Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (May 7, 2013), 317 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $14.23
Janet Malcolm published an essay collection in 2019 entitled Nobody’s Looking at You. It received positive reviews, but when I read the Kindle sample I could not get engaged. The essays were quotidian in nature, which is fine. The subject matter just didn’t intrigue me. But when I stumbled on Forty-one False Starts the subtitle caught my attention. The book is indeed exactly what the subtitle suggests. The essays originally appeared in three New York publications: The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review.
The title essay is also the first essay in the book. It is an interview with artist David Salle, something I didn’t find particularly interesting. On the other hand, Malcolm’s essay on the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Woolf and company, contained some interesting context about the relationships within that circle of family and friends. Malcolm is a devotee of JD Salinger and does nothing to hide the fact. In her Salinger essay Malcolm speaks poorly of both Joyce Maynard and Salinger’s daughter, both of whom wrote books that were not flattering towards him.
Malcolm can delve into the realm of TMI. She writes about how the wife of art critic John Ruskin filed for annulment after six years of marriage because the marriage had never been consummated. Why she waited six years I have no idea, but she did. Ruskin admitted that this was the case, stating, “Her person was not formed to excite passion.” Malcolm cites the art historian Mary Lutyens who suggests that Ruskin was put off by his wife’s pubic hair. His familiarity with the nude female form came from painting and sculpture, where such is not represented. I could have gone on with my life perfectly well without encountering that factoid.
In other essays, Malcolm offers a look at the life of Gene (Geneva) Stratton-Porter (author of Girl of the Limberlost), the photographers Julia Cameron and Diane Arbus, and New Yorker editor William Shawn. Malcolm discusses photographer Edward Weston and delves into the fact that Weston regularly got into bed with his nude models. One problem with writing essays about photographers is that we don’t have the photographs Malcom discusses to look at. But such is the nature of essays published in periodicals like the ones in which these appeared. (And in any case, a quick Google search can turn up the desired image.)
Many of the essays in this volume offered useful material and valuable insight, Ruskin aside. Then there were the one or two essays in which I wondered why Malcom bothered to go there. There is a seventy-five page dissection of the people and controversy surrounding the journal Artforum. Malcolm interviews many of the players and as a bonus she describes the New York City lofts in which they lived. It all seemed to me much ado about very little. But this essay originally appeared in The New Yorker, and is just the sort of pointless trivia the magazine is sometimes guilty of publishing.
Overall, however, Malcom offers some entertaining and educational reading about artists, writers, and photographers.
Terry and I bought a new stove in 2019 when the oven wouldn’t heat up and a repair to the old one would cost almost as much as buying a new one. Our local appliance store didn’t have what we wanted, so we found a Samsung range we liked (with a convection oven!) at Lowe’s. We have been very happy with it, but recently it started acting up. The oven took longer to heat up than before and finally it stopped heating up altogether. Never mind that this should not happen in an oven that was just over three years old. The problem was there and we needed to deal with it.
We called our local appliance store, but they said that they don’t service Samsung and referred us to A&E Factory Service. I was familiar with them, as I frequently see their trucks here in Four Seasons and around town. No doubt you’ve seen their trucks as well, and perhaps even used them.
I called A&E on a Monday and was able to schedule an appointment for Wednesday. The service technician diagnosed the problem and had the part on his truck. The igniter had gone out. Our oven was working again within forty-five minutes of his arrival. Not only that, but the oven now heats up more quickly than it ever did. I’d say it’s twice as fast as it did before the performance started to deteriorate. Never mind that the technician kept trying to get us to sign up for the A&E service contract for fifty bucks a month. The end result was well worth the slight annoyance.
Our experience with our local appliance store (which we love and appreciate and where we have purchased several major appliances) is that it takes a week to get a service call and another week to get a replacement part. So while I love supporting local businesses, it is delightful to have such a quick resolution from a national company.
Thank you, A&E Factory Service.
I wrote last week about Marius Kociejowski’s memoir A Factotum in the Book Trade in which he recounts his life in the book business. Kociejowski writes about how the author Bruce Chatwin lived in the building above one store where he worked. Chatwin is the author of In Patagonia, a travel book that I thoroughly enjoyed when it first appeared in the seventies. Kociejowski writes of Chatwin:
Chatwin was an excellent writer and raconteur, but he was not above inventing things in order to keep the reader’s interest alive and in doing so he put into motion a worrisome trend in travel literature. It is hardly surprising that many readers have come to mistrust it as a genre.
I was disappointed but not surprised. But we can hardly blame Chatwin for this phenomenon. John Steinbeck published the book Sea of Cortez with Ed Ricketts in 1941 and reissued the narrative portion of the book as a stand-alone travelogue, Log from the Sea of Cortez, a decade later. By the time he wrote the narrative his marriage had ended, but when Steinbeck and Ricketts made the trip there (it’s a body of water also known as the Gulf of California), he was still married and his wife was along on the trip, doing the bulk of the cooking and chores. In the published volume, however, Steinbeck has her waving them goodbye from the dock.
Paul Theroux, on the other hand, is guilty of the sin of omission. His wife did not want him leaving home and riding the rails in Europe so he could write what became The Great Railway Bazaar. When he came home months later he found her in bed with another man. But Theroux did not admit to this until many decades later.
Nor do I believe Kociejowski is correct in limiting this issue to the travel genre. Lillian Hellman published the book Pentimento as nonfiction, though commentators have long questioned the reality behind at least one section, the one entitled “Julia.” It describes an anti-Nazi activist in World War II helping to smuggle money for the resistance. The story was, it seems, for the most part fabricated. More recently, James Frey published A Million Little pieces in 2003 as a memoir of his life in the world of drug addiction. In a highly publicized scandal, it came out that the book had no basis in actual events. It got Frey in a heap of trouble, especially since Oprah had promoted Frey and the book when it first came out.
Then there’s Joyce Maynard. (Yes, I have an unhealthy obsession with Maynard, about whom I have written not just once but twice, and have mentioned other times in my blog.) She and I are the same age. Maynard published Looking Back in 1973. I fell madly in love with her when I read the book in about 1976 because it expressed the same feelings and values that I had at the time. I learned later that she did not hold those feelings and values at all, but was writing what she thought her audience wanted to read. For years I felt angry and betrayed beyond anything rational. To her credit Maynard later admitted that she was misguided to have written the book the way she did.
I have written about fabrication in books released as nonfiction before (more than once), but my reading of Kociejowski’s memoir made for an excellent opportunity to revisit the topic. Just because a book is published as nonfiction doesn’t mean that it is.
I recently wrote about Barry Lopez’s 1998 book of essays, About This Life. In addition to what you would expect to see from Lopez, writing about nature and the outdoors, he devotes a long essay to the merits of the Boeing 747 jetliner and another to his experience with photography.
Lopez writes that he delved into photography for a while, and in fact he sold several photos. But, he realized, when recalling an encounter with a polar bear:
Remembering what happened in an encounter was crucial to my work as a writer, and attending to my cameras during our time with the bear had altered and shrunk my memory of it. While the polar bear was doing something, I was checking f-stops and attempting to frame and focus from a moving boat…. As a writer, I had begun to feel I was missing critical details in situations such as this one because I was distracted.
I had a similar realization one year when we were at Lake Shasta. I realized I was so focused on getting pictures that I was failing to enjoy the moment I was in. I had a lovely Nikon D70 digital SLR camera with multiple lenses which I then sold off in pieces on eBay. I replaced it with a compact digital camera which served me fine on our Alaska trip in 2011. I wanted to keep something of a hand in photography without being obsessed by it, but that camera simply didn’t feel right in my hands. Right after the Alaska trip I bought a Nikon P500, which has the look and feel of an SLR, but with a fixed lens. It’s the camera I still use today when I want something more than my iPhone can offer.
After my dad’s death in 2020 my brother urged me to take his Sony A230 digital SLR, which I did. I used it some, but the two of us just never hit it off. I’m sticking with my P500 for my “beyond the iPhone” camera needs.
These many years later I feel much the same as I did at Lake Shasta. I am sticking with my writing and I’ll take photos here and there when I feel so moved.
The other day when Terry was emptying the dishwasher she put the spatula in the sink rather than putting it away in the drawer. With good reason. The spatula had seen better days. It was rusting and chipping.
I hated to get rid of it. I have had it since the late seventies or early eighties. Let’s say I bought it in 1980, which would not be far off the mark. I know I bought it when I was living in my second-floor apartment on Steanson Drive in Oklahoma City, very near the busy intersection of Northwest 50th Street and North May Avenue. That’s forty-plus years. Pretty good for a kitchen utensil. I had to replace a pizza cutter of the same era for similar reasons a while back. But I still have a slotted spoon from that family of utensils, and it looks as if that one will keep going for a while.
Some things you don’t want to let go of, but sometimes you simply have to make the right decision and move on. I bought a quality Oxo spatula that will last a good long time.
A Factotum in the Book Trade
Biblioasis (April 26, 2022), 438 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $16.94
This book has a rather odd provenance. Despite the author’s Polish last name, he was born in Canada. His father was Polish and his mother English. He spent most of his working career in England, where most of the narrative takes place. The publisher, Biblioasis, is based in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, and the copyright page states that the book is “published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts,” despite its content focusing mostly on London and its environs. What caught my attention about the book, however, is that the author writes about his life in the book trade.
You may know that I spent the early part of my post-college career in the book business working for B. Dalton Bookseller, back when chain bookstores were in shopping malls and before they were free-standing affairs with a Starbucks inside.
Kociejowski spent his career, however, in the antiquarian book trade, something I know only as a customer. I have never been in a position of walking into an antiquarian bookstore to ask the person on duty to find a particular book for me, but I have done so by mail. Back in the early 1980s I sent letters to antiquarian bookstores to find me out of print copies of R.H. Blyth’s four-volume set dedicated to the haiku, all of which I eventually obtained. It was sort of a fun treasure-hunting adventure.
The author describes casting about for a career when he was young. He says that he attempted work as a “freelance gardener.” He was not good at it and writes, “There are, so I was made to understand, subtle differences between plants and weeds, which strikes me as a form of botanical prejudice. Gardening was not meant for me.”
So Kociejowski went into the book business. Unlike my experience in tracking down the haiku set using the United States Postal Service, the author dealt with people who walked into his shop. He not only located books for people, but he was authorized to purchase antiquarian books. It bothered him to see people disappointed when a book was not worth nearly what they thought it was.
One interesting aspect of Kociejowski’s job was collecting and cataloging the papers of famous authors late in their career before the bookshop shipped them to their ultimate home at a college or university. I didn’t realize that was part of the antiquarian book business in England, but it was one of Kociejowski’s areas of expertise.
The author says someone with whom he worked told him he was a “factotum.” The Merriam-Webster Unabridged online dictionary says that a factotum is “a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities: a general servant.” That hardly describes Kociejowski’s career, as his range of responsibilities was fairly narrow. In addition to being skilled in the cataloging of author papers, he was knowledgeable in the realm of modern first editions. Modern referring to roughly the era of Joseph Conrad.
Kociejowski at one point makes a digression into a set of papers from his own family, describing a British ancestor who was terribly abused by a man of privilege. That might be material for another book, but I found it distracting here. Aside from that, however, I found A Factotum in the Book Trade pleasant and diverting reading.
When we lived in Gilroy Terry and I subscribed to the print edition of the New York Times on the weekend. That ended when I was laid off in 2014. However, I continued to receive the book review separately in the mail.
When we moved to Hemet in 2015, I thought about getting weekend home delivery of the Times again. But we were getting seven-day delivery of both The Los Angeles Times and the Press-Enterprise (a newspaper which I delivered when I was young) and between the two that was a lot of newspaper, especially on Sundays. I didn’t see the point of adding yet another Sunday paper.
But then the pandemic hit along with a change in ownership of both newspapers. This coincided with a general decline in the health of the print newspapers. Our Sunday papers became smaller. At the same time, I was getting tired of the unreliable arrival of the New York Times Book Review by the United States Postal Service. Since the Times was offering home delivery for half price for the first year I signed up for Friday through Sunday delivery.
I won’t go into detail about the difficulty that I had subscribing. Suffice it to say that it had to do with an ancient, out-of-date email address they had on file. It took two phone calls and both agents escalating the problem, but they resolved the matter and we are now getting The New York Times three days a week.
I’m glad to have their excellent national news and business coverage, and even happier to have their quality arts and entertainment coverage. But most of all I’m delighted that I don’t need to wonder about when my book review will show up.
About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory
Barry H. Lopez
Vintage (September 14, 2011), 289 pages
originally published in 1998
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $10.59
Random House published what is apparently the last posthumous book by Barry Lopez, Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World, at the end of May. But by the time that book came to my attention I was already planning to read About This Life.
Many of the essays in this book are what you would expect from Barry Lopez: outdoor and nature writing. In the introduction Lopez provides a brief autobiographical sketch, but then he immediately heads outdoors. In the first essay he describes scuba diving on the Dutch island of Bonaire, off the coast of South America. The second essay recounts Lopez’s travels in rural Japan and the hospitality of his hosts. In the third essay Lopez writes about the Galápagos Islands, recounting both his own experience and their history. He then goes on to write about his travels in Antarctica.
But if you think that Lopez is strictly a writer of outdoors and nature, the next essay in the book will take you by surprise. He writes about the Boeing 747 airliner. He describes how the iconic jet is not just a passenger plane, but how it has become critical to the shipment of freight. And when he talks about freight he means freight of all kinds. He writes:
I would fly in and out of cities like Taipei, Rotterdam, and Los Angeles with drill pipe, pistol targets, frozen ostrich meat, lace teddies, dog food, digital tape machines, pythons, and ball caps; with tangerines from Johannesburg, gold bullion from Argentina, and orchid clusters from Bangkok.
Lopez does not stop with freight. He spends several pages writing about his visit to the Boeing factory in Everett, Washington, outside Seattle. He observes workers assembling a 747 for Singapore airlines. Assembling such a plane is not a trivial undertaking. He returns several months later as workers are putting the final touches on the plane.
The author is not simply an observer; he is a participant. He has somehow managed to get permission to sit on the flight deck with the crew of several flights in various parts of the world. He takes a flight from Chicago to Japan carrying Thoroughbred horses. Lopez talks to the pilots and copilots, learning that they are not immune to jet lag: they simply learn to live with it.
Back in more familiar Lopez territory, a long essay recounts his encounters with a man he calls Jack in the Cascade Range of Oregon. Jack operates a kiln, but not your standard gas-fired kiln. Jack’s kiln is called an anagama kiln. It is wood fired and has a very specific design.
When Jack does a firing, the kiln is generally full. Jack’s clients represent a wide range of skill sets, from the most experienced potter to the weekend amateur. They come from a variety of professions: “nurse, set designer, computer technician, freelance photographer,” Lopez tells us. Firings happen on the weekend, when this diverse community gathers, but it takes a week for the kiln to cool off before it can be unloaded. When it is unloaded there are surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Some pieces are broken, others come out more stunning than expected.
In another essay, Lopez writes about his work as a photographer and why he gave up photography. That is something to which I can relate, and something about which I may write separately.
Lopez devotes the final section of About This Life to cars. Not a section that I found terribly engaging, but that does not detract from the value and enjoyment I got from the rest of the book. I’m always happy to read the work of Barry Lopez.
Terry and I have been very happy with the house we bought here in Hemet seven years ago. One thing that has not been great, however, is the way the house retains heat in the summer. We finally decided that it was time to do something about that.
Our contractor suggested that we install a whole-house fan. At first that seemed like a good idea. But when we consulted with his electrician who installs them we realized that would not solve our problem. The idea of a whole-house fan is that you turn it on when it is cooler outside than inside. So that wouldn’t help with the house retaining heat in the afternoon.
What we decided to do was to replace the insulation in the attic. At first I didn’t think it made any difference, but as the weather got warmer I realized the house was staying cooler later into the day. That is until the sun hit the northwest facing windows late in the afternoon. To solve that problem we ordered a set of patio blinds to help insulate the house that time of the day. They should be installed in a few weeks.
While we were at it we decided to have our air ducts cleaned. We hadn’t had them cleaned since we moved in, and who knows how long before that it had been since they were cleaned. That may or may not be helping with the efficiency of the air conditioner, but Terry and I are certainly sneezing less and we are using a lot fewer Kleenex. That is a Good Thing.
Now, just waiting for those patio blinds to be installed.