As back-to-school season drew near, I craved the sort of books that slide down like a glass of Hi-C and some Oreos, a snack Debbie D.’s mother often served when we climbed out of the pool following a long afternoon of lazily spinning on floats and gossiping. What can I say? We were young and unworried. Anyway, that yen for the bound version of refined sugar explains these two selections:
■ The Gifted School (Bruce Holsinger; 2019. Fiction.)
■ A Good Marriage (Kimberly McCreight; 2020. Fiction.)
Good luck and a great conversation with my older daughter explain the four graphic works I finished since my last post:
■ Family Tree, Vol. 1: The Sapling (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
■ Something Is Killing the Children, Vol. 1 (James Tynion IV; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
■ Undiscovered Country, Vol. 1 (Scott Snyder; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
■ The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist (Adrian Tomine; 2020. Graphic non-fiction.)
After revisiting our admiration of Jeff Lemire’s work, I poked around to see what he’s been working on lately. Say what you will about algorithms, I am grateful for the two recommendations that followed my discovery of Lemire’s Family Tree; I have enjoyed other titles by Tynion and Snyder and found these pretty solid. Tomine’s wry memoir arrived in my stack via a Goodreads recommendation.
This month, I concluded my Harry Potter reread:
■ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling; 2007. Fiction.)
The only book I’d go out of my way to recommend, though:
Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape? Or will it be all sound rubble, noise, and debris?
Now that our daughters live within a five-hour drive, we are able to see them more easily and more often: We were out earlier this month and plan to return in early September, if travel restrictions permit.
Where did the last year go, though?
When the afternoon light achieved the autumn-approaches slant on the living room floor earlier this month, I called the company that services the heater and air-conditioner to schedule our annual clean and check. The tech we prefer is older and, concerned about his health, has greatly reduced his time in the field, so a new tech was assigned to our routine maintenance appointment.
He arrived on time, but the mask he wore looked like the dust protection my husband and I use when cleaning the garage, and his non-stop patter all but spelled “Look at my germ-laden droplets!” in the air around his face, so while our favorite tech may enter the common areas of house, the new guy was confined to the utility area. Trying to ensure he did what needed to be done from six feet away was tricky, but I caught two issues that would have resulted in a return visit that first cool morning in October. (Fingers crossed that there were only two.)
We are also catching up on postponed medical and dental appointments. I joked with my husband after one of my appointments that I would have rather been that up close and personal with my hair stylist (no, I haven’t been to the salon since February) than with the lab techs and radiologist. Haircuts are optional, he reminded me; healthcare is not.
In other news, with the Women of Trachis, I reached 159 books read this year.
■ Lanny (Max Porter; 2019. Fiction.)
Not as memorable as Grief Is the Thing with Feathers but worth reading. Related article here.
■ The Trial (Franz Kafka; 1914/1925. Trans. Breton Mitchell 1999. Fiction.)
Nightmarish and brilliant.
■ The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath; 1963. Fiction.)
According to the Jackson bio I finished last month, Plath’s autobiographical novel was inspired by Hangsaman. Serendipity / synchronicity / synthesis abounds: I read Ted Hughes’ Crow earlier this month because it informed Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers.
■ The Old Guard, Book One: Opening Fire (Greg Rucka; 2017. Graphic fiction.)
After hearing about the Netflix movie on NPR, I decided to watch it. As I said to my husband, what I would have loathed at a theater was harmless enough for a Saturday night couch date. Rucka also pens the Lazarus series I follow, so I decided to read the book.
■ Zone One (Colson Whitehead; 2011. Fiction.)
He was a mediocre man. He had led a mediocre life exceptional only in the magnitude of its unexceptionality. Now the world was mediocre, rendering him perfect. He asked himself: How can I die? I was always like this. Now I am more me. He had the ammo. He took them all down.
We never see other people anyway, only the monsters we make of them.
■ Philoctetes (Sophocles; 409 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
■ Women of Trachis (Sophocles; 425 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
Read in anticipation of another Theater of War production.
■ Survivor Song (Paul Tremblay; 2020. Fiction.)
I loved A Head Full of Ghosts and thought The Cabin at the End of Woods was a solid page-turner, a perfect poolside read. So was this. As many other readers have noted, his prescience about just how badly we would fumble the response to an outbreak was more than a little eerie.
■ Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Ruth Franklin; 2016. Non-fiction.)
My unplanned Jackson unit began in May with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which I read and then watched. In June, after reading Sheila’s review of Shirley, I promptly grabbed Merrell’s novel from the shelves, then watched the film. What am I waiting for? I asked myself in late June and pulled Franklin’s tome from the shelves. I finished this meticulous and engaging biography in July and followed it with The Haunting of Hill House.
Writing in the interstices — the hours between morning kindergarten and lunch, while the baby napped, or after the children had gone to bed — demanded a discipline that suited her. She was constantly thinking of stories while cleaning, cooking, or doing just about anything else.
■ Richard II (William Shakespeare; 1595. Drama.)
To complement this excellent programming. One of my favorite lines of Shakespeare:
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings….
■ The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson; 1959. Fiction.)
■ Say, Say, Say (Lila Savage; 2019. Fiction.)
■ Ajax (Sophocles; 442 B.C. Trans. Bryan Doerries; 2015. Drama.)
In anticipation of this excellent presentation.
■ Gideon Falls, Vol. 4: The Pentoculus (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
She told us that men are rarely truly
kind, but they were often funny, which
is better. ‘You would do well to prepare
yourselves for disappointment’ she said,
‘in your dealings with men. Women are on
the whole much stronger, usually cleverer’
she said, ‘but less funny, which is a shame.
Have babies, if you can’ she said ‘because
you’ll be good at it. Help yourselves to
anything you find in this house. I want to
give you everything I have because you
are the most precious and beautiful boys.
You remind me of everything I have ever
been interested in’ she said.
Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.
■ Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (J.K. Rowling; 2005. Fiction.)
Revisiting these books that my son and I so enjoyed has been sweetly nostalgic, but with this, the penultimate volume in the beloved series, the flaws have become too big to hide under a long sweater of sentiment. They’re just not particularly well-stitched, are they?
■ Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Adam Higginbotham; 2019. Non-fiction.)
I watched the HBO series and thought, Why haven’t I read Midnight yet? For the record, the non-fiction account is many, many times more frightening than the cable program.
■ In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration (Shane O’Mara; 2020. Non-fiction.)
Related link here. A quick read, O’Mara’s survey of the brain-body connection complemented my own experience: as my mileage increased, so did my active and engaged reading and practicing.
An aside: When I tendered my resignation from my tutoring gig, I was asked — so many, many times — what I planned to do with myself. To most, I said, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll find something.” To those closest to me, though, I confided that I wanted nothing more from re-retirement than the time to read more, write more, study more, practice more, and walk more. And, boy, have I had the time, eh? That’s what happens, I suppose, when one’s re-retirement begins exactly twelve days before the world presses the PAUSE button.
■ Crow (Ted Hughes; 1970. Poetry.)
Of course, after reading Porter’s novel, I had to read the poetry that inspired it.
An aside: Each New Year’s Day, my family engages in the bird of the year game outlined in Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. (Related link here.) To mix things up a bit this year, we decided to move the date of our game to the first day back to work after the winter holiday, January 6. We could choose a bird from our respective backyards or a bird we saw at work. That morning, I awoke to the sound of crows conversing loudly beneath our bird feeders. My favorite bird! Finally, the year of the crow!
Speaking of backyard birding, a rock dove landed in the yard the day before yesterday. I’ve never seen a pigeon at our feeders; it dwarfed the mourning doves and blue jays. How capacious they are! A second pigeon made a few passes over the yard but didn’t touch down. Later, I saw both on my neighbor’s roof. This is a wooded neighborhood, so the pigeons looked quaintly out of place.
■ The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford; 1915. Fiction.)
Related link here. How did I arrive at (mumble) years of age without reading this book?
Well, we persevered and have largely recovered our respective grooves, Mr. Nerdishly and I. Our cats, who were boarded at a tony kitty hotel that I once innocently (and obviously mistakenly) referred to as the Pussy Palace, recovered their equanimity much more rapidly than I could have hoped and certainly more quickly than I, who needed several sleep-ins before feeling like myself again.
Since my last list, I’ve finished four books, bringing my total to 139 books read to date.
■ Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (Mary L. Trump; 2020. Non-fiction.)
This was the soundtrack of most of the second leg of our travels (Massachusetts to Michigan); I finished listening during one of our walks once we returned home. I agree with this reviewer: keenly observed, well written, and “the most convincingly empathetic chronicle of Donald Trump I’d ever read.”
■ A Separation (Katie Kitamura; 2017. Fiction.)
This was well-reviewed by critics but not necessarily by readers, if the mixed reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are an indication. I really liked it, though. It reminded me of The Third Hotel (Laura van den Berg), a book I read and admired in 2018.
■ The Sorrows of Young Werther (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; 1774. Trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan; 1990. Fiction.)
Yes, he’s troubled and self-absorbed, but I don’t belong to the reading club that maintains we must like the protagonist to like the book. I will say, though, that I am old enough to have wanted to be “quite severe” with Werther, to insist that he get a grip and meet a few more suitable companions. Heh, heh, heh.
There is a certain monotony about mankind. Most people toil during the greater part of their lives in order to live, and the slender span of free time that remains worries them so much that they try by every means to get rid of it. O Destiny of Man!
■ Antigone (Sophocles; 441 B.C. Trans. Ian Johnston; 2016. Drama.)
Read in anticipation of an upcoming Theater of War production.
My miraculous orchid now has seven flowers. (Original entry here.)
With The Farm I arrived at 135 books read this year; 110 from the shelves.
■ The Return of the Soldier (Rebecca West; 1918. Fiction.)
In May, when I finished Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge (1912), I remarked that it was difficult to believe that was her first novel; it was so assured and true. West’s first novel is even more so — remarkable and memorable.
Even though I lay weeping at it on the dead leaves I was sensible of the bitter rapture that attends the discovery of any truth. I felt, indeed, a cold intellectual pride in his refusal to remember his prosperous maturity and his determined dwelling in the time of his first love, for it showed him so much saner than the rest of us, who take life as it comes, loaded with the inessential and the irritating. I was even willing to admit that this choice of what was to him reality out of all the appearances so copiously presented by the world, this adroit discovery of the dropped pearl of beauty, was the act of genius I had always expected from him. But that did not make less agonizing this exclusion from his life.
■ The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder; 1927. Fiction.)
This was a reread.
The art of biography is more difficult than is generally supposed.
■ The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Leo Tolstoy; 1886. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Fiction.)
This, too, was a reread, my fourth time encountering Tolstoy’s novella. The first was in AP English, thirty-nine years ago. What do typical seventeen-year-olds take away from reading Tolstoy? Oh, I was more than capable of parroting a teacher (or a study guide) on Tolstoy’s biography, the key characters, the basic plot, the essential themes and symbols, but I’m not sure I had actually read The Death of Ivan Ilyich until my third encounter, in my forties.
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be when I did everything properly?” he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all of the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.
■ A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry; 1958. Drama.)
I had planned to read this in Spring 2003 for the “One Book, One Chicago” program. Better late than never.
■ The Farm (Tom Rob Smith; 2014. Fiction.)
A run of so many terrific books rendered this meh novel even more mediocre.
■ The Amateurs (Liz Harmer; 2019. Fiction.)
■ Postal: Deliverance, Vol. 2 (Brian Edward Hill; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
■ Ascender, Vol. 2: The Dead Sea (Jeff Lemire; 2020. Graphic fiction.)
Hoopla has enabled me to keep up on series that interest me.
■ The Tao of Pooh (Benjamin Hoff; 1982. Non-fiction.)
This is a somewhat different book now than it was when I first read it. The story of the author’s difficulties with the publisher are chronicled on his website.
■ The Pearl (John Steinbeck; 1947. Fiction.)
It seems impossible that I have not read this before, but I could not remember anything more than the horrific conclusion.
For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. This is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have.
■ Death in Venice (Thomas Mann; 1912. Trans. Michael Henry Heim; 2004. Fiction.)
Again, how is it possible that I have not read this? The Heim translation is introduced by Michael Cunningham, who writes, in part, “All the writers I respect want to write a book so penetrating and thorough, so compassionate and unrelenting, that it can stand unembarrassed beside the spectacle of life itself. And all writers I respect seem to know (though no one likes to talk about it) that our efforts are doomed from the outset. Life is bigger than literature. We do the best we can. Some of us do better than others.”
How about this for serendipity / synthesis / synchronicity?
The cases were kept secret. Within a week, however, there were ten of them, then twenty, thirty, and in different districts to boot. […] The Venetian authorities issued a statement to the effect that health conditions have never been better then took the most essential precautions against the disease. […] But fear of the overall damage that would be done — concern over the recently opened art exhibition in the Public Gardens and the tremendous losses with which the hotels, the shops, the entire, multifaceted tourist trade would be threatened in case of panic and loss of confidence — proved stronger in the city than the love of truth and respect for international covenants: it made the authorities stick stubbornly to their policy of secrecy and denial.
Interesting aside: The word legerdemain is used in the description of one of the pearl dealers in Steinbeck’s short novel. It’s not a common word, so it struck me when I encountered it again in the Heim translation of Mann’s work.
A third bloom! How lucky am I?
In other news…
In about two hours, I will attend my fourth Theater of War production. Warm thanks to the reader who brought this fabulous group to my attention. Today they’re doing The Book of Job Project, using the Stephen Mitchell translation. Maybe I’ll “see” you there?
Also, I finished two more books in June and wanted to add them to the count, which, at the year’s midpoint, stands at 124, with 102 read from the shelves.
■ Circe (Madeline Miller; 2018. Fiction.)
Read with my older daughter as part of our informal summer reading program. Both of us described it as a page-turner and finished it in one day. Related links here and here.
■ The Godmother (Hannelore Cayre; 2019. Fiction.)
Light and quick with a few witty observations. Perhaps it will work better as a movie?
People say I’m bad tempered, but I think this is hasty. It’s true I’m easily annoyed, because I find people slow and often uninteresting. For example, when they’re banging on about something I couldn’t give a crap about, my face involuntarily takes on an impatient expression which I find hard to hide, and that upsets them. So, they think I’m unfriendly. It’s the reason I don’t really have any friends, just acquaintances.
With White Fragility, I reached my goal of reading 100 books from the shelves this year. Diangelo’s treatise also put me at a total of 122 books, which exceeds my Goodreads challenge goal of 120 (recently increased from 104). With six months remaining in the year, the suggestion that I raise the goal to 240 did not go unconsidered, but July will be a busy month for me, and I would like to tackle a few reading “projects” later this summer and into autumn. More about that in another post.
Here are the books I’ve read since June 15.
■ The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party (M.T. Anderson; 2006. Fiction.)
A brutal but deeply moving novel from the author of Feed, a family book club selection from a few years back. Related link here.
■ Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine; 2008. Non-fiction.)
Even more powerful when reread.
■ Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar… Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein; 2006. Non-fiction.)
Did I read this when it was first published? All of the jokes are familiar. And maybe that’s the problem.
■ Thick and Other Essays (Tressie McMillan Cottom; 2019. Non-fiction.)
This book grabbed me by the collar, and it still hasn’t set me down and straightened my shirt. Remarkable. If it were feasible, I would press the entire text into my commonplace book.
They say the beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that ugly is as ugly does. Both are lies. Ugly is everything done to you in the name of beauty.
Knowing the difference is part of getting free.
■ Make Your Home Among Strangers (Jennine Capó Crucet; 2015. Fiction.)
■ The Mad Scientist’s Daughter (Cassandra Rose Clarke; 2016. Fiction.)
Books that might have appealed to my much younger self still show up in my stacks and occasionally on my shelves. What can I say? A bag of Jax cheese curls or a box of Nabisco sugar wafers will sometimes end up in the pantry, too. Let’s just be grateful I don’t pull out a tube top or my neon green belt, eh?
■ Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling; 2003. Fiction.)
Speaking of my younger self, it has been sweetly nostalgic to revisit these books my son and I so enjoyed.
■ Broken Monsters (Lauren Beukes; 2014. Fiction.)