Reading notes

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Current stack.

With The Good Soldier, I reached 151 books read this year, 120 of which were from my shelves. Over on Goodreads, I had selected 104 as my original challenge goal but eventually updated that to 120. More recently, I changed it to 156, but now I wonder: Is 208 a realistic goal?

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Ruth Franklin; 2016. Non-fiction.)
My unplanned Jackson unit began in May with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I read and then watched. In June, after reading Sheila’s review of Shirley, I promptly grabbed Merrell’s novel from the shelves, then watched the film. What am I waiting for? I asked myself in late June and pulled Franklin’s tome from the shelves. I finished this meticulous and engaging biography in July and followed it with The Haunting of Hill House.

p. 172
Writing in the interstices — the hours between morning kindergarten and lunch, while the baby napped, or after the children had gone to bed — demanded a discipline that suited her. She was constantly thinking of stories while cleaning, cooking, or doing just about anything else.

Richard II (William Shakespeare; 1595. Drama.)
To complement this excellent programming. One of my favorite lines of Shakespeare:

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings….

The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959. Fiction.)
See above.

Say, Say, Say (Lila Savage; 2019. Fiction.)
Review here.

Ajax (Sophocles; 442 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
In anticipation of this excellent presentation.

Gideon Falls, Vol. 4: The Pentoculus (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (Max Porter; 2015. Fiction.)
Reviews here and here. Remarkable. Two passages for the commonplace book:

BOYS
She told us that men are rarely truly
kind, but they were often funny, which
is better. ‘You would do well to prepare
yourselves for disappointment’ she said,
‘in your dealings with men. Women are on
the whole much stronger, usually cleverer’
she said, ‘but less funny, which is a shame.
Have babies, if you can’ she said ‘because
you’ll be good at it. Help yourselves to
anything you find in this house. I want to
give you everything I have because you
are the most precious and beautiful boys.
You remind me of everything I have ever
been interested in’ she said.

DAD
Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J.K. Rowling; 2005. Fiction.)
Revisiting these books that my son and I so enjoyed has been sweetly nostalgic, but with this, the penultimate volume in the beloved series, the flaws have become too big to hide under a long sweater of sentiment. They’re just not particularly well-stitched, are they?

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Adam Higginbotham; 2019. Non-fiction.)
I watched the HBO series and thought, Why haven’t I read Midnight yet? For the record, the non-fiction account is many, many times more frightening than the cable program.

In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration (Shane O’Mara; 2020. Non-fiction.)
Related link here. A quick read, O’Mara’s survey of the brain-body connection complemented my own experience: as my mileage increased, so did my active and engaged reading and practicing.

An aside: When I tendered my resignation from my tutoring gig, I was asked — so many, many times — what I planned to do with myself. To most, I said, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll find something.” To those closest to me, though, I confided that I wanted nothing more from re-retirement than the time to read more, write more, study more, practice more, and walk more. And, boy, have I had the time, eh? That’s what happens, I suppose, when one’s re-retirement begins exactly twelve days before the world presses the PAUSE button.

Crow (Ted Hughes; 1970. Poetry.)
Of course, after reading Porter’s novel, I had to read the poetry that inspired it.

An aside: Each New Year’s Day, my family engages in the bird of the year game outlined in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. (Related link here.) To mix things up a bit this year, we decided to move the date of our game to the first day back to work after the winter holiday, January 6. We could choose a bird from our respective backyards or a bird we saw at work. That morning, I awoke to the sound of crows conversing loudly beneath our bird feeders. My favorite bird! Finally, the year of the crow!

Speaking of backyard birding, a rock dove landed in the yard the day before yesterday. I’ve never seen a pigeon at our feeders; it dwarfed the mourning doves and blue jays. How capacious they are! A second pigeon made a few passes over the yard but didn’t touch down. Later, I saw both on my neighbor’s roof. This is a wooded neighborhood, so the pigeons looked quaintly out of place.

The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford; 1915. Fiction.)
Related link here. How did I arrive at (mumble) years of age without reading this book?

There and back again

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This photo was taken on the way to Michigan from Massachusetts. I think we were crossing the Hudson but freely admit that most of the trip was a well-organized blur.

Last Wednesday, we returned home after driving from Illinois to Massachusetts to Michigan and back to Illinois. The last bit was in an empty sixteen-foot rental truck, along a construction-riddled route, during a torrential rainstorm. Perhaps fickle gods thought Covid 19 too weak a trial for us and decided to strew additional challenges across our path.

Well, we persevered and have largely recovered our respective grooves, Mr. Nerdishly and I. Our cats, who were boarded at a tony kitty hotel that I once innocently (and obviously mistakenly) referred to as the Pussy Palace, recovered their equanimity much more rapidly than I could have hoped and certainly more quickly than I, who needed several sleep-ins before feeling like myself again.

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Since my last list, I’ve finished four books, bringing my total to 139 books read to date.

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Mary L. Trump; 2020. Non-fiction.)
This was the soundtrack of most of the second leg of our travels (Massachusetts to Michigan); I finished listening during one of our walks once we returned home. I agree with this reviewer: keenly observed, well written, and “the most convincingly empathetic chronicle of Donald Trump I’d ever read.”

A Separation (Katie Kitamura; 2017. Fiction.)
This was well-reviewed by critics but not necessarily by readers, if the mixed reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are an indication. I really liked it, though. It reminded me of The Third Hotel (Laura van den Berg), a book I read and admired in 2018.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; 1774. Trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan; 1990. Fiction.)
Yes, he’s troubled and self-absorbed, but I don’t belong to the reading club that maintains we must like the protagonist to like the book. I will say, though, that I am old enough to have wanted to be “quite severe” with Werther, to insist that he get a grip and meet a few more suitable companions. Heh, heh, heh.

p. 9
There is a certain monotony about mankind. Most people toil during the greater part of their lives in order to live, and the slender span of free time that remains worries them so much that they try by every means to get rid of it. O Destiny of Man!

Antigone (Sophocles; 441 B.C. Trans. Ian Johnston; 2016. Drama.)
Read in anticipation of an upcoming Theater of War production.

 

“[T]he sole solution of all of the riddles of life and death”

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A sixth bloom has emerged, but I will instead share an image of my current stack.

With The Farm I arrived at 135 books read this year; 110 from the shelves.

The Return of the Soldier (Rebecca West; 1918. Fiction.)
In May, when I finished Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge (1912), I remarked that it was difficult to believe that was her first novel; it was so assured and true. West’s first novel is even more so — remarkable and memorable.

p. 65
Even though I lay weeping at it on the dead leaves I was sensible of the bitter rapture that attends the discovery of any truth. I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the inessential and the irritating. I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality out of all the appearances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit discovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him. But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder; 1927. Fiction.)
This was a reread.

p. 138
The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Leo Tolstoy; 1886. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Fiction.)
This, too, was a reread, my fourth time encountering Tolstoy’s novella. The first was in AP English, thirty-eight years ago. What do typical seventeen-year-olds take away from reading Tolstoy? Oh, I was more than capable of parroting a teacher (or a study guide) on Tolstoy’s biography, the key characters, the basic plot, the essential themes and symbols, but I’m not sure I had actually read The Death of Ivan Ilyich until my third encounter, in my forties.

“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be when I did everything properly?” he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all of the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry; 1958. Drama.)
I had planned to read this in Spring 2003 for the “One Book, One Chicago” program. Better late than never.

The Farm (Tom Rob Smith; 2014. Fiction.)
A run of so many terrific books rendered this meh novel even more mediocre.

Still blooming

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Yes, that’s a fifth flower. I am amazed. And, yes, if those two buds open, at least one, perhaps two more mediocre orchid photos will follow.

The count now stands at 130, with 105 read from my shelves.

The Amateurs (Liz Harmer; 2019. Fiction.)
Review here.

Postal: Deliverance, Vol. 2 (Brian Edward Hill; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
Ascender, Vol. 2: The Dead Sea (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
Hoopla has enabled me to keep up on series that interest me.

The Tao of Pooh (Benjamin Hoff; 1982. Non-fiction.)
This is a somewhat different book now than it was when I first read it. The story of the author’s difficulties with the publisher are chronicled on his website.

The Pearl (John Steinbeck; 1947. Fiction.)
It seems impossible that I have not read this before, but I could not remember anything more than the horrific conclusion.

p. 25
For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. This is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.

Death in Venice (Thomas Mann; 1912. Trans. Michael Henry Heim; 2004. Fiction.)
Again, how is it possible that I have not read this? The Heim translation is introduced by Michael Cunningham, who writes, in part, “All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can. Some of us do better than others.”

How about this for serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity?

p. 84
The cases were kept secret. Within a week, however, there were ten of them, then twenty, thirty, and in different districts to boot. […] The Venetian authorities issued a statement to the effect that health conditions have never been better then took the most essential precautions against the disease. […] But fear of the overall damage that would be done — concern over the recently opened art exhibition in the Public Gardens and the tremendous losses with which the hotels, the shops, the entire, multifaceted tourist trade would be threatened in case of panic and loss of confidence — proved stronger in the city than the love of truth and respect for international covenants: it made the authorities stick stubbornly to their policy of secrecy and denial.

Interesting aside: The word legerdemain is used in the description of one of the pearl dealers in Steinbeck’s short novel. It’s not a common word, so it struck me when I encountered it again in the Heim translation of Mann’s work.

Blooming

EAC09A27-9B2B-4E47-A949-5897C13B70ACA third bloom! How lucky am I?

In other news…

In about two hours, I will attend my fourth Theater of War production. Warm thanks to the reader who brought this fabulous group to my attention. Today they’re doing The Book of Job Project, using the Stephen Mitchell translation. Maybe I’ll “see” you there?

Also, I finished two more books in June and wanted to add them to the count, which, at the year’s midpoint, stands at 124, with 102 read from the shelves.

Circe (Madeline Miller; 2018. Fiction.)
Read with my older daughter as part of our informal summer reading program. Both of us described it as a page-turner and finished it in one day. Related links here and here.

The Godmother (Hannelore Cayre; 2019. Fiction.)
Light and quick with a few witty observations. Perhaps it will work better as a movie?

p.16
People say I’m bad tempered, but I think this is hasty. It’s true I’m easily annoyed, because I find people slow and often uninteresting. For example, when they’re banging on about something I couldn’t give a crap about, my face involuntarily takes on an impatient expression which I find hard to hide, and that upsets them. So, they think I’m unfriendly. It’s the reason I don’t really have any friends, just acquaintances.

Two goals met

883EF32C-54C1-41FE-BC51-C4C987C1471CWith White Fragility, I reached my goal of reading 100 books from the shelves this year. Diangelo’s treatise also put me at a total of 122 books, which exceeds my Goodreads challenge goal of 120 (recently increased from 104). With six months remaining in the year, the suggestion that I raise the goal to 240 did not go unconsidered, but July will be a busy month for me, and I would like to tackle a few reading “projects” later this summer and into autumn. More about that in another post.

Here are the books I’ve read since June 15.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party (M.T. Anderson; 2006. Fiction.)
A brutal but deeply moving novel from the author of Feed, a family book club selection from a few years back. Related link here.

Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine; 2008. Non-fiction.)
Even more powerful when reread.

The Blood of Emmett Till (Timothy B. Tyson; 2017. Non-fiction.)
Related links here and here.

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein; 2006. Non-fiction.)
Did I read this when it was first published? All of the jokes are familiar. And maybe that’s the problem.

Thick and Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom; 2019. Non-fiction.)
This book grabbed me by the collar, and it still hasn’t set me down and straightened my shirt. Remarkable. If it were feasible, I would press the entire text into my commonplace book.

p. 72
They say the beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that ugly is as ugly does. Both are lies. Ugly is everything done to you in the name of beauty.

Knowing the difference is part of getting free.

Make Your Home Among Strangers (Jennine Capó Crucet; 2015. Fiction.)
The Mad Scientist’s Daughter (Cassandra Rose Clarke; 2016. Fiction.)
Books that might have appealed to my much younger self still show up in my stacks and occasionally on my shelves. What can I say? A bag of Jax cheese curls or a box of Nabisco sugar wafers will sometimes end up in the pantry, too. Let’s just be grateful I don’t pull out a tube top or my neon green belt, eh?

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling; 2003. Fiction.)
Speaking of my younger self, it has been sweetly nostalgic to revisit these books my son and I so enjoyed.

Broken Monsters (Lauren Beukes; 2014. Fiction.)
Review here.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Robin Diangelo; 2018. Non-fiction.)
Flawed? Or diagnostic?

No ice, please

Orchids and I don’t usually enjoy long-lasting relationships; that is, they generally spend more time with me than a bouquet of flowers.

But not much more.

Before I left last summer, I gave my daughters a beautiful orchid from IKEA. When they came home for the holidays, my older daughter admired my new orchid (a just-in-case-I-forgot-someone-at-work holiday gift). I asked how long the IKEA orchid lasted. Wait, what do you mean it’s still alive? So, yeah, apparently, their orchid had not only grown but sprouted new leaves, new roots, and eventually, buds.

What’s your secret, kid?

“I just water it like the rest of plants, Mom.”

Wait, what? That’s it?

When I visited in February, I saw this mighty orchid for myself. My daughters have arranged most of their many plants on benches in the sun-filled windows of the Boston-area apartment they share. They’re thriving — my daughters and those plants. Even the orchid.

Hmmm. Just water it, eh? I can no longer remember if I was my aunt or my sister (maybe both?) who told me that orchids get ice-cubed not watered, but does it matter? Why did it never occur to me to research the matter myself? For years, I plied my orchids with ice cubes.

And they died.

Well, my current orchid has never met an ice cube; I just water it like the rest of the plants. When a new leaf emerged, I took a chance and repotted it with some orchid mix from Home Depot. Another leaf. Two roots. Two new stems. A number of buds.

And now… flowers.

Don’t ice your orchids, folks.

Our first visitor since February

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Recent acquisitions.

Seemingly overnight, the kitchen faucet grew stiff, refusing to swing from one sink to the other. After watching a few DIY videos, I decided to call my plumber. As it turns out, the problem was a bit more involved than new o-rings and lubricant, so we ended up with a new faucet.

“Want something different?” he asked before heading out to pick up the replacement.

What I thought: No. No, I do not. I want it to be precisely the same as it was just before it ceased swinging effortlessly from one sink to the other. Make my faucet work or put in its twin. And be quick, darn it; there’s a pandemic going on out there!

What I said: No, thank you. Hey, and how long will that take?

We wore masks. All of the windows were open. I’ve cleaned and cleaned again. I am fervently hoping that’s enough. But, well, I worry.

On the bright side, the shiny new faucet swings from one sink to the other.

And I received some new books.

Shooting into the sun

 

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Recent acquisitions.

When I left for my first walk of the day at 5:32 a.m., the thermometer in this window read 58 degrees. Twelve hours later, it reads exactly fifty degrees higher. The light in this spot is so lovely, but in the summer, when the street-facing side of the forever home is bathed in sun, we would be pizza in a brick oven if not for central air conditioning and the beautiful oak that partially shades the front.

According to our arborist, the cold, wet spring was hard on trees, especially oaks, and for the first time in ten springs, that protective oak out front is struggling. We have been relatively lucky, though: Other property owners have experienced catastrophic tree loss since the odd deluge / drought cycles began in 2011. Still, I worry. We lost a maple in the backyard in 2014 to rot stemming from the previous owner’s bad pruning, and shortly after that tree was removed, the backyard oak began showing signs of stress. It was eventually diagnosed with bur oak blight, and, oh, has it been plied with the tree health services since! It finally showed signs of stability last summer, and yesterday the arborist expressed cautious optimism about its chances for survival. He was also encouraged by our ginkgo tree’s miraculous rebirth: Last month, its new leaves suddenly browned and shriveled, but it proved healthy enough to sprout an entirely new set a few weeks later.

I sat down in this clean, well-lighted place to write about the new books I received this afternoon and the one I finished reading this morning, but all of my thoughts are about the trees. I mourned the maple and continue to feel its loss; and I worry about the oaks as much as I do the cats. What explains my attachment?

From Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees:

But we shouldn’t be concerned about trees purely for material reasons, we should also care about them because of the little puzzles and wonders they present us with. Under the canopy of the trees, daily dramas and moving love stories are played out. Here is the last remaining piece of Nature, right on our doorstep, where adventures are to be experienced and secrets discovered.