An annotated reading list

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Talk about serendipity, synthesis, and synchronicity…
Not long after I finished reading Mary Beard’s slim volume, Women & Power, I visited the MFA, where the Head of Medusa (Arnold Böcklin, 1894) held my gaze.

I’ve finished fourteen books since my last list.

The Truants (Kate Weinberg; 2019. Fiction.) LIB
A quick, entertaining read. I particularly relished the idea of Agatha Christie as a subject of academic inquiry.

Women and Power (Mary Beard; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
Mary Beard is a genius. Related link here.

Men Explain Things to Me (Rebecca Solnit; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link: “Before there was mansplaining, there was Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 critique of male arrogance. Reprinted here with a new introduction.”

p. 10
Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.

p. 62
Gay men and lesbians have already opened up the question of what qualities and roles are male and female in ways that can be liberating for straight people. When they marry, the meaning of marriage is likewise opened up. No hierarchical tradition underlies their union. Some people have greeted this with joy.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark; 1961. Fiction.) RFS
Muriel Spark was a genius, too.

The Lady from the Sea (Henrik Ibsen; 1888. Drama.) RFS
Read in anticipation of seeing the Court Theatre production.

Five Days at Memorial (Sheri Fink; 2013. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link here.

The Taming of the Shrew (William Shakespeare; 1592. Drama.) RFS
Reread in anticipation of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company at Chicago Shakespeare.

Zeitoun (Dave Eggers; 2009. Non-fiction.) RFS
This was the perfect companion to Fink’s Five Days at Memorial and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler earlier this year.

As You Like It (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.) RFS
Read in anticipation of seeing the Chicago Shakespeare production.

Act III, Scene V
But, mistress, know yourself: down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love:
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can: you are not for all markets:
Cry the man mercy; love him; take his offer:
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.

American Dirt (Jeanine Cummins; 2020. Fiction.) ATY
From the NYT review by Parul Sehgal:

But does the book’s shallowness paradoxically explain the excitement surrounding it? The tortured sentences aside, “American Dirt” is enviably easy to read. It is determinedly apolitical. The deep roots of these forced migrations are never interrogated; the American reader can read without fear of uncomfortable self-reproach. It asks only for us to accept that “these people are people,” while giving us the saintly to root for and the barbarous to deplore — and then congratulating us for caring.

It certainly was “enviably easy to read.”

p. 50
What a waste of time it had all been. Lydia feels annoyed that her niece won’t get to see the music box she purchased for her special day. How expensive it was! She realizes, even as this thought occurs to her, how bizarre and awful it is, but she can’t stop it from crashing in. She doesn’t rebuke herself for thinking it; she does herself the small kindness of forgiving her malfunctioning logic.

p. 276
He’s a philosopher, she thinks. He’s rough, but he means what he says, and his openness is a provocation. Despite everything, he likes being alive. Lydia doesn’t know whether that’s true for herself. For mothers, the question is immaterial anyway. Her survival is a matter of instinct rather than desire.

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (Alberto Manguel; 2007. Non-fiction.) RFS
We’ve had our tickets to the Court’s sold-out, site-specific remount of An Iliad since September. It was more than worth the wait and the price.

p. 2
We don’t know anything about Homer. It is otherwise with Homer’s books. In a very real sense, the Iliad and the Odyssey are familiar to us prior to opening the first page. Even before we begin to follow the changing moods of Achilles or admire the wit and courage of Ulysses, we have learned to expect that somewhere in these stories of war in time and travel in space we will be told the experience of every human struggle and every human displacement. Two of our oldest metaphors tell us that all life is a battle and that all life is a journey; whether the Iliad and the Odyssey drew on this knowledge or whether this knowledge was drawn from the Iliad and the Odyssey is, in the final count, unimportant, since a book and its readers are both mirrors that reflect one another endlessly.

p. 88
A book’s influence is never straightforward. Common readers, unrestricted by the rigours of academe, allow their books to dialogue with one another, to exchange meanings and metaphors, to enrich and annotate each other. In the reader’s mind, books become intertwined and intermingled, so that we no longer know whether a certain adventure belongs to Arsilaous or to Aquiles, or where Homer ends Ulysses’ adventures and the author of Sinbad takes them up again.

p. 226
The scene of war, says Homer, is never only that of war: it is never only that of men acting out in the present the events of the day. It is always the scene of the past as well, a display of what men secretly once were, revealed now in their ultimate moments. Confronted with the imminence of violent death, war also confronts them with the memory of days of peace, of the happiness that life can, and should, grant us. War is both things: the experience of an awful presence and the ghost of a beloved past.

The Iliad (Gareth Hinds; 2019. Graphic fiction.) RFS
I did not appreciate this volume as much as Hinds’ graphic retelling of The Odyssey, which I read last year.

Why We Can’t Sleep (Ada Calhoun; 2020. Non-fiction.) LIB
p. 221
Could we even see our newfound midlife invisibility as a source of power? In Harry Potter’s world, one of the most prized magical tools is an invisibility cloak. There are great advantages to being underestimated. Two of the best reporters I know are women in their fifties. They look so friendly and non-threatening, if you notice them at all. They can lurk in any room without usually wary people remembering to keep their guard up. Then they write devastating whistleblowing articles. The world ignores middle-aged women at its peril.

Vinegar Girl (Anne Tyler; 2016. Fiction.) RFS
Read as a companion to my Shrew reread. This was also “enviably easy to read,” and that’s not a criticism.

—————————————
ATY Acquired this year
LIB Borrowed from library
OTH Other
RFS Read from shelves

An annotated reading list

BEBAC6F2-0CFC-499C-9EEF-C9AC33C715B4Once upon a time ago, I would cobble together a monthly (or so) review of books I’d been reading with notes, quotes, and / or links. I thought I’d do that today to get back into the posting groove. So far, I’ve read twenty-three books this year, fifteen of which are from my shelves and eleven of which are non-fiction titles. I’m off to a promising start, eh?

Highlights of the Collections of the Oriental Institute (Jean M. Evans; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
We revisited the Oriental Institute in December in anticipation of seeing An Iliad there next month.

The Mousetrap (Agatha Christie; 1952. Drama.) RFS
Read in advance of seeing the Court Theatre production.

Trust Exercise (Susan Choi; 2019. Fiction.) RFS
Interesting review here.

Rutherford and Sons (Githa Sowerby; 1912. Drama.) RFS
Read before seeing the TimeLine Theatre production.

Richard III (William Shakespeare; 1592. Drama.) RFS
Reread before seeing the Shakespeare Project of Chicago production.

In the Heart of the Sea (Nathan Philbrick; 2000. Non-fiction.) RFS
In a weird twist, I watched the movie before reading this terrific book. My interest was, of course, fueled by my Moby-Dick reread late last year.

Dear America (Jose Antonio Vargas; 2018. Non-fiction.) RFS
Related link here.

A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah; 2007. Non-fiction.) RFS
Arrived at this book a bit later than most. Here’s a related link.

Frogcatchers (Jeff Lemire; 2018. Graphic fiction.) LIB
Another of Lemire’s meditations on death, regret, and letting go.

On Tyranny (Timothy Snyder; 2017. Non-fiction.) RFS
Again, arrived at this later than most. I began marking passages for the commonplace book and soon realized I’d copy the entire text. Review here.

Tomten Tales (Astrid Lindgren; 2017 ed. (1960 and 1966). Juvenile fiction.) LIB
Small gnome ornaments topped the holiday gift bags I distributed this year. In a lovely note, my music teacher thanked me for, among other things, “the adorable tomten.” In pursuit of a definition, I stumbled on this delightful children’s book.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Chris Hadfield; 2013. Non-fiction.) RFS
My younger daughter (insistently) recommended this.

p. 267
If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time. Personally, I’d rather feel good most of the time, so to me everything counts: the small moments, the medium ones, the successes that make the papers and also the ones that no one knows about but me. The challenge is avoiding being derailed by the big, shiny moments that turn other people’s heads. You have to figure out for yourself how to enjoy and celebrate them, and then move on.

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates; 2015. Non-fiction.) RFS
p. 51
Poetry aims for an economy of truth — loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions — beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.

Keep It Moving (Twyla Tharp; 2019. Non-fiction.) LIB
Meh.

The Passengers (John Marrs; 2019. Fiction.) ATY
Flawed and a bit predictable but an altogether entertaining way to pass a Sunday evening.

Digital Minimalism (Cal Newport; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
This book is partially responsible for the gap in entries here.

We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; 2014. Non-fiction.) LIB
p. 18
Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.

Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey; 1951. Fiction.) RFS
I reread this after rereading Richard III.

p. 33
It was shocking how little history remained with one after a good education.

p. 196
“No, that doesn’t matter at all. Most people’s first books are their best anyway; it’s the one they wanted most to write….”

Blood Dazzler (Patricia Smith; 2009. Poetry.) LIB
Excerpts here.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Carolyn Criado Perez; 2019. Non-fiction.) RFS
Wow. Wow. Wow. This will certainly top my list of memorable reads this year. Related link here.

The Whisper Man (Alex North; 2019. Fiction.) ATY
Another meh.

The Warehouse (Rob Hart; 2019. Fiction.) LIB
Although I’m weary of the narrative device of alternating voices, it worked in this near-future dystopian novel.

Emma (Jane Austen; 1815. Fiction.) RFS
Austen’s prose sparkles; her wit pierces. But I wonder if I am too old to appreciate Emma. I reread the novel before seeing the new Chicago Shakespeare musical.

—————————————
ATY Acquired this year
LIB Borrowed from library
RFS Read from shelves

 

“Hast seen the White Whale?”

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My November 2013 image of the sperm whale sculpture by Preston Jackson.

Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale
One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’ crater for an inkstand! Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their outreaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs. Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

Chapter 113: The Forge
“Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad?—What wert thou making there?”

Chapter 115: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor
“Hast seen the White Whale?” gritted Ahab in reply.

“No; only heard of him; but don’t believe in him at all,” said the other good-humoredly. “Come aboard!”

“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on. Hast lost any men?”

“Not enough to speak of — two islanders, that’s all; — but come aboard, old hearty, come along. I’ll soon take that black from your brow. Come along, will ye (merry’s the play); a full ship and homeward-bound.”

“How wondrous familiar is a fool!” muttered Ahab….

Chapter 135: The Chase
“Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow. Oh, Stubb, I hope my poor mother’s drawn my part-pay ere this; if not, few coppers will now come to her, for the voyage is up.”

Don’t be afraid, my butter-boxes

6DF9F86D-56B3-4B72-85C0-C1126DE8AE83Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin
:: “Don’t be afraid, my butter-boxes,” cried Stubb, casting a passing glance upon them as he shot by; “ye’ll be picked up presently—all right—I saw some sharks astern—St. Bernard’s dogs, you know—relieve distressed travellers….”

:: For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.

Chapter 85: The Fountain
Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living. Oh! happy that the world is such an excellent listener!

Chapter 86: The Tail
It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority.

Chapter 93: The Castaway
So soon as he recovered himself, the poor little negro was assailed by yells and execrations from the crew. Tranquilly permitting these irregular cursings to evaporate, Stubb then in a plain, business-like, but still half humorous manner, cursed Pip officially; and that done, unofficially gave him much wholesome advice. The substance was, Never jump from a boat, Pip, except — but all the rest was indefinite, as the soundest advice ever is. Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. Moreover, as if perceiving at last that if he should give undiluted conscientious advice to Pip, he would be leaving him too wide a margin to jump in for the future; Stubb suddenly dropped all advice, and concluded with a peremptory command, “Stick to the boat, Pip, or by the Lord, I won’t pick you up if you jump; mind that. We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama. Bear that in mind, and don’t jump any more.” Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted, that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a money-making animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.

The subterranean miner that works in us all

4F260CD5-53F7-44FB-BFCD-682A59A152BDChapter 41: Moby Dick
:: All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled up on the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

:: Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded to the old man’s ire—by what evil magic their souls were possessed, that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be—what the White Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,—all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.

Chapter 49: The Hyena
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.

A butterless man

9B4840CF-E556-4170-BFE7-2B4C8B7A7434Chapter 16: The Ship
How now in the contemplative evening of his days, the pious Bildad reconciled these things in the reminiscence, I do not know; but it did not seem to concern him much, and very probably he had long since come to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan
Besides, argued I, fasting makes the body cave in; hence the spirit caves in; and all thoughts born of a fast must necessarily be half-starved. This is the reason why most dyspeptic religionists cherish such melancholy notions about their hereafters. In one word, Queequeg, said I, rather digressively; hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling; and since then perpetuated through the hereditary dyspepsias nurtured by Ramadans.

Chapter 19: The Prophet
… he was nothing but a humbug, trying to be a bugbear.

Chapter 32: Cetology
God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught — nay, but the draught of a draught. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!

Chapter 34: The Cabin-Table
… however it was, Flask, alas! was a butterless man!

A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture

02DBC75B-0CCB-466B-8F06-3E76E97CD6CDChapter 1: Loomings
The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.

Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag
It was a very dubious-looking, nay, a very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless. I knew no one in the place.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn
:: A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.

:: Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

Chapter 5: Breakfast
:: However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, but let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man then you perhaps think four.

:: But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people’s estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.

Chapter 12: Biographical
It is not down on any map; true places never are.