The Summer Before the Dark

A lackluster title for Doris Lessing’s magnificent book—better options would have been The Journey or An Awakening. It’s a tremendous book tackling the big questions of identity and aging, seen from the perspective of that forgotten character, an older woman.

Kate Brown is a mid-forties woman with husband and four grown children on the precipice of discovery about herself, something that has been sublimated for decades as she cared for her family. She’s given the chance to help an acquaintance of her husband’s by providing emergency Portuguese translation services to a global committee on food that is meeting in London. From there she takes on a summer job for an exorbitant salary and begins to change as she lives on her own in Turkey, taking up a younger lover briefly in Spain, and then recovering from illness hidden away in a stranger’s (Maureen’s) flat in London. The illness is striking—she loses a lot of weight, her clothes no longer fit, her hair starts to grow out of its red dye and her face becomes haggard. Throughout the summer she’s experimented in dribs and drabs with what it takes to disguise herself as an old woman (in order to be ignored) and then flit back into her “normal” self (adored by all).

Working for this Global Food committee, whenever she wants to sit alone and think, she must change her appearance:

It was really extraordinary! There she sat, Kate Brown, just as she always had been, her self, her mind, her awareness, watching the world from behind a façade only very slightly different from the one she had maintained since she was sixteen. It was a matter only of a bad posture, breasts allowed to droop, and a look of “Yes, if you have to” and people did not see her.

This transition is enhanced after her illness and she delights in dressing up in clothes that get her ignored and going out, then in clothes that get her noticed. She even discovers various facial expressions that she never allowed herself to use before:

Kate was now grimacing into the hand glass, trying on different expressions, like an actress—there were hundreds she had never thought of using! She had been limiting herself to a frightfully small range, most of them, of course, creditable to her, and pleasing, or non-abrasive to others; but what of what was going on inside her now, when she was ill, when she was seething and rebelling like an army of ants on a carcass?

The only shortcomings of the book are the usual decent into tangents that Lessing indulges in. The entire section of travel with her younger lover in Spain was dreadfully boring, enduring his illness and travels deeper into the interior. Lessing also insists on including dreams as a way to stitch the story together which I find annoying. Otherwise, a fabulous book detailing this forgotten segment of society—menopausal women!

Woodswoman IIII: Book Four of the Woodswoman’s Adventures

It appears that I skimmed so quickly through the previous book (Woodswoman 3) that I didn’t bother to write up a review. In this fourth and final book of the series, Anne returns to her cabin on Black Bear Lake occasionally, appreciating the changes that have happened in the 35 years that she’s been living there and writing about it. Much like her other books, she spends way too much time digressing into tales about her pets (this time she picks up a stray kitten along with her usual German shepherds.) There’s also a somewhat bizarre tale about being a visiting professor at a Southern college trying to get her class permission to do a 24-hour nature solo trip; on the reconnaissance mission she encounters a bunch of drunk dudes on horseback who shoot at her?? It’s a quick read and now I’m finally finished with Anne’s musings on life in the woods.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

I, like Sarah Glidden, was looking for some sort of unbiased glimpse into the Israel-Palestine conflict. This graphic novel is a great glimpse into the propaganda that Israel feeds its tourists (Glidden went on a free birthright tour that Israel makes available to all Jews), along with questions that she has about what information is missing. It ends up being a pretty useful guide to understanding more about the conflict in a few hours or less.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

I will read anything Coates writes, but was a bit disappointed in this. I didn’t realize it was going to be a collection of essays he’d already published in the Atlantic from 2009-2016. This makes it a bit of a rehash that I assume was published to take advantage of post-Obama nostalgia in an age of McDonald Tr*mp. He does write intro sections for each of the essays and a recap at the end, but otherwise it’s probably material you’ve already read before (including the well-worth-another-read The Case for Reparations).

Hangsaman

Spooky novel from Shirley Jackson about a 17-year-old girl who’s off to college and who loses her grip on reality somewhat, plus the disappearance of her friend Tony. It’s structured in three sections: Natalie on the cusp of leaving for school, at her parent’s house, possibly/definitely assaulted by a friend of her father’s at a party; Natalie at school, discovering that she’s drinking more than reading and that her English prof has married an ex-student but who still has affairs with current students, letters back and forth to her writer dad with advice and assignments; the final section she returns home and can’t wait to head back to school, when she does it’s an unreal unraveling where she and Tony hide from the college, go eat in town hanging in the railway station, then at a diner where a one-armed man asks for help buttering his roll, then they take a bus to the end of the line and Tony disappears.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Excellent work that will break your heart. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard law graduate who heads south to help defend inmates on death row, especially in Alabama where they turned their execution program on overdrive with the highest rate per capita. Through his many years helping the innocent and the unjustly imprisoned, Stevenson collected a huge bag of stories that he drips before and after the main story of Walter McMillian, who was put on death row while he AWAITED trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Local authorities were angry that he’d dared to have an interracial relationship so were happy to pin the blame on him. Well written, gripping story. I had to put it down every so often just to breathe and try to calm down.

0 To 9: The Complete Magazine, 1967-1969

Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci edited this magazine from 1967 to 69, buying their own paper, stencils, and ink and then using the mimeograph machine at Bernadette’s boyfriend’s father’s office from 6pm to 8am to crank out hundreds of copies. This collection digitizes this artifact from the height of the conceptual art period of NYC, with poems, plays, drawings (Sol Lewitt included), interviews. The afterword is from the two guys who decided to republish this in 2004, giddy with their discovery of a few old copies in the NYPL. Vito’s intro note is a strange meandering whine about where has Bernadette gone, she doesn’t use email thus has escaped from the ease of catch-up circles although she did send him an unanswered card last year. Bernadette’s intro is much tighter and more descriptive of the process, the people, the magazine.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait

Taking a break this MLK weekend from shuddering about Mcdonald Tr*mp’s tactless idiocy/racism/greed to read this gem from Pete Souza. The photographer had extraordinary access to Obama during the 8 years of his presidency and captured real moments that occasionally brought me to tears. Say what you will about Obama, the man has charm, style, wit, intelligence, compassion, and that comes through in these photos. It is an absolute delight to remind yourself that outstanding presidents who don’t embarrass us have existed and will exist again in the future.

Doris: An Anthology 1991-2001

Wonderful time capsule of the 90s, packed with typewriters, anarchists, midnight bike rides, living in tree houses and squats, roaming from Asheville to Vermont to Berkeley to Eureka to NYC, advice about surviving abuse, herbal remedies, recipes, scenes from punk life, basement shows, lists of books and 101 ways to get romance, her sister Caty and farming and building greenhouses, resources for depression (including herbs: guarana, damiana, peppermint, rosemary, gotu kola). Doris is one of my favorite zines and I was lucky to be able to catch up on these early issues via the anthology. Amazing amazing amazing.

Nicholas Nickleby

That gaseous old windbag, Dickens, has exhausted me after many weeks of tackling this, his third novel. It brims with the same colorful cast of miscellaneous characters that add a bit of sparkle to the 700+ pages. These are the random bits that delight, like the names of companies as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

The story follows the usual lines—a poor widow and her children reaches out to her rich brother-in-law for help, only to find that he’s a scoundrel. Uncle Ralph sends Nicholas out to be a teacher at a ridiculously abusive school where he ends up whipping the schoolmaster and leaving with one of the runaway boys, then ending up acting on the stage under an assumed name to make money for a while. Nicholas’ sister Kate is of course beautiful and pure and angelic, and Uncle Ralph sends her into the various clutches of terrible people in London. The widow mother, Mrs. Nickleby, is a blathering buffoon of the type that Dickens frequently makes women—airheads concerned with appearances and telling endless tales of their former glory. The only amusing part she plays is when she believes that the insane neighbor is in love with her. Caught in their chimney, the old man demands to be sent a bottle of lightning, a thunder sandwich, and a plate of boots to eat.

Miss La Creevy is one of the only female characters that comes close to being interesting in all of Dickens’ work that I’ve read so far. She’s a portrait painter who is an independent, friendly, smart spinster. “Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone for so long. The little bustling, active, cheerful creature, existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidant of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss La Creevy’s.”

The Allure of the Archives

This book will delight anyone who has spent any time doing research. Translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, this was originally published in 1989 before the vast digitization of archives had begun in earnest. Farge leads us through the Parisian archives of criminal complaints from the 18th century, peppering her account with scenes from her own time—racing other researchers to get the best spot, shivering with the cold, hoping that the lights stayed on. She also brings to life those characters she encounters on the page, the man who embroidered a letter to his wife on a handkerchief while in jail, a packet of seeds that had not been opened in 2 centuries.

What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm

This book got me thinking that books need some sort of a rating system like movies, but to warn people of the level of male smarminess/privilege inside. Works by Mailer or Roth or Kerouac (and this) would score in the toxic red zone and thus sensitive readers could avoid them. Alas, this warning label did not exist and I took seriously Jenny Odell’s recommendation that this was her new favorite book, so read it.

If you’re lucky, you’ve never heard of Stephen Diamond, author of this 1970 remembrance of the hippie farm he and a bunch of dudes lived on in Massachusetts. Oh I guess there were a few girls there, but they get slighted in the story until they do something like bitch about how they’re doing all the cooking and cleaning of dishes. Diamond’s words are a poor man’s Kerouac, he attempts to free associate and lacks any of Jack’s sparkle or rhythm.

Against Everything: Essays

I have a theory that Greif founded n+1 because no one else would publish his writing. This collection is a group of essays he first put forth in that publication, launched in 2004. The only solid essay of the book was the first one he published, Against Exercise, in 2004. Maybe he worked hard at polishing it, and then once n+1 launched, his attention was diverted to managing the magazine instead of honing his writing. Besides tearing apart our culture of exercise, he touches on our food obsession, sexualizing children, Octomom & Bernie Madoff taking the brunt of anger during the financial crisis (woman & Jew, the usual targets instead of those who actually inflicted damage). There’s an embarrassing section wherein he muses about music, from Radiohead to Tribe Called Quest, cataloging his attempt to learn to rap as a Jew from Boston. Add in an overly boring section on reality TV, a dash of the trailer park near Walden Pond, a nip of police and Zuccotti Park, and you’ve got the book of essays.

In Against Exercise he calls out that what used to be private is now on display, gym rats obsessing about their numbers and enslaved by the routine. Another observation is that jogging is “a direct invasion of public space…. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

A later essay, The Concept of Experience, takes aim at readers and writers: “Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books… Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures.”

Girls Gone Old

Fiona Helmsley’s collection of essays is sometimes satisfying. Best are the recollections of her first experience of writing on the internet for Livejournal in 2002, early pioneer blogging, creating a new identity from her mom’s home in Connecticut as she detoxed from drugs. Also the essay on the power of saying no, w/r/t Elliot Rodger and his idiotic manifesto and massacre because women wouldn’t sleep with him. Overall, it wasn’t terribly inspiring. I think I’d like it better couched as short stories, reality masquerading behind a thin film of fiction.

London Fog: The Biography

If you’re wondering how it’s possible to write over 300 pages about London’s fog, I’m just as perplexed. Corton relies heavily on quotes from Dickens (primarily Bleak House, but also Pickwick and The Old Curiosity Shop), interspersed with illustrations from Cruikshank, Claude Monet, Punch, and stills from Hitchcock. She also uses a lot of American authors to make her point, noting that Melville is quoted in the OED’s citation for the first expression of “pea soup” to describe the fog in 1849 (Corton offhandedly sums up Moby-Dick as “vast, baggy, and iconic”), in addition to Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain’s impressions of the fog.

What’s odd is her complete lack of British voices about London’s fog except for Dickens’ plaintive wail from the 19th century. What of those essential Londoners, Pepys of the 17th century, Defoe of the 18th, and Woolf of the 20th? Corton is eerily silent, smothering their voices which are conspicuously absent from the text.

The book in a nutshell: London’s geography always made it susceptible to natural fog. Coupled with pollution from coal fires, wood fires, and the industrial revolution, things got out of hand. The Clean Air Act of of 1956 solved the problem.