After watching the terrific Molly Ivins documentary, Raising Hell, I rushed to the library to pour more of her incredible one liners over me. Things like, “Saying George Bush is shallow is like pointing out a dwarf is short.” It’s refreshing to hear her take on the Reagan years, followed by the shallow Bush years, in this book. Her incisive wit completely demolishes the Texas legislature, simply reporting the nonsense that flowed forth like Jim Kaster of El Paso’s introducing a bill that required felons to submit 24-hour advance notice of what crimes they planned to commit, and where. Hilarious, lovely, and I wish we still had her around to dismantle the current administration.
Anne Boyer is one of my favorite living poets and I’ve been looking forward to this examination of her experience with breast cancer. She skillfully weaves in tidbits from John Donne’s 1624 sickbed work, Bertolt Brecht, Aelius Aristides, Virginia Woolf (along with her mother Julia Stephen’s sickness treatise), Fanny Burney’s description of her 1811 mastectomy without anesthesia, Kathy Acker’s choice not to pursue chemo, Audre Lorde’s breast cancer, and of course Sontag. But mostly the draw is her clear-eyed description of the tortures of medicine, killing yourself with chemo in order to live, chopping off parts of your body but not being offered the ability to stay the night to recover, the burden of doing it as a single woman having to rely on the kindness of friends.
Everyone understands as a matter of fact that unless you are currently entered into this world’s customary romantic partnership, or unless you have lived long enough to raise devoted grown children, or unless you are young enough to still be in the care of your parents, you are, on the occasion of aggressive cancer in the conditions of aggressive profit, rarely considered worth enough to keep alive.
I’m always getting fooled into reading Colin Fletcher. At first, he’s a dreamy companion, luring you into the woods on his solitary walks, describing how great it is to load up a backpack and hike into the forest for a few days to daydream and watch nature. He quotes Robert Musil, “It is not the case that we reflect on things. Rather, things think themselves out within us.” But then his sleazy pervy old man personality revs up like a chainsaw cutting down redwood trees.”… one markedly comely damsel wore shorts bearing the printed message: ‘Dangerous curves ahead!’ The shorts fitted her perfectly.” Then he goes on to leer at a group of college-aged kids skinnydipping in a lake for 15 minutes before one of the women noticed him and “the show ended.” Later, he’s walking in a city, “pausing occasionally to look back over a panorama of grass-covered hills that rose smooth and curving and beautiful as my companion’s breasts.”
In Brazil, he titters over the short skirts and then releases this observation at a lookout point: “A jaded young wife with a tight mouth kept glancing from the stupendous vista to the humdrum husband beside her. A thin, lonely-looking man seemed to be searching for a homosexual mate. Two girls chattered, high-pitched.”
At its lowest point, he waxes philosophic about how great the AIDS virus is at culling human population down, wishing it into a virus that “spread quickly and devastatingly, then it might well solve the world’s most pressing current problem, and in a nondisruptive way.” Bananas. Thankfully he has a heart attack at the end of the book while watching the Rose Bowl at his doctor’s house, so we know he’s not going to live forever.
The glorious romp must come to an end at last. The Cazalets fall into disrepair, the firm goes bankrupt, they must sell Home Place in the country because it’s owned by the firm so Aunt Rachel is out on her ear. Sid’s dead, and she left her flat in London to Rachel. Louise is having an affair with a married man who has no intention of leaving his wife. Edward trudges on in his terrible remarriage to Diana, she’s taken all his money and can’t cope with the fact that he’s now unemployed. Simon, living with Polly in the huge house, has fallen in love with a man. Clary writes a play about Archie’s infidelity. Villy’s governess finally dies, put into a nursing home for her dementia, which Nan also seems to have. The specter of aging looms large in this one, as much as loss. In the end, Hugh has a heart attack and thus Rachel heads off to his home, feeling herself needed yet again.
I stumbled onto this curious relic from 1934 when perusing a nearby shelf at the library. Oh for the heyday of publishing when an editor like Edwin Mitchell could have a boozy lunch and come up with a book idea that would take him half an afternoon to complete. He digs up essays from a bunch of men, mostly dead, tosses off a quick introduction, et voila! Sometimes he tells you where he culled the essays from (like Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller) but mostly he just plops them in there, with no helpful information such as date written. How egregious to have a book about walking that snubs Virginia Woolf but includes her less-eloquent father Leslie Stephen, who’s a fan of “a little trespassing” when necessary to get to the best paths. My own research shows that Stephen’s essay In Praise of Walking was from his 1898 Studies of a Biographer. Which makes all the difference knowing it was in the late 19th century when he said “Conversation, we are often told, like letter-writing, is a lost art. We live too much in crowds.”
There’s lively “discussion” between the essays about whether walking is good for writing, or conversation, or done best alone. Max Beerbohn’s Going Out for a Walk was entertaining, saying he never walks voluntarily and describes a painful walk with a companion who feels obligated to blather platitudes every few minutes and insists on “reading vapidly aloud to me” every sign he encounters. (Written in 1918)
Dickens gets two essays in here, which seems like cheating, but only one was worth including—Night Walks—wherein he describes the walks he takes through London when he can’t sleep, seeing a man bring a large cold meat pudding into a cafe out of his hat, and various other wonderments. (1860s)
George Macaulay Trevelyan’s Walking seems to have come out in 1913 in his collection Clio, a Muse, and Other Essays which I’ll probably check out. It starts out strong: “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” He’s a proponent of solitary, silent walking, and recommends taking a whole day off during a walking tour to gain strength. “Our modern life requires such days of ‘anti-worry’ and they are only to be obtained in perfection when the body has been walked to a standstill.”
On Going A Journey by William Hazlitt was first published in 1822, another vote for solitary walking. “I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy… I begin to feel, think, and be myself again. Instead of an awkward silence, broken by attempts at wit or dull commonplaces, mine is that undisturbed silence of the heart which alone is perfect eloquence. No one likes puns, alliteration, antitheses, argument and analysis better than I do; but I sometimes had rather be without them.”
A few of the essays I had already encountered in their native habitats, like George Gissing’s Walking Experiences, taken from The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and Hilaire Belloc’s Brienzer Grat, taken from The Path to Rome. The collection ends with the obvious inclusion of Thoreau’s Walking.
Now that’s how a story ends! “Here I come,” she said. Blowing up her car and taking herself out with it. This is a strange almost sci-fi book filled with lyrical writing. The otherness of it sneaks up on you. The story opens with a woman picking up hitchhikers along the road in Scotland, making sure they are beefy male specimens. Only the end result is to kidnap them and hustle them back to the farm where the workers (considered “human beings” but they seem to be hairy, walking on 4 legged creatures) fatten the hitchers up then carve them up as meat. Beautiful writing and a strange story, but perfectly paced. Reco’d by Luke from Hell World, who included this passage in his write-up:
Isserley drove through the open fields, where massive round hay-bales lay scattered like black holes in the horizon. One field lay fallow, the opposite one was lush with the dark secretive greenery of potatoes. Here and there, bushes and trees that served no agricultural purpose sprouted up towards the heavens, displaying hardy flowers or long fragile twigs, each according to its kind.
Isserley knew what Amlis must be feeling: here was plant life that did not need to be grown in tanks or grubbed out of chalky, slimy soil, but that grew straight up into the air like a gush of joy. Here was acre upon acre of tranquil fecundity, taking care of itself with no apparent help from humans. And he was seeing Ablach’s fields in winter: if only he could see what happened here in spring! …
At the great gate at the end of the Ablach path, not far short of the cliffs, Isserley stopped the car and turned off the engine. From here there was a clear view of the North Sea, which was silver tonight, under a sky whose eastern reaches were grey with advancing snow, while the west was still bright with the moon and stars.
‘Oh,’ said Amlis feebly.
He was in shock, more or less, she could tell. He stared straight ahead at the immense, impossible waters, and she stared at the side of his face, secure in the knowledge that he was unaware of her longing.
After a long time, Amlis was ready to ask a question. Isserley knew what it was going to be before he even opened his mouth, and answered him before he could speak. That thin line of brightness there,’ she pointed. That’s where the sea ends. Well, it doesn’t really end there, it goes on forever. But that’s where our perception of it ends. And above that: that’s where the sky begins. You see?’ It was almost cruelly poignant, but delightful too, the way Amlis seemed to regard her as the custodian of an entire world, as if it belonged to her. Which, perhaps, it did.
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second novel, pub’d in 1956, is interesting only in that it gives you a window into how she gradually gained her powers of depicting characters that draw you in. The cast of this novel is an unhappy family, starting in 1950 and working backwards to when the couple first married in 1927. The husband begins the story in 1950 largely disappearing from the family, teasing and torturing guests at a dinner party to celebrate his son’s engagement to a disastrously dull woman. His daughter is torn between two men, one who loves her and one who does not, and she gets pregnant by the one who loathes her and runs away with the other.
Another NYC media-darling book that disappoints. A writing professor sleeps with his student on the last day of classes before his contract ends, sends her off to her parents house in Connecticut with his beloved poodle for the summer. He’s sublet his NYC apartment to Khloe, twin sister of Kristi, a friend of his working at the Iowa writers’ workshop. He comes back from Pakistan too quickly, his grandmother dying as soon as she saw him. Khloe sends him to Connecticut to fetch his dog, but he ends up staying and sleeping with his student’s mother, who is separated from her husband (who of course ends up being Khloe’s boss in finance). There’s a gun at the end and it’s all very dull and unrewarding.
Dreamy, dramatic life continues, the story picking back up in July 1945. Rupert and Zoe continue to hide their respective wartime loves from each other, until they don’t. Louise goes to NYC with her husband, eats a ton of food, shops for clothing, then decides to leave him and strike out on her own, leaving her son with him as well. Polly, working as an interior decorator, meets someone she falls in love with, a somewhat poor Lord who has a ramshackle estate that she’s going to fix up. Christopher attempts to become a monk. Clary falls in love with her tedious boss, becomes pregnant, has an abortion, goes off the rails and is saved by Archie who banishes her to a cottage to write her novel. Taking 6 weeks leave, Archie spends the time painting at the country house keeping Duchy company (Brig has died, as well as her sister Dolly). At Polly’s wedding, Clary begs Archie for 2 more weeks to finish her book, then confesses that she loves him.
Great essay on the problems of translation by Tim Parks in the NYRB that ends with a slap:
… it’s perhaps worth observing that current enthusiasm for literary translation in the Anglo-Saxon world has come at the same time as a steep decline in language learning.
The war continues as the book opens in 1942. Louise marries a famous older man she doesn’t love (Michael), has a baby she doesn’t care for, and falls in love with Michael’s cousin Hugo. When she and Hugo confront Michael with their love, he laughs at them and banishes Hugo to a regiment of the Army that’s headed for Germany where he dies. Polly and Clare are both living in London, learning how to type and have jobs as secretaries. Polly expresses her love for Archie who doesn’t reciprocate (he’s unspokenly in love with Clare I suspect). Sybil is dead from cancer. Rachel marches on taking care of everyone but her girlfriend Sid has taken up an admirer of her own. VE Day finds Louise in the hospital getting her tonsils out. And the last paragraph gives us what we’ve known is true—Rupert managed to stay alive during the war and he’s headed home.
Meh. Not terrible writing, but I’m not a huge fan of books that seem to be more like pitches for screenplays to be adapted from them. A trio of Canadian woman (ok, one is originally from Brooklyn, but she ends up in Toronto) who are frenemies, or friends, or enemies, depending on the season. Sunny’s a successful artist, married, who everyone seems to fall in love with. Rachel the Brooklynite, married with kid, whose brother Jesse woos Sunny; she’s a YA author/magazine editor. And Geraldine, when we first meet her stuck in Toronto getting over a jilting by her fiance, moves to NYC and ends up in the podcasting business. It’s all very mediocre.
I’m continuing my Oliver Sacks kick by going straight to the source, to his own memoir written in his last years as he finally came to terms with openly being a gay man. What a full and thrilling life he managed to pack in! Details here that were missing from the other book, like about the PCP party he was invited to and he arrived late only to find everyone had lost their minds and he called emergency services for them. Or the road trip he took on his motorcycle which broke down and he hitched a ride with a trucker for a few days. Being so excited about some research at Oxford that he didn’t have time to write his essay so he extemporized and flipped blank pages of a notepad as if it were written down. Lyrical descriptions of living on City Island in the Bronx, calling it an old fishing village where they didn’t lock their doors and neighbors looked out for each other. Yet he wonders aloud why he didn’t stay in the West, more specifically the Southwest, instead of the 50 years he spent in NYC.
Gorgeous black and white photos of huge and ancient trees by Beth Moon, the result of a 15 year project traveling the world to capture these giants. Some are thousands of years old, like the Great Basin Bristlecone Pines in the California Inyo National Forest. Old yews in England, including a “pulpit” yew that stairs had been built inside. The strangling figs of Cambodia. Beautiful oaks. Yemen’s Heart of the Dragon trees and the Desert Rose. Madagascar’s amazing Ifaty Teapot tree, a baobab. This is a book guaranteed to soothe you.
A Jamaican woman travels to NYC in search of the promised good life of the U.S. but without proper papers is met with a series of terrible low-wage jobs. She’s a math wizard but not given the chance to flaunt this skill, dating back to childhood when she gave her friend Cicely the answers to a math test and then the teacher accused Patsy of cheating off Cicely’s paper. In NYC she’s taken to an agency where Cicely tries to get her to accept a nanny gig, but Patsy revolts, wants to try her hand at an office job, which they wouldn’t give to anyone without proper documentation. Instead, she works in a restaurant cleaning toilets, then as a maid, later as a nanny for one of the homes she cleans. When she left Jamaica, she left a 5-year-old daughter behind. The story of Patsy is interspersed with that of Tru, being brought up by her father. Mostly I was disappointed, skimmed the book to just read the Patsy sections which I found more interesting.