Theater of the absurd

We have what are arguably some of the hottest tickets in town.

From Eugène Ionesco’s play Victims of Duty (1953):

CHOUBERT: It’s quite interesting. The Government’s urging all the citizens of the big towns to cultivate detachment. According to this, it’s our last hope of finding an answer to the economic crisis, the confusion of the spirit and the problems of existence.

MADELEINE: We’ve tried everything else, and it hasn’t done any good, but I don’t suppose it’s anyone’s fault.

CHOUBERT: For the time being the Government’s merely recommending this ultimate solution in a friendly manner. They can’t fool us; we know how a recommendation has a way of turning into an order.

MADELEINE: You’re always so anxious to generalize!

CHOUBERT: We know how suggestions suddenly come to look like rules, strict laws.

MADELEINE: Well, my dear, you know the law is necessary, and what’s necessary and indispensable is good, and everything that’s good is nice. And it really is very nice indeed to be a good, law-abiding citizen and do one’s duty and have a clear conscience! …

CHOUBERT: Yes, Madeleine. When one really thinks about it, you’re right. There is something to be said for the law.

MADELEINE: Of course there is.

CHOUBERT: Yes, yes. Renunciation has one important advantage: it’s political and mystical at the same time. It bears fruit on two levels.

The beginning of the end

From page 219 of The Cabin at the End of the World (Paul Tremblay; 2018):

Andrew has taught literature for years, calling his course How the World Ends. The course has occasionally included a literary analysis of the Bible’s Book of Revelation and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding their red, black, white, and pale horses. Over the years the course syllabus has evolved, but one of the main arguments / discussions he has with his students remains a constant. No matter how bleak or dire, end-of-the-world scenarios appeal to us because we take meaning from the end. Aside from the obvious and well-discussed idea that our narcissism is served when imagining we, out of all the billions who will perish, might survive, Andrew has argued there’s also undeniable allure to witnessing the beginning of the end and perishing along with everyone and everything else. He has impishly said to a classroom, to the scowl of more than a few students, “ Within the kernel of end-times awe and ecstasy is the seed of all organized religions.”

Mid-year reading review

From page 69 of The Hole (Hye-Young Pyun; 2017):

It was impossible to capture the trajectory of life in a map. Without one, there was no way of wrapping your brain around it all, and yet he was skeptical as to whether you could ever represent the world through maps alone.

But it was meaningful. Someone had taken these invisible trajectories that could not be studied with any sort of accuracy and had tried anyway to turn them into a tangible space. He found it boring sometimes for the same reason. A world that could not be understood perfectly, could not be explained unambiguously, and was interpreted differently based on political purposes and conveniences was no different from the world he was already living in. And yet, the one way in which maps were clearly better than life was that they improved with failure. Life itself was merely an accumulation of failures, and those failures never made life better.

The jacket copy suggests that The Hole evokes the work of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. While I appreciate the assertion, I thought this meditation on the horror of finding blank emptiness at the center of a career, a marriage, a life was more philosophical than the comparisons to psychological thrillers suggests.

This was the book I completed before heading to bed last night, so I have completed sixty-eight books so far this year:

27 novels
10 plays
18 non-fiction titles
13 graphic fiction works
18 works published this year

My complete list can be found here.

Even better on rereading:
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro; 2005. Fiction.)
Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke; 1953. Fiction.)
Daytripper (Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá; 2011. Graphic fiction.)
Mrs. Caliban (Rachel Ingalls; 1983. Fiction.)

Forgot how wonderful this writer is:
Memento Mori (Muriel Spark; 1959. Fiction.)

For those who loved The Elementals (Michael McDowell; 1981):
The Reapers Are the Angels (Alden Bell; 2010. Fiction.)

A new-ish author who deserves the hype:
Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng; 2017. Fiction.)
Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng; 2014. Fiction.)

Fabulous story for a long car trip:
American Kingpin (Nick Bilton; 2017. Non-fiction.)

Honorable mention:
The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet (Justin Peters; 2016. Non-fiction.)

The most engrossing book I’ve read so far this year (not including rereads):
Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue; 2016. Fiction.)

Honorable mention:
Killers of the Flower Moon (Dan Grann; 2017. Non-fiction.)
An Abbreviated Life (Ariel Leve; 2016. Non-fiction.)
After the Eclipse (Sarah Perry; 2017. Non-fiction.)
The Hole (Hye-young Pyun; 2017. Fiction.)

Backyard birding

Over the last nine days, I have, among other things:

■ followed the progress of the robin family that calls our forsythia bush, “Home”;
■ mowed the lawn three times (!!);
■ seen a play (Suddenly, Last Summer at the Raven);
■ visited the Lincoln Park Zoo;
■ prepared for and undergone one of those screenings doctors recommend for all of us fifty-plus folk;
■ potted a couple of new plants and repotted some older ones;
■ lost a battle against an unidentified and insistent weed in my back garden area;
■ seen a good movie (I, Tonya) and a good documentary (Jane);
■ caught up on the harrowing second season of The Handmaid’s Tale;
■ fretted about how little I have practiced my music; and
■ finished four books:

Sometimes I Lie (Alice Feeney; 2017. Fiction.)
Buried Child (Sam Shepherd; 1978. Drama.)
The Idealist (Justin Peters; 2016. Non-fiction.)
Behold the Dreamers (Imbolo Mbue; 2016. Fiction.)

For the commonplace book, from Act Two of Buried Child:

SHELLY: Can’t we just drive to New Mexico? This is terrible, Vince! I don’t want to stay here. In this house. I thought it was going to be turkey dinners and apple pie and all that kinda stuff.
VINCE: Well I hate to disappoint you!
SHELLY: I’m not disappointed! I’m fuckin’ terrified! I wanna’ go!



Recent acquisitions.

Last night I finished reading Book 51 of the year, Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do. Because I’m about halfway through The Perfect Mother (Aimee Molloy), a meh recent novel, and Janesville, an excellent non-fiction work, I expect to meet the goal of Robin’s 52 Books in 52 Weeks by Thursday.

On the topic of non-fiction, I’m well positioned to meet one of my own reading goals: to read thirty-six non-fiction tiles in 2018. I’ve read seventeen, so far. In fact, here are my commonplace book entries for the sixteenth, Sarah Perry’s haunting memoir about her mother’s murder, After the Eclipse:

p. 136
As far back as I could remember, reading had been a perfect escape, an alternate universe where none of the problems were mine. When I was upset at home or school, I could always pull out a book, or know that one was waiting for me in the next quiet moment. In first grade, encouraged by my teacher, I began writing stories, and this was even better; I could create whatever escape I wanted, include whatever characters I wanted to spend time with. Writing gave me power.

p. 159
Sometimes, the scary thing about suicide was that it seemed inevitable, the only logical end to everything that had happened.

p. 250
Violence outpaced lab funding everywhere.

Our family book club is tackling The Aeneid this summer. We’ve already listened to the three introductory lectures in Elizabeth Vandiver’s course on the work and have decided to read one of The Aeneid’s twelve books each week, complemented by the appropriate lecture(s). The Girls Rule! Book Club has also tentatively scheduled Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert) and The Art of War (Sun Tzu), which may prove a bit ambitious with their commitments, but we’ll see.

The library’s reading program commences later this week, and frankly? My group enjoys some slightly lighter fare in the summer, too, so my assembled a pile of fiction includes Sometimes I Lie (Alice Feeney) and Red Clocks (Leni Zumas) — perfect, I think, for reading lakeside in the early morning between birdwatching and chillaxing.


With or Without You (Domenica Ruta; 2013. Non-fiction.)
p. 23
Pride like this is both tyrannical and tragic, for the chief function of pride is to usher in the fall.

My parents had sufficient raw materials to achieve a level of fame in a small town, but not much more than that.

p. 119
It made sense to me. There are some things that we have to forget about in order to get through the day.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This (Nadja Spiegelman; 2016. Non-fiction.)
p. 87
According to neuroscientists, when we stir up a long-term memory, it floats in our consciousness, unstable, for a window of approximately three hours. During this time, the memory is malleable. The present infiltrates the past. We add details to fill in the gaps. Then the brain re-encodes the memory as if it were new, writing over the old one. As it sinks back down into the depths of our minds, we are not even aware of what we have gained or lost, or why.

p. 235
It had happened to me once, the unexpected resurgence of a difficult childhood memory. It had made me feel I was losing my hold on reality. It terrified me, already, that I was composed of a past that was so lonely, that was made up of memories and narratives no one else in my family could agree upon. It was too much that it might be unknowable to myself as well. I wondered often how many other memories lurked within me, dark and alien as cancers.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Michelle McNamara; 2018. Non-fiction.)
p. 199
In their reserve and in virtually every other way, detectives differ from show-biz folks. Detectives listen. They’re getting a read. Entertainers get a read only to gauge their influence on a room. Detectives deal in concrete tasks. I once spent an hour listening to an actress analyze a three-line text that hurt her feelings. Eventually I’ll see the cracks in a detective’s veneer, but in the beginning their company is an unexpected relief, like fleeing a moodily lit cast party loud with competitive chatter and joining a meeting of determined Eagle Scouts awaiting their next challenge. I wasn’t a native in the land of the literal-minded, but I enjoyed my time there.

A Higher Loyalty (James Comey; 2018. Non-fiction.)
p. 118
I had never met President Obama before and was struck by two things: how much thinner he appeared in person and his ability to focus.

p. 121
On the way out the door, I told Kathy Ruemmler how surprised I was by the interesting discussion, telling her, “I can’t believe someone with such a supple mind actually got elected president.”

p. 123
Though it was a small moment, what struck me about President Obama’s remark is that it displayed a sense of humor, insight, and an ability to connect with an audience, which I would later come to appreciate in a president even more. These are all qualities that are indispensable in good leaders. A sense of humor in particular strikes me as an important indicator – or “tell” – about someone’s ego. Having a balance of confidence and humility is essential to effective leadership. Laughing in a genuine way requires a certain level of confidence, because we all look a little silly laughing: that makes us vulnerable, a state insecure people fear. And laughing is also frequently an appreciation of others, who have said something that is funny. That is, you didn’t say it, and by laughing you acknowledge the other, something else insecure people can’t do.

The Rules Do Not Apply (Ariel Levy; 2017. Non-fiction.)
p. 4
My lined notebooks were the only place I could say as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted. To this day I feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if I have a pad and a pen.

p. 5
(When we expressed subdued versions of our outrage to our elders, their responses invariably included the phrase “paying your dues.” It was not a phrase we cared for.)

p. 154
How did people do this? People who’d lost children who had existed – not for minutes but days, decades? Children who had voices, who had opened their eyes. Children with names. Did these people wake up every morning until the day they died and beg Mother Nature to return what she had given and then taken away?

I did not hate my mother. I feared her.

From Ariel Leve’s 2016 memoir, An Abbreviated Life:

p. 137
He tells me that scientists have found connections between children who are psychologically abused and permanent changes in the brain. We are discussing the neurological effects when a child’s rational responses are continually invalidated.

“The coping mechanisms that were adaptive in childhood become maladaptive as an adult.”

He gives an example.

“When you have an erratic, unpredictable, and aggressive parent, a child will detect signs and know when not to say something or know when to hide, so a threat-detecting sense begins to emerge early on. In the end, it wires the individual to be acutely aware and highly reactive to perceived threats.”

p. 145
The times I remember my mother most at peace is when she would stand without moving, unaware of passing time, reading or rereading passages from a book she’d picked off the shelf. Words were liberation from the frantic world she occupied. She could lose herself temporarily in the sanctuary of the lyricism. Unlike people, words were always enough.

p. 266
I did not hate my mother. I feared her. I feared her destroying my life. I feared her lies would turn others against me. I feared the incessant and unending conflict I would be forced to engage in with someone who couldn’t see past her own reality.