December 2017 books read

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), That Hideous Strength (1945) – C.S. Lewis. Re-re-read. I love these so much still… weaknesses and all.
  • The Flight of Dragons – Peter Dickinson, 1979; illustrated by Wayne Anderson. I read this book many times at FNAC while we were living in Paris (I was 15 or so), very tempted to buy it but it was out of my price range. Scientifically-plausible (kinda) theory of how legends of dragons could be true.
  • Lab Girl – Hope Jahren, 2016
  • The Light That Did Not Fail – Clarence Hawkes, 1935. Hawkes, “the blind poet of Hadley,” lived just across the river. I first heard about him because of an inscription on a boulder on the upgraded Norwottuck Trail, and found out much more at the Hadley Historical Society. I have a genetic risk for blindness so I was particularly interested in this book, but it’s actually a hodge-podge of reminiscences with a lot of extraneous content like flattering letters from other famous people to Hawkes, and not much about how he dealt with his blindness. It sounds like Hitting the Dark Trail is more what I’m looking for.
  • The Hogwarts Collection – J. K. Rowling, 2017. I was eager to read the extra content on Pottermore when it opened, but a whole bunch of it reminds me how good the books themselves were and how unnecessary the backstory is.
  • The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon, 1965
  • The Sparrow – Maria Doira Russell, 1996. I didn’t realize how old this was–just heard about it a few years ago–and so the near-future (late 2010s) confused me at first. Interesting, weird, not top-notch.
  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, 1843. One of my all-time favorites, re-read for the umpteenth time.
  • Banker (1982), Forfeit (1968) – Dick Francis. Two I remembered particularly fondly, but my taste for Francis (picking up one used to lead to re-reading all of them) is on the wane.
  • Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking – Samrin Nosrat, 2017. Wow! Highly recommended!
  • Weathercraft (2010), Fran (2013) – Jim Woodring. I love Frank in general, but the earlier stuff feels fresher to me… good Pupshaw and Pushpaw action in these, though.
  • Donald Duck: A Christmas for Shacktown – Carl Barks, Fantagraphics collection 2012. Matthew and I grew up on the French Scrooge McDuck comics, Picsou, which were primarily translated Carl Barks (the “good duck artist”). A taste once in a while is good enough, but I’m periodically on the hunt for my favorite story from back then. As I recall, it featured a fruit like a pineapple which made the eater super-intelligent. Scrooge ends up needing to feed it to sled dogs so they can get the ducks out of a predicament. No search strings have pulled this up yet…

Lab Girl – Hope Jahren, 2016

Yikes, I am so behind on this blog that I’m finishing this December 2017 post in June 2018… trying to catch up but especially prompted on this one because Lab Girl is the UMass Common Read this summer and I may get to see Hope Jahren speak in September. Plus Five Colleges (my workplace) is encouraging us to read and discuss all four common reads for the participating campuses. I love the Pioneer Valley!

This was the December Nature and Environment book group selection, and an interesting contrast to H is for Hawk. Both of them were placed at the end of the year because they were still popular and the library asked us to wait for the demand to die down. They are also both what I loosely classify as “cross-disciplinary” titles for the purposes of the group (a type we alternate with classics of nature writing and oh-my-god-we’re-all-going-to-die current issues).

Overall I enjoyed it a lot, but became more and more impatient with Jahren’s over-the-topness/nuttiness, especially around an epically-disastrous van trip, until she revealed her bipolar diagnosis. Then everything made a lot more sense; I would have had more sympathy had she introduced it earlier. The book still reeks of superhero syndrome, which is how I think of memoirs (most often of teaching) by people in very difficult roles who succeed against all odds in a way that is completely not sustainable or replicable.

In the early memoir section I loved the David Copperfield thread. Her stories of working in a hospital lab prepping IV bags as a teen are fascinating:

If this is for the ER or the ICU, we have about ten minutes to make it happen. Fortunately for the patient, there is a sleep-starved teenager apprenticed to a chain-smoking barmaid in the basement who is ready for action.

(Lydia, the chain-smoking tech who takes Hope under her wing, reminds me very much of a senior kennel aide I worked with at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in the 80’s.)

[I was forced] to manage the timing and extent to which I could wander through my own thoughts, and I developed a fine control over my ability to reemerge. I could work with my brain in my hands for hours, move it into my head for twenty minutes, and then shunt it back into my fingers in the same way that I could slosh water back and forth in a half-full bucket.

Interspersed between the memoir chapters are shorter bits about the germination, growth, life, and death of plants. These are great (especially in contrast with The Hidden Life of Trees, which we read later). Jahren’s metaphors are both brilliant and illuminating.

Folded within the embryo are the cotyledons: two tiny ready-made leaflets, inflatable for temporary use. They are as small and insufficient as the spare tire that is not intended to take you any farther than the nearest gas station. Once expanded with sap, these barely green cotyledons start up photosynthesis like an old car on a bitter winter morning. Crudely designed, they limp the whole plant along until it can undertake the construction of a true leaf, a real leaf.

The evolution of leaf into spine: “One new idea allowed the plant to see a new world and draw sweetness out of a whole new sky.” Trees are “always doing something.” “Soil is the naturally produced graffiti that results from tensions between the biological and geological realms.”

By suspending each leaf separately, the tree has stacked its surface area into a sort of ladder for light to fall down. Looking up, you notice that the leaves at the top of any tree are smaller, on average, than the leaves at the bottom. This allows sunlight to be caught near the base whenever the wind blows and parts the upper branches. Look again and you’ll notice that leaves low in the canopy are of a darker green; they contain more of the pigment that helps each leaf absorb sunshine, allowing them to harvest the weaker rays that penetrate shade. When building foliage, a tree must budget for each leaf individually and allocate for each position relative to the other leaves.

A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant that you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods: nobody living there can afford to move.

The later memoir sections are full of touching, hilarious, and horrifying moments. Discovering opal in the hackberry seed: “it still stands out as one of the loneliest moments of my life. On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.”

Jahren’s relationship with her lab manager Bill is mesmerizingly weird and wonderful; Bill is the one other person in the book who’s larger than life in the same way she is. The climax of a strange story about Bill’s hair:

“What is your problem, anyway?” Bill said in exasperation. “You’re acting like a guy shaving off his hair and then hoarding it in a dead tree on the wrong side of town isn’t a totally normal thing. My God, you are hung up.”

segues into a brilliant parody of The Giving Tree (I’m firmly on the “hate” side of that one, as I am on Love You Forever) called The Getting Tree, “about an arboreal parent figure that slowly cannibalized its offspring because of its progressive and oblivious greed.”

I am sick to death of this wound that will not close; of how my babyish heart mistakes any simple kindness from a woman for a breadcrumb trail leading to the soft love of a mother or the fond approval of a grandmother. I am tired of carrying this dull orphan-pain, for though it has lost its power to surprise, every season it still reaps its harvest of hurt.

And my very favorite quote—not a new idea but nicely expressed: “Love and learning are similar in that they can never be wasted.”

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon, 1965

I read this around age 20 or so, at the recommendation of a friend who also turned me on to Pale Fire, but all I remembered was the underground postal system and the muted post horn symbol. It was recommended for the Great Books Group (although the person who nominated it couldn’t make it) and got one of my votes—although it seemed a little minor/fringe for us, at least it’s short, and we’re reading Moby-Dick next! I enjoyed it a lot and found its depiction of paranoia and conspiracy thinking quite relevant to today’s world, although it has such an innocent perspective. If we had read it in the 90s or 2000s, I don’t think it would have felt pertinent in the same way. The California real estate developer who turns out to own or have a finger in everything also rings of-the-moment. But most of all I loved the crazy character names and the humor, starting with this multi-level gem on page 2: “the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble’s variorum recording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist.” Great images as well, like palm lines described as “her fates’s furrows, the changeless salt hatchings of her identity.” But then also this crazy-awkward sentence, on purpose for sure:

Would then proceed at a KCUF record hop to look out again across the gleaming gym floor and there in one of the giant keyholes inscribed for basketball see, groping her vertical backstroke a little awkward opposite any boy heels might make her an inch taller than, a Sharon, Linda or Michele, seventeen and what is known as a hip one, whose velveted eyes ultimately, statistically would meet Mucho’s and respond, and the thing would develop then groovy as it could when you found you couldn’t get statutory rape really out of the back of your law-abiding head.

There are observations that were ahead of their time: “‘You’re so right-wing you’re left-wing,'” “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself,” “the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know,” and one really eerily, upsettingly prescient: the swastika armband seller, a “spirited entrepreneur” expanding into SS uniforms for back-to-school.

I loved the meta-fictional stuff. My favorite by far is the Baby Igor submarine movie with the captain and the dog, which ends tragically even though such a film never would. Then there’s the long description of the Jacobean play The Courier’s Tragedy, including: “Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be.” “Every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man, including a lye pit, land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse.” And Metzger, the lawyer who was the child actor Baby Igor, explains:

A lawyer in a courtroom, in front of any jury, becomes an actor, right? Raymond Burr is an actor, impersonating a lawyer, who in front of a jury becomes an actor. Me, I’m a former actor who became a lawyer. They’ve done the pilot film of a TV series, in fact, based loosely on my career, starring my friend Manny Di Presso, a one-time lawyer who quit his firm to become an actor. Who in this pilot plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting periodically to being an actor.

Another beautiful passage:

She looked down a slope … onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.

The one aspect I really disliked were the parody rock lyrics (the Paranoids have a lot of Beatles-esque songs), of which there were way too many anyway, even if they had been funny or accurately satirized – instead they were stupid and self-indulgent.

And thank you to this book for pointing me to Remedios Varo’s Bordando el Manto Terrestre. Wow!

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?