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.
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.
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.
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.
I am always looking for ways to improve my writing, so when this title turned up on Early Bird Books for $1.99 I grabbed it.
Zen in the Art of Writing is a collection of essays Bradbury wrote over a period of years on the topic of, obviously, writing. He writes about the importance to him of writing every day. He also describes how he would simply make lists of words, nouns mostly, and how much of his work came out of a word that got his attention on the list.
Bradbury writes about the importance of reading broadly. He writes, “I have known Bertrand Russell and I have known Tom Mix, and my Muse has grown out of the mulch of good, bad, and indifferent.”
He makes one point that particularly struck me:
This does not mean to say that one’s reaction to everything at a given time should be similar. First off, it cannot be. At ten, Jules Verne is accepted, Huxley rejected. At eighteen, Thomas Wolfe accepted, and Buck Rogers left behind. At thirty, Melville discovered, and Thomas Wolfe lost.
Just because I loved Tom Robbins in my twenties doesn’t mean I will enjoy his work today.
Some great stuff here from one of America’s most respected authors.
Penguin Books (September 24, 2019), 254 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $12.59
In Surfacing Kathleen Jamie has compiled a collection of her essays that touch upon a variety of topics, although her selections display a particular interest in archaeology.
The first half of the book is an extended essay about Jamie’s visit to an archaeological site in Alaska. She describes not only the archaeological work but the native Americans in the area, their daily lives, and their attempts to maintain a cultural identity in the present day. Other essays in the book describe the challenges of archeology in her native Scotland. Jamie also writes about nature, making sure her father was eating properly, and being stuck in China at a time of social unrest, presumably in the 1989 Tiananmen Square era.
Jamie’s writing style moves the reader along quickly and she maintained my attention throughout. Surfacing may be of particular interest to readers interested in archaeology in the New World.
Listening for America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim
Liveright (November 5, 2019), 472 pages
Kindle edition $19.24, Amazon Hardcover $22.49
Rob Kapilow is a renowned music educator and in this book he has done a first rate job of educating his readers about the history of the Broadway musical. He delivers what he promises in the title, starting before Gershwin, in fact, with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter and taking us right through to Stephen Sondheim. He points out in the epilogue that the most popular post-Sondheim shows have either been from overseas (for example, the many shows of the British master of spectacle Andrew Lloyd Weber or French productions such as Miss Saigon and Les Misérables) or Disney movie reincarnations (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and the like).
Each chapter focuses on one song from one show, for example George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” or Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Before getting to the song, however, Kapilow discusses the life of the composer, tells us about his collaborators, and explains where the show from which the song came stood in the history of Broadway and the country. When he gets to the song he describes, in fairly technical terms, what makes it special. He has an associated YouTube channel in which he offers clips from the songs, and demonstrates how the composer was innovative in contrast to how the song might normally have been written. The marvelous thing about the Kindle edition is that the book links directly to the clips.
The notes are done in a rather odd way. The references are numbered footnotes and are in the back of the book. There are also notes that use symbols: asterisk, double dagger, the section sign (§), and the pilcrow (¶, the paragraph marker – I’ve been waiting for the chance to use “pilcrow” in a sentence). These add additional details and are at the end of each chapter. Fortunately in the Kindle edition both types of notes pop up seamlessly at the bottom of the screen. This convention, however, must be very annoying in the print edition where the reader must constantly flip back and forth.
There is a lot of interesting detail in the book. For example Kapilow tells us that Richard Rodgers “collaborated exclusively with [Lorenz] Hart from 1919 until Hart’s collapse and death at the age of forty-eight in 1943, and then with Oscar Hammerstein II from 1943 until Hammerstein’s death in 1960,” while other composers frequently changed collaborators. You might be interested in knowing that Fred Astaire would adhere scrupulously to what the composer wrote, while “Judy Garland, for example, scarcely sings a single rhythm of “Over the Rainbow” as [Harold] Arlen wrote it.”
While the book discusses in detail only sixteen songs out of the entire Broadway canon, it provides, in a highly readable manner, a fairly comprehensive history Broadway and how the musical has evolved.
Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch
Narrated by Andréa Burns
Macmillan Audio, October 22, 2019
$24.98 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
Still Here is a comprehensive, deeply researched, exquisitely written book about the life of Elaine Stritch. The author takes us from Elaine’s birth (before it actually, describing in too much detail her parents’ wedding night) to Stritch’s final breath.
Stritch had a big ego that started in childhood and lasted throughout her life. She called attention to herself, constantly annoyed and frustrated the other actors with whom she worked, had trouble remembering her lines, frequently ad-libbed in scripted shows, and audiences loved her.
She was somewhat (somewhat?) neurotic, drank in order to be able to go on stage, had a series of not so healthy relationships, and made unreasonable demands upon her producers, many of which were agreed to. She didn’t marry until age forty-eight when she wed John Bay. Bay was an actor whose family ran the Bay English Muffin empire (used in the Egg McMuffin), but who had no access to the family wealth. Bay was gay, but Stritch stayed with him until his death. In fact, she was buried next to him.
Still Here is one of those titles that works superbly as an audiobook. Voice actor Andréa Burns does an exceptional job of reading Still Here. Her ability to perfectly channel the whiskey voice of the mature Elaine Stritch is absolutely delightful and makes the audio book a real pleasure to listen to.
Lovers of show biz will love Still Here.
Writers & Lovers: A Novel
Grove Press (March 3, 2020), 320 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $16.20
Lily King’s new novel Writers & Lovers is written in the first person. The protagonist and narrator Casey at age 31 is trying to finish her novel after six years of fits and starts, attempting to make a living as a waitress, and trying to pay off her past-due student loans.
Casey seems quite competent as a waitress at an upscale restaurant to which she commutes by bicycle from her living space, a garden shed turned cottage next to her landlord’s house, but her manager puts her on probation twice for reasons that don’t seem to be entirely fair. She becomes involved with a writer her own age and also with an established author, widowed with two young sons, sixteen years her senior. She has a past: her high school coach father retired in shame after some sleazy activity in the locker room and her mother ran off to Mexico with another man and later died there mysteriously.
The story takes place in the early 1990’s, with occasional passing references to the likes of Whitewater special counsel Ken Starr. Casey has an answering machine rather than voicemail and no one seems to have a cell phone. Nonetheless this is not a period piece by any means; it could just as easily be set in 2020.
The writing is lively and King keeps the story moving at a rapid clip. There is one incident towards the end of the book involving Casey’s brother and her landlord that seems to serve no purpose, and we never learn the circumstances of her mother’s death, but otherwise the story holds together well. The final scene is a bit quirky, but it does its job in offering a solid conclusion. The ending is not open-ended, leaving us adrift, as is the case with many novels.
I don’t know if Writers & Lovers qualifies as literary fiction, but it is certainly a highly readable novel.