Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

Yikes, step away from any book that talks about slavery like this, calling freed slaves “grown-up liberated infants” whose refusal to work meant ruin for landlords, “lazy vagabonds… thieves, drunkards, runaways, incendiaries” who must be punished. “Yes, flogging is inhumane, but let somebody provide a substitute.” Um, what? “Slavery is a time-honored institution among Oriental peoples; that it will ever be entirely abolished, I doubt; in any case, attempts to destroy venerable custom at a single dash are foolish.” Rather hard to keep reading this after that outburst.

Salamah bint Saïd (Emily) was born into royalty of the sultanate of Zanzibar and Omar in 1844. The book is mostly about a princess’s life in East Africa. Originally published in German in 1886, it was translated by Lionel Strachey in 1907.

Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir

I don’t know what to say about this one except to exhort you to read it, read it, read it. Reichl’s writing talent, humor, and down-to-earthness gives such a wicked gleeful glimpse into the glamorous world of Conde Nast during her 10 year tenure as head honcho of Gourmet magazine. Brilliant chapters encapsulate her whirlwind, hesitation, acceptance, a giddy return to just being able to appreciate a meal after years as a restaurant critic. It was under her that the DFW Consider the Lobster piece came out, and her team saved Gourmet from the trash heap for a few years before it was killed off.

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

I’m amazed that I somehow had never read this, but I enjoyed Susan Orlean’s The Library Book and was reminded about this book by the profile of Evan Ratliff in my alumni magazine. The structure of this book is phenomenal—she starts out with Laroche and his theft of ghost orchids from the swamp. (“I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words ‘swamp’ and ‘orchids’ and ‘Seminoles’ and ‘cloning’ and ‘criminal’ together in one short piece.”) She branches out into the general weirdness of orchids and Florida. There’s a section on the real estate scams throughout the ages, how one parcel of swampland netted hundreds of millions in profits when people bought sight unseen. They paved some of the roads and now bear sightings can be pinpointed at particular intersections in the jungle-overgrown grid. “It was a weird unquiet stillness, and yet the place had a weird overfull emptiness. It was more ghostly than a ghost town. In a ghost town, only the people are missing. Here the people are missing, too. It didn’t seem like a peaceful place where nothing ever happened—it was full of the feeling of a million things planned on and never done.”

Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy

I love sociology books based on extensive interviews with subjects, and this is no exception. Ravenelle interviewed 80 workers from Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kitchensurfing, spending hours with each subject to get past the fluff and nonsense and dig into the real dirt. Airbnb hosts admitted to sleeping with guests, Uber drivers talk candidly about peeing wherever they can, Taskers talk about random sexual harassment, and Kitchensurfing chefs dish on requests they participate in orgies. The best gigs seemed to be Airbnb & Kitchensurfing (RIP), where there was really minimal interaction with the public. Uber and TaskRabbit push the downtrodden and out-of-other-option folks into situations that were unsafe, toxic, and without protection from their corporate bosses. Essentially, the dwindling middle class finds themselves able to hire servants from the ever-burgeoning class of underlings.

The last paragraph of the book sums it up nicely: “The sharing economy offers workers a way to ‘save themselves’ through extra work, but the growth of the sharing economy may only continue to subvert workers’ rights and protections. Hard-won victories for workers’ rights and protections are being hacked and disrupted in the name of a ‘cheaper, poorer quality’ progress that is eviscerating a hundred years of workers’ rights. The disruption offered by the sharing economy is simply a hustle.”

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

Yes! A much deeper dive into the optics/lens-based visual techniques used in the 15th century up until photography was invented. I remember seeing Hockney’s Great Wall (see below) at the De Young in 2013 but it didn’t bring me to my knees like reading in depth about these images. Especially the explosion of left-handed drinkers at the end of the 16th century when lenses came onto the scene, which reverse the image (instead of earlier optics like concave mirrors which invert the image but keep it from flipping across the axis). The left-handed drinking phenomenon arrived with Caravaggio and lasted for ~40 years until good quality flat mirrors reversed the image back. Fascinating stuff.

True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney

I’ve been authorizing myself small sips of this for the last few weeks in order to prolong the delight and maximize my full attention which tends to wander off to various spots of further discovery. I loved the explorations Hockney did with photographs in the 1980s, railing against the flatness of normal photographs and trying to get to a true vision of how we look at things. He would assemble collages of the resulting images, layering them to recreate the way we glimpse at images. Explaining his process to Weschler about taking dozens of photos of  location then having the rolls developed at a local one-hour processing spot, he had to convince them to print all the photos and would still get “wonderful standardized notices back with my batches of prints patiently explaining what I am doing wrong, how I should try to center the camera on the subject, focus on the foreground, and so forth.”

Arguably one of his best examples now sits in the Getty collection:

People criticized the painter for his work with photographs saying they’re not art, and I love Hockney’s response: “I couldn’t care less in a sense whether they are art or not. It’s not up to me to say, and maybe it’s not up to him either. It’s certainly interesting where they’re leading and where they’ve led, and you don’t stop in the middle of it all because, you know, ‘Gee, I’m not sure if this is art anymore.'” Later he notes, “If art isn’t playful, it’s nothing. Without play, we wouldn’t be anywhere. Play is incredibly important; it’s deeply serious as well.”

He begins to lose his hearing before his 50th birthday and revels in his new hearing aids which he got in bright mismatched colors of red and blue. “The moment I put it on, it was like a big muffler had been taken off my head.” When people notice the aids they ask if he has a hearing problem and he says “Well I used to but I don’t know.”

The really interesting sections of this book dive into Hockney’s investigation into how artists worked in the 15th century, more specifically what type of optical aids they used. He begins to collect images that show how portraits were a bit awkward up until 1425 when something shifted (concave mirrors, then lenses, camera lucidas, etc.), all the way up until photography used chemicals to stamp the image on paper, and then a return to awkwardness/cubism as a critique of photography and the entire lens-based tradition. As he gathers more and more evidence of this, Hockney faxes his handwritten findings on a nightly basis, never having learned to type. All of this means I’m probably going to have to dive deep into his book about the matter next, Secret knowledge: rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters.


Ruby Ray: Kalifornia Kool: Photographs 1976-1982

Extremely talented photographer Ruby Ray was on the scene when punk broke open in San Francisco in the mid-1970s. She wielded her camera expertly, layering double exposures, timed exposures, experimental amazingness, tinged with a dose of sass (especially throwing shade on Sid Vicious, whose antics were decidedly not appreciated). Invaluable documentation of the early days, incredible shots of Mark Mothersbaugh & gang, Darby Crash’s exuberance, the hole in the wall hotel room where punk fans lived at the Oz Hotel, pantsed Jello Biafra, and just tons of glorious Mabuhay footage.

I love this photo of Jean Conner and Bruce:

And is this the old parking lot near Sutro Baths that’s been turned into a tidy tourist spot?

Hinterland: America’s New Landscape of Class and Conflict

Neel explores the flip side of the creative class and coastal bubble cities, telling about his experiences in the hinterlands of the Nevada desert, the border between Oregon and California, Ferguson MO, suburbs of Seattle, and outskirts of southern China. This is the real deal, more legitimate than  JD Vance’s much praised but highly suspect Hillbilly Elegy—he’s got the pedigree to talk about the underclass but doesn’t blame the poverty-stricken for the woes of late stage capitalism.

It’s beautiful writing as well as being sharp and pointed. Here he reflects on jail time from participating in the riots of Occupy Seattle: “If was only in those dull chrome holding cells and glass-glittering streets that I fully realized how cold that distant landscape had been, the downtown towers simply the crystallization of dead labor drawn together from all across the globe, the streets nothing but corridors for cops and capital. Everything that we were doing there—rioting, occupying, walking out of our jobs as fast-food workers—was all caught up already in the spectacle of itself, captured in a cold, dead space built to contain it. And it was really only from outside the walls that this could be seen clearly. That hinterland of decaying, industrialized suburbia seemed to offer a certain counterpoint to the ‘creative class’ and its urban palace. From this distance, hidden sightlines could be found and the occluded core of the region’s economy unveiled.”

His description of the work-release program included mention of how the whole system depended on the functioning of an underlying software system that told the guards to let you out to work or record when you should be back. The system crashed one day, wiping out the data so everyone was stuck inside while people had to be called up to input their work schedules one by one. Trapped inside for five days, they played hearts and talked about what they used to do and what they would do when they were released, “even when we knew the reality was that we had done and would be doing much the same thing, only more alone. When things break, it only shows that everything is already broken.”

Coastal cities survive and thrive because “they are where all the factors of economic concentration tend to be combined—seaports, rail and interstate hubs, first-stop destinations for foreign air freight, historical endowments in the form of established universities, wealthy residents, and leisure industries.”

The Ferguson discussion was interesting, noting how because the area was previously wealthy and majority white, it lacked the necessary narrow street infrastructure and security cameras usually used to quell rioting in cities.

The concept of the near-hinterland, that outer ring near cities dense with industry, likely to be “the central theater in the coming class war, the most concise summation of which is simply the fact that large populations of people who have been made surplus to the economy live and work along its integral corridors.”

Walking: One Step At a Time

I’m a sucker for books on walking. Unfortunately, it’s harder to write about than it would seem. Kagge (translated by Becky Crook from Norwegian) plods along and tries to interest you in glimpses from his packet of walks, including a sewer walk under NYC and a 40 mile hike through LA, but the spark never catches. Instead, it’s dull and dreary, pedestrian prose in every sense.

Man’s Search for Meaning

I read this 10 years ago and may make a habit of re-reading it every decade. Frankl survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau through transcending the filth and negative and despair. The last of human freedoms is to choose your attitude under any set of circumstances, to choose how you react. What matters is to make the best of any given situation.

He quotes Bismark: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Nietzsche is also quoted several times: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Frankl founded a school of thought called logotherapy, which believes the meaning of life can be discovered in three different ways: by creating work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering (if it’s avoidable and you wallow in it, you’re masochistic.) The notion that “experiencing can be as valuable as achieving is therapeutic because it compensates for our one-sided emphasis on the external world of achievement at the expense of the internal world of experience” (here he quotes Edith Weisskopf-Joelson.)

It also embraces the idea of paradoxical intention as cure (the stutterer who can’t stutter when he tries to, the man who sweats excessively unable to sweat when trying to do so). The procedure consists of a reversal of the patient’s attitude. “By this treatment, the wind is taken out of the sails of anxiety.”

Despite losing his wife, parents, brother to the concentration camps, he survives and pulls himself back into humanity; the meaning of his life was to help others discover the meaning of theirs.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen blew me away a few years ago and I recently stumbled onto a mention of this 2004 work, essays mulling over a post-9/11 world, a post-2000 election world, a world where Saddam Hussein is pulled humiliated out of a hole in the ground, a world where Amadou Diallo is shot 41 times while holding a cellphone, a world where Louima was sodomized with a broomstick in police custody, a world where her sister lost her husband and children in a car accident, a world where prescription drugs are available for anything and everything you need. She goes to the Museum of Emotion in London and plays a game that asks yes/no questions, as long as you answer correctly you can keep playing. The first question asks if you were terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died. Rankine truthfully says no and is booted from the game. “Walking out, I couldn’t help but think the question should have been, Was Princess Diana ever really alive? I mean, alive to anyone outside of her friends and family—truly?”

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Delightful novel about a woman with a hideous past (her mother tried to kill her and successfully killed her younger sister) who attempts to be normal, going to her office job, spending weekends with frozen pizza and vodka to pass the days. She develops a crush on a musician she spots onstage, spinning out a fantasy life, and attempts to redo her image in order to be with him. Her co-worker,  Raymond, is always there in the background, and they become unlikely friends and more. Eleanor’s candor, frankness, inability to not speak her mind is refreshing and weird. She grapples with feelings of intense loneliness and is unsure of how to make her way in the world until Raymond leads her onto the path toward normalcy.

“She wasn’t actually chewing gum, but her demeanor was very much that of a gum chewer.”

After Eleanor has a bit of a makeover, her coworkers treat her differently, kinder. “Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

If ever there was a book to read during a sweltering heat wave, it’s How to Do Nothing. Jenny Odell is one of my favorite thinkers/artists and I very much enjoyed most of this book, tried not to get enraged by the sloppy notes section which is marred by several errors. Best sections were the intro and first chapter, which was taken from the talk she gave in 2017 that went viral, and if you don’t know Odell, it’s a good place to start.

Essentially, the book boils down to prodding us to be more present with where we are right now, at this very moment. To listen, to observe, to pay human attention to the things around us. To (obviously) put down the screens. Nothing new there, just a well-reasoned argument for resisting the attention economy in whatever way we can.

The stakes are high for us to wake from our collective stupor and resist late capitalism’s demand for total productivity. The world is impatient with “anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than-obvious.” These nothings don’t provide a deliverable, thus are valueless. “To resist in place is to make oneself into a shape that cannot so easily be appropriated by a capitalist value system…. embracing fuzzier ideas: of maintenance as productivity, of the importance of nonverbal communication, and of the mere experience of life as the highest goal.”

Great quote from Gordon Hempton, “an acoustic ecologist who records natural soundscapes”: “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything.”

Left with plenty of reading material to follow up on, about Pauline Oliveros, David Hockney, Diogenes, Agnes Martin, Tehching Hsieh, Eleanor Coppola.

Appendix Project

When someone designates their book as a collection of appendices, it’s a blanket excuse for pulling together a baggy, incoherent group of texts and calling it a day. Disappointing because I’m usually a KZ fan, but this grated on me with its tone of see-how-smart-I-am-but-oh-I’m-sleep-deprived-from-my-baby, thinking she could get away without substance by magically name-dropping Roland Barthes enough times. (It’s not just Barthes, it’s Proust, Kafka, Benjamin, Anne Carson, Woolf, Plath, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Claudia Rankine, Chantal Ackerman, etc.) Perhaps she should get points for honesty, saying outright that she created this book of talks/essays out of a desire not to read from her previous Book of Mutter while interviewing for teaching gigs. Instead she creates this book of all the things she left out of Mutter, her 10-year project dealing with her mother’s death.

On the High Wire

I think I saw a notice that this is soon to be reissued, so became aware of its existence. Philippe Petit, translated from French by Paul Auster, muses poetically on his craft, genuflects towards the other greats in the field (Blondin who prepared an omelette on the wire, opened a bottle of champagne, took photographs of the crowd watching him cross the rapids at Niagara Falls; Madame Saqui who created frescoes while on a tightrope; Omankowsky), includes dozens of spectacular photos of people doing the impossible—walking on air on a wire high up without supports, includes historical depictions of high wire acts. He urges the reader on, tries to get us to take up this incredible sport, and his words apply across disciplines: “Eliminate cumbersome exercises. Keep those that transfigure you. Triumph by seeking out the most subtle difficulties. Reach victory through solitude.”

“In waiting to fall in this way, I have sometimes cursed the wire, but it has never made me afraid. I know, however, that one day, standing at the edge of the platform, this anguish will appear. One hideous day it will be waiting for me at the foot of the rope ladder. It will be useless for me to shake myself, to joke about it. The next day it will be in my dressing room as I am putting on my costume, and my hands will be wet with horror. Then it will join me in my sleep. I will be crushed a thousand times, rebounding in slow motion in a circus ring, absolutely weightless. When I wake up, it will be stuck to me, indelible, never to leave me again. And of that, I have a terrible fear.”