Thursday, September 12, 2019

August: Intensity Too

I was feeling common bonds with the final four books I read in August:
 Women being underestimated
Women obsessed
 WTF? justice system
Evil men
 Slimy, shitty boyfriends/partners

5. The Trial of Lizzie Borden - Cara Robertson.
This is the very best book about the Borden trial. Cara Robertson does a close reading of the transcript and interprets the finer points, particularly in the defense strategy. She also researched how the press covered the trial, almost to comic effect. Really, they weren't so different from social media today. The examination of the brutal murder and the trial balances with the media circus and it creates the perfect amount of tension. In the end, it was all about the all-male jury not being able to wrap their heads around the idea of a well-bred New England spinster committing such a brutal murder. Luckily for Lizzie, she was underestimated. If it had gone the other way, she would have been hanged. My only beef with this excellent book is the dust jacket cover. It looks like historical fiction, which it most certainly is not. Why not a more typical nonfiction cover? Why not a photo of Lizzie Borden?

6. Three Women - Lisa Taddeo.
Journalist Lisa Taddeo followed three women for ten years, chronicling their lives: Maggie, a teenaged girl who falls in love with her handsome, popular English teacher who allows an inappropriate romantic relationship to develop; Sloan, an upscale restaurant owner whose chef husband has decidedly adventurous sexual proclivities that she does all she can to cater to; and Lina, a housewife from Indiana who has a husband who hates kissing (they go to marriage counseling about it) Lina and her husband separate, and she takes up with her high school boyfriend who has turned into a jerk and a lout. Lina sees this, but she looks the other way to get sex from him. Also belongs to a women's group and enjoys scandalizing them with her exploits. Lina and Sloane are pseudonyms. Maggie's real name is used, presumably because she finally informs the police about her teacher's advances several years later. I was dazzled by Taddeo's narrative of the three women's stories, but the book made me uncomfortable. I recognized the thoughts and sometimes the actions of an earlier incarnation of myself, as well as potential actions. What if I'd had an English teacher like Maggie's? The thought makes me shiver.

7. I'll Be Gone in the Dark - Michelle McNamara.
The Golden State Killer eluded the authorities for decades, but technology caught up and was finally his undoing. He started his 'career' as a rapist, so there was plenty of DNA to connect most, if not all his crimes. He hadn't been caught yet when the book was published, so it's amazing to read how close the cops were to figuring the case out, even pinpointing the college he attended briefly. I'll Be Gone in the Dark is also the story of Michelle McNamara, whose blog True Crime Diary helped shine a spotlight on the case. Obsessed with solving the crime, McNamara did an amazing amount of research, poring over documents and following leads. Sadly, she died in the middle of writing this book and just months before the capture of The Golden State Killer.

8. After A While You Just Get Used To It: A Tale of Family Clutter - Gwendolyn Knapp.
This summer, I watched Florida Girls, a screamingly funny and deceptively sharp comedy on PopTV. The season consisted of only around a dozen episodes, so I've been missing my Wednesday nights with Jayla, Erica, Kaitlin, and Shelby. Knapp's book about her hilarious and horrifying family in Florida and New Orleans filled the void nicely. Near and dear to my heart (not sure I'm referencing the proper organ) was Knapp's discussion of her ongoing IBS problem. I laughed; I cried; I ran to the bathroom.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

August Reading: Bump Up The Intensity

My August reading seemed intense. Just before I sat down to write this post, I found this quote on my Twitter feed by the absolutely fabulous Nancy Pearl, quoting Angela Carter:

"Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel...all your experience of the world. You bring your history and you read it in your own terms."

As true with nonfiction as with fiction.

Anyway, this month I brought to my reading all the emotions that keep my nerve endings crackling nonstop. Somehow, the books answered me in kind:

1. Swimming in a Death Sea - David Rieff.
This short but powerful memoir of Susan Sontag's final illness by her son, her only child, was intense. I'm glad it was short. Almost too much to take. I was reading with an odd sort of triple vision. One, I was reading about an author who I've come to admire in just a short time who was fighting to cheat death from cancer a third time in her life, as well as her son, who was put in the unenviable position of not being able to discuss his mother's illness with her candidly, nor was he allowed to lie to her or sugarcoat anything.  Two, I read this with the full weight and grief of what I'd just been through with my own mother. Not cancer, but a steady. sharp decline with stalled conversations as a sense of unreality covered us like a shroud. Three, I read it with an eye to a possible, no, probable future: Myself (Susan) as elderly, ill patient-parent, and my own son, my only child by my side, and wanting to spare him that sort of experience, but also knowing that I probably cannot.

2. The Escape Artists - Neal Bascomb. 
Take The Great Escape, back it up to a WWI setting, and double the efforts and intensity of pilots trying to escape a "perfect" POW camp with a sadistic Kommandant in the German wilderness that was more than a hundred miles from the Dutch border. Fun fact: James Whale, the director of the 1931 version of Frankenstein was a prisoner there.

3. Daisy Jones & The Six - Taylor Jenkins Reid.
So much to love about this "oral history" of a fictional 1970s rock band. Reads enjoyably like an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. I plan to revisit this novel in audiobook form; the cast list is a Who's Who of my favorite audiobook performers. I'm starting to feel quite attached to Taylor Jenkins Reid. I read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo in July and absolutely gobbled it down. Now I want to read all of her books.

4. Incoming Assets - Stephanie Williams and Celestian Rince.
Young, thirtysomething Canadians Steph and Cel live in Vancouver, B.C. which is, by all accounts, expensive. They are also planning to retire around the age of 35. They also want to keep their favorite hobby of globetrotting twice a year. Achieving all of this with regular-paying incomes takes intensity and focus, especially since they just started this endeavor less than 10 years ago, but there's nothing grim about these two. I was happy to discover them and I enjoy reading their blog of the same name.

There were 8 books altogether in the month of August. I need to make this a two-parter. Next time, the remaining 4, which I'm still trying to process as we climb farther into September.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Larry McMurtry on Susan Sontag

The following excerpts in which Larry McMurtry mentions Susan Sontag are from his 1999 memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen:

     Susan Sontag is a reader who can almost be said to sweat literature--it is in her juices, as basketball is in Michael Jordan's. With Susan, I think, the tug of literature is as constant as breath. A characteristic she shares with all great readers is that, however stern she may intend to be, politically or philosophically, when she begins to talk about her reading she reveals a broadly catholic taste. The thrill Susan experiences when she spots a desired book she has not been able to find is probably comparable to that of a bird-watcher who at last glimpses a long-sought species. [pp. 124-125]

     Both in my library at home and in my bookshops I have a hard time hewing to any strict philosophy of shelving. Shelving by chronology (Susan Sontag's method) doesn't always work for me. The modest Everyman edition of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refuses to sit comfortably next to Leonard Baskin's tall Beowulf, and exactly the same problem--incompatibility of size--crops up if one shelves alphabetically. Susan Sontag, on a visit when all my books were in the old ranch house, found that she couldn't live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving. She imposed a hasty chronologizing which held for some years and still holds, in the main.
    Susan's principles notwithstanding, I make free with chronologies when the books seem to demand it. My Sterne looks happier beside my Defoe than he looks next to his nearer contemporary Smollett, so Tristram Shandy sits next to Moll Flanders rather than Peregrine Pickle. [p. 167]

Friday, August 02, 2019

Book Blackout Bingo: Deep Diving With Susan Sontag

July's reading found me taking a deep dive into Susan Sontag's work. It's not a bad way to spend time. This all began when I read an article saying that a new in-depth biography of Sontag would be coming out in September.

It really began 30 years ago, the first time I saw Bull Durham. In the movie, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) goes on a long rant to Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) about things he believes in (high fiber, good scotch, Oswald acted alone, Astroturf and the designated hitter should be outlawed, long slow wet kisses that last three days) and in this lengthy list, he spewed out that he thought the novels of Susan Sontag were self-indulgent overrated crap.  The next time Crash and Annie meet up, she retorts that she likes Sontag's novels. Well, of course the screenwriter threw Sontag into that long list for comedic effect and to show the depth and breadth of Crash's erudition.

 Did Sontag ever see Bull Durham? Of course she did. In her diaries, she talks about seeing 3-4 films a day. This was before the advent of the VCR. Of course, she lived in NYC, but racing from movie house to movie house indicates a real devotion to cinema. Also: I'm no Sontag, but if some character says my name is some movie, disparagingly or not, I'm there. Plopped right down in the center of the front row.

So yeah, Bull Durham left me wondering about Susan Sontag. A tiny bit of research into her bibliography was enough to scare me off.  But I continued to hear her siren song. I bought a paperback copy of In America, Sontag's last novel, and it sat unread on my bookshelf for years. I was too intimidated.

In the meantime, I read an anecdote about Susan Sontag in Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. Sontag came to Archer City to visit McMurtry. Upon seeing his massive but haphazardly organized home library, she vowed that she couldn't go to sleep until she'd gotten it into some kind of order. My intimidation started to melt away. How could you be afraid of someone like that? Perfectly understandable impulse. Susan was me and I was Susan and it wasn't just the first name, either.

Flash-forward to last year, which I guess would technically be a flashback: I was in Dollar Tree (never underestimate their book section; they've got some quirky treasures there) and I saw Reborn, which is volume one of Sontag's diaries and journals which were posthumously edited (lovingly, meticulously) by her son, David Rieff. After paying my dollar, Reborn sat on my shelf until last month, then I just fell into it, utterly entranced. After that, I had to have the second volume, When Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh. (That title doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it?)

When I had polished off Vol. 2, I discovered that Vol. 3 is the works???  I was ready to move on to the novels. A search of my local libraries turned up one: The Volcano Lover. It's a historical novel about Sir William Hamilton, Lady Emma Hamilton and Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of the most famous love triangles in history. But it's more than that. Told primarily from Sir William's point of view, it's a meditation on collecting, possession, theft and loss. Cerebral and compelling. It's good in the way Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall novels are satisfying.

I paused in reading to watch a YouTube video of Sontag being interviewed at about the time In America came out. I didn't get very far. Sontag was breathtaking, but the guy interviewing her (Charlie Rose, I think) was a complete and utter horse's ass. Apologies to the horse. It is to Sontag's credit that she treated him with the utmost courtesy instead of decimating him with first her gaze and then her intellect, which is what he richly deserved.

My deep dive is spilling over into August as I'm happily reading In America. Next up is a memoir of Sontag by David Rieff,  Swimming in a Death Sea, and after that is an audiobook of her essays, On Photography.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Beach Blanket Book Blackout Bingo

Beach Blanket? Why yes...don't I wish. But where there's still summer, there's still hope. We're only in July.

Book Bingo Blackout? I've been working my way through:

Elevation - LGBTQ . Two of the characters are a lesbian couple.

Nomandland - Life Hack. Rent too high? Take to your vehicle and do it with panache!

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gen X Author. Gail Honeyman was born in the Gen X time frame. 1970, I believe.

The Nightingale - Heroine. More like HeroineS in the French Resistance.

If Beale Street Could Talk - Place Name.  The book doesn't take place on Beale Street; James Baldwin named it after a famous blues song.

Buttermilk Graffiti - Odd Couple.  Chef Edward Lee explores more than a dozen cities across America and finds unlikely but happy culinary/place combinations: Lowell, Massachusetts and Cambodian food. Lebanese food in the heart of Mississippi blues country. Nigerian food in Kentucky, and the best Jewish deli in the United States -- not in New York as you might guess, but Indianapolis. Lee delights in his discoveries, and it shows in his writing. His prose makes the tastes and aromas fly right off the page.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Reading Independently: My Crush on Nathan Hale

I remember hearing about and seeing pictures of cotton-haired George Washington and the cartoonishly-shaped Abraham Lincoln in the days before I could read by myself. Cherry trees and log cabins. They were so neatly bundled in February that they didn't make much of an impression.

A couple of years passed, and I was reading independently. Somehow, (maybe from my aunt?) there came into my possession an illustrated book of American history. Starting with Christopher Columbus and ending...I don't remember how. Highlights of American history were summarized in an informative paragraph, accompanied by a picture in full color. It was a handsome volume.

There were two pages I was particularly stuck on: One was the 'story' of Pocahontas and John Smith. What a great picture: John Smith with his hands bound behind his back, head on a large boulder, face looking worried and brave, all at once. The would-be executioner's hatchet coming down, and Pocahontas, running in, arm fully extended for the interception, looking scared but angry. The paragraph said that she shielded him from the fatal blow. Of course, I had to look up 'shielded' 'fatal' and 'blow'. Wow.

Then there was Nathan Hale. I can't find the exact picture I saw in the book, but it was somewhat like the one above, except that Nathan Hale was standing on the left, defiantly facing right and wearing a white shirt with no jacket. He had the rope around his beautifully strong neck. This was the first time I'd ever heard of someone being hanged. Also, the language was a little beyond me.  I double-checked with my father. Yes, hanging was a method of killing. "Giving [one's] life" meant that they died. Also, Nathan Hale was captured by the British for spying. He was a spy. What was a spy? And the paragraph said he was 19. I cried. A lot. Because this wasn't a story. A fairy tale. This was a true story. Nathan Hale was real. This really happened.

For a long time, I brooded on Nathan Hale. Where had his Pocahontas been? If only we weren't 200 years apart! I could have rushed in and shielded him from the fatal...blow? I wasn't exactly sure how hanging was accomplished. Yes, I thought, I would have rescued him. Of course, I would have given him a chance to make his stirring, final speech, then I would have defied those ugly guys in red jackets. Then Nathan Hale could have gone back to being a spy, and maybe I could have somehow helped. Maybe by bringing him some water, like Molly Pitcher?  No, I'd make him show me how to help him with spying. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019


This week, I read the book One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer. It's one of those reads that showed up in my life at the right time. Can you hear that viscous, sucking, sticking noise? That's me, mired in my life in all sorts of ways. Including this blog. I want to blog, but it feels difficult. I don't know why. The books have been read. 29 so far this year, and I have thoughts, really thinky-thoughts, but sitting down and writing a blog post...[shaking my head]

Anyway. Time to whip out a can of Kaizen and spray vigorously. Baby steps.

I clicked on the "New Post" tab.
I wrote a title for this post.
I put up a picture.
I've now written the equivalent of a couple of paragraphs.

Now I feel mired again, struggling to continue, but this is where Maurer would argue that I've done enough for one day. With Kaizen, sitting down and just thinking about blogging would have been more than sufficient. Then, the next day, I could have gone to Blogger and looked at Blue-Hearted Bookworm. Then, the next day, perhaps I could have clicked the "New Post" tab.

So, I have this person in my life. Her name is Amy G. Dala, and she can be a bitch to live with. She lives with you, too. All of us. She's insane in the midbrain.  Hopefully, she's not always camped out in plain view on the sofa of your mind, getting crumbs everywhere and stinking up the joint with her own special cologne, Eau de Fear/Stress/Anxiety. She's always telling rational thought to shove it, and sadly, that's just what rational thought does.

But here's Maurer! And he's bringing his can of whoop-ass Kaizen! But Amy G. Dala doesn't have a clue, because they're moving really freaking slow! The baby steps are so imperceptible that they stealth right by Amy G! If Amy G. starts to suspect anything, she with her fight/flight/sis boom bah, Kaizen takes an even smaller step towards improvement, and Amy G. goes off to sleep, hot sauce all over her chin. Kaizen gives rational thought the thumbs-up, and it's all a go, though one that can barely be measured. That's not a criticism. I love big, bold innovation, but in its way, Kaizen is kind of sexy, too.

Well, I wrote more than I thought I would. Thanks, Kaizen. Thanks, Robert Maurer. Take that, Amy G. Dala.