Behind the Burly Q, Leslie Zemeckis and Blaze Starr

Although it's the be-all-and-end-all book on American burlesque, this chatty history offers glimpses of the wild, woolly, wonderful world of sassy ladies, classic comedians, and their straight men.

Who can resist, for instance, this description of dancer Faith Bacon's 1939 publicity stunt, when the woman was arrested "for wearing a skimpy white bathing suit, or leotard, and walking a doe on a rhinestone leash down Park Avenue as an advertisement for her World's Fair appearance." Could this be the infamous shot? Oh, those were the days.

The Assassin from Apricot City, Witold Szabłowski

Reportage from Turkey, past and present, that sings with stories of the untold everyday. Stork Press, which brought out the Antonia Lloyd-Jones translation of Szabłowski's work, has an excerpt if you'd like a taste. Some of my favorite essays included "The purgatory of Istanbul," "It's out of love, sister," and "The black girl," but there are many treasures here.


Blood in the Parlor, Dorothy Dunbar

I was looking for an odd little gem to read, and a recommendation from Donna Tartt, made in an old Voice article, prompted me to pick up Dunbar's tales of "creative murders, committed by people with a sense of symmetry and imagination in life, art, and crime." From Tartt's recommendation: "My mother has had this book since I was a little girl, but no one else I know has ever heard of it, and it's almost impossible to find. Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I'd love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey."

I checked out a copy at the Center for Fiction; perfect, light reading for the days leading up to Halloween. Dunbar has a wry wit -- take, for instance, this observation about the horror of Lizzie Borden's murderous spree: "There are many elements of horror in the Borden case, but one of the worst was the August fourth breakfast---mutton, sugar cakes, coffee, and mutton broth." 


Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer


I read this too quickly and now I remember little about it; if only I had constructed a memory palace to put some of its passages in! Foer's immersive attempt at becoming a memory champion is an absorbing read, and offers an interesting take on how we get to remembering things; it's a good counterpoint to the Proust I've been reading, which expounds on memory and its trappings in a much freer flowing, more discursive way. 

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit

I loved The Faraway Nearby, so as soon as I got my hands on another Solnit book, I sunk my teeth into it. And I was not disappointed in this meditation on being lost, being found, and being willing to surrender to what you may not be able to articulate. Again, her narrative manages to be both incredibly focused on the topic at hand---one's sense of location---while also broadly surveying a diverse landscape of subjects, from Meno to mapping America to the color blue and Yves Klein. 

I found myself scrawling down notes about many, many different passages, but perhaps what resonates most is this call to welcome ambiguity into your life, and the ensuing question about how that translates into the day to day:

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. ...
The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration---how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

I guess now I need to find Wanderlust, As Eve Said to the Serpent, Hope in the Dark, or one of her many other books.

The Zodiac Arch, Freya Stark


This interesting, if uneven, collection of essays by fearless Freya Stark was a good companion on a few quiet nights. One piece that's really quite special is "Himyar, the Lizard," which I could read and reread and probably still cry every time I come to its close, thinking of the little reptile taking to Parma violets for sustenance, at a cost to Freya of a shilling a day.

I could go on and on, but I suppose I'll keep things brief. "Lunch with Homer" is another excellent piece; some of her meditations on memory, and how we grow accustomed to the world, are just lovely: 

... the memory has come down thin and pastoral, a hard survival amid rocky hillsides and the thorny, scented thyme. ... [but] voices have become small and dry, dusted over by a century or more of everyday toil that a man can deal with and put the unexpected out of mind. The origins of memory are anyway out of reach.

What begins it may be out of reach, but what remains I can almost touch, taste. It's her evocative imagery that makes the best of these essays sing; that, perhaps, is her project entire, if you take this line from "On Silence" at face value:

A part of all art is to make silence speak.

A joy to listen to the words she brings forth.

Giving Up the Ghost, Eric Nuzum

giving up ghost.jpg

Nuzum's meditation on otherworldliness covers everything from rock music to mental illness, spiritualism, death, and so much more.  But are there really ghosts in our midst? “I don’t believe that places are haunted," he reflects, "but I do believe people are haunted. People carry around the ghosts of their pasts, the people they’ve known, the world they’ve experienced. Most of the time, we never notice they are there.” What follows you around?

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

Much has been said, in so many other venues, about Sandberg's manifesto on women and work. What I found most compelling---and what I see emphasized less in the conversations this has sparked---is the local call to action, the imperative to start today, with ourselves.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small,” she writes, “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in. We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives---the messages that say it’s wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. …. My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power.”

There are more things that need to happen---cultural changes, policy changes, and so on. But those bigger shifts may well depend on many (perhaps small) actions in our everyday lives. As Sandberg notes, “These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”

Her message is clear, compelling, and a call to action. I was a skeptic, but I have to admit that I came out of the book energized, maybe even inspired.

The Lost Art of Walking, Geoff Nicholson


This idiosyncratic look at walking---and the philosophy, the art, the history, the literature of it---is a refreshing read, a brisk stroll through the subject that doesn't sacrifice its structure in taking the reader down less-trodden paths. Nicholson resists the sentimentalism I've come to acquaint with much chatter about the putting of one foot in front of the other (see: the rhetoric of charity walks, epic cross-continent journeys); rather, he holds, "Walking is special but it's not strange. It's not a stunt. it's worth doing for its own sake."

He also discusses, to some degree, how intertwined the acts of writing and walking are, both rather simple acts at their core: "[W]ords inscribe a text in the same way that a walk inscribes space. ... writing is one way of making the world our own, and ... walking is another." Indeed. 

Where I Was From, Joan Didion

Not fully memoir nor fully academic nonfiction, this treatment explores Joan Didion's California through the years---from World War II through the 1992 riots and beyond.  It's a fascinating mix, Didion's reminiscences about her family woven into thoughts on, say, Frank Norris's The Octopus, the reach of the railroad, the Donner Party, and the Spur Posse. 


As I pick through my own family history, so situated in California and the Sierras in particular, Didion's thoughtful prose is a balm. But not everything can be ordered, as she notes, sorting through what's left when her mother dies. She puts what she wants to keep in a large box: "letters, photographs, clippings, folders and envelopes I could not that day summon up the time or the heart to open." Later, in her own home, she finds things to give to loved ones, things to pass along. But after a time, "I closed the box and put it in a closet. There is no real way to deal with everything we lose."

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, Christine Byl

In keeping with my interest in all things outdoors (while being trapped in the confines of a city), I checked out Christine Byl's Dirt Work. The memoir recounts Byl's days as a trail dog in Glacier National Park and Denali Nature Park & Preserve. It serves as a good complement to Cheryl Strayed's Wild, I suppose---who helps build the trails that we traverse? My heart belongs to Yosemite, but now I'm itching to visit more national parks. And in addition to explaining the uses of a shovel and a clinometer, Byl has some wisdom to pass on.  

On parts of speech and finding what's real:

An authentic life will be built, at least in part, of ordinary verbs: wake, plant, dig, mend, walk, lift, listen, season, note, bake, chop, store, stack, harvest, give, stretch, measure, wash, help, haul, sleep.

On finding your way in a new situation:

The only way to enter a new world without humiliation or offense was to keep ears open and mouth shut. Quiet is better than stupid.

On the changing of the seasons, and how being attuned to them affects us:

I love fall in part for its contemplative underpinnings, the way it makes me notice the concrete world (everything's dying) and think about the abstract one (everything dies). When trees and brush go aflame right before leaves and blooms pale at winter, I also wonder: will I have even minutes as full of purpose as these plants do, when my hue is tinted by the tasks of my hands?

Lovely. The rain falling on the concrete this morning smelled, just for a second, like sweet pea; then the tangy metallic of industry overwhelmed it---a fleeting reminder of the powerful call of nature, of what I miss about the Northwest and the Sierras, always in my thoughts when I read books that invoke the great outdoors.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain

Susan Cain is speaking up for those who don't necessarily want to raise our voices: "Today, " she writes, "we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We're told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts---which means that we've lost sight of who we really are." (That is, because a third to a half of the US population is introverted.)

Quiet articulates well the cultural expressions of introversion and extroversion, and it emphasizes the importance of balance; mixing introverts with extroverts, each capitalizing on their own strengths to stem problems that might erupt from the overly narrow vision that results from groupthink. Moreover, it discusses ways to broach relationships, career, and more, taking into account that you might have to "code switch" to make headway on the projects you're most passionate about. 

Most valuable, though, is the grace and compassion the message affords: for introverts and extroverts alike, Cain says, "Love is essential; gregariousness is optional. Cherish your nearest and dearest. ... Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you're supposed to. ... Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama." Sensible, pragmatic, and reassuring counsel. 


Wallflower at the Orgy, Nora Ephron

Ephron's collection of essays is a nice introduction to her writing; in the foreword, she explains the importance of critical distance:

[I]t took me a long time to become comfortable using the first-person singular pronoun in my work. In the articles in this book I used it gingerly ... The work I have done subsequently is considerably more personal and considerably more full of the first-person singular pronoun, but I still believe that the best approach to its use ought to be discomfort. Do you really need it? Does it add something special to the piece? Is what you think interesting enough to make the reader care? Are you saying something that no one has said? Above all, do you understand that you are not as important as what you're covering?

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

After struggling to find myself in How Should a Person Be?, I thought I'd try something a little more authoritative: this, Caitlin Moran says, is how to be a woman. And for her, it turns out, trying to find something to be is almost beside the point: "I thought all my efforts should be concentrated on being fabulous, rather than doing fabulous things." (Emphasis mine.)

That's right; there really isn't any one right path for the modern lady of means. Except you probably shouldn't try to live up to a rigid standard of perfection:

The thing that has given me the most relief and freedom in my adult years has been, finally, once and for all giving up on the idea that I might secretly be, or will one day become, a princess. Accepting you're just some perfectly ordinary woman who is going to have to crack on, work hard, and be polite in order to get anything done is---once you've gotten over the crippling disappointment of your thundering ordinariness---incredibly liberating.

This perfectly ordinary woman thinks that sounds downright sensible.