April 2023 books read

  • Re-read City of Illusions (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1967) again just a few weeks later, in order to better participate in Calmgrove’s #LoveHain. Unlike the first two of her Hain novels, I want to do a separate post on this one… TBD!
  • Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees, 1926. A friend sent me this fascinating article. I recently found out about Mirlees because of her surrealist poem, Paris, which my mother quotes in a forthcoming book of essays I’m helping her copy-edit. But I had never heard of this remarkable fantasy, which I enjoyed quite a bit. My favorite aspect was the delightful names, up there with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle but not intended to be funny:
    • Ranulph and Prunella Chanticleer
    • Polydore and Dreamsweet Vigil
    • Florian Baldbreeches
    • Ambrose Fliperade
    • Moonlove Pyepowders
    • Peregrine Laquer
    • Goceline Flack
    • Endymion Leer
    • Ebeneezor Spike
    • Lettice Prim
    • Captain Mumchance
    • Clementina Gibberty
    • Primrose Crabapple
    • Diggory Carp
    • Hyacinth Quirkscuttle
    • Christopher Pugwalker
    • Ivy Peppercorn
    • Farmer Jellygreen
    • Sebastian Thug
    • and some exclamations: “Toasted cheese!” Busty Bridget!” “By my Great-Aunt’s Rump!”
  • Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys – H.A. Rey. This came up when we were looking up what kind of monkey Curious George is – this is his origin story. It’s very weird, especially the monkeys each having a pair of skis in their belongings, and making stilts for the giraffe (then she “doesn’t fit on the page”).
  • Spring – Ali Smith, 2019. Read for 2nd Mondays, post TBD
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale – Rebecca Giggs, 2020. Read for Nature Enviro, post TBD.
  • The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year – Spring Warren, 2011. An impulse checkout from the garden display at Forbes. Right up my younger self’s alley, but now it’s just vicarious interest – and a bit of jealousy that in California the author can grow artichokes, citrus, figs, and olives in her back yard. Yummy-looking recipes!
  • The Innocents Abroad – Mark Twain, 1869. Read for Great Books, post TBD.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin, 1969. Read for Calmgrove’s #LoveHain – another one I commented on but want to turn into a full post at some point.
  • Residues – R. S. Thomas, 2002. Read for the Massachusetts Center for the Book April challenge, a poetry collection. My one-sentence response: “Brief, evocative, melancholy poems on themes like religion, WWII, and marriage, assembled after the poet’s death.” “Dreaming” is the only poem I actually liked:
    I lean over the fire; a smell
    as of frost comes, sparks embroidering
    the soot. It is a tapestry
    of the past. How many men
    have leaned, spat, dreamed
    by a fire, remembering love,
    youth, victory, happier
    times, and the uselessness of remembering?

    There is a flower of bright flame
    asleep in a log, one, many
    of them. It is a garden
    to sit by, for thought to wander
    in seeking for the lost innocence
    at the centre, where the tree
    was planted for the naked
    conscience to conceal itself under
    from the voice calling.

Articles, short stories, etc.

  • In the New Yorker story “Alisa” by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, a “hefty candy” is called “Russian Bears in the Pine Forest.” Presumably it’s this “Clumsy Bear,” which sounds delicious – I will look out for it.
  • I skimmed Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self (Jay L. Garfield, 2022) – the author teaches at Smith and they tweeted about a podcast interview with him. Very interesting ideas, but the philosophy was a little too dense for me.

March 2023 books read

  • Dragon’s Bait – Vivian Vande Velde, 1992. It’s been on my shelf for years – I finally read it and will pass it on; good-not-great YA fantasy.
  • A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration – Kenn Kaufman, 2019. TBD
  • La Prisonnière – Marcel Proust, 1925. TBD
  • A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke, 1961. OK science fiction, but the lunar dust is way more interesting than any of the characters.
  • The Enormous Room – E. E. Cummings, 1922. TBD
  • The History of King Lear – William Shakespeare, 1605. TBD
  • Nabokov’s Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books – Rick Gekoski, 2004.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2006. TBD
  • City of Illusions – Ursula K. Le Guin, 1967. I actually read this again in April, so more details then!
  • How to Make a Slave and Other Essays – Jerald Walker, 2020. Read for the Massachusetts Center for the Book March challenge, “A Mass Book Awards honoree” (Nonfiction 2021). My one-sentence response was “Brief, powerful essays ranging from funny to fuming, ranging across the dimensions of Black male experience as a person, a parent, and a professor.” I didn’t mean to be quite so alliterative, but once started I kept going… Most of the essays are second person, which ties in nicely to the following book (see below). I was wondering when second person became trendy and thought Jay McInerney was to blame, which Davidson confirms. She adds “it always gives a slight ‘stunt writing’ feel,” which I agree with. But in this context, perhaps it does help to bring readers into Walker’s experiences.
  • Reading Style: A Life in Sentences – Jenny Davidson, 2014. TBD
  • 4:50 from Paddington – Agatha Christie, 1957. The title wasn’t familiar, because it was What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw in the US, but it’s a Miss Marple that came up in an Ask a Manager comment thread for having a strong, competent protagonist (like last month’s Goblin Emperor). Fine but not my favorite Christie.

Articles & short stories

  • How I Became a Vet,” by Rivka Galchen, The New Yorker, March 13, 2023. Wow, what an amazing short story. I think I’ve enjoyed previous work by her in the magazine, but this stood out.
    • “Joy is an ethical obligation. I was raised to believe this. I have not abandoned the proposition. Joy is the proper response to the gift of life that God or something has bestowed upon all of us day after day after day, and then at some point for no more days. Sorrow is an obligation, too, and a wonder and a necessity—but sorrow is joy’s servant. … Famously, dogs have a natural gift for the ethical obligation of joy.”
    • “He was a spectacular Irish wolfhound. He looked like the ghost of a horse; he looked like he had worked with headless people in a previous life and had not let those people feel ashamed about having no head.”
  • Good Talk” by Hua Hsu (The New Yorker, March 20, 2023). It’s a review of a book about conversation, but this statement applies to why I love book groups: “These conversations can happen only once: they are improvised and ephemeral, and can never happen again in the same way. You may forget what was discussed, but you will remember the exhilarating experience of the discussion itself.”
  • I digitized my father’s article “What Happened in Paris,” a contemporaneous description of the 1968 student uprising.

Nabokov’s Butterfly: And Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books – Rick Gekoski, 2004

I picked this up browsing the “books about books” shelves (000s in Dewey, Zs at Forbes which uses the rare Cutter classification system) and it looked entertaining. It was, and Gekoski‘s early days as a “book runner” gave me the term for what I also used to do: pick up books at low prices that my instincts told me would sell for more (although I was hitting yard sales and thrift stores, and he was dealing with much fancier stock). I was surprised that the introduction kept referring to Tolkien’s Gown – turns out it’s the same book (UK title), so presumably an oversight.

The best anecdote may be that Edward O’Brien, editor of a series of “Best Short Stories,” featured Hemingway in the 1923 collection, and went so far as to dedicate the volume… to “Ernest Hemenway.”

  • “Tolkien maintained that he never wrote ‘for children,’ as if that were in itself patronizing. ‘Children are not a class or kind, they are a heterogenous collection of immature persons,’ he wrote, which presumably was not intended to sound patronizing.”
  • “The further that [D.H.] Lawrence moves from the particularities of his subject, the less successful he is likely to be, and the more likely an undergraduate is to underline the passage.”
  • “[J.D. Salinger] refused to allow proofs to go out to reviewers, and objected violently to having a picture of himself on the back of the dustwrapper. Dismayed, his editor inquired, glacially, whether he wanted the book published, or merely printed?”
  • “[The problem with children’s books is that] children handle them, with grubby little hands. They love the rhythm and repetition of the same story, read over and over until they know it by heart. Rereading is one of the delights of childhood. It makes the world safe and predictable, but it’s murder on the books.”
  • “I often wonder if Hemingway wasn’t simply an adept who found the right prose style both to enact, and to conceal, the limited range of his vision, and the crimped range of his sympathies.”

February 2023 books read

  • The Panic Fables: Mystic Teachings and Initiatory Tales – Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2017. This is a collection of Jodorowsky’s weekly full-page color comics that ran in a Mexican newspaper from 1967 to 1973. We watched El Topo for Far Out Film and have referenced him since (was he interviewed in some other film?), so I grabbed this from the featured new books. It’s… very interesting. If I didn’t find Jodorowsky’s style ugly, I would have enjoyed it more. He’s very creative with speech bubble shapes and parable creatures; what was not so successful was over-analyzing other cartoons and stories, and single-panel guru statements (although the repetition of “what an uncomfortable position!” by the disciple Jodorowsky stand-in is funny). I liked the arguments between cubes and marbles, microbes, and simple head-and-legs creatures of different sizes. His created mythology, including “gragrofes” (useless objects that are craved and then consume others) and the holy idiot Ben-Sara, stick in my mind.
    • “Life without death is immobility”
    • Persian proverb: “Be a tiger – if you are prepared to solve a tiger’s problems.” I really like this but can’t find it documented.
    • Panel where Jodorowsky says “I read this fable in a book by Baba Ram Dass and felt that it was I who had written it” – “anywhere I stood, the chicken saw me
  • Into Every Generation a Slayer Is Born: How Buffy Staked Our Hearts – Evan Ross Katz, 2022. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this – maybe Overdrive suggested it? – but I’d been thinking of rewatching Buffy and this was a good complement. Coincidentally, one of the people interviewed is Claire Saffitz, who I had just heard of the week before I read this book (I found Gourmet Makes down some rabbit hole and enjoyed them very much) – love those little intersections. It’s all over the map and a little too much about the author, but I found the interviews with cast members very interesting and the analysis of the show’s legacy (complicated by Joss Whedon’s trajectory) thought-provoking.
  • Paddle for Water: Canoeing across America with a Message and a Man I Never Intended to Marry – Nancy DeWitte Condon, 2022. I bought this to support the writer, a member of the Nature/Environment book group, and I was delighted at how good it is! A compelling and fascinating story, well-written, and a new classic in the vicarious-enjoyment-of-experiences-I wouldn’t-want-to-do-myself genre ( e.g. Wild, Driftwood Valley, etc.).
  • The Language of Butterflies: How Thieves, Hoarders, Scientists, and Other Obsessives Unlocked the Secrets of the World’s Favorite Insect – Wendy Williams, 2020. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Paradise City – Archer Mayor, 2012. Read for the Massachusetts Center for the Book February challenge, “A book set in your home town/city or state” (mostly set in Northampton). My brief response: “I enjoyed the setting of this otherwise-middling police procedural. Mayor did his research – I was especially pleased to see the Amherst College/Five Colleges bunker on Military Road in Amherst featured.” I know the bunker because it’s the Five Colleges library repository, which I’ve gotten to tour (as well as do IT troubleshooting!). There was also a scene set at the Summit House before it was re-opened to the public – I didn’t realize it was boarded up so recently.
  • The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison, 2014. Recommended by several Ask a Manager commentators, and they were right – a wonderful fantasy.
  • Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo, 2019. A Second Monday selection but not enough quotes for a separate post. I liked the novel better after the excellent group discussion, but still dislike the writing – it was like reading stage directions.
    • “if she can’t get a proper boyfriend at nineteen what hope is there for when she’s older?”
    • “Dominique can never quite believe that her friend still smokes, that anyone over twenty does”
  • Maia – Richard Adams, 1984. Umpteenth re-read, but I actually marked some quotes this time, so may make a post out it.
  • The Golden Bowl – Henry James, 1904. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Planet of Exile – Ursula K. LeGuin, 1966.  Read for Calmgrove’s #LoveHain.

Articles & short stories

  • Robin Wall Kimmerer, one of my all-time favorites, in the New York Times:
    • “Humility that brings that sort of joy and belonging as opposed to submission”
    • “I’ve often had this fantasy that we should have Fox News, by which I mean news about foxes.”
  • New York Times article on the Studio Ghibli theme park:
    • He has long told parents that children should not watch his films more than once a year. (“Whatever experiences we provide them,” Miyazaki has said, “are in a sense stealing time from them that otherwise might be spent in a world where they go out and make their own discoveries or have their own personal experiences.”)
    • “Totoro drops acorns everywhere as a kind of calling card. To love Totoro is to love not just a single creature but a whole habitat.”
  • Short story, “The Third Law of Magic,” by Ben Okri (The Atlantic, March 2023) and interview about it:
    • “Value ought to be related to being and consciousness. In real terms, the sight of one’s child in a moment of unique happiness ought to be greater in value than a fur coat. The joy one feels in the presence of the one we love ought to be greater in value than a new car.”
    • “I have always felt that if we have a proper grasp of what reality is, we will better know what to do with this tremendous gift of life, this infinite energy compressed into a mortal frame. I think all literature at its best tries to do that.
    • “Reality is all we have to work with, but we don’t really know what it is. The truth about reality is that its subdividable aspects can yield results which can be faithfully replicated while we remain completely in the dark about its other aspects or the whole itself. This is odd, for it gives us the illusion of control, when in fact what we have is merely the control of contingent conditions. Therefore, much of our confidence is provisional. One can be wrong and yet some things we do seem to work. One can be right and yet some things that we do appear not to work. Often it is a matter of perspective, of time, of truths concealed from us.”
  • Amazing essay “In the Beforetime” by Yiyun Li (The New Yorker, July 4, 2022) “So rarely do we look at the present, innocent of fresh disaster, as a rosy beforetime: we live in the aftertime of events, some more catastrophic than others.”
  • A short story in the same issue, “A King Alone” by Rachel Kushner: “The magic of a thing you’d normally see only from a distance disappears when you see it up close. But a new magic takes its place.”
  • I digitized two of my father’s articles: “The Decline of Conceptual Thinking” and “The Humanities in a Technological Age.”

January 2023 books read

  • Milkman – Anna Burns, 2018. Re-read; quotes pulled, TBD.
  • What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses – Daniel Chamovitz, 2012 updated 2017. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Tar Baby – Toni Morrison, 1981. Quotes pulled, TBD.
  • Rocannon’s World – Ursula K. Le Guin, 1966. Read for Calmgrove’s #LoveHain.
  • The Traveler’s Gift: Seven Decisions That Determine Personal Success – Andy Andrews, 2002. This came up in Your Best Year Ever where someone’s job title was listed as “brand manager for Andy Andrews” and I wondered “what’s that?” I’m surprised I didn’t encounter him back in the Susquehanna County Library days, as the simplistic Christian-ish inspiration genre was big there. It’s decently written but the conceit (despairing guy is sent back in time to visit seven famous people and get a very 1950s resolution from each of them) is laughable and the historical liberties are breath-taking. I marked this passage:
    • “If I touch a thistle with caution, it will prick me, but if I grasp it boldly, its spines crumble to dust.” I think he means a nettle. Boldly grasping a thistle will end badly, I’m pretty sure – even goats lick them to soften the spines before they eat them, don’t they? Maybe not – I’m not finding any evidence – but in any case, thistle spines are no joke.
  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë, 1847. Many times re-read, this time for Great Books. Quotes marked, TBD.
  • Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do – Jennifer L. Eberhardt, 2019. I’d heard a lot about this book, but what prompted me to finally read it was a book group on Post. I deleted my Twitter account last year and Post is the closest replacement so far. But I should have realized that the format isn’t what I’m looking for in terms of reflecting on a book, so I probably won’t do it again. I didn’t learn much new, if anything, from the book, but it’s well-written and well put-together.
  • The Hidden Power of F*cking Up – The Try Guys, 2019. Like many people I had never heard of the Try Guys before the Fall 2022 Ned Fulmer scandal. I was mildly interested, and this very colorful book caught my eye in the new arrivals at the library. It’s OK. If you don’t care about these people there’s too much of their personal journeys, but there are also plenty of attractive photos and slightly funny anecdotes. C-grade self-help in an A graphic package.
  • Lady Into Fox – David Garnett, 1922 – Read for the Massachusetts Center for the Book January 2023 challenge, “A book less than 100 pages in length.” The one sentence response I sent in: “Strange and touching fantasy about the irrational power of love.” It had been kicking around on my e-reader because I knew of the title as a fantasy classic and the author as a Bloomsbury group member.
  • A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband ‘Master’ – Rachel Held Evans, 2012. I used to follow Evans’ blog, as part of my general curiosity about religions – her voice was sensible and interesting, and I always appreciated her perspective on feminist and LGBTQ issues. Her critiques of Mark Driscoll/Mars Hill were particularly pointed, and I was remembering how much I missed her (she sadly died at only 37) when listening to the fascinating The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. I enjoyed this book, although the humor was a little forced.
  • The Hollow – Agatha Christie, 1946. I picked it up because of this thread on Ask A Manager, which compared the character Henrietta to Sayers’ Harriet Vane. I don’t really see it, but the book was OK though tainted with anti-semitism and racism (par for the course for Christie).
  • Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff – Dana K. White, 2018. Forbes Library is offering virtual author talks and this is the first one that caught my fancy. It was really delightful so I followed up with the book, which is basically the same content. The two main points I picked up from both are a) how to declutter without making a mess even if you’re interrupted (basically, use a donatable “to donate” box and put things where you would look for them as you go) and b) to treat containers as limits. White is very funny and relatable.


  • Humanists All” – James Engell, Harvard Magazine Jan-Feb 2023.
    • “In life as in academic disciplines, the arts and humanities, rightly conceived, draw freely from the single nectars of other fields to create a honey none alone produces.”
    • “Did we lose the Vietnam war, flail in Iraq, and occupy Afghanistan for two decades before letting it revert to the Taliban in two weeks all for lack of superior science, technology, engineering, or math? For lack of computers? Weapons? For lack of trillions spent? How many would have lived had our leaders known the history, religion, language, and culture of those countries?”
  • Restored to Nature: Landscape architect Mikyoung Kim’s healing arts” – Lydialyle Gibson, Harvard Magazine Jan-Feb 2023.
    • “Ecologically, the Ford site collects a huge volume of stormwater (finding artful solutions for excess water turns out to be a frequent creative challenge for Kim). which in her design will be cleansed and ‘daylighted’ into pools or perhaps a ring of mist that people can walk through—something sculptural and interesting, she says, but not hidden: ‘Part of the job of a landscape is to teach, and I think it’s important for people in a city to understand that this is a system that’s constructed, to see what the parts are, and how it works.'”

December 2022 books read

  • Darkness at Pemberley – T. H. White, 1932. I love White (Once and Future King is one of my all-time favorites) but I had never read this, and I kept getting it confused with Death Comes to Pemberley (P.D. James, have also never read), not realizing it was a different book and not about Elizabeth Bennet solving mysteries. (My reaction to that is ugh, but I was thinking I should give James a chance due to her reputation, until I saw this well-written takedown – culminating in “this is EXACTLY the kind of Austen pastiche enjoyed by people who don’t actually read Austen, and who believe that all period fiction just needs some velvet and horses and servants to thrill us to our middlebrow Masterpiece Theatre marrows.” Burn. I was almost going to check it out but it really sounds terrible! But back to the book at hand…) Darkness is very weird, a how-done-it that’s almost more horror than mystery, but it held my interest and had some witty bits.
  • The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford, 1915.
  • The Death and Life of the Great Lakes – Dan Egan, 2017.
  • The Mote in God’s Eye – Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974. Many times re-read, this time because I was thinking about the ways humans are failing at dealing with climate change, and it reminded me of the fatal flaw of the Moties (it’s the crux of the plot so I won’t spoil it).
  • The Day the Guinea Pig Talked – Paul Gallico, 1963. I went through a Gallico phase as a kid because my grandmother loved him; she had at least The Snow Goose and one of the Mrs. ‘Arris books, maybe more. I also have a vivid memory of picking up Manxmouse at the library – I should revisit that one. This book I don’t think I had ever heard of, and I had pet guinea pigs! Alas, I didn’t care for it at all. Apparently it was his first book for children and to me it shows (but on Goodreads at least it has many fans!)
  • The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers, 1940.
  • The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag – Robert Heinlein, 1942. Re-read because Job (last month) reminded me of it, and it’s one of my favorite Heinleins – especially because it’s from when he wrote short (it’s a novella) or had good editing. The idea of mirrors as portals was a good segue to:
  • The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll, edited by Martin Gardner, expanded and updated by Mark Burstein, 2015. Quotes marked, TBD.
  • Sodom et Gomorrhe – Marcel Proust, 1922. Quotes marked, TBD.
  • The Annotated Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (1843), edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, 2004. Quotes marked, TBD.
  • Silver on the Tree – Susan Cooper, 1977. Read for Annabookbel’s #TDiRS22.
  • The End of Your Life Book Club – Will Schwalbe, 2012. Oops, I already read this but had absolutely no memory of it! The books the mother and son read are just touched on; it’s really more of a memoir, nice but nothing new, so I think that’s why it evaporated out of my mind the first time, and will again.
  • Your Best Year Ever: A 5-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals – Michael Hyatt, 2018. OK self-help, but I’m cooling on the genre as a whole. I’m doing pretty well with my goals so this didn’t light any fires in me. The only tidbit that stuck out to me was one of the reasons Hyatt gives for writing down your goals: it filters new opportunities (i.e., can hold you back from chasing the new shiny object if it’s not part of your existing list).
  • Superman, Last Son of Krypton (1978) and Miracle Monday (1981) – Eliot S! Maggin. I was one of many fans of Superman: The Movie who bought Last Son of Krypton because they thought it was either the source or the novelization of the movie. The cover was a still from the movie, and moreover, there was a sections of photographs from the movie inset. It does have the Superman origin story, but otherwise the plot is very different. But I’m glad for the mistake, because I loved these books as a teenager and they still hold up. In Maggin’s universe, Clark Kent is Superman’s one real love: he wishes he were human, so he’s enchanted with Clark’s life, wants to protect him, daydreams about him… it’s fascinating and plausible. Maggin also gives you sympathy for Lex Luthor, provides Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen with inner lives, and overall renders the superhero story into a real novel. They are not perfect books by any means, but they are surprisingly delightful.

And a quote I enjoyed from from “Talking Movies” by Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 12/5/2022:

We’re used to seeing the steady, pained smile and middle-distance gaze of a moviemaker being told by a movie lover how movies are made: we praise the dazzling dialogue of the screenwriter (whose draft was never used, but who won the credit through arbitration, while all the good lines were written the night before by the director’s pet script doctor) and the mastery of the film editor (though the scene of the helicopter swooping down the canyon of buildings was storyboarded by the second-unit art director, while the editor’s real work was managing to excise the cough of the leading man without damaging continuity) and how sensitive the director was with the women leads (whom he could barely stand to be in the same room with).

Notable this month, three books abandoned! I think these were all in a row and the “I’m just not enjoying this” was cumulative. I often put down books and don’t come back to them, but these were all active decisions to stop reading forever.

  • Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith, 1950) – too creepy. I got almost half-way through, but the kind of tension she excels at is just not my thing. The Talented Mr. Ripley was plenty.
  • Billy Summers (Stephen King, 2021) I got on a bit of a King kick and hadn’t tried this new one, but a) it was dull and b) the assassin protagonist’s cover is that he’s writing a book, and I’m tired of that as a King subplot. I could see it heading in the “Rat” direction.
  • So I went on to try The Wind Through the Keyhole (Stephen King, 2012), which is part of the Dark Tower series but short. I finally read the first two in 2016 but wasn’t very motivated to continue. This I abandoned about a quarter of the way through when I hit this bit of dialogue: “There’s the dit-dah wire, and even a jing-jang.” He has such a tin ear for fantasy names. A ding-dong too far!

Year in review

Goodreads shows 130 books read and a total of 44,050 pages – it’s been going up year over year (I’ve added more book groups and read-alongs so that helps explain it). Shortest was the graphic novel of A l’ombre, 47 pages, and longest was (ugh) The Ink Black Heart at a whopping 1408. More than 6 million people also read Pride and Prejudice, but only 47 read The Day the Guinea Pig Talked.

Blogwise I’ve kept up with the monthly lists and have finally started publishing some of the drafts of the quote dumps, which I’ve now identified as such. I have a goal of five published blog posts per month this year, but we’ll see how that goes!

The Annotated Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (1843), edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, 2004

I had already done my annual reading of this in November, but then the Amherst Book Group talked about it as a one-off (just one discussion since it’s short) between The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Half of a Yellow Sun. So once again I took the opportunity to read the annotated edition, and the extra content is mostly what I recorded.

In this book I learned

  • The long list of adaptations led me to probably the strangest, Rich Little’s Christmas Carol (1963) – basically an excuse for Little to trot out all his impressions. The “casting” is a little random!
    • W.C. Fields/Scrooge
    • Paul Lynde/Bob Crachit
    • Johnny Carson/nephew Fred
    • Laurel and Hardy/the two gentlemen collecting donations
    • Nixon/Marley
    • Humphrey Bogart/Ghost of Christmas Past
    • Groucho/Fezziwig, Columbo/Ghost of Christmas Present
    • Edith Bunker/Mrs. Cratchit
    • Truman Capote/Tiny Tim
    • Inspector Clouseau/Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
    • George Burns, John Wayne, & ? somebody with a cane and top hat?/rag and boneman scene
    • Jack Benny/kid in the street who fetches the turkey
  • An Orwell quote, “It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change in spirit rather than a change of structure, ” led me first to Orwell’s “Can Socialists be Happy?” before finding the origin in “Charles Dickens.”
  • Dickens’ the Life of Our Lord – “No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable”
  • In his library at Gad’s Hill, Dickens had a set of fake books in the set The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Ignorance, Superstition, The Block, The Stake, The Rack, Dirt, and Disease.
  • Welsh wig
  • James T. Fields observed that Dickens “liked to dilate in imagination over the brewing of a bowl of punch, but I always noticed that when the punch was ready, he drank less of it than any one who might be present. It was the sentiment of the thing, and not the thing itself, that engaged his attention.”
  • Scalpers and people camping out in line the night before to get tickets to Dickens’ public readings
  • Dickens was criticized for “the rising inflection” (upspeak?)
  • Dickens reading Bob Crachit’s speech “brought out so many pocket handerchiefs that it looked as if a snowstorm had somehow got into the hall without tickets”

Quotes from the annotations

  • Re Doré’s illustrations: “Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present look remarkably like Dante and Virgil exploring the rings of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, which Doré was also illustrating in 1961.”
  • “Utilitarians have never been fond of A Christmas Carol.
  • “Remarkably, no scene in this Christmas story takes place in a church, no clergyman plays a role in the drama.”
  • Ruskin in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton: “His Christmas meant mistletoe and pudding — neither resurrection from dead, nor rising of new stars, nor teaching of wise men, nor shepherds.”
  • In the manuscript, Dickens included a digression on what Hamlet would be like as a relative: “He would be a most impracticable fellow to deal with; and however creditable he might be to the family after his decease, he would prove a special encumbrance in his lifetime, trust me.”

Every night I read I am described (mostly by people who have not the faintest notion of observing) from the sole of my boot to where the topmost hair of my head ought to be, but is not. Sometimes I am described as being “evidently nervous;” sometimes it is rather taken ill that “Mr. Dickens is so extraordinarily composed.” My eyes are blue, red, grey, white, green, brown, black, hazel, violet, and rainbow-coloured. I am like “a well-to-do American gentleman,” and the Emperor of the French, with an occasional touch of the Emperor of China, and a deterioration from the attributes of our famous townsman, Rufus W. B. D. Dodge Grumsher Pickville. I say all sorts of things that I never said, go to all sorts of places that I never saw or heard of, and have done all manner of things (in some previous state of existence I suppose) that have quite escaped my memory.

Dickens in a letter – see https://www.gutenberg.org/files/25853/25853-h/25853-h.htm

Quotes from the text

  • “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
  • “a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again”
  • ‘“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived.’
  • ‘“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”‘
  • “No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”
  • “He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.” (like Wally in My Dinner with André talking about his cold coffee)

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused!”

The Annotated Alice: 150th Anniversary Deluxe Edition: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll, edited by Martin Gardner, expanded and updated by Mark Burstein, 2015

The Great Books group wanted to read a children’s book and this was the vote. I was surprised how many people had never read it, but of course everyone was familiar with the characters. I’ve read both Alice books many times, so it was fun to have the extra material. I believe this is what started the craze for annotated editions – Gardner’s original version came out in 1960, and the Annotated Sherlock Holmes may have been the next one (1967). It’s notable how many poems that Carroll parodied would otherwise be completely forgotten.

In this book I learned:

  • Gardner’s note: “We know that Cheshire cheese was once sold in the shape of a grinning cat. One would tend to slice off the cheese at the cat’s tail end until finally only the grinning head would remain on the plate.” But this story seems to be apocryphal. Gardner says the source is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Wikipedia gives this very book as the citation, twice, but also references Brewer’s. But the 1898 edition, which is online, has nothing like this, so it was presumably added later and might be a back-formation. And that doesn’t seem like a very practical shape for a cheese!
  • “borogoves” doesn’t have an r after the g! Gardner says it’s a common mispronunciation and misspelling, even on the Alice statue in Central Park. We played there many times as children; I didn’t even remember there was text.
  • Roger Lancelyn Green theorized that “Jabberwocky” was possibly a parody of “The Shepherd of the Giant Mountains.” I found the partial text and I can sort of see it! (Full text here on pp. 298-300 and 326-328 but much harder to read.) For example “The prince cried, stooping from his balcony,/In gratulating tones,/’Come to my heart, my true and gallant son!'”
  • Tweedledum and Tweedledee are references to a poem about the rivalry between Handel and Bonocini
  • Added to my TBR pile:
    • No Name by Wilkie Collins, because Carroll said “Mrs. Wragg and the White Queen might have been twin-sisters”
    • The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (which contains a portion of Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence,” parodied in “Sitting on a Gate”)
  • Added to my plants-to-look-for list: scented rushes, i.e. Acorus calamus
  • Brewer’s elaborates the cut (to ignore someone on purpose) as having four types:
    • The cut direct is to stare an acquaintance in the face and pretend not to know him.
    • The cut indirect, to look another way, and pretend not to see him.
    • The cut sublime, to admire the top of some tall edifice or the clouds of heaven till the person cut has passed by.
    • The cut infernal, to stoop and adjust your boots till the party has gone past.


  • Drink Me “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast”
  • “She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it)”
  • After Alice says “till we meet again”: ‘“I shouldn’t know you again if we did meet,” Humpty Dumpty replied in a discontented tone, giving her one of his fingers to shake; “you’re so exactly like other people.”’

Mathematical physicists are quite fond of Carrollian nomenclature. A non-orientable wormhole that appears to reverse the chirality (handedness) of anything passed through it is referred to as an Alice handle, and a (hypothetical) universe that includes one is an Alice universe. A charge with magnitude but no persistently identifiable polarity is referred to as a Cheshire charge. An Alice string is a half-quantum vortex in a vector Bose-Einstein condensate. Scientists at the Institut Laue-Langevin, in Grenoble, France, recently for the first time separated a particle from one of its physical properties, creating what they called a quantum Cheshire Cat, in this case by taking a beam of neutrons and separating them from their magnetic moment. In the physics of superfluidity, a boojum is a geometric pattern on the surface of one of the phases of superfluid helium-3. In theoretical physics, the Carroll particle is a relativistic particle model in the limit of which the velocity of light becomes zero. Such a particle cannot move and was named after the Red Queen’s remark, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter – Carson McCullers, 1940

I had read this at least once before (for the Second Monday book group in 2013), and Great Books has it scheduled for next December, but this was my favorite format: the Amherst College slow read group where we do 50 pages per week. We get so much more out books that way! We followed up reading the book with watching the 1968 movie, and I made cornpones because they were mentioned, few people know about them, and I love them. (I use the recipe from Favorite Recipes of the Lower Cape Fear, a cookbook in which a terrible poem my dad wrote [his description!] appears.) The film is a good movie on its own merits, but not a good adaptation of the book; most of the edges get rubbed off, including the racial ones. The book was so far ahead of its time, especially in blurring gender boundaries, and the movie is more conventional. I loved the idea of Mick’s “inside room” and “outside room” as psychological spaces, and her response to music.

In this book I learned:

  • “Prom party” where “to prom” is to walk around the block
  • Dough-face costume? “One boy had gone home and put on a dough-face bought in advance for Halloween.” I find references to it as a homemade mask, but not many. There’s a photo in this book (need database access to see the digital version – page 91).
  • Bubber “taking a pop” at Baby is an early example of cute aggression

Short quotes

  • Jake: “When a person knows and can’t make the others understand, what does he do?”
  • “‘It don’t take words to make a quarrel,’ Portia said. ‘It look to me like us is always arguing even when we sitting perfectly quiet like this.'”
  • Portia again: “A person can’t pick up they children and just squeeze them to which-a-way they wants them to be.”
  • “the cold green ocean and a hot gold strip of sand”
  • “By nature all people are of both sexes. So that marriage and the bed is not all by any means. The proof? Real youth and old age. Because often old men’s voices grow high and reedy and they take on a mincing walk. And old women sometimes grow fat and their voices get rough and deep and they grow dark little mustaches.”
  • an old song as “a dragnet for lost feelings”
  • Dr. Copeland “sat in rigid silence, and at last he picked up his hat and left the house without a farewell. If he could not speak the whole long truth no other word would come to him.”
  • a toddler “tuned up to cry”

Longer quotes

‘Pick out some stories with something to eat in them. I like that one a whole lot about them German kids going out in the forest and coming to this house made out of all different kinds of candy and the witch. I like a story with something to eat in it.’

‘I’ll look for one,’ said Mick.

‘But I’m getting kinda tired of candy,’ Bubber said. ‘See if you can’t bring me a story with something like a barbecue sandwich in it.’

[Dr. Copeland] Many of us cook for those who are incompetent to prepare the food that they themselves eat. Many work a lifetime tending flower gardens for the pleasure of one or two people. Many of us polish slick waxed floors of fine houses. Or we drive automobiles for rich people who are too lazy to drive themselves. We spend our lives doing thousands of jobs that are of no real use to anybody. We labor and all of our labor is wasted. Is that service? No, that is slavery.

Harry was a Pantheist. That was a religion, the same as Baptist or Catholic or Jew. Harry believed that after you were dead and buried you changed to plants and fire and dirt and clouds and water. It took thousands of years and then finally you were a part of all the world. He said he thought that was better than being one single angel.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes – Dan Egan, 2017

We (the Nature and Environment book group) learned so much from this book! Few of us had any idea about ballast water bringing in invasives and bacteria; about the dangers of connecting watersheds at Chicago; that there have been many very rapid and recent changes in the species composition of the Great Lakes; how important phosphorus is. I enjoyed reading about lampreys, which I love seeing at the Barrett Fishway in Holyoke. It was fascinating that the introduced alewife was then declared in need of protection when the balance of species changed, crashing the native perch populations again. Also in this book I learned about:

  • “giant trout that can grow to a wolf-sized 70 pounds”
  • James Strang, “a fiery rival of Brigham Young” who proclaimed himself king of Beaver Island but also carefully studied the different kinds of lake trout
  • veliger, almost microsopic mollusc larvae – “What ensued in the next few years was a veliger blizzard down the canal and into Mississippi River tributaries that nobody could have predicted. Biologists in the early 1990s calculated that the microscopic mussel veligers were tumbling down the Mississippi-bound Illinois River at a rate of 70 million per second.”
  • the Cuyahoga River catching on fire is very old – first reported in 1868
  • “Biologically contaminated ballast water is the worst kind of pollution because it cannot be fixed by plugging a pipe or capping a smokestack. It does not decay and it does not disperse. It breeds.”
  • the Great Black Swamp
  • “Lake Erie, which holds only 2 percent of the overall volume of Great Lakes water, is home to about 50 percent of Great Lakes fish” because it is warmer and shallower than the others, so supports more algae
  • ‘“The intuition is that a very large lake like this would be slow to respond somehow to climate change,” [Jay Austin] said. “But in fact we’re finding that it’s particularly sensitive.”’

It’s hard to fault Nicolet if he really did believe his journey had taken him to Asia, because there were no Old World analogues for the scope of the lakes he was trying to navigate. The biggest lake in France, after all, is 11 miles long and about 2 miles wide; the sailing distance between Duluth, Minnesota, on the Great Lakes’ western end and Kingston, Ontario, on their eastern end is more than 1,100 miles. No, the bodies of water formally known as the Laurentian Great Lakes are not mere lakes, not in the normal sense of the word. Nobody staring across Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie or Superior would consider the interconnected watery expanse that sprawls across 94,000 square miles just a lake, any more than a visitor waking up in London is likely to think of himself as stranded on just an island (the United Kingdom, in fact, also happens to span some 94,000 square miles).

A normal lake sends ashore ripples and, occasionally, waves a foot or two high. A Great Lake wave can swell to a tsunami-like 25 feet. A normal lake, if things get really rough, might tip a boat. A Great Lake can swallow freighters almost three times the length of a football field; the lakes’ bottoms are littered with an estimated 6,000 shipwrecks, many of which have never been found. This would never happen on a normal lake, because a normal lake is knowable. A Great Lake can hold all the mysteries of an ocean, and then some.

This left the four lakes above Niagara Falls largely separated from the rest of the aquatic world. The lakes might have sprawled across an area half the size of California, but in a sense they were as isolated as a one-acre pond in the middle of a forest until the early 19th century, when construction of the Welland and Erie Canal bypassed the falls and linked the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Pulling the Niagara plug that had protected the lakes for millennia triggered an ecological calamity best illustrated by the rise and fall of three species of fish—lake trout, sea lampreys and alewives. Their story shows how a delicate ecological tapestry that had been thousands of years in the making unraveled in just a couple of decades.

The decision to push aside lamprey-killer Vernon Applegate’s goal to restore lake trout and instead focus on grafting an exotic predator [salmon] onto the Great Lakes was a bit like rehabbing an ailing Great Plains by laying down sod strips of Kentucky bluegrass and turning the place into one giant golf course—one that would require constant tending—rather than reseeding the expanse with native grasses uniquely evolved over thousands of years to provide stability in the face of droughts, fires and roving herds of grazers.

Briney can catch 15,000 pounds of [bighead carp] in his nets. Not in one day. In 25 minutes. Here is a little perspective on that number: Wisconsin’s quota for commercial perch fishing on all the state waters of Lake Michigan in some past years has been about 20,000 pounds. That’s not a per-day limit. That’s the limit for an entire year.

Scientists have identified 39 invasive species poised to ride the Chicago canal into or out of the Great Lakes, including a fish-killing virus in Lake Michigan today that could ravage the South’s catfish farming industry as well as five species of nuisance fish, including the sea lamprey. Threatening from the other direction, beyond the Asian carp, is the razor-toothed snakehead, which can breathe air and slither short distances over land and is now swimming loose in the Mississippi basin.

Later, rocks rich in phosphates, which is a form of salt containing phosphorus, would be mined and processed for the mineral that doctors came to believe could cure everything from impotence (it couldn’t) to tuberculosis (it couldn’t) to depression (it couldn’t) to alcoholism (it couldn’t) to epilepsy (it couldn’t) to cholera (it couldn’t) to toothaches (it couldn’t).