What I’ve been reading

Current stack.

With more than three months remaining in the year, a goal of 208 books seemed reachable, so I readjusted my Goodreads challenge (for the third time); I’m currently at 178.

The New Wilderness (Diane Cook; 2020. Fiction.)
This caught my eye when it was long-listed for the Booker Prize. (It made the short list.) Review here. I wasn’t “dazzled,” but I was riveted.

The River at Night (Erica Ferencik; 2017. Fiction.)
The Truth about Harry Quebert Affair (Joël Dicker; 2014. Fiction.)
Every once in a while, I peruse the shelves, stop on a book, and think, “Hmmm. How did this get here?” So it was with these two. River, was mildly entertaining; Affair, however, was dreadful.

Sentient (Jeff Lemire; 2019. Graphic fiction.)
We Stand on Guard (Brian K. Vaughan; 2016. Graphic fiction.)
Both are solid stand-alone volumes.

The Piano Lesson (August Wilson; 1987. Drama.)
Fences (August Wilson; 1985. Drama.)
Two Trains Running (August Wilson; 1993. Drama.)
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (August Wilson; 1982. Drama.)
Radio Golf (August Wilson; 2005. Drama.)
Court Theatre’s 2020/21 season includes “Theatre & Thought,” four series of lectures by University of Chicago faculty and other scholars. For the first four-week series, “The World of August Wilson and the Black Creative Voice,” I’m making my way through the entire American Century Cycle.

From Radio Golf, Wilson’s last play:

If it don’t take all the quarters you fix it. Anybody with common sense will agree to that. What they don’t agree on is how to fix it. Some people say you got to tear it down to fix it. Some people say you got to build it up to fix it. Some people say they don’t know how to fix it. Some people say they don’t want to be bothered with fixing it. You mix them all in a pot and stir it up and you got America. That’s what makes this country great.

Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (Svetlana Alexievich; 2005 (1997). Non-fiction.)
Read as a companion to Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (2019). Haunting.

p. 107
I’ve felt something like this when someone close to me died. The sun is out, and the birds are flying, and the swallows, it starts raining — but he’s dead. Do you understand? I want to explain this whole other dimension in a few words, explain how it was for me then.

Further flute adventures

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Currently working through the second study in Köhler, Op. 33, Book 1.

The last in-person rehearsal of the band I joined in January was March 5. The director cancelled our March 10 and 12 meetings, and, of course, by the end of the following week, well….

For the seven weeks I participated, though, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Developmentally, it was exactly where I needed to be, and the flute teacher who led the sectionals not only was as credentialed as my private lessons teacher but had also performed with her.

In April and May, the band director gathered us via Zoom once a week. Although the meetings were strictly social in function, many of us did contribute to at least one of those collage performances that became ubiquitous in the early weeks of the shutdown. The quality of both our playing and the videos was dubious, at best, and eventually, participation waned. But, to my delight, flute sectionals continued. Rather than meeting as a group in Zoom, though, the sectionals teacher delivered individual lessons via FaceTime, a process my regular teacher and I had mastered by week two of the shutdown. Throughout the spring, then, tedious Zoom meetings were the small price I paid for excellent and unexpectedly abundant additional private instruction.

In late April, I also worked on a video performance of the first movement of Handel’s Flute Sonata in G major (HWV 363b)), my contribution to the annual recital my teacher hosted in mid-May.

Weekly band meetings continued into the summer, but despite the addition of stretching, warm-ups, and some playing, they remained, for me, simply a pathway to sectionals. In June, I suggested to the other flute players that we work on something as a section, and we eventually landed on the lovely “Sarabande” by Claude Debussy, with the goal that the director would dovetail the videos of our individual performances as he had for the collage performances of the band. The deceptively simple Debussy piece and tone and scale work were the focus of my remaining sectionals.

In my private lessons, we have continued to focus on P. Bona’s rhythmical articulation studies; Robert Cavally’s Melodious and Progressive Studies from Andersen, Gariboldi, Koehler, and Terschak for Flute; my new solo, “Morceau de Concours” by Gabriel Fauré; and a weekly duet. You probably already know that it is impossible to play or sing together in Zoom or FaceTime. Well, each week, my teacher randomly selects a piece from the Rubank collections, notes the metronome setting, and within two days forwards me a recording of her playing the second part. During an in-person lesson, she readily adapts to my tempo issues, reading errors, etc., but a recording is a merciless duet partner, which is an unanticipated  benefit of virtual lessons: I have vastly improved my duet work.

I hope to bring that improvement to my recording of “Sarabande,” which the flute section has rescheduled for the spring semester. In late July, I indicated that I would not return to band until then. Although there have been murmurs about in-person but socially distanced rehearsals later this fall, it seems unlikely: All but two band members are over fifty; more than half are in their sixties and seventies. Much as I have adored the additional private instruction, I am through with Zoom “rehearsals” until January at the earliest.

My current daily practice schedule remains much as it was in early January, then:

— 20 minutes: long tones and scales
— 20 minutes: Melodious and Progressive Studies
— 20 minutes: duet
— 15 to 20 minutes: rhythmical articulation
— 15 to 20 minutes: solo

In July, the music program with which my teacher is affiliated sponsored a series of free, multi-week seminars, and the one she led featured the scales and études high school musicians must prepare to audition for regional and state ensembles. She invited me to attend as either a participant or a viewer, and I chose the latter, which was both wise (those students are terrific and didn’t need this old woman slowing them down) and edifying (the scale work alone has added a new dimension to my practice). They also spent time working through “Dr. Sánchez’s Epic Flute Warm-up.” My teacher had introduced me to this a while back, but in the seminar, she reviewed every bar, and the benefits became more readily apparent to me. Now, once a week, I substitute the warm-up for long tones and scales.

Another change I’ve made to my practice is punctuating each of my first four practice sections with five minutes on a stationary bike — nothing overly exerting, just a bit of movement before carrying on with next bit. I’m not the sort who can abide exercise equipment as home decor, but we scored an incredible deal on a sturdy, folding model that I put away after practicing.

Studying music has ameliorated some of the isolating effects of this pandemic. I remain so thankful to be able to continue.

Still reading

A summertime photo: Last August, my daughters and I spent an evening at the beach not far from where my husband and I grew up. The sound of the waves washing in and out… one of my favorites.

As back-to-school season drew near, I craved the sort of books that slide down like a glass of Hi-C and some Oreos, a snack Debbie D.’s mother often served when we climbed out of the pool following a long afternoon of lazily spinning on floats and gossiping. What can I say? We were young and unworried. Anyway, that yen for the bound version of refined sugar explains these two selections:

The Gifted School (Bruce Holsinger; 2019. Fiction.)
A Good Marriage (Kimberly McCreight; 2020. Fiction.)

Good luck and a great conversation with my older daughter explain the four graphic works I finished since my last post:

Family Tree, Vol. 1: The Sapling (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
Something Is Killing the Children, Vol. 1 (James Tynion IV; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
Undiscovered Country, Vol. 1 (Scott Snyder; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist (Adrian Tomine; 2020. Graphic non-fiction.)

After revisiting our admiration of Jeff Lemire’s work, I poked around to see what he’s been working on lately. Say what you will about algorithms, I am grateful for the two recommendations that followed my discovery of Lemire’s Family Tree; I have enjoyed other titles by Tynion and Snyder and found these pretty solid. Tomine’s wry memoir arrived in my stack via a Goodreads recommendation.

This month, I concluded my Harry Potter reread:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling; 2007. Fiction.)

The only book I’d go out of my way to recommend, though:

Lost Children Archive (Valeria Luiselli; 2019. Fiction.)
Gorgeously written, thinky, harrowing. I really loved it. Reviews here and here.

p. 29
Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape? Or will it be all sound rubble, noise, and debris?

Notes

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This image was taken last August, when we visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History. How the time has… yes, flown.

Now that our daughters live within a five-hour drive, we are able to see them more easily and more often: We were out earlier this month and plan to return in early September, if travel restrictions permit.

Where did the last year go, though?

It’s August.

Again.

When the afternoon light achieved the autumn-approaches slant on the living room floor earlier this month, I called the company that services the heater and air-conditioner to schedule our annual clean and check. The tech we prefer is older and, concerned about his health, has greatly reduced his time in the field, so a new tech was assigned to our routine maintenance appointment.

He arrived on time, but the mask he wore looked like the dust protection my husband and I use when cleaning the garage, and his non-stop patter all but spelled “Look at my germ-laden droplets!” in the air around his face, so while our favorite tech may enter the common areas of house, the new guy was confined to the utility area. Trying to ensure he did what needed to be done from six feet away was tricky, but I caught two issues that would have resulted in a return visit that first cool morning in October. (Fingers crossed that there were only two.)

We are also catching up on postponed medical and dental appointments. I joked with my husband after one of my appointments that I would have rather been that up close and personal with my hair stylist (no, I haven’t been to the salon since February) than with the lab techs and radiologist. Haircuts are optional, he reminded me; healthcare is not.

In other news, with the Women of Trachis, I reached 159 books read this year.

Lanny (Max Porter; 2019. Fiction.)
Not as memorable as Grief Is the Thing with Feathers but worth reading. Related article here.

The Trial (Franz Kafka; 1914/1925. Trans. Breton Mitchell 1999. Fiction.)
Nightmarish and brilliant.

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath; 1963. Fiction.)
According to the Jackson bio I finished last month, Plath’s autobiographical novel was inspired by Hangsaman. Serendipity / synchronicity / synthesis abounds: I read Ted Hughes’ Crow earlier this month because it informed Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.

The Old Guard, Book One: Opening Fire (Greg Rucka; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
After hearing about the Netflix movie on NPR, I decided to watch it. As I said to my husband, what I would have loathed at a theater was harmless enough for a Saturday night couch date. Rucka also pens the Lazarus series I follow, so I decided to read the book.

Zone One (Colson Whitehead; 2011. Fiction.)
Review here.

p.183
He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect. He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me. He had the ammo. He took them all down.

p.266
We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.

Philoctetes (Sophocles; 409 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
Women of Trachis (Sophocles; 425 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
Read in anticipation of another Theater of War production.

Survivor Song (Paul Tremblay; 2020. Fiction.)
I loved A Head Full of Ghosts and thought The Cabin at the End of Woods was a solid page-turner, a perfect poolside read. So was this. As many other readers have noted, his prescience about just how badly we would fumble the response to an outbreak was more than a little eerie.

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-nine 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.