Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir
Viking (March 10, 2020), 252 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $21.93
I had seen multiple references to this book in various places before reading the review in the New York Times Book Review. Based on that discussion of the book I knew that Recollections of My Nonexistence was something that I needed to read.
Solnit had me hooked in the first chapter. As one who has crossed the Golden Gate Bridge many times, I was captivated by her description of the bay.
On the most beautiful days, there are no words for the colors of San Francisco Bay and the sky above it. Sometimes the water reflects a heaven that is both gray and gold, and the water is blue, is green, is silver, is a mirror of that gray and gold, catching the warmth and cold of colors in its ripples, is all and none of them, is something more subtle than the language we have.
She also writes about an apartment she rented early in her adult life: “In that little apartment I found a home in which to metamorphose, a place to stay while I changed and made a place in the world beyond.” That evoked memories of a tiny one-bedroom cottage behind a single-family house that I rented for a year after the sudden, unexpected death of my first wife. “A home in which to metamorphose, a place to stay while I changed” it was indeed.
Finally, she describes a writing desk given her by a friend fleeing an abusive relationship, a desk on which she still composes her work today. I own a desk that I obtained (I was not exactly given it, but that is a story in its own right) from a friend in my post-graduation mid-1970’s Claremont days. She was fleeing a failed relationship, and that desk that even today is at the center of my home office environment.
And that was just the first chapter.
Solnit writes about the physical danger women often experience, about her political activism, about the condescension men often display towards women, and about working to impart the importance of feminism to a younger generation of women. She wrote an essay entitled “Men Explain Things to Me,” which later became the title essay of a book. It was a that essay which inspired a reader to coin the term “mansplaining.”
If that word was the only thing Solnit ever contributed to our society and culture (and it is far from the only thing) it would be enough to earn her a place in the pantheon of progressive thinkers who have made a difference in our world.
I have long avoided shopping at Walmart. I didn’t like the way they treated their employees regarding health coverage in the pre-Obamacare days, and I didn’t like their profit-above-all-else approach to business.
Here in Hemet I was happy to do my discount staples grocery shopping at WinCo, an employee-owned chain in the West and Southwest. They have low prices and a wide selection. You must bag your own groceries, but I have no problem with that. I was, after all, a box boy at two different grocery stores when I was in high school.
But in this time of COVID-19 I was unhappy that after Riverside County lifted its requirement for face masks in public most of the staff there stopped wearing them. That was not the case with other grocery stores in town. I submitted a comment on the WinCo web site and received the following response:
Currently, our employee-owned stores are complying with all local mandates in each area we call home. If a local jurisdiction mandates that each individual should wear a face covering, our employee owners follow those requirements. In areas where it is not mandatory by your local governing bodies, every employee has been provided guidance and is allowed to wear a face covering at their discretion – from home or provided by the company.
As Captain Picard once shouted at Guinan, “Not good enough, dammit! Not good enough!”
Walmart, on the others hand, has a national policy requiring employees to wear face masks and is limiting occupancy in its stores while enforcing social distancing. I also have to say that I appreciate Walmart’s commitment to energy efficiency and the use of solar power, despite some of its other faults.
So, instead of doing my usual WinCo run, I paid a visit to my local Walmart Neighborhood Market. I have long found Walmart stores to be cold and impersonal, and nothing changed on this visit. When I go to WinCo I generally find everything I’m looking for (of course there are those COVID-19 exceptions), whereas Walmart did not have several items on my list.
I’m going to have to rethink my grocery shopping patterns. Perhaps it will be a combination of buying more staples at a slightly higher price at Stater Bros. (my mainstream supermarket where I buy fresh meat and produce) and making more frequent trips to Aldi, with their particularly low prices but limited selection. And of course at Aldi you never know what interesting food item you might come across.
Really, though, I wish WinCo would change its policy on employees wearing masks. That would be the simplest solution for me.
Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West
Crown Books (October 4, 2011), 320 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $14.99
Much has been written about the Lost Generation of Paris in the twenties, where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and that gang found refuge. Mile Marker Zero is William McKeen’s attempt to document a similar environment for writers and other artists in the 1970’s: Key West Florida.
McKeen begins well before the 1970’s when the island was entirely off the beaten track and primarily known as a military base. Ernest Hemingway discovered the island and bought the largest house there. By the time the bulk of the narrative in the book takes place Hemingway had not only long abandoned the island but was long dead.
In the seventies Key West was a vacation home to the likes of Tennessee Williams, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett, and Jim Croce. The book also contains a lot about the locals and the island’s place in the marijuana trade, which was more lucrative to shrimpers than the trade of shrimping.
There were times I questioned McKeen’s credibility. He refers to Thomas McGuane, as “the most revered writer of his generation.” Say what? Who? I was in the book business from 1975 until the early eighties, first working at and then managing B. Dalton Bookseller stores, and I never heard of the guy until I read this book.
That aside, Mile Marker Zero was entertaining with some fascinating tidbits about people and places.
It’s weird when finding a package of toilet paper in the grocery store comes close to making your day. But such are the times in which we live.
One of the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (or perhaps simply one of the effects) is that people who never thought of baking before have suddenly started baking. That’s all well and good, but those of us who are long-time bakers are having to change our routines. If you bake, and if you have visited the baking aisle in the grocery store recently, you know exactly what I mean. You’re lucky to find all-purpose flour, and coming across bread flour is like unearthing a diamond.
There can be upsides to such adversity, however. I couldn’t find King Arthur bread flour either in the store or online, so when our WinCo supermarket had a small cluster of Bob’s Red Mill bread flour on the shelf, I grabbed a bag. I ended up baking the best loaf of sourdough bread that I had ever made. (Sorry, King Arthur.)
In recent months I have made a variety of heartier, sandwich-friendly breads (while including my sourdough in the rotation, of course), using 10-grain, whole grain, and sprouted wheat blends from King Arthur. None of those are available these days. Nor does King Arthur have regular bread flour or organic bread flour. They are even selling their all-purpose flour in 3-pound rather that 5-pound bags, but I’m fine on the A/P flour right now thanks to stumbling across it on a trip to Grocery Outlet in search of milk (which, fortunately, no longer seems to be in short supply).
What I found available when I went to the King Arthur web site on Friday was artisan bread flour, French bread flour, and vital wheat gluten, that last being something essential when standard bread flour is in short supply. They also let me order pizza flour, which is due in three or four weeks.
I must therefore change the varieties of bread that I bake and put aside the whole grain/multi-grain blends in favor of French, rustic, and sourdough breads.
That will be all right. It’s a change, and it is far better than not baking at all.
I was looking for my next book to read when I saw Gateway to the Moon discounted to $2.99 in a BookBub email. It looked like intriguing reading so I snatched it up.
The primary character in the story is a teenager named Miguel who loves astronomy and looking at the stars. He has even made his own telescope. However, he is restless and bored in his tiny New Mexico village. He takes a job as a sitter for a well-off woman, the wife of a surgeon, taking care of her two boys.
Miguel identifies as Latino and was raised as such. He doesn’t know that his ancestry is Jewish. His story is interwoven with the story of several generations of Spanish Jews beginning in 1492. Yes, one of them sailed out with Columbus. These were people who nominally converted to Christianity during times of persecution, but who secretly kept their Jewish identity. The book portrays them both in Spain and in the New World, always pursued by their Christian persecutors.
That part of the novel was often hard to read, but the narrative of Miguel, his mother, his father (separated from his mother, but always there for him), his employer, and the man who ran the general store in town made for good reading. With an interesting twist at the end (that one might have seen coming), Gateway to the Moon offers an entertaining family drama.
The feeling of the book stayed with me for some days after I finished it. I suppose that’s a sign of a well-written novel.
Incarnations: India in Fifty Lives
Narrated by Vikas Adam
Tantor Audio, September 20, 2016
print version published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$20.97 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
I had saved this book in my collection of Kindle samples a while back. When I was looking for the next audiobook to load on my iPhone Incarnations seemed like a plausible candidate. I was not disappointed.
The author delivers profiles of fifty individuals who were significant in the history of India. He starts with Gautama Buddha, who lived, as best as we can tell, in the fifth century before the Common Era. He ends with the industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani, who died in 2002. Perhaps ironic or perhaps appropriate, as the Buddha was all about simplicity while Ambani was all about the acquisition of wealth.
The book offers a fascinating history of India through the lives of the individuals that shaped it. We see Hindus, Muslims, British, and even a black African. The latter portion of the book provides an enlightening perspective of pre- and post-independence India.
The author does not pretend to be objective. He has strong opinions about liberals, conservatives, and Indian nationalists. I had no problem with this. I would rather know about his biases than have them hidden in a pretense of objectivity.
The audiobook is ably narrated by Vikas Adam. He has just the slightest trace of an Indian accent, but capably and accurately pronounces all of the Indian names and terms. If you are interested in the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent Incarnations is well worth your time.
Terry and I were perfectly happy with our over-the-range microwave. It worked well and did everything we needed it to do. The vent cover was broken and held together with tape, so Terry went online to the Whirlpool parts store and ordered a replacement. Before it even showed up, however, our microwave experienced a sudden and unexpected death.
I was minding my own business on Sunday morning, fixing breakfast before it was time for online Zoom morning prayer with my friends at Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. I put my bacon in the microwave and set it for one minute. The microwave started, the turntable turned, the light came on, and the timer beeped. My bacon was uncooked. I tried it again with the same result. Oh, and there was the distinct smell of burned electrical components in the air.
On Monday, therefore, Terry and I ventured out, wearing our face masks, to our locally owned Appliance Showroom. Owner Larry Soares is, one might say, politically incorrect and perhaps something of a redneck, but his staff is loyal and he sees that his customers are well taken care of, as we have experienced first-hand more than once. This is far from the first appliance purchase for which we have visited his store. I briefly toyed with the idea of buying a countertop microwave to use until we were past COVID-19, but our counter space is so limited as it is (we still miss that remodeled kitchen in Gilroy) that we decided to do the right thing and replace the over-the-range unit.
There were three models of the over-the-range type available in white. We selected the middle-style mama bear option (think burgers at A&W drive-ins). The woman who helped us was able to squeeze in our installation for Tuesday, as our old microwave was completely nonfunctional. We appreciated that as the next proper open slot was Thursday.
The two installers showed up around 2:00 p.m. yesterday properly wearing masks and social distancing. They set about the task while we took the late lunch that we had just begun out to the patio, Tasha accompanying us. They made quick work of the job and departed with the old microwave and all the packaging and packing materials from our new one.
We’re pleased. It looks better than the old one and has a larger capacity. It has all the capabilities we need.
We have now replaced three of the four major kitchen appliances that came with the house (where we arrived five years ago today, by the way). In those five years we have replaced the refrigerator (twice), the stove, and now the microwave. The dishwasher is still going strong, knock on wood. We hope it keeps going for a while.
Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me: A Memoir
by Deirdre Bair
Nan A. Talese (November 12, 2019), 341 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $21.99
Deirdre Bair has written several biographies, but two of her best known and most highly regarded works were her studies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. What they had in common was that both individuals lived in Paris, and she made frequent trips there to work on both books.
Beckett was interesting because he told Bair that he would “neither help nor hinder” her efforts, yet he seemed to track her every move as she interviewed friends, relatives, and associates. Beauvoir was fully cooperative but could be difficult to work with at times. While Bair’s relationship with Beckett remained strictly professional her work with de Beauvoir was complicated by Bair’s admiration for de Beauvoir’s feminist philosophy.
Throughout all this Bair describes managing the projects in the midst of her personal life: getting a PhD, finding an academic position, the politics of getting tenure, and giving proper attention to her husband and children. Her life was busy, complicated, and at times downright frustrating.
Bair’s writing style is engaging and the book at times reads like a novel. She is honest about her personal life and candid about her relationships with Beckett and de Beauvoir. If you enjoy reading about things literary consider this book.
Today is May 1st, and those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know that means I am writing about our child Tasha. We long ago designated May 1st as Tasha’s birthday. We brought her home from the shelter on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, in 2005. When we took her to the vet in Gilroy a few days later she said that Tasha appeared to be about a year-and-a-half. We decided to designate her birthday as May 1st in honor of my beloved late Grandma Monaghan. That makes Tasha sixteen today. Amazing!
We did have a health scare recently. She had some intestinal bleeding, so the vet here in Hemet prescribed her a probiotic and told us to take her off the arthritis pain medication (which she had just started and which was helping her greatly). We had an appointment scheduled for a few days later. (Spaced out appointments due to COVID-19 and social distancing, you know.) The vet took an x-ray and thought he saw a mass on her spleen, so he sent it to the radiologist. Turns out that it was just the position her stomach was in for the x-ray. Tasha is now on the probiotic long term and on a less harsh (but more expensive, of course) arthritis pain medication. A hefty vet bill, but Tasha is well worth it. She is a happy girl and it’s a relief both to see her poop looking normal again and to see her moving around comfortably.
We have always made a point of taking good care of Tasha and feeding her quality food. We don’t know her origins, as animal control picked her up on the mean streets of Gilroy all those years ago, but clearly she contributed some very solid and healthy genetic stock.
We are both so delighted that Tasha is still going and still going well.