Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog
Translated by Martje Herzog and Alan Greenberg
University of Minnesota Press, 2015
September 3rd, 2015
This book, which was originally published in German in 1978 (the first English translation was published in 1980) is Werner Herzog’s diary of his three-week walk from Munich to Paris in November and December 1974, which he undertook after hearing that his close friend, the film critic Lotte Eisner, was seriously ill. “I set off on the most direct route to Paris, in full faith,” he writes, “believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot.” The book’s daily entries are a mix of descriptions of the outside world and Herzog’s thoughts and imaginings and interior landscapes; passages of straight description are followed by passages that are almost hallucinatory, seeming to be about actual events until suddenly it becomes clear that they aren’t. I like the cinematic strings of images that Herzog records, like this, from the first day of his journey:
Soccer games are starting, they are chalking the center line on plowed fields. Bavarian flags at the Aubing (Germering?) transit station. The train swirled up dry paper behind it, the swirling lasted a long time, then the train was gone. (2)
Or this, from close to the end:
At the market was a boy on crutches, leaning against the wall of a house as my feet refused to cooperate anymore. With a single, brief, exchange of glances we measured the degree of our relationship. (97)
For much of Herzog’s walk, the weather is miserable: he writes a lot about rain and snow and slush and cold. He writes about breaking into empty holiday cottages to sleep: in one, he says, he finished a crossword puzzle that was sitting on the kitchen table. In the same cottage, he says, he peed in a rubber boot. He does not come across as the most social individual: right after mentioning the boot, there’s this: “A hunter, with a second hunter nearby, asked me what I was looking for up there. I said I liked his dog better than I liked him” (12). And walking by himself for three weeks doesn’t exactly help: he’s alone, and lonely; at multiple points he worries about how wild he looks, and checks his reflection in mirrors to make sure he still looks human. He writes about the difficulties of walking, about the blisters and aches. He writes, on day three, that he “had no idea that walking could hurt so much” (18). Later: “At a sharp turn my left leg suddenly tells me what a meniscus is, as heretofore I’d known it only in theory” (32-33).
Given that I really like walking and am interested in art about walking, it is not surprising that I liked this book rather a lot. I suspect I would have liked it even more if I’d seen more of Herzog’s films (Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the only one I’ve seen, which maybe is a problem I should rectify), but still, this was a very satisfying read.
Elsewhere/longer: I really like Jenny Hendrix’s piece on this book on slate.com.
August 29th, 2015
I read about Disgruntled earlier this summer, when both Jenny at Reading the End and Jenna at Lower East Side Librarian posted about it, and I’m glad I read their posts and then checked this out of the library. It’s got a back cover blurb by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the start of which I think captures this novel’s mood and themes perfectly: “What’s childhood? It’s when you don’t know things. What things? The things you learn in childhood.”
Disgruntled follows its protagonist, Kenya Curtis, from a public elementary school in West Philadelphia to a private school in the suburbs, and other places, too, as she grows up and learns various things about her family and society and race and class and trusting or not trusting other people. A lot of Kenya’s experiences are of not fitting in, whether in her mostly-black elementary school (because her parents are raising her in an Afrocentric way that’s foreign to the other kids) or in the mostly-white private school where she ends up, or in terms of being on the fringes of dances and parties, or in terms of not feeling at home when she’s at home, for various reasons. In elementary school, Kenya has one friend, but only so that she’ll have “a partner at lunch, someone [to] walk with on the zoo trip, talk to at recess, someone she could sit with on the sidelines of Double Dutch, trying to make watching look fun” (5). In sixth grade, she’s part of a clique, but “what drew them together was not laughing, fun, or shared passion, but seating charts, laziness, and the desire to move in a group” (82). Later at private school, Kenya has a best friend, but it’s a brief and tumultuous experience; she also becomes close with a boy she’d met in elementary school, but it’s not quite the kind of closeness she wants.
This book felt more plot-heavy than I maybe expected it to be, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s hard to talk about without going into more detail than I want to. So: because I love lists, here is a great one, from when Kenya first starts at private school:
Each day at Barrett was a new sensory experience for Kenya: chilly stone hallways; clammy modeling clay; picking impossibly sticky long hairs off her schoolbag; a school uniform of scratchy bloomers with a navy-blue dress called a tunic or a gray skirt called a kilt; a rubbery-tasting mouthguard for field hockey; the sound of hand bells; what shall we do with a drunken sailor; the distinct sneaker-fart funk of the school bus; a gym teacher with a British accent; dreidl (dreidl, dreidl); cupcakes for Trinity Howell’s birthday; cupcakes for Katherine Stein’s birthday; cupcakes for Sengu Gupta’s birthday; body on fire with cold as Kenya finally, after two weeks of increasingly irritable cajoling from Mrs. Winston, forced herself into the pool in gym class. (65)
August 23rd, 2015
I don’t remember how I found out about Liz Climo’s Tumblr, and I don’t remember how long I’ve been reading it, but I seriously love it, so I was very excited about this book, which is a mix of comics from her Tumblr and new ones. As the back cover puts it, this is a “charmingly quirky animal kingdom, a place where grizzly bears, porcupines, rabbits and anteaters all grapple with everyday life with wit and humor.” It’s organized thematically into four sections (“love and friendship,” “holidays and celebrations,” “family,” and “daily life”), which I think mostly works, though some of the ones in “holidays and celebrations” felt a little repetitive to me. But, I mean, I can’t really complain. I laughed out loud multiple times while reading this, and kept interrupting my boyfriend to show him pages I particularly liked. I like Climo’s style, which is visually simple: these are mostly one-panel or two-panel comics, generally with a white background, so the various animal protagonists and the jokes/wordplay are front and center. (Example joke, from page ten of the book: An otter says to a clam, “why are you mad at me?” The clam says, “because you called me selfish.” Otter: “no, I called you shellfish.” Clam: “oh. well, that’s accurate.)
I wanted to love this book, but found the experience of reading it to be sort of a slog. I think part of the problem is that Beaumont is trying to do a whole lot here: he’s looking at the history of walking at night, mostly but not exclusively in London, from the early modern period through to Dickens, and he’s doing it mostly through a literary-history lens, but with bits of legal and social history, too. So it’s a long book, and a full book, and a lot of time is spent laying the foundation for the sections that felt, to me, like the most fully realized and strongest bits (the parts about the Romantics and about Dickens). Beaumont starts out by talking about the difference between “noctivagants” and “noctambulants,” or between “common” and “uncommon” nightwalkers, with the former being the poor or homeless and the latter being more privileged people, usually men, who walked the streets at night for reasons other than literal necessity—as a social activity, or as moral crusaders, or as a way to gather inspiration for their writing.
The book is divided into four sections, some of which I found more interesting than others. In Part One, Beaumont talks about the “common night walker” in English law and also in later colonial law—anyone who is out at night without being able to to provide a “good” reason for it in the eyes of the law. He talks about statutes on night walking as a way of policing the poor and marginalized, and also touches on how walking/nighttime is presented in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Part Two moves on to the eighteenth century, when more public illumination at night in cities, as well as the rise of urban capitalism, meant a more social city at night, with pleasure gardens and illuminated shop windows and also more artisans and other working poor people doing night work. I liked the bits here about “Trivia,” a 1716 poem by John Gay about walking in London, and about Ned Ward’s London Spy, neither of which I’d heard of before.
Part Three moves on to the Romantics, and I found this one of the stronger sections of the book, though I personally could have done with a bit less William Blake. Beaumont talks about how in this period, “walking became an end in itself,” and how “walking, for the Romantics, inscribed a coded rebellion against the culture of agrarian and industrial capitalism onto both the material surfaces of city and countryside—the streets, the roads, the footpaths—and their social relations” (228, 229). I was interested in the sections about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Wordsworth (though the latter’s walking was rather more rural than urban), and about John Clare, walking away from the asylum where he was a patient, and about Thomas De Quincey. I also really liked Part Four, which is mostly about Dickens (his personal night-walking habits and night-walking in his novels) but which also includes this great paragraph from an 1801 letter to Wordsworth by Charles Lamb, about why he likes London:
The Lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet-street, the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; [the very women of the Town;] the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles;—life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old book-stalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes—London itself a pantomime and a masquerade— all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much Life. (324)
August 2nd, 2015
Last First Snow is the fourth book in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence in publication order, but the first chronologically: it’s set in Dresediel Lex, the desert city of fourteen million where Two Serpents Rise (which was the second book, both in publication order and chronologically) also takes place. I wouldn’t recommend starting the series here, but I would definitely recommend the series as a whole, and this installment felt particularly satisfying, maybe partly because I was in the mood for a fast/exciting read.
The Craft Sequence is set in a world of gods and magic. The backstory is that four decades prior to the events of this book, the people of this world fought the God Wars, a series of conflicts that set the old gods and their worshippers against the Craftsmen and Craftswomen, who are basically magicians who want humans, not gods, to drive the world. The magic in these books is interesting—it involves knives and glyphs and wards to protect places or people, but the underpinnings of it all look a whole lot like contract law: there are Craft firms that look a whole lot like law firms.
So, right: in this book we’re in a familiar city, with familiar characters: Craftswoman Elayne Kevarian; the Craftsman/skeleton known as the King in Red, who rules DL; Temoc, the last of an order of priests loyal to the old gods; Temoc’s son Caleb, who’s a child here but whom we know as a grown-up in Two Serpents Rise. Like the other books in the Craft Sequence, this one opens with a problem. A neighborhood of Dresediel Lex called the Skittersill is still protected by the wards of the old gods, even though those old gods are dead or dormant. Because it’s a divine protectorate, land in the Skittersill can’t be bought or sold while the wards are in place. But without the gods, the wards will someday fail, leaving the neighborhood open to the dangers of various disasters (fire, famine, plague, etc.). Elayne is working with the King in Red and a businessman to negotiate a deal for the Skittersill, a proposal to replace the gods’ wards with new ones made of Craft, which will make the newly-solidly-protected neighborhood more attractive for development. But it’s a neighborhood, a community, and some of its residents, who are mostly poor, aren’t happy about the proposed deal, which doesn’t take their wants and needs into consideration. So an argument about capitalism and gentrification is part of what’s at the heart of this book. The parties negotiate, and that’s part of the plot, but then the chance for peace/agreement is threatened by an act of violence that escalates into a full-on clash between protestors and the police, with the King in Red trying to demonstrate his power, and the way that plays out takes up a fair chunk of the book.
I mostly really liked the pacing of Last First Snow, though there were a few parts that felt like they dragged a little—maybe it’s that I was most interested in the parts of the plot that focused on Elayne, so the parts of the book in which she’s absent felt slower to me. I like how we get to see the various parties involved in the conflict and pieces of their viewpoints and pieces of why they hold the beliefs they do, why they act the way they do. I like the bits of humor: at one point when Elayne tries to talk to the King in Red, his reply is that he’s “busy smiting,” to which her reply is “smite later” (183). I like the excitement of the fight scenes, even though fight scenes in general are not my favorite thing to read. And I like how Gladstone manages to write lyrically about the everyday parts of a city in conflict: people swing-dancing in a park in another neighborhood, billboards and traffic jams and people living their lives.
July 26th, 2015
Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star is often an uncomfortable read, but it should be: its narrator is an astronomy grad student with an eating disorder, and she’s in a long-distance relationship with a guy dealing (or rather not dealing) with alcoholism. The binary star of the title is the book’s metaphor for their relationship—two stars orbiting a common center of mass. Gerard captures her narrator’s obsessive thinking—food, her body, the numbers on the scale, diet pills, celebrity gossip magazines with lists of “diet tricks,” food—the litany of brands and products at the supermarket. (Some of this is based on Gerard’s own experiences, as described in this New York Times piece.) The narrator talks about a road trip she took with her aforementioned boyfriend, John, and about their increasing mutual interest in ethical veganism/veganarchism/animal liberation (though for the narrator, veganism also provides an excuse: rules around food, reasons not to eat). The book’s sentences are mostly short, declarative, stripped down, the narrator doing to language what she does to herself: “I have basically starved myself of will,” the narrator says, and then, on the same page, “I am mostly devoid of feelings on purpose” (71). She cultivates emptiness. “The total mass of a star is the principal determinant of its fate,” she says on the book’s first page, and then: “A star is held together by its own gravity.” Her center doesn’t hold. “If I wander far enough into the desert, I may become a dune,” she says, and then: “And winds will blow across and reshape me, and I will see that my form has always been and will always be indefinite” (55-56).
July 22nd, 2015
The eleven essays in this book all explore pain, in one way or another (or sometimes in several ways). All are well-written, some are structurally interesting, and I really liked some of them. The title essay, which is partly about Jamison’s job as a medical actor (presenting the symptoms of a disease/the story of a fictional patient to med school students conducting simulated examinations) is really satisfying: Jamison talks about her experience with the med students when she’s acting, and also about her experiences with empathy or lack thereof around the abortion she had and the heart surgery she had, and also about her feelings around empathy when her brother had Bell’s palsy. (This essay appeared in The Believer, and you can read the whole thing online here.) I love this, which is from that first essay: “Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see” (5). Also, this: “Empathy is a kind of care but it’s not the only kind of care, and it’s not always enough” (17).
The second essay, which is about Morgellons (read it here) was also really interesting. Jamison writes about going to an annual conference in Austin for self-described “morgies,” and the weirdness of wanting to be empathetic/believing in the pain of the people she meets, without necessarily believing in some of their explanations for it. The travel/place-themed essays in this book (like one about going to a writers’ conference in Mexicali and hearing about/thinking about the experience of living in parts of Mexico that are very affected by the violence of the drug trade, or about getting mugged/punched in Nicaragua, or about visiting the silver mines of Potosí, or going on a “Gang Tour” in LA) didn’t resonate as strongly with me, and I’m not sure why, though there are interesting bits. I did love The Immortal Horizon, which is about the Barkley Marathons, a 100+-mile race over very rough/wild terrain in Tennessee, in which Jamison’s brother competed in 2010.
The book’s last essay, which is about female pain, seems to be one of those things people either really like or really don’t (based on the Goodreads reviews I’ve seen, anyway), but I felt conflicted. There were parts of it I liked because Jamison is around my age, and I relate to passages like this, because these are the song lyrics of my adolescence, too:
I grew up under the spell of damaged sirens: Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco, Björk, Kate Bush, Mazzy Star. They sang about all the ways a woman could hurt: I’m a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl. When they’re out for blood I always give. We are made to bleed and scab and heal and bleed again and turn every scar into a joke. Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon. Bluffing your way into my mouth, behind my teeth, reaching for my scars. Did I ever tell you how I stopped eating, when you stopped calling? You’re only popular with anorexia. Sometimes you’re nothing but meat, girl. I’ve come home. I’m so cold. (202)
And she quotes Anne Carson, which always wins points with me, and I like the way the essay brings together all these different bits and pieces (a female character in Dickens, Lena Dunham’s Girls, Stephen King’s Carrie, and more), and I like the idea of “the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos” (214). But I have issues with the gender binary, which this essay doesn’t really question, and I think maybe part of the problem with “female pain” is failing, in some cases, to see pain as an individual issue/experience, not in a gendered way (which I think Jamison gets at, right at the end of the essay, but not enough).
July 11th, 2015
I think I’m probably not the ideal audience for Pico Iyer’s very short TED book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. That isn’t to say I didn’t find things to like in it, but I think it might have been better for people who haven’t tried any sort of sitting-in-silence practice at all (I went to a Quaker high school, and had a brief period of going to Quaker meeting semi-regularly as an adult), and/or who don’t already feel convinced of the benefits of sometimes doing nothing/going nowhere/carving out space for quiet in one’s life. I like that while Iyer himself goes on retreats to a monastery, he realizes that isn’t going to work for everyone, in terms of time commitment or finances or personality: near the end of the book he says that “Nowhere has to become somewhere we visit in the corners of our lives by taking a daily run or going fishing or just sitting quietly for thirty minutes every morning” (63).
This book consists of six chapters and an introduction, separated by 2-page spreads of color photos by Eydís Einarsdóttir of horizons and clouds, water and sky. (You can see the photos on Einarsdóttir’s website: this one is totally my favorite). The book starts and ends with stories about Leonard Cohen (who has spent a significant amount of time at a Zen monastery in California, and who famously went on tour in his seventies: Iyer talks about his time at the monastery as stepping away from the world in order to more fully engage with it) but other than that it has a pretty loose structure, meandering through Iyer’s own experiences (deciding to spend a year in Kyoto at the age of 29, after being a successful writer in New York), those of people he’s met (like Matthieu Ricard, the Dalai Lama’s French translator and the monk of The Monk and the Philosopher), general ideas about choosing to step away from busy-ness (e.g. the idea of taking breaks from technology on a “secular Sabbath”), and specific examples of stillness being useful (e.g. a study about “a yoga-based breathing program” for military vets at risk of PTSD). Iyer’s writing sometimes feels a little name-dropping, but sometimes feels really lyrical and pleasing—I haven’t read anything else by him, but this book does make me want to. One sentence that really made me roll my eyes, though: “It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut” (62). (That donut part feels really unnecessarily judge-y about other people’s food choices, and is extra weird given that there’s another part of the book where Iyer talks about a balance between Nowhere and normal life, using the example of Leonard Cohen leaving the monastery to go get a Filet-o-Fish sandwich and watch TV at home.)
Some highlights: the idea of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it” (4). A quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel about the Sabbath being “a cathedral in time rather than space,” and then Iyer’s own description of how “the one day a week we take off becomes a vast empty space through which we can wander, without agenda, as through the light-filled passageways of Notre Dame” (55). And this description of Iyer’s first visit to the Benedictine retreat house he ended up returning to many times:
A fox alighted on the splintered fence outside, and I couldn’t stop watching, transfixed. A deer began grazing just outside my window, and it felt like a small miracle stepping into my life. Bells tolled far above, and I thought I was listening to the “Hallelujah Chorus.” (15)
July 8th, 2015
Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island reminded me a bit of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, in that they both feature writer-narrators engaged in a project of writing/observation whose result, basically, is the book you’re reading. I liked 10:04 a bit more, because it’s got more New York in it and is more lyrical and optimistic, but I liked Satin Island a whole lot too, starting with its form: it’s made of paragraph-long numbered sections (some of them are long paragraphs) that are full of associations, recurring images, tangents, digressions, and nods to the narrator’s hero, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The narrator, U., is an anthropologist himself, but the culture he’s studying is his own/our own: contemporary capitalism, globalization, corporate culture and brands. He works for a company that has just won a big contract for a project he can only describe in the vaguest of terms; he is meant to be working on a “Great Report,” an impossible document that his boss describes as “The First and Last Word on our age” (61). As far as what he actually does, he travels and speaks at conferences, and he sits in a basement office and writes briefs and compiles dossiers about jeans and what different patterns of wear signify, or about breakfast, or about well, anything that he feels like, as he explains early in the book:
I had a dossier on Japanese game-avatars, and another one on newspaper obituaries; a dossier on post-match interviews with sportsmen and their managers; a dossier on alleged alien sightings and one on shark attacks; dossiers on tattoos, “personalization” trends for hand-held gadgets, the rhetoric and diction of scam emails. (35-36)
Satin Island itself follows U.’s whims and trains of thought from the very opening of the book onward: the first chapter, which is great, is pretty representative of the whole thing. The book starts with a description of the shroud of Turin, and then U. remembers being stuck in the airport in Torino-Caselle. He remembers reading about the shroud of Turin there, then remembers moving on to reading about hub-airports (because Torino-Caselle is one), then about the hub/spoke model generally, then about bicycle construction, at which point he remembers how he found himself remembering the sensation of riding a bike in his childhood, until he got distracted by the news footage being shown in the airport (which includes breaking news about an oil spill, which increasingly dominates the news coverage and U.’s thoughts). One thing leads to another, and maybe it’s all worth paying attention to: as U. puts it when talking about how sometimes he can’t tell whether something will be work for a client or work for the Great Report/himself, “Who’s to say what is, or might turn out to be, related to what else?” (36).
Like 10:04, this book is very concerned with narrative. There are the narratives that U. creates to explain how things in our culture work/what things signify, which are sometimes just bullshitting or crazy theories, and there are the other anthropological narratives U. refers to, whether he’s talking about Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques or Vanuatan cargo cults. But there are other people’s stories, too, and how they tell them: U. has a friend who’s dying of cancer, and one of the things the friend is bothered by is the sense that he’s always been conscious of his experiences in terms of how he’ll narrate/frame them to others, but death is the experience he won’t be able to narrate. And then there’s Madison, the woman U. is sleeping with, and the story she tells him about her experience of police brutality. A dream, which is a different kind of narrative (or non-narrative, maybe), gives the book its title and leads to maybe my favorite part of the book, the last chapter, in which U. visits and describes the Staten Island Ferry Terminal: there’s too much of it to quote, but oh, it’s so good, and not just because it’s about a place I can picture.
July 3rd, 2015
I mostly read Exodus because I’m a completist—it was bugging me that I’d read the first two books of this trilogy about, as the back cover puts it, “the two preposterous philosophical anti-heroes,” Lars and W., but hadn’t read the third. This third book is more of the same, which is mostly a good thing, because these books are funny: Lars and W. are philosophy professors who drink a lot of gin and bemoan the state of the world in general and academia in particular. In this volume, W. is on the verge of losing his job but then doesn’t, because of some technicality, but now he “only teaches sports science” students (14). In the last book, Lars and W. attempted a US lecture tour; in this one, it’s their “great lecture tour of Great Britain,” their “last look at the ruins of the humanities,” their investigation of the “destruction of philosophy at [W.’s] university — of the destruction of philosophy in Britain — of the destruction of philosophy in the whole world” (3). But we don’t really see much of the lecturing: it’s more the touring, the in-between places, the train rides and the coffees and beers before or after lecturing. And as with the previous two books, a lot of this one consists of Lars recounting his conversations with W., full of funny insults. There’s this:
I was a scholarly Kasper Hauser, W. says, who knew nothing of reading, or note-taking. I could read, that much is true. But only just, only approximately, and with a great deal of pathos, with wild underlinings and illegitimate identifications. — ‘You thought every book you read was about you, didn’t you?’ That’s me!, I would say, pointing to a passage in Hegel. It’s about me!, I would say, pointing to the Science of Logic. (8)
And this: “He can see my lips moving as I read, W. says. It’s not a good sign in a scholar” (29). And this: “I rely on secondary commentaries, on idiot’s guides, W. says. In the end, I am only a ransacker of books, a kind of reader-marauder. My reading is a great pillaging, as if by a Viking raiding party” (ibid.)
W and Lars’s wanderings intertwine with the themes of exile that keep recurring in this book (at least one lecture they give is about “exilic themes in the work of Marx”), and one of the pair’s central concerns is the place of thought in the modern world/in a capitalistic society/in capitalistic Great Britain in particular. I’m sure I missed a bunch of philosophical jokes and references—I suspect someone who majored in philosophy would find this book even funnier than I did—but still, this was a satisfying read.