At the start of LaserWriter II we’re introduced to Claire, who’s 19 and applying for a job at Tekserve, an old-school, pre-Genius-Bar computer/printer repair shop that used to be on 23rd Street. We learn that Claire grew up in a household loyal to Apple from the start: they had the “first Mac, and an Apple IIc before it, and then whatever computer Apple made next, forever.” I grew up in a PC family, so my earliest computer memories are of a black screen with the C prompt, but I relate to the sentiment nevertheless: my first Apple computer was one of the clamshell iBooks, which I got just before I started college, and I haven’t bought a PC since. (And I definitely remember bringing a computer to Tekserve, though I can’t remember if it was that first laptop or a later one.)

So, right: Claire gets the job, and the rest of the book is the story of Claire’s time at Tekserve, interspersed with other things: we get Tekserve’s origin story (which is pretty great), and references to the early days of Apple itself, and little bits of other parts of Claire’s life, and also some sections from the point of view of some of components of the printers that Claire is working on. I think the parts of the book that are directly focused on Claire and her experiences are the strongest, as opposed to the snippets we get of the lives of other Tekserve employees: I like the way that the events of any given day at Tekserve prompt recollections of other places, other moments. Like: working on a computer mouse makes Claire think of an experience with actual mice when she was younger, or taking in a repair from someone who works at Columbia makes Claire think of a philosophy class she snuck into after she found someone else’s student ID.

I like the descriptions of Tekserve as a space “full of people and machines, old and new” with “pressed tin ceilings and wood floors” where “wooden theater seats snap open and shut.” I like the descriptions of a pre-gentrification East Village of squats and Food Not Bombs and basement punk shows. And I love this description of Columbia’s campus: “Black iron gates opened to a perspective drawing of green lawns and white columns. Students sat in circles under sun-dappled light. The air was clean and weightless. Shadows were cast not from skyscrapers but from sundials, sculptures, and sycamore trees.”

I also like this book’s sense of humor, which is understated but excellent. Like this, about a band named Hookworm68: “The “68” was to suggest the French Situationists, not the sex act minus 1.” Or how the PRINTER FAQ used by Tekserve is “spiked with tiny jokes”, leading to this: “Joel replaces the LaserJet’s fan. The PRINTER FAQ told him to do this because the fan (much like capitalism) has a design flaw that makes it eventually fail.” Or how a bottle of Snapple is described thus: “The flavor is iced tea, with a plot twist of fake lemon.” I didn’t love this book the way I loved Mumbai New York Scranton or Arbitrary Stupid Goal, but I did like it, and I’m glad I read it.

I’m glad I read the Melville House “Art of the Novella” edition of this book: the “Illuminations” at the end of the book added some much-needed context, as it’s been a while since I studied transcendentalism in school. Having both “The Transcendentalist” and “Civil Disobedience” included with Bartleby the Scrivener felt really useful in terms of placing this novella in its American political/philosophical/literary moment.

As for the novella itself, before reading it I had known Bartleby’s catch-phrase of “I would prefer not to”, but I didn’t know much more than that and wasn’t really expecting the book’s mix of humor and pathos. I like the NYC atmosphere Melville evokes: I can picture the area around Trinity Church quite well because my office is very close to there: I’ve walked along Wall Street from Broadway at lunch breaks or after work, and I liked imagining those streets in centuries past as I read.

(Relevant quote from Emerson: “Unless the action is necessary, unless it is adequate, I do not wish to perform it.” And from Thoreau: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”)

I don’t usually read “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” or “romance” or “romantic comedy” or whatever you want to call this, but I got this ebook for free via Amazon First Reads last May and figured I’d give it a try. In the first chapter we’re introduced to Dylan Delacroix, a corporate productivity consultant in Houston: her job is to turn things around for companies struggling with management issues, PR issues, or both. Her last assignment went really well, and she’s expecting a sweet gig in Paris as a reward, but is dismayed to learn that instead, she’s been given an extremely difficult placement with a company called Technocore in Seattle, where she grew up. Dylan is polished and put-together: someone who wears Manolos and has to cancel all her “standard appointments” before flying to Washington: “eyebrow threading, manicures, blowouts, and waxing”. She thinks of herself as nothing like her family: her parents and both of her sisters (one of whom lives in New York, the other of whom lives at home still) are all artists. Dylan isn’t thrilled about the idea of staying in her childhood bedroom, but her boss makes it clear she doesn’t really have a choice: she’s expected to stay with her family to save the company money. She’s also not thrilled about being away from her boyfriend, Nicolas, and all their routines. (We learn they have a “nighttime ritual: email, dinner, more email, then bed.” Yeah, not much heat there, but Dylan’s fine with it.)

Since her job is what it is, Dylan packs her bags and heads home, where she arrives to find her dad’s latest sculpture “glaring at her from the dead center of the yard”: it’s an “eight-foot-tall tiger clutching a beach ball,” and the Robinsons, who live across the street and are always dismayed by the Delacroix family’s art and chaos, are not pleased. Dylan’s parents, meanwhile, are not pleased by the “new motion-sensor light” over the Robinsons’ driveway, which shines right into their bedroom. They send Dylan over to complain, and she finds herself not talking to Patricia Robinson or her wife, Linda, but to their son, Mike, who’s grown up to be even more handsome than he was in high school.

You can probably guess where this is going, but it’s fun watching Dylan navigate the craziness of her job (as Technocore’s CEO keeps doing tone-deaf things and as her boss in Houston continually undermines her), the slow-dawning realization that her boyfriend sucks, and the dynamics of family and friendship, all while low-key flirting (and then more) with Mike. The dialogue is clunky in places (it feels like the characters use way fewer contractions than actual people do) but by the end of the book I was willing to overlook that because I was so charmed. I also like how Woolridge writes about Seattle, a city I’ve never been to but would like to visit. There’s this, when Dylan and Mike visit a museum together: “The Seattle gloom had a living quality to it. It had shifted while they were inside, and the gray now made the world look like it was bathed in a bright smoke. It wasn’t anything close to sunny, but it was as close as the city was likely to get. The familiarity of it made Dylan feel at home.” And this, when Dylan picks Nicolas up from the airport for an ill-fated weekend visit: “The drive into the city from the airport was one of the most gorgeous views from any airport ever. Even on the wettest days, the picture-postcard skyline, complete with cranes and the Space Needle, seemed to reach out of the water, its lights twinkling like rare gems. It was always stunning. No matter what, she always felt like she was home the moment she saw it.”

Early in The Book of Form and Emptiness. we learn about the sudden accidental death of Kenji Oh, a jazz clarinetist who was born in Japan and had been living in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, Annabelle, and their kid, Benny. The book is mostly Benny’s story—it’s about how he starts hearing voices after his dad’s death, and about how he finds his own voice, by listening to the voice of a Book that narrates his life. But it’s also the story of Annabelle and her loneliness and hoarding, and of other people whose paths intersect with theirs: there’s a teenage runaway artist who calls herself the Aleph, and a guy named Slavoj who Benny thinks of as a scary/crazy wheelchair-bound homeless guy, but who is also a famous Slovenian poet. And mixed in with their stories, we get excerpts of a fictional Marie-Kondo-ish book called Tidy Magic, by a Buddhist nun who writes about what she’s learned about “the impermanence of form, and the empty nature of all things.”

It’s a lot, but in a good way; as Benny goes from home to school to the public library to a psych ward, those pieces of other stories enrich the narrative and tie things together. “Things are needy,” the Book says, early on. “They take up space. They want attention, and they will drive you mad if you let them.” Later, the Aleph tells Benny that its “capitalism that’s crazy”, not him or her or Slavoj. Aikon, the author of Tidy Magic, notes that there’s a solution: “people just had to stop buying so much stuff.” But the producers of the TV show she’s making tell her not to talk about “consumerism, capitalism, materialism, commodity fetishism, online shopping, and credit card debt.” Meanwhile, threads intersect: Annabelle keeps buying snow globes on eBay; the Aleph has an art project where she makes snow globes, but of scenes of disaster (a snow globe of 9/11, a snow globe of Hurricane Katrina, a snow globe of Fukushima). And through it all there’s also a lot about books and reading: I like how the library is a place of refuge and learning and connection and possibility for Benny and the Aleph and Slavoj, and I like how the Book has a lot of good bookish insights, like: “one book, when read by different readers, becomes different books, becomes an ever-changing array of books that flows through human consciousness like a wave.”

August, the narrator of Another Brooklyn, is an anthropologist in her mid-thirties; she studies death rituals/observances in cultures across the world. When the book opens she’s back in Bushwick, where she grew up, clearing out her father’s apartment after his death. But the book is mostly about August’s childhood and her teen years, and particularly about her close friendship with three other girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi. August remembers moving to Brooklyn from South Carolina with her dad and her brother in 1973, when she was eight and her brother was four; she remembers her mother, how she “started hearing voices from her dead brother Clyde” and how she “said women weren’t to be trusted.” She remembers “the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn” and how she and her friends shared secrets and laughter and pain. She remembers her own early solitude, how she watched Angela and Sylvia and Gigi doing Double Dutch before she was friends with them, how she watched the interactions between her dad and her brother and would “see their fluid connection, a something I was on the outside of.”

There’s darkness and difficulty in August’s story, and in her friends’ stories, and in their neighborhood’s stories—there’s mental illness and violence and poverty and drug use; August’s uncle is one of many who died in Vietnam, and many of those who came back are struggling: at one point August remembers how “the damage of the war staggered, strung-out and bleary-eyed along our block.” A downstairs neighbor is a sex worker who’s reunited with her kids, then parted from them again; a woman across the street had a son who died. But there are also moments of tenderness and connection and joy: kids opening hydrants along the street, or summertime parties that August went to with her friends and remembers like this: “At night, when the DJs plugged extension cords into the streetlights, the four of us followed the line of brown and white cords to the music in the park.” Or, when she was younger, trips to Coney Island with her father and brother, which August remembers like this: “On Saturdays, my father took us to Coney Island, the three of us riding the double L train to the F train to the last stop. My brother and I watched from the first car window as the Wonder Wheel came into view, then the long-closed Parachute ride, then the Cyclone, and finally, the ocean.”

Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

November 24th, 2021

As Jo Hamya says in her Author’s Note, “Three Rooms is a novel about the danger of withholding capital, principally domestic and financial.” It quotes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and exists partly in relation to Woolf’s ideas around how “intellectual freedom depends on material things.” It follows the unnamed narrator as she moves from one living situation to another, as she goes from a shared house in Oxford (where she works as a postdoc assistant) to a friend of a friend’s sofa in London (where she works as a copy editor at a society magazine) to her parents’ home (which we don’t actually see, but which the narrator describes as having “architecture and interior design opposite of everything I would have chosen for myself,” and where her set of keys is now the spare set that her parents leave with neighbors when they go on holiday). Throughout, the novel looks at different facets of the idea of “home” and the stability and safety that idea implies—or how that stability and safety can be lacking. There are the literally unhoused people the narrator sees living in tents near her office in London; there are the people who died or were displaced in the Grenfell Tower fire; there’s the idea of England itself as home, which is complicated by racism (and by acrimonious conversations around Brexit).

While the novel looks at the big themes of “home” and “space” and what that means for the narrator in particular and people in general, it’s also excellent slice-of-life fiction about the narrator’s daily existence, with lots of sharply-observed details about life in the late 2010s, online and off. At Oxford, the narrator does a deep dive into the Instagram of someone she meets, and then runs into that person taking a selfie outside of the house where the narrator lives: when she then sees that selfie on Instagram, the narrator thinks of the house itself, the reality of it, as “less spectacular” than it looks in the (cropped and filtered) photo. She talks about spending hours looking at other people’s posts on Oxford Facebook groups, and about a dating app (which she dislikes). She talks about texting with her mom, and the generation gap in texting etiquette, complaining about the fact that her mom doesn’t “know that the thumbs-up emoji constitute[s] the end of a conversation in text.” But there are also beautifully-described passages about the physical world the narrator is moving through, like London on a rainy day with a red bus and orange leaves providing “bursts of color in covert gleams, here and there between the city’s uniformity, its color of chalky stone, of colleges, of embassies; towards the Thames, the color of glass, silver high-rises over silver water.”

The Governesses is short and strange: fable-like, dream-like, with three governesses like maenads and/or like The Three Graces (to whom they are explicitly compared, I think more than once). There is a house and a garden, and another house across the road in which lives an elderly gentleman who likes to watch the governesses through his telescope; in the house with the governesses are a married couple and an unspecified number of small boys and “little maids”. There are woods nearby, and wild animals; the governesses are themselves more than a little wild. There is a party planned but postponed; there is a lot of undressing. I’m sure this book is saying things about female desire and the male gaze and motherhood and coupledom but what sticks with me is the house and the woods, branches and meadows. I think somehow of Joseph Cornell, of Bébé Marie or Pink Palace.

Early in the book there’s this, about the way the governesses’ pasts are somehow consumed/subsumed when they arrive at the house:

“all the trees they had ever known—the ones in the school playground, for example, and the ones outside grandma’s house and along the road to the beach—came rushing into Monsieur and Madame Austeur’s garden, lining up side by side with the elms and oaks, and then disappearing inside them. The same thing happened with houses, barns, châteaux, and whole towns. They all came storming through the wide-open gates the morning of the governesses’ arrival, then on into the house, so that by the time the first night had fallen Monsieur and Madame Austeur’s house had swallowed up a considerable quantity of roofbeams, tiles, chimney stacks, and still-ticking grandfather clocks.”

I love that, and also the part a bit later where Monsieur Austeur is described as “watching over the heart of the house like a grandfather clock”:

“Ensconced in his armchair at the center of the room he receives all these cries, these chirrups and yelps from the women and children of the house, and, shuffling them together in his heart, sends them back transformed, slow and steady like the signals from a lighthouse.”

In Beautiful World, Where Are You we meet two of the characters, Alice (who’s a novelist) and Felix (who works in a warehouse) as they’re meeting each other, on their first date after having messaged each other on Tinder. Later, we’re introduced to the novel’s two other main characters, Eileen (Alice’s best friend) and Simon (Eileen’s close friend/sometimes-lover) as the novel switches focus among them, with chapters of third-person narration about one or two of them alternating with the long emails that Alice and Eileen write to each other, which are partly about their personal lives and partly about art and beauty and capitalism and worries about the future of civilization.

All of which is to say that this is a very Sally Rooney book, and while I wasn’t entirely into it at first, I ended up really enjoying it and feeling emotionally invested in the characters and their choices and their happiness or unhappiness. I like how Rooney writes about friendships and partnerships, the way people converse and relate to one another, the way people move toward or away from one another. (Also, how Rooney writes about sex.) Rooney is great at dialogue, but there’s lots of really wonderful description too—especially in a section where Eileen is at her sister’s wedding and there’s all this great stuff about her past, and her family’s past, and her shared past with Simon, but also elsewhere, like when Alice invites Felix to go to Rome with her, and we get to read about the photos Felix takes as he explores the city on his own while Alice is at literary/press events. (Also from the Rome section, Alice writing to Eileen about the “dark fragrant orange trees, little white cups of coffee, blue afternoons, golden evenings.”) I also am so here for all the passages involving Felix’s dog, and also this, from an email when Eileen is telling Alice about a diary she kept for a while, in which she would write “one short entry each day, just a line or two, describing something good”: “Dry upturned sycamore leaves scuttling like claws along the South Circular Road. The artificial buttered taste of popcorn in the cinema. Pale-yellow sky in the evening, Thomas Street draped in mist. Things like that.”

Happy spooky season! I somehow had never read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving and now seemed like the right time to rectify that. Before reading the story I think I could have told you that it included “Ichabod Crane” and a “Headless Horseman” but I think that’s all I knew about it. Turns out, the story is more funny than scary, but it does have a lush autumn mood, with plenty of Hudson Valley scenery and a detailed description of “the ample charms of a genuine Dutch country tea-table” covered in cakes, pies, and more. So, right: Ichabod Crane (originally from Connecticut) is a schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow in the Hudson Valley, near Tarrytown. He doesn’t earn a lot of money, but he gets fed and housed by the families of the kids he teaches, so it’s not too bad a gig. But he thinks he could do better. Specifically, he thinks if he marries one Katrina Van Tassel, whose father has a very productive farm, he’d be much better off. So Crane courts Katrina, but so do various other people, including a prankster known as Brom Bones. In addition to his fondness for good food (which Katrina’s father’s farm would surely provide), Crane has a fondness for Cotton Mather’s book about witchcraft in New England, and for scary stories in general, which makes Sleepy Hollow an interesting place for him to be, since the town is said to be haunted by multiple ghosts, the most famous of which is a headless horseman said to be a Hessian soldier who lost his head in battle. These various elements of the story converge in a pretty great way, and I’m glad I finally read it. I especially liked the moments of wry humor, like when the narrator speculates that maybe old Dutch settlements in New York are the most haunted because people stay put there, as opposed to other places, where the ghosts find that when they “turn out at night to walk their rounds, they have no acquaintance left to call upon.”

Meanwhile: today we walked to Economy Candy on Rivington Street, and I’m very pleased with our haul:

(That’s a five-pound chocolate mix, gummy bears, imported Haribo cherry cola bottles, chocolate covered raisins, a Lion bar, a Lion coconut bar, a Double Decker bar, and sour mango straws.)

(Spoilers ahead/don’t read if you don’t want to know what happens in this book.)

Early in Washington Square we meet Dr. Sloper, who married a wealthy woman but is an eminent medical professional with a solid career of his own. He lives with his daughter, Catherine, and his widowed sister Lavinia: his first child (a son) died young, and his wife died shortly after Catherine’s birth. “I should like her to be a clever woman,” he tells Lavinia, when they’re talking about how Lavinia can maybe help with Catherine’s education. Lavinia is perhaps not the best person to raise a clever girl, though: she’s described as “romantic” and “sentimental”, with “a passion for little secrets and mysteries.” And Catherine? By the time she’s in her early twenties, she’s described as “not ugly” and also “decidedly not clever.” She doesn’t have a lot of suitors, and when one man, Morris Townsend, starts to express interest in her, Dr. Sloper assumes he’s just after Catherine’s money (which may, in fact, be true). Dr. Sloper tells Catherine he’ll cut her off if she marries Townsend, and takes her to Europe in an effort to make her forget him; meanwhile, back at home, Aunt Lavinia has Townsend over for drinks on the regular and encourages him in his romantic affections: she tells him her brother will surely change his mind. Dr. Sloper does not change his mind; Catherine and Morris do not get married. Poor Catherine! The girl has no mother, a meddling aunt, a father who she’s convinced doesn’t particularly like her, and a first love she can’t/won’t get over, even though by the end of the novel when she sees him again, after many years, she thinks about how he “was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing.”

I was hoping for more 1800s New York atmosphere in this book, but there isn’t a ton of it. There is a rather nice description of the area around Washington Square, which James describes as “having a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city.” And there are some social occasions that are fun to read about, and a few strolls, and a secret rendezvous at an “oyster saloon,” all of which I enjoyed. I feel conflicted about how stoic/passive Catherine is—on the level of particular scenes, it makes for some very funny/great moments, like when Lavinia tells Catherine, after an upsetting night, that she should stay in bed for three days and Catherine can’t imagine doing that … but also, it’s fairly depressing, at least the way it’s presented in the book: Catherine is the lively friendly spinster in her social circle, but the book doesn’t show those happy moments, just tells about them, and it ends with a moment of solitude that feels more dark and lonely than peaceful or content.