Two Thousand Million Man-Power

Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan’s 1937 book wafted its way to me from the Library of Congress by way of ILL. It’s a strange tale, the story of Robert and Katherine heavily interspersed with news from the world, as much ink devoted to happenings in Russia, Italy, the U.S. as to their tiny love story. They meet at a League of Nations debate and began a friendship, realizing they were too poor to marry and Katherine would risk her job (married teachers were getting let go). Lots of sneaking around and waiting for years upon years before finally Katherine takes her vacation without him and he sleeps with another woman which sends him straight back into Katherine’s arms, begging her to marry him. Robert’s laboratory job fills his days, making cold creams and other makeup products, and at night he’s supposed to be working on his treatise about the nature of Time, only that gets shoved aside more and more. Eventually they marry, start spending lavishly, buying things on installment. Of course Robert loses his job, despair, Katherine scours London for a job and sourly supports them for a year before Robert finds something again. In the end he turns to drink and realizes that his whole life is meaningless, wasted. Cheerful stuff!

On a technical note, the flat, cold way that paragraphs pushed the plot forward were bumped against paragraphs chock full of news about the modern world getting faster and wilder and more chaotic did serve its purpose but was a bit mind-numbing.

What We Carry

Exquisite poems from Dorianne Laux in this 1994 collection. I don’t know what to say here, there’s no point in recapping a book of poems, so I suppose I’ll offer up a rendering of one of my favorites:

Late October

Midnight. The cats under the open window,
their guttural, territorial yowls.

Crouched in the neighbor’s driveway with a broom,
I jab at them with the bristle end,

chasing their raised tails as they scramble
from bush to bush, intent on killing each other.

I shout and kick until they finally
give it up; one shimmies beneath the fence,

the other under a car. I stand in my underwear
in the trembling quiet, remembering my dream.

Something had been stolen from me, valueless
and irreplaceable. Grease and grass blades

were stuck to the bottoms of my feet.
I was shaking and sweating. I had wanted

to kill them. The moon was a white dinner plate
broken exactly in half. I saw myself as I was:

forty-one years old, standing on a slab
of cold concrete, a broom handle slipping

from my hands, my breasts bare, my hair
on end, afraid of what I might do next.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Tremendous dissection of the art of biography wrapped around the story of Sylvia and Ted. A masterpiece! Not only was this an amazing read, a journalistic romp into the land of the literary, but the breadcrumbs dropped along the way were delicious treats, like the discovery of the 1962 BBC readings Plath did of poems from Ariel. I can put up with most of the terrible things that the internet has spawned as long as it keeps rare recordings like this alive.

Malcolm aligns herself on the Hughes’s side in this never-ending argument over Plath’s legacy and makes some well-reasoned points that actually melted my heart a bit towards Ted. Poor man was stuck swirling around in the tornado of her suicide for decades, never really to extricate himself or sever his own name to be anything but the Ted Hughes in relation to Plath (for many of us; of course his Poet Laureate crown was a distinction of sorts).

This point is achingly true:

In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

As well as this:

The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.

This Big Fake World: A Story in Verse

Recapping a book doesn’t quite work for a book of poetry; I need a new method. Ada Limón gives us layered poems stacked into a story, filled with snow globes and hardware stores, a troubled marriage, letters to Ronald Reagan. Her four characters are the hero, his soon-to-be-estranged wife, the woman at the hardware store he has a crush on, and his friend Lewis who writes those notes to Reagan. Each poem can be taken separately, exists in its own universe of a page. But they press together to tell the story of a lonely man whose wife leaves him and he eventually finds happiness at the hardware store. Limón chooses epigraphs from Hamlet (“What a piece of work is man?”), Letters to Wendy’s, and song lyrics. All of the poems sparkle, but if I had to pick a favorite part it’d be the end of The Hardware Lady Repeats Herself where she asks a customer Will that be all? “and the woman nods, but seems not to have heard hear, so again, Will that be all? Then nothing, as if together, they had already answered this question one thousand times and finally that had been enough.”

The Wife

I hope that the recent success of the movie turns people to the book as well. Reading the book quickly on the heels of watching the movie, it’s astounding how much hits the cutting room floor in order to produce a movie. There are truckloads of nuance and backstory and characters that are simply abandoned in an attempt to quickly tell this story via Hollywood, sacrificing the 3rd child of the couple who happened to turn out to be a lesbian to her fraud author father’s dismay. Too complicated for the silver screen? It’s the kind of book that’s crazy to read alongside the other things I’m reading at the moment: an exploration of Sylvia Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes. In this novel, the more talented writer is the woman, and she completely subsumes herself to her husband in order to gain the success that would never be hers as a woman writer. Sylvia, of course, gains her power separately from Ted, but only reaches the pinnacle once she offs herself, giving extra oomph to her words predicting death.

The one thing that puzzles me is the ending (same in the movie)— Joan tells the biographer that his instincts are incorrect, that Joe was the writer, not her. Does she have to preserve this fiction because to say otherwise would be to look ridiculous, grasping, insane? I suppose so. She was yearning for freedom on her own terms, and she gets freedom of a sort when he dies.

The Ritz Carltons

The experience of reading a 90-year-old book sometimes is better than the actual words themselves, as is the case with this book of sketches from Fillmore Hyde. A droll, tongue-in-cheek poking fun at the foibles of the ultra wealthy from 1927, this focuses on a family of three, the Ritz Carlton couple and their daughter. Every quick story seems to end with Mrs. Carlton swooning and the doctor being called in to assist. There’s nothing subtle about the jokes here, the rich are pilloried for their “tough” lives of having to decide between vacationing in the Hamptons or Europe or California, the daughter deciding to re-do their private railcar because the gold leaf was in disrepair.

Thanks to ILL, this book traveled with its thick pages and gorgeous cover all the way from the Boston Athenaeum to my hands, complete with check-out cards stamped in 1928.

The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience

I have some major beefs with this book but overall it was worth reading, a deep dive into journals and letters from the overland journey to get to California in 1849 and the gold mining that ensued. The main story line is through William Swaine’s letters and journals, and his wife Sabrina and brother George’s letters back; this is augmented by filler quotes from other journals/letters/accounts that close the gap on the same journey.

As I was reading about the frenzy in 1849’s California with its grasping and greed and cutthroat antics, I looked out my window on a San Francisco 170 years later that retains many of the same characteristics: (mostly) men washed onto its shores looking for their mega-payout from tech, still paying people to wait in lines (in 1849 it was for the mail, people selling their place at the front of the line for $10-$25 which was $300-$800 in today’s dollar), still acting like children (great quote from a letter where a man tells his wife he wants to send something back to their children but nothing is available since “everything here is for grownup children.”)

The editor, Holliday, flashes his misogynist card early, letting you know that the main attraction for him to this story was that it was “an escape from the moral authority of mothers and wives, from the constraining traditions and Sunday admonitions that had ruled for generations.” A few pages later: “Within hours of their last goodbyes, the men felt a new sense of themselves, a slipping free from the past… for the first time in history, thousands of men were released by mutual consent from their filial or other social obligations…”

As Holliday sets the scene for us, he explains why William left his wife behind with brother George, saying “someone had to stay home to watch over Sabrina and her baby…” and that William wrote his diary for Sabrina “so that she would know how her husband, though absent for so long, had suffered and struggled for her well-being.” ARGH! I tried not to slash lines through my copy of this book while I read. Besides this, Holliday takes some extreme liberalities in assuming thoughts and feelings for his subject: “Swain experienced some of this freedom, but he felt constrained by his sense of obligation to George, Sabrina, and Little Cub [his daughter] and by his mother’s admonitions to read his Bible.”

Women were affected by gold fever too, as in this quote from a sadly unnamed (and unmarried) woman: “It was with the greatest reluctance I gave up the idea of going to California…. I should have liked a few thousand of its glittering ore.”

After Midnight

Absolutely brilliant rendering of what life in Nazi Germany was like in the final months before the war. I adored Gilgi and set off for more from this overlooked writer, discarding The Artificial Silk Girl as too similar to Gilgi and settling on Nacht Mitternacht, pub’d in 1937 in Amsterdam where she’d fled (before sneaking back into Germany in 1940 under an assumed name.)

The life in Frankfurt is hellish, everyone spying on everyone else and ratting out the slightest infraction to the Gestapo. Sanna, our narrator, is a 19-year-old who doesn’t like getting lectured by Goebbels on the radio and thinks Hitler sweats too much. Her aunt reports her, she flees Cologne after a hideous interrogation, goes to live with her step-brother, a popular novelist whose works are now banned by the Nazis (basically Keun’s situation). Bits dribble out through the story, her stepbrother wants to off himself or escape his life, her cousin/fiancee Franz has just killed an ex-SS officer, a guest at their party (an outspoken anti-Nazi) has just shot himself in the head during the party after this speech:

I’ve spent over ten years writing my fingers to the bone, racking my brains, to warn people of the madness of the barbarism ahead. A mouse squeaking to hold back an avalanche. Well, the avalanche has come down, burying the lot of us. And the mouse has squeaked its last. I am old and ridiculous: no power or desire to begin all over again… There are plenty of others to say the rest of what I have said for me…

This came out in 1937. Germany was well aware of what lay ahead. Keun lays it out so simply. I’m astonished that we don’t have more voices like this reporting from right up until the edge of the war.

Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World

Muddled hodgepodge of a book that was not successful in its attempt to find commonality in the act/art of waiting. Mostly I’m fascinated by the pneumatic tubes which were essential to delivering mail in NYC, Philly, Paris, London, and the reason I picked up this book. But Farman uses a not-well-defined concept (we’ve always waited, it has an impact on our lives) as an excuse for trips to Japan and Australia in addition to chasing Civil War battlefields and musing about the Hubble telescope. What a weird and patched-up book whose seams are fraying and tattered. There’s a whole discourse on the design of computer icons to indicate waiting.

Paris used the pneumatic tube mailing system from 1866-1984; London launched it in 1853 and it was used in the U.S. from 1893 to 1953 to shoot mail quickly across town from one station to another. Farman dazzles himself by discovering that one of these stations (Station A) is now an Apple Store, fitting nicely into his story about instant messaging and how making people wait in line for their products creates desirability.  Anyway, the system was decommissioned in the 1950s because the tubes were expensive to maintain and trucks could handle large quantities of mail cross-town.

Tubes were also used in department stores (clerks take the money for your purchase and shoot it to another floor, getting your receipt and change back by way of tube as well), the NYPL library, banks, and hospitals.

Some guy thought he’d figured out the solution to more cheaply laying fiber across NYC by utilizing the existing pneumatic tube system, but nope, much cheaper to just dig shallow trenches. Also, post-9/11 the actual schematics of the tube system became impossible to access due to terrorist threat.



A fantastic introduction to Sinclair Lewis! This book follows Sam Dodsworth, a retired automobile executive whose wife is bored with small town U.S. life, clamoring to be taken away to Europe to spend his millions. Once there she swoons with adoring men who introduce her to romance and quite easily lure her away from her stolid husband. Sam trails around amiably for a few years, watching the affairs, then leaves her when she decides to marry a poor Count. He stumbles blindly around the continent for a bit, ends up in the arms of an American widow in Venice who he’d met earlier. The book was a grand excuse to indulge in speeches about the differences in attitudes between Europe and America (circa late 1920s when the book was written).

Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

Very much enjoyed Ullman’s essays about technology, life in SF during the boom/bust/boom, programming from a woman’s perspective. She’s an eloquent writer who blends the humanities with the sciences in a way that makes her story compelling to everyone, even if you don’t know how to program COBOL or BASIC. She rails against the prepackaged wizards that arrived to take the mystery out of coding, just three clicks of the mouse and you have the skeleton of a program up and running (“not content with infantilizing the end user, the purveyors of point-and-click seem determined to infantilize the programmer as well”).

I loved her reminisces about the Y2K bug and the ingenious solution of two men who worked for a railroad company—they simply reset the internal clock of the network to 1972 because the year 2000’s days of the week are the same as those in 1972, which “literally buys them time” to figure out a permanent solution. Y2K was pretty much a non-issue because of the concerted effort the world put into fixing it.

Ullman is also concerned with the migration of the internet to hyper-capitalist ends, convincing consumers that self-service is the way to go. “Whereas companies once vied for your business by telling you about their courteous people and how well they would serve you, their job now is to make you believe that only you can take care of yourself… In the internet age, under the pressure of globalized capitalism and its slimmed-down profit margins, only the very wealthy will be served by actual human beings. The rest of us must make do with web pages, and feel happy about it.” This is something I’ve been witnessing for years now, something I reassure a friend who works as an executive assistant about her job security—rich people need an actual PERSON to order around, it makes them feel more important than bossing around a robot. (Witness all those losers barking commands at their Alexas.)

More than just extreme capitalism, Ullman fears the bubble that the internet creates. “Physical reality put a natural break on the formation of cults, separatist colonies, underground groups, apocalyptic churches and extreme political parties.” But now you can reinforce your own beliefs from the comfort of your home. This focus on the individual’s desires and comforts decimates the civic space that props up democracy.

She talks about a programming gig she got in 1981 for a company that sounds a lot like Macy’s from her descriptions. Her job was bug fixing, and one of the remaining bugs was with a report that she presented each week to the buyers. Turns out the report had never provided accurate information so they buyers had never looked at it. “So this was my job: Go to a floor that did not exist as far as the elevator was concerned. Work on programs that were completely useless. Make sure they ran anyway.” (Spoiler alert: she fixed the bug, made the report actually mean something. The problem came down to an underscore instead of a dash in a file name.)

Ullman traces her route to programming by way of a media group at college that banded together to buy a Portapak. “Film requires expertise, but anyone handed a Portapak learned how to use it within minutes. The reel-to-reel recording deck came in a leather case with a strap light enough to sling over your shoulder and carry for awhile… I learned I had no fear of machines… Time went on; I graduated from Cornell and moved to San Francisco, where, one day in 1979, I walked past a Radio Shack store on Market Street and saw in the window a microcomputer called the TRS-80. Reader, I bought it… The fact that I knew next to nothing about computers was actually a draw. I could fool around and see what happened, as with the Portapak.”

The most depressing section of essays is about the current atmosphere in San Francisco—depressing because she describes accurately the hell-on-earth that it has become. After the first boom/bust of internet, startup culture has descended again, but this time with fratty finance bros flip-flopping their way through pitch decks. “The would-be CEOs can more accurately be called conformists. They want what they are supposed to want; they are the men in the gray flannel suits of our time: tee shirts and jeans, causal business khakis. They are not wild. They march down the startup alley of Second Street not as assemblies of punks but like a disciplined army on maneuvers—yet ever anxious. Their ventures are likely to fade away, as a fickle public disposes of both the soldiers and the code, app by app.”

A very satisfying part of her ridicule is reserved for the co-working spaces that have sprung up to accommodate this army. Ullman raises an eyebrow (as have I) at all the ridiculous slogans plastered between the free beer and the cramped open plan desks: Do what you love, Make life not just a living, If you don’t like your job create one, Change the world. “The assumption is change for the better. But rarely have I met would-be founders who consider how the ‘better’ world they envision may be entwined with one that is worse.” She goes on to cite Uber, Amazon, FB as those companies that are changing the world for the worse. “The drive is to make a fortune, and it hardly matters what follows in its wake. ‘Change the world!’ is but an advertisement, a branding that obscures the little devil, disruption, that hides within the mantra, a slogan to rally the youth, tell them it’s fine, you are not here just to make money: You are noble.”

Seven Notebooks: Poems

Interesting concept—McGrath supposedly kept seven distinct notebooks during this time, each seems to have a theme (e.g. Hurricane, Luxury, Dawn), he went through a haiku stage plus liberal quotes from other male poets, his obsession with Whitman and Neruda, his interactions with the world at large and his family on a smaller scale, observations from his son Jackson (Sam seems more distant, older?) and wife Elizabeth. Preferred the work where he circles around the same theme (like in the Bob Hope poem, circling capitalism and snowstorms) instead of the meandering loose tongued snippets from his life.

I think what I hate about this approach is that it makes it seem as if McGrath simply oozed into 7 different notebooks and clapped them shut and sent them off to the publisher, as if there were no editing involved. Words don’t fall perfectly from our brains onto the page.

The Song of Achilles

Magical retelling of the ancient story of the Greek war against Troy, details masterfully filled in by Madeline Miller. If you’ve read The Iliad, there are no real surprises here, just an in-depth exploration of the tender and loving relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Odysseus makes an appearance, of course, as well as the throng of other Greeks from the well-known tale. Brilliant and captivating in a way that modern readers struggle to feel about Homer’s version.

Gilgi: One of Us

First book of the year sets the tone for the rest of the annual avalanche of books, I hope. A stunning 1931 novel by Irmgard Keun, translated from the German by Geoff Wilkes, tells of life in the Weimar Republic (Cologne, specifically) for an independent 20-something woman who discovers on her 21st birthday that she’s adopted. Her methodical life is perfect—secretarial work in an office during the day, language classes at the Berlitz at night (English/French/Spanish so she can work anywhere and be a translator), impassioned discussions with friends Olga and Pit. She seeks out her birth mother, mistakenly thinking it was the woman who handed her over to her adopted mother but instead of this poverty-stricken seamstress it’s some upper class woman who paid the seamstress to get rid of the child. This is helpful later when Gilgi’s life is unraveling and she needs money fast for a friend (who ends up gassing himself, his wife, and 2 kids). Her perfect life also includes a separate studio where she listens to a phonograph and practices her translations. Then she meets Olga’s friend Martin and falls in love with him, slowly abandoning her precise life for a slovenly one that racks up debts and an unwanted pregnancy. In the end she flees on a train to Berlin, still pregnant, in hopes of restarting life.

When her cousins come to visit, the family all huddles in one small apartment. “Gilgi borrowed a travel book from the library that morning—she’d like to read, but that would be considered impolite. Everyone is getting on everyone else’s nerves a little, everyone would like to do something other than what she’s doing just now. But everyone keeps smiling, preserving the impression that they have lots and lots in common.”

Olga wants to travel to Majorca where it’s cheap and warm and people speak a language she doesn’t understand. “Can you imagine how magical it is to hear just a melody of words, without understanding all the nonsense that lies behind them?”

Another great untranslatable German word: Weltschmerz (depression,  apathy, weariness caused the state of the world).

Irmgard Keun’s books were banned and burned by the Nazis, she fled into exile, then faked a suicide in 1940 in order to sneak back into Germany under a different name.