“Ae Fond Farewell”: Looking back at reading in 2017

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
                                           Robert Burns

I cannot think of a year to which I am more ready to say “fareweel.” As I wrote to a friend recently, it has been a bizarre and exhausting twelve months. And too often, it seemed that the constant barrage of news and reactions took time away from the pleasure of reading–so much of my reading was taking the the form of newspapers and blogs, tweets and news crawls.

And yet, it ended up being a relatively good year. Not counting the books I need to read for work–things like Shakespeare, Huxley,  Atwood, and Elison–it has been productive.

In breaking down my “for pleasure” reading, I completed

22 works of fiction
15 works of nonfiction
7 collections of poetry.

I have read 22 male authors and 22 female authors. And more than half of what I read was by non-American writers.

It was a good year for writing. Among the fiction, there were many, many memorable works: from veterans like Ali Smith and Michael Chabon to new discoveries like the Irish writers Catriona Lally (Eggshells) and Jess Kidd (Himself); new discoveries in poetry included Dylan Krieger (Giving Godhead) and Rebecca Lindenberg (Love, An Index); and the range of subjects in non-fiction is inexhaustible and enlightening.

FICTION

If I had to choose three (which I don’t, but … )

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a fun “murder mystery” involving the philosophical stars of the late 20th  century. (Many of whom are still living.) The 7th function of languageactual death of Roland Barthes, who was killed by a laundry van, is determined to be NOT AN ACCIDENT and the suspects include everyone from Mitterrand to Foucault, from Umberto Eco to Noam Chomsky. It is a bold and nervy novel that merges the modern detective story with outrageous flights into semiotics.

George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, features over a hundred characters, all but one of them who are dead. Lincoln’s son has died and the residents of the cemetery where he rests try to ease his transition to the other lincolnside and compete with each other for the boy’s favor. Meanwhile, the grieving president continues to visit. It is an extraordinary, emotional and satisfying read.

And finally, The Nix by Nathan Hill. I don’t remember how I found this novel, but I am glad I did. Hill is like a Zelig in his uncanny ability to capture the reality of certain, disparate scenes: the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; patrol duty during the second Iraq War; teaching college in the 2010s; the brain functions of an addicted gamer.  These set pieces are mesmerizing and propel the story to its complicated and enlightening ending. Dealing with self-realization, maternal bonds, political the nixmanipulation, war, the classical musical world, gaming, and academic integrity, Hill seems to have bitten off far too much. But he brings it all together to serve up one extraordinary and satisfying novel.

 

Non-Fiction

My readings in non-fiction were not purposeful, but often connected in a string of related ideas. Early in the year I read the wonderful, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Scillonian. What started out as a food piece for the New York only streetTimes ended up to be much, much more–a wonderful peek into a Parisian street and neighborhood that has resisted progress and gentrification and tourism, and which continues in much of its uniqueness and tradition.
Scillonian’s book then led me to Lauren Elkin’s FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City. It is an entertaining and erudite discussion of women flaneuse–particularly writers and artists and herself– walking in world cities, though with a concentration in Paris. I am grateful for its  introducing me to the marvelous artist Sophia Calle, whose one amusing art work involved walking around Venice while following a strange man. (It also introduced me to Georges Sand, of whom I knew  very little. Two of her enormous novels sit next to my bed, waiting for 2018.)

It is only natural to go from the  “entertaining and erudite” musings of The Flaneuse to perhaps America’s finest intellect, a-field-guide-to-getting-lost-paperback-cover-9781786890511.1200x1200nRebecca Solnit, whose “invisible cities” books have given me much enjoyment in the past. This year I turned to her Field Guide to Getting Lost, a wonderful meditation on the usefulness and growth achieved in being lost somewhere. Like all of Solnit’s work, the main thesis is simply a jumping off point for all sorts of insights and reflections.

 

Undoubtedly, it’s been a tough year around the world. But at least there was a raft of books–too many to list here–to help me navigate the rough seas.  I am looking forward to 2018.

Happy New Year to all!

 

 

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“Cat Person,” Marlene Dietrich, and Schlubbiness

The most talked about short story of 2017–or at least of December 2017–was a New Yorker story by entitled “Cat Person.” It was discussed in hallways and on-line, on commuter trains and in classrooms. In fact, even the photo accompanying the story in the magazine’s pages went viral and has been subjected to much analysis in itself.

 

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The photo for “Cat Person”  (Photograph by Elinor Carucci for The New Yorker)

 

To sum the story up, Margot, a young twenty-something college student meets Robert, an older man in the movie theater where she sells refreshments. After a second encounter, they begin texting each other and her initial hesitancy morphs into a realistic and charming internal battle of should-I-shouldn’t I.

The texting in the story is clever and does not feel forced. The turmoil that the young woman goes through is believable and sweet. And the man himself is a lovable bear.

It’s when they finally do get together when she returns to college from winter break that the story fails for me. Robert shows himself to be a bit of a “schlub.”  He is well meaning, but he is clumsy with himself and with her, and when it comes to their sole sexual escapade, he is both maladroit and ignorant.

Her condescension and abandonment of him finally forces him into petty meanness.

All of this reminds me of the early Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel.  Made in 1930 (in both a German and English version) by Joseph Von Sternberg, the film features Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola and Emil Jannings (in his first talking film) as Immanuel Rath, an elderly literature professor who becomes smitten with Lola who sings and dances at the eponymous cabaret “The Blue Angel.” While he has initially come to the cabaret to chase his students from such entertainments, he falls deeper and deeper for the sultry Lola. And as he falls for her, the orderly professor becomes more and more ridiculous and more and more an object of fun to Lola and her companions.

In the end, there is heartbreak.

It is there that I see the similarities. Neither the antagonist in “Cat Person” or Professor Rath in The Blue Angel are bad people. They are simply out of their element and ignorant as to how to cope. They are ordinary people in their respective worlds, but they become “schlubs” in the worlds of college romance and Berlin nightlife, respectfully–older men out of touch with the changing world around them

It is easier to empathize with Rath–Dietrich’s character Lola seems cruel and heartless much of the time–but Robert can also be seen as sympathetic. In “Cat Person,” Margot is also mean-spirited and self-centered. Her treatment of Robert–both during their date and after–is cold, perhaps undeservedly so.

But then 2017 is different than 1930, and Margot’s intuition may be pointing her in the right direction.

Book Review: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

At the end of last year or the beginning of this, before my focus and attention were hijacked by the circus that is American politics, The New York Times did a piece on what books people had read the previous year. There were about fifty panelists, mostly writers, but mixed with a sampling of actors, scientists, business people, and politicians. What I could not help but notice is that every third person or so listed two books by Rebecca Solnit. Not the same two books, but two books. No one, it seemed read one Rebecca Solnit book; they had always gone on to a second or a third.

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Rebecca Solnit  (photograph by John Lee for The Guardian)

I had done the same a few years earlier. A friend had lent me a copy of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Solnit’s whimsical collection of “should-be” maps of San Francisco neighborhoods, which had, of course, immediately led me to another title Wanderlust: A History of Walking, which is much more fascinating than it sounds; as the blurb says, it is a history of walking as a political and cultural activity. (Solnit has also done atlases of New York and New Orleans.)

But then I moved on to other books, to other writers, although I did not forget about her. One couldn’t; she was everywhere: her essays appearing in journals, her pieces in major newspapers, her name cited in political commentary, her books brought up in serious conversation.

This year, after reading the NYTimes piece, I realized it had been a while since I last read her, so I bought and read A Field Guide to Getting Lost in January. However, I did not immediately read another. Instead, I fell down a rabbit hole of books about walking and cities and travel: Flanneuse by Lauren Elkin, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Scillonian, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli and Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. This is what a good book can do.

So now in early autumn I return to Solnit once more.

Men Explain Things to Me is a menexplaincollection of seven essays, mostly first-published on the web-site TomDispatch, that focus on the reality and the dangers (and some of the absurdity) found in the patriarchy of modern civilization, dangers that include murder, violence, and rape, as well as condescension and subordination.

The opening essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” begins with the humorous anecdote where at a party a man says he heard she was a writer and asks her what she has written. She mentions the last book she has written–a study of Eadweard Muybridge and the technology of the west–and he says what a shame that it was published the same year that another book on the same subject came out. He then goes on to explain the substance of this “other book.” As he continues with his description of the book that she should read, Solnit recognizes that he is talking about her book.

Talk about mansplaining!

In an article for The Guardian this past August, Solnit wrote:

There are no signs that mansplaining is going away. An acquaintance recently told me, “A man once asked me if I knew of the Bracero program [for Mexican farmworkers in the US], and when I said, ‘Why yes, I wrote my undergrad thesis about it,’ he replied, ‘Well, I’ll tell you about it.’ I said, ‘No, I’ll tell you, fucker!’ And then the dinner party got weird.”

But the humor of such situations is more than tempered by the grisly facts that anchor these essays. For instance, in the U.S. more women have been killed by domestic violence between 9/11 and the year 2012 than the total number of people who died in the towers AND in the two wars fought afterwards

We have a war on terror…but it seems we’re concentrating on the wrong terror.

And if domestic homocide is rampant, rape is epidemic and systematic. (Just read this month’s headlines.) There is a reported rape in the United States once every 6.2 minutes.

In one essay, Solnit reports the details of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape. (He, the French head of the International Monetary Fund; she the African immigrant maid at the luxury hotel he was staying in.) It was more than just rape, Solnit states. It was a political analogy come to life. As she writes:

Her name was Africa. His was France. He colonized her, exploited her, silenced her and even decades after it was supposed to have ended, still acted with a high hand in resolving her affairs…Her name was silence. His was power. Her name was poverty. His was wealth.

For Solnit, the Strauss-Kahn rape was more than a rape of a single woman. It was indicative of an entire system built on intimidation, colonization, and entitlement.

The final essay, “#YesAllWomen,” anticipates the current trending hashtag #MeToo that has grown out of the Harvey Weinstein episode, while her essay, “Cassandra among the Creeps,” indicts a world where countless women report abuse, assault, and violence only to have those reports too often fall on deaf ears.  Again, it is the very situation that allowed the Weinstein abuses to go on for so long.

In a world where intellectual thought has become rare–where it’s very opposite is the norm–Rebeccca Solnit is an American treasure. Her breadth of interests seems inexhaustible and her thinking is clear and logical (another sadly missing aspect of our current times.) Her writing is both entertaining and provocative, and in many cases unforgettable.

I would recommend for all to pick up any one of her books. You will be enthralled and enchanted and awed. And you will certainly learn something that you didn’t know you didn’t know.

And I encourage all men to read Men Explain Things to Me. In the end, we are all in this together.

 

Movie Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) written and directed by Noah Baumbach

 

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To be truthful, I am one of a few that has not loved Noah Baumbach’s movies. (I once famously said that after Fantastic Mr. Fox, for which he wrote the screenplay, we would never hear of George Clooney again! I was wrong.) But somehow I still go to every Baumbach film, thinking that ultimately I will find what everyone else has been talking about.

And with The Meyerowitz Stories, I have found it. The Meyerowitz Stories is a wonderful ensemble piece filled with both wrenching poignancy and a comic spirit that ranges from dead-pan to slapstick.

In his mind, Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman) is one of the most important sculptors of the past fifty years. (He has a piece in the Whitney, but it has been long placed in storage.) That he has not received the acclaim that has come to his contemporaries and friends, he credits to his not selling out, his remaining pure in his artistic vision–unlike his peers.

This, of course, is purely delusional.

Harold’s other dysfunction is his personal life. He has been married four times–though he says “only three” because the first was annulled–and who has pretty much abandoned his first two children (to his second wife) for his son with his third. (His fourth wife when the film opens is Maureen, a drunken, late-hippy, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson.)

Matthew (Ben Stiller), the son whom he dotes on, lives in L.A., so it is up to his other two children, Danny and Jean (Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel) to care for their father in New York City as he increasingly slips into angry dotage while finessing the drunkenness of his newest wife, his increasing delusion of his importance in the New York art world, and his general self-centeredness.

In fact, rarely has their been such a self-centered character in all of filmdom.

Now, if this seems like some sort of Bergman-esque psycho-drama, you are wrong. It is a funny, thoughtful ensemble piece that gives ample room for its many talented actors to shine.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, wearing a beard and newsboy cap, films 'The Meyerowitz Stories' in East Village

Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz            Picture by: Christopher Peterson/Splash News    photodesk@splashnews.com

Hoffman, as the cantankerous Harold Meyerowitz, has been preparing for this role his entire life. Actually, I found much of his Ratso Rizzo in this character. Perhaps the voice is not as whiny, but still it is there, the complaining, set-upon kvetch.  (There is a subtle allusion to Midnight Cowboy and Hoffman’s character, when Meyerowitz’s son Danny  is chasing after his dad in mid-town New York, hobbled with a very bad limp. At one point, as he is hobbling across the street, one expects for a taxi to drive too close and for Sandler to start yelling, “I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”)

Nevertheless, Hoffman is a joy to watch.

But one expects that from Hoffman. It is the others who amaze. When was the last time, one has walked out of an Adam Sandler movie talking about his acting. As Meyerowitz’s

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Adam Sandler as Danny Meyerowitz

son, Danny, who’d been abandoned by the father he idolized, he has every intention not to make the same mistakes with his own daughter (Grace Van Patten) who is off to college to begin her own artistic journey. And their relationship is sweet and beautiful and everything that his own relationship with his father was not.

 

The sister Jean is even worse off than Danny, having been completely ignored for most of her life by her father.

And doted upon Matthew, who is the golden boy from L.A., successful in the world of mergers and acquisitions, is full of more buried hatred than the other two.

So the film deals ultimately with a time when they are all together in New York. Ostensibly for a group show–which Danny and Jean organized at the college where Harold taught–and for other family matters. Everyone needs to look a little closer at the truth of things.

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Grace Van Patten, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) is  much fun, is thoughtful and revealing, and is a real treat for people who love movies (there are several cameos and fun allusions). For me, the film had been flying under the radar, but, without a doubt it is the best film I have seen in a very long while.

 

Quote #72″ If you want to be a writer…” Stephen King

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                                                                  Sunday night desk                                                                      photo ©2017 jpbohannon

 

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Stephen King, On Writing