On Rereading – Patricia Meyer Spacks, 2011

I re-read a lot, especially for comfort but also in book groups or to revisit works that are especially meaningful to me. My reading memory is so terrible that I often have forgotten plot and character enough to be surprised again, but even when I do remember, I almost always notice new angles or features. I also love reading about reading, so I was prepared to enjoy this book, but it exceeded my expectations. Spacks articulates many aspects of re-reading that ring true to me:

The experience of reading [Brighton Rock] seemed new, although the book itself did not. This distinction is vital to rereading’s pleasures. Even give perfect memory of a text from previous reading, I would posit, … the act of rereading under new circumstances, as a new moment, virtually guarantees new thoughts and feelings.

She examines different kinds of rereading: children’s books, Jane Austen, “guilty pleasures,” books she “ought to like,” professional reading (she’s a professor of English at U of Virginia), and also branches into reading with other people–revisiting Islandia, one of my liked-but-never-got-all-the-way-throughs. Three of the most interesting chapters to me were rereadings of books she associated with the 1950s (Lucky Jim and Catcher in the Rye), 60s (The Golden Notebook), and 70s (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine by Iris Murdoch). Many of the books she mentions I’ve also reread, and even if I didn’t feel the same way–the Narnia books haven’t worn out for me as they have for her–her descriptions are always interesting and convincing. Her ultimate conclusion is that rereading is more complex than one might think, and that it’s often more about us changing as people than about the text itself:

To think about my own rereading has encouraged a sense of humility, especially when it comes to questions of value. … Although I still hold that the question of value deserves pondering in relation to everything read, I’m no longer sure that such reflection produces solid results in any individual instance. My uncertainly comes from my reversals over the years. … The really unsettling part is that my standards remain the same. I value complex characterization, effective and elegant prose, meaningful and engaging plot, large import. I find exactly these qualities, however, where I did not find them before; and they have disappeared where I once readily discerned them.

We3: the Deluxe Edition – Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, 2011

When my mother found me reading comic books, she would always say, dismissively, “Don’t strain your brain!” That came back to me ironically about this graphic novel (originally issued as 3 comics)–it is a strain for me to read image-heavy/text-light books. The creators described this as “Western Manga,” which captures the type of wordless narration. Three pets–a dog, a cat, and a rabbit–have been kidnapped and turned into experimental cyborg soldiers who escape. Very violent and gory, yet studded with some amazing images. I don’t have a lot of passion or time for the genre usually, but love for Franco-Belgian comics (Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke) and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics keep me coming back to dip a toe in here and there. Particularly interesting in this one is exploration of the “pop-out effect,” which the after-matter in the deluxe edition explains:

We chose to treat the page not as a flat 2-D surface upon which panels were “pasted” down flat but as a virtual 3-D space in which panels could be “hung” and “rotated” or stacked one on top of the other. … This is a completely new way of depicting high-speed action which only comics can do.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë, 1847

I don’t think I had actually read this before about 2013, just seen the Olivier/Oberon movie, and that first time I kind of hated it. It’s the Great Books selection for June, and this time through I appreciated it much more. Firstly because the humor in the initial section really jumped out this time:

[Lockwood trying to flirt with Cathy] “Ah, your favorites are among these!” I continued, turning to an obscure cushion full of something like cats. … Unluckily, it was a heap of dead rabbits.

[Cathy desisted only to] push away a dog, now and then, that snoozled its nose over-forwardly into her face.

[Heathcliff describes Isabella and Edgar fighting over a little dog] ‘The idiots! That was their pleasure! to quarrel who should hold a heap of warm hair, and each begin to cry because both, after struggling to get it, refused to take it.’

and secondly in thinking of hygge, the coziness that’s heightened by a blizzard outside–Heathcliff and Catherine as the awful storm, the people we can feel happy not to know or be. As a Gothic ghost story instead of a Gothic romance, it makes much more sense to me. On my previous reading, I thought it would be more like Jane Eyre (one of my all-time favorites) and expected Catherine to be the Jane and Heathcliff the Rochester, but they have only superficial similarities and are really both horrible, violent, cruel people through and through. Then Lockwood and Nelly Dean make more sense as the true protagonists in a way, who survive the awfulness of everything else. I had also forgotten there’s a happy ending for Cathy and Hareton.

Some more quotes, this one from sensible Nelly Dean:

You shouldn’t lie till ten. There’s the very prime of the morning gone long before that time. A person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.’

From Catherine:

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me forever, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

…the fool’s craving to hear evil of self that haunts some people like a demon!

[to Nelly] But I begin to fancy you don’t like me. How strange! I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.

Cathy and Linton quarrel over their ideas of happiness (both sound pretty good to me!):

He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up overhead, and the blue sky and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness: mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow very snappish.

A parting note: Nelly Dean must be the least effective servant ever. Any time somebody asks her to keep X away from Y, or prevent Z from happening, exactly the opposite occurs! She even confesses as much, before retracting it:

I seated myself in a chair, and rocked to and fro, passing harsh judgment on my many derelictions of duty; from which, it struck me then, all the misfortunes of my employers sprang. It was not the case, in reality, I am aware; but it was, in my imagination, that dismal night; and I thought Heathcliff himself less guilty than I.

The Water-Buffalo Children (1943) and The Dragon Fish (1944) – Pearl S. Buck

We owned these as a single paperback, and I remember at least Dragon Fish being one of the stories my father dictated onto his reel-to-reel tape deck for us to have as bedtime stories when he was out. (Appropriate to remember around Father’s Day–thanks, Daddy!) What led me to dig them up was a quote from Wolf Totem that I forgot to transcribe:

Westerners eat with a knife and fork, devour rare beef, consume cheese and butter. That is why they have kept a lot of their primitive, animal nature, much more so than agricultural peoples.

That reminded me of the “ew, you smell like butter!” idea from The Water-Buffalo Children, which was one of the few memories I had of this book–I vaguely remembered it was Pearl Buck, but the the other vivid images were of Alice’s mother making her warm milk and toast and an egg to welcome her home, and of the heavy jade dragon fish. I had forgotten Da Lobo, the cranky water-buffalo, and the fact that Lan-may and Alice, who meet and find the dragon fish, both run away from home because they are tired of boys. A lot of cliches, but still enjoyable stories.

The House on the Edge of Things – Ethel Cook Eliot, 1923/2012

Apparently I haven’t yet written about The Little House in the Fairy Wood, a lost favorite from childhood that I rediscovered thanks to the wonderful Loganberry Books “Stump the Bookseller” and subsequently digitized for Project Gutenberg. Since then I’ve been fascinated by Ethel Cook Eliot, especially since we moved to Northampton MA, where she lived most of her life. I have a long-standing vague project to write up something about her–so many interesting connections! Diane Arbus, the Little Theater movement, Northampton natural history, Sylvia Plath– and I’ve tracked down as many as her works as I can find (and afford). This one started turning up in searches fairly recently, to my surprise since I thought I knew of all her titles, it’s dated 1923 (same as Wind Boy), and I can’t find any evidence of the original publication details. This copy is new, published by Raven Rocks Press, who also re-issued The Wind Boy and The House Above the Trees – and wow, looking at their website, there’s also a bunch of interesting connections there and I could go right down the rabbit hole. But stopping at the edge for now–this was quite disappointing compared to LHFW and her other work. It reads like it may have been written much earlier, possibly as free-standing stories. It still has charm and originality, and the physical book is very nice, with color plates by Eliot’s sister-in-law which were presumably executed in the 20s, and pen and ink illustrations by another relative (granddaughter?). Best of all, there’s a photo and author bio that adds to my picture of her. Tantalizing!

Master Skylark: A Story of Shakspere’s Time – John Bennett, 1897

I picked up a paperback copy printed by Airmont Publishing Co., who gave the copyright as 1965–I didn’t realize until finding it on Project Gutenberg how old it actually is. Wikipedia calls it “one of the most successful children’s stories ever published,” and  since that’s my wheelhouse, I was surprised never to have heard of it. It’s a good evocation of Elizabethan theater, with Thomas Heywood and Ben Johnson featured much more heavily than Shakespeare, who shows up at the very end as a sort of living saint everyone loves. Young Nick Atwood, the protagonist, is kidnapped for his angelic voice (“Well sung, Master Skylark… thou hast a very fortune in thy throat!”) and spends the book trying to get home to mother. The “villain,” Gaston Carew, is surprisingly complex, and the ending is thoroughly heartwarming, including Johnson’s toast “to all kind hearts!” and Michael Drayton quoting “Jack shall have Jill/Nought shall go ill,” to which Shakespeare replies: “It is a good place to end.”

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living – Meik Wiking, 2017

A cotton candy book – pleasant, nicely-designed (cute spot illustrations), but insubstantial. I was already sold on hygge from various media sources, and this did add hyggelige (adjective) and hyggekrog (cozy nook) to my vocabulary. I also really like that hygge can be felt year-round (summer has its own particular kind), and that Hans Christian Andersen made the oldest-known woven paper heart in 1860.

Wolf Totem – Jian Rong, 2004

A fascinating topic – the last days of traditional Mongolian herding culture during the Cultural Revolution – but a really-not-good novel. The book is long and repetitive; the characters barely change and spout big chunks of history-speak at each other. It seems to be barely fictionalized, and would have worked much better as memoir (with photos!), I think–but it’s very sad and would be more painful to read if it were better-written. The ideas and some of the images (poor Little Wolf’s stubbornness, the mosquitos, the felt carpet boats) are memorable.

Out here, the grass and the grassland are the life, the big life. All else is little life that depends on the big life for survival. Even wolves and humans are little life. …. Grass is the big life, yet it is the most fragile, the most miserable life. Its roots are shallow, the soil is thin, and though it lives on the the ground, it cannot run away. … When you kill off the big life of the grassland, all the little lives are doomed.

Both Easterners and Westerners all refer to the land as the mother of humanity. How then can anyone who does injury to Mother Earth be considered civilized?

The Bees – Laline Paull, 2014

The June book for the Nature and Environment book club–I think it’s the first novel we’ve read. I had already read a lot about honeybees and their fascinating behavior, like queen piping and balling, so I loved encountering those behaviors from the “inside.” I wasn’t 100% convinced by the voice, but it felt like Paull got as close as possible, with some great ways of depicting non-human communication (vibrations in the comb, data transmission through antenna contact and pheromones). Watership Down is the closest comparison, although I wouldn’t call it a great novel in the same way–more of a novelty/experiment.

101 Best Scenes Ever Written – Barnaby Conrad, 2007

Misleading subtitle: “A Romp Through Literature for Writers and Readers.” More accurate: “A Random Assortment of Selections from Barnaby’s Favorite Books, Plays, and Movies for No Particular Audience or Purpose.” I didn’t not-enjoy reading it and I finished it, but the interstitial text is mostly a waste because it’s mostly narration and anecdotes rather than the help to writers it’s trying to be. A compilation that actually contrasted different kinds of scene approaches might actually be useful; this isn’t that.