From the stacks

Sigh. How to explain How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend and The Other End of the Leash, the first of which I am nearly halfway through? All right. My daughters head off to university next month, and it seemed like as good a time as any to investigate adding a dog to our little company. A project (e.g., training a new companion) would certainly keep me from dwelling on the girls’ absence (overmuch), and multiple daily walks would burn off (some of) my tendency to worry. I had thought I wanted a puppy, but at the shelter, I fell in love with a young new mother whose adorable puppies are about to be put up for adoption. Maybe she and I will work through our separation issues together. We will see….

Speaking of mothers, Cindy Rollins kindly linked my old blog several times back in the day. Her memoir of homeschooling her eight children was released last week, and I wanted to return the favor. Congratulations, Cindy!

And speaking of memoirs, my daughter and I are about halfway through Jahren’s Lab Girl. Given how busy she is and how many books I am reading, that should serve as a recommendation, but if you need more, I tweeted a Los Angeles Review of Books review earlier this week: “A Lab of Her Own.”

The MOOC / online book club in which I participate will complete Dubliners this week. In August, we tackle A Study in Scarlet. With all of the Sherlockian studies our family-centered learning project has undertaken, it’s difficult to believe I have never read this, but I haven’t.

At the bottom of the pictured stack are my flute books. I’m nearly finished with Rubank Intermediate Method, a fact that stuns me a bit, actually. I am on songs 25 and 26 in Forty Little Pieces in Progressive Order, and my teacher has begun adding assignments in the Pares Scales book.

From The Elementals:

There’s no point in advertising a circus when everybody hates the clown.

McDowell’s The Elementals, which appeared in last week’s stack, will likely make my 2016 “best” list. When I was younger, I devoured horror fiction: With my first paycheck I purchased two paperback novels, Stephen King’s The Stand and The Shining. Eventually, I believed I had outgrown the genre, but looking back, I think I had simply been selecting from too shallow a pool. The familiar writers became repetitive, and I moved on. The Elementals, with its engaging dialogue, place as character, and a pervasive sense of danger, has reminded me how good a horror novel can be.

On and near the nightstand


Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

So begins Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade, a novel that is by turns wry and bleak. Here are two more passages for the commonplace book:

p. 47
But there was more to being an intellectual than a manner of speaking, more even than making the dean’s list every semester, or spending all your free time at museums and concerts and the kind of movies called “films.” There was learning not to be stricken dumb when you walked into a party full of older, certified intellectuals — and not to make the opposite mistake of talking your head off, saying one inane or outrageous thing after another in a hopeless effort to atone for whatever inane or outrageous thing you’d said two minutes before. And if you did make a fool of yourself at parties like that, you had to learn not to writhe in bed afterwards in an agony of chagrin.

p. 79
[B]esides, college had taught her that the purpose of a liberal-arts education was not to train but to free the mind. It didn’t matter what you did for a living; the important thing was the kind of person you were.

This week’s reading in Dubliners yielded a commonplace book entry, too:

From “After the Race”:

Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money.

From “Two Gallants”:
Though his eyes took note of many elements of the crowd through which he passed they did so morosely. He found trivial all that was meant to charm and did not answer the glances which invited him to be bold. He knew that he would have to speak a great deal, to invent and to amuse, and his brain and throat were too dry for such a task. The problem of how he could pass the hours till he met Corley again troubled him a little. He could think of no way of passing them but to keep on walking.

This coming week’s reading for the Dubliners MOOC / online book club comprises “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace,” which leaves “The Dead” for the fourth and final week. (And, yes, that is a different edition than was featured in the picture in last week’s post. What can I say? I wanted endnotes and Colum McCann’s introduction. Totally worth it.)

Later this year, I have a MOOC about the healing power of literature, a topic that has interested me for more than fifteen years. Jonathan Bate, who will lead the course, served as one of the editors of Stressed, Unstressed, a volume that posits that reading poetry (here gathered under such categories as “stopping,” “grieving,” and “living with uncertainty”) acts like a readerly balm on emotional unease. Lab Girl moved from the shelves to a TBR pile because my daughter chose the title as her “prize” for the local library’s summer reading program. We’re hoping to shoehorn it into the four weeks before she and her sister depart for university. Fingers crossed! The Gaiman and Ackerman titles in the stack above are also recent acquisitions, and The Elementals (from the shelves) will be this evening’s companion, as I have already finished the following (unpictured) books from my (unpictured) stacks:

Wonder (RJ Palacio; 2012. Fiction.)
Fell, Volume 1, Feral City (Warren Ellis; 2007. Graphic fiction.)
Injection, Volume 1 (Warren Ellis; 2015. Graphic fiction.)
Trees, Volume 1 (Warren Ellis; 2015. Graphic fiction.)
The Curse of the Good Girl (Rachel Simmons; 2009. Non-fiction.)

Wonder, like Holes (Louis Sachar) and A Long Way from Chicago (Richard Peck) is one of those books for young-ish readers that begs to be a family read-aloud. Tender and touching, the story is being brought to the big screen next year.

Officially mad about Ellis, I am so looking forward to the second volumes of both Injection and Trees. Alas, there is no Volume 2 of Fell, which was easily the best graphic work I’ve read this year. (Speaking of graphic works, did you hear the nerd girl Squeeeeeeee! when I finished Issue #156 of The Walking Dead? “Wait until Rick gets a look at you…” Heh, heh, heh.)

More soon.

Book notes

Here are a few from the piles, stacks, and shelves.

Shylock Is My Name (Howard Jacobson; 2016. Fiction.)
We will see The Merchant of Venice with Jonathan Pryce at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater next month, so I am reading the Hogarth Shakespeare retelling and rereading the play.

p. 16

He knew what she was nudging him about. One of the traits of his character she had always disliked was his social cruelty. He teased people. Riddled them. Kept them waiting. Made them come to him.

Dubliners (James Joyce; 1914. Fiction.)
I am rereading this for an online book club / MOOC and am once again reminded that many books were wasted on younger versions of me. Of the many valuable resources the club / course has provided so far, I thought the link to Mark O’Connell’s “Have I Ever Left It?” (Slate, May 2014) was particularly worthwhile.

From the conclusion of “Araby”:

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (J.D. Vance; 2016. Non-fiction.)
I picked this up after reading after reading Vance’s piece on The Huffington Post.

p. 7
The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work — a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way — carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.

p. 9
But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way — both for their sake, and by the grace of God, for mine.

Fell, Vol. 1: Feral City (Warren Ellis; 2007. Graphic fiction.)

Celestial Chaos No. 1

As we exited the Art Institute following a member morning at the now-concluded “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” (my images here), Tai Xiangzhou’s “Celestial Chaos No. 1” commanded my attention. It reminded me of Anselm Kiefer’s “Midgard,” which we had seen at the Milwaukee Art Museum over winter break.

Read more about “Midgard” here.

Rooted as they are in their respective mythologies (Chinese and Norse), don’t the paintings each evoke a sense of cosmic mystery? I was reminded of their similarity when reading the recent Member Magazine, which features a short article about the Art Institute’s acquisition of “Celestial Chaos No. 1” (no link available). The painting will be exhibited in Gallery 130 through the end of August.

In defense of book collecting

From the opening of Michael Robbins’ article “In defense of book collecting” (Chicago Tribune, June 26):

As of this writing there are 1,790 books in my apartment, some couple hundred in my campus office, and an unknown number floating about on loan to various friends and students. This represents a decrease of probably 20 percent from the height of my mania. Over the past few years, I have embarked on culling operations, boxing up hundreds of books and carting them to used bookstores. Spilling off shelves, piled in tottering stacks on every flat surface and a few angular ones, the books are snowing me under.

He had me at “Hello,” of course, but this bit slayed me:

Even after my latest and severest cull, I own three translations of “War and Peace,” a book I read about 150 pages of in high school and never opened again. “Some day!” the sirens sing to the book collector.

In his December 17, 2008 column for the Sun-Times, Neil Steinberg described reading War and Peace aloud to his son:

I am currently reading War and Peace, out loud to my older son, and we’re both loving it, not because it gives us something to brag about, but because it’s great. When Tolstoy describes a horse, it’s like an actual horse canters into the room, twitching and snorting. When Natasha jumps into her mother’s bed to tell the old countess about Prince Andrei, it could be any 16-year-old girl gushing about her dreamboat. It’s real.

When I first shared the link to that piece, I confessed to having acquired three translations of the tome:

war and peace1. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds; acquired in 1991

2. Translated by Anthony Briggs; acquired in February 2007

3. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; acquired in December 2007

Eight years, a move, and several culling operations later, I still have the Briggs and the Pevear/Volokhonsky, and, as Robbins suggests, the sirens still sing “Some day!’ to this book collector. At nearly seven thousand volumes, my collection has decreased about thirty-five percent since the height of my mania. Our move to the forever home resulted in the greatest cull, to date: It was the one in which the Edmonds translation was released. In the next major cull in 2014, I jettisoned more than ninety percent of the remaining home education materials and all but the treasured volumes in the children’s literature collection. Although I was once interested in YA trends, the genre has lost most of its appeal, which resulted in a mini-cull late last year and will likely result in another in the fall. And some books are now released soon after being read — for example, my “beach books.”

“You live in a library!” the mail carrier admired as he handed me another stack of deliveries. Well, yes. Sort of. It’s actually more of an antilibrary, though, as more than half of its contents are books I haven’t yet read. This once embarrassed me. Now it alternately enlivens and frightens me. From early in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

All of this book talk reminds me of another bit from Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles:

The Stackhouses had also banished the busy clunk of books that cluttered all three stories of her parents’ jumbled brick house in Carroll Gardens. Nothing betrayed you as a fuddy-duddy like parallels of shabby spines junking up the walls. Once you’d read a book, why retain it in three dimensions, save as a form of boasting? Now that you could balance the Library of Congress on your fingertip, dragging countless cartons of these spent objects from home to home was like moving with your eggshells.

And that reminds me of our move from Southern California to Chicago just before Christmas 1993. The movers were delayed twice and were rough with our belongings once they arrived in the city. Among other offenses, they tore our mattress, chipped two bookcases and a chest of drawers, and bent the handle of our new refrigerator. When they were finally, finally gone, we began unpacking in the kitchen. In the second box we found, carefully wrapped in paper towel and bubble wrap, the eggshells from the muffins I was making when the movers arrived to pack up our home two weeks earlier.

Some book notes


About the photo
■ The McCreight was a good beach read (even if I had solved much of its mysteries well before the midpoint and the central mystery almost upon “meeting” the character). I read her debut, Reconstructing Amelia, a couple of years ago. That’s the better book.

This post inspired me to tug the Booth book from the shelves.

This article prompted an impulse purchase.

The Mandibles… How is it possible that each Lionel Shriver novel I read is better than the last? I am made speechless by the humor and horror she wrings from a believably developed economic collapse and the slow apocalypse that follows, so I encourage you to read Jean’s remarks at Necromancy Never Pays. Her post includes a number of quotes from the book, but here is one I pressed into my commonplace book:

p. 15
Since the Stonage, he’d had an ear for it. Everyone else thought that the worst was behind them; order had been gloriously and permanently restored. But for Willing, during his own seminal where-were-you-then occasion at the grand old age of eight, The Day Nothing Went On had been a revelation, and revelations did not un-reveal themselves; they did not fit back into the cupboard. As a consequence of this irreversible epiphany, he had learned to upend expectations. There was nothing astonishing about things not working, about things falling apart. Failure and decay were the world’s natural state. What was astonishing was anything that worked as intended, for any duration whatsoever.

■ My youngest and I were alternately fascinated and horrified by the 2012 article “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” (The Atlantic). So, yes, I had to pick up McAuliffe’s book. I placed the order in response to this letter from Jeff Deutsch, director of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.

If every current member bought one additional book from us this year and then convinced a friend, family member or colleague to do the same, we would double our sales and nearly eliminate our operating deficit. I am asking you to advocate on behalf of this business with the same passion that you would if you were the sole owner.

Consider placing an order, won’t you? You were going to buy a book this week. You know it. I know it. Place the order with the Seminary Co-op Bookstores. Thank you.

Not about the photo
■ Fifteen of the sixty-five books I’ve completed to date have been works of graphic fiction; ten have been plays; and eleven have been non-fiction titles. I had (unspoken) goals of reading at least twenty-six non-fiction books this year and at least four volumes of poetry. Obviously, at eleven and zero, I am not poised to reach them; however, putting the goals in writing may increase the odds that I will, at the very least, try harder.

■ Of the twenty-nine novels I’ve read so far this year, the standouts comprise:

The Shawl (Cynthia Ozick; 1990. Fiction.)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan; 2013. Fiction.)
The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell; 1996. Fiction.)
Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad; 1899. Fiction.)
A Good School (Richard Yates; 1978. Fiction.)
The Girls (Emma Cline; 2016. Fiction.)
The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (Lionel Shriver; 2016. Fiction.)
The Only Ones (Carola Dibbell; 2015. Fiction.)

I wrote about The Sparrow, a reread, here. My experience with Conrad’s slim volume served as a sobering reminder that some books were absolutely wasted on younger versions of me. My recommendation of The Girls (and Helter Skelter) last month was probably lost in the chorus, but don’t miss the thoughtful post at The Sheila Variations.

Weekend. Reading.

Summer began in earnest this weekend, didn’t it? The wall of heat just beyond our home’s entrances — ugh. Still, we were able to take two ten-mile rides and to sit out in the yards for a time in both the mornings and the evenings. We love to watch our many feathered visitors. With profuse thanks to the air-conditioning gods, we cooked good meals and desserts this weekend, too, and practiced music, studied, finished Season 7 of The X Files, and, of course, read.

After swallowing whole Emma Cline’s The Girls (which is a recommendation, of course), I went in search of my copy of Helter Skelter and finally read it (which is another recommendation — of both the novel and the non-fiction work). Cline nailed the idea of a girl’s search for self-definition in the measuring looks / glances of others, particularly men. One reviewer took the novelist to task for not immersing Evie in the cult’s horror, but to me, that was the point: She was defined by her association, however brief or peripheral.

For the commonplace book:

p. 27
Back then, I was so attuned to attention. I dressed to provoke love, tugging my neckline lower, settling a wistful stare on my face whenever I went out in public that implied many deep and promising thoughts, should anyone happen to glance over. As a child, I had once been part of a charity dog show and paraded around a pretty collie on a leash. How thrilled I’d been at the sanctioned performance: the way I went up to strangers and let them admire the dog, my smile as indulgent and constant as a salesgirl’s, and how vacant I’d felt when it was over, when no one needed me anymore.

I waited to be told what was good about me. I wondered later if this was why there were so many more women than men at the ranch. All that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you — the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.

p. 99
The possibility of judgment being passed on me supplanted any worries or questions I might have about Russell. At that age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.

p. 103
There are those survivors of disasters whose accounts begin with the tornado warning or the captain announcing engine failure, but always much earlier in the timeline: an insistence that the noticed a strange quality to the sunlight that morning or excessive static in their sheets. A meaningless fight with a boyfriend. As if the presentiment of catastrophe wove itself into everything that came before.

Did I miss some sign? Some internal twinge?

p. 351
It was a gift. What did I do with it? Life didn’t accumulate as I’d once imagined. […] I paid bills and bought groceries and got my eyes checked while the days crumbled away like debris from a cliff face. Life a continuous backing away from the edge.

And from Helter Skelter:

p. 52
Autopsy reports are abrupt documents. Cold, factual, they can indicate how the victims died, and give clues as to their last hours, but nowhere in them do their subjects emerge, even briefly, as people. Each report is, in its own way, the sum total of a life, yet there are very few glimpses as to how that life was lived. No likes, dislikes, loves, hates, fears, aspirations, or other human emotions; just a final, clinical summing up: “The body is normally developed… The pancreas is grossly unremarkable… The heart weighs 340 grams and is symmetrical…”

Yet the victims had lived, each had a past.