Speed Reading Widget

http://www.spreeder.com/index.php

This free speed reading widget (and similar apps) speeds up your reading without any training by flashing one or more words at a time in the center of a box, thus eliminating eye movement.  The pace is adjustable, as is the chunk size.   Great for getting through articles quickly and may carryover to normal reading if used on a regular basis.   Using it is simple; drag the bookmarklet to your browser bookmark toolbar, highlight text on a website, click on bookmaklet.

Bill Sargeant

“Tales of The City” by Armistead Maupin

Related by time and place to Season of The Witch, and mentioned in it, is Armistead Maupin’s farcical comedy, Tales of the City. It first came out as a serial in 1976 in the “San Francisco Chronicle“, then in the “San Francisco Examiner”, and in novel form in 1978.  Later it became a TV mini-series and sequel novels were written.  This time capsule back to the ’70’s is packed with period and local references.  The book is composed of vignettes alternating between the day-to-day lives of the major characters.  In spite of its ephemeral nature it carries an enduring theme: people are often not who they seem to be on the surface.  Nearly all the characters have two layers which are in ironic conflict with each other.  Their facades slowly give way to their deeper identities creating both tragedy and comedy in the process.  It is a good complement to Season of The Witch for experiencing the flavor of the times.

Bill Sargeant 

“The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature” by Ben Tarnoff, 2014

 

DCF 1.0
Ben Tarnoff at his lecture and book signing for the San Francisco Public Library

This new history book picks up on the theme of counter-culture creativity in San Francisco from our selection for June: Season of The Witch.   This time, instead of San Francisco in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, it’s San Francisco in the 1860’s and 70’s.  Rather than large-scale social movements centered in San Francisco, it’s a countercultural literary movement of several writers including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, and Ina Coolbrith.  As the title suggests, these writers brought a new style of American literature to the international stage and  San Francisco served as its birthplace.

San Francisco in the 1860’s had become a free-spirited, diverse,  wealthy, and sophisticated city through the influx of people and trade from all over the world during the gold rush and Comstock eras.  It was the only real city west of St. Louis and it’s isolation from the East Coast, and from the Civil War, allowed for the germination of new ideas.  Reading, here, was considered more a necessity of life than a luxury, hence there was a large, eager audience for writing and a demand for new publications along with writers to provide content. Previously, American literature was centered on the East Coast and derived from the British traditions.  These four writers mentioned above, self-described as “Bohemian” in their unconventionality, felt unrestrained to come up with a new voice which was more relevant to the spirit of the West.   “Tall Tales” is one of the hallmarks of their style.

Without Mark Twain, it’s safe to say, the  others wouldn’t have achieved the national and international impact that they did, however, without, the “Bohemians” and especially Bret Harte, there probably would not have been a Mark Twain, the writer.  Bret Harte helped Twain to develop his craft and persuaded him to persevere with his writing when Twain suggested quitting to go back to river boats.  Harte edited Twain’s first successful piece, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” and later edited Twain’s, The Innocents Abroad.  Along with these two authors, are Charles Stoddard, a gay writer and friend of Walt Whitman, and Ina Coolbrith, the first California Poet Laureate (first of any state), and the  “literary mother” of Jack London.

Just as the counter-culture idealism of the 1960’s fell into decay after its initial flourish, the Bohemian movement in San Francisco, subsided by the mid 1870’s. The “Bohemian Club”, still in existence today, exemplifies a name-only continuation of the original ideal.  When Oscar Wilde visited them in 1882 he said, “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life.”

Having heard the lecture on the book by its author, I look forward to reading the book in the next few days.

Bill Sargeant

Goodreads.com

Check out Goodreads.com

This website is a good tool for finding interesting and pertinent books on many subjects.  You can browse thru their lists parsed across many topics and if you register with them (free) you can rate books and generate your own reading lists.  After you rate 20 books, it will generate a custom list for you based on your ratings.  I have just started going through their selections and have already found several books which I have put on a “must-read” list.

https://www.goodreads.com/list

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

When the exhibition of Dutch paintings from the Mauritshuis came to the San Francisco De Young museum in January 2013, the featured painting was “Girl With a Pearl Earring”.   With so many masterpieces outshining each other, the relatively small and stark “Goldfinch” barely made an impression on me.   “Nice Trompe l’oeil”, I thought, and moved on to the next painting.   Donna Tartt, with much greater perception, saw a story which she developed into a 771 page, Pulitzer Prize winning, and number one, best-selling novel. Today, if the same show returned to the De Young, it could very well be called “The Goldfinch”,  such is the clamoring of attention that  Carel Fabritius’s painting from 1654 is currently enjoying as result of the book.

When a book with literary ambitions also achieves great popularity, you may wonder how (or if) those two, often mutually exclusive aims, can be accomplished in one work.  Donna Tartt writes in a style which I found surprisingly easy and engaging and at the same time,  plumbs the depths of quite a number of themes.  Among these are: loss of a parent, loss of a child, reality vs. deception, the role of art in life, materialism, loyalty, sincerity vs. pretense, perceived value vs. intrinsic value, free will, the looting of art, good outcomes derived from bad deeds, and altered or transfigured states, to name a few.  Her many apt metaphors and turns of phrase illuminated the story in my mind with little effort on my part.  The central metaphor is the painting, “The Goldfinch”.  It is a picture of a bird tethered to a perch by a short chain in a 17th century home against a plain drab wall.  The implications of a fettered life resonate with the life of the main character, Theo, who steals the painting from a museum and spends the rest of the book trying to release himself from it.   The story takes place mainly in New York City, with excursions to Amsterdam,  Las Vegas, and a few other minor stops.  The number of characters is manageable.  The plot is complex with several unexpected turns.   Towards the end there are several passages where the author, through the narrator and two other characters, reflects and expounds on the themes presented throughout the book.  This part requires a little more digging in since it is more abstract and without physical action.  I believe there is a lot to enjoy and learn from this book.  I hope you get a chance to read it.

Bill Sargeant

Link to painting: http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/mauritshuis/605

For a sample of the book listen to this:

“Season of The Witch”, further thoughts, by Bill Sargeant

The book was entertaining and connected the dots between former headlines.  It also defined an overall dramatic arc in that period of San Francisco history; the mid 60’s , through the early 80’s, which David Talbot divides into three sections.

In Summary:  The first section titled “Enchantment,” describes San Francisco incubating a subculture of young people who experiment with means of freeing themselves from the straight and narrow times of the 50’s.  Experiments in communal living and psychedelic drugs abound.  They express their new ideas in literature, fashion, and music which become emblematic for the counter-culture .   As creativity peaks, and the novelty wears off, the underbelly of negative forces, unleashed in all the new freedom, begins to dominate.  This brings us to the second section of the book; “Terror.”  More and more seekers arrive in San Francisco with flowers in their hair only to find needles in arms and desperation in the streets.  Throughout most of the 70’s,  San Francisco slips into further decline. The original idealism of the hippies is lost and wave after wave of violence wrack the city, defeating the politicians and the corrupt SFPD.  Each bottom is exceeded by the next, culminating in a nadir of the Jim Jones massacre and the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor, Harvey Milk.  Out of this low, “the right mayor for the times”, Dianne Feinstein, with the assists of others, takes charge and stabilizes the situation with which we arrive at the last section of the book; “Deliverance.”  Several potential calamities are averted and the city is able to catch its breath.  Spirits are further lifted when the worst team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49er’s, beats their rival, the Dallas Cowboys (self-proclaimed as “God’s team”), and goes on to win the Super Bowl.  San Francisco is back in form and demonstrates its true potential with the handling of the next crisis; AIDS.   Throughout the horrors of this epidemic, San Francisco fills the vacuum of indifference of the Reagan administration with funds, and innovative care.  Many heroes emerge from the ranks of health care, the gay community, and city government, and their responses serve as models to other cities and countries around the world.  One stellar example is ward 5B of SF General Hospital pioneering “the development of what later became known as patient-centered care.”  At last, San Francisco survives its trials, and rekindles its reputation as a destination for freedom and creativity.

David Talbot provides the thread of facts from which each event unfolds out of what came before it.  There are many dozens of individual stories told with carefully researched details which coalesce as if pixels, to form a clear and coherent whole.  As a reader who lived through the times and witnessed some of it first hand, I closed the book with a much deepened and enhanced understanding.