Starting the year off with a bang! This was an extremely interesting deep dive into Linklater’s early film career, detailing how things went into the production of Slacker as well as Dazed and Confused. Maerz did a great job wrangling hundreds of interviews with cast, crew, and fans (like the brothers Duplass) about the making of these films. One of the best books I’ve encountered in the film genre and it sent me scurrying to the library to see if anything else came close (so far, no). Everything about this film seemed blessed, the amazing cast of actors before they were known stars, the chemistry, the script, McConaughey’s performance, the music. And yet the studio tried everything in their power to sink it, to Linklater’s dismay. Don Phillips the extraordinary casting director (who w/r/t Jared Leto’s audition said “I love Jared, but Jared’s a real piece of work.”) allegedly threatened to expose himself if a certain movie weren’t submitted to the awards circuit. The final chapter points out how hard we fell for this supposedly anti-nostalgia film because of how much life/society has changed the past few decades. This was real livin’ and we love this movie because we miss it.
I’m not investing any effort into writing about books that I don’t want to, but I do still want to keep a list of what I’ve read so I know not to dip into them again.
- The hard tomorrow by Eleanor Davis;
- Tony Greene Era by Kevin Killian;
- sharks in the rivers by Ada Limón;
- Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation by Gabriele Oettingen (WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan);
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana;
- Calling a wolf a wolf: poems by Kaveh Akbar;
- Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) by Whitman;
- I lost my girlish laughter by Jane Allen (Silvia Schulman and Jane Shore)
- Tin man by Sarah Winman;
- The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy;
- How we fight for our lives : a memoir by Saeed Jones (that last line killed me, “Our mothers are why we are here.”);
- Topics of conversation by Miranda Popkey;
- The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives by Diane Johnson;
- A life discarded : 148 diaries found in the trash by Alexander Masters (“A nice day in general; just enjoying myself. No particular thoughts, except perhaps I’d like to change my life.”);
- All this could be yours by Jami Attenberg;
- Drinking : a love story by Caroline Knapp;
- Astronomy : a self-teaching guide by Dinah L. Moché;
- A first year in Canterbury Settlement by Samuel Butler
- Sanditon by Jane Austen
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (re-read);
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (re-read)
- The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge;
- The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World
- Hidden San Francisco by Chris Carlsson;
- Harry Potter Book 1;
- Harry Potter Book 2;
- The Sherwoood Anderson Reader (sections 1-5)
- Harry Potter Book 3;
- Harry Potter Book 4;
- My Fault: Poems by Leora Fridman;
- The Roar of Silence by Don Campbell
- Harry Potter Book 5;
- The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine
- The office : the untold story of the greatest sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene;
- Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney;
- Harry Potter Book 6;
- Alta California : from San Diego to San Francisco, a journey on foot to rediscover the Golden State by Nick Neely;
- The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe
- Labor of love : the invention of dating by Moira Weigel (I loved her on The Feminist Present podcast);
- Book of numbers by Joshua Cohen (I liked his Kafka preface but not this fiction);
- Harry Potter Book 7 (finally finished this horrendous series);
- How we keep spinning: selected writings from SF Chronicle columns by Kevin Fisher-Paulson;
- So far, so good by Charles Towne (pub: 1945);
- 101 essays that will change the way you think by Brianna Wiest;
- Americana by Luke Healy;
- Julia, a portrait of Julia Strachey by herself & Frances Partridge;
- This brilliant darkness : a book of strangers by Jeff Sharlet.
- Shapes that pass: memories of old days by Julian Hawthorne;
- Autobiography of a Chinese woman, Buwei Yang Chao put into English by her husband Yuenren Chao;
- Screwball!: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey;
- What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell;
- Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell;
- One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry;
- Journey around my room : the autobiography of Louise Bogan : a mosaic by Ruth Limmer.
- A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki;
- Alice James, a biography by Jean Strouse;
- William James: in the maelstrom of American modernism, a biography by Robert D. Richardson;
- The craving mind by Judson Brewer;
- I knew a phoenix : sketches for an autobiography by May Sarton (includes recollection of meeting Woolf in 1937);
- Females by Andrea Long Chu (homage to Valerie Solanas);
- A libertarian walks into a bear : the utopian plot to liberate an American town (and some bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (this was a terrible book);
- Sontag : her life and work by Benjamin Moser;
- Essays of the 1960s and 70s by Susan Sontag (the Uncollected Essays where she focused on feminist issues);
- Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel about the Brontës);
- The 99% invisible city : a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design (ugh, incredibly boring execution of what could have been great, had to force myself to skim through);
- The movie brats : how the film generation took over Hollywood by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles;
- Reeling by Pauline Kael (I took another romp through this book since I’ve watched several of these 1970s films since last I peeked into it; love her spicy take on the major films of the decade).
F: 35; M: 28; Fict: 25; Non: 40
Normally I would have thrown this on my list of books I’m too lazy to write about (post soon to come with this year’s list) but I enjoyed reading it too much and when I reached the Acknowledgements I realized why… this was shaped and edited by J.R. Moehringer, of The Tender Bar memoir fame. It has Agassi’s voice and I’m sure he’s a good writer in his own right, but everything from the title to the pacing and structure benefited from J.R.’s input, I bet. Definitely recommend, even for non-tennis fans.
Insanely great novel about an unenthusiastic bride whose grandmother appears to her as a bird in the week leading up to her wedding, telling her to see her brother before she ties the knot. The bride ventures forth to discover her brother Tom has transitioned into her sister Simone, then she herself transmogrifies into her mother, then the painful wedding, flashes back to her past and the random stabbing and her work helping brain-traumatized clients reconstruct what they’ve lost, and finally the lackluster wedding but triumphant departure the next day when the wife leaves the new husband and flees with her sister. Tremendous writing talent, great storytelling, a perfect textile weaving story lines together with the right pacing, some of the best current writing out there.
Letters from Vanessa Bell, 1885 (as a six-year-old writing to her father) to 1961 (the year she died). Admittedly, my interest in Vanessa stems mainly from her relationship with her sister (Virginia Woolf) and the ability for these letters to color in the background details of their lives. But she is a wildly interesting character in her own right, the queen of Bloomsbury, a radical maternal figure who ended up living exactly the unconventional life she yearned for.
The letters are not quite as snarky and deliciously malicious as I’d been led to believe, but still were lively, entertaining, gossipy, and candid.
In 1904 she wrote to Virginia: “But there’s something horrible to me… in any third person’s reading what was meant to be only between two. I shall burn all my letters someday.”
Excellent book, soothing wisdom to cool our overheated minds in these turbulent times. Beautifully written by Helen Tworkov’s help, the story of Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s journey as a 36-year-old hitting the road for a three year wandering of the world. He goes from being protected and cared for by his monastery to wandering homeless, begging for food, shedding the layers of his identity and continuing his meditation. The book centers around the first weeks as he endures the shock of the world, having to handle money and deal with people on his own for the first time ever, sleeping on the floor of the train and then the station and gradually making his way to a lesser-visited historical site of the Buddha. He slowly peels off his conception of who he is, finally removing the robes that confer him identity and respect, his money now run out he sleeps in a park and begs for food which poisons him, leaving him in a death-state.
Against this scaffolding, he offers meditation guidance, sometimes in the way of direct instruction (to the man who asks for advice), sometimes just by way of what he does. I found the thought meditation instruction helpful:
“Just as you have placed your mind on your breath, now place your mind on your thoughts. Whatever comes, just watch. In the same way that you could use the breath as support for meditation, now use thoughts. Breath never stays the same for an instant, but it can be a stable support. So try to practice this way, just staying aware of your thoughts, without chasing after them.”
The man comes back and says his mind goes blank when he tries to watch his thoughts, and Mingyur Rinpoche says Yes, exactly! “That is the secret of thought meditation. What you are calling blank is actually open awareness… If you can watch thoughts, it’s like watching television. You’re not in the television, you’re watching it… There is a big screen and there are many free channels. There are only two problems: The programs are quite old and there are a lot of reruns.”
“I finally discovered the only reliable liberation from suffering: not trying to get rid of the problem.”
“To enter an unmapped domain of newness, and to be completely open and available to what it offers, we must let go of our cherished ideas of how things are supposed to work.”
“In a noisy and materialistic society, to sit down and remain still and quiet is a reverse activity.”
Perfect writing, deliciously crafted. But how can I feel so conflicted about being able to recommend it to people? Perhaps it’s because, as the author himself noted, the book is “100% pornographic and 100% high art.” And so you prudes out there are forewarned, this is some crazy erotica, some of the best writing about sex between men ever written (or sex between anyone?).
The narrator is an American teaching literature in Bulgaria; the ease and flow of the book’s words is something difficult to find these days as we are overloaded with terrible writing. Simple scenes such as the description of a group of writers gathered at the sea side after a workshop, watching the priest swim out further and further from shore, have so much else packed into their bones. A trip abroad with his young boyfriend, watching an outdoor opera performance then the sputtering disappointment of the town’s light show. Anguish as his gay students twist in not being able to be as open about their desires as he is. I’m now greedy for Garth Greenwell, will be searching out his earlier book.
Joseph Goldstein’s 1976 guide to meditation plunges you into the world of a 30-day retreat, something I dream of being able to attend in a non-pandemic future. In the meantime, there is this book with snippets of wisdom taking you from the first evening to the third morning all the way through to the closing session on the thirtieth morning.
Just a few quotes: “Freedom lies in how we relate to what is happening in the moment.”
“We should speak the truth when it is useful.”
As he bids the attendees farewell, he suggests continuing their practice with sitting twice a day for an hour or longer at a time to strengthen concentration and mindfulness. Not sure I can make it to 2 hours daily, but a good goal post.
Great graphic journalism depicting the absolute insanity of the laws we have on the books that protect cars and leave pedestrians defenseless. I heard an interview with Phoenix on the podcast War on Cars and ordered it up immediately. What struck me was his perception that cars is what has shaped Americans into the teeming mass of self-centered jerks that we are—you get into your enclosed bubble and mow down whoever’s in your way. The book depicts roads empty of people or other cars which gives it an eerie feeling; he continues to hammer home how much damage these objects do— because of mass and speed — to the human body. He brings up the creepiness of an empty parking lot, how alien it feels, but lord help you if it’s a parking lot pulsing with angry motorists instead, like the wild west.
I’ve been re-reading this each morning since the beginning of the year—what luck! It has supported my flimsy wandering flabby mind during this panic time by providing calm wisdom and basic guideposts to help train the brain to mindfulness. Three months into this reading, the pandemic swept us all into a new reality, making Goldstein’s words echo ever more helpfully: “Anything can happen anytime.”
I wrote out a few reflections on PostIts by my mirror so that every day I am reminded of the essential facts: that I am subject to old age, illness, death, I’ll be parted from every one and everything dear to me, and that I am the owner and heir of my karma. They are reminders of what is true and what will happen to everyone.
His sections on worry also provide relief in this time when we’re all worrying about the future, making ourselves tense and miserable. “To whatever inconvenience there may or may not be, [when we worry] we’re saying, in effect, ‘Let’s add a little suffering to the mix.'”
I found myself getting angry at the many people (read: joggers) who are not wearing masks when outside. Goldstein counsels: “Although different conditions may prompt different emotions to arise, how we relate to those feelings is up to us.” This is also where lovingkindness comes in, so I’m trying to make it a practice to seek out and relate to the good in each person.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; have joy and the causes of joy; remain free from attachment and aversion.
When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.
An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?
The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:
I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”
Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:
Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.
This by Rob Jacques:
Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.
We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.
See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.
This by Thomas R. Smith:
It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.
The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.
The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.
This by Sue Ellen Thompson:
The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.
To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.
Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.
That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.
This by Barbara Crooker:
I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.
Excellent followup to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, we pick up almost exactly where the first Olive leaves off. She marries Jack and feels like he’s her “real” husband (not dead Henry), although at the end of the book when she’s in assisted living, she ends up hiding Jack’s smaller portrait and leaving Henry’s up. That’s actually a sweet ending, where she bounces lonely around the old folks until she meets a new inmate who she gets along with. They exchange keys and check in on each other twice a day, in addition to having meals together, but the simple 8am opening the door, waving, not saying anything, and the same at 8pm is so sweet. Possibly my favorite section was Exiles, about a couple visiting his brother and their sister-in-law, Helen gets wasted on white wine and falls down the stairs after she gets flustered when the sister-in-law declares that hearing about other people’s grandchildren gets tiresome.
Fanny Burney’s second novel was published in 1782 in five volumes, coming to a whopping 919 pages. It’s evident that Burney has writing talent but, my god! oh for an editor to show her a trick or two about pacing!
Cecilia has just lost her beloved uncle and is now in the hands of her three London guardians which are very reminiscent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears— one spends way too much money, one is parsimonious beyond belief, and the last is a perfect blend of gentility and tact and manners. She has a large fortune but one of the stipulations in her uncle’s will is that whoever she marries keep her name, which turns away her beloved, Mortimer Delvile, until he suggests that they privately elope. It’s a massive whirlwind, and I refer you to the Wikipedia page if you need all the particulars of the story. My biggest takeaway is that all the chaos was caused by a lack of frank discussion. People would insinuate and demur to say things due to propriety, and that caused endless series of plot lines to pour forth.
I enjoyed early in the story where she’s settling into a horrid living situation with her first guardian, so she goes on a book buying spree: “Her next solicitude was to furnish herself with a well-chosen collection of books; and this employment, which to a lover of literature, young and ardent in its pursuit, is perhaps the mind’s first luxury, proved a source of entertainment so fertile and delightful that it left her nothing to wish. “
Beautifully written book from the perspective of a Kansas girl (Chris) on the cusp of puberty who lives with her aunt and uncle, a new teacher comes to town and boards with them so Chris is able to see how a man creeps into her teacher’s room at night, and one spring night watches them go at it in the backyard, setting in motion the ouster of the teacher from the house, which means her sick uncle won’t have to climb the stairs to a bed anymore. She’s precocious, dreaming up a sermon she wants to give that centers around the Bible verse “O God, shatter their teeth in their mouths.” Her best friend is a year older and getting breasts and a boyfriend and Chris realizes this is the last year of her childhood. The writing will make you swoon: “There was nothing left of summer but the last hot September pocket which opened a stitch at a time into fall.”
I became slightly obsessed with finding out more about that inner sanctum of London that I’ve read about for decades, those amazing bachelor residences of the Temple wherein great works of literature were penned and that are frequently referenced in classic works of Dickens, Thackeray. My latest literary crush, Samuel Butler, spent the last 38 years of his life living at No. 15 Clifford’s Inn, on the 2nd floor, the north side of the staircase, with a sitting room, bedroom, painting room, pantry, and passage with cupboards. Annual rent was £23 in 1864 and raised to £36 by the end, including taxes.
So down the rabbit hole I went, and I have 2 books about the Inns before me. A very dull one I rejected quickly was by Hyacinthe Ringrose, pub’d 1909, aimed at lawyers in US & Canada to explain the history of six centuries of law school in England. The best, most entertaining and delightful one, was by Cecil Headlam with illustrations by Gordon Home, also pub’d 1909. It’s one of those glorious old books with pages as thick as tree trunks. Headlam doesn’t hold back his opinion, calling out buildings for being ugly, as in this sample: “A plain, unpleasing, stuccoed, Early Victorian building now faces Chancery Lane and drops as a screen of ugliness across the old brick buildings within.”
But the Inns! Such fascinating history, dating back to the medieval Knights Templars who guarded pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem starting around the year 1118. Around the year 1180 they acquired a large meadow sloping down to the River Thames, south of Fleet Street, and built a hall and church and had a nearby tilting ground for jousts. Headlam points out that the first mention of the Temple as an abode of lawyers is in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (c 1387). Various grants and patents changed hands and eventually the Temple became a law school of sorts where aspirants to the bar co-mingled and shared meals and discussion in the Hall. (“The same system of discipline, celibate life, a common Hall, residence in community, and compulsory attendance at Church, which marked the ordinary life of a medieval University was repeated at the Inns of Court.”) In the 17th century, official instruction disappeared and simply eating dinners there was all you needed to be admitted to the Bar. “The loss of the Law was the gain of Letters. A new class of students, educated in literature and politics, and highly born, were bred up to take their place in the direction of affairs and the criticism of writers.”
They sound a bit like men’s clubs, and there was lots of rowdy festivals. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple Hall in 1601 (captured by a diary entry of John Manningham on February 1601: “At our feast, Wee had a play called ‘Twelve Night, or What you will,’ much like the ‘Commedy of Errores,’ or ‘Menechmi’ in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called ‘Inganni.'”). Several fires destroyed various incarnations of the buildings but some parts remain intact.
The apartments were in close quarters with each other and noise complaints weren’t unheard of. When Oliver Goldsmith received £500 for his play, he moved into No 2 Brick Court and threw lots of parties, to the discomfort of his downstairs neighbor Blackstone, who was writing below, finding “good cause to grumble at the racket made by his revelling neighbour.”
Charles Lamb lived at No 16 Crown Office Row and told a friend to “bring his glass” (bincoculars) to view Surrey Hills. His bed faced the river and he could see sails glide by as he lay in bed.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote about Gray’s Inn (Source: The English Notebooks, p 434-5; Volume 22 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne):
It is very strange to find so much of ancient quietude right in the monster City’s very jaws, which yet the monster shall not eat up—right in its very belly, indeed, which yet, in all these ages, it shall not digest and convert into the same substance as the rest of its bustling streets. Nothing else in London is so like the effect of a spell, as to pass under one of these archways, and find yourself transported from the jumble, rush, tumult, uproar, as of an age of week-days intensified into the present hour, into what seems an eternal Sabbath. Thence we went into (I think it was) Staple Inn, which has a front upon Holborn of four or five ancient gables in a row, and a low arch under the impending story, admitting you into a paved quadrangle, beyond which you have the vista of another. I do not understand that the residences and chambers in these Inns of Court are now exclusively let to lawyers, though such inhabitants certainly seem to preponderate there.