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

Guns, Germs, and Steel – Jared Diamond, 1997, 2003, 2005

Another classic I’d been meaning to read for years that the Nature and Environment book group tackled. It’s a great book, with one of the broadest sweeps of anything I’ve read except maybe A Brief History of Everything. Diamond succeeds admirably in what he sets out to do—illuminate why human development “proceed at such different rates on different continents”—and it’s one of the delights of the book to see how his particular background enables him to do it justice, from having a linguist and a doctor as parents, to being obsessed with birds, to spending years in New Guinea. As we discussed in the book group, though, the title is a bit of a misnomer since guns are made out of steel, and it omits the huge role played by animal and plants species which the book itself emphasizes. “Domesticated Species, Germs, and Guns” wouldn’t have the same ring though.

Things I learned: how recent many of our familiar diseases are (mumps 400 BCE, leprosy 200 BCE, polio 1940); the orientation of continental axes (east/west in Eurasia vs north/south in Africa and the Americas) makes a big difference to agricultural diffusion because of day length and temperature changes; how irregularly large-seeded grass species are distributed (32 species in the Mediterranean zone vs only 11 in all of the Americas).

On political leadership in small groups: “The chief may either combine the offices of political leader and priest in a single person, or may support a separate group of kleptocrats (that is, priests) whose function is to provide ideological justification for the chiefs.” It’s interesting and depressing that the non-food-producing specialists who develop as a consequence of food surplus always include kings and bureaucrats, and not just craftsmen and artists.

In a band, where everyone is closely related to everyone else, people related simultaneously to both quarreling parties step in to mediate quarrels. In a tribe, where many people are still close relatives and everyone at least knows everyone else by name, mutual relatives and mutual friends mediate the quarrel. But once the threshold of “several hundred” … has been crossed, increasing numbers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers. … [M]any onlookers will be friends or relatives of only one combatant and will side with that person, escalating the two-person fight into a general brawl. Hence a large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflicts.

And yikes:

Even in democracies today, crucial knowledge is available to only a few individuals, who control the flow of information to the rest of the government and consequently control decisions. For instance, in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, information and discussions that determined whether nuclear war would engulf half a billion people were initially confined by President Kennedy to a ten-member executive committee of the National Security Council that he himself appointed; then he limited final decisions to a four-member group consisting of himself and three of his cabinet ministers.

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013

A local light pollution activist, James Lowenthal, requested that a Forbes book group read this. My Nature and Environment book group alternates between classics of nature writing, “issue books,” and cross-disciplinary works, so this seemed perfect as an issue book choice and we pushed The Selfish Gene to next year in order to read this one. It’s so well-written (I think–not everyone agreed!) and comprehensive that it verges into cross-disciplinary—way better than I expected. James and his wife came to the discussion and brought interesting brochures from the International Dark-Sky Association, and we discussed various local issues around street lighting (Northampton put in a lot of new LED lights that are terrible for glare and night vision). But we spent plenty of time talking about the book as well. It’s an elegy to so much that we’ve lost without even recognizing it.

When I think of how light pollution keeps us from knowing real darkness, real night, I think of Henry David Thoreau wondering in 1856, “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature that I am conversant with?” He was writing about the woods around Walden Pond and how the “nobler” animals such as wolf and moose had been killed or scared away. “I hear that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess,” he explained, “that my ancestors have torn out many of the first leaves and grandest passages, and mutilated it in many places. I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars.” Some 150 years later, this is exactly what we have allowed our lights to do. “I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth,” Thoreau concluded. Every time I read this I think, Me, too.

Bogard interviews François Jousse, a lighting architect in Paris, who describes his work:

“I want that the building says something with the light,” he explains. “But the speaking can be different. Maybe it’s an architectural speech, maybe it’s a historical speech, maybe it’s humorous. Sometimes the speech can be spiritual. Sometimes people say to me, But nobody will understand what the building says. And I say, It’s not a problem, the building says something and it’s beautiful because the building says something.”

Bonnie, who encourages other women to go out at night:

“It’s this manufactured fear that creates a perception that something bad is going to happen to you.” The reality, she says, is that as you sit at home watching TV “something bad is happening—you’re getting sick, and you’re missing out.”

…already in Australia they’re speaking of solastagia, about missing a loved place that still exists but to which the old birds and plants and animals no longer come. A word newly coined for our time, solastalgia combines the Latin word for comfort (solacium) and the Greek root meaning pain (algia) and differs from nostalgia in that it’s a yearning for a place you still inhabit rather than one you’ve left behind. It’s a word we’ll be hearing more often, for wherever we live, the climate has changed, or soon will. Next to my own death or that of my family this is the darkness I fear most, this sadness at the ongoing destruction of the wild world.

It’s a tremendously sad book in some ways, mourning the loss of what most people don’t even recognize we ever had, and yet light pollution is something, unlike climate change, which is instantly fixable and reversible. Turn off the lights, and the stars are still there in all their majesty. Not one iota has been truly lost.

The turning Earth, the presented universe—in the dry desert air the stars come down to the horizon, in the west blinking out as they fall from the world’s edge, and in the east blinking on, as though lit and set into the sky by some happy wild creatures just on the mountain’s other side.

Bogard briefly mentions the artist James Turrell (misspelled as “Terrell”), who’s building an installation near Flagstaff to facilitate the experience of “celestial vaulting,” where you feel like you’re falling into the stars. Earlier this summer I’d attended MassMOCA’s grand opening of the new Building 6, where a number of Turrell pieces are installed as “Into the Light.” They are great ways of experiencing dark adaptation, as you need to enter dark rooms and stay there until you can fully see the works.

At the very end, Bogard quotes Wendell Berry’s “To Know the Dark,” which also serves as the epigraph:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Usually you have to flip back to the front of the book to check the epigraph, and it’s easy to forget. I love the book-ending here. One of my favorite books I’ve read this year!

July 2017 – to be linked

I was talking to Jonathan about my pattern with this blog since its inception: I really enjoy having written each post, but don’t get to it very often because it takes time and energy, and then the books pile up physically and psychically because I impractically think I’ll do each one. He suggested that I just do the ones I actually get to, which I’ve attempted before. But starting in 2016, while my blogs were down, I started just a running list and that was satisfying in its own way. So my compromise idea is to make a list and link in the posts if I actually write them.

  • The Sea-Gull – Anton Chekhov, 1895 – in preparation for seeing Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Silverthorne, which was great!
  • Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance, 2016
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller Jr., 1960
  • How to Become a Straight-A Student – Cal Newport, 2006
  • The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016
  • The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light – Paul Bogard, 2013
  • Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835
  • The Immaterial Murder Case – Julian Symons, 1945
  • Emily Dickinson Is Dead – Jane Langton, 1984
  • J’irai cracher sur vos tombes – Boris Vian (as Vernon Sullivan), 1946
  • And Five Were Foolish – Dornford Yates, 1924
  • As Other Men Are – Dornford Yates, 1925
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport, 2016

Père Goriot– Honoré de Balzac, 1835

This was the July selection for the Great Books group. I read the original French as an epub first and then the translation by A. J. Krailsheimer in paper, so the latter is what I flagged for quotes. My reading French is still very good (I was bilingual as a kid and went through the French school system all the way through high school, but my oral French is pretty lousy now), but I knew I would still miss some context and I always like being able to compare to the translation. This one is very good! The only strange thing I noticed was “plump as a presbytery cat” for “dodue comme un rat d’église” (literally “plump as a church rat”), which presumably was to avoid the confusing analogy with “poor as a church mouse.” It sounds like the connotation in Balzac is supposed to be more metaphorical: a civil employee of a parish, ie sort of feathering her own bed?

It was an interesting combination of social commentary—Rastignac experiencing the various levels of society—with a Lear-ish family drama of father spoiling ungrateful daughters, but to me overall too sentimental and exaggerated to feel real, without the saving humor and passion of a Dickens. A delightful, truly modern-feeling bit was the lodgers’ faddish appendage of “-rama” to various words, which made a strong contrast with the horrific 19th century medicine (Goriot on his death-bed being tortured with mustard plasters and moxibustion).

I guess this is going to be the norm for my book club entries: ending with the dump of quotes! (although it’s is only a subset of what I originally flagged)

…he finally lay down and slept like a log. For every ten nights that young men pledge themselves to work, they spend seven asleep. You need to be over 20 to stay awake.

Vautrin, the voice of the non-respectable outsider:

“Those who get spattered in their carriages are respectable people, those who do so on foot are rogues. Just have the bad luck to pinch something or other and you’ll be pointed out as a curiosity outside the Law Courts. Steal a million and you’ll be held up as an example of virtue in the salons.

No doubt ideas are projected in direct proportion to the force with which they are conceived, and strike where the brain directs them, by a mathematical law which may be compared to that governing the bombs shot out of a mortar. Their effects are varied. If there are sensitive characters in whom ideas lodge and wreak havoc, there are also armour-plated characters, skulls with bronze ramparts against which the will of others is flattened out and drops like bullets against a wall. Then again there are flabby, wooly characters on whom the ideas of others fall spent like cannon-balls harmlessly absorbed by the soft earth of the redoubt. Rastignac’s head was one of those that are filled with gunpowder and explode at the slightest shock. He had too much youthful intensity to be impervious to this projection of ideas…

Bianchon, the feet-on-the-ground medical student:

“For my part I am content with the modest living I shall make in the provinces… A man’s desires can just as easily be satisfied in the smallest of circles as within an immense circumference. Napoleon didn’t dine twice a day, and couldn’t take any more mistresses than a medical student doing his house training at the Capuchins. Our happiness, my friend, will always lie between the soles of our feet and the crown of our head. Whether it costs a million francs a year or a hundred louis our basic perception of it is just the same within us.”

The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes, 2016

The Second Monday book group at Forbes rotates volunteer discussion leaders, and I signed up for this one because I like Barnes (although I haven’t read that much by him). It’s a meditation on courage and power’s corrupting effect on art, told as the inner thoughts of Dmitri Shostakovich at three low points in his life when he was humiliated by the Soviet Union. In my own reading I had mixed feelings about the historical fiction aspect, but the discussion brought me around to unqualified admiration. It’s so well structured and patterned, and even though Barnes’ “Shostakovich” is a construct, the choice makes sense. And it’s a jewel of compression–under 200 pages but very rich and full, which led to a great discussion. I typically flag a bunch of passages and then weed them down; some keepers:

On his parents’ relationship: “The strong cannot help confronting; the less strong cannot help evading.”

There was nothing in his life for those weeks except love, music, and mosquito bites. The love in his heart, the music in his head, the bites on his skin. Not even paradise was free of insects. But he could hardly resent them. Their bites were ingeniously made in places inaccessible to him; the lotion was based on an extract of carnation flowers. If a mosquito was the cause of her fingers touching his skin and making him smell of carnations, how could he possibly hold anything against the insect?

In an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, stunts the imagination. It is best to start life in a cheerful and open state of mind, believing in others, being optimistic, being frank with everyone about everything. And then, as one comes to understand things and people better, to develop a sense of irony. The natural progression of human life is from optimism to pessimism; and a sense of irony helps temper pessimism, helps produce balance, harmony.
But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways. Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. … He wrote music for the ears that could hear. And he knew, therefore, that all true definitions of art are circular, and all untrue definitions of art ascribe to it a specific function.

He admired those who stood up and spoke truth to Power. He admired their bravery and their moral integrity. And sometimes he envied them; but it was complicated, because part of what he envied them was their death, their being put out of the agony of living. … He too had felt the vanity of transitory courage.
But these heroes, these martyrs, whose death often gave a double satisfaction–to the tyrant who ordered it, and to watching nations who wished to sympathise and yet feel superior–they did not die alone. Many around them would be destroyed as a result of their heroism. And therefore it was not simple, even when it was clear.

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history.

In New York, he had gone to a pharmacy for some aspirin. Ten minutes after he left, an assistant was seen fixing a sign in the window. It read: DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH SHOPS HERE.

Now that he had seen more of life, and been deafened by the noise of time, he thought it likely that Shakespeare had been right, had been truthful: but only for his own times. In the world’s younger days, when magic and religion held sway, it was plausible that monsters might have consciences. Not anymore. The world had moved on, become more scientific, more practical, less under the sway of the old superstitions. And tyrants had moved on as well. Perhaps conscience no longer had an evolutionary function, and so had been bred out. Penetrate beneath the modern tyrant’s skin, go down layer after layer, and you will find that the texture does not change, that granite encloses yet more granite; and there is no cave of conscience to be found.

… how much bad music is a good composer allowed? … He had written a lot of bad music for a lot of very bad films. Though you could say that his music’s badness made those films even worse, and thus rendered a service to truth and art.

What he hoped was that death would liberate his music: liberate it from his life. Time would pass, and though musicologists would continue their debates, his work would begin to stand for itself. History, as well as biography, would fade: perhaps one day Fascism and Communism would be merely words in textbooks. And then, if it still had value—if there were still ears to hear—his music would be … just music. That was all a composer could hope for. Whom does music belong to, he had asked that trembling student, and thought the reply was written in capital letters on a banner behind her interrogator’s head, the girl could not answer. Not being able to answer was the correct answer. Because music, in the end, belonged to music. That was all you could say, or wish for.

And one strange editing oversight, I assume: a great line about “He swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce,” but it appears twice! (in the Knopf hardcover, pages 126 and 146) Even Homer nods…