The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot, 1861

The Great Books Group loved Middlemarch and I think we’ll end up going through all of Eliot eventually. Half of us thought this was even better, and the other half (including me) disagreed—both on the basis of its tighter focus (less sprawling/not as all-encompassing). I loved the humor, especially the Dodson sisters, Mrs. Tulliver, Mrs. Glegg, and Mrs. Pullett: “…while no individual Dodson was satisfied with any other individual Dodson, each was satisfied, not only with him- or herself, but with the Dodsons collectively.” The narrator, discussing which history of St. Ogg to choose: “I incline to the briefest, since, if it should not be wholly true, it is at least likely to contain the least falsehood.” Mr. Tulliver, embroiled in lawsuits, wants his son to learn “‘how to wrap things up in words as aren’t actionable. It’s an uncommon fine thing …. when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it.'”

Eliot is a master of description—Yap the dog “danced and barked round her, as much as to say, if there was any noise wanted he was the dog for it”; Maggie impulsively cuts her hair: “one delicious grinding snip, and then another and another…”; “the hum of insects, like tiniest bells on the garment of Silence.”

Mr. Riley, asked for a recommendation for a tutor, rationalizes a choice for so many believable reasons:

…He would not omit to do a good turn to a son-in-law of Timpson’s, for Timpson was one of the most useful and influential men in the parish, and had a good deal of business, which he knew how to put into the right hands. … Timpson had a large family of daughters; Mr. Riley felt for him; besides, Louisa Timpson’s face, with its light curls, had been a familiar object to him over the pew wainscot on a Sunday for nearly fifteen years; it was natural her husband should be a commendable tutor. Moreover, Mr. Riley knew of no other schoolmaster whom he had any ground for recommending in preference; why, then, should he not recommend Stelling? His friend Tulliver had asked him for an opinion; it is always chilling, in friendly intercourse, to say you have no opinion to give. And if you deliver an opinion at all, it is mere stupidity not to do it with an air of conviction and well-founded knowledge. You make it your own in uttering it, and naturally get fond of it. Thus Mr. Riley, knowing no harm of Stelling to begin with, and wishing him well, so far as he had any wishes at all concerning him, had no sooner recommended him than he began to think with admiration of a man recommended on such high authority, and would soon have gathered so warm an interest on the subject, that if Mr. Tulliver had in the end declined to send Tom to Stelling, Mr. Riley would have thought his “friend of the old school” a thoroughly pig-headed fellow.

I identified so strongly with poor old impulsive Maggie as a child, in contrast to Tom, who “would have said, ‘I’d do just the same again.’ That was his usual mode of viewing his past actions; whereas Maggie was always wishing she had done something different.” Eliot is a master at diving into  thoughts and feelings with sympathy. “Surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life, that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children.”

The first and second halves are radically different in style and pace, and although in some ways it feels awkward, it also sweeps you along to the end—narratively inevitable, and yet how I wish Maggie and Stephen Guest could have had a happy ending together, especially since Eliot so brilliantly explains exactly how their behavior would have been rehabilitated by “the world’s wife”:

Mr. Stephen Guest had certainly not behaved well; but then, young men were liable to those sudden infatuated attachments; and bad as it might seem in Mrs. Stephen Guest to admit the faintest advances from her cousin’s lover…, still, she was very young…”and young Guest so very fascinating; and, they say, he positively worships her (to be sure, that can’t last!), and he ran away with her in the boat quite against her will, and what could she do? She couldn’t come back then; no one would have spoken to her; and how very well that maize-colored satinette becomes her complexion! It seems as if the folds in front were quite come in; several of her dresses are made so,–they say he thinks nothing too handsome to buy for her. Poor Miss Deane! She is very pitiable; but then there was no positive engagement; and the air at the coast will do her good. After all, if young Guest felt no more for her than that it was better for her not to marry him. What a wonderful marriage for a girl like Miss Tulliver,––quite romantic? Why, young Guest will put up for the borough at the next election. Nothing like commerce nowadays! … Miss Unit declares she will never visit Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Guest,––such nonsense! pretending to be better than other people. Society couldn’t be carried on if we inquired into private conduct in that way,––and Christianity tells us to think no evil,––and my belief is, that Miss Unit had no cards sent her.”

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014

The November book for the Nature and Environment book group, and one I’d been looking forward to since its release because of my T. H. White obsession. I also read The Goshawk at a young age, but it didn’t give me any desire to train hawks myself. One of the main critiques the discussion brought up was how little we ended up understanding the attraction of falconry, to people who clearly love hawks, when it’s also clearly a kind of slavery for the birds.The best explanation for me was “The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Macdonald’s vivid description of falling into depression/mental illness after the death of her father was hard to experience, but also helps clarify: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”

I identified strongly with Macdonald’s early life, especially reading so much from the 19th century:

Being in the company of these authors was like being dropped into an exclusive public school… What I was doing wasn’t just educating myself in the nuts and bolts of hawk-training: I was unconsciously soaking up the assumptions of an imperial elite. I lived in a world where English peregrines always outflew foreign hawks, whose landscapes were grouse moors and manor houses, where women didn’t exist. These men were kindred spirits. I felt I was one of them, one of the elect.

Her initial reaction to The Goshawk is priceless:

I’d reached the bit about the sparrowhawks and I was too upset to read any more. I’d jumped from my bed and gone looking for reassurance.
“Is this the Goshawk book you’ve been telling me about?”
“Yes! He’s got his hawk ready to fly free but then he starts making traps to try and catch some sparrowhawks and goes off and leaves the hawk behind and it’s stupid.”
A long pause.
“Maybe he was tired of his hawk,” [my mother] said, the hand with the cloth in it now pressed to the sink.
This made no sense at all.
“But how could he be tired of a hawk?”

Her material on White seems to come fairly straight from the Sylvia Townsend Warner biography, but with some interesting observations about his context:

… the countryside wasn’t just something that was safe for White to love: it was a love that was safe to write about. It took me a long time to realize how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationship with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.

She mentions Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (I think I read it a long time ago, but due for a re-read), and a new one to me, A Cuckoo in the House by Maxwell Knight. My Dog Tulip (J. R. Ackerly)  is another that jumps to mind.

I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing—not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to is now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?

November 2017 books read


  • H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014
  • Stories Rabbits Tell: A Natural and Cultural History of a Misunderstood Creature – Margo DeMello and Susan E. Davis, 2003 (mostly skimmed)
  • Goodnight, Mr. Tom – Michelle Magorian, 1981 – A modern classic children’s book I had never heard of and picked up at a tag sale. Good not great.
  • Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens, 1848 – Since I got my first smartphone, I’ve kept a new-to-Dickens to read  if I don’t have anything else around; it takes me a very long time to get through them. I started this one probably 3? years ago. The death of Paul (Chapter 16, What the Waves were always saying)–wow wow wow, the “golden water” foreshadowing Proust’s “petit pan de mur jaune” (I didn’t realize there was controversy about which part of the Vermeer painting that refers to!) Now up is The Uncommercial Traveller.
  • The Given Day – Denis Lehane, 2008
  • The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot, 1861
  • The Stand – Stephen King, 1978. Yet another re-read (of the original, not the misbegotten rewrite). This time around it was the evolution of Larry Underwood’s character from “you ain’t no nice guy” to a real hero that particularly grabbed me.
  • Howl’s Moving Castle – Diana Wynne-Jones, 1986 – Because I saw the Miyazaki movie again (love it!) and wanted to compare to the source. Good in its own way, but it was interesting to see, for example, that the classic Miyazaki transformation of the Witch of the Waste was entirely his.
  • Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words – Boel Westin, 2014 (mostly skimmed)

The Given Day – Dennis Lehane, 2008

I’d never read any Lehane but had heard good things about him, so I wanted to like this. Maybe the contemporary ones are better–this was a very tin-eared historical novel, set in 1918-1919 with characters who don’t feel of then. A couple of nice images–a dying man “probably slipping across the river right at this moment, climbing the dark shore into another world,” a baby “warm as a kettle wrapped in a towel;” some flashes of humor–“The Bolshies? … I’m not sure they have the capacity to blow up anything outside of their own chests.” “How could you fight righteous rage if the only arms you bore were logic and sanity?” But people shocked at houses that still don’t have indoor plumbing? Getting IVs in a hospital? Citing “a six percent drop in violent crime”? And those are just the irritations I can put my finger on; overall the actions and perspectives of the characters just didn’t convince me. 700 pages too! It’s a Second Monday book group book or I wouldn’t have persevered, and I’m looking forward to hearing other people’s thoughts.

October 2017

  • Drinking: A Love Story – Caroline Knapp, 1996
  • Encounters with the Archdruid – John McPhee, 1971
  • Doorways in the Sand – Roger Zelasny, 1976. I read the first section in Analog, the June 1975 issue,  which was I think the first SF magazine I ever bought. The idea of being a perpetual student like the protagonist grabbed me then–and I’m living it now!
  • It’s Not About the Tights: An Owner’s Manual for Bravery – Chris Brogan, 2015. Great title, disappointing book.
  • Demian – Herman Hesse, 1919

September 2017

  • Dust (Silo #3) – Hugh Howey, 2013
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson, 2016
  • Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey, 1968
  • Trustee from the Toolroom – Nevil Shute, 1906
  • Gilgamesh – Stephen Mitchell adaptation, 2004
  • Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – Bruce Handy, 2017
  • How to Be a Person in the World – Heather Havrilesky, 2016
  • It’s A Woman’s World – Ruth Stout, 1960
  • Cell – Stephen King, 2006

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness – Edward Abbey, 1968

Like Walden gone right. I loved it, but I’m going to have to re-read it later to grab all the quotes I want… how do I manage to read without post-its at hand (sorry, sticky notes!) when I know I’ll never remember what I want to? Too quick to read, too slow to think and write, as usual. But I very much look forward to re-reading and re-savoring this, especially because I wasn’t able to attend the Nature and Environment book group discussion. But then I might just end up quoting big chunks, like this:

[In Delicate Arch] you may see a symbol, a sign, a fact, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things.
Much the same could be said of the tamarisk down in the canyon, of the blue-black raven croaking on the cliff, of your own body. The beauty of Delicate Arch explains nothing, for each thing in its way, when true to its own character, is equally beautiful. (There is no beauty in nature, said Baudelaire. A place to throw empty beer cans on Sunday, said Menken.) If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful—that which is full of wonder.
A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wildflowers—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship. The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous, then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on Earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.

The one of the many, many quotes I would have marked, had I had the sticky notes, that stuck its sticky self in my brain so I had to go back and find it: “the delicious magical green of a young cottonwood with its ten thousand exquisite leaves vibrating like spangles in the vivid air.” The older I get, the more I love trees. Thank you, Edward Abbey.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult – Bruce Handy, 2017

I love books-about-books, and this one is about my favorite genre, so I would have enjoyed it anyway. But it’s also extremely funny, brilliantly-written, and has one of the coolest designs I’ve ever seen—credited to Thomas Colligan. The jacket, front endsheet, and back endsheet are each the most stylized possible element of a famous picture book (Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat, and Goodnight Moon) rendered as “flat” paper, with an iconic partial element visible under a lifted corner: Max’s yellow crown with his clawed costume hand and foot, the Cat in the Hat stripes with the fish tail emerging from its bowl, rabbit ears against the green wall under the corner of an expanse of evening sky blue. I couldn’t put the book down and totally agree with Gretchen Rubin‘s jacket blurb: “I only wish the book were ten times longer.” I have a fantasy of writing essays like this about some of my personal favorites that he doesn’t cover, like The Mouse and His Child (he does mention Frances, at least) and Mistress Masham’s Repose. Inspiring.

Light in August – William Faulkner, 1932

Yikes, my perfectionist streak is causing me trouble again… this was the August book for the Forbes Great Books discussion group, and a) the September meeting is tomorrow so it’s been a full month since I finished it; b) I ran out of renewals and so am paying 10 cents a day for the privilege of holding on to this copy while I procrastinate about writing this post. No more!

Aside from “A Rose for Emily,” I never could read Faulkner until we started reading him in Great Books. So far we’ve done The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, and As I Lay Dying, and I loved them all, even though Southern Gothic is not my favorite. But this one has the Gothic turned up to 11 and it felt like too much. We had an interesting discussion and I appreciated it somewhat more through the eyes of the others, who mostly really enjoyed it. Lena’s character is interesting and fresh, but to my mind Joe Christian is too much of a symbol and not enough of a real, believable person. And the two-words-glued-together neologisms (“branchshadowed,” “flabbyjowled,” “womansign,” ), which many people found effective,  started to get on my nerves.

I’m just going to dump a bunch of quotes (punctuation is [sic]) in here and call it a night… for this writing to be a pleasure and not a chore, I need to get it done more promptly, or give up on it!

…[T]he town believed that good women dont forget things easily, good or bad, lest the taste and savor of forgiveness die from the palate of conscience.

“I said, there is your home.” Still, the child didn’t answer. He had never seen a home, so there was nothing for him to say about it. And he was not old enough to talk and say nothing at the same time.

Mrs Hines was already turning back, as though to open the door. …[S]he halted in the act of turning, as if someone had hit her lightly with a thrown pebbly. “Caught who?” she said.

…[T]he Grand Jury was preparing behind locked doors to take the life of a man whom few of them had ever seen to know, for having taken the life of a woman whom even fewer of them had known to see.

August 2017

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies – Jared Diamond, 1997, 2005
  • Gifts (Annals of the Western Shore #1) – Ursula K. LeGuin, 2004
  • Light in August – William Faulkner, 1932
  • Powers (Annals of the Western Shore #3) – Ursula K. LeGuin, 2007
  • Voices (Annals of the Western Shore #2) – Ursula K. LeGuin, 2006
  • Wool Omnibus (Silo #1) – Hugh Howey, 2012
  • Shift (Silo #2) – Hugh Howey, 2013
  • Unf*ck Your Habitat – Rachel Hoffman, 2017
  • The Other Wes Moore – Wes Moore, 2010