The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea

A pseudo-interesting recounting of the son of Senator Moynihan’s few months at sea on an oil tanker going around the world in the 1980s. He finagles the job using his dad’s connections, which makes him hated on board until he becomes just one of the crew. The usual tales of drinking and whoring, sprinkled in with tensions between him and the crew, between the crew and the bosses. Not worth the time to read but I’d finished all my other books while on vacation. The book was compiled by the author’s mother after his death, as she was going through his old papers.

In Zanesville

Oh my. The final page read, I tossed the book onto the table exclaiming, “So good!” A well-written examination of the day to day triumphs and tragedies of a fourteen year old girl who begins the book by making money over summer break by babysitting with her best friend, Felicia, to earn cash for the clothes they place on layaway each Saturday. The narrator is never named, although several references are made towards people not knowing her name and calling her Joan (Jo Ann?). J is the sidekick, the plainer, shier, shorter one to Felicia’s tall beauty. Their babysitting gig involves a fire set by one of the kids, then watching his dad punish him by putting his hand in the gas flame of the burner, burning flesh. The girls return to work with a raise to finish their summer wardrobe. Ninth grade begins. They drop out of band to prevent association with weirdness during the middle of the Halloween parade. They are inseparable. The other cast of characters includes older sister Meg, younger brother Raymond, a drunk dad and a mom who keeps it all together. Felicia (Flea)’s family includes younger sister Stephanie (Step on Me) and mom Phyllis.
Suddenly, an invitation to Patti, the cheerleader’s, sleepover party. J is the odd girl out, watching the other girls couple up with the boys who show up later in the evening. She resents Flea for abandoning her and becomes friends with the cheerleaders in retaliation, throwing herself into her chicken/human art project. There is a perfect final scene of near reconciliation with Flea but J realizes she doesn’t have to be a sidekick. She accepts a beer from Hector, “bombs away.”

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

Tackling the two meanings of gift: a talent and the act of giving, Hyde breaks the book into two parts. The first deals with ancient cultures’ gift economy, the expectation that a gift is always in motion, pass it along or it dies, stagnates. The island arm shells that pass from one island to the next, always in a certain direction so that you receive from someone you never give to. Similarly, the talent you have should be treated as a gift. It is bestowed upon you, you are its vessel, you must give it away. Hyde tackles the problem of how artists can survive in a market economy: self patronage (have a 2nd job), patronage (grants), or earning money with your art. Interesting point that the Cold War funded art because the CIA supported the art scene to show how vibrant our culture was. Same with science- pure research funding died out post-Soviet collapse. Mention of Hyde’s group: Creative Capital, an independent funding source for artists, modeled on the Music Performance Fund which musician union got recording companies to pay some portion of sales into a trust fund which funds live music.
Further reading: Cultural Cold War by Frances Stoner Saunders

Just as treating nature’s bounty as a gift ensures the fertility of nature, so to treat the products of the imagination as gifts ensures fertility of imagination.

The initial stirrings of his work he took to be bestowed of his soul… and his response was to “make the work” (this motto sitting on Whitman’s desk) and speak it back to the soul.

Unfamiliar Fishes

Sarah Vowell’s perky wink-wink-nudge-nudge “aren’t I clever” tone continues to annoy me, but she’s compiled a somewhat readable intro to the overtaking of Hawaii by Americans. Discovered by Captain Cook, the Hawaiian kings always deferred to Britain as their conqueror (also why they have the Union Jack in their state flag), appealing to the UK to protect them from the US’s rapacious grasp as the noose tightened in the late 1800s. Lots of pages devoted to the New England missionaries who attempted to establish a Christian foothold, and who created the written Hawaiian language with its plethora of “k” words. The tension between the missionaries and the sailors who stopped off for drinking, carousing, and whoring. Melville is cited as having worked as a pinsetter in a Honolulu bowling alley after deserting the Acushnet. As whaling declined, sugar became more important to the economy, requiring land and irrigation to produce the white gold. One pound of sugar requires 4,000 gallons of water to produce. I can barely choke down Vowell, but it was a quick intro read on my flight to Oahu. Clearly a book churned out as a way for Vowell to write off a few trips to Hawaii.

A Celebration of Harold Pinter

A one man show, one night only in San Francisco. I dragged my reluctant body out into the cold January night to the Herbst Theater to snuggle with hundreds of other Pinter fans eager to have his words wash over us. Billed as “A Theatrical Portrait of the Late Playwright, Performed by Julian Sands, Directed by John Malkovich” I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for. Sands takes the stage, and begins with a poem, repeated. He’ll repeat it 3 more times before the evening is over:

I know the place
It is true.
Everything we do
Corrects the space
Between death and me
And you.

What unfolds over the next hour is a highly entertaining reading of Pinter’s lesser know work– his poetry. The celebration of Pinter turns unexpectedly to be about his poems, not his plays. And it works to perfection. Short, snappy, pointed poems with full use of PAUSE or SILENCE. Sands was coached by Pinter in how to read his poetry because of one fateful day where Pinter’s voice wasn’t up to the task of the acoustics of St. Stephens Cathedral where a reading was to take place. Sands gets a lot of personal time with Pinter, which he conveys in various anecdotes, along with snippets from Pinter’s wife’s memoir “Must You Go?” and letters and tons of poems.
Pinter received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, and gave an amazing speech via tape, being too ill to travel to Stockholm. It’s worth a viewing— he hammers US’s foreign policy beginning around minute 11.

The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays

Careening into Green Apple this weekend, I breezed past the dollar bins outside but this book leapt up to jab me in the eye. “What is the meaning of life?” it whined, striking a chord with my current ruminations, so I tossed it into my basket. Judging whether life is worth living is the central idea of philosophy, and Camus attacks it by questioning the value of suicide. Of course life is absurd, once you realize that you can either bail (suicide) or embrace it with full conscience. Your life is maximized not by the number of experiences you’ve had, but the number you’re fully conscious of.
Specifically on the Sisyphean myth, Camus attributes moments of happiness to Sisyphus, especially when the rock is rolling down the hill again:

I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate, stronger than his rock…. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. We have to imagine Sisyphus happy.

The collection of essays ends with this sentence, which segues nicely into another book I’m reading (The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World): “This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.”

Top Picks of 2012

This year’s winners are a mixed bunch. A few re-reads from previous years (Naipaul, Kesey), a multi-read within the year (Seneca), a conversion to believer in the cult of DFW (Wallace), deep historical research (Caro), philosophy (Schopenhauer and Belloc), and great story telling (Mistry).

1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell
This one takes top prize because I read it twice in 2012 and have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. The Path to Rome by Hillaire Belloc
3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
4. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
6. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
7. Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
8. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009

An eclectic grouping of diary entries arranged seasonally instead of chronologically. Ranging from George Washington’s 1776-1780 entries, to Andy Warhol’s 1980s entries, Judith Malina, Teddy Roosevelt’s adoration of Alice (and tragic response to her death on the same day as his mother), John Sloan, Jonas Mekas, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Edison, Dawn Powell, Walt Whitman, Noah Webster, etc etc etc. Interesting to pick up on the patterns that cross seasons– weather hot or cold, theater across centuries, the constant ebb and flow of life in a city. Sprinkled in with early tales of the discovery of the island, then a century later the battle to oust the Brits, then drumbeats of Civil War, to 9/11 and aftermath. A gloriously readable collection of interesting bits, well organized.