■ Monster (Walter Dean Myers; 1999. Fiction.)
Before his incarceration, sixteen-year-old Steven Harmon was a high school student who particularly enjoyed his film course. In prison, to recover his sense of self, he keeps a diary in the form of a movie script. While watching They Call Us Monsters, I wondered how familiar Ben Lear was with this contemporary young adult classic.
■ Birds Life Art (Kyo Maclear; 2017. Non-fiction.)
This lovely and meditative volume yielded the following commonplace book entries:
My husband is far too loyal and drowsy to doubt me. If I embark on a fantastically ill-conceived journey, I know he will be the guy throwing paper streamers in the air and hooting, “Farewell! Farewell!”
This is what we do. We cheer each other on in our misadventures.
Smallness did not dismay me. Big nature travel — with its extreme odysseys and summit-fixated explorers — just seemed so, well, grandiose. The drive to go bigger and farther just one more instance of the overreaching at the heart of Western culture.
I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.
I was a bookish child and grew to be a bookish adult. Books gave me pleasure, but they also gave me permission to isolate myself, to turn away from the world when it bothered or frightened me. Books allowed me to hide from demands, from the day, from family and the immediate world. They provided solace and amusement in the deep night and served as surrogates for friendship when I was far away from home.
■ Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders; 2017. Fiction.)
Whether or not you ordinarily like audiobooks, you must hear Saunders’ first novel to appreciate how original and remarkable it is. My husband and I listened during trips to and from the University and in and out of Chicago, and we are still talking about this beautiful book. (Related article here.) Neither of us were surprised to learn that it will be a film; nor were we really surprised by this bit of synchronicity.
■ The Art of Practicing (Madeline Bruser; 1999. Non-fiction.)
Much of the advice seemed, well, obvious. Stretch. Be mindful. Work but not painfully. Focus. Do what you love. And so on.
■ After a few fits and starts, I am poised to finish Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation this week. A thought-provoking exploration of what has been lost since people have turned away from each other to connect via phone, this book suffered the fate many of mine do: It was tossed aside, unfinished, when I, a promiscuous reader if e’er there were one, picked up another. And another. And another. And so on. (It’s embarrassing how grateful the books seem when I return to them. Have they no respect for themselves? Chuckle.) Here are two short commonplace book entries:
The desire for the edited life crosses generations, but the young consider it their birthright.
They decide there should be a rule: A good friend should keep you off your phone when you are together.
■ My husband and I have been rereading Moby Dick; or, The Whale. It began as a desperate bid to sleep through the night but has evolved into a project that provides discussion fodder and new in-jokes. (“Queequeg, my fine friend, does this sort of thing often happen?”) We long ago fell into the habit of leaving a muted radio set to WGN or WBEZ playing as we slumbered. Late last year, though, when frequent awakenings began to affect the quality of our rest, we realized — after changing pillows, thermostats, sheets, and alarms — that the newscasts punctuating our favorite features (and later, the topics to which our favorite features had inevitably turned) were the disturbance. What to do? Ah, an audiobook! Each night, we pick up where we left off, in an endless loop — which is really much more delightful than it sounds. We were already fans of Moby Dick, but William Hootkins’ narration makes us wonder why it is not even more widely read. I am revisiting the text itself, too, (re)marking favorite passages and making new notes. From the opening of Chapter XLIX: The Hyena:
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.
■ My “Shakespeare in a Year” project is going well, although I somehow fell a bit behind with the sonnets. As National Poetry Month draws to a close, though, I will finish Sonnets 49 through 54. May brings The Merchant of Venice and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Sonnets 55 through 66 and The Rape of Lucrece. (I wonder if Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name, a book I wantonly set aside last summer, will show me the same embarrassing gratitude Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation has when I return to it next month to complement my reread of Merchant?)
■ Speaking of National Poetry Month, I will close with the conclusion to one of my favorite poems, Tom Hennen’s “The Life of a Day“:
[…] For some reason
we like to see days pass, even though most of us
claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a
long time. We examine each day before us with
barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been
looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for
the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will
start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by per-
fectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the
right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light
breeze scented with a perfume made from the
mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak
leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meander-