Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

Another one for induction into the historian hall of shame, this book is “about as lucid as a swamp,” to quote the author’s own words (although his were to malign Carry Nation’s autobiography). I wish I could be more tolerant of author’s prejudices seeping into their writing, but it’s all too evident in this book. Okrent tips his hand early on, expressing dismay, “How did it happen? How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first European colonists arrived in the New World?” Substitute slavery for alcohol production/sale/transportation and you have the same question, albeit on a smaller scale. I, too, am fascinated by this issue, but more around how the hell were we able to pass and ratify this Constitutional amendment whereas the Equal Rights Amendment languished and died in the ratification process.

He devotes the early chapters to the influence of women and then promptly ignores them. A blessing in disguise, as I’m able to more quickly plow through the remaining words. In December 1873 Dio Lewis swept through Hillsboro, OH, characterized by Okrent as “a man famous for advocacy of abstinence, chastity, gymnastics, health food, loose clothing, and the rights of women.” The next morning, a group of 75 women were led by Eliza Jane Trimble Thompson through saloons, hotels and drugstores to pray on the sawdusted floors for the next eleven days, causing nine of the thirteen saloons to close, and ultimately depriving the federal tax collectors of $300k. Ah, but here comes the sad trombone sound, “… every establishment selling liquor yielded to the hurricane set loose by Eliza Thompson. But hurricanes don’t last, and within a few months this one was spent,” as Okrent attempts to take the wind out of Thompson’s sails. But the hurricane morphed and breezed into thousands of lives, including Frances Willard.

Of course, there had been women who preceded Thompson’s efforts – Susan B. Anthony’s first public speech in 1849 to the Daughters of Temperance, but not allowed in 1852 to address the Sons of Temperance because “the sisters were there not to speak but ‘to listen and learn.'” This happened again in 1853 to Anthony and also Amelia Bloomer.

But back to Willard, she’s continuously portrayed by Okrent in terms that mock her followers, “a near deity” and always qualifying Anna Gordon (Willard’s secretary) as her “lifelong companion.” Once, I get, but to continually beat the drum of “lookie here, I think we caught us an unnatural woman!” seems egregious. Compare the description of Willard’s work to that of Wayne Wheeler:

“[Willard] began each day with a devotional reading, and then immediately after breakfast… would charge into eight hours of dictation… She traveled constantly, in one year addressing audiences in every state in territorial capital… She also traveled abroad… Books poured out of her…[She campaigned] for suffrage, prison reform, free kindergartens, vocational schools, eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, factories, and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she also took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation, and less restrictive clothing.”

Sounds impressive, no? But Okrent can’t resist a dig, “As exceptional as Willard was, her determination to connect Prohibition to other reforms was neither original with her nor uncommon.” And later he seems almost gleeful that the Anti-Saloon League has taken over the control of the movement from WCTU, saying that the leaders of WCTU “preferred to devote their energy and their accumulated political capital to the beatification of their beloved leader.”

Hmm, ok. Well then, let’s meet Wayne Wheeler. “How does one begin to describe the impact of Wayne Wheeler?…[quoting obituaries] New York Herald Tribune: ‘Without Wayne B. Wheeler’s generalship it is more than likely we should never have had the Eighteenth Amendment.’ … The editorial eulogists of the Baltimore Sun had it absolutely right…’nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures.’ No one remembers, but he was.” I need a shower to cleanse myself from this drooling praise. But wait, he’s not finished. Wheeler takes control of the ASL, and was described by a former classmate as a “locomotive in trousers,” which Okrent explodes further, “In fact, ‘power plant’ was more like it.” Then goes on gushingly for too many pages to count about Wheeler’s deeds, which sound suspiciously similar and yet less than Willard’s efforts.

The author saves particular humiliation for Carry Nation, “six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.” How I wish Nation could pummel Okrent in the face and give him a real toothache. Nation, for those uninitiated, in 1901 wielded a hatchet in Kansas saloons to smash them up for the temperance cause. This warrior is laughed at by Okrent as he delights in recounting the Yale undergraduates who “tricked her into posing with a tankard of beer while they puddled into laughter behind her.” Okrent dismisses her autobiography as “a document about as lucid as a swamp.”

He then turns the rest of the story over to the dudes, because really, that’s who makes everything happen in this country, right? Save yourself the pain of reading biased historians, skip this one.

Glimpses of Fifty Years 1839-1889

This 700 page book is hardly “glimpses” of a life. Frances Willard, on occasion of her fiftieth birthday, is pressed by her pals at the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (where she reigns as president) to write up her memories; the title page even exhorts that it was written “by order” of this group. An intro by Hannah Smith cautions us readers that whoever reads the book must remember that it was written by request of the women of whom Willard is their leader, the white ribbon women of America, and if others see it, “that is their own good fortune.” Or not, as you may think as you struggle to flip page after page of excruciatingly detailed autobiography yearning for an editor. There’s an explanatory note on the copyright page (1889) saying that she turned in twelve hundred pages that were whittled down to the seven hundred I suffered through, ye gods. Lazily, I will probably turn to a more recent biography of Willard to gain what I had intended–a better understanding of the events that led up to the 18th constitutional amendment in 1919 prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol that was repealed by the 21st amendment ratified in 1933. Willard is also important in her work for women’s rights, so I sprinkle in notes for both topics below. There are some decent bits and quotes which I’d forgotten in the long slog, delighted to find again as I wrote this up.

The first temperance lecture Willard attended was by Parker Earle of the Illinois Temperance League. Here she learned there were 1500 shops in Chicago selling liquor, $20M spent annually in Illinois for alcohol, and in one particular shop in Chicago they bring in an average of $2,000 a day for rum.

Her friend Lillie Hayes Waugh lives in India and in a letter describes the Hindu definition of a woman: “That afterthought of God which was sent to bring woe to man!” Willard noted, “That single sentence gives the key to India’s awful degradation.”

Her journal for 1860 notes Lincoln’s election as President. “Hurrah! Under the present system I was not allowed to vote for him, but I am as glad on account of this Republican triumph as any man who has exercised the elective franchise.”

Her friend Kate Jackson takes her on an all-expense-paid two year journey across Europe, then they set up house together upon their return to the States. Probably some good stuff to be uncovered about the pair?

Willard, known as Frank to her friends, determines to become a teacher as her path in life, and is able to achieve independence by earning her living this way. Her sister Mary yearns to make her own way like this, but ends up dying early. Willard teaches at various places then becomes president of the Evanston College of Ladies where she begins to do away with some of the ridiculous rules in place, like the girls needing to be escorted off campus by teachers. She encouraged her students to participate in debates with their (male) peers at Northwestern, and this was approved of by Dr. Haven who said “Here even more than in the recitation room, young men will learn that young women are their peers. It will break down the prejudice against woman’s public speech and work; it will refine the young men and develop intellectual power in the girls.”

The frontispiece to chapter 5: A Tireless Traveler includes a verse from N.P. Willis, “Sleep safe, o wave-worn mariner! Fear not, tonight, or storm or sea–; the ear of heaven bends low to her: he comes to shore who sails with me.” N.P. Willis, of course, was the loathsome brother of Sara Willis Parton (aka Fanny Fern) who gave nothing but discouragement to his more talented sister, refusing to help her publish in his magazine when she desperately needed the money. His words seem so trite and tiresome while Sara’s still sparkle over 150 years later.

Page 253 includes the extensive itinerary of the two years of travel with Kate Jackson: a few weeks in Ireland and Scotland, a month in England, Paris to Geneva to Nijni Novgorod via Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Poland before spending the fall of 1868 in Germany (Berlin, Dresden, Leipsic). Then six months in Paris, a month in Belgium, Holland, another month in Switzerland, several months in Italy, a month in Cairo, then Jerusalem, Palestine, Damascus, Beirut, Greece, Vienna, etc. etc.

While in Paris (Jan 1869), she muses on women’s rights: “I have a mind to indicate here what has much occupied me of late, but what I am not brave enough to execute, perhaps, though, if I were, I believe my usefulness would exceed the measure it will reach in any other line of life. Briefly, it is to study so far as possible, by reading, learning the languages and personal observation, the aspects of the woman question in France, Germany and England, and when I return to America, after two or three years’ absence, and have studied the same subject carefully in relation to my own land, to talk in public of the matter and cast myself with what weight or weakness I possess against the only foe of what I conceive to be the justice of the subject, and that is unenlightened public opinion.”

Still in Paris in 1869, she has a conversation with a French gentleman who seems to have a crystal ball into the future about the United States, “He says that France and England should have helped the South, for America is growing so powerful that, joined with Russia, she will ‘meddle herself’ in European politics one of these days. It is very interesting to listen to the absurdity of these foreigners.”
On her trip up the Nile River, “We came to feel the subtle spirit of the East; instead we feel Egyptian fleas. We came to float musingly along the mystic waters of the world’s most curios river; instead, we go snuffing, snorting, shaking, over its tolerant breast–eyes full of smoke, ears full of discord, noses full of smells from kitchen and from coal-bin.”

She climbs the pyramid of Cheops and is helped along by her Arab guides. “In a moment more I was standing, tremblingly, on the broad summit of the pyramid. Though more dead than alive, I insisted in crawling to the loose rocks piled on the center of the platform, and seating myself triumphantly upon the topmost stone. Taking from my pocket a Jaffa orange (brought with this same intent) I tore it open and buried my parched lips in its juicy pulp. If I were called upon to name the most delectable sensation that ever human palate knew I should refer to the foregoing incident.”

Unfortunately, there has always been a tendency for people to carve their name on things. She admits to having inscribed her name on a skull in the Paris Catacombs, and at the top of the pyramid she again gives into this graffiti. After they scramble down the pyramid, she spots at the entrance to the King’s tomb, in letters several feet long in black paint, “Paul Tucker, of New York,” along with his age, 18 1/2. This, in 1870. I shudder to think what that looks like now.
Back in the United States, she travels around giving lectures, briefly mentioning San Francisco: “Of all places on the globe, go to the California metropolis if you would feel the strong pulse of internationalism. Few have caught its rhythm, as yet, but we must do so if we would be strong enough to keep step with that matchless, electric twentieth century soon to go swinging past. You can almost hear his resonant tread on San Francisco pavements; his voice whispers in the lengthening telephone, saying ‘Yesterday was good, today is better, but tomorrow shall be the red-letter day of all life’s magic calendar.'”

Random bits: Women’s temperance crusade started in 1873 in Hillsboro OH led by Mrs. Judge Thompson. Her visit to Brooklyn to “Kit Burns’ Rat-Pit.” She was inspired by John B. Gough, Neal Dow, Dio Lewis. Not having a source of income she read the Bible verse “Trust in the Lord and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.” (She then goes for about a year nearly starving before telling the group that yes, she does need a salary after all). Her “baptism” into the crusade in Pittsburgh, kneeling on the sawdust floor singing Rock of Ages among a crowd of “unwashed, unkempt, hard-looking, drinking men.” Her friend Wittenmeyer wrote “History of the Woman’s Crusade” in 1875.

She briefly touches on the split in the temperance group, for and against women’s suffrage. One day while praying, Willard gets a voice, “You are to speak for woman’s ballot as a weapon of protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink.” Later, “In respect to woman’s ballot we believed it was part and parcel of the temperance movement, one way out of the wilderness of whisky domination, and that any individual, any state or local union ought to have the right to say so and to act accordingly.”

In 1878, she was nominated to the head of the white ribbon regiment of Illinois and so began the home protection campaign, collecting 200,000 signatures on a petition in nine weeks. The names were pasted on a strip of cloth nearly a quarter mile long, taken to the Illinois legislature where it was promptly ignored. The petition was then sealed and placed in the rooms of the Chicago Historical Society, “not to reappear until the day of Jubilee when women vote in Illinois.”

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time

Maria Konnikova’s latest and greatest is the best non-fiction I’ve read in awhile. She delves into the psychology of why we are so easily duped, why we continue to believe in those who are duping us, and why we sometimes don’t even recognize that we’ve been duped. Here I learned about the “dark triad of traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. Fascinating that James Fallon discovered he was a psychopath by accident, running an imaging study of Alzheimer patients and also of psychopath’s brains, his own scan placed in the normal control group but seeing that it was clearly that of a psychopath. The grifter test: Take your index finger, raise it to your forehead, and draw the letter Q.

Have you drawn your Q? Which way was the Q facing– tail to right or let? If left, you’re a high self monitor, making it so others can read it; you are more likely to manipulate reality…

Packed full of scientific studies made enjoyable and digestible, tales of cons from across the ages, legal battles, global wanderings of the overconfident scammer and scam-ee, all told in a delightful and readable manner.

The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir

My second Sarah Manguso book in a few weeks (previously Ongoingness), although that is no great feat with her slender books that are consumed within an hour. This was her 2009 exploration of a rare disease that has been affecting her since 1995, an autoimmune disease called CIDP. Each section is a tiny snippet, a brief but vivid memory of doctors and waiting rooms and hospitals and steroid side-effects. She latches onto the belief that she’s slept with too few people, and that adding one more to her list would give her some sort of boost, getting down to business with a friend, Victor, who ends up dying of an aneurysm seven years later while she’s still kicking.


I tried reading this again, and was finally able to plow my way through the heavy soggy pages. Despite my love of Gertrude Stein, I am not a huge fan of modernism, and this book at first and second glance seems to be a ragtag loosely connected group of words of the worst kind of this style. Ostensibly about Felix, the pseudo baron who has a child with Robin Vote (but Robin runs away with Nora Flood and later away with Jenny Petherbridge), and the doctor–Matthew O’Connor from Pacific Street in San Francisco–and the tales weave around Berlin, Paris, and unnamed areas of the U.S. There are some amusing bits, but it’s like scouring the beach at Dead Horse Bay, looking desperately for ancient treasures hidden by the sea.

* “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”
* “For if pigeons flew out of his bum, or castles sprang out of his ears, man would be troubled to know which was his fate, a house a bird or a man”
* “Love falling buttered side down, fate falling arse up!”
* “Cynicism, laughter, the second husk into which the shucked man crawls.”
* “In the king’s bed is always found, just before it becomes a museum piece, the droppings of the black sheep.”
* “I like the prince who was reading a book when the executioner touched him on the shoulder telling him that it was time, and he, arising, laid a papercutter between the pages to keep his place and closed the book.”

On the plus side, reading books like this acts as a kick in the pants to my own writing, the seams of this so visible that it makes novices trembling believe they can take up the stitch themselves and have a go at crafting.


I love those moments of reading serendipity when you’re in the middle of one book (Rubyfruit Jungle) in which one of the characters is reading another book you have on your table about to dive into. In Rubyfruit, Molly is reading Orlando and gets overcome, finally, by grief over Carl’s death, claiming to Carrie that she’s crying because she’s reading a really sad book. But Orlando is not sad– if anything it’s delightful to see Woolf’s pen frolic without care, running roughshod over the centuries that Orlando’s alive, galloping through Elizabethan times, then choking on exhaust from modern horseless carriages. VW wrote the book in 1928, flexing her muscles and winking at Vita Sackville-West, whom Orlando represents, raised as a boy then transforming to woman while serving as Ambassador to Turkey. It’s not only a tale of gender fluidity, but also offers a peek inside the head of a writer. Orlando is frustrated, wanting his poems to be admired by the great poets of the day, then realizes he’s only free to write when he does not desire fame. But first, he becomes a reader, “The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night… but worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”
She offers us an almost obscene look behind the curtain:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Woolf is still thinking deeply about time:

The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.

Naturally any book about a man who becomes a woman who becomes a man must involve questions of dress. Once a woman, Orlando thinks “these skirts are plaguey things to have about one’s heels… Could I leap overboard and swim in clothes like these? No!” She finds that people treat her differently because of what she wears. Don a skirt and everyone is super-protective, flattering. Put on pants and roughhouse away with the boys. “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them…”

So, having now worn skirts for a considerable time, a certain change was visible in Orlando, which is to be found even in her face. If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that or Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are several changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword; the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same too…. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath.

Putting on men’s clothing again, Orlando ventures into the night and befriends streetwalkers, then reveals herself to be a woman. Nell brings Prue, Kitty, and Rose into the circle, and the five of them have a great time telling stories. VW’s biting cynicism is in grand form here:

So they would draw round the Punch bowl which Orlando made it her business to furnish generously, and many were the fine tales they told and many the amusing observations they made for it cannot be denied that when women get together–but hist–they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print. All they desire is–but hist again–is that not a man’s step on the stair? All they desire, we were about to say when the gentleman took the very words out of our mouths. Women have no desires, says this gentleman, coming into Nell’s parlour; only affectations. Without desires (she has served him and he is gone) their conversations cannot be of the slightest interest to anyone. “It is well known,” says Mr. S.W.,”that when they lack the stimulus of the other sex, women can find nothing to say to each other. When they are alone, they do not talk; they scratch.”

Time moves onward and yet Orlando does not age. She enters the 19th century and reluctantly takes on the fashion of the time, “dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride through the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw.” These clothes engender a sort of dependency, and Orlando looks around for someone to lean on. She ends up marrying a man who was riding by on a horse, but who is soon off to his ship to round Cape Horn. In the first hours of their engagement, they talk endlessly, and VW has a nice discourse on conversation:

“Shel, my darling,” she began again, “tell me…” and so they talked two hours or more, perhaps about Cape Horn, perhaps not, and really it would profit little to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well that they could say anything they liked, which is tantamount to saying nothing, or saying such stupid, prosy things, as how to cook an omelette, or where to buy the best boots in London, which have no lustre taken from their setting, yet are positively of amazing beauty within it. For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.

Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World

To begin, let’s withhold judgement on the terrible name given to this book by Weatherford, an anthropologist trapped in his desiccated sense of humor. My interest in this book was raised by Gloria Steinem’s latest, wherein she details several interesting things about Native Americans I had not appreciated, namely about the Iroquois Convention lending bones to the U.S. Constitution, and the fact that three-fifths of all crops currently under cultivation globally are from the New World. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, beans, you know… the basics of what we eat everyday. But despite high hopes for this book, it falls flat, even with its engaging beginning-of-chapter man-on-the-street dialog that puts you there, makes you feel as if you’re huffing and puffing your way up to 15,680 feet above sea level to check in on the dregs of a mine that, according to Weatherford, basically made capitalism happen. So, Potosi, the Bolivian mountain that started churning out silver in 1545, made capitalism easier since it gave Europeans a convenient coin to do trade with. [Sidenote: he credits Sir Frances Drake with discovering California, naming it Nova Albion in 1579, hence the first New England was on the west coast.]

Along with money, the New World apparently gave the Old the industrial revolution, since we were short on labor over here and had to make lots of efficiency gains with machines. He also points out that Kropoktin believed that crafts would continue only as a source of goods for the aristocracy while factory goods would be for the working-class people, something that it utterly true today. But mostly the Native Americans gave us food and good farming practices, with the milpa allowing corn to provide a stalk for beans to grow upon and shade, squash providing ground cover that prevents unwanted plants from growing and reduces need to weed, and beans fixing nitrogen in the soil to help the other plants grow. Weatherford credits Natives with planting by hand, unlike the old world method of scattering seeds to the wind, although he does have a revelation that cactus growing at uniform distance from Indian’s houses must mean they’ve pooped out the cactus as a reasonable walking distance.

He blesses us with another earth shattering revelation that he believes Machu Picchu was an agricultural experiment center, since he took a walk with his botanist friend one day and realized how much could be controlled there (sun, no sun, partial sun, soil conditions, etc.). I could never shake the feeling that he wasn’t tapping into the most reliable sources, despite heavy notes in the back. I do want to look into Frank MacShane’s Impressions of Latin America to see how much Weatherford stole and/or how reliable it is.

Rubyfruit Jungle

I am stalking the NYC Bluestockings book group, and this was one under consideration recently. Molly Bolt is the sassy, take-no-shit from anybody narrator, first met in the hillbilly hollows of Pennsylvania where she lights on a scheme to charge her classmates money to look at her uncircumcised pal, Brockhurst AKA Broccoli. When busted, her mother Carrie reveals her contempt, thought she was better than to mess around with boys in the woods, and lets loose that Molly is adopted. No matter, Molly continues on, creating “raisins” out of a mix of real raisins and rabbit poop to give to an enemy, socking her friend Cheryl in the mouth when Cheryl makes the mistake of telling Molly that brains don’t count, only boys can be doctors and girls become nurses. In sixth grade, she falls in love with Leota Bisland, and they become the closest of friends, eventually kissing each other after school. Molly’s paradise is threatened when the family moves to Florida. There, Molly figures out that being funny is way to fit in if she doesn’t have enough money for nice clothes and because she doesn’t want to be grouped with the poor Florida rednecks. She continues to get grief from her adopted mother, Carrie, but love from father Carl, who’s not long for the world, soon keeling over with a heart attack. She pals around with Connie and Carolyn, and one night they get some fodder for blackmail on their principal who’s tooling around town with a woman who’s not his wife. Molly turns this into being school president, and Connie guarantees herself the editor gig of the yearbook. Oh, and cousin Leroy is here all along, having taken Molly’s virginity away (questionable, because of the Leota fun she had earlier), but they grow further and further apart, not having much in common except their childhoods.
Molly muses:

But then I had never thought I had much in common with anybody. I had no mother, no father, no roots, no biological similarities called sisters and brothers. And for a future I didn’t want a split-level home with a station wagon, pastel refrigerator, and a houseful of blonde children evenly spaced through the years. I didn’t want to walk into the page of McCall’s magazine and become the model housewife. I didn’t even want a husband or any man for that matter. I wanted to go my own way. That’s all I think I ever wanted, to go my own way and maybe find some love here and there. Love, but not the now and forever kind with chains around your vagina and a short circuit in your brain. I’d rather be alone.

Molly gets a full ride to U of Florida in Gainsville, where she and her roommate get up to tricks and her scholarship is eventually revoked for moral reasons. Mother Carrie wants nothing to do with her, so sends her right back out the door once she comes home. With $14 in her pocket, she begins to hitchhike to NYC, one of the rides giving her an additional $10. With $24 in her pocket, she sleeps in a car in the Village, meeting Calvin, who shows her around the hood and gets her a $100 one-time gig throwing grapefruit at a man who got off on it. She uses the money to get an apartment, and finds a waitressing job at a diner, enrolls herself in film school. A grim and giddy look at poverty and the gay scene in the late 1960s in NYC, but she perseveres, pushing herself past the sexism in school. She’s not allowed to ever rent any of the equipment, so she steals a camera and film and goes down to Florida to film Carrie in a rocking chair for her senior thesis. Edited down to twenty minutes, Carrie talks about her life, the price of meat, the state of the world. The last thing she says is, “I’m gonna turn this house into a big gingerbread cake with icing on the corners. Then when those goddamn bill collectors come after me I just tell ’em to break off a piece of the house and leave me alone. In time they eat the whole house, then I’ll be sitting’ out in the sunshine that the good Lord made. I’ll be out in the lilies of the field that’s richer than all King Solomon’s gold. That ain’t a bad way to die when yer as old as I am.” She laughs a strong laugh and the film cuts out as the laugh does.

The Sea, The Sea

Beautiful, haunting, magical “love” story by Iris Murdoch, whom I’ve avoided all my life for some reason thinking that she only wrote terrible romance novels. I stand corrected, Iris Murdoch is an awesome writer. This book is a treat, with lyrical descriptions of the sea that laps near the cliff-side cottage that the narrator, Charles Arrowby, purchases as a retreat for his retirement from the London theater business. He settles in to write his memoirs, his memories of the theater, only he digresses into character sketches of the lovers and friends he’s had over the ages. “Before I lit the lamps tonight I spent some time simply gazing out at the moonlight, always an astonishment and a joy to the town-dweller. It is so bright now over the rocks that I could read by it. Only, oddly enough, I note that I have had no impulse to read since I have been here. A good sign. Writing seems to have replaced reading.”

Odd things begin to happen to Charles– spotting a sea monster out on the water, mirrors and vases smashed by a supposed ghost in his house (turns out to be via Rosina, the jealous ex-lover who fumes that he cannot be with anyone if he is not with her). Adjusting to life in the sleepy village is a bit difficult for the Londoner, finally having to ask for his mail at the post office and hearing that it’s being put into the dog kennel near his house just like the previous tenant always liked. He finds he must order wine through the Raven Hotel, disliking the sweet cider served up at the Black Lion, the local pub where conversation hushes as soon as he comes in the door and loud prolonged laughter follows him as soon as he leaves.

He continues to mention his first and only love, a woman he grew up with who discarded him when he went to become an actor in London. Suddenly, people begin arriving to visit from his previous life, he has apparently tried to rekindle a romance with Lizzie who is living comfortably in an arrangement with Gilbert, a gay actor. They both arrive, involving a dramatic scene as inevitable with theater folk. Then Charles spots an old woman in the headlights of Rosina’s speeding car– it’s Hartley, his first and only love, turned old woman. Turns out she lives in the village with her husband, is slightly curious about him but has no idea the passion that Charles believes is simmering beneath the surface. He ends up pseudo-adopting their son Titus (who was also adopted, suspected to be Charles/Rosina’s son), then kidnapping Hartley, then finally releasing her after cousin James brings him to his senses.

It’s all very dramatic and madcap. One of his friends attempts to kill him by pushing him down the cliff but James summons superhuman strength and saves him. His first love, apparently, is cousin James, who ends up dying and leaving his enormous property to Charles. “I remembered that James was dead. Who is one’s first love? Who indeed.” Very dense, complicated, magical story worth every twist and turn.

The main history ends with four seals swimming close to the rocks as a benediction. Charles continues in the postscript: “That no doubt is how the story ought to end, with the seals and the stars, explanation, resignation, reconciliation, everything picked up into some radiant bland ambiguous higher significance, in calm of mind, all passion spent. However life, unlike art, has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions, and generally illustrating the impossibility of living happily or virtuously ever after…”

His thoughts in the postscript on the journal: “Perhaps it is a sign of age that I am busy all day without really doing anything. This diary has trailed on, it is company for me, an illusion of occupation… Of course this chattering diary is a facade, the literary equivalent of the everyday smiling face which hides the inward ravages of jealousy, remorse, fear and the consciousness of irretrievable moral failure.”

My Life on the Road

When I sat in the audience in November and listened to Gloria Steinem in conversation with Chinaka Hodge, I was surprised by how little I knew about Steinem, something that was remedied by the conversation and this book. She has worked tirelessly as a speaker and organizer, traveling for most of the year to speak on countless college campuses. She’s terrified of public speaking and was a reluctant voice, although dealing with tough audiences helped her gain confidence. Her wanderlust was inherited from her father who would pack up the family into the car and head to Florida or California for the winters, selling antique furniture along the way to pay for the journey. Her parents split up, and she lives with her somewhat unstable mother in various spots, finally able to break away for a year to go to high school in DC where her sister has set up a solid base. From there, college, then two years in India. She returned to be a freelance writer in NYC, bumping into the hurdles that women writers faced. On assignment to write about Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, she shares a taxi with journalist Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. As she’s passing along valuable information about how to get Bobby to answer questions, Talese leaned across her as if she wasn’t talking or even present, and says to Bellow, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.” Etc., etc.

She comes to grips with some of her blindspots when returning to India in the 1970s in an effort to collect Gandhian tactics into a pamphlet for women’s movements. As part of this research, she interviews Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, a woman leader (rare) during the struggle for independence who led Gandhi’s national women’s organization. As Steinem and her friend explain their idea of teaching Gandhi tactics to women’s movements, the woman waits patiently until they’re done and says, “Well of course, my dears. We taught him everything he knew.” Gandhi witnessed the massive women’s movement against suttee, the practice of immolating widows on their husbands’ funeral fires. He also saw the suffrage movement in action in England when he was studying to be a barrister. Steinem says, we “had the Great Man theory of history, and hadn’t known that the tactics we were drawn to were our own.” She then quotes Vita Sackville-West: “I worshipped dead men for their strength, Forgetting I was strong.”

My interest was also piqued by her deep discussion of Native American democracy and life. I’ve added a few books to the queue to dive more deeply into this. The Iroquois Confederacy was used by Benjamin Franklin as the model for the Constitution, knowing its success in unifying huge areas of the U.S. and Canada by bringing together Native nations but also allowing autonomy. Franklin invited two Iroquois men to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention as advisors. They are said to have asked, “Where are the women?”
Random bit- this is the second book in a few days that I’ve encountered this fact: Washington DC can be so hot that the British Embassy gave its workers extra pay for working in a tropical climate. (The other book I saw this in was Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, which I couldn’t get into thus shoved to the return pile.)

Great correction of the statement that prostitution is the oldest profession– correct version is that prostitution is the world’s oldest oppression.

O Pioneers!

Can someone please hook me up to a catheter of Willa Cather? Such a great introduction with this slender novel of Alexandra Bergson’s conquering the prairie of Nebraska. We begin in tough times, deep winter and a sick father who tells his sons to pay attention to their sister (Alexandra) when he’s gone. She manages the farm in his absence, going through lean years and after investigating and talking to other farmers, buying up as much land as she can to her brothers’ dismay. Her childhood friend Carl’s family goes bust, sells her their farm as they flee for Chicago for work (he becomes an engraver). Everything booms wonderfully under her guidance, she makes her brothers rich and her own success far overwhelms theirs. She sends younger brother Emile off to college, and he eventually returns a polished man, desperately in love with their married neighbor, Marie. Carl comes back and stays a month, Alexandra suffers at the hands of her brothers who thinks it looks improper. After a tongue lashing by them, Carl flees to prove his fortune, to return a few years later to comfort Alexandra in her mourning of Emile’s death (shot with Marie by her husband). Beautiful depictions of the prairie, along with a mournful look at city life described by Carl:

When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love

A mediocre book; and yet writing about SF in the 1960s & 1970s seems like a slam dunk for interesting topics. Talbot murmurs in an average book filled with flaws, raising questions and no real insights. So, the premise: San Francisco is an amazing place, and it’s gone through some weird and wild shit through its history. He starts the book with an adjective-bloated description of the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, then backstories us into the early Sixties with what was going on in the city before the hippies descended. These sections are some of Talbot’s strongest, giving us insight into the clique of rockers and hippies and druggies and thugs and communes in the Haight during that time. Talbot, an ex-Chronicle writer, gives us plenty of info on the Chronicle’s role during all this, how Scott Newhall was a renegade who hired a guy who didn’t like sports to write a sports column and a bitchy queen to write the women’s page. (Note: women’s page! I love that we got our own page at least). Herb Caen was already part of the package for Newhall, already writing the columns that described the city in transition.

In Talbot’s mind, women in the Sixties (and probably before and after) were really only useful for a few things, looking at and screwing. He describes one hippie as a “beautiful, self-possessed fourteen-year old runaway.” He can’t mention Janis Joplin without saying that everyone knew her or “knew someone who had slept with her.” Can we make all men writers sign a pledge where they acknowledge their misogynistic blind spots?

Very weak chapter on Chinatown, which included bits of info about Rose Pak (not enough), and Ed Lee (too much). But those nine pages pale compared to the next chapter on sex/gays/Castro. I was left wondering exactly what happened in Chinatown to preserve its interests, save it from the Fillmore wrecking ball, keep FiDi’s encroaching paws off it.

Terrible things happen: Zodiac killings (only get a few lines here), Zebra killings (much more detailed and gory look), Jonestown koolaid murder/suicide, Milk/Moscone murders. But Talbot wraps up this ugly package with an unconvincing silver lining: Feinstein’s centrist mayorship (although he derides her as too buttoned up and denigrates the sexism she experienced), and an egregious reliance on football to carry the day. I admit to not reading the chapter on the 49ers, because… boring. Oh, but more terrible things: AIDS.

* FM radio airwaves were considered second class to AM radio, at least until Tom Donahue took over KMPX with free-form alternative radio playing unspeakable records like the Doors.
* Kwanzaa was created by a guy who was jailed for torturing two women he accused of trying to poison him with crystals (Ron Karenga).
* Randy Hearst struck up an friendship with Sara Jane Moore in an effort to get information about Patty’s whereabouts. Moore would eventually shoot at Gerald Ford in SF a few days after Patty was found, to prove her loyalties to anti-government.
* Patty Hearst peed her pants when the police and FBI finally swooped in to rescue/arrest her, fully expecting that they’d shoot her like they did her comrades in LA.
* Writer Kevin Starr was editing New West during this time and killed a piece on the People’s Temple under pressure from Jim Jones’ group. I’ve never liked Starr’s writing, and this confirms that he’s worthless.
* Both Harvey Milk and George Moscone were deeply entangled in People’s Temple nonsense, Milk writing to President Carter’s secretary of health to get the Social Security checks re-flowing to Guyana, and writing to President Carter himself to support Jones’ kidnapping of Tim and Grace Stoen’s son: “Not only is the life of a child at stake, who presently has loving protective parents in Rev. and Mrs. Jones, but our official relations with Guyana could stand to be jeopardized.”

The End of the Story

I can’t believe I hadn’t read any Lydia Davis before this book. 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. Davis begins with two sections: that the last time the narrator sees “him” he’s moving things out of her garage, and a year later while traveling (to San Francisco? the bookstore seems mightily like City Lights), she walks to find his address but he’s moved on so she walks some more and asks for water at the bookstore and when refused, sits on a chair exhausted. Eventually the bookseller brings her a cup of tea. This cup of tea is what she ultimately ends with, needing a type of ceremony to end the story instead of all the ends that had cropped up along the way within the story.

Ever since I finished this, I think of her whenever I walk through the parks in the city which teem with eucalyptus trees, her words about their smell ping ponging around in my head although I don’t remember the exact ones she used.

Throughout, she’s dropping clues about tiny inconsistencies in the story. Page 61 references “later in the novel I mention a dinner in a Japanese restaurant during which I left the table and tried to call him from a phone booth by the restrooms.” When that scene arrives on page 177, it’s a Chinese restaurant. This challenges us to wonder what is real, what is imagined, what is not even comprehended to be imagined because we are so confident that it is real. Davis exposes how she originally wrote the book in third person but was struggling to get the names right for the characters, “Laura” seeming too peaceful, “Sarah” seeming too staid. She constantly works on how best to lay out the story- chronologically vs. scattered. Entire swaths of the book are dedicated to describing the writing process:

At times I have the feeling someone else is working on this with me. I read a passage I haven’t looked at in weeks and I don’t recognize much of it, or only dimly, and I say to myself, Well that’s not bad, it’s a reasonable solution to that problem. But I can’t quite believe I was the one who found the solution. I don’t remember finding it, and I am relieved, as though I expected the problem to still be there.

In the same way, I will decide to include a certain thought in a certain place in the novel and then discover that several months before, I made a note to include the same thought in the same place and then did not do it. I have the curious feeling that my decision of several months ago was made by someone else. Now there has been a consensus and I am suddenly more confident: if she had the same plan, it must be a good one.

But at other times I discover that this person working with me has been hasty or careless, and now my work is even more difficult, because I have to try to forget what she wrote. Not only do I have to erase it or cross it out but also forget the sound of it or I will write it again, as though from dictation. I should know better, because when I translate, I have to make the English as good as I can when I first write it own or the bad sound of a bad version will stay with me and make it harder for me to write a good version.

Another problem, on some pages, is that I keep putting a sentence in because it seems to belong there, and then I keep taking it out again. I have just figured out why this happens: I put the sentence in because it is interesting, believable, and clearly expressed. I take it out again because something about it is wrong. I put it in again because the sentence is good in itself and could be true. I take it out again because I have at last examined it closely enough to see that for this situation it is simply not true.

There is another reason why I will write a sentence and then immediately take it out: in certain cases I have to write a sentence on the page before I know it won’t work in the novel, because it may be interesting when I say it to myself but no longer interesting when I write it down.

The narrator earns advances for translation work that she spends immediately, going through a frequent boom and bust cycle. She belittles herself a bit for her work, “I’m not tired of translating, though I probably should be. Maybe I should also be embarrassed that I’m still translating after all these years.” Not sure if this is still the case, but she says translators are paid by the word, so the more careful they are, the less they’re paid; for one difficult book she translated, her earnings netted to $1/hr. No one at parties likes to talk to translators, although when she finds another one, she’s excited: “At first I talk to the woman with enthusiasm, because there is so much I have wanted to say about translating to a person who understands the work, things I have thought about a great deal and have kept to myself because I don’t often meet another translator. Then my enthusiasm slowly dies, because everything she says to me in reply is a complain, and I see that she has no joy in translating–no interest in her own work and no interest in me or my work either.”

The Aunt Lute Anthology of U. S. Women Writers, Vol. 2: The 20th Century

After hanging onto this for a month, I’m finally ready to put it away. Volume two of the terrific anthology of women writers in the U.S. has been slurped up, 1400 pages processed and unknown writers surfaced, although fewer unknowns in this modern volume. Anecdotally, there was much more poetry in this volume than the last which was more fiction and essay heavy.

Things to investigate further:
* Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), literary editor of The Crisis magazine; prolific writer of Harlem renaissance: there is a confusion (1924), plum bun (1929), Chinaberry tree (1931), Comedy: American Style (1933).
* Mina Loy’s 1924 poem Gertrude Stein: Curie/ of the laboratory/ of vocabulary/ she crushed/ the tonnage/ of consciousness/ congealed to phrases/ to extract/ a radium of the word
* Dorothy Parker’s The Waltz, snarking on the men who can’t dance properly and how they step on her feet but she pretends all is well. Her internal monologue: “Ow! Get off my instep you hulking peasant! What do you think I am, anyway–a gangplank? Ow!
* Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998). Her contribution to the anthology is a terrifically creepy story, Miami-New York, where a woman sits on an airplane and is kissed by a strange man, imagining a vivid future for the two of them.
* May Sarton (1912-1995). Met V Woolf, got dual National Book Award nomination in 1958 for Faithful Are the Wounds (fiction) and In Time Like Air (poetry)
* Ruth Stone (1915-??) won National Book Award for The Next Galaxy (2002); first book: In an Iridescent Time (1959).
* Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), National Book Award for The Haunting of Hill House (1959); autobiographical Life Among the Savages (1953).
* Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior.
* Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

Hardy Californians: A Woman’s Life with Native Plants

Lester Rowntree was an amateur botanist of the John Muir ilk, never formally schooled but passionate about the plants that were native to California. She ditched her husband after a cancer scare and spend several decades alone collecting specimens of wildflowers and other plants across California through the 1920s through the 1970s. This book is a single droplet in the enormous bucket of writing that Rowntree did over her lifetime, mostly to earn money to live. Her writing is detailed and personal, especially interesting when talking about her setup, dragging along a long-handled shovel and axe due to ranger regulations (“How familiar becomes the quiet ‘Hello,–may I see your shovel and axe?’ of the clean, polite ranger.”) She’s on the road for most of the year, spending winters near Carmel in her shack, but once the snows clear, she’s headed out on the hunt. “If the world has been too much with you it needs a few days adjustment to adapt yourself to a sphere where action takes place no more swiftly now than a thousand years ago. The change from rooms with walls and ceilings to a place of infinite space is always a pleasant one and you soon fall into the basic rhythm of life–rising at dawn, eating only when hungry, washing and filling canteens wherever water is to be found, turning in when dark comes–(the last habit entirely unfits you, on your return home, for the hours kept by civilized society).”

She does have some bad words about the C.C.C. boys who made the landscape “all very nice and neat. When I asked the ignorant ‘Landscape Architect’ who had been put in charge of the work if the Violets could not be left intact, he was highly amused.” Mostly, Rowntree attempts to put together a book that gardeners across the U.S. can use as a guide to which plants from California can be raised in their own plots of land.