May 2018 books read

  • The Lord of the Rings  – J.R.R. Tolkien, 1955. I couldn’t make my way through this until having seen the first Peter Jackson movie, and, for one of the biggest classics in a genre I love, I’m not that fond of it still.
  • The Soul of An Octopus – Sy Montgomery, 2015.
  • How To Be Both – Ali Smith, 2014.
  • Play it as it Lays – Joan Didion, 1970.
  • Dragonsinger – Anne McCaffrey, 1977 – Still one of my favorite re-reads!
  • Why Buddhism is True – Robert Wright, 2017 – Great and prompted me to try a meditation practice again.

Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion, 1970

Read for the Great Books group. The opening is famous: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask,” but I don’t really understand it. I flagged a bunch of passages, but in looking back at them it wasn’t so much for the language or thought as for referring to in our discussion. I felt sorry for poor Maria and her gambling parents, separated from her daughter Kate, having had an awful abortion, and aging in Hollywood.

Carter: “Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping.”

Maria fantasizes about a house by the sea where she would live with Kate doing her lessons at a pine table, and later “they would eat the mussels and drink a bottle of cold white wine and after a while it would be time to lie down again, on the clean white sheets.” But then (this is a 2-page chapter, Didion is nothing if not concise) “[they] understood as she did that the still center of the daylight world was never a house by the sea but the corner of Sunset and La Brea. In that empty sunlight Kate could do no lessons, and the mussels on any shore Maria knew were toxic.”

Chapter 52 in its entirety:

Maria made a list of things she would never do. She would never: walk through the Sands or Caesar’s alone after midnight. She would never: ball at a party, do S-M unless she wanted to, borrow furs from Abe Lipsey, deal. She would never: carry a Yorkshire in Beverly Hills.

I wondered what a “cheese glass” could be – a book group member suggested a glass container that cottage cheese came in.

“five-to-one were the best odds Benny would lay on the sun rising”

Great ending too:

One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.
Why, BZ would say.
Why not, I say.

How To Be Both – Ali Smith, 2014

The Second Monday book group reads a lot of contemporary fiction that I wouldn’t be drawn to on my own, and since I no longer work at a public library, it exposes me to authors I wouldn’t necessarily hear about. A number of the group members had read Ali Smith before. I wish there had been color plates because so much rides on seeing the work of Francesco del Cossa. The novel was published in two versions; I was glad to get the version that started with George as the narrator, because those of us who had Francesco at the beginning found it harder going, and I would have too.

I feel like it makes a lesser work to rely on something external so heavily, and a related annoyance were too-clever-by-half references, like Francesco mentioning George’s “Monica Victims” poster (Monica Vitti); it somehow feels cheap. Which is a shame because it’s otherwise wonderful.

Brief quotes

  • George’s mother’s phone: “All her mother’s playlists were on her phone. .. She never even looked at the playlists. It was her mother’s music. It was bound to have been rubbish. Now she has no idea and will never know what song her mother listened to every day to do the dance thing, or on the train, or walking along the street.”
  • “Imagine if you made something and then you always had to be seen through what you’d made, as if the thing you’d made became you.”
  • “there’s a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock: the only other thing as good to draw is the curve of a horse and like a horse a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated”
  • Mother’s saying “when you’ve nothing at least you have all of it”
  • Francesco is confused by everyone holding up their “votive tablets” (phones): “Is it possible then that all the people of this place are painters going about their world with the painting tools of their time? Perhaps I have been placed in a specific painters’ purgatorium.”
  • Going to a brothel: “So I learned plenty of dark things too, learned plenty of things that were the opposite of pleasure, at the pleasure house.”
  • “Barto and I were soon friends again : no time at all : many things get forgiven in the course of a life : nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right”
  • “We go out anonymous into the insect air and all we are is the dust of colour, brief engineering or wings towards a glint of light on a blade of grass or a leaf in a summer dark.”

Longer quotes

Interesting insight – mourning with porn:

And you’ll drive yourself mad if you keep watching stuff like that, her father said. You’ll do damage to yourself.
Damage has already happened, George said.
George, her father said.
This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

When love is starting with H, they flirt by text of song titles in Latin (“Quingenta milia passuum ambulem”):

It is … like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to  George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things—as old as those old songs, even as ancient as Latin itself—a kind of new…
… she sensed, like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded, both that love was coming for her and the nothing she could do about it. [sic]

As a child Francesco sees a seed fall into a puddle and wonders where the ring went:

It went, I said. It’s gone.

Ah, she said. Is that why you’re crying? But it hasn’t gone at all. And that’s why it’s better than gold. It hasn’t gone, it’s just that we can’t see it any more. In fact, it’s still going, still growing. It’ll never stop going, or growing wider and wider, the ring you saw. You were lucky to see it at all. Cause when it got to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you? No? But it did, you’re inside it now. I am too. We both are. And the yard. And the brickpiles. And the sandpiles. And the firing shed. And the houses. And the horses, and your father, your uncle, and your brothers, and the workmen, and the street. And the other houses. And the walls, and the gardens and houses, the churches, the palace tower, the top of the cathedral, the river, the fields behind us, the fields way over there, see? See how far your eye can go. See the tower and the houses in the distance? It’s passing through them and nothing and nobody will feel a thing but there it is doing it nonetheless. And imagine it circling the fields and the farms we can’t see from here. And the towns beyond those fields and farms all the way to the sea. And across the sea. The ring you saw in the water’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go beyond that too. Nothing can stop it.

The great Alberti says that when we paint the dead, the dead man should be dead in every part of him all the way to the toe and finger nails, which are both living and dead at once : he says that when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive : painting, Alberti says, is a kind of opposite to death : and though he knows that when we are bared back to nothing but our bones ourselves only God can remake us into humans, put faces back on our skulls on the final day and so on &c, which means there is no blasphemy in what I’m about to say –

cause Alberti said it and it is true –

all the same it’s many a person who can go to a painting and see someone in it as if that person is as alive as daylight though in reality that person has not lived or breathed for hundreds of years.

Alberti it is who teaches, too, how to build a body from nothing but bones : so that the process of drawing and painting outwits death and you draw, as he says, any animal by isolating each bone of the animal, and on to this adding muscle, and then clothing it all with its flesh : and this giving of muscle and flesh to bones is what in its essence the act of painting anything is.