Brooke Shields and the Publishing Revolution

This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir, There Was a Little Girl (Dutton), about the death of her mother and former manager, Teri, in 2012:

“I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.

Teri and Brooke Shields

Teri and Brooke Shields in the 1970s

“They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?

“The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.

” ‘I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.’

” ‘Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.’ ”

[The back-and-forth conversation goes on. The Times reporter keeps insisting; Shields keeps refusing. Finally, the Times reporter gets one question answered (about the location of a city) and that’s it. Brooke thinks it’s over.]

“A few days later … I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.

“The first line read, ‘Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.’ What an opener!

The 1978 People headline reads: "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films"

The 1978 People headline reads: “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films”

“The obituary’s author highlighted-completely out of context-the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse-‘Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.’ This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.

“Who the fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.

“Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. I ran into the kitchen and began pacing around the table as I sobbed and rambled: Why are they so cruel? Why can’t they let her be? Why can’t they let her die without being nasty? Why can’t they be kind to her just once? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.”

So: what does this excerpt say about the “publishing revolution”?

First, there is the obvious point that huge changes in computer technology in the ’80s-90s were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry. What followed was the phenomenon of millions of readers leaving print for screen, and millions of writers publishing their own blogs, books and websites.

But the motivation that fuels a revolution rather than simply a transformation in publishing is this very outrage that launches Shields’ book — that of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” and publishers who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.

Brooke Shields in a scene from "Pretty Baby" (with Keith Carradine)

American Film, 1977 — Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine in “Pretty Baby”

When even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the status of being an outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of people across the world who are furious with media entitlement.

Granted, Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, she did manipulate the fashion and magazine industries, and she did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon.

But none of that, Brooke insists, “damaged” or “wounded” her, as press stories suggest. Early on, she even grew accustomed to that brutish tendency of magazine publishers to make controversial subjects like Brooke and her mother defend the media’s rapacious appetite for scandal.

New York magazine, 1977. The caption reads: "Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell."

New York magazine, 1977. “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.”

What did cause hardship in her life (Teri’s alcoholism, for example) is, Brooke insists, for her discuss through that fine old platform for personal truth, the full-length book.

In the case of the NYT obit, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone. When it comes to an obituary, she says, the facts of a person’s life are sacred (as every obit writer used to know).

Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to anything that will increase audience ratings. Where was the human decency? she says about the New York Times in particular. After all, someone’s mother just died.


Radio Bookmobile, Program #2, April 8, 2015

H Is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

Doris: This is a beautiful passage from a new book called H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a British naturalist and falconer. It’s about a period when she the author battling grief after her father died and began dreaming of hawks after the death of her father. This passage doesn’t mention her grief, but it’s a parallel theme to the discovery that emerges later:

The birds she studied with a team of scholars…

“were goshawks, and one in particular. A few years earlier, I’d worked at a bird-of-prey centre right at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks. This one, an adult female, had hit a fence while hunting and knocked herself out. Someone had picked her up, unconscious, put her in a cardboard box and brought her to us. Was anything broken? Was she damaged? We congregated in a darkened room with the box on the table and the boss reached her gloved left hand inside. A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian. Carefully, we fanned her great, broad wings as she snaked her neck round to stare at us, unblinking. We ran our fingers along the narrow bones of her wings and shoulders to check nothing was broken, along bones light as pipes, hollow, each with cantilevered internal struts of bone like the inside of an aeroplane wing. We checked her collarbone, her thick, scaled legs and toes and inch-long black talons. Her vision seemed fine too: we held a finger in front of each hot eye in turn. Snap, snap, her beak went. Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm rain.

Pat: Here is rich, dense writing that really hits every physical sense of the reader’s body. We feel that bird, touch its bones “light as pipes,” inhale its “prehistoric scent” and most of all — well, this really brought it visually home to me — we see this “meringue of aggression” coming out of the box to “completely fill the room.”

Doris: Well, this is a dream, so we know that’s not true, and yet we understand the exaggeration. Same with the bird being “muscled as a pit bull.” Well, of course not, but we get it. So much is implied, and so descriptive: the scent of the bird’s feathers: peppery and rusty. I can almost smell it.

Pat: Yes, this goshawk is both real and imagined, something “bigger than me and more important,” like a “dinosaur pulled from the forest.” She too is being pulled out of her own box of despair.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile I read a passage about upended toilets covering bombs that hadn’t exploded after they rained down on a village in Chechnya during wartime. This scene is so unusual and so gripping, it’s typical of the crazy and amazing things we learn, as well as the incredible writing found in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

One thing that struck me here is the way people in war have to adjust to the sudden disappearance of loved ones who may never be seen again. In this scene Sonja, a surgeon who’s spent a great deal of energy purchasing an ice machine on the black market for her decrepit hospital, has just realized that her sister has been kidnapped by men who’ll sell her to a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, once used up by the clientele, she’ll be murdered.

It’s in that state of shock that Sonja walks around her apartment until she comes upon a tray of melting ice in the kitchen. The process of solids turning liquid catches her eye as she ponders the way death turns people from physical bodies we can touch to memories that cling to us emotionally and run over us like sheets of water.

You know how when you first pull the ice cube tray out of the freezer and it’s all solid and crisp and squared off by the cold? Well, this is what Sonja discovers after the tray has been sitting there for a while.

“Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

It’s a stunning metaphor, and it suggests for people in grief that sometimes losing the physical body is almost the easy part. It’s the memory of that person that stays with you for a very long time because it isn’t solid — it’s intangible in remembrance; there’s nothing to hold onto.. The loss feels like a slow, excruciating dissolve, to repeat this part of the quote. It’s

“not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

Doris: It’s interesting that of all the profound images in this book-those turned-over toilet bowls covering unexploded ordinance, in particular-the description of the ice cubes melting is one that stopped me in my reading. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I think you’ve explained it here, Pat: that physical softening, an “excruciating dissolve,” as you put it, that mirrors Sonja’s loss.

This was a book, our listeners might want to know, that we read for Pat’s book group in Point Reyes, and one that lives up to the high praise it received. It’s also a first novel for the author, Anthony Marra, whose photo in the back of the book suggests he’s no more than 16 years old.

It’s funny — before reading this book I felt ignorant of Chechnya and found myself avoiding news about the country and its tormented history. Now that I’ve devoured this book I can’t get enough of Chechnya and am looking forward to reading The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen, which just came out.

It’s about the two Chechen brothers named Tsarnaev who bombed the Boston Marathon a year ago, and I think no one could report this story better than Gessen, the Russian-American author of a truly eye-opening book about the rock-resistance band Pussy Riot, and a tough-minded biography of Vladimir Putin.

The Brothers is an important story because the two Tsarnaev brothers were descendants of ethnic Chechens whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia along with hundreds of thousands of others. How a dictator can simply ban an entire population to another country is both impossible and understandable when you read about it in a work of fiction as good as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.


About Bunin
Susan Trott

West Marin Review, Volume 4

Doris: Susan Trott is a whacky, funny novelist, but in this story she gives us something very serious. Bunin was Anton Chekhov’s biographer, and he’s thinking back on their first meeting at the seashore some sixty years before. There Bunin is so intimidated by the great Russian writer that he thinks only sophisticated words should be used. So he begins with an attitude of dismissal.

” ‘Big.’

“How full of disdain I was for that word. Bunin smiled to himself. Chekhov, my Antochka, however, seemed to relish it, seemed to delight in its apt discovery. But I, 20 years old, ten years younger than he was, full to the brim with the egotism of youth, in my mind patronized such a paltry adjective to describe the sea, while far better words coursed through my mind how I would describe the sea. For instance, how beneath its glittering serenity lurked the lassitude of death….

“But! Bunin remembered, I was also cowed at the time because he was Checkov, and if he believed the word ‘big’ to be descriptive, I was on the wrong track entirely. I would like to write in my book how I trembled in his presence at that first meeting, in Yalta, at the edge of the Baltic. I’d been waiting hours for him to pass by. It was not a chance meeting at all, more like what they would call a stalking. And then I would like to tell how he sat and talked to me with the utmost friendliness, his eyes shining through his pince nez, so genuine and modest.

“He asked me to come see him the next day at his villa and then, as we continued to talk, sitting on that wall, overlooking the sea, how dismayed I became that this conversation, going on so long, might replace the next day’s invitation. Why meet this young man again so soon, he would think, and be bored anew?”

Doris: It’s the language that appeals to me with this excerpt. For instance, the use of the word patronize: Bunin “patronized such a paltry adjective” as “big,” meaning he thought of the word condescendingly. The year of their meeting is 1890, and though Bunin is in his 80s when he writes this, I feel as if I’m hearing a turn-of-the-century sensibility.

Pat: But you know, the first word that comes to mind when anybody sees a body of water as large as the Baltic is that word, “big.” We live on the coast next to an ocean, and every time I see the water, I think to myself, “it’s so big!” If we tried to say, “it’s so immense!” or “enormous,” we’d feel like a phony. So it’s kind of amusing that the word “big” IS “paltry” compared to the way a great master of language like Chekhov could use it, but he chooses it just the same. So Bunin is right on both counts.

Doris: I’m also impressed that Susan Trott captures Bunin with unexpected depth: his near-embarrassment in the present at the inexperienced writer of half a century ago who dared to disdain a simple adjective then. (In fact, we’re not even sure he’s almost embarrassed. Maybe he still thinks “big” was too paltry.) His love for Chekhov, to whom he refers with the affectionate “Antochka.” His careful way of arranging to meet Chekhov-what he sees as “almost a stalking.” His fear back then that he would bore the master with his prattle. And look how much Susan Trott reveals about Bunin’s description of Chekhov: friendly, shining eyes, the pince nez, Chekhov’s modesty. The scene: the two of them, sitting together on the sea wall, their legs probably dangling like two new friends (Bunin so hopes!) gazing out to sea….


The Orphan Master’s Son
Adam Johnson

Pat: Dory, you and I were surprised that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t mentioned very much during the recent e-mail-hacking fiasco at Sony Motion Pictures — do you remember? This and apparent threats from the North Korean government followed release of the latest Seth Rogan gross-out movie, The Interview.

I say gross-out because it stars two typically dumb and dumber American stoner-journalists played by Rogan and James Franco, who cuss and copulate and stuff things up their posteriors when they find themselves ordered to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

Quite surprisingly, once you get past the toilet and genital humor, The Interview is a revealing and funny movie. Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a very smart, media savvy guy who deftly exploits American narcissism to his own ends.

That works in a simplistic movie, so enough kudos for Seth Roganbut it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson that goes much deeper in a literary way to provide us with one of the most knowledgeable and penetrating works of fiction we’ll ever see about North Korea — and one of the best novels I’ve read.

For one thing, this story about a soldier who’s trained to be an assasssin, a kidnapper, a sailor, a tunnel explorer, a diplomat and an interrogator is a blistering indictment on propaganda as a way of life, not only in North Korea but in the United States. Often couched in Communist lingo, these exaggerated statements are supposed to evoke pity and disgust at the self-indulgent and backward ways of Americans.

“[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.

These observations are funnier when you consider they’re all true in a way.

The American guitar, which most North Koreans have never seen, is described as theinstrument of choice [in the United States] for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision-making.”

When an American athlete leaves after a visit, “her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.

Doris: I also read this book and loved it. There are lots of surprises in it, but the descriptions of life in North Korea, the brutality, the insanity-all of which the reader absolutely believes-though how could the author know all this about a country that remains so secretive and unknown to the western world?-causes you to constantly be shaking your head in wonder. And there is as much to laugh at here as to be horrified by: remember, Pat, the part where they talk about “canines”?

Pat: Right, mention of “canines” occurs several times because in North Korea, dogs as pets are illegal and unthinkable. “The canine (is) an animal not meant to be domesticated,” we learn. If you say to a dog, “sit” or “lie down,” you’re guilty of using “indolent phrases from capitalism.” Dogs in North Korea are raised in warrens, as are ostriches and rabbits and goats, so the way Americans treat dogs is seen as possessive and maniacal.

“You must never hurt a dog in America,” a North Korean expert says. “Dogs are considered part of the family and are given names, just like people. Dogs also have their own beds and toys and doctors and houses, which should not be referred to as warrens.”

The question is later asked if dogs in America have their own groomers, their own food, and their own aisles in supermarkets. “Oh no,” says the expert, “that would never happen.”

What do North Koreans learn from all this? Discovering that in Texas, hunting dogs are given treats by their owner, the North Korean visitor “understands that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”

Doris: I’ve got to say, this is one of the best books I read last year. There are no false moves. The story is fascinating, the characters drawn beautifully. The writing is sophisticated and smart. Never a clich?, no manipulation of the reader by the writer-which is something I’d like to talk about another time.


The Medic
Leo Litwak

Doris: Leo Litwak is a novelist and journalist in the Bay Area who’s been a professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He served as an Army medic during World War II, as were thousands of others, but what attracts me to this passage is its simplicity. He was 18 at the time and seems to want only to state, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the reality of combat in Belgium as the war came to an end in 1944.

“The captain told us, ‘When you hear the order to attack, stand up and start marching and firing and keep marching and firing and don’t run, don’t hit the ground, don’t take cover, don’t lose your intervals, always stay in line with the advance. It doesn’t mater that you can’t see what you’re shooting at.’

“Captain Dillon called this maneuver ‘marching fire.’

When we used marching fire, I had to force myself to rise and start marching. I walked into enemy fire and didn’t hit the ground, didn’t start digging, didn’t wiggle on my belly toward the nearest tree, didn’t hug the ground and hide my face. I walked at a steady, modest pace, buddies strung out to the left and right, utterly exposed. It was against all my inclinations. I was as terrified and resentful as if I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.

Doris: I know nothing about war, about the rules of war — the idea that the captain will ask these men to walk into their possible death, and that the men will do it, even if they have to force themselves to. Could I do that? The author is terrified and resentful, and he does exactly as he’s told. How is that possible? What kind of brainwashing is necessary for this to be possible? All of this is suggested in this short passage.

Pat: I think they’re taught in boot camp that the only way to survive the war is to do exactly what they’re told — after all, if the troops give into fear, they’ll be killed. No wonder Leo Litwak writes with such minimalism — he’s so terrified his sentences are skeletal, like stick figures. And yet that word “resentful” comes through; they may have turned him into an unquestioning soldier, but how could we miss that last line: “I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.”

Doris: We get it. He doesn’t have to say another word.

Radio Bookmobile, Program #1: March 25, 2015

Well, we lurched around a bit ourselves for the first Radio Bookmobile, just to get the kinks out, but the passages we read from the books quoted below have so much power and authority we simply needed to get out of the way.

Here they are, with a brief word about context:


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Doris: In spite of many strange and difficult aspects, I count this as the best book I’ve ever read.

The scene is this: It is an autumn day in the late 16th century during hunting season, and King Henry engages in target practice. On this day, Henry invites Cromwell to accompany him, saying, “Here we will be alone, and I will be free to open my mind to you.”
Thomas wonders whether Henry is ever really alone. “Alone” on this day means just with Henry’s yeoman of the bow and his menials. Cromwell knows that the king doesn’t even sleep alone. If he’s not with the queen, two men sleep at the foot of his bed.

“When he sees Henry draw his bow, he thinks, I see now he is royal. At home or abroad, in wartime or peacetime, happy or aggrieved, the king likes to practice several times in the week, as an Englishman should; using his height, the beautiful trained muscles of his arms, shoulders and chest, he sends his arrows snapping straight to the eye of the target. The he holds out his arm, for someone to unstrap and restrap the royal armguard; for someone to change his bow, and bring him a choice. A cringing slave hands a napkin, to mop his forehead, and picks it up from where the king has dropped it; and then, exasperated, one shot or two falling wide, the King of England snaps his fingers, for God to change the wind.”

Pat: What a knockout paragraph! I thought I knew the meaning of “the divine right of kings,” but until Henry snaps his fingers at God “to change the wind,” I didn’t realize the unbelievable power people believed (and Henry himself believes) deity has given to royalty.

Doris: What makes this a great paragraph is that history has left us with an image of Henry VIII as a big fat man, but in this scene he’s tall and muscular-beautiful, even. There’s a sort of intimacy learning about one of his great pleasures, practicing with bow and arrow several times a week, no matter what-and he’s good at it. (Obama plays basketball and golf. Picture him drawn with Hilary Mantel’s pen.)

Pat: I’m not a fan of historical fiction usually, especially novels about British royalty, but this passage changes all that. When you read it, Doris, I didn’t want to leave that scene, didn’t care that every other character is named Thomas, stopped worrying I’d lose track of the chronology. It’s so heady and lush and surprising, I just want to keep reading, even if the book has another 600 pages to go.

Doris: Let’s take a look, too, at the author’s deliberately weird punctuation.
The scene is this: Cromwell takes Rafe, 7 years old, into his own household to raise and educate. Rafe will become like a son to Cromwell, and eventually his chief clerk. As the two journey through a wild rainstorm, Rafe asks in a distinct, polite tone:

“‘What place is this?’
” /London,’ he said. /Fenchurch Street. Home.’
“He took a linen towel and gently blotted from his face the journey just passed. He rubbed his head. Rafe’s hair stood up in spikes. Liz [Cromwell’s wife] came in. “Heaven direct me: boy or hedgehog?” Rafe turned his face to her. He smiled. He slept on his feet.

Doris: In the underlined part above, who is “he,” and why would Hilary Mantel deliberately mix up the references? An editor seems to have persuaded Mantel write more clearly in the sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” but here it may be that Mantel wants the reader to feel so deeply immersed in events that we’ll just know by instinct who’s doing what.


Open City by Teju Cole

Pat: This a mesmerizing novel in which Julius, a psychiatrist in residence at a New York hospital, has taken to walking the streets between shifts, noticing things. He refers to entering “dark rooms” — meaning the minds of his patients — and we see him interpreting scenes in the city from his own “dark room,” as in this paragraph, when he decides to take the subway during rush hour. As the crowds ahead of him swarm down the steps, this thought occurs:

“The subway stations served as recurring motives in my aimless progress. The sight of large masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers was perpetually strange to me, and I felt that all of the human race were rushing, pushed by a counterinstinctive death drive, into movable catacombs. Above ground I was with thousands of others in their solitude; but in the subway, standing close to strangers, jostling them and being jostled by them for space and breathing room, all of us reenacting unacknowledged traumas, the solitude intensified.”

There’s nothing new about feeling alone in the midst of the crowds, but here the narrator takes us quite a bit further — maybe into his own gloom, sure, but something rings universally true about his idea of rush hour as a “counterinstinctive death drive.”

I remember taking the subway in New York every day with thousands of commuters and thinking this is insane; what are we all doing, living like this? But I couldn’t articulate the feeling, not the way this author does. And those sooty screeching subway cars packed to the windows with bodies that never, ever make eye contact– well, no wonder he uses the term “movable catacombs.” That really nailed it for me.

Doris: I tend to picture this scene in the summer, since I grew up in New York and remember how hot and humid it can get in already suffocating conditions. Down in the subway where everybody’s sweating profusely, the more packed the cars get, the more chance for something awful to happen.

Pat: We don’t have time to pursue his reference to “reenacting unacknowledged traumas,” except to say this: His sense of the mood of New York since the attacks on 9/11 attunes Julius’ eye, makes it sharp and peculiarly sensitive to choices about death that have already been made. He sees something off, in a foreboding way — something anxious and worrisome — about everything from the Statue of Liberty to the way birds migrate to midtown museums to an “anxiety that cloaked the city” long before 9/11.

But you know, there’s something liberating in this moment, too. Over and over, books remind us that we don’t have to think like everybody else — our minds are free to explore every kind of thought, especially those that are forbidden or seen as kind of ghoulish, even when New York commuters are described as lemmings rushing off the cliff. It’s disturbing, but if there’s a kernel of truth to his observation, our own perceptions are deepened and enriched.
Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell

Doris: This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but also ironic and funny. It takes place between the mid-1920s and early ’40s in Kansas City, and describes a marriage, an upper-middle class lifestyle, and a woman whose life is constrained by what she’s been raised to know is “right.” Hers is a Father-knows-best world.

I’d like to read you the very first paragraph in the book, as an introduction to the book’s main character. It’s very short:

“Her first name was India-she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.”

After this introduction, the author takes us fast forward through courtship and marriage, and on page 2, we read:

“For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when [her husband] fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.

“This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.”

Doris: The leading line here: “She was in such demand…” suggests celebrity, someone booked well in advance. We think of supply and demand, of popularity on a grand scale, but the author doesn’t mean that here. He’s talking about sex. Sex between two inexperienced people. We gather in this paragraph, without the author saying so, that before their marriage, Walter and India were not intimate. We are surprised at India even being able to speak to her husband about her desire. In fact, I stopped to try to imagine what words she used…

And then for Walter to fall asleep! Maybe he misunderstood her, maybe he was sleeping while she “spoke of her own desire” and so missed her request. It’s sadly funny and so true, and then we see what Mrs. Bridge learned from the experience: marriage might be equitable, but love isn’t. And this made me really wonder in what way she found marriage equitable, because what we think of as equitable today is not what people thought about relationships back then.

Pat: I first thought that Mrs. Bridge’s ability to express her desire for physical intimacy is just astonishing for her time. But so little about women’s sexual wanting in marriage has been described in literature that we can’t conclude anything about her plea to him. Maybe women over the centuries often indicate their needs in bed while husbands respond with amiable but colossal indifference. We do know that Mrs. Bridge accepts a future without sexual satisfaction and will look for fulfillment elsewhere — that’s an “equitable” marriage to her mind. What remains in the reader’s mind, I think, is how succinctly the author has summed up the entire disposition of her discovery, and we’re only on page 2.


The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Pat: People who study literature often say that vocabulary is half the battle in writing fiction. So here’s a not-very-good novel in which the author shows a gift for transporting us by a single word — and this word is so unexpected that it changes our image of what’s going on in a split second.

The novel is set in the jungles of Malaysia in the 30s and 40s, but much of the writing describes a world of nature that could occur anywhere. I’ve put the single-word phenomenon in bold below:

The lights in the garden came on, dizzying the flying insects.

A willow grew a few feet away, its branches sipping from the pond.

A character sees the kitchen chimney scribbling smoke over the treetops.

In a flashback, a Japanese pilot watches his close friend start to take off in a kamekaze warplane. The plane began to move, held back by the bomb hanging underneath, a bird carrying a cancerous growth.

(Side note re kamikaze – the novel tells us that Japanese pilots were originally referred to as Cherry Blossoms, “blooming for just a brief moment of time before they fell.” In fact, research reveals, the image of “beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor” was so compelling that on aircraft carriers, “young girls would line the runway and wave branches of cherry blossoms as the pilots took off on their attacks.” See )

From the quiet of a mountaintop: A pair of storks, their wings edged with a singe of gray, sprang off from the treetops and flew over a hill, heading for valleys hidden from our sight. It was so quiet I could almost hear every downward sweep of their wings, fanning the thin mists into tidal patterns.

At the waterfall, the spray opened its net of whispers over us, rinsing the air with moisture that had traveled all the way from the mountain peaks, carrying with it the tang of trees and mulch and earth

An early morning view: The world was growing brighter, bleaching away the moon and stars.

Above the trees, the line of the mountains serrated the sky.

When the main character opens up rooms that have been closed for decades, she notices: Cobwebs muffle the rafters, the husks of consumed insects hanging in them like tiny, primitive bells.

A waterfall pours over the outcrop of a cliff, the water broadening into a white feather as it fell, to be swept away by the wind before it could reach the earth.

After watching a meteor shower: The torrent of falling stars dried up, but the sky continued to exhale a luminance, as though it had retained the light from the meteors. Perhaps the illumination was trapped not in the sky but in our eyes, in our memory.

Here are some sentences that stun us not because of a single word but a phrase that freeze-frames the image:

In the shallows, a gray heron cocked its head at me, one leg poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to his music.

The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing.

How it feels to be an Alzheimer’s patient: I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void

At dusk a moth, its wings as wide as my palm, staggered around the verandah’s lightbulb, searching for a way into the heart of the sun.

Pat: I’m especially taken by the quote above. It shows how effortlessly the author places us inside the mind of the moth, which has confused the light bulb with the sun … and we agree with the moth! From its point of view and its span of life, the light globe is “the heart of the sun.”

Here’s another point-of-view image, looking at the increasing use of barbed wire wound around houses as a security measure: In the last light of sunset, the drops of dew clinging to the barbs glinted like venom on the tips of a serpent’s fangs

Doris: I also admire these excerpts, but I notice how much more you’re attracted to the use of metaphor than I am. So many uses of “like” to project imagery makes me a bit wary.

Pat: You’re right, I love metaphors (when used well!) to the point of swooning because the truths they reveal go very deep in the reader’s psyche without ever being held to the scrutiny of scientific fact. They have the power of dreams in that way. Sometimes it’s that glimpse of one’s subconscious upon waking that follows you around for hours, affecting everything you do because it feels so true. To me that’s what metaphor does on the printed page.

Doris: Well, it shows you how subjective fiction can be. Different people warm to the many gifts of storytelling in different ways.


October Light by John Gardner

Doris: Here’s the scene: An elderly brother and sister live together. He’s a very irritable old man, maybe a little crazy, and has just chased his sister upstairs and locked her in her room. There she notices, on the floor and under the table, a dog-eared paperback, torn half to pieces, the binding glue weakened so that pages are loose, and great chunks of the story are fallen away. She begins reading.

Sally Abbot read without commitment at first, just a hint of curiosity and a tentative willingness to perhaps be amused. But quite imperceptibly the real world lost weight and the print on the page gave way to images, an alternative reality more charged than mere life, more ghostly yet nearer, suffused with a curious importance and manageability. She began to fall in with the book’s snappy rhythms, becoming herself more wry, more wearily disgusted with the world-not only with her own but with the whole /universe,’ as the book kept saying-a word that hadn’t entered Sally’s thoughts in years. Life became larger, in vibration to such words, and she, the observer and container of this universe, became necessarily more vast than its space, became indeed (though she would not have said so) godlike. By degrees, without knowing she was doing it, she gave in to the illusion, the comforting security of her vantage point, until whenever she looked up from the page to rest her eyes, it seemed that the door, the walls, the dresser, the heavy onyx clock had no more substance than a plate-glass reflection; what was real and enduring was the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.

Doris: I chose this excerpt because it describes so exactly the magic of reading. In a paragraph like this, the real world loses weight, words become images and the reality we enter is of a different quality than outside a book — more charged, Gardner shows us, more ghostly yet nearer.

Pat: And the wondrous “reveal,” if I may use a popular term, is that Sally has been imprisoned in that room, but the moment the words cease to be coded little symbols and the story takes hold in her mind, she is liberated. She is gone from that room, that horrible brother, and lives to pursue only “the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.” It’s just a sensational adventure, the act of reading.


Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Pat: I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Neil Patrick Harris’s memoir and laughing out loud every few minutes.. He’s an actor you may remember who started out years ago as a teen prodigy in the TV series Dougie Houser MD and most recently a sitcom I’ve found very boring but who cares called How I Met Your Mother. He’s infused enormous vitality into hosting the Tony Awards on Broadway and won a Tony himself in a complicated role as Hedwig in the stage adaptation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Writing his autobiography he decided not to go the conventional route. He tells us that growing up as a young reader he fell in love with the Choose Your Own Adventure series of Young Adult novels in which you, the reader, can decide to leave, say, the current astronaut plot and flip to another page where you can become a detective, or another to become a cowboy, and so forth.

So he’s now written this memoir entirely in the 2nd person himself: You the reader get to BE Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s cut his own story into several parts so that on any given page, you can go off into another direction of your choosing — you can be the star of Dougie Houser MD or the idealistic young character he once played in Rent or the rising real-life singer/acrobat/gay dad/magician he’s become in real life. I listened to him narrate this book and it’s a lot of fun; but sorry to say the actual physical copy has been so larded with bad cartoons and trasju that it looks like a junkyard between covers.

Still, the fun is that Neil Patrick Harris loves being a magician so much that he provides actual do-it-yourself magic tricks in this book where you take a deck of cards, for example, go through simple instructions he lays out and end up with, voila! the very card you held up in Step #1. “If I were there, I’d take a bow,” he says amusingly, and I’d sure applaud.

But what I like best about Harris are behind-the-scenes glimpses he provides at the way show business really works, which is to say insanely and strangely, and actors who turn out to be particularly, well, nuts. You don’t expect that from a celebrity biography because people in Hollywood worry about getting sued, which is why what he says about the actor Anne Heche is so intriguing.

Doris: Anne Heche …

Pat: Anne Heche is a pretty good actor who had that headline-making affair with Ellen Degeneres and then wandered off talking in a foreign tongue of her own making, ostensibly because she was on prescription drugs, after which she wrote a book called Call Me Crazy. Her career got a little rocky soon after, but she’s now starring in a TV series called Dig and seems to be doing well.

So: What knocked me out in Neil Patrick Harris’s book is his description of working with Anne Heche, in 2002, when the two appeared on Broadway in a play called Proof. He writes that at the first rehearsal, Anne Heche announced, “Wow, how do you theater people do the same thing every night? I just don’t get it. I don’t work that way.”

She meant it. For the duration of the show’s run, he says, the crew and cast discovered that “Anne Heche is the kind of costar who decides one night, for no reason whatsoever, to shout all her lines. And on another night not to pause for the entire performance. One night you watch as she delivers all her lines as single rapid fire eruptions, as if every monologue is one unimaginably long German compound word. “

Well, I love that kind of — okay, I want to say deliciously telltale backstage stuff but I also mean that kind of you-are-there honesty that puts readers in the author/actor’s shoes trying to remember lines while the star throws the whole play off balance by going bananas.

One night, Harris says, Heche played the role entirely offstage. Other times when his character was supposed to kiss her passionately, she made it appear that he was disgusting, just to see how it would feel. She also doodled on her outfits in permanent marker so the wardrobe department was forced to create different costumes for her every night..

I bring this up not because it’s exceptionally written — the writing is fine and workmanlike — and not because Neil Patrick Harris is gossipy or mean, either. Rather he has a point to make about live theater as a collaborative effort in which director, cast, crew and wardrobe must block out every word to achieve the kind of deliberate spontaneity that makes live theater work.

After all, as he says, “In the world of the play, any particular night is the same night it always is.”

That’s the intriguing contradiction that stopped me. He wants us to know that in live theater, every aspect is invented, rehearsed and choreographed so it looks impulsive and unrehearsed. And this slavish devotion to doing the same thing every night, as if it happened only once, has to be maintained so exactly that the audience remains completely in the thrall of the playwright’s creation.

So Harris is saying that Anne Heche wasn’t just messing around on the stage of Proof; she was crippling “the world of the play,” and the cast was lucky that some critics bought it. The New York Times critic said Heche turned Proof into “quite a snappy show” due to her rapid-fire delivery that night. “Boy, she talks fast,” wrote admiringly, “sometimes accelerating into chipmunk territory.”


The World Rushed In by J.S. Holliday

Doris: This is a book about the California gold rush, published in 1981. The author had been given William Swain’s extraordinary gold rush diary and had promised his mentor that he would write Swain’s story. But Holliday’s vision was bigger than one man’s experience. He wanted a book that would be an authentic, vicarious experience for the modern reader.

So when Swain wrote entries that were brief or repetitive, when he concentrated on himself to the exclusion of the larger scene around him, Holliday would quote other diarists and letter writers who were at the same place at the same time, and who wrote more descriptively, observantly, or factually. These accounts enrich and balance the Swain record.

Holliday also collected the letters William sent home, and the letters he received from his wife and brother. The diaries and letters follow this 27-year-old gold seeker from his peach farm in Youngstown, New York, to the diggings north of San Francisco, in three parts: the overland journey, life in the mining camps, and the homeward journey-and they allow us to see the other side of the story: the story of families left behind.

That latter aspect is what I’d like to read a bit of, from William’s wife Sabrina. He’d been gone about a month when she wrote this, and she has received one letter from him so far. She refers to a neighbor, Mrs. Bailey, in the following. Mr. Bailey is traveling with William:

June 26, 1849:

After getting your letters, I took them and went down to see Mrs. Bailey, and I read some parts of them to her. She said Mr. Bailey had mentioned some sickness amongst them, but from what she said, I took it to be nothing serious. I hope you will not keep anything back, let it be ever so bad. Nothing could make me feel worse than I do now. I am all the time framing up something that will befall you. I do not place that confidence in God that I ought to; still, I feel that His arm is able to protect you in your absence. But the loss of your society is great, and the longer you are gone the less reconciled I feel. My dear, I feel sometimes as though I should sink under it. I am confident that it wears on me. You know, William that I am of a very nervous temperament and for that reason I cannot get along with it as well as I could were I not.

I assure you of one thing, and that is, if God spares you to get home again, I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left. However, my dear, I never have been sorry that I acted the part I did in letting you go, but I think I should act otherwise were it to be done again. This may, as I hope and trust, be a good lesson for us both. It may learn us to be contented with what we have and to enjoy ourselves better when together. I, however, have one thing to comfort me, that we always did live agreeably when together, and often does my mind revert to the times and places that we have been and enjoyed ourselves together. Yet with all this, we cannot realize our attachments and fondness for one another until we are deprived of the society of those fond ones.

Pat: Most stunning to me about this letter is how eloquently she writes, especially when we remember there were no computers or typewriters or White-Out, heaven knows, in those days, and she had to write in indelible ink, hoping the pages would survive what must have been a four- or five-month-long journey. He had the adventure, but for his wife, the waiting was excruciating.

Doris: And she has this conflict that couldn’t have been easy to express: She urges him not to hold anything back by way of bad news because she can’t feel worse than she already does. She doesn’t completely trust God, but she’s trying. And let’s not forget her nature: she’s of a very nervous temperament!

Pat: Yes, at first that seems wholly true, but her voice is so direct and uncompromising that she begins to sound like a big solid oak tree back there at home, waiting for as long as it takes.

Doris: That sentence that describes her love — “I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left” — is about as ferociously explicit as letter-writing got for their time. Although she assures him she’s not sorry she let him go, the letter makes it clear she wouldn’t do it again. That steadfast nature leads her to the only positive lesson she can find in their separation: “It may learn us to be contented with what we have and to enjoy ourselves better when together.”

Pat: A great lesson for any age. And the title of Holliday’s book is so apt for us in 2015. The world most certainly did rush into Northern California when gold was discovered in 1848, and historians said that was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Yet today the “tech migration” is rushing into San Francisco once again, looking not for gold but Internet startups. (Plus the streets are lined with soaring property values.)


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Pat: We certainly don’t expect humor from two exhausted doctors standing in the rubble of war, but here in 2004 during the 2nd Chechen war, one doctor, Sonya, speaking of a friend who lives in London and knows what’s going on in the world, tells her colleague Akhmed:

“‘Last month he told me that George Bush had been reelected.’ “
“Who’s that?” said Akhmed.
“The American president,” Sonja said, looking away.
“I thought Ronald McDonald was president,” Akhmed said.
“You can’t be serious.”…
“Wasn’t it Ronald McDonald who told Gorbachev to tear down the wall?”

It’s very funny, probably accurate, and of course for some readers, this doctor is right: Americans did have a clown for a president who talked like Ronald McDonald at the time. But that’s not the reason I loved this novel. It’s full of the kind of casual details, quietly tossed into descriptive paragraphs, that surprise us with images we will never forget.

For example, when bombs destroy a village in Chechnya, not all of them explode, and thelocal doctors end up performing thousands of amputations because people step on them and they do explode. Here’s what happens when villagers figure out what to do, as explained from the point of view of a young Chechen girl named Havaa:

No one wanted to risk moving the unexploded bombshells that lay scattered across the village, so the next morning Havaa’s parents, among other villagers, pried toilet bowls from the rubble of collapsed houses and, dragging them upside down and two by two, gently set them over the unexploded bombs. Havaa would never forget the sight. So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the street that cars wouldn’t pass for weeks, and in that time she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke.

Doris: I loved reading that novel, but I didn’t remember this amazing scene about the upended toilets until you read that passage. It just goes to show how fast I was turning the pages to find out what happens in Marra’s riveting story.

Yes, the story just pulls us in from page on. In fact, I think I would have avoided a novel about Chechnya because the history of the country is so bleak, but thanks to Marra’s spellbinding characterizations and his ability to fracture chronology in a way that doesn’t confuse but actually clarifies the story, I got hooked before I knew it.

Here’s another quote that stopped me for its word selection alone– it’s about what happens to two starving people in wartime who fall in love and finally decide to become intimate:

They undressed by degree, a button here, a shirtsleeve there making a show of their shortcomings, their bodies androgynous with deprivation.

Doris: Wow. Here’s a sentence that’s so condensed and succinct, with every word invaluable and not a comma wasted, that it truly befits characters in wartime who are down to nothing — until they find each other.

Something Literary

You’d think a traditional publishing person like me wouldn’t be intrigued by a tiny collection of iPhone snapshots such as this:IMG_1114Not a “real book,” right? It’s smaller than a deck of cards, has fewer than 50 unnumbered “pages” and no text at all except the words iPhone Photos Julie Gebhardt on the back page.

And yet I was drawn to this mini-book from the first moment I saw it, for one thing because it’s so cute (note the green push pin, placed there for scale) and is even kind of classy with its oversized spiral binding and heavy photo-card stock.

Production elements like these would have shot the costs up years ago, as would four-color printing (which I must say is sensational), but the price is affordable ($20) and shipping is free when you order directly from the author by emailing

But I kept thinking the term “snapshot” isn’t right, “collection” isn’t right, even “little” or “quickie” is disrespectful because there’s something bigger to ponder here, something even literary going on, which I’ll get to below. True, you can just flip through it like a keychain souvenir, but I guarantee that every time you close it, a larger conversation will follow you around in “real life.”

Julie Gebhardt

Julie Gebhardt

The author, Julie Gebhardt, caught the photo bug three years ago after acquiring an iPhone and reading a New York Times story about Instagram, the social network for sharing photos that’s used by subscribers all over the world (more than 150 million of them by now).

After downloading the app and looking at probably thousands of Instagram posts, Julie, or @juliegeb, began walking around the streets of San Francisco to see what caught her eye. Something as commonplace as building exteriors — walls, doors, windows,IMG_5865 gates — had personality and character when framed by her iPhone lens. She was particularly attracted to things that “are old and a little dingy, or made of cheap quality material, or that show the weathering of time.”

Even today, “I like corrugated metal any time I see it,” she says. Aging paint, water stains, odd splotches, loose flashing — these may be signs that a building is falling apart or soon to be condemned, but for Julie they add a touch of animation and surprise to the eye, even if the thing itself is a little grim. IMG_1265

I’ve walked right by many of these scenes on my way to important appointments so it’s startling see the allure of decay — an ugliness that appears beautiful to me now, just because Julie decided to shoot them that way.

Sometimes you can detect a story behind the image. In the photo below, doesn’t it look like somebody was spray-painting that light blue color on the door oh, so carefully but messed up enough times with the blotches on the top and lower sides to think, All done! I have to go to an important appointment now — and left it that way? IMG_3313

This kind of Oh Well Art (not her term) happens often, she finds, when people are trying to spiff up or cover up rust or old paint or corrosion. So Julie created hashtags (categories within categories) like #sloppy_job and #graffitipaintout. That way, other subscribers can contribute their own photos, just as she can add to theirs.

For example, the photo on the right below, with its enormous bushy eyebrow sculpted over the door, appears in Julie’s feed as well as another subscriber’s as “Nature’s Comb Over” (#naturescombover). IMG_8345

Things get a bit more complicated when the idea of intention crops up behind paint jobs of exteriors. When she came upon the brick wall below, for example, Julie believed she saw a Rothkoesque quality to clouds of different-colored paint and was particularly delighted by the unintentionial part, a dangling wire that so beautifully interrupts the action.IMG_5628

Soon she realized that any architectural element such as the drainpipe to the left (what gifted soul decided to paint it blue?) canIMG_6667 be part of that vast creative effort called “street art,” which is constantly percolating and newly visible wherever you look (or someone like @juliegeb looks) on the urban scene.

It was probably inevitable that Julie would make her own artistic decisions. She noticed that the iPhone camera doesn’t allow for much depth, so most of the photos are going to look pretty flat. Instead seeing this as a problem or weakness, she developed an interest in “two-dimensionality as a style.”

In the photo below, for example, you have to look twice to see that a door is built into the graffiti-covered wall, and that theIMG_8841 artist — maybe commissioned by the building’s owner OR maybe just an unknown person with half a dozen spray cans in a hurry because police or home owners or neighbors might be near and not happy — took the time to set it off by coloring inside the doorway lines, so to speak.

The startling orange-and-purple facade to the left offers a more dramatic and deliberate use of color that in turn defines the surrounding blocks of tile, wall and brick. And here Julie stands just far away enough so that the iPhone, IMG_5807for all its two-dimensional lens, can’t help itself: the leafy green branches billowing into the upper left corner give this photo unexpected depth and substance.

And this one at right is just a square of yellow wall with a mailbox, wouldn’t you say? (It’s another setting I’d walk right by without noticing.)IMG_8837 But I think because Julie sees a kind of geometrical art in squares upon squares sinking into that joyous yolky color, you can feel your fingertips anticipating the goosebumpy texture of the stucco wall beneath. Somebody also took the time to choose a stylish font for the address — “the scroll of number 3 is so lovely,” sighs Julie. And there’s even a comical touch to the oval mail slot, which is stamped with the word “MAIL” in case your letter carrier forgets what it’s there for.

So far, I’ve been talking about intriguing street scenes that Julie turns into photos with an artistic edge. But to get back to this gnawing feeling that something literary is going on in the book, we need to see if that larger conversation I mentioned actually exists, starting with Julie’s notion of surrender.

You’ve probably assumed a continuing truth about street art is that everything’s changing all the time. Julie says most of the places she’s photographed are gone now — they’ve been taken down, painted over, razed, vandalized or re-graffiti’d shortly afterward, often overnight — which means every walk with her iPhone is going to be different: some new piece of something or overgrowth or fixer-upper or illustration is always going to pop out.

We would expect that to happen with a painting like this, where the beauty and IMG_8178freedom of the artist’s visual language (fascinating when you see it up close) might one day be dismissed as ugly by the owner of that building, who’ll “fix the problem” by covering it up with a layer of paint. That’s just the reality for anybody, artist or vandal, who takes to the street.

But it’s sad to see this enormous (see the pigeons on the sidewalk below), soulful face — part of a mural that Julie discovered in a back alley in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district — already being eaten away by other people’s graffiti, which has begun to invade the picture from the sides and top.IMG_9945

“I have so much admiration for anonymous muralists who pour their heart and effort into these paintings,” Julie says, “and then just surrender them to the public. The minute they walk away, the art is transformed.”

Very often a sense of humor sneaks in that’s soIMG_5124-1 touching, like a wink from a dying building, that even people on their way to important appointments can’t help but slow down and chuckle.

Speaking of the humor that crops up in street art, while I’m not a fan of comic book art, I but have to say the question depicted in the painting below — is it the colony of giant ants or the loss of his iPhone that causes this headless guy’s IMG_7942anguish? — offers a funny and arresting comment on modern life.

The always-changing nature of street art makes a person realize that for Julie, everything in a city scape must feel like nature in fast-forward, as in that YouTube video where you see the dead fox decaying and the skin peeling and teeth baring and the bones emerging while the remains of the fox get smaller and smaller until nothing exists in the spot where life once flourished — until the next object like a rock or egg or baby fox rolls into view.

Just as you could walk up to that fox and shoot a thousand different images, so do buildings on the street “host” something new or strange every day that will change in a second. Julie, bless her, respects this phenomenon but does not want to document it. She is not interested in going back to photograph the muralist in tears repainting his subject’s jaw or eyeball in the midst of cooing pigeons because that would be a human interest story and is really none of her business. Her iPhone is not there to intrude.

But it is there to capture the images she treasures. “I broke into a run when I saw this,” she says of the scene below. “It’s a hillside near the ocean with a little IMG_8171shed in front that has no door and a rotting-away floor that’s full of sand. No roof exists, and the hill above it is bulging down the back wall. To think they’d [the owners or the army or the coastal commission] would paint this exterior bright red at some point is amazing to me.”

Right, the red paint, even when fresh, would be lost on the seagulls and snowy plovers that inhabit the coastal dunes, so even the people who built this shed surrendered their casual artistry to the elements at one time. And then Julie came along to capture that incredible mixture of beauty and decay that fits so well with the endless carving-out of cliffs and coast by ocean waves and weather.

The idea of surrender has a literary bent to it, I think — a writer must surrender the work-in-progress to the reading public or it will never be finished — but that’s not enough of an answer to my gnawing question about something literary going on in Julie’s mini book of photos.

I do know that just browsing through it gives me the impression that a larger conversation is taking place, and that philosophical connections are being made all over the place. You can see an obvious example in the way Julie pairs photos in two-page spreads, often using color — IMG_1122

— or themeIMG_1154–or artistic intentionIMG_1164as her bridge. (Pardon shoddy photos — these were taken of the book with my iPhone and they didn’t come out too good.)

But it’s in the pairing below that this larger conversation really comes out, at least to me, and I do think it has a literary nature. Both images are similar because of the color blue, of course, but it’s their differences that make an impression: the photo on the right emphasizes rigidity and corrugated metal as we have seen, while the photo on the left is fizzing with excitement, tossing about balloony yellows and stringy pinks and sly greens in a 1950s palette gone slightly berserk.IMG_1116

“I shot these two photos on different days,” Julie says, “but they have a relationship that’s more than a happy accident. Maybe it’s the piece of cardboard in each that might have drifted in, or been placed there. Who knows?”

Right, we don’t know anything except what we see: “An insanely dizzy wall on the left that seems to dance around a garbage bin, of all lucky things, across from the quieter but still varying tones, also of blue, in straight lines that nevertheless have a flow to them.”

Hold that thought for a moment as we apply the same curiosity to the photo below. Granted, it’s just IMG_1141a keyhole, one of so many locks that Julie started a hashtag called #keyholelove, to which hundreds if not thousands of Instagram users have already contributed. This one’s got some touches of red and green paint that could be accidental (another #sloppy_job photo?) but seem polished and deliberate.

In fact, says Julie, this keyhole is part of a huge and colorful mural that extends along the backs of several fences in the Mission District of San Francisco (where street murals abound). Of course you don’t have to know the keyhole’s function as a small detail in the overall canvas to sense a certain gravity about it that Julie doesn’t need to interpret: Her eye has focused on this one aspect of the mural, the brass lock. She loves it, and her camera loves it. She shot it close up in a way that makes me, the viewer, love it, too.

But the photo gains in significance when Julie as author puts it next to another picture with a completely blue exterior that also happens to have a keyhole, and this one shines out with no paint on it at all.

IMG_6575I find it kind of amusing that the vast Rococo design of the wrought iron with all its squares and circles, its graceful Xs and Os, its blocks and scrolls and flourishes, started out as just a gate to keep the bad guys out, and then somebody decided to make it stylish and pleasing. And then again, the whole artistic presence of the thing was designed to fade and recede as the eye zooms in on that tiny, shiny brass keyhole.

Granted, the gate is painted that way to make it easier for the keyholder to find the keyhole. That’s fine. But look what happens when Julie pairs it with the keyhole-in-the-mural:IMG_1130First, I like the idea of a universe arranging itself around a tiny speck, as we see on the right, placed as it is across the spiral binding from the unique and purposeful image of the similar tiny speck (now so big it’s a universe of its own) on the left. That’s one “conversation” between the pages in which we viewers get to participate (and only if we want to!).

But there’s more. As you flip through the book, every pairing of photos brings up the same Big Idea, something we humans ponder all our life, which may be stated in this way: Time rushes by so fast in our high-tech, fast-paced world that suddenly we’re old, and our tenure is almost over, so the question is whether it’s possible, while hurrying off to important appointments, to slow down and actually find meaning in life.

Julie’s book says YES, people may get jaded and hardened by the chaos of street life, but just the act of noticing something like what these pages bring to light can give life meaning. This is hardly an original thought (Buddhists sum it up with the word mindfulness all the time, although that’s more a spiritual practice), but it is an unexpected discovery in a tiny book like Julie’s.

Another question: Does this dialogue between readers and photos happen only as you turn the pages of Julie’s book. Yes again, I think — some kind of power is exchanged even without the presence of text. For example, look at this: IMG_1155

On the left is a walled-off mausoleum sort of building with heavy columns and portico that’s hard to see because the whole thing is boarded up and surrounded by fences. (Another advantage to iPhones, says, Julie: “The lens is small enough to shoot through the tiniest of holes”).

On the right is such a rare discovery that I’m going to enlarge it below. Can you guess what it is (I couldn’t at first)? IMG_3150Here’s what happened: Julie and her husband Allen (also taking pictures but with a “real” camera) got into “this abandoned old warehouse that was entirely covered in graffiti,” she recalls. “The walls, the ceiling, the doors were all drenched in color and shafts of light were streaming down through broken windows, so just being inside, just seeing the character of the place was thrilling.

“Then in the middle of the floor we saw this ruined piano, every key ‘defaced’ by paint and tiny drawings, so I leaned over the keyboard looking straight down and shot it, missing keys and all. What comes forward is so abstract in shapes and colors that all we can see is transformation.”

Again, we readers don’t have to know that it’s a piano keyboard, because something’s being said in a conceptual way that will come to mean whatever our eye decides it to mean. But what I feel most gripping about it is the way this photo relates to the deadly silent building on the left, which by contrast appears to have been caged up, locked down and blacked out for years. Here it is again:IMG_1155So when I talk about a conversation going on, I don’t mean to say these two photos actually tell us something. I mean there’s a connection here that’s interactive and open to participation with the reader. And when something like that keeps bubbling out of a book, page after page, with the kind of energy that strikes a nerve as deeply as it does in Julie Gebhardt’s teensy spiralbound collection, well, that something is literary.

Admittedly, I get romantic about these things, but because art is subjective, I also get to draw the line. This photo on the left may IMG_3335-1show us exuberant examples of street art all talking at once (ain’t the color gorgeous?), thereby forming a remarkable avant-garde image that only Julie Gebhardt can see amidst the mayhem. But I have to admit it’s messy and repugnant to me. If I came upon it in the street, I’d walk right by with my face turned away. Perhaps that too is a testament to the author who uses her book to present rather than hit us over the head with what she sees.

But because I’m also the traditional book publishing person, I remember when costs were astronomical and people had to (still have to) fly to China and Italy just to print expensive art books, which the publisher then had to ship to bookstores where very few customers could afford them. And then after a few months the bookseller with heart sinking had to ship the books back to the publisher who either dumped them off as remainders (sale items) in Australia or pulped them regardless of artistic message because nobody ever saw or appreciated the art.

Which brings us to today. Don’t you get weary when people keep asking whether the use of computers and the rise of the Internet are “good” or “bad” for books, for publishing, for bookselling, for reading? The fact is, technology has this infuriating way of changing the world before we know it. Asking questions about its value gets us nowhere. The Internet (like the other universe) is indifferent to human needs and wants.

But if Julie’s book teaches us to slow down and notice things that give life meaning, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the Internet as one big sorting machine that uses a toolbox like Instagram where talented, self-taught people like Julie are actively supported by an international community of millions. By the way, her personal followers total 28,542 as of yesterday.

So if you think a traditional publishing person like me should decry the way websites on the Internet may be gutting mainstream book publishers like Rizzoli, Abrams, Taschen, Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, Aperture and others of the once-honored opportunity to produce gorgeous oversized artbooks that sell comparatively few copies (well, enough to libraries, colleges and some collectors to make a buck); and also may be robbing independent bookstores of hundred-dollar-plus purchases (Rizzoli’s All the World’s Birds sells for $350, but give them credit, that’s a lot of birds); let’s remember that before the computer revolution, the odds for unknowns like Julie to get anybody in the book industry interested in her potential as an author were zilch, especially for a tiny book like _________ (you see? it doesn’t even have a title).

Today we don’t talk about the bookstore or gallery approach where very few people get to view an art book, let alone buy it. Today we talk about the community approach where Julie felt encouraged to see “nothing precious” about jumping into a rushing stream of 150 million other photographers, and where she is increasingly supported by an audience she built from scratch that loves and appreciates her work.

Plus! It’s not just the mini book she created at Social Print Studio that’s for sale. Five of her photos are featured in This Is Happening, a book about the Instagram phenomenon from Chronicle Books. The wonderfully named Casetify has snazzied up many iPhone

Julie Gebhart iPhone case

iPhone case from Casetify by Julie Gebhardt

cases with Julie’s images, such as the one on the right, and thanks to an even more adventurous 60-page collection of Julie’s photos is available in hardcover ($36.95) and softcover ($25.99).

You can buy her photos at all sizes and in different frames, and at least one museum has displayed photos like this one below, which shows Julie finding a way to bring depth to that tricky two-dimensional style, after all (note the teensy red chair to the right: another speck in the universe! Okay, will stop here.)

IMG_4880I’ve probably finished “reading” Julie’s book a dozen times by now, and I always come away thinking that the next time I start to dismiss some discomfiting image on the urban landscape, I’ll have been taught by Julie to notice if there’s something creatively interesting, even frameable there, for me. And I’ll ponder more about it because of the book’s continuing conversation.

That’s all I’ve learned from the blessed thing, and yet what I’ve learned is kind of monumental. After all, when “real life” is out there calling, you want to have the eye to see it.








‘According to Our Records…’

Of the many chilling scenarios Dave Eggers lays out in his futuristic novel, The Circle (Vintage; 512 pages; $15.95) the one that scares the dickens (not Charles!) out of me popped up in emails recently from two fundraising political groups, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Eggers is not a great writer of fiction (a bit clunky and shallow) but his warning about tyrannical forces growing at Internet companies like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others is both visionary and truly terrifying.

This illustration is not from the book -- it's Apple's proposed new campus in Cupertino, Calif.

This illustration is not from the book — it’s Apple’s proposed new campus in Cupertino, Calif.

The story follows Mae, a talented Internet worker who lands a job answering customers’ questions at The Circle, the most powerful corporation in Silicon Valley.

The perks there are plentiful, some unusual — not just state-of-the-art fitness programs, gourmet cuisine, a daycare center, famous people giving TED-type talks at lunch; but also a bocce court, dog kennel, dormitory, all-night parties, national candidates holding town hall meetings and fantastic art everywhere (a Calder mobile hangs in the 40-foot atrium).

Business terms at The Circle have been renamed to reflect a warm, happy, never judgmental, always positive and inclusive atmosphere. Mae isn’t employed by a corporation, for example — she’s part of a “culture.” The Circle doesn’t exist on company property; it has a “campus.” Mae doesn’t work in Building A, B or C; she works in a glass-and-oxidized-copper environment called Renaissance.

How can Mae best rate her job success? Well, no stuffy performance reviews are conducted, no boss makes impatient demands. Instead, customers respond to surveys after Mae helps them, and soon questions from The Circle pop up in her email, such as (I’m paraphrasing), “Do you understand why you might want a 99.5% success rate rather than a 99.4?”

Glazed spheres at proposed Amazon campus will provide "a comfortable, park like place to brainstorm."

Glazed spheres at proposed Amazon campus will provide “a comfortable, park like place to brainstorm.”

But the best part of The Circle is its elaborate network of social groups. There seem to be hundreds of them, and no matter who you are, a perfect fit is possible for all sorts of people with multiple interests.

Say you’re a parent with a disabled child; a lover of bridge who likes to hike; a French-speaking gourmet who plays left-handed tennis. Groups are available to help you improve every hobby/recreation/pastime/career/recovery program/golf swing/wine appreciation/spiritual interest/Ken Ken score.

And if you forget to join a group, don’t worry — The Circle knows, and soon a query arrives (still paraphrasing): We’ve noticed your love of word games and research on chlamydia make you a perfect candidate for the Scrabble Fans with SIDs group …

And so the net descends. One needn’t have read George Orwell’s novel, 1984, to know that routine collection of information about employees’ professional and personal activities can become a way of life without anybody blinking an eye. Soon everything about you is known to somebody.

I don’t work for a company like Mae’s but recently started wondering about the a net descending from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

Samsung's new campus will "feature sports facilities, cafes and 'collaboration zones' "

Samsung’s new campus will “feature sports facilities, cafes and ‘collaboration zones’ “

I subscribed to these websites for updates and have contributed small amounts of money. Soon emails for more donations arrived — fine, that was expected — and with them came the phony “personalized” plea in which a computer shoves your name in the text to make you feel appreciated.

The tone sounded a little desperate —

“Look, you’ve received a number of emails from us about all of this — but this is deeply important. PATRICIA HOLT”

— but who cared. I was accustomed to the increasingly sensational declarations (“Mitch is FURIOUS,” “Boehner is CRYING”), and to the fact that “they” — the anonymous operators behind these websites — liked to show that an official file existed on me with a long and important- sounding identity code:

Name: Patricia Holt

Supporter Record: VN96C9W3FW0″

And “they” liked to use hyperbole (“we actually have SERIOUSLY INCREDIBLE news”) and suggest that tiny invasions of privacy had already been accomplished:

“We know that everyone from President Obama to Sen. Warren has emailed you…”

(It’s funny: I expected Obama’s name, but Elizabeth Warren? Let’s leave her out of this.)

And soon they liked to demonstrate that I was being watched a little more blatantly than usual:

“PATRICIA HOLT: According to our records, you haven’t chipped in yet to fight Boehner’s lawsuit.”

Maybe it was the word “yet” that did it, meaning they’re waiting for me to kick in. The voice wasn’t terribly Orwellian, but it did have a hint of swagger, of knowing too much, of applying pressure and expecting right behavior.

So I unsubscribed (not that it’ll do any good), but I keep wondering: Is this how it starts? A tone that gets increasingly personal, a dismissal of privacy, a hint of something threatening? — and will I ever really get rid of them?

In The Circle, Mae makes the mistake of trading a bit of her identity for every step up the corporate ladder. By the time she reaches the inner circle, we worry that her voice — once so independent, so insightful — will sound like everybody else’s.

Eggers, however, is not only saying that power is seductive. He’s saying that that today, right now, we the people are giving away our power for really stupid stuff.

Facebook's proposed housing campus will bring employees within walking distance to the office.

Facebook’s proposed housing campus will bring employees within walking distance to the office.

You think grocery-delivering drones from Amazon are a cute idea? Watch them turn into darling mechanical stalkers near Mae’s office. Don’t we all want more transparency from public figures? After reading The Circle, we’ll wish for more Anthony Wieners. Won’t “company towns” (nearby housing) give Internet employees more time to create new ideas? Exactly: soon office and home will be so comfortable that nobody will venture off-campus again.

You can’t help looking up from the book to ask similar questions of real life: For example, aren’t micro-donations of $5 or $10 the new thing today? Don’t they stand for the kind of democratized funding that balances the scales against billionaire bigots like the Koch brothers? Isn’t this version of “one-click” the new way to rebuild the Democratic Party?

Well, maybe that’s the way quickie $5 donations started. But then like so many Internet phenomena, it wasn’t enough. Sign a petition, fill out a survey, give a few bucks, put your signature on Obama’s birthday card (huh? why, I would never … ) and “they” have their hooks in you for more and more and more. Emails were pouring in, ostensibly from Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, GOP Shutdown Watch, Democrats 2014, requests@dscc, rapid-response@dscc, alert@dscc, updates@dccc, urgent@dscc, breaking@dscc, Democratic Headquarters, DCCC Rapid Response, Stop the GOP, polling-alert@dscc, paul@dscc, Patrick McHugh, Matt Kehres (DSCC Digital Director), Kay Hagan, Julia Ager (DSCC Rapid Response Coordinator), Jennifer O’Malley (Senior Advisor), DSCC Grassroots Victory, Democratic Victory, Emily Bittner (DCCC National Press Secretary) and many others including (sob) Elizabeth Warren, all with addresses going back to or

For me, this guilt-inducing, name-calling, threat-evoking, whack-a-mole approach to fundraising ain’t the Democratic Party I want to support. And, sorry to say, faced with similar emails from others, I’m close to feeling that way about Emily’s List, Food Democracy Now, MoveOn, Credo, Courage Campaign, Environment California and a bunch of groups I used to believe in.




Thank You, Roger

Film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel wanted to knock each other’s block off frequently on their TV show, as shown in the provocative documentary Life Itself, that’s just been released.


Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert bring it on

But their unique chemistry will always be missed, I think, because they brought to the screen two very different (and often opposing) approaches to the art of reviewing.

Ebert was the objective critic who emphasized reason over personal opinion. He never gave thumbs-up to a movie without offering evidence — images, themes, plot, dialogue, etc. — to support his argument.

Siskel was the subjective one. He used the “I” voice a great deal, as if to say that personalizing a movie was the only way to view it critically. Siskel saw himself as a kind of Everyman who didn’t need to prove his point — after all, if he liked something, it had to be good.

So Siskel might say, “I was impressed by the director’s decision to … ” or “I laughed out loud in the scene where … ” or “I hated it when she ….”

Whereas Ebert might say, “the suspense builds when he …. ” or “she’s in love because … ” or “a strong foundation is laid early when ….”

On the set of 'Siskel and Ebert and the Movies'

On the set of ‘Siskel and Ebert and the Movies’

Of the dozens of great examples you can find on YouTube, a favorite of mine is the navy courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, Ebert turned thumbs-down on the film because, he said, “the script fatally undermines the key scene in the whole movie.” His evidence: Tom Cruise’s character tells us exactly how he’s going to trap the bad guy (played by Jack Nicholson) before Nicholson takes the stand.

“Now why would a screenplay give away a surprise like that?” Ebert asked. “Why didn’t they figure we were smart enough to see the courtroom scene and figure out for ourselves what it was Cruise was trying to do, and then see if Nicholson falls for it or not?”

Siskel conceded that A Few Good Men was “a predictable movie” but gave it thumbs-up anyway. “The screenplay was surprising for what it didn’t do,” which he found delightful: This movie brought together two gorgeous Hollywood actors, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, whose characters don’t fall in love or end up in bed. Watching Ebert try to hide his revulsion over what he saw as indulgent and foolish on Siskel’s part is half the fun.

Sometimes Ebert got so personally offended by a movie that he sounded more subjective than Siskel. This was the case with Blue Velvet, a controversial film that was called “a masterpiece” by some and “sick and depraved” by others.

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signal

Promoting their famous thumbs-up, thumbs-down signs

Siskel took his Everyman approach to the film by saying he was thrilled by the movie’s sexually kinky, often perverted theme. “I sat there and this (movie) did for me … what Psycho did when I was a lot younger, which is, ‘eyes open and oh, my god, we’re really getting in over our heads.’ And that’s an experience which is challenging, shocking, but mesmerizing. And I liked the picture.”

Ebert blasted Blue Velvet for being “cruelly unfair to its actors.” He criticized director David Lynch for “asking [the star] Isabel Rossellini to be undressed and humiliated on the screen as few actresses ever have been, certainly in non porno roles.”

Siskel scoffed at this, saying that Isabel Rossellini was a big girl who could get over any embarrassment she felt from the movie, just as Janet Leigh had after the shower scene in Psycho.

Ebert believed that at the very least, the director was inconsistent. By the end, “[Lynch] tries to take the edge off [Rosselini’s] shocking scenes by turning the whole thing into some kind of a joke. Well, either this material is funny, in which case you don’t take advantage of your stars, or it isn’t funny, in which case it shouldn’t have so much campy and adolescent dialog along with the really powerful sexual scenes.”

In a dismissive tone that makes you realize why he could irritate Ebert so easily, Siskel intimated that a critic’s job is to review the movie, not worry about the actors’ or viewers’ reactions.

“We can’t divorce our reactions,” Ebert said hotly. “It’s not how Isabel Rosselini reacts to the fact she’s standing there nude and humiliated on the lawn of the police captain’s house with lots of people watching. It’s how I react, and that’s painful to me to see a woman treated like that, and I want to know that if I’m feeling that pain, it’s for a reason the movie has, other than simply to cause pain to her” (my italics).

Wow. It’s tempting at this point to think of Roger Ebert as a budding feminist rather than an objective critic, but then, his use of the “I” voice refers less to himself or the audience and more to the integrity of the movie. To Ebert’s mind, every viewer has the right to demand that a film tell us which way it’s going to go — from cheap manipulation to creative vision — especially when the emotions we feel because of that movie are painful. If the director is going to equivocate around and debase his actors for no artistic reason, everyone should be infuriated.

last photo

Thank you, Roger

Ebert wrote more than 20 books in his lifetime, but I think he’ll be remembered as a true film scholar with a genius for critical conversation. Siskel had a gift for talking about the movies, too, but he never reached as high or took as many risks as Ebert did. It was only when the two were sniping and griping at each other that they hit a nerve between art and commerce, and then we all got to pitch in.