Last week, I had an opportunity to revisit the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The book I chose for the drive there and back was The Beautiful Mystery (Louise Penny; 2012). When I returned home, I finished Migrations (Charlotte McConaghy; 2020), which I loved and particularly recommend to fans of Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel; 2014). Related review here.
Since my last annotated list I’ve finished both Othello (1603) and Timon of Athens (1606) as part of my goal to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays this year.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Oliver Burkeman; 2021) yielded a number of passages for my commonplace book. (The title of this entry is taken from the introduction.) The premise? If we make it to eighty, we live for about four thousand weeks. How will we spend them? This book, writes Burkeman, “is an attempt […] to see if we can’t discover, or recover, some ways of thinking about time that do justice to our real situation: to the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks.”
p. 64 In case this needs saying, it isn’t that a diagnosis of terminal illness, or a bereavement, or any other encounter with death is somehow good, or desirable, or “worth it.“ But such experiences, however wholly unwelcome, often appear to leave those who undergo them in a new and more honest relationship with time. The question is whether we might attain at least a little of that same outlook in the absence of the experience of agonizing loss.
p. 115 The trouble with being so emotionally invested in planning for the future, though, is that while it may occasionally prevent a catastrophe, the rest of the time it tends to exacerbate the very anxiety it was supposed to allay. The obsessive planner, essentially, is demanding certain reassurances from the future — but the future isn’t the sort of thing that can ever provide the reassurance he craves, for the obvious reason that it’s still in the future.
p. 116 [T]his underlying longing to turn the future into something dependable isn’t confined to compulsive planners. It’s present in anyone who worries about anything, whether or not they respond by devising elaborate timetables or hypercautious travel plans. Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again — as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine….
p. 158 The derision we heap upon the avid stamp collector or train spotter might really be a kind of defense mechanism, to spare us from confronting the possibility that they are truly happy in a way that the rest of us — pursuing our telic lives, ceaselessly in search of future fulfillment — are not.
p. 159 There’s a second sense in which hobbies pose a challenge to our reigning culture of productivity and performance: it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them.
Image captured at the conservation district on Labor Day.
From Book II, Chapter 15, of Middlemarch:
I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.
Although I missed the August meetings of book group, I did finish (re)reading Middlemarch and have returned in time for our three remaining meetings this month.
Book Five, Chapter 44 He distrusted her affection; and what loneliness is more lonely than distrust?
Book Five, Chapter 46 Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettanteism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of indifference.
Book Five, Chapter 50 “… [T]here are always people who can’t forgive a man for differing from them.”
I also finished reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.
p. 41 Coming to languages too late for effortless fluency, she set about achieving what she could through resolution and determination. She found an outlet for her hungry ambition by reshaping herself into an intellectual. She turned her yearning into learning.
p. 145 Books — or texts, as they were called by those versed in theory — weren’t supposed merely to be read, but to be interrogated, as if they had committed some criminal malfeasance.
p. 172 Such an approach to fiction — where do I see myself in here? — is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting and its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read.
A book group member recommended The Readers Karamazov podcast, which began its second season with a four-episode discussion of Middlemarch. (And, yes, I must go back and listen to their The Brothers Karamazov episodes.) What a terrific resource! I enjoyed their insights so much that I plan to read along for the rest of this season. Candide (Voltaire; 1759. (Trans. John Butt; 1947.), their next selection, was a reread for me.
In my quest to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays, I have finished Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida since my last annotated list.
Under the heading “beach reads” (although I spent no time at the beach this summer), file the following:
■ The House in the Cerulean Sea (TJ Klune; 2020. Fiction.) p. 188 It struck him, then, just who this house belonged to, and how much of an honor this would be. For an adult sprite, their dwelling was their most important possession. It was their home where all their secrets were kept. Sprites were notorious for their privacy, and he had no doubt that Phee would one day be the same, though he hoped she would remember the time spent at Marsyas in her youth. She wouldn’t have to be so alone.
■ The Turnout (Megan Abbott; 2021. Fiction.) Review here.
■ The Plot (Jean Hanff Korelitz; 2021. Fiction.) Review here.
■ A Trick of the Light (Louise Penny; 2011. Fiction.) The Inspector Gamache series is actually a number of steps up from “beach read.” As always, many thanks to Robin for recommending these books.
My recent graphic work selections include: ■ Odessa (Jonathan Hill; 2020. Graphic fiction.) ■ The Hard Tomorrow (Eleanor Davis; 2019. Graphic fiction.) ■ Sweet Tooth: The Return (Jeff Lemire; 2021. Graphic non-fiction.) ■ It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be (Lizzy Stewart; 2021. Graphic non-fiction.) ■ Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness (Kristen Radtke; 2021. Graphic non-fiction.)
Radtke’s Seek You is a gorgeous read. Highly recommended.
■ Gilead (Marilynne Robinson; 2004. Fiction.) Speaking of gorgeous reads, how did this languish on my shelves for seventeen years? Beautiful, beautiful.
p. 7 Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can’t claim to understand that saying, as many times as I’ve heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a deeply mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.
p. 39 But I’ve developed a great reputation for wisdom by ordering more books than I ever had time to read, and reading more books, by far, than I learned anything useful from, except, of course that some very tedious gentleman have written books. This is not a new insight, but the truth of it is something you have to experience to fully grasp.
p. 197 We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
p. 233 I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime — the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars. It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand.
p. 246 I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turned radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.
Recent non-fiction selections included:
■ Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America (Alec MacGillis; 2021) Review here.
■ Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials (Marc Aronson; 2003)
■ The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives (Dashka Slater; 2017) Original article here.
■ Green Shadows, White Whale (Ray Bradbury; 1992. Fiction.) I read Bradbury’s fictionalized account of his travels to Ireland to write the script of Moby Dick for an upcoming Newberry Library program.
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turned radiant at once, that word “good” so profoundly affirmed my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing.
— from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
This view. Our reward for rising at five, finishing the daily chores, and donning our walking shoes before 6 a.m.
Since 1989, I’ve been promising myself I’d return to Middlemarch (George Eliot; 1871). Thirty-two years later, nearly to the month, I’ve (finally) kept my word: Members of the reading group that attempted to penetrate the mysteries of The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky; 1880) earlier this year are now working their way through Eliot’s wise novel. Although one of our core principles is to avoid secondary sources, I must confess to (quietly) enjoying the companionship of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), as well as the most recent episodes of The Readers Karamazov podcast.
Book One, Chapter 1 Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
Book One, Chapter 6 We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts — not hurt others.
Book Two, Chapter 16 This was one of the difficulties of moving in good Middlemarch society: it was dangerous to insist on knowledge as a qualification for any salaried office.
Book Four, Chapter 42 Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death — who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we called knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace “We must all die“ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die — and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. […] In such an hour the mind does not change its lifelong bias, but carries it onward in imagination to the other side of death, gazing backward — perhaps with the divine calm of beneficence, perhaps with the petty anxieties of self assertion.
Other books I’m reading are listed in the sidebar.
As we head into August, I realize that I’ve read 128 books so far this year (eighteen since my last annotated list), but I still need to sort through the list to see which of my annual goals / reading challenges remain unmet. Note that in this annotated list, I’ve moved away from presenting the books in the order in which I read them, opting instead to cluster related titles.
■ As You Like It (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.) ■ Hamlet (William Shakespeare; 1601. Drama.) By my count, thirteen works remain in my quest to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays this year.
Act I, Scene V HORATIO O day and night but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy….
■ Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell; 2020. Fiction.) ■ The Dead Fathers Club (Matt Haig; 2006. Fiction.) I appreciated both of these books, the former less than most readers, though, and the latter (commonplace book passage follows), more.
p. 113 Its like how in War soldiers are told to kill other men and then they are Heroes but if they killed the same men when they were not in War they are Murderers. But they are still killing the same men who have the same dreams and who chew the same food and hum the same songs when they are happy but if it is called War it is all right because that is the rules of War.
■ How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education (Scott Newstok; 2020. Non-fiction.) What a delight to read John Warner’s recommendation of this and Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (which I read earlier this year).
p. 3 [W]e claim to know thinking when we see it, despite the difficulty of definition. And if we believe cultivating it is a good thing, then we are often perverse. We’ve imposed educational programs that kill the capacity to think independently, or even the desire to do so. While we point to thinkers — Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie — who modeled the disciplined, independent, questing intellect we claim to revere, we reinforce systems ensuring that our own young people could never emulate them.
■ Hawking (Ottaviani and Myrick; 2019. Graphic non-fiction.) ■ The Trojan Women (Euripides): A Comic (Anne Carson; 2021. Graphic fiction.) ■ Family Tree, Vol. 3: Forest (Jeff Lemire; 2021. Graphic fiction.) Feynman (Ottaviani and Myrick; 2011) was a stronger work, but Hawking certainly engaged me, as did the offbeat graphic interpretation of The Trojan Women. The conclusion to Family Tree, however, was a disappointing jumble.
■ Trojan Women (Euripides (trans. E. P. Coleridge); 415 B.C. Drama.) After reading Carson’s graphic adaptation, I turned to the play itself. Once again, Harvard’s Reading Greek Tragedy Online was a fabulous companion. (Related episode here.)
■ Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie; 2017. Fiction.) Review here. p. 10 She felt, as she did most mornings, the deep pleasure of daily life distilled to the essentials: books, walks, spaces in which to think and work.
■ Antigone (Sophocles (trans. Don Taylor); 441 B.C. Drama.) Partway through Shamsie’s gorgeous retelling of Antigone, I decided to reread Sophocles’ play and watch the 2012 production on National Theatre at Home, the latter of which is first-rate.
■ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling; 2001. Fiction.) Yes. Again.
■ Fox 8 (George Saunders; 2015. Fiction.) If George Saunders wrote it, I want to read it.
■ Bury Your Dead (Louise Penny; 2010. Fiction.) Penny’s sixth Gamache novel kept me company on the most recent long drive to see my daughters. (Ralph Cosham is the perfect narrator for these mysteries.) I finally had an opportunity to finish reading it mid-month.
■ The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings (Sy Montgomery; 2021. Non-fiction.) This seemed rather slight, which made sense when I realized it is a repackage of a chapter from Montgomery’s longer book, Birdology (2010).
■ Postcard Poems (Jeanne Griggs; 2021. Poetry.) See this entry.
■ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Sam Quinones; 2015. Non-fiction.) In 2019, I read Beth Macy’s Dopesick (2018), which put Dreamland on my readerly radar. Both will inform my upcoming appointment with the tome that is Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Patrick Radden Keefe; 2021).
■ Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien” (Jeremy N. Smith; 2019. Non-fiction.) What a quick and engaging, if imperfect, read. More information here.
It has been a week, nearly to the hour since the painters rolled up the last of their dropcloths and headed to their next site. As it turns out, my assertion that the project would result in rain was correct: Last Thursday night, our area was lashed with thunderstorms. Fortunately, the painters had finished for the day about ten hours beforehand, so all was well. Despite a few showers since then, though, this area remains in severe drought conditions.
■ Much Ado about Nothing (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.) ■ The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.) ■ King John (William Shakespeare; 1595. Drama.) Part of my quest to reread all of his plays this year.
■ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling; 2007. Fiction.) As I’ve addressed in previous entries, a comfortable and comforting reread.
■ The Jungle (Upton Sinclair; 1906. Fiction.) This was the first of two books my younger daughter and I chose for a two-person summer book club.
From Chapter III: One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning to deal in symbols and similes, and to hear the hog-squeal of the universe. Was it permitted to believe that there was nowhere upon the earth, or above the earth, a heaven for hogs, where they were requited for all this suffering? Each one of these hogs was a separate creature. Some were white hogs, some were black; some were brown, some were spotted; some were old, some young; some were long and lean, some were monstrous. And each of them had an individuality of his own, a will of his own, a hope and a heart’s desire; each was full of self-confidence, of self-importance, and a sense of dignity. And trusting and strong in faith he had gone about his business, the while a black shadow hung over him and a horrid Fate waited in his pathway. Now suddenly it had swooped upon him, and had seized him by the leg. Relentless, remorseless, it was; all his protests, his screams, were nothing to it—it did its cruel will with him, as if his wishes, his feelings, had simply no existence at all; it cut his throat and watched him gasp out his life. And now was one to believe that there was nowhere a god of hogs, to whom this hog personality was precious, to whom these hog squeals and agonies had a meaning? Who would take this hog into his arms and comfort him, reward him for his work well done, and show him the meaning of his sacrifice? Perhaps some glimpse of all this was in the thoughts of our humble-minded Jurgis, as he turned to go on with the rest of the party, and muttered: “Dieve—but I’m glad I’m not a hog!”
■ Chicago Poems (Carl Sandburg; 1916. Poetry.) ■ The Jungle (Kristina Gehrmann; 2019. Graphic fiction.) Several of the poems in Sandburg’s collection eloquently address the same issues Sinclair raises. The graphic adaptation, however, was pointless.
■ Outcast, Vol. 8: The Merged (Kirkman and Azaceta; 2021. Fiction.) The conclusion of the series did not work for me. At. All.
■ Saint X (Alexis Schaitkin; 2020. Fiction.) A satisfying summer read. Review here.
■ The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Alison Bechdel; 2021. Graphic non-fiction.) Excellent. Related links here and here.
We biked again last Saturday and hope to return to the trail this weekend.
Although the city has not yet implemented watering restrictions, our part of the world is experiencing a severe drought. It may not be apparent on the trail, but in our neighborhood, lawns are dormant, lake and creek levels are low, and new plants are dying. According to our contractor, however, this is excellent house-painting weather, so there’s that. Between you and me? I’m willing to wager that if not the snap of burlap stretched over the ornamentals then the slap of primer on the siding will be the magic rainstick that shakes some precipitation from the sky next week.
■ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J.K. Rowling; 2005. Fiction.) Perhaps I was a bit harsh when writing about my HP reread last year, “[T]he flaws have become too big to hide under a long sweater of sentiment. They’re just not particularly well-stitched, are they?” This from a woman who has (speaking of sweaters), year in and year out, from the first cool-enough morning in October until the first too-warm morning in April, donned the same tatty, misshapen gray bundle of yarn with sleeves to take her first cup of coffee. Well-stitched or not, both the stories and my ugly old sweater comfort me. And that’s not a bad thing. No, not at all.
■ The Goshawk (T.H. White; 1951. Non-fiction.) p. 23 It has never been easy to learn life from books.
p. 38 Here comes (one thought, suddenly catching oneself out) that excellent piece of work called man, with his capacity for looking before and after, his abilities to reflect upon the enigmas of philosophy, and the minted storehouse of an education that had cost between two and three thousand pounds, walking sideways to a tied bird, with his hand held out in front of him, looking the other way and meowing like a cat.
To the list “Things I did when I wasn’t reading this weekend,” add “Biking.” With the ghosts of two memorable spills in mind, we stuck to walks and the exercise bike last year to avoid the ER and urgent care during the pandemic. Today’s, then, was our first ride in twenty months.
Since my last annotated list, I’ve read eight books for a year-to-date total of ninety-four. At the end of next month, I’ll sort out how this positions me to meet my goals.
Three graphic works:
■ Imagine Wanting Only This (Kristen Radtke; 2017. Graphic non-fiction.) ■ Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe (Ali Fitzgerald; 2018. Graphic non-fiction.) ■ The Book Tour (Andi Watson; 2019. Graphic fiction.)
A gorgeous (and highly recommended) volume of poetry:
■ Stag’s Leap (Sharon Olds; 2012. Poetry.)
Two “vacation books”:
■ The Brutal Telling (Louise Penny; 2009. Fiction.) ■ The Last (Hanna Jameson; 2019. Fiction.)
The twentieth in my quest to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays:
■ Richard III (William Shakespeare; 1594. Drama.)
For the Cardiff BookTalk:
■ To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf; 1927. Fiction.) From Chapter XVII of “The Window”:
But what have I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at the plates making white circles on it. “William, sit by me,” she said. “Lily,” she said, wearily, “over there.” They had that — Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle — she, only this — an infinitely long table and plates and knives. At the far end, was her husband, sitting down, all in a heap, frowning. What at? She did not know. She did not mind. She could not understand how she ever felt any emotion or affection for him. She had a sense of being past everything, through everything, out of everything, as she helped the soup, as if there were an eddy — there — and one could be in it, or one could be out of it, and she was out of it. It’s all come to an end, she thought, while they came in one after another, Charles Tansley — “Sit there, please,” she said — August Carmichael — and sat down. And meanwhile she waited, passively, for some one to answer her, for something to happen. But this is not a thing, she thought, ladling out soup, that one says.
From Chapter V of “The Lighthouse”:
And she wanted to say not one thing, but everything. Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. “About life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay” — no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension.
Since my last annotated list, I’ve read thirteen books, for a total of eighty-six so far this year, sixty-five of which were from my shelves. My reading goals mirror last year’s: one hundred books from my shelves (i.e., books in my collection before the end of 2020), including at least twenty-four non-fiction titles and at least one book from each of the following categories: Shakespeare (by, about, retold, etc.) poetry, NYRB, Kurt Vonnegut (by or about), Joyce Carol Oates, philosophy, art, and children’s / YA. At this writing, all of this seems achievable as I have more than six months to read thirty-five more books from the shelves, including eight non-fiction works and something from the Vonnegut, NYRB, and art collections.
My quest to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays this year is going well; I’ve now finished twenty, most recently:
■ Henry VI, Part One (William Shakespeare; 1591. Drama.) ■ Henry VI, Part Two (William Shakespeare; 1591. Drama.) ■ Henry VI, Part Three (William Shakespeare; 1591. Drama.) ■ Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.) ■ Coriolanus (William Shakespeare; 1605. Drama.)
Julius Caesar (“You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!”) and Coriolanus (“Hear you this Triton of the minnows?”) have always been particular favorites of mine, so it is unsurprising that I loved rereading them, but this, my third, time through the Henry IV plays was so much more rewarding than the prior two. In addition to better understanding the history that informs the plays, I also have a firmer grasp on the many characters’ relationships to one another.
■ The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky; 1880. (Trans. Constance Garnett.) Fiction.) Three posts about reading this with an online book group: one, two, three.
■ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (George Saunders; 2021. Non-fiction.) I recommended this book in the third of my book group posts (linked above). Here are two commonplace book passages:
p. 103 We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs — or doesn’t — in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know“ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.
p. 283 There is no world save the one we make with our minds, and the mind’s predisposition determines the type of world we see.
■ Gideon Falls, Vol. 6: The End (Jeff Lemire; 2021. Graphic fiction.) This concluded the series.
■ The Collector of Hearts (Joyce Carol Oates; 1998. Fiction.) In his Cardiff BookTalk, Tyler Keevil mentioned that this short story collection not only inspired his most recent novel, Your Still Beating Heart, but also serves as a work he teaches in his university classes. I actually preferred Oates’ most recent collection, The (Other) You.
■ Meditations (Marcus Aurelius; 180 A.D. (Trans. Gregory Hays.) Non-fiction.) From entry 4.3:
Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into the thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. The doctrines you will visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.
From entry 11.1:
It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future.
■ The Woman Upstairs (Claire Messud; 2013. Fiction.) When I reshelved The Burning Girl, I pulled this down. NPR interview here and review here
The book group will discuss Book XI this week, but Theater of War will present Oedipus at Colonus at the same time, so I must miss the meeting.
Having finished the bookahead of schedule, I’ve been reviewing a few resources, including the fourth lecture in the course “Life Lessons from the Great Books,” in which J. Rufus Fears outlines helpful historical context; for example, how orthodoxy and autocracy defined nineteenth-century Russia.
In the course’s supplementary text, Fears notes, “In Dostoevsky’s mind, each of the four sons represents a part of the Russian soul: the violent and sensuous (Dmitri), the misguided (Ivan, trying to import Western ideas), the strong in faith and conviction (Alexei, the true spirit of Russia), and the mysterious and vile (Smerdyakov).” This sorted well with an early observation in book group that the sons seemed to represent body (Dmitri), mind (Ivan), and soul (Alexei).
(Related aside: In a neat bit of readerly synchronicity / synthesis / serendipity, I recently (re)read the following passage in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Body, soul, mind. To the body belong sense perceptions, to the soul impulses, to the mind judgements. The receipt of sense impressions is shared with cattle; response to the puppet-strings of impulse is shared with the wild beasts, with catamites, with a Phalaris or a Nero; having the mind as guide to what appears appropriate action is shared with those who do not believe in the gods, those who betray their country, those who get up to anything behind closed doors.
So if all else is held in common with the categories mentioned above, it follows that the defining characteristic of the good person is to love and embrace whatever happens to him along his thread of fate; and not to pollute the divinity which is seated within his breast, or trouble it with a welter of confused impressions, but to preserve its constant favor, in proper allegiance to god, saying only what is true, doing only what is just.
Oh, the unintentional parallels that occur in the reading life, eh? I love the way one book can inform another.)
I also read Harold Bloom’s essay on The Brothers Karamazov in The Bright Book of Life (2020). While it seems apparent that Dostoevsky intended Alyosha (Alexei) to be the novel’s hero, I am with Bloom in preferring Ivan: Doubtless because of because of my own peculiarities, I prefer Ivan: enormously intelligent, skeptical, tragically caught between a Western regard for cognition and his own Russian soul, whatever that is. (p. 246)
To me, Dostoevsky’s depiction of women was not particularly charitable, so I was heartened to read Bloom’s comment, “Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoevsky seems to me uneasy in representing women.” (p. 246)
(Speaking of Tolstoy, last night I read “Master and Man,” the fourth story George Saunders discusses in his wonderful A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021). After spending the last two-plus months (trying to) decipher Dostoevsky, I found Tolstoy startlingly… clear. As Saunders writes:
Some stories — let’s admit it — we read from a sense of duty, the way we walk through a middling local museum: noting things we should feel interested in but aren’t, really. Reading such stories, we are merely reading them. They keep being a series of words we’re dutifully decoding. They’re a clever dance the writer is doing, which we are politely enduring. Reading “Master and Man“ we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and the decisions we have made, or might have to make some day, in our actual lives.
That’s the kind of story I want to write, the kind that stops being writing and starts being life. (p. 223)
At the Chicago Humanities Festival, Joyce Carol Oates observed that Tolstoy offers readers sweeping vistas while Dostoevsky remains primarily in our heads, his characters talking, talking, talking. She stopped short of specifying a preference, but when Saunders later used the phrase “cinematic propulsion” to describe Tolstoy’s story structure, I realized that maybe I have one. By the way, I highly recommend A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, which is drawn from the Russian short story class Saunders has taught at Syracuse for two decades.)
For the commonplace book:
Book X: The Boys Chapter IV: The Lost Dog “Oh, no; there are people of deep feeling who have been somehow crushed. Buffoonery in them is a form of resentful irony against those to whom they daren’t speak the truth, from having been for years humiliated and intimidated by them. Believe me, Krassotkin, that sort of buffoonery is sometimes tragic in the extreme. His whole life now is centered in Ilusha, and if Ilusha dies, he will either go mad with grief or kill himself. I feel almost certain of that when I look at him now.”
“I understand you, Karamazov. I see you understand human nature,” Kolya added, with feeling.
Chapter VI: Precocity “[…] But I am convinced now that you don’t despise me; it was all my imagination. Oh, Karamazov, I am profoundly unhappy. I sometimes fancy all sorts of things, that every one is laughing at me, the whole world, and then I feel ready to overturn the whole order of things.”
“And you worry every one about you,” smiled Alyosha.
“Yes, I worry every one about me, especially my mother. Karamazov, tell me, am I very ridiculous now?”
“Don’t think about that, don’t think of it at all!” cried Alyosha. “And what does ridiculous mean? Isn’t every one constantly being or seeming ridiculous? Besides, nearly all clever people now are fearfully afraid of being ridiculous, and that makes them unhappy. All I am surprised at is that you should be feeling that so early, though I’ve observed it for some time past, and not only in you. Nowadays the very children have begun to suffer from it. It’s almost a sort of insanity. The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation; it’s simply the devil,” added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. “You are like every one else,” said Alyosha, in conclusion, “that is, like very many others. Only you must not be like everybody else, that’s all.”
“Even if every one is like that?”
“Yes, even if every one is like that. You be the only one not like it. You really are not like every one else, here you are not ashamed to confess to something bad and even ridiculous. And who will admit so much in these days? No one. And people have even ceased to feel the impulse to self‐ criticism. Don’t be like every one else, even if you are the only one.”
Chapter VII: Ilusha “I don’t want a good boy! I don’t want another boy!” he muttered in a wild whisper, clenching his teeth. “If I forget thee, Jerusalem, may my tongue—” He broke off with a sob and sank on his knees before the wooden bench. Pressing his fists against his head, he began sobbing with absurd whimpering cries, doing his utmost that his cries should not be heard in the room.
Book XI: Ivan Chapter IX: The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare “C’est du nouveau, n’est‐ce pas? This time I’ll act honestly and explain to you. Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sees sometimes such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, such events, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented. Yet such dreams are sometimes seen not by writers, but by the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests…. The subject is a complete enigma. A statesman confessed to me, indeed, that all his best ideas came to him when he was asleep. Well, that’s how it is now, though I am your hallucination, yet just as in a nightmare, I say original things which had not entered your head before. So I don’t repeat your ideas, yet I am only your nightmare, nothing more.”
“You are lying, your aim is to convince me you exist apart and are not my nightmare, and now you are asserting you are a dream.”
In search of succor, people adopted pets and plants during the uncertain and difficult months of the pandemic. In March 2020, we already had two cats and several houseplants, but successfully splitting the sansevieria, propagating the inchplant, and harvesting pilea sprouts contributed to the increasing number of the latter, as did, yes, a few gifts and purchases. Although the heart of the collection (above) thrives in the girl cave, we now keep plants in the Annex and dining room, too. (And, yes, the orchid has bloomed again.)
Speaking of collections, since my last annotated list, I have read fourteen books, putting me at seventy-three total, fifty-five of which were from my shelves. Right now, I’m reading Book Eleven of The Brothers Karamazov and Joyce Carol Oates’ The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. On my shelves since 1998, these short stories earned a spot on the nightstand after Tyler Keevil mentioned that they were not only an inspiration for his most recent novel but also works he teaches in his university classes.
■ Elegy for Mary Turner (Rachel Marie-Crane Williams; 2021. Graphic non-fiction.) Related article here.
■ The Dog Stars (Peter Heller; 2012. Fiction.) Review here.
■ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling; 1999. Fiction.) ■ Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling; 2000. Fiction.) Soothing rereads.
■ The Glass Hotel (Emily St. John Mandel; 2020. Fiction.) Excellent. Review here.
■ The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers (Stephen Mitchell; 1993. Non-fiction.) Mitchell is a genius.
■ War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (Christopher Logue; 2015. Poetry.) My selection for National Poetry Month.
■ Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty (Maurice Chammah; 2021. Non-fiction.) Although somewhat drily and awkwardly written, this meticulously researched history is both timely and important. Related article here.
p. 192 Then came the DNA. Beginning in the 1980s, the analysis of genetic material started to be marshaled by defense teams to prove, with an unprecedented degree of scientific certainty, that their clients could not have committed the crimes for which they were sitting in prison. The legal system had always aspired to establish truth, while hedging with language about “reasonable doubt.“ Now the actual truth appeared within reach, and the public and politicians could no longer dismiss innocence claims as desperate efforts to avoid execution. In case after case around the country, men were freed from death row when DNA helped them prove their innocence, and in late 1998, at a conference on wrongful convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law, more than two dozen people exonerated from death row appeared together on a stage. “Had the state of Illinois gotten its way, I’d be dead today,“ one said. The political implications were big: Even if the justice system had not killed someone innocent yet, it had gotten awfully close, over and over again.
■ The Talented Mr. Ripley (Patricia Highsmith; 1955. Fiction.) A reread, for T Book Club. The June selection is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
p. 89 They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for time, that he did know them, and that he and they were completely in harmony and alike. For an instant the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear. He felt in the grip of a fit, as if he would fall to the ground. It was too much: the foreignness around him, the different language, his failure, and the fact that Dickie hated him. He felt surrounded by strangeness, by hostility. He felt Dickie yank his hands down from his eyes.
■ Your Still Beating Heart (Tyler Keevil; 2020. Fiction.) For the Cardiff BookTalk. The second-person narrative point of view hasn’t worked this well since Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, which I must now reread.
■ Measure for Measure (William Shakespeare; 1604. Drama.) As part of my effort to reread all of the plays this year and in advance of the Goodman Theatre stream.
■ The Burning Girl (Claire Messud; 2017. Fiction.) Accidental and worthy complement to Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides, which I read earlier this year.
p. 111 Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn’t as a kid, that the body you in habited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.
p. 197 [B]ut this is what I think: you only see what you expect to see. Your brain lets the rest go. Because life’s tumult, with its infinite sounds and smells and signs, rushes around you like a river in flood: you can only take in, you can only grasp, so much.