Every time I read Nye’s final poem of this book, Gate A-4, I can’t stop my eyes from tearing up. The rest of the pieces were just as precious, poetic musings that capture life freshly post 9/11 in the mid-aughties from the viewpoint of a writer born of Palestinian father and American mother, living in Texas. Poetry is vital and her book makes this case over and over. And now I get to load up on anything and everything else she has written!
This was awesome. I couldn’t get into her memoir (was it my mood?) but Lockwood’s first novel landed perfectly. Perhaps it’s the small chewable bits that make it ideal for covid-brain reading, but this has to be one of the best books that sums up our current state of affairs, our attention-deficit always-online swept from one meme to the next living in a state of terror from the tyrant. Into this setting she cuddles the story of her sister’s newborn, slated to live only 6 months with Proteus Syndrome (elephant man-itis). I heard an interview with Lockwood and she verified that this was taken from real life and her sister was pleased that the baby would be forever remembered in this book.
Some favorite snippets:
“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”
“We were being radicalized, and how did that feel? Like we had just stepped into a Girl Scout uniform made of fire… We were being radicalized, yes, even though we owned personalized goblets that said Wine O’Clock, even though we still read the Old Gray Lady every morning with not nearly enough of a sneer on our faces!”
There was such a rush to get this book after Berman’s death that the library ended up removing it from their listings, leaving the lucky 30 or so of us who had made it onto the list as part of a secret group and slowly the book made its way to me, then of course the pandemic stopped everything and books froze in people’s apartments from March – August and one patron got to spend quarantine with this beautiful book, but it wasn’t me, I eventually got hold of it a few weeks ago and each sip from these poems made me dizzy so I was careful not to gulp and here I am at last, closing the final page and immediately looking to see where I can buy a copy. The phrases are so perfect, “Hedges formed the long limousine a Tampa sky could die behind” (and hundreds others). This is a book of poems everyone should have access to.
(From Self Portrait at 28: ) “All this new technology will eventually give us new feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and split in two.”
It’s hard to declare that this may be the best book I read all year with 11 months left to go, but the gorgeousness of her writing is coursing through me right now and I feel exuberant. I love this style of writing, is it Rachel Cusk-ian? The voice of a detached narrator describing, well, what she’s going through. She visits a friend dying of cancer, stays at a local airbnb, sees that her ex is lecturing about the end of civilization due to climate change. She ends up deepening her friendship with her dying friend, agreeing to be there to help her in her final days as the cancer-riddled friend has obtained drugs which will end her life.
Such beautiful writing. And always always breadcrumbs of films and books, little signposts that point me to recommendations. (I watched Jesus, Du Weisst [Jesus, You Know], a 2003 documentary featuring six Catholics praying to Jesus out loud for the camera, based on her mention.)
The narrator is a writer and plans to keep a journal of her friend’s final days, but quickly abandons that plan. Language would falsify the experience. “Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about—these are the only writers I want to read anymore…”
The meaning of life? That it stops (Kafka). Camus says the literal meaning of life is whatever you do that stops you from killing yourself. And then that old graffiti “God is dead — Nietzsche, Nietzsche is dead —God.”
Starting the year off with a bang! This was an extremely interesting deep dive into Linklater’s early film career, detailing how things went into the production of Slacker as well as Dazed and Confused. Maerz did a great job wrangling hundreds of interviews with cast, crew, and fans (like the brothers Duplass) about the making of these films. One of the best books I’ve encountered in the film genre and it sent me scurrying to the library to see if anything else came close (so far, no). Everything about this film seemed blessed, the amazing cast of actors before they were known stars, the chemistry, the script, McConaughey’s performance, the music. And yet the studio tried everything in their power to sink it, to Linklater’s dismay. Don Phillips the extraordinary casting director (who w/r/t Jared Leto’s audition said “I love Jared, but Jared’s a real piece of work.”) allegedly threatened to expose himself if a certain movie weren’t submitted to the awards circuit. The final chapter points out how hard we fell for this supposedly anti-nostalgia film because of how much life/society has changed the past few decades. This was real livin’ and we love this movie because we miss it.
Excellent book, soothing wisdom to cool our overheated minds in these turbulent times. Beautifully written by Helen Tworkov’s help, the story of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey as a 36-year-old hitting the road for a three year wandering of the world. He goes from being protected and cared for by his monastery to wandering homeless, begging for food, shedding the layers of his identity and continuing his meditation. The book centers around the first weeks as he endures the shock of the world, having to handle money and deal with people on his own for the first time ever, sleeping on the floor of the train and then the station and gradually making his way to a lesser-visited historical site of the Buddha. He slowly peels off his conception of who he is, finally removing the robes that confer him identity and respect, his money now run out he sleeps in a park and begs for food which poisons him, leaving him in a death-state.
Against this scaffolding, he offers meditation guidance, sometimes in the way of direct instruction (to the man who asks for advice), sometimes just by way of what he does. I found the thought meditation instruction helpful:
“Just as you have placed your mind on your breath, now place your mind on your thoughts. Whatever comes, just watch. In the same way that you could use the breath as support for meditation, now use thoughts. Breath never stays the same for an instant, but it can be a stable support. So try to practice this way, just staying aware of your thoughts, without chasing after them.”
The man comes back and says his mind goes blank when he tries to watch his thoughts, and Mingyur Rinpoche says Yes, exactly! “That is the secret of thought meditation. What you are calling blank is actually open awareness… If you can watch thoughts, it’s like watching television. You’re not in the television, you’re watching it… There is a big screen and there are many free channels. There are only two problems: The programs are quite old and there are a lot of reruns.”
“I finally discovered the only reliable liberation from suffering: not trying to get rid of the problem.”
“To enter an unmapped domain of newness, and to be completely open and available to what it offers, we must let go of our cherished ideas of how things are supposed to work.”
“In a noisy and materialistic society, to sit down and remain still and quiet is a reverse activity.”
Perfect writing, deliciously crafted. But how can I feel so conflicted about being able to recommend it to people? Perhaps it’s because, as the author himself noted, the book is “100% pornographic and 100% high art.” And so you prudes out there are forewarned, this is some crazy erotica, some of the best writing about sex between men ever written (or sex between anyone?).
The narrator is an American teaching literature in Bulgaria; the ease and flow of the book’s words is something difficult to find these days as we are overloaded with terrible writing. Simple scenes such as the description of a group of writers gathered at the sea side after a workshop, watching the priest swim out further and further from shore, have so much else packed into their bones. A trip abroad with his young boyfriend, watching an outdoor opera performance then the sputtering disappointment of the town’s light show. Anguish as his gay students twist in not being able to be as open about their desires as he is. I’m now greedy for Garth Greenwell, will be searching out his earlier book.
When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.
An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?
The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
This by Rob Jacques:
Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.
We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.
See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.
This by Thomas R. Smith:
It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.
The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.
The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.
This by Sue Ellen Thompson:
The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.
To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.
Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.
That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.
This by Barbara Crooker:
I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.
In awe of this book. So great and I’m not even a little bit jealous that I didn’t write it myself. This captured exactly what life in San Francisco has been over the last decade. Beautifully written, scathing, insightful. Life as a non-technical intellectual surrounded by tech, living in the Castro, biking in the fog, trying to square her six-figure salary with the army of homeless sprawled on the streets. The intersection of ravers/Burners who seem to be performing what they thought the 1960s were all about, with the technofuturists. Brilliant, unmissable memoir that restores my faith in first person accounting in the modern age.
I’m enamored with Sammy Butler and have discovered his notebooks, curated by his pal Henry Festing Jones in 1913 after Butler’s death (1902). The pages in this 100+ year old book are so thick that I would be ashamed to dogear them, so I’ve got post-it notes to lure me back to the hilarious and witty and sage advice he gathers in these pages. Jones’s preface tells us that Butler always carried a notebook to write down anything he wanted to remember, be it something someone said or usually something he himself said. He began to index these in 1874 and worked on organizing them up until his death, in five bound volumes. He wrote the notes in copying ink and gave a pressed copy to Jones for safekeeping in case of fire. Jones has culled these down to a single volume and organized them as he saw fit. Woolf’s comment on reading them: “I have just read a page or two of Samuel Butler’s notebooks… One rather craves brilliance & cantankerousness.”
What life in 1880s London was like
He had rooms in Clifford’s Inn and spent his evenings in his friend Jones’s rooms in Barnard’s Inn then walked home, thinking. He had a camera lucida that he considered using to take a photo of the demolition of Cock Tavern but decided not to (because of “all the trash that had been written about it” by Tennyson, whom he hated). He goes to the dentist and makes jokes about how his dentist always suggested using “the tooth-pick freely” and “the spirit twice a day.” He bought “ready-made boots” that the shopman says are too large for him, but this is how he avoids corns. Fires are events: “I was at one the other night and heard a man say ‘That corner stack is alight now quite nicely.’ People’s sympathies seem generally to be with the fire so long as no one is in danger of being burned.” On Sundays he would go on walks with a friend and then stop by a public-house for beer. The elderly wife of the owner said she hoped she wouldn’t die soon, “You see, I am beginning now to know how to live.” He eavesdrops on a man saying to another, “I went to live there just about the time that beer came down from 5d to 4d a pot. That will give you an idea of when it was.”
His list of humorous ideas for stories
- The Diseases and Ordinary Causes of Mortality among Friendships.
- The finding a lot of old photographs at Herculaneum or Thebes; and they should turn out to be of no interest.
- On the points of resemblance and difference between the dropping off of leaves from a tree and the dropping off of guests from a dinner or a concert.
- The Complete Drunkard. He would not give money to sober people, he said they would only eat it and send their children to school with it.
- Life is one long process of getting tired.
- My days run through me as water through a sieve.
- The body is but a pair of pincers set over a bellows and a stewpan and the whole fixed upon stilts.
- Always eat grapes downwards—that is, always eat the best grape first; in this way there will be none better left on the bunch, and each grape will seem good down to the last. If you eat the other way, you will not have a good grape in the lot. Besides, you will be tempting Providence to kill you before you come to the best. This is why autumn seems better than spring: in the autumn we are eating our days downwards, in the spring each day still seems “Very bad.” People should live on this principle more than they do, but they do live on it a good deal; from the age of, say, fifty we eat our days downwards.
- A man’s style in any art should be like his dress—it should attract as little attention as possible.
- In addition to all that I inherit from past generations [music, science, art] I receive from my own everything that makes life worth living—London, with its infinite sources of pleasure and amusement, good theatres, concerts, picture galleries, the British Museum Reading-Room, newspapers, a comfortable dwelling, railways and, above all, the society of the friends I value.
- Every one should keep a mental waste-paper basket and the older he grows the more things he will consign to it—torn up to irrecoverable tatters.
- Money is the last enemy that shall never be subdued. While there is flesh there is money—or the want of money; but money is always on the brain so long as there is a brain in reasonable order.
- A man will feel loss of money more keenly than loss of bodily health, so long as he can keep his money. Take his money away and deprive him of the means of earning any more, and his health will soon break up; but leave him his money and, even though his health breaks up and he dies, he does not mind it so much as we think. Money losses are the worst, loss of health is next worst and loss of reputation comes in a bad third. All other things are amusements provided money, health and good name are untouched.
- We want words to do more than they can. We try to do with them what comes to very much like trying to mend a watch with a pickaxe or to paint a miniature with a mop; we expect them to help us to grip and dissect that which in ultimate essence is as ungrippable as shadow. Nevertheless there they are; we have got to live with them, and the wise course is to treat them as we do our neighbours, and make the best and not the worst of them. But they are parvenu people as compared with thought and action. What we should read is not the words but the man whom we feel to be behind the words.
- All words are juggles. To call a thing a juggle of words is often a bigger juggle than the juggle it is intended to complain of. The question is whether it is a greater juggle than is generally considered fair trading.
- Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.
- Gold and silver coins are only the tokens, symbols, outward and visible signs and sacraments of money. When not in actual process of being applied in purchase they are no more money than words not in use are language. Books are like imprisoned souls until some one takes them down from a shelf and reads them. The coins are potential money as the words are potential language, it is the power and will to apply the counters that make them vibrate with life; when the power and the will are in abeyance the counters lie dead as a log.
- The arts of the musician, the painter and the writer are essentially the same. In composing a fugue, after you have exposed your subject, which must not be too unwieldy, you introduce an episode or episodes which must arise out of your subject. The great thing is that all shall be new, and yet nothing new, at the same time; the details must minister to the main effect and not obscure it; in other words, you must have a subject, develop it and not wander from it very far. This holds just as true for literature and painting and for art of all kinds. No man should try even to allude to the greater part of what he sees in his subject, and there is hardly a limit to what he may omit. What is required is that he shall say what he elects to say discreetly; that he shall be quick to see the gist of a matter, and give it pithily without either prolixity or stint of words.
- Fortunately for me there are no academies for teaching people how to write books, or I should have fallen into them as I did into those for painting and, instead of writing, should have spent my time and money in being told that I was learning how to write. If I had one thing to say to students before I died (I mean, if I had got to die, but might tell students one thing first) I should say: “Don’t learn to do, but learn in doing. Let your falls not be on a prepared ground, but let them be bona fide falls in the rough and tumble of the world; only, of course, let them be on a small scale in the first instance till you feel your feet safe under you. Act more and rehearse less.”
- Think of and look at your work as though it were done by your enemy. If you look at it to admire it you are lost.
- I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable. Plato’s having had seventy shies at one sentence is quite enough to explain to me why I dislike him. A man may, and ought to take a great deal of pains to write clearly, tersely and euphemistically: he will write many a sentence three or four times over—to do much more than this is worse than not rewriting at all: he will be at great pains to see that he does not repeat himself, to arrange his matter in the way that shall best enable the reader to master it, to cut out superfluous words and, even more, to eschew irrelevant matter: but in each case he will be thinking not of his own style but of his reader’s convenience… I should like to put it on record that I never took the smallest pains with my style, have never thought about it, and do not know or want to know whether it is a style at all or whether it is not, as I believe and hope, just common, simple straightforwardness. I cannot conceive how any man can take thought for his style without loss to himself and his readers.
Music & Street Noise
- I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.
- People say the generous British public supported Handel. It did nothing of the kind. On the contrary, for some 30 years it did its best to ruin him, twice drove him to bankruptcy, badgered him till in 1737 he had a paralytic seizure which was as near as might be the death of him and, if he had died then, we should have no Israel, nor Messiah, nor Samson, nor any of his greatest oratorios. The British public only relented when he had become old and presently blind. Handel, by the way, is a rare instance of a man doing his greatest work subsequently to an attack of paralysis. What kept Handel up was not the public but the court. It was the pensions given him by George I and George II that enabled him to carry on at all. So that, in point of fact, it is to these two very prosaic kings that we owe the finest musical poems the world knows anything about.
- My St. Dunstan’s bells near Clifford’s Inn play doleful hymn tunes which enter in at my window; I not only do not dislike them, but rather like them; they are so silly and the bells are out of tune. I never yet was annoyed by either bells or street music except when a loud piano organ strikes up outside the public-house opposite my bedroom window after I am in bed and when I am just going to sleep.
- America will have her geniuses, as every other country has, in fact she has already had one in Walt Whitman, but I do not think America is a good place in which to be a genius. A genius can never expect to have a good time anywhere, if he is a genuine article, but America is about the last place in which life will be endurable at all for an inspired writer of any kind.
The Odyssey & The Iliad
- They say no woman could possibly have written the Odyssey. To me, on the other hand, it seems even less possible that a man could have done so. As for its being by a practised and elderly writer, nothing but youth and inexperience could produce anything so naïve and so lovely. That is where the work will suffer by my translation. I am male, practised and elderly, and the trail of sex, age and experience is certain to be over my translation. If the poem is ever to be well translated, it must be by some high-spirited English girl who has been brought up at Athens and who, therefore, has not been jaded by academic study of the language.
- When I returned from Calais last December, after spending Christmas at Boulogne according to my custom, the sea was rough as I crossed to Dover and, having a cold upon me, I went down into the second-class cabin, cleared the railway books off one of the tables, spread out my papers and continued my translation, or rather analysis, of the Iliad. Several people of all ages and sexes were on the sofas and they soon began to be sea-sick. There was no steward, so I got them each a basin and placed it for them as well as I could; then I sat down again at my table in the middle and went on with my translation while they were sick all round me. I had to get the Iliad well into my head before I began my lecture on The Humour of Homer and I could not afford to throw away a couple of hours, but I doubt whether Homer was ever before translated under such circumstances.
Art & Traveling
He got into a discussion about art with some strangers while traveling, and everyone threw names as if they were playing cards. “They played Raffaelle as a safe card…” “Then they played Leonardo Da Vinci. I had not intended saying how cordially I dislike him… As for his caricatures he should not have done them, much less preserved them; the fact of his having set store by them was enough to show that there was a screw loose about him somewhere and that he had no sense of humour. Still, I admitted that I liked him better than I did Michael Angelo.”
Is there a better delight than unearthing a book that you’d never heard of but that is considered “one of the summits of human achievement” by Shaw, “one of the time bombs of literature” by V.S. Pritchett, better than “some of the masterpieces of English fiction” by Woolf? (Woolf’s 1916 review of his biography notes that Samuel Butler “is one of those rare spirits among the dead whom we like… as we do the living, so strong is their individuality and so clearly can we make up our minds about their manners and opinions.”) I stumbled onto this book by way of the 1924 Who Would Be Free, where the book made a huge impact on the main character. And lo, it appears to be on a list of the best 100 novels of all time!
Published posthumously in 1903 so as not to offend his family, it’s semi-autobiographical, a tale of a promising young boy thrust into the clergy and eventually estranged from his domineering pastor father. Unbeknownst to him, his aunt has left him a fortune to come to him upon his 28th birthday, and his godfather Overton (the book’s narrator) oversees the funds until then. The writing is a delight, so fresh and modern for having been written in the 1870s. His passage on marriage can’t be left without note:
A man’s friendships are, like his will, invalidated by marriage—but they are also no less invalidated by the marriage of his friends. The rift in friendship which invariably makes its appearance on the marriage of either of the parties to it was fast widening, as it no less invariably does, into the great gulf which is fixed between the married and the unmarried, and I was beginning to leave my protégé to a fate with which I had neither right nor power to meddle. In fact I had begun to feel him rather a burden; I did not so much mind this when I could be of use, but I grudged it when I could be of none. He had made his bed and he must lie upon it. Ernest had felt all this and had seldom come near me till now, one evening late in 1860, he called on me, and with a very woebegone face told me his troubles.
As soon as I found that he no longer liked his wife I forgave him at once, and was as much interested in him as ever. There is nothing an old bachelor likes better than to find a young married man who wishes he had not got married—especially when the case is such an extreme one that he need not pretend to hope that matters will come all right again, or encourage his young friend to make the best of it.
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.
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.
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.”
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.