Bark: Stories

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Stagnating, deteriorating relationships. DivorcĂ©es struggling with the dating scene decades after they’d gracefully exited. Widows with teenage daughters (“Of course it did not matter what young people wore: they were already amazing looking, without really knowing it, which was also part of their beauty… The person who needed to be careful what she wore was me.”) Moore’s strength is her clear, powerful writing, flexed in this first book of short stories. The only story that seemed a bit untrimmed was Wings, the story of the punk rock singer who falls in with an elderly neighbor, cares for him and gets written into the will. Bizarro story was The Juniper Tree, where the narrator imagines that she gets to say a final farewell to her friend who died at the hospital. Debarking was my favorite of the lot, well-placed as the first story, following newly divorced Ira as he dates the gorgeous yet psychotic Zora.

The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature

I’m not convinced that Twain felt himself a member of the Bohemian crew that rattled around SF during the heady days of the 1860s. Yes, there is a lengthy trail of correspondance connecting him to Harte (and then deteriorating as Harte fell apart), and to Stoddard in London. But a connection to Coolbrith seems decidedly lacking.
Overall a well researched book that sheds light on early publishing days in SF, parsing out Twain’s experience in a more robust way than I’ve ever read. I’m disappointed by the thin information on Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate, but I suppose the lack of true success in her day lends difficulty to those of us trying to paint a complete picture 150 years later.
The Bohemians were a self-selected group led by Bret Harte, distinguishing themselves from other common poets by sneering at the efforts of anyone who didn’t reside in the metropolis. Hints of influence of Twain on Harte (and vice versa). Stoddard & Coolbrith play more minor roles, Stoddard the nervous poet who finds freedom to enjoy men in Hawaii while Coolbrith grits her teeth and works as a teacher and later librarian in Oakland to support her mother and sister’s kids. (Coolbrith influenced Jack London’s reading choices).

Library Nerd’s Appreciation

Library appreciation week winds down tomorrow and I’d like to add my encomium to the din. I am a heavy-user, hard-core library patron. My appetite for the written word far outpaces my book buying budget, and space restrictions necessitate constraints on the number of books that line my shelves. I purged 75% of my personal library last summer, leaving my shelves stocked with only the books that provide me joy (or anticipation of joy, such as the copy of Infinite Jest I’m slowly easing into now that I’ve redacted the “With Forward by Dumb Egghead AKA D Eggers AKA the source of all smug emanating from San Francisco”). The public library remains a critical component of my reading life- I get recommendations for books from a variety of sources: trusted friends, vetted websites, bookstore staff; I then queue up books via the library’s online system then acquire/consume/digest and squeeze out a review here. Once consumed at the library, if it’s a book I’d like to read again, I’ll purchase a copy.
Tangent to briefly rage against people who keep books as status objects, lining their rooms with thousands of books they’ve never read. You can pinpoint these vanity libraries quickly by judging the contents of the shelves or by assessing the quality of the displayer’s brain. There is no point in owning something that stage-whispers “Look how smart I am!” when 98% of the books on display have never been finished. It’s like a peacock displaying with feathers rummaged from Goodwill.
Another fantastic feature of the library system is the network of other libraries it connects to. “We don’t have a copy of the 1920s out-of-print book you’re looking for that we were sure no one would ever want to read again? No problem, order it up for free from Sonoma College via the LINK system and it’ll be here in a few days.” Granted, it arrives with a scary sticker on front that promises a $115 fine if you lose the book, but you also get to interact with an actual librarian when you’re picking it up and dropping it off.
The library has saved me many times during the months of my not being shackled to a cubicle. During my months in NYC, the 5th Avenue library (map room on Floor 1 and reading room on Floor 3) provided an inspiring spot to write, read, and shelter from the snow. This and other NYC branches provided welcome warmth, internet access, and lectures/film screenings/art exhibits. One particularly great day at the mid-Manhattan branch, I remember listening to an author discuss the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Station before I hightailed it downstairs to see a viewing of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Libraries are havens that provide intellectual stimulation, quiet, comfort, and calm. The Mechanic’s Institute Library in downtown SF functioned as my living room/office during the hellish nine months that I lived in SOMA. There was nothing better than looking up from my laptop to see that I was surrounded by walls of books.
Random thoughts about SFPL branches:
* Anza: a branch tucked into the Avenues that I work from whenever I’m planning a visit to the Legion of Honor
* Chinatown: this used to be my go-to branch when I worked in the FiDi. I’d take a break from work, walk up California street to Powell, inhale the gorgeous view and peruse the shelves before deadening my soul and heading back to cubeville.
* Mission: my local branch from 2010-2013. One interaction stands out: the librarian checking me out made several judgmental comments about the books I was borrowing. I stuck to the Self-checkout machines thereafter.
* Mission Bay: the newest of the branches, I was excited to see it open. Sadly, my only interaction with this branch was them losing the book that I returned here, so I went to the shelves to find the book and “return” it again.
* Park: my new branch! One of the benefits of moving is switching up your neighborhood branch. This branch is newly renovated in a way that makes it seem like all the other renovated libraries, but with more transients due to proximity to GGP.
* Richmond: another Avenues branch that provides needed internet access during work days when I spend the morning in the Botanical Garden or at Baker Beach
* Main library: harbors an unfortunate cesspool of humanity with bike thieves hovering in the wings. Lost a bike seat here, am under constant olfactory assault, usually I just pop in to pick up books on hold then flee. 6th floor research library has some treasures.

Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage

It’s always a rewarding journey to meander through David Foster Wallace’s brain. This 2001 Harper’s essay (PDF link) popped up on my radar recently and I spent the afternoon with printed essay in hand and dictionary in lap, ready to flip back and forth between text and footnotes. Dictionary diving led to many diversions, even looking up words within other definitions to get the utmost of clarity. (DFW uses “carbuncular” defined as “painful, local purulent inflammation of the skin…” and “purulent” then defined as “containing, consisting or being pus.” My bag of insults swells after contact with DFW.) The article ostensibly reviews Bryan Gardner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but really casts a wider net to discuss the Usage Wars between Descriptivists and Prescriptivists with personal history sprinkled throughout. The only people who care about the Usage Wars are defined by DFW to be SNOOTS, a kinder term for what we know as Grammar Nazis. Interesting sidenote that he mispronounced “trough” with a th ending instead of f until he was writing this article. Listening to a delightful NPR joint interview with DFW and Gardner now.
Note: another non-PDF version of the article is here, but beware the few typos that made it into the transcription, made even more jarring by the close attention necessary to read this.
I’d never seen the uncut version of this German TV interview.
“If I read a paragraph I like a lot I go back and read it over again, so I’m trapped in time but I’ve got more mobility in time… When I’m reading something that’s good and that’s real, I’m able to jump over that wall of self and inhabit someone else in a way that we can’t in regular life.”
“There are forms of art that offer us escapes from ourselves and our daily lives and I think that’s fine in small doses and there are kinds of art that offer us more confrontation with our own lives and I don’t think it’s surprising that there isn’t as much demand or as much money in the latter because it’s more difficult and less pleasant.”
“My stuff I don’t feel is meant to be read out loud, it’s not supposed to live on the breath, there’s not enough punctuation.”
“I don’t think it’s very good, the whole going around and reading in bookstores thing, it’s turning writers into penny-ante or cheap versions of celebrities. People are coming out to see what you look like and see whether your voice matches the voice in their head when they read and none of it is important and it’s icky.”
“If you do work like this, you pay certain prices, you don’t make as much money, not as many people read your stuff, but the people who do read it, you’re pretty sure… the thing that I like, I’m pretty sure my readers are about as smart as I am… I don’t worry that people who are reading my stuff are misunderstanding it or banalizing it… I do worry weirdly about when it’s translated into languages that I don’t know.”


Some books must be lingered over, drawn out, luxuriated in, expanded/extended by being swooned over and put away for a bit to let the words plinko their way down your mind’s peg board. This is such a book, tucked away on bookshelves since 1976; I am only gloomy about the four decades it took me to discover it. Short vignettes, glimpses into narrator Jen Fain’s life as a journalist scattered across the globe or home in NYC, chance encounters with cabbies and glum dinner parties with snippets of conversation like “How I envy you for reading Magic Mountain for the first time.” (Agree!) Tirades against singing the birthday song. Perhaps this is what I like best in the writing– the strong sentences can stand alone, withstand torrential rains, do silly handstands, understand? Tight, unimpeachable lines. Perfect five sentence stories like:

We had been standing outside his tent for eleven hours. The crowd was large. When at last he came out, the guru stared, then threw an orange, savagely. He returned to his tent. That was all. (p 43)

More delicious crumbs:

Once, a heavy man, with a thick accent or combination of accents, was brought by a young French actress to dinner. He was introduced as Boris. He said he was a doctor. When someone asked what sort of doctor, he said “mnnh, mnnh, a healer,” with an “h” as though someone had thrown him a medicine ball. (p 91)

It is not at all self-evident what boredom is. It implies, for example, an idea of duration. It would be crazy to say, For three seconds there, I was bored. It implies indifference but, at the same time, requires a degree of attention. One cannot properly be said to be bored by anything one has not noticed, or in a coma, or asleep. (p 131)

“So for these purposes, digitalis, adamantine, apple orchard, gonorrhea, labyrinthine, motherfucker, flights of fancy, Duffy’s Tavern, Halley’s Comet, birthday present, xenophobic are all synonyms,” the great professor said. “Synonyms, in terms of meter, that is.” (p 153)

I wonder if I suffer from what ails Joel Seidington?

Joel Seidington thought when he knew what a thing was called, he had it nailed. Or rather, a thing burned more brightly for a second when he held its name to it; then it was ash. Joel thought he understood other people’s pleasures when he had found the word for them. That’s a tango, he’d say, with considerable satisfaction, to the girl he’d brought to sit beside him at a prom or, years later, in a night club. That’s a lindy, now, and there’s a walz. They would sit. He would smile. They would watch. He would name what went by… This insistence on calling things something had little to do with true pedantry, an obsession for getting things right… It was a more primitive instinct- as though to name a thing were to cut its nails and hair, and pocket them, and put the adversary in his power. In another way, the instinct was entirely modern: to impress on everything that passed his way Joel’s word for it, his personal bureaucratic rubber stamp. (p 120)

Musings on plot and perhaps an explanation for the lack of one in Speedboat:

There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots. At a lower pace, in a statelier world, the equations are statelier… But here, the inevitable is being interrupted by strangers all the time. Seven people go off into the sunset, and the eighth is the custodian of the plot. There were so few variations… The plot of things converging… as in any story where a rendezvous must be kept. The plot of things separating, not so common, disintegration , breaking up. The plot of one thing following in the track of another, as in thrillers, chases. The plot of things parallel. Suspense, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the future. Nostalgia, which has time as an obstacle to a resolution in the past. (p163)

I don’t think much of writers in whom nothing is at risk. It is possible, though, to be too literal-minded about this question. In the Reader’s Digest, under the heading “$3,000 for First-Person Articles,” for example: “An article for this series must be a true, hitherto unpublished narrative of an unusual personal experience. It may be dramatic, inspirational, or humorous, but it must have, in the opinion of the editors, a quality of narrative interest comparable to “How I Lost My Eye” (June ’72) and “Attacked by a Killer Shark” (April’72). Contributions must be typewritten, preferably double-spaced…” I particularly like where the stress, the italics, goes. (p 62)

After doing a bit of research, I love her even more: “her quarrelsome nature, her low tolerance for fools and frauds, and her seeming inability to tell lies…”

How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life

Ugh. Despite a few flowing and tight passages, a largely skippable book that should have had more editing. Excellent view into the delicacy of a female/female friendship, but simply too self-congratulatory, twee, gloating. Author is nervous on the eve of marriage, goes through with it, divorces a few years later. Meets her best girl friend towards the end of her marriage, worries about producing a play, enjoys working at the hair salon. Disappoints best girl friend by creatively using the tape-recordings of their conversations as a kickstart to some actual writing, flees town (Toronto) for New York. Ridiculous and dumb slavering over a boy named Israel for whom she perfects her blow job technique. All the wasted white space in this book due to the play-script of certain sections led to its bloated 300+ pages, perhaps tightly edited it could be a wonder of a short story.

Two Serious Ladies

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I don’t particularly like reading books that I don’t understand, but perhaps it’s like eating a vegetable you hate but know is good for you. It stretches the brain a bit, as you furiously try to stitch together various pieces into a meaningful whole. The book follows two wealthy women on odd journeys, a quick read that will leave your head spinning. Written by Jane Bowles in 1943 and dubbed “modernist”, it will niggle at the back of my mind for some time.

Christina Goering lives in a magnificent house an hour from the city, takes in a female companion, decides to give up the house and take a much smaller and more uncomfortable house that she, her companion (Miss Gamelon), and Arthur (a fat, lazy man she met at a party who took her home and installed her in a cold bedroom from which she was tossed out by Arthur’s father) move into. Along comes Arthur’s father to complete the packed house, which delights Goering to no end. After many months, Goering sets off on a solo excursion in the evening where she meets Andy at a bar, and goes home with him. Making a commitment to come again the next night, she returns, but with Arthur and his father in tow. Arthur participates in a basketball game wearing his pajama top and acting crazy. Arthur’s father dislikes Andy and mopes to leave. Goering moves in with Andy for eight days, then hopes to become the mistress of a hulking dark figure she has seen at the bar. She leaves with the mysterious figure (Ben), only to be ferried into the city to sit at a table in a restaurant while Ben does business for several hours at another table. Goering calls her friend Mrs. Copperfield to join her at the restaurant and catch up.

The other journey we follow is Mrs. Copperfield’s excursion to Panama where she exults in her freedom whenever she leaves her husband, and becomes quite merry with Pacifica (a Spanish prostitute) and Mrs Quill (who owns the hotel). Mr. Copperfield tramps around the jungle and considers raising cattle in Costa Rica while Mrs. Copperfield develops a deep attachment to Pacifica, having an orgasmic experience whilst learning to swim. There is a great scene where a man takes Mrs. Quill to the nicest bar in town to entice her to hire him to improve her own club, but he dashes off without paying the check when he learns the meager contents of her bank account. Mrs. Copperfield rushes in to help pay the bill for Mrs. Quill and gives the assistant manager a major dressing down, calling him a bad manager and a boor for not treating them more kindly once the bill was settled. “The most horrid thing about you is that you’re just as grouchy now that you know your bill will be paid as you were before. You were mean and worried then and you’re mean and worried now… it’s a dangerous man who reacts more or less in the same way to good news or bad news.” Eventually Mrs. Copperfield returns to the US with Pacifica in tow, and we encounter her in the final scene with Goering at the restaurant. Miss Goering’s reaction to Mrs. Copperfield’s appearance:

She was dismayed at the sight of her old friend. She was terribly thin and she appeared to be suffering from a skin eruption.

“Don’t be insane,” said Mrs. Copperfield. “I can’t live without her, not for a minute. I’d go completely to pieces.”

“But you have gone to pieces, or do I misjudge you dreadfully?”

“True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Mrs. Copperfield was getting drunk and looking more disagreeable.

“I remember,” said Miss Goering, “that you used to be somewhat shy, but I dare say very courageous. It would take a good deal of courage to live with a man like Mr. Copperfield, whom I gather you are no longer living with. I’ve admired you very much indeed. I am not sure that I do now.”

“That makes no difference to me,” said Mrs. Copperfield. “I feel that you have changed anyway and lost your charm. You seem stodgy to me now and less comforting. You used to be so gracious and understanding; everyone thought you were light in the head, but I thought you were extremely instinctive and gifted with magic powers.” She ordered another drink and sat brooding for a moment.

“You will contend,” she continued in a very clear voice, “that all people are of equal importance, but although I love Pacifica very much, I think it is obvious that I am more important.”
Miss Goering did not feel that she had any right to argue this point with Mrs. Copperfield.

“I understand how you feel,” she said,”and perhaps you are right.”

“Thank God,” said Mrs. Copperfield, and she took Miss Goering’s hand in her own.

“Christina,” she pleaded, “please don’t cross me again, I can’t bear it.”

Miss Goering hoped that Mrs. Copperfield would now question her concerning her own life. She had a great desire to tell someone everything that had happened during the last year. But Mrs. Copperfield sat gulping down her drink, occasionally spilling a little of it over her chin. She was not even looking at Miss Goering and they sat for ten minutes in silence.

Broken Images: A Journal

A poetic personal reflection of events that unfolded in the life of a British officer, John Guest, during the Second World War. Guest composes lengthy letters to a fellow soldier he met early in the campaign, the poet Christopher Vernon Hassall. While the war progresses slowly in the background, the journal/letters are a spot where Guest reconnects with his real self, to have an actual conversation with someone (albeit through letters). His lyrical descriptions make you scramble back for a re-read. He discovers how much he likes being alone only after joining the army. His descriptions are best when most personal, the barber who sings opera loudly in his ear, meeting another kindred spirit on the beach but discovering he can’t be friends with the man since Guest was an officer and the other man a private, climbing to the tops of the cliffs to watch the moon and sea, being irked that Americans ran Rome and thus Brits were offered 2nd class accommodations.
A few things rankled me, despite the gorgeous prose. In one breath, Guest describes the poverty and wretchedness of the natives whose country he has invaded. In the next, he’s off to an officers’ dinner with champagne, linen napkins, etc. He participates in looting china and glasses, and acquires several prints in Italy at discounted prices. He fails to see himself as a vulture of war, ripping open the carcass of Africa and Italy to take his spoils. He also appreciates some ridiculous Chinese wisdom (“a man cheating on his wife is like spitting from the house into the street. a woman cheating on her husband is like spitting from the street into the house,” or something to that effect), but as (an implied) homosexual, I suppose misogyny is to be expected. He also kvetches about his troops always asking for leave, but in the next missive, we find he’s just back from a 5 day holiday on the coast.
His view on being stationed in Lancashire, England:

Though there is still great wealth here, many of the larger houses are neglected, all their ugliness emphasized. Such places, built probably in the ‘sixties, have a far more haunted and tragic look than abandoned houses of an earlier period. The fine conservatories which once heard so many proposals of marriage, which once were filled with such sumptuous banks of flowers, are now derelict– panes of broken glass, a few brown stalks in pots, and a water-tank covered with green scum. The sewing women and governesses, the housekeepers and gardeners, have all long since died. But I prefer even the tragic look of these places to the gimcrack smart new houses here. Often when I pass in the evening their drives are filled with chromium-plated cars and hard-faced women in slacks and tight pullovers. Radiograms blare from the open windows and cocktail cabinets flash inside the rooms. Everything seems to proclaim a terrible instability, a mad scramble for pleasure, for social position, for more money, as though at any moment in the sinister game someone will shout out “Time!”

This hit home with me about my own selfishness in letter-writing:

Lying in bed last night I was thinking a little about these bulletins I send you, and was depressed by my conclusions. They are all so introspective, so lacking in ideas and thoughts. They record only what interests, amuses or hurts me – all impressions, impressions – nothing but arid description. There is no fusion of impressions into a thought or an idea: it seems that nowadays I don’t think, just feel. All this again is introspection. But I have an excuse, a reason – if selfish – for writing at all. It is that I must talk intimately to someone or burst.

His tone-deaf transition from native poverty to invader luxury (p 163-4):

For the first time in my life, I saw hunger… I saw a man and a woman there in appalling rags, both- I should imagine- feeble-minded, carrying a baby in a piece of dirty woolen rag. The child was barely alive. I thought with a feeling akin to hope and longing that it would die soon, for its present and future existence was the tragedy, not its probable death. It was abnormally small, the colour of lard, very dirty and dead-looking. It was about a month old and the woman was crumbling an army biscuit into its mouth which it just mumbled but couldn’t swallow. The man and the woman looked round, smiling at the soldiers – not smiling continuously, but the flickering twitching smile of people who smile automatically when they are very frightened.
One afternoon we went to the San Carlo Opera House to see Cavalleria Rusticana… the orchestra was very good.

Discovered from the great Neglected Books site.