La Bâtarde

Violette Leduc’s autobiography swept me into a dreamlike state and, better yet, re-ignited my own passion for writing, ideas flowing furiously through my head whenever I put the book down and puttered around my own boxed existence. The last time I felt this ignition was from Gail Scott’s My Paris—there must be something about these intellectual French (or French-speaking) women that inspires. Perhaps it is the openness about their own flaws that coaxes me to follow them into revealing.

Deborah Levy’s introduction to the book mentions that she normally skips over the early chapters of childhood, genealogy, etc., only starting when the subject is nearly an adult and making her own decisions. Amen to that! It’s usually so tiresome to creep through branches of the family tree and pinch oneself awake to listen to tales of earliest memory. Like Levy I enjoyed the early bits of this because of Leduc’s writing style. Levy: “The first thing [Leduc] tells the reader is that she is not unique, which is a relief—most people write autobiographies to persuade us they are.”

The title refers to the fact that Leduc was the illegitimate and unrecognized daughter of a grand family for which her mother had been a housemaid. Her mother is both mother and father to her, and they make their way as a twosome through several years (including during WWI) before mother marries and Leduc obtains a stepfather. “Why don’t bastards help each other? Why do they avoid each other? Why do they detest each other? … They should be able to forgive each other everything since they all hold the most precious, the most fragile, the strongest, the darkest part of themselves in common: a childhood twisted like an old apple tree… I should like to see written in letters of fire: ‘Bakery for bastards.’ Then I needn’t feel that stupid prickling in my throat anymore when people ask for the big loaves that French people refer to as ‘bastards.’ I have always wished that in that wonderful American film Marty, the two shy people who come together at the end were bastards.”

Violette Leduc as a reader

Part of my love for Leduc comes from her absorption with reading. She would stay up reading Gide by flashlight under covers at boarding school. “As I held my shoe in the shoe shop and spread the polish on it, I muttered: ‘Shoe, I will teach you to feel fervor.’ There was no other confidant worthy of my long book-filled nights, my literary ecstasies.” When someone gives her Van Gogh’s letters to read, she calls it “one of the greatest moments of my life.” And yet she struggles with some of the same weighty stuff that has perplexed my brain:

To be able to read Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza the way people read thrillers. The more I kept trying, the more I forced myself, the more I weighed each paragraph, each word, each punctuation mark, each sentence, the more the sentences, the punctuation, the words eluded me…. The recalcitrant adjective was raising bumps of ignorance on my brow. My narrow brow, how wretched it made me feel. I mangled the flesh on it with my fingers because it was so puny, so degenerate… I was an old oak tree, old like an oak tree, old like an old woman. Adequate, inadequate. My hair began to get longer and longer; if it were all icicles …then I would die of cold with my futile desire to become intelligent. Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Spinoza: my promised land was disappearing, my promised land was vanishing. To have an inner life, to think, to juggle and leap, to become a tightrope walker in the world of ideas. To attack, to riposte, to refute, what a contest, what acclaim. To understand. The most generous verb of all. Memory. To retain, a geyser of felicity. Intelligence. The agonizing poverty of my mind. Words and ideas flitting in and out again like butterflies. My brain …a dandelion seed blown in the wind. I would read, and forget what I had read while I was still reading it. (p 258)

Another along the same lines (p 460):

Philosophic discussion is the promised land which I shall never attain. Things I cannot understand always fascinate me. Whenever I met [Maurice’s best friend] after that, full of despair at my inadequacy, I inevitably produced an impression of stupidity, muddleheadedness, and vanity. A sort of bluestocking made up mainly of runs.

Various relationships and work

She falls in love with a girl at school (in reality her music teacher, who gets fired for being caught with Leduc). Eventually Leduc is also expelled, and the two begin to live together in Paris, making a home together for 11? years before “Hermine” abandons her. Hermine is constantly sacrificing herself and her money for Leduc, buying her expensive clothes and suffering Leduc’s scorn. L also is involved with Gabriel, a somewhat homeless artist who calls her his “little man.” Eventually she marries Gabriel and they have a drama-infused yet unconventional life.

After Hermine abandons her, she gets a switchboard operator job at a film producer’s office but is wildly incompetent at connecting calls, so the (female) producer has her become an errand runner instead. This is how Leduc finds herself delivering a box to Colette, the writer. This spins her into a trance of sorts, “I observed a cyclist sitting on a bench, resting near his bike, I observed the shape of a flower in a pot, I thought I was already writing, without paper and pencil, because I was hearing, because I was memorizing the caress, the delicacy, the romance of the wind in the leaves. I left the gardens of the Palais-Royal, I was carrying the city on my shoulders, I was shriveling up again as I walked back to the office.”

She jumps into cars with strange men who demand to kiss her and hike up her skirt. Fleeing one, she walks home. “What was it I wanted? To do nothing and possess everything.”

On writing

Her descriptions of Paris made me swoon:

Paris was still on vacation, even though one had to kick aside the falling leaves of a departed summer, for Paris was a faded rose that evening. The silky decadence of a great city at seven in the evening.

She befriend Maurice Sachs, who loves her letters and implores her to write articles, stories. He sets her up with an assignment at a magazine but Leduc tunes out as she’s being told what to do: “The woman editor of the magazine explained the subject of the story I was to write. I didn’t listen to her but I could hear a babble of syllables streaming across the sheets of paper all stuck over with printed columns ringed with big blue pencil marks. It was terrible, she was telling me the theme of the story, I was sure of it, and she thought I was all ears… That confusion of syllables was my chance of earning a living. And yet I couldn’t listen, I didn’t like her, someone had pulled out a plug and cut us off.” She leaves the office and decides “If the worst came to the worst I could always throw myself in the Seine if I couldn’t think of a first sentence.” Heading out of the waiting room, she feels better, the “thorn is out of my foot. Gummed paper, enigmas of the printing press, embryo sentences, truncated paragraphs.”

She attempts to write about fashion shows, but her editor hates her imagery. “Dresses are not springs or breezes or tempests. Nor are they bushes or violins.” Women aren’t allowed unaccompanied at the cabaret, and no one’s supposed to be out after curfew, but Violette gets past those two rules while writing articles for magazines.

Occupied France

Along comes war again (this time WWII). She and her mother flee the city: “We followed the procession streaming along both sides of the road. There were mothers nursing their infants in the ditches, vain young girls tottering along on Louis Quinze heels, soldiers singing as they were driven past in trucks. One of the soldiers threw some cigarettes to an old man, who ran out into the road and salvaged them despite the drivers’ curses. Scaffolding, mountains perched on the tops of cars. One man was making his solitary way with a mattress on his back. Our misfortune had become a funeral cortege. Suburbanites hung out of their windows to watch us pass. Market gardeners were deserting their plots with their horses and carts. Butterflies still fluttered and alighted on the flowers in vacant lots.”

This provided great detail of what life in occupied France was like, retreating into the countryside and selling black market butter/meat/sundries while building up a huge bankroll and hoping for the best while shipping packages via the post until that got too risky and then schlepping suitcases full of meat to Paris. She and Maurice head out to Normandy together, where as usual everyone is charmed by him and ignores her. She stays “stagnating” in the kitchen, living “permanently on the defensive… an idiot woman jammed in neutral gear…  a praying mantis devouring herself.”

It is here in the country that Maurice convinces her to start writing books, telling her: “Your unhappy childhood is beginning to bore me to distraction. This afternoon you will take your basket, a pen, and an exercise book, and you will go and sit under an apple tree. Then you will write down all the things you tell me.” She remembers the sparkles on the Metro stairs in Paris that spoke to her. “Lucid sparkles, I have not forgotten you. The poem that swells my throat until it is as big as a goiter will be the poem I like best. Let me not die before the music of the stars is enough for me.” Maurice is shown her work that evening and says “there is nothing left for you now but to continue.” And thank god, she does.

***

Translated from French by Derek Coltman

 

Red Clocks

It’s been a long time since I’ve opened a book and devoured it one sitting, cancelling all other plans for the evening. Leni Zumas (another LZ!) knocked my wool socks off with this well written and closely woven tale of various women in a rainy Oregon coastal town. Each has a distinct voice pointing out her own perspective: the high school teacher who’s writing a biography of a female polar explorer who had to publish her (the explorer’s) work under a colleague’s name in the 1870s—this biographer is also seeking fertility drugs and making a last desperate grab at becoming a single mother since the window for non-marrieds to adopt children is closing; the witch Gin Percival, who helps various women shed their pregnancies now that abortion is also illegal; Gin’s daughter Mattie who was given up for adoption and who now comes seeking Gin’s help with her own unplanned pregnancy (the biographer Ro takes her to a place in Portland after Mattie gets turned back at the Canadian border); and Susan, the wife of a high school French teacher who wants out of her marriage and who has two kids to look after. Of her kids, “they are yipping and pipping… they are rolling and polling and slapping and papping, rompling with little fists and heels on the bald carpet.” From this book I also learned that supermarket bread is made with human hair dissolved in acid as part of a dough conditioner for industrial processing. Yum!

Terrific writing, pacing, storytelling, characters.

Florida

Recently I heard a conversation between Thomas McGuane and another writer featured on the New Yorker Radio Hour where the pair go fishing and talk about words and writing. McGuane said something along the lines of being amazed at the quality of short stories coming out of the U.S. right now, compared to the vastly disappointing novels, and as I read Lauren Groff’s collection of stories about or tangentially related to Florida, I wholeheartedly agreed. It seems especially fitting coming from the author of Ninety-Two in the Shade, that Key West fishing guide to life.

Groff’s stories are so powerful, you have to close the covers after each one, look wide-eyed around the room and wonder to yourself, “Did I really just read that?” The lush, rainy, snakey, lizardy life of Florida pulses from the pages, even when the characters are escaping the summer heat by traveling to France. Yes, yes, yes. Read it.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

There is nothing disappointing about Anne Boyer’s uncategorizable work. Poetry, philosophy, humor, jammed together in a sandwich of words. Plato rubs shoulders with the Occupy movement who wave at Bo Diddley who muses about the genius of Willie Nelson who sings about Colette.

The flashes of genius will surprise you and make you giggle, like her Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry, wherein she suggests various ways to make poems more scarce and thus worth more (shoot poetry through pneumatic tubes to world poetry capitals like Oakland, Brooklyn, Tallahassee; choreograph whales’ blow holes to look like words from above; hack traffic lights to blink out morse code poems; put poems on post-it notes slapped to the back of mourners at a funeral, etc.)

She writes of cancer treatments and sweating on the bus in LA, writing a poem about Mathew Barney’s shit sculpture show as an excuse to sit longer in the air conditioning: “maybe Normal Mailer on a river of shit is the art that we deserve.” There are pieces on reading and writing and poetry and art. “To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble.” Her book of choice while battling cancer is the perfect companion, The Magic Mountain, but in Mann’s world the character can simply sit in the Alps and recover while Boyer must try to earn money in order to afford her chemotherapy.  “Cancer cells refuse to die, proliferate wildly, take over every territory they can… Their expansion—that wild, horrible living—has as its content only the emptiest death. ‘Like capitalism,’ I tell my friends, and mean, by capitalism, ‘life as we know it,’ and I mean, with ‘like capitalism,’ that among other things, ‘it’s dead inside.’ ”

I’m tempted to copy wholesale some of my favorite parts, like Click-Bait Thanatos (luckily already written out elsewhere):

As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.

We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.

Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.

Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”

And there’s this from Questions for Poets:

“Is the trial of today to flood ourselves with the vast oceanic tides of the marketplace and false feeling and scripted hellos and the aerosolized and the ambulatory and shipping containers and social practice and smile scanners? Is it the vital and great, the epic, or the minor, the depreciated, the commodious,the scatological, the blithe or the charming? Is it a trial of weaponized data entry? Is it the testimony of pdfs?”

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.

Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.

I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:

  1. Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
  3. Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
  5. Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
  6. All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
  8. Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.

The Odyssey

This is the translation of Homer’s Odyssey I’ve been waiting for—the first English translation of the ancient Greek text by a woman. The retelling of this ancient story from a woman’s perspective is a marvel and I felt closer to the text than in previous readings. The Odyssey is a smorgasbord of entertainment: detailed descriptions of lavish feasts, fantastic adventure tales, a love story, murders, enchantment, a guide to etiquette. The rosy-fingered dawn and wine-dark sea are you constant companions.

A very skillful 80 page introduction lays the groundwork for your appreciation of the book, complemented by a translator’s note that picks apart some of the tangled threads I’ve been thinking about translation over the years. Wilson asserts that the original text is much simpler than the convoluted, highly stylized versions we’ve gotten in the past (“The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption.”)

Her aim is for simple, ordinary, straightforward English in order to highlight the fact that Homeric writing is also not stylistically pompous. Even more impressive, her version is the exact length as the original text with same number of lines. “I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.”

The best part of her Translator’s Note is calling out that it’s traditional to “bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original, [but she believes] we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation.” Hers is an entirely different work than the original. And her translation avoids the usual sexism brought into the other attempts. It is eye-opening to read Wilson’s translation go toe-to-toe with Fagles’ and this becomes more obvious. For example, after Telemachus’s famous lashing out at Penelope telling her to shut up and leave the talking to men, Wilson has Penelope’s reaction as “That startled her.” Fagles’ reaction for Penelope was that she was “Astonished.” And in Book 3, during Nestor’s sacrifice of a cow to Athena, Wilson has: “Then Nestor’s daughters and his son’s wives, and his own loyal queen, Eurydice, began to chant.” Fagles translation is laughable: “The women shrilled their cry, Nestor’s daughters, sons’ wives and his own loyal wife Eurydice, Clymenus’ eldest daughter.”

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.