The reading/event for this book that Allie Brosh did with Powell’s Books on Zoom was one of the best things that happened in September, but it took me until now to actually read the copy of the book that I’d purchased—I think I was saving it for Christmas vacation reading? Anyway: I am delighted to have read this and delighted that I bought a copy; I’m sure I will be rereading it in the future. It’s a mix of very funny life stuff and very serious life stuff (Brosh had a health crisis, lost her sister to suicide, and got divorced)—and while I didn’t love every single piece in the book, I really liked a lot of them. On the humorous side, Brosh’s childhood stories never fail to crack me up—the piece at the start of the book where she gets herself stuck in a bucket at age three made me laugh a lot, as did the second piece, “Richard,” which was just as good when I read it for myself as it was when she read it at the Zoom event. And, as always, one of the things I like best about Brosh’s work is how she writes about and draws animals—dogs especially, but cats and other animals too. There’s a great piece in which Brosh imagines how confused pets must be by human behavior, and multiple great pieces about particular pets, including a dog described as a “brown pile with no eyes” and a cat who has a complicated relationship with his favorite toy. Another highlight of the book for me was the piece called “Bananas,” about a particular fight that Brosh had with her now-ex husband, which perfectly captures the feeling of “that infinite loop where everything the other person does—no matter how innocuous it is—seems inflammatory.” And I really liked the last piece, about becoming friends with oneself.

Continuing with the theme of “books I bought while traveling but hadn’t read yet”: when I opened my copy of Dime-Store Alchemy, I found the receipt and was reminded that I bought this at Dog Eared Books in San Francisco in December 2012. Nearly eight years after having bought it, I can say that I have now read it and am happy with my purchase. This slim volume consists of short pieces/prose poems about Joseph Cornell and his art and the larger context of his work. Some pieces of Simic’s writing are about specific pieces by Cornell, and the book contains color photos of those works, some of which I’ve seen in person and others of which I haven’t. Images and themes recur: dreams and daydreams and memories; labyrinths in general and New York City as a labyrinth in particular; secrets; chance juxtapositions, especially the chance juxtapositions of the city. “The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized,” Simic writes (19), and the book proceeds by that logic. There are so many good images: “A white pigeon pecking on the marble steps of the library watched over by two stone lions” (5); “the chalk lines of hopscotch in the late afternoon sunlight and shadow” (36); “A phantom palace in a forest of bare trees, hoar frost and night” (54). (That last phrase is about one of Cornell’s boxes – “Untitled (Pink Palace)”.)

Simic writes about Cornell’s art and practice as being “divination by contemplation of surfaces” (26): it’s about finding “objects that belong together”; about walking (through the city) and looking to find those objects (14). I love this:

Early Sunday morning in June. It had rained after midnight, and the air and sky have miraculously cleared. The avenues are empty and the stores closed. A glimpse of things before anyone has seen them. (22)

And this, from a piece that also talks about “The Man of the Crowd” by Poe and the allure of people-watching, the mysteries of strangers:

I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind. (10)

And this, which Simic quotes from a journal entry of Cornell’s from January 24, 1947, about the view from the train to Penn Station from Queens:

Just before going under tunnel looked up at freight cars—the word Jane scrawled on a box-car in large letters, red with a touch of pink, then touches of primary colors mingling with a scene of men working on the tracks with a long crane mounted on a car. (8)

In that same journal entry, Cornell talks about taking the bus to 11th Avenue and 42nd Street: here is that intersection in 1940:, eighty years ago, seven years before that journal entry of Cornell’s. I walked through that intersection just this morning; in 1947 Cornell wrote about a cafeteria there, coffee and apple pie. He walked up 11th Avenue that day, like I did this morning; later today, I’ll walk to MoMA and pay a visit to Taglioni’s Jewel Casket and Untitled (Bébé Marie).

I bought a copy of My Family and Other Animals at Brattleboro Books in Vermont years ago, based (I think) on nothing more than the colorful cover. As is often the case with books I buy, it took me longer than intended to actually get around to reading it, but wow I’m glad I finally did. The book is set in Corfu, where the Durrells moved in the 1930s; it’s a mix of Gerald’s adventures observing the local flora and fauna and the family’s adventures in general, and it has a lot of laugh-out-loud funny moments. (So far I’ve only watched one episode of the PBS series “The Durrells in Corfu”, which seems fun in its own way, but very different from the book.) When the book isn’t funny, it’s often quite beautiful, with the kind of descriptive language about nature that’s on the edge of being too much but that really works for me. Here’s a description of summer in Bournemouth, just before the Durrells leave England:

July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. (3)

And here, in contrast, is Corfu:

The magnolia tree loomed vast over the house, its branches full of white blooms, like a hundred miniature reflections of the moon, and their thick, sweet scent hung over the veranda languorously, the scent that was an enchantment luring you out into the mysterious, moonlit countryside. (270)

Gerald, who’s ten when his family moves to Corfu, is fascinated by plants and animals, especially animals: he’s the kind of kid who can spend hours in the garden looking at insects, noticing how the spiders in the roses change color to match the flowers they’re on; he’s the kind of kind for whom finding an earwig’s nest is like “suddenly being given a wonderful present” (24). I loved reading about Gerald’s explorations of the island and its beaches and olive groves, and all the pets he acquires (starting with a tortoise who loves being fed grapes and a baby pigeon who moves differently to the waltzes and marches the family plays on the gramophone), and also about the general amusement of the family’s island life, from the Belgian consulate who keeps trying to speak to Gerald’s mother in French (she doesn’t speak French) to the giant party the family throws that’s disrupted by stray dogs trying to mate with Gerald’s mother’s dog, Dodo.

I’ve never read any of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, and I basically only read this book because my boyfriend checked it out from the library and read enough passages from it to me to make me intrigued about the book as a whole. I am not at all sure that I want to read any of Chuck Palahniuk’s novels, and I’m not sure how much overlap there is between his taste in books and mine, but I nevertheless enjoyed this collection of essays that’s a very readable mix of memoir and writing advice, with stories of Palahniuk’s experiences from book tours interspersed with advice on technique and recommendations of fiction and nonfiction to read. “This book is, in a way, a scrapbook of my writing life,” Palahniuk writes in the introduction, and the way it combines lots of different things, scrapbook-style, is part of what I find appealing about it (xvi).

I was more reading this book for the memoir/personal history aspect than the writing advice aspect of it, though as a reader I can thoroughly get behind this recommendation: “To add new texture to any story never hesitate to insert a list” (22). Yes! Lists in fiction! I am so into them! I don’t share Palahniuk’s dislike of “unattributed speech,” though (12). And there are a few places in the book where he talks negatively about “gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive,” which I don’t have a problem with: there are definitely times I am happy to read for language, mood, or setting as much or more than for plot (192). I like his emphasis on paying attention, though: as he puts it, “You never know when you’ll encounter the remarkable idea, image, remark”—he talks about walking past a construction site and hearing a bricklayer call out to the guy delivering buckets of mortar, “Dude, I love the way you keep the mud alive,” which is totally great (130). And I appreciate his point that “our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental”—so you shouldn’t necessarily have to tone down fiction to make it “believable” (186).

Also: two stories near the end of the book about wild experiences, one in London and one in Paris, are so great that I couldn’t put the book down even though it was bedtime when I got to them. I brushed my teeth, started making my way toward the bedroom, then changed my mind and sat on the floor in the hallway to finish reading, because I couldn’t imagine waiting ’til morning. So I guess Palahniuk can give advice about engaging writing.

Mudlark by Lara Maiklem

September 9th, 2020

When I read about Mudlark in the New Yorker, I immediately knew I wanted to read it: a memoir about finding stuff in the mud along the Thames foreshore? Yes please! And now that I’ve read it, I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it as much as I expected to, which is to say, a whole lot. In Mudlark Lara Maiklem writes about the tidal Thames from west to east, talking about her own experiences finding things along the Thames and also talking about her own personal history and family history, and about history more generally. She talks about things she’s found and things others have found, and about how those found objects are glimpses into the era in which they were made and used. Some of the riverine history in this book was familiar to me, but it was still enjoyable (I will always love reading about/thinking about the “frost fairs” held when the Thames in central London froze over completely), and there was some new-to-me stuff as well—I don’t think I knew there was a manmade beach by the Tower of London until 1971, and I didn’t know about the annual draw off of the river either, when one set of weirs/locks is left open while another set is closed, to “allow the stretch of water between them to rise and fall naturally with the tides,” which exposes a whole lot of riverbed. And it was cool to read the story of Doves Type, which I didn’t know at all.

I really like the way Maiklem writes, the way she captures the sounds/sights/smells of the landscapes she’s moving through, whether that’s the train ride she takes at the very beginning of the book (“There is an unwritten rule of silence on the early-morning London commute and barely a murmur can be heard, just the rustle of newspapers and the high-pitched squeal of the rails as we lurch and sway towards the city”) or the foreshore at Rotherhithe (“The bones of old ships, river-slimed and rotting, lie exposed on top of the mud and emerge from the shingle and sand”). The river, even in the middle of the city, is “a wild brooding place with a wide-open sky”, and Maiklem describes Tilbury like this: “This Essex stretch of the Thames is a strange, ugly-beautiful place of industrial sprawl and tangled electricity pylons against wide skies that can quickly lower and turn angry.”

Also pleasing are all the descriptions of the things Maiklem and others have found in the Thames: clay pipes, glass bottles, bottle stoppers, coins, rings, hazelnuts preserved in peat, bones, toys, pieces of terracotta “from a Roman central heating system”, Tudor money boxes from theatres, old leather shoes or pieces of them, a pocket sundial, pins, “pewter medieval pilgrim badges,” bricks, “a compressed lump of eighty-year-old newspaper, sodden and yellowed, but still readable,” and more.

I’ve made a point of walking along the Thames at least a little bit on most if not all of my trips to London, and it was super-fun to read about places I’ve been to or walked past, from the foreshore down the steps just next to the Tate Modern to the Thames Barrier to the hill by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the view from which Maiklem describes like this: “From the top of the hill, I could see the old and the new layered over each other, Wren’s Royal Naval College underlining the towers of Canary Wharf in the distance, and—just—the long, lazy loop of the river meandering its way around the Isle of Dogs.” Reading the book made me want to look back at pictures I’ve taken in London: the Thames foreshore, the Thames Barrier, some barrels, wet stones on the foreshore, Wapping Old Stairs, The Prospect of Whitby (which Maiklem mentions in the book), another foreshore view, the view from that hill in Greenwich.

Although I went to a Quaker high school that had Silent Meeting every week, and although I’ve had a few periods of sporadically attending meeting for worship at Brooklyn Monthly Meeting as an adult, before reading this book I didn’t know much about the history of Quakerism, or about current Quaker practice in areas other than New York/New England/Pennsylvania. I could have told you that George Fox is considered Quakerism’s founder, and that Quakerism started in England, but I couldn’t have told you much beyond that. I didn’t even know that Friends today come in Evangelical, Conservative, and Liberal varieties, with the Evangelical ones being far more numerous globally. (Evangelical Quakers are Christian, with pastors and “programmed” worship that involves silence but also may involve preaching and singing; Conservative Quakers are Christian but with “unprogrammed” worship centered on silence, speaking if moved by God; Liberal Quakers, which are the kind I knew about, may or may not be Christian, and also have “unprogrammed” worship centered on silence, speaking if moved by what Dandelion at one point in the book calls “God, or ‘God’, or not-God-but” (107).)

This book is fairly dry, but it covers a lot of ground despite its short length and I definitely feel like I know more about Quakerism than I did before. I found the chapter on ecumenism less interesting than the others, but I like how Dandelion quotes from various primary sources, including George Fox’s journals and letters, and how he traces different strains of Quaker belief, theology, and practice from the 1600s through to the 21st century.

Near the start of In the City, Colette Brooks wonders: “What kind of a person is a city person?” and then offers her own answer: “One possibility: the kind of person who doesn’t feel the need to finish a jigsaw puzzle, who relishes jagged edges and orphaned curves, stray bits of data, pieces of stories parsed from sentences half overheard on the street” (2). Well. I’m not so sure about the first part of that, but the end, yes. I think she offers another answer near the end of the book, when she says this: “I suspect that I could collect these strands forever, link one discrete element to another, and still it would seem incomplete. There would always be something else to remark upon, something else to say” (106). I mean: maybe anyone feels that way about the landscape they love best, but a city person is someone who feels that about the built urban environment and its history and all the many lives and stories and secrets it contains. Another answer, maybe: you know you’re a city person when you think about the city where you live and, as Brooks puts it, “you simply cannot conceive of your life having worked out in any other way” (9).

I really like the associative way this book proceeds from topic to topic, and the way it mixes the personal and the historical. It’s a little about cities in general and a lot about New York in particular and a little bit about other specific cities, too (there’s a trip to Brazil that figures in the narrative); not surprisingly, I especially like the bits of NYC history and descriptions of NYC moments and scenery. Early in the book Brooks talks about seeing the Statue of Liberty from what I’m pretty sure is the F train—not that she names either the statue or the train line, but I remember how much I loved that stretch of my commute for the ten years I lived off that train line, the moments between when the train comes aboveground after Carroll Street and when it goes back underground after 4th Avenue. Other NYC things in this book I love: a discussion of what people are reading on the subway, a section about lost & found posters, bits of overheard conversations, a description of the Panorama of the City of New York in the Queens Museum, a bit about the The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that laid out the street grid. And, though this is from one of the sections in the book about Brazil, I love this: the idea that any city is many individual cities, all “constructed from scraps of memory and invention” (64).

This year I’m doing a project where I read one nonfiction book per month, which is more nonfiction than I normally read. It’s been interesting to read some nonfiction books that have been lingering unread on my shelves for ages, and also interesting to explore some types of nonfiction that I don’t normally pick up. The Art of Choosing is the kind of pop science book I rarely read, and I’m not sure why. Once I got past the first chapter (which has some things in it about experiments on animals that I found distressing), I enjoyed this book a bunch, and had fun telling my boyfriend about all the psych studies I was learning about.

Basically, this book is an exploration of how people make choices, how choice-making sometimes causes us problems, and how we might approach choice-making in ways that might actually increase our happiness. Iyengar partly talks about making the kinds of choices we’re used to thinking about as choices—what to have for dinner, career choices, relationship choices—but also talks about the choices we make in the narratives we construct about our lives, the stories we tell ourselves and others, the way we emphasize our own agency, or don’t. And she talks about the larger cultural contexts of choice-making—how different cultural backgrounds shape different attitudes towards choice, both in terms of what level of choice-making is deemed appropriate/optimal, and in terms of what people even see as choices. (There’s a great part when she talks about having students at the same school, from two different countries/cultures, write down every choice they made the day before. One group of students includes things like brushing their teeth or snoozing/not snoozing the alarm as choices; the other group doesn’t list that kind of thing.)

I like how Iyengar talks about choice and our sense of self/identity: she talks about how there’s a common conception of identity that goes like this: “Beneath the many layers of shoulds and shouldn’ts that cover us, there lies a constant, single, true self that is just waiting to be discovered” (75). But is that necessarily true/is it necessarily helpful to frame it like that? Could we not “acknowledge that our identity itself is malleable but no less authentic for it”(101)? I like how she talks about seeing “identity as a dynamic process rather than a static object” and “finding ourselves in the evolution of choosing, not merely in the results of choice,” and seeing choice itself as “an ongoing, liberating act of creation” (110).

Of course, choice is not always great: choosing can be overwhelming, especially when there are a lot of options and we aren’t experts/don’t necessarily understand all of the differences between them. Iyengar offers some practical advice for dealing with choice overload/decision fatigue: if you’re making a lot of choices at once, start with the easy ones and work up to the harder ones; classify options to make choosing easier; consult experts or crowdsource opinions when appropriate. She also talks about cognitive biases that can affect our choices, and how to avoid being blindsided by them.

Minor quibbles: when reading about various psych studies, I sometimes found myself thinking about the “reproducibility crisis” in psychology—though I realize there are different perspectives on that (1, 2). And when reading about the ways that our choices can be influenced by advertising/priming, I found myself feeling like Iyengar was being too uncritical of consumerism. (Like: she suggests we shouldn’t worry too much/”would serve ourselves better by separating the influences that conflict with our values from the influences that are basically harmless” (175) — but I don’t know, I’d rather opt out of consumerism/advertising a bit/I don’t think it is basically harmless.) Still: this was an interesting read/maybe I should read more pop science!

Though the subtitle of this book is “The Murder at Road Hill House,” and though a lot of it does focus on that particular crime (the murder of a three-year-old child in 1860), it also covers a lot of additional ground, so it’s part true-crime and part cultural criticism about detectives, detective fiction, Victorian sensation novels, privacy in the Victorian era, and more. True crime isn’t really my genre, so this wasn’t totally the book for me, though I was interested in the historical/literary elements about Victorian novels and Victorian anxieties. I also was interested in the stories of where various family members ended up, post-murder: I might be into a book just about one of the victim’s half-brothers, who ended up becoming a naturalist who worked in Australia and photographed Great Barrier Reef corals.

But anyway, right: this book proceeds chronologically from the murder onwards, looking at the crime, the initial investigations, and the further aftermath. The Mr Whicher of the title is a London detective who was called to assist with the investigation two weeks after the killing; there’s a lot about his theories (that the child was killed by his half-sister, Constance, possibly with the help of her brother, William) vs. the theories of the local police (that the child was killed by his father and the nursemaid, after the child woke in the night and saw his father in the nursemaid’s bed). There are questions about the father’s possible propensity towards extramarital affairs: his second wife (the mother of the dead child) used to be the family governess, and he may have been sexually involved with her before the death of his first wife. There are also questions about Constance’s sanity, or lack thereof: there are rumors that her mother was insane, and Victorians were big into the idea of hereditary madness, especially when it came to mothers and daughters. It seems clear from the fact that the house was locked for the night when the murder took place that the killer was someone in the house itself, but aside from the body of the dead child, there isn’t a lot of evidence: no murder weapon is found, and the doctors who examine the boy’s body can’t agree whether he was fully or partially suffocated and then had his throat cut, or whether he just had his throat cut. Not quite a spoiler: five years after the murder, someone confesses, but it’s still unclear whether or not that person actually committed the crime.

I think what I liked best about this book was all the stuff about the figure of the detective, and the tensions around that figure. There’s the comforting idea that a Victorian detective “offered science, conviction, stories that could organise chaos” (xii) but there’s also discomfort with the idea of a case being shaped by a detective’s hunches/suspicions, and discomfort with a detective who didn’t necessarily come from the middle classes prying into middle class family homes/lives. Overall, though, I think I definitely prefer reading about fictional crimes to reading about real ones: I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever read a true-crime book before, and I think having read this one I feel like I’d rather read some Wilkie Collins instead, if I’m in the mood for Victorian detective stories in the future.

Living Dolls by Gaby Wood

April 22nd, 2020

This book, subtitled “A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life,” is largely but not entirely about automata, and also about the experience of the uncanny—often as it relates to the distinction between humans and robots or humans and dolls. The five chapters proceed chronologically from Jacques de Vaucanson (born in 1709) to the four siblings who performed as the Doll Family (the last of whom died in 2004), with chapters on Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess player (built in 1789), Edison’s talking doll (which he worked on in the late 1800s) and Georges Méliès’s films (from the late 1800s and early 1900s) in between.

I liked learning more about things I’d heard of but hadn’t read about in depth, like Vaucanson’s mechanical duck or Kempelen’s chess player, and it was neat to read about their creators and the larger context in which these objects were made, and also to read about what happened to these objects after their creators’ lifetimes. I was more interested in the straight-up historical sections, less interested in things like a psychoanalytic interpretation of the game of chess, and Wood’s style sometimes struck me as overly sensationalistic, like when she makes much of a letter one of Edison’s employees sent saying he would have a Parisian doll-maker send some doll bodies to “experiment with”: “Sinister overtones impose themselves on the practical matters detailed in these letters,” Wood writes, and goes on to ask “what kind of ‘experiment'” the letter-writer had in mind (145)—though it’s pretty clear the experiment was about whether the phonographs Edison wanted to use for his talking dolls could be fitted into the normal papier-mâché bodies made by European doll-makers. The chapter on Edison was interesting overall though, particularly the descriptions of Edison’s 1887 laboratory, which is now “a museum, a frozen piece of industrial life, all wheels and pulleys and vices and clocks” (107). (Meanwhile, you can hear Edison’s doll online: yikes. Less alarming: The Man with the Rubber Head, which was probably my favorite of the Méliès pieces I watched as a result of this book.) The chapter on the Doll family felt a little out of place, but it was interesting too, and I’m generally happy to read about circus history and Coney Island (that chapter has a great description of Luna Park in it).