April 2018 books read

  • The Devil’s Children – Peter Dickinson, 1970
  • Scoop – Evelyn Waugh, 1937
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Harari, 2011
  • Adele And Co. – Dornford Yates, 1931
  • These Possible Lives – Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor (Italian 2015, English 2017) – Interesting prose poem bios (labeled “Essays”) of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. A tiny book (hand-sized, 60 pages) that New Directions has the face to charge 12.95 for.
  • Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be – Marshall Goldsmith, 2015 – I love self-help but haven’t been reading as much of it lately (that’s a good sign). This came highly recommended by Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar, one of my favorite bloggers, in a post where he specifically referenced the technique of setting a daily goal to “do my best” on some measure and then rating yourself at the end of the day. I’ve been doing that during the month of May (“Today I will do my best to eat and drink in moderation with maximum enjoyment”) and it hasn’t been nearly as helpful for me as it was for Trent. But doing anything at all for an entire month is an achievement for me, so that’s a recommendation of some sort…
  • James and the Giant Peach – Roald Dahl, 1961 – A perennial favorite.
  • The Group – Mary McCarthy, 1963
  • If This Goes On— – Robert Heinlein, 1940
  • Methuselah’s Children – Robert Heinlein, 1958

The Group – Mary McCarthy, 1963

Read for the  Great Books Group. I found it interesting especially as a time-travel novel of social history—amazingly candid about life for an intellectual woman in the 1930s, prisoners of gender roles and of their class—but the characters are somewhat interchangeable and cardboard. The women in the “group” (eight members of the Vassar class of 1933) are supportive of each other but mostly seem to dislike each other.

I learned about these trends/ideas from the 1930s-1940s:

  • Lucy Stone and “Lucy Stonerism” (keeping your own name after marriage)
  • the poet Thomas Carew (Epitaph on the Lady Mary Villiers)
  • William Dean Howells (I downloaded the first in the Altrurian trilogy, though that’s not mentioned)
  • Liebfraumilch (“a May bowle, made of Liebfraumilch and fresh strawberries and sweet woodruff”)
  • and indirectly from sweet woodruff I identified a European flower I remember picking in spring, which must be cowslip (Primula veris)
  • sortes Virgilianae (and you can do it online!)
  • Lovestonites and Musteites
  • Old Catholics
  • “a D.A. at Macy’s” (direct account—money deposited ahead of time)
  • the Morris Plan
  • glass straws (must have been terrible to clean!) (Wow, they are a thing again now; much better than plastic, certainly)
  • pacifiers were new and trendy
  • why one of the theaters at Smith is named Hallie Flanagan
  • people smoked cigarettes and served martinis in hospital rooms!

It’s very revealing of the early roots of consumerism, fashionable hipsterism/snobbery, and the role of money. Lots of fascinating discussion of food, very revealing of the times: “a marvelous jellied salad called Green Goddess, made with lime gelatin, shrimps, mayonnaise, and alligator pear” (MINT JELLO???); Maxwell House coffee as status marker; these passages:

They were all tremendously interested in cooking and quite out of patience with the unimaginative roasts and chops followed by molds from the caterer that Mother served; they were going to try new combinations and foreign recipes and puffy omelets and soufflés and interesting aspics and just one hot dish in a Pyrex, no soup, and a fresh green salad.

…yet the prejudice [against canned goods] lingered, which was a pity since many canned products, like vegetables picked at their peak and some of the Campbell soups, were better than anything the home cook could achieve. “Have you tasted the new Corn Niblets?” asked Kay. Dottie shook her head “You ought to tell your mother about them. It’s the whole-kernel corn. Delicious. Almost like corn on the cob. Harald discovered them.” She considered. “Does your mother know about iceberg lettuce? it’s a new variety, very crisp, with wonderful keeping powers. After you’ve tried it, you’ll never want to see the old Boston lettuce again.”

…[M]argarine, Harald maintained, was just as tasty and nourishing, but the butter interests had conspired to keep the margarine people from coloring their product; he was right, yet she could not bear to have that oily white stuff on her table, even if her reaction to the whiteness was a conditioned reflex based on class prejudice.

Consumerism/status distorting lives: “…her training had instilled the principle that it was a mark of low breeding to consider that you might have been wrong in a person”; “…becoming a Trotskyite had merely given him one more thing to be snobbish about.”

Every item in [the apartment] seemed to be saying something, asserting something, pontificating; [they] were surrounded by articles of belief, down to the last can of evaporated milk and the single, monastic pillow on the double bed. It was different from Kay’s apartment, where the furniture was only asking to be admired or talked about. But here, in this dogmatic lair, nothing had been admitted that did not make a “relevant statement…”

[Gus’s] liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression. Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union.

Kay has a mental breakdown and wants to go to New York Hospital instead of Harkness because it’s “so much more attractive—I loved the room Priss had with those rough-weave yellow curtains and pure white walls; it had such a modern feeling.” But that’s also poor old Kay, who when they offer her a bed on a different floor says (this also shows McCarthy’s non-standard way of mixing speakers in a paragraph, which gives an interesting effect):

“You mean I can skip the fifth? Do they let patients do that?” “Not as a usual thing. But this isn’t a usual case, is it?” Kay smiled happily; she had always wanted to skip a grade in school, she confided.

It’s revealingly awful about various societal constraints, and difficult to read in parts. Poor Stephen as a baby is let to cry and cry (“It was against the rules for the nurses to pick him up; they were allowed to change him and give him a drink of water, and that was all. The babies were not supposed to be ‘handled.'” “for the doctors agreed it did not hurt a baby to cry; it only hurt grown-ups to listen to him” and they offer her cotton for her ears!) Later he refuses to be toilet-trained and his mother thinks he’s getting back against his father the doctor.

There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans—it was almost part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destiny of a helpless baby. In medicine, Sloan was quite foward-looking, but he was enamored of his own theories, which he wanted to enforce, like Prohibition, regardless of the human factor. She wondered, really, whether he was going to make a very good pediatrician. … [L]ike all doctors, he would not admit openly to having made a mistake or even to having changed his mind.

The awful Harald, one of many awful men, shares a name, profession, and presumably personality with McCarthy’s first husband:

[Being a stage manager] was like starting from the bottom in a factory, of course, which lots of nice boys were doing, and there was probably no difference between backstage in a theater, where a lot of men in their undershirts sat in front of a mirror putting on make-up, and a blast furnace or a coal mine, where the men were in their undershirts too.

Even worse later, one of his mistresses says:

“We had a few rolls in the hay years ago—nothing much. Then for him it was over: Harald is like that. But he kept coming around, as a friend; he made me his confidante, told me all about his other women. Did you know he had other women?” Priss nodded. “Did he ever make a pass at you?” “No. But he did at Dottie. After she was married. He tried to make an assignation with her.” “Women were necessary to him,” Norine said. “But I thought I was special. I figured he was laying off me because of Kay, because he respected our relationship. Every now and then, he used to undress me and study my body. Then he’d slap my flank and go home. Or off to some other woman. Afterward, he’d tell me about it. Whenever he slept with a woman, he told me. What he didn’t tell me, though, was about the women he didn’t sleep with. I wasn’t the only one, I found out. He went around town undressing his old flames and then leaving them. Just to know they were available. Like somebody checking stock.”

—and Harald to Lakey at the very end, on the day of Kay’s funeral:

“You and I understand each other. I might have loved you, Lakey, if you weren’t a lover of women. You might have saved me; I might have saved you. You can’t love men; I can’t love women. We might have loved each other—who knows? We’re the two superior people in a cast of fools and supernumeraries. At last we meet to match swords. Let’s duel in her grave, shall we?”

The women’s relationships with each other never feel like true friendship to me. They are gossipy about each other, busybodies in each other’s lives, treat each other as instruments. For example, Lakey “collecting” girls who “ran true to type”: “In private, they often discussed her, like toys discussing their owner…” “Kay used to take their love affairs… away from them and returned them  shrunk and labeled, like the laundry.”

One of the most fascinating social history passages is Harold on the “pessary” (diaphragm):

This mistrust, Harald said, which was deep in the male nature, made even middle-class and professional men wary of sending a girl for a pessary; too many shotgun weddings had resulted from a man’s relying on a woman’s assurance that the contraceptive was in. Then there was the problem of the apparatus. The unmarried girl who lived with her family required a place to keep her pessary and her douche bag where her mother was not likely to find them while doing out the bureau drawers. This meant that the man, unless he was married, had to keep them for her, in his bureau drawer or his bathroom. The custodianship of these articles (Harald was so entertaining in his slow-spoken, careful, dry way) assumed the character of a sacred trust. If their guardian was a man of any delicacy, they precluded the visits of other women to the apartment, who might open drawers or rummage in the medicine cabinet or even feel themselves entitled to use the douche bag hallowed to “Her.”

With a married woman, if the affair were serious, the situation was the same: she brought a second pessary and a douche bag, which she kept in her lover’s apartment, where they exercised a restraining influence if he felt tempted to betray her. A man entrusted with this important equipment was bonded, so to speak, Harald said, like a bank employee; when he did stray with another woman, he was likely to do it in her place or in a hotel room or even a taxi—some spot not consecrated by the sacral reminders. In the same way, a married woman pledged her devotion by committing her second pessary to her lover’s care; only a married woman of very coarse fiber would use the same pessary for both husband and lover. So long as the lover had charge of the pessary, like a medieval knight with the key to his lady’s chastity belt, he could feel that she was true to him. Though this could be a mistake. One adventurous wife Harald described was said to have pessaries all over town, like a sailor with a wife in every port, while her husband, a busy stage director, assured himself of her good behavior by a daily inspection of the little box in her medicine cabinet, where the conjugal pessary lay in its dusting of talcum powder.


Birth control, she argued, was for those who knew how to use it and value it—the educated classes. Just like those renovated tenements; if poor people were allowed to move into them, they would wreck them right away, through lack of education.

She commenced to curl her hair. Soon the smell of singed hair was added to the smell of cigarette smoke, of dog, pipe tobacco, and of a soured dishcloth in the sink. Watching her, Helena granted Norine a certain animal vitality, and “earthiness” that was underscored, as if deliberately, but the dirt and squalor of the apartment. Bedding with her, Helena imagined, must be like rolling in a rich moldy compost of autumn leaves, crackling on the surface, like her voice, and underneath warm and sultry from the chemical process of decay.

The Prothero family, on both sides…, was dim-witted and vain of it, as a sign of good breeding; none of them, as far back as they could trace their genealogy, had received a higher education…

In her ignorance, Polly had thought that you “lived happily ever after,” unless your husband was unfaithful, but the Class of ’33 seemed to feel that you could not relax for a minute in your drive to make your marriage “go.”

I don’t have a category for this final passage, it’s just brilliant: after a couple splits up “… she still felt their love affair had not quite finished: it lived somewhere underground, between them, growing in the dark as people’s hair and fingernails grew after their death.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari, 2015

The best comment from the Nature and Environment group was that this is “a TED talk turned into a book.” It is quite gee-whiz in parts, and it’s ridiculous how very tiny observations are footnoted, then wild generalizations go without support. There’s no bibliography. The most-shared observation was how freakin’ heavy it is—some people had trouble reading it for that reason! It’s printed on heavy glossy magazine stock, which is a very weird choice.

But it’s full of interesting ideas and thoughts, whether they are well-supported or not. There’s a great critique of animal suffering in agriculture. I loved the idea of “the legend of Peugeot”—ie a company like Peugeot SA “is a figment of our collective imagination.”

According to the French legislators, if a certified lawyer followed all the proper liturgy and rituals, wrote all the required spells and oaths on a wonderfully decorated piece of paper, and affixed his ornate signature to the bottom of the document, then hocus pocus—a new company was incorporated.


  • gossip “is essential for cooperation in large numbers”
  • the earliest named person was probably Kushim—“It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.”
  • “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”
  • “Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.”

But here’s an example of the gee-whiz: “The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.” Really??? Ugh. “A few serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal (not immortal, because they could still die of some accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely).” No citation, but the lifespan of C. elegans in the same paragraph gets one.

On to the quote-dump:

Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln—any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break then. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites. The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different experiences as we can. We must open ourselves to a wide spectrum of emotions; we must sample various kinds of relationships; we must try different cuisines; we must learn to appreciate different styles of music. One of the best ways to do all that is to break free of our daily routine, leave behind our familiar setting, and go travelling in distant lands, where we can ‘experience’ the culture, the smells, the tastes and the norms of different people…
Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible… Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism. Their marriage has given birth to the infinite ‘market of experiences,” on which the modern tourism industry is founded.

The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.” Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others.

I loved the notion of “human worlds” like separate planets:

How many different human worlds coexisted on earth? Around 10,000 BC our planet contained many thousands of them. By 2000 BC, their numbers had dwindled to the hundreds, or at most a few thousand. By AD 1450, their numbers had declined even more drastically. At that time, just prior to the age of European exploration, earth still contained a significant number of dwarf worlds such as Tasmania. But close to 90 per cent of human lived in a single mega-world: the word of Afro-Asia.

[The other 10% are divided between Mesoamerican, Andean, Australian, Oceanic]

The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal human orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was ‘us,’ at least potentially. There was no longer ‘them.’ The first universal order to appear was economic: the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. The third universal order was religious: the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

…[T]he fact that another person believes in cowry shells, or dollars, or electronic data, is enough to strengthen our own belief in them, even if that person is otherwise hated, despised or ridiculed by us. Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something.

Since all social orders and hierarchies are imagined, they are all fragile, and the larger the society, the more fragile it is. The crucial historical role of religion has been to give superhuman legitimacy to these fragile structures. Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice, but are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond all challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.

…[M]onotheism explains order, but is mystified by evil. Dualism explains evil, but is puzzled by order. There is one logical way of solving the riddle: to argue that there is a single omnipotent God who created the entire universe—and He’s evil. But nobody in history has had the stomach for such a belief.

In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of ritual and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.

…[T]he relationship between science and technology is a very recent phenomenon. Prior to 1500, science and technology were totally separate fields. When Bacon connected the two in the early seventeenth century, it was a revolutionary idea.

…[O]bsession with military technology—from tanks to atom bombs to spy-flies—is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Up until the nineteenth century, the vast majority of military revolutions were the product of organisational rather than technological changes. When alien civilisations met for the first time, technological gaps sometimes played an important role. But even in such cases, few thought of deliberately creating or enlarging such gaps. Most empires did not rise thanks to technological wizardry, and their rulers did not give much thought to technological improvement. The Arabs did not defeat the Sassanid Empire thanks to superior bows or swords, the Seljuks had no technological advantage over the Byzantines, and the Mongols did not conquer China with the help of some ingenious new weapon. In fact, in all these cases the vanquished enjoyed superior military and civilian technology.

Throughout history, societies have suffered from two kinds of poverty: social poverty, which withholds from some people the opportunities available to others; and biological poverty, which puts the very lives of individuals at risk due to lack of food and shelter. Perhaps social poverty can never be eradicated, but in many countries around the world biological poverty is a thing of the past.

Alas, science and progress pursued [the dying-out Tasmanians] even to the afterlife. The corpses of the last Tasmanians were seized in the name of science by anthropologists and curators. They were dissected, weighed and measured, and analysed in learned articles. The skulls and skeletons were then put on display in museums and anthropological collections. Only in 1976 did the Tasmanian Museum give up for burial the skeleton of Truganini, the last native Tasmanian, who had died a hundred years earlier. The English Royal College of Surgeons held on to samples of her skin and hair until 2002.

But awww…. “As the twenty-first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground,” and later “White supremacy remained a mainstream ideology in American politics at least until the 1960s.” Yes, and not enough people acknowledge that, but it hurts now to think how far back we’ve swung.

Scoop – Evelyn Waugh, 1938

I went through a huge Waugh kick sometime in my late teens/early 20s and read everything, ending up quite sick of him/sickened by him. So I wasn’t really looking forward to this re-read for the Second Monday book group, dreading that this was one of the really dark ones. It was a lot funnier than I expected/remembered, but quite as offensive. The first third and the ending are most enjoyable. I wish we’d seen more of Mrs. Algernon Stitch, the ultimate multi-tasker, dictating crossword puzzle solutions to her maid while she interrogates her secretary (“‘Why should I go to Viola Chasm’s Distressed Area; did she come to my Model Madhouse?'”), supervises her kid, etc. I also love poor Mr. Salter, foreign editor of the Daily Beast and yes-man to the awful Lord Copper, who loved matching illustrations to funny legends for Clean Fun but was “thrown into the ruthless, cut-throat, rough-and-tumble of the Beast Woman’s Page” and then into his current post:

Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, “Definitely, Lord Copper”; when he was wrong, “Up to a point.”
“Let me see, what’s the name of the place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?”
“Up to a point, Lord Copper.”
“And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?”
“Definitely, Lord Copper.”

The Beast is housed in “The Megalopolitan building, Copper House, Numbers 700-853 Fleet Street.” At Copper’s behest, Salter hires William Boot (not the John Boot that Mrs. Stitch had asked for) to go to Ishamaelia. Salter dreads the necessity of broaching “country topics” (mangel-wurzels), but Boot has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s true that Boot’s column “Lush Places by William Boot, Countryman” covers “maternal rodents and their furry brood.” The family home, Boot Magna, is full of classic English eccentrics who care more about how to get the right horse to the hunt than making guests comfortable. The one that’s stuck in Boot’s mind about foreign travel is that he’ll need a lot of cleft sticks: “‘We can have some cloven for you,” [Miss Barton] said brightly. ‘If you will make your selection I will send them down to our cleaver.'”

The fake news is scarily relevant; we’re told “how Wenlock Jakes, highest paid journalist of the United States, scooped the world with an eye-witness story of the sinking of the Lusitania four hours before she was hit; how Hitchcock, the English Jakes, straddling over his desk in London, had chronicled day by day the horrors of the Messina earthquake.” “‘News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read.”

Great images: “fibrous spindles of chicken with grey-green dented peas”; “an entire Christmas dinner designed for four children or six adults”

The only (to me) touching and beautiful passage in the book comes when Boot falls in love with the unreliable Kätchen, at sea:

For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from shore, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently, in submarine twilight. A lush place.