Reading notes

IMG_2498When my younger daughter and I embarked on our plan to (re)read The Odyssey before she returns to campus later this month, we agreed to tackle five or six of the epic’s books per week. We soon became so engrossed, however, that we finished weeks ahead of our schedule. We read the much-admired Fagles translation, and it was fine. An ardent Stephen Mitchell fan, I would have preferred his translation, but it is, inexplicably, unavailable in audiobook. I read the Fagles translation to the accompaniment of none other than Sir Ian McKellen, yet I pined for Alfred Molina reading Mitchell.

Here are my commonplace book entries:

Book Seven
I’m just a mortal man.
Whom do you know most saddled down with sorrow?
They are the ones I’d equal, grief for grief.
And I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget —
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding,
‘Eat, drink!’ It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, ‘Fill me up!’

Book Eight
With a dark glance
wily Odysseus shot back, “Indecent talk, my friend.
You, you’re a reckless fool – I see that. So,
the gods don’t hand out all their gifts at once,
not build and brains and flowing speech to all….”

Book Eighteen
[N]otorious for his belly, a ravenous, bottomless pit
for food and drink….

Book Twenty
So surrender to sleep at last. What a misery,
keeping watch through the night, wide awake –
you’ll soon come up from under all your troubles.

It’s wildly optimistic of us, but now we are hoping to read The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne) before she leaves. Also filed under “W” (for “Wildly Optimistic”) is the copy of Persuasion in the haphazard stack pictured above. Last month, when a flurry of news items appeared about the Jane Austen bicentenary, I determined that it would be the Austen novel I would most enjoy revisiting.

Today begins Week 8 in my quest to read War and Peace in seventeen weeks (or less), but the book continues to engage, and I have already finished the reading for both this week and next. Here are commonplace book entries for Weeks 6 through 9:

Book Two, Part Three, Chapter 7
At that meeting he was struck for the first time by the endless variety of men’s minds, which prevents a truth from ever presenting itself identically to two persons.

Book Two, Part Five, Chapter 1
It was too dreadful to be under the burden of these insoluble problems, so he abandoned himself to any distraction in order to forget them. He frequented every kind of society, drank much, bought pictures, engaged in building, and above all – read.

He read, and read everything that came to hand. On coming home, while his valets were still taking off his things, he picked up a book and began to read.

Book Two, Part Five, Chapter 9
She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music, she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned. ‘I suppose it has to be like this!’ she thought.

Book Three, Part One, Chapter 1
There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental swarm-life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him.

I have made some progress in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project, too. Last weekend, I reread As You Like It and Twelfth Night. How fascinating to encounter Rosalind and Viola again, one right after the other.

From Act II, Scene 7, of As You Like It:

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

Yesterday, I finished Troilus and Cressida, which, like Titus Andronicus, was new to me. Unlike Titus, though, Troilus was a chore to read. An uneven, clunky play, it provided little readerly joy beyond the unanticipated tie-in to the discussions we’ve been having about The Iliad and The Odyssey.

I have not yet decided when and where to squeeze Sir Thomas More into my schedule, nor have I decided what to do about Hamlet, a play I’ve read and seen more (many more) than a few times. Earlier in the project, I chose Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name over rereading The Merchant of Venice, and I am considering a similar substitution for Hamlet. The novel Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (A. J. Hartley and David Hewson) is the chief contender, although… I wonder if I could count Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson). Hmmm….

Other bookish bits: I discussed our Moby Dick reread here. Perhaps if I begin posting my commonplace book entries, those of you who have maintained a “No way!” stance on the the White Whale may be persuaded to try it. The Broken Ladder is my follow-up to Dream Hoarders (related entry here), and the other books are either recently acquired or awaiting reshelving.
 

Flooding, dream-hoarding, and reading! Oh, my!

Saturday morning on the trail.

Storms and flooding have overcome parts of our county and most of the neighboring county. After Friday night’s pelting, we expected large puddles on the bike trail Saturday morning, but we peddled through ponds, however temporary. As I’ve learned over the last two weeks, flooding continues and can, in fact, worsen after the rains cease, so the ponds had nearly doubled in size by the time we encountered them on the return trip.

The humidity made a ride seem ill-advised this morning, and by 3 p.m., the storms had returned, so we contented ourselves with exercise videos and the promise of yard work tomorrow morning.

Today begins Week 6 in my quest to read War and Peace in seventeen weeks, but the book is so compelling that I have already finished the reading for Weeks 6 and 7. I have not made as much progress in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project, however: I’ve read through Sonnet 106 but must still (re)read As You Like It. Speaking of the sonnets, I love this from Sonnet 104:

To me, fair friend, you can never be old;
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still….

It has been a week, but “The Drowned Girl” from Joyce Carol Oates’ new collection, Dis Mem Ber continues to haunt me, and not simply because of its true-crime inspiration. Rather, I remain deeply unsettled by the insightful depiction of students marginalized by “alternate route” admission programs for transfer and / or non-traditional students.

Dream Hoarders (Richard V. Reeves) has also unsettled me (and sent me off to the shelves for Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder). Reeves’ discussion of internships and other unpaid opportunities for students was particularly uncomfortable: My older daughter works twenty-plus hours per week as an summer intern. Yes, it’s an unpaid internship, but it’s also a priceless opportunity in a competitive (if wildly underpaid) field, where entry-level positions require both education and experience. She and my younger daughter, both undergraduate research assistants, were also asked to continue their projects over the summer, and although one daughter was, quite unexpectedly, offered funding, the other was not. (She did, however, earn a scholarship for achievement in non-major coursework, which had the effect of making the unpaid research seem less… indulgent? privileged? dream-hoarder-like?) Earning an undergraduate research position, especially at a such a large university, where so many capable students vie for so few spots, well, that’s quite an achievement, one that yields the experience, the letters of recommendation, the opportunities to contribute to publications and to present at conferences that make a student a more desirable graduate school applicant and / or jobseeker. So why would any parent say, “No”? And that’s the problem, maintains Reeves. It’s unfair that some students can accept unpaid opportunities while other students cannot. It’s particularly unfair, he continues, that some students have, through their parents’ professional and social networks, access to opportunities, paid and unpaid.

Talk about a challenging read! Here are my commonplace book entries:

p.3
There is one good reason why many Americans feel as if the upper middle class is leaving everyone else behind: They are.

Americans in the top fifth of the income distribution – broadly, households with incomes above the $112,000 mark – are separating from the rest. This separation is economic, visible in bank balances and salaries. But it can also be seen in education, family structure, health and longevity, even in civic and community life. The economic gap is just the most vivid sign of a deepening class divide.

p. 15
The big question is whether we are willing to make some modest sacrifices in order to expand opportunities for others or whether, deep down, we would rather pull up the ladder.

p. 54
The debate over college debt is lively and largely misplaced. It is lively because almost everyone involved in public discourse – scholars, journalists, politicians – went to college and has children who have done or will do so. (Almost every member of Congress has a college degree.) It is misplaced because the real problem in American higher education is not about debt, but distribution and quality. The debt problem is for people from poorer backgrounds who borrow to attend bad colleges.

p. 97
Discrimination on the basis of social class — what we call snobbery in the old country — is largely unacknowledged. Even Americans highly sensitive to the risks of sexism or racism often engage in classism, unaware that they are doing so.

In other bookish news… my younger daughter and I are (re)reading The Odyssey and listening to Elizabeth Vandiver’s wonderful lectures; I am enjoying a flurry of graphic works (more later); and the “twist” in Final Girls (Riley Sager) is no twist. At. All.

In which another week passes

Musicians at the Bristol Renaissance Faire.

We were able to tuck a ten-mile bike ride into each weekend morning, which is such a refreshing way to open a day. With neither plays nor museums on our calendar, we decided to visit the Bristol Renaissance Faire after yesterday’s ride. Because I skipped last year’s trip, I relished stops at favorite vendors like Seventh Sojourn, where I stocked up on scented soaps.

Today after our ride and a little yard work, my daughters headed out for lunch and a hike with a university friend, my husband settled in for a long study session, and I attended to some paperwork, banking, and writing. We still hope to wring a game or two and a family film out of the weekend before it concludes. We’ll see; we’ll see.

Speaking of seeing, I have finally shared the Lord of the Rings movies with my daughters. One thing and then another always kept us from getting around to the films, which may not have been such a bad thing. Apart from Andy Serkis’ brilliant portrayal of Gollum, the trilogy doesn’t really hold up for me, and they weren’t particularly impressed, either. This is heresy, I know, but it all felt so… abrupt and amateurish. In short, the books were better. (But not much.) And speaking of not holding up, while in the dentist’s chair (again!) mid-week, I heard Steve Perry earnestly crooning, “And here, I stand, with o, pen arms…” and thought, not for the first time, Oh, dear! This just does not hold up. So I texted my boyfriend of thirty-five years, husband of thirty-one:

They’re playing “Open Arms” at the dentist.
Our song doesn’t hold up.
LOL.
But I love you anyway.
So eighties. So la, la la, la la, la laaaa.
Guess you can’t dance to NPR, though.
[“Open Arms” was our first dance at our wedding reception.]

To which he sagely replied:

Can’t dance to anything.

In reading news… Today begins Week 5 in my quest to read War and Peace in seventeen weeks. Here are my Week Four commonplace book entries:

p. 448
There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’ But dying was also dreadful.

p. 451
Your view of life is a regrettable delusion.

I continue to progress in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project, too, making adjustments that suit my interests and scheduling needs. For example, I have read one hundred of the Sonnets and Don Patterson’s related commentary, which is a bit ahead of the plan, but I will read As You Like It this week, which is a tiny bit behind schedule.

In other reading, I finished Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea last night. As others have pointed out, the first-person plural viewpoint contributes to the mythic quality of the narrative, but it also obscures the protagonist a bit, which may frustrate some readers. That said, I think others who share my enthusiasm for Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) will appreciate this beautifully written novel.

p. 215
It’s our common character on display, which is why we invest so much of ourselves — often totally beyond reason — in particular figures and performers, both fictive and of flesh. And when that display is unsettling or notorious, we can collectively wring our hands and wail and then try to assuage the disquiet in our hearts by more coolly interrogating its antecedents, the conditions and causes of its expression, and debate about how we might curb a future recurrence, none of this cynically posed but subtly servicing the final hopeful notion that This Is Not We.

p. 219
But if we calm ourselves and open our eyes and step back far enough, we have to admit that our society, if not fundamentally unwell, has been profoundly wounded.

Joyce Carol Oates’ recent short fiction collection, Dis Mem Ber, was on the porch when I returned from the Faire last night. I couldn’t help myself: I read four of the seven stories before setting it down to finish On Such a Full Sea. Quick, quintessential JCO, particularly the title story. I plan to finish tonight.

A mid-year review

By June 30, I had completed ninety-one books. My participation in the “Shakespeare in a Year” project accounts for twenty of those titles, and my affection for graphic works, twenty-one. Twenty-four of the ninety-one books I’ve read were published this year, and twenty-four are novels.

My two perennial goals — read at least one non-fiction work every two weeks and read more poetry — usually result in much spluttering and excuse-making, but I have already finished nineteen non-fiction books this year and read ninety of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets.

Ten mid-year recommendations:

So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell; 1980. Fiction.)
As much a meditation on loss and grief as it is an exploration of memory and how memory shapes (and haunts and robs from) the present, William Maxwell’s 1980 novel is as perfect a book as A Good School or Revolutionary Road (both by Richard Yates) or Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout). You’ll find commonplace book entries here.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Matthew Desmond; 2016. Non-fiction.)
This is the sort of book everyone talks about and shares articles about but never reads. I recommend that you actually read it.

Rhinoceros (Eugene Ionesco; 1959. Drama.)
If you only remember this from high school, you haven’t really read it yet. Pull your tattered copy from the shelves and see if it isn’t something more, much more, than you recall.

World of Trouble (Ben H. Winters; 2014. Fiction.)
I’m cheating here because this is the final book in the Last Policeman trilogy, which means, yes, I am actually recommending three books. They’re not heavy, though, and Henry Palace is not simply another quirky detective; he is a character who will roam the rooms of your imagination for a long time.

Before the Fall (Noah Hawley; 2016. Fiction.)
It’s unsurprising that the flow of this “thumping good read” is reminiscent of great television; Hawley is a television writer and producer. Pack this one in your vacation bag. (Commonplace book entries here.)

Briggs Land, Volume 1: State of Grace (Brian Wood; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
I thought I was going to recommend Wood’s The Massive, Volumes 1-5, and then I remembered how strong the opening to his new series is… and how annoyed I was by the resolution of The Massive.

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.

Reclaiming Conversation (Sherry Turkle; 2015. Non-fiction.)
“They decide there should be a rule: A good friend should keep you off your phone when you are together.” (p. 157) Don’t miss this thought-provoking exploration of what has been lost since people turned away from each other to connect via phone.

Fatale (Jean-Paul Manchette; 1977 (2011, English). Fiction.)
In the “slim book you can finish in a day” category, I will shake things up by recommending this dark, odd character study over the other contender, News of the World (Paulette Giles), which doesn’t need my recommendation, anyway, as it has already been touted by everyone and her mother.

American War (Omar El Akkad; 2017. Fiction.)
This is my entry in the “best post-apocalypse / dystopia / it’s a mad, mad world fiction read this year (so far)” category. I know others would choose The Power (Naomi Alderman) or The Book of Joan (Lidia Yuknavitch)… but I think I’m right on this one.

War and Peace in seventeen weeks and other reading notes

As I’ve shared, War and Peace has always been one of those books I hope to get to… Some day! Well, Robin has developed a plan that all but ensures I will finish the tome by late October. Volume 1 of the three-volume Everyman’s Library edition (Maude translation) is in the middle of the stack pictured above, which means, yes, I now own yet another copy of War and Peace… well, two more, if you count the audiobook to which I am listening (at twice the recorded speed) while reading. For the commonplace book:

p. 4
Prince Vasili always spoke languidly, like an actor repeating a stale part.

p. 29
“If no one fought except on his own conviction, there would be no wars, “ he said.

“And that would be splendid,” said Pierre.

p. 71
They wept because they were friends, and because they were kind-hearted, and because they – friends from childhood – had to think about such a base thing as money, and because their youth was over…. But those tears were pleasant to them both.

I am still at work on the “Shakespeare in a Year” project. In anticipation of seeing the National Theatre Live broadcast, I put Julius Caesar before Henry V; otherwise, I am on or ahead of schedule. The Sonnets remain a slog, although, at Sonnet 82, I am actually ahead of schedule. Perhaps there is no poetry in me? But, then, how I do love the plays!

From Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene iii:

“All this”? Ay, more. Fret till your proud heart break.
Go show your slaves how choleric you are
And make your bondmen tremble. Must I budge?
Must I observe you? Must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humor? By the gods,
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you. For from this day forth,
I’ll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.

For submitting the first log in the summer reading program, each patron receives a book. My husband gave me his turn, so I ended up with two beach reads: The Woman in Cabin 10 and All the Missing Girls, both of which were the light, quick respites I needed while recovering from a dental emergency. (All is well now.)

As did nearly everyone else, I found News of the World (Paulette Jiles) delightful. I actually began reading it via audiobook on the trip downstate to bring my daughters home for the summer. (We need two cars to move them in and out.) The narrator remained in my ear even when I turned to the book, and upon finishing, I promptly insisted that my husband choose it as his next audiobook. For the commonplace book:

p. 121
Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.

p. 201

Life was not safe and nothing could make it so, neither fashionable dresses nor bank accounts.

Reading on devices troubles me, but it was the only way I could immediately access Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It (Richard V. Reeves) when I first became interested. At the halfway point, here are my commonplace entries:

p.3
There is one good reason why many Americans feel as if the upper middle class is leaving everyone else behind: They are.

Americans in the top fifth of the income distribution – broadly, households with incomes above the $112,000 mark – are separating from the rest. This separation is economic, visible in bank balances and salaries. But it can also be seen in education, family structure, health and longevity, even in civic and community life. The economic gap is just the most vivid sign of a deepening class divide.

p. 15
The big question is whether we are willing to make some modest sacrifices in order to expand opportunities for others or whether, deep down, we would rather pull up the ladder.

p. 54
The debate over college debt is lively and largely misplaced. It is lively because almost everyone involved in public discourse – scholars, journalists, politicians – went to college and has children who have done or will do so. (Almost every member of Congress has a college degree.) It is misplaced because the real problem in American higher education is not about debt, but distribution and quality. The debt problem is for people from poorer backgrounds who borrow to attend bad colleges.

Other notes: I reread Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in anticipation of the National Theatre Live broadcast. So much to press into the commonplace book, but this is destined to become a family favorite: “Martha, in my mind you’re buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose, it’s much quieter.” The Power promised more than the fragmented writing could deliver. March is one of those books that demonstrate just how important and powerful the graphic work genre is. I think I will need to reread the first three volumes of Bunker to make any sense of what is happening now. So much time passes between releases! The three four books on the bottom represent my TBRN (to be read next) pile. We’ll have to see if that plays out.