Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis

An unabridged (and thus repetitive) collection of Amis’ thoughts on booze and drinking and parties and hangovers. A bit of practical advice (you get more juice from a lemon dumped in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes than out of one at room temperature or from the fridge), a lot of drink recipes covered in his witticisms, and a few sections worth actually reading, namely Mean Sod’s Guide, from which I’ll quote at length.

The point here is not simply to stint your guests on quality and quantity – any fool can pre-pour Moroccan red into burgundy bottles, or behave as if all knowledge of the existence of drink has been suddenly excised from his brain at 10pm – but to screw them while seeming, at any rate to their wives, to have done them rather well. Note the limitation: your ideal objective is a quarrel on the way home between each husband and wife, he disparaging your hospitality, she saying you were very sweet and thoughtful and he is just a frustrated drunk.
1. Strike at once by, on their arrival, presenting each lady with a rose and each gent with bugger-all. Rub this in by complimenting each lady on her appearance and saying in a stentorian undertone to the odd gent, “I heard you hadn’t been so well” (= pissed as a lizard every day) or “You’re looking much better than when I saw you last” (i.e. with that emperor-sized hangover).
2. Vital requirement: prepare pre- and post-dinner drinks in some undiscoverable pantry or broom-cupboard well away from the main scene. This will not only screen your niggardlinesses; it will also make the fetching of each successive round look like a slight burden, and will case an unfavourable limelight on any individual determined to wrest additional drinks out of you. Sit in an especially deep easy-chair, and practise getting out of it with mild effort and, later in the evening, a just-audible groan, though beware of overdoing this.
3. As regards the pre-dinner period, procedures vary. The obvious one is to offer only one sort of a drink, a “cup” or “punch” made of cheap red wine, soda water, a glass of cooking sherry if you can plunge that far, and a lot of fresh fruit to give an illusion of lavishness. Say you invented it, and add menacingly that it has more of a kick than might be expected. Serve in small glasses.

If any old-stager insists on, say, Scotch, go to your pantry and read the paper for a few minutes before filling the order. Hand the glass over with plenty of emphasis, perhaps bawling as you do so, “One large Scotch whisky delivered as ordereed, sah!”
Should you feel, as you would have reason to, that this approach is getting a little shiny with use, set your teeth and give everybody a more or less proper first drink. You can salve your pocket, however, by adding a tremendous lot of ice to fill up the glass (troublesome, but cheaper than alcohol), or, in the case of martinis, by dropping in an olive the size of a baby’s fist. Cheat on later drinks as follows: in preparing a gin and tonic, for instance, put the tonic and ice and thick slice of lemon in first and pour on them a thimbleful of gin over the back of a spoon, so that it will linger near the surface and give a strong-tasting first sip, which is the one that counts. Martinis should be as cold as before, but with plenty of melted ice. Whiskies are more difficult. Use the back-of-the-spoon technique with coloured glasses, or use the darkest brand you can find. Water the sherries.
4. Arrange dinner early, and see that the food is plentiful, however cheap it is. You can get away with not serving wine with the first course, no matter what it may be. When the main course is on the table, “suddenly realize” you have not opened the wine, and proceed to do so now with a lot of cork popping. The wine itself will not, of course, be French or German; let us call it Ruritanian Gold Label. Pour it with ceremony, explaining that you and your wife “fell in love with it” on holiday there and will be “interested” in people’s reactions.
5. Sit over the remains of dinner as long as you dare or can bear to, then take the company off to the drawing-room and make great play with doling out coffee. By this stage (a vague, prolonged one anyhow), a good half-hour of abrupt and total forgetfulness about the very idea of drink can profitably be risked. At its end “suddenly realize” you have imposed a drought and offer brandy, explaining a good deal less than half apologetically that you have no cognac, only a “rather exceptional” Armagnac. This, of course, produced with due slowness from your pantry, is a watered-down cooking brandy from remote parts of France or from South Africa.
6. Play out time with groan-proceeded, tardily produced ice-crammed Scotches, remembering the recourse of saying loudly, “I find myself that a glass of cold beer is the best thing at this time of night.”
7. Along the lines of sticking more fruit than any sane person could want in the pre-dinner “punch,” put out a lot of pseudo-luxuries like flood-damaged truncheon-sized cigars, bulk-bought after-dinner mints, bankrupt-stock vari-coloured cigarettes, etc.
8. Your own drinks. This must obviously not be allowed to fall below any kind of accustomed level, however cruel the deprivations you force on your guests. You will naturally refresh yourself with periodic nips in your pantry, but going thither at all often may make undesirable shags think, even say, that you ought to be bringing thence a drink for them. So either choose between a darkly tinted glass and a silver cup of some sort which you stick inseparably to and can undetectably fill with neat whisky, or boldly use a plain glass containing one of those light-coloured blends known as a “husband’s Scotch” – ‘Why, hell, Mamie, just take a look; you can see it’s near as a damn pure water,” and hell, Jim, Jack, Joe and the rest of the crowd.
9. If you think that all or most of the above is mere satirical fantasy, you cannot have been around much yet.

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Sometimes, while one is knee-deep in American Studies or sociology books dealing with work and leisure or dissecting the toxic vacuum we call culture, it’s good to come up for air with a palate cleanser. This Newberry-Honor book (not quite up to Newberry-Award status) was almost what I needed, but I chaffed at what felt like anachronistic props and dialog. A bit of research shows that the metal detector was installed in 1934, so the story’s setting in 1935 could make use of it, but… Reservations aside, a kid moves to Alcatraz when his dad is posted as an electrician/guard. His older sister Natalie is severely autistic and the family hopes to post her in San Francisco at a special school. The kid (Moose) ferries to the Marina for school, makes some baseball chums, and gets sucked into a conspiracy with the warden’s daughter to make money on the mainland saps by getting their laundry and having the prisoners do it, saying Al Capone laundered their clothes. After being busted by the warden, the next scheme is to sell prisoner baseballs to the kids, which Natalie miraculously helps with by befriending prisoner 105. Blah blah blah, not worth recounting the rest.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Sadly, it took her death to remind me of her life and work. Re-visiting this book as an adult, I can more greatly appreciate the strength, the powerful words, the poetry of her story. The warmth of her relationship with brother Bailey, Momma (grandma), and the woman who introduces her to books (and helps her regain her voice after many years as a mute), Mrs. Flowers. The heartbreaking scene at graduation from eighth grade where the white politician drones on and unleashes despair on the crowd he’s meant to invigorate, relegating them to roles of maids, farmers, handymen and washerwomen.

It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other.

Shipped off to California, she begins a life in San Francisco with her mother, living on Post St., 2 blocks from Fillmore, and falls in love with the air-conditioned city. “The city became for me the ideal of what I wanted to be as a grownup. Friendly but never gushing, cool but not frigid or distant, distinguished without the awful stiffness.”

To San Franciscans “the City That Knows How” was the Bay, the fog, Sir Francis Drake Hotel, Top o’ the Mark, Chinatown, the Sunset District and so on and so forth and so white. To me, a thirteen-year-old Black girl, stalled by the South and Southern Black life style, the city was a state of beauty and a state of freedom. The fog wasn’t simply the steamy vapors off the bay caught and penned in by hills, but a soft breath of anonymity that shrouded and cushioned the bashful traveler. I became dauntless and free of fears, intoxicated by the physical fact of San Francisco. Safe in my protecting arrogance, I was certain that no one loved her as impartially as I.

Somewhere along the way of high school, she takes a summer vacation to live with her father in LA, taking a memorable jaunt into Mexico with him where she has to learn to drive after he passes out drunk, then Maya gets stabbed by his girlfriend back in LA. Wound treated, she sets off on her own, living in a junkyard for a month before flying back to SF. She also takes time to fight her way into being the first black streetcar operator in San Francisco, with great descriptions of the disappointing dingy and musty MTA offices. (I also heard an interview with her on KQED a few years ago where she also mentioned being a cab driver in SF, but haven’t found any other mention of that.)

To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflicts than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity.

Terrific video clips of her revisiting Stamps with Bill Moyer, and railing against evil.

The Gate At The Stairs

Hmm. To end this book in the arms of a wretched phone call from the hero’s ex-employer seems tepid, a hat tossed into the ring of misogyny, a down beat from the rest of the frenetic prose that Moore pours on. We end with Tassie repeating, “Dinner?” incredulously to the husband in her former babysitting gig, and plop unceremoniously with “Reader, I did not even have coffee with him” at the end. Of course you didn’t, Tassie, you were a strong interesting unique woman in training and didn’t need to add the lecherous gropings of a balding man to your repertoire.
Despite the thud of an ending, the rest was consumed delightfully and quickly, seeing the spring semester of a Michigan farm girl at college, ingesting the anonymous dialogue of the racial support group sprung up when her employer adopts a biracial baby and encounters flak in the community. Tassie has a whirlwind romance with a “Brazilian” who inexplicably turns out to be pseudo-Islamic-terrorist-cell-related (I got thoroughly confused with their breakup scene, I might have that wrong) but who gifts her his xyolophone. Her deepest relationship is with Mary-Emma, the three year old adopted daughter she’s caring for, taking her on tumbling rides in a red wagon, engaging with other kids on the playground who ask for playdates to expand their racial horizons, singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot and other taboo songs that mother Sarah forbids.
I’m not entirely sure where I end up on the thumbs up/down spectrum with this tale, but it was an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

Uh oh, I’ve dogeared nearly every page. Boorstin’s 1961 look at the pseudo-events and celebrity that clutter our lives is more relevant today than when it was written. The extravagant expectations we have of our lives demand fresh news hourly (now every minute) and require that news is manufactured in order to fulfill that demand, so journalists create stories where there are none, wreak interviews on us (“The interview is a joint product of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a reporter” – The Nation, 1869), fill us with unending information about non-events. Boorstin reckons this shift as the Graphic Revolution, where our ability to make, preserve, transmit and disseminate precise images began growing at a rapid clip. “The disproportion between what an informed citizen needs to know and what she can know is even greater.” The commodification of news results in packaged news, press releases (deemed “handouts” after the stale food handed out of a house to the needy), and the feeling that one is better off watching things on TV than being present at the event itself. At MacArthur’s parade through Chicago sociologists compared the actual experience of being on the street (waiting, feet hurting, brief glimpse as he rolled by) to the dramatic appearance displayed on TV with screaming crowds (only screaming when they saw TV cameras). The people on the street wishing they’d watched it on TV, while TV viewers were assured by announcers how amazing it was to actually be present on the scene.
Pseudo events are these manufactured events, and they always win out in importance over casual, spontaneous, REAL events. Take the talk at the watercooler in the office, where last night’s TV show overshadows whatever casual event was being discussed. And the fallacy of televised Presidential debates– we get demagogues who look good under the bright lights but who are perhaps lacking in the other necessary characteristics of being President.
Chapter 2 is about celebrity, the human pseudo-event. Boorstin’s famous line is that the celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness. The obsession with celebrity has shot up exponentially since the book was written in 1961. “The power to fill our minds with an increasing number of ‘big names’ increased our demand for Big Names and our willingness to confuse the Big Name with the Big Person… we have filled our world with artificial fame… We can make a celebrity but we can never make a hero… all heroes are self-made.” The people who are really making a difference in life, the heroes, if they remain unsung, they continue to be heroes, but once they gain visibility they become grist for the celebrity mill and undistinguished from other celebrities who are famous for non-heroic reasons.

The vacuum of our experience is actually made emptier by our anxious straining with mechanical devices to fill it artificially. What is remarkable is not only that we manage to fill experience with so much emptiness, but that we manage to give the emptiness such appealing variety.

Chapter 3 charts the decline of the traveler and the rise of the tourist. Travel originally was the same word as “travail” (trouble, work, torment). Tour-ist was the original spelling (one who tours), a pleasure seeker instead of actively searching for experience and adventure, expecting everything to be done to him and for him. The word “sight-seeing” first recorded in 1847, after Thomas Cook designed his guided tours for the middle class, unleashing “droves of these creature, for they never separate, and you see them forty in number pouring along a street with their director – now in front, now at the rear, circling round them like a sheepdog.” I love the term “the great backwash” to describe the flooding of Americans into the Old World in tourist invasions in the early 20th century. Tourists demanded packaged tours that simulate local culture but wrapped up in a tidy package that doesn’t feel too different from home. Boorstin argues that museums act as tourist attractions, displaying art out of context.

The impression of individual works of art or of a country’s past culture as a whole, whenever it is formed from museum visits, is inevitably factitious… The museum visitor tours a warehouse of cultural artifacts; she does not see vital organs of living culture… Each living art object, taken out of its native habitat so we can conveniently gaze at it, is like an animal in a zoo. Something about it has died in the removal.

The dissolving forms of Chapter 4 discuss the disintegration of forms of art in favor of more digestible bits (Readers’ Digest giving you the nub of the story as well as placing larger versions of stories it wants to “digest” in other pubs, movies winnowing down the plot of novels into 90 minutes or less, the abridgment or bowdlerizing of books to numb them to lowest common denominator). “Americans were inclined to overvalue whatever could be made intelligible to all: the work of the journalist (Benjamin Franklin) or of the popular humorist (Mark Twain).” Is something a best seller because it is great or vice versa?

Everyone must know more and more about more and more. How to do it?… Abridging and digesting is no longer a device to lead the reader to an original which will give her what she really wants. The digest itself is what she wants. The shadow has become the substance.

Earliest recorded usage of “non-fiction” is 1910, “fact” had been treated as the norm up until then. The business transactions (novels sold for screen rights) becoming pseudo-events that are reported on, if big $ for movie rights, then book must be good.

Man fulfills his dream and by photographic magic produces a precise image of the Grand Canyon. The result is not that he adores nature or beauty the more. Instead he adores his camera – and himself…. Fidgeting with his camera he becomes less concerned with what is out there… photography becomes a form of narcissism. “Have you seen my snapshot of the Mona Lisa?”

Onward to music, phonographs, Musak. “We are music-soothed and music-encompassed as we go about our business. Now the appropriate music for any occasion is that which need not be followed but can simply be inhaled.” What would Boorstin say about the ear-bud wearing zombies that walk around the city, unable to take a single step without the soundtrack to their lives echoing in the white buds?

The object (of music) is to bathe an already half-conscious patient in an anesthetic or a tonic aural fluid. In factories or offices… the stream must “go counter to the industrial fatigue curve.”

Chapters 5 & 6 a tedious look at advertising that didn’t grip me as much.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

Great in-depth look at what transpired in the early 20th century during WWI when the Allied Powers were busy carving up the spoils of a war they had not yet won, the beginnings of modern day chaos in the Middle East, greed for oil, Zionist blinders, etc. T.E. Lawrence (not his real name, but that of his pseudonym due to his father running off with his mistress) is an avid archeology student at Oxford, biking around northwest France then walking through Syria as a lad. With the luck of the times, he clamps himself to the war machinery in Arabia during the early years of WWI and becomes an indispensable conduit to one of the local emirs/princes, Faisal ibn Hussein. TEL gets caught up in the Arab Revolt, giving up British secrets to further the cause he really believes in. Other characters abound: William Yale, a Standard Oil man fallen from aristocracy grace, the German spy Curt Prufer, Aaron Aaronson an early Zionist voice. At the end of WWI, the Paris conglomerate destroyed much of what TEL was working for and set the stage for the chaos that continues.
From the Epilogue:

By the 1960s, with the era of European imperialism drawing to its unceremonious close, the Middle East resembled the shambles the colonial powers were leaving behind in other parts of the globe, but with one crucial difference: because of oil, the region had now become the most strategically vital corner on earth, and the West couldn’t walk way from the mess it had helped to create there even if it had to. What has transpired there over the past half century is, of course, familiar to all: four wars between the Arabs and Israelis; a ten-year civil war in Lebanon and a twenty-year one in Yemen; the slaughter of ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq; four decades of state-sponsored terrorism; convulsions of religious extremism; four major American military interventions and a host of smaller ones; and for the Arab people, until very recently, a virtually unbroken string of cruel and/or kleptocratic dictatorships stretching from Tunisia to Iraq that left the great majority impoverished and disenfranchised.

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story

The heartbreaking work that serves as a cautionary tale for group dynamics. It begins with the utopian vision that all animals are equal, and then the pigs amend that to say that some are more equal than others. The revolution begins with a speech in the barn by the grizzled boar, Old Major, who imparts wisdom on his near-dying bed. “Among us animals let there be perfect unity, perfect comradeship in the struggle. All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.” The major goes on to outline the rest of what ends up as the Seven Commandments written on the wall, whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy, whatever on four legs or has wings is a friend. No animal must lie in a house, sleep in a bed, wear clothes, drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, touch money or engage in trade. No animal must ever kill any other animal. Finally, he gifts the listening animals with the full verses of Beasts of England (sung to the tune of La Cucaracha), which had returned to him in a dream. After the Major dies, his ideas are taken up by three smart pigs: Snowball, Napoleon, and Squealer. The revolution came after Mr. Jones was too hungover to feed the animals, so they fed themselves at the end of the day. When confronted by the men, the hungry animals revolted, sending the humans packing.
Dawn breaks on the animal-run farm, utopia thought to be achieved. But the cows get milked and their milk disappears… animals find out later that the pigs had the milk mixed into their slop, a necessary thing for all the “brainwork” the pigs are doing. Naturally things devolve from here, with the pigs becoming the ruling class, giving orders, sleeping late, moving into the house, walking on hind legs, brewing up beer. Napoleon chases Snowball out with the help of the puppies he has raised to defend him. History is re-written. The windmill is attacked and rebuilt. Trade is engaged with neighboring farms. The pigs become men.
Follow up reading: Darkness at Noon by Koestler

Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way)

The idea of exploring the origins of biking popped into my head this weekend, and I was reminded that there was a connection to the suffrage/women’s rights movement I’d forgotten about. Grabbed this book from the juvie section of the branch library and suffered through the magazine-style layout for an hour or so. Luckily, I did stumble onto some names I’d like to do further research on.
* Alice Austen, photographer riding to assignments across NYC with 50 lbs of photo equipment on her bike and who had to give up photography after losing her cash in the 1929 stock market crash thus no longer able to afford film.
* Charlotte Smith opposed the bicycle because it put young women in the danger zone of getting knocked up. However she was an outspoken feminist founding the Women’s National Industrial League as an all-female union for federal clerks, and founded/edited Working Woman and Woman Inventor. I especially like that she bashed men over their heads with umbrellas when she saw them annoying young women. Estimated 5,000 umbrellas lost in the process.
* Annie Kopchovsky (Londonderry) cycled around the world to win a wager between two wealthy men.
* Dora Rinehart, “Denver’s petite but Herculean mistress of the road” left her husband in the dust while riding. In 1896 she pedaled 17,196 miles, including stretches of 10 days in July and 20 days between October and November where she road a century a day.
I still feel like there is more to be told of this tale, beyond outfit changing and the slow process of gaining the right to vote.

New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir

I’m not sure what drove me into the arms of this semi-flimsy memoir chockablock full of dog raising and dealing with the aftermath of hip replacement surgery at age 60. Perhaps I was drawn to the idea of an older woman writing about life as a single, no failed marriage, no kids. But it ends up as a weak read as maybe all memoirs must. Gail loses one dog, quickly adopts another puppy despite her increasing limp due to childhood polio. We are supposed to marvel at the rich tapestry of friends who gets her through the surgery and recovery, while wiping a tear at her remembrances of those of her friends and family that passed in the previous six years. Fairly unrewarding book, albeit graciously short and consumed in the space of 2 hours.

Built for Change: Neighborhood Architecture in San Francisco

A somewhat dry and technical look at sixty blocks around Alamo Square which attempts to explain residential design and building traditions over 100 years of development. Relying heavily on Sanborn atlases, the work is very detailed, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. Thank goodness for lots of accompanying photographs which show 1890s mashed up against 1930s mashed up against 1970s architecture. Hodgepodge blocks. Victorian-esque feel to the area because that came first and first is hard to eradicate. Corner lot mansions began to be abandoned (theorizes Moudon) because of the access to suburbs that cars provided in the 1920s and 30s. This is the book that inspired the author of San Francisco, la grille sur les collines.

Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush

How Dyer’s people managed to convince the US Navy to allow him a two week writers-in-residence aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Iran remains a mystery. The chimera of Dyer’s talent I first peeped in Zona turned out to be nothing but a blotchy oil spill farting and leering at women’s breasts. A faint suspicion was raised in Zona when he claimed threesomes were every man’s dream come true, but the extent of his lechery is hammered home in this book. When he’s not yammering on about how he’s the tallest man on the boat, he’s going gaga over the women on the boat and attempting jokes that fall flat. All (the few) good bits get washed away in the tidal wave of disgust from his overall style.
Dyer has no qualms about showcasing his happy participation in treating women as objects to be drooled over, empty vessels waiting for him to fill them, not taken seriously. When he meets the drug counselor, he worries that she might bang her head on the shelf she’s sitting under when she stands up. As if someone isn’t aware of the boundaries of their own office. Not content to just muse this in his head, he patronizingly cautions her about hitting her head on the shelf when she stands up. After he discovers his crush on the female mechanic, and hears about her marriage and daughter, “looking at her (which I had no desire not to)”. Lovely. Keep it in your pants, sick old man.
Wherein we see Dyer’s own ugly chauvinism, despite him trying desperately to bury it. Hair salon, really?:

Imagine this: you’re sitting in that boring old thing a commercial airliner. You say ‘hi’ to the attractive woman – early thirties, blonde – next to you. When dinner arrives you get talking, ask what she does. She might say she’s in the Navy. Expecting the next answer to be ‘I’m in avionics’ or ‘radar’ – or, if you are thoroughly unreconstructed, ‘I work in the hair salon’ – you ask what exactly she does. Or, in response to that opening question, she might reply, ‘I’m a pilot,’ in which case you follow up with ‘What kind of pilot?’ Either way, assuming she’s in the mood to chat, she will at some point concede the truth: I’m a fighter pilot, flying F-18s, off a carrier.

He can’t leave the boat without one more tongue-drooling incident to prove his idiocy. Here we have incontrovertible proof that women are objects to be looked at, that they do not exist unless seen by men, specifically Dyer, even when grabbing coffee with friends after a yoga class.

The ATO shack was already crowded with people waiting to fly out. Among them was a woman we’d lunched with occasionally, part of the group of young graduates who worked in the reactor. I didn’t recognize her at first. She was wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt with something about Chicago on the front. I could see the shape of her breasts and her bare arms. Her hair was down – she had very long hair. Worried that if I sat anywhere near her I would not be able to keep my eyes off her I sat on the other row, facing away, facing the wall, thinking about what I’d seen and, more tormentingly, what I’d not seen. How effectively her uniform had concealed not just the body but the womanliness within. Even when they were exercising in T-shirts and shorts, I realized now, the women had none of the Lycra allure of gym classes in the city or the supple, quasi-erotic confidence and calm that one notices (without appearing to) when a bunch of women go to a cafe after a yoga session. No, they were just pounding along on the treadmills for all they were worth. The only sexual impulse I’d had – and it wasn’t even remotely sexual, just a diluted form of romantic curiosity – had been concentrated on the woman from the hangar deck with the luminous eyes. And now I was suddenly conscious of that absence, of thoughts and feelings I’d not been having.
This was what was going through my fifty-three-year-old head in the ATO shack. What about the heads of the nineteen- and twenty-year olds who’d been on deployment all these months? Was I the only male here exhibiting – i.e. taking pains not to exhibit – such lecherous thoughts?

Avoid this book.

Celibate at Twilight, and Other Stories

A delightful collection of Mosher’s stories from the New Yorker between 1926-1940 that captures the wealth and poverty of the times. The eponymous story is 2nd in the collection, where we first meet Mr. Opal the wealthy, somewhat bored bachelor whom we tag along with for a handful of other stories. Opal reluctantly goes out night after night and is an amazing guest but an awful host. Dinner at Eight was one of my favorites of the bunch, wherein Mr. Opal finally repays the kindness of his previous hosts, but he’s so distraught he feels that no one will show up, imagining their excuses (death in the family, a touch of bubonic plague) or that the liquor will be poisoned and they’ll drop dead or have convulsions (“If one of the guests dropped dead, should they go on with the dinner? If he dropped dead, would they simply go on and eat without him?”) or that uninvited friends will show up (“Ah, gwan in and eat and we’ll stay here and send out for some sandwiches”). He also is confused about the time and number of guests, “Had he asked eight people, perhaps, to come at seven? Eight at seven, or seven at eight?” The phone rings, he anticipates the bailing of his guests, but it is only his co-hostess, “Ah, Angelina, you’ll be over at quarter of eight. That’s good of you. Thanks a lot. Yes, I count on you. Yes, I am glad you’re coming.”
I also thoroughly enjoyed A House of Tone, where the lad recognizes his old landlady as standing out from other patrons of a casino in Monte Carlo.

Mrs. Kelsey might have been a duchess, as she passed through the park. She might have been a diplomat’s wife. Actually, however, she had been my landlady for several years in that “apartments-unfurnished” house in the Murray Hill district. With this stately grande dame I had argued and scrapped and nagged over matters of plumbing and lighting fixtures and cleaning and the icebox pan. I had admired her then in her way, certainly. I was aware how she had come to Murray Hill, a stranger there, and how she had slaved and fought tooth and nail for her living. She had taken one of the few houses of the grander period left there, and though renting it out by floors and rooms, she had struggled to retain something of its old style, holding off, as it were, the encroaching skyscrapers, the lunchrooms, the Chinese laundries, the tailoring shops, which seeped daily through the brownstone barriers. Now I saw that she had been successful not only economically. It was as though she had salvaged a spirit from the wreckage of Murray Hill magnificence and had made it a part of herself.

Don Quixote

Believe the hype, this book is that good. I’d resisted reading it over the years, and am glad I finally took the plunge with Grossman’s peerless translation. The world’s first modern novel, perhaps, but also its first collection of short stories? The basic premise is known to everyone– a befuddled gentleman who read too many books of chivalry believes himself to be a knight errant, and hits the road for adventures with his simpleminded squire, Sancho Panza, his trusty nag, Rocinante, and Panza’s grey donkey. “Our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.” Sancho is consumed with the idea that, as a reward for his service, Quixote will grant him the governorship of an island, and the word “insula” acts as a drumbeat throughout the 1000 pages. The infamous windmill scene takes place in Chapter VIII, though the phrase “tilting at windmills” is never used; from brief research, the phrase only appears in late 19th century (“tilting” being the equivalent of “jousting”). Quixote mistakes a flock of windmills to be giants he needs to do battle with, and attacks the sail of one at full force, which splinters his lance. This book is worthy of a much deeper review than is fitting for the blog, I can only marvel at some high level points below.
The perfect partnership of Quixote and Sancho. Quixote has moments of clear minded intelligence mixed with his chivalric madness, and Sancho speaks in gibberish proverbs yet has his own moments of clarity and intelligence. Quixote laughs at Sancho’s simple-mindedness, Sancho laughs at his master’s madness. “Look, Sancho… I say proverbs when they are appropriate, and when I say them they fit like rings on your fingers, but you drag them in by the hair, and pull them along, and do not guide them…”
Quixote explains further to the duke and duchess:

Sancho Panza is one of the most amusing squires who ever served a knight errant; at times his simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure; his slyness condemns him for a rogue, and his thoughtlessness confirms him as a simpleton; he doubts everything, and he believes everything; when I think that he is about to plunge headlong into foolishness, he comes out with the perceptions that raise him to the skies. In short, I would not trade him for any other squire even if I were given a city to do so…

An astonishing array of misadventures: windmills, waterstone, slashing the innkeeper’s wine skeins as he dreams he is fighting giants, the lion that won’t leave its cage, Sancho filling Q’s helmet with curds which Q then puts on his head to fight and curds stream through his beard, attacking flocks of sheep thinking they are armies, the infamous blanket tossing Sancho gets at the inn, the list goes on.
Cervantes tackles the thorny issue of translation throughout the book, “… if I find him here, speaking in some language not his own, I will have no respect for him at all; but if he speaks in his own language, I bow down to him;” and further, as he visits the Barcelona printer and questions his translating ability:

“And I shall be so bold as to swear,” said Don Quixote,” that your grace is not well-known in the world, which is always unwilling to reward rare talents and praiseworthy efforts. What abilities are lost there! What talents ignored! What virtues scorned! But despite all this, it seems to me that translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek to Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side; translating easy languages does not argue for either talent or eloquence, just as transcribing or copying from one paper to another does not argue for those qualities. And I do not wish to infer from this that the practice of translating is not deserving of praise, because a man might engage in worse things that bring him even less benefit.”

The meta dissection of how the books were written, through the pen of the Moorish Cide Hamete Benengeli (Arab Historian), but then also through the unnamed translator (Cervantes?) who despairs after reading part one and the rest remained missing until he discovered a book in Arabic at a market in Toledo. He finds a Moor to translate the books and papers into Castilian (“without taking away or adding anything to them”). Then the appearance of a fake Quixote to finish the tale, Cervantes does battle with this fake copy throughout Part Two, and the existence of Part One being widely read helps Quixote throughout Part Two as the duke and duchess regale and wine and dine and trick him for their amusement (even giving Sancho that “insula” to govern).
Grossman considers the many names of Sancho’s wife to be a problematic oversight on Cervantes part, but I see it as a continuation of the Spanish custom to have lengthy names that honor the matrilineal and patrilineal. So Juana Mari Teresa Gutierrez Panza works for me. There’s also a later note directly from Cervantes, “responded Juana Panza, which was the name of Sancho’s wife; they were not kin, but in La Mancha wives usually take their husbands’ family name.”
Cervantes’ wordplay, helpfully pointed out by Grossman in the footnotes, or incorporated in the translation itself. He sports, he jousts with words.
Wise advice: “The mouth without molars is like a mill without a millstone, and dentation is to be valued much more than diamonds.”
Natural remedies – rosemary leaves chewed and mixed with salt, applied to wound and bandaged, no other medicine needed; the health-giving balm (oil, wine, salt, rosemary) that Quixote famously drinks and vomits up.
The inclusion of human activities like peeing and pooping, vomiting, referred to discretely as “the thing no one can do for you.”

Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face.
“Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.”
But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.

It appears that Shakespeare got his hands on a translated version of Don Quixote, he purportedly wrote a History of Cardenio that is now lost. Another great story within the story is that of The Novel of the Man Who Was Recklessly Curious – a friend asks his pal to attempt to woo his wife to test her fidelity.
Could there be a tiny smidgeon of gender equality at the Camacho wedding feast? “The cooks, male and female, numbered more than fifty, all of them devoted, diligent, and contented.”
Wherein Señor Canon seems to be Cervantes’ mouthpiece regarding the quality of work he produces:

“If all, or almost all, the plays that are popular now, imaginative works as well as historical ones, are known to be nonsense and without rhyme or reason, and despite this the mob hears them with pleasure and thinks of them and approves of them as good, when they are very far from being so, and the authors who compose them and the actors who perform them say they must be like this because that is just how the mob wants them, and no other way; the plays that have a design and follow the story as art demands appeal to a handful of discerning persons who understand them, while everyone else is incapable of comprehending their artistry; and since, as far as the authors and actors are concerned, it is better to earn a living with the crowd than a reputation with the elite, this is what would happen to my book after I had singed my eyebrows trying to keep the precepts I have mentioned and had become the tailor who wasn’t paid.”

Sancho’s wisdom about the Second Part as yet unwritten:

“The author’s interested in money and profit? I’d be surprised if he got any, because all he’ll do is rush rush rush, like a tailor on the night before a holiday, and work done in a hurry is never as perfect as it should be. Let this Moorish gentleman, or whatever he is, pay attention to what he’s doing; my master and I will give him such an abundance of adventures and so many different deeds that he’ll be able to write not just a second part, but a hundred more parts. No doubt about it, the good man must think we’re asleep here; well, just let him try to shoe us, and he’ll know if we’re lame or not.”

Dog-eared pages began early and often.

San Francisco, la grille sur les collines / the grid meets the hill

Wonderfully designed bilingual book by the French architect Lipsky that attempts to explain and make sense of the application of a street grid on SF’s delightfully hilly terrain. She classifies the deformations and provides examples of each: an elastic deformation is apparent in Nob Hill, where the grid overcomes the hill and alternates in uphill and downhill slopes; fractures (Russian/Potrero/Alamo Hills) are where the incline is too steep so streets break off and two sections of the same road are separated by an impassable change in level overcome by stairs; renunciations have a dramatic moment where the grid stops (Telegraph Hill).
Lipsky details the history of the grid, from Vioget to O’Farrell to Eddy/Hoadley (Hoadley acted as Eddy’s assistant and claimed Eddy drank more than he drafted). Vioget, designing for the small village of Yerba Buena, made some inaccurate calculations which led to an eleven-degree shift off geographic North that remains today. O’Farrell attempted to correct this, a rectification known as the “O’Farrell swing,” and drafted Market Street to connect the town with Mission Dolores. Coming onto the scene a few years later, Hoadley argued for lopping off the hills to define a maximum slope ratio for all the streets, which would have planed down Telegraph, Rincon, Russian & Nob Hills. Citizens who lived on affected streets mutinied and the plan was revised.
In the 1930s, Lewis Mumford denounced the tyranny of the grid on San Francisco, contrasting SF with Sienna where organic layout follows the slopes of the Tuscan town (see The City in History). I found out about Greenbelt towns that were proposed to help deal with burgeoning car use, the fruit of a city planning movement in the thirties aiming to promote garden towns, but only resulted in Greenbelt MD (1935), Greenhills OH (1936) and Greendale WI (1936).
The author tips her hat to earlier work done in this field by Anne Vernez-Moudon, and I’m looking forward to reading her study of the changes near Alamo Square.

The city’s obsession with its past borders on the outrageous, and some even accuse it of being trapped in the memory of a glorious era.

On certain hills, the sight of signposts that persist in indicating the straight continuation of streets that do not exist due to too rugged a terrain makes one ponder the limits of human reasoning. Perhaps the city owes practically nothing to man and nearly everything to the hills? The urban quality of San Francisco would then reside precisely in this incompatibility, an unthinkable defiance of nature.

Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future

It was worth the money I paid for an otherwise useless CCSF women’s studies class to inadvertently stumble on this work, although I would have preferred to just read this book and avoid the peek I got into the desperation and mind-numbingness of community college classes. (Half an hour of precious time devoted to roll call – with extra credit given out if she mispronounced your name! Another half hour wasted reading aloud the “rules of engagement” about respecting each others’ opinions in class. I stopped showing up after this.) This is the book I’ve been searching for, but it was unfortunately written in the idyllic year of 2000 (“For the first time in American history, there is no war, not even the cold war, to mobilize and bond Americans. As desirable as this is, it also makes finding a collective identity more difficult.”), with innumerable printed references to websites and groups that no longer exist. Feminist history is ephemeral, you must catch the tiger by the tail and hope to be given the secret password to the exclusive clubs as it morphs and slinks into new spaces.
From the beginning, I related to the writers; Jennifer name-dropping Solanas in her intro “This is the kind of anger I associate with men, with privilege, with the reasons that the he-girl of anger, Valerie Solanas, was driven to write the SCUM Manifesto, not to mention shoot Andy Warhol. I couldn’t get it out of me. It was like a virus. I had road rage – and no car.” Amy and Jennifer take you on a much needed tour of feminist history and feminist present. Things I’ve been trying to figure out, like why it’s so damn hard to find feminists, explained in the media blackout of all fem-news. And because we’re so quick to forget about the past, due to lack of coverage, we’re destined to re-invent in the wheel every few decades, spinning our wheels. I had no idea about Carol Downer’s DIY and safe early-abortion technique (Del-Em: a helpful technique as we continue to see women’s health rights eroded in Texas and the south) and got a welcome refresher on Steinem & Gurley-Brown, among other learnings. Good stuff.
“Feminism is like fluoride. It’s in the water.”