Jessica Mitford’s reissued and revised book on the funeral industry is an unexpected treat—witty, humorous, light banter that then swings a 50-ton hammer at you with the unflattering truths about the greed of morticians and their ilk. This book is another strand I’m following during my curious unearthing of topics on death after reading Ann Neumann’s The Good Death recently. Originally published in 1963, this revised edition came out shortly after Mitford’s death in 1998, chockablock full of updates that the industry had undergone during the intervening years, and including many delightful anecdotes of the reactions the book got. Mitford fearlessly joined panels of funeral directors who called her all sorts of names and testified in court battles. It was also discovered that Robert Kennedy had read her book and thoughts of it swirled round his head after JFK’s Dallas assassination, but ultimately the funeral parlor cashed in a pretty penny.
Mostly, the industry preyed/preys on the fact that people aren’t used to making this type of purchase. It’s uncommon, and not something you do a lot of research about, unlike the other big purchases you make of a car or a home. There’s no Kelly Blue Book on funerals. Plus the grief factor and the guilt factor turn into some serious profits. Embalming helps them jack up the cost, and families used to have no say in whether or not their deceased got injected with formaldehyde. Laws have changed.
Funeral directors like to misquote the law to boost their profits, insisting that a casket is required by law even for a cremation. Mitford called up a handful of funeral parlors to ask this question and was told with such conviction that it was illegal that she began to doubt the evidence before her eyes in the state code. So, the FTC ruled in 1984 that morticians are no longer allowed to lie to the public. “Anecdotal reports indicate that honesty is still an elusive quality in the trade.”
The best, most natural, most earth-friendly way to go is either burial in a shroud without casket, or cremation. The industry still has a long way to go in not bilking every last cent out of grieving families, though.
(Unrelated: just realized that Jessica is the sister of the great Nancy Mitford. Those sisters know how to write!!)
A stunning memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston published in 1975 which I’m ashamed to have missed reading before. It was brought up in Zinsser’s memoir book and sounded interesting, so I added it to the pile. It is by far the best memoir of the handful I’ve taste-tested this month from a list compiled from his book.
The Woman Warrior is made up of perfectly formed pearls, stories that you had to shut the book after reading to roll them around in your mouth and savor. Normally I’m chomping through books like a hungry hippo, but I was smart enough to close the book after each tidbit. White Tigers was the story that stunned me into silence—the story of a swordswoman who wanders away from her village as a young girl and is trained up by a couple of immortal gods to eventually go back and avenge the pillaging of her family and community by leading an army.
Shaman is the tale where we learn of the medical training of her mother. Marrying her father, he then immigrated to NYC to make money, sending it home to his wife to care for their two children, who eventually die. The mother still continues to collect money from America and decides to go to medical school. She’s a big success with the villagers once she’s done, having attained nearly magical powers. Then she migrates to America to join her husband (where they later have Maxine), finds herself working long hours in a laundromat. In the story, Maxine is visiting her old mother and concerned about her health.
[Her mother] coughed deeply. “See what I mean? I have worked too much. Human beings don’t work like this in China. Time goes slower there. Here we have to hurry, feed the hungry children before we’re too old to work. I feel like a mother cat hunting for its kittens. She has to find them fast because in a few hours she will forget how to count or that she had any kittens at all. I can’t sleep in this country because it doesn’t shut down for the night. Factories, canneries, restaurants, always somebody somewhere working through the night. It never gets done all at once here. Time was different in China. One year lasted as long as my total time here; one evening so long, you could visit your women friends, drink tea, and play cards at each house, and it would still be twilight. It even got boring, nothing to do but fan ourselves. Here midnight comes and the floor’s not swept, the ironing’s not ready, the money’s not made. I would still be young if we lived in China.”
And in A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe, great detail about how Maxine feigns undesirability so that she won’t get married off, so she can still pursue her studies:
As my parents and the FOB sat talking at the kitchen table, I dropped two dishes. I found my walking stick and limped across the floor. I twisted my mouth and caught my hand in the knots of my hair. I spilled soup on the FOB when I handed him his bowl. “She can sew, though,” I heard my mother say, “and sweep.” I raised dust swirls sweeping around and under the FOB’s chair—very bad luck because spirits live inside the broom. I put on my shoes with the open flaps and flapped about like a Wino Ghost.
Wow wow wow. Arlie Russell Hochschild leads the pack of authors helping to explain the unexplainable—namely, why those poor folks on the Right who are directly impacted by pollution and income equality are supporting candidates looking out for big business and small government. I’ve been reading a lot of sociologists lately for their take on this issue, but Hochschild is the clear winner. From my safe perch in San Francisco, she can actually make me scale the empathy wall and, if I squint, see things from the perspective of the other side, mired in sink holes in the Louisiana swamp she spends five years studying. At no point does she pander to them or to us, her readers. In fact, the book is a marvel in terms of balanced, respectful writing—if she gave every one of her interview subjects a copy of it, none should be offended.
One thing that struck me early as I was reading was the connection between money and religion. Both of these concepts make people feel comfortable; with money, you buy leisure, with religion, you buy afterlife. Several of the folks she interviews belong to a Pentecostal church—the type that believe in The Rapture and speaking in tongues. With this in mind, their carelessness about the environment makes perfect sense. They actually believe themselves to be living in End Times (and who knows! maybe we are! sure feels like it), so the earth will purge itself for 1,000 years and then come back a paradise. “The earth will burn with fervent heat,” is one quote from the book of Revelation.
The marriage of the 1% ultra rich Republicans who run for office with religion was super smart. This is one aspect that these people will not compromise on. “We vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs,” says one.
The people scoff at environmental regulations and simply endure pollution. The Louisiana Dept of Health printed instructions on how to prepare contaminated fish to eat. I found a copy online (image below from page 24). “You got a problem? Get used to it.” & “Sometimes you had to endure bad news for a higher good, like jobs in oil.” & worst of all: “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.”
Fox News comes in for scrutiny, and Hochschild rightly takes them to task for fear-mongering. One of the ladies says she listens to Fox throughout the day. “Fox is like family to me. Bill O’Reilly is like a steady reliable dad…” (albeit one that sexually harasses ladies.)
The part of the book that struck me most was her exploration of everyone’s “deep story”—everyone’s waiting in line for the American Dream and they are patiently waiting, it’s hot out, the sun is beating down, and the line’s not moving. Sometimes it seems they’re going backwards. And then, a group of people cut in line (e.g. woman, blacks, immigrants). And it seems like Obama is encouraging them to cut in line, and isn’t he a line cutter also? (How else did he get into Harvard).
“The year when the Dream stopped working for the 90 percent was 1950. If you were born before 1950, on average, the older you got, the more your income rose. If you were born after 1950, it did not.”
But this craving to earn lots of money lingers, and there is worship of successful businessmen. With lots of the men Hochschild spoke with, “the repeated term ‘millionaire’ floated around conversations like a ghost.” Identifying with the 1% was a source of pride for Tea Partiers, showing that you were optimistic, that you tried.
On the problem of Toxic T (our Cheeto in Chief), Hochschild wrote this before he was elected, but she sees all the signs that led to his selection. He released the crowds from the obligation to care about anyone but themselves, no longer required to be p.c., able to trashtalk women/minorities/disabled and feel good about it. “While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest—a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.”
The Tea Party has a long history of electing people who do exactly what they say, shrink government, and ravage the land. They don’t like the results, so they vote him (usually a him) out, and elect a Democrat who hikes taxes and then start to complain about that, with a short memory of the terrible things that happened without government spending.
This is probably the first book where I’ve eagerly devoured the Appendices. Appendix B contains fascinating data which interrelated political choice, attitudes about the environment, with actual risk of toxic releases. Most interesting: “as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement People worry too much about human progress harming the environment. So the higher the exposure to environmental pollution, the less worried the individual was about it—and the more likely that person was to define himself as a strong Republican.”
We blue states benefit from this attitude. We get less pollution but still reap the benefits of the products coming out of red states.
Fantastic memoir by Beryl Markham about her childhood on a farm in East Africa (Kenya), becoming a horse trainer and then a freelance pilot across Africa. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (thus “West with the night” as the title), ending up with her plane nose-first in the mud on Cape Breton after it runs out of fuel. Incredibly well-written and entertaining, with equal parts adventure and understated philosophy.
“From the time I arrived in British East Africa at the indifferent age of four and went through the barefoot stage of early youth hunting pig with the Nandi, later training race-horses for a living, and still later scouting Tanganyika and the waterless bush country between the Tana and the Athi Rivers, by aeroplane, for elephant, I remained so happily provincial I was unable to discuss boredom of being alive with any intelligence until I had gone to London and live there a year. Boredom, like hookworm, is endemic.”
In the wilds of Africa, the Brits set a lush tea table, prompting this recollection: “I have sometimes thought since of the Elkinton’s tea-table—round, capacious, and white, standing with sturdy legs against he green vines of the garden, a thousand miles of Africa receding from its edge. It was a mark of sanity, I suppose, less than of luxury. It was evidence of the double debt England still owes to ancient China for her two gifts that made expansion possible — tea and gunpowder.”
Upon coming across a man knee-deep in fixing his automobile on a dusty road, “In Africa people learn to serve each other. They live on credit balances of little favours that they give and may, one day, ask to have returned. In any country almost empty of men, ‘love thy neighbor’ is less a pious injunction than a rule for survival. If you meet one in trouble, you stop—another time he may stop for you.”
After rescuing a hunting party trapped on a plateau by flooded rivers, she mulls her next step: “I wonder if I should have a change—a year in Europe this time—something new, something better, perhaps. A life was to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think… I look at my yesterdays for months past, and find them as good a lot of yesterdays as anybody might want. I sit there in the firelight and see them all…. I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends and a world without walls to live in. These things I still have, I remind myself – and shall have until I leave them.” Later, she picks up this theme again, “All this, and discontent too! Otherwise, why am I sitting here dreaming of England Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly, now, a wanderer.”
I hoarded this book, waiting until the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in its pages. That moment arrived over the past weekend as I was nestled in a chair on a mountain top in Mendocino County, listening to the cacophony of birds, feeling the heat of the California sun bake the land around me. Every so often, I’d bark out another amazing tidbit from the book, and by the end of the trip, I’d resolved to return to the northern lands for further exploration of Lassen, Mt. Shasta, and the Trinity area.
This book is a collection of letters written by the lead naturalist, William Brewer, back to his family in New York. While not educated as a geologist, he carefully studied the strata and made excellent notes for the expedition, the goal of which was to produce a report and a complete Geological Survey of the state of California. Mining fever obviously played a part in funding this act of April 1860, and the commission was led by Professor Josiah Whitney, who promptly selected Brewer to be his chief of staff. Whitney occasionally ventures out to join the group, but mostly seems caught up with fundraising activities. Brewer is the real leader of this rag-tag group of geologist/botanist/camp men.
The journey begins with a trip south out of San Francisco, where the crew sails down to Los Angeles, population 3,000. “The weather is soft and balmy—no winter but perpetual spring and summer. Such is Los Angeles, a place where ‘every prospect pleases and only man is vile.’ … The grapes are famous, and the wine of Los Angeles begins to be known even in Europe.” They outfitted themselves with buckskin pants, said to prevent rattlesnake and tarantula bites.
Throughout, he mentions the bits of news he gets from month-old papers about the war raging back east. California is solidly for the Union, but he makes disparaging remarks about the desperadoes and “white trash” who are “Secesh”- pro-secession). He has the prevailing racist attitude about the Indians and frequently makes no further comment about the white women he encounters other than their beauty. But he’s a fan of Dickens, referencing Pickwick and mentioning finishing reading Bleak House over the campfire.
“Then the wash, that I so much abominate. But clothes must be cleansed, and there is no woman to do it.”
On San Francisco, June 1861: “How busy, bustling, hurrying, high-wrought, and excited this city seems, in contrast with the quiet life of camp!” In July 1862, “I am glad enough to be here, although our camp is not in a pleasant place, yet it is preferable to the city. The crowds of the city make me feel sad and lonely. I feel restless and long for the quiet of camp life—quiet, yet active—rich in that excitement that arises from the contemplation and study of nature, but quiet in all that relates to strife with the busy, bustling world.” December 1863: “Fifteen years ago two or three ranch houses and barren sand hills marked the spot: today it is a city of over 100,000 inhabitants, and growing fast. Since I arrived here three years ago building has been going on at an almost incredible rate. I live now in a fine, large boarding house, with stores under it, on a growing and fashionable street. When I arrived streets were laid out there, through barren sand hills, with here and there a sort of shell of a house standing.”
Comparing Oakland to Brooklyn in Sept 1861: “Oakland is a pretty little place, springing up with residences of San Francisco merchants. It is like Brooklyn from New York, only it is farther, the bay being some seven or eight miles wide there.” Dec 1863: “Oakland is the largest, and grows as Brooklyn does, only it is farther off and grows slower.”
Food was sometimes sketchy: “Our coffee has given out, the last ‘fresh’ meat, in an advanced state of blueness and beginning to have a questionable odor as well as color, was eaten for breakfast, but bacon yet remains.”
On early gentrification: “This hunter, by the way, is an old companion of ‘Grizzly’ Adams. This man came here and lived with Adams before he left, and has hunted ever since, but he complains that civilization has interfered seriously with his sport. ‘We had good times before the settlers came,’ he says, and he bears terrible scars, the trophies of contact with grizzlies.”
Invited to lecture in Stockton, he visits the State Lunatic Asylum there. “There are more insane in this state, by far, in proportion to the whole population, than in any other state in the Union. I need not dilate on the reasons. High mental excitement, desperate characters, disappointed hopes of miners, the unnatural mode of life incident to mining, separation of families, and the indiscretions and infidelity to the marriage vows—these and other reasons have produced this frightful result.”
Tomales Bay “is the greatest place in the state for potatoes, both as regards quality and quantity. The number raised here is enormous, and, as a consequence, Irishmen abound.”
Champagne is consumed in quantities larger than expected, at every civilized house.
At Pescadero Ranch, June 1860: “The dinner was good, not brilliant—champagne was partaken of moderately.”
In Stockton after his lecture, April 1861: “After the lecture I was invited with a few others to the house of the mayor of the city, where an oyster and champagne supper awaited us.”
Also in April 1861: “We commenced by drinking a bottle of champagne presented by a young lady of San Francisco.”
December 1862, on a sail down to Potrero Hill to check out the new steamer, the Yosemite, “we sat down to a most sumptuous lunch, where cold turkey and champagne suffered tremendously.”
Lake Tahoe was originally called Lake Bigler after Governor Bigler who turned “Secesh” so pro-Union papers called for the name to be reverted to the old Indian name of Tahoe.
Earthquakes dot the tale, men rushing naked out of baths to head into the city (1861).
Language differences: several times he mentions “recruiting” in the sense of recuperating. “I resolved to stay in camp quietly and recruit my knee before it grew worse.”
A man comes along and takes photos of the crew at camp on leather. I had not heard of this practice of leather photographs. (May 1861)
He mentions “Russian America” by which I suppose is meant Alaska?
For once I wholeheartedly agree with the Pulitzer Prize committee, this is an incredible book. Imminently readable, thoroughly researched with years of fieldwork layered on with later years of surveys and data analysis. I appreciate more than anything that he wrote it third person, taking the pesky “I” out of the finished product because, as he says at the end, the story is about bigger game than just how he felt about witnessing such poverty and destruction of lives. The footnotes are glorious, dripping with facts and backup assertions, so don’t skip them.
What Matthew Desmond lays bare in this book are the myriad of ways the system fails poor people and rigs the game against them. SSI payments get reduced or cut off once you achieve $2,000 in your bank account, discouraging any kind of saving that might help give them a leg up in extricating from the situation. Besides giving us a seat of unprecedented access to the unraveling of these lives, Desmond layers in bits of research like psychologists showing self-preservation pitted against empathy usually results in empathy losing. “Humans act brutally under brutal conditions.”
Some follow ups: Robert Fogelson The Great Rent Wars: New York, 1917-1929, Henry Zorbaugh The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago’s Near North Side from 1929
You know a book is good when you take a brief intermission in the middle of it to frantically scan the library holdings for anything else the author has written. All of the other Eve Babitz books are now in my queue to be greedily gobbled up, although I’m sure to be disappointed by them compared to this gem.
The writing is perfect, punchy, well-timed, smooth, sparse and angular like the setting sun over the Pacific. She is a fierce defender of the culture of L.A., at least from when she was born there (mid-1940s) to when this book came out (1972), ten years after she graduated from Hollywood High. Eve’s parents are part of the vast, talented music industry that supports the film industry, and she see plenty of culture everywhere she looks, especially being Stravinsky’s goddaughter.
Her pieces range from tight, few-lined gloriousness to longer expositions. My jaw dropped frequently at her skill: “She was the grand finale of what it meant to be darling, adorable, and cute,” and:
“From her warmly tanned face she languidly opened her expensive blue eyes wide before narrowing them, transforming them into the eyes of an aristocratic animal whose defense lay in some rapid paralyzing venom which hissed from the pupils and stopped him in his tracks. She stirred her snowcone while she took her time assessing him from his bloody face to his sandy feet to his blood-soaked pocket and then she lowered her eyes, shrugged, and strolled through the space the crowd had opened for her with me floating in back of her, having no wish to stay on after witnessing that crisis of frozen looks.”
In Secret Ambition, she confesses a desire to have a house in Ojai with cats, orange trees, and a goat. “A stone house with a dirt road… And the thing was, my secret ambition has always to be a spinster.” Her friend Tina, “Yours too?”
Eve spends a year in NYC and predictably hates it. (Earlier, she mentions how in the Depression, everyone with brains headed to New York, and everyone with beautiful faces headed to LA). “That always seemed like the whole thing; they’ll let you have stories, but you can’t ever think in a certain way. There are no spaces between the words, it’s one of the charms of the place. Certain things don’t have to be thought about carefully because you’re always being pushed from behind. It’s like a tunnel where there’s no sky.”
I love her even more when she attacks the fallacy that Nathanael West (nee Weinstein) was the best writer about Hollywood. “I think Nathanael West was a creep. Assuring his friends back at Dartmouth that even though he’d gone to Hollywood, he had not gone Hollywood. It’s a little apologia for coming to the Coast for the money and having a winter where you didn’t have to put tons of clothes on just to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes or a beer.” In another story she shrugs off Christmas in LA saying how weird it is to wish someone Merry Christmas as they’re watering their lawn in shorts.
There’s even a chapter on books (even better, from the library) which gave me some breadcrumbs to follow next. My heart swooned when she said “Mostly, I find myself coming out of the library with all women writers. I keep hoping the library attendant won’t notice, but when 8 out of 8 of the books you take out are by women, you try not to look too dykey.” Other recs: Anthony Powell (“much less leaden than John Updike and he’s a downright souffle compared to just about anyone else.”), Colette (Earthly Paradise), Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, Max Beerbohm (“Max, like Kaluha, any idiot can like it”), Joyce Carol Oates (them, and Wonderland) and Raynar Bahnam’s Los Angeles: A City of Four Ecologies. She wrote a fan letter to MFK Fisher telling her she’s just like Proust only better because she also gives us recipes. MFK wrote back supposing that some day someone will write their PhD thesis on madeleines.
Her exclamation about Virginia Woolf also left me happy:
“Virginia Woolf tantalizes me. I wish I could write like that. She is in love with London and I am in love with LA but London has seasons and this giant history and stratas of society… She wouldn’t like LA but maybe she’d forgive me for loving it anyway. The Waves is the best she’s written, you go crazy it’s so perfect. And then, it was her A Room of One’s Ownn that made me believe in Women’s Lib.”
This book is perfect. I want to read it all over again.
Ever since sampling Hughes’ A London Child of the 1870s, I was eager to read the continuation of her tale of growing up in a jolly but poor home in London. This middle book was my favorite of the trilogy, grand adventures with her mother and detailed stories of her education. She studies at a new school for teachers at Cambridge, and names her room the Growlery after the room in Bleak House of the same name, a place where anyone could come and growl and then laugh it off.
It’s a book filled with small hilarious tales, such as the tailor who was asked to read from the Bible when he passed through town and, angry that he hadn’t been offered tea, created some impromptu verses “Cursed be the housewife that bringeth not forth tea to the tailor.”
She meets her future husband, friend of her brother Charles who unexpectedly dies (as does another of her brothers later). They traipse around Wales and Cornwall and London and have a merry old time with no money. Fun reading and a delightful peek into living conditions of over 100 years ago!
This was a book I had to take in carefully measured sips, monitoring my blood pressure. After I finished, I exhaled a record-breaking sigh and paced the room, yanking my hair. It’s not a book for the faint of heart. Reading it is only pleasurable if you’re a masochist or a billionaire. It’s excellent, well-researched, incredibly engaging despite the sickening awareness that overcomes you as you learn how long this has been going on and how many billions of dollars has been spent to push American thought to the extreme rightward.
All of this stems from a tiny group of extremely rich men who mostly inherited their wealth (see: refutation of argument about how the poor are “handed things”), interested mainly on increasing their wealth and protecting it from taxation. They’ve been subtly influencing opinions, research, politics for decades—at least since David Koch’s failed vice-presidential bid in 1980 as a Libertarian. At that point they realized they just wanted to write the script that’s spoken, not try to be the actor.
Early days were the Freedom School, founded in 1957 by Robert LeFevre which highly influenced Charles Koch. LeFevre had been indicted earlier for his role in a right-wing movement that worked audiences into a frenzy as they chanted “Annihilate them!” in response to Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt’s names. Sound familiar? Hilariously, at the Freedom School Charles fell in love with the work of Friedrich Hayek, but only the condensed version offered by the Reader’s Digest which left out his support for minimum standard of living for the poor, environmental regulations, and anti-monopoly stance.
The book offers a glimpse into the litigious nature that led two of the Koch (Bill and Frederick) brothers into suing the other two (Charles and David) after being swindled out of millions of their inheritance. Despite being the wealthiest resident of his Park Avenue building, David Koch is known to the staff as a cheapskate, never tipping the doormen except for a ridiculous $50 check (!) at Christmas. (Worth watching: the Alex Gibney documentary, Park Avenue.)
It goes beyond the Kochs. Other asshole millionaires are also at the helm of this tragedy. They all take advantage of the tax loopholes of charitable giving by funneling cash into their own private foundations. The Olin Foundation left explicit instructions for the $370M endowment to be completely spent by 2005 out of “fear that it would fall into the hands of liberals, as he believed the Ford Foundation had tragically done.”
They infiltrated higher education and set up their own think tanks, subsidizing the next generation’s libertarians. George Mason is a hotbed of Koch cash, with an institute whose “applicants’ essays had to be run through computers in order to count the number of times they mentioned the free-market icons Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Students were tested at the beginning and the end of each week for ideological improvement.”
And then there’s climate change and the awful impact to the Koch’s bottom line that all the regulations were causing. Between 2003-2010 “over half a billion dollars was spent on… a massive ‘campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.'” This explains why every single Republican is a climate denier, in the Koch’s pocket owing money for their election. Koch Industries was the #1 producer of toxic waste in 2012 according to the EPA, generating 950M pounds of hazardous materials.
Betsy DeVos candidly admitted that they wanted something for their money in 1997, saying “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I’ve decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we’re buying influence. I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”
How about those Astroturf movements (not grassroots, but fake)? Jim Ellis was brought in to agitate against Obamacare, having created fake movements in the past, most notably the “smokers’ rights” protests in the 1990s.
And of course, Citizens United‘s impact is a factor, opening the floodgates for dark money. Licking their wounds post-2008 defeat, they set in motion the groundwork for the 2010 takeover, first by taking over state legislatures for redistricting, then pushing their candidates into Congress. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling led to huge amounts being funneled into the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections.
I’m thinking about starting to offer book “pairings” much like wine; this one pairs well with breaks to read biographies about early pioneers in the conservation movement, or with a nice frothy fiction.
If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.
There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.
Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.
His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”
You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.
Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.
I read a lot of books last year. 286, to be exact, a 33% increase over last year. If my reading project was a startup looking for investors, this up and to the right chart would guarantee a unicorn horn’s worth of funding. In 2013 I ditched my office job and my consumption of books skyrocketed accordingly. Freelance work agrees very, very well with me.
My most gluttonous month was December, binging on 47 books, taking full advantage of the fact that work for clients dries up considerably the last few weeks of the year. I read over 25% of the entire year’s worth of books post-election as I retreated inward to absorb the shock.
Of the books consumed, 78% were by women writers, 22% by males. This skews slightly more than last year’s 77% women writers. I was surprised to find that 58% of the books were non-fiction, 42% fiction, especially as I am wallowing heavily in mid-20th century British fiction as the only solace I’ve found post-election. Since 11/8/16, this ratio has flipped and I’ve read 56% fiction.
Top Picks of 2016
It’s not easy to sift through almost 300 books to figure out which were the best. After several failed starts, I just closed my eyes and went down the list and tried to remember if the book sparked joy or not (note: Marie Kondo’s book will not be on this list although I did read it).
Newly discovered author: Dorothy Whipple has become a life raft for me as I read 13 of her largely forgotten books. If I had to pick favorites: Greenbanks, The Priory, They Knew Mr. Knight, and High Wages. There is something deeply comforting about the world of mid-20th century Britain that appeals to me when our world seems to be falling apart. These are distinctly middle-brow books and I make no apologies for this.
Epic work: Dorothy Richardson’s 13 book Pilgrimage is a delightful bog of female stream-of-consciousness to get lost in. I read the 13 books across four volumes last summer. My favorites of the bunch were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon.
So Big. “Holy fuck, Edna Ferber. Why is the entire English-speaking world not reading her books and worshiping her for the fantastic fiction she wrote? When I finished reading this minutes ago, I actually held it in the air and shook it.”
The End of the Story by Lydia Davis. “Utterly graceful and mesmerizing writing, she weaves a tale of love, breakup, and loss while more importantly showing us how to put together the bones of a novel.”
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. “I could write a book about reading this book.”
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield; “Spectacular book from 1924 about a woman whose talents are concentrated on raising three children and housekeeping for a husband who barely makes enough money.”
Zelda by Nancy Milford. “Amazing and heartbreaking biography of Zelda (Sayre) Fitzgerald’s creative and unusual life, pub’d in 1970.”
The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. “Engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.”
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski – Hermione Lee called this “a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion.”
M Train by Patti Smith. Especially good for a re-read after seeing her at the Nourse Theater.
Ravens in Winter. I couldn’t wait to get back home to finish this real-life detective story by “sociobiologist” Bernd Heinrich, who seeks to discover why ravens share their finds of large meat carcasses instead of gorging on them by themselves.
Oh boy oh boy oh boy! Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best novel for adults is a dazzler. Masterful expansion of tension to keep you on edge, not knowing where the tale would turn. I had to put it down a few times and walk around in circles just to get enough courage to continue. The first part is all sweetness, where blue-blooded Emily Fox-Seton is a poor spinster in her mid-thirties who runs errands for people in London to make ends meet, happily resigned to her lot although sometimes waking in terror in the middle of the night about what would happen when she got old and could no longer do the odd jobs to make rent. She’s invaluable to Lady Maria Bayne, who needs her daily services so much that she takes Emily with her to her summer home in the country. At Mallowe, Lady Maria’s cousin, the widowed Marquis, is being ogled by three potential brides. Emily goes about her efficient and hard-working business, and ends up with the large ruby engagement ring on her hand.
In the second part, she unfolds her petals into a beautiful and confident Marchioness, still bestowing many gifts and kindness wherever she goes. Here we meet Alec Osborn and his Indo-Anglo wife, Hester, who are enraged that Lord Walderhurst (the Marquis) married again, thereby making it more unlikely that Osborn inherits the title and estates. Emily is blind to their hatred and does them thousands of kindnesses, including fixing up a house on the estate and installing them in it close to her. The author drops several hooks into the story that make you believe Emily will have an accident while riding; and indeed Alec trains a horse to throw its rider at a particular spot on the road. Luckily, Emily finds out she’s pregnant right around then, and decides not to take up riding. Enter Hester and her Hindu maid, who begins haunting Emily at night, cutting out the wood of a railing she leans against at the lake, poisoning her milk. Hester catches wind of the plot and gets Emily to flee, which she does, heading to London although telling Alec she’s gone to Germany. Oh — the Marquis leaves his wife for a long trip to India after only a few months of marriage, so he’s not here while the murder plots are all going down. He returns to find Emily on her deathbed having delivered a healthy son. James is able to whisper her name enough to bring her back to life, and she recovers.
Alec and Hester head back to India with their daughter, and he continues to drink and beat her. One night he shoots himself with what he thought was an unloaded gun, which Hester reveals at the end was loaded by her faithful servant.
It’s been awhile since I do-si-do’d with Dickens, and I’d forgotten his propensity of peppering the pot with characters, tossing a handful of new ones in each passing chapter like a drunk chef with spices. In the first third of the book alone, we encounter (in addition to main characters Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone): Skimpole, Jellyby, Pardiggle, Quale, Gusher, Jarndyce, Krook, Flite, Turveydrop, Guppy, Badger, Boythorn, Tulkington, Leicester, Snagsby, Rouncewell, Blinder, Gridley, Neckett, Captain Swosser, Professor Dingo, Woodcourt, Chadband, Smallweed, Jobling -> Weevle, Bucket, Wisk, Piper, Perkins, Swills, Mevilleson, Bogsby, Squod, Vholes.
There’s a lot of how terrible the law courts are, how one they get their teeth into a case, it’s about prolonging it to squeeze as much cash out of the proceedings as possible. The case at the heart of the book is Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and right at the moment when they believe a discovered Will will resolve the case, the case is dissolved in court because the entire fortune at stake had been dissolved by the ongoing court costs (years and years worth). A cautionary tale worth assigning to all incoming law students.
The book has all the ingredients of a successful Victorian novel: baby born out of wedlock to a woman who goes on to attain wealth and prominence while her daughter is brought up in secret by her sister, ragamuffin Jo who haunts the East End and is constantly being told to “move on” by the cops, horse and carriages predating the railroads that were marching towards them, and a whodunnit mystery of the murder of insufferable lawyer, Tulkington.
It’s a pleasure to come across Dickens being Dickens:
He perceives with astonishment, that supposing the present Government to be overthrown, the limited choice of the Crown, in the formation of a new Ministry, would lie between Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle – supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then giving the Home Department and the Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle? You can’t offer him the Presidency of the Council; that is reserved for Poodle. You can’t put him in the Woods and Forests; that is hardly good enough for Quoodle. What follows? That the country is shipwrecked, lost, and gone to pieces because you can’t provide for Noodle!
On the other hand, the Right Honorable William Buffy, M.P., contends across the table with someone else, that the shipwreck of the country – about which there is no doubt; it is only the manner of it that is in question – is attributable to Cuffy. If you had done with Cuffy what you ought to have done when he first came into Parliament, and had prevented him from going over to Duffy, you would have got him into alliance with Fuffy, you would have had with you the weight attaching as a smart debater to Guffy, you would have brought to bear upon the elections the wealth of Huffy, you would have got in for three counties Juffy, Kuffy, and Luffy; and you would have strengthened your administration by the official knowledge and business habits of Muffy. All this, instead of being, as you now are, dependent on the mere caprice of Puffy!
Occasionally Dickens shows some self-restraint, or at least self-awareness. Chapter 9 starts, “I don’t know how it is, I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say ‘Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t’ but it is all of no use.”
I actually don’t recommend getting the Penguin Classics edition of this, because it includes annoying footnotations throughout the text. Page 1 of chapter 1 has 13 notations explaining various things that need not be notated so closely. My preference is a notes section that lingers in the back without numbers in the text, and if you’re curious about something, you go digging to see if there is backup info.
I feel like I could write a book about reading this book. So many thoughts, swirling around. Like, what about writing a piece about Shirley Jackson and Chris Kraus (both married to Jewish critics whom they’ve eclipsed) called The Faculty Wives? Kraus, scurrying along at a party as Sylvère’s Plus One, cooling drawing out the intellectuals as if she isn’t one herself, playing the perfect faculty wife role.
I tried not to dog-ear the entire book, but it was hard. My list of references to look up got out of control and then I thought maybe I’d just list them here instead of writing up a proper review. And then I realized that leaving out the things I already knew about would give it a skewed perspective, so I just started jotting down every reference she made. It’s a doozy, and will keep me in reading material for months. As Joan Hawkins says in the afterword, “For anyone who likes to read literature, I Love Dick is a good read. But the literary references should also cue us to the textual savvy of the people who populate the piece.” I know I left some out, but here’s a partial list:
Baudelaire, Proust, Henry James, Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Jane Bowles’ story Going to Massachusetts, David Rattray, Virilio, Antonin Artaud, Brendan Behan, Sophie Calle, Ken Kobland, Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, William Congreve, Bataille’s Blue of Noon, Guillame Apolllinaire, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, de Kooning, Eleanor Austin, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Fassbinder, Dodie Bellamy, Hannah Wilke, Hugo Ball’s diaries, Arnold Schoenberg, Marcel Mauss, Durkheim, Hannah Arendt, Penny Jordan’s Research into Marriage, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Heidegger’s La question de la technique, Paul Blackburn, Ron Padgett, Habermas, Lukacs, George Eliot, Ulrike Meinhof, Merleau-Ponty, Henry Frundt, The Dada Women: Emmy Hemmings, Hannah Hoch, Sophie Tauber; Jacques Lacan, Kitaj, Godard, Eileen Myles, Alice Notley (esp Dr. William’s Heiresses), Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, Genet’s Prisoner of Love, Claire Parnet, Giles Deleuze, Amanda Feilding (her 1970 filmed trepanation, Heartbeat in the Brain), Heathcote Williams
The first section of the book sets up the rest; it’s the outpouring of letters from Chris (and her husband Sylvère) to Dick after staying over at his house when a snowstorm threatened their trip back home. Scenes from a Marriage begins on December 3, 1994, exactly 22 years to the DAY I was to open the book to read it 22 yrs later, also eerily in sync calendar-wise so that Dec 3rd was also a Saturday, like in 2016. The later sections continue the story, layering in essays on schizophrenia, hunger strike in Guatamala, art criticism about Kitaj/Hannah Wilke/Eleanor Antin, along with the continuation with her obsession/infatuation/desire for Dick.
Some quotable bits:
You were witnessing me become this crazy and cerebral girl, the kind of girl that you and your entire generation vilified. But doesn’t witnessing contain complicity? “You think too much,” is what they always said when their curiosity ran out.
To see yourself as who you were ten years ago can be very strange indeed.
She hardly slept or ate, she forgot to comb her hair. The more she studied, the harder it became to speak or know anything with certainty. People were afraid of her; she forgot how to teach her classes. She became that word that people use to render difficult and driven women weightless: “quirky.”
I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.
I could tell from all the footnotes in your writing that you hadn’t [been to school]. You like books too much and think they are your friends. One book leads you to the next like serial monogamy.
Thea Holme writes the most engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.
The chapters detail the life of the house, a glimpse into life in 1840s/50s, with several chapters dedicated to the problem of retaining and training servants (and including an appendix of all the servants who worked at the house during Jane’s lifetime). They had to deal with insufficient plumbing, installing gas lighting in a few locations, suffering through bed bugs (and other bugs) and mice. Jane was thrifty, making due with the small allowance that Thomas gave her for household expenses, even going so far as to detail out exactly why she needed £30 more per year due to food price inflation, increased tax, and larger wages for a better maid. One chapter is given over to describing the neighbors and nuisances that Carlyle had to put up with as he’s working on his great books—parrots, pianos, cocks crowing. They even went so far as to rent the neighboring house to leave it empty for a year for peace and quiet. A very readable book that leaves me much more interested in reading Carlyle, another great man bolstered by the efforts of his brilliant wife.