In which ten days pass

img_8091■ In anticipation of Banned Books Week (September 26 through October 1), I reread Slaughterhouse-Five earlier this month. I must have known I was entering a reading slump, during which I touch books; I think about books; heck, I even acquire books. But read them? Meh. Not so much. My mind has been restless, and regaining the required focus has felt a bit like bathing two cats at the same time — messy and misguided. I am glad I reacquainted myself with Vonnegut’s charms, though, because he reminded me that, slump or not, I am a reader.

■ I am also something of a watcher, and I’ve not had any difficulty focusing on that pursuit. Heh, heh, heh. After catching up on the sensational Mr. Robot, I chose The Americans as my next small-screen obsession. Terrific stuff.

■ Speaking of watching… Despite a strong cast and some stagecraft wizardry, the performance of Julius Caesar we saw at the Writers Theatre this week was missing… something. I’d have put it down to simply being an off day, but the Trib sensed a lack, too.

Our next theater adventure is part two of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s bard binge, Tug of War. (Reviews here and here.)

“Science fiction was a big help.”

imageHas is it really been two weeks since my last post?

■ Only a few pages in the Rubank Intermediate book remain, so I was advised to bring Advanced, Vol. 1 to my October lessons. I’ve been assigned Haydn’s “Serenade” as my new solo piece, and one of my instructor’s colleagues has suggested that two of his students and I form a trio jointly supervised by the two instructors. A year ago, this idea would have made me shudder. Now? I am excited to begin!

■ In forty-eight days, I will be an election judge at a nearby precinct. Earlier this month, on a whim, I looked over our county’s website, made a call, emailed an application, and registered for training. What a lot to remember! Fortunately, the training included several hands-on exercises, and if I am chosen to work early voting, I will gain experience prior to the big day.

■ This is Week 3 of the University of Warwick’s rerun of “Literature and Mental Health,” and it has been every bit as compelling as I had hoped.

■ Like any over-fifty, my husband and I make a number of annual health appointments, and this year, we decided to schedule all of these in September and October. Waiting rooms have this to recommend them: They give one time to finish a couple of books.

From Slaughterhouse-Five:
p. 4

And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

p. 101

So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help.

From The Code of the Woosters:
p. 221

“You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s under-clothing.”
“No, sir.”
“One or the other. Not both.”
“Precisely, sir.”

Because I only include cover-to-covers, ninety-three titles appear on my list to date. In these years of reading slowly, my goal is usually a minimum of two books per week, and I am positioned to exceed that next month.

What am I reading today? A Fair Maiden (Joyce Carol Oates) and the poetry volume, Stressed, Unstressed. My husband and I will see Julius Caesar at the Writers Theatre later this month — our first just-us theater adventure in thirty years — so I am also rereading that, one of my favorite works of Shakespeare. (“Would he were fatter!”) And I am savoring Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, which features an over-fifty woman with a “never-absent pain in her back.” I think I may love the fictional Vellitt Boe as much as love the non-fictional and now ninety-eight-year-old Diana Athill, whose latest memoir is winging its way toward the forever home.

■ Speaking of the forever home, how much I love it! Although my daughters regularly contributed to its care, over the last two years, they had increasingly less time for all of the tasks that ensure a property doesn’t succumb to “kipple,” so I often worked solo, on the yards, for example. And now that they are at university, it is generally me alone performing the daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual home rituals. When he can, my husband helps, of course, as when he made the end-of-season inspection of the crawlspace. And we have services for some tasks — for example, soil aeration; tree care; furnace, air-conditioning, and appliance maintenance; and critter control. But often, it is just the cats and I, which means that the rituals take a bit more time and that I must perform more of them (including pet care, which was once the exclusive domain of my older daughter). What I had thought might prove annoying, though, has mostly represented only a slight tempo change in my life’s regular rhythms. In fact, I find that being needed in these new ways is oddly comforting, as if the forever home is enveloping me while I continue to adjust to my latest “new normal.”

“What is this life if, full of care…


…We have no time to stop and stare?”

It absolutely delights me that the MOOC I’ve anticipated all summer uses the W.H. Davies poem “Leisure,” the source of the opening quote, to make several points about mindfulness, the healing power of literature, and our need to clear a mental corner for contemplation. Said MOOC accounts for three of the books on this weekend’s pile: Some of My Best Friends Are Books, How to Read a Poem, and Stressed, Unstressed.

Liney’s Into the Fire is the second book in a trilogy, the first of which I read on vacation two years ago. I remember The Detainee as a gripping story that suffered from uneven writing. In the end, though, story won. I have, however, contemplated flinging the follow-up across the room, it’s that badly written. Is it vacation nostalgia that keeps me reading?

The Idealist ended up in the pile when I heard Rick Kogan’s interview with author Justin Powers two weekends ago. The book began as a long Slate profile of Aaron Swartz.

We visited our daughters this holiday weekend, which gave us time to listen to NPR and P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, every other sentence of which I could press into my commonplace book. We also took two bike rides, the first of which was the most memorable: At the turnaround point, we paused for water, coffee, and some nuts. Swallows swooped and darted overhead. Prairie grasses and flowers bent in the breeze. The trees and underbrush thrummed with the sounds of animals and birds making the most of summer’s end. We had no choice. We simply stopped and stared.

Late August book notes

imageDespite my best intentions, I have only finished four of the ten books I assembled for this post):

You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott; 2016. Fiction.)
My Name Is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout; 2016. Fiction.)
A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; 1887. Fiction.)
Eileen (Ottessa Moshfegh; 2015. Fiction.)

This puts me at only six books for August, a number that makes sense when I consider that (1) we spent most of the month preparing for our daughters’ departure; (2) we’re all adjusting to new routines and communicating (phone, text, email, packages, etc.) takes much longer now that we all spend most days apart; and (3) I’ve been under the weather for a week… which reminds me: When I was much younger, I had an idea — crafted from a complete misunderstanding of the subtext of stories about genteel characters recovering in sanatoriums — that illness translates into more time to read. I clung to this misinformed idea into my early twenties, when a bout with sinusitis and later with the flu (not a really bad head cold but influenza) taught me that I can’t read — At. All. — when I’m sick. This may be because I am the world’s worst patient, but it may also be that everyone finds it difficult to focus when feverish, congested, drowsy, in pain, coughing, or [insert symptom(s) here].

So, six books this month — although if I’m feeling particularly motivated later this afternoon, I may be able to finish Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better. My current plan for September, though, is simply to return to reading at whim — hence, the rather anonymous-looking stack pictured above.

Regarding the only book I’ve finished this week: I understand how Eileen made the Man Booker Prize longlist, but it was a claustrophobic read for me — too small, too sordid. Two passages made it into my commonplace book, though:

p. 65
Nobody missed me. I know other young women have suffered far worse than this, and I myself went on to suffer plenty, but this experience in particular was utterly humiliating. A psychoanalyst may term it something like a formative trauma, but I know little about psychology and reject the science entirely. People in that profession, I’d say, should be watched very closely. If we were living several hundred years ago, my guess is that they’d all be burned as witches.

p. 256
I don’t know where we went wrong with my family. We weren’t terrible people, no worse than any of you. I suppose it’s the luck of the draw, where we end up, what happens.

Another summer gone

IMG_7586Have you observed the continued changing of the light as summer slides into autumn? Sure, summer is putting up a fight, but for all intents and purposes, it’s over, isn’t it? Why, the students in our neighborhood have already returned to school! If that doesn’t herald fall, what does?

Speaking of school, since my last post, my husband and I moved our daughters into their university residence. A well-organized, dry-eyed endeavor, move-in included a midnight run to stock the refrigerator and a visit over the weekend to replace some shelving and bring a few additional items. I think the fact that each of us has absorbing plans and projects for the fall contributed to the (admittedly surprising) lack of tears. At some point, I found myself thinking, There is so much more to celebrate and anticipate than to regret. Of course, we won’t discount how helpful technology has been: The iPhones and iPads are getting quite a workout with messages, email, and FaceTime. Still, although I’m a cautious woman, I believe that this can be declared a fairly successful transition for all of us.

Some of my plans: This week, after an eight-month hiatus, I have resumed my service as a literacy volunteer. I have also returned to my daily music practice after a nearly ten-day break. And now that I have time to read more than a page here or there, I will (finally!) finish Eileen today. Unfortunately, this week I am also fighting a cold, one that I felt arrive with startling all-at-onceness yesterday afternoon. My sinuses filled, as if I were experiencing an allergic reaction, then my throat became scratchy, and then I became heavily tired — all within thirty minutes. I’ve been in defense mode ever since, taking advantage of my retiree status to lay my head down regularly and to drink a river of juice, tea, and water. It’s too early to say that I am winning, but I am hopeful that my tussle with sickness is more successful than summer’s losing battle with fall. Heh, heh, heh.

Book notes should follow Thursday or Friday.

Mid-month reading notes

imageWell, we’ve arrived at the month’s midpoint. My reading plans (described in this post) included:

A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; 1887. Fiction.)
Letters from a Stoic (Seneca; 1494.)
A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Clinton (Carl Bernstein; 2007. Non-fiction.)
The Last Policeman (Ben Winters; 2012. Fiction.)
Shylock Is My Name (Howard Jacobson; 2016. Fiction.)
Eileen (Ottessa Moshfegh; 2015. Fiction.)
My Name Is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout; 2016. Fiction.)
You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott; 2016. Fiction.)
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Col. Chris Hadfield; 2013. Non-fiction.)
Smarter Faster Better (Charles Duhigg; 2016. Non-fiction.)

From the above list, I have already completed:

You Will Know Me (Megan Abbott; 2016. Fiction.)
My Name Is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout; 2016. Fiction.)
A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; 1887. Fiction.)

Although I have not been following the Games, I couldn’t help but wonder, after reading Abbott’s novel, if I now understand the grim-faced masks women gymnasts don. As for questions about whether Strout’s novel deserves its place on the Man Booker Prize long list, I’d say yes. From My Name Is Lucy Barton:

p. 14
This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

p. 170
When Chrissie left for college, then Becka the next year, I thought — and it’s not an expression, I’m saying the truth — I did think I would die. Nothing had prepared me for such a thing. And I have found this to be true: Certain women feel like this, that their hearts have been ripped from their chests, and other women find it very freeing to have their children gone. The doctor who makes me not look like my mother, she asked me what I did when my daughters went to college, and I said, “My marriage ended.” I added quickly, “But yours won’t.” She said, “It might. It might.”

I finished A Study in Scarlet well in advance of the online book club / MOOC outline because much of the rest of the month is already spoken for.

From A Study in Scarlet, Part I, Chapter V:
“It was magnificent,” he said, as he took his seat. “Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”

From Part I, Chapter VII:
“All this seems strange to you,” continued Holmes, “because you failed at the beginning of the inquiry to grasp the importance of the single real clue which was presented to you. I had the good fortune to seize upon that, and everything which has occurred since then has served to confirm my original supposition, and, indeed, was the logical sequence of it. Hence things which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure, have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable. These strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so.”

From Part II, Chapter VII:
“I hardly expected that you would. Let me see if I can make it clearer. Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.”

I think I will finish Eileen later today, after which I plan to carry on with Shylock Is My Name. Related aside: We saw the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Merchant at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater over the weekend. Haunting. Reviews here and here. And because I so thoroughly disagreed with Steven Franks, I appreciated this bit from Chris Jones’ review:

And yet, just last week, my own newspaper published an editorial, penned by a Washington attorney, arguing, in essence, that “The Merchant of Venice” should never be performed again, on the grounds that it is incurably anti-Semitic.

That’s ridiculous, of course, not least because it is only in performance that the play proves its worth. In the hands of a competent director like Jonathan Munby, “The Merchant of Venice” can and does play as a cautionary tale of the perils of anti-Semitism. His work here in concert with the designer Mike Britton is the best I’ve seen from this oft-in-Chicago director. Only in performance can this be a work about how hate can poison an otherwise prosperous and privileged community, extracting a price on victims and perpetrators alike, destroying all that is good, really. This particular production, which features an especially devastating coda, is especially rich in the painting of that picture.

The other books I have finished this month are

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) (Felicia Day; 2015. Non-fiction.)
Injection, Volume 2 (Warren Ellis; 2016. Graphic fiction.)