Sunday, April 5, 2020

Drinking: A Love Story

Drinking: A Love Story - Caroline Knapp

Alcoholism messes up the lives of about 15 million people in the USA. About a third of that huge number are women.

In this drinking memoir  Knapp tells how she started abusing alcohol as a teenager and continuing self-medicating hurt, fear, and sadness by getting drunk when she became a college student and then a young urban professional who was a high-functioning alcoholic.

She points out that alcoholics stop growing when they start drinking because the drinking interferes with their ability to deal with problems and then move on as a more resilient person. She emphasizes the disease aspect and how alcohol teams up with other substances like pot and coke and other addictions like eating disorders and cutting.

It’s slightly repetitious but that is all to the good since if alcoholics are good at one thing it’s denial. I highly recommend this book to anybody that wants to understand alcoholism.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Back to the Classics #8

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020.

Classic by a Person of Color. Dave Chappelle says, “There’s only one thing that’s going to save this country from itself. Same thing that always saves this country from itself. And that is African-Americans. And I know the question a lot of y’all have in your minds is, should we do it? Fuck yeah, we should do it. No matter what they say or how they make you feel, remember, this is your country, too. It is incumbent upon us to save our country. And you know what we have to do. Every able-bodied African-American must register for a legal firearm. That’s the only way they’ll change the law.”

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House - Elizabeth Keckley

Born in slavery, the author, from at the age of 18, was raped for four years by a white man. She was impregnated by him and bore his son.  She lost this son, who had joined the US Army, when he was killed in his first battle of the Civil War.

Determined and talented with her needle, she worked as a seamstress (custom dressmaking was required before mass production of clothes). She was able to buy her and her son’s freedom.  She built her professional reputation to the point where extremely influential women, such as Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson, recommended her to others. That was how Mary Lincoln came to hire her and dominate virtually all her time.

Mrs. Keckley was the modiste to Mary Lincoln for the entire time that the Lincolns were living in the White House. During that time, she also became Mary Lincoln's closest friend and confidant. This book details account her time spent working in the White House and she wrote about not only what was happening with Mrs. Lincoln, but the entire family too. She had a friendly relationship with Mr. Lincoln as well as with the sons Willie, Tad, and Robert.

Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley had a complicated relationship. Mary Lincoln grew up assuming other people would do things for her and make things right when the going got rough. Mrs. Keckley took on that role, out of true liking, pity, and gratitude because Mrs. L.’s husband was the Moses of her people. When Lincoln was assassinated, Mary sent for Mrs. Keckley, though that terrible night Mrs. Keckley was unable to get past the jumpy guards.

Mrs. Keckley was a remarkable woman. She learned to read, write and figure. She owned her own dressmaking business and employed seamstresses.  She founded the Contraband Relief Association in August 1862. Mrs. Keckley said that the CRA was formed “for the purpose, not only of relieving he wants of those destitute people, but also to sympathize with, and advise them.”   

After leaving the White House, Mrs. Lincoln had little money. Keckley wrote this book to help Mrs. Lincoln financially. For her pains, she was roundly criticized by a racist sexist classist society for writing about and judging the white people that employed her. The backlash ended her career and livelihood as a dressmaker.

She left Washington in 1892 to teach home economics at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, but poor health forced her to return and spend her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, which she had helped to establish. She died of a stroke in 1907.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Back to the Classics #7

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020.

20th Century Classic. I like reading Aldous Huxley because he’s smart and funny.  I’ve read not only Brave New World (the one everybody reads), but also a travel book  Jesting Pilate, a late career novelette  The Genius and the Goddess, the science fiction-like After Many a Summer, and a history The Devils of Loudon. Because I’m a reading snob, that’s why.

Those Barren Leaves – Aldous Huxley

In the early 1920s, Huxley became a best-selling writer with satirical novels such as Antic Hay and Time Must Have a Stop.  The story of Those Barren Leaves also stars members of the Lost Generation, disillusioned and trying to keep body and soul together after the smash-up of Western ideals brought on by WWI.

Huxley introduces a number of characters, each a puppet controlled by their unique string. Calamy is affluent and respected but is intimidated by the apparent terms and conditions of life and wonders if there is really a mystery behind all the anger greed, lust, and violence. He’s rather an existentialist before that orientation became hip in that he feels responsible for his own life, but doesn’t know the way forward.

Like Uncle Eustace in Time Must Have a Stop, Cardan is the semi-likable cynic and epicure (small e). He fears an old age dogged by poverty so he contemplates a marriage partner so outrageously unsuitable  that I can’t possibly reveal her in a review. The poet Chelifer represents the rootless, nihilistic intellectuals of the 1920s who see as empty religion, patriotism, moral standards, and social reform. While working as hapless editor of Rabbit Fancier’s Gazette, Chelifer holds onto verse as the last refuge in an idiotic world. Miss Thriplow, a young novelist, finds herself between lovers so in her search for the next big project, it strikes her that she ought to be more spiritual and more serious.

The last part of the novel follows Calamy as he undergoes a spiritual crisis. He embraces, for lack of a better word, mysticism, explaining “It takes a certain amount of intelligence and imagination to realise the extraordinary queerness and mysteriousness of the world in which we live.” So in this 1925 novel we see Huxley moving away from satire and relativism to the introspection and disciplined thought that serious Vedantists, post-modern stoics, existentialists, and CBT types choose.

Hardcore readers into post-WWI literature, satire, and what I hesitatingly call mysticism will like this novel. Because the Savage is such a weak character, I have always had qualms about Brave New World, rather regretting that is the only Huxley novel readers know when Huxley wrote so many other solid novels of ideas.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Back the Classics #6

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020.

Classic in Translation. The French title of this short novel is La fenêtre des Rouet. It was first published 1945, just after the horror of Occupied France, a time when people could understandably connect with a story of a life unlived. This novelette was Englished in 1992 by John Petrie.

Across the Street – Georges Simenon

In the cramped accommodation of an apartment house that belongs to her family, Dominique Salès lives a narrowed and insipid existence. She has had to rent out a room in her Paris apartment to a young couple, the Cailles, whose nighttime frolics disturb the 40-year-old virgin. Across the street is the apartment of the Rouets, who made millions in the wire business, with the father and mother on the third floor, the son and daughter-in-law on the second.

Watching for the smallest changes in her neighborhood, Dominique Salès spies on the Cailles and the Rouets, thus making a kind of a proxy life. One day, she observes that Antoinette Rouet, returning home, finds her invalid husband dying. Instead of getting help, she pours the drops of his medicine into the pot of one of the plants in the apartment. He dies.

Dominique is shocked enough to send Antoinette poison pen letters. She plugs along until the Cailles tell her they have to leave, taking their exuberant, vital happiness out of the apartment. So Dominique Salès makes a big decision.

Simenon candidly presents this story as one of existential failure. Dominique, in a sense, did not have a chance, being raised to be lady by her mother and browbeaten while taking care of her mean useless father until his death. But she choose to say "No, thanks" to life. She didn’t have to waste her time with sewing and little errands. She could have connected with other people if she had remembered what we all know but tend to forget because it’s more convenient to be irresponsible – that everybody is living a life as vivid and real to them as ours is to us; that we need to be kind to others because we need others to be kind to us; and that as Aldous Huxley had a character once say, “the only visible reason why we exist in the world is to love and be loved.”

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Back to the Classics #5

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020.

19th Century Classic. I’ve been reading Thackeray since about 2017 but I read a fistful of his books - Barry Lyndon, Pendennis, Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Cairo - before I got around to the one everybody reads if they are going to read Thackeray, Vanity Fair. Because I didn’t want to approach Thackeray the way everybody else does – even, seemingly, hardcore readers who do reading challenges. Because I’m a snob.

The Book of Snobs – William Makepeace Thackeray

Snobbishness ranks among the many qualities nobody willingly admits to having. Few would ‘fess up to being a prude. Even the grouchiest cranks take umbrage at being accused of having no sense of humor. And the dumbest, least competent among us describe themselves as stable geniuses.

In this examination of the varieties of snobbish people, Thackeray takes aim not only those who pretend to exclusive circles of people. He also broadly satirizes people who are arrogant about their hangouts and the pets they keep. Doing so, he paints wonderful word pictures:

At six o'clock in the full season, when all the world is in St. James's Street, and the carriages are cutting in and out among the cabs on the stand, and the tufted dandies are showing their listless faces out of 'White's,' and you see respectable grey-headed gentlemen waggling their heads to each other through the plate-glass windows of 'Arthur's:' and the red-coats wish to be Briareian, so as to hold all the gentlemen's horses; and that wonderful red-coated royal porter is sunning himself before Marlborough House;—at the noon of London time, you see a light-yellow carriage with black horses, and a coachman in a tight floss-silk wig, and two footmen in powder and white and yellow liveries, and a large woman inside in shot-silk, a poodle, and a pink parasol, which drives up to the gate of the Conflagrative, and the page goes and says to Mr. Goldmore (who is perfectly aware of the fact, as he is looking out of the windows with about forty other 'Conflagrative' bucks), 'Your carriage, Sir.' G. wags his head. 'Remember, eight o'clock precisely,' says he to Mulligatawney, the other East India Director; and, ascending the carriage, plumps down by the side of Mrs. Goldmore for a drive in the Park, and then home to Portland Place. As the carriage whirls off, all the young bucks in the Club feel a secret elation. It is a part of their establishment, as it were. That carriage belongs to their Club, and their Club belongs to them. They follow the equipage with interest; they eye it knowingly as they see it in the Park. But halt! we are not come to the Club Snobs yet. O my brave Snobs, what a flurry there will be among you when those papers appear!

As in his other books, Thackeray’s intention is to get us to thinking so that reading will reveal something of ourselves to ourselves. So I wonder about snobbery in my own daily life. My back gets up when I encounter entitled narcissism so it’s lucky for me that I don’t often meet people who think their wealth and status provide paths that will bypass lonely graves. Nor do I rub shoulders with reverse snobs who think they are ready for the apocalypse because they can change an oil filter.

What I’m snobbish about is clear. I’m a reading snob. I pat myself on the back for reading books virtually nobody else reads.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Ides of Perry Mason 10

The 15th of every month until I don't know when I will post a review of a Perry Mason mystery. For the hell of it.

The Case of the Long-legged Models – Erle Stanley Gardner

Mystery readers who like old-school police procedurals would probably enjoy Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. The reason is that Mason novels follow a structure that rarely varies and the swiftly unfolding action, like a bag of chips, can be savored to the very end.

The opening chapter finds a client describing a hornet’s nest to Mason. Stephanie Faulkner inherited majority stock in a little Vegas casino from her father Glen, who was murdered six months before. A shadowy company has pressure the other stockholders into selling but a man named George Casselman has bought off the other shaken stockholders and how wants her stock. Della Street, Mason’s legal secretary and office manager, gives her take on the client and the situation. Perry sics his PI Paul Drake to dig around.

The next couple of chapters detail a scheme on the margins of illegality or an outright criminal enterprise, the murder and the arrest of Mason’s client by the DA Hamilton Burger. Casselman end up with a bullet through  his pump. Steph is brought to trial. 

In the court room scene, usually the last third of the novel, Mason gets to the bottom of motives with a cross-examination eliciting a confession or a revelation of the fallibility of witness’ perceptions or wrinkles in time and logic.

Hard-headed and realistic, Gardner does not get into motivations beyond the Big Four of love, hate, greed, and lust. Gardner’s invention as a generator of stories holds our interest, however, especially whenever Mason juggles the evidence in order to stall or deceive the police. In this novel, Mason tells Della Street that hocus-pocus is an ethical way to defend a client:

It's my contention, Della, that an attorney doesn't have to sit back and wait until a witness gets on the stand and then test his recollection simply by asking him questions. If facts can be shuffled in such a way that it will confuse a witness who isn't absolutely certain of his story, and if the attorney doesn't suppress, conceal, or distort any of the actual evidence, I claim the attorney is within his rights.

Freeman Wills Crofts took the “locked room” about as far as it could go. Gardner’s specialty was pairs of guns. In this late Fifties mystery, a pair of guns is shuffled until we readers come to the point of crying, “Uncle! This is too complicated!” That’s why I have not discussed the plot – to avoid the risk of spoiling the book for readers who just want to be swept along by Gardner’s supernatural power of narrative. Once you start a Perry Mason novel, it is impossible to put down.

Friday, March 13, 2020


Hollywood: A Novel of the America in the 1920s - Gore Vidal

In fact, about half the book is set in 1917-18. This finely written novel features historical figures such as Woodrow Wilson and megalomaniac William Randolf Hearst and fictional ones like Caroline and Blaise Stanford, who entertained in the previous novel Empire (1987).

The history covers the material never dealt with in school and handled with kid gloves in teevee documentaries: the unpopularity of WWI in the US and its corrosive aftershocks on social and political attitudes, the bitterness between Wilson and TR, the poor health of Wilson, AG Palmer’s crackdown on leftists and “hyphenated Americans,” the corruption under Harding, etc. The book also examines the development of Hollywood as an economic and propaganda force.

One reviewer says that Vidal is good at putting words in other people’s mouths so it’s worth this lengthy quotation:
''I was three years old,'' [Woodrow Wilson] said at last, ''when Lincoln was elected and the Civil War began. My father was a clergyman in Staunton - then, later, we moved to Augusta, Georgia. I was eight years old when the war ended and Mr. Lincoln was killed. In Augusta my father's church was a . . . was used as a hospital for our troops. I remember all that. I remember Jefferson Davis being led a captive through the town. I remember how he. . . . My family suffered very little. But what we saw around us, the bitterness of the losers in the war and the brutality of the winners . . . well, none of this was lost on me. I am not,'' a wintry close-lipped smile divided for an instant the rude stone face, ''an enthusiast of war like Colonel Roosevelt, whose mentality is that of child of six and whose imagination must be nonexistent. You see, I can imagine what this war will do to us. I pray I'm wrong. But I am deathly afraid that once you lead this people - and I know them well - into war, they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. Because to fight to win, you must be brutal and ruthless, and that spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into the very fibre of our national life. You - Congress - will be infected by it, too, and the police, and the average citizen. The whole lot. Then we shall win. But what shall we win?”