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.

An Iliad

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They laughed. But the truth is that they were young, and the young have an old idea of war. Honor, beauty, heroism. Like the fight between Hector and Ajax: two princes who first try savagely to kill each other and then exchange gifts. I was too old to believe in those things still. We won that war by means of a huge wooden horse, filled with soldiers. We won by a trick, not by an open, fair, honorable fight. And this they, the young men, never liked. But I was old. Odysseus was old. We knew that the long war we were fighting was old, and that it would be won in a day by those who are able to fight in a new way.

Letters from a Stoic

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Detail from “Head of an Old Man, Possibly Seneca,”
Circle of Peter Paul Rubens; circa 1620. I captured the image at the Rubens, Rembrandt, and Drawing in the Golden Age exhibition at the Art Institute.

Letter II
Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

Letter III
For a delight in bustling about is not industry — it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind. And the state of mind that looks on all activity as tiresome is not true repose, but a spineless inertia.

Letter V
:: Finding wealth an intolerable burden is the mark of an unstable mind.

:: Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.

Letter IX
What is my object in making a friend? To have someone to be able to die for, someone I may follow into exile, someone for whose life I may put myself up as security and pay the price as well. The thing you describe is not friendship but a business deal, looking to the likely consequences, with advantage as its goals.

Letter XVIII
It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.

Letter XCI
The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events. For what is there that fortune does not when she pleases fell at the height of its powers?

“That’s one of the risks you take.”

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From the poem “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday”:

You’ll never be mentally sober.

From The Summer House:

p. 80
That’s strange, Grandmother thought. I can’t describe things any more. I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough. It was such a long time ago. No one here was even born. And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened; it gets closed off and then it’s lost. She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well. But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.”

p. 127
“I didn’t know that,” Grandmother said. “No one told me.” She went into the guest room and tried to read. Of course, you moved a potted plant to wherever it would get on best. It would do fine on the veranda for a week. If you were going to be gone longer than that, you had to leave it with someone who could water it. It was a nuisance. Even potted plants got to be a responsibility, like everything else you took care of that couldn’t make decisions for itself.

p. 131
“Oh, you mean he’s dead,” said Grandmother. She started thinking about all the euphemisms for death, all the anxious taboos that had always fascinated her. It was too bad you could never have an intelligent discussion on the subject. People were either too young or too old, or else they didn’t have the time.

And from George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy:

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Yes.

E7082997-B99A-4021-8548-2150A2EB9FE8According to Goodreads, I began my reread of Ulysses on April 7 and had covered fourteen of the eighteen chapters by mid-May. Even with the accompaniment of James Heffernan’s lectures (four remaining now), however, the project was bit of a slog. My bookmark (by then a ticket from Remy Bumppo’s production of Bloomsday) camped at the boundary of the Circe episode until I had stamina to wander into Nighttown in mid-September. Once I crossed that 150-page expanse, though, completing this project was a matter of a week’s time.

Chapter 5, p. 66
Yes, bread of the angels it’s called. There’s a big idea behind it, kind of kingdom of God is within you feel. First communicants. Hokypoky penny a lump. Then feel all like one family party, same in the theatre, all in the same swim. They do. I’m sure of that. Not so lonely. In our confraternity. Then come out a bit spreeish. Let off steam. Thing is if you really believe in it. Lourdes cure, waters of oblivion, and the Knock apparition, statues bleeding. Old fellow asleep near that confessionbox. Hence those snores. Blind faith. Safe in the arms of kingdom come. Lulls all pain. Wake this time next year.

Chapter 13, p. 309
Curious she an only child, I an only child. So it returns. Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way around is the shortest way home. And just when he and she. Circus horse walking in a ring. Rip van Winkle we played. Rip: tear in Henny Doyle’s overcoat. Van: breadvan delivering. Winkle: cocks and periwinkles. Then I did Rip van Winkle coming back. She leaned on the sideboard watching. Moorish eyes. Twenty years asleep in Sleepy Hollow. All changed. Forgotten. The young are old. His gun rusty from the dew.

In anticipation of seeing A Doll’s House at Writers Theater next month, I also reread the Rolf Fjelde translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play.

Act I
HELMER: Well, but what of the people I’d borrowed from?
NORA: Them? Who cares about them! They’re strangers!
HELMER: Nora, Nora, how like a woman! No, but seriously, Nora, you know what I think about that. No debts! Never borrow! Something of freedom’s lost — and something of beauty, too — from a home that’s founded on borrowing and debt. We’ve made a brave stand up to now, the two of us; and we’ll go right on like that the little while we have to.

Act III
HELMER: Before all else, you’re a wife and a mother.
NORA: I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that, before all else, I’m a human being, no less than you — or anyway, I ought to try to become one. I know the majority thinks you’re right, Torvald, and plenty of books agree with you, too. But I can’t go on being satisfied with what the majority says, or what’s written in books. I have to think over these things myself and try to understand them.