twice. “In childhood we have ignorant happiness, and we must lose this happiness if we are ever to get beyond it. Repression is not the same as transcendence. Between these states of calm ignorance and calm knowing, there has to be some half-wise screaming. Some few people actually grow wise by acting wise, but most grow wise by acting foolish, by accruing a variety of experiences, by taking chances, and by making errors.”

Your worst barrier against happiness is you: “You cannot see yourself or much about the world you live in. You are ruled by desire and emotion. You will not take your place or rise to your role. You are alternately oblivious to death and terrified of it.” If you master these issues, you can be happy, but it’s not easy; it must be constantly worked at and never completely works.

Car culture makes us prize clearheadedness. “What makes opium a bad drug and Zoloft a good one has a lot to do with fogginess.” The degree of gauzelike inebriation is the difference between a bad drug and a good one. Car culture is also bananas because “if we rejected cars, we would have to walk, and our exercise problem would be over” (along with our fuel problem and pollution problem).

Drugs like cocaine and opium were actually useful in the 19th century for their medicinal properties. “While cocaine is great for allergies and toothaches, opium has a more important medicinal punch: it stops coughs and diarrhea.” Which in the era of epidemics of tuberculosis and dysentery was a blessing: heath AND happiness in a bottle.

Happiness maintenance work is “creating things to look forward to on a daily basis; arranging some peak experiences for yourself occasionally; and making sure the overall story of your life has some feeling of progress and growth.”

Money has stolen away our sense of community, “consumerism has become the central opportunity for public performance; for being someone; and for eating and feeding, rather than being eaten.” We shop to have good interactions and get stuff, we watch TV to bond with others.

Exercise is something that we’ve invented because machines have made life easy. “The only labor available is purposeless.” And also a drain on resources because you have to plug that treadmill in. When we fill our town centers with gyms, we’re combining 2 American traditions: the pride of the upper class not having to do work so doing sport instead, and religious identity distinguishing virtue through self-limitation. Hecht says we’d be better off if we only did unproductive exercise for pleasure…. walk somewhere you have to go anyway, take the stairs, chop some wood. “Forget the gym unless you love it or need a change of habit.”

She recommends creating a list of things we do that contribute to all 3 prongs of happiness: Good-Day Happiness (what makes a good day for you?), Euphoria (How do you get euphoria), A Happy Life (What do you need to have or be working toward, in order to like your life)

Capital: The Eruption of Delhi

Incredible book weaving the everyday histories of people who live in Delhi into the historical thread, the violence of the Partition in 1947, the disruption of British rule, the eruption of capitalism in the 1990s. Dasgupta is a UK citizen who worked in NYC until he journeyed to Delhi around 2000 and never left. In this, he gathers stories from the incredibly wealthy elite who sip expensive drinks and chat about their Lambos and BMWs from walled-enclaves protecting their green golf courses and lush pools. He also visits the other end of the spectrum, people squatting in slums who are powerless and are blown over with every political gust that attempts to eradicate them. It’s beautiful, lyrical writing capturing the bizarre feelings of the moment, how global capitalism is ruining this particular corner of the world. Describing one pair of brothers who work hard but don’t acquire many things, “It feels as if they are living in permanent temporariness, acquiring nothing that might stand as an obstacle between them and their eventual retreat from this cultureless place.”

Interviewing an advertising executive who works hard and loves it, he explains how his wife wasn’t happy about his long hours but he undertook to educate her as if it were an advertising campaign “I took small steps to make her understand, I used analogies.” Eventually the wife has a baby to occupy her time and all is well. When coffee shops arrive in the early 2000s, Delhi “was suddenly awash in the stuff, its smell filling every shopping mall and office block, brown liquid pouring into the veins of this new sleep-deprived generation—who, as often as not, did not drink from a cup but, like their American counterparts, sucked at a sealed and odorless container, as if they nestled at capitalism’s plastic breast.”

Traffic snarls, people sleeping in their rickshaws, bribery, hospital scams, call center work, history, arranged marriages, tradition, booze, cigarettes, rape, rage, gurus, slums, water shortages, it’s all here.

“It says so much about the spirit of Delhi that this mood, this sense of living in the aftermath, has dominated the city’s literature until our own time… Delhi’s writers have consistently seen it as a city of ruins and they have directed their creativity to expressing that particular spiritual emaciation that comes from being cut off from one’s own past. This is both the reality and the fantasy of Delhi: the city is always already destroyed.”

“Now our city is about aggression, rage, inequality, corruption, and personal gain. It’s about consumerism and shopping malls… We have no beauty to leave to our children.”

A textile mill owner is self-reflective: “The system we are part of feeds on desperation. And any system that demands such levels of desperation will produce more and more disorder, and the only way to keep everything in check will be the increasing militarization of the world.”

The Wolves: A Play

Incredible play by Sarah DeLappe. I knew I was in for a treat when she included a Gertrude Stein quote as the epigraph:”We are always the same age inside.” The intense structure of a play energized the lines, creating a pressure cooker for the handful of teenage girls who perform. It’s a staggering portrait of life as one of those teenage girls, all grouped together on the soccer field. Their lines are said as they perform their warm-up stretches before each game, taking us into the world of over-achievers, being nervous about college scouts, razzing the new girl about living in a yurt (yogurt), #14 pressured by the boy that #7 brings to her birthday party, #7’s abortion/Plan B, breast cancer devouring their favorite coach’s mom, the prim propriety of #2 who doesn’t want them bringing their HBO-GO account-laden laptop over to a sleepover. At the end, tragedy strikes, #14 is hit by an early-morning driver when she’s out for a jog. Soccer mom diatribe at the end. Brilliant.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir

I don’t know what to say about this one except to exhort you to read it, read it, read it. Reichl’s writing talent, humor, and down-to-earthness gives such a wicked gleeful glimpse into the glamorous world of Conde Nast during her 10 year tenure as head honcho of Gourmet magazine. Brilliant chapters encapsulate her whirlwind, hesitation, acceptance, a giddy return to just being able to appreciate a meal after years as a restaurant critic. It was under her that the DFW Consider the Lobster piece came out, and her team saved Gourmet from the trash heap for a few years before it was killed off.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

I’m amazed that I somehow had never read this, but I enjoyed Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and was reminded about this book by the profile of Evan Ratliff in my alumni magazine. The structure of this book is phenomenal—she starts out with Laroche and his theft of ghost orchids from the swamp. (“I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words ‘swamp’ and ‘orchids’ and ‘Seminoles’ and ‘cloning’ and ‘criminal’ together in one short piece.”) She branches out into the general weirdness of orchids and Florida. There’s a section on the real estate scams throughout the ages, how one parcel of swampland netted hundreds of millions in profits when people bought sight unseen. They paved some of the roads and now bear sightings can be pinpointed at particular intersections in the jungle-overgrown grid. “It was a weird unquiet stillness, and yet the place had a weird overfull emptiness. It was more ghostly than a ghost town. In a ghost town, only the people are missing. Here the people are missing, too. It didn’t seem like a peaceful place where nothing ever happened—it was full of the feeling of a million things planned on and never done.”

literally show me a healthy person

Short, intensely interesting sentences careen out of this portrait of a young poet dealing with the death of her mother, modern life, a callous father, unstable relationships. Darts  sent directly into the center target of my heart, I’m gasping reading this as I swoon under my own imprecise befuddlement about my social womb. “what’s the word for ‘ex’ but for when the relationship was all in your head” eviscerates me and then I’m delighted by “air is fake” “imagine imagining ur wedding day” “i fell on my head last night. i cant tell what time it is. seems like every or none or the color green.” Going to have to classify this as narrative poetry, or possibly an epic poem, charting the journey from nowhere to nowhere and emotionally flayed along the way.