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.

The New Me

Paralyzingly beautiful novel by Halle Butler about a woman having an early-life crisis, unable to keep even the simplest of temp jobs, making grand plans to join a yoga studio and get her groceries delivered and spending money wildly although she has no income source (read: her parents pay her rent for her still and feel a little bit sorry for her when she visits them in a funk). Millie, the narrator, is hostile and crude and mostly keeps her cruel thoughts to herself, like when she invites Sarah over to have beers, even though she hates Sarah, because she can pretend that she has a normal life with friends this way. Her receptionist boss Karen belittles her intelligence by asking if she knows how to use a shredder and telling her that she’s putting paper clips on the wrong way (“She seems to be showing me how to use a paper clip. She holds it in her hands, demonstrating both the right and the wrong way. Holy absurdity, little side on top, big side on bottom, I guess I did it wrong. I say ‘Oh okay, that makes sense.’ ‘It’s a matter of style,’ she explains. ‘I totally get it,’ I say, speaking in low tones, soothing and reassuring, nodding, and to keep the indignant scream from leaving my lips, I imagine that she needs to poop, all the time, but can’t.”

The brash, awful, crude, misanthropic female character reminds me a bit of Otessa’s Eileen, but with more fury. The only parts I was less than pleased about were the inexplicable switches to other characters’ points of view, like her downstairs neighbors who smell something weird in the drains or her boss Karen’s perspective of how weird Millie is and how she wants to get rid of her urgently.

Seasonal Associate

Brilliant novel written in second person narration, aimed at the reader, the generic “You” who is called to enter her world as an Amazon seasonal worker in Germany in 2010. The narrator is a struggling writer/translator who sucks it up and gets a terrible job at the Amazon warehouse for the Christmas rush, describing the mind-numbing routine, the crushing workload, the unpaid work of changing in and out of work clothes, the sneers from management, the silliness of imported American informality in calling everyone by their first name. The drudgery of rising in the early hours of winter to slog through snow and cancelled public transportation to work in a place where the door to the outside won’t shut so is freezing all day. The slap of having to get a doctor’s written note testifying that one is sick. Being yelled at like you’re a child over and over.

The narrator knows she’ll soon be replaced by robots: “You… are nothing but a placeholder for machines that have already been invented but aren’t yet profitable enough to permanently replace you and your workmates, who are very low-cost. The fact that your presence is necessary troubles your employer, who dislikes dealing with troublemakers.”

She sprinkles in wisdom from various sources, Engels, Arendt, etc. including this bit from Byung-Chul Han: “There’s no way to form a revolutionary mass out of exhausted, depressed, isolated individuals,” and this from Elfriede Jelenek: “Anyone alive disrupts.”

A great excerpt from the 4th chapter is online, including:

I too buy my books from Amazon. I buy the books there that I can’t get elsewhere. What I don’t buy from Amazon is books or other things I can get elsewhere, not even if they’re cheaper there or delivered more quickly.

A few days before, I held a far too vehement lecture at my mother’s kitchen table, preaching that one doesn’t necessarily have to buy things one wants from the cheapest source. I said there was no order and no law that you have to choose the cheapest offer. My mother looked at me as though checking whether I meant it seriously, first of all, and secondly whether I might have turned into a rich woman overnight, someone who could afford to say such things.

I appreciated the way she simply walked off the job at the end, realizing that she could just quit. Months later, she gets a call from Amazon asking for feedback, which she gives them. They also offer her the chance to come back anytime. But her freelance work has picked back up, making her realize:

The present performance subject is identical to the Hegelian slave apart from the circumstance that it does not work for the master, but exploits itself voluntarily. As an entrepreneur of itself, it is both master and slave simultaneously.

I also enjoyed the unique table of contents, summarizing and commenting on the ensuing chapter:

Translated by Katy Derbyshire from German.

The Great Believers

Wow. A stunning fictionalized account of the AIDS crisis as it hit the Chicago boys in the 1980s, along with their female friends who helped them protest and cared for their dying bodies. Makkai does a brilliant job juxtaposing current day (2015) with past (1985), pacing the story perfectly between the two eras and leaving you forever curious and turning the pages to learn what happens to Yale the development director of the Northwestern art museum and Fiona his best friend whose great-aunt donates her personal art collection which dates from 1920s Paris where she worked as an artist’s model. Terrific story, writing, plot, heartbreaking details of the oft-overlooked AIDS holocaust.

Beastie Boys Book

Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz document the group in Yauch’s absence, filling hundreds of pages with memories, photos, stories. Other essays flesh out the scene, like Luc Sante‘s vivid description of NYC in 1981. Even tiny addendum contain marvels, like MD’s note about Tania Aebi (whose book about being the youngest person to sail around the world I read in 2003) being a friend of his family.

This is a truly magical book. It’s a sweet, open-hearted, candid look back at their rise and conquest of the world. Although the mic is passed between Horovitz and Diamond throughout the book, Yauch comes through as a genius over and over with bizarro ideas that elevated their sound (upside down drum machine recording, 10 foot long cardboard tubes to amp up the drum sound, a million other examples).

It’s a time machine back to the 80s, but also gives you a front row seat to how people can live wildly creative and successful lives. Amy Poehler’s essay has a bit about her riding her bike around Chicago finding comfort in the lyric “Be true to yourself and you will never fail,” and my heart explodes thinking about the number of people they’ve had a positive impact on.

I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time, I imagine.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Tremendous dissection of the art of biography wrapped around the story of Sylvia and Ted. A masterpiece! Not only was this an amazing read, a journalistic romp into the land of the literary, but the breadcrumbs dropped along the way were delicious treats, like the discovery of the 1962 BBC readings Plath did of poems from Ariel. I can put up with most of the terrible things that the internet has spawned as long as it keeps rare recordings like this alive.

Malcolm aligns herself on the Hughes’s side in this never-ending argument over Plath’s legacy and makes some well-reasoned points that actually melted my heart a bit towards Ted. Poor man was stuck swirling around in the tornado of her suicide for decades, never really to extricate himself or sever his own name to be anything but the Ted Hughes in relation to Plath (for many of us; of course his Poet Laureate crown was a distinction of sorts).

This point is achingly true:

In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

As well as this:

The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.

Top Picks of 2018

Some trends I noticed when reviewing the 265 books I read this year (down about 70 from last year’s epic high but still respectable!):

  • 62% women writers; 34% men; the remainder a mix of both. Non-fiction (69%) edged out fiction (31%) for the third year in a row.
  • Read a lot more poetry in 2018. I hope this continues.
  • Some great graphic novels (Fante Bukowski, Enclyclopedia of Early Earth, Megahex) stay stuck in my head.
  • Went on some weird tangents like disaster movies, history of artists & window displays. Read a lot on the usual topics (walking, nature, capitalism, tourism, solitude, introspection). Read a lot of Anne Tyler and Sujata Massey as escapist fiction.







Read or re-read Virginia Woolf (Room, Vol 1 Essays, Vol 1 Letters), Melville (Bartleby), DFW (Consider the Lobster), Proust, Betty Smith (Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Doris Lessing (Summer Before Dark), Dreiser (Sister Carrie). Discovered Richard Brautigan by way of a display at the Presidio branch library, read everything I could.