Book notes

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:

p. 26
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.

p. 48
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.

p. 86
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.

Other notes…
■ 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:

p. 54

The desire for the edited life crosses generations, but the young consider it their birthright.

p. 147
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-
ing skunk.


The Virginia Theatre, as seen from our hotel room.

Filmgoers began lining up before 9 a.m. on Friday. We planned to join our daughters for a late breakfast before heading to the festival, but for a tiny moment, I wondered if I should make camp outside the Virginia Theatre. In the end, we joined the line at 11:40 a.m. and had located terrific seats by 12:10 p.m. No camping required!

Anecdote: On March 30, I followed a link from the University’s site to the official Ebertfest site and scrolled through the films. The documentary immediately attracted my interest, but then… I couldn’t believe my eyes! Sheila O’Malley’s short film July and Half of August was scheduled to be screened just before They Call Us Monsters. What synchronicity, eh? (I recently republished my post about seeing the reading of her play in Chicago.) With her powerful short still on my mind, I send prayers to the film gods that it has attracted the sort of attention that will result in feature-length treatment. More people need to meet Neve. Two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Ben Lear’s documentary weaves the debate surrounding a California State bill concerning whether juveniles should be tried as adults with the story of three juvenile offenders enrolled in a script-writing class while awaiting their sentences. Thumbs up!


Image taken on April 8.

We visited the University’s arboretum when we last saw our daughters. It has been in the sixties and seventies there since they returned from spring break; their blooms are weeks ahead of ours.

Speaking of weeks, it has been two since my last post. The time passed in yard work, bike rides, books, two flute lessons, and several volunteer hours, among other things. I also completed “Literature in the Digital Age,” a FutureLearn MOOC. And I saw Remy Bumppo’s Born Yesterday, which runs through the end of this month.

Paul: A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.

Reading notes

Here are some passages for the commonplace book:

From Before the Fall (Noah Hawley; 2016. Fiction.):

p. 95
The machine he believed himself to be broke down. and Gus found himself immersed in an experience he had witnessed for years in his job with the NTSB, but never truly understood. Grief. Death was not an intellectual conceit. It was an existential black hole, an animal riddle, both problem and solution, and the grief it inspired could not be fixed or bypassed like a faulty relay, but only endured.

p. 101
Convergence. It’s one of those things that feels meaningful, but isn’t. At least he doesn’t think it is. How could it be? A batter in Boston fouling pitches into the stands while a small plan struggles through low coastal fog. How many millions of other activities begin and end at the same time? How many other “facts” converge in just the right way, creating symbolic connectivity?

p. 251
He breaks off, thinking, aware that he is not giving them what they wanted, but concerned that their questions are too important to answer in the moment, to define in passing, simply to meet some kind of arbitrary deadline. What was the experience like? Why did it happen? What does it mean going forward? These are the subjects for books. They are questions you meditate for years — to find the right words, to identify all the critical factors, both subjective and objective.

It’s unsurprising that the flow of this “thumping good read” reminds me of great television; Hawley is a television writer and producer.

From The Last One (Alexandra Oliva; 2016. Fiction.):

p. 58
This adventure I asked for, it’s not what I was expecting, not what I wanted. I thought I would feel empowered, but I’m only exhausted.

p. 90
For all her love of animals, for all her work with animals, she feels little remorse. She is comfortable in her knowledge that humans are omnivores and that securing reliable sources of protein is what allowed the species to evolve its current intelligence. She will not kill to kill, but she will kill to eat, and she sees little difference between the eyes of a dead fish and a live one.

Some reviews mentioned that the book erred in revealing its “twist” in the opening pages. They miss the point. Completely. A central conceit of a “reality” survival show is that the audience has information the participants do not. Here, the reader has knowledge the protagonist does not, so The Last One delivers its gut-punch not in a twist but rather in Mae’s eventual comprehension that what she had thought was the fakery of television is actual her new reality.

From The Hard Problem (Tom Stoppard; 2015. Drama.):

From Scene Five:
Hilary (roused) Being wrong about human behaviour half the time is our guiding star, Leo! It’s what’s telling us the study of the mind is not a science. We’re dealing in mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan — accountability, duty freewill, language, all the stuff that makes behaviour unpredictable.

We saw Stoppard’s latest play at the Court Theatre this past weekend. If you’re in the area, both it and TimeLine Theatre’s A Disappearing Number are must-see theater. Both run through April 9.

In other reading…
Election Day (April 4) was a long slog made bearable by Lucinda Rosenfeld’s Class, a book light enough that I could regularly look away but meaty enough that I didn’t feel like I had consumed the mental equivalent of Yodels.

Brian Wood’s The Massive is a pretty terrific post-apocalyptic tale. My daughters, both artists and readers of graphic fiction, say that I should remark on the art when I talk about graphic fiction. It’s generally all about the story for me, but in these volumes, I realized that I do know when a different artist takes over. In a medium dependent on image, why would one change artists partway through the story? Different styles change the narrative in subtle ways. Is that the point? Or is it simpler than that? Is one artist available when one issue or arc is being prepared for publication but unavailable for another? Well, in any event, Danijel Zezelj’s work in the “Sahara” arc was particularly powerful.

For my “Shakespeare in a Year” project, I have read through Sonnet 45 and Line 936 of Venus and Adonis, the latter of which I find the more satisfying endeavor. (No pun, Shakespearean or otherwise, intended.) Don Paterson’s commentary, however, quite nearly makes slogging through the sonnets worth it. Irreverent and insightful and highly recommended.

Since my last bookish post, I’ve also (re)read Richard II, a favorite of mine…

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills….

… and Romeo and Juliet. Is it old(er) age that makes me increasingly immune to this story’s appeal? I must have muttered, “Overwrought,” two dozen or more times while reading and listening. Mercutio, though. What an invention! I think it was Bloom who posited that the Mercutio passages presage the verbal antics of Hamlet. I can believe it.

In advance of seeing the CST’s Tug of War: Foreign Fire last year, I read Edward III, which occurs in the reading plan between Richard III and The Comedy of Errors. I simply have not been able to bring myself to reread it. Since this admission does not appear to have gotten me booted from the group, I plan to move on to A Midsummer Night’s Dream this coming weekend.

A related aside: Over spring break I shared with my daughters my proposal for the CST’s 2017-18 season: Richard II with Scott Parkinson as the deposed king, Coriolanus with Timothy Edward Kane as the (to my mind) underappreciated noble, and Titus Andronicus with Larry Yando in the lead. You heard it here first, folks.

Smart Museum of Art

Arthur Dove. Harbor in Light. 1929.

Max Dungert. Landscape. Circa 1920.

Norman Lewis. Untitled. 1947.

Chinese, Shang Dynasty. Ritual Tripod Cooking Vessel. Circa 1300-1200 B.C.E.

Chinese, Northern Song Dynasty. Guardian Figures. 1056-63.

R: Japanese, Kofun Period. Haniwa: Warrior Head. Circa 5th century.
L: Isamu Noguchi. Iron Wash. 1956.

Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes. Cloud Study. 1817.

Giovanni Castrucci. Wooded Landscape with Crenellated Wall. Circa 1600-07.

I took the above images this afternoon at the Smart Museum of Art. My husband and I were able to visit before seeing Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem at the Court Theatre. (Yeah, it was pretty much a perfect day.)

By the numbers

The 2.75-mile trail along which we logged five geocaches.

Number of weeks, more or less, since my last post.

Number of days in our daughters’ spring break, during which they studied, researched, and recharged at home.

Number of geocaches we logged during their break. What a delight to share this new pursuit with them!

Number of trips into Chicago during spring break: one for the Lyric Opera’s Eugene Onegin (review here) and one for Love’s Labor’s Lost at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (review here).

Number of hours I will have worked (early voting and Election Day) for the Consolidated Primary and the Consolidated Election. The turnout was much larger in October and November, which is both normal (Presidential Election) and puzzling (when you consider that local elections have an immediate impact on a voter’s life).

Number of weeks I’ve completed in my latest MOOC. (Three to go.) This one concerns reading in the digital age and has sent me to the shelves for my copies of The Shallows (Nicholas Carr) and The Gutenberg Elegies (Sven Birkerts).

Number of books I’ve already read this year. This is shaping up to be the first “Big (Reading) Year” I’ve posted since adopting a “reading slowly” approach. I haven’t moved away from that; rather, I simply have even more time to read. Book notes to follow.