April 2019 books read

  • We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver, 2003.
  • The Aeneid – Virgil, 19 BCE; Robert Fitzgerald translation, 1983. Quotes pulled, post tbd.
  • The Uncommercial Traveller – Charles Dickens, 1869. I read this on my phone over the course of about a year and a half, continuing in my Dickens/phone tradition. A mish-mosh of essays, which worked well to read in fragments (I’ve since started Our Mutual Friend and I’ve already forgotten who’s who!)—some sentimental, some funny, some perceptive.
  • The Bullet Journal Method: Track the Past, Order the Present, Design the Future – Ryder Carroll, 2018. I enjoyed it very much and might try the method at some point—probably not before I retire. It sounds like a lot of work to ramp up but potentially rewarding. Currently I use very small notebooks (no spine) that fit in my purse, just for running notes, and plan/list separately; I can see the advantage of combining them.
  • Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape – Lauret Savoy, 2015.
  • The Islandman – Tomas O’Crohan, 1929; Robin Flower translation, 1937.
  • Skippy Dies – Paul Murray, 2010. Quotes pulled, post tbd.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb, 1995. I saw rave reviews and I’m glad I read it—will go on to the next in the series eventually. Wonderful dog characters.

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver, 2003

Read for the Far Out Film group in conjunction with the film—which was a tour-de-force in translating an unreliable narrator to a medium where I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. I enjoyed the writing very much but ultimately felt like the subject matter was ill-chosen/misleading. And the narrator is so much like Shriver in her outrageousness, snark, judgementalness, and general willingness to be dislikable! I flagged a bunch of passages that I’m not quoting because they don’t stick outside of the context of the whole book. A little bit of hate-reading in a way, and this is one of the few books where I used downward-pointing flags (passages remarkable for how much I dislike them) as well as my usual upward-pointing (something I want to look up) and horizontal (passages I find delightful or interesting).

Short quotes

  • The ob-gyn “offered up postnatal depression like a present, as if simply being told that you are unhappy is supposed to cheer you up.”
  • “For Celia, her whole surround was animate, and each tapioca lump had a dense, nauseating little soul.”
  • “How vital, the hard glass interface of that [TV] screen. Viewers don’t want those shows spilling willy-nilly into their homes, any more than they want other people’s sewage to overflow from their toilets.”
  • “Myself, after having not a child but this particular one, I couldn’t see how anyone could claim to love children in the generic any more that anyone could credibly claim to love people in a sufficiently sweeping sense as to embrace Pol Pot, Don Rickles, and an upstairs neighbor who does 2,000 jumping jacks at three in the morning.”

Shriver was critiqued for making her protagonist Armenian; it did feel glued-on, especially in that the main way she indicates it is by name-checking various dishes: sarma, lahmajoon, “sesame-topped ziloogs” (can’t figure out what this is?), katah. The window-dressing aspect was confirmed for me when I looked up madagh, expecting to find a dish (the context is “an incident now mythic in my family involving madagh scraped off the ceiling with a broom”), but it’s a ritual event that includes various kinds of food.

Longer quotes

That coy expression “you’re eating for two now, dear,” is all by way of goading that your very dinner is no longer a private affair; indeed, as the land of the free has grown increasingly coercive, the inference seems to run that “you’re eating for us now,” for 200-some million meddlers, any one of whose prerogative it is to object should you ever be in the mood for a jelly donut and not a full meal with whole grains and leafy vegetables that covers all five major food groups. The right to boss pregnant women around was surely on its way into the Constitution.

I was connected to the world by a multitude of threads, you by a few sturdy guide ropes. It was the same with patriotism: You loved the idea of the United States so much more powerfully than the country itself, and it was thanks to your embrace of the American aspiration that you could overlook the fact that your fellow Yankee parents were lining up overnight outside FAO Schwartz with thermoses of chowder to buy a limited release of Nintendo. In the particular dwells the tawdry. In the conceptual dwells the grand, the transcendent, the everlasting. Earthly countries and single malignant little boys can go to hell; the idea of countries and the idea of sons triumph for eternity.

The last thing we want to admit is that the forbidden fruit on which we have been gnawing since reaching the magic age of twenty-one is the same mealy Golden Delicious that we stuff into our children’s lunch boxes. The last thing we want to admit is that the bickering of the playground perfectly presages the machinations of the boardroom, that our social hierarchies are merely an extension of who got picked first for the kickball team, and that grown-ups still get divided into bullies and fatties and crybabies.

The truth [about drugs]—that we hadn’t cleaned out the medicine cabinet, but we’d both tried a variety of recreational drugs, and not only in the sixties but up to a year before he was born; that better living through chemistry had driven neither of us to an asylum or even to an emergency room; and that these gleeful carnival rides on the mental midway were far more the source of nostalgia than remorse—was unacceptable.

The Islandman – Tomas O’Crohan, 1929; Robin Flower translation, 1937

Irish Writers Book Group selection, a bonus on top of Skippy Dies because the copies came in late.  A sort-of memoir of life on the Blaskets, islands off the coast of Ireland, by a farmer-turned-writer born in 1856. Mildly interesting but weirdly detached and full of gaps (he marries and has 10 children, but only one sentence about his family, after a child dies). This Irish Times review sums up the tedium by calling him a “Blasket bore.” The funniest/strangest strand is about his nemesis, a poet who keeps interrupting his farming to declaim his verse for hours and insist that O’Crohan write it down. Bonus: people are always sticking their hands “under their oxters” (armpits).

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape – Lauret Savoy, 2015

Nature and Environment book group selection. I very much enjoyed most of it—it’s a little scattered—but I didn’t have my post-it flags with me as I read it (note to self about how important that is) so didn’t mark my usual notable passages. The prologue haunted me throughout: Savoy (who teaches at Mount Holyoke, so is local) stands on the ice of a pond, reflecting how it captures time: “The recent past lies beneath me in these marcescent leaves, plucked and blown here by January’s heavy winds. Inches away, they are out of reach.” Her rootedness in/exile from California, her love of place names, her perspective as a person of color on the land ethic (fascinating take on Aldo Leopold)… I would like to read it again!