Book notes

I have recently acquired the top three books on the stack, finished the bottom four plus Conversion (Katherine Howe), and been reading the rest.

From Hard Times (Charles Dickens):

p. 47
It was one of the most exasperating attributes of Bounderby, that he not only sang his own praises but stimulated other men to sing them. There was a moral infection of clap-trap in him.

p. 277
“I beg your pardon for interrupting you, sir,” returned Bitzer; “but I am sure you know that the whole social system is a question of self-interest. What you must always appeal to, is a person’s self-interest. It’s your only hold….”

From Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson):

MARWOOD: Never discuss your family, do you?

WITHNAIL: I fail to see my family is of any interest to you — I have absolutely no interest in yours — I dislike relatives in general, and my own in particular.


WITHNAIL: Because… I’ve told you why… we’re incompatible. They don’t like me being on stage.

MARWOOD: Then they must be delighted with your career.

WIRHNAIL: What d’you mean?

MARWOOD: You rarely are.

The reading life

Since my last “real” post (i.e., a post with more than an image of books), I have seen several plays, including The Belle of Amherst featuring Kate Fry (runs through December 6: get there, if you can); finished all of the Forty Little Pieces in Progressive Order and moved on to the Album of Sonatinas (‘hard to believe that I have been studying flute for three years now); and completed (nearly) twelve weeks at my no-longer-new job. By necessity more than design, my bookish notes from the last six weeks mostly comprise dog-earred pages, screenshots, photos of books, and random lists. With this post, I will try to impose a bit of order.

At this point I have finished reading 140 books:

— 45 plays (33 by Shakespeare)
— 38 fiction titles (not including graphic works)
— 21 non-fiction titles (not including graphic works)
— 5 poetry titles
— 31 graphic works (six of which were non-fiction works)

Coriolanus (“Hear you this Triton of the minnows?”) and King Lear (“O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven / Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!”) were the highlights of my recent Shakespeare in a Year progress. Finishing the Sonnets represents a milestone, I suppose, but what a slog! At least I can say I have met my goal to read more poetry this year. Heh, heh, heh. And the otherwise tedious task was certainly leavened by Don Paterson’s erudite and irreverent commentary. Over the next week or so, I will quickly reread The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and Henry VIII (all of which I have, within the last two years or so (re)read) and then turn to The Two Noble Kinsmen, which I have, to the best of my recollection, never read.

The most recent of the novels I’ve read this year is A Whole Life (Robert Seethaler; translated from the German by Charlotte Collins). In 2015, I noted that Maria Beig’s novel Hermine: An Animal Life (translated from the German by Jaimy Gordon) is perfect, so comparing my experience of A Whole Life to Hermine is the highest praise I can offer this beautiful and deceptively simple novel. See also this review from The Irish Times, which draws parallels to Stoner (John Williams) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell), two books that would, like Hermine, easily earn a spot in my “Essential Bookcase.”

Another of my goals this year was to read at least twenty-six non-fiction works. Monica Hesse’s American Fire and Katy Tur’s Unbelievable represent the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh titles toward that goal. Both books recount fascinating stories that probably would have been better related in long-form articles.

From American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land:

p. 23
[W]hile some of his volunteers thought he was a hard-ass, his military training had taught him that there were right ways to do things and wrong ways, and getting small things correct was the only way to make sure the big things worked when it mattered most.

p. 205
It’s amazing how boring trials can be. How even the most salacious of crimes committed under the most colorful of circumstances can result in testimony that is tedious and snoozy.

From Unbelievable:

p. 201
I think we dislike and ultimately distrust the media because journalism, honestly pursued, is difficult and uncomfortable. It tells us things about the world that we’d rather not know; it reveals aspects of people that aren’t always flattering. But rather than deal with journalism, we despise journalism.

p. 235
We really have to start teaching journalism in elementary school. People don’t even understand the basics of what we do anymore.

Regarding the photo:

— Before seeing The Taming of the Shrew at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (review here), we attended a “Preamble” program during which the lecturer mentioned Scheil’s She Hath Been Reading. Naturally, I had to have a copy.

— I am reading Hard Times in anticipation of seeing the play over autumn break. (Reviews here and here.)

Withnail and I arrived on my stack via its (loose) ties to Hamlet.

— And the rest: Family Life leapt off the shelf at me yesterday. It seems like The Road to Jonestown has been on my stack too long. The Hate U Give is one of the few times I’ve given in to “But everybody’s reading it!” We’ll see how that works out.

Copysmith Star Class

From The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl:

p. 36
“First, words. We want words that are about Venus, words that’ll tickle people. Make them sit up. Make them muse about change, and space, and other worlds. Words to make them a little discontented with what they are and a little hopeful about what they might be. Words to make them feel noble about feeling the way they do….”

p. 47
“… It always winds up with him telling me the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket and people have got to made to realize it — and me telling him we’ve always got along somehow and we’ll keep going somehow.”

p. 81
It was an appeal to reason, and they’re always dangerous. You can’t trust reason. We threw it out of the ad profession long ago and have never missed it.

p. 95
It was a simple application of intelligence, and if that doesn’t bear out the essential difference between consumer and copysmith mentality, what does?

“No damn cat, and no damn cradle.”

In May 2011, I clipped David Ulin’s “Summers of Discovery” from the Chicago Tribune. (It also appeared in the Los Angeles Times:Critic’s Notebook: In Discover Mode.”) I had thought I would reread Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle that summer, but we know how that goes, right? More than six years later, though, I finally returned to the novel, and as I mentioned in my last post, it still resonates.

p. 164
And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?”

It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.

This is it:


Reading notes

Since my last bookish post, I have, among other things, seen the Ivo van Hove-directed A View from the Bridge at the Goodman (get there, if you can), visited my daughters, taken three flute lessons, (nearly) finished four weeks at my new job, and completed six books:

Timon of Athens (William Shakespeare; 1605. Drama.)
Macbeth (William Shakespeare; 1606. Drama.)
Do Not Become Alarmed (Maile Meloy; 2017. Fiction.)
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson; 2012. Non-fiction.)
Carrying the Elephant (Michael Rosen; 2002. Poetry.)
War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy; 1869. (Trans. L. and A. Maude; Everyman’s Library; 1992.) Fiction.)

The plays, both rereads, represent my Shakespeare in a Year progress. I plan to read Sonnets 112 through 120 and the related commentary between now and Sunday evening, which should catch me up.

From Macbeth, which is one of my favorite of the plays:

Act IV, Scene iii

Be comforted:
Let’s make us medicines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.

Seven years ago, I pressed my copy of Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It on someone, promising beautiful prose and original storytelling. I regretted it almost instantly, and I really regretted it a few years later when the same someone mentioned the book in conversation, “Have you read it?” she asked. “It’s pretty good.” Um, yes, I read it. The copy you just finished, in fact. And, “pretty good” seems pretty inadequate, but okay. “Mmmm…” I replied, and reminded myself, again, not to give my books away. Pass them to my daughters, sell them, donate them, yes. But give them away? Not anymore, I don’t. Anyway, while I readily concede that Do Not Become Alarmed does not cast the same spell as Both Ways, it is as impossible to put down as Fierce Kingdom (Gin Phillips), which I read last month, so, recommended.

As I mentioned last time, I reread Fun Home (Alison Bechdel) in anticipation of seeing the Victory Gardens production. I had a notion that Jeanette Winterson’s memoir would make a neat pairing, and I was a little right — and a little wrong. Here are my remaining commonplace book entries for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

p. 140
I did not realise that when money becomes the core value, then education drives towards utility or that the life of the mind will not be counted as a good unless it produces measurable results. That public services will no longer be important. That an alternative life to getting and spending will become very difficult as cheap housing disappears. That when communities are destroyed only misery and intolerance are left.

p. 144
There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations.

Reading is where the wild things are.

p. 170
And extremes — whether of dullness or fury — successfully prevent feeling. I know our feelings can be so unbearable that we employ ingenious strategies — unconscious strategies — to keep those feelings away. We do a feelings-swap, where we avoid feeling sad or lonely or afraid or inadequate, and feel angry instead. It can work the other way, too — sometimes you do need to feel angry, not inadequate; sometimes you do need to feel love and acceptance, and not the tragic drama of your life.

It takes courage to feel the feeling — and not trade it on the feelings-exchange, or even transfer it altogether to another person.

Michal Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, is quite possibly the most accurate depiction of sorrow and grief I have ever read. I cannot tell you how many times I have thought to send Rosen a postcard that simply says, “Yes. Thank you.” This week, I read Carrying the Elephant, his collection of prose poems. Again, “Yes. Thank you.”

p. 48
… Yes, it is unfair and
cruel. It also makes me tired with a
tiredness that hangs on like a dog. It’s nice of
you to say you’ll always remember him. You won’t.

p. 50
… You see me and you cry, you’re
overwhelmed. You ask me how it’s
possible for me to carry on. I wonder
if I look like someone who looks like
it’s possible to carry on.

And, as I shared yesterday, I have finished reading War and Peace. Here are the remaining commonplace book entries:

Book Three, Chapter 25
As often happens with passionate people, he was mastered by anger but was still seeking an object on which to vent it.

Book Four, Chapter 13
This was his acknowledgment of the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words, and his recognition of the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things each from his own point of view. This legitimate peculiarity of each individual, which used to excite and irritate Pierre, now became a basis of the sympathy he felt for, and the interest he took in other people. The difference, and sometimes complete contradiction, between men’s opinions and their lives, between one man and another, pleased him and evoked from him an amused and gentle smile.

Next up? It’s hard to say. Last night, I grabbed a thriller. After the “heavy” reading and work and the yard chores (yeah, I decided to mow and rake when I got home), You (Caroline Kepnes) seemed right. The thing is, I have a feeling that this is going to become graphic in a way that my post-fifty self no longer tolerates well, so I may be in search of something else before day’s end.

On a related (sort of) note: My husband and I have only two episodes of Jon Ronson’s The Butterfly Effect remaining. We were already Ronson fans (The Psychopath Test, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed), so this podcast (free to Prime and Audible customers) interested us. Although Ronson navigates an X-rated world, the podcast is never more than R-rated. Here’s Ronson’s description:

It’s sad, funny, moving and totally unlike some other nonfiction stories about porn – because it isn’t judgmental or salacious. It’s human and sweet and strange and lovely. It’s a mystery story, an adventure. It’s also, I think, a new way of telling a story. This season follows a single butterfly effect. The flap of the butterfly’s wings is a boy in Brussels having an idea. His idea is how to get rich from giving the world free online porn. Over seven episodes I trace the consequences of this idea, from consequence through to consequence. If you keep going in this way, where might you end up? It turns out you end up in the most surprising and unexpected places.

Reading notes

IMG_3133Since my last bookish post, I’ve moved my daughters back to university; received two offers so delightful that I rethought my ideas about “retirement” and accepted one; survived a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning; and finished the following books:

The Followers (Rebecca Wait; 2015. Fiction.)
Hamlet (William Shakespeare; 1602. Drama.)
The Grip of It (Jac Jemc; 2017. Fiction.)
Measure for Measure (William Shakespeare; 1604. Drama.)
The Marriage Pact (Michelle Richmond; 2017. Fiction.)
Fierce Kingdom (Gin Phillips; 2017. Fiction.)
Fun Home (Alison Bechdel; 2006. Graphic memoir.)
Othello (William Shakespeare; 1603. Drama.)

If you liked last summer’s The Girls (Emma Cline), and I did, you may appreciate The Followers, a difficult story told well. The Grip of It offers a literary twist on the haunted house genre. The Marriage Pact passed an amiable summer afternoon despite its pedestrian prose and improbable plotting. Fierce Kingdom, however, managed something special. This beautifully written and almost recklessly fast-paced thriller is destined for big-screen treatment. For the commonplace book:

p. 17
In a year he will be in kindergarten and these days of superheroes will fade and be replaced by something she can’t guess, and then at some point the zoo itself will be replaced and life will have gone on and this boy holding her hand will have turned into someone else entirely.

p. 160
She does not know when she started imagining the end of things. It’s possible that turning forty triggered it or that Lincoln triggered it from the moment he began changing from a baby into a boy and she realized how he was going to vanish, over and over again, until finally he was grown and gone, and it’s possible she has such dark thoughts precisely because there is nothing she wants more than for life to stay exactly as it is, never changing, and maybe she loves it all the more because she knows it can’t last.

p. 165
You are supposed to be more forgiving of your parents, aren’t you, after you have children yourself? After you understand what parenting really means?

The Bechdel memoir (an exquisite, smart book I devoured and pressed on all who would listen when it was first published more than a decade ago) was a reread: We will see the Victory Gardens production later this month.

The plays, all rereads, represent some of my Shakespeare in a Year progress. (Yes, I had planned to substitute a Hamlet-inspired novel, but my daughters and I ended up revisiting the play before they finished moving back to university. Still, The Dead Fathers Club (Matthew Haig), a book that has been on my shelves since 2006 may (finally!) end up on this year’s list.) I have also reached Sonnet 111 and pushed Sir Thomas More down the list a bit.

Yesterday marked the beginning of Week 11 in my quest to read War and Peace in seventeen weeks, but the book remains so compelling that I have already finished the reading for Weeks 12 and 13.

From Book Three, Part Two, Chapter 10:

He had managed people for a long time, and knew that the chief way to make them obey is to show no suspicion that they can possibly disobey.

And now I’m reading Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

p. 8
When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one. And perhaps we hope that the silences will be heard by someone else, and the story can continue, can be retold.

When we write we offer the silence as much as the story. Words are the part of story that can be spoken.

Reading notes

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

Here are my commonplace book entries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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