Reading notes

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Recent acquisitions.

Earlier this week, I finished Gorilla and the Bird, Zack McDermott’s 2017 memoir. For the commonplace book:

p. 20
Watching my mom tutor eighteen-year-olds who read at a second-grade level — who considered our humble abode the Taj Mahal because we had a weight bench and a Sega Genesis — showed me that the difference between the track to prison and the track to grad school boils down to approximately a thousand consecutive nights of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Where the Wild Things Are, along with being told by someone who loves you: “A writer is always writing” and “A writer’s job is to tell the truth” and, once, “A writer is a liar. A good writer is a good liar. And you’re a silver-tongued devil, boy.” In other words, being lucky enough to have the Bird or someone like her as your mom.

p. 73
I spent my whole life trying to get out of this place. It’s as familiar as an identical twin, and yet I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that this is the factory where I was assembled.

The place to which McDermott refers is Wichita, Kansas. One of the books I’m now reading, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, is set just thirty miles outside of that city. From an NYT review of the National Book Award finalist:

A deeply humane memoir with crackles of clarifying insight, “Heartland” is one of a growing number of important works — including Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” and Amy Goldstein’s “Janesville” — that together merit their own section in nonfiction aisles across the country: America’s postindustrial decline. Or, perhaps, simply: class. It’s a term that Smarsh argues wasn’t mentioned during her childhood in the 1980s and ’90s. “This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it.”

I’m thisclose to finishing the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, and I have recommitted to Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Now I need to figure out where to put the recent acquisitions: the TBR pile or the shelves?

On my desk

C6008888-0641-43D2-8408-643F4A23B3E8From Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke:

p. 253
She’d always believed that her parents had done right by her, but now, sitting mute at Stanton’s table, she found herself seething over their choices. Why had they kept her life so small? Why had they never asked her what she wanted? At every possible turn, she saw, they’d chosen the path that would keep her weak and dependent. And the fact that they couldn’t see it that way, that they sincerely believed they’d acted in her best interest, didn’t make it any less true, or them any less culpable.

I was certain I had read this novel when it was first published seven years ago, but I have no record of it, nor did it seem terribly familiar after the first chapter, so I picked up a remaindered paperback. While better than some entries to the “If you loved The Handmaid’s Tale, read this!” category of dystopian fiction, When She Woke proffers neither the intelligence nor the pervasive horror that undergird Atwood’s classic.

With some bookstore credits, I purchased Esi Edugyan’s novel, which has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

A few book notes

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What I’m reading now.

■ This week’s objective for the Kristin Lavransdatter readalong is Part 1 of The Wife, the second book in the trilogy. Because this old-fashioned but well-told story is so engrossing, however, I have been completing about one part per week since the readalong began: Last night I arrived at Part I of the third book, The Cross.

■ Since my last post, I have read a number of graphic fiction works, including:

Grass Kings, Volume 1: New World Order (Matt Kindt; 2018. Graphic fiction.)
Dept. H, Vol. 2: After the Flood (Matt Kindt; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
Dept. H, Vol. 3: Decompressed (Matt Kindt; 2018. Graphic fiction.)
Beverly (Nick Drnaso; 2016. Graphic fiction.)

While waiting for the library to acquire Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (which appeared on the Mann Booker Prize longlist), I borrowed his 2016 work, Beverly, which was alternately damning and depressing. I am also waiting for the library to acquire the fourth volume of Matt Kindt’s Dept. H.

■ I am behind on my Banned Books Week selection, a reread of The Awakening (Kate Chopin), but I have finished The Third Hotel, Laura van den Berg’s meditation on death, grief, falling apart, and staggering on. For the commonplace book:

p. 80
Her husband believed that once the theater went dark and the film began, the viewer was alone — even if they had arrived in the company of others. This solitude was needed to dissolve the logic and laws of the world they had come from, replacing those principles with the logic and laws of the screen; that was how Yuriel Mata’s eels had slipped past. In this way you could descend into the theater with a person you knew intimately and then, once the lights returned, find yourself seated next to a stranger.

p. 88
Her own vast and incurious country often felt alien to her, with its unimaginative pledges and toxic patriotism, its aversion to discomfort and complex thought (the death of her brother-in-law alone had been enough to instill in her a hatred of truisms — what was so impossible about saying, Right now our lives are fucked up and we don’t know exactly when things will get better?), its desire to be recognized as a beacon of justice without ever actually acting like one. At the same time, America was the only country she had ever lived in, and she understood it could be disingenuous, perhaps even dangerous, to allow herself to feel superior to the thing she had always lived inside, the thing that had made her.

p. 93
You are dead, she thought. How could she have forgotten?

She had heard of the syndrome that drove people to believe loved ones had been replaced by fakes, but perhaps an inversion existed, one in which the fake was mistaken for the real, and she was afflicted.

p. 174
She did not know how to grieve her husband’s death or her father’s decline or the choice each day carried her closer to, the choice she was wholly unprepared to make — or would turn out to be more prepared than any person should be.

She did not know how to grieve in the context of her life.

Bullshit, Richard said. No one gets on a plane to see a movie.

Everyone dies at the end, she said, except the hero’s daughter.

p. 200
When a person did not know they were being watched, what they would do when they believed themselves to be in a state of true privacy — that was the lure of of found footage, that clarification of the human mystery, and that was why surveillance was so lethal: a true erosion of self.

■ With only three months remaining, it seems prudent to re-evaluate my reading resolutions for this year.

1. Read from the shelves.
I must make this annual resolution simply to torment myself. Of the 111 books I have read cover to cover this year, 39 were published in 2018. So much for reading from my own library, eh?

2. Complete a close reading of Moby Dick.
I’ve read it once and listened to the spectacular audiobook (William Hootkins; 2004) dozens of times, but I would still like to reread Moby Dick.

3. Reread at least one Vonnegut novel.
Sirens of Titan by Thanksgiving break.

4. Finish reading several books abandoned in 2017 (or *gulp* earlier).
No progress.

5. Read at least thirty non-fiction titles.
I’ve read twenty-three, so far.

Bookishness

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A few recent acquisitions.

So far this month, I have finished nine books:

The Children (Lucy Kirkwood; 2016. Drama.)
Vox (Christina Dalcher; 2018. Fiction.)
The Water Cure (Sophie Mackintosh; 2018. Fiction.)
Dept. H, Vol. 1: Murder Six Miles Deep (Matt Kindt; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
The Walking Dead, Volume 30: New World Order (Robert Kirkman; 2018. Graphic fiction.)
His Favorites (Kate Walbert; 2018. Fiction.)
The Incendiaries (R.O. Kwon; 2018. Fiction.)
Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath (Sigrid Undset; 1920. (Trans. Tiina Nunnally; 1997.) Fiction.)
The Devoted (Blair Hurley; 2018. Fiction.)

This puts me at 103 for a year-to-date total.

My Banned Books Weeks selection is The Awakening (Kate Chopin), a novel I first read more than three decades ago. I wonder how it will hold up. I am thisclose to finishing The Third Hotel (Laura van den Berg), and Fear (Bob Woodward), among other titles, is on my nightstand.

The following passage from R.O. Kwon’s recent novel, The Incendiaries, is for my commonplace book:

p. 58
No loss occurs in isolation, and a side profit of the faith that I missed at times like this was how easily, while Christ shone in each face, I loved. If hatred cuts both ways, to forgive can be a balm, and I often missed, as I would a friend, the more tranquil person I now had no reason to be.

“Karma is choice.”

From Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus:

p. 190
In casual Western conversation, karma is used interchangeably with destiny, kismet, luck, and fate. Bill had chosen the name while still in the grip of what felt to us all like a star-crossed tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. During the Elizabethan era, most Europeans believed each person’s fate was predetermined, hardwired by the positions of the planets and the stars. Some people still do. But the idea of karma has a deeper, more promising, meaning than that of fate. Karma can help us develop wisdom and compassion. In Hinduism, karma is a path to reaching the state of Brahman, the highest god, the Universal Self, the World Soul. Our karma is something over which, unlike fate, we do have control. “Volition is karma,” the Buddha is reported to have said. Karma is not fate, but, in fact, its opposite: Karma is choice.

I was hooked by page six, when Montgomery reminds readers of the octopus in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Synchronicity, serendipity, synthesis.

My last entry for August, The Soul of an Octopus was the ninety-fourth book I finished reading so far this year and the twenty-third title in my quest to read at least thirty non-fiction titles in 2018. Last month, I also (finally!) finished The Aeneid, and during the drive down to visit my youngest yesterday, I listened to the remaining lectures in Elizabeth Vandiver’s The Aeneid of Virgil.

Other reading highlights from the past month:

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (Jessica Bruder; 2017. Non-fiction.)
As I mentioned here, Janesville, Squeezed, and Nomadland (related entry here) formed a sobering trilogy.

Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery (Andrew Shaffer; 2018. Fiction.)
What silly fun this was! My older daughter and I listened to this while walking and running errands.

Things We Lost in the Fire (Mariana Enriquez; 2017. Fiction.)
Wow. Just… wow. From the Amazon blurb: “Written in hypnotic prose that gives grace to the grotesque, Things We Lost in the Fire is a powerful exploration of what happens when our darkest desires are left to roam unchecked, and signals the arrival of an astonishing and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.”

When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead; 2009. Fiction.)
This beautiful Newbery Award winner reminded why I love to read.

The Kristin Lavransdatter readalong began today, and I have nearly finished this week’s objective: Part 1 of The Wreath (seven chapters). It was easy to become absorbed in this old-fashioned but well-told story.

I will likely finish The Children, a play by Lucy Kirkwood, this holiday weekend and The Third Hotel, a new novel by Laura van den Berg, a little later this week. Another new release, Vox (Christina Dalcher), is also on my nightstand. Derivative, flawed, and strictly plot-driven, it may be done sooner than the atmospheric and disturbing Hotel, which I find I must set aside periodically — not unlike my experience with the brilliant Things We Lost in the Fire. Perhaps I need time to think about the images and ideas the writers have presented; or maybe, more accurately, I need to look away for a bit.

More soon.

“And many consider themselves loners.”

From Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017):

p. 88
For this community, making an effort to gather in person was no trifling thing. Members spend much of the year scattered across the country. Often they lack the gas money to drive long distances in a straight shot. And many consider themselves loners. Among the hermits, RV Sue has cultivated an especially solitary reputation, pleading with her blog readers not to drop in on her campsites unannounced, explaining that “blogging suits me well because I can interact with all kinds of interesting people without having to actually meet them.” Some of her fans have written about coming across a familiar seventeen-foot Casita during their travels — then realizing who that trailer belonged to and immediately hightailing it in the other direction.

“Being squeezed involves one’s finances, one’s social status, and one’s self-image.”

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Janesville (Amy Goldstein), Nomadland (Jessica Bruder), and Squeezed (Alissa Quart) have formed a fascinating — and sobering — trilogy.

p. 114
Among other things, being middle-class is a matter of having access to certain goods and services. It’s not just the house or the car you can buy. This status is also more granular, reflecting refined varieties of knowledge and information: the middle class knows where to send their children to school, where to get medical treatment, child care, career advice or training, or other kinds of help. Perhaps most importantly, class status is about how you even find out about these things to begin with, which again brings us to “cultural capital.”

When I recall “cultural capital,” I think of my favorite theorist from when I was a graduate student, Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu theorized that capital extends beyond economics, encompassing credentials, skills, and tastes. Financial capital is convertible — if you have the latter, you can gain cultural capital through education. Then, if you have the former, you can convert that back into even more economic capital through the right social networks.

Related articles here, here, here, and here.