Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

Almost a week of December has slipped away and I’ve only posted one book here, what could I be up to? I’ve been sipping slowly and deliberately at this delicious Whitman concoction for the past few weeks and finally decided to pop it up here, although I don’t think I’m going to ever stop reading it, a few lines a day maybe, briefly considering the effort it would take to memorize some of it, wouldn’t that be divine to be able to summon Uncle Walt’s words at a moment’s notice? So far I’ve only managed to memorize “Washes and razors for foo-foos…. for me, freckles and a bristling beard”—a line that Whitman excised from the “Deathbed” edition of his much-revised poems, which tells you everything you need to know about which version to read (this first one, of course).  This Penguin edition I’m reading has an intro by Malcolm Crowley from 1955 wherein he calls this first edition a “buried masterpiece of American writing” because everyone ignored it before his resurrection I suppose. Walt himself insisted that the 1892 Deathbed edition (a bloated 383 poems instead of the pure 12 included here) was the version he preferred and recommended, but I’m on Crowley’s side with this one.

This version seems more pure, a simple clarity with “no twistified or foggy sentences” as Whitman himself put it. After 1855 he fell under his own spell and thought himself a prophet, puffed up his prose and overedited things into shambles. Crowley calls this period when Whitman was “inflated.”

The only thing I’ve yet to really appreciate is Whitman’s original introduction to the 1855 edition, written after the poems and when he was catching a bit of the puff of himself. It’s 19 pages of blathering that I need to gird myself to go back to, when I’d much rather frolic in the verses themselves. “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”

Sidenote, not from anything I read in this edition but my own convoluted knowledge of strange things: Whitman’s idea for the cover art (Flowery letters of gold overlaid on green) came after he saw his pal Fannie Fern‘s book cover- Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (to whom he owed a bit of money that he never repaid, by the by).

 

Bridget Jones’ Diary

A hilarious book absolutely ruined by the movie but worth reading despite having Rene Zellwegger’s face loom up at me from the pages (along with Colin Firth’s and Hugh Grant’s). Definitely a tour of force from the 90s that hits on themes still relevant (if not more so) today- feminism, climate change, general hijinx. Stumbled onto this rec by way of someone who’s posting about each chapter, a diary of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary, which is also hilarious.

Illuminations

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1875), translated by John Ashbery in 2011, is a wonderous thing. I love Ashbery’s word choices and the decision (always wise) to publish the French and English side by side, allowing me to test my rudimentary French skills and roll the words around in my mouth.

In part 5 of the prose poem, Childhood/Enfance, “I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at teh library’s casement window. I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” (la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant– gorgeous!)

I confess most of my knowledge about Rimbaud comes from The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud which was excellent.

 

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Could anything be better than cozily reading Elizabeth Strout on a rainy morning? This delicious piece of fiction was so tender and intense and yet flitted away perfectly over a few hours, dropping me into the world of Lucy Barton. She’s recovering from a mysterious illness in a hospital room that has a view of the Chrysler building which is spectacular at night. Her husband hates hospitals and so leaves her alone most of the time, but does summon a visit from her mother. Lucy’s mother sits at the foot of the bed and tells stories and they reconnect over the five days she’s there. Strout weaves in other strands of Lucy’s life, her becoming a writer, her childhood struggles and poverty, staying late at school simply because it was warm, running into a published author at a clothing boutique and loving her style then taking her writing workshop. We all have one story, we can tell it a million different ways. Beautiful work, I can’t believe I haven’t read Strout before.

The Tempest

Just a quick dip into Shakespeare, flipping through the ultra-thin pages of my mom’s copy of the complete works. Appreciating the hijinx of Stephano pouring wine down Caliban’s throat when he thinks the four legs (one pair belonging to Caliban, one to Trinculo) are a monster, and the ensuing nonsense. “Here is that which will give language to you, cat.”

Prospero creates a storm to trap his brother, who has unfairly snatched up his dukedom and left him to die. He finally admits to daughter Miranda about the circumstances of their leaving Italy many years before, and arranges it so Miranda falls in love with her shipwrecked cousin Ferdinand. Ariel’s the spirit who earns his freedom from helping Prospero while Caliban is a spirit freed from a tree and then enslaved by Prospero, who turns his loyalty toward the sack of wine that drunken butler Stephano wields. As always, the fun characters are the most interesting.

In the Dream House: A Memoir

Carmen Maria Machado details an abusive relationship she had with her first girlfriend, a woman whose moods swung wildly and incomprehensibly, muttering threats and making Carmen weep. It’s a good reminder that bad relationships come in all shapes and sizes, including between same-sex partners. Many nights locking herself in the bathroom to escape the yelling, the verbal abuse, the manipulation. Oddly, there was a 3rd woman in the love triangle and this woman ultimately ended up marrying Carmen, so happily ever after? I wasn’t a fan of the style she chose for the book, each section a different flavor of literary device, riddled with folk tale elements. Definitely hated the choose your own adventure section, which seemed to just fluff up the page count. But decent writing on an important topic.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

Yes, at the beginning Iyer has a “grains of salt” section wherein he explains he has no business writing about Japan and the “beginner” is both himself and the reader. I find it odd that he’s lived there for 30 years and hasn’t picked up any of the language (he claims to speak at the level of a 2-year-old). I guess his Japanese wife carries the burden of communication with the outside world for him. Mostly a bland book compared to his other great travel writing like Video Night in Kathmandu. Frequent quotations from Oscar Wilde and SF Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Little bits of sentences, short paragraphs a concession to our evaporated attention spans?

My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education

Great collection of essays about growing up Cuban-American in Miami, being the first generation to go to college (and not knowing how long her parents were supposed to stay for orientation so they had booked a whole week of vacation expecting to go as a family to all the events), getting married and divorced, dealing with hurricanes and the end of rides at Disney World, living in a space that rented out for weddings on the weekend and hearing the same exact playlist every night, laying down truths at visiting colleges about how they needed to hire more people of color to teach and talking over the white woman’s tears in the front row who said that was racist.

Over Here: How the G.I. Bill Transformed the American Dream

I’ve been thinking about the G.I. Bill lately and its impact on the arts, giving people like Frank O’Hara and Robert Rauschenberg college educations that encouraged them into their artistic pursuits.

This book wasn’t great, but it did have a chapter focused on the impact of the G. I. Bill on the arts. Other chapters focused around various (white, male) veterans and how they came back and benefited from the education credit and housing loans. Humes does mention how this overwhelmingly benefited white men and how women and minorities were left out of the great post-WW2 handout.

Black Mountain College in NC appears to have been saved by the returning veterans, with their college-going population dwindling to the dozens during the war. “Schools on the brink of bankruptcy were soon overflowing, and Black Mountain, with a record enrollment approaching one hundred found itself restored to a modest but stable financial footing by those $500-per-student payments from the Veterans Administration, an unimaginably kingly tuition in that place and time.”

Three Paradoxes

Interesting shift in visual styles as the artist goes from drawing a comic, to depicting the reality of visiting his parents, to remembering childhood traumas, to Zeno presenting his paradoxes to an audience of Athenians, Socrates being the clown of the crowd. But the story was too bland for my taste. Recommended by way of an interview with poet Matthea Harvey.

The Family Fang

Wonderful, funny, well-written, well-paced book about a family of performance artists. The parents, rather, are performance artists who drag their children into their art. We meet the children as adults, dealing with repercussions of having been used as art objects for their entire childhood, fragile and broken but still making valiant attempts at life. Annie is a successful actor in the midst of a topless scandal, Buster a struggling writer who is immediately hit in the face with a high powered potato gun after we meet him on assignment as a freelance magazine writer. The plot hinges on them both returning home to recuperate from their respective disasters, and their parents then go missing. They assume it’s a performance, complete with real blood and an abandoned van, but months drag on before they discover a clue that leads them to a North Dakota door and their father. Each chapter that moves the plot forward is interspersed with a flashback to a particular performance piece.

Doxology

What a relief to find that other reviewers are finding this less than readable. I usually like Nell Zink’s writing but this went off the rails. Luckily (?) I was noting down plot points of each chapter and I can actually tell you where it falls apart. The story is interesting when it’s about Pam and Daniel and Joe, thrashing about the Lower East Side in late 1980s NYC. Pam, a high school dropout, takes up computer coding quite successfully. Daniel does a series of late night proofreading at law firms and then temping. Joe is Joe is Joe, afflicted by the Williams syndrome and cheerfully accepting everyone, recording amazing tunes and inexplicably becoming a rock star. Then, tragically, Pam decides not to abort her pregnancy, and Flora is unleashed on the story, dragging it down behind her. It’s not too terrible until Chapter 14 when Flora takes over the story and everyone else is left behind. Before that, 9/11 happens, the family flees to DC, Joe is fed heroin by his worthless groupie girlfriend Gwen and dies; Gwen flees and leaves him there for days, dead. Naturally as the pages fly by, Zink resorts to the same old trick to spice up the story and now Flora is pregnant, only it’s by a fling she has while campaigning for Jill Stein instead of with her Clinton-advising boyfriend who’s had a vasectomy. It might sound interesting, but it’s not.

Appius and Virginia

Absolute bananas book (pub’d 1933) by G. E. (Gertrude Eileen) Trevelyan. Virginia, a 40-something spinster, buys a baby orangutan who she raises as a boy, Appius. She retires to the country and spends the next decade painstakingly teaching him to speak and read, keeping him cooped up in the nursery instead of swinging from the tree tops, restricting him in little boy clothing. One afternoon he does escape into the trees, “one glorious half-hour he lived his own life, his own swinging rhythmical life, high up out of their reach among the leaves and sunbeams, and then had been forced to come back.” He likes to listen to the murmur of her voice although he understands little of it . “Reading bored him, but by now he knew most of the sentences in the book. So long as he could say the right one for each sentence mama was satisfied, he knew, and would go on talking for a long time, hum-hum in the distance, whilst he could nod at the flames or wallow drowsily in the warm, comfortable world deep down inside him.” She admits at one point that she undertook this experiment mostly so she could have someone to talk to, since everyone else thought she was mad.

Trevelyan writes beautifully and shows us the difference in comprehension as Appius watches a thunderstorm from his window:

Blackness. Big moving things. Big still things. Big black things. Stillness, whiteness, dazzle.

White lights shooting: bright blades cleaving the black branches. Big silent things swaying and shiverying. Big moving things rotating: bending, sinking, swaying, crouching under the light.

Dazzle, giddiness. Blackness, brightness. Round and round, down and down.

In the end, Virginia falls to the floor and dies after restraining herself from shooting Appius when he seemed to be getting out of control. Now what will happen to the ape? Neglected Books calls it one of “the most powerful stories about loneliness ever written.”

On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

Everyone wants to write the next Nickel and Dimed, the classic undercover piece by Barbara Ehrenreich exposing low wage working conditions that the rest of us haven’t suffered. This was a sometimes good sometimes bad attempt at something similar, where Guendelsberger took 3 jobs after she lost her journalism gig in Philly. First up, the ubiquitous Amazon warehouse worker story that has flooded the market lately. Nothing new here, it sucks, she walks millions of miles a day and is in pain constantly, shocked by the vending machine dispensing pain killers. She sings to remain sane, is always happy to bump into a fellow picker alone in the warehouse where it seems the algorithm keeps them far apart. I did learn about “chaotic storage” here, a practice Amazon discovered wherein it’s faster to find an item stored among a bunch of dissimilar other things than to pull a particular size out of a container filled with the same thing; works for humans and you can be damned sure the robots do better with it.

Her next job is in Hickory, N.C. at a call center, helping AT&T customers. She’s living in her car, then squeezes into an apartment with one of her coworkers after spending too much money on a hotel room to beat the heat wave. People who call in are reliably terrible, but so are the systems she’s given to use. She has 8 or so different programs that are cobbled together and nothing really works, making her yearn for the efficiency of Amazon. Here, as in Amazon, every second is clocked and monitored, every late arrival and bathroom break, every phone call timed.

Finally, the worst portion of the book, her few months at a McDonald’s in downtown SF, probably the one on Market at Montgomery based on her comments about the homeless problem. She’s scored a free bedroom in Oakland through a friend of a friend, although she complains about the cat’s fleas. Even though she’s only living here for a few months, I find it sad that she gets her geography so wrong, talking about the view of the “Golden Gate Bridge as we cross the river to Oakland” (lol, what river?), and saying San Jose is half and hour from downtown SF.

She weaves in discussions about Taylorism, the lawsuits against McDonald’s, and makes up some hypothetical character named Wanda that honestly bored me so much I just skipped over the text whenever Wanda appeared. Could have been a much better book, but she made some poor choices along the way.