January 2018 books read

  • Mister God, This is Anna – “Fynn”, 1975. I first read this in my grandmother’s collection, probably not long after it came out. She presumably got it or liked it because it’s “Christian,” but it isn’t very… more a weird mix of metaphysics, math, and Cockney life. Before the Internet I looked but couldn’t find much information; now there’s a site devoted to MGTIA and its author, Sydney George Hopkins.
  • Master Frisky
    Master Frisky, Clarence Hawkes’ dog

    Hitting the Dark Trail (1915); Master Frisky (1902) – Clarence Hawkes. I started a Hawkes kick in December because he’s a local author, and they’re interesting for that reason, but otherwise not very good. There’s more on his blindness in Dark Trail, but not much, and a lot of things that are confusing (he does a lot of research by studying maps? how? No mention of them being relief maps, and where would he get those? It may be that by “I” he means “me and my wife?”) And Frisky, about his adorable collie, wanders all over the place, with plenty of misbehaving-but-cute-youngster-ends-up-dead anecdotes which characterize early moralizing tales.

  • The Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins, 2016 (4th edition; first was 1976)
  • The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead, 2016
  • Four Day’s Wonder – A. A. Milne, 1933. Cute and silly mystery.
  • Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created – ed. Laura Miller, 2016
  • Moby-Dick; or, The Whale – Herman Melville, 1851 – quotes pulled, review tdb
  • D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths – Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, 1967. I first read most of this in a bookstore as a kid—I think Shakespeare and Co. in Paris!–enchanted by the colorful lithograph-looking illustrations (the jacked says they used acetate sheets) but unable to justify the price. Still beautiful and interesting, and the new introduction by Michael Chabon is great.
  • How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels – Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden, 2017
  • The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin. Re-read in honor of her death. A perfect novel in every way.
  • Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1971. Read to discuss Stalker at the Forbes Far Out Film Discussion. It’s not as unlike the movie as Tarkovsky claims, but enough unlike that I wish I hadn’t read it before watching, as it threw off a lot of my reactions. Interesting conceit but I didn’t care much for it–a little too “just so.”

The Selfish Gene (40th anniversary edition) – Richard Dawkins, 2016 (original 1976, 2nd ed. 1989)

Interestingly most of the Nature and Environment book group members didn’t care for this; none of them had read it before and most felt they didn’t have the background to make sense of it. I didn’t think I had much of a background myself, but it is a topic that’s interested me for a long time (Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity, one of the formative volumes of my adolescence, is kind of related, and I absolutely loved the Coursera Intro to Genetics and Evolution with Dr. Mohamed Noor – one of the best MOOCs I’ve taken.) It is true that while Dawkins is very clear in the particulars, the structure is a little lacking.

My strategy of reading all text first and then the endnotes also paid off, as the notes are very long and, as others complained, often contradict the text because they were written later.

Evolution is a theory which seems simple but which has subtle implications. I tried to explain to the group my understanding of what Dawkins was trying to say about many small gametes vs fewer larger gametes leading to the polarization of male and female sexual strategies, and how that works out differently in water than on land, but I didn’t do a very good job.

Interesting bits:

  • Queen and worker bees have differing interests—explaining why workers can and do overthrow the queen sometimes
  • Good explanation of game theory strategies, with “nice” winning over “nasty,” forgiving but not too much so—“Tit for Tat” winner described as “nice,” “forgiving,” “not envious.”
  • “Segregation distorters” (meiotic drive) that spread like wildfire throughout a population because they game the system, then force extinction.
  • Fantastic quote from Robert May: “To a good approximation, all species are insects.”
  • Thisbe irenea caterpillars summon ants through sound and control them chemically!
  • Dawkins theorizes that naked mole rats ought to have dispersing individuals as the eusocial insects do, and it looks like he was right, but not in the interesting locust-like way he speculates: “What if naked mole rats are like American grasshoppers, primed to produce a distinct, dispersing caste, but only under conditions which, for some reason, have not been realized this century?” Actually it seems to have been proven that the Rocky Mountain locust went extinct, so even that is not applicable.
  • Because this book was fresh in my mind, I was especially fascinated by the news on the marbled crayfish that clones itself.

A funny anecdote: “[The cyclic interbreeding theory] is commonly attributed to S. Bartz, who developed it seven years after Hamilton originally published it. Characteristically, Hamilton himself forgot that he had thought of the ‘Bartz theory’ first, and I had to thrust his own paper under his nose before he would believe it!”

I usually try to structure the quotes in some way, but this is another finishing-it-months-later post and these mostly stand alone so I’ll just dump them here. One more comment: we all complained about Dawkins’ huge ego and frequent sexism. Nonetheless, it’s a classic for a reason and I want to re-read it at some point. I’d love to absorb the arguments enough to successfully explain them to someone else. The ideas about evolutionary stable strategies and the math and game theory that explains them, and group vs individual vs genome vs gene unity, feel powerfully explanatory.

Quoting Robert Trivers in the intro: “…if … deceit is fundamental in animal communication, then then there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray—by the subtle signs of self-knowledge—the deception being practiced.”

Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least  have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

…uncles on the mother’s side should be more interested in the welfare of nephews and nieces than uncles on the father’s side, and in general should be just as altruistic as aunts are. Indeed in a society with a high degree of marital infidelity, maternal uncles should be more altruistic then ‘fathers’ since they have more confidence in their relatedness to the child.

Depending on the ecological details of the species, various mixes of caring and bearing strategies can be evolutionarily stable. The one thing that cannot be evolutionarily stable is a pure caring strategy.

When a woman reached the age when the average chance of each child reaching adulthood was just less than half the chance of each grandchild of the same age reaching adulthood, any gene for investing in grandchildren in preference to children would tend to prosper… A woman could not invest fully in her grandchildren if she went on having children of her own.  Therefore genes for becoming reproductively infertile in middle age become more numerous, since they were carried in the bodies of grandchildren whose survival was assisted by grandmotherly altruism.

Genes in juvenile bodies will be selected for their ability to outsmart parental bodies; genes in parental bodies will be selected for their ability to outsmart the young. There is no paradox in the fact that the very same genes successively occupy a juvenile body and a parental body… they will exploit their practical opportunities.

Like a fashion in women’s clothes, or in American car design, the trend toward longer [bird of paradise] tails took off and gathered its own momentum. It was stopped only when tails became so grotesquely long that their manifest disadvantages started to outweigh the advantage of sexual attractiveness.

It is even possible that man’s swollen brain, and his predisposition to reason mathematically, evolved as a mechanism of ever more devious cheating, and ever more penetrating detection of cheating in others. Money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism.

What, after all, is so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators. … If forms of life exist whose chemistry is based on silicon rather than carbon, or ammonia rather than water, … if a form of life is found that is not based on chemistry at all but on electronic reverberating circuits, will there still be any general principle that is true of all life? Obviously I do not know, but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.

All that genes can really influence directly is protein synthesis. A gene’s influence upon a nervous system, or, for that matter, upon the color of an eye or the wrinkliness of a pea, is always indirect. … The caddis house is only a further extension of this kind of sequence. Stone hardness is an extended phenotypic effect of the caddis’s genes. … [T]he next step in this argument: genes in one organism can have extended phenotypic effects on the body of another organism.

To quite a large extent the interests of parasite genes and host genes may coincide. From the selfish gene point of view we can think of both fluke genes and snail genes as ‘parasites’ in the snail body. Both gain from being surrounded by the same protective shell, though they diverge from one another in the precise thickness of shell that they ‘prefer.’ This divergence arises, fundamentally, from the fact that their method of leaving this snail’s body and entering another one is different. For the snail genes the method of leaving is via snail sperms or eggs. For the fluke’s genes it is very different.

A bird may be flying home, carrying food for its own young. Suddenly, out of the corner of its eye, it sees the red super-gape of a young cuckoo, in the nest of a bird of some quite different species. It is diverted to the alien nest where it drops into the cuckoo’s mouth the food that had been destined for its own young.  … if we do assume that the cuckoo’s gape is a powerful drug-like superstimulus, it becomes very much easier to explain what is going on. It is not being stupid. ‘Fooled’ is the wrong word to use. Its nervous system is being controlled, as irresistibly as if it were a helpless drug addict…

Living things, of course, were never designed on drawing boards. But they do go back to fresh beginnings. They make a clean start in every generation. Every new organism begins as a single cell and grows anew. It inherits the ideas of ancestral design, in the form of the DNA program, but it does not inherit the physical organs of its ancestors. It does not inherit its parent’s heart and remould it into a new (and possibly improved) heart. It starts from scratch, as a single cell, and grows a new heart, using the same design program as its parent’s heart, to which improvements may be added. … One important thing about a ‘bottlenecked’ lifestyle  is that it makes possible the equivalent of going back to the drawing board.

All printed copies of this book will be the same as one another. They will be replicas but not replicators. … They do not form a lineage of copies, with some books being ancestral to others. A lineage of copies would exist if we xeroxed a page of a book, then xeroxed the xerox, then xeroxed the xerox of the xerox, and so on. In this lineage of pages, there really would be an ancestor/descendant relationship. A new blemish that showed up anywhere along the series would be shared by descendants but not ancestors. An ancestor/descendant series of this kind has the potential to evolve.

Superficially, successive generations of stick-insect bodies appear to constitute a lineage of replicas. But if you experimentally change one member of a lineage (for instance by removing a leg), the change is not passed on down the lineage. By contrast, if you experimentally change one member of the lineage of genomes (for instance by X-rays), the change will be passed on down the lineage. This, rather than the fragmenting effect of meiosis, is the fundamental reason for saying that the individual organism is not the ‘unit of selection’—not a true replicator. It is one of the most important consequences of the universally admitted fact that the ‘Lamarckian’ theory of inheritance is false.

How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels – Paul Karasik & Mark Newgarden, 2017

Wow, do I love books like this in general—there didn’t use to be enough of them, but now they’re everywhere!—and this is a great one. It took me years to start appreciating Nancy properly, even though my parents had the hardcover The Avant-Garde (Art News Annual XXIV, 1968) with the Joe Brainard cover on their shelves. My mother disapproved of comics in general, but my grandmother saved the Wilmington, NC Sunday funnies for us and whenever my brother and I visited, we’d have an orgy of them. My favorite was Hagar the Horrible; I also vividly remember Snuffy Smith. Peanuts, Prince Valiant (I never followed what the heck was going on but I liked the costumes), Blondie, Beetle Bailey, and Dennis the Menace. I don’t think Nancy was included; too Yankee? But I’m sure I saw it somewhere along the way, and became more familiar with it through Jonathan and his brother Sam (they wrote the song “Nancy” for their band, The Degrads, featuring lyrics like “Her hair makes me want to go bowling/She announces where she’s going when she’s strolling”). It was Bill Griffith’s tributes to Bushmiller, starting with the three rocks, that first opened my eyes to the genius behind Nancy’s weird and wonderful stylization. This book deepens that appreciation, but more generally it’s about how to see and analyze comics. One of my favorite books of all time is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, which I first read soon after the paperback came out in 1994; I don’t know if I’d get as much out of this book if it were my first exposure to those ideas, but in conjunction they’re powerful.

The book’s preamble is a biography of Bushmiller and Nancy the strip, stuffed with illustrations. Bushmiller started as a crossword puzzle inker, which helps explain his skill with black/white composition and contrast! It’s an enjoyable essay, typical of these large-format collections—very well-done but nothing particularly surprising.

The meat of the book is 44 two-page chapters, all on the same 3-panel strip that first ran on 8/8/1959, in which Sluggo squirts two successive kids in the face with his water gun (“Draw, you varmint”) and is then drawing on Nancy while we see that she’s put the trigger of a water hose in her holster. The strip takes up the top third of both pages, reprinted each time with only the elements the chapter is focused on: just Sluggo, just Bushmiller’s signature, just the grass, etc. These are grouped into color-coded sections like “The Script,” “The Cast,” “Staging,” etc. The accompanying text is in 3 parts: Context, Text, and Moral (eg “Letters form words, and their forms compound their meaning.” “A white halo around an object grants prominence.”)

I have a small complaint: sometimes there’s this weird purple language about what’s going to happen next (“Sociopath Sluggo … projects his own scurrilous varminthood upon his innocent quarry. Such patently unjust behavior is more deserving of the harsh, wet reward that awaits him at the end of the trail.”) And one minor thing they missed that I wish had been pointed out in the chapter on Punctuation: the three commas are all more different from each other than Bushmiller’s typical careful lettering would lead you to think. But in general the essays are terrific and enabled me to see and appreciate far more in the strip than I could have on my own, in ways that are applicable not only to comics but to art in general.

The appendices were even more fascinating. There are several on the varying ways the original strip was printed and how (badly), historical information on the BenDay dots and tableaux vivants. My favorite was the incredibly exhaustive history of hose gags, starting with a look at Lumière’s 1895 “L’Arroseur Arrosé,” but quickly proving that it was far from the first (1885, Uzès in Le Chat Noir) or the last (seventeen more are reproduced and analyzed!) I also loved the look at repeated Nancy gags, like the bird flying down the one-way street; the analysis of Sunday strips and how un-Bushmiller it was to supply an unnecessary top third (since some papers ran it and some didn’t); the section on spotting blacks, with an inked original next to the grayish reproduction on newsprint (I also learned about the “mats,” cardboard-like molds made from an acid-etched printing plate that could be cheaply manufactured and mailed to newspapers). Some unfinished strips are reproduced, showing Bushmiller’s stated working method of doing pencil, inking, and lettering in various orders, which also proves that he did Nancy’s hair spikes last—her head is completely smooth in some of them! Another great one is called “How To/How Not To” and compares a Little Debbie (Cecil Jensen) to a Nancy strip from 1955, both on the same gag, ripping apart the former.

The book ends with Do It Yourself!, a page of four Nancy strips for each of the forty-two “lessons” (omitting a couple that don’t apply, like Bushmiller’s signature) so you can look at them through that lens.

And it’s a gorgeously big and well-designed book, too. A winner!

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created – ed. Laura Miller, 2016

I love books-about-books, classic fantasy illustrations, and Laura Miller, so this was perfect for me. It’s a two to four page spread on each of several dozen books, in the categories Ancient Myth & Legend, Science and Romanticism, Golden Age of Fantasy, New World Order, and The Computer Age. There’s a brief essay on the book, first publication information (which is cool and not often mentioned), the original cover or a photo of the earliest tablet/papyrus etc., a portrait of the author if applicable, and lots of supporting graphics—illustrations, art, maps, ephemera, etc. It’s a beautiful book. I’ve read most of the works mentioned, but there were several I’d never heard of and want to check out:

  • The City of the Sun – Tommaso Campanella, 1602
  • The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World – Margaret Cavendish, 1666
  • The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground – Ludvig Holberg, 1741
  • Alamut – Vladimir Bartol, 1938
  • Pedro Paramo – Juan Rulfo, 1955
  • W or the Memory of Childhood – Georges Perec, 1975
  • Egalia’s Daughters – Gerd Brantenberg, 1977
  • Obabakoak – Bernardo Atxaga, 1988
  • Wizard of the CrowNgũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 2006
  • The Man with the Compound Eyes – Wu Ming-Yi, 2011
  • The Imperial Radch Trilogy – Ann Leckie, 2013-15
  • Lagoon – Nnedi Okarafor, 2014

Plus reminding me of a bunch of authors/books I haven’t yet read and want to, like China Mievelle, Orlando Furioso, Cloud Atlas, etc.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead, 2016

Read for the Second Monday book group. I was intrigued by the premise (an alternate world where the Underground Railroad was an actual network of tunnels with real trains), but that turned out to be a minor and annoying feature of an mostly-realistic and harrowing novel. Whitehead says that as a child, he thought the UR was real rather than metaphorical; I can confirm from my library career in Montrose, PA, which was a stop (and a terminus) on the UR, that many adults still think so. I can’t put my finger on exactly how it could have been done, but IMO Whitehead should have handled the “real” UR stuff so that it was more clearly metaphorical or magical realist. As it is, it’s mostly preposterous without being useful to the novel, which is otherwise good. The other alternate-history passages, namely the way different states have adopted different strategies, explicitly inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, work. There’s actually a passage at the end which redeemed the real trains for me, but it was just too little too late. But in looking back at my flags, maybe I’m wrong and I would need to read it again. Here’s the passage I wish I had thought more about on initial reading:

The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of.


The iron horse still rumbled through the tunnel when she woke. Lumbly’s words returned to her: If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America. It was a joke, then, from the start. There was only darkness outside the windows on her journeys, and only ever would be darkness.

And in the final pages:

She pumped and pumped and rolled out of the light. Into the tunnel that no one had made, that led nowhere. … Was she traveling through the tunnel or digging it? Each time she brought her arms down on the lever, she drove a pickaxe into the rock, swung a sledge onto a railroad spike. She never got Royal to tell her about the men and women who made the underground railroad. The ones who excavated a million tons of rock and dirt, toiled in the belly of the earth for the deliverance of slaves like her. Who stood with all those other souls who took runaways into their homes, fed them, carried them north on their backs, died for them. The station masters and conductors and sympathizers. Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your flesh and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

So maybe I should re-read this at some point, because it may be that the why of the UR being real was just too subtle for me on a first reading. I do tend to read quickly for book groups; that’s one of the reasons I love when it’s something I’ve already read.

The book is full of memorable lines. “Stubborn breaks when it don’t bend.” About children killed on the Randall plantation: “At least they were never sold off, an older woman told Ajarry. Which was true—back then Randall rarely sold the little ones. You knew where and how your children would die.” Fighting among the slaves: “Take it out on each other if you cannot take it out on the ones who deserve it.” A quote from the slavecatcher Ridgeway: “‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.'” “The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.”

Cora on the “historical” displays in the museum where she’s forced to work as a living exhibit:

The stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats. … But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.

And her tactic of picking out people in the crowd to stare at:

The weak link—she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness. The people she chose, young and old, from the rich part of town or the more modest streets, did not individually persecute Cora. As a community, they were shackles.

About a white boy who ends up dead as a consequence of her fleeing:

The boy’s death was a complication of her escape … But shutters swung out inside her and she saw the boy trembling on his sickbed, his mother weeping over his grave. Cora had been grieving for him, too, without knowing it. Another person caught in this enterprise that bound master and slave alike.

Cora on poetry:

Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you  when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people’s heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.

A speech by Elijah Lander, whom various reviews claim stands in for Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Dubois:

We can’t save everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing’s going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers. Here’s one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can’t. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick—yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.
Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life’s suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can’t exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.
And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

Runaway slave ads appear as chapter headings. The last is one of the best moments in the book:

from her legal but not rightful master …
She has stopped running.
Reward remains unclaimed.

It took me a long long time to finish this entry (read the book for a 1/8/2018 meeting, hitting “publish” on 4/7/2018 even though I back-date to when I read) and the book has stuck in my mind, raising its profile. I do want to read it again at some point and highly recommend it.