Reading notes

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 babies 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.

The (Other) You (Joyce Carol Oates; 2021. Fiction.)
For a program with the Chicago Humanities Festival.

The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban; 1967. Fiction.)
Comforting and devastating.

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.

“Stupidity is brief and artless….”

Attendance in the book group picked up after the holiday weekend, so I am hopeful that at least five readers (maybe more?) will make it the end of this journey. This week, we will discuss Book IX.

Book V: Pro and Contra
Chapter III: The Brothers Make Friends
Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward. I’ve led the conversation to my despair, and the more stupidly I have presented it, the better for me.

Book VI: The Russian Monk
Chapter I: Father Zossima and His Visitors
The thing is so simple that sometimes one is even afraid to put it into words, for fear of being laughed at, and yet how true it is! One who does not believe in God will not believe in God’s people. He who believes in God’s people will see His Holiness too, even though he had not believed in it till then. Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have torn themselves away from their native soil.

Chapter II: The Duel
He had said, “Mother, my little heart, in truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once.”

Reading notes

A few more new books.

This weekend, I plan to finish Joyce Carol Oates’ latest short story collection and Book Eight of The Brothers Karamazov. (Book group participation has been dwindling, but this week’s meeting, the seventh, was jarring: For the first fifteen minutes, it was only the two moderators and yours truly. Eventually, two other readers logged in, but one left early.) I have pulled a few other books from the shelves, but I’m not yet ready to commit to a plan.

Between March 14 and the end of the month, I read eleven books, bringing my year-to-date total to fifty-nine.

As part of my effort to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays in 2021, I tackled:

Love’s Labour’s Lost (William Shakespeare; 1598. Drama.)
Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare; 1597. Drama.) RFS
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare; 1596. Drama.)
This time through I was struck by the rages into which Capulet and Egeus fly when confronted with the preferences of their respective daughters. Apparently, each would prefer a dead daughter to one with agency.

CAPULET:
But, as you will not wed, I’ll pardon you:
Graze where you will you shall not house with me:
Look to’t, think on’t, I do not use to jest.
Thursday is near; lay hand on heart, advise:
An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good:
Trust to’t, bethink you; I’ll not be forsworn.

EGEUS:
Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:
With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart,
Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness: and, my gracious duke,
Be it so she; will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie; 2007. Fiction.)
Following Tommy Orange’s excellent There There, I browsed my shelves for other works by Native American writers.

Octavia Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (Damian Duffy; 2017. Fiction.)
A follow-up to Butler’s novel.

The Memory Police (Yoko Ogawa; 2019 (1994). Fiction.)
Years ago, I read and loved Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, which is also concerned with the nature of memory. This is just as wonderful. Reviews here and here.

Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout; 2019. Fiction.)
No, it is not as good as Olive Kitteridge, but it is a terrific book.

Pursuit (Joyce Carol Oates; 2019. Fiction.)
While awaiting my copy of The (Other) You, I pulled this slim thriller from the Oates collection. The Chicago Humanities Festival hosted a talk with the author on March 25, archived here.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Kate DiCamillo; 2006. Fiction.)
Gorgeously illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, this was a lovely, if bittersweet, story.

Drawing Lines: An Anthology of Women Cartoonists (2021. (First published in 2006, as Sexy Chix.) Graphic fiction.)
Picked it up for the JCO content.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking (D.Q. McInerny May; 2004. Non-fiction.)
Think The Elements of Style for logic.

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.”

In February, I joined a reading group comprising two moderators and, depending on the week, seven to ten other readers (thinkers, learners) who are tackling the twelve books and a three-chapter epilogue of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov one book a week. Before the first meeting, I asked which edition we would use and was advised to choose whatever worked for me. The Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation has been on my shelves since 2003 when I joined an online group that fell apart after Book II. After revisiting it and then perusing the Norton Critical edition (which is based on the Constance Garnett translation), I chose the Barnes and Noble edition of Garnett. The Garnett translation is also readily available in audiobook format, and having the book in my ears and before my eyes greatly enhances my deep reading.

Naturally, I’ve been marking memorable passages. Here are some from the first four books.

Book I: The History of a Family
Chapter I: Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov
As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple‐hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

Chapter IV: The Third Son, Alyosha
He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love.

Chapter V: Elders
Oh! no doubt, in the monastery he fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling‐block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith.

And later…

For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to‐day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth. Alyosha would have found it strange and impossible to go on living as before.

Book II: An Unfortunate Gathering
Chapter II: The Old Buffoon
“And, above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is at the root of it all.”

And later…

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than any one. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offense, isn’t it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill—he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offense, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. But get up, sit down, I beg you. All this, too, is deceitful posturing….”

Chapter IV: A Lady of Little Faith
“And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once—that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving any one.”

And later…

“Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint‐heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions.”

Chapter VI: Why Is Such a Man Alive?
With old liars who have been acting all their lives there are moments when they enter so completely into their part that they tremble or shed tears of emotion in earnest, although at that very moment, or a second later, they are able to whisper to themselves, “You know you are lying, you shameless old sinner! You’re acting now, in spite of your ‘holy’ wrath.”

Book III: The Sensualists
Chapter VIII: Over the Brandy
“There’s absolute nothingness then. Perhaps there is just something? Anything is better than nothing!”

And later…

“No, I am not angry. I know your thoughts. Your heart is better than your head.”

Book IV: Lacerations
Chapter III: A Meeting with the Schoolboys
Alyosha had no art or premeditation in beginning with this practical remark. But it is the only way for a grown‐up person to get at once into confidential relations with a child, or still more with a group of children. One must begin in a serious, businesslike way so as to be on a perfectly equal footing. Alyosha understood it by instinct.

“Who in the world, the strange and incomprehensible world, did she think she was?”

Since closing The Count of Monte Cristo with a satisfied readerly sigh on February 21, I’ve read eleven books, for a year-to-date total of forty-eight.

Macbeth (William Shakespeare; 1606. Drama.)
Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind (Harold Bloom; 2019. Non-fiction.)
The Merry Wives of Windsor (William Shakespeare; 1597. Drama.)
As I’ve mentioned, I am rereading all of the plays this year.

My Man Jeeves (P.G. Wodehouse; 1919. Fiction.)
A delight-filled reread.

From “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest”:
I’m not absolutely certain of my facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare — or, if not, it’s some equally brainy lad — who says that it’s always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping. There’s no doubt the man’s right. It’s absolutely the way with me.

From “The Aunt and the Sluggard”:
As I stood my lonely bedroom at the hotel, trying to tie my white tie myself, it struck me for the first time that there must be whole squads of chappies in the world who had to get along without a man to look after them. I’ve always thought of Jeeves as a kind of natural phenomenon; but, by Jove! of course, when you come to think of it, there must be quite a lot of fellows who have to press their own clothes themselves and haven’t got anybody to bring them tea in the morning, and so on. It was rather a solemn thought, don’t you know. I mean to say, ever since then I’ve been able to appreciate the frightful privations the poor have to stick.

Hope Rides Again (Andrew Schaffer; 2019. Fiction.)
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne; 1871. Fiction.)
Two more rereads.

Kindred (Octavia Butler; 1979. Fiction.)
Read for this month’s Cardiff BookTalk. I was late to the Octavia Butler fan club but am glad to have received my membership card.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (Katherine May; 2020. Fiction.)
Reviews here and here.

We Run the Tides (Vendela Vida; 2021. Fiction.)
Heard about this on NPR; borrowed it from the library; read it in two sittings.

p. 33
I pass the bushes where butterflies like to flutter and feed. Sometimes we catch them in jars for a minute before releasing them. Sometimes we wait too long to release them and find them dead. We know the names of the girls who keep the butterflies too long, and we have no idea what to do with this information.

Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout; 2008. Fiction.)
Reread in anticipation of Olive, Again (2019). The title of today’s post occurs on page 162 of my edition, as does the following:

There were days — she could remember this — when Henry would hold her hand as they walked home, middle-aged people, in their prime. Had they known at these moments to be quietly joyful? Most likely not. People mostly did not know enough when they were living life that they were living it. But she had that memory now, of something healthy and pure.

Ice (Anna Kavan; 1967. Fiction.)
An essay in my edition of Kindred likened Butler’s novel to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which I reread last year, and Kavan’s Ice, which was already on my shelves — genre-defying. Naturally, I had to move Ice up the TBR list. Related article here.

Ma foi!

A few recent acquisitions.

With just twenty minutes remaining before we tuned in for the season finale of All Creatures Great and Small, I savored the last page of the “thumping good read” (R.I.P., A Common Reader) that is The Count of Monte Cristo.

p. 191
“Upon my word,” said Dantes, “you make me shudder. If I listen much longer to you, I shall believe the world is filled with tigers and crocodiles.”

“Only remember that two-legged tigers and crocodiles are more dangerous than those that walk on four.”

Reading notes

The view from my desk earlier this month.

❧ To prepare for a new book group, I read (and reread) Book I of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. For a number of reasons, I’m working from the Constance Garnett translation rather than the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (which has languished on my shelves since 2003). Just a scant twenty-five pages in, I am wondering what took me so long to arrive at this incredible book.

❧ Now that I have reached Chapter 76 in The Count of Monte Cristo, I think I may safely report that I will finish this tome well ahead of schedule. What a face-paced (if highly improbable) tale of revenge!

❧ I finished Tommy Orange’s There There (2018) for The Deep Read. Topping a number of 2018 best-of lists, this novel needs no additional recommendations from me, but Orange’s delicate spider web of a plot really does dazzle.

p. 20
Maxine makes me read her Indian stuff that I don’t always get. I like it, though, because when I do get it, I get it way down at that place where it hurts but feels better because you feel it, something you couldn’t feel before reading it, that makes you feel less alone, and like it’s not going to hurt as much anymore. One time she use the word devastating after I finished reading a passage from her favorite author — Louise Erdrich. It was something about how life will break you. How that’s the reason we are here, and to go sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples fall and pile around you, wasting all that sweetness. I didn’t know what it meant then, and she saw that I didn’t. She didn’t explain it either. But we read the passage, that whole book, another time, and I got it.

❧ My commitment to rereading Shakespeare’s plays remains steadfast. Since my last checkin, I finished Henry IV, Part 2, and Henry V. To complement the Henriad, I plucked Harold Bloom’s 1992 meditation on the Fat Knight, Falstaff: Give Me Life, from the Shakespeare collection.

p. 50
If there can be a secular Resurrection, it would be Falstaff rising from the dead. The spirit that surges in all of us, even in the face of death, mounts to more life in the presence of the grandest personality in all of Shakespeare.

❧ As I mentioned in my last post, my reawakened Betty Broderick obsession / fascination demanded feeding, so I finished Bryna Taubman’s brisk if builder-grade Hell Hath No Fury.

❧ I’m also reading Maurice Chammah’s Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, which I heard about on NPR on the (long but worthwhile) drive to Ann Arbor last month.

❧ So that puts me at thirty-six books read since the beginning of the year, twenty-eight of which were read from the shelves.

“It is a refuge from distress….”

A recommendation that I look into Zena Hitz’s The Catherine Project sent me to shelves for Lost in Thought.

p. 58
Intellectual life is a way to recover one’s real value when it is denied recognition by the power plays and careless judgments of social life. That is why it is a source of dignity. In ordinary social life, knowledge is exchanged for money or for power, for approval or for a sense of belonging, to mark out superiority in status or to achieve a feeling of importance. These are our common currencies, our ways of advancing ourselves or diminishing others. But since a human being is more than his or her social uses, other, more fundamental ways of relating are possible. These forms of communion can consist in the joyful friendship of bookworms or the gritty pursuit of the truth about something together with people one would otherwise find unbearable.

p. 110
What good is intellectual life? It is a refuge from distress; a reminder of one’s dignity; a source of insight and understanding; a garden in which human aspiration is cultivated; a hollow of a wall to which one can temporarily withdraw from the current controversies to gain a broader perspective, to remind oneself of one’s universal human heritage. All this makes clear at the least that it is an essential good for human beings, even if one good among others.

Other reading notes:

I finished Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents (1998). If you missed this New Yorker article, when I linked it after reading Parable of the Sower, make time for it now.

I’m on Chapter 51 of The Count of Monte Cristo, which is a brisker pace than Robin proposed, but that’s all right.

I’m also reading Tommy Orange’s There There (2018) with The Deep Read.

Dirty John reawakened my dormant obsession with Betty Broderick, so I am revisiting Bryna Taubman’s Hell Hath No Fury (1992) and Bella Stumbo’s Until the Twelfth of Never (1993). Related article here. I love that showrunner Alexandra Cunningham “has been obsessed with the Broderick story since she was a teenager and read journalist Bella Stumbo’s book … so often that she stole it from the library.”

“Unity is an anomaly.”

From Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authority by Anne Applebaum (2020):

p. 56
Unity is an anomaly. Polarization is normal. Skepticism about liberal democracy is also normal. And the appeal of authoritarianism is eternal.

p. 171
For some people, loud advocacy of Trump helps to cover up the deep doubt and even shame they feel about their support for Trump. It’s not enough to express tepid approval of a president who is corrupting the White House and destroying America’s alliances. You have to shout if you want to convince yourself as well as others. You have to exaggerate your feelings if you are to make them believable.

“Good night, old sport…. Good night.”

This morning, as the snow fell faintly through the universe and faintly fell, I remained burrowed in my bedcovers to finish Corrigan’s insightful book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014).

It’s all over, Nick decrees on the very last page of the novel.

But he does so in the most beautiful sentences ever written about America. Gatsby’s fall from grace may be grim, but the language of the novel is buoyant; Fitzgerald’s plot may suggest that the American Dream is a mirage, but his words make that dream irresistible. Gatsby has it both ways. Far from being an easy read sized just right for quick digesting by our nation’s high-school students, The Great Gatsby is an elegant trickster of a novel, spinning out all sorts of inspired and contradictory poetic patter about American identity and possibilities.