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Dreamed that I saw Robin Hobart.

Omygawd, Robin Hobart.

This was on the grounds of some kind of vast, beautiful university complex – Oxford or maybe even my old alma mater, Berkeley.

Robin Hobart was about 100 feet in front of me. I lost her in the crowd. I thought she went into a house, so – ever heedless of propriety, particularly in my dreams – I went into that house, too.

Inside the house, they were preparing for some sort of celebration. A wedding celebration. There was a kitchen that was stuffed with flowers – spring flowers like daffodils, narcissi, anemones, freesias. And a sleek cake.

Further inside the house was a mass of people.

I didn’t see Robin Hobart anywhere, so I bolted into a side room.

This side room was a bedroom of some sort with two beds. Two men were lying side by side in one of the beds. They had a conviviality with one another that did not come from having just had hot sex but rather from having lukewarm sex every other Friday – and today wasn’t Friday. But they obviously liked each other.

They were mildly put out by my presence in their room. But not too terribly.

I tried to explain to them what I was doing in their bedroom. But they weren’t particularly interested in anything I had to say. They talked over me – an easy conversation that had been going on their entire time together. From time to time, one or the other would look at me, raise his eyebrows mockingly, shake his head.

There was another male couple in the other bed.

They must be professors, I thought. Only professors could entertain such outré living arrangements.

But towards the end of the dream, I found out that they were auto mechanics.

And I never did catch up with Robin Hobart!


I went with Summer and Chris to Olana. The official Farewell Tour! Yes, I’d said goodbye to them in NYC but for some reason, it really hit home that Summer was leaving when I saw her yesterday. I suppose because most of the associations I have of her are tethered to the Hudson Valley.

I’ve been to Olana several times, but I always enjoy it. I can’t make up my mind whether the house is a wildly self-indulgent celebration of Orientalism at its absolute worst or a whimsical architectural folly. It’s very Victorian. Since the State of New York acquired it from the last living Frederick Church descendent, it’s crammed full with the painter’s own collection of knick-knacks, gewgaws, and tchotchkes. And reams and reams of truly awful paintings. I’m not a big fan of the Hudson Valley School.

(On the drive home, I was trying to figure out why I like John Singer Sargent but detest Frederick Church. Their subject matter was very similar, and their styles were not wildly dissimilar: They both practiced the kind of photorealism that was expected from painters before the use of cameras was widespread. I couldn’t come up with an answer.)

“It is very profitable to be a painter in the 1800s!” said Chris after we left the house.

“Oh, it wasn’t very profitable at all,” I said. “Frederick Church made his money the old-fashioned way! Through dead relatives. His father founded the Aetna Insurance Company.”

It was then that I made the remarkable discovery that Summer and Chris are rich! Between them, they own four houses – two in Szechuan and two in Guangdong -- and four cars.

Maybe visiting China and staying with them for a week is a reasonable goal after all.


“You are my family,” Summer said as we embraced one final time.

A banal sentiment, I know. But I feel that way, too. Like somehow, outside of culture, outside of time, we recognized each other.

I cried hysterically when I got home.

I shall miss her.


And I know, So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past is widely considered the sweepstakes winner in the contest for Best Line in the History of English Language Fiction.

But I like this line better: But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.
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Full disclosure here: I’m not a Frank Lloyd Wright fan. His Prairie Houses always make me flash on Danish modern furniture, which I think is fuckin’ ugly.

I don’t see why form should have to follow function.

I kind of like architectural elements that have no practical use whatsoever.

This makes me the perfect ghost writer for a project that’s a Frank Lloyd Wright hatchet job.


Didn’t hear from Celeste for a week, and then yesterday, I did. Your email somehow disappeared, she wrote.

No, no, no, Celeste: The dog ate it.

Anyway, she is game to go. Though we still don't have a contract. And I won't work without a contract.

I am scuttling off to NYC tomorrow to spend a few days in [profile] lifeinroseland’s beyond beautiful apartment and play in museums and possibly go to a play and hopefully finish the Alice/Nell story, which is now up to 12,000 words and has two (count ‘em!) working titles, The Green Sickness and The League of Arbitrary Assuageurs, neither of which is good.

When I get back, hopefully John will have whipped up a contract, and I will have figured out a way to record Celeste when I debrief her.

And then I will debrief her.

Since I am in New York, and Celeste is in California, I won’t be able to feed Celeste psychoactive substances to lubricate the debriefing process – but knowing Celeste as I do, I trust that Celeste will be able to handle that end of things on her own.


I’m about a third of the way through The Fellowship, the book that gives the skinny on what really went down in Taliesin. I don’t want to carry it with me to NYC since it’s an enormous tome, must weight 15 pounds. So I’ll try to finish it this evening.


Oglivianna, the third Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright, was a Gurdjieff acolyte. She completely dominated Wright for the last 30 years or so of his life. Under her management, Tailiesin drifted into the familiar Scientology/Synanon-style cult. It will give me great pleasure to do a hatchet job on Oglivianna, and I hope Celeste feeds me some really disgusting details about her personal hygiene.

You don’t hear much about G.I. Gurdjieff anymore, but when I was a gorgeous young girl, Gurdjieff was still quite the thing. I may have seen the film Peter Brooks made from Gurdjieff’s book Meetings With Remarkable Men. I may even have read the book. And Luke had an unfortunate dealing with an exceedingly unpleasant woman named Helen Palmer who was a psychic focusing on Enneagram interpretations (a Gurdjieff thing) and who tried to rip him off over some expensive real estate.

I’ve been around many people like Gurdjieff over the course of my lifetime. That's that Zelig thing again: I've stood on the sidelines watching while any number of interesting events transpired.

The success of authoritarian self-styled mystics always amazes me. Most people are sl-e-e-e-e-eeping! sez Gurdjieff. Well, sure. But you don’t have to do ridiculous dances to wake up. All you have to do is pay attention.

Plus I’m not sure there’s any great utility to waking up.

It’s not like you’re gonna be able to change anything.

The more you see, the more you understand. And the more you weep.


Also, I’ve been listening to The Maltese Falcon on tape as I’ve been driving the last few days.

It’s really terribly written.

Why is it considered such a masterpiece of American literature?
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The photo streams out of Houston are wild. More of that, But it can’t happen here – can it? Bwah-hah-hah-hah! vibe.

Does it matter that the catastrophe is meteorological and only in part manmade? (Rises in sea level – almost certainly due to climate change and other human disturbances, most notably oil drilling – made the storm surges half a foot higher than they would have been a few decades before. Sea temperatures are also approximately two decrees warmer than they were a few decades ago, which means the storm had the ability to absorb more water.)

No, not really.

It can happen here is your basic scare scenario.

I can remember sitting in the back seat of my grandfather’s old Chrysler a million years ago or so, listening to him explain how, inevitably, the seas would rise, and everything we were familiar with would drown. I was only three or four at the time. His words scared the shit out of me.


Some of those Houston pictures are downright heartbreaking:

And, of course, some humans are always eager to prove their essential pettiness.

My various social media feeds are filled with vengeful progressives. A state that gave us Ted Cruz and George W. Bush can just go fuck itself!

Hey, assholes! I want to write. Harris County is a Democratic stronghold; it went for Hillary Clinton by 12%.

But I restrain myself.

Because, really: What is the point?

I’ve always liked Texas, and yes, I have spent time there. Larry McMurtry country, doncha know. Unlike the anal inhabitants of the benighted midWest, Texans are very friendly even when you disagree with their politics.


Houston will impact the U.S. economy as a whole. Texas has the 10th largest economy in the world and exports more than the states of California and New York combined.

You can expect to pay at least 25 cents more per gallon at the gas pump for the next six months or so. Possibly, this will renew the interest in fracking the northeast’s shale fields.

Difficult to say what effect this will have on the stock market – which, despite all the reasons that it shouldn’t, has continued to perform strongly since Trump took office. Energy stocks should stall. On the other hand, construction stocks should benefit.


I got through my awful mood over the weekend by submerging myself in escapist movies and novels.

I was practically snorkeling!

First, I wondered why I had such a strong aversion to seeing Dunkirk despite being a big Christopher Nolan fan. It’s because I remember seeing another film about Dunkirk, and I thought it might be Atonement. It’s not: The middle section of Atonement takes place as Robby Turner is traveling to Dunkirk; he never makes it.

Where, oh where, do all those images in my head of soldiers huddling on a grey beach with broken Ferris wheels behind them come from? I wonder.

Atonement is a pretty good novel and a not-completely-awful movie.

There’s something about the actor James McAvoy I’ve always found… compelling. And so, the scenes where Cecilia tries to snap Robby out of his fugue states – Come back to me! Come back – moved me.

Then I had to watch The Prestige – for like the tenth time: It’s one of my favorite movies (and I love the novel, too, although the novel is very different from the film) – and then I had to watch The Shining! In between I had to go out to breakfast and hike around the Point and try to figure out what Alice's secret games were when the grownups weren't looking.

Weather hasn't completely returned to me, but at least I'm not tearing up at pictures of dogs.

I suppose I should line up some social expeditions for when I travel to NYC in the next few days to water [profile] lifeinroseland's plants.
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Spent yesterday reading Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain cover to cover. An obsessively readable book all about the symbiotic relationship between Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

Bannon was the mutagen who spun the conservative RNA, and Trump was the pointy-headed virus who penetrated the body politic. The disease was the narrative, Crooked Hillary.

The most interesting part of the book for me - since I am what the Trump team dubbed a “double hater” and it’s all about me-e-e-e, right? – was this:

[B]oth campaigns battled for a group of voters who would ultimately decide the race. ... Trump's data analysts gave them a nickname: 'double haters.' These were people who disliked both candidates but traditionally showed up at the polls to vote. They were a sizable bloc: 3 to 5 percent of the 15 million voters across seventeen battleground states that Trump's staff believed were persuadable.

Early on, many indicated support for third‐party candidate Gary Johnson. But after a series of televised flubs, ... they largely abandoned him. ... Many refused to answer pollsters' questions ... These were the voters Clinton had hoped to shear off from Trump with her 'alt-right' speech in August. ... Comey's letter had the effect of convincing the double haters to finally choose.

Double haters ended up going 47% for Trump, 30% for Clinton.

I stuck with the original game plan and voted for Gary Johnson.

As I see it, Comey's letter was not a precipitating event, but a cumulative event that was like the denouncement of a story that Bannon et al had been telling - but more importantly, circulating - about the Clintons for a very long time. The massive Hillary hatred was the result of a very conscious campaign.

Of course, Trump’s story is filled with as many if not more unpalatable facts than the Clintons, but since Trump was not a public servant until very recently, it’s difficult to work up a sense of moral outrage however easy it may be to feel personal disgust.

Also Trump was a celebrity, and the purpose of celebrities is to function as collective ids, no?

One of the most fascinating parts of Devil's Bargain, by the way, is how Trump managed to carry over the narrative from The Apprentice into his campaign. Trump benefited from advertisers' determination to make The Apprentice an ethnically inclusive show so it could sell more McDonald's hamburgers! Black and Hispanic voters LUVVED The Apprentice!
And this is one of the reasons why Trump didn't tank as badly among black and Hispanic voters as Democratic pollsters predicted he would.

Anyway, it’s very clear to me that unless the Left becomes more comfortable creating narratives, they’re cooked.
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Lotto loves Mathilde.

Or maybe he doesn’t: Lotto is a supreme narcissist, and he’s probably incapable of loving anyone but himself.

Mathilde loves Lotto.

Or maybe she doesn’t: Mathilde is so compartmentalized and damaged, she’s probably incapable of loving anyone. And she definitely does not love herself.

Fates and Furies is the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage.

And guess what? The marriage works.

But that’s not why Fates and Furies works.

Readers seem either to love Fates and Furies, or to want to smash it against a wall, hurl invective at it (pretentious, purple prose, meaningless phrases), almost as if these readers were disappointed lovers. It’s seldom one comes across a novel that elicits reactions that are this strong or this polarized. To me, this is proof of the magnitude of Lauren Groff’s accomplishment: She’s written something that’s so original, it’s controversial.

Yeah, yeah, the Roshomon twist is kind of the standard post-modern yawner. And how many novels are there about complicated marriages? Too many.

It’s not the plot of this novel that makes it so thrillingly good although certainly there is a mystery in the relationship between its two central characters that’s intriguing. Every self-help book you’ve ever snuck a peek at says these types of relationships are just wrong.

Groff’s singular writing is what makes this novel such a unique reading experience. I’d describe it as a kind of prose pointillism, a style that translates thoughts and actions into metaphors that serve as the literary equivalent of flashes of light, glancing and dancing from their original focus (Lotto, Mathilde) to illuminate everything in Groff’s frame of reference: landscape details, minor characters’ inner dialogues, minor characters’ ultimate fates, historical discursions. It’s a really original take on the omniscient narrator.

Groff’s style more than anything is what infuriates readers who don’t like the book. Hey! When they picked it up at Barnes & Noble, they thought they were picking up a big juicy roman á clef about modern marriage! And this novel has it all from graphic sex scenes (some of them kinky) to upward social trajectories to a big heart attack. Except that you can’t understand any of it without deliberate thought! Groff refuses to use the Subject*Verb*Object formula! (If I were a better writer myself, there’s a pun I could make here juxtaposing pointillism with pointless.)

Groff’s pointilist style is dazzling but also utilitarian. Fates and Furies spans a chronology of approximately 70 years, so Groff is writing about a retrospective future that must parallel the past without being too obvious. In that sense, Fates and Furies reminded me a bit of One Hundred Years of Solitude (full disclosure: I haven’t opened that novel for 30 years): There really is no story here until we read it.

A more obvious comparison is with Nabokov who had the same fascination with netting bright metaphors, with making puns, with using classical literature less as a template and more as an alternate timeline. Plot is as incidental to Groff as it was to Nabokov, so that while the theme of Fates and Furies – Marriage! Ain’t It Complicated? – is fairly simplistic, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is happening on any given page. The escapist pleasures of Fates and Furies are not the escapist pleasures of, say, a beach novel; they’re more about solving a puzzle whose clues are in those thousands of short, imagistic sentences. There’s an ostensibly random quality to those shimmering sentences, but really, they only make sense if you add them up in a certain way. The author’s way.

I loved Fates and Furies. But I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone. It requires commitment. It requires an appreciation of the ways that the written word differs from movies and TV shows. Sadly, in the time of Netflix and Hulu, that appreciation is mostly lost.
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Third day in a row of sweltering temps.

If I was truly virtuous, I’d be out the door at 7:30am when temps – still in the 70s – are manageable. Since I’m deeply flawed, I don’t manage to get out till 8:30am when the mercury is up over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. And I berate myself throughout the entire course of my run/fast tromp/crawl/whatever you want to call it. I cut the run/fast tromp/crawl/whatever you want to call it short. From three miles to a mile and a half. ‘Cause I don’t want to die of heat stroke.

Of course, if I was mentally healthy, I’d be congratulating myself for getting out the door at all.

‘Cause it’s not as though I like exercise. When I was younger, I liked it. Now? The best I can say is that I don’t mind it. Now, it’s something I do – like brushing my teeth, like drinking lots of water – to stay healthy.


On Friday, B sent me an email. LOL read the subject line. Ran into strangers in Catania today, he’d written.

With this snapshot:



On the train ride back from Chicago, I amused myself by looking out the window, by chatting animatedly with a portly but attractive lawyer, and by reading Matthew Desmond’s exceedingly brilliant book, Evicted.

The lawyer was the spitting image of Godwin. No, not Godwin as he’s likely to be now – although truthfully, who the hell knows what Godwin looks like now? If I had to guess I’d say that he’s grizzled and that he has wiry grey hairs sprouting unattractively from his ears.

No the lawyer looks like Godwin looked approximately 35 years ago when he was as pink and plump and creaseless as a newborn baby, and I was flirting with him. This was odd because I reckon the lawyer and Godwin are approximately the same age.

The lawyer was extremely well spoken. Good with puns. Good with banter. At some point after we had wrung all the humor out of our mutual dislike of airports and TSA, and our speculations about how Amish men managed to keep their hats on when they fall asleep on trains, the lawyer tapped my book lightly: “What are you reading?”

Evicted,” I said. “Excellent investigation into one of the leading factors that keeps poor people poor in this country. Did you know that most poor working families are living unassisted in the private rental market and are spending half to three-quarters of their income on housing costs?”

“I did know that, as a matter of fact,” the lawyer said. “I used to be chief counsel for the NYC Housing Authority. At the point in time when housing projects had fallen into massive disfavor so we were shutting them down. And, of course, theoretically, many people who were eligible for public housing in projects should have been eligible for housing vouchers. Except at that particular point in time, we were gutting the welfare system. So…” He shrugged.

“You must read this book!” I screeched. “I should be finished with it by the time I get off in Poughkeepsie –“

“Well, then, we’ll trade books!” cried the lawyer.

Except I wasn’t finished with Evicted by the time I got off the train.

The lawyer insisted on giving me his book anyway – a first edition omnibus of three Flashman novels. It had obviously occupied a place of pride in somebody’s library for many years.

“Oh, you shouldn’t,” I said.

“Oh, I should,” he said.

He also gave me his card.

He kept touching my hand when I said goodbye to him. Our farewell, in fact, had the feel of two old lovers who’d been meeting once a year for a day of hot sex in a hotel for decades and decades.

And now I’m gonna have to read the book. Even though I have absolutely no interest in George MacDonald Fraser. Because when someone gives you a book, it’s like a bookclub selection from God.


It wasn’t just my white liberal guilt that made me respond to Evicted so deeply.

Long-time readers may remember that a mere five years ago I was living in absolute squalor in the Cement Bungalow 10 miles outside of Ithaca in a town called Freeville, then as now the capital of Tompkins County’s thriving methamphetamine industry.

I had to maintain a house.

After vanishing completely off the face of the planet for four weeks, Ben had magically reappeared with a new girlfriend who was so in-LUV that she was willing to let him crawl into her life like a hermit crab. She was footing all the bills. And Ben had decided to take me to court for custody of Robin. Now that he had a girlfriend that could afford Robin’s standard of living.

This could have been a joke.

Except that it wasn’t.

There was no fucking way I was gonna let Ben have custody of Robin.

Because I was determined that Robin was gonna graduate from high school, and I didn’t trust Ben to see that through.

So, I took Ben to mediation and I won. Lucky me! A surly teenager! All mine except for visitation.

I snagged a horrible minimum wage job that paid $850 a month.

And the rent on the Cement Bungalow was $650 a month.

Yes, yes, yes – I certainly had the qualifications and the resume to snag a better job although at that point in time, I was so broken in mind and spirit that I think any interviewer would have called Security to have me forcibly ejected from his/her office after the first round of questions. (And what do you think you have to contribute to [Corporate Name Goes Here]?)

Everything I owned on the planet was in storage in Monterey.

And storage costs money – which eventually, after I used up my small savings, I could no longer pay.

The role that storage facilities play in homelessness is one of the scenarios discussed at some length in Evicted.

Long story short – my friend Susan (Max’s godmother) who owns a lot of real estate in West Oakland told me she would take my stuff and store it for me in the basement of one of the properties she owned.

Except that she didn’t.

She and her husband Jeff (whom I do not like), and Marybeth and her husband Kim (the perps in the photo above) and Max went through the stuff, loaded up a small part of it. Max put that small part in storage in San Francisco where it remains to this day.

The rest got auctioned off. I assume.

I could just imagine their conversation while they were doing it –

“Poor Patty! Why did she ever start that business in the first place? I could have told her it was doomed to failure –“

“It’s not that she’s stupid. She’s smart. But she’s got no common sense –“

“And what the hell is this? Why did she put this into storage? Why didn’t she just get rid of it?”

"Why didn't she have a rainy day fund?"

Etcetera, ad nauseam.

Oh, I tortured myself pretending to be a fly on that wall.

The utter humiliation of it. The shame.

Sort of as though your closest friends had all of a sudden decided to conduct a colonoscopy on you. For kicks.

There was really nothing I could do. I didn’t have any money.

Money is really the only thing that protects you. Don't have it? Better convince yourself that you like the feeling of free fall.

Susan and Marybeth were actually doing me a favor.

I knew that.

And yet I felt so betrayed.

Reading Evicted was very healing because it made me realize that this horrifying experience that had shamed me to my very marrow wasn’t unique but evidence of a pattern of systemic societal failure. In my case, when a bunch of Wall Street bankers decided to get rich by loaning money to people who didn’t have any and selling that debt – bam! Twenty percent of the American economy had to be surgically amputated. I was part of that 20%.

The families described in Evicted just had the misfortune to be born poor.

Don’t kid yourself: There’s plenty of bank to be made exploiting the poor.


Anyway, I have made it up into the middle class again. By dint of a lot of hard work.

But I will never speak to either Susan or Marybeth again.


Max tells me they are somewhat mystified by this.

Fuck ‘em.

Seeing that photo of Marybeth and Kim did make me cry, though.
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Yesterday it rained. And rained. And rained.

I worked desultorily. Read an Inspector Wexford mystery that I’m absolutely certain did not exist until I scored it a local library book sale for five cents1 . Tried to watch an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables on Netflix: The Benighted Orphan is one of my favorite literary genres though Anne of Green Gables is not a particularly outstanding example of the genre. But the Netflix adaptation is just awful: I would have been much more entertained watching the annoying actress who played Anne get eaten by slobbering zombies.

I began making concrete arrangements for my upcoming trip.

And I spent waaaay too much time on FB arguing with the members of the Sooper Sekrit Political Group. They’re all guys, and you have to figure that if they’re spending their Saturday nights on FB arguing about idpol, they’re loser guys.

But, of course, here I was on a Saturday night, arguing about idpol on FB.

So, I suppose I’m a loser, too.


L was particularly chatty yesterday.

She wanted to keep tabs on me because she knew I was feeling weird and freakish.

But she also want to gossip about Katy Day whom I know I have written about in this journal before (though I can’t now remember what pseudonym I gave her.)

Katy Day has a severely retarded 26-year-old son who lives at home; a sardonic, right-wing, Trump-voting husband who’s chronically ill and who spends most of the week harvesting the Big Buck$ in New York City, and a 23-year-old daughter, Misty, who looks like a fairy-tale princess.

This week, Katy Day was hit with a perfect storm when the husband contracted some sort of antibiotic-resistant systemic fungal infection and Misty was hospitalized following a suicide attempt.

“She didn’t actually take enough pills to kill herself,” L sniffed.

“You sound like you’re really angry,” I noted mildly.

“Well, I am. Imagine doing something like that when she knew what her mother was going through!”

Personally, my sympathies are all with the daughter. I actually had a dream about Katy Day once in which some floating, omniscient figure explained to me that the son’s retardation was really Munchausen by proxy.

No, I am not saying my dream was true.

What I am saying is that Katy Day is a control freak at an almost pathological level and also kind of a drama queen. And that caring for the son at home allows her unfettered exercise of both those tendencies.

“Oh, of course!” I said to L. “Still. It can’t have been easy for Misty growing up under those circumstances. She would have learned at an early age that the best way to get attention was to be utterly helpless and dependent.”

“She has mental health issues!” snapped L. “And she loves Greggy very, very much. They all do! Greggy is a sweetheart!”

“Well, of course, he is,” I hastened to soothe L. “And, of course, they do.”

Greg does have a very sweet disposition, and Katy Day takes wonderful care of him so that for that first fraction of a second when you see him, what you see is the very handsome, very tall young man he would have been had some mysterious malady not knocked him down in his third year.

What Greg has is not autism.

Neurologists, biological psychiatrists, and other doctors aren’t exactly sure what it is.

Psychiatrists aren’t exactly sure what Misty has either. Some say bipolar disorder; others say borderline personality syndrome.

Personally, I think it’s the family situation. Growing up in the shadow of a severely disabled older brother who got all the mother’s attention, with whom she could never compete. It cracked Misty in some essential sense.

And maybe if she’d had more innate emotional and psychological resilience, it wouldn’t have cracked her. I dunno. Both Benito and Caro Snowdrop have disabled siblings who lived at home while they were growing up. And they’re fine.

Anyway, it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to articulate my own thoughts on the matter in any way that was going to be palatable to L, so I gave up trying.

Instead, I nodded and sighed and shook my head at appropriate intervals in her dramatic narrative: Katy Day, Living Saint.

It’s not like I have any real connection to the Day family. Who cares what I think of their family dynamics?

But I do have a real connection with L, so if something I say upsets her, I’ll think of ways I can stop saying it.

As a parenthetical note: L is the only person I’ll deign to have half-hour conversations with about that weird cup mark that seemed to be burned into the kitchen counter. The many ways I had tried (and failed!) to scrub it off. How she had used Ajax or Bon Ami (she forgot which) and finally gotten rid of it.

I can’t imagine having conversations with anyone else about subjects like this.

But with L, I actually enjoy it.

1 This was probably one of Ruth Rendell’s first published novels. It appeared in 1969. It’s particularly interesting to read it as a footnote in the evolution of her singular signature style. Here, her clever descriptions are a bit too arch and ramble on for way too long, and Wexford’s internal dialogues are neither illuminating nor particularly entertaining to read but pedantic.
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Meeting up with Pearl and Sibyl was… interesting.

After lunch, I took Pearl and her four-year-old for a tramp through the FDR parklands. Freezing rain was pelting down.

I’ll write more about Pearl and Sybil later.

For now what’s important is that when I got home, I was freezing, too.

So I crawled into bed with Jonathan Kellerman’s latest Alex Delaware potboiler, Heartbreak Hotel. Read half the book; fell asleep.

Woke up around midnight – still in my clothes. Read the other half.


The thing I like about Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series is that he takes his contract with his readers very seriously. He never shorts on weight. He never forces stuff on his readers that his readers don’t care about.

Chief among the things that Jonathan Kellerman’s readers don’t care about are tight plotlines. Every novel in the Alex Delaware series meanders. When Kellerman needs a character to frame for some crime or wacky evidentiary sighting, he just makes that character up on the spot! No messy foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing, of course, is exactly how you separate good writers from okay writers. Good writers understand Chekhov’s dictum: One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.

By that criteria, Kellerman is not a good writer. But he's obviously smart, and I’m sure he knows all about Chekhov. He understands clearly that his readers aren’t necessarily looking for good.


Every Alex Delaware book has the same elements. The meat of each book is a series of one-on-ones with waiters, hotel clerks, bartenders, lawyers, property owners, strippers, Hollywood producers, bored housewives, and other Los Angeles “types,” cynically observed through the eyes of the protagonist, a psychologist named Alex Delaware blessed with well nigh superhuman insight and penetrating powers of deduction. Admit it! This type of filler is what you liked best when you read Raymond Chandler.

Kellerman fills his pages with psychopaths. He never skimps on torture scenes or weird sex. In every book, you’ll run across at least three descriptions of decomposing corpses. Description is Kellerman’s forte, in fact, and he’s good at it. He relies a bit too much on Roget’s Thesaurus and adjectives, true, but some of his descriptions almost reach the compressed brilliance of poetry.

Alex Delaware is a big wooden puppet. He has a buddy named Milo, a gay police detective, equally wooden. Kellerman feels it’s very important that you understand that Milo is gay, and mentions Milo’s gayness multiple times in the opening chapters of every book though he never humanizes that gayness by having Milo lust after the stray bear or twink. It’s an odd kind of virtue signaling. There’s also an impossibly beautiful and pure girlfriend who got written out of the series for a book or two. I assume she was brought back by popular demand though I couldn’t tell you what she contributes to the ambiance of the series.

When Kellerman writes dialogue in furtherance of the action, the dialogue clunks and rattles like the suspension system of a Chevy Vega. (I owned one of those once.) His throwaway quips, on the other hand, can be quite amusing.

And Kellerman pays special attention to the endings of chapters, you can tell. He takes particular care to tie them up with a flourish that reminds me a bit of those elaborate bows on the empty packages they stash under department store Christmas trees. Also he’s considerate of the fact that his readers may still be curious about that waiter/stripper/Hollywood producer they met in Chapter 16 when the action concludes. The last two chapters of every book I’ve ever read are devoted to descriptions of what happens next to its minor and major characters. I call this damn obliging.


Heartbreak Hotel is one of Kellerman’s more ambitious novels. It comes close to having an actual plot, and I’d hazard a guess that plot was inspired by The Maltese Falcon. The MacGuffin that hides in plain sight throughout.

Characters appear less randomly in Heartbreak Hotel than they do in many of the other books in this series, though when Kellerman realizes in Chapter 33 that he needs another villain in addition to the three he’s set up, he turns one of the minor one-on-one characters from an earlier chapter into a Big Bad to clunky and unconvincing result.

The deal with Kellerman, I suspect, is that he’s not particularly interested in writing. Or, at least, he’s not particularly interested in writing Alex Delaware books.

He continues to churn them out because each one predictably floats to the top of the NYT bestseller tank for two weeks before being recycled two months later on the Discount Bestseller shelf at Barnes & Noble. And he’s very prolific. He publishes an Alex Delaware book every year! Heartbreak Hotel is number 32 in the series.

Alex Delaware books are perfect mindless entertainment for people who like kink and violence, and whose functional vocabularies exceed 5,000 words. Honey, you know I’m lookin’ in the mirror when I write that!
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Finished Mary Karr’s Lit. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it a lot.

I liked The Liars’ Club very much, so I was surprised by my reaction to this book.

Karr’s prose throughout this memoir is incredibly arch, beginning with the forced pun in its title (“lit” is both a colloquial term for shit-faced drunk and college slang for critically acclaimed works of fiction.)

The metaphors throughout this book pop like Orville Redenbacher in a microwave. The overall effect is distancing. It’s been a while since I read The Liars’ Club, but my memory is that Karr used a slightly toned down version of the same style. There, though, it worked: Horrendous childhoods require some sort of distorting rear view mirror because of the intense pain of recollection. (For another take on how to distance oneself from the pain of a Grand Guignol childhood, see Jeanette Walls’ very brilliant The Glass Castle. Walls uses a kind of deadpan Mark Twain-ish humor to achieve this end.)

Is a religious conversion a similarly painful experience?

Possibly it is, and this was Mary Karr’s unconscious acknowledgement.

But what it felt more like to me was that Karr didn’t particularly want to be owned by the experience or at least to admit to her readers that she was owned by it. See, kids? she's saying. I'm still the same pomo ironic hipster siren you know and love!

Poor little sentences struggling under the freight of all those wiggy tropes!


Let’s try analyzing a paragraph I’ve pulled at random from an open book flip:

The cough penetrates my dream with the sandpapered force of chain-smoking speed freak. It’s Daddy’s pneumonia-laden cough, Mother’s emphysema wheeze. Even without the monitor, I can hear the hacking gasps start. My body’s a sandbag, but my eyelids split open like clam shells (3:10). On the table, a tumbler of mahogany whiskey burns bright as any flaming oil slick. Gone a little watery on top, it’s still possessed of a golden nimbus.

(After reading this, don’t you long for the ghost of Ernest Hemingway to rise up, wrest the Lit manuscript away from a screeching Mary Karr, begin red penciling?

One night, the kid got sick. It was not fine. Even bad whiskey is like religion on a hot night.)

Let us now pretend we are sitting in Professor Vogel’s English class at Ithaca College one interminably stuffy afternoon. (Professor Vogel was my demented aunt, mad as a rabid bat, but possessed of the most singularly penetrating insights into literature that I have ever come cross.) The air conditioner isn’t working, and though the girl sitting just in back of you has washed herself down with Estee Lauder Youth Dew, her armpits have begun to ferment.

That’s your context.

But what’s the context of this paragraph?

Mary Karr’s son has been taken ill. She and her husband have spent the previous paragraph taking their son to the hospital.

She doesn’t mention bringing the kid home from the hospital – and yet, they must be home from the hospital because whiskey! They don’t let you keep tumblers of whiskey in hospitals! Trust me, I know: I was a registered nurse for 10 years.

Strike one! Because good writing always grounds the protagonist in a specific place. Even if that “specific place” is an amorphous corner of the universe, you know that he or she is there. You don’t know where the hell Mary Karr is in the paragraph above.

Strike two: Notice how every sentence in the paragraph above has almost exactly the same rhythm. I’m not sure exactly how people read when they’re reading to themselves; it’s not as though they’re reading aloud inside their own skulls. Nonetheless, rhythm does play a role, and when rhythm doesn’t vary, a reader is likely to find himself or herself drifting off, becoming bored, succumbing to transient Alzheimer’s. So it was with Lit. I found myself looking at paragraphs, thinking, Wait! Didn’t I just read this one?

Strike three – although this criticism may be peculiar to my own sense of timing: The pacing of this paragraph feels inauthentic.

It’s true that time seems to slow down when you’re facing a crisis in which you have some sort of agency, when you’re charged with solving that crisis somehow. And when time slows down, you notice a lot of details.

Every parent is a helpless, passive observer when their child falls ill, though. And when you’re a passive bystander, time seems to clump. Call it a motion blur, if you like: You’re willing time to pass quickly, and it does. Situational details are mostly unmemorable. Maybe one thing stands out from that blur: Thus, I am willing to believe in the enticing glow of Karr’s whiskey tumbler. But the rest of that paragraph has too many specific details. Really? Her anxiety leaves her the leisure to create an entire taxonomy of coughs? Uh uh, I’m thinking. That taxonomy was very obviously cobbled together after the fact.


It’s instructive to compare Lit with Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott’s memoir, which covers much the same turf. Karr and Lamott have lived parallel lives in many respects. Both single mothers, both alcoholics, both highly intelligent humans who struggle to reconcile themselves with the magical thinking aspects of organized religion. Lamott is too wacky to have been able to snag a job at a top creative writing program, though.

Sentence by sentence, Lamott is almost always a pleasure to read. Her prose is navigable in a way that Karr’s simply isn’t – meaning Lamott’s prose goes up and down and loops around and takes the reader somewhere. With Karr, you always have the sense that you're treading water – possibly because Karr herself feels like she's treading water.

I think this is due to the fact that Lamott is more of a risk taker than Karr and being a risk taker, she’s not afraid to look stupid. Karr never abandons that ironic hipster persona even when she’s on her knees; Lamott was never an ironic hipster; she was always the fool that goes where angels fear to tread.

There’s a sense of immediacy in Tender Mercies that’s entirely absent from Lit. A breathlessness. A pleasure in discovery.

On the other hand, Lamott loves to lecture, to drone on and on and on, as drunk on redemption as she once was on Scotch. This gets boring to those of us who are not 12-step fans. It’s been many years since I read Traveling Mercies, but I remember distinctly that I couldn’t finish the book.

I did finish Lit. Karr serves up a conversation with a Franciscan nun as the final dish on the tasting menu. It felt disjointed. But since everything in Lit felt disjointed, at least the ending was consistent from a structural point of view.
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aa6491d7f9f0a8c29baaf2541692d1eb Went off to Rhinebeck Sunday, ostensibly to hunt down a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing to send to RTT but really because – well – Rhinebeck. It’s a cool little town. The Carmel of the Hudson Valley. Independent bookstore. Art house movie theater. So far as I can tell, it survives on tourism – I have no idea what the locals do when winter comes.

Anyway, at Oblong Books, I found a copy of the kinda, sorta graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which I’ve been looking for practically forever (or at least since I saw the movie) along with deeply discounted copies of The Best American Short Stories 2014 and The Best American Essays 2014, two volumes I used to read religiously every year when they first came out.

And then came home and fell into a kind of paroxysm of self-loathing: Are you fuckin’ crazy? You can’t afford to buy books! You have bills to pay! Plus you’re about to go off on a five-day road trip and that’s gonna cost money


Plus I have serious hoarder tendencies when it comes to books. I tried to count all the books I owned when I packed the Monterey house up, but I lost count around 2,500.


I’m trying to compose a missive to put into the RTT care package along with the Stephen King book and the chocolate guitar I found at Koch’s, the World’s Best Chocolatier (I mean, really.) Something chatty and affectionate.

But I am failing miserably.

I don’t know what to say to him.

I’m not mad at him.

But it dawned on me some time this week that if he failed a class way back when that he never bothered to make up that he must have known for ages that he couldn’t graduate. That, in fact, his very attrition viz classes this last semester may have been based in good part on the fact that he knew he wasn’t graduating anyway, so why bother?

I’m not really sure what to do with that fact.

And I find myself a wee bit resentful that somehow, throughout this all,the burden of communication must always initiate through me.
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My attention span has shrunk to the size of a gnat. Toiling at the Scut Factory will do that. I’m also only up to about half of what I’d set out to earn: There’s a kind of refractory period associated with toiling at the Scut Factory, and try as I might, I can’t do anything about that. I mean, I could – but it would require access to pharmaceuticals.

Three more days in this earning cycle.

I’ll be happy when this week is through.


The BBC did a very bad remake of The Go-Between, which is one of my favorite all-time novels and one of my two absolute favorite all-time films. (The other is Fellini’s La Strada.)

The bad remake did inspire me to revisit the source materials.


One remembers things at different levels, writes L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between. The novel, which is about the unreliability of memory, takes the form of an almost prosaic Bildungsroman. It's a series of Chinese boxes fitted so tightly into one another that only Hartley’s amazing adeptness with subtextual symbolism allows you to unpack them. Think a much-easier-to-read James Joyce or a less self-reflexive Marcel Proust.

Thus, the red cardboard box itself, filled with old trinkets like the two rusty magnets “which had almost lost their magnetism,” in which Leo Colston, now a man of 65, stumbles across the old diary chronicling his 12th year. Thus, the poisonous Atropa belladonna growing in Brandham Hall’s ancient kitchen garden, which is also Marian Maudsley, the rich young beauty who impels Ted Burgess’s suicide. Lord Trimingham, half of whose face has been blown off in the Boer War, is Janus, the two-faced gatekeeper who looks both into the past and future. Mercury is both the winged messenger of the gods – the conduit between the living and the dead – and the rising mercury in the thermometer marking the hottest English summer in memory.

Hartley wrote the novel very quickly; reportedly, in just five months. It begins with what is perhaps the most perfect opening line in all of English literature: The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.

The prose throughout is marvelous. Deceptively simple, but filled with the most marvelous, sensual details: …the heat was a medium which made this change of outlook possible. As a liberating power with its own laws, it was outside my experience. In the heat, the commonest objects changed their nature. Walls, trees, the very ground one trod on, instead of being cool were warm to the touch: and the sense of touch is the most transfiguring of all the senses.


The 1971 film, on the other hand, was not simple at all. It was really difficult to understand. Deliberately so.

The credits roll over a window splashed with rain.

And yet the opening scene is of two boys in a carriage drawn by horses through a sunny and riotously vertiginous English spring. One of the boys, very blond, is wearing the Eton uniform of the upper classes – straw boater, blue jacket and tie – and looks careless; the other boy, who is dressed in a kind of heavy brown worsted with the wrong kind of hat and a bow tie, is trying but not quite succeeding in looking careless. He is Leo Colston who is about to embark upon a summertime adventure that will cripple him emotionally for life.

The rainy windows, we discover in a series of quick, confusing flash forwards, are the windows of the train on which Leo, now a shriveled, unappealing man in his 60s, is traveling on some sort of errand.

The boys are on their way to Brandham Hall, which belongs to the family of the careless boy, Marcus. The time is the summer of 1900. Quick series of Big House place setters – lots and lots and lots of staircases, uniformed housemaids, ancestral portraits, Ming vases in places where they could easily get smashed, a dining room set out with a king’s ransom of solid silver chafers.

Marcus does not like Leo very much but requires amusement over the school holiday. “This is Tritoast,” he announces to Leo, introducing his spaniel.

“Hello, Tritoast,” Leo says uncertainly.

As the boys tussle on one of the many balconies, Leo espies a woman lying in a hammock. And is stopped dead in his tracks.

The woman is being read to. By someone with an insufferably plummy drone. “The rank and fortune of the lady, her pretensions to beauty as well as talent…”

Then the boys run off to the ancient kitchen garden where the belladonna runs rampant.

“My sister is very beautiful,” Marcus announces.

“Yes,” says Leo, convinced.


The scriptwriter here is the remarkable Harold Pinter whose ability to spin ordinary language with its pauses and stutters and repetitions into brilliant dialog is unparalleled and unrivaled even now.

Film was directed by Joseph Losey, an unrepentant Commie who was blacklisted by the House on Un-American Activities.

The very beautiful sister is Julie Christie, whom I personally think was the most appealing of all the celebrated late 20th century screen beauties. A great actress, too.


The brilliance of the film is the way it actualizes Leo’s own ignorance of the implications of his role as Mercury, carrying messages between the beautiful Lady Marian and her low class lover, the farmer Ted Burgess. It’s an immensely difficult feat to pull off because, of course, any viewer brings his or her own level of knowledge to the events and can quickly connect the dots. Leo remains quite innocent, however, up until the very end, and we are so firmly rooted in Leo’s point-of-view that we remain innocent, too.

So that the final revelation – on Leo’s 13th birthday when the mad Mrs. Maudsley forces Leo to “show” her the lovers’ assignation place, the hut in the old kitchen garden (which, of course, she already knows about) – comes as a horrible, horrible shock.

In the novel, Leo describes it thus:

Not a sound came from the forlorn row of huts, only the rain pattering on their battered roofs. I could not bear to aid her in her search and shrank back, crying. “No, you shall come,” she said, and seized my hand, and it was then that we saw them, together on the ground, the Virgin and the Water-Carrier, two bodies moving like one. I think I was more mystified than horrified; it was Mrs. Maudsley’s repeated screams that frightened me, and a shadow on the wall that opened and closed like an umbrella.

We get it all in the film, from the unraveling of Mrs. Maudsley – another brilliant performance, this time from the elegant Margaret Leighton – to the ominous detail of the umbrella-like shadow.

And we’re as traumatized as Leo.


The flash forwards, it turns out, pertain to a summons Leo has received out of the blue from the still-imperious Marian. She's an old woman living in genteel poverty in a few rooms of Branson Hall, most of which, drafty and leaking, has been cordoned off. She wants Leo to intercede on her behalf with her grandson – quite obviously a scion of the dead Ted Burgess and not Lord Trimingham who Marian eventually wedded. It was a beautiful love story, she informs Leo. And you were lucky to be part of it.

More-or-less what the upper classes have been telling the lower classes in the U.K. and elsewhere for several millennia, no?


I would love to write more about The Go-Between, but the Scut Factory is calling my name.
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vogel 2

Certainly took me long enough, but finally I realized: Oh! Ri-i-ght! Fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death! No wonder I’m feeling sad.


To say I had a complicated relationship with my mother is an understatement.

I could write a novel about her first cancer operation. How she set me up for the complete Dickens bedside scene – I can’t remember any of the dialogue now, except that the question, Do you forgive me? featured prominently – and then threw me out of her room: No, no – you don’t have to stay with me tonight! I’ll be fine. You’re working. You have a baby. Go to my house. Get some sleep.

And how, when I showed up at Kaiser at 6am the following morning after the operation, she had somehow escaped.

The RNs at the nursing station were perplexed. Oh – she’s not in her room? Really? Wow!

So then I spent two hours driving back and forth on all the streets between the hospital and her house until I finally spotted her – she’d put on pants but she was still in her hospital gown, trailing webs of IVs and Jackson Pratt drains. She was bleeding. It was pouring rain. And she had gone completely mad. I’d seen her decompensate before, but this was the very worse episode I could ever remember.

Cancer or no cancer, I couldn’t talk to her for a year after that.

Got pounded mercilessly by her sisters, my aunts. Cruel, ungrateful daughter! Turning her back on her own mother in her mother’s time of need!

But the insanity I saw in my mother’s eyes that rainy morning – I had to physically threaten her to get her to get her inside my car – was just too much for me.

We did patch things up before she died, six years later.

But I still have a lot of ambivalent feelings about the whole thing.

My mother had an adenocarcinoma of her salivary gland. When the oncologist advised her on excision margins, he told her that to be on the safe side, it would be wise to excise part of her facial nerve, too. This she absolutely refused to do because it would leave her with a drooping face.

They did not get the entire tumor, and it went on to metastasize.

So, in my mind, my mother’s vanity is what killed her.


There were a lot of good things about my mother, too. She was very bright in a cultural sense. She read a lot, had interesting opinions about books and films. She was an incredibly talented musician.

And, of course, in the end, it really wasn’t her fault that she became the person she was.

Her mother – my grandmother – was a borderline personality monster. One day, when my mother was 16 years old, she came home from Erasmus Hall High School to discover half the furniture in the bungalow at 79 Lefforts missing. And my grandmother along with it.

No explanation. No clues beforehand that this was going to take place. No letter in the months following.

The next year, my mother got pregnant with me.

I've often thought what a shame it was that my mother didn't have access to abortion services.

Though, I suppose that would mean that Max and Robin would never have been born.

And Max and Robin are both great gifts to the world.


I hate family chronicles, but if I ever wrote a fictionalized account of my family, I’d title it: Women Who Leave.


In other news, I’m reading Adam Sisman’s excellent biography of John LeCarré and writing about café life in Bukovina at the turn of the 20th century – this being the bridge at the beginning of Chapter 3 in which Henry and June get married.

Historical fact: June’s obsession with getting married was spurred by the death of her father. So I am making up a background for the father in which he comes from Wiznitz (now Vyzhnytsia in Ukraine.) Interestingly enough – though I didn’t know this when I arbitrarily chose Wiznitz – Wiznitz was a center of Hassidic mysticism. I’d always planned to give June a Hassid lover when we’re finally through with Henry and what other few biographical details are known about her. So this dovetails very, very well.

LeCarré’s boyhood – his real name is David Cornwall – isn’t even in the top 25% of the Most Horrible Childhoods on the Planet. Those slots would have to be reserved for boy soldiers in Africa, toddler ISIS recruits, and infant Untouchables on the Indian peninsula whose parents mutilate them so that they’ll get more money when they use their offspring as begging props.

But I’d say Cornwall’s childhood was about as miserable as mine was – which puts it in the top 10% of miserable childhoods in relatively prosperous, Western, industrialized nations.

It’s very interesting for me to see what he did with that childhood.

He harvested it pretty carefully. He used the hyper-vigilance that all of us neglected, abused children develop to produce a really impressive body of work. I’d rank LeCarré as one of the most important novelists of the latter half of the 20th century. The stress didn’t break him; it rarefied him.
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The Help is the kind of ventriloquist act that in theory at least makes me deeply uncomfortable: A book about black domestic servants in Kennedy-era Mississippi written partly in dialect by one of the people who was born to boss them around.

I remember first reading Gone With the Wind when I was around ten or so and coming across this dialogue from Mammy: You’s gwine eat every mouthful of this, Miss Scarlett!

What is gwine? I remember thinking. Do people actually talk like that?

Abilene, one of the three point-of-view characters in The Help, is instantly recognizable as one of Mammy’s lineal descendents: I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.

(How could Kathryn Stockett, the novel’s author, have possibly missed her opportunity to write dem babies, one wonders?)

Thing is The Help is a compelling read. I finished its entire 450 pages in approximately nine hours.

I’m concurrently reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a book that attempts to pull off the opposite sleight of hand since it's partly about white experience as imagined by a black writer. On Beauty is nowhere near as compelling as The Help; I’ve been struggling to read it for at least a week now. I’ll pick it up, read five pages, and put it down. When I pick it up, I forget where I put it down, and read the same five pages again. It has no hooks, you see.


When I finished The Help, I felt guilty, bloated but also deeply satiated – as though I’d gobbled an entire 12-ounce box of Godiva truffles or something. The story is very satisfying.

The story is also incredibly self-serving: Stockett projects herself into it as the virtuous white girl Skeeter who kickstarts the maids’ liberation from the drudgery of their lives. White folks to the rescue! There’s also a specious equivalency implied between Skeeter’s toil as a writer and Abilene and Minnie’s endless labors scrubbing toilets, polishing silver and ironing sheets. Uh – no, Miss Skeeter. Just no.

On some level, one suspects Stockett understood what she was doing and felt guilty about it because outside of Skeeter, every other white character in the novel is either a buffoon or a monster.

I couldn’t tell you whether The Help is a good book or a bad book. But it did make me speculate about racism and black versus white culture all yesterday afternoon – Define and Conquer, as I like to think of it.

For example: We have Adrian Peterson, a black football player, who apparently administers corporal punishment to his four-year-old son using a wooden spoon.

And we have the Ray Rice wife-beating incident.

Is there a connection?

In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I spanked my own children – maybe three times apiece in all – when they were growing up. I much prefer positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement in childrearing, so much so that my entire toilet training regimen consisted of bribing Max and Robin to perform the appropriate body function in the right receptacle. But there are times when nothing’s gonna do it but some well-aimed swats on the tuchus. And I’ll be goddamned if the fucking government is gonna tell me how to discipline my children.

Be that as it may…

Statistics say that African American parents are much more likely to use corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure than are white or Hispanic parents. Interestingly, Asian parents use corporal punishment least of all, but (in my experience at least) have the highest levels of compliance between parental expectations and offspring behaviors.

I’m thinking those statistics are bullshit, and that what you’re actually looking at are regional differences: In the South and parts of the country that are heavily influenced by the South (like, c’mon: Everyone knows that Colorado is really part of Texas, right?) corporal punishment is widely accepted. This may have something to do with the prevalence of fundamentalist religion in these parts: Spare the rod and spoil the child may not be a Bible verse, but it might as well be.

Does this type of corporal punishment work? I mean, obviously in the short term, it’s probably a pretty effective deterrent. One imagines that Adrian Peterson’s four-year-old son will not be feeding graham crackers to the DVD player (or whatever the hell it was he did to incur paternal wrath) again in a hurry.

One can also imagine that he may grow up to punch out his pregnant fiancée in an elevator. Because that type of violence just doesn’t carry the same type of taboo as it does for people for whom physical punishment wasn't a normal part of growing up.

I just don’t know.


In other news, life continues to be very pleasant indeed. Writing is going well, met up with Cassandra and Allan at the Apple Pie Café yesterday and it was lovely to see them, and BB gave me the keys to his Greenpoint apartment so I will be hanging out in Brooklyn for the next three days.
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The writing in this book is frequently so beautiful that I got that shimmery translucent feeling you only get when some Great Mystery of the Universe is being revealed. Graver's descriptions of nature's wildness and beauty, her dips into the inner recesses of her characters' psychologies are very, very fine. The book is one of those rare novels where the writing actually gets better in the last pages.

Unfortunately -- and it is unfortunate -- the book is structured so badly as to be practically unreadable. I'd reached the point of hurling the book (metaphorically) into a wall around page 100 when the narrative POV shifts suddenly from omnipotent 3rd person into a jejune 1st person. Okay, okay -- I get what Graver is trying to do here. The 1st person is a pivotal character in the latter part of the novel, and her girlish confidences do shed a different kind of light on her character. But the shift is just too jolting. It throws the reader straight out of the novel. I put the novel down here and would never have picked it up again except one day the electricity went out in my house for five hours, and it was the only thing I had to read.

The other structural problem with the book is that Bea, the character who dominates the first 100 pages of the book, essentially disappears after that first section. This made me wonder whether Graver had originally written this novel as a series of short stories and her publisher sat her down and said, Girlfriend, if you turn it into a novel, it might actually sell. In fact, Graver's writing does rather remind me of my much beloved Alice Munro's: It's more figurative than Munro's, but Graver has the same talent for distilling the essence of a personality into a few lines of prose, which is no mean feat. I will definitely hunt down Graver's other novels, but I wish she'd paid more attention to the connective tissue here.
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Larry McMurtry is one of my favorite fiction writers. He's understated. In his latter novels, he often appears to be glib and officiously cozy in a peculiar Fannie Flagg-ish way, but it's a deliberate choice: McMurtry writes, for the most part, about people whose lives are absolute train wrecks, and the banal prose style serves to underscore just how disconnected from the true realities of their lives these characters are.

The Evening Star is McMurtry's sequel to Terms of Endearment, a tough novel that was adapted into one of the 1980s' biggest cinematic sentimental tearjerkers. Terms of Endearment itself is not exactly a sequel to Moving On -- a novel I absolutely adore -- so much as it is a kind of... expansion into the life of one of the novel's minor characters, fat, smart Emma Greenway who allows herself to be defined by that first adjective and tries as hard as possible to ignore the second.

At the end of the novel -- should I flash SPOILER-SPOILER-SPOILER here? Nah. Everyone knows Terms of Endearment -- Emma gets breast cancer and dies.

The Evening Star, a true sequel, picks up a decade or so after Emma's death and focuses on her mother Aurora, a monstrously self-involved River Oaks socialite, and her relationships with her three grandchildren, horribly damaged by their mother's early death.

The ending of this novel contains one of the most transcendent and emotionally moving passages I've ever read.

Aurora's youngest granddaughter has a baby; the baby gets dumped on Aurora. Aurora is very, very old by this point, and so close to death, she has finally evolved the capacity to love. And she loves this baby. The baby knows it too. They spend many hours together. She plays the Brahms Requiem over and over again.

Quick, confusing flash forward to a New York City street 25 years or so in the future. Aurora's great grandson -- now a Gen X-er with all the baggage that entails -- is walking down a cold autumn street, fretting about something or other. He has completely forgotten about Aurora. And somehow he wanders someplace where the Brahms Requiem is playing, and the music triggers a tidal wave of emotion so intense he can barely function. All he knows, listening to the music, is that someone loved him once and that he has lost that person forever. Standing on that busy Manhattan street corner, he begins to weep, and he can't stop.

And there the novel ends.

Past 12 hours have been something like that for me: Like something got triggered in me yesterday, and now I'm weeping. But I have no idea why. It's odd. I'm really good at connecting the dots to form emotional subtexts when I'm talking with friends about their feelings, but I've never been able to make the slightest sense out of the muddle that is my own emotions.

I better do something to calm myself down by tonight though. I'm meeting S2 for dinner and a movie, and comfort is not part of our social contract.
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Been a rather action packed couple of weeks, so I was glad to have yesterday to do nothing.

And by "do nothing," I mean listen to Prokofiev, read Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, shop for a few groceries, hang out with the KatZ and eat stale Linzertort cookies.

Life After Life is one of those novels you either love or you hate. I loved it. Given my philosophical proclivities, how could I not?

The book is about déjà vu, or rather about how it's always the Ganges, but the water is different each time you wade in it. Ursula Todd is born -- and then she dies (nuchal cord.) The next time she's born, she drowns on the Cornish coast at age two. (There may have been a sororicide in between.) Take three is a fall off a sleet-covered ledge on to which six-year-old Ursula crawls after her beastly brother flings her favorite toy out the window. Take four is -- well, you get the picture.

Atkinson is the most cerebral of writers. Her characters are ice sculptures. They don't interact so much as collide like floes on the icy river. This will be off-putting to readers who like complex characterizations. Her dialogue is uninflected. Her descriptions are often rivetingly lovely, and she appears to be on a familiar basis with every Great Writer of the last 400 years from Jane Austen and John Donne (What if this present were the world's last night??) to Thomas Mann and E.M. Forster. She also uses unusual vocabulary -- I had to look the word "provenance" up, being unsure that its real meaning was the one I inferred from context. (For the record, it refers to the exact chronology of ownership.)

Atkinson started out as a literary author, but being a smart bunny, she quickly realized that it's very, very difficult to eke out a living as a literary author and began to churn out mystery novels cum police procedurals for her bread and butter. That's actually pretty funny. She's a horrible mystery writer if you ask me. For a reader to care about a mystery novel, one of two things needs be: Either the characters (victim, detective, both) need to be compelling (Sue Grafton) or the plot's momentum needs to be relentless (John Sandford.) Atkinson's characters are ciphers and the action glides in slow motion, skating somnabulists on a frozen pond on a night lit by the barest sliver of trembling moon.

As I say, though, I loved Life After Life. My earliest memory is of floating through some kind of curious mental matrix defined by backwards-looking mirrors, thinking, Why am I "Patty?" Why am I me? I've always thought in terms of permutations and combinations leading away from one seed moment, that one nexus of irrefutable truth, the point where the shimmer begins. In Atkinson's book, it's a sly epilogue on the very last page: Mrs. Haddock, the midwife, takes refuge in a bar when snow prevents her making her way to the Todd house.

Of course, you could deconstruct that scene as well. In the end, all irrefutable truths are like atoms -- subject to endless deconstruction.


Last weekend I went up to Syracuse to see the Number Two son. On the whole, I think it was a Good Visit -- my intent was to take him out to dinner and then cook and freeze a huge amount of food since he looked painfully thin to me when I took him out to lunch on his birthday weekend. I managed to do the latter. The mattress I bought him is really, really comfortable (I slept on it.) The train ride was fun. Syracuse is not a particularly attractive city, and procuring ingredients for the chili and lasagne necessitated hiking several miles to what may be the ugliest and most depressing supermarket I've ever been in. Prices sure were cheap, though.

There's a basic communication I just don't have with Robin, though. Did I ever have it? I don't doubt that he loves me, but he doesn't like me particularly, and I'm not sure that he ever will. And that, of course, resonates with one of my own secret fears, that I was a bad mother.

Maternity did not come naturally to me. How could it? I had no role model. When Robin was born, I was just embarking upon my Time Inc. career -- in fact, Robin made his first trip to NYC when he was 10 days old so I could breastfeed him across the conference table from my corporate masters.

He didn't like breastfeeding.

He didn't like most of the ways I tried to be a good mother, which mostly consisted of saying, No, to things that Ben had already said, Yes, to. I was working very hard to keep the nuclear family afloat financially, so Ben de facto became Robin's primary caregiver.

Max had had a nighttime ritual -- bath, bedtime story, lights out at 9pm. Robin had no corresponding ritual. "But he's not tired," Ben would say. It's easy to blame it all on Ben. I was making huge sums of money, but I was perpetually exhausted from all the strategic wrangling and commuting.

Truth is, though, I knew I should have been more insistent. Kids like bedtime rituals. Kids like routines. Even teenagers like routines -- gives them something finite to rebel against.

When Robin rebelled, he had to rebel against the Universe.

By the time we got to Ithaca, the battle had been lost. Robin would have been lost, really, had not Providence intervened in the form of one of those Great Teachers who make Huge Differences in kids' lives. Without Peter's mentorship, without the outstanding project he did for Peter, Robin would have had a hard time getting into a good college, I suspect. He could never have exceeded escape velocity.

I don't think you can really build a successful adult relationship with your parents unless you like them on some level. Max likes me -- gets a genuine kick out of my various eccentricities and genuinely values some of my talents. ("You're a terrific editor," he wrote me recently, and I think he was being sincere.)

Robin does not like me. Can sustain short conversations with me when they're about books or movies, but in general finds me tedious and longwinded.

I was completely uninterested in my own mother, of course, from the moment I escaped her house. I was 15. I went through several years of misadventures until I was finally accepted at UC Berkeley. Recently, I've started to remember that she really did try to achieve some sort of rapprochement with me after I started college. She'd drive across the Bay Bridge and take me out for Chinese food, two or three times a month. Always the same little shabby Chinese restaurant. She was trying, wasn't she? That never occurred to me at the time. Sometimes I think that my relationship with Robin is a karmic retribution visited upon me because I refused to make an effort with my own mother.
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There was a moment yesterday when I felt perfectly happy.

I was sitting on the old swing in the unseasonably cool late summer afternoon, watching Rutger nervously explore the front porch and from time to time dipping into a book called All We Know, which is a really odd biographical triptych about three lesbians -- Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland -- who were kind of famous in their day, but now are best summed up in a quote from Virginia Woolf's Lives of the Obscure that the author obligingly delivers to us on page 5: "One likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost... waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom."

I was sipping green tea and nibbling chocolate.

It had been so long since I hadn't worked for myself or had a high power job that demanded I be mentally on call every second of the day that I had completely forgotten what weekends were like when they were times you had utterly to yourself.

So this is what I like to do, I thought. I like to read. I like to eat chocolate. I like to hang out with my cats.

(I understand that last veers dangerously close to caricature there. But what can you do? You like what you like.)

Might seem bizarre that I didn't know these things about myself. But I didn't.

I have a couple of invitations this weekend, but I'm inclined to blow them off and do absolutely nothing but eat chocolate, watch the cats, soak up the tepid sunshine and read.

(I suspect this book is a PhD thesis that its author, a certain Lisa Cohen, somehow talked Farrar, Straus and Giroux into publishing. And they wonder why print publishing is dying! She somehow got it blurbed by Michael Holroyd -- I guess that's the Strachey connection since Esther Murphy was married to a Strachey. Holyroyd is the author of one of my favorite biographies of all times, a three volume exegesis on Lytton Strachey (talking about lives of the obscure!) Strachey was one of the pillars of the Bloomsbury literary circle of the 1920s. I'm not sure who their 21st century analogues would be since there are no literary circles anymore. Anyway and anyway...)


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Every Day Above Ground

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